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

Monday, June 11, 2007


I am in Salzburg. More on that in a later blog entry. Salzburg is too glorious to share an entry with the sleazy quacks described here.

I spent most of the last week preparing for my Salzburg trip and househunting. I seem to have found a place - a nice pad, just renovated, all new everything including furniture, lousy commute to the university, but mostly on a streetcar so I can read or meet people.
I do have one adventure worth relaying. Moral: if you see an ad for an apartment that costs €190 per month, don't go. It was seedier than a nursery. I met the landlord at the Sielwall streetcar stop in the already iffy district of Viertel. The guy was a smelly, squat, sunken eyed Turk. He shook my hand with a tough mass of leather knobs and smiled with teeth that looked like he gnawed a stone clad highlighter. We walked about 5 minutes to the apartment through a progressively declining neighborhood, seamier than a Levi factory. We made the usual small talk. He spoke good english. The apartment had 2 huge windows facing an alley. Both had thick white curtains drawn over them. One had a very old, cheap blue and white teddy bear in front of the curtains, looking out as if standing guard. It looked more black and bloody in the deep red glow of an invisible neon bulb. I admit to some poetic embellishment in the dialog below, but it's mostly true, including all the snakey sneakery at the end.
He showed me around the apartment, rife with every warning flag I (thought I) was used to looking for. My nose wrinkled at the sight of it, and this was before the smells hit. Water stains everywhere, exposed wiring, carpet's original color a mystery bur probably not waterstain brown, holes in the walls, scum on the ugly brown-green bathroom tiles like a veiled rotten Granny Smith, the tile grout looked like his teeth. 'And you have two roommates, they are very nice girls,' he said, busting out a cigarette though only halfway done with its predecessor. 'One of them is a student.' Your room is here - actually a fairly big room, but no windows. How is this possible? It was not in the basement. I had a windowless office in the basement of GSU in Atlanta, and it's quite unpleasant. Was it a mad designer, botched construction, or would the view have been even worse than the decrepit wall? I went through the motions of inspecting the room (no internet connection, every corner of carpet and paint peeling) and we headed downstairs. 'This is the kitchen,' he said, but I stopped listening. Across the street, a John gignerly exited one of the apartments and walked warily down the street. His head shrunk in to his overcoat and his brim was pulled way down low. His head was tilted down at a 45 degree angle, and his straight left hand covered his forehead and cheeks as if he were saluting the sidewalk. The ring finger of his hand boasted a nice looking wedding ring, wrought of diamonds and gold plated lies, gleaming prismatically in the red light from another flourescent bulb. 'The oven will be fixed soon, right now-'
'Excuse me.'
'What do these girls do?'
'What do they do for a job?'
'What do they do? What is their work? How do they make money?'
'Oh. They are a student.'
Don't fucking pretend you don't speak English, asshole.
'No, I mean their job. How do they make money?'
'Sorry, I do not speak so good. What do you mean?'
OK, I'll switch to German then.
'These girls, the roommates. What is their work? How do they make money?'
'Oh, they do many things.'
'They do many men?'
I didn't expect him to catch puns, but still fun.
'Yes. They have sex with men for money. Yes? They sell their pussy to many men.'
'Oh!' He acts surprised, then returns to English. Of course a guy like him would respond to vulgarity. 'Oh, yes. They are prostitutes. You know what is prostitutes?'
'Yes.' My English was never in dispute.
'Yes. They are very nice girls. So, the oven will be fixed soon-'
'Isn't prostitution illegal?'
'Against the law?' He feigned confusion again. I was annoyed. Fine. We'll see who gets outpunned in a battle of wits over an unarmed ho. 'The police will come here?' (And another pun gone)
'Oh, no trouble with the police.'
'How are you sure? It would be an easy bust.' (And another pun gone)
'Oh, no trouble. You can look, there are many prostitutes around with the other apartments.' He had a point. 'You will make many friends, yes?' He smiled broadly. Ewww!
'Are you a prostitute too? You rent apartments, and also you are a man prostitute in the end?' (And another pun bites the dust, yeah!)
He looks insulted. Good. Make him fretty. Mercury rising. 'No, no! Why you ask this? Do you like men?'
'No. For example, I do not like you.'
'Ah.' Pause. 'Well, so here is the kitchen. You may smoke, this is OK. You can have no pets.'
'Can I just have a little pussy?' (And another p-)
He started to respond, then smiled. I forgot, anything vulgar is right up his alley. 'Ah, you make joke, yes? Pussy, like a cat as well?'
I smiled back. 'Yes.'
'Ha, I like the jokes. No pets, but what you do for the girls, that is for you.'
'Do either of them study Psychology?' (NO! Bad testes! BAD! DOWN!)
'I do not know. Here is the recycling bin. Different bins.'
'Paper, cardboard, cans, glasses, plastics, and rubbers?'
Just when I thought I had adjusted to his communication protocol, he missed that one. Suddenly one of the doors opened. Out bounds a guy who resembled Don Rickles, but fatter, with Karl Malden's nose. He wore horrid brown pants, a plaid shirt with different shades of brown that looked like he puked shit all over himself, and a faded red derby. He was clearly drunk. He saw us, grinned, and raised both his arms to flex his flaccid biceps. In so doing, he hit his left hand on a wall, cursed, repositioned, then succeeded. I saw no change whatsoever in his upper arm diameter. 'RAAH!' he declared. 'RAAH - HA HA!' You don't brag about getting laid after paying for it; this is like taking a helicopter to the peak of Everest. He reached over to slap my shoulder and again stubbed his left hand. I failed in my effort to not grin, but he thought it was in manly empathy. 'RAAAAAAAAH!' He starts speaking in German, far too fast for me, but I think that he thought that Mr. Landlord and I were both next. The landlord told him no, and Don shrugged and left. Behind him, I caught a glimpse of the team that elected to receive, who unglorified prostitution like Paris Hilton. Wow. She was the oldest younger woman I had ever seen. She was more worn than a pair of British soldiers' boots given to a starving peasant in India. In the 1870s.

'Twas here we [last met] ... three summers and a thousand years ago.'
-- Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine), The Man Who Would Be King.

I suddenly realized that Mr. Landlord was talking. Why should I pay attention to him? Oh yeah, I wanted to fuck with him. 'And you can pay security deposit in cash?'
'I can. But about the pets-'
'No pets.'
'I think she has crabs, actually.'
'No. No pets. You have no pets?'
'No, you have no pets?'
Pause. 'Do you have pets?'
'Yes. I have a snake.' He looks scared. This time I succeeded in not grinning.
'I do not like snakes.'
'He is a very nice snake.'
'No. No snakes.'
'He is very nice. I have him here in my pants.'
'I always have a snake, here in my pants. Whevener I wear pants.'
'Does he have a cage?' Crude and trite, but clever. ??? But no. He was serious. Never bring a sword to a punfight.
'He is very nice. Less than a foot long. Here, I show you.' I reached into my right pocket. He leaned back, but I ignored him as I whipped out my snakeskin wallet. He looked worried. Good. 'See, this is a snakeskin wallet. From a diamondback rattlesnake.'
'What? That is a snakes' skin?'
'I do not like snakes.'
'Snakes are nice. I am a snake expert. I study snakes.'
'What? You say you are scientist.'
'Yes. I have a PhD in snakes.'
Pause. 'OK. But you do not have a real snake? Just the wallet?'
'No.' This guy really needed to learn unambiguous phrasing.
'No, what?'
Pause. 'Do you have a real snake? That is alive?'
'No real snakes?'
'No. I have six of them.'
'Six snakes?'
'Very nice snakes.'
'I do not like snakes.'
'Three of them have a cage.'
'Do they have poison?'
'Poison? You know what is poison?'
He tried pronouncing it several different ways. Pizon, poysson, poiSON. I looked confused and kept shaking my head. 'No word in English.' His brow wrinkled like an indecisive caterpillar.
'What is this called? If a snake bites you, you will die?'
'Oh! Not poison. That is just a bad glamrock band from the 80s.'
'Not poison.'
'What is that word?'
'Palandt. You mean to say palandt.' (There is no such word in English.) He gave no hint of suspicion; nonetheless, I was getting bored. I repeated it for him. Pause.
'I do not like snakes.'
'Oh.' Pause.
'Well. You are nice man, but no snakes.'
I was really hoping to end it with another shotpun blast, but no such luck. Pun control got boring and I still had more work before Salzburg. 'OK. Well, I love my snakes. Goodbye.' I reached to shake his misshapen hand.
'You may be here if you have no snakes. You have no snakes here, yes?'
I left.

Steve walks warily down the street,
With the brim pulled way down low
Aint no sound but the sound of his feet,
Machine puns ready to go ....

And another one gone, and another one gone
Another one bites the dust
Hey, I'm gonna fret you too
Another one bites the dust
-- Freddie Mercury (Queen), And Another One Bites The Dust [two words changed]

Billie: Who told you this guy was in here?
Lieutenant William Snyder: Nobody. I just know what kind of woman he likes. Going to check all the joy houses till I find him.
Billie: Oh, well maybe I could help you, if you tell me his name.
Lieutenant William Snyder: I doubt it. Which way are the rooms?
Billie: Right through there. But I wouldn't go in there if I were you.
Lieutenant William Snyder: What you are going to do, call the cops?
Billie: I don't have to. You'd be busting in on the Chief of Police just up the hall.
-- The Sting

Saturday, June 2, 2007

On the Engineering Superiority of German Speakers

On the Engineering Superiority of German Speakers

Most Westerners recognize that German speaking people tend to be good engineers. No viable theory has yet explained this phenomenon. However, based on extensive and unprecedentedly thorough examination of the German language, I can now explain it. Better yet, this theory provides a testable hypothesis for how to further increase the German-speaker-engineering-bias (DeutschSprechenIngenieurwesenVorspannung).

German speakers have very cleverly developed a torture system more insidious and disconcerting than anything in all German history: its language. At first glance, such cruel tricks as requiring their children to memorize massive and unnecessary tables of definite and indefinite articles, splitting verbs across sentences, and absurdly long compound words may seem like hazing, funny only in that the Germans think it’s normal.

Figure 1: A German teacher torturing a classroom. Notice the boredom evident on the students’ faces, indicating their learned resignation at such torture, and the lack of any intervention by concerned parents, police, or even well intentioned passersby.

In fact, my research has shown that this serves another purpose. This putative linguistic parsely is teleologically genius. By forcing children to speak German at an early age, Germanspeaker brains rapidly develop superior processing abilities. The image below shows a Germanspeaker brain automatically performing a task that would require the full mental capacity of seven French people.

Figure 2: A Germanspeaker brain determining which definite article is appropriate for the dative feminine case.

Englishspeaker brains, by contrast, simply use “the” and thus do not develop superior processing. The reader may notice that the author uses the definite article “the” ten times in the sentence here, and the reader isn’t confused about which of the words or the phrases each of the “thes” references? This may seem like a better approach, but also explains why America can’t engineer an effective dike and levee system, whereas Holland, despite being much smaller, can.

The image above also shows an Englishspeaker trying to do an FFT in his head. This task is considered difficult by American children. However, this task requires so much less effort than speaking German that it produces no detectable neural activation. The image below shows a German person performing an FFT in his head.

Figure 3: A bored German person

This theory leads to a testable prediction. The German language can (and, the Germans would argue, should) be further tweaked to make it more torturous and thus more neurally empowering. Although this could be done in many ways, I propose further expanding the array of possible definite articles.

The new table includes many features intended to further unnecessarily complicate the language. First, the additional articles, such as nominative-1, are not labelled in any obvious fashion. Second, capital letters are inserted at random. Third, the added words are usually long, but not always, to further confusion. Fourth, Germanspeakers must now learn the “!” or “click” sound from Bushmen language. Fifth, the tenses must be chosen according to more elaborate criteria. Sixth, even more processing is necessary to identify the correct article. For example, the nominative-1 case requires not only a subject, but can only be used if the listener is younger and does not have a strong opinion about fruit. Nominative-77673 must be used if the speaker has used more than six definite articles over the last 20 minutes. All genitive cases are replaced with corresponding accusatives if the listener but not speaker is drunk. Dative-2 is never used in written or spoken German, but must be memorized anyway.

Der DeutschSprechenIngenieurwesenVorspannung would then become even more powerful. As a bonus side effect, the additional articles will further discourage Americans and Frenchmen from bothering Germanspeakers. This will hamper intelligence gathering and facilitate the inevitable Germanspeaker world takeover. Please bear in mind that I have been helpful in facilitating this takeover, and am part German, and all I want is some grant money. And Baja.

Figure 4: A correct table of German definite and indefinite articles.

Figure 5: A portion of the proposed modified table, focusing only on male definite articles. The full table is available on request from the author, but is extremely expensive because it is so valuable. The expanded articles should further increase den DeutschSprechenIngenieurwesenVorspannung.