Food Memories

We stumble from Thanksgiving right on to Advent! I celebrated Thanksgiving as usual in Germany, a day late. Not having the day off rather cramps your style getting the foods ready, but it worked well this year. Friends did the bird and used the 15 minutes that it needs to wait before carving to drive over, I did all the fixings. I did pumpkin and apple pie, as well as the cranberry relish the night before, clover-leaf rolls, cornbread, yams, Aunt Jean's mashed potatoes, succotash, stuffed celery, and salad Friday afternoon.

The taste, as always, is tremendous, and brings back so many childhood memories. Although - they are not actually all happy. How often was I bored at Thanksgiving, thought all this tada about the food was silly. I didn't like the pompous things Uncle Jim's brother said. My cousins insisted on watching football on TV, I usually brought a book along so I had something to do until I could finally go home.

I see my father celebrating the turkey - engineered to perfection. I found his adherence to his mother's recipe silly, yet what do I do now, 40 years later? I keep to the recipe, exactly! And it tastes sooooo good! Our guests enjoy it, although they are not sure exactly what to think of cranberries and yams. WiseKid  refuses to sit at the table, but raids the cornbread and rolls, returning a few minutes later for some turkey and stuffing "just for his girlfriend". Fine, if they want to eat in their room, let them. We are just being boring adults and talking about politics.

Nothing went to waste in the Thanksgivings past, the next days were filled with turkey leftover this and turkey leftover that. The one I barely tolerated as a teenager was the turkey noodle soup, as I liked the noodles, but hated the bits of dark meat that were swimming in the soup. So what did I make last night? Turkey noodle soup. With the dark meat. And it was delicious! WiseKid declined, his girlfriend was polite and had a bowl, but was wary of the cornbread. I think I had three bowls, the scales groaned this morning.

I wonder if WiseKid will be insisting on a turkey at Thanksgiving in 40 years?


Plug & Pray

I saw the German film "Plug & Pray" (Trailer) by Jens Schanze on opening night, November 11, in Berlin. It is about Joseph Weizenbaum and his very critical discussion of the attempts of many computing researchers to create robots that are in some way human, often called humanoids.

The interview scenes of Weizenbaum were done just before he died in March 2008. Weizenbaum was a German-born computer scientist who left Germany as a teenager with his family during the Third Reich. He was a professor for computer science at MIT in the US from 1970.  He returned to Berlin in retirement in 1996 - but still remained very active as the rational voice for the ethical use of computing.

He was an important person for me with respect to my own views of computing. He came to the University of Kiel, where I studied computing, sometime at the end of the 70s or beginning of the 80s. He spoke about his Eliza system, a simple system that tries to respond like a psychoanalyst. People would assume that this system - nothing more than code - was somehow human-like and be very open with the system about their problems.

He published a book in 1976, Computer Power and Human Reason. From Judgement to Calculation (German: Die Macht der Computer und die Ohnmacht der Vernunft) that really made me think about these questions - what is a computer? What does it mean to society when computers act in certain ways? What are ethical - and unethical - uses of computing? Can we even use computers if we are against the military uses?

He wrote occasional articles in the "Zeit" (his legendary Albtraum Computer is available online), and came back to Germany occasionally for speaking tours. I had the supreme pleasure of speaking longer with him in person on one occasion after a speech he gave at the Humboldt University. This elderly gentleman with very sharp, at times dancing eyes, and a razor-sharp argumentative presence was inspiring. The idea for my own small book about ethics and computing germinated in that room.

The producers of Plug & Pray wanted to investigate current research on the bleeding edge of technology that are questionable in their ethical consequences. They chose robotics, as this offers much in the way of visuals. This is a major problem for computing - it is difficult to explain to the general public what we do and what the problems associated with our work is, because most of what we do is abstract and not visible, most certainly not interesting to watch on film.

Schanze interviews a number of researchers as contrapoints to the words of Weizenbaum. Hiroshi Ishiguro, of Osaka University in Japan, has created a Doppelgänger he calls Geminoid that can play 20 questions with a partner, and in general is dressed like him, and moves like him. As he points out, when he comes home to his children he just plops in front of the TV and says "yes, yes" when his kids ask him something, so there might just as well be a robot there. I think that he ought to send this dead-eyed thing on conferences to give his papers and instead spend more time being sincerely interested in his children.

Introducing this sequence is a collection of manga comics depicting this brave new world coming up soon - and I find it so sad to see a child alone in a room with a robotic stuffed animal and a big screen, or being taught by such a lifeless robot. Life is not just about factoids, but it is about relationships and feeling, about empathy and anger and love, even about choosing to do something that is not rational on one level but makes perfect sense on another.

During the film I often got the feeling that many of these researchers, working as they do in an almost exclusively male environment, have problems with women. On the one hand, they are deeply envious of women's capability for creating life. They are not content to contribute that first spark, but they want to make something in their own image that completely follows their bidding. Some even seem afraid of women, for example in the lab of  Minoru Asada, also in Osaka, where we see researchers watching via camera what their robot in a shopping center is doing. It is flirting with a group of girls, and the researchers like this very much, safely distanced from the girls, watching them without the girls being aware that they are being watched.

Giorgio Metta, from Genua, is working on the humanoid robot iCub, that plays heavily on the cuteness of small children (the Kindchenschema described by Konrad Lorenz) in order to be appealing. I find this quite appalling. Even if they manage to make this -oid learn, it will never grow, will never mature.  It doesn't have a life experience to relate to. Metta notes that the Catholic Church would probably excommunicate him if they knew what he is doing, but the Vatican wisely refrains from having an opinion, noting that humans enjoy a free will and can use their God-given gifts as they choose, even to build robots.

The strangest interview is with Raymond Kurzweil, a veritable Energizer bunny who has invented many diverse things from a very useful reader for blind people and an amazing keyboard that makes authentic sounding music to a bizarre pill and tea regimen that he flogs on a web site. He wants to live forever. Imagine working forever, the world getting more and more crowded, constantly changing. Better to accept that our time on earth is finite, to enjoy each age as it comes, and to live each day to the fullest. Weizenbaum knows that his time is coming to an end. Even though there are so many things he still needs to write, he is, in a way, longing for the time when pain is a thing of the past. He listens to Bach's "Komm süßer Tod":

Come, sweet death, come blessed rest!
Come lead me to peace
for I am weary of the world,
oh come! I wait for you,
come soon and lead me,
close my eyes.
Come, blessed rest!
Another research group that is presented is the unmanned vehicle group of Hans-Joachim Wünsche from the University of the Army in Munich, Germany.  Presentations of their unmanned follower vehicle at a military conference were filmed. I suppose the idea is to have an unmanned vehicle that can explore "enemy" territory without killing soldiers when they drive over landmines.

But for me this shows the true goal of the robotic investigations - for military use. Robots won't feel bad about killing enemies. Their puppeteers can rationalize that they didn't do any killing directly. And anyway, can we be sure which robot did the killing? They don't leave DNA and fingerprints, as WiseKid points out when we discuss the film.

It was amusing that one of the cars got irritated by tall grass and left the trail and the convoy, getting mired in the mud. A press conference given by Prof. Wünsche and some unnamed, uniformed men I find it almost comical as they pass an enormous, phallic microphone around and speak about how great their vehicles will be - someday.

A brief interview with the researchers shows them rationalizing what they do - they are just investigating, they are not doing anything bad, anything to be ashamed of. "It's just my research." This is a decision that everyone must make for themselves - is there enough good to come out of what I do that it is worth the nasty uses the military will come up with? Sure, many offer up "helping the elderly" as one of the reasons for their work. But this is flimsy and not thought through well - there don't seem to be clear-cut non-military use cases for these robots, the production of which is taking an enormous amount of taxpayer's money.

I would prefer to have this money used in schools, and for health care - real care, of humans helping and teaching humans, not machines to teach and to heal. And that we train all scientists, not just computer scientists, to think about the consequences of their research.


Nordic Film Festival 2010

And the other films I saw at the Nordic Film Festival 2010:

  • Run Sister Run
    Finnish film about two teenage girls - one good, one bad. The good one turns bad, the two of them raise hell, and then the good one turns good again. 
  • Caspar and the Forbidden Movie
    Finnish director Caspar Wrede made a film in 1970 about Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". The world was happy to see it when Solzhenitsyn got the Nobel Peace Prize, but Finland got its knickers in a knot about it and banned it. When the Swedes showed it on TV they cut the power to the senders located on the Aaland Islands so no one could watch. Caspar got mad and returned to the theater. In 1996 (!) the Finns finally resented and broadcast it on TV.
  • But Film Is My Mistress
    Another Ingmar Bergmann retrospektive. Reuses bits from other documentaries. Nothing new to see here, move along.
  • Beyond
    This one won the festival prize, although I was sick of yet-another-alcoholic-parent and dysfunctional-family. Noomi Rapace proves that she plays the same character in all movies - it was great in the Millenium trilogy, but rather tiring in a different setting. She does have good taste in men, however - her real-life husband Ola Rapace plays her husband in the film, and he sure is good-looking!
  • The Place
    An Icelandic youth gets put in jail by mistake, is brutalized, gets saved by his girlfriend.
  • The Trainer
    Jens Albinus, the actor who plays the Eagle in that wonderful Danish cop series, is a handball trainer. His goalie suspects that the trainer has jerked him off while he was drunk. Did he or didn't he?
  • Dreamland
    This time it is not people getting raped, but the Icelandic countryside, ravished to produce electricity that is consumed by aluminum plants to produce all those cans the Americans pitch after having a cola or a beer. Interesting documentary.
I would have liked to see more, but there was no time. Maybe next year!

Between Two Fires

The Polish-Swedish co-production Between Two Fires is about asylum seekers. Marta is a single mother in Belarus and lives with an older man, letting him use her, in order to have food for her girl. She works as a cleaner at the train station. One day Jurii comes by and sees her daughter, and when she comes home a few days later she finds her daughter raped by and sold to Jurii. He takes young girls to Minsk as prostitutes.

Marta quickly organizes a way to get to Sweden, where a friend of hers lives. According to the mother of the friend, she is now rich there, living in a nice house with nice clothes and a big car. 10 days later they are in Kiruna, in a home for asylum seekers. At first, Marta thinks she is safe, but she quickly learns that danger is everywhere for both her and her daughter. Her roommate scares her, because she has a knife in her bed. Marta applies for a different room, but this is not possible.

She applies for asylum, and waits. During the wait she meets Ali, from Algeria. She is afraid of him at first, but soon falls in love with him - rather corny, filled with shower-wet scenes. A bit less sex would not have detracted from the story proper.

Marta finally finds her friend, but she has married a Swede in order to get a residence permit. She lives in a little flat, and the beautiful house she was photographed in front of is one of the houses she cleans. Her friend, Gosci, offers to have her marry another older Swedish man so that she, too, can get a residence permit.

Marta gets her own flat, and believes that she will now stay, but there is no happy end. I don't want to reveal the exact details here, as the film has not been screened except for film festivals.

The film does an excellent job of showing that asylum seekers are not just leeches here to prey on a rich society. They are all traumatized, all in a different way, and putting them all in a home together is not exactly a good idea. We tend to ignore them, hope that they go away, back "home" - a home that may prove fatal to most of them. But they are human beings, they want to live, love, work, and pray, just like we do. They may not be like us, they have different values, but they are human none the less.

The producer and the first assistant director were there after the film. The extras in the film are real asylum seekers from the area around Kiruna. One person asked what the authorities said that they were taking part in such a move. They smiled slyly and noted that they didn't ask the authorities for permission - the asylum seekers are free to spend their days as they please. They did not use a real asylum center, but a camp site far outside of Kiruna as the film location.  

They are planning their next screenings in the south of Sweden - the part of Sweden in which the anti-foreigner Swedish Nationalist Party received 10% of the vote in the recent election. I look forward to hearing about the reception of Between Two Fires - the story of a mother between a rock and a hard place. 


Sound of Noise


A Scandinavian film that does not involve alcoholic, divorced parents, juvenile deliquients, the Nazi occupation, or pedophilia! Okay, there is anarchy involved - serious anarchy. And art. Much fun is made of the musical establishment and a case made for the rhythm, the music to be found in a city.

The music involved in Sound of Noise consists of four pieces of music for six drummers and a city. I can't tell much more without giving away the film. The directors first made a short film Music for one Apartment and Six Drummers - and they are now often asked if that film "inspired" them. Uh, yeah. They made it. Duh.

The main character is a great actress Sanna Persson, whom I had not noticed before, but who could act behind a chador, her eyes alone speak volumes. She and her buddy - one of the directors - hire the 6 best drummers, who play themselves in order to perform this work.

There are so many comical scenes, so much to make you smile or laugh out loud. The Nordic Film Festival is the first major screening, they are planning on releasing in Sweden for Christmas Day. Lucky Swedes!

As WiseMan notes - even just telling people about the film makes you want to go back and see it again. We're now sorry we missed this one as the opening film - apparently, four of the six drummers were there in person to give a short concert. If they ever go on tour: I want to be there!

Mamma Gógó

It's the Nordic Film Festival in Lübeck again, an I was finally able to visit on a Friday. It is much better with fewer people queuing for the films. The only problem is that they are showing three Icelandic films at the same time! Are there so many people interested in Icelandic films?

My first choice had to be Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's new film "Mamma Gógó". It is a typical FTF film with sly references to previous films of his - "Bórn nátturnir" (Children of Nature, nominated for an Oscar) and "Biódagar" (Movie Days). The film insists that only parts of the film are autobiographical, and he won't say what parts.

As the film is introduced and the director's apologies are given for not being there, my neighbor - also a filmmaker - whispers that he's got a bad alcohol problem. There is a reference to this in the film, when the mother says to her son that he handles his alcohol well, he replies "Sure, I only drink until the bottle is empty."

But back to the story. "Children of Nature" was about two elderly people who run away from the home in which they live. "Mamma Gógó" is about the mother of the director (the latter is portrayed nicely by the very handsome Hilmir Snaer Gudnason). She is 80 years old and suffering from Alzheimer's.

FTF portrays the decline - forgetting things, or thinking that one is forgetting things, mood swings, bitter accusations about loved ones, and finally that blank look that I know so well from my own mother who is in the same situation. FTF's character sits in her room, the tears in his eyes, saying to his mother that he should have told her earlier how much she means to him - and asking her where she has gone.

There are many small stories woven into the film: money problems, the decline of Icelandic culture, the rise and fall of the Icelandic company Decode. And some quite funny scenes, for example how Gógó manages to get herself out of a drunk-driving accusation, or the old car driving by without a visible driver.

The film is intercut with black and white images from a 1962 Gógó film - are these the same actors now playing Gógó and her husband, who is the obligatory ghost in the scene? Speaking of obligatory - Icelandic films have to have three elements: beautiful Icelandic nature, a ghost, and a pissing scene. The pissing scene has a twist this time - it is the mother who has to go, and her son helps her out of her diaper and into a fresh one in a touching reversal of the caretaker role.

The beautiful Icelandic nature - shot at Borgarnes and  S...fjörd - makes me long to return. The sounds made by the gentleman playing the saw with a violin bow remind me of the whistling of the wind in Ísafjördur one night I was out watching Northern Lights. Eerie, moving, deep.

I don't think it will be a box office hit, but for an FTF fan it was great. The film brings us face to face with a rapidly approaching future, when we are ourselves old and cannot take care of ourselves any more.

P.S. I just checked my suspicion, finally being back online with a connection to the Internet Movie Database: The actors playing FTF's mother and father are the actors in the 1962 film 79 af stöðinni - playing the lovers Gógó and Ragnar! The film is known in English as Girl Gogo. I spied this film in the credits, the black and white love scene between his mother and father must be taken from this. Sweet!