Sunday, April 26, 2009


I can't remember who (Asimov?), but some esteemed sci fi author once wrote that a good book reviewer keeps focused on the book, rather than promoting himself, his perspective, or his own perceived wit. Fortunately, I never claimed to be a book reviewer, especially not a good one. Blogs are canvasses for artists great and small eager to bask without the light of substantive peer review. Blogs are Echoes for Narcissus, symphonies of solipsism, metaphors mellifluous to mediocre to meandering to marmotpoo.

I just finished Feed by MT Anderson. It did lag in the middle, but picked up and ended quite well. Anderson and many others in this cyberpunk genre wield what I dub "punctuated shallowness." You almost put the book down because the characters and plot have less depth than the pages they crowd. You are then taken aback by lines like, "You're the only one of them that uses metaphor." Violet was responding to the simile, "It's like a squid in love with the sky," which is also evocative only in context. The speaker grew up with and is totally dependent on an invasive BCI, and is describing dead vines seen from a hospital on the moon. Moreover, they're painting a flat world, James' "buzzing, booming confusion" where depth, dissent, novelty, and individuality are rare and punished exceptions amidst the languid bci fi future that some authors deem an inevitable result of consumerism and technology. Unfortunately, we scientists are inevitably portrayed as naively unconcerned with, or cacklingly delighted about, our contribution to this phlegmatic Orwellian dystopia. That is fiction. We BCI researchers discuss ethical issues all the time, and cyberpunk never mentions BCIs to help severely disabled people communicate. Mr. Hoban, I am not Mr. Clever.

Anderson's modern allegories are painfully prescient. Check out this website:

"Emily" asks if someone can summarize Feed. She says that she "knows Violet died at the end." It is ironic that "Emily" will never read the book and realize how ironic her post is.
The best answer, chosen by voters, is: "I think it ends badly, or so I've heard."

Put down the fucking Playstation and READ!!! Emily obviously is trying to skate through her English class, and I hope she flunks. Then she'll m-chat her friends that School (TM) is sooooo meg weak. Cyberpunk does this well: cutting off word halves because they waste precious deciseconds. Also a lot of f-bombs, sometimes a hallmark of ineloquent writing, but also a great way to portray characters who can't think of anything else to say.

"You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole!"
"How very interesting. You are a true vulgarian, aren't you?
"You're the vulgarian, you fuck!!!"

John Cleese and Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda

Gender stereotyping is also quite rampant in Feed, a common vexor in cyberpunk, blamable largely on Gibson and perpetrated by Effinger and others. Men are generally the ones most ensnared by technology, the perpetrators and (at least financial) beneficiaries of the spiralling, consuming misery society becomes. Women are either sex workers or snuffed Athenas, crucified Cassandras, prophetic Pandoras whose message of not just hope but reason, objectivity, and depth cannot compete with the latest trends and products screaming through some lunk's thalamus. But this can also be blamed on the source. Cyberpunk authors tend to be male, and probably didn't tend to get out quite as much during their formative years. Write what you know.

On that note, we just submitted my new BCI paper. This is my first paper from my new lab here in Graz, and we are all quite proud of it. It was a team effort, only possible from the symphony of signal processing, psychology, engineering, cognitive neuroscience, and English scientific writing that TU Graz now possesses. It fate now rests with faceless journal editors and reviewers. This is the upside of peer review. Anyone can toot his own horn, and further abuse musical metaphors, but convincing often crabby, overburdened, and biased reviewers is tough. One of my professors at UCSD, Ed Hutchins, once told me "there's a lot of noise in the grading process," and this is also true of the reviewing process. It's true of reviewing papers, grants, and presumably science fiction.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Black Traveling

Spring has sprung on Graz like Tigger on a particularly blue Eeyore. All the trees and bushes suddenly got green in less than a week. This improves the view from both my office and apartment, and makes the walk home even more pleasant. Along with blue skies and enough sun for tanning, it's quite relaxing.

Streetcar riding is not relaxing at all, but that's the point.

I arrived on 13 Feb and bought a week ticket for the streetcar for 10 euros. You are supposed to stick tickets in the ticket-stamping-and-beeping machine, which I couldn't translate into German with a dictionary and infinity monkeys. This prevents bastards like me from continuing to use the ticket after a week. My goal was 2 months, and I succeeded.

There are three other components to Graz's anti-streetcar-deadbeat-leeching-program. The first component is classic Germanspeaker obedience. Just like the natives NEVER cross the street against a red light or without a crosswalk handy, they just don't think of traveling with no ticket. The second component, and by far the most fun, is the ticket police. They had these in Bremen too, and they were much, much better.

In Bremen, I had a valid ticket the whole time. Nonetheless, it was fun to try to spot the ticket police. They are undercover, of course, and I never saw a uniformed cop on a streetcar. They attacked in packs of 4-6, so that at least one could enter each streetcar door, preventing scofflaws from simply exiting at the next stop. This also made them quite easy to spot. People trying to get the optimal spacing look as innocuous as an elk hunter with wolf scent spray and a 30 foot rifle with an air horn. They always board at one stop, pounce, then leave at the next. They could instead board a streetcar, wait in ambush for a few stops, and nail people like 3 legged zebras. They were really, really stupid and transparent. And, being Germanspeakers, they had to follow the rules at all times, meaning they were on duty and could never be doing anything that might be inappropriate while working.

They are never:
disabled or unhealthy
not of native German stock
well dressed
badly dressed
happy, angry, sad, or otherwise emotional
carrying anything. This includes holding a streetcar ticket or money (with which people invariably buy a ticket upon boarding, cause why else would you hold money at a streetcar stop?)
using a cell phone
listening to music
running to catch the streetcar
eating anything
reading a newspaper, magazine, or anything else.
engaged with anyone else, except for maybe officious discussion or devious eye contact. Anyone talking with any animation, making out, arguing, etc is not going to ask for your ticket.

As mentioned, I didn't care about them much in Bremen, because I had the ticket. As first, train(cop)spotting provided some entertainment on a boring commute, but it got so easy I stopped. The cops would board and yell "Fahrkarten, bitte!" and reach into their wallets to pull out their credentials with smug anticipation. They were twice disappointed to see that I had my wallet out before them. I was on a first name basis with four of them by the time I left. God, they were lousy.

I am still, technically, in his employ right now. This annoyed me enough that I decided to get no ticket, which elevated copdetection from a lark to a motivated endeavor. There's a 60 euro fine for riding with no ticket. Correction: for getting caught riding with no ticket.

I figured the week card would give me some hope of talking my way out of it. I would just say that I didn't realize I had to stamp it. I would do so in my best impersonation of an American with a bad accent, which requires as much acting effort as the ticket cops.

This was fun for a while. Every time I arrived at a new stop, I would look for the characteristic pattern of people entering at each door. If I saw it, I would scan for suspicious signs (people at each door exhibiting none of any of the above giveaways) and disembark immediately. Except I never did so. After a month, to my terrific disappointment, I started to think they have no ticket cops here, even though my labmates said otherwise. I let my guard down.

2 weeks ago, I was riding home after about 34 consecutive hours finishing a grant proposal that would send me to Korea if funded. I scanned a streetcar stop with a practiced eye that was open from sheer force of will. I didn't care much at the time, and figured I looked bad enough that I could talk my way out of anything. But, only one person boarded the streetcar, so I ignored her. The doors shut and the streetcar moved on. "Fahrkarten, bitte!" The fine City of Graz found a brilliant way to thwart my cop detection plan: only send one ticketcop, instead of sending them through every door. Brilliant. I had the troubling sense I was missing something, and started to sweat as the woman slowly worked her way to the back, checking tickets all the way.

I checked my week ticket. No fucking way it would pass for one week old. Its edges were frayed like my nerves. I started preparing a new speech in German, figuring out the correct declinations when possible and then botching them. But I came to accept that I was probably out 60 euros, and it wasn't such a loss; the month ticket I didn't buy cost 34 euros, so I almost broke even. She was about 20 feet away. I vaguely heard the automatic ding announcing the next stop. Wait a second. That's why the Bremeners don't board one cop at a time. I hit the button, the doors opened, and I left.

Adding further to the fun: it was my stop anyway.

I was tired and worried enough that I would have missed my stop, failed my pathetic backpedaling, paid the 60 euro fine, left the streetcar, realized my mistake, walked back (being too pissed off to buy a valid ticket at that point), then been angry and confused, then blogmocked the ticketcop, city of Graz, and the entire system, and then probably tried to claim the fine as a tax write-off.

So that was that. No harm, no foul, no fine, no proof except this blog entry, which is of course entirely hypothetical.

Except-I mentioned a third component to the Graz deterrence plan. They have signs inside the streetcars to make people like me feel guilty. They are fantastic. The refer to us as "schwartzfahrer," or "black traveler." Oooooooooh. Shows how guilty they think I should feel for violating the system. My soul is blacker than both my soles. It seems vaguely racist, too. Black people are not allowed to ride the streetcar? Now come on!!! Although, it does preempt Rosa Parks. If you make people sit in the back, then they could rebel and walk the whole way. Pretty soon, everyone wants to be treated equally. It could trigger a whole civil rights movement. They learned something from this embarrassing black mark in American history, and just cut right to outlawing black travelers altogether. And I see very few black people in Graz. Maybe they were driven away by the signs attacking Nigger Traveling. How undiplomatic. Our president is not welcome on your streetcar? But he's not all black! What if he hangs half his body out the window? If you caught him, would it be a 30 euro fine?

But the signs do not mention a penalty. American signs certainly would; moreover, the mass transit in the US does not even allow the possibility of fare evasion. We know better than to trust us. On buses, you have to confirm your ticket with the driver. On subways, you have to pay to walk through turnstiles that have metro transit police stationed between them. Austrians just have signs to make you feel guilty.

One says: Schwartzfahren loest starkes aus Schwitzen. Black traveling releases strong sweat. The sign that finally got me was: Schwartzfahren fuehrt zu verspannungen. Black traveling leads to something. What? Shame? An eloquent blogmocking? Horsewhipping? The Pillory? Sent to the Eastern Front? Scrotum opened, salted, spritzed with lime, and dipped in a bowl of underfed piranha? I enjoyed the mystery of ignorance. I knew spannung was exciting, so it seemed redundant. Of course it's exciting! That's why I do it!

I made the mistake of getting it properly translated by two former Graz residents, and "verspannungen" means "tension." Again, they play on that mentality. No need for effective ticketcops. Just remind people they are disappointing the Fatherland. That took the fun out of it. There's no valid reason why the other Graz streetcar users should pay for me. I deserve to feel guilty for taking advantage of such a quaint and innocent people, portrayed so accurately in The Sound of Music. I bought a month ticket last week.

And I will even stamp it. Eventually.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Eurodining VII

I organized and cooked a Mexican feast for the lab today. I made chicken enchiladas and refried beans. My homey Teo made quesadillas, salsa, and guac. We also had peas, lettuce, tomato, and radish. About 15 people showed up, and the feast was quite successful. Everything was ready on time and turned out well. I managed to deflower two labbies with Pop Rocks. Teo (who is from Mexico city) considered my designation of my food as "Mexican" to be quite a stretch. And he is right; as I told him, it is more Cali-Mex, and the last time I was even near Mexico City, I was four. But it was still good. My only other minor mistake is that, instead of buying sour cream, I got some other kind of thick cream, but it actually went quite well with the food.

I forgot to mention a slightly bigger faux pas with my Canary Island feast last month. I was buying butter, and saw some interesting looking brown butter. I could not read it, but it was in the butter section, and I thought it might go well with the bread rolls. Well, sort of. It was already in the bread rolls, and would not have gone well on top of them. It was yeast.

In a butter (or worse) gaffe, I tried to order a turkey sandwich with cheese from the local supermarket, Billa, last week. I asked for turkey and cheese. I successfully conveyed everything, except that turkey sounds quite a lot like butter in German. So I got a butter and cheese sandwich. Not bad, and it entertained my labbies. I am sure many turkeys supported the change as well. But, fuck 'em, they do not have lawyers and so I will eat more of them out of vengeance. I now ask for turkey breast, since butter does not have tits.

I also mastered getting tap water at restaurants without paying for it. There is a secret: learning the proper word. It is normally served without ice, and if you ask for ice, you get one ice cube. I also learned how to ask for many ice cubes, but this confuses them more than asking for a Big Mac without the center bun, so I just accept tepid water. Still free.

And untaxed. This remains a huge advantage of the EU dining system. All tax is included. When you ask for the check, the waiter asks: together or separate? The normative response is the latter (or, if you are dining alone, fuck you, I am not that fat!!!). The waiter then easily figures out how much everyone has to pay. You typically round up to the nearest Euro to get the tip.

Despite the simplicity, I still think the American tipping system is better. TIP means To Insure Promptness and does so. It also gets you drink refills, which do not exist in the EU outside of fast food joints, and bigger portions and smiles. One of my labbies, Gernot, complained about going to New York and leaving a 10% tip, after which the waiter whined loudly. Is that America, he asked? No, that's Manhattan. He also said that the service was poor. I explained that, in such situations, the trick is to leave a one penny tip. That really makes the point. And I am sure the waiters are very grateful for this, and recommit themselves to improved waiting.

There are a few Mongolian BBQs in town. They do not call themselves that; they claim to be Japanese. But the same idea. You fill a plate with veggies, noodles, and raw meats, and give it to an Asian man who cooks it and then gives it to an Asian woman who brings it to your table. Pretty good. The best one is called Graz Tokyo by Hauptplatz. They use so much MSG that you have to pause in the middle of eating so your heart can slow down. Mmmmmmm.

Europeans put fried eggs on a wider variety of foods. The Spaniards put it on many sandwiches. One of the ubiquitous Irish Pubs here, Molly Malone's, serves a burger with 2 fried eggs that is quite good. There is a Gasthaus nearby that serves fried egg over ham. "Gasthaus" is a common term for a friendly little restaurant, and I am flattered to be invited, except you are not supposed to make guests pay for food.

Bio products are even more prevalent here than in the US. Whenever a store sells fruit or meat, they have a bio version that costs 50% more and looks about the same, but is supposedly free of whatever nastiness is in non-bio food.

Many labs here have Nespresso, Nestle's espresso drink hawked by George Clooney. Of course, since he is so handsome and has a perfect soul, it must not be a pancreas-eating addictive stimulant. It is now my daily caffeine shot of choice, since it's quite hard to find fresh iced tea out here. Another interesting drink is blueberry juice, which is tasty even though the main fruit juice manufacturer is named "Smoke" in German.

In an observation totally unrelated to dining, the toilet in the lab, like many out here, has a very stupid design. There is no real toilet bowl. There is instead a flat porcelain plate, parallel to the ground, over which you sit. The conventional toilet, in which you bomb water even with no aiming effort, is much smarter. The lab toilet is a three stage process: finish your meal, flush, get the toilet brush. Instead of dropping your kids off at the pool, you are just dumping them on the diving board.