Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Eurodining IV

How do the Germans do it? How do they fend off the winter depression that follows cold rain like more cold rain? Quite aggressively. Bremen has a huge Christmas market every day, with an ongoing carnival in the city center and lesser festivities throughout town. The city center has a little ferris wheel, 2 carousels, stages for little plays (guess which fairy tale they keep re-enacting), dozens of booths selling food, trinkets, clothes, and of course gluehwein. The gluehwein is the dominant feature; in addition to the many booths that sell gluehwein, and its variants, most booths that sell other things also sell gluehwein. I saw a cigar stand, cheese stand, and mittens-and-hats stand that each sold it. And why not? The Germans buy gluehwein everywhere.
Gluehwein. I had never heard of it before, yet gluehwein is the, um, sticky stuff that holds German society together through the long winters. Gluehwein is made by boiling red wine, then adding sugar and spices. At first, this struck me as way too sweet. But after trying some more of it, and after being cold and wet, and then trying some more of it, I suddenly realized it is quite good. There is a variant called feuerzangenbowle that is less-sweet gluehwein with rum, cooked in a huge copper kettle. Mmmmmm. At the booths, there are little tables without chairs where people mull and laugh and sip their gluehwein. Germans of all ages are there, unselfconscious as usual about being publicly drunk, 70 year old men laughing loudly at the same table as kids who had to be ditching high school.
Food booths are also busy, mostly selling crepes, pastries, grilled sausages and pig steaks, French fries or fried sliced potatoes with various toppings, and kartoffelpuffers. The latter is basically a latke. Mash some potatoes, maybe add some onion or thickening agent, shape like a cow patty, deep fry, and serve with applesauce. Good, and warm, and easy to eat. Not too healthy, but neither is gluehwein. Which the food booths also sell, of course.
Another new facet of my eurodining life is Mexican food. I returned from America last month with a bag full of refried beans, Tabasco, tortillas, three kinds of enchilada sauce, taco sauce, cotija cheese, and a bag of proper tortilla chips. My first weekend back, I was invited to Bernhard’s home to cook for him, his family, and some neighbors. They seemed quite delighted. Last week, I cooked carne asada for my friends Ola and Jonna. 2 days ago, I cooked for my landlord and his family, and they were quite pleased. Although there are Mexican food restaurants in Bremen, the Germans, with their poor judgement, seem to think that I can cook considerably better. So this is kinda fun. Even a simple quesadilla is exotic out here. Carne asada, which is simply marinated meat, is all the rage. I made guacamole and salsa and they didn’t know what to do with it, and were thoroughly confused by the refried beans, arguing briefly that they were not in fact beans because they did not resemble beans. I had to show them how to open a tortilla, fill it with these goodies and lettuce, tomato, cheese, etc, and roll it up. Actually that was very fun.
My grand plan to get a piñata out here has failed so far, though. That is a goal someday - after returning from the US (which will next occur in April), bring back enough gear, and a pinata, to support a large outdoor feast for 30-40 people in my lab. Grill pollo asado, carne asada, some cebollitas, make big bowls of guac and salsa, and serve with cotija cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pico de gallo, onion and cilantro garnish, etc. I am making myself hungry, and hence am off to get some nice Swabisch food here in lovely Tuebingen.

The root of all evil

In an ironic follow up to my last blog entry, I have news to report from my professional writing career. On Oct 9, I submitted a 125 page grant application that was my biggest writing adventure since my thesis. The 10 days preceding its submission were among the busiest I can recall, featuring 4 all nighters. All this for a generally futile effort, since there were over 40 proposals submitted for the same pool of grant money, including one from a consortium of 15 of the best BCI labs in Europe.
It was thus with some surprise that we found out last week that my first grant earned a score of 14.5 out of 15, a legendary score, and is ranked first among all proposals. Neither my boss nor several veteran euro grantwriters even heard of such a high score; a 12 is considered quite good. Hence I will oversee a 3 year, €4.1M BCI research project featuring Bremen, Philips and another company in Holland, Telefonica in Spain, a university in Warsaw, and 2 entities in Ulster. Travel to these places will occur, and I will finally have some flexibility and resources to do the work I want. Not much, but enough to produce some good work and position myself to get more.
Now I am on a train to Regensburg, in southern Germany, to goof off for the weekend before meeting with Prof. Dr. Niels Birbaumer in Tuebingen next week. This trip was planned for months, with the goal of discussing a new grant proposal, and I do not know if Niels knows how well I did with my last proposal. So it should be a fun visit. I know how his proposal did (it was ranked eighth), so it is likely he knows that we got first. This puts me in a great negotiating position for discussing the next grant. Actually, nailing the grant proposal puts me in a great negotiating position in many other ways, with many other entities, but for now I am focusing on executing this grant.
The train ride, and indeed Germany in general, is decidedly less pleasant than before. Winter has covered the land like a thick dark blanket soaked in cold pee. Bremen’s reputation for lousy weather now makes sense to me. It is consistently cold, cloudy, wet, and gloomy, and the fact that the average day is literally seven hours long does not help. When you sleep in until 8 AM, and it’s still dark outside, plus cold and wet, you can’t help but be affected. Hence gluehwein and the Bremen Christmas market, which merits its own blog entry.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Blow Must Go On!

I spent the last couple days in Manhattan, a city known for – among many other things – Broadway. I then learned of the stagehands’ strike, meaning that you’re stuck with off – Broadway shows. There were some interesting titles, like Die Mommie Die or I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. I ended up seeing Frankenstein, keeping up on the mad scientist theme, and quickly realized how they handled the stagehands strike. At no point in the entire musical did anything on the stage change. Hm. OK. The off – Broadway stagehands weren’t even on strike, either, evidently they just couldn’t think of any way to change the stage. Clever lighting and projection made up for some of it, but stagehands matter. Everyone there matters. Hence the below.

The Blow Must Go On!

Inspired by the ongoing Hollywood writers’ strike, and the Broadway stagehands’ strike, beleaguered producers declared that they, too, will go on strike until they get more money, respect, and better working conditions. Demands included upgraded private jets, the right to beat caddies, free vials of virgin actress tears, and the immediate release and reinstatement of Heidi Fleiss.

Mel Brooks, producer of The Greedy Producers and the upcoming Young Frankenstein the Greedy Jew, tried to explain. “We only want what’s fair. If we pay the stagehands, and writers, and the piss-boys, I mean janitors, and those elevator fixer guys, and all these other little people, what would be left for us? It’s good to be the king. You wanna go see this off – Broadway schlock like Die Mommie Die or I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change? Feh! I have plans for two new and totally original musicals, called Go Fuck Yourself, Grampa and Ethel’s Husband Tried Cialis.”

Charlie Sheen, producer of Two and a Half Men, agreed. “People don’t understand producers, our special circumstances and needs. Like, I don’t think people appreciate how important coke really is in Hollywood production. I give more lines to celebrities than any writer ever could. Just last week, I was trying to get things moving with this actress for our show. I was going through the usual casting routine, and the little bitch kept saying she was married. Took nine lines of Columbian table wine before she finally went into V fib and I could finish the deal. But then it all worked out, I nailed, I mean, she nailed the role. Ya got no show without no blow. Sometimes we go through a few grams just to wake up in time for morning cappuccino.” When Sheen was told that this was enough cocaine to kill anyone but a severe addict, he laughed, winked, paused, then began to cry.

George Lucas added, “We don’t really need writers. In The Empire Strikes Back, I paid Lawrence Kasdan to help write the screenplay. Cost me thousands. In the first two Star Wars movies, I wrote near everything myself. Jar Jar, the dialog between Anakin and Padme, all me. Did anyone complain? What? Well, fuck you. People will still come to movies with lines that flop off the tongue like, um, like….”
“Kitty’s last hairball?” commented a nearby striking writer.
“Methuslah’s drool?” replied another.
“Fast acting poison!” said a third.
“Sloth vomit!”
“A narcoleptic diver!”
“Woody Allen’s condom!”
“The American dollar!”
“What the fuck are you doing?!” shrieked the fattest. “We’re on strike! No more writing!”
“Yeah! We should get paid for this!”
”But what about the pure fun of writing?”
“What?! No, no, no!! If there’s one thing any good writer hates, it’s amateurs! No more writing. Stop. Now.”

Sunday, November 11, 2007

San Diego burning bright

Almost a month since my last post. After the grant fracas, I visited some old American friends in Munich and then Salzburg. We hit the legendary HofBrauHaus in Munich, which was great fun, though we noted that most people there seemed to have the exact same accent we did. In the Englisch Gardens, we had a beer and crispy blob of deep fried pig fat (schweinhaxe) at an outdoor pavilion. I gotta relay an exchange that Sam and I overheard from someone ordering at the beer counter.

(jackass speaking English): Can I get a glass of water?
(answer in heavily accented English): The river is over there!

On Sunday the 21st I flew from Bremen to San Diego. My last flight was from Denver to San Diego. I was trying to sleep and kept getting interrupted with stupid annoucements about the Red Sox game or our location or other uninformative trivialities. Good evening from the captian and your Boston - based flight crew this evening. We have now leveled out at 31,000 feet. We have a clear flight to San Diego, so I'll turn off the seat belt sign, and you're welcome to move about the cabin.

(you turned it off five minutes ago, and there are three people waiting in front of the midgalley lavatory.)

Weather there is about 68 degrees this evening, no chance of rain.

(duh. Lemme sleep!)

We hope you enjoy the view of the Rocky Mountains below us. We're expecting an on - time arrival in San Diego this evening. And the Sox just scored!

(OK, I want a fucking volume control on announcements from the captain.)

And on either side of the plane, you can see a lot of things, or could if it weren't dark. And now we're starting our initial descent. The Sox just got a double! One of them scratched his nads! And now you can see some the fires on the left.

(hmmpf? snort? pah. must have misheard. back to sleep.)

It's 3-2, Sox, middle of the fifth! Off to the left you can see Mexico.

(Of course you can, shut up!)

We might have a slight delay because of the fires, but we should arrive on time. And the Sox ...

I heard none of this, since I bothered to open an eye after the first clause. That was the first I learned of the fires. I was in SD until Nov 7, when I had to give a talk for the Society for Neuroscience conference. There was never any real threat to my family or home, but it was still intense for the first week. My mom and I drove up Interstate 15 on the 28th and it was an unholy tangle of writhing black skeletons. Smoke hung in the valleys, puffy choking wraiths spawned from the gaping gash of my homeland. Each hill was respite, and then you had to plunge through mustard gas again. The air was bad enough that we had to turn around and go home, grateful we had one.

I edited out a lot of further commentary about the fires, although I enjoyed writing some of it. Poetic whining is still whining. One funny note. One of the local blogs had an entry titled "Eatin' Good at the Q." Qualcomm Stadium was used as an evacuation center. All the news channels said it was very well stocked, with a slew of volunteers and donated goodies. Somebody - I would guess an SDSU undergrad (and not an evacuee) - worked out that he could get free meals there. He described free BBQ ribs, hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, mexican food, bottled water and soda, etc. Day after day. Now of course this is total bullshit in a time of crisis, and initially made my blood boil like the sap must have on millions of ancient pines. But then I had to laugh. As dad once said, the word "sophomoric" is in the dictionary for a reason.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Here is the HOP proposal. For added challenge, I not only wrote it up as a grant proposal, I also avoided all use of conventional terms for short,or height, etc. This was because I was annoyed at all the politically correct speech in that proposal I just finished.

Hopping Over People (HOP)
Grant Proposal


This proposal describes a novel technique designed to improve human traffic flow in crowded urban settings. Presently, many persons are unable to effectively utilize sidewalks for travel because they are not wide enough. This impedes effective traffic flow, which in turn leads to lost revenue, frustration, anger, and reduced enjoyment of leisure time. In addition, when urban traffic flow is impeded by persons whose toes appear larger to them than most peoples’ own toes, these persons have missed a valuable opportunity to instead interact with normal persons, thus encouraging their inclusion into society. This HOP proposal will create a new mechanism for facilitating urban traffic flow and incorporating these special persons through a simple new concept called the Urban Hop. The Urban Hop is an innovate approach that provides a completely novel means of facilitating flow by replacing the mainstream unidimensional concept of passing – which relies on the overtaxed width dimension of sidewalks – with the multidimensional mobile jump over persons whose unique overall proximity to the ground makes this feasible. While the principal focus will be on human traffic, the ancillary benefit in reducing overall congestion will impact all facets of urban travel. HOP also includes funds to properly promote and disseminate the Urban Hop maneuver to ensure its rapid integration into society.


The problem of inefficient urban travel plagues far larger target populations than any problem addressed by any other proposal. The US, EU, India, and China each have hundreds of millions of persons who participate in urban travel each day (United Nations General Assembly report 2007-7673). Studies suggest that urban populations will continue to grow, while infrastructural mechanisms to reduce congestion – such as improved roadways, subways, buses, and other mass transit efforts – will not develop at an adequately commensurate rate. Hence, urban congestion is likely to increase through both the short and long term future, further increasing the demand for the Urban Hop.
HOP will strongly impact persons whose noses, when standing, are below the average standing persons’ noses. Advanced statistical modelling has shown that approximately 50% of the population exhibits this characteristic. More details studies have suggested that deviance from this figure is directly proportional to the sample site. That is, while small and freakish groups such as big and tall models, stilt salesmen, Wizard of Oz extras, children, or the Chinese may have populations whose nose altitude differs markedly from the mean, larger and more eclectic populations tend more strongly toward the average. This shocking find has in fact been reported quite a while ago (Galton, 1886).
Vertically challenged persons are already excluded from a wide range of activites, including most track and field events, basketball, heavyweight boxing, amusement park rides, shelves, big-boy bicycles and cars, and yo-yoing. HOP will empower these persons while simultaneously integrating them into a smoother, easier urban traffic infrastructure.

Work plan

HOP consists of four work packages, which are overviewed below.

Work package 1: Initial Urban Hop Development. WP1 will develop the Urban Hop maneuver. This maneuver may occur when two persons are walking toward each other on the sidewalk. One of these persons must be of average or greater pupiltoe distance, while the other person must not. In such a situation, it is currently necessary for one of these persons to step aside, or otherwise be inconvenienced by the other’s desired passage.
HOP creates a new possibility for such situations: the Urban Hop. This proceeds as follows. First, the person who might be capable of an apple picking career should give the hand signal to the person more inclined toward circusry. The right hand is held out, flat, with the palm up and fingers together. The left index finger shall be extended, and the other left fingers balled into a fist, as if in a pointing motion. However, tip of the left finger shall not point to the other Urban Hop member. Instead, it will be placed horizontally in direct contact with the right palm. Next, the initiator shall move his left finger to make an upside down ‘U’ that begins and terminates on the right palm. This motion is meant to convey the concept of jumping over a person. Once this signal is given, the person less concerned with turnstiles may respond with either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down signal.
The proposed hoppee may give the thumbs-down maneuver to decline participation. This may occur for various reasons, including illness, concern for a hat, fear of being accidentally kicked, or pride. If the thumbs-up is given, the two persons shall proceed toward each other at a standard walking pace. Approximately 10 meters before they meet, the hopper will accelerate as deemed necessary to best complete the maneuver. The hopper shall then jump over the hoppee. The hoppee shall duck to create an even smaller vertical profile and thereby facilitate this maneuver. Both persons may then continue walking as before without the need to step aside or suffer other inconvenience.
Work package 1 will further develop and test this maneuver with target subjects in field settings. Appropriate persons will be recruited through emails and flyers. To maximize accessibility to target persons, flyers will be placed only 1 meter above the ground. HOP will use a completely novel approach to subject compensation that will reduce costs significantly. Subjects will be told that they will be mailed a check to provide compensation. However, they will instead receive an envelope containing no money but instead a formal letter informing that their contribution to science has helped society. This letter will recommend that subjects take great pride in their work, and should consider patting themselves on the back if possible and/or buying themselves a small beer or half-shot to celebrate. To further this effort, all subjects will be given inaccurate contact details for experimenters. Subjects will, however, be given correct contact information for local Ethics Boards and the European Commission. If any funds are made available to pay subjects, these funds will be used exclusively to pay the Project Manager, who has extensive experience as an experimental subject and can devise important studies that require his participation.

Work Package 2: Revision

Based on initial testing and feedback, the Urban Hop maneuver may be further revised. For example, particularly hip individuals may choose to instead move their left finger only in the pattern of an upside – down ‘J.’ This signal still conveys the necessary information, but may appear more fashionable as the unnecessary downward portion of the left finger movement is excised. To avoid problems caused by the unique subject protocol used in HOP, all subjects in WP2 will be recruited from a different city, and the experimenter shall use a pseudonym and wear a false beard.

Work Package 3: Dissemination

Once the Urban Hop has been developed, it will be disseminated through numerous mechanisms. A website will be created with detailed instructional videos, downloadable software support tools, and testimonials. To facilitate widespread adoption, all disseminables will be fabricated as needed to convey the impression that the Urban Hop is extremely popular. Results will be disseminated at academic conferences and workshops, and will be published in top journals. Patents, trademarks, and other intellectual property efforts will be aggressively pursued to give the impression that the Urban Hop has commercial potential, thus encouraging the Chinese to steal and publicize the idea.
Substantial funds are also allocated for media efforts to present the Urban Hop as a practical mainstream procedure. Media reports will state that the Urban Hop is extremely popular in another continent. These reports will be adapted geographically as needed. For example, publicity efforts in Europe will state that everyone in America is doing the Urban Hop, and vice versa. This approach has already proven extremely effective in related domains such as late night telemarketing.

Project and Risk Management

HOP shall be administered by a Project Manager. In typical grant proposals, the Project Manager is overseen by a Project Committee consisting of representatives from all partners, as well an Ethics Manager and auditing entities from the European Commission. These mechanisms, which are designed to ensure efficient management and avoid maleficent spending, also require extensive time, expense, and inconvenience. HOP avoids these problems by empowering the Project Manager to make all necessary decisions regarding funding, personnel, project goals, procedures, and deliverables.
This also serves as a highly flexible risk management system. The topheavy management infrastructure of most projects impedes effective and rapid risk management. HOP allows the Project Manager to reassess risks, contingency plans, and goals as needed and take measures he deems appropriate. This reconsideration may be made without regard to prior research, stated project aims, any statement ever made, objections from ethics boards, complaints from any entities, nor legal action. Thus, HOP may be very quickly adapted according to project progress, new external developments, or inspired whims.

(This table did not reprint well. Will fix later.)

Table 1 presents specific risks, likelihood, impact, and contingency plan(s).

Risk Likelihood Impact Contingency

Subjects cannot be recruited
HOP cannot be evaluated properly
Offer subjects more money

Accidental injury through kicking (aka an insufficient hop)
Hoppees are not known for melee combat skill
Hoppees are also easy to outrun

Urban Hop is only very rarely possible.
HOP will have very small effects on traffic and society
Misrepresent data, and/or redirect funds

Hoppees may be insulted by HOP
Hoppees will decline the Urban Hop whenever it is proposed
Increased publicity to vilify hop decliners

Project Management failure
Goals are not met
Project Manager redefines goals

HOP target hoppees are miscontrued
Mistaken impression is created that the typical hoppee is anything but a child
Create videos of kids laughing as people hop over them


After returning from a really busy trip to San Francisco on Sep 27, I got slammed with my first grant lead. I had to produce a €3M grant application on short notice with minimal support. My officemate Bernhard was helping on 2 other grants with the same Oct 9 deadline. Other grant contributors were generally quite slow, and about half did close to nothing. Most were not native English speakers, adding bonus work that I alone could do well. The grant support office at the university - which any fellow grantwriter knows is essential - was curiously on vacation. Odd. There is a huge EU-wide grant call due Oct 9, dozens of groups at U Bremen had submissions, and all the key people at the grant office choose the preceding 2 weeks for a holiday. Hence it was all me. If you want something done right, do it yourself. Not a good attitude for management, but it worked this time.
From Sep 27 to Oct 9, I averaged 115 hours per week. Do the math, and it looks impossible. Now redo the math, accounting for the four all - nighters and an average of 4 hours of sleep per night. Twice I slept on the metal desk in my office. And delivered a very good grant app. It was nice to see I still had it. Done it before, and will do it again. I was thriving. It was the most fun I had in a while. Thus was born my first grant app, about 120 pages of inspired beauty. What can I say? I would fund us.
Yet I must also wonder about the opportunity cost. With equivalent effort, I could have produced a major patent application, most of a full scientific research project, two solid theory papers, and who knows what in industry. If the grant is denied, which is statistically the most likely, the effort was for naught. I am directly competing against a larger powerhouse consortium of 15 EU groups, including the top BCI labs. I am up against Niels Birbaumer. So my prediction is, good score from the reviewers, but no money. The more senior I become in academia, the more time I have to spend on grant apps. Hm.
Amidst this all, I have been burning to get out my latest silly story. I never had time. The whole time I was working on my grant app, I was thinking about my silly proposal. I thought, dammit, I don't want to smog up my blog with grantwriting. But then I thought, no, if my brain is stuck in that mode, go with it. Hence the HOP proposal, which is sitting on my nonworking USB key here at an internet cafe in Munich. I should be able to post it soon.
Back to intensity. I am here in Munich until Sunday, then off to Salzburg, which I love. I met some old friends here last night and we went to the famous HofBrauhaus. Great fun, but I would guess more than half of the patrons were Americans. On Wed I return to Bremen. on Sunday the 21st I fly to San Diego. After working there with Jaime Pineda and then going to a conference, I go to San Francisco to meet with a lab there, then Albany to visit the Wolpaw lab, then Manhattan, then back to Bremen on Nov 20.
Today is the first of my 29 vacation days. The boss gave me yesterday and next Wed as free vacation days as a bonus for the grant app. Off to wander around Munich. Flaneur.

Three quotes from Thomas Edison, who coincidentally has the same birthday:

Personally, I enjoy working about 18 hours a day. Besides the short catnaps I take each day, I average about four to five hours of sleep per night.

I find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success.

Pretty much everything will come to him who hustles while he waits. I believe that restlessness is discontent, and discontent is merely the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Let Freedom Ring

Three senior scientists at the University of California at San Diego have issued an urgent advisory based on recently completed modelling studies. According to a statement released yesterday in the UCSD Koala, the three physicists stated that a certain material in brasseires may present unprecedented destructive potential.

“Our research has concluded that a new type of antimatter, called superantimatter, may spontaneously form within certain specific clothing conformations due to the superlatticework interaction among pseudosymmetrical axes. This superantimatter is far more destructive than any known material. It would be very bad for the environment. This risk can only be eliminated through the immediate destruction of all clothing with relevant conformation, namely, brasseires.”

The response from Washington was swift. Senior Democratic sources praised the advisory, and one promptly drafted a bill to “declare bras illegal to support women’s freedom, strength, and hope.” Sixteen minutes later, the bill was withdrawn by its author, who also apologized for any damage to his wife’s presidential campaign.

This brief statement had a dramatic effect on campus as well. Many UCSD students have ceased wearing brasseires, most of them female. An announcement this morning that the scientists would issue follow up statements in a hastily assembled conference in Price Center drew thousands of students. Before the conference, I interviewed several of them and got a wide variety of responses.

Kenna Naylor, a freshman who read the Koala article on Monday, said she had been free since then and appreciated the public support. “Everyone is sooooo much cooler to you when you are like environmentally conscious. Like, since I became free, my TAs are all totally cool to me. They said they would hold extra office hours for me and don’t worry about the bad grade on my last essay.”

Her two friends, both named Jen, agreed. “Yeah, like, at work, things are totally different,” said one. “I got promoted - twice - and all the guys buy me lunch and buy me things and I learned how to play shuffleboard and bocce ball. So working in a retirement home is pretty cool!”

The latter Jen described similar support. “I work for this corporation and it is like the same there. My boss, he said he would pay me extra to work late, but I could just use the time to study. And he said he could help. And then he said he would take me on business trips with him and he didn’t really love his wife and he would pimp beer for me and my sisters. And those network guys are sooooo much more responsive, they were total dicks before, but I got a new computer and monitor and eight webcams! They even made this cool string of webcams over my desk! So, like, there is a lot of support for the environment here! Go environment!” Jen cheered and whooped while her two friends nodded enthusiastically. Kenna and the other Jen nodded too.

Male students were also supportive. “Fuck yeah, I support all this! I am hornier than an ivory bazaar. This is better than that take back the night march!”

“Dude, I am fuckier hornier than a rhino orchestra.”

“And they don’t even need beer or beads! I wonder what it’s like at State.”

“Hey you! Yeah you, writing all this down! You know they’re laughing at you at network, right?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Um. I think …. Uh, sorry, yeah, this ….. um…. Yeah. What was the question again?”

“Jesus dude! Are those fucking real?”

“I don’t care dude, I am like a toad in heat, I get that tall one over there.”

“Fuck you, bitch, I saw her first.”

However, some dissenters were present as well. One student, the headwomyn of Feminists United for Concerned, Knowledgeable, Understanding Students, was especially angry. “I have long chosen to be free of male-engineered "support," for much more important reasons than these noobs. I don’t like the lack of attention to the underlying feminist issues here,” she said while expressionlessly backfisting a passing gawker. Looking toward the Jens, she said, “Yeah, you. I mean you, bitch. You’re going down, you choose how.”

I had to shove through the crowd to get to the press conference, where the three senior physicists were taking questions. I arrived to see a physicist whose nameplate read John Hagelin answering a question. “No, our simulations have conclusively shown that male clothing presents no risk of antimatter formation. We think only bras are dangerous.”

“Naw, dude!” chimed his colleague, Brian Greene. “G strings might be bad too. And the top inch or so of low cut jeans. We need to do more simulations. But we recommend erring on the side of caution.”

I asked if they could present more data describing how they reached their conclusions. Greene said that his results have been submitted to Nature, and that it would be inappropriate to present details prior to publication.

A gentleman in the crowd asked if any sort of testing might be possible to assess whether any superantimatter had already formed. Hagelin replied, “Yes, and thank you for that excellent and very important question, Jeff. I mean, sir. Yes. Indeed, yes. The initial formation of superantimatter might produce a small, nearly invisible rash. Since yesterday, we have developed a means to evaluate photographic evidence and identify relevant indicators. So, we urge women to send us pictures of themselves after becoming free. Please include your contact information. We will contact you in cases that require further investigation.”

“But it doesn’t always work,” added Greene. “It only works on women from about 18-40. And maybe we can detect G string risks too. ”

“Oh yes,” commented the third physicist. “Good call.”

“And also, it only works with C or larger cup sizes,” said Greene.

“Dude, stop getting fucking greedy,” replied Hagelin. “I mean, I disagree with your interpretation of our modelling data, Dr. Greene. It works for B cups too.” The two scientists had a brief discussion with the microphone off, then turned the mike on again. “Sorry,” said Hagelin. “We had to discuss highly technical details of our model. Yes, our technique would work pretty broadly. Just send the pictures.”

One woman from the audience asked if they should be sent to the email addresses posted on their official web pages. “No,” said Hagelin, “definitely not. Our server would get overloaded. Send it to nineinchnailer@hotmail.com. That is an alternate site we set up to handle this grave task.”

“Or wait, ma’am, maybe we could meet you after the conference to help,” said Greene. “We can’t really see you there, can you stand up? Oh. Hm. Well, I think you look safe, ma’am. No need to send a picture.”

One student in the crowd asked if this conference would be on CNN. “We aren’t sure yet,” answered Hagelin. “We couldn’t get any of the networks here because they kept arguing about our credentials.” The student followed up noting that the speakers did not seem old enough for such distinguished careers, and were not listed among Physics faculty at UCSD. This angered the third physicist so much that he stood up and stormed out of the room.

“Yo, dude!” said Hagelin. “That’s such bullshit. You can’t talk to Stephen Hawking that way! This conference is over.”

Monday, September 17, 2007

Euroshopping II

Hmmm.... learn about retinal scotomas ... goof off in the business center .... Hmmmmm.....

I recently held Fun Night II in our lab, featuring Spinal Tap followed by poker. Before then, I asked Thorsten (a Bremen native) from our lab to take me to the nearest huge supermarket for supplies. It was called Real, which Thorsten said was like Wal - Mart. In many ways, this was true. Very large, lot of variety, bad floor tiles, mostly low end stuff. Inside was like a mini strip mall, with an optometrist, food shops, video rental, the usual. Thorsten asked if it was like an American Wal - Mart. No, I said, because of no weapons.

"You can buy a gun at Wal - Mart?" he asked.

"Yes. In fact you are required to buy one with every purchase."

"Ha ha! No, you are not!" (Thorsten is not easily fooled.)

"OK. But they do have guns."





"Machine guns?"

"No. But they have crossbows."


"Crossbow, and a bow and arrow."

"You can buy all these at Wal-Mart?"

"Yes. And ammunition, and scopes, and everything you need. And grenade launchers."

"Stop being like that. But you can really get ammunition?"

"Yes. You can go to Wal Mart and get everything you need to shoot anything you want."

Pause. "What if you try to buy more than one gun?"

"Fine. They will be happy."

The conversation trailed off, but made me think. Was I right? How many guns could you actually buy at Wal-Mart? This could be a really interesting sociological study, and might be a cute hidden camera move. What would happen if someone tried to buy all the guns in a Wal - Mart? The challenge is to get enough purchasing power, ideally cash, to appear credible. Easily in the high tens of thousands. Otherwise, they will ignore you. Money talks, and bullshit walks.

That is not literally true, actually. I tested this in Colorado, a state which has at least plenty of the latter. After extensive observation, neither part of the old expression is true. Instead, the money will eventually blow away, and the bullshit becomes harder. But it then makes an effective paperweight.

Also, money walks too. When I arrived in Bremen, one Euro was worth about 1.35 dollars. Now, due largely to the subprime lending crisis, it is almost 1.4. Never before have I been so encouraged to root for American financial catastrophe. Go, mortgage scammers! What about the death tax? We should add an apologetic antitax, to give massive tax breaks to the rich to express how bad we feel for having had the death tax for so long. What the fuck is up with Iran?! They are getting nukes, and we just sit here? Bomb em! Let's bomb Venezuela too! But, of course, we only want catastrophes that somehow don't significantly affect the Euro market.

Back to the plan. The stunt will fail without money to generate credibility. Assume also you have a white guy, speaking perfect english, dressed in a suit, with a gun permit, with nothing remotely suspicuous about him. He goes in, with a shopping cart, fills it up to overflowing with several dozen guns, then goes nonchalantly through checkout. To add to the fun, have a couple similar guys behind him with full carts. Now, this should at least draw a question from the checkout dude. I would hope they would call a manager, and probe a bit as to goals. You might think someone would call a cop, or perform a background check, but this is already assumed since you have a gun permit. It's just a scaling issue; one gun or hundreds? Avoid discussion, be perfectly polite, but provide no hint of why you want the guns. And, again, to keep the pressure on Wal Mart, keep flashing LOTS of cash. See if you can pull it off. Or, on what grounds would they refuse the sale?

Possible variants:

Don't be white, and/or speak with an accent. Perhaps make one up. Perhaps, if multiple buyers are involved, make everyone different. Wear different clothes, such as camo gear, a full sari/sarong or Bushman loincloth with spear (if white), toga, Napoleonic French marshal uniform, or a bear costume.

Rather than avoiding all discussion of why you want all these guns, come up with some answer that is either silly and transparent (well, lot of deer out there! or I needed some nice looking paperweights) or complete nonsequitir (Did you know the brain has thousands of neurons? or Snap! Crackle! Pop!) or vaguely threatening but thoroughly mad (I need them because of all the ants! or Did you know most Mormons have guns? or People keep making fun of me or I don't know, I just get so frustrated when people won't sell me things.... so I'm good to go, right?)

Have a facial tic.

Ask really inane questions about your purchase. How many Joules are produced with each shot? Can this rifle support my truck? Can you eat gunpowder if you are really hungry? Do you have pistols for dogs? No, no, don't be silly, I mean, pistols that dogs can fire? Could this bullet penetrate the codpiece on my plate mail at 300 yards? No? Whew! I'll take it, then.

If you see any Chinese people in your line or nearby lines, ask what they think of Taiwanese nationalism. Regardless of their answer, say that you need good people in your group.

In addition to buying all the guns, also buy out something seemingly irrelevant (eg, not survival gear or copies of Guns and Ammo.) All shampoo. All Teletubbies. All copies of People magazine. All tampons. All romance novels. All yellow toys.

If buying guns with someone else, argue frequently with him in a nonexistant foreign language. Get really angry, then suddenly both start whispering, then nod knowingly.

Laugh whenever they ask why you need the guns. But not a sinister laugh - a joyous, grand belly laugh. If the sale is completed, jump up and down and say, Now we'll see who laughs last!

Size tatters

I am enjoying my first trip back to the States since moving to Germany. I am at the business center in the DoubleTree Berkeley, about 100 feet from the conference I am supposed to be attending. I am in fact attending, just in my own way.

My return has, among other things, underscored the size difference between the two continents. Everything is bigger in America. It ain't just SUVs, freeways, people, national debt, or hegemony of the military industrial complex. Bathrooms are big enough to feature bathtubs, or at least showers large enough that turning around requires no planning. The BART cars are wider than the streetcars in Bremen, which makes much more of a difference than it would seem. Wide chairs, wide aisles where people can walk without bumping into each other or kicking your foot, and armrests between the chairs make the San Fran mass transit system far more comfortable and practical.

Energy flows like sunshine. After washing clothes, you can utilize a remarkable drying machine that takes about 5% as long as putting clothes on a stringer and leaves your clothes looking better. Actually, the sunshine is plentiful too. The weather has been fantastic, warm and sunny. The crisp sea breeze of my home state smells like ambrosia. My coat is packed away and my sunglasses are in my shirt pocket. Normalcy reigns, albeit briefly.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Euroshopping I

Many people view American retail outlets as paragons of impersonal, efficient, gimmicky, cost cutting, customer-screwing capitalism. The Germans have 'em beat. At first I wondered if it was just Extra supermarket, land of Spee, Persil, and other cleaning products, but no.

First, commercial layout. They are good. The entry to the store has a slew of plants for sale, which not only gets sales but looks pretty. Home Depot, by contrast, always hides the pretties part of any megamart - the garden - behind a huge bamboo fence. Once you get past the plants and enter the store, Bam! are the stand-up displays with printed specials. Throughout the ride, the Extra speakers blare annoyingly catchy 'Extra radio' jingles at you with more price specials. The checkstands have the usual point-of-purchase junk: candy, gum, batteries, questionable and very cheap magazines on poor quality newsprint.

Second, gimmickry. The stand-up displays and checkouts include cute 'Discount Games' in which you must collect 20 stickers to get a super special deal. Ooh. I looked at the deals, and they were exactly the same as you would expect from American shlock-hockery. They had a picture of two forks, on a fancy tablecloth next to a fancy white napkin and fancy glass vase with a red rose, that said 'Normal Preis €33' but, with 20 Treuepunkte and only €7,99 Zuzahlung, they were yours. Wow! How do I get these stickers?? Ah, one for each €5 Euro purchase. But then the Discount Game had even more prizes. A butcher knife. Looked to me like a regular butcher knife. But, you see, I am just a myopic blowhard, because in this picture, it was held by a very serious looking chef, with a blinding white coat and very white chef's hat. So, of course it would have been a fantastic deal at 'Normal Preis €44.' Can I buy two? Please? Wait, I have a credit card, how many do you have in the back? Oh no. No. I can't take it. There's more? No. Perhaps I am mistranslating. Hmm. €44. €9,99. €9,99?! No, wait, the numbers are the same in German. (Makes it easy for Sudoku fans.) So it must be true. Can it be? I could get that butcher knife for only €9,99 Zuzahlung plus 20 Extra Treuepunkte? This is brilliant!! Why hasn't this sort of hype spread to America?

Third, you gotta pay a token for each shopping cart. The carts are all locked together, and this is the only way to get one. After people buy groceris and put them in the car, they do not leave them scattered about, or right in the middle of a parking space, or rolling downhill towards the hind end of an SUV enjoying its last few seconds of an unsmirched paint job. They take them back to the line of carts, relock them, and get the token back. Great idea! Now you don't have to employ some 16 year old to go collect the carts all day. Get that started in America. Put the work on the customer, not your employees.

Fourth, you weigh and label your own fruits and veggies. This explains why, the first few times I went to the checkstand and handed the clerk an unlabelled bag of tomatoes, she got pissed off. They have electronic scales in the produce section, where you weigh your green victim, push a button with its name, and get the label. Nice move. Yet the dairy and meat section is similar to America - they pay someone to stand behind a counter, you point to something or say its name, specify a quantity, they get within 10% or so and you say OK. They should work on this. Why not a weigh your own cheese section? Or meats? Save butcher salary and just have a little barn out back? Let customers borrow a shotgun if they buy a big butcher knife for €9,99. Wait, the former uses ammo, and costs money. Just the knife.

Fifth, checkout. No 'paper or plastic.' No, 'Can I help you with your groceries, Ma'am?' You bring your own bag, or buy one at the store. Zero personnel are assigned to bagging and walking out nice old ladies. That's your problem. The stores have self-service checkout, just like in America, but then you get no Treuepunkte coupons. At classic checkout counters, you still have to ask the cashier for the Extra Treuepunkte coupons. I am usually contemptuous when I see other people doing this, since it just makes them seem like pathetic, reflexive suckers. It's such a transparent gimmick. Geez. Oh, you don't want them? Can I have yours? Danke.

Sixth, recycling. No bring in a bag of bottles or cans, and get cash. They have a machine where you put the bottles or cans. It scans, gives a piece of paper redeemable at the checkstand, and then the surprise. I was waiting for the inevitable crush. That's really the only motivation to recycle for me. Fuck the fifteen cents, fuck the environment, I wanna see a moderately sturdy container get loudly demolished. It sets an example to his companions who might also be considering running out of beverage. Yeah, you better deliver next time I'm thirsty, or you're next!
But instead, a secret flap opened up in the back of the machine and the bottle was transported to a big room with more bottles. Now that's disappointing. Boo! What the hell am I doing this for then? And how do I know they really get recycled? What if you just take them in another room, and fill them with water or beer or soda, and sell 'em back the next day? Fucking Krauts.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


I saw the 80s movie Moscow on the Hudson with my mom a long time ago. It begins with Robin Williams, playing a Russian immigrant in New York, fielding a question from another immigrant about the public transportation system. He answers, correctly and elaborately, then reflects on how far he has come since his arrival in the glorious US.

Civic eptitude is a vicious barometer. The daily streetcar/bus commute, 40 minutes each way, is quite complicated and unpredictable. Yes, shocking though it is, the buses in Germany are not quite reliable, adding some nastiness to the mix. Each day, depending on when I hit certain transit points, there is always the possibility of ending up with a less efficient route because I forgot some scheduling quirk for Sundays only. Remembering a bus has its rewards - they take 8 minutes from the university to Hauptbanhof, whereas streetcars take 14 minutes - but the buses sometimes do not appear.

Like commuting in American - that is, via car - commuting via public transpo does have its rush hours. It took me a while to work this out, but it's there. And thus, like an American commuter, you can plod through it, or try to gain some benefit and have fun through strategic traffic maneuvering. As an American commuter, I wasn't me. I was a tiny, very fast, maneuverable, lightly armored Nissan 300ZX. As a German pedestrian, I am big, slow, and ungainly, but this has its plusses.

The closest commuter to the 300ZX is kids. They do not seem to have school buses out here, and why should they? Public transpo is adequate. Hence, during morning and afternoon rush hour, the streetcars are flooded with kids and their backpacks, games, PDAs, and other exotic toys. I think I even saw one with a book. They are tiny, fast, and maneuverable, and fill the little gaps caused by adults in no time. Some are quite aggressive, and know how to work that elbow.

Last week, I was heading home around 10:30 when the streetcar stopped. I was sitting near the front, so I looked ahead, and there was a bike sitting in the middle of the track. There was no sign of any owner, and the driver stopped well ahead of time. Obvious solution: tell the passengers what's up, get out, move the bike off the tracks, and continue. Actual solution: announce something to the passengers, then call the cops. Remain, blocking traffic. A police car arrived and conferred with the driver. The cops then returned to the car, removed a camera, and took pictures. They had to discuss these with the driver. Hm. What to do next. Hm..... I know! Let's move the bike! A cop did this, and then they took more pictures. It gets sillier. The driver returned to her seat. A cop then held both his arms out in front of him, very officially, and moved them apart as if making a large breast stroke. The driver acknowledged with a half breaststroke, then activated her radio and made a log entry, and then we continued. I would mock them, but the same thing would happen in America, plus insurance companies would somehow get involved. Instead, here are ways other streetcar drivers might have handled it:

French driver: Declare a strike, and get all streetcar drivers nationwide to participate. Issue no demands and avoid negotiation until sobering up.

Commie driver: Take bike and give it to your boss, since it was state property anyway. Bike is eventually given to grandson of Commie party member, who trashes it.

Mexican driver: Free bike!!

Jewish driver: Anyone wanna buy a bike?

Duck driver: Quack loudly until police arrive. Quack as they take pictures, then quack at radio and shit on the seat. After police give signal to continue, quack instead. See? Ducks are fucking useless.

Drunk Werder Bremen fan: Abandon customers and joyride bike, singing as loudly as possible, until striking a lamppost. Fall badly and suffer severe injury, but feel no pain. When cop arrives, he burns your license and arrests you for DUI.

Venetian driver: Drown.

Texan driver: Stop streetcar to avoid hitting the throng of media and spectators gawking from their SUVs, because nobody has seen a bike or streetcar before.

Germany 75 years ago: Crush the bike, since streetcar drivers get shot if they are late. Inform the police, which interrogates everyone on the streetcar and shoots the American.


No blog updates of late, as all language production neurons are devoted to a grant app due on Oct 9. Between that and learning German, Broca's Blvd. is the hot spot upstairs.

I was graced with two houseguests yesterday. I opened the door and found two well groomed, smiling young men wearing dark pants, very clean white dress shirts, and ties with thick diagonal lines that ran the spectrum from medium to dark blue. The taller one had a dramatic light blue stripe in the middle, and I marveled at his boldness. I bet he swapped it out for a less declarative tie before he returned to the temple.

I couldn't understand their greeting, but didn't need to. The apparel oft proclaims the Mor-man. As did their white teeth, skin, and demeanor. Hm. What to do. Dammit! Wasn't prepared! Can we take a time out, so I can think of how to fuck with you? No. You are looking at me expectantly. I could just say I don't speak German, but that's no fun. Hm. Say something. "Hello, Thank you for coming. I speak almost no German. Please, who are you?"

Great delaying move! They started telling me, more slowly, about themselves. Don't care, already know. Hm. Hm. How do I tell them about the flying spaghetti monster? Rarely was I so frustrated about my abysmal German. I could say flying spaghetti hound, and wondered if that would be the genesis of a new faction of FSM. Then I realized I had to talk again. I still couldn't think of anything. Maybe just give up. "Thank you. I am happy to meet you. Harrrrr!!! I am very sorry, but I do not understand everything. You are on a mission?"

"Yes. We do this-"


"We do this as (part) of our (service)?"
"Oh," I said. "And you work for the Harrrrr!!! of Germany?"
"Do you work for the Church of Germany? You are Lutherans? I am sorry. I speak almost Harrrrr!!! no German."
They responded, and I periodically nodded and Harred. I tried not to be overly dramatic with the Harrr, as if I considered it a valid interjection. At the end, I said Harrrr!!! very enthusiastically and smiled.
"Well, thank you for visiting me. Please return soon, my friends!" I shook their hands while looking each in the eye and smiling.

They left.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Witler Winner!

Great shame to David Leland, who was so carried away with my suggestion of a fifth Teletubby that he went out and made up his own image of said Teletubby, complete with his own face as Hitler! Terrible! Look at this:

David thus wins the spontaneously declared 'fifth Teletubby contest' unless someone submits a better entry.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tele Tübbingen

I am back from another enjoyable trip to Tübingen. This one was a lot more intense, since it was mostly a work trip. I had the terrific honor of meeting with Niels Birbaumer for a couple hours to discuss ideas for grant proposals, and was otherwise busy working on that. But, I also got to meet some new people in his lab and hang out with friends from before, mostly the soon-to-be-doctor Femke Nijboer, who seemed freakishly calm and well adjusted for a late stage PhD student.

The train ride was fun and pretty, so much so that the train's speed was almost regrettable. The countryside looked so lush and inviting that I thought - do we really need to tear through this at 3 miles a minute? Would it be so absurd to just stop? Everyone in the train gets off, rolls in the grass, climbs pine trees, wades about the muddy river, and maybe shares some picnic baskets? Yes. Yes, that would be absurd, and would surely incur vicious mocking on this blog, enough to badly demoralize several ducks. But I would also acknowledge it as unique, certainly concordant with the strict tenets of flaneur.

Sunday featured a huge event near the main train station. It is called Hauptbanhof, which coincidentally translates as 'main train station.'

Relevant line from Airplane!:
There's an emergency in the cockpit!
The cockpit?! What is it?
It's a room in the front of the plane where the pilots sit, but that's not important right now.

This exchange plagiarizes Lewis Carroll, but is still funny.
The event was sponsored by a German kids' TV channel called KIKA and included a stage with four dancing Teletubbies. Behind that was a huge screen presenting the ubiquitous Teletubby background - rolling grassy hills with flowers and bunnies, and an occasional segue to a sun with a laughing baby face. I found the background quite peaceful, although the show is meant for kids and teens on acid. I then realized that it was in fact quite well tested with adults: remove the flowers, bunnies, and baby Apollo, and you have the default background of Windows XP. Hm. Perhaps, just as Disneyland is a huge and psychologically brilliant scam to impress happy associations on kids so they forever love Disney, Teletubbies is a secret tool to instill a sense of childlike calm and trust in the Windows background. Indeed, the red Teletubby looks kinda like Bill Gates, and has a nerdy air about him.

While talking with a few people in the crowd, I asked if they were familiar with the fuss that Falwell created a few years ago with his suppository supposition that the purple teletubby (Tinky Winky) is gay. This stemmed from Falwell's view that purple is a gay color and the triangle above his head is a gay symbol. (Oddly, he voiced no suggestion that the name might be a giveaway. Hence we can assume that he considers Tinky Winky an appropriately manly, Christian name.) Indeed, the Germans had heard of this and thought it very funny. I thought it would be even funnier to dress up as a black Teletubby, with a little Hitler moustache and a swastika above my head. What the hell are the other four actors going to do to me? Kick my ass? Dressed up as Teletubbies? And it's safe to assume the typical Teletubby actor doesn't moonlight as a cage fighter. With me wearing a padded costume, I doubt I would get badly injured. Plus I would act quite inconspicuous. Teletubby dancing looks really easy, almost as simple as the dancing you see in most clubs. I could do that, and just throw in the occasional Nazi salute. And maybe the hills in the background would periodically feature a Panzer behind a hill, or replace baby Apollo with Goebels, or show people practicing darts or watching Triumph of the Will. Rather than Tinky Winky, I could be called Tinkolf Adolf or Happy Heil or Dipsy the Inferior Jew. I really think the German government does not adequately appreciate me nor my suggestions. First they blow off my new and improved German language, and now they don't even thank me for my latest idea to subtly popularize their imminent darttrooperblitz. No wonder they keep losing. Perhaps I should approach the French.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Mock Duck

I am now healed from my various afflictions, and by unserendipitous coincidence I finally have insurance. I am still not totally settled in; no new business cards and my apartment remains in mid renovation. And it's kinda fun that way. The apartment does have running water, a shower, and washing machine, which is much better than before.

The new apartment features a 35 minute commute each way each day. This is about as long as my commute in San Diego, but it is different being a streetcar commuter. If you're lucky, you get a decent seat and can zone out with an article, book, or crossword puzzle. The whole commute is just background buzz to me, since I can't understand anything except the occasional interruption of Spanish or English. I helped a few damsels in distress in both languages, but the problem with meeting foreigners on streetcars is they tend to be stressed and leaving.

My main professional development lately is the utter collapse of NextFest, which wasted about 2 weeks of my work and killed my trip to Cali this summer. I am sufficiently annoyed about this to move on to another topic. We are scheduled to go to Tübingen this week to visit Niels Birbaumer, but this is also uncertain due to a train strike. At the moment, my trip to SD in November remains definite, and there's some chance of San Fran in April 08.

Last Wednesday, I organized the first movie night here for our group at IAT. It went pretty well, about 10 of us showed up. People chipped in for beer and snacks, and we projected movies onto a screen using a projector (called a Beamer here in Germany, unlike any of their cars). I sent out an email and allowed people to vote on movie choices, and then Bernhard and I threw in our two votes to resolve an ugly tie between Airplane and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The former won, along with Life of Brian. The latter is scheduled for next month's movie night along with Spinal Tap, which I suspect will win the voting. I now reguarly interrupt labbies with 'Surely you can't be serious,' and haggle trivialities.

The weather has remained mercurial, but sunny for the last several days. There is a river near my new apartment and I went there and lay out in the sun. Not bad at all, generally green and pleasant. Ducks are quite prevalent, and loud. After half an hour, I promised one of them that if he did not shut up, I would mock him. Which bird sounds less noble than this braying quack? The bold eagle, cooing dove, or even creative cockatiel sound better. Even the martial rooster emits a cry that, while shrill and annoying, can serve as a useful wake-up call. But ducks always sound like they're mocking, posturing, or complaining. It is unsurprising that the grumpiest cartoon character in both Disney and Warner Brothers is a duck. And lets not forget which species' name is sometimes preceded by Crispy, Roast, or Peking. Bitch.

Though no skunks have quacked at me lately, I shall also mock Pepe LePew, the suave French Warner Brothers skunk that always chased the black cat who somehow got a white stripe on her back. The black cat inevitably fled, and the skunk hopped faggily after with a self satisfied smirk. As a kid, I didn't realize how comically racist Pepe was. What an excoriating assault on Frenchmen! The only French Warner Bros cartoon character skinks horribly, thinks he's incredibly suave but is in fact so repulsive that women flee, seems totally unaware that he stinks, is so stupid he can't distinguish a member of his own species from a cat, utterly disregards rejection, and believes in pursuing resistant women until they succumb from exhaustion.

I made good progress on my latest book, Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. This book is enjoyable for many reasons, not the least of which is that Twain is happy for a change. He is normally so bitingly, brilliantly bitter that even the least empathetic cringe through his vicious whining. But this was his first major work, when he still manifested some trappings of youthful enthusiasm. He was a bold and curious man, explaining the adventurousness he projects onto characters in his later novels. Reading him humbles my efforts to relay observations from my adventures abroad. At least I can linguistically dominate ducks and skunks.

Monday, July 30, 2007

bull wash

Here is an addendum to the Salzburg trip.

During the boat tour, I learned that boats used to transport salt along the river Salzach. Because salt was so valuable, these boats were often attacked by pirates. Hence, the boatmen were armed. Further, they only hired non-swimmers, to prevent them from abandoning their posts. They have a holiday every year to honor the nonswimmers who died during pirate attacks and accidents.

Another tale ... in 1525, the fortress Hohensalzburg was besieged by peasants. The peasants were revolting over their usual petty grievances, probably including insurance, better security, life boats, and paid swim classes for boatmen. The fortressmates were running out of food and were close to surrender. Then the commander had an idea. He marched the last remaining ox around the parapets. That night, they washed that ox and painted him black, and then marched him around again the next day. Oh no, the attackers thought, they have 2 oxen up there! They must have lots of food! They can hold out forever! And so the besiegers dispersed to their lives of 0 vacation days per year and only an 8 hour workday on Sundays. Hence the Salzburgers are now called Stierwashers.

Two tales I heard in Salzburg.

This would not be funny but for efforts to verify it online. I found nothing about the first tale, though I did see a T shirt for sale about the Salzach pirates that seems to corroborate that story. As to the second one, here are some other bloggers' memories.

There was some story of how during some battle the people of Salzburg didn't want to let the enemy know they were starving, so they painted their last ox and paraded it out into the city to make it appear as if they still had livestock.

NO! Now come on, think about this. Wouldn't an unpainted ox convey the same message? If you paraded it through the city, wouldn't some besieger just take your ox, and kill you? Sheesh. Try the tour sober next time. Hint: If you are looking for Oktoberfest in Munich, you're too far south.

According to the sign (in around 1525) Salzburg was besieged by the enemy. Despite all efforts to conserve food very soon all that was left was one ox. An idea was born to paint the ox different colours on each side to parade along the fortress parapet to show the enemy that the people of Salzburg were not going to run out of food for a long time. The enemy gave up their fight and Salzburg were free. Ever since the people of Salzburg have been known as "Oxen Washers" (Stierwascher).

What?! What kind of plan is this? You parade the ox around clockwise one day, then counterclockwise the next? Your people are starving! Get with it!

One of the interesting points is this half brown - half black ox in one of the courtyards. The story goes that sometime around 1525 the fortress was besieged by an enemy army. It lasted long enough that the residents were down to their last ox. Wanting to show their strength, they washed and painted their last ox black on one side, leaving the other side brown. They then paraded the ox along the ramparts, back and forth so the enemy could see they were not near starvation. The enemy was fooled, believing the citizens had enough food to last a very long time and gave up the siege. The residents washed the ox one last time and ever since then the people of Salzburg have been known as the “stierwaschers” or oxen-washers.

No, no, no! Same problem! Just because the statue is half black and half brown, you think it's some kind of chimera like the blackwhite quack from that old Star Trek episode!! Pay attention to the tour guide next time! Or just stay in Amsterdam.

Apparently an invading army was laying seige to the Hohensalzburg once upon a time. The situation inside the fortress got so bad that they were eventually down to just one ox to eat. To try to convince the seigers that they were doing fine, they paraded this one ox up and down the walls of the fortress, then painted it black and did it again, trying to convince them that they had more to eat than they actually had. The plan worked and the invading army left. Who knew? So now there is a random half-black and half-brown ox inside the Hohensalzburg.

Huh. Aside from misspelling siege, this is mostly correct. No fun.

"Let's paint our last cow blue and parade it around the walls so they can see it."
"Sounds stupid, boss...."
"Shut up, you fool! The next day, we wash up the cow and paint it green and show it off."
"What's the point, your worship?"
"You buffoon!! Don't you see!? If we keep that up and keep showing them different colored cows, they'll think we have tons of cows left! Duh!!!"
Believe it or not, just like the bells that ring 12 times at 11, this silly idea worked too. The peasants weren't willing to it stick out through the winter, so they split.

I appreciate the effort at satiric dialog. I wonder how many cows it would take to have a ton of cow. Duh!!!

I forgot to explain why "Ox-painters" is the nickname for residents of Salzburg.

The fortress of Hohensalzburg was under seige and although the residents had been conserving food they were down to the last Ox. They were faced with three options:

- Starve,
- Repel the invaders, or
- Surrender.

To show the invaders that they still had plenty of food they paraded the last ox in sight of the enemy. The then painted it another colour, paraded it again. They kept repainted in the ox and parading it until the invaders thought that the foodstocks were still plentiful and they withdrew rather than wait for the Salzburgers to be starved out.

No! They only painted it once. Now, this did seem a weakness of the original story, since two heads (of cattle) are not much better than one. They did not have an unlimited supply of paint, nor potential ox colors, genders, or other identifying parameters.

"Hey, Johannes!"
"Yeah, Gerhardt?"
"Look! It's another ox! He's just coming on to the parapet now!"
"Huh. I guess they got lots of food."
"But this one - he's pink!"
"And the one yesterday, and last Thursday - he's the exact same color as the fortress walls!"
"And all seventeen of them - they all had that limp in the left foreleg!"
"And they're all male!"
"Yeah. Of course. They're all male. We're speaking German."
"Oh yeah."
"Never mind. Let's go home."

I found other blogs that said the siegers were Turks or that the cow was simply washed without repainting.

Moral: When life is at steak, don't be an ox.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Round and round

I ate brunch today at the Alex Cafe, a hip three-level joint near the city center. It had a view of one of the main city squares, which happened to feature a play called the Bremer Musikanten. Imagine that! At the town center of Bremen, 200 meters from the main statue of the Brementown musicians, in an area surrounded by statues of them and giftshops rife with their likeness, the play they choose to present to the public happens to feature this fumbling foursome. The actors wore colorful costumes and did indeed sing very badly. When all four of them sang together, children laughed and clapped while their elders winced.

I could understand very little of the dialog, but it's not a complicated story. The kids seemed to follow it at least as well as I did. I continue to lose to the umlaut onslaught. They are insidious, looking very much like an a, o, or u, but sounding quite different. I was vanquished at the Battle of Chin's Asia Bistro last week, when I was sneak attacked by a stealth umlaut. There I was, sluggish and offguard after dinner, digging through my fortune cookie. The cagey Chinese waiter brought me the check, smiled, and walked away. The lack of a Bitte Shoen should have warned me. I read the fortune cookie, which said that I would have good luck. In German! That is just wrong! You can't have a Chinese fortune in German! Viel glück back at you, bitch! I almost ate one of those. Now gimme a proper American fortune!

Language affects cognition. 2 weeks ago, I was discussing the NextFest plan with my boss. An aggressive and elusive fly bugged us like only flies can. We failed in efforts to ignore it, kill it, or expel it. Out, out, damned spöt!! I referred to the fly as "it," while my boss kept calling it "she." Wow, that's pretty observant, boss, I thought. I can't even identify its gender if it's still. You can do it on the fly! But no, that is just how Germanspeakers think of the world. All flies are female, like all cats and trains. The brain is neutral.

A fourth gender, Satan, should be created for European washing machines. So far, the French, German, and English versions have all proved abysmal. In my old apartment complex, the wash cycle took over 2 hours. I would put in the clothes, pay one Euro, hit start, then start cooking while checking back every few minutes. Inevitably, I would finish my meal, wash the dishes, clean up my apartment, go to the store, read a couple articles, grow old, and die twice before laundry was done. I once sat in the laundry room to study its oddities. It would spin in one direction, then stop for a long time, then reverse direction. many times. The spin cycle takes far longer than American machines, yet gets clothes no drier. Round and round. Stop. dnour dna dnour. Stop. Spin spin spin. Stop. Stop. Pause. Wait for it. Wait. Longer. Wait ..... yup, I'm done. finally. Here ya go - oh! Psych! Nips Nips Nips. Stop. Stop. Don't even get your hopes up. Spin. Spin. Spin. Aaugh! Gimme back my clothes, you vicious little troll! They're way too small for you! Adding to the fun, Germans do not believe in dryers. They are available for sale, but people prefer stringers. You finish drying your clothes, hang them up, wait for a day, (repeat if it rains), then get your crunchy clothes.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Tread and circuses

After extensive paperwork, I managed to wrangle a 1 month membership at the local gym. After over 2 months without a serious workout, I was looking forward to getting back into the swing of things. I showed up at the fitness center and spoke to the gym attendant, who spoke decent english. He scrutinized me, then my paperwork, then me, then my passport, as if he would be shot if I fooled him. But, he's German, and I am used to this (hence bringing my passport to a fucking gym). He asked if I ever took a gym class. Yes, I replied, weight training and gym safety, at College of the Desert. I didn't mention that I was in high school at the time, but recalled the principles: do not lift more than you can handle, stretch a lot, warm up, drink water, follow proper form, etc. He still eyed me as I stretched some more and then began 20 minutes on the treadmill. Felt good. On to free weights. Since I was out of shape, I decided to avoid anything involving weights over my head. Nice, safe bicep curls. I tried curling the bar as a warm up, no problem. The attendant left, so I turned to the guy who seemed most knowledgeable (ie, the biggest), pointed to the bar, and asked, 'This weighs 20, um, ...' I couldn't translate pounds - of course not, I thought, they are on the metric system - so I repeated 20. He nodded. I put on a couple 5 pound weights, felt good. I added a 20 and another 5 to each side. The jolly giant asked if he could use it, I said sure. He grunted through a surprisingly short set, then offered it to me.
'Are you sure you can do this?'
'Yes. Two months ago, I could do this 15 times. It is only 80.'
'You are sure?' I might have been annoyed, but he seemed genuinely concerned. 'Yes,' I repeated as he dropped the dumbbell into my hands. 'I can do this.'
'No. No, you can't,' shrieked my left bicep as my left hand dropped the bar. 'He's right, you know,' added my right bicep unhelpfully, despite managing to maintain a grip. The left side of the bar arced downward. I managed to jump back just in time, since the iron pendulum would have liquified my left foot. The bar clanged loudly, entertaining the entire gym. I stood there, holding a smarterthanmebell in my right hand, confused. The giant gingerly relieved me of the bar. I braced for mockery.
'Are you OK?' he asked.
'Yes,' I lied. In fact, my left bicep and tendon were quite mad at me, plus my lower back and right hip. Nothing requiring medical attention. Estimated repair time, 1 week.
'You should not lift that much.' Note I may be mistranslating, but facial expression, context, and gesticulation go a long way. I had no snappy comeback; what could I say?
'I am sorry. I could lift that 2 months ago.'
The weight room attendant came over and glowered. 'You should not lift so much,' he said in english. 'That is not safe.'
'Thank you.'
'Why do you lift so much?'
'It is only 80 pounds.'
'Those are kilograms.'
'You could hurt yourself.'
'Yes. You are right. That was a serious mistake. Thank you.'
'Do you need a doctor?'
'No.' I didn't mention that, due to the horrible Frau Palandt, who I have already stealthily villified twice in earlier blog entries, I have been uninsured for 2 months. Something to ponder when you stub your toe, get nettles, or pull muscles. 'I will go now. I am sorry.'
'Yes. Goodbye.'
While limping back to the lab, I pondered the cognitive science of it all. I knew Germany was on the metric system, and even considered that while trying to translate 'pounds.' Yet I failed to act accordingly. The human brain is exceptional at developing automaticity. If you usually drive home a certain way, and decide while leaving work to go elsewhere that requires a different turn near the end, you often end up at home before realizing you failed to execute a different plan. Had you been driving a completely different route, or been new to that route, that would not have happened. Old habits die hard. It is the price of skill.

For the record, I will never again attempt to curl over 175 pounds.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Ode to Joy

It is a whimsical Sunday morning for me. I have been reading 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,' by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a book as well written as its title. Bauby developed locked in syndrome. The former editor of Elle magazine suffered a brainstem stroke that left him unable to communicate except by moving one eyelid. He was cognitively intact, and thus like many patients I have worked with - plenty to say and no way to do so. So I say as my fingers glide gracelessly over this inefficient and unnatural interface, one that my research field will supplement and ultimately replace.

I was reading this book while on the streetcar this morning heading to the lab. It stopped three stops before the university, understandably; who the hell goes to a university at 7 AM on Sunday? I got off, annoyed, then further annoyed that my realization of the gift of a working motor system did not assuage my annoyance. I decided to cut through a pretty park, pondering the human attentional system. Why exactly can't people focus on more things at once? I am supposed to be an expert in this topic, at least from a cog neuro pserpective, and never could answer it. I type, while 'ignoring' other sensory input - the sun slowly climbing the ivy clad brick wall out the window to my right, the faint breeze nudging me through the window, the chair against my body, Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto through my headphones, the cluttered desk around me - yet am aware of it all, and can shift attention there easily, but not while typing. Why not? What limits me? Basal ganglia? Thalamus? Anterior cingulate? Nah. I think it is more of a process than a region. And, like anything else, you can train attention. Why does practice help? Could 60 years of practicing Zen ever be approached, or replicated, by anything a neuroscientist could develop? Clever new therapies, drugs, implanted electrodes, TMS? Answer: no experience nor perspective nor life can be replicated, nor can the processing thereof. Otherwise, yes, but watch them side effects.

So I mused while trying to focus on details of trees, while also composing this blog entry, thinking about a grant app, and pondering which type of tea to make once I got here. Peppermint, I decided. Is that a peppermint plant? Out in the middle of a field in Germany? No, my right leg told me, those are stinging nettles. Pain grabs attention like a leash. Loud cursing escaped before I realized I should not yell. Then I realized I was in the middle of a park, thought further, and indulged in more eloquent cursing in three languages. The act of pondering cursing amused me. Just then, it started to rain. Did I mention I was in the middle of a park? I sprinted toward a tree, stubbing my left toe, and yet my mood had changed dramatically. I sat down under the tree, watched the rain, and laughed. My left toe and right leg hurt no less, but bothered me no more.

'There comes a time when the heaping-up of calamities brings on an uncontrollably nervous laughter - when, after a final blow from fate, we decide to treat it all as a joke.' -- Jean-Dominique Bauby, 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.'

His calamities were of course beyond mine, but it's all relative. Even relativity is relative. Lottery winners are often no happier than others; patients with locked in syndrome, according to Birbaumer's research, are often no less depressed. Hence Dad's old adage: 'Happiness is prior to conditions.' Maslow had his take, which (loosely interpreted) is that satisfaction stems from the ratio of accomplishments divided by goals. This leads to the odd conclusion that one can become happier by setting weaker goals. Oh, how I have tried to do this, and failed. Ambition is my most powerful addiction, a curse and salvation, empowering and inescapable. I can no more sit on my laurels than stinging nettles. I cannot remember being truly relaxed, nor at peace. I see pictures of me as a kid, and I can still see it in my eyes. Happy, sure; peaceful, no. Many things are relaxing - extreme physical exercise, hiking in Colorado and then lounging in the hot springs, the beach, strategic intoxication, friends, family, music, meditation, even work - but there's always something more, crawling under my skin, driving me on. I accept it. One of the most consistent themes in quotes across cultures is to know thyself, and to thine own self be true, and so here I am in the lab on Sunday morning. It is my church, which I attend with the devotion and sincerity of any believer. And I do believe in the power of science and knowledge, and always have. These become even more powerful when tempered with appropriate perspective; knowledge is a path to some knowledge, not the only path to all knowledge. To paraphrase PT Barnum (and gain some narrative closure with my musing on attention): You can understand some things some of the time, but not all things all of the time. George W Bush has a more telling adaptation: “You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.”

Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.

I find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success. -- Both quotes from Thomas A. Edison.

Salzburg apocrypha

Sunday, June 17, 2007

remedial photos


Here are some photos that relate to earlier blog posts.

German riot police!

picture from the front of the anti-Bremen marchers:

Picture of lots of cops on foot:

Picture that includes German horseback piggies:

Picture with lots of paddywagons:

Picture that shows the anti-Bremen marchers, then some tear gas (above the back of the red car). Beyond the tear gas were pro-Bremen marchers. It is not the best picture of tear gas, but I was not inclined to hang out.

Picture of the main statue of the Brementown musicians. It is smaller than I thought, but cool. I still like it, and go out of my way to grab it for luck.

Here are 2 alternate statues of the Brementown musicians, followed by a statue of a guy summoning pigs:

Here is one of the grad student offices at U Tübingen. Yes, that's James Dean.

A lovely marketplace square in Tübingen:

Tubingen landscape:

Pretty Tübingen roofs:

And finally, 3 pics of me in Tübingen:

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Two pictures of Hohensalzburg fortress, one with the river Salzach.

The view from Hohensalzburg. It is consistently pretty from 360 degrees, and this is not even the best view of it.

On June 12, I had to give a talk at a conference in Salzburg. I also had to have a few meetings, two of them at a fine microbrewery and beer garden uncreatively named the Wiessbierhaus, and one at a pleasant restaurant in front of Mozart's birth-house. I had to listen to other, mostly enjoyable talks, and had to talk shop with interesting colleagues, both old friends and new. 'Had to' is a subjective term, as I first learned when reading Tom Sawyer. (I enjoyed that quote so much that I looked it up and cited it below.)

Here are 2 pictures of me, one giving a talk and another fielding questions with a couple other dudes. During the Q&A session, someone pointed out that I was talking about BCIs while the projector launched the phrase 'kein signal' over my head. Kein means no. We all got a good laugh out of this. I really hoped this would come out in the pitcure, which it just barely did, at the very top of the second picture. You have to click on it to see it.

My position paper is downloadable here:


I acknowledge that most of my papers are technical, but this one is not. It is meant for laypeople, and only 4 pages long. It is also my first effort to use humor in scientific writing, primarily at the end of section 3.3. My talk and paper were well received and these catalyzed great opportunity for further funding and job opps, including from Microsoft. And I really like these people. Conferences get more and more fun as the years progress. A conference is like a reunion of old friends, and successful ones at that. You also get to see the latest videos, toys, and results from top notch labs. Most of the other conferencegoers don't consider it work either, and enjoy visiting cities like salzburg, so morale is infectiously high.

Aside from work, I got to tour Mozart's birth-house and museum, enjoy a dinner and Mozart concert at the fortress Hohensalzburg, take a nice boat trip around the river Salzach, walk along the river Salzach many times, and flaneur the drinking establishments of Altstadt, aka the old city. (Yes, flaneur is hereby verbified, cuz I said so.) On the last day, I returned to the Hohensalzburg, enjoyed some walking tours and museums, and basked in the view until running a serious risk of missing my train. Not bad for three days, but there's still a lot left.

Salzburg is widely reputed as a glorious and majestic city. It is underrated. Its raw natural beauty is exceptional, with Colorado-like terrain and a pretty river snaking through the city's heart. How I wish I had a camera, but I instead plucked a couple images from the web. Southwestern Colorado has it beat on physical beauty, but I had to think about it a while. More dramatic and a wider range of colors. However, this is an unfair comparison so far. Of course small towns like Ouray or Telluride can be closer to stark nature, and so I will 'have to' further explore the less populated regions of the Alps.

And unlike the US, Salzburg has gorgeous structures dating back 1000 years or more. Church spires abound, and the imposing fortress Hohensalzburg overlooks the whole city. A fitting place for Mozart's birth. Curiously, the town seems to appeal no less to fans of the Sound of Music, which was filmed there. This is not all that surprising, since most tourists were Americans. Japanese came a close second. Granted, it was a popular movie, but Mozart was a far better composer than Rodgers and Hammerstein combined.

As a side note, my Austrian officemate Bernhard considers the movie absurd and racist. He was offended by Christopher Plummer's portrayal of a militant Austrian who makes his children march about. It's eye opening what some consider racist. More on this in a later blog entry; this one is already getting quite long. It's tough to dislike Plummer, who did a great job in movies ranging from Hamlet to The Man Who Would Be King to Dragnet, then played a Shakespeare spouting evil Klingon, the best Klingon since Christopher Lloyd.

Flaneuring the bars of Alstadt was disappointing, for the same reason I noticed elsewhere: they are indistinguishable from metropolitan bars anywhere else. Same music, same interior, same drinks, same clothes, same social dynamics. I had a pint of Guinness at one of the ubiquitous Irish pubs, talked to a few people, and otherwise explored, sober and analytical, until realizing that I'd have more fun walking around the Salzach. On the other hand, the beergarden was cool and relatively novel. Moral: if you're an American in a Germanspeaking country, go to beer gardens, since they are unlike American bars.

Off to work on grant apps, the perennial thorn in any academic's rosy side, the fly in a tasty cream of asparagus soup, the shitstain on satin sheets. It's hard to imagine how much more productive scientists could be if we weren't always begging for money. And unlike Tom Sawyer, I can't convince other people to do it for me.

(Tom is bemoaning Aunt Polly's charge to triple whitewash a fence, compounded by anticipated mockery from Ben Harper. He has 'nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration' - convince Ben that whitewashing is actually fun. He thereby gets an apple from Ben, and a plethora of finer gifts, described below. All I got was a mostly free trip to Salzburg, further funding prospects, and stronger connections within the field. Dammit! I did get four apples at the hotel lobby, though, and petted several cats.)

Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with -- and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door- knob, a dog-collar -- but no dog -- the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.

He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while -- plenty of company -- and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn't run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it -- namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger- coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

The boy mused awhile over the substantial change which had taken place in his worldly circumstances, and then wended toward headquarters to report.
-- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1881.

Jefe: We have many beautiful pinatas for your birthday celebration, each one filled with little surprises!
El Guapo: How many pinatas?
Jefe: Many pinatas, many!
El Guapo: Jefe, would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?
Jefe: A what?
El Guapo: A *plethora*.
Jefe: Oh yes, El Guapo. You have a plethora.
El Guapo: Jefe, what is a plethora?
Jefe: Why, El Guapo?
El Guapo: Well, you just told me that I had a plethora, and I would just like to know if you know what it means to have a plethora. I would not like to think that someone would tell someone else he has a plethora, and then find out that that person has *no idea* what it means to have a plethora.
Jefe: El Guapo, I know that I, Jefe, do not have your superior intellect and education, but could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?
-- !The Three Amigos!, 1986