Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Eurodining II

The drink scam has one side benefit: it encourages drinking. If free water is not available, and no drinks ever come with free refills, why not have a beer? If you can't beat 'em, drink with 'em. The lack of drink refills is a major change for me; at Rimel's I would usually just take one of the pitchers of iced tea. I rarely finished it, but the waitstaff was happy. They didn't have to walk around as much, and I didn't have to wait. Rimel's had erratic service, and only good atmosphere. But I miss their food the most, especially that green chile garlic sauce.

Europeans - not just Germans - who label things as Californian miss the soul of Cali cuisine: cilantro. Cilantro is the pinata of cooking; it should be omnipresent. Readers lost on that one, or prior quixotic references, should note that most blogs put the most recent posts on the top. Read the earlier ones or boil your head in a kettle of Spee. You might get a following, we'll get a national holiday, and Jesus will appreciate the distraction from crosses.

Meals are often served with salad, even if tiny. The most expensive lunch at Mensa always includes exactly two pieces of red leaf lettuce, two tomatoes, two cucumber slices, and sprouts. In the time they spend micromanaging veggie selections, they could open another food line and relieve congestion. Salads often contain corn. I have yet to encounter a choice of dressing, but the default dressing, sort of a tarragonny 1000 island, is pretty good. As is the corn. Good call.

When I was seven years old, Dad, Pat Muldowney, Rob Kunkel, and their buddies would often go to Felipe's in Oceanside for pizza. That Felipe's is gone, but there are several in San Diego County and they are still pretty good. (Better pizza can be found at Oggi's, Lorna's, and others, but Felipeses have better atmosphere.) Old Felipe's had a reversible sign at the front. One side said 'Please seat yourself' and the other said 'Please wait to be seated.' My friend Ryan Muldowney and I knew of nothing funnier than reversing that sign and watching the ensuing chaos. We had pretty impressive counterprimary surveillance, with one of us always keeping an eye out for waitresses approaching the table or that sign. We won bonus points if the waitress corrected the sign and we then turned it back around. I have no idea how we avoided getting caught. In retrospect, our dads must have known, and never stopped us. Most likely explanation: they thought it was funny too.

I have paid for that during my first month here, when I would enter a restaurant and wait to be seated, or at least make eye contact with a waitron. This just confused them, and then me. No, the proper schema is to just sit down. But wait, you ask, how does the wait staff know you're there? Especially if you are sitting outside? Aha, but the Euros don't care about that, and will happily just sit there (without sunglasses) until being recognized. Once I worked this out, I was rewarded by being greeted in German and handed a German menu. While this reflects progress, I still neither speak nor read enough German. But I have a default answer - just ask for a minute, because no matter what they said, it's some way of asking for your drink order. To parahprase Twain, better to remain silent and be thought an American than to speak and remove all doubt. Twain's outstanding essay, the awful German language, is cited in my recent "On the Engineering Superiority of German Speakers," which is too long and far too dangerous to post here.

I am frequently confused by the proactive thank you. Bitte shoen is the response to danke shoen, not its precursor. Yet this happens routinely. Your waitress brings you something, and immediately says bitte shoen. Stop. I haven't thanked you yet. I have the option of not thanking you, just like I might choose not to tip you. It's an option I very rarely justify, yet you rob me of this petty choice. I yearn to learn ventriloquism, or its electronic equivalent, so I can start placing drink orders and thanking them completely out of context. Stop. Let me thank you first. You're welcome.

Not very many places take Visa or Mastercard, though they all accept the EC card, which I must get. Indian food is watery. Some places serve nothing but baguettes, which are often pretty good. Chinese food is often too salty, though I have found a few good places. Zui Yuan has a tasty buffet, and they give me a pot of tea for only €1.50 and free tap water with ice.

Jack Daniels is prevalent, and varies widely in cost, from €1 per shot to a few places that charge €8 and put it on the menu next to Laphroig and McCallan 18 Year. I suppose they're all imported whiskey, but Cuervo Regular is imported tequila. 'Nuff said. I would be remiss in my review of good times here without mentioning the wonderfully hospitable dinner I had with Drs. Basar and Strüber (a fellow survivor of the Polich lab) from the Psychology department here. Tasty food and good conversation with ol' John Daniels, referenced below. I do sometimes hesitate about the political fallout from such posts, but blogs are blogs and such hesitancy and insecurity may not be worth the stress. So a couple scientists got drunk. Oooooh.

My great mistake, the fault for which I can't forgive myself, is that one day I ceased my obstinate pursuit of my own individuality.
Oscar Wilde

Old habits die hard

It's raining. Nothing new. For the second time today, I saw a German guy standing under a covered streetcar stop holding an umbrella just as he would under the rain. There was plenty of room to set it down, and free benches. The effectiveness of the plastic rain shield was continually verified by the dry ground below us (not just his umbrella). There were only a few inches between the top of his umbrella and the rain shield. Had he been guarding against a sudden blast of wind, it would have been strong enough to demolish his umbrella and probably kill us both.

'Dude, what the fuck is wrong with German people?'
-- Stan Marsh, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

So exhausts a quote that could probably be used many times. And mea culpa. At least he was warm, whereas I was sitting on a cold metal bench wearing a short sleeved shirt. I earned considerable mockery for this today, and it's hard to think of a snappy comeback while shivering. However, at all times since arriving here, I have had my sunglasses handy. If the sun sneaks out, I'll be ready, whereas Bremeners who didn't heed the Beatles will flee. I do normally have the sense to bring a coat if the weather looks foreboding. Colorado gets quite cold in the winter. Yet there the weather is predictable. Weather.com, morning cloud cover, even the leaf curvature on my little basil plants each morning provide no useful forecast. But the plants smell nice, and taste good. I predict maultaschen tomorrow.

I also unlock my office door in typical American fashion and then assume it is unlocked. This is a habit I have mostly unleared. Yet I remain convinced that the German double-locking system is quite stupid. German doors allow you to rotate the key a second time, thus driving the deadbolt further into the slot and double locking it. My officemate and friend Bernhard, despite his engineering PhD and repeated amusement at my error, is unable to explain any meaningful functional distinction between single and double locking. I'll throw the gauntlet further: I defy anyone to identify one situation when someone would want their door locked, but not maximally locked. Either you want people to be able to open the door, or you don't. I hope one of my fellow cog sci fans will provide me the correct quote below, but paraphrasing Don Norman from 'The Design of Everyday Things:'

I have trouble opening doors. Doors, I hear the reader ask? You have trouble opening doors. Yes. I do. I have a PhD in engineering from MIT, and I push doors that are meant to be pulled, and pull doors that are meant to be pushed.

I have a PhD in UCSD Cognitive Science, a department founded by Donald Norman. I thus declare all double-locked doors to be Norman Doors. Just as you shouldn't put a handle on a door meant to be pushed, don't allow double locking when door accessibility should be binary.

Now would be a fitting time to mock the washing machine in my apartment, which shares a design quirk with Chris Lohr's old machine in Paris. Its dial allows you to specify the wash temperature within a fraction of a degree. Again, why offer unnecessary functionality? Are the frogs that discerning? Am I exhibiting the same American barbarism that leaves us impervious to a .2 degree fluctuation in wine or cheese temperature? Anyone care to bet money (not francs) on whether they could consistently identify which pile of clothes was washed in 22.4 vs 22.6 degree water? Go ahead and use Celsius.

Monday, May 28, 2007


I wrote this one a few days ago.

Mrs. Perlman came to Palm Valley School in 1985 with all the idealism and none of the juevos needed to teach seventh grade. She told us it was her first day teaching and asked us to help fulfil her dream of a teaching career. Danny Vail responded the next day with a fart through the PE teacher’s powered megaphone that he blamed on her. ‘In Spanish’ was her only reply. By D-Day Plus Four we all openly cursed (in Spanish) like a constipated drunk at the Alamo. Señora Perlman earned all the attention of a stripclub at the Braille Institute. Danny spent his lunch money on stinkbombs and little plastic eggs full of slime for 25 cents from a vending machine at Safeway. One day he was sitting to my right (by choice, not fiat) and was cracking his third plastic egg when Curry Love the Assistant Headmaster walked in. He saw the egg and started hauling Danny out of the room. The kid in front of him, Josh Homme, said wait, it just fell out of my pocket and he was handing it to me. Love left without a word. Within a minute the fourth slimeblob was sliding down the chalkboard erasing preterit conjugations of the weak irregular verb soñar. Danny’s grandparents were rich even by Palm Springs standards and he could never be expelled. Mrs. Perlman was quietly replaced. Over the next fifteen years Danny swallowed more weird shit than a gutter on Bourbon Street. Josh Homme is now the lead singer of the deservedly successful band Queens of the Stone Age.

I don't remember the actual verb that was erased by Danny's slime, though I will never forget the image of them sliding down the chalkboard. That was just chosen for poetic license; past tense of dream. Otherwise, this story is entirely true.

The General

I am always trying to improve my writing, which is especially tough with my job. Scientific writing is very different from prose. But both demand brevity. John Polich, Jon Wolpaw, Steve Hillyard, and Gerald Edelman number among my scientific writing models. Their writing is tighter than a vulgar metaphor. My natural writing style is closest to John Kennedy Toole, who also looked disturbingly like me. I have recently been trying to learn by reading my old friend Rob Kunkel, the grandmaster of the one paragraph short-short.

This is a short story I wrote about a year ago and posted on the TC Boyle message board. It is almost all true. The switch from third to first person was intentional. I was there, the characters are entirely real and only a few details were changed.

The General suffered a brainstem stroke in summer 2004. The retired fighter pilot went to bed healthy and woke up with complete locked in syndrome – able to see, hear, think, feel, but not speak or move. The rest of his life was spent in a bed equipped with a respirator, TV, and catheter. His wife was always there, leaning forward on a gleaming cheap wood stool, cupping his head in one hand and stroking his handsome grey hair with the other. She greeted visitors with arms like a lying fisherman and a laugh like a brick hearth on Christmas Eve before bounding off to prepare an excess of snacks and pineapple guava juice despite insistent protest. The huge living room had Puerto Rican depictions of the Virgin Mary on every wall, table, and shelf, but the dominant feature was the General. Your first thought on meeting him was to learn how to salute properly. He seemed ready to launch a thousand ships even under white plastic tubing and the sudden realization that his eyes weren’t following you. His wife told stories in English or Spanish about his days in Nam, earning medal after medal before getting shot down and washing onto a tiny island without supplies until rescue three days later. When his oe ordeal was over, he told her that he was born a general, and went on to earn three stars. Everyone followed her lead of talking to him about whatever came to mind, never asking direct questions, hoping the topic was of interest. Finally a team of neuroscientists from Georgia Tech came to try a prototype brain computer interface so he could communicate without movement. After an assiduous hassle so his wife could sign a legal informed consent form for him, they put an electrode cap on his head and recorded EEG while he tried to convey information. No luck. The team kept at it, tinkering and returning, all the while talking to the receptive General about how the human brain works. After 3 months they got it working; he could spell a letter every 2 minutes with brainwaves. They showed his wife how to run the system, prep him for recording, and so on. She somehow hurdled three stairs and grabbed the phone while the team lead droned on at the General – I had been talking about what exactly we were looking for in his brainwaves – and suddenly a phone was shoved at me, an excited daughter in law asking what he would say after 2 years of silence. Hard to tell, I said, one patient first asked about sports, another about her fingernails, a third complained about her shirt. After the call and 38 boa constrictor hugs, my team packed up gear in the living room and I went to say goodbye to the general and check his cap. There on the monitor was his first message, SHUT FUCK UP LEAVE ALONE. And so we did.


I have several comments on dining in Europe. Of course these are biased based on recent experiences in Germany, but I have seen some of this elsewhere too.

Tax has been included in all prices - not just dining, but also shopping. This is vastly preferable to the American approach. It greatly simplifies check splitting. It is still a nice surprise whenever I get a bill, since I expect it to be about 9% more. People tip a lot less. These two factors make eating out cheaper.

Countering this is the drink scam. There are no water fountains anywhere in Bremen. I confirmed this by asking someone who grew up here, my labmate Thorsten Lüth. He first said no, then said yes, but he actually referred to a faucet with non-potable water. This is not a drinking fountain. It's not even one of those two words. You cannot order tap water at a restaurant. Thus, whenever you go out, you must pay for your drink. Any drink, including water, is usually €2 or more. The default assumption is that you want carbonated water, and you must specify otherwise when ordering. It is a little like Atlanta, when all iced tea is assumed to be sweet tea, meaning an 8 oz glass of sugar with ice. Unlike Atlanta, any kind of iced tea is hard to find, and is never brewed. Atlanta did have two tasty food categories that are very hard to find elsewhere: soul food and Jamaican food. Mmmm, jerk chicken.

It is also assumed that you know what you want to drink immediately after being seated. Waitresses ask you what you want to drink before you look at the menu. If you ask for a minute to look at the menu, they assume stems from a language barrier. No, were the menu in English, I still wouldn't know without looking at it. Do you want my food order now too? How bout that elusive and highly negotiable tip?

They are often very nice to Americans, and Thorsten explained that they assume that Americans are used to tipping much more than others. This leaves me in the awkward position of playing the fool or disappointing them. On the other hand, since the normative rule is to round up to the nearest Euro, an 8% tip is usually generous to them. I still need to work out this subteley.

Bremen has much the same cuisine options as any big city. Italian, Greek, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Japanese (including sushi), even German food. Quite a lot of Turkish food, consistent with the large Turkish population. One thing they think they have in much greater abundance than California is Californian food. California has far fewer places that advertise Californian cuisine, nor label meals as 'Californian.' Yet this seems to be the most effective marketing gimmick out here. Did you know that Caifornia Pizza has corn, onions, mushrooms, and paprika? Or was that pepperoni, salami, and peppers? Or spinach, carrots, and corn? I am not making this up. Three places within a block of each other each advertise California pizza as such. There is also California chicken, California steak, and Californian soup. I tried explaining that this suggests that the soup contains ground Californians, but he didn't speak Californian either.

I would pay €30 right now for one of Rimels' fresh mahi sandwiches or chicken burritos with green chile garlic sauce. This is not as unreasonable as it sounds. Once, when I was living in Atlanta, I visited San Diego and my return flight to Atlanta left at 10 PM. I said to my lab, I arrive at 6 AM, and will have fresh tasty burritos for lunch. Who wants one? None of them had heard of swordfish, crab, or lobster burritos and thought me quite mad. This may be true, but remember I am a mad scientist; whether or not bringing burritos on an airplane in my backpack surrounded by cold packs is reasonable, I will figure out how to make it work. Sure enough, my more adventurous labbies got some perfectly good burritos. I should also note that Atlanta has exceptionally bad Mexican food, made all the worse by the locals' conviction that their Mexican food is excellent and the surprisingly high number of Mexican people in Atlanta. I remain convinced that there exists an underappreciated opportunity for a chain of San Diego style taco shops, called SoCal tacos. Put it somewhere near the biggest university, including a hot chick on a pedal-cart full of burritos cruising around the dorms. In Atlanta, the prime spot would be midtown, near Georgia Tech, and open very late. My streetcar ride home passes three places called Taco I, II, and III. Yeehaw, I thought, someone else imported that concept. But no, what that sneaky Turk meant by taco was Döner kebabs. Then I stumbled upon Speedy Taco, which is conceptually much closer to a taco, yet worse than Taco Bell. For readers unfamiliar with Taco Bell, stay that way. I haven't been there in over 10 years. They had an advertising campaign a few years ago to plug their new burrito, the chalupa, featuring a little dog saying 'drop the Chalupa!' This is now slang for taking a shit. (They stopped that ad campaign.)

The following are all characteristics of bad Mexican food. The beans are Rosarita refried, or some other canned beans. The salsa is usually Pace Picante mild. Taco shells are premade, chips are from a bag, beef is ground beef, tamales have no husk because they came from a bag, etc. Just like any good restaurant will make their own food, good Mexican places make their own beans and salsa and tamales, fry their own taco shells or chips, ideally from tortillas they made or bought from a tortilleria that made them that morning, and offer shredded beef, which was stewed in a huge pot with tomoatoes for six hours. They will probably also serve pozole, tortilla soup, or other good soups that they made. Excellent examples of such restaurants in San Diego that are not too expensive include the three Fidelses, Ortega's on Newport, or La Pinata in Old Town. For taco shops, which are faster and even cheaper, try Cotixan on Genessee, Taco Fiesta on West Point Loma Drive, the Santanas chain, Lalos on University, the Senor Panchos chain (some of which were recently renamed Los Panchos), or many others. I am getting hungry. Many taco shops are named XBertos. These include Robertos, Albertos, Roybertos, Himbertos, Adalbertos, Jilbertos, Filibertos, and my favorite names, Nobertos and Bertbertos.

The best burger chain in California In n Out Burger.

Euro holidays and work

My current job allows six weeks of vacation time per year. This is literally triple my last jobs. Most American jobs allow 2 weeks of vacation time. Six weeks is long enough that the main limiting factor is no longer time but money. This encourages a mix of exploring new places and going to San Diego, Colorado, or other places where I have a free bed. I hope to get to at least one of them this summer. Within a week I should know if we will be going to NextFest in LA this September, and so I will probably piggyback a vacation on that. And we're definitely going to the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego in November, when it will be cold and rainy here and neither there.

May has featured three holidays so far. May 1 was a holiday, the equivalent of Labor Day, something I wish I knew before flying in that morning. Not that I minded working on a holiday, but it was bizarre arriving in such a dead city. Two Thursdays ago was a holiday, and today is Pentecost. These last two are Christian holidays, which of course everyone celebrates by getting drunk. I explained that the most solemn American holiday is probably Memorial Day, which everyone celebrates by getting drunk. There is no Memorial Day in Germany, understandably.

They also ring church bells, and many people walk around wearing crosses. Now, I am not Jesus. I recognize that a mere mortal might have a somewhat different personality, and a limited capacity to interpret His will. This point has been emphasized from the inception of Christianity through today; it is rampant from the Bible and Augustine's writings through Republican conventions and the 700 Club. But the cross is an implement of horrific torture. If you were tortured to death, by the nastiest means the Romans could develop, would you want to return to see that device around people's necks, atop their places of worshipping you, and throughout their art? If you had been whipped to death, burned alive, boiled alive, or stoned to death, would you want to see your followers wearing horsewhips, stakes, kettles, or bongs? How about a few more sympathetic images of Mom, or maybe a manger or haystack? It takes a group like Monty Python to look on the bright side of crucifiction:

Centurion: You know the penalty laid down by Roman law for harboring a known criminal?
Matthias: No.
Centurion: Crucifixion!
Matthias: Oh.
Centurion: Nasty, eh?
Matthias: Could be worse.
Centurion: What you mean "Could be worse"?
Matthias: Well, you could be stabbed.
Centurion: Stabbed? Takes a second. Crucifixion lasts hours. It's a slow, horrible death.
Matthias: Well, at least it gets you out in the open air.
Centurion: You're weird!

As a side note, the deeper you get into a blog, the less politically correct you have to be. Casual readers will have left a long time ago. And thus to follow up on my darttrooper post, we know you Germans are just waiting to try again. Deny away. It's OK. We understand. And we're watching you. Just learn from before: more subs, do a better job suppressing dissent, and fund your best scientists instead of gassing them. Fucking assholes.

Obviously, being unfunded is vastly different from forcible expulsion or worse. But purely from the perspective of rotting your nation's scientific infrastructure, the current situation in the US is not much different. The main academic funding sources in the US, such as NIH and NSF, have been drying up. This is not just cyclic. Every senior American scientist I know said that s/he has never seen it this bad. And hence here I am, Marty Sereno is in London, and countless other examples. Authoritarianism, jingoism, militarism, and fundamentalism are all quite antithetical to science. There are opportunities for commercial/industrial research funding, but that mechanism has its place and its limits, as does pure science. With commercial funding comes commercial interests, including secrecy, noncooperation, and neglect of critical underlying basic research needs. This is not simply a problem on ivory tower grounds. America is rapidly losing its edge in one of the greatest and still growing commercial opportunities: biotech. It is the beginning of reverse brain drain, the opposite of what helped give America that edge in the first place. It used to be that the best and brightest of other countries went to the US to get a good education and never left. The US still has a good academic infrastructure, but is losing that too, and amidst heavy competition from the EU, China, India, South Korea, et al. the future is not bright. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel, the head of Germany and the EU, is a physicist.

Anger and blogs mix like everclear and more everclear. Perhaps I should switch from Metallica to Beethoven. Done. Another facet of German holidays is that they are very outdoor events, dampened only literally by rain. I was just in Domsheide, the city center. You can tell because it has the highest density of brementown musican statues. Despite a light rain, there are old guys singing, outdoor restaurant seating under umbrellas, and merchants hawking a myriad of products in outdoor shops. There are mannequins wearing sweaters with the same pointedly odd feature as American mannequins: nipples. Now, I am not a woman. (Quite an introspective day for me, eh?) But if I were a woman, walking around during a cold day, would I want to buy a sweater that can't even keep a mannequin warm?

The Irish pubs are busy, even though it is early. Irish pubs have, so far, been a worldwide universal. No matter where you go, or how small the city is, you can find an Irish pub. This is reasonable. If there is only one Irishman in a town, he'll drink enough to support that pub.

German games I: Spee!

During my first trip to the supermarket, called Extra, I realized that the products offered are pretty much the same, but the names have been changed to confuse the innocent. Most products can be identified by the shape or images on the package, but sometimes this is tough. For example, boxes or bottles of powder or thick blue liquid could be anything. Try the following matching game. For each product below, tell me if it is laundry detergent, dishwashing soap, or other:

Sil rei

Answers: I have no idea. See above. For each of them, tell me what it is. I really don't know. Except Calgon is not bubble bath soap, like in the US. And no matter what Spee is, I will not wash anything in it.

Scoring: You cannot win. For each incorrect answer, lose €2 and return to Extra. Do not pass Dart Palast or collect a pint of Beck's.

Beginning Bremen II: Dart Palast!

After the first week grant frenzy I had some time to check out the city. I am in temporary housing in Hastedt, or old city. My apartment is next to Dart Palast, an entity that would never flourish in the States. There are many places that feature darts and beer, some vaguely palatial, but none that actually put this in their names. Some of these Germans are fantastic dartmeisters. It is very fortunate that invading German armies of yesteryear were armed only with such petty implements as clubs, axes, muskets, chlorine gas, and panzers, for a squad of dart infantry would have overrun other galaxies by now. Now, it could be argued that the people who hang out in Dart Palast are better dartchuckers than your average German. But consider this: perhaps the best dartmen have already been identified and are secretly honing their darttrooper skills before charging through the Ardennes. Yeah. Think about it.

At least 50% of all caps worn are NY Yankees caps. Their wearers rarely know anything about the Yankees. Even on Werder Bremen days, people are more likely to have Yankees caps. Caps from any other sports team are very rare. Jaywalking is far less common here than elsewhere. I violate this all the time, and used to do so unintentionally. Bicycles are very common here, and not just for poor people including kids. Old men in suits ride bikes. Whenever I was wandering about, they would ring their bicycle bells and sometimes say something to me as they passed. Aw, how cute, I thought, they like ringing their bells. Guten Tag, I would yell after them. Then I worked out that the red part of the sidewalk is a bike lane. Oops. Now they are far less musical.

'They're a very musical people, aren't they?' -- Randolph Duke, Trading Places

Public drinking, and public intoxication, are much more common here than in the US. I think this extends over much of Europe, but will find out with time. Of course, the 16-21 crowd drinks more than in the US, but I don't know where except on streetcars. Teenagers love getting drunk on streetcars and singing as loudly as possible. Older people drink on streetcars but mostly keep to themselves.

Streetcars also allow dogs, regardless of their owners' visual eptitude. I learned this when I was trying to get past someone with a dog, and patted her on the shoulder even though she was looking right at me. Last week I saw the second biggest reason why dogs are not allowed on streetcars: they fight. Two dogs went at it while their owners effetely lectured them. After the fight, the owners continued explaining, in a regular voice and without any physical threat, that fighting is bad. Who is the alpha male in that situation? Why wouldn't either dog fight again?

Beginning Bremen

My first week here was intense. I arrived May 1 around 9 AM after a nice but very long flight, eager for a nice nap. Denied. I had to lug my garment bag, suitcase, backpack, and laptop case around to one location to get the key to my apartment, then travel there to drop my stuff off. Then immediately off to the lab. The boss Dr. Gräser wanted a grant application done by May 7 and I was good to go. Bernhard and I plugged away on that for several hours and I certainly felt I earner my ensuing 11 hours in bed. We kept at this application for pretty much a week straight - not literally, we slept and ate, but not much else. We were here evenings and weekends, and poor Bernhard had his daughters calling because they missed their daddy. I was not going to let him down, nor anybody, and besides I had just come off 2 weeks of vacation so it was a great time for me to keep my nose to the grindstone to spite my face, to mix two rather violent metaphors. He got 2.5 weeks vacation time soon after that, so there is some justice in the situation. Of course, the ultimate arbiters of our proposal will be the grant reviewers, who can be vicious and capricious bastards. (And very unlikely to read blogs.) For any non-scientists, at least half your time is spent begging for money via grant applications. The proportion of time spent begging for money increases as you become more senior, meaning that the higher you go - and thus the more capable you are of making a real contribution, either through direct research or effective management - the less time you have available. It's a stupid and insulting system, and the main reason I will probably not have a purely academic career.

We finished the grant app and were most pleased with it. Good ideas, well written, good collaborators. Why, were it up to me, I would fund it. We got most of the big European BCI labs involved - Birbaumer, Pfurtscheller, Guger Tech, plus Microsoft Research and others. The grant includes developing immersive, game-like training environments for BCIs, and so last week I even sent an email to Blizzard Entertainment to see if they might be interested. (I knew them from way back; I won a contest to develop ideas for Warcraft 2, they paid for my trip there and attendance to the first E3 conference and offered me a job, the same week I was accepted to grad school, the rest is history.) The president of Blizzard wrote back quickly and said maybe, send me more info, and I also got on the beta test list for Starcraft 2. So I plan to talk to Bernhard when he gets back from his vacation (tomorrow, actually). Another nice side effect of the grant frenzy is that it confirms we can work together under pressure. I am sure that won't be the first time.

I came to appreciate Mensa, the best university cafeteria I know. Apparently they used to have a very bad head cook, and then Mensa burned down, and somehow the cook was exiled to Bremerhaven, a dirty and unpopular fishing sprawl a bit north of here. I asked some people about it, since I thought it would be cool to see the North sea and some museums, and the locals all recommended against it. Mensa has a website with its daily fare, which often costs half as much as students and has inspired all kinds of schemes to claim student status. They have a website with their daily fare:
One day it featured 'maultaschen,' which Altavista translated as 'grumbling ashes.' Appetizing. Turns out this meal bore a striking resemblance to large ravioli. I was disappointed.

vacation before Bremen

The next morning I flew to Colorado. Visits there are always too brief. I always end up having 7 to 10 days. I got to see most of my family and do most of the things I enjoy so I shouldn't complain too much. I went hiking most days and got dinner with Dad most evenings. Mom was in San Diego, though she is in CO now. I got to spend a few afternoons hanging out with my cousin Kenny and dog Buster, a two year old slobber machine. Combine this with his enthusiastic head wagging and total inattention to criticism of his drool spritzers, and he could water lawns. I had to cover myself with a tent cover while he was in the car, until Kenny also started complaining about his Lucullan emissions and I threw him in the back. That made the point. The hot springs, where I usually go in the evenings, was closed for cleaning. I spent some time at a local pub called the Doghouse, where I won beer playing Galaga and shattered all the locals' records at Big Buck Hunter Pro.

After that I flew to Boston for a few days, where I stayed with Andy Weir. I got to see my old friends and Cog Sci alum Anna Cervantes and Dave and Julia Simard. Dave thrashed us at Settlers of Catan and Monopoly. The weather was quite nice one day and we played tourist and hung out at several parks. I must object to the unnecessary detail in the big statue of George Washington on a horse in Boston Commons. His horse is very clearly just puckering up for a crap. No, I wasn't actively seeking such detail. It's hard to miss. The tail travels up from the torso, which is not normal for a horse at rest. Further details would only exacerbate the unwanted imagery; you would have to see it. Now come on. He was our first president. Either wait for the horse to finish, or consider a little poetic license. Other days were more typical Boston weather. We spent one evening hanging out with some of Andy's friends from work and another two watching the Red Sox beat the Yankees. We saw several episodes of House and a bunch of other stuff. I had a surprisingly pleasant flight to Bremen, and here I am.

life in SD between Bremen trips

At the end of February my fate was sealed and I had 6 weeks left in San Diego. It wasn't so much that I did anything special, but did appreciate how special my routine was. I had a good life in San Diego, good friends, good hangouts, and so I saw no reason to change any of this. This is a picture of my last trip to Rimel's, my favorite lunch hangout. From left to right (excluding me) are David Leland, Eli Tiliakos, Jonathan Nelson, and Flavia Filimon.

I also spent a lot of time at Wine Steals in Hillcrest, which is good in itself and is very close to other spots - Chez John and Will Hoopes, Ono Sushi (which has sadly declined in recent years), and several good Thai places and taco shops. I went to the beach even more than usual and was probably most wistful there. Because that predates anything else here, even a fully formed hippocampus; I was going to the beach before I could remember.

I should add something about my old car, an 87 300ZX that I had owned for 10 years. It survived 2 cross country trips and 2 decades of heavy traffic. Those late 80s Japanese cars are indestructible.

At my last weekend I was graced with a pinata party. Hadn't been to one of those since I was a little kid. Huge mistake. Every party should have a pinata. Do not misread 'every.' Tea parties with old people should have pinatas. I used to think that pinatas for grownups wouldn't make sense. The fun is in the slow destruction of the pinata, and the joy of getting the contents. If you can demolish a pinata with one blow, and don't really care about little pieces of candy and coins, where's the fun? Leave it to John Hoopes, a master engineer, to figure out to simply give us a plastic bat. Brilliant. We all smacked that pinata as hard as we could, and it took quite a while to break through it. The contents were great. I still laugh at my favorite; raw tortillas. Not in a bag, or anything, just individual raw cord tortillas. Ole! They fall out into the dirt and lie there useless. Even sillier than the pinata itself. He also avoided the trite joke contents, eg flour or mayonnaise or water balloons. I am already scheming a pinata party for my friend Bernard's daughter Leonie's fifth birthday party. Again, all parties should have pinatas.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bremen and the roads not taken

Now that I finished setting up this blog, and writing my intro stuff, then posting the three emails I sent earlier, then removing all the HTML codes therein, I can finally start focus on new content. After I returned to San Diego in late February, I had a job interview with CSU San Marcos. This went well and I liked them, but there were a few problems. That was only an initial offer, and who knows if the faculty would have offered me the position. I had to make a decision about Bremen by Feb. 28. I would not have had the infrastructure I needed to develop BCIs, at least not as well as at Bremen. And, San Marcos is not far from San Diego, whereas Bremen is new and exotic. So that was that.

I was almost sure that I would move to Bremen after my interview here. I intentionally left half my clothes with Bernhard Graimann since I figured I'd want to bring as much stuff as possible. I have not regretted my decision. Aside from geography, I am obsessed with BCIs, and this was the best opportunity to develop them. I'm a cognitive neuroscientist and I need engineers and programmers. They need me. This is the same model I tried to pursue when I worked for Melody Moore Jackson and Jon Wolpaw in Atlanta and New York. It paid off with our P300 robot arm paper. Can I build a robot arm? Or the software to interface it with a BCI? No, but I sure as hell can develop a good P300 interface, run subjects, analyze data, and write up the resulting article. Janki Vora provided the engineering skill and work, and without her I would have been able to make a BCI speller. That was the first paper showing that a P3 BCI can control an external device. But, you can only do so much in a lab with 2 grad students who both have lots of other work to do, no matter how smart and motivated they are. Bremen has far more engineering resources than the old Georgia State University BrainLab and even the Wolpaw lab. I did enjoy working there, and miss my old labmates and friends. We are all on great terms and I'm actively writing new papers with both groups. I am also trying to get some of them out to Bremen to give talks and discuss collaborations. (hint hint.)

Two days after I accepted the position at Bremen, I got an email from the University of Washington asking if I might be interested in being a postdoc there. To quote Ignatius J. Reilly, 'Fortuna, you vicious slut.' Had I received that email a few weeks earlier, I would have considered that offer seriously. In June 2006, Microsoft Research (MSR) most graciously invited me to give a talk there about BCIs. I gave a different talk the next day at UW. It was obvious to me that they were starting a major BCI research effort, funded largely by Microsoft. But, I will be working with Desney from MSR on some other stuff, and will see him next month at a conference in Salzburg.

That talk at MSR is recommended for anyone who is new to BCIs, or wants a nice overview of the field. It is not technical. I intended it for laypeople and included lots of cool videos. I tried to present different BCI groups and approaches. It wasn't my best talk, the first few minutes were a bit rocky, but c'est la vie.

(then, continuing the same URL)

originally an email sent Mar 12, 2007

As some of you already heard, I decided to accept the position in Bremen. This is a two year position beginning May 1. The job features 6 weeks of vacation time and lots of travel, so ironically I'll probably spend more time in Colorado and otherwise visiting friends and family than I did while working in the US.

The remainder of my Europe trip was great fun, and it's tough picking out what to say. I got caught up in a soccer rally and wanna-be riot in Bremen. I was taking the streetcar to the city center, and saw a big group of protestors, so I decided to get out early and take pictures. They were all wearing black pants and dark blue soccer outfits, which I now know designates a fan of the Hamburg team. The few hundred protestors were surrounded by not-much-fewer cops. German cops in riot gear, German cops on horseback, German cops with 8 paddywagons, German cops with tear gas launchers. So I took pictures, gleefully ignorant of the fact that, by coincidence, I happened to be wearing black pants and a dark blue shirt. After a few blocks of this, I looked over, and about a block away was a throng of similar people - drunk, angry, sweaty, bottlethrowing, chanting young men - dressed identically, except that they had green outfits. I then worked out 2 things very quickly. One, this is not a political protest, as I first assumed. Second, regardless of the cause, if there's one group of angry chanting men wearing blue, and another group wearing green, and both are surrounded by riot police, it's probably bad to be between these 2 groups. But maybe I'll get a picture first. For those who think I am smart, reread the preceding. Someone grabbed me from behind and threw me back into a wall of much larger men. Cool, I thought, I'm gonna get the shit beat out of me by a bunch of soccer hooligans. It'll make a great story for my email. I only wish I got drunk first. Then I realized that the guy who threw me, and the wall, were all German riot police. I tried yelling "freundlich" at the very large cop, but he was already busy hurling others back. I ceased being pissed off when I realized the reason for my rapid relocation: his colleague was firing tear gas right past where my head had been. So I thought, thanks, huge German riot cop! I support your steroid use! You kick ass!

The Germans deserve their reputation for masterful crowd control. There were 2 dudes firing tear gas, or some chemical like it, into the empty street between the 2 mobs. Their aim was perfect. Very few people actually got teargassed, but the message was clear: you can just keep on walking, a block apart going in opposite directions, but if you guys try to engage each other, you'll have a lot of trouble seeing. And it worked, the other group went right on marching. A streetcar named Desire appeared (the streetcar actually said Domsheide, but I'll translate it how I want) and I happily escaped. The poor German riot police must be highly experienced, since Americans rarely care enough about any sport to create wanna-be riots. Meaning, a march that most participants desire and expect to devolve into a riot if there weren't so many darn cops around.

The next night was bowling in Bremen, then the next night was scouting an Irish pub with the fantastically creative name "Paddy's Pit." Both of these were indistinguishable from bowling or Irish pubs anywhere else. I then took a train to Tübingen, a glorious and magnificent city, which through some fluke was warm and sunny during my time there. We hit a karaoke bar, which cured me of the disappointment I had with American music there. You see, I often was bummed that most music in European bars seems to be American music, largely 80s pop. The karaoke was no different. I was thinking, this isn't much of a cultural experience. How about some German music? Almost on cue, they played some German pop. 20 seconds into the second song, I realized, wow, German pop really sucks! I mean, the best they could manage, in the last 20 years, is Rock Me Amadeus and 99 LuftBalloons. One wonders how universal English would be without Hollywood.

I have since then been back in San Diego, enjoying the weather as much as possible, taking very long lunches and otherwise fucking with my boss. Great fun. Ate lunch at the beach today, which is not viable in Bremen for many reasons.

I do not yet have contact info in Bremen, but will send it as soon as this changes.

originally an email sent Feb 15, 2007

I am having fun in Bremen, and hope the novelty does not wear off any time soon. A major highway has 2 lanes, and is never crowded. Rush hour does not exist. Pubs are everywhere. The hotel breakfast buffet has a juice machine that guests can use, which is probably helping me stay healthy despite the weather. Few things enliven a buffet like rows of gleaming half-oranges staring at you. Nobody has yet bashed me for being American. On the contrary, they all want the inside scoop on my governor, and are disappointed to hear that he is now fat and broke his leg skiing.

Today was the first day with any variation in the sky. It wasn't obvious; I only saw it because I was actively scanning the sky to try and figure out where the sun might be. And there was a tiny break in the clouds! And behind that: a slightly darker cloud! Woo hoo! I believe you get a prize if you can spot a third cloud layer. Hence I repeat an observation first made while in London. The Beatles song "Here comes the
sun," which to me as a SoCal native, is in fact a vital tool for preventing widespread panic if the sun ever does appear:

Bloody hell! What's that yellow thing in the sky?
Here comes the sun ...

Dear God! It's getting bigger as the cloud moves away!
Yeah it's coming ...

AAAAH! The sky is falling! Flee for your lives!
It's all right ...

Germans eat as if nearly certain they are about to miss the last train of the evening. After my first lunch with my potential new labmates, I realized that I was literally about a third done with my meal, and everyone else was done. So I thought, maybe next time, I'll shut up during lunch, and instead eat. I then made it through about half of my meal before all my labbies were done.

My talk seemed to go very well. When I finished, everyone started rapping on the table with their knuckles. Wonderful, I thought, this is the secret code for "Everybody jump the speaker and take his wallet." But no, this is just their way of applauding. After my talk, I had not one but two separate interviews with the boss and all postdocs in the lab. They all grilled me like an overcooked bratwurst. EACH INTERVIEW took longer than the grilling I got after my PhD defense. These Germans are indeed thorough. But not too perspicacious, since they formally offered me the position at the end of the second interview. This seemed like a good development, since this was not supposed to be decided until the end of my trip. I have until Feb 28 to decide. As the 2 competing options are: remain at TSRI, or maybe teach at CSU San Marcos, I will probably accept.

The boss, Dr. Graeser, refers to all people as "Mr." even if they are in the same room. This is confusing. I had been referring to the other postdocs by first names, then switched to calling them "Dr." and finally gave up and used Mr. The Germans are known for being titularly unique. This does reduce memory load, though, since there's no need to remember everyone's first name. Perhaps the German dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is maxed out with remembering the second verb to stick on the end of a sentence. [Later note: I wrote an essay on this, 'On the engineering superiority of German speakers,' which I'll post.]

Barring this, the German reputation for being serious and formal is totally unfounded. My current American boss is far more concerned with timing, propriety, and formality than any German. I told you about the chickens. I saw another group of people stumbling about with shotglasses around their necks. They were playing some game in which they threw tennis balls at each other and drank shots. It seemed like a mix of dodgeball, slaughterball, and sloshball, the first two of which I haven't played since seventh grade. My friend Bernhard Graimann explained that this is a work retreat. I explained that Americans have work retreats too. You do not drink or play; you instead sit in groups and say your favorite color, then get some pop psychology teambuilding crap, then a 4 hour lecture on sexual harassment, interspersed with long speeches and insufficient coffee. I plan to teach them sloshball, and hopefully later Tegwar.

I guess that's a thorough update for now. We are off to go bowling tonight.

originally an email sent Feb 12, 2007

I have some tales to relate after my first couple days in Bremen. Nothing as exotic as eating centipede. My brother is either bolder or dumber, and since he lives in China, I lean toward the former. The food here has been quite tasty, and the Beck's brewery is about a mile away. Both of these contributed to some good fun on Saturday night. I arrived Saturday afternoon, and quickly concluded that their mass transit system is vastly superior to anything in SoCal. Which isn't saying much. At the main transfer point, I saw not one, not two, but at least 30 men dressed as roosters playing trash cans with drumsticks. Several policemen and a few hundred passersby were cheering at them and throwing tennis balls and playing music. So this was very entertaining to me, and perked me up after 17 hours on a plane. I made it to the hotel, the Innside, which has a space theme to it and makes Sprockets look mainstream. I slept, then went to meet someone from the lab at 8 PM at the statue of the Brementown musicians. Then ensued one of my more humbling language learning moments:

Me: Vo ist den statut dem Bremerstadt musikerin?
German passerby: I don't speak English

So I shall work on my accent, as well as my definite articles. The latter, dem, would have been correct for a masculine indirect object, but since musikerin is plural, it should have been den. Notice how the author (me) keeps using the word "the," and the reader is not confused about which noun the word matches? Not so in German. [Later note: Michael Krohnen told me that it should be 'musikanten.']

I soon found the statue and met my host, who was very eager to take me to a Mexican restaurant. He seemed to like the fact that I go to Mexico sometimes, and the categories of Mexican food (he actually thought all Mexican food is the same). The place turned out to be pretty good - not especially authentic, but neither is Fidel's. Then off to some pub with a Beck's sign, which nearly all of them have. I tried unsuccessfully to convince them to give me a free drink for my birthday, but did get a nice waitress to sing for me.

Bremen is a surprisingly pleasant city given the weather. The sky is a homogenous gray. It rains or snows every day. An upside of this is that all the city streets are clean. Yesterday I wandered around and played tourist, and hung out in the Rathauskeller for a while because it has a cool name. The town center has dozens of renditions of the Brementown musicians, which I like. (I now suspect the chicken costumes were because of this; it's the easiest of the costumes to develop, since the other three musicians have 4 legs.) It is also funny because, as I remember the fairy tale, the Brementown musicians never made it to Bremen, and were such bad musicisans that they scared away some hardcore evil murdering brigands twice. I had a quiet evening, since I had to give my job talk in a few hours, and should get back to that. The university is OK, not as nice as TSRI or UCSD, but smart people and so far things are going well.

Here is one rendition of the Brementown Musicians. It is poorly lit, and I will get more.

travel past and future

My job interview here was my first trip to Germany. I didn't even make it to Europe until I was 26, in 1999. My old friend Chris Lohr was living in Paris, and so I stayed at his pad for a while during that trip and two follow up visits, in summer 2000 and then late December 2000. I have a bunch of fond memories from those trips too, but will get to them later. I covered a fair amount of ground. I made it to Florence and Bologna, where I had a great time with Dave and Julia Simard from UCSD. I stayed with Dietrich and Sarah Benjes in Göring and caroused with Chris Kanaar and Dietrich in London. I made it as far as Edinburgh, where I stayed in the surprisingly pleasant Castle Rock Hostel, and somehow kept ending up in Amsterdam. Yeah, yeah. Beautiful museums. No, really.

I was in Vienna in September 2001 for a neuroinformatics conference, and ended up effectively stuck there. Flights through the US were hard to get for obvious reasons. Ironically, my original ticket was on 9-11 (I kept it for posterity) and I ended up flying through NYC to Vienna on 9-13. There were 9 cops on the plane and I could see the smoke over the World Trade Center. I had less luck rescheduling my return flight, so I went to Prague for several days. Also a great city. The Astronomical clock and Dancing Building were cool. Concerts abounded, yet the grizzled old street musicians playing washboards and tubas in the Jewish Quarter were my favorite. And nothing like 30 cent pints of Pilsner Urquell that were brewed yesterday. I understand the price has doubled since I went there. Oh no! After that adventure I had to focus on my PhD thesis, and thus remained in North America until this year. I did get to travel quite a lot around the US, and have also been all over Mexico and Canada. These countries are geographically and culturally diverse, as should be expected for areas that span as much land as all of Europe and a fair chunk of Africa and Asia. But, I always wanted to explore further and this was a significant factor in my decision to move to Bremen.

When I was a kid, I declared my intent to make it to all seven continents and the moon. As I got older and very slightly wiser, I came to realize this is ridiculous. Why go somewhere that's inaccessible, incredibly expensive, cold, barren, and boring? But, Antarctica does have the highest mean IQ of any continent. I can't prove this, but the only people there are research scientists. So that remains my plan. Since mom and dad visited 76 countries while five years younger than I was when I left my home continent, this doesn't seem too ambitious.

Typing about Antarctica reminds me of a Far Side that I also posted in the hallway at work a couple weeks ago.

Blog Intro

It's mid afternoon on Sunday, May 27. Although it may change, this blog will mostly be an account of my experiences exploring Europe. I will start this blog with a few emails I sent out to some friends and family during my first trip to Germany, then will probably have a quick series of posts to catch up on things over the last month or so.
Please note this is a personal blog, and not a work blog. I will probably have a work related blog on our website, bci-info.org, but nothing is there yet.