Sunday, January 25, 2009


My brother Steve and I arrived in Madrid on Saturday the 17th and soon met my old Spanish friend Guillermo Tortora and his girlfriend Sam. We returned to Cosas de Toni on Sunday for lunch, which was (like my trip in March) spectacular. On Monday I gave a talk at an institution near Madrid. The boss there decided to have some fun with me. While introducing me, he announced that my talk would be in Spanish. I had, of course, written the talk in English and intended to speak in the same language. Everyone there spoke English. So I thought, well, OK then. I began the talk by announcing that I had never before given a talk in Spanish, and was not responsible for the consequences. It went reasonably well, given that I was an American, presenting a talk to Spaniards in Spain, with mediocre Spanish and a Mexican accent. Midway through the talk, I pointed out that they all wanted to get lunch after my talk, and it would go a lot faster in English. Shoulda thought of that first! The boss announced that I would switch to English and indeed the talk proceeded more smoothly. After lunch, I crafted the seeds of a new grant proposal with three of the people there. So it was productive and entertaining; I was of course the target of some humor, but handled it graciously.

The next day I went to Telefonica HQ and gave a talk and discussed grant issues. The BRAIN grant that was stolen from me is floundering like an epileptic fish on a hot plate. I said, yup, what did you expect? I told you this would happen. You think this is bad, wait until the EU realizes how badly you are fucking up my grant. I then tried to make it back to the hotel by 5:30 to catch the Coronation of Obama, but was a little late. I got to the hotel and my brother regaled me with his adventures in El Prado. This soured me on my volunteer work that day. It was nice to meet some people there, but really made me question why I went there. I got no travel reimbursal from anyone. Telefonica did not even pay me for the taxi ride to and from Telefonica, even though it was an invited talk and there was strong agreement that my talk and my 2 hours of free consulting was invaluable. This is highly unusual; every other time I was invited to speak, including the talk Monday and my talk planned for Barcelona next week, I got some kind of reimbursal. I think a change of strategy is in order. I deserve not only travel costs but a phat consulting fee. Or, I deserve to enjoy my vacation with my brother. I hope I learn.

I recovered some over the next couple days, with a fair amount of tourist adventure. I hung out with Steve and followed the novel strategy of not working during vacation. We saw quite a few cow statues, which I have seen in other European capitals. They have this “cow parade” art project that is pretty entertaining. No idea why they chose cows as canvasses, instead of horses, people, cabrones, spoons, brains, or Sarah Palin. But that just makes it all the more mysterious and artsy. I got quite a few cups of fresh OJ, which I recalled from before and also loved in the Canaries. Only 2 euros for a nice glass of juice that was in an orange literally a minute ago. I made it to El Prado, we had some good meals, hung out more with Bill and Sam, and we flew here to Marrakech on Thursday. I failed to get heckled by old women, but will try harder in Barcelona, where we will go tonight (Sunday).

El Prado is in Parque El Retiro, and has a reasonable number of Madrid policemen and police cars. The police cars have little renditions of Guernica on them. This is kind of artsy and cute, except that Guernica is not in El Prado nor El Retiro; it is in the Reina Sofia. This edifice looks great from the outside, but I did not go in. Moreover, the guy in Guernica is not very intimidating. You want art theives and tourist muggers to be afraid of policemen. Use one of the many, many more violent and realistic paintings owned by Spain if you want to deter criminals. If you were thinking of grabbing a Goya, would you think twice if you feared a goofy, unarmed, disfigured stick figure loping after you? Come on! Get policemen with only one eye on each side of the head, who stand up straight, with their heads straight and facing forward instead of thrown back in an unintimidating wail. Waaaah! Someone’s stealing our art! Paint my pain!

As with most museums, I left El Prado wishing I had more time to explore it. El Greco seemed to have the most style, the most distinct mastery of faces and people and individual charisma. Rubens was prominent, with his many renditions of nude women a few sizes larger even than the norms of the time. Not quite as bad as Germans on topless beaches, but standards of beauty have indeed changed since then. El Prado had some decidedly odd works. I expected the famous Goya of Jupiter eating junior, and they had plenty of Bosch’s premonitory and judgmental glowering. Yeah, yeah. There were of course many dead Jesuses and beheaded St Johns and Goliaths. Pah. They had a guy getting stabbed in the eye, which was a little nastier. But I was most surprised and thus entertained by some really weird ones. They had a sculpture of a hermaphrodite, and a painting of a bearded man breastfeeding Jesus.

Nothing compared to the masturbating satyr for pure shock value. Amidst many Roman statues depicting gods, emperors, conquests, and far more glorious endeavors, they had a sculpture of a satyr indulging quite unabashedly in everyone’s favorite game of solitaire. The text by the sculpture explained that the work was an homage to Diogenes, who “practiced and preached self-gratification in public as a means of controlling the sexual impulse.” I always assumed that such action was equally effective in private, but who can argue with the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, later honored and ratified by the Romans? Have I been doing it wrong for most of my life? Being a good scientist, I pondered some quick hypothesis testing right there in the Prado. The elderly security guard wasn’t paying much attention. They can’t really bust me for channeling the greats. Life imitates art. They had painters in El Prado, copying great works of art; who are they to challenge my fervent enthusiasm?

Further, Diogenes was widely considered a wise man. He is best known for travelling through ancient Greece holding a lantern trying to find one honest man. Well, now we know why he failed. We can guess what he was doing with his other hand. If you saw a masturbating old Greek at your door, his lantern light rhythmically strobing with arm occlusion, would you open the door?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tenedor reefs

After my last blog post, I decided to hold off on further postings until my photos from the Canaries got developed. I would otherwise have to move on to post-Canarian adventure, then backtrack to more remedial photos. But, the photos may not be forthcoming, so I should wrap up those events and move on.

After the sandblown adventure in Famara, I took a bus to Arrecife. I arrived at the bus station at 7:30, and there was a plane leaving at 8:40. So I decided that a taxi would be faster, since no bus left for the airport until 8 AM. Nope! The taxi made great progress until rear ending another car at about 25 mph. This was an adventure in cognitive neuroscience, because consciousness breaks down in emergencies. The human experience seems quite coherent and coordinated at the scale of seconds, but not 1 tenth of that. I saw the car in front getting too close, too fast, and then suddenly was acutely aware of different parts and processes of my brain screaming different things. Brace yourself against the seat with your right arm! Flex lower back to avoid going forward! No, neither of those will be fast enough! IMPACT! Head is going forward really fast. It will suck to have a broken nose. I'm glad the islands are in the EU so my insurance is good. Turn head so you hit your cheek instead! Faster! 2 inches before my nose hit the back of the seat, I stopped. What happened? Ah, seat belt. Good move. After thousands of wasted seat belt uses, it paid off. Then the sudden rush of your brain catching up, restoring to normal operation. I was uninjured. Now what?

Things went from chaotic to silly. The car in front of us pulled off the boulevard via an off ramp, so the taxi followed. Then a couple turns to get out of traffic. Of course, this wasted valuable time that I needed ot get to the airport. Moreover, I watched the fee increase 70 cents as they drove around to find a parking place. (Not a bad potential scam.) They stopped, got out, and shared insurance cards. I got out and tried to hail another cab. My cabbie was pretty annoyed at this. I paid her, no tip, and she got more annoyed. Jesus! If there's ever a circumstance when a cabbie deserves no tip, I would say that rearending someone (it was clearly the cabbie's fault) counts. Would you tip a waiter that spilled hot coffee on you, or accidentally stabbed your date? I told her she got 70 cents out of me for the bonus ride, but she was unsympathetic.

"There's no pleasing some people."
"That's just what Jesus said, sir!"
-- Life of Brian

Adding to the irony was that I got another cab to the airport and arrived at 8:20. The airport was small and barren. I could clearly see the ticket counter, security checkpoint, and departure gate. I bought a ticket and successfully boarded a flight only 20 minutes later. Gotta be a record.

After arriving at Tenerife Norte, I took a bus to Puerto de la Cruz. I did so for 2 reasons. First, it had not only beaches, but surfable beaches with black sand. When you grow up around sand, black sand is intriguing. Second, it is close to Mount Teide, which is supposed to have good hiking. At least, I figured the terrain would be different.

This info was generally accurate. There were black sand beaches. By Euro standards, there was good surfing - meaning 1 meter waves, strong and erratic winds that prevent a clean break, dangerous reefs forking perpendicular to the coast and creating very thin surfing lines, many rocks underfoot, and strange tides. I did catch a few but it was quite tough, and I spent about 30 minutes in a rip current. The beaches themselves were pleasant and I got some sun. The beaches had the same hypothetically titillating attraction as other Canarian beaches: topless women. By now, I learned that, as soon as you identify a beach woman as topless, look away as quickly as possible before the 80 year old fried eggs sear your hippocampus. My encounter with the naked Germans on Corralejo scarred me for days. Look away! Think of something else! I had the same sense of emergency mode, one process screaming at another in the neural pandemonium that we normally ignore. Thus it was with great confusion that I realized that she actually had quite a nice rack. Ah.

I stayed one night in a putative 4 star, more expensive than the BlueBay Palace and much worse. One fun story bears repeating. I boarded an elevator down and there were three large old Spanish ladies there. Thus, I was between them and the door. When the elevator reached the ground floor, I moved back and motioned for them to go ahead. They did not. I said, in Spanish, ladies first. The woman yelled, "Vaya, joven!!" (Go, youth!!) Yes ma'am! The Spaniards are just so cute that way. They are an extreme machismo culture, yet respect for age trumps that. To the old ladies, I was nothing. This marks the second consecutive time I went to Spain and was heckled by an old lady. I am proud.

I then went to a meager 2 star that was fine. I took a bus to Mount Teide, which was a very pretty ride, and hiked near the top. This was sublime. Teide is a volcanis mountain, unlike the sedimentary ones I am used to in the states. There were naked rocks and jagged, stark formations everywhere. A lot of broad rock floors look like flowing lava, probably because that's exactly what it was before it cooled off. I returned to Bremen, and again wondered why. It was 55 degrees colder, with oppressive omnipresent clouds launching sleet bombs and a populace that was clearly less happy. I had 2 weeks of busy and highly political hell that shall not besmirch my blog. On 14 Jan, my brother arrived in Bremen and new adventure began.