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 K├Ânig, 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.