The Tower That Lacks Power

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The glass front of Berliner Tor 5 reflecting Berliner Tor 7

This is where I spend my days–the building in the picture. To be precise: The building that’s reflected in the glass front of the building in the picture. Berliner Tor 7, or BT7 for short. Built in the late Seventies (so younger than me, actually), 15 stories high, but set on a small (man-made) rise so it’s even a bit taller (the view from the roof is spectacular), and reportedly originally planned to be a hospital, a tale to which the huge windowless spaces in the center of each floor lend credence: nobody would design classrooms like these, but they would have made perfect sense as operating rooms.

You only need to spend a couple of days as a student in the tower to realize that there is one extremely scarce valuable resource here. And I don’t mean elevator space. True, there are only six elevators serving the roughly 3,000 students plus faculty plus administration plus services who spend their day in the building, they are not very large, and they don’t each of them service every floor: The left-handed ones as you enter the building stop only in the even-numbered floors, and the ones on the right only in the prime number floors, which leaves out the ninth as the only floor with a composite odd number smaller than 14 (in Germany, the ground floor doesn’t get a number, so the second floor is no. 1 and there isn’t a no. 15), and that one is the service floor–a rather weak scientist’s joke. And they follow an odd pattern by which sometimes you call the elevator in an even-numbered floor and see all three pass your floor first on the way up and then on the way down, never stopping for you. Small wonder that when they stop they are often so overcrowded you decide to wait for the next …

No, elevator space is scarce but not critical. Nor are computer workstations scarce. Quite to the contrary, there are about a dozen large computer labs for CS alone on the 7th and 11th floor, and I have yet to see that there isn’t a PC for you when you need it.

But computers is close. The one critically scarce resource in BT7 is electrical power. Power outlets, to be precise. Wall sockets.

It’s hard to believe, but in the PC labs you are allowed to bring your own portable device, to be sure, yet in a room with 16 workstations there are only two power strips plugged into the wall under the window, each with three outlets, and on pain of being banned from the room you are forbidden to plug in additional power strips of your own. There is not enough power.

Now that’s PC labs where you have PC’s, after all. But in the regular classrooms it’s no better. Worse, if anything. The room we have math in has one wall socket next to the blackboard, one somewhere on the side wall, and six clustered near the window in the rear (why?). Front and rear are at least 15 meters apart (it’s one of those operating rooms, much deeper than wide, with seats for about 80 people in ten rows of eight), and the front outlet is being used by the professor for her laptop. If you sit near the rear wall you have absolutely no chance of hearing a word of what’s going on up front, since there is also no amplifying system. The lecture is three hours and 30 minutes, which for most people means they have to reduce screen brightness on their laptops to something resembling dusk between tall mountains to survive if they were fully charged in the first place. So basically 60 people compete for the one power outlet on the side wall.

My laptop is rather old and the battery is not very good. Small wonder I try hard to be in the room 30 minutes before the lecture to get a chance at monopolizing that wall socket.

In fact the first thing a UAS student with even 48 hours of experience does when s/he enters a room is check for power outlets. In our study group, when we discuss where to find a room to learn together, the first and last argument is always power outlets.

There is the cafeteria on the ground floor, a reasonably friendly, modern, roomy place with large floor-to-ceiling windows and warm, natural-coloured wood furniture, very popular for learning outside the main meal times when they turn the wireless LAN off to encourage making room for those who really just want to eat. Actually I am writing this in the cafeteria right now, at 9 in the morning, with a cup of coffee (it’s OK enough, albeit badly overpriced at 1 Euro for students, 1.10 for faculty–someone want to explain that policy to me?), at my favourite place near one of the huge concrete columns in the window front. What’s great about concrete columns? Well, each of them is flanked by not one but actually two of those incredible, life-saving things–wall sockets. The room has 200 seats or so, a lot of students come here to study, and there are six wall sockets. Well, there are eight, but two of them are across the aisle from the tables, and you really don’t want to hang your power cable over the aisle in the cafeteria. So now you know why I am always anxious to be here at 8 AM.

To be sure, the building is 40 years old, and I can see why there might be problems getting it from the spiral-bound notepad age into the laptop and internet age, though I can’t really believe they should be insurmountable. But what really puzzles me are those four modern classrooms at Steindamm, just 5 minutes away, where we have our Programming lectures. These rooms can’t be much older than five years–the furniture is shining new. 60 or 70 seats and–you will have guessed it by now–six wall sockets, and all on the wall behind the blackboard, so you can’t really use them without making your power cables into tripwires for the professor. Hello? What happened to underfloor cable tunnels with power outlets every few meters? Or cable ducts under the table tops? Should have been easy to arrange while they were building or modernizing these rooms (I don’t really know the history of that building).

After all, this is CS. We’re not studying philosophy. Every CS student brings her or his laptop. Laptops need electrical power. Didn’t you know?

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