Monday, September 29, 2008

Where's W?

"The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much."

-- Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), Wall Street, 1987.

Nice to see that America learned from that era. 1987 was the end of the faux boom caused by massive deregulation. Greed, like nuclear reactions, tribbles, kittens, drugs, or masturbation, is only good with regulation. Without regulation - such as rules that limit monopolization, shady trading, speculation, perpetual refinement of palming off nothing as something - capitalism was free to beeline toward its ultimate end: one incredibly rich person with everything and everyone else with nothing. Many tried, many came close, and then on Black Monday 1987 people suddenly realized they owned millions of shares of nothing verifiable. The system began to collapse, propped up only by a huge taxpayer bailout in what was then called the S&L scandal.

Blame goes all around. Republicans, democrats, traders, rich people, the media, oleagenous oil barons, brown people, the war, etc. Nobody blames the American voting public. Nobody in America, anyway. Even this collapse will probably not be enough to produce fundamental change. The economic fracas will occur again in the next generation. Similarly, we'll get involved in another expensive war, offset by increasingly sophisticated ideological distraction. Abortion. Gay marriage. Prayer in schools. Some horrific new threat from The Scientists. Gutting moose. The technology behind weapons of mass distraction will continue to evolve much faster than any countering force. Credit may be restored, but credibility will utterly collapse. Nobody will trust anyone, and with good reason. The ensuing fortress mentality will feed back into the alienation mindset, us versus them, it's all Their fault and They deserve it. So obvious, so predictable, and so unstoppable.

Because stopping it would require education, critical thinking, teaching the American populace skills that might make them more discerning consumers and voters. This would create the risk that people might not buy your product or heed the dominant paradigm. There's far more money in the opposite extreme, embodied by the anti-intellecutalism that won the last two presidential elections. Idealism always loses; it just sometimes seems to win when pragmatists wield it to confuse, deceive, and control. Ah well. I wonder how I can make money off this cycle next time?

"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of
constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson

People had more faith in our leaders back then. Too bad America today did not have some kind of figurehead, a widely recognized leader with great influence within the executive branch, someone who could come out and urge the populace to support Congress and the Paulson plan. Or perhaps who could have been more proactive in preventing this situation. We needed you, Oprah.

"Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

-- Winston Churchill, 1947, when that statement was true.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cold Hand Luke

Paul Newman's passing is sad news. Aside from his acting career, he seems to have been a genuine and altruistic man. He was also a practical joker and had a sense of humor. I hope he is remembered well. He deserves better than the not one, not two, but THREE bad Strother Martin impersonations I overheard at Denver airport. I don't think I have ever heard a good impersonation of those famous two lines. They suddenly ring painfully true - What we have here is failure to communicate. Some folks, you just can't reach. It's also a sad commentary on the state of BCI research; despite all the progress we made, far below 1% of the people who need a BCI to communicate even know that BCIs exist, let alone could get them communicating.

I just arrived in Colorado for a month of vacation. This is the longest period not working in my adult life. Vacation is a fuzzy term for me; I view it more as freedom to get real work done with less interruption. My goals over the next month include a new grant proposal with the Pfurtscheller lab, review 2 journal articles and two theses, a book chapter, lots of book editing, a blurb for, and at least one journal paper. This will get done amidst a lot of hiking, hanging out with the family, and carousing. The last word is quite a stretch in a town of 800; Ouray is not Manhattan. And good! That's why I'm here. It always takes my nervous system a week or so to adjust. The mountains are not bombarding my thalamus. They do not want anything from me. Sam the cat here wants some of the ham sitting in the fridge. He's insistent, and so painfully sincere. No prevarication, no conditions, no scheming, no bullshit about how it's in my best interest to help him, so he gets ham.

My hypothalamus thinks it is about 10 PM. This is reasonable. It was correct yesterday. It's in agreement with Bernhard, Ola, and many millions of correct people. Its stubbornness is understandable. Why would humans evolve to handle jet lag? When would our ancestors cross 8 time zones in one day? We should be grateful that the brain can adjust at all. Still, it is a bit vexing to have my life dominated by a little clump of 10,000 neurons. That's a mighty stupid statement from a neuroscientist, but I can plead fatigue. Could be worse. Within a few millimeters are other loci that control appetite, thirst, sex drive, thermoregulation, and all kinds of funky endocrine functions.

Only slightly further away are enough stars to overwhelm Carl Sagan. Colorado seems to be one of the few places left that has them. Even Martigny, Switzerland, which seemed to be a small town with little light pollution, wasn't close.

"My God ... it's FULL OF STARS!!"
- Dave Bowman, 2010

I saw the first presidential debate from Denver airport. This reminds me of the fun I have ahead of me - a whole month in a battleground state. This means we will get flooded with ads, which can be annoying but are now novel and different. I see ads for cars, sports, and household products all the time; only once in a blue (or red) moon do we get political ads. The debate was unsurprising, but still fun. I never really saw Obama speak before, and had little exposure to him until Bill Shain loaned me his autobiography at Utrecht in July. "Dreams from my Father" is a great book, clearly written by a great man, and much of it resonated with me. It was written by a man with shameless conviction of his own excellence, a certainty of his steady ascension forged through a misdirected search for identity. The poor man struggled with identity on racial and geographic lines, complicated by an absent and suddenly dead father. Hence the oft ignored subtitle of his book: A Story of Race and Inheritance. I would counter that this struggle may be shaped by background, but not caused by it. I am white, I did have some geographic adjustment but less than him, and Dad is asleep upstairs. Is my identity struggle less engaging or poignant? Identity struggles stem from many things. Scientist is an exotic label, misunderstood by most, and heavily attacked in the last eight years by the administration because we provide inconvenient facts inconsistent with most of its goals. To Bush's many defiant and dogmatic supporters: remember this when you're dying of cancer, seeing news reports that a cure is in sight but just a little out of reach. You pray. You pray really fucking hard, and then I'll see you in hell where you belong. The Book of Job was a fantasy. Telomerase inhibitors aren't.

Barry spoke of the importance of science and I hope this translates into more funding, but I doubt it. It's too late. I said that America was fucked before the $1 trillion bailout. Sorry, my countrymen. The USA will still be innovative in many ways, but the superpower era is over. I just read the text of the next call of EU funding, which will be officially released in November. It's good. It's really, really good. So begins the era of reverse brain drain, when America's best and brightest leave because they want a better education in a more technologically advanced country with a better reputation.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Salz nach

I left Bremen right after my last blog entry, ostensibly to work in Tuebingen, but the underlying reason was to get me out of Bremen during the BRAIN kickoff meeting. Tuebingen was quite busy with some kind of jogging event, but I got to meet with Jacqueline and Ranga and some others during my brief visit.

The train ride from Tuebingen to Graz went through Salzburg, so I planned to maximize my time in Salzburg with a 4 hour layover. Salzburg was again invigorating and inspiring and I missed leaving it. I felt a bit more accomplished because I had an inside tip from Patricia Linortner to go to the Fürst chocolate shop for the best chocolate balls. (South Park fans: they are not salty, and no comparisons to Chef nor Isaac Hayes will be tolerated.) Previously, I got the golden wrapped chocolate balls, but now I learned that those are for the tourists, and the natives first go to Fürst. After stocking up on these tasty and colorful baubles, which I am sure will be appreciated in Colorado, I left for Graz.

The conference was the usual whirlwind of talks, posters, handshakes, introductions, deferential ambition, strategerie. A lot of the masters are pretty good at providing the exact same facial expression while talking to someone who they consider hopeless or brilliant. About half the faces there were new, which reflects the progress of BCI research, and I got to spend a lot of time with them. The organizers did quite a good job, with the clever innovation of posting pictures of the lead poster authors over their posters, making them easier to identify. Good idea. In fact, in the future, people could put pictures of each author in the proceedings to make them even easier to find. You otherwise have to meet people by staring at the badges on their chests. I wrote half of such a story for my blog last year during the neuroscience conference, but never posted it because I didn't think I could beat the Let Freedom Ring post from last September.

I was on the review committee and the judging committee, putting me in the interesting position of basically repeating my judgment. There were quite a lot of politics in selecting the best talk. It was unexpected and educational. The conference concluded with dinner in the Landhauskeller in Graz. We were treated to a classy feast, and were told the mayor of Graz would speak to us. In the middle of dinner, a member of the Graz city council read a brief statement about the importance of "computer to brain interfaces," which amused our table. We were, however, grateful that the city of Graz would make an effort to show appreciation, and without a long speech while our food got cold.

The next day was a wine tour and lunch, which was also well planned. It started at 10 AM, and we took a dark bus to a pleasant but not too bright hill, had a moderate but not strenuous walk with some great views, then ate inside with lots of food, wine, and water. Almost as if the organizers expected lots of hung over people the last day of the conference. Most of the conferencegoers left after that. I am in Graz the rest of this week, and so I got to get dinner and play tourist with some conference stragglers as well as get some work done here.

I must again praise the city of Graz, which is both naturally pretty and well designed and maintained. I also did not previously appreciate the artificial island in the middle of the river. I saw this before, but I just thought it was a little open air concert venue. But I now see that it is actually a very clever piratecatcher. If you are only a few hours downriver from the vicious pirates that terrorize the river Salzach, you need to have some protection against the bastards or you will never get the salt that you paid 5000 guilders for just two weeks ago. Now I also see why they put seats there. This is so the good citizens can watch the pirates and mock them as they come around the river bend and realize they're busted. Ha ha!! Har Har!! Hey, where'd you get that salt? Huh? That looks a lot like the salt you stole from my brother last week! You're coming with me, asshole. And your little parrot, too.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Swiss Missed

(wrote the below last week)
I am in the later stages of the 10 hour train ride from Martigny to Bremen. The trip began with a recap of the trip I took yesterday, 45 minutes from Martigny to Lausanne, where I co-chaired a special session on signal processing in BCIs at the EUSIPCO conference. I had the same experience as I did around Thun. I was happily gawking at the scenery when we suddenly encountered a lake that took it to another level. This lake was much bigger and I should look up which one, but there is a certain added charm in ignorance. Knowledge demystifies. I had a similar thought this morning when I opened the curtains at my hotel and had to catch my breath. I wondered when the novelty of that view would wear off, but evidently 5 days was not enough. Perhaps I am getting out at the right time.

But then, as the train passes north of Frankfurt, the terrain grows steadily flatter and thus less heterogeneous and thus less interesting. This is not the first time I thought this. The first couple train rides that took me between northern and southern Germany were engaging, but now that it wears off I start to realize, as I did before, that northern Germany sucks. Just because you get used to something doesn´t mean it doesn´t matter. Reduced novelty implies reduced impact – not none. I took the beach for granted for most of my life. I wonder what else I won´t really appreciate until it´s gone. But I doubt this will plague me heavily when I leave Bremen. Aside from the personal connections with some students, and of course the voluminous and exceptional work I did there, I really doubt I will miss it. I had the same feeling in Atlanta, and 3 years after leaving there, I feel the same way.

(on to new stuff)
Since my return to Bremen, things have been remarkably busy and dynamic, but I can't really post most of it for political reasons that readers know well. I also survived the last 2 weeks, which I knew would be difficult, and now life will get easier. I was planning on leaving on Tuesday for Graz, but will instead leave tomorrow for Tuebingen. Then to Graz on Tuesday, and then I fly to CO on the 26th for a month. This will be the longest vacation of my life, and I am thoroughly confused about it. What the hell can you do with a month of vacation time? I'll figure something out.

Monday was the return of the weekly Pub Quiz at Hegarty's in Bremen. It had been suspended since June for Euro 2008, but I rallied the team and we took third. This was nice, because we usually do very well until flopping miserably on the music round. I think the quizmaster was annoyed at announcing our prize; I chose the team name The Sixth Sheikh's Sheep.

Bremen weather has been quite good, and it has been pleasant walking along the river in the evenings. The city is not without things or people I will miss, it's more a question of how good it is relative to other opportunities. Graz and Tuebingen both have pleasant rivers running through them.