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

Friday, May 23, 2008

Euroad trip

Among other changes in the last year, I no longer drive. I have never driven in Europe, and probably logged less than 2 hours as a passenger in a car. I did not feel I was missing that much. Not owning a car is wonderful. No worries about repairs, gas, parking, security, insurance, or door dings. Traffic is irrelevant. No need to check traffic maps or road closings because the streetcars always run (eventually). Road rage is limited to cyclists who get pissed off cuz I am in the bike lane.
Yet tomorrow I being a road trip through Leipzig, Prague, and Budapest to Western Romania. I have no real reason for going except that it is new. This charm is lost on my labbies, who seem not to regard Romania as an exciting or even desirable destination. Cool, I get to see Eastern Europe, I say. Be careful, they say. Bah.
Check out the latest science news:


This article makes a surprisingly good case that, effectively, the distractibility and senility associated with old age actually = wisdom. It is a clever study with priming. Would be interesting to replicate with gamers, who might show the opposite pattern of old people. Good idea to pursue research to ennoble old people. Especially in a tough funding climate. I wonder what sort of research old people will fund next.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Eurodining V

I do not typically read my old blog posts, partly because I would rather spend my time writing something new, and also because it smacks of work. Writing new stuff without any constraints: fun; looking up old stuff: research.

But in Eurodining IV, I said that I would return from my trip to CA in April equipped with everything necessary for a massive Mexican feast. Unfortunately, at the time I wrote that, I did not know that my return from CA would be rudely interrupted by 4 days in Brussels. Worse, my hotel there had a little kitchen. And I just mentioned that one dinner sucked up my per diem for almost 3 days. So excellent Mexican food ingredients were indeed transported from San Diego to Brussels by me. The non-perishables (cans of Rosarita refried beans and enchilada sauce) survived. The perishables (good jack and cotija cheese, chips, and 2 dozen corn tortillas) served me well in Brussels, and some even made if back to Bremen, where they fed two eager San Diegans, since Julien Reedhead was visiting. I did get some flour tortillas in Bremen, and enough other ingredients for a carne asada burrito feast: meat, vinegar, paprika, cumin, oregano, black and white pepper, salt, soy sauce, beans, milk, olive oil, limes, lettuce, tomato, garlic, onion, nothing remotely spicy, and cheddar and mexicanisch cheese. The latter is the first time I have heard of 'Mexican cheese' anywhere, including Mexico; this cheese has nothing to do with Mexican food and sucks. German avocados cost 1 euro each and are underripe, and I found no cilantro. But I decided it was go time. With irrepressible sun auguring a glorious BBQ feast, and a crew of Europeans that are not the most discerning burrito eaters, I figured that these minor setbacks could be ignored. More importantly, my outstanding student Indar Sugiarto just finished his MS thesis defense, and some celebration was earned. After I posted my last blog entry with sunny blather about the weather, I told the team to expect a feast, then went shopping. I had carne asada marinating all night. This morning, I put everything I needed in three big bags, totalling €60 of food and charcoal, and went to work.

It rained.

Not a hard rain, but the usual drizzle, certainly enough to dampen a BBQ. Around 10, I had the following conversation with three people on my team:

Hey! Are you an engineer?
Are you a good engineer?
Can you figure out a way to keep that BBQ outside dry?
Can we get that tent they use for the beer parties?
No, those are rented.
Can we find a tarp somewhere, like the ones on the construction site?
No, they belong to the construction people.
Is there somewhere nearby that sells tarps?
Can we rig something with multiple umbrellas?
Can you think of any other way to prevent rain from hitting a 2 square meter surface?
Can we get a portable grill somewhere?
Can we move the grill that is in front of our building?
What kind of engineer are you?
I am an electrical engineer.


Can you make a portable electric grill?

So I figured we at least have cameraderie, if not Mexican food.
I eventually pulled it off using a portable heater and frying pan. Turned out quite well, although we got nothing done at the meeting. I fed my team, plus several others from the department, which cannot hurt politically. And I still have charcoal for next time I feel confident enough in the weather to try a BBQ. Hm. Hope I have room for all that charcoal in my suitcase.

Just to underscore the alienness of Mexican food here, these are actual questions and answers during the feast.

What is that paste you are putting on that bread?
refried beans.

What are they made of?
beans. Bohnen. These are crushed beans.

Do you have to grind the beans?
No, they sell cans of pre-crushed, refried beans everywhere out there.

Do the Mexicans always that bread?
It is called a tortilla. Yes. They eat tortillas all the time.

Why do you say you need cilantro?
to put in the burrito.
But cilantro is just a garnish.
No. Cilantro is delicious and foundational to Californian and Mexican food.

What is that called?
A burrito.

Is that like a Turkish rollo?
No. Burritos are much better. Carne asada is much better than gyros.

Why is the word for burrito like a burro?
I'll tell you what exactly burrito means after you're done eating.
(Fortunately, the only other Spanish speaker in the lab, Diana Valbuena, was on vacation; otherwise she might have pointed out that it's named after a burro penis. Probably not, though; she has tact.)

I have no tact, but can sometimes tell when a blog entry is getting too long.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Brussels Brussels

I have now survived my first year in Bremen. I would say that my German is excellent relative to the average person who is not a native speaker and has taken no German classes. I would say that in German, but can't.

The trip to Brussels was busy, and I wish I had more time to explore the city instead of work. The work part itself went fine. My talk went very well. After the talks were complete, there was inadequate discussion, and thus the afternoon was increasingly dominated by Jose Millan, the guy in charge of the other big BCI proposal that got funded, and me. Fortunately, he and I agreed on just about everything, including the theme I mentioned a few posts ago, which was nice because it validated my whining. I was starting to think it was just me. Maybe I am in over my head. Maybe I just can't handle stress. Maybe I am not as good at BCIs as I thought. Maybe someone else would be better at this gig. Maybe I could get away with the last five lines in another venue, but blog readers know me too well for such ostensible humility.

I really liked the double street names in Brussels. They had streets like Viaduc Viaduct, Naples Naples, and Trone Troon. This amused me over and over until I worked out that these were actually single street names printed in French and Dutch. You see the risk you take when you try to mock a foreign culture? Better to pick on ducks.

We also had a joyous double billing experience. I went to dinner at La Bergerie in Brussels with 3 of our grant partners, 2 guys from Philips and Paul McCullagh from Ulster. The waiter said he would take care of us. 4 PhDs, and none of us recognized this obvious warning flag. Our bill came to €86.50 each. We only had 1 wine bottle and 2 coffees; the main charge was €75 each for dinner. We were pretty sure we ordered the €24 each seafood combo. I am suspicious that the guy has a second menu that he busts out for just such an occasion. This experience doubled my record for most money ever spent on a meal. That had been my trip to Spain - both the glorious steak dinner and the paella feast cost me about €40, and each had a lot more wine, better food, a more relaxed atmosphere, and a less scurrilous waiter. We were actually rather accepting of the situation, we were tourists getting screwed, but the waiter really pushed it by whining about no tip. I told him that my best tip is that he should look both ways before crossing the street, but I don't think he got it.

Since Brussels, I have been catching up in sunny Bremen. If you quote me on that last sentence, remember to keep it in context - it is not normally like this. But the last 2 weeks have been sunny, warm, and quite pleasant. This is scheduled to change tomorrow, and may rain with a vengeance. Which would also be nice. It's the intermittent, omnipresent drizzle - and the threat of it - that I dislike.

More blogworthy tales may appear in a couple weeks. I just scheduled a road trip with a Romanian labbie and his wife to Prague, then Budapest, then Romania. As soon as we pass Prague, I will be further east than ever before. Woo hoo. Adventure awaits. Or perhaps banality. Or getting mugged. Or some legal hassle. Or lots of drinking. Or some mix. C'est la flaneur.