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.