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.