Shaking hands

I chaired a Bachelor defense this afternoon for a student from Saudi Arabia that has been in a number of my classes. As he was called back in for me to officially grant him the degree, I put out my hand to give him a congratulatory handshake that for me is always part of the ceremony.

He pulled his hands back, put them over his heart and smiled, saying "Oh no, I can't because of my religion."

I was irritated, but kept on with the formalities and left with the other woman on the committee, his advisor. We spoke about the incident afterwards. Here we have been teaching him all these years in Germany, where hand-shaking is a daily ritual (and you need to make sure that you don't forget and shake the same person's hand twice in one day or you will get told "Wir haben uns schon", we already shook hands). But he is unwilling to touch us because we are unclean women? Or because we are the "property" of our fathers or husbands and he does not have our permission?

If he had said: Oh no, I have a cold! We would have gladly not given our hands. And my colleague notes that she really hates the huggy-kissy stuff that is popular in Berlin as a greeting. But to refuse to shake our hands because we are women is mighty strange indeed. I suppose I should just let it go, but it somehow has nagged on me all evening.


Meeting a moose

Even though we have been traveling to Sweden for over 30 years, we have seldom seen a moose at close quarters. Twenty years ago we saw two at a distance in Färjelända, and once somewhere while we were walking in the woods one crashed through a clearing before us. We've seen moose droppings in the woods around our summer home, but mostly we have seen them in the nearby zoo (and petted noses, they have soft fur on their noses).

On the way to the airport this morning a young moose suddenly sprang out of the woods. WiseMan was driving (luckily, I had a terrible headache) and there was no car coming the opposite direction. We were able to swerve. We did hear a thump and thought that we had still hit the moose broadside, but the car behind us said that the moose had just gotten one leg underneath the car. Either the knee hit the car, or we ran over the hoof.

The moose limped off into the woods, and we pulled over. There was no damage to the car, luckily, and we were okay except for the scare. We called a friend who contacted a hunter and the police. The police called while we were at the airport to take down all the details. They send a hunter out to look for the moose and see if it is okay or needs to be put out of its misery. After everything was over a bit of shock set in. We were very lucky -- suddenly meeting a large moose can total a car.

I think I'll be happy to just visit the zoo in the future.


Happy Birthday, BASIC

Well, since lots of other nerds are wishing BASIC a happy 50th birthday, let me chime in as well.

It was the summer of 1973. My mother, a high-school math teacher, had signed up for summer school as part of her work on obtaining a Master's degree. She was taking "Boolean Algebra" and "Introduction to Programming with BASIC" at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia. But she ended up in the hospital with kidney stones and was unable to attend the classes she had already paid for.

I was the proud owner of a driver's license. Yes, you got your license at 16 in Georgia, learner's permit at 15 at that time and I remember to this day my first drive alone, the day after my birthday, in our red Duster with the windows rolled down and Rod Stewart's  "Maggie May" blasting out the radio.

Since I had no plans other than reading a large pile of Gothic novels over the summer, I offered to take the courses as a proxy, and my mother readily agreed. I drove to the university in the mornings and took notes on the lectures, copying down the hieroglyphics on the board. I then drove to the hospital (luckily, she was at the Emory University Hospital) and brought her the notes and the exercises. She solved the programming ones first, writing out what I was to program for her.

I drove back to campus and went down to the computer cellar. We were able to use the keypunch machines there all afternoon. My math teacher, Mr. Barber, was also taking the course. He showed me how to use the punch, and how to (literally!) bootstrap the machine with the BASIC interpreter before feeding my own little punch tape into the machine. A teletype would then rattle away and print out something. I would tear it off, and then drive back to the hospital to show my mom the results, picking up the Boolean Algebra exercises to hand in at the end of the day.

WOW! I could make the machine go! My mom didn't want me playing around (I might break something), I was only allowed to type in her programs for her. So when we moved to California shortly after the school year started and Crawford High School had a course in computing, I signed right up! Mr. Juell, our teacher, would take punched cards with FORTRAN programs to a computer center twice a week and pick up the results of the last batch. Boy, you sure learned to check your syntax that way!

We also had a teletype, hooked up via modem to some computer. I can still whistle the connection melody. Here we programmed in BASIC, and oh my, you got immediate response from the computer! What fun we had, a small group of nerds, playing with these toys that also included a programmable calculator that had to have commands punched in octal on cards. I wish I still had copies of the programs we wrote that would be so funny to see how badly we programmed back then.

I went on to study computing, learning all sorts of other programming languages and hearing about the GOTO being considered harmful. I never had a home computer until I bought a Computer Schneider system for writing my dissertation. It had BASIC on it, but I didn't have time for games.

As a proper theoretical computer scientist I, of course, should not admit to ever having used the language. But the immediacy of the results we got as teenagers fueled my enthusiasm for learning more about computers. So many thanks to BASIC for getting me started on my career -- and happy birthday!