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.

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