Speaking languages with ignorance, dilettantism, and by definition

I was born in Austria. In Austria, people speak various dialects. My parents’ was “Oststeirisch”, the dialect spoken in the eastern part of the province of Steiermark, also known as Styria. Here is an example for this dialect: The German word for soap is “Seife”. In my dialect, this turns to “Soaft”. Thus, when I entered primary school, I had to learn that “Soaft” is pronounced like “Seife” and gets spelled without ‘t’ at the end. As a matter of fact, my mother tongue could be called “Bad German”, but nobody dares to say so.

Meanwhile, I live in Sweden. Now I most often speak Bad Swedish. Really bad Swedish for the time being. If I do not know how to express myself in Swedish, I usually use English. To be precise: I use Bad English, the most commonly spoken language in the world. Thus, not counting my knowledge of Latin, my language skills add up to three badly spoken languages.

I started learning Bad English in grade 5 in school. For some odd reason, we restart counting years in school after 4 in Austria. Thus, it was grade 1 in the “Akademische Gymnasium” in Graz, the capital of Steiermark. Most of my fellow kids in my home town did not go to “Gymnasium”, they just continued with grade 5 of grammar school. They pitted me of being downgraded to grade 1. Moreover, they were neither forced to learn foreign languages nor to do math with such incomprehensible numbers like ‘a’, ‘b’, or ‘c’.

Learning English way back then was not meant to be an exercise to learn to speak and communicate, but rather to learn to translate texts. In addition, we got drilled in grammar – a very useful way of developing structural thinking, as my teachers said. Thus, I learned that ships are female in English, but I could not speak much more than “I am Pat” and “How are you?”. English was treated like Latin – like a dead language.

Despite not understanding English, I got heavily attracted by contemporary music with English lyrics. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Small Faces, Donovan, or Bob Dylan, to name just a few bands and artists. I did not understand much of what they were singing about. To be honest, I understood some parts of the lyrics of some songs. Like “I am an animal, I break your mind”, or “Wild thing, you make my heart sing”. But most often, I had no idea of what the lyrics were all about. Instead, I was making up a kind of personal English when I was humming the songs. Later, when singing these songs to my really basic guitar skills, I was using these imaginary incomprehensible lyrics. Luckily, nobody noticed since those listening could understand English either. I was quite happy with imitating English song texts with my kind of English sounding gibberish. When I became the bass player in a band at age 15, I noticed that we all did the same thing. For instance, when interpreting the song “Badge” by The Cream, I had no idea why this song was called “Badge”. The word did not even appear in the song’s lyrics. Only many years later I found the solution to this little question. It also took me years to understand that George Harrison was singing silly profane lines like “I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping” in his wonderful song “While my guitar gently weeps.”

In grade 10, that is grade 6 in Austria’s “Gymansium”, we got a guest teacher whose native language was English. His name was Mr. Gaisenhoff, and me and my class colleagues were proud of being chosen to have him as a teacher. To his disappointment, none of us could speak any useful English after having spent already five years learning English in school. Luckily, facing this miserable situation, he took the right approach, for me at least. He found out that I was really into contemporary pop music, and therefore asked me to copy song texts printed on record sleeves or published in music magazines for homework. This exercise was an eye opener. He helped me reading my homework loudly in class, and suddenly I understood the meaning of the lyrics of some of my favorite songs like “Lazy Sunday Afternoon” by The Small Faces, for instance. I still could not comprehend the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs like “All Along The Watchtower”. Even to this day, I cannot.

After school, while waiting for the train from the school town to my home town, we were usually visiting a coffee place where all the in-people were hanging out day in, day out. There was a jukebox and it asked for one Austrian Schilling to play a song. For some time, I usually chose “Lazy Sunday Afternoon” and I got really proud of finally understanding what the lyrics were all about. We were smoking some cigarettes, had a soft drink, and felt really cool by hanging out with the “important people”. These were usually guys who knew more guitar chords and could play more of the famous guitar riffs than I knew at that time.

Some years later — meanwhile living in the provincial capital and studying electrical engineering at university — I noticed that my English language skills were still inferior. Remembering the successes during my year with Mr. Gaisenhoff, I started translating song lyrics by my favorite musician at that time, Frank Zappa. This was another eye-opening experience. “Be a jerk, go to work” or “Bamboozled by love” and “The shit just hit the fan”. My English skills certainly started to developed in a strange direction. At that time, I was also working as a sound engineer for a band called “Magic”. We had several national number-one hits, and I seriously considered to start a carrier as professional sound engineer after finishing university. My dream was to become the sound engineer of Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention. But this is another story.

Let me finish this one with the following summary: I am ignorant in Swedish, I am a dilettante in English, and I call German my mother tongue; despite this, I take pleasure to try to speak all of these languages.

 

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I Feel Free

Recently, I bicycled from Stockholm to northern Sweden. It was primarily a mental exercise. Since then, many people have asked me whether it is hard to bicycle for 100 kilometers each and every day for weeks, tacitly hinting at my age. The answer is no. Many people asked me whether it is frightening to sleep in a one-person tent out in the wild. No, not at all. Once I had learned the trick to get out of the tent in the middle of the night, it was easy peasy. Some people asked about the weather, about freezing at night, about bicycling in rain and sometimes even snow. It’s just a matter of being prepared with the right equipment. People did not ask so often about my dear friend, the wind. Wind, mainly from the front, very often from the side, seemingly seldom from behind. Most of the time I like my friends a lot.

People hardly asked me about how it is to be with oneself all day long, day in, day out. This latter question is the interesting one. First of all, all senses open up during long-distance bicycling. It is amazing to experience the world with much more intensity than usual. The colors become more intensive, the birds sing louder and even more interesting tunes. Flowing water gurgles. The olfactory sensors are busy with the broad variety of smells one can find out in the country. Flowers, herbs, horses, freshly cut wood, wood burning in stoves. The temperature sensors signal happiness to the brain. Even the pressure sensors residing on the bottom communicate that they meanwhile became friends with the Brooks B17.

During the leisure time of the after-work hours one might sit in the evening sun in front of the tent. Alternatively, one might also hide in the tent to avoid the joyful moskitos. The brain does not want to stop thinking, however. The brain might work a little bit on tour planning for the next day. Check out the weather forecast, maybe. But after this, it might want to embark on a random walk. It might re-assemble bits and pieces from memory and recreate what is usually called the past. How it was to get the first bicycle at the age of twelve. A shiny red Puch racing bike with ten gears. This was 1966 and the parents even allowed me to bicycle alone to my aunt in Upper Styria. The distance was an unbelievable 130 kilometers. All my brain can remember now are the terrifying Gratkorn tunnel and the overwhelming feelings of freedom. The tunnel is history. The feelings of freedom are as present as ever. I look over to my Kona Sutra and start smiling. The Sutra also has a racing handle bar, like my Puch had back then. What a nice coincidence, I think. The sun is shining and my brain starts humming “Sunny Afternoon”, a pop song by The Kinks, also from 1966. It hums “And I love to live so pleasantly, live this life of luxury, lazing on a sunny afternoon”. My brain remembers that shortly after getting my Puch in 1966 I started my “sinful” life. I got interested in life styles that my educators back then, the Capuchin monks from the Lorenzheim, considered as definitely evil. Quite in contrast to their radical hair style, I wanted to have my hair in a very different radical style. Quite in contrast to their proposal to live a celibate life, I was about to discover the pleasures of lust. My brain keeps humming “save me, save me, save me from this squeeze”. Needless to say that this disagreement with the monks’ expectations about my life style led to my expulsion from the Capuchin monastery. This was the first big change in my life’s journey towards becoming myself. It felt like being liberated from a cage. My brain is still humming “Now I’m sitting here, sipping at my ice cold beer, lazing on a sunny afternoon”. However, it was not the alcohol that got so much attention way back then in 1968. I started with school in Fürstenfeld, got my fingers bleeding when trying to learn the barrè chords of the song “Wild Thing” by The Troggs, and shortly afterwards got offered a job as a bass player in a band. We called ourselves The Promotion. I took the pleasure of no longer listening to pop music, but became a connoisseur of progressive music, like the one from The Cream. Meanwhile, still sitting in front of my tent, my brain has started humming “The ceiling is the sky, I feel free”.

Summer evenings in northern Sweden seem to last forever. A lot longer than blog posts like this one here should be. Those of you, dear readers, who are not yet challenged with attention deficit, might want to get a glimpse of what it’s like to feel free by clicking here.

Six Months After

Just wanted to summarize some of my thoughts from the first six months after retiring from Graz University of Technology:

My activities:

  • Got rid of most of the stuff I used to “live with” in Austria and moved to Stockholm, Sweden.
  • Rented a house on an island in Stockholm’s archipelago.
  • Studied language every day for the first three months. I even went to a language school and became a student. An excellent experience for a seasoned teacher.
  • Selected and bought quite a lot of equipment for a three months’ bicycle tour to North Cape and back.
  • Bicycled from Stockholm to Luleå in northern Sweden. 1300 km.
  • Played with musical instruments most every day.
  • Visited Austria several times.
  • Went to the gym twice a week.

I enjoy…

  • the lifestyle in Sweden that is more individualistic than the one in Austria.
  • to visit free-of-charge state-owned museums.
  • the looong summer days with their magnificent light, in particular in the north.
  • “allemannsrätten”, i.e. everyone’s right to use free nature, for instance to pitch a tent almost anywhere.
  • the positive attitude of the Swedes, in contrast to the more often noticable negative approach to life in Austria. There is no “Herumnörglerei” in Sweden.
  • the absolutely-no-smoking policy in publicly used places.
  • the first stage of my bicycle tour: 16 days, tent, snow, rain, sun. No traffic.

What did not happen:

  • In contrast to the fear of many, I am not bored at all.
  • In contrast to the fear of several, I did not gain weight; rather the opposite.
  • In contrast to the fear of some, I really enjoy life in Sweden.
  • In contrast to the fear of two, food in Sweden is excellent.
  • In contrast to the fear of one, there is plenty of food in Sweden.

I miss…

  • playing volleyball on Friday evenings and the beer afterwards.
  • don’t know, that seems to be all.

Enjoy preparing pasta bolognese with me in the forest somewhere in northern Sweden…

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. Yesterday’s Gone. Yesterday’s Gone.

For several weeks, if not months, I have been managing change. A change from @iaik.tugraz.at to @alumni.tugraz.at. A change from living in Graz to starting life in Stockholm. A change from targeting focus on students to targeting focus on new adventures.

I am very excited about this change.

Recently I have learned to let go duties, responsibilities, and some amenities. I definitely will miss the inspiration of all the thinking people at IAIK and at the university. I am grateful having had the opportunity to work with all of you.

I plan to use the newly gained time for activities I could not do due to lack of time in the past: Maybe a bicycle tour to North Cape, for instance. Exploring more of the music I like by playing it on instruments. If you happen to see me  somewhere standing on some street corner playing Bob Dylan songs with guitar and blues harp, don’t pity me. Just laugh and start living your own dreams.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. Yesterday’s Gone. Yesterday’s Gone.

Sheer Unbelievable. Unprecedented.

Thomas, Christoph, and Maria.

Sharp. Inspiring. Modest. All three. Simply the best.

Thomas and Christoph will have their celebration under the auspices of the President of Austria on Friday, 23 Nov.

In case you are unfamiliar with “promotion under the auspices under the President of Austria”, then check out this link: “Promotio sub auspiciis Praesidentis rei publicae”.

I regularly have met Christoph and Thomas over morning coffees in the kitchen at IAIK. For many years, I have found their witty replies to my morning comments on the state of the world inspiring. These coffee sessions have always boosted my energy levels; what a good way to start the day. Christoph and Thomas, as well as I will leave IAIK not too long from now; I will miss these mornings.

But why do we have Maria on the photo? I leave it open to your imagination.

I first noticed Maria when she—still a pupil in school—did a summer internship at IAIK some years ago. I remember my utmost astonishment about the quality of her presentation in the very same kitchen at IAIK. After the presentation I asked her about where she has acquired all this deep knowledge about programming and cryptography; she bluntly replied, making my jaw drop: “I just learned it during my internship at IAIK.”

Let me add that I could have easily squeezed a fourth colleague onto the photo, too. The continuation of this story is about to evolve soon. Watch out!

I feel honored to be a colleague of Maria, Christoph, and Thomas.

And Now This.

It all happens within one year.

Daniel Gruss has been traveling the world talking a lot about Meltdown and Spectre.

Daniel Gruss has recently started his own research group at IAIK: “Core security“.

Daniel Gruss has now received the award for excellence in teaching at TU Graz. He got this award for the course on operating systems.

Sometimes they say that university professors need to incorporate at least three different persons: a world-class researcher, an excellent manager, and an inspiring teacher. It seems that we have gotten at least one of these.

Congratulations.

Books for Adult Students of the World

In a recent blog I have suggested a couple of books which I consider as important landmarks for a student in computer science. The topics of these books were all about learning all that jazz of technology.

In this blog I would like to present a couple of books which are examples for touching an even more important aspect of a grown-up engineer or scientist. To my mind, an engineer or scientist should be “learned” in participating in the discussion of the “big questions” of humanity.

To participate in a discussion, you — the student — must be able to express yourself in aural and written form. Your language skills must go beyond the mere expressions like “I am pissed”, “sorry, teacher” and the like.

Let’s start with writing skills. As soon as you have to write a letter to your teacher, or write a short text for describing your results achieved in some exercise, you want to be a competent writer. Writing skills cannot be achieved over night. So start right away. One of the really good books is this one:

Michael Alley: The Craft of Scientific Writing, Springer

Get it. Read it. Benefit from it. Your next text will be better immediately. And you will feel more competent in communication right away. Your teachers will appreciate your communication skills. You will be able not only to work out your excellence, but you can also hide corners of your ignorance in a much better way.

Speaking of communication, how about talking? You will quite often have the chance to speak about your work. Get the following book for understanding how to present your work in an efficient manner:

Michael Alley: The Craft of Scientific Presentations, Springer

In case you are a connoisseur of writing skills, you might want to read the classic
text by Zinsser:

William Zinsser: On Writing Well

If, however, you already think that you don’t need to improve your skills in reading or writing, you might be one of those who should start at level 0. Get a survival guide before you drown:

Pat Maier: Survival-Guide für Erstis

That much about communication.

For my taste, a good scientist/engineer also understands her trade in a much broader context. Let me give you a few examples what I mean with this.

We all got used to the idea that in the digital age we express everything with numbers.
Moreover, two symbols are sufficient to express any number. One of them, the “1”, had
it rather easy in its life. It was considered “trivial” by most. In contrast, the other one, the “0”, had it really difficult to be accepted by people. Read the fantastic history of the “0” in Seife’s book:

Charles Seife: Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

If you are bored with history of ideas, then you might want to reflect on the future. Who will own the future? Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, but also an artist, a musician, and much more. Check out more about this interesting person here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaron_Lanier

I would recommend this book:

Jaron Lanier: Who Owns The Future

In another dimension, you might want to grow in terms of understanding this universe we are living in. First of all, I would like to suggest the “Six Easy Pieces” by Richard Feynman. Richard Feynman gave such good introductory lectures in physics that not only students attended, but also all professors sat in his lectures. Even though you were not present in his lectures due to age, you can still enjoy the pleasure by reading the book:

Richard Feynman: Six Easy Pieces

Since Feynman’s lectures in the 1960s, a lot of new research has been done in physics. Check out Lawrence Krauss. I suggest the following two books:

Lawrence M. Krauss: The Greatest Story Ever Told – So far

Lawrence M. Krauss: A Universe from Nothing

Where is humanity heading with all this technological development? What might happen within this century? Ray Kurzweil has written a meanwhile legendary text on this topic:

Ray Kurzweil: The Singularity is Near

If you think that science “stinks”, after all it is produced by stinky humans, you might want to reflect on the business of science. Read Kuhn’s book on the theory of science:

Thomas S. Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

If you are more into the prosperous development of our human race, check out this book:

Timothy Garton Ash: Free Speech – Ten Principles for a Connected World

There is also a project connected to this book: The Free Speech Debate.

If you have read this text until here, you might want to add your own favorite to the list. You might even want to let others know about it. Feel free to add by commenting this blog.

If you got overwhelmed by the long list of books, don’t worry. You get to any point in this world step by step. Do the first step. Read the first word, then the second word, and so on. It’s almost like drinking beer. A first sip, a second sip, and so on. The interesting thing about reading is that you get more sober and satisfied with each sip; in contrast to drinking beer.

Happy reading.