Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Let Freedom Ring

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

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

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 Sixteen minutes later, the bill was withdrawn by its author, who also apologized for any damage to his wife’s presidential campaign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus dude! Are those fucking real?”

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

“Fuck you, bitch, I saw her first.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 17, 2007

Euroshopping II

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

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

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

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

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

"OK. But they do have guns."





"Machine guns?"

"No. But they have crossbows."


"Crossbow, and a bow and arrow."

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

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

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

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

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

"Fine. They will be happy."

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

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

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

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

Possible variants:

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

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

Have a facial tic.

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

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

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

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

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

Size tatters

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

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

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

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Euroshopping I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mexican driver: Free bike!!

Jewish driver: Anyone wanna buy a bike?

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

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

Venetian driver: Drown.

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

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


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

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

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

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

"Yes. We do this-"


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

They left.