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

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