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.

No.

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

No.

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

Guinn€$$

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.