Tuesday, July 8, 2008

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.

1 comment:

prof. Femke said...

Wow... all those nice words about me. mn right I deserve them ;) See I can be untypical.