Friday, December 25, 2009

Permanent vacation

The Russian city of Perm made headlines earlier this month with its nightclub fire that killed over a hundred people. This tragedy stemmed from numerous instances of corruption and code violations. Worse, I saw YouTube's video of the nightclub's hired dancers dancing to (of course) American music. They were terrible! Take the money you spent on the dancers, and add it to the money you spent to bribe the inspector, and buy a few more emergency exits.

Anyway. What caught my eye was the end of the story on page 3 of the Pearl Harbor Day edition of the IHT. "Perm ... has sought to rebrand itself as a thriving cultural center. But lately, it has seemed to some residents to be ill-fated. An Aeroflot plane from Moscow crashed on the outskirts of Perm in 2008 as it was landing, killing 88 people. In October, video of an out-of-control bus ramming into numerous cars in Perm was circulated widely on the Internet. Last month, the Perm police arrested three homeless men and charged them with killing another man, eating part of him and trying to sell the remainder to a restaurant."

Of course, the last one is the icing on the, well, ice. Fires and vehicle accidents don't really stand out that much, but the last one is quite new to me. It's a dark comedy sketch waiting to happen. How did the buyer know it was man-meat? I mean, if they ground it up first, or baked it in a pie, or maybe made a stew with some beets or Fried Green Tomatoes, who would know? I doubt they bothered to DNA test it, or that the restaurant manager recognized the taste of human. So we have to assume it was more obvious.

Are you manager?


We have here nice fresh meat to sell you.

We have regular butcher, he sell us good meat, sorry, you go away, to somewhere else.

Ah, but this meat very cheap! See? Top quality.

That look like human arm.

It was very skinny cow. And pale. He was albino cow. That is why, so cheap. And taste a little funny. But good with wodka.

The arm has fingers.

Cow from Chernobyl. But very cheap.

There's tattoo on the arm.

No, is brand. Brand from slaughterhouse.

The tattoo look like names. Pavel and Svetlana. With heart around it.

Yes, he was bull in love. Best meat, yes?

Hm. Can I see papers from slaughterhouse? I get arrested for buy meat with no papers.

No, you can bribe inspector. Like nightclub over there.

I do not trust you. I call police chief. Hello? Hello, where is police chief? Hm. They say Police Chief Pavel not here today.

Yes, you see? He busy with more important work.

Still, I not interested. You, go fuck yourself and walk off a short pier.

Wait, I make better deal. I also give you ring for free.

Hm. Ring say: Perm Police Academy, Class of '84.

Ah, very good. I thought it just scribbles, and backwards R.

It is Cyrillic, stupid man with head of shit and ass of jack. We in Russia. For last time, I not interested. You take your ring and put where sun do not shine, because so much shit is there. Then you die and eat shit and then you eat more shit. Then, you go jump in lake. Of shit.

I make even better deal. You buy this meat, or I kill you and eat you and sell part of you to competitor.

Man know how to bargain. I buy the meat.

While I doubt that's precisely how it played out, the incident was probably not the best way to attract tourists. I'm guessing there's a pretty short wait at the taxi stand at the Perm airport. If the airport shuttle is a little late, nobody complains. Travel agents looking for new jobs don't get much benefit if their resume includes "familiar with Perm." William Shatner, who did his best acting as the Priceline Negotiator, probably doesn't have much trouble wheedling a discount out of the typical Perm hotel. I bet banner ads on the City of Perm tourist website are pretty cheap right now. Local signmaking companies aren't getting rich off new "Welcome to Perm" and "Standing Room Only" signs. The company that sells new ink pads to inspectors who stamp passports is probably not thriving either. The tattoo on the next victim probably will also be written in Cyrillic. Hotel owners who rushed to add tea kettles to their rooms after seeing my earlier post are still waiting for that influx of British tourists.

" ... may I take this opportunity of emphasizing that there is no cannibalism in the British Navy. Absolutely none, and when I say none, I mean there is a certain amount, more than we are prepared to admit, but all new ratings are warned that if they wake up in the morning and find any toothmarks at all anywhere on their bodies, they're to tell me immediately so that I can immediately take every measure to hush the whole thing up." -- Graham Chapman, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Episode 32.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I returned home to find the usual pile of spam on my doorstep. Not email spam, which is usually filtered to invisibility, or else can be deleted and forgotten - vintage spam, sheets of glossy, colorful paper trying to instill a consuming desire for something I wasn't even considering before. One of them was an ad for Hooters, "the" American restaurant. I thought we had more than one, but I must have been mistaken. "The" Hooters must be very large (the restaurant, I mean), and parking must be a nightmare. The author could assume the Austrians mistranslated "the", but then, they are the grand masters of the definite article, seamlessly matching their every "the" to the gender, the perceived formality, and the number of the associated noun. Notice how the preceding sentence had "the" ten times, and the reader never got confused about which noun each one matched? Two years after first blogmocking this linguistic tailbone, I remain convinced it doesn't help clarify anything, and will eventually become vestigial, just like Englishspeakers learned not to care about whether the listener was formal or informal. Frailty, thy name is waste.

Homey Clemens told me the Austrians innovated their own dialect with fewer articles. Good! Make the Germans use them too. It will be tough; there are 10 times more of them. But the Austrians have surprise.

Back to thinking about hooters. I mean, the ad for Hooters. So, Hooters is "the" American restaurant. We don't have any others. Nice, then, that they seem to have copied it well. The glossy ad is almost indistinguishable from an ad for the American Hooters. Except they have a "kids eat free" day. Hm. I thought the Dutch were much more liberal with kids and sex, but the Austrians relatively conservative. Americans don't really think of Hooters as a kids' restaurant. (And since we have no other restaurants, kids cannot dine out until they hit 18.) Do you want your daughter inspired by Hooters waitresses? On the other hand, it's the only restaurant in the world that selects waitresses for their baby feeding potential. Indeed, while the classic American excuse is that they're going to the Hooters for their wings, I suspect the breasts also hold some sway.

Graz Hooters flyer: front

Graz Hooters flyer: back


A few hours ago, I tried out the new hybrid BCI that we're developing. I used 2 BCIs at the same time, which I wanted to do for over 10 years. It was a major consummation of my principal research interest, which was theoretical until now. In the training runs, I hit 100% accuracy in the hybrid condition, and still did rather well in the online runs. I can't really go in to more detail since the paper is months away from being published. But, we already publicly announced our offline hybrid BCI simulation, and our intent to develop an online version, so I think this is OK.

Thanks to Clemens and Christof for working with me on the project, and thanks again to Christof for running me on a Saturday. Much of the lab is on holiday for the next couple weeks, and nobody is here now. The lack of fanfare is underwhelming. What we're doing will go down in history and revolutionize the field, yet no fireworks, interviewers, champagne, or dancing girls. Maybe I need to give 'em shots. Worked for the Swedes. Sort of.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Why, God, Whyne?!!!?!?!!

In previous blog posts, I gloated about transporting dozens of bottles of wine, pumpkinseed oil, schnapps, and who knows what else across the Atlantic and EU. I took 3 bottles of wine with me on the Berlin - Barcelona trip, since I wanted to give 3 of them to 3 people in Barcelona. They survived to Berlin, and even survived through Berlin, which is remarkable, because it's very good wine. Nice blend up front and a veritable tannin explosion afterward. Bonus feature: the wine is produced by the family of one of our PhD students, which makes it an even better gift.

I wouldn't have built it up like this without the inevitable. I arrievd in Barcelona and got my bag from baggage claim. Nothing seemed wrong, and I headed outside before feeling something wet on my right leg. I looked down and saw a deep red fluid running down my leg. Please, God, let that be blood. But no, He was not so merciful. Only two of the noble travelers survived. I abandoned my elaborate public transportation plans and took a taxi to the hotel. The fallen hero was not simply cracked, but thoroughly shattered, and I studied it for quite a while without figuring out how he was slain. He was packed in bubble wrap and thoroughly surrounded by clothes, which also gave their lives in a vain effort to protect him, and a successful effort to absord wine that might otherwise have damaged my camera or cell phone. Their sacrifice is noted here. Be warned that sommelier viewers may find this image disturbing.

And it was good wine, too.

I can't talk about it anymore. My vocabulary is inadequate. I cannot express The Horror. A fine and innocent bottle, cut down in the prime of his youth! He was only three years old! There can be no surer proof of the absence of a just and loving God.


I'll try to change the subject.

Here are some cool buildinga in Barcelona:

Some funky Barcelona buildings

I gave 3 talks to different grant partners, each of which was followed by an enjoyable dinner. I discovered some cool new places, mostly around Las Ramblas. I had a couple nice Riojas, and -



Sunday, November 29, 2009


I'm at the Innside Hotel in Berlin, which I chose mainly for narrative closure with the Innside in Bremen. Indeed, my first blog entries mentioned that decidedly hip hotel, which had fresh OJ at the breakfast bar. The one in Berlin did - on only one day. But this is OK, since the table wares were entertainingly slanted, as if about to tip over:

Too much movement for breakfast. Good thing I wasn't hung over.

You can learn a lot about different cultures by reading their complaints in hotel reviews. Germans seem most likely to complain about road noise. The Dutch are most likely to complain when a restaurant does not serve fresh squeezed orange juice with their morning buffet, which seems quite reasonable to me. It's really good! British reviews are good only for a laugh. Their reviews are heavily influenced by in-room tea kettles. If you see a review that complains about no kettle in the room, it was written by an English tourist. My favorite was a review that called a hotel "barbaric" for its kettlelessness. That's quite a stringent threshold for barbarism. The review went on to state, "Good thing we brought our travel kettles!" I seem to have forgotten mine.

But I am an increasingly popular one, thanks to the Big O. Barry's election restored the English to their apparently well-earned role as most hated tourists in Europe. Every old limey I have met is extremely polite, but the young ones are by far most likely to be drunk and disorderly, and ruin it for everyone. The last presidential election did not make Amercians into polity, savvy polyglots, but it did represent a vague recognition of how bad Bush was, and you can't get around that black thang. Indeed, the Brits would have to elect an even more exotic president to top us.

Their best opportunity is advertised on every public transportation nexus I have seen in Berlin: The Blue Man Group is here. This fits, somehow. Berlin loves anything new, artsy, avant-garde, and weird. I never saw this Group, but they must be doing something right, since they graduated beyond Vegas and now play in far more discerning cities like Orlando. I have to respect them for overcoming all the obstacles they did. Except, I'm starting to suspect they aren't really an oppressed minority at all. I won't vote for them, but they might fool the British. Or especially the French. For that matter, there might be a trend emerging with other false minorities. Be on the lookout for mauve mountebanks and chartreuse charlatans.

Blue Man Group ad and graffiti by Checkpoint Charlie.

I did not get to see them, or any other blue men, since I spent most of my time in Berlin working. I got to meet with 3 BCI groups, and it did feel like consummating a tourist destination. I long wanted to see the famous Berlin BCI group, and try the legendary dry electrode system. After Graz, Tübingen, Berlin, and Lausanne, the only longstanding group left is in Rome. Fortunately, new BCI groups are popping up so often that, by the time I get to see FSL in Rome, there will be 30 more on my list.

I spent an afternoon discussing the Big Issues in BCI research with Thorsten Zander and his colleague Marty. Thorsten is one of only three people in the BCI research community who has the endurance, patience, courtesy, and masochism to talk about BCIs with me indefinitely. (The other two are Gerwin Schalk and Febo Cincotti.) We then walked along the Wall, which had a busy street where the Death Zone used to be. He pointed out where guards with machine gun towers used to be, where they rewarded the hurried masses, yearning to breathe free, with free lead. The guard towers weren't visible any more, but I wonder if they were just relocated to well hidden pillboxes, because The Wall was the only wall I saw in Berlin (or practically Europe) without graffiti. Why not, I asked? Well, people respect The Wall, he said. Naw, I said. I bet them gunners are hiding somewhere. Graffiti sprayers will attack everywhere from the beautiful art under some LA overpasses to the Berlin Blue Man Group posters. And maybe that explains the Blue Men themselves! They really are victims!

I indulged in one other conventional tourist stop. Checkpoint Charlie has Germans dressed up as American soldiers holding American flags. This worried me, because I thought we had more than enough genuine American grunts in Germany to fill that role. The German guards were quite polite, which worried me even more. Sneaky Germans pretending to be Americans tried to make a lot of trouble, with some success. If they start playing with signs to Malmedy or popping up on beaches in Florida with the plans of our light manufacturing plants, don't say I didn't warn you.

Checkpoint Charlie

Ominous Checkpoint Charlie guard. Like any picture, you can click on it to get the full image. He really does scare me.

Trabi for rent near Checkpoint Charlie. Cute, but not that authentic, since it probably runs fine.

You aren't really leaving anything.

Yes, Checkpoint Charlie still had its famous sign warning that you are now leaving the American sector. The sign is meant as a relic, but it's even untruer than that, because you can never really leave the American sector - or more accurately, the sector of mass homogeneity that originated in America. Within 2 blocks of the Checkpoint, you're assaulted with McDonalds, Subway, and Dunkin Donuts. Even The Wall is painted with enthusiastic, funky, generally pretty art. East Berlin is as perky and bright as the rest of increasingly homogenous Europe. I was looking forward to the depressing, soul-snuffing, vodka-sledgehammer-inspiring Communist Bloc gray I heard so much about. Why did I leave Graz, or for that matter, San Diego? At least we have one thing that marketing and franchising still can't fake: beaches.

Here is a relevant quote fron an editorial:
"It’s funny how we crave the authentic, the unspoiled, the genuine — the un-globalized and un-homogenized and un-gentrified — only to destroy them. And then, as if in remorse, attempt to create unthreatening Disney versions of the authentic, the unspoiled and the genuine. It’s funny how the rich, tired of grilled tuna or Chilean sea bass, weary of New York generic (never simmered, always seared), want to eat like the poor, while the poor just want to be rich."
-- Roger Cohen, New York Times, 20 Nov 2009

Rather that end this long post on a whimisical and decidedly antiflaneurian note, here is instead a picture from Berlin Schönefeld airport.

You gotta click on this to see the Wurst wit. Nobody said the Germans don't have a sense of humor. Well, at least, I haven't said that. Not recently, anyway.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Jump up, jump up, and shot down

Dear sirs:

We have received your letter protesting our announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature. We regret to inform you that our decision is final. We recognize that it can be frustrating when your work is not selected. We are happy to respond to your query regarding why your Club song "Shots" did not merit this award, while other work that you consider similar did.

First, the committee does not agree with what you regard as innovative and brilliant use of repetition. We do recognize that repetition can be an effective literary technique, dating back to Beowulf. However, repetition (an effective literary technique dating back to Beowulf) can quickly become annoying without underlying novelty or wit. You allege that you used repetition more cleverly than the song "Jump Around." We disagree, and stand by our decision to award House of Pain the 2008 Nobel Prize. In that song, they wrote:

I came to get down
I came to get down
So get out your seats and jump around
Jump around
Jump around
Jump around
Jump up Jump up and get down
I'll serve your ass like John MacEnroe
If your steps up, I'm smacking the ho
Word to your moms I came to drop bombs
I got more rhymes than the bible's got psalms
And just like the Prodigal Son I've returned
Anyone stepping to me you'll get burned
Cause I got lyrics and you ain't got none
So if you come to battle bring a shotgun

We identified several compelling elements here. One was the directional juxtaposition between "jump up" and "get down." The second resulted from the masterful missives to "jump" 18 times in the quoted text, and later 32. This phrasing inspired tens of millions of young clubgoers to jump as instructed, with the helpful clarification of the appropriate jumping direction. However, we noticed that their enthusiasm waned after about the 20th jump, with some of the more self-aware acolytes becoming fatigued and confused. Hence, the evocative and insightful use of repetition exposed the dichotomy between youthful enthusiasm and dawning self-consciousness. This phenomenon seems culturally independent, having been noted when their work is recited in Club Tremors in San Diego, Babyrock in Tijuana, Die Glocke in Bremen, The Catwalk Club in Barcelona, Raw Fusion here in Stockholm, and Club Merano in Graz. In contrast, your song repeats "shots" far too quickly and often for the most ardent alcoholic, and is thus neither actionable nor didactic. Finally, their subsequent text contains stirring Biblical allusions, and even rhymes. Yours does not.

Your second and related objection stems from your rephrased directive to consume shots, and your view that such elaboration has been favored by the Committee in prior awards. We again disagree. We did indeed award Nobel Prizes to Jessica Simpson for her perspicacious pleonasm "It's a private joke / just between us" and Tiffany's remade "I think we're alone now / there doesn't seem to be anyone around." These examples differ substantively from yours in that they were written by attractive women.

Your third concern stems from your view that we did not appreciate your references to bodily functions. We are well aware that this can be considered a mature and engaging literary technique. Indeed, Rabelais is widely recognized as a literary genius, and half his work involves poop jokes. You are also correct that we awarded Nobel Prizes to several other songs with comparable themes, such as:

"Young, black and famous
With money hangin'
Out the anus"

--Puff Daddy and Mase's 'Can't Nobody Hold Me Down'

"I ain't never seen
An ass like that
The way you move it
You make my pee-pee go

--Eminem, Ass Like That

The difference between your work and that of the above Laureates stems from efforts to assess veractiy. We admit there was some controversy here. Some of us disagreed with the former award, because it is not true; Puff Daddy is not young. We were further unable to verify the causal relationship between any specific badonkadonk and Eminem's reaction. However, efforts to validate a recurring theme in your song resulted in significant frustration and embarrassment within our prize committee. Your song alleged that "The ladies love us / when we pour shots / they need an excuse / to suck our cocks" and, later, "their panties hit the ground every time I give 'em shots." Two of our male Committee Members went to Club "Alkoholistbarn" here in Stockholm, motivated of course only by their professional responsibility to validate your claim. One of them spent four hours and 50 euros on a young literary enthusiast who then went home with someone else. The second did succeed in getting an aspiring writer back to his apartment, but failed to elicit the expected reaction. Instead, she vomited on him and his new fur rug. Your lyrics failed to adumbrate this prospect. Our esteemed Committee Member was further humiliated upon learning that she was in fact the grand niece of a city council member, and was already dating an esteemed member of the Committee to select the Nobel Prize in Physics. These two outcomes did not satisfy our two members, nor the Committee Members to whom they are attached.

In conclusion, your work does differ from that of other awardees, and did not cross the threshold for an award. We encourage you to continue your literary efforts, and perhaps consider that, unlike you, Bob Dylan never even got nominated.

Med vänliga hälsningar,
A mysterious gaggle of Swedes

Friday, November 13, 2009

Still living the Party

“Of the musicians I have known in 40 years------30% --Rehab----40%---Dead----------------30%---still living the Party.” – Robb Kunkel, July 2008.

Haig’s was bursting like a Midwesterner’s belt and 70 people were dancing in the streets even though the rain was December Montana cold. The sore and unassuming laborers of Hamilton needed a break from the thudding disillusion of the early Reagan years and the band delivered it for 6 hours straight. The motley mix of melodies from instruments that only hippies would dare combine harmonized like a single organism and the crowd vibrated right back. The only ripple was a seven year old kid in the corner playing Black Knight the entire time on one ball. A waitress asked if he could do that every time and the kid replied no, but dad’s up there on xylophone and I don’t think he’d give me another quarter. The manager ignored the 2 AM last call since most of the cops in town were drunk and undulating with the rest of them. The night only ended when the kegs ran dry and so Robbo, Thacky, Le Monsigneur, and Kirbo packed up while the manager escaped amid shouts of encore and well gimme my quarter back then. The night must have brought Haig’s more cash than most weeks, but they paid the band no money, only 10 cases of cheap beer that Thacky finished within a week. I don’t think they played Haig’s again.

(As far as I can remember, this story is mostly true; the beer payment was from another gig though. This story was inspired by rereading Robbo’s classic “Party Animal.“ )

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hollow Wien

Austrians are still figuring out Halloween. This seems to be true elsewhere in the EU - I got similar reports from Americans living in Spain, Sweden, and Germany. Halloween is in transition from being an American holiday to a truly global event. I must speculate that it's also gaining popularity outside the US and Europe, at least wherever they sell alcohol.

They sold a lot of it here on Saturday night. Dios mio, these Austrians never stop. They just couldn't care less about 2 AM. In the US, you leave a bar after last call; here, after third fall. Yet Austro-ween had only a thin veneer of depth, to paraphrase Carl Sachs. This is evidenced in many ways. The costumes were lame. Most people had nothing, or slopped on some face paint. A few women had little berets with red horns - which far outnumbered berets with halos, so there is some hope for them. They might be naughty nurses or pandering policewomen next time. But, this year, nobody bothered getting all dressed up. See, here is a proper costume:

Fur trapper, Ohio River Valley, 1840. Behind me is a picture of 2 dogs in costume. Americans do dress up their dogs on Halloween too:

Dogween! Notice the plastic (American) pumpkins, which I mention later.

At David Leland's 2005 Halloween party.

My infamous mountain man costume is in San Diego. I was here in the lab and could have mostly repeated my costume in Manhattan in 03, when I simply donned an electrode cap and white lab coat and went out as a mad scientist. Out there, where New Yorkers deal with oddity every day and costume themselves impressively, I fit in beautifully. But, out here, I think it would have been too much, too exotic, too confusing, too much smiling inspired by confusion instead of connection. I deal with that enough in my day job.

It would have been too much like the time I went out as Phineas Gage. I faked 2 bloody holes in my head, wore an offensive shirt, carried around a piece of rebar that looked like a railroad spike, and insulted people as if uninhibited by frontal lobes. The costume was well received at the Psychology, Cognitive Science, and Neuroscience departments at UCSD. And it was kinda scary anyway, since I had access to gauze pads and medical tape and of course plenty of blood, so the holes looked realistic. But everywhere else, where nobody ever heard of Phineas Gage, I just said I was a fake head wound patient.

The more pathetic sign that Austrians need to learn more about Halloween came from watching a group of Austrian kids. There were 6 of them, mostly dressed as ghosts, going door to door. The kids, and the adults who are supposed to help them, did many things wrong. The kids were going out around dusk on Friday the 30th. They should go out when it is really dark, and go out on Halloween proper. The kids had uncreative costumes, which is also their parents' fault. The kids had no parental escort, which was probably OK since they were in a well lit area, but it further implies that none of the parents were really in to it. The kids only went to houses that were well lit. They got that right. But, the Austrians failed to turn off the light and shutter their windows when they aren't home. Shame on you Austrians, taunting little kids like that! If you are sick, or antisocial, or out of town, then leave a basket of candy in front in a little plastic pumpkin. That way, every kid gets a little bit - or, one older kid gets a lot, and maybe the plastic pumpkin too. The kids knocked and said "sweet or sour", which is their way of saying "trick or treat". But then, after getting denied, they left! Over and over! The kids followed the routine, and they even explicitly warned of "or sour", but then didn't follow up on it. After watching this for about five minutes, I had to go explain it to them.

Look, I said, what you call "or sour" is called "trick" in English. Halloween is not about cute. Halloween is based on fear. You want people to give you candy out of fear. Fear of a trick. You see? Here is Billa. It's still open, cause you are going out too early. Go to Billa, buy soap, and rub it on the windows of people who do not give you candy. See? That's the trick part. Also, later kid groups will see it and realize that it is a home of stingy Scrooges. I also explained that the tricks can escalate. After the soap, another trick is to bring a roll of toilet paper and throw some over a tree. See? You should do this to your teachers' homes too. And you can keep escalating. For example, you could let the air out of the tires on their car or bicycle. See? OK, I got the first car, now you, the little angel, what's your name? I'll guess it's Leonie, cuz half the Germanspeaking kids are named Leonie, and the other half is male. Here, Leonie, just press this nozzle here. Now, when you come back next year, they will not only have candy, they'll have full size candy bars and a profuse apology. And see these nice flowers? I am sure it took her many months to grow them. Now, don't just uproot them: tear them in tiny pieces or spell mean things with them. See? You want the owner to know it was a snubbed human, not an undisciplined dog. Ooh, you can spell swear words in German already? Good job, Leonie! I can't do that. OK, maybe you're ready for the next level. You must poop on their doorstep. See? No, it's OK. You are allowed to do this on Halloween. We still do it routinely in America. That's why people still give me candy, at my age. You can even put poop in a paper bag and light it on fire, then ring the doorbell. When they try to stomp it out, they get flaming poo on their foot. Then, stand out here with your friends and yell "Treat!" at them. In English. And throw eggs at them. Don't worry, they cannot really chase you, because they first have to get the flaming poo off their feet. Then the next level is- Oh, no! A police car is approaching. I gotta go, kids! Specifically, I will walk nonchalantly around the corner, then accelerate. Tell the policeman that the nice Canadian was asking you for directions. Oh, and remind your parents to learn proper Halloween traditions, including a parental escort.

This is the other key message to Austrian parents. Get involved in Halloween. If not motivated by the desire to fill your kids full of candy and happy memories, or to get rid of them for a few hours, consider this. You get to eat most of the candy! Yes, your kids are unpaid volulnteers tasked with finding a wide variety of candy and bringing it to you with a smile and a happy heart full of trust. It's the trust only kids have in their parents, so naive and cute and, well, trusting. Take advantage of it. You slave away for them all year, for what? Some lousy fingerpaints, an occasional paper plate with macaroni glued on chaotically, and terrible handmade Christmas ornaments? Dad raided my candy, year after year. "That much candy is bad for you," he said. "It will give you pimples and bad farts." Ppbbbwt! "Oh, excuse me! Um, so you can choose some candy, and I'll take the rest." I thought I was coming out ahead by hiding a few of them. But the verbal distraction was not necessary, since he also raided my candy supply while I was at school. I'd come back, excited about that fun size Snickers bar sitting in my pillowcase, and it was gone. That's odd, I thought. I counted 4 this morning. Hm. Well, what could have happened? Nobody could have stolen it, cause Mom and Dad were here all day. It must be Jesus. I do remember thinking that, with absolutely no sarcasm. Jesus miracled away some unhealthy candy. Well, that was nice of Him, I guess. Rather judgmental and petty meddling, but it seems like a Jesusy move. But why only the Snickers bars, which happen to be the best ones? He didn't take any Mounds or Almond Joy. Maybe Jesus doesn't like coconut, just like dad, and me. But why not miracle me some apples or raisins? And how 'bout some compensation, hmmmmmm? Like coins from the tooth fairy? No, I thought, don't go there. I'm eight. I'm old enough to know that the tooth fairy isn't real.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


They expanded the drink bar at the Fit Inn fitnesszentrum, or perhaps it's just my newly restored vision. The new choices made me wish I saved a few of them bacteria so I could have an eye infection again. Pineapple coconut drink? Who thought of this, and how much had he been drinking? Probably more than me, after meeting some fun Canadians Friday night near Molly Malone's. Worse, they were pro hockey players here in Graz, and one of them was fantastic at movie trivia, so I was motivated to ingratiate myself both to get free hockey tickets and a valuable addition to my burgeoning Pub Quiz team. My fitness plans suffered a modest setback with a particularly dumb drinking combination: Guinness, wine, and two horrific Austrian concoctions, namely schilcher Sturm and 160 proof rum. It wasn't this combination that necessitated increased gymgoing - it was that it was followed somehow by a spate of not vomiting. Vomiting is not just helpful for alleviating hangover and freeing your body of toxins that the area postrema rightly fears; it's a weight loss tactic approved by countless supermodels and aspiring actresses who thrive on a diet of saccharin drinks, tic tacs, saltines, cocaine, and the nocturnal emissions of lying producers. Must remember, next time, not to eat before drinking, nor to stay awake for 2 hours afterward drinking water. Have I learned nothing from my old drinking buddies in college?

I recently told said drinking buddies of a game I learned Friday night, which the Austrians called a pissing contest. People drink beer until someone leaves the room, and then that person pays for all preceding drinks. It was a nice extension of a culturally enlightening exchange from Gung Ho, a forgotten 80s movie:

Hunt Stevenson: Afterwards we have a few beers and piss for distance.
Kazihiro: For us it's accuracy.

So Americans try to win with brute force, Japanese with accuracy, and Austrians with discipline. Hm. Interesting.

Drinking Buddy Kanaar, himself somewhat Canadian, said that this Austrian variant is in fact published in an American book of drinking games, and is called "Bladder Bust." He also noted that we never played another game in that book, called "Mother Hubbard," in which you must balance a beer on your head while shouting fairy tales at your friends. Why not combine them in "Bust Mother Hubbard's Bladder?" Balancing a beer on your head gets even harder when you're squirming with a full bladder.

I pondered all this while plodding uphill on the hated treadmill. Oh, how I hate it! Worse, the monitors at Fit Inn were STILL PLAYING PING PONG, which is among the dumbest things to play to a room full of people trying to exercise. Ping pong kills a testosterone high like the inevitable ninth Sex and the City movie. Worse, I already voiced my objections to ping pong last month:

I don't understand. The employees at Fit Inn speak very good English. (How else could I communicate with them?) My blog mockery was clear and relatively mild. WTF? Am I supposed to believe that the management at Fit Inn doesn't base their policy decisions on my blog? Maybe they issued a dictum involving tennis on tables, because I didn't call it ping pong? That must be it.

Well, whatever their problem, I had to come up with a new way to get ping pong off their monitors, or at least make it more entertaining. So this one is instead directed toward the producers of televised ping pong. Now, this is a really good idea. And I should charge you for it. And remember, this blog is copyrighted. When you produce this new game, as you inevitably will, you owe me. It is a combination of an American classic, beer pong, and America's favorite target, ducks.

But to build suspense, I have to first explain beer pong. It is like ping pong, except that each player has a 12 ounce plastic cup of beer placed on the white line that bisects the table lengthwise, maybe 6 inches from the end of the table (thus closer to the player than the net). You play ping pong, except nobody really pays attention to the score and nobody really cares about the rules. OK, so it is not much like ping pong. Anyway. If you hit the other player's beer, he must drink. If you land a ball in the beer, he must finish the beer. Before too long, both players work out that the latter option is much better. They usually stand back from the table, going for slow, graceful lobs that arc down in to the opponent's beer. Good game, huh? So you televise that, go ahead, I didn't invent it.

Remember that the trick of trying to slam the ping pong ball so hard that it knocks over the opponent's beer is called a "Lohr." (Expert's tip: This is easier when the beer is mostly empty. Moron's tip: the variant of trying to use a tennis ball for the same purpose, called a "Firouzabadi," is not funny no matter now drunk you are.)

OK. On to the new idea. Now this is really good, right? Even Drinking Buddy Weir, the greatest game inventor in history, couldn't come up with this. In duck pong, the two plastic cups of beer are replaced by two ducks. If your opponent's ball hits your duck, you must drink. If the contact elicits a quack, you must finish the beer. If the duck leaves your table, you must drink an additional beer. Fastening the duck to the table somehow is cheating (and quite mean, as would be the introduction of a tennis ball. Shame on you!) Part of the fun is keeping the duck in bounds. If the duck commits a "potty foul" on the table, it must drink.

Royalty checks may be sent to my home address, available on request.

Friday, October 2, 2009

I can see eerily now; the pain is gone

Well, mostly gone.

I talked to the eye doctor this morning. All the bacteria are dead, and my only regret is that we could not make them suffer first. My eyes should need another week to heal, then back to normal. Until the next appointment, next Friday, I am limited to 4 hours per day of contact lens wearing. Much better than zero.

He gave me a new pair before I left his office. This was in fact doubly eerie (or quadruply, if you count twice for each eye). Normal vision was disorienting. I wandered around Hauptplatz confused, marvelling at trivialities. And it was eerie to feel that way about my normal state. Evidently, the human brain starts adjusting after only three days of blindness. Perhaps research could reveal that my hearing or foot-sensitivity improved slightly. The basic idea was confirmed in some cool EEG studies from UCSD over 20 years ago, but that was with people who were congenitally deaf or blind, or had been so for a while. Three days, and my cortex started remapping itself.

So I am still in cripple mode for part of the day, and quite functional the rest of it. It reminds me of countless literary figures: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Odysseus amidst the Sirens; at least one fairy tale each from Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm; Prince Rilian from The Silver Chair. Yes, I know. C. S. Lewis is Tolkein Lite. There are some hilarious letters between the two of them, when Lewis was trying to present them both as equals, and ol' Johnny Ronnie responded quite diplomatically, or not at all. The latter is often the most diplomatic tactic of all, and one I should work on.

On to the fun of eating while blind. I could split the remainder into Eurodining IX, but it's more thematically consistent with the blindness theme. And, I hope the latter theme ends, whereas there will be a Eurodining IX and X and who knows what else.

Dining out is especially entertaining. You're limited to places you have been before, so you know where you can sit, and can hope the staff will be sympathetic. Special thanks to my friend at Molly Malone's Pub, normally called Joe, but temporarily dubbed White Shirted Blur, About My Height and Shoulder Width, whose identity was only confirmed when he opened his mouth. He's the only one at this Irish Pub with an Irish accent. Bonus thanks for making the tasty (St)Eirish stew at the Styrian fest 2 weeks ago, as noted below.

Even with a familiar wait staff and restaurant, it's a different experience. You can't see what you are eating. You can't even ensure a reasonable composition within each forkful. No more bites with one piece of pork, some potato, and sauce. It's pot luck. Cutting meat is quite easy as long as your face is just above the plate. I had some luck eating at home; yogurt and bananas and grapes are not too demanding. I then promoted myself to more advanced culinary adventures, shown below.

"Quesadillas del Ciego"

You will need:

Two corn tortillas, handground by an old Mexican woman (can substitute worse tortillas)
about 10g Monterrey Jack cheese (can substitute gouda)
about 10g Tillamook Extra Sharp cheddar cheese (can substitute the bland mild cheddar that Europeans prefer)
A pan
A spatula
A stove
Poor judgment

Slice each cheese block in to about 4 pieces. Place between two tortillas. turn stove on medium heat. Place proto-quesadilla on pan on stove. Fumble blindly. Upon smelling burning rubber, remove molten spatula. Remove pan from heat and place in sink. Recognize glass breaking sound, and realize that there was a glass in the sink that you could not see because it was clear. Make the first smart decision of the day: don't fish around for broken glass, in a sink with a hot pan and molten spatula, until visual system is back online. Turn on faucet to cool nasty concoction. Open window. Turn off stove. Go out to eat.

That was yesterday. Today was a major buffet and party with my labmates and very many other people. Here is only one part of the buffet. They later had several dessert trays, and trays with bread (including their delicious pumkpinseed bread), cheeses, grapes, and oil (including their delicious pumkpinseed oil, which is great with the aforementioned bread).

An Austrian buffet, from Jöbstl restaurant. No, I can't pronounce that properly.

Changing of the guard: Profs. Pfurtscheller and Neuper

Three of my coworkers. Had the Beach Boys visited Austria, their most overplayed hit would have had a different title.

Changing of the guard II: The next generation BCI researcher, who I will put on a grant proposal someday, probably a few years after Erik Schalk.

In related news, there was a Styrian festival here a couple weeks ago. The town center was flush with happy Austrians in lederhosen. With one exception: their bandleader, who wielded his baton with great authority but no apparent joy:

A bandleader who looks like he would rather be elsewhere.

Emphatic but still humorless bandleader. You can see his baton pointing toward the upper left of the picture with far more enthusiasm than the responsible human. I know, the bottom two photos suck. It's not that they look fine to me, though such joking would be deserved.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Here's looking at you, lid

“The true voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new things, but in seeing the world with new eyes.” -- Proust

I used this quote in my blog once before as a commentary on the philosophy of flaneur. Both of its clauses are viciously ironic now. Flaneur entails new experiences, some of which must be better than others. An eye infection helps establish the low end of the spectrum. Actually, both eyes are infected, and both have both conjunctivitis (when the evil little bacteria only inhabit the conjunctiva, or outer layer of the cornea), and keratitis, the more serious condition when they penetrate inner layers of the cornea.

My eyes had been bugging me for a few weeks. The symptoms were quite easy for me to diagnose, since I had them dozens of times: dirty or scratched contact lenses. So I went to a local optometrist and ordered new lenses, and figured I would tough it out until then. I went through 3 bottles of eyedrops while my eyes patiently screamed at me that something was really wrong. Yes, I hear you, I told them, and I am working on it. The new lenses should be here soon. Quit yer bitching. I thought 25 years of contact lens wearing would leave my eyelids quite well calloused. This is nothing new. I’m a doctor. Shut up and let me work. So my eyes were stye-mied by my less insightful brain.

I finally worked out that something else was wrong Monday night, when my eyes decided to up the ante by itching and hurting enough that I couldn’t sleep a wink. OK, I said. We’ll see the doctor tomorrow morning, Lemme sleep! But no, they kept on whining loudly all night, perhaps justifiably convinced that I earned it. I left my apartment without any vision correction, since I figured out that contact lenses would be unweyes. I have no glasses. I can’t wear them because they bend light so much they give me a headache.

On opening the door from my apartment complex, I quickly learned another symptom of eye infections: photosensitivity. Outside hit me like a nuke. I literally fell over backward, lay cursing the powers that be for a good 2 minutes, then made it up the stairs (very slowly) to get 2 pair of sunglasses. This is a good thing about being Californian; necessary or not, you always have shades nearby. I went back outside, looking straight down with my hand shielding my eyes in a bizarre salute to the sidewalk, and only then realized it was a cloudy day.

I didn’t know quite how to get to my optometrist without incident. My vision is -8 myopia and 4.5 astigmatism, which is medical speak for fucking blind. If you don’t know your prescription, trust me, mine is worse. I am, in fact, legally blind in the US without correction. And so it seemed wandering around Graz. I came to an intersection and fortunately remembered there was a curb there, cuz I would otherwise have pitched forward into oncoming traffic. So I stood there, wondering how I could tell it was safe to cross. I couldn’t see a red blur that might turn in to a green blur. I could simply wait a minute and make a break for it. I could get a taxi, except that requires a working visual system. I figured I would wait and ask a pedestrian as soon as one came close enough to be identifiable as such. Then I suddenly heard the familiar beep boop from across the street that we normally ignore. Hey, that’s really thoughtful, I thought.

My optometrist took one look at me and said, “Oh my God.” Good way to set the tone. He told me I must immediately go to a medical doctor, which he was not. Well, I said, you know how blind I am right now, and my German is as bad as it was when I was here 2 weeks ago. Do you know anyone who can see me without an appointment? He called around and recommended someone nearby. By now, I had become a minor celebrity, with all the staff checking out my eyes like they were museum pieces, or shone as brightly as Juliet’s in the oh so evocative balcony scene:

Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold; 'tis not to me she speaks.
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.

If Shakespeare were female, she would be the sexiest woman in history. Probably best that he isn’t. He is too old for me. I’d settle for Candace Bushnell. Wish I could write like that. And fuck like that. Tell you what, just give me the latter, and we'll call it even.

I used to memorize Shakespeare passages, partly to improve my English, partly to avoid being outshone by other intellectual snobs, and partly because I figured it would be useful to bust out on some modern genius Juliet sometime. The Bard disappointed me on the last one, which is why I now know Shylock’s less loving passages much better. Try replacing the word “Jew” with “nerd” in his famous “shall we not revenge” speech. It works eerily well. I did spontaneously drop the tale of Luna and the grasshopper on an unsuspecting and very sexy Italian scientist, and when a woman of that nationality calls an American romantic, you must have done something right. That will hopefully be a topic for a happier blog entry. I have been in better moods.

My optometrist told me where to go. I jokingly asked him for a dog or something. He kindly said he would get his assistant to guide me. Thanks, I said. While he got her, I tried to entertain the staff, who remained quite intrigued with me. Look at this, I asked for a dog, and I get a human. Now that’s service! I bet she speaks better German than me. Or even a dog! I think they smiled, or maybe they scowled, or their faces turned into Austrian pumpkins. Absolutely no idea. The assistant showed up and I followed her gratefully, wondering the whole time whether she was cute, young, old, had a wedding ring, etc. She actually led me to the wrong place, but it’s the thought that counts. I eventually made it to the eye doctor, who said it was quite serious. He asked why I did not seek treatment earlier, and I explained that I thought it was a bad contact lens. He shook his head. I think. Or maybe he was eating, or having a seizure, or nodding, or rocking to some music. He gave me a prescription for eyedrops and eye salve, which I got from the nearby pharmacy with surprisingly little trouble. These have been helping a lot. But then the real fun began. For the last 3 days, I have been limited to my natural vision. It is odd that these “new eyes” are in fact the ones I had all along, but never used without correction. I am on sick leave from work, which is torture for an ambitious workaholic megalomaniac. Especially right after the successful Brussels negotiation, and scheming brilliant new studies with Clemens that we want to launch ASAP. But, not much I can do. I cannot read, and cannot really type that well – this will not be my finest blog entry. I will proofread it as much as I can, given that reading requires putting my face within a few inches of a monitor, close enough to produce double vision, so I have to close one eye. I am typing from motor memory, augmented by the wondrous spelling correction feature in Word.

It is a whole new world. Curbs and cobblestones streets and potholes have sprained ankle written all over them. Well, not literally, but if they did, I wouldn’t know. Walking is a series of controlled falls, as I learned in judo class. Then, the goal was to teach you when to foot sweep people (go for their forward foot just before it hits the ground, since they are off balance and falling). But it also comes in handy when you cannot see the ground. So I have been walking around quite ridiculously sometimes, but this is the liberating part – you have no idea who is staring at you, so you don’t care. Ignorance is bliss. Like the famous experiment with the executive monkey and passive monkey, stress is greatly reduced when you can't do anything about its causes.

I recalled an exchange about 12 years ago on that very topic. I was eating dinner with some people from my dojo, as we often did after throwing each other around for 2 hours. I asked my sensei if he walked like that all the time, and was thus immune to foot sweeps or any kind of tripping. No, he answered. We all know a guy who walks like that all the time. Everyone says he walks like a monkey. Yes, but you learned something, right? Some knowledge transferred to your everyday life? No, he said. Aw, come on, sensei! You mean I could foot sweep you right now? No, he said. See, I replied. Why not? You must be doing something different. No, he replied. We’re sitting down.

So, for 3 days now, I have been monkey walking along around Graz. Except it probably looks better when monkeys do it. Plus, every time I see an apparent color change in the ground, I stop and feel it out with my foot, which saved me from pitching off a few curbs, but also leaves me spending a lot of time feeling out sewer covers, discarded papers, and filled-in potholes. It rained today, adding puddles to the list of slightly darker things on the ground. I discovered a few the fun way, and look forward to going home and wearing dry socks. I remember where buses and streetcars stop, but the schedules may as well be random. Some of the stops have digital displays with the number of minutes remaining, and they are only a few feet from my eyes, but that is still too much. Twice, friendly passersby offered to help. The squinting at a nearby display might be one cue that I cannot see so well, and the double sunglasses another. One pair of obstreperous teens mocked me, which I suppose I should expect. Not much I can do about it unless one makes contact with me, in which case they might learn that, while reading displays or chasing them both require good vision, arm bars and hip throws and chokeholds do not.

By far the scariest part of it all is not curbs, traffic, or taunting punks, but dogs. Dogs are everywhere in Austria, like Germany. Normally, you can see dogs from far away, and easily read their affect. Not anymore. Dogs are great blurs that might be snarling or crouched in preparation for a pounce. Whenever a dog barks, I naturally foveate, like anyone, but to no avail. I stare right at them, since I can still localize sound with my unimpaired coincidence detectors in my medial superior olive, but have no idea why they are barking or even where they’re looking. I still have a scar on my left leg from the last and only time I trusted an unidentified barking dog. That was 25 years ago. Now, I am returned to the world of blind faith.

But, the end is in sight. Figuratively, at least. I have another appointment to see (or at least hear) the eye doctor early tomorrow morning. I’ll have to take the early streetcar, aka the red eye. The doctor foresaw that I should be able to wear contacts again within a week if my eyes improve, and it looks like they have. The eyedrops are indeed c-lensing away the nasty little bacteria. I only wish they would all die in the blink of an eye, instead of dilater. I really should be crucifeyed on two rods for lashing my few loyal blog pupils with such coney puns. I envision a lot of even cornea puns if I don’t put a lid on it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fitting Inn

I have returned to the hated rigamarole of daily gymgoing. Oh, how I hate it, but the only way to be free of it is to keep doing it, so I do. Part of what prevented me before was that I wanted to go to Schwarzenegger’s gym, hoping that I would get stronger via a contact high from the Ahnold-steroid-sweat that he left on the dumbbells 40 years ago. Alas, that gym is gone. There is the Giants gym, where the Graz football team practices, but they have no cardio machine, lousy hours, and the risk of catching whatever loathsome social diseases that Gerv had when he was there. I was also put off by the lack of any gym near my office or apartment. So, after returning from the states, I had to lower my standards and go for somewhere that is not close, but at least easily accessible by public transport. Some clever Austrian built a gym called Fit Inn right on top of Hauptbanhof. I learned that this word means "Main train station" the dumb way. I noticed that both Bremen and Hamburg had a main train station called Hauptbanhof. Then I saw the same in Hannover. Wow, I thought, Mr. Hauptbanhof must have been a major contributor to the German train industry. Nice of them to name all the main train stations “Hauptbanhof” in his honor.

Fit Inn is an odd mix of high and low tech. After I started there on August 7, they added a drink bar. You pay €1,90 per week for unlimited drinks. The complete menu is: water, mineral water, and four fruit drinks (lime, apple-orange, peach, and black cassis). This may not sound impressive to readers who are very likely resting at the moment, but trust me, they seem much better after an hour abusing yourself. How do they tell if you paid for the drink bar? They have a fingerprint ID device next to the drink bar. It even works. The fingerprint device uses red laser scanners and then presents your fingerprint on a monitor, with an impressive-looking array of dots and lines much like something out of a crime drama, then presents your picture. This is actually neither expensive nor hi tech, but it seems cool to me. Fit Inn also has several TVs, like many modern gyms, but no fitness machines with their own video screens, like many modern and more expensive gyms. This leaves me spending literally an hour per day with 3 viewing options: something to read (hard to keep it steady while I’m vibrating a treadmill or elliptical); the blank machine or person in front of me (usually fat, sweaty, and male); and TV. I can’t hear the TV, which doesn’t really bug me, since I couldn’t understand it anyway. They play lots of things, including sports, talk shows, news, and music videos. Sports are best, since you don’t really need to hear it, and the more violent ones are inspiring when you’re trying to stay there for a full hour. There are exceptions; bantamweight boxing is demoralizing, since you have to watch two people with half your weight and a third your muscle mass who could both kick your ass. I swear they had a man wrestling a woman on WWF, and wonder if they actually have an inter-gender wrestling championship. They should call it the Andy Kaufman belt.

I got to see a lot of tennis, which I normally ignore, but is lulling and rhythmic when you have no other choice except jogging uphill in undistracted agony. Once, the channel changed from grown-up tennis to table tennis. Never do this, as it greatly erodes the majesty of the latter. The stadiums have fewer people, and they’re as glamorous as poker or Nascar fans. They have no ball-boys to run and pick up the ping pong balls and run out of the way as quickly and obsequiously as possible. They instead have to bend over and get them themselves. The players also periodically wipe off the table with their bare hands, a task that could also be delegated to ball-persons, and might even fool some viewers in to thinking it is necessary. (Why? The middle of the table gets sweaty? Dust accumulated over the last 10 minutes? Contamination from ping pong ball paint?) Players don’t even try to jump the net to shake hands, which would really add some good theater. The judge sits in a little chair, not an imperious throne where she can look down on an abusive McEnroe or Williams. I think Serena’s tirade would not have been so intimidating anyway. Threatening to cram a tennis ball down your throat is scary. A ping pong ball might cause moderate indigestion at worst. Or you could try to recover it via the Heimlich maneuver, and I think you should get double points if you can ace your opponent that way.

For such a formal and polite people, the Austrians have a bizarre take on locker room privacy. Your entry to the locker room is greeted with the famous “video überwaschung” sign that seems increasingly ubiquitous. The privacy people warned that accepting them in public squares meant they would migrate elsewhere. They were right. Video cameras in locker rooms! Worse, there is a cleaning woman there in the mornings. I learned this the hard way, changing at 6:30 AM, then looking up to see a maid clearly looking at me. At first, I thought, dagnab it, I dropped my trousers in the wrong place. Now I’ll get busted and humiliated and have to head home in ignominy. If I’m gonna suffer such a fate on an act of public indecency, I’d like to plan it out much better. But there was another guy changing not far away, so I realized this is evidently normal around here. At least the maid should learn not to gawk. I wonder if it’s a dream job to her, if she pays them for the privilege. And it is blatantly sexist; reverse the genders and you’d have a lawsuit.

For such a courteous, organized, and obedient people, Austrians are abysmal at reracking their weights. It is not a difference in expectations, since there are signs all over that tell you to do so. But they don’t. You want to find a pair of 12.5k kilo weights, you look on the ground, not on the racks. And they are typically separated, so you see a lot of people holding one weight in one hand while looking for its mate. Last night, the gym attendant saw me doing this, got up from his desk, and walked toward me. Good, I thought, he’s gonna do his job and rerack the weights. Instead, he asked me if I was done with the weights I was using. I said no. He asked if he could use them. I said, sure. He did a set of tricep kickbacks, put the weights on the bench, thanked me, and went back to his desk to attend to a customer who had been waiting for him.

Weights scattered on the floor at Fit Inn over Graz Hauptbanhof. Notice the gap on the right side of the weight rack, partly hidden by the incline bench and flat bench that are surrounded by unracked weights.

Speaking of racks, Fit Inn, like most public gyms, is 90% male. This is not because women don’t go to gyms. Rather, they go to gyms for women only to avoid men like me. Fitness For Her of La Jolla = Curves of Graz. There were some cuties there today, and they should get free membership or something because it does make men more likely to go and more happy about going. (Not unlike free ladies’ night at a bar.) This morning, I was starting my uphill trudge, trying not to think about the fact that I would be doing so for the next hour, when some local ladies mounted the treadmill in front of me and started a workout they really didn’t need. Now, where else should I look? It’s a choice between the really boring LED display on my elliptical machine, a TV that happened to be showing an infomercial for gambling (which are quite common out here), a sweaty copy of the IHT with maddening typos, the wall, or them. And the irony was, they had no idea I was paying any attention to them, yet they kept trying to run away, but didn’t go anywhere. I don’t know why you say goodbye; I say hello. (And, yes, you do too understand English.)

In related news, I hate losing weight in kilos. You feel like such an underachiever! And, thanks to more than a year of abstinence from gyms but not beer and schnitzel, it’ll probably be the end of this year before I can fit inn to those damn size 34 Levi’s 505s hanging in my closet in la Mesa, which were quite comfortable in Feb 2007. It’s tough staying motivated. I wonder how much makeup and bribery would be needed to get me in to Curves.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Brussels Pouts II

I survived another visit to Brussels, this time to negotiate not one but two grants. The work part of the trip went quite well, and I think I pulled off an unprecedented feat of coming out of there with more money than we requested when we arrived. Brussels itself remains unimpressive. Eurosnobs who complain about the American capital should look at Der Spiegel, and I don’t mean the German periodical. Brussels does not deserve to be the capital of Europe, which has so many cities that are far more glorious, beautiful, and tourist friendly. Their grand plaza is feeble by European standards. The monuments in DC are more open, accessible, and impressive. DC is not my favorite city for various reasons, but I vastly prefer it over Brussels. Indeed, one of my gripes about DC, the unbridled bidirectional racism, was gone when I was there last year for the Neuroscience conference. It was a totally different experience talking to black people there, who were stunned and oddly grateful that we elected a black president. Two taxi drivers actually thanked me, and said they felt like it was all one country now. Of course, bro, I told them. Sorry it came as such a shock. It should have happened decades ago.

Brussels has much of the snobbery of Paris without the history to back it up. That requires a very selective interpretation of French history, but we can go with it; just ask any Parisian. Food in Brussels is good, but quite overpriced; for the same amount of money, you can get two equally tasty and unique meals in neighboring countries, or six of them in some Eastern European countries. Their mass transit system is so bad that it gave me flashbacks to living in Atlanta. The air circulation is terrible, and hence the underground metro is hot, smoggy, and dusty. The ticket vending machines do not accept coins or bills. To be fair, this is true of many other ticket vending machines. For example, both Schipol and Amsterdam Centraal Station have only a few machines that take coins, and you always see tourists milling around, confused and sometimes frenetic, before they work this out. Paint them red, or put flashing lights on them, or something. But the ones in Brussels’ Centraal Station are worse; they also do not accept credit cards, or even my European funky Maestro card, or yet another European card that I never use and keep in my backpack for just such an occasion. I think the only acceptable form of payment is telepathy, and then only in Flemish, Dutch, or French. Rush hour is as bad as anywhere I have seen. Taxis are pointless. The trains and metro lines are late. Worse, they do not adapt accordingly.

And so it was that I was on platform 6 at Bruxelles Centraal Station with a ticket I purchased from a human after a very long line. That human, and monitors displaying departures, directed me to platform 6 to catch a 17:02 to the airport. At platform 6, there was another monitor that said the train at 17:02 went to the airport. One would think that boarding the train at that platform at 17:02 is a good idea, especially if you can see no other trains on that platform or anywhere near it. I was nonetheless suspicious, being no longer a virgin Eurotraveller, and tried to find a conductor or train employee to confirm. Although the train and the platform were packed beyond any reasonable limit, I found no such person. So I boarded the train, which left at 17:02. So far, we seem to have many cues I did the right thing. But, sure enough, by the time the train got to Braine-Le-Comte, I realized it was the wrong one. I got off and explained my situation to the very polite Belgian train attendant, who gave me a free ticket and a printout of how to get back. Sure enough, the train that returned to Brussels Midi was late, yet the train leaving there to the airport was not. I eventually made it, and ran pathetically to the Lufthansa desk. Expert’s tip: if at all possible, when sweaty and pitiable and late, go to the desk with the oldest person you can see. Go for the most senior person possible. I did this and told the man (whose nametag said supervisor) there was a flight leaving at 19:55. I knew this because my boss was on it. It was 19:20. I was doubly stunned that he gave me a ticket, and did not charge me for it. I made it just in time. The only fun part of this was the look of surprise on my boss’ face. She asked what happened. I was sorely tempted to tell her that I changed it just so I could talk with her about work, but I told her the truth and the rest of the trip was straightforward.

I went to Brussels by flying Lufthansa to Munich, then Belgian Airlines to Brussels. Lufthansa gave me a free sandwich, candy bar, and drink (they even had the option of free wine or beer), even though the flight from Graz was only an hour. The flight from Munich to Brussels was 30 minutes longer, but we got nothing except a menu trying to sell food that looked worse.

Munich airport has an appropriately secluded entryway in their mens’ bathroom, like most airports. No casual passerby can see inside. You have to go in, turn left, turn right, and then you’re in the sink area, and another turn to the urinals. There you find further proof the Germans really do have a sense of humor (they just hide it well, much like their chancellor). All urinals have a little fly painted right at the appropriate aiming point. It’s really fun. You really feel a sense of accomplishment, even though nothing happens when you win. How much more would it cost to rig a fly that blinks or buzzes or melts or something when hit? Or maybe you win tickets like in skee ball, or a siren goes off, or something? So many good ideas on this blog, and only four readers.

This could also be handy for potty training. Indeed, though there are more bloggers than flies, I am probably the only one who can honestly say that he directly inspired a toilet training book. The Toddlers’ Potty Book was written for me, because of me, and was a modest source of income over the years for my mother. And I can still use the potty today, even though the book mentioned neither urinals nor flies. The book was republished many times, which might lead smartass readers to wonder why I needed a potty book when I was in college. Hey, we all learn at different speeds, alright?

München fly
(not to be confused with Munching fly)

The Lufthansa sections of Munich and Frankfurt airport are excellent. They are well maintained, with clean padded seats and nice lounge areas. They have machines with free coffee and tea, and free newspapers, including several German ones and some English ones, namely the International Herald Tribune and USA Today. I first discovered this after transferring from Chicago, then buying coffee and an IHT. This annoyed me, of course, but the whole situation is probably far more annoying to the vendors there, who likely lose a lot of loot to Lufthansa’s largesse. The IHT used to be one of my favorites. A few months ago, they announced a new look (and price). Apparently, they decided to further jack their profits by firing much of their proofreading staff. I now catch an average of 2 typos per paper, when I formerly saw about none. Look, you greedy bastards, when you’re marketing toward intellectual snobs, avoid trivial mistakes. This blog has fewer typos than your paper, and I don’t get paid a dime for this. Get some copy editors in honor of William Safire, whose love for language leapt off every page and danced through my cortex many times. I don't know how many existing and new words I learned from him, as well as engaging verbifcations of existing words. Don't let future IHTs devolve in to a four letter word that he could surely have anagrammed.

My cellphone pic of a Bruxelles metro stop - not during rush hour, not a major stop, not even a transfer point.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Eurodining VIII

I returned from the US last month with only three bottles. Breakage prevention, about which I so gloated last time, was a minor issue. This time it was more mundane: weight management. I checked in a suitcase weighing 55 pounds and a box weighing 45 pounds. Perspicacious readers may note that 55 pounds is over the weight limit; I avoided paying by showily moving things from my suitcase to a carry-on bag until I sweated profusely enough to garner pity from the United check-in agent. My carry-ons totalled 45 pounds, for a total haul of 145 pounds.

What does this have to do with eurodining? Much of the haul was more Mexican food: enchilada sauce, beans, jack and other cheeses you can't find out here. Some of the bulk was 2 pinatas, which are also quite exotic. And lots of junk food to become gifts for various labmates and their kids. (They got some great kids' books too, thanks to my mother's grandmastery of both children's literature and hoarding.) I made a pan of enchiladas for the lab the following week, then a pan for the staff at Molly Malone's a few days later. That's right, I cooked food for an Irish Pub and restaurant, then brought it unannounced. My labbies also thought this quite odd. See my last Eurodining post; they just don't understand the tipping system out here. I got a free murder burger, chicken wings, and enough free Guinnesses that I lost count.

A few weeks ago, most of our lab went hiking at Zirbitzkogel, followed by a big meal. Yes, Austrians like to go hiking, then have a feast, often at a restaurant at the peak. Sounds American, much like the joy with which Austrians greet each meal (Americans have no analog to "Mahlzeit"), but I never once encountered any American restaurants full of tired and grimy hikers. Every hiking-restaurant I have seen is hardcore Austrian food, as opposed to ethnic food, fast food, or some franchised slop. So I was delighted to see all these unfamiliar dishes. I was even happier to be able to translate one of them: Fleishnudelsuppe, or meat noodle soup. Great! I ordered it. I caught our secretary looking away a half second too late. Great. I kept looking at her quizzically. "Do you know what you just ordered?" Great....

I said no. She graciously offered to tell me, or change the order. No, I said with poorly hid resignation, I'll indulge in the universal cultural initiation involving mystery meat. I guessed intestines. My Romanian mystery meat was intestine soup. I ate Chinese intestines many times. (I mean, I ate cow intestines served at Dim Sum.) The soup was good. I looked up, steeled for the punch line. Cow lung soup. I don't think anyone saw me gag, which temporarily brought some cow lung in contact with its human equivalent. This wasn't so bad; certainly better than puking on the table. We'll see if my labbies can avoid that when I introduce them to Rocky Mountain Oysters.

We then hiked some more, in little groups, and labbies Jing and Petar asked me to teach them American songs. I said no. We don't sing nearly as much as Germanspeakers, and I can't sing, I told them. Petar was insistent, so I began the American classic:

99 bottles of beer on the wall
99 bottles of beer!
You take one down
pass it around
98 bottles of beer on the wall.

I figured someone would tell me to shut up around 96 or so, and I'd be gracefully acquitted. Petar instead offered to buy me Guinness if I could finish the song. So I did, until suddenly realizing I didn't know the end. There isn't one. The song, like 99 bottles, isn't really meant to be finished. So I ad libbed the following:

No more bottles of beer on the wall
No more bottles of beer!
You fall down
Passed out around
99 bottles of beer on the ground.

I now have 4 bottles of Guinness hidden in my wall. Petar is an honorable man.

The following week, I met my old buddy Bernhard and we went to a Buschenshank. This is a restaurant with wine that is typically located in some pastoral area with nice views. You are also not allowed to serve anything that is not locally produced. Why not open a regular restaurant? Because Austrians pay lower taxes for buschenschanks. It's a great idea, one that would never fly in America. Oh, it could start. It would gain traction amongst my many countrmen who are sick of franchised prepackaged homogeneity. But within a few years, Coke would find some way to wrangle an exception, and soon there would be a McDonald's buschenshank in the middle of downtown Atlanta. Indeed, I have seen some erosion here. One of them serves bottled beer. I got mixed explanations for this, but evidently there are gradations of buschenschankdom. I blame globalization.

I also joined my labbies one Friday for "leberkäse Freitag," which greatly excites my normally equanimous labbie Teo. They ride bikes to a store that sells leberkäse, which I eschewed because it translates as liver cheese. I explained this to labbie Clemens. No, he said, it has neither liver nor cheese. We just say that to confuse Americans. Well, way to botch an otherwise totally successful plan, I replied. In fact, it is basically ground pork, and not bad on a roll with mustard. One of those sandwiches is filling but not fattening, which always helps with a mundane problem: weight management.

The next week, a couple American friends visited me in Graz. My first visitors here! I really wanted to get them cow lung soup, but Eli is just too trusting, so I would have felt guilty. I instead got him schnitzel mit kürbiskernmantel, aka fried pork breaded in pumpkinseeds. He was so happy that he returned on his last night, although he was only here 3 nights. He loved the salad with pumpkinseed oil too. I say again: it is an embarrassment to California's legendary fecundity, and its ostensible multiculturalism, and especially its govenator, that nobody figured out to grow pumpkin seeds out there. Do it. Import the Samen König. Get rich.

Here is our govenator on The Dating Game, asking a narcissistic question and badly parrying her subtly scathing response. For added amusement, the announcer mispronounced both his name and Graz. Also, I have never met any Austrian with an accent like Ahnold's.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sinos and seals

Last weekend, my brother Steve and his girlfriend Marika visited San Diego. They just arrived from Shanghai, and were admirably alert and spirited after one very solid night of sleep. We even made it to see Brüno, which I was eager to see so I could learn more about the Austrian people, just as Borat was a valuable cultural exchange tool that taught us the true spirit of Kazakhstan. I was intrigued by the challenge of a more realistic portrayal of the Austrians than The Sound Of Music. And who could more effectively judge the authenticity of Austrian movies than our group? One American who lives in Austria, and had three whole months to soak up culture while averaging 80 hours per week and speaking introductory German. And two other people who live in China, namely another American and French Canadian. In SoCal, watching an Englishman playing a gay Austrian visiting SoCal.

Fortunately, I can happily say it is as well researched as Borat. Like Borat, almost the whole movie was in the US, and hence it mocked Americans more than anyone else. (It’s nice to see this is still hip even after our new president.) Also like Borat, they passed up blatant opportunities for humor that would in fact have been educational. Americans would be amused by eating horses and drinking horse milk, both common in Kazakhstan, yet neither of these were mentioned in Borat. Bruno was a movie with all sorts of odd gay themes, yet no exploitation of lederhosen, pumpkinseed oil, locking people in cellars for 25 years (yes, any Austrian will wince at this), weird violent anti-Nazis, or grunting, sweaty weightlifters. They did not bother to get a dialect coach for a proper Austrian accent, which greatly amuses (at least) northern Germans. You could dub Lawrence of Arabia with someone speaking in a southern German or any Austrian accent, and a typical Bremener would laugh all the way through the movie. The reason they did not make any such effort is that it would have been lost on Americans. Like Andy Kaufman, and to a lesser extent Framk Zappa, the man can make a successful show out of insulting his audience. And I see no reason why he will stop. The same formula keeps working. Time for the Ali G movie, or a new region to come from that Americans find exotic and intriguing. Iceland. Paraguay. The Ozarks. Detroit. Berkeley.

The experience did have the unexpected effect about making me yearn more for my return to Austria. I was a bit insecure about the relatively banal nature of my destination. I got parents that went to 76 countries, a brother in China, and I live in a major western country where everyone looks like me and speaks English. And globalization continues to erode heterogeneity all around the world; now is a fading opportunity to see the kaleidescope of humanity. And to hike the eastern Alps, since the hiking boots that served me so well in Colorado are now in my suitcase, and will be on Austrian mountains next month.

The next day we mostly hung out with our old friends the Hoopes brothers, and on Sunday, we made it to the beach. It was heartbreakingly wonderful. This alone would have made the whole trip worth it. We went to the legendary Pine Street beach, which is not too close, but always delivers. Always parking, always a spot on the beach, always at least mediocre waves, always close to Fidel’s Norte. It was indeed only a mediocre wave day, and made me remember that they’re still good. Winston Churchill was not a beachgoer, and if he was, he would have added the beach to his quote below.

„Democracy is like sex. When it’s good, it’s really, really good. When it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.“
Attributed to Winston Churchill (I did not verify it)

A similar theme is captured by a bumper sticker seen in America sometimes: „The worst day fishing is better than the best day working.“ I can think of exceptions, and don’t really agree with the theme, but you see the point. Even with the hassle of parking, traffic, crowds, sun hazards, weather risks (unless in San Diego, of course), etc, beachgoing is still more than worth it.

There’s nothing like southern California sun. I tried laying out around the EU, and enjoyed it. Sure, they have sun there too. But it’s a different experience when you combine the freakishly dry air, the smell of the Pacific, the lack of concern for a single cloud - even the local sand seems caressing somehow. But the star of the show is, of course, the sun. Nothing like the feeling of sunlight oozing through your skin, pouring warmth and love over every pore, triggering melanin and endorphin and dopamine systems that flood the brain with antistress. I still hope I can someday work somewhere that lets me hike and go to the beach. Doesn’t seem like so much to ask, especially if I produce better work than the next guy. Relaxation is highly competitive.

And the waves. Slowly swelling as they roll toward the shore, undulating with reflected sunlight. You can see maybe five of them at any time, in different stages of their final push. Way out you can see just the beginnings of a swell. Look up to the next wave and it’s growing, threatening, and then it reaches too high and wavers and crashes and lumbers on, pushing a few lucky surfers and rolling over less interested or talented ones. The crash of each wave seems all the more intense given how long it took to get there. Like some salmon, insects, scientists, and other creatures, waves have quite a lifespan that most people never see or think about. They didn’t just start popping up there a quarter mile out for you. Waves hitting the Pacific have been all over that sea, seen countless changes in water temperature and weather, hosted a myriad of little sea beasties going through their brief and typically ignored lives too.

Some of the waves slap against the „Childrens‘ Pool“ in La Jolla Cove. The city of La Jolla has hosted a longstanding fight between seals and children. (Think about that for a minute. It doesn’t get any cuter. It is cuter than baby pandas vs. kittens.) A beach area in La Jolla is famous for seals that sun themselves on the rocks there. This seems very reasonable to me. I can relate to seals. Tourists love to come and take pictures of the cute seals. However, others allege that the donors of the pool area intended that it be used as a wading area for kids. This has gone on and on, spurring eloquent editorials, emotional appeals, and a even a few underattended public meetings. I got back to San Diego and learned that there was just a major development: the city shall drive off the seals. Method: loudspeakers playing the sound of barking dogs. I wonder if this is actually a proven method for antagonizing the seals, or is just a cruel stunt by the seal-hating proponents, some of whom may live close enough to hear the seals barking every night. After the seal egress, the beach will be dredged to make a wading area for kids. I was intrigued by this story, partly because the bar for engaging journalism was so low after celebrity death trivialities, but mainly because I was always surprised the seals were winning all these years. They don’t have lawyers. I looked it up. At least in California, no seal ever passed the bar. Now, although I did not look it up, I do not think any kids passed the bar either. So, it was a question of which side could inspire more lawyers to work pro bono. I figured the kids, since in La Jolla, a lot of kids will have lawyer parents, whereas seals‘ parents poop on rocks.
The merits of the case never entered into it. Who cares about California law, the will of the donors, city council dicta, the seals, kids, beach, etc? This is California. Whoever has more legal resources wins. And so I was all the more shocked a few days ago when a judge called off the dogs by ordering the whole plan paused, because someone alleged that dredging the beach would cause an environmental catastrophe. Oooooooh. Good move. That’ll freeze everything for years. The current occupants of La Jolla Cova shall bark, slap, bask, and wallow in happy oblivion. Kids – well, they don’t really understand anyway, but think the seals are cute. The next escalation in California style weaponry of mass distraction would be to allege psychological damage that the seals cause the children. Or toxic effects of seal feces on native plant species. Now you have the risk of even bigger lawsuits. But that will take years; this case and the Cove will not be unsealed for years.

Some cute La Jolla seals.
The caption reads: „A group of Pacific harbor seals swim in the Childrens Pool in La Jolla. La Jolla, California, USA Species: Phoca vitulina richardsi“