Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cabras Canarias

(written 25 Dec)

After my last entry, I decided to spend another day at the same hotel because it had a free shuttle to what were advertised as “massive white sand dunes” and a white sand beach that I read about a lot online. This was as described, but too windy to surf. There were a lot of lounge chairs set up to block the wind, as well as obviously handmade circles of rocks, maybe 2 meters in diameter, set up for the same purpose. I found an abandoned one but it had nothing akin to mortar – although the wind was reduced, little jets of sand shot through the cracks and my towel and I were mostly sand within 20 minutes. I walked a bit more and found a band of 9 goats (cabrones, or cabras) munching their way across the dunes. I followed them a bit to try to get a good picture, but they were not so cooperative. Their presence verified to me that there was indeed prosperity on the island of Fuerteventura, or at least not that many starving people. I turned and cut across some dunes to get back to the bus stop, and encountered a large rock circle with four little German flags flapping vigorously. They seemed very precisely positioned, exactly equidistant and bisecting the circle with two imaginary perpendicular lines. Fucking Germans. I went to check it out and there was a presumably German couple, about 55, totally naked, fat and white and red all over. I wondered what the flags meant to convey. Body by bier und bratwurst? We claim this circle for Deutschland? German party here later?

After this experience, I felt it was time to move on and then took a ferry to the nearby island of Lanzarote. I stayed in a bungalow in Playa Blanca, on the south coast, for 2 days and found it rather similar to Corralejo. I asked locals where I could go that was less touristy and had good hiking and surfing. I was especially interested in hiking one of the island’s volcanoes and seeing the lava flows I read about online. I arrived here in Caleta de Famara on the 23rd and rented an apartment for 3 days. This little village measures about 4 blocks by 9 blocks.

Famara is indeed in the earlier stages of tourist invasion. It is much quieter, with a lot fewer lights and especially colored lights. All boats are fishing boats. A few restaurants have menus posted in German, English, and Spanish, but less ostentatiously. Moreoever, the type of tourist here is different. There are no hotels, and a lot less tourist-supporting infrastructure (for example, the town has no wi fi hot spot and no ATM). Hence there are very few old tourists or families. Most tourists are young, healthy, intense, and weathered. They’re here to windsurf, and there are several rental businesses. While Corralejo and Playa Blanca reminded me of San Felipe, Famara was akin to Puertocitos or Ensanada Blanca, two little fishing villages on the east coast of Baja.

Unfortunately this island´s fuerteventuras (strong winds) have so far dominated my time here. The wind yesterday was quite potent, and the roads were covered in floating sand ribbons snaking towards you, rather pretty until they hit you. You have to not just close your eyes, but also turn your head and then (before opening your eyes) clean your eyelashes because sand has been blasted into them. I tried a little hike along a ridge that seemed like it would be shielded by a taller ridge, but almost got blown over twice so I quit. Even the grizzled vets said it was too windy for watersports or hiking. The upside of this is that I made a lot of progress on some book chapters and a conference paper, which may free things up for the remainder of my trip.

I am now hanging out in my little apartment. It cost me €30 a night and has 2 bedrooms, a patio, bathroom with shower, and a big living room with couches and a TV. I learned about it by bribing the receptionist at the Atlantic Gardens in Playa Blanca with a bottle of sake that I was given for free the preceding night and could not be carried on a plane as it was 200 ml; I told her it cost me €6. So she hooked me up with her buddy Leonor, a set and heavyset matronly woman who is obviously the boss in this town and also seems to me everyone´s aunt.

Outside, two dogs, unfazed by the stinging sand, are greeting each other with their usual vulgar whirl. They’ve been spinning for a good 30 seconds now. You know, dogs are highly social creatures, and not especially dumb. Is a smarter greeting protocol that difficult? Why has no doggie diplomat, no Fido Franklin, no canine Curie, no puppy politician, ever developed (and communicated) a smarter way?

Hey wait, hold up a second!


Look, we both know what’s about to happen. You’re gonna come try to sniff my hindquarters so you can learn my family name, …


But then, as soon as you get close, I’ll turn so I can sample your perfume, and you’ll just get a whiff of my left hindleg.

Ummm…. You’re losing me.

Fine, never mind the “Needs and Opportunities” section of this proposal. Let’s just skip to the new idea. First, I’ll stand still, and you can shake my hand doggie style.


Then, you stand still, and I’ll mosey round back and see if your owner serves Alpo too.

What was the first part again?

[Sigh] Forget it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A body in motion

I am in my third day in Corralejo, on the north coast of Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands. The island reminds me of SoCal and Baja, as did some parts of Spain when I was there in March. There are many dark people speaking Spanish, an obvious difference from Bremen. There's a rather simple observation. Further, the terrain and climate are quite similar. Corralejo is a desert surrounded by ocean, and the islands visible to the east could well be off San Felipe. The beaches have identical sand and coral, mountains are stark and brown, and the flora are thin, sparse, and thirsty. It is about the same latitude, with a similar temparate and sunny demeanor that rubs off on locals and tousists alike. The tourist industry is huge, with restaurants blaring menus in English and German and aggressive hawksters attacking anyone who slows down to peek in their shop. They target well; those are the two languages I hear most, often with an Irish accent. (English, I mean.)

The next week or so should reward or punish flaneur. Probably both. I have no hotel or real plan as of 2 hours from now. I have a return flight that leaves from another island (Tenerife) and no ticket to get there. Great fun! Been researching options, talking to people, looking at other local hotels, and otherwise gathering information. Most of the locals are happy to talk to someone who speaks their language, and the very many elderly tourists here have all been to every beach on every island twelve times. Nobody really says anything negative about anywhere. There are some national parks, good hikes, and beaches with different types of sand. Some areas have a reputation as more quiet, and Corralejo is certainly among them. This is great for now but I suspect the pleasant and knowledgeable retirees will not be especially fulfilling for long. So, I should start making some plan for at least today. Fortunately, I’m travelling light.

In other motive news, I am very happy to announce that I will soon leave Bremen. I accepted the offer for a position as Senior Postdoctoral Researcher in Graz. Graz has been one of the top BCI labs from the beginning and it will be an honor to work there. I already have 2 great research projects in motion with them and look forward to many more. Graz seems like a great city and region, and I have spoken with nobody who worked there who ever said anything bad about it. (Rather like the Canary Islands, and I like it here too.)

I think the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Aden must not have been insiginificant in my job offer. It was I who broke the story about the piratecatcher on the Mur, and the noncoincidental decline in salt piracy along the river Salzach. This was an exclusive for you loyal blog readers. But nobody else took me seriously, and so now those same pirates are using Somalia as a base. They’re just a step away from seizing phat merchantment laden with flax, rum, and gold coin off the Spanish Main. This would of course disrupt tourism and wine production in Graz. So I should have negotiated a bonus. Oh well.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mile High Rub

I am in hour 3 of my flight from DC to Frankfurt. It’s not a full flight, and from stress position 36F, I can clearly see an exit row aisle seat not far ahead just after the midgalley bulkhead. However, I must remain here because the exit row counts as Economy Plus and thus another 97 dollars. Bremen will only pay for Economy Minus, and even then only after griping from my boss. Fortunately, I can vent my sarcasm onto this laptop, and then redact any hint of other indiscretions such as (continued on page 77673).

To my right is a characteristically tall German man with whom I played a high stakes game of footsie until we silently compromised on space sharing. Specifically, he can intrude a little into my footspace as long as I get the armrest and associated airspace. My right shoulder is thoroughly planted to dissuade renegotiation, with my right arm shielding my rib cage against any ‚accidental’ slips from his left elbow. This only resolves three out of four; knee space remains disputed. For the first time in my life, they are charging for alcoholic drinks on an international flight, which sours the deal for me, but not him. Good, it’ll impair his reaction time. On my left is a rather cute brunette who seems to find me far less charming than I do. She’s kinda dull, and it’s tough to recover when you open with Spanish, then say (truthfully) that you were just hanging out with some Italians. Bad moves, she’s Portuguese. Woulda guessed that next, but women have no Three Strikes law. At least she’s small and noncombative. I might have recovered thanks to my new retinue of Italian hand gestures that Febo Cincotti just taught me, last night and a thousand years ago. But we all know there is a $10,000 fine for stretching in economy class, or disabling or destroying any responsible United executives.

Five hours left. Despair inspires sarcasm. I am graced by United Hemispheres magazine. The flashy article about Telluride this month bullhorns inaccuracies and poor copy editing, which is appreciated because it may discourage tourists. The highlight is on page 124, where they have six helpful stretches for us. They are:

Knee flexion
Knee extension

The descriptions of these elaborate motions seem written by teams of doctors, sports therapists, and masters of physiology, with impressive sounding terminology that obfuscates the stark and simple reality that they just tell you to lift your knee, then straighten your leg as much as possible. These two both give me a solid, written defense if the person in front of me accuses me of kicking her chair.
If I didn’t know better, I would suspect they are just splitting one exercise into two to impress us with the grand array of stretching options. Sort of like a bench press is actually two motions: lifting, then lowering. But of course we know we can always trust glossy technobabble. Then they start to sound really high tech! They must be very advanced exercises that will clear away any trace of lactic acid, permanently eliminate fatigue, and rejuvenate my soul!

Plantar flexion
(layman version: lift your heel. Lift the ball of your foot.)

(layman version: roll your foot inward. Then, roll it outward.)

I think this pretty well ends any competition within the airline industry. I mean, how could American, El Al, even KLM ever compete wth this? I wonder if there was some oversight giving me Hemispheres magazine, as these exercises are so helpful and nonobvious that they should only be provided to first class passengers, and then only if they sign a nondisclosure agreement.

I’m still pretty pissed off that nobody paid me a dime for German 2.0. But it’s still available, on my prior entry On the Engineering Superiority of German Speakers, and you should buy it quickly before the krauts engineer their own airline seat exercises. Nobody bought my Urban Hop maneuver either, which is also foolish, and I’d love to be bracketed by midgets right now. But I’m gracious, and bored, and so I cast more literary pearls before you graceless swine. Ready? New airline stretches!!!

Extensor hallucis longus dorsiflexion and metatarsal counterrotation

With feet flat on floor, lift your big toe. Press the base of the big toe against the metal bar under the seat to further stretch the big toe back toward the foot. Cease during turbulence. Repeat with the left big toe.

Podidigital perpendicularization via abductor hallucis actin electrification

With feet flat on floor, bend the right big toe until the front is perpendicular to the floor. Repeat with the left big toe. Continue until exhausted.

Anus puckerflexion

While seated with the bottom of the buttocks firmly in the chair, tighten the sphincter muscle. Release. Repeat. If any sounds emerge, yell, „Thar she blows!!“ or „How did Mabel get THAT one through security?“ Warning: avoid the release component within 8 hours after eating airline food.

Barf bag extension

Remove the vomit bag from the seat pocket in front of you. Open it and hold it in front of you. Better yet, ask a neighbor to open it. Purse lips and blow, inflating your nasovocal cavity to maximize cheek concavity. If desired, combine with the „upward stretch and call button press“ described in the previous edition of Hemispheres magazine. If a flight attendant arrives, apologize for the false alarm, but state that a repeat may be imminent. Recite: Here I sit, broken hearted. Paid a dime, and only farted. If the flight attendant is not amused by the metaphoric association between an aborted shit and puke, initiate a foot eversion in front of his foot just as he tries to walk away.

Right finger pronation

Hold your right hand such that one finger lies such that its pronatory displacement would depress the seat back button. Pronate and thereby also stretch your saccral region by four degrees. Next, press the button while leaning forward. Repeat until dizzy. If the person behind you complains, accelerate this motion while yelling, „We got a live one here!!“ If female, first place a pillow under your blouse and instead scream, „He’s coming!! The Messiah is here!! Breathe breathe breathe….“

Orifice stretch

Place one finger in one nostril. Rotate in a counterclockwise motion, then clockwise. Evert the finger to maximize the diameter of your nostril, then invert to stretch intranostril cartilidge. Repeat with all (of your) fingers and orifices. If bleeding occurs, blame it on the altitude and demand a free ticket. Otherwise, continue if desired with (your) pets and infants. Ask before involving others. Expert’s tip: a disproportionate number of flight attendants are gay and may participate with unanticipated enthusiasm.

Mile high rub

Reach down and apply your own special mix of pronation, flexion, and eversion (but NOT inversion) until attaining maximum extension. Freely stretch your legs and feet, as the pushy Kraut to your right will probably give you a wide berth. If a flight attendant objects, state that your doctor instructed you to avoid stress, and you have a morbid fear of flying. Demand free wine and threaten a discrimination lawsuit.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gerwin Squawk

The Society for Neuroscience conference began with a bang and ended with a whimper, like every year. What changes is not content but the human nervous system. SfN assaults its members with a multimodal cacophony best described by James' characterization of the newborn's experience: a buzzing, booming confusion. Babies are allowed to cry, but somehow this is frowned on in equally overwhelmed adults. After five days of days of having your brain bombarded by brain posters, talks, exhibits, socials, and people, you can't handle anything beyond soft warm mush. Your brain is like a sponge on day one and an anchor on day five. This phenomenon should be studied, and would make a fine SfN poster.

The conferences get better every year, because every year, you have more friends to see, and your existing friends become old friends. This adds to the chaos - on top of juggling all the ostensible work, you have to have some plan for lunch, coffee, dinner, and drinks each day, often with different people, each of whom are making their own semiconflicting plans. I used to be contemptuous of this sort of work socializing, as it seemed like faux work, a distraction and excuse from real work. This was just confusion between work and fun. The SfN socializing is essential politicking and strategerie. Gotta have a combination of good work and good self promotion. The former is better, and serves as an essential check on those who try to bluster through with only the latter. But you need both.

An emerging catalyst is the BCI party that was thrown each of the last 3 years by Cyberkinetics and Guger Tech. They choose a location, send an Evite, and pay for the first hour of drinks. Each year, they come up with different drink names based on (almost exclusively) BCI researchers. This year included such atrocious flops as the MoLeighto and Gerwin Goose.

The best event of SfN was Gerwin Schalk's talk. He opened by announcing that, while he usually required no mike thanks to his Schwarzennegerian vocal chords, he would use one this time. He did not announce any ear plugs. I grabbed the sides of my chair and looked for a seat belt. We were saved by a bird that somehow got loose within the room. It flew all about, without even waiting for Gerv to pause, and caused a really funny effect as people covered their heads as the bird flew over. A little like the wave. Gerv, unlike the bird, was unflappable. I was waiting for him to make a little joke, or get mad and splatter the bird with the darts we all know Germanspeakers carry, but his talk ended without further incident.

The whole thing cost me fifty bucks but it was worth it. Except the fucking pigeon just used the fifty to line his nest. I should have just given him a one dollar bill, or even a duck bill. He was a pretty stupid pigeon. Didn't even try to haggle.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fox Blues

The trip to San Diego has been full of work and a fair amount of play. I gave 4 talks already and had countless meetings, some of them overdone but some over green chile garlic sauce. Wrote a poster, new talks, part of a grant proposal and a paper, many many jobhunting emails, and still made it to a Charger game and saw many people. I made it to the beach for a couple hours today and caught a couple waves. Nobody was there, no fighting for waves or sand, no interruptions, kinda like the old days. Except that the water is freakishly warm for November.

Fox has cheered up lately, which is too bad. They were positively funereal for a few days there, with intermittent ungracious malice and Chicken Little handwaving about the perils endemic to the upcoming hard left presidency. But between these tirades, they lapsed into hilarious drudgery that was evidently too much for Brit Hume. Sarah Palin cheered up, and it's tough imagining a quiet or helpful future for her. She can't be snubbed because the evangelical base loves her, but she embarrasses the also necessary pool of more moderate Republicans like Powell, Will, and Buckley. If only evangelicals had maybe 3 votes each, it'd be so simple.

Life could also be simplified by spending more time hiking.

Single yellow aspen - Yellowjacket Mine hike

View west from Yellowjacket Mine

Icy river from Yellowjacket Mine trail

Peak from Twin Peaks hike

Twin Peaks hike facing east

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Free Soap Box

The Big Game is on all day. It happens once every four years. The pre-game hype dominates the airwaves for months ahead of time. Advertising and sponsorship involves far more money than any sporting event. It draws more viewers than the Olympics, Superbowl, and World Cup combined. The whole world watches.

To get away from such portentuous global developments, my letter to the editor below was printed on Thursday, October 16 in the Telluride Daily Planet.

Dear editor:

Recent articles have discussed the growing enthusiasm for eliminating the Free Box in Telluride. Two reasons are given. First, people sometimes place trash in the Free Box. Second, some Free Box donations encourage alcoholics, marijuana users, and others whom nearby boutique owners dislike.

I remember the early days of the Free Box. I remember my Mom explaining it to me, and my initial thought was: why does anything ever remain in the Free Box? I was five and, like nearly all of us, I later came to appreciate that a thriving and sophisticated society like Telluride prospers from giving and sharing, even though this places some expectations on people who have more to share. The Free Box is an intense and poignant metaphor for larger issues. Of course, there are always a few people who will take advantage of societal largesse, and they were there 30 years ago too. A community that decides to be a little more altruistic, together, hip, and forward than most towns may attract some baggage. Should such people ruin a structure and a mindset that even the most ardent Free Box disestablishmentarianists agree is as central to Telluride historically and culturally as geographically?

Someone will dump junk in any Free Box, both literally and figuratively. This is wrong, insulting, and inevitable. A lot more people will leave clothes, blankets, trinkets, and a little toy plastic brain that I loved for four years until returning it to the Free Box. It was gone the next day. Don’t let a few leeches ruin it for the next generation. Keep the Free Box.

Brendan Allison, PhD
Brain – Computer Interface Scientist

Saturday, October 25, 2008

BCI research stops here

In fact, the mass suicide depicted here would not have brought BCI research to a halt. But it would have been a setback, and all future conferences would be slowed down by some brief eulogy and testament to us. Why did they do it? Were they that devoted? Theresa Vaughan would start some noble effort like a memorial lecture series. All BCI conference proceedings would include a suicide hotline. It would be pretty awkward. All because a BCI did not work.
So fund us, bitches!!

This video is from the Graz BCI conference in September. The first night, several of us went to a nice mountaintop retreat. It was gorgeous, with a fine view of Graz. I was told that the other side of the mountain has the Govenator's home village. Surely he could survive autoevisceration! Then again, he could stab himself with far greater force. We'll have to leave that to speculation.

After a nice dinner and remarkably little drinking, the discussion turned to harakiri (aka seppuku), as we had two Japanese colleagues present. Christoph, always prepared and technically ept, orchestrated the video. This video should allay any reputation that we scientists are overly stuffy, formal, and humorless.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The buck stops here

The buck stopped about two blocks from here, at a wild apple tree near the corner of Fifth Ave and Fifth Street. The buck was locking horns and fighting with another buck, as good male friends do.

They saw me and the smaller buck slowly backed away. The larger buck did not seem too concerned with me, especially since I was then squatting and looking off to the side to avoid looking suspicious. The buck then occupied himself trying to eat from an apple tree, with frequent glances in my direction.

It probably would have ended there. I wanted to get closer to the buck, but he was on the verge of bolting. He could not get any of the high apples and was about to give up. Then Sam showed up. Sam and the buck are friends; they rub noses in the morning. I called Sam, who showed up and purred while I petted him. (I refer to Sam the cat, BTW, not Sam Ramji the human.) The buck watched intently for several minutes. I inched closer and went for my closest buckshot yet.

Then I very slowly got up and pulled down an apple branch, rich with 4 apples, from the top of the tree. I held it out to the buck, with the cellphone cam in the other hand. Mmmmmmmm....

The buck had made the very brave move of coming out from behind the tree to check out the apple branch. The buck was healthy, and not starving or desperate. He was just brave, as far as he knew. In fact, that tree would have been little help against a hunter, and the buck was a much greater threat to me than the reverse. He slowly approached and then started eating.

After this, I fed him more apples, then slowly walked away. It followed me until it saw a paved road and cars, then walked away while still looking over its shoulder at me. I wonder if I will ever have a buck eating out of my hand again.

In other news involving my wondrous 1.3 megapixel camera, I hiked to Chief Ouray Mine on Wednesday.

The weather remains remarkable for late October. Snow on the mountains, but most days are sunny, warm, and dry. Great hiking weather. David Leland and Adrienne Dorig (and their much better camera) were here for a long weekend, so more pix of my Colorado trip should be forthcoming.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

October Festival

What will Sarah Palin's imminent granddaughter be called? Sarah has kids named Trig, Truck, Willow, Piper, and Bristol. What better first name than Folksy? Folksy Palin. How bout other ideas? I doubt she would go for Michael, who mocked Jesus more than once. She's not funny enough for Nilap, Richard Milhous, Adolf, Barack, Gerwin, or Churchlady. Folksy Palin. She'll choose another name. Her loss.

You may have heard that the national debt clock in New York was inadequate to post our growing debt, and that they plan to add 2 new numbers so it can track a national debt up to a quadrillion. This would correspond to an average family debt in the millions. One wonders how they decided on 2 numbers, instead of 3 or 4 or 9.

Colorado is a battleground state. The phone rings 10 times a day with ads for either party and pollsters who try to hide their phone numbers. The usual ads for cars, drugs, and beer are now in the minority. Most of the ads are political, with a few plugging Race for the Cure. We have the best and worst of humanity, and a lot in the middle, in the TV medium.

Last Saturday, I got to play kegmeister at Oktoberfest. Oktoberfest was originally held in Ouray, CO, and then some selfish Krauts stole the idea. Just to spite Americans, they then renamed their city Muenchen to confuse the American tongue (they also did this with Koeln). The Munich people also developed (or stole) this odd notion that there should be multiple beers at Oktoberfest, such as those produced by local brewers. In Ouray, there were two beers available: Sam Adams and Sam Adams Oktoberfest. I was told that the local microbrewer, Hutch, was approached, but did not have enough kegs available. The local microbrewer told quite a different story and was quite annoyed at being excluded. Ah, smalltown gossip. So the Germans need to learn beer from Americans. Don't have variety at Oktoberfest; it will just confuse people. Just supply two beers: the Hofbrauhaus main brew, and that Czech Budweiser they stole from Anheuser Busch. Now that they were bought out by a Belgian company, they came out with the new Budweiser American Ale. Good move! People are easily distracted.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Where's W?

"The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much."

-- Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), Wall Street, 1987.

Nice to see that America learned from that era. 1987 was the end of the faux boom caused by massive deregulation. Greed, like nuclear reactions, tribbles, kittens, drugs, or masturbation, is only good with regulation. Without regulation - such as rules that limit monopolization, shady trading, speculation, perpetual refinement of palming off nothing as something - capitalism was free to beeline toward its ultimate end: one incredibly rich person with everything and everyone else with nothing. Many tried, many came close, and then on Black Monday 1987 people suddenly realized they owned millions of shares of nothing verifiable. The system began to collapse, propped up only by a huge taxpayer bailout in what was then called the S&L scandal.

Blame goes all around. Republicans, democrats, traders, rich people, the media, oleagenous oil barons, brown people, the war, etc. Nobody blames the American voting public. Nobody in America, anyway. Even this collapse will probably not be enough to produce fundamental change. The economic fracas will occur again in the next generation. Similarly, we'll get involved in another expensive war, offset by increasingly sophisticated ideological distraction. Abortion. Gay marriage. Prayer in schools. Some horrific new threat from The Scientists. Gutting moose. The technology behind weapons of mass distraction will continue to evolve much faster than any countering force. Credit may be restored, but credibility will utterly collapse. Nobody will trust anyone, and with good reason. The ensuing fortress mentality will feed back into the alienation mindset, us versus them, it's all Their fault and They deserve it. So obvious, so predictable, and so unstoppable.

Because stopping it would require education, critical thinking, teaching the American populace skills that might make them more discerning consumers and voters. This would create the risk that people might not buy your product or heed the dominant paradigm. There's far more money in the opposite extreme, embodied by the anti-intellecutalism that won the last two presidential elections. Idealism always loses; it just sometimes seems to win when pragmatists wield it to confuse, deceive, and control. Ah well. I wonder how I can make money off this cycle next time?

"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of
constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson

People had more faith in our leaders back then. Too bad America today did not have some kind of figurehead, a widely recognized leader with great influence within the executive branch, someone who could come out and urge the populace to support Congress and the Paulson plan. Or perhaps who could have been more proactive in preventing this situation. We needed you, Oprah.

"Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

-- Winston Churchill, 1947, when that statement was true.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cold Hand Luke

Paul Newman's passing is sad news. Aside from his acting career, he seems to have been a genuine and altruistic man. He was also a practical joker and had a sense of humor. I hope he is remembered well. He deserves better than the not one, not two, but THREE bad Strother Martin impersonations I overheard at Denver airport. I don't think I have ever heard a good impersonation of those famous two lines. They suddenly ring painfully true - What we have here is failure to communicate. Some folks, you just can't reach. It's also a sad commentary on the state of BCI research; despite all the progress we made, far below 1% of the people who need a BCI to communicate even know that BCIs exist, let alone could get them communicating.

I just arrived in Colorado for a month of vacation. This is the longest period not working in my adult life. Vacation is a fuzzy term for me; I view it more as freedom to get real work done with less interruption. My goals over the next month include a new grant proposal with the Pfurtscheller lab, review 2 journal articles and two theses, a book chapter, lots of book editing, a blurb for, and at least one journal paper. This will get done amidst a lot of hiking, hanging out with the family, and carousing. The last word is quite a stretch in a town of 800; Ouray is not Manhattan. And good! That's why I'm here. It always takes my nervous system a week or so to adjust. The mountains are not bombarding my thalamus. They do not want anything from me. Sam the cat here wants some of the ham sitting in the fridge. He's insistent, and so painfully sincere. No prevarication, no conditions, no scheming, no bullshit about how it's in my best interest to help him, so he gets ham.

My hypothalamus thinks it is about 10 PM. This is reasonable. It was correct yesterday. It's in agreement with Bernhard, Ola, and many millions of correct people. Its stubbornness is understandable. Why would humans evolve to handle jet lag? When would our ancestors cross 8 time zones in one day? We should be grateful that the brain can adjust at all. Still, it is a bit vexing to have my life dominated by a little clump of 10,000 neurons. That's a mighty stupid statement from a neuroscientist, but I can plead fatigue. Could be worse. Within a few millimeters are other loci that control appetite, thirst, sex drive, thermoregulation, and all kinds of funky endocrine functions.

Only slightly further away are enough stars to overwhelm Carl Sagan. Colorado seems to be one of the few places left that has them. Even Martigny, Switzerland, which seemed to be a small town with little light pollution, wasn't close.

"My God ... it's FULL OF STARS!!"
- Dave Bowman, 2010

I saw the first presidential debate from Denver airport. This reminds me of the fun I have ahead of me - a whole month in a battleground state. This means we will get flooded with ads, which can be annoying but are now novel and different. I see ads for cars, sports, and household products all the time; only once in a blue (or red) moon do we get political ads. The debate was unsurprising, but still fun. I never really saw Obama speak before, and had little exposure to him until Bill Shain loaned me his autobiography at Utrecht in July. "Dreams from my Father" is a great book, clearly written by a great man, and much of it resonated with me. It was written by a man with shameless conviction of his own excellence, a certainty of his steady ascension forged through a misdirected search for identity. The poor man struggled with identity on racial and geographic lines, complicated by an absent and suddenly dead father. Hence the oft ignored subtitle of his book: A Story of Race and Inheritance. I would counter that this struggle may be shaped by background, but not caused by it. I am white, I did have some geographic adjustment but less than him, and Dad is asleep upstairs. Is my identity struggle less engaging or poignant? Identity struggles stem from many things. Scientist is an exotic label, misunderstood by most, and heavily attacked in the last eight years by the administration because we provide inconvenient facts inconsistent with most of its goals. To Bush's many defiant and dogmatic supporters: remember this when you're dying of cancer, seeing news reports that a cure is in sight but just a little out of reach. You pray. You pray really fucking hard, and then I'll see you in hell where you belong. The Book of Job was a fantasy. Telomerase inhibitors aren't.

Barry spoke of the importance of science and I hope this translates into more funding, but I doubt it. It's too late. I said that America was fucked before the $1 trillion bailout. Sorry, my countrymen. The USA will still be innovative in many ways, but the superpower era is over. I just read the text of the next call of EU funding, which will be officially released in November. It's good. It's really, really good. So begins the era of reverse brain drain, when America's best and brightest leave because they want a better education in a more technologically advanced country with a better reputation.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Salz nach

I left Bremen right after my last blog entry, ostensibly to work in Tuebingen, but the underlying reason was to get me out of Bremen during the BRAIN kickoff meeting. Tuebingen was quite busy with some kind of jogging event, but I got to meet with Jacqueline and Ranga and some others during my brief visit.

The train ride from Tuebingen to Graz went through Salzburg, so I planned to maximize my time in Salzburg with a 4 hour layover. Salzburg was again invigorating and inspiring and I missed leaving it. I felt a bit more accomplished because I had an inside tip from Patricia Linortner to go to the Fürst chocolate shop for the best chocolate balls. (South Park fans: they are not salty, and no comparisons to Chef nor Isaac Hayes will be tolerated.) Previously, I got the golden wrapped chocolate balls, but now I learned that those are for the tourists, and the natives first go to Fürst. After stocking up on these tasty and colorful baubles, which I am sure will be appreciated in Colorado, I left for Graz.

The conference was the usual whirlwind of talks, posters, handshakes, introductions, deferential ambition, strategerie. A lot of the masters are pretty good at providing the exact same facial expression while talking to someone who they consider hopeless or brilliant. About half the faces there were new, which reflects the progress of BCI research, and I got to spend a lot of time with them. The organizers did quite a good job, with the clever innovation of posting pictures of the lead poster authors over their posters, making them easier to identify. Good idea. In fact, in the future, people could put pictures of each author in the proceedings to make them even easier to find. You otherwise have to meet people by staring at the badges on their chests. I wrote half of such a story for my blog last year during the neuroscience conference, but never posted it because I didn't think I could beat the Let Freedom Ring post from last September.

I was on the review committee and the judging committee, putting me in the interesting position of basically repeating my judgment. There were quite a lot of politics in selecting the best talk. It was unexpected and educational. The conference concluded with dinner in the Landhauskeller in Graz. We were treated to a classy feast, and were told the mayor of Graz would speak to us. In the middle of dinner, a member of the Graz city council read a brief statement about the importance of "computer to brain interfaces," which amused our table. We were, however, grateful that the city of Graz would make an effort to show appreciation, and without a long speech while our food got cold.

The next day was a wine tour and lunch, which was also well planned. It started at 10 AM, and we took a dark bus to a pleasant but not too bright hill, had a moderate but not strenuous walk with some great views, then ate inside with lots of food, wine, and water. Almost as if the organizers expected lots of hung over people the last day of the conference. Most of the conferencegoers left after that. I am in Graz the rest of this week, and so I got to get dinner and play tourist with some conference stragglers as well as get some work done here.

I must again praise the city of Graz, which is both naturally pretty and well designed and maintained. I also did not previously appreciate the artificial island in the middle of the river. I saw this before, but I just thought it was a little open air concert venue. But I now see that it is actually a very clever piratecatcher. If you are only a few hours downriver from the vicious pirates that terrorize the river Salzach, you need to have some protection against the bastards or you will never get the salt that you paid 5000 guilders for just two weeks ago. Now I also see why they put seats there. This is so the good citizens can watch the pirates and mock them as they come around the river bend and realize they're busted. Ha ha!! Har Har!! Hey, where'd you get that salt? Huh? That looks a lot like the salt you stole from my brother last week! You're coming with me, asshole. And your little parrot, too.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Swiss Missed

(wrote the below last week)
I am in the later stages of the 10 hour train ride from Martigny to Bremen. The trip began with a recap of the trip I took yesterday, 45 minutes from Martigny to Lausanne, where I co-chaired a special session on signal processing in BCIs at the EUSIPCO conference. I had the same experience as I did around Thun. I was happily gawking at the scenery when we suddenly encountered a lake that took it to another level. This lake was much bigger and I should look up which one, but there is a certain added charm in ignorance. Knowledge demystifies. I had a similar thought this morning when I opened the curtains at my hotel and had to catch my breath. I wondered when the novelty of that view would wear off, but evidently 5 days was not enough. Perhaps I am getting out at the right time.

But then, as the train passes north of Frankfurt, the terrain grows steadily flatter and thus less heterogeneous and thus less interesting. This is not the first time I thought this. The first couple train rides that took me between northern and southern Germany were engaging, but now that it wears off I start to realize, as I did before, that northern Germany sucks. Just because you get used to something doesn´t mean it doesn´t matter. Reduced novelty implies reduced impact – not none. I took the beach for granted for most of my life. I wonder what else I won´t really appreciate until it´s gone. But I doubt this will plague me heavily when I leave Bremen. Aside from the personal connections with some students, and of course the voluminous and exceptional work I did there, I really doubt I will miss it. I had the same feeling in Atlanta, and 3 years after leaving there, I feel the same way.

(on to new stuff)
Since my return to Bremen, things have been remarkably busy and dynamic, but I can't really post most of it for political reasons that readers know well. I also survived the last 2 weeks, which I knew would be difficult, and now life will get easier. I was planning on leaving on Tuesday for Graz, but will instead leave tomorrow for Tuebingen. Then to Graz on Tuesday, and then I fly to CO on the 26th for a month. This will be the longest vacation of my life, and I am thoroughly confused about it. What the hell can you do with a month of vacation time? I'll figure something out.

Monday was the return of the weekly Pub Quiz at Hegarty's in Bremen. It had been suspended since June for Euro 2008, but I rallied the team and we took third. This was nice, because we usually do very well until flopping miserably on the music round. I think the quizmaster was annoyed at announcing our prize; I chose the team name The Sixth Sheikh's Sheep.

Bremen weather has been quite good, and it has been pleasant walking along the river in the evenings. The city is not without things or people I will miss, it's more a question of how good it is relative to other opportunities. Graz and Tuebingen both have pleasant rivers running through them.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Saint Bernhard

It has been almost a month since my last post, which I think is a record. It was wise of me to avoid posting for a while. After an inspired and prolific July, August was a horrible, stressful, mundane, excruciating, totally undeserved political mess. I had nothing positive or witty to say, and am stretching now. I tried twice to force something to mollify the masses chanting "Encore!" and stop my fans from overloading my ISP with plaintive appeals for more. Well, I did get requests from a majority of loyal blog readers (my mom and Gerv). But the spark wasn't there and it showed, and two feeble proto-posts without witty titles were abandoned. My dad once told me that Baudelaire said that he could detect a sip of sherry in a man's prose. Stress tastes much more intense and bitter.

The trip to Switzerland and the Millan lab was reinvigorating. My 9 hour train ride from Bremen began with the realization that my laptop did not work. (Yes, 9 hours - Bremen will not pay for any flight if a train ride takes 12 hours or less. Similarly, I have an 11:15 train ride from Bremen to Graz next month.) No entertainment was forthcoming from any of my seatmates, all loud Italians who spent most of the time on cell phones, gesticulating so energetically that I had to glare at them after one of them accidentally smacked my book with overcharged spretzatura. The train was packed and I was stuck. I figured that I could keep busy reading for a few hours, and then the scenery could keep me company. Finished several articles, looked up, and spent the next few hours in green eyed wonder. The Alps got better and better. The train (Basel to Visp) went around a corner near Thun and we were suddenly in a valley designed by God in one of his rare good moods. 30 seconds later, a lake came into view on the left side of the train and elevated it far beyond a petty religious experience. Even the Italians shut up. 10 minutes later, when I recovered, I thought, damn, I can write about this in my blog, but I'm still fishing for a witty title. (I take great pride in my blog titles). Would Thun fishing fly?

I was saved after arriving at the hotel and seeing tours of the great St. Bernard hospices and breeding kennels. You can go hang with the Saint Bs, and they have one that tows a little wagon for kids. I then checked email and got some long overdue but badly needed email from Bernhard Graimann about our new grant proposal. Bernardo does not really look much like a dog, but he is friendly, loyal, and dependable. And a cheap target for a blog title. And he never reads this blog. Jackass.

My meeting with Millan will never be forgotten and will become of minor historic significance in my life. We hit it off very well. I only met him once, in April, and now we advanced to a first name and hugging basis. He is one of the most senior guys in the field, knows everyone, and is the leader of our grant cluster. He is the lead and coordinator of TOBI, which was funded in the same call as BRAIN, but is bigger and the EU put him in charge of our cluster. Strategerie. My blog readers know the details of the August mess and why I cannot talk about it here now, but the details will be posted here at an appropriate time, and are juicier than a Dutch orange grove.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Guinness Art

I tremble like a starving chiuahua in the snow before the inevitable milestone of describing the Greatest Possible Trip in the Universe. St. Jamess Gate Brewery hath graced us undeserving offal with the beneficence of openness, and so I went on Saturday. I wrote other blog entries following Twain, Jesus, Wilde, Chapman, Bauby, and other minor writers without a second thought. Gonna take on Barack soon. Bah. Now I must apologize in advance to the spirit of Arthur Guinness, whose abridged first name is almost as beautiful as his second, for my imminent inadequate effort to portray the visit there.

The Guinness Storehouse is Ireland's number one tourist destination, and may well be the most vaunted of all beveragemaking destinations. Been to the Coke headquarters and museum, Becks tour, Hofbrauhaus, two whiskey distilleries, and wineries in Napa, Sonoma, Austria, France, Spain, northern Italy, and even Temecula. They were nice, but none had comparable majesty. The Storehouse is shaped like a pint glass, so patrons (counterintuitively) get higher and higher in the pint as their journey progresses. By the second floor, I learned to tag along inconspicuously with a group of short ladies aged 60-80 who seemed totally uninterested in the tour guide's prattle about retronasal breathing and ensuing free tastes. How ungentlemanly would I have been to refuse to help these damsels in distress trying to slyly unload their beer tastes without offending the guide? And they say chivalry is dead. Don't remember much of the tour past the third floor. I assume it was fun.

They say an employee once fell in a vat of Guinness and drowned. An inquiry ensued as to whether he suffered before he died. They concluded that he had not. He left the vat and went to the bathroom eight times before dying.

I also walked around outside of the American College Dublin, Oscar Wilde's home from 1855-1878. There is only one thing in the world worse than not being talked about, and that is being dead.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

BUM rush

Last week, we visited someone who got a first class honors degree in computer science despite having a major movement disability. This is exactly the sort of person I would love to work with on our grant. Aside from the fact that his background suggests that he could have a lot of ideas toward the development of improved BCI interfaces for disabled users, anyone with that attitude is probably an interesting guy and a good worker. So we went to tell him about the grant, show him some of our stuff, and discuss ideas with him. When we arrived, his washing machine was loudly clanging away. It intermittently became so loud that all conversation stopped, and we just stared at each other. We all agreed that the guy shrewdly scheduled his laundry to accelerate pressure on my hosts to provide a new washing machine. They said, sure, we will get a maintenance guy here soon. I suppose this should be fulfilling. Our goal was to help disabled people, and we did. So, uh, how ‘bout helping us on that grant? Still unresolved, but I hope he comes on board.

On Saturday, I went to Portrush with my host Prof. Paul McCullagh and his wife and son. Paul wanted to learn to surf, and I was only too happy to teach, or really find any excuse to surf. Portrush was a hip tourist town with some good beaches and solid evidence that good surf might be possible there. As it was quite windy, there was not much opportunity. But, we rented wetsuits and boards and spent a couple hours splashing around. I caught several waves, none more than 1 meter high, and most of them while bodysurfing. This left me more tempted than sated, somewhat like driving a Ferrari through a parking lot or Eskimo kissing a supermodel. I also have 35 vacation days that must be spent before the end of the year. I hear that Biarritz and some of Spain and Portugal are good; sadly, none are near any RyanAir flight paths and I’m too poor for mainstream travel.

The streets of Portrush were lined with surf shops and chip shops. The chip shops had chips with cheese, curry, fried cod, fried chicken, roasted chicken, mushy peas (this is not my sarcasm – the Irish openly call them ‘mushy peas’ on menus everywhere), burgers, chicken sandwiches, onions, ketchup, brown sauce, sausages, bangers, mash, champ, cap, toasties, bang, whipple, throck, fumble, spee, flue, grump, spank, knickers, umbrage, horchata, slam, boot, uvula, poppins, luthien, carcaroth, and malt vinegar. Lunch was quite tasty, as expected of most deep fried things.

Carls Junior. Fuck you, I’m eating.
-- Mike Judge, Idiocracy

On Tuesday we took a train to Dublin to meet with Prof. Richard Reilly at Trinity College. This was a very impressive campus, famous for hundreds of years, and a nice change from many modern university designs. The walls had portraits of prior distinguished professors, including Berkeley, who argued that reality is secondary, individual, and unprovable. Would it be wrong to paint a moustache and glasses on his portrait? Why? Can you really be sure, your honor, that I did in fact alter objective reality and not just your perception thereof? But the judge could counter that my handcuffs and iron bars are just in my head too. Have to leave that opportunity to a braver smartass.

While we exited the train in Dublin, we were accosted by the greediest panhandler yet. There was a stream of people coming down the escalator, and the guy was trying to engage multiple victims at once. It sounds vaguely like a good strategy, but I noticed he got no money. I have been accosted by no panhandlers in Northern Ireland, and only a few in Belfast. Thus, the region scores well on the Brendan’s Urban Mendicant index, which refers to the average number of blocks you can walk in the downtown area of a city before being asked for money. Among developed Western nations, it is worst in Atlanta and San Francisco, both of which are below one. Manhattan is probably below one too. Of course, the BUM index depends on a lot of factors: your color, attire, posture, eye contact, speed, gender, cellphone, location within the city, time, and who knows what else. I seem to get accosted more often than others, which I suppose I could take as a compliment: I have the bearing of a successful man, despite the reality that I am in fact worth considerably less than the average panhandler, who at least has no student loan debt.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Oe Captain, Bligh Captain

The train ride from Dublin to Belfast was pleasant and pretty. Just outside of Dublin, we passed a very small island called Bull Island where I am told Captain Bligh used to live. I guess he has a thing for tiny islands.

There were quite a few cranes and other signs of a construction boom in Dublin and Belfast. This is all the more impressive given that much of the world is in a housing bust. But, the end of the Troubles 10 years ago was a huge boon and it is nice to see capitalism plant its flag in the latest land of opportunity. It also highlights an underappreciated reason why the US went into Iraq – had that country become a stable, thriving, secular, pro-western democracy, and thus catalyzed surrounding countries to become the same, there would also be a demand for American products, American (no-bid) construction projects, American media, etc just like the Marshall Plan. What an addictive fantasy for the greedy powers that be. Here is a similarly feasible plan: miracle all the sand into salt! Maybe they would buy more of your beer. If you can only find some way to get around the Muslim prohibition of alcohol, you could still “win” the “war.” Build some trailer parks and satellite dishes and the populace will meekly follow. It already worked on the greatest country on earth, why not there?

“Sheep are just like people, really. Give ‘em a few good, square meals – every day – and they’ll just stand there, quietly, till ya eat ‘em.”

-- Multibillionaire Rod McCain (Kevin Kline), “Fierce Creatures”

Last week, I met a professor who was from India but lives in Ireland. There’s an exercise in inflection following. But in general, the Irish lilt remains musical, charming, and seductively cadential. For the first time, I am experiencing significant autonominal confusion. There are Brendans everywhere. I am only now getting used to ignoring them, just as it took me a week or so to work out the passenger side of vehicles being on the left. In another auto-nominal error, I saw a sign that said “car boot sale” and asked if this was a lot that sold repossessed cars. You know, cars that were booted and towed away.


So they actually sell car boots there? Why? So you can boot your own car? Is car theft that bad?


What do they actually sell at these things?

Whatever people want to sell, whatever they can fit in their boot.

This was a rather simple and stupid case of mistranslation, as car boots here refer to trunks. The equivalent of booting is clamping. Yeah, yeah. The British and Americans are a people separated by a trite metaphor. To further run Wilde, there is only one thing in the world worse than being witty, and that is being misquoted.

They seem less obsessed with Guinness than in Dublin. Without exception, every place that sells Guinness also sells two American beers. I guess I should stop counting Bud as American, since they sold out to the Belgians. American pride vs. American greed: always bet on black.

My hosts keep telling the tale of my passport misadventure on the way here. The consensus remains that it occurred because of my nationality. Racism flowers in small minds like weeds in shit. I would say it is fun to get beat down by the man, but it isn’t, and I would certainly not allege camaraderie with the many people who have far greater claims to the title of oppressee. But thanks to that mess, Dublin risks becoming a second Rome for me – a major European capital I long wanted to visit that is instead only the hub of a travel nightmare, less than 18 hours in a city with most of them spent either sleeping or in transition to an airport. I have a day trip to Dublin at 6 AM, in 4 hours (insomnia is endemic to mad scientists), but this is only to meet with professors at Trinity College Dublin and then turn around and return here to Bel, fast. OK, that last one underscores the hazards of nocturnal blogging. Back to bed, perchance to sleep.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


The trip from Bremen to Dublin was extraordinarily unpleasant, as a German passport agent decided to cause trouble over my passport, delaying my departure a full day. There was no valid problem with my passport, and the passport bitch lectured me on how “this is what your country does to people all the time.” This cost me about €150 that I will never get reimbursed due to the mystifying mess of the Bremen reimbursal process. I could go on about it, but most of it is beyond my control. I try to extract one key lesson: earn more money. You cannot avoid such harassment, but you can reduce the economic stress it produces.

Thus I arrived in Dublin around 11 PM, exhausted, poor, annoyed, and thoroughly ill suited to the drinking madness that would surely have ensued had I arrived as planned, a day earlier in early evening. I tried anyway, but the added dagger twist was the fact that Dublin now holds the record as the most expensive city to go out drinking I have yet encountered. I went to Temple Bar and was having a good time until learning that my Guinness cost €5,70. Other bars were similar; the minimum was €4,80. Another reminder to make more money, since again greed trumps tradition. Dubliners, aren’t you supposed to be the ambassadors of your fine and famous black velvet elixir? Don’t you want tourists to go away with positive associations of Guinness? Or do you just want us to go away? What’s wrong with you people? Who the hell would think that a pint of Guinness is worth over eight bucks? Oh, yeah. The Irish.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Justice Once

This blog entry has been removed and is availble on request.

The Lying Dutchman

I am on a train from Duesseldorf to Bremen, the last leg of the train ride back from Eindhoven. I gave a talk titled “Why Use A BCI If You’re Healthy?” at Philips Research there that went quite well, and met with a lot of their engineers and execs. I am happy to be working with them on my existing BRAIN grant and (hopefully) my new proposal, “BCI Education for Stroke Treatment.” They should fund it for the acronym alone. I am writing the best proposal. How can you deny the BEST proposal?

On the last train, from Venlo to Duesseldorf, security came through to check passports. For reasons I am still trying furiously to figure out, they asked the Dutch guy sitting right across from me if they could check his bag. I am also trying really hard to figure out his response: utter capitulation. He reached into his bag, opened a can of tobacco, reached inside, and pulled out two bags containing something not legal on the German side. “Das ist alles?” asked the cop. “Das ist definitiv alles.” Cops anywhere know better. The cops searched him, then his bags (which were indeed not devoid of contraband) and, in the midst of their purgatory frenzy, started searching one of my bags. I looked at the cop quizzically. He asked if that was my bag, I said yes, and he apologized and carted off the smuggler. This marks only the second time in several months that some guy got busted by the German passport cops from the Dutch border within five feet of me. I am bad luck – or good luck, depending on your perspective and quota. The German cops should hire me, or at least give me a free ride. Just wait until Bloodhound Brendan chooses a seat, then bust his neighbors. Then leave.

Fun though that job might be, I seem to have underestimated my standing within the BCI cognoscenti. No, not overestimated; nothing worth reporting there. I arrived in Utrecht on Wednesday night, an intensely vibrant yet peaceful city dominated by a luminescent green river. I wanted to go to wherever the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, and also go to Arnhem to see the Bridge Too Far. Locals had no idea about the former, and said that the scenes with that bridge were not actually filmed in Arnhem. Attenborough, you ignorant slut.

I was an invited speaker, meaning expectations were high. I also wanted to send a message that inviting me to speak is a good idea. And I was grateful for the invitation, since I planned on coming anyway at my own expense. If someone pays for my trip to their conference to their city, and puts me up in a hotel for 4 nights, and gives me free admission to a conference, I ain’t going to let him down. Plus this was not a talk introducing BCIs to relative novices; every eye on me was a spotlight from an insider. Adding to the pressure, I followed Gert Pfurtscheller (who needs no context), Michael Tangermann from Berlin, and the new doctor Femke Nijboer, who holds the record in the BCI cognoscenti for greatest disparity between accomplishment and ego. She is one of the biggest contributors in our generation, and in 10 years of seeing her around the conference circuit, she never once bragged nor asserted ego. She was characteristically undeservedly nervous before her talk, and described her overall plan, and I told her it was quite good and I was eager to see it. I knew this would be a tough act to follow. And so I wanted it all the more. Further, I wanted to give this talk for long, long time. Normally, I have to review BCIs, or present work from my lab, but now I could say what I wanted. It got more and more fun the more I thought about it. I worked on the talk for at least 12 hours. I had new graphics, sly flattering references to preceding speakers, narrative closure, woven structure, foreshadowing, tales from the trenches with patients, suspense, humor, controversy, even audience participation.

The talk itself was even more fun than most, 45 minutes of me finally unloading on where the field is heading and why. I at least knew I did not botch it, but it was otherwise hard to gauge. The next day, I had to ditch the conference to go to Enschede to meet with our grant partners at TMSi and see their cool new water based electrode. That night, I returned to Utrecht to see my BCI buddies. Where were you today, they asked? I told them. Others asked too. Then more. And more. I realized that my plan of sneaking out for a day failed miserably. Only a couple hours later, alone in a comfy hotel room, did I realize why my absence was so obvious to everyone. People were looking for me. They wanted to talk to me. Some people could have snuck out for a day, but not me. I will never forget it.

The next day, I failed to wake up especially early and ended up getting lunch with Eric Leuthardt and Justin Williams. We discussed finding some museum in Utrecht with relics from the Treaty. I said, we’re half an hour from Amsterdam, let’s go to the Van Gogh museum. And so we did. I got lost in whirling wheatfields with reaper and crows. We got a great Indonesian feast and returned to Utrecht. Eric and I got really deep into future BCI directions while being intermittently interrupted by a very fat, unkempt, pimply, overly polite American with a high pitched voice stressing over the results of his bad travel planning. The contrast and irony were funny, though vexing. As I told Eric, it’s the same move beggars pull all the time. “Sirs, I am very sorry to interrupt you, I just have a quick question, I hope you don’t mind, but ….” Well, now, you did interrupt us, your claim of brevity is blatantly self-defeating, and your concern for our minds evidently does not reach the threshold of action (or inhibition thereof). We did not say this, of course – we tried to convey it by body language, avoiding eye contact, and minimizing pauses that might invite imply that someone else would be welcome to talk. Wasn't enough. We should have simply feigned death, as suggested by Gary Larson in his comic from my "Man-possum" post.

Entreaty of Utrecht

I knew for months that there would be a conference in Utrecht with a lot of the biggest names in BCI research. I also knew I would be there, both to see the talks and see old friends. This is the great thing about a career with people you like. Every time I go to a conference, I reunite with old friends. They differ from William Hoopes, my old college buddies, friends from grad school, etc. in that interacting with them is putatively work. I can actually claim to be getting work done if I tell them what I am doing, learn what they are doing, and discuss working together in the future. I still cannot get over this.

The plan to get paid for whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence failed this time, because my boss did not approve my travel request. OK then, may I go to Utrecht if it is not a work trip? I will take vacation time and pay for the train and hotel. Sure, he said. Then the conference organizer, Erik Aarnoutse, asked me to be an invited speaker, meaning these expenses are paid, plus I can go as an insider instead of a cloying eager tiertwo leech. This invitation was itself made possible by Rebecca Schaefer from his lab, who I met at the conference in San Fran in April and evidently put in a good word for me. Thanks!

We all agreed the conference was masterfully organized. Great speakers, good facilities, no infrastructural hassles, well timed, good dinner. The most striking move was revealed after the Speakers’ Dinner on Thursday night. Conference hosts will sometimes buy gifts for invited speakers. Chocolate, a bottle of wine, textbook, embroidered bag, a shirt. You know conference hosts have spent thousands of years trying to come up with good gifts. Erik Aarnoutse beat them all. Each speaker got a nicely wrapped ancient book relating to his or her expertise. Of course academics will love such a gift. I got an ancient Italian book on phrenology. An authentic, serious book on phrenology, so old the pages crumble. Which is OK. I cannot understand Italian. But I love the silly pictures, and the simple fact that I now own a real book on phrenology. Other speakers were indeed delighted. Being good scientists, we spent much of Thursday night in discussion about where the hell Erik and his colleagues managed to find such fitting books. While the method was unclear, the results weren’t: no further introduction of UMC Utrecht is necessary. They are abstract no longer. That was a pun too far. Sorry. I am tired.

Summary: Thanks to Erik and the organizing committee. The insider buzz was that the conference was spectacular. You rule. I will spend the rest of my life unsuccessfully trying to top that move with the ancient books.

Monday, June 30, 2008

EURO 200L8

So ends Euro 2008. I don't have much to add from the insider perspective from the nation that made it to the finals. International news seems to have conveyed two things: EURO 2008 was huge, and surprisingly docile. These are both true.

No American sport comes close to Euro soccer. Andy Weir once riposted the Yankees - Red Sox rivalry; such a statement would only come from someone who has seen the American side of sports fanaticism. To attain parity, hundreds of Sox fans must take the train to Manhattan on each game day (not just playoffs), wearing their Sox gear and drinking constantly, then march through the streets in a rally against the opposing teams. You jackass, they'd get their asses kicked in a New York minute, you think. See my prior posts on why such rallies require riot cops on horseback with tear gas.

Consider also that EURO 2008 is only every four years. On any game day, regardless of who was playing, the streets and pubs were packed. If your country was playing, it got really absurd. Any restaurant that did not normally have outdoor seating got some. Stick a TV outside and you will get business. People wore their country's team colors and face paint with their flag. Streetcars took different routes - a less endearing effect of EURO 2008, along with the fact that whenever the local team won (in this case, Germany or Turkey), people would honk their horns all hours of the night. Throughout the entire night. One person would honk, and some other asshole half a mile a way would hear it and start honking too, like howling dogs. Worse than church bells, quacking, or Austrian wedding gunfire.

The nonviolent aspect of the fracas did surprise me. I said Bremen would tear itself apart if Turkey and Germany ended up playing each other. I was wrong. On game day, I saw some cars and homes flying German flags, and some flying Turkish flags, and thought, maybe I should go to Holland or Denmark for a day or two. But the Turkish were very gracious in defeat, as were the Germans. On the day of the finals (Sunday), I was at Murphy's Corner, where I usually go to thrash the Addams Family pinball game. The bar was filled way beyond capacity, but that's OK, the fire marshalls were probably watching the game too. After the game ended, the crowd applauded and went right on drinking. Come on, guys. Scream. Threaten. Riot. Trample. Invade. You're making our revolution look bad.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Seed(y) King

My time in Graz will end in a few hours, and it was a full trip. Got plenty of work done. On Friday, I took a train to southern Styria and went wine touring with Bernhard and his family and friends. I slept quite well until some asshole started triggering very loud explosions around 5 AM and kept firing intermittently all morning. Goddamn it, I thought, I warned you about those GegenNazis, didn't I? Better go edit my recent blog entry before they overrun the hotel. But no, it was just an Austrian wedding tradition. They begin shooting the morning of the wedding to wake up the bride. This would justify one shot, not hundreds. Perhaps they thought she was deaf, narcoleptic, recalcitrant, forgetful, and retarted. And do you really want the bride (and the groom, and all wedding guests) exhausted during the wedding, and wedding night? Some traditions should die.

All of Styria seems to love all parts of pumpkins. They have pumpkin soup, pumpkinseed oil, pumpkin breading on their schnitzel, and pumpkin seeds with various spices everywhere. All of this is tasty. On Saturday, Bernhard and company were quite insistent on visiting the legendary Samen König, the colorful king of the Austrian realm. I was told the trip would not be complete without getting some of his oil and seeing his special Samen Press. Unfortunately, when I asked one of the locals about the first word, I got the translation that Samen = semen. Thus I had to tell Bernhard that I was really not that enthusiastic about the visit. I'll meet him, but I sure as hell will not shake his hand nor buy any of his oil. I do not want to see the Samen Press, especially if it is in use. In fact, I prefer to stay at least 50 feet away from it.

Are you sure you want to bring your kids to meet such a man? Does he demand tribute? If so, what gifts are traditional for this king? Dirty movies? Cheap booze? Vitamin E? An inflatable doll? A pump? Special gloves? Some mammarily blessed locals? Turns out he was not there when we visited, or so we were told. I bet he was just out back playing with his seed press. It must take a lot of discipline to produce that much of his seed oil. Our governor is only the second toughest man from Styria.

Here is a picture of the Seed King with a tool whose purpose I can survive not knowing.

luggage rack

I am looking in to flights from Bremen to Dublin for my trip to Northern Ireland next month. RyanAir, as usual, has absurdly cheap flights, but is quite sneaky with luggage. You get one carry-on for free. An additional carry-on, or checked baggae, incurs more fees. Similarly, when I flew back from the States in April, I had to pay an overweight fee since I acquired a lot of books, wine, and misc trinkets in the states. Of course, this leads to certain silly tricks like wearing lots of clothing, and especially my greatcoat, even if I would rather check these items.

Yet there is no weight limit on clothing. And they do not check pockets. Hm. What stops a tacky traveler from stuffing an overcoat with as much luggage as possible? Or other clothing. You could stick a pair of socks (maybe two) into your bra. Who the hell would challenge the luggage rack strategy? Excuse me, ma'am, could you please unstuff your bra and check those items? More likely, you would find male flight attendants more likely to give you one or six of those little bottles of liquor that normally cost five bucks.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Graz has posters everywhere for a new club opening soon called Club Obama. This is not remotely surprising to anyone here - Europe loves Obama. They think he is the next JFK. The election will be a fun one, but it's hard to see how McCain can overcome the connection to Bush. His insistence on staying in Iraq doesn't help either. On the other hand, Americans are easily distracted by racism and religion.

I predict the most ugliness in the South. The election will tear them apart. You have a very large black population that remains touchy and combative. The other dominant group, rednecks, will soon start frothing about a nigger raghead president. I lived there; that's what they'll say. Watch.

In terms of world opinion, electing Obama would be huge. France and Germany, in particular, cannot get enough of him. He could even top JFK at the 50th anniversary of his 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech. Since I came to Bremen, people asked me all the time about 'de black guy.' I said all along I thought he would win, but (as with the last 2 elections) can explain it along a different vector: anti-intellectuallism. Fuck race, religion, and gender. The last 2 presidential elections were won by portraying the loser as smart. Bookish. Ivory Tower. Out of touch. Clinton was more vulnerable than Obama along this axis, and that is why she lost.

In terms of real difference, how much can you expect of the man? We're still well over $1 trillion in debt to China. Our scientific and technological advantage has been hamstrung. There will be some movement on the environment and torture, but only enough to distract. We're still in Iraq, and I don't buy the quick extraction plan. He will drag it out as much as he can, or find some other war, because the same war profiteers that run the country are still in power. And still making money; the war in Iraq remains a huge success for those who clamored for it. Obviously, it was far less successful than they planned, and the collapse of the Carlyle group should be a national holiday. But our tax money keeps flowing to make weapons. Try to change it and they'll splatter his cortex over his wife just like they did in 1963. Moving the focus elsewhere, such as Iran, is perfectly OK; as long as a major chunk of the American economy ends up paying for weapons and gas, Obama gets to live.

C D Austrians

I am in Graz, Austria, as an invited guest of the Pfurtscheller lab. I have wanted to come here for over 10 years - as well as Albany and Tuebingen - because those are the three top BCI labs. I was flattered enough that they let me visit. I figured I would get maybe 5 minutes of face time with the big man. Instead, everyone has been quite generous with their time, which is all the more touching because I know these guys work hard. Quite a lot of people want to meet with them. They not only showed me their office, they also showed me their cool VR system and let me run a subject with my pet project, a hybrid BCI using both SSVEP and mu. Substantial discussion ensued about me working here. Novelty abounds.

I'd like to see some statistics on breast size across Europe. No, scratch that, I'd prefer raw data. I think the Dutch tower over all, but the Austrians are certainly above average. However, Austrian women, being formal and proper, all wear bras. I see the Austrians, but no seedy Austrians. I must get someone to translate my 'Let Freedom Ring' post into German.

But not Spanish. The Spaniards seem to need much less prodding to go topless, and I very much looked forward to this when I went to Spain. Ugh. Blech. When liberty clashes with decency, I usually prefer the former, but not with gramma feeling free in public. Breasts may be categorized according as eggs, lemons, oranges, or grapefruits. These are all fine. Even quail eggs - whole ones. If you might best be compared to broken eggs, or fried eggs, consider the serious hazards of skin cancer.

Europe has set itself ablaze with the Euro soccer championships, which occur once every four years. I first encountered this, quite accidentally, in 2000, when I was trying to get a hotel room in Florence and absolutely every hotel there, and in all the suburbs, and Bologna, were booked. I ended up spending the night in a McDonalds somewhere. This year, the event is hosted by Austria and Switzerland, and so the locals are completely mad. It turns out that Austria and Switzerland both have shitty soccer teams, and thus would never qualify, and so this is their only real shot in decades. Sadly, neither team has much chance. I saw the opening game - Austria vs. Croatia - and Austria lost. Then the next game was Germany vs. Poland. Are you kidding, I asked the bartender? No, he said, should be an old rivalry, huh? Yeah, sounds like a massive riot waiting to happen. Make sure the Germans don't try to sneak in a goal before the game officially starts.

I think they should schedule games along national rivalries more often. There would be more emotion, more exposed nerves, more bitterness, and thus the only thing that matters to the organizers, more money. I also saw portions of Greece vs. Sweden and Spain vs. Russia. Huh?! Aside from soccer, why do these nations hate each other?

Bremen had another huge soccer rally before I left, comparable to the one that so fascinated me when I first arrived there. The only difference was that last year, the foe was Hamburg (blue) and now it was Hannover (red). And also, once I saw the riot police, I immediately got as far away as possible. I was told that the Germans sent hundreds of their best riot police to the match against Poland at the request of the Poles. For fun, the reader can come up with some sarcastic comment this time, since I have too many.

I also must announce a far more terrifying rally in Bremen. There were lots of people wearing shirts or jackets with swastikas and fists. They were chanting, quite angrily, against a specific minority group of Germans only because they disagree with their political views. They advocated the extermination of this minority group. Doesn't this scare anyone else?!! Mark my words, the GegenNazis mean trouble. I know what Gegen means according to, but that is only the classic conventional definition. I think Gegen is a secret German word for Dart. Well, you may have fooled most of the world, but me n my 10 blog readers are watching you!!

Monday, June 9, 2008

new BCI - fi

(I started writing this a couple weeks ago in Austria, and figured I would post it due to the upcoming BCI conference.

The media has again failed in its responsibility to provide accurate and balanced information to the public. Five years ago, I was teaching a class on intro to neuro and a class on BCIs at UCSD summer school. Nicolelis and colleagues got a lot of buzz in 2003 with their invasive monkey BCI and claims that this is 'way beyond anything that was done before.' The better journalists simply bought it without fact checking. The majority suckled it, gnawed, and regurgitated with the naive enthusiasm of a newborn calf. "This is the first time anyone sent a message directly with brain activity." This claim was so obvious that even people in my intro neuro class laughed at it.

Nice to see publicity for BCI research. Andy Schwartz and his team have made great progress, and reported their work more responsibly. But, reporters are again getting tunnel vision. Blog readers and the general public should know that the approach described by Schwartz and colleagues is not the most common, practical, or fast BCI. Similarly, Nicolelis and colleagues (who Schwartz, Taylor and colleagues hate, and with good reason) got trashed by a paper the subsequent year by the Wolpaw lab, which proved that their noninvasive systems with humans exhibited better control, Little Nicky was confabulating, and certainly suggested it was intentional. See also my prior blog post "Justice Once."

On to the key facts. People might assume that whatever technology makes it to the media must be the best. This is not so. On the contrary, the most highly regarded BCI labs eschew publicity and only present their work through conferences and proper channels.

To clarify how the real world of BCI research differs from media portrayals:

1) The substantial majority of BCI work involves noninvasive techniques such as EEG. No drilling holes in the head, no surgery, no pain, no need for any doctor.

2) The substantial majority of BCI research uses human subjects.

3) The clunky 2 dimensional control seen in the Nicolelis and the much better Schwartz videos is remarkable, but below noninvasive systems. The Wolpaw lab has both better 2D control and 3D control.

4) The substantial majority of BCI research does not involve robot arm control. This is a very flashy application, but not the most helpful to patients, and it is not a breakthrough to take any signal and use it to control a device. The hard part is getting a reliable signal from the brain in the first place.

Readers who are interested in this technology are encouraged to explore beyond headlines. Friendly articles about BCIs, including reviews meant for people without a technical background, are easy to find online.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Passing (away) lane

I am in a village in Romania. This fact is cool to me, at least right now, and absolutely nobody else. Every Romanian I meet does not seem to understand why I would travel here given other options. Similarly, my enthusiasm at seeing gypsies was shared by none. In fact, Romanians really dislike gypsies, alleging that they all beg, steal, and cheat. This casual banality turns out to be unexpectedly inspiring, as it makes me defiantly enthusiastic. Fine, you guys can be jaded, but I'll bask in novelty while it lasts.

It is also refreshing to see that novelty is still attainable and enjoyable. It is still fun to see new places. This may eventually be untrue; I think my dad settled around the same age as I am now, though he had been to 76 countries well before then. This must be an inevitable part of aging. Novelty wears off - and, worse, so does the novelty of novelty. You have decreasing motivation to see new things because you have seen enough to identify where you belong, and so you settle. Aside from travel, the novelty of everything eventually wanes - major life changes, work, invention, peoplewatching, family, sex and relationships, proxy novelty from children, world events, intoxicants, technology, and even different perspectives on the world - there may come a time when I am underwhelmed by everything. Perhaps that will be a good time for me to die. Don't quote me on that.

Nadrag is a pleasant village of several hundred people located in the hills about an hour from the nearest large city of Timisoara. Take away the satellite dishes and old cars, and the next indicator of modernity is concrete construction. I tried to ignore those significant stains of progress and pretend it is timeless. Oh, and also they have pubs with beer, convenience stores, telephones, and here I am on a working internet connection. It's hard to get away. Humanity's childhood is over. Clarke was wrong. Childhood's End requires no aliens that look like Satan, spaceships, or government schemers. He nailed the main component, a generation of kids with information processing capacities beyond anyone's understanding, including their own.

My hosts have been kind to the point of embarrassment. I cannot pay for anything, wash a dish, fold a blanket, cook, etc. I am mercilessly assaulted with good food and drink, and must rely on increasingly insistent hand signals to avoid being further fed. (exception was the cow stomach soup; after eating the top half of the soup, which was quite good, and then chewing through bits of stomach, I had remarkably little trouble conveying that I was done with that dish.) I gave a talk at the University of Timisoara yesterday and the effusive gratitude might have been appropriate for a major donor or visiting head of state. Dude, all I did was give a talk. It's just me. If I am that good, why am I poor?

The drive itself was interesting, since it was my first venture from central to eastern europe. Of course this evoked images of the old USSR and integration into the EU, and so I was eager to see both history and change. I got it, in expected and unexpected ways, as expected. Clothing and people changed by the time we hit east Germany. People became fatter, and more settled in their stockiness. A lot more overalls and drab colors. (This of course does not apply to young people, who look exactly the same everywhere nowadays.) There were more construction sites. Road quality declined steadily, with the exception of Hungary, which had at least a good freeway and the most road crews. There were plenty of strip malls that looked like malls anywhere else, including many of the same franchises, until you notice that all the strip malls in eastern europe are quite new. The most disappointing constant was McDonalds, which has succeeded beyond Ray Kroc's blandest dreams. They are everywhere and look exactly the same. I did notice that the east German McDonalds advertised fried mini schnitzel. But was it really? This is a great business model. You have a product, such as deep fried mystery meat, that you can produce by the megaton. Through clever advertising and faith in the stupidity of your customers, you can split this into many different products, both within a store and in different regions. Yes, I am suggesting that chicken McNuggets and mini schnitzel are pretty much the same. Do you think you could tell them apart in a blind taste test? For that matter, if I replaced the patty in a Filet o Fish sandwich with one of the deep fried McDonalds apple pies, would anyone notice? Probably, but you had to think about it.

Since it was my first trip on the Autobahn, I also expected to see expensive sportscars rocketing through the fast lane. Generally, no. We did see one line of about 15 cars, mostly Ferraris and Porsches, doing maybe 90 mph in the fast lane. I saw a couple cars above 100 mph, both of them at most 140. Hence it is not much different from American highways, and certainly slower overall than I-15 outside of Las Vegas. There were far fewer police cars, perhaps because there are no speeding tickets. Our vehicle never went that fast (I never drove) and this was fine since I was engaged by the terrain as well as the people. Beginning in Slovakia, the dominant flower color changed from yellow to red and purple. There were more hills as we left central Germany. This was nice - Bremen, like much of northern Germany and Holland, is flatter than a bad metaphor. Some of the hills toward the end of the trip had more exposed rock and steep cliffs. The trees by the roadside always included pines, but the subspecies changed and I wonder how many subspecies of pine exist and where. I am almost curious enough to look it up. Just a little below the threshold of action.

But this whole blog entry, at least the title, was meant to funnel toward the most exciting part of the trip, the end of the road from Timisoara to Nadrag. This is a road that, like many others, consist of a strip of black pavement with a dotted line down the middle. This dotted line typically conveys a separation between two lanes. Cars going each way travel on their right sides, which is a good way to avoid striking oncoming cars. It is OK to temporarily travel in the wrong lane under a special circumstance called "passing." There are rules to when and how you can pass somebody. These rules exist because of the possible risk of passing. I guess I must repeat this point for Romanian readers - the risk of passing is that you will smack an oncoming car head on. Perhaps I should also mention that this is undesirable. Just to avoid confusion here - travelling in the wrong lane is extremely dangerous, because of the risk of hitting an oncoming vehicle, which is undesirable because it will cause injury or death, and worse it will affect your insurance. In my drivers' ed class in high school, we learned some basic rules of passing:

1) Make sure you have excellent visibility. For example, if there is a sharp turn or dip ahead, you should not try to pass, because an oncoming car may hit you. This is bad because you could get hurt, etc. Got it? Getting hit by oncoming cars is bad.

2) Like any lane change, follow SMOG (signal, mirror, over shoulder, go).

3) Complete the passing procedure as quickly as possible, then return to your lane. Minimize your time in the opposite lane, since this will reduce your risk of being hit by an oncoming vehicle. Getting hit is bad.

4) Passing safety is primarily the responsibility of the passer.

The algorithm here is:

1) if unhappy with the speed of the car in front of you, pass.

I cannot overstate how different it is here. People will pass even though they can clearly see oncoming traffic. It is the responsibility of the passee and the oncoming vehicle to alter speed as needed and perhaps drive off into the shoulder. It is as if the dotted center line defines a special passing lane that must be straddled. Two lane roads are effectively three lanes. People will pass cars right before a blind sharp curve. The dotted line never once changed to a solid line, and I saw no signs indicating that it was unsafe to pass. The Romanians seem far more concerned with keeping gypsy vehicles off the roads, with signs all over the place that specify no horses or tractors on the roads.

So that was exciting at first, but I eventually figured - just like cabbies in Manhattan - that I am dealing with drivers from an alien culture that must have it figured out. I looked around for some ducks I could mock instead. After the second time we swerved to avoid an oncoming truck, I timidly asked my host Alin if he could explain the different rule system, and how cars knew it was safe to pass without any apparent visual cues.

Oh, it is not safe.
But then there would be more accidents.
Oh, there are. This is the most dangerous road in Romania.
Yes. It is called the road of death. Two of my cousins died on this road. Separate incidents.

That exchange helped to keep the trip exciting.
"The true voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new landscapes, but seeing the world with new eyes." -- Proust