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.

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