The Berlin Marathon 2010

This year was a special marathon in Berlin. We've always enjoyed going out and cheering people on (and wondering what drives all these thousands of people to run 42.195 kilometers or so in just a few hours). A friend used to run and we'd try and spot him.

But this year my good friend from Iceland is over with her running group - and she is running her first marathon the far side of 50. Crazy. Anyway, she came Thursday and we had a great time in the evening and on Friday. Yack-yack-yack all the time, like as if we hadn't seen each other for a few years (only on Facebook).

We dropped by to pick up her number at the Templehof airport. My glory, they have it set up so you have to walk past ALL of the stands of companies flogging shoes, clothes, special food, more marathons, and assorted stuff. The inner sanctum was only permitted for registered runners, so I waited outside. I killed time playing the assorted contests and won a nice travel coffee mug ;)

After getting the number and wolfing down some delicious garlic bread with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese we headed out to my school so I could show her where I work. We ended up at the cafe next to our school, directly on the Spree River. It was a wonderful, warm, late summer's day.

Saturday we organized a pasta party for her and her husband and her good friend who is running with her with her husband. We had 5 different kinds of pasta, 2 sauces and 3 pestos. It was delicious, but of course, the runners will run those calories off, I won't.

Their hotel, while nice, and glad of all the customers coming because of the marathon, was not willing to offer breakfast for the runners at 6 am. So they bought some toast and breakfast stuff and I loaned them my toaster.

It started to rain Saturday evening, and the rain continued all through Sunday. What a horrible weather to run in! The TV station that had paid lots of money for the rights to send the helicopter pictures was in panic, as the helicopters could not start, so they were scrambling to get cameras on the ground somewhere. The quality was not very good.

We stood out in the pouring rain, and managed to pick her out of the crowd, giving some rousing Icelandic cheers (Áfram, stelpa!) in the few seconds it took for her to jog past. She finished in a good time (4:30), I don't think I could have biked it in much less.

I joined to Icelanders for dinner. I had suggested a Berliner Restaurant, Zur Gerichtslaube, and we had reserved a table for 20. They had a separate room upstairs, the Ratsherrenstube, just for the group. The runners had their medals on, and enjoyed good German beer and wine and pork knuckles and pork roasts and sauerkraut and rotkraut and dumplings and fried potatoes ....... I opted for a cheese-stuffed fried pear that was actually quite good. 

They described the pain, that horrible last kilometer, but also how great it was that so many people were on the sidelines cheering them on. They see Berlin as a very sympathetic city, and apparently the businesses in town do a very good business with the runners, so it 's a win-win situation.

I'm still not planning on running myself. Handball is quite enough, thank you!


Sitting in the Sun

After an interview downtown I decided to enjoy the autumn sun and have a nice chai latte at 'Bux. I managed to score a chair at a table on the sunny side and watched the groups of school kids, the throngs of Asian tour groups, and the business people hurrying here and there with their computer cases.

At nearby tables they sat with their iPhones and iPads and worked and yakked on the phone.

I nursed my chai and read an interesting article in the Atlantic on the pharmaceutical industry.

A great way to get ready for the coming semester!

Music for 832 Loudspeakers

I attended a {sounding code} concert last night with a good friend, her son was having a premiere of one of his pieces of computer music that evening.

The concert took place in the Wave Field Auditorium at the TU Berlin. They have 832 loudspeakers in a 600+ seat auditorium that are driven by an assortment of computers in order to permit, among other things, generating the impression of sound in the middle of the room where there is nothing.

There were about 70 people assembled as Marcus Schmickler presented his Bonner Durchmusterung (2010). The table in the middle of the auditorium has a large screen, a keyboard,  and three MacBooks on it. The lights are dimmed and the artist steps forward, pushes a start button, and takes his seat again. The work was done in the weeks (months?) past.

It is quite a new experience to have nothing to look at while experiencing the sound. It began rather soothingly, and I perhaps nodded off at some point. Every now and then some sudden sound erupted to shake the audience awake. I looked at the clock hands down front, crawling ever so slowly forward, and thought that I perceived an ending coming two or three times. I was wrong. It took a good 30 minutes, and it would have been better if it was shorter.

During a round of applause the door was opened and another 70 or so latecomers were admitted to the auditorium. Now it was Alberto de Campo's turn, with a premiere of Reversing Pendulum Music. The booklet explains that Steve Reich composed music for swinging pendulums and suspended speakers that creates feedback on purpose and calls it music. I don't know, I seem to be more on the side of avoiding feedback. Anyway, de Campo reverses this and uses stationary microphones to collect sound - I suppose our collective breathing and coughing, and amplifying this with the feedback produced to some sort of sound.

de Campo sat at the computers and had two screens open, one with a box that had an edged droplet in it, perhaps the sound sampling sources, and one with the outline of the room. There were little balls bouncing around that he seemed to be doing something with, as he could draw them all into the middle of the droplet, or spin them out through some controls. I later read that there is some sort of "gravity" constant that he can control.

I must admit that I enjoyed having something to watch. It was fascinating to hear the sounds that he created, rather like insects moving thorough the room, in the nothingness.

After a short break John Bischoff presented the premiere of his Sidewalk Chatter (Redux). He used something called a crackle box to create what sounded like radio static with an occasional fire engine thrown in. Not my cup of tea.

Up last were Bjarni Gunnarsson and Miguel Negrão with a premiere of Fallacies. After a bit of muttering incantations at the computer altar, assisted by Schmickler, the duo pushed their respective buttons and released their sound. They remained seated to occasionally tweak what was being presented. The had the lights put out, which was really good, because it really helped to focus on the sound.

It sounded like I was in the jungle - or at least the jungle I know from TV and movies. There were sounds all around me of strange insects and animals, some high in the trees, some low on the ground. Somehow it also felt a good bit warmer in the room. It was probably just all the warm bodies heating up the air, but it did make it feel more jungle-like.

After a while some sort of machine (a spaceship?) whisked me out and away, it perhaps transformed itself into a helicopter. Even through the helicopter noise I could hear a waterfall we seemed to be passing. A rather startling, loud noise was rather unpleasant, but was followed by what I understood to be soothing, water noises that slowly petered out. It was hard to tell when a piece was over, because a loud boom could shake you at any moment, but they lowered the lids on their MacBooks to signal that they were done, and the crowd clapped and clapped.

It was an interesting evening! This is not catchy music to sing along with or to dance to (although I am sure that there are people who can interpret this in dance presentations). But it seems to attract a lot of geeky types that weave intricate sound patterns out of electricity and programs: Sounding Code.


Turn off those atomic power plants!

The German government made a speedy decision to let our rotting atomic power plants continue to produce for another 14 years, although there is still no secure place to put the radiating garbage they produce and the "Asse" that was built to survive 100.000 years is already leaking after 40....

One assumes that the energy companies lobbied hard (= paid a lot) for this, as this is pretty much free money for them: no investment needed.

So today the good citizens had to take to the streets again. The idea was to surround the parliament and chancellor's office and blow whistles at them.

We got off to a late start, but the subway was filled with like-minded people - we had all dug out our "Atomkraft - Nein danke!" buttons from the 80s. And it was kind of strange - normally we don't speak to strangers on subways, but people were talking with each other. The guy across from us mentioned that his daughter was now a Greenpeace activist and was coming with friends.

And indeed, there were all ages there. Around 100.000 people with all sorts of posters, stickers, costumes, wagons, T-Shirts. I laughed at the vegan people in their cow suits (complete with udders on their bellies) with their signs "Don't split atoms or animals". The stickers with "Just be glad we don't build atomic power plants - BP" were quite true. And I really, really want one of these Hard Rock Cafe - Chernobyl T-Shirts.

The FDP house (Picture linked from ard.de)
We passed the central offices of the junior ruling party FDP - we whistled a lot and they got their windows covered in stickers. The three police officers in riot dress stood calmly by, accepting this small misdemeanor to avoid larger conflict. Many cars that were unfortunate enough to be parked along the way got the same treatment. Seems Beemers and Mercs got more stickers than other ones.

When we hit the Bundestag everyone just kind of cut across the space, and we found a place to sit and watch the masses strolling by. There was a bit of rain, some really great steel drum groups (drumming on atomic waste cans), and a large pile of cans of "atomic waste" was collected in a big pile.

We didn't stay for all of the speeches - it was kind of preaching to the converted. But I am glad that there is protest, although I would have hoped that it would not have been necessary.


I don't get this

I suppose this is just spam search results.


Cheap flights

I popped up to Norway Sunday evening and back Monday night on a cheap flight. I was giving a talk at a college near the airport that Ryanair calls Oslo (about 150 km south east of city hall).

I've been on Easyjet and Air Berlin before, the former was strenuous, but the latter was a luxury trip compared to Ryanair. Okay, the price was right, but honestly, I was getting the flight reimbursed, so I wouldn't have minded paying for some comfort. Just some odds and ends on the trip:

  • You have to go through a pre-security in Schönefeld in order to even get to the bag drop.
  • Bags cost 15 € each per direction and only 15 kilos are allowed, not the standard 20, so they can collect excess weight limit fees. 
  • Many people avoid this by taking everything in their on-board luggage, which they smash into the overhead bins with no regard to your backpack which was already there.
  • It is worth every penny of the 4 € "Priority" charge. You get to sit in a chair in the waiting area and can get a window seat.
  • There are no seat pockets in front of you. This probably saves them having to clean them, but it means you have to have a bag in your backpack with the stuff you want to use during the flight.
  • The flight attendants do not speak either English, German, or Norwegian as their mother tongue. Communication is difficult.
  • The pilot doesn't even take time to tell you what the beautiful stuff is that you can see out the window when flying over.
  • They are Prussian in insisting that you be at the gate 30 minutes ahead of flight time. They board and get off early. The scheduled flight time is about 45 minutes longer than needed, so that they are always on time. I had to wait for my ride to come, as the plane was not yet expected. 
  • Being on a plane with a (drunken) men's choir is unpleasant on any airline, although perhaps other carriers would have told them to shut up. At least they sang in 4 part harmony. 
  • A gaggle of teenage girls sitting around you is worse.
  • With no amusements, no TV, and the attending parent ignoring their offspring as usual small children can continue to kick against the lady sitting next to them without reprimand from the parent. If I make a remark, however, I get the nasty look. 
  • They charge for everything, I was amazed there was not a window fee.
  • The noises the motor made just after take-off were not comforting.
  • But okay, they got me from A to B and back, my suitcase did not get lost, and the price was very cheap.


The Dead Tree Collection

I was visiting someone at the university I used to work for 20 years ago today. After our lunch date I had about an hour to kill before I had to get to my next appointment. As I passed the library I decided to pop in. I had always liked sitting there, reading the current magazines and chancing on fascinating books.

The lockers seem to be the same ones ... the sofas seem to be the same ones ... the books seem to be the same. I head back to the department having books in my field. Oh yes, I remember when this was new, and this one, and this one. 1991. 1992. 1995.

I look for the collection of books on the topic I will be teaching this semester, Cryptography. Oh yes, a few books here. Let's see: "Datensicherung durch Chiffrierung". 1979. Okaaaay. "Contemporary Cryptography": One version from 1992, one from 2005 by different authors. Ah, here's a gem: "Cryptology and the Personal Computer with Programming in Basic". 1986. Pages and pages of BASIC code to implement a Caesar code.

The oldest book was from 1961. There were 3 books from 2008, the next oldest were from 2005.

I sometimes try and tell my students that there are things called "books" that are bits of dead tree with ink on them that keep information around for years. But today I realized that even though it is nice to have this stuff around for reference, a library is no good if it is not kept current. *My* collection of cryptography books is more recent than this.

I assume that this is because the government slashed funding for universities, or because someone thought everything is on the Internet anyhow anymore.

But it's sad - this dead tree collection, with an empty rack where the new acquisitions used to be displayed, is not a place where a person would want to spend time. It is just too depressing.



I tagged along with the usual suspects to see "Vergebung" last night, the German version of "Luftslottet som sprängdes",  the last of the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy.

The movie is sooooo interesting, that it felt like I hadn't seen it before, although it was only a few months ago. Maybe there is such a difference in the TV and the movie version. Anyway - worth it to see it twice!