Sunday, December 26, 2010

On Krampus

I spent some of today in the lab, catching up on things and recovering from two days of generous feasting. Since I am on campus, I thought it would be fitting to write on Krampus. More on Him later.

It was a pretty generous Christmas, much more than I expected so far from home. I was invited for Christmas Eve dinner at the home of one of my labmates, which was quite kind. I brought some wine, chocolate, and T-shirts, the latter two from California. We had very good chicken soup, and a huge and generous platter of meats and egg and potato salad and numerous breads and lots of other things, then for dessert, roasted apples with cinnamon and raisins and walnuts. And plenty of nice conversation in a cozy home. I was quite happy. Badly overfed, but happy.

The next day, I was invited to Christmas lunch at another home, with people I knew even less, so I thought it especially nice to be invited. I again brought that trio of gifts, with 4 bottles of wine this time. This Christmas lunch was around noon or one, so I am not sure exactly what to call it. It was certainly cozy and Christmasy, with trees and decorations and a happy family. They had me fooled until the whole Krampus thing. Anyway.

The meal was, again, quite generous and tasty. The main meat element doesn't really exist in English, but it is essentially a slab of meat, rolled up and cooked, with gravy. And dumplings. And red cabbage with chestnuts. Then dessert was a sliced fruit bowl with cream. All of this was new and sumptuous. Also, in both houses, they had huge platters of assorted mini cakes and cookies, just in case you hadn't eaten quite enough for the week. I talked about Christmas turkeys with mashed potatoes and gravy and stuffing and cranberry sauce. And I told of my brother, teaching the Chinese how to cook such turkeys, and other Amerikanisch fare. I talked about exchanging gifts, which seems to be similar to the American way, except for the timing. And they had a wonderfully charming Christmas tree, just like one at home, with lights and ribbons and tinsel and hanging red balls and little alcohol filled chocolates hidden amongst the needles. All the gifts were glistening and well wrapped and inviting. I told them about the stockings (or perhaps there was a grievous mistranslation on my part). I said that Santa would bring a lump of coal for bad children. Note: Yes, this really is the absolute worst thing that ever happens to kids in American Christmas mythology. At the very worst, very bad kids get no toys from Santa, only a lump of coal. I say this to contrast him with Krampus.

Krampus is a mythical Austrian tormentor who hangs out with Santa Claus. While Santa rewards good children, Krampus punishes them, by beating them with chains and sticks and then putting them in baskets and hauling them away. They tell this to little 4 year old kids! Wide eyed and trusting, vulnerable, sweet. And I was just getting to trust Austrian people. Huh. Well, it figures. Same people who make little kids learn German.

On December 5, Austrian men play Krampus. This means that they dress up badly, go out in public, and get drunk. So far, no problem. I do this during Weinachtsfest a lot. It sounds like lots of holidays. But here is the evil Krampus part. They have chains and bells to frighten children. They go to shopping malls and other places, hit little kids (yes, I confirmed this part), chase them, ring bells, and try to scare them. Oddly, they do this indiscriminately, without even determining whether the kids were bad. I asked my hostess, and she said that she was chased and beaten as a little girl by scary Krampus man. In public. Didn't the other people do anything, I asked? Yes, she said. After a while, they told the Krampus men to stop. I said this would go much differently in the US, Texas in particular.

I had brunch this morning with a colleague and his family, including 2 little kids. I asked about Krampus. They confirmed it. They said it is used sometimes to motivate kids. Clemens told me something like this, but I didn't take it seriously, because he seems like a nice man. Sorry. Seemed.

I said that we have nothing like that in our Christmas mythology. We do have an old man that visits, sometimes two. He is often badly dressed, and sometimes drunk. But, he is not mean, but very loving and happy to see the kids. He brings presents and sometimes dresses up like Santa Claus. The men are not called Krampus, but Grampas.

One of the big headlines in Graz last year was when a man kidnapped his daughter and locked her in the cellar, where he beat her and was generally mean to her for 35 years. A few months later, it happened again. The Austrians were in shock. No, they said. Why? Why do they do this? I asked about it, and people said it was just a fluke. Yeah. They said that. Then, when I wasn't watching, they dressed up like Krampus, and went to public places, and threatened them with bells and chains and cellar damnation. Don't act all innocent.

To be fair, we do have Halloween. Old men dress badly, get drunk, go out in public, and scare children with bells, chains, ghost moaning, and bad breath. Other people confuse the kids by giving them candy. But that's totally different. For example, we also have the slutty costumes I mentioned before. What about that? (Not for the drunk old men.) What about some cultural merging, and we also say that on Dec 5, appropriate people also dress slutty? And, to further draw from this opportunity for cultural exchange, I should also tell you of the other part of our Halloween mythology, which is that they buy drinks for American BCI scientists. Let's get that tradition going, and it will really counter that Krampus grumpiness, at least for me.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Eternal SiSiSi

Greetings from Rome, where the second TOBI workshop just ended. The workshop was generally successful, although bad weather and other factors caused all kinds of travel problems for many attendees. I was no exception; took me 14 hours to get from Graz to Rome, and the arrival time of my luggage remains unknown.

Rome is quite charming nonetheless. Our local hosts did a great job organizing, and were characteristically effusive and enthusiastic. I noticed that the locals seem unable to say yes once. Instead, just as Spaniards tend to say "vale" three times instead of once, Italians usually say "si" three or more times. Hence I redub the Eternal City: The Eternal SiSiSi.

And I bet it will catch on! Someday. If the city really is eternal, then I have lots of time.

The eternality of the city is best reflected in this conversation, which I had while sharing a taxi from the hotel to the conference site:

Me: "And so the hybrid BCI approach we are doing now is different from the - hey, look, Roman ruins!" (Everyone stops and stares.)
Colleague: "Yes. Um. Right. Uh. Where were we? Oh yes, hybrid BCIs. So - look, more ruins!" (everyone stares.)

After a few iterations of this, we kind of habituated, and even kept on topic for a little while.

Colleague: "But how can you resolve the - ah, more ruins up there, we must ignore them - how can you resolve the increased illiteracy risk?"
Me: "Well, it can reduce illiteracy if - wow, those ruins are huge! Anyway, so, um. You know, that looks a lot like the Coliseum."
Taxi driver: "That is the Coliseum." (everyone stops and stares.)

Long delay. Quite a shock to see one of the great edificies of world history, just, well, there, on the side of the road, coincidentally along our taxi ride. I guess I assumed it would be elevated, cloudborne, gleaming, surrounded by gold and the finest possible staff in resplendent raiment.

Me: "Dudes, why don't we enjoy the ride through Rome, and discuss work later?"
No objection.
"Sir, can you tell us about these new ruins up here?"
Taxi driver: "Si, si, si."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Don't Feed the Bear Story

I did say I was over the Colorado bear mauling. I implied it would not reflect well on me to obsess on it further. What would it say about my perspicacity, creativity, and wit if I couldn't find something new to talk about?

But, the media keep feeding that tail. Animal Planet created a series called Fatal Attractions, which exploits tales of animals hurting people to produce sensationalist, subtlely violent TV. Evdiently, they couldn't get enough viewers with pretty videos of deer and whales, let alone mollusks or obscure cnidarians. Hm, some clever producer though, maybe we can pull some viewers from wrestling, cage fighting, and Jackass reruns by offering comparable content. Season 1, Episode 6, titled "Don't Feed the Bears", focuses on the tale of Donna Munson.

Hard to say what I thought of this episode. It was nice to see professional film of Ouray, Colorado. They repeatedly interviewed the sherriff (my uncle), who handled himself quite well, though there was a bit of a gleam in his eye when he told about how his third shotgun blast finally "put the bear down". That seemed a bit insensitive, but then, bears don't watch TV, and would probably have found the episode horrific. The bigger problem is that the filming, editing, pacing, music, and detached narration all accomplished the goal of building tension and fear within the viewer. So I was watching the show with my parents, with happy thoughts and discussion of places we hiked or at least recognized, while the show instead tried to adumbrate doom and death.

Well, loyal blog readers (both of you) know how the story ends. But it turns out my speculation in the Tragedy of the Scented Scarf - quite surprisingly - was totally wrong. I admit I had to speculate on some details of bear courtroom procedures, but I thought it was a good guess. Reality is even more bizarre. Truth is danger than fiction.

The underlying incident was a big bear attacking a smaller bear. Donna Munson complained about this to her friends, stating that the big bear was a bully, and she intended to swat the big bear to teach him a lesson. I wish I could take credit for using that particular word, but no, "swat" is an exact quote from the newspaper (not mentioned in the Animal Planet story). This is by far the greatest use of "swat" in English, and totally explains how differently the situation was perceived. For my non-English speaking reader, "swat" is about the most playful formulation of "attack" or "hit" possible. A swat does not really hurt, or threaten.

Flashback to Cognitive Science 101C, when Prof. Gilles Fauconnier explained blending and its relation to humor and metaphor. We looked at examples of jokes based on miscommunication, in which one person has a certain view of the world, but fails to completely communicate it. So here is Donna Munson's mental model:

"Big bear attacked small bear. Swatting big bear would effectively convey my disappointment, and help big bear to appreciate the mental anguish he inflicted on small bear. Big bear would then re-evaluate his actions, and his overall world view, entailing an apology to small bear, possible restitution, and perhaps joining the Peace Core."

Here is big bear's mental model:

"Kill attacker!"

Hence, contrary to my supposition, the inciting incident didn't really have to do with food at all. The bear was defending himself. He might have been especially anger-prone, given that he had attacked a smaller bear, which might have served as a hint that he might not appreciate the swat. He probably calmed down, and only later thought, hmmm, I notice Donna didn't put out any new food recently. And I'm all tuckered out after clarifying the word "swat" to that vicious little attacker. Tired. And a bit peckish. And she smells kinda good.....

And so, by the time it dawned on Donna that he was munching on Munson, it was too late.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

free whine

I am on a jet sitting on the ground in Chicago. I'm in 30K of a Boeing 777, which means I am in an exit row seat immediately behind the mid galley bulkhead. I seem to have gotten this exit row seat due to a computer glitch, since I was supposed to be charged extra. Some guy just came and took the (empty) seat next to me, and just got booted by an observant flight attendant. It's tough out here. So I end up with an exit row, quite literally. 30K and 30J are effectively the only seats in this row; there seems to be a 30A and 30B off to my left somewhere, on the other side of some lavatories, which is so far away it can be ignored. So I got a row to myself. Palatial. This could revolutionize my airline stretch routine.

My flight from Europe was one month sgo. Hard to believe that, since then, I hiked Moonshine Park and dropped down the Ridgway side of the ridge, plus saw so many people, went to a conference, and endured a deeply hauntingly rainy trip to San Diego. On the flight here, I got unlimited free wine. Now, they say it is 6 bucks a cup (not glass), since this is a United flight and not a Lufthansa flight. Yet I keep getting free wine out of them, based only on the promise of giving them more Mozartkügeln once I get to baggage claim. I could attribute this to me being charming, but I think it gets down to the tipping culture, and the underlying social underpinnings.

As I mentioned in many previous posts, the American vs. European differences in tipping culture speak tomes. Europeans consider good service routine. Why pay for good service, or for a couple cups of wine, when it should be assumed? Americans instead whine for such service from both directions; customers demand (not expect) it, and workers want some bonus for it. So they get it, in the form of tips, even though I strongly suspect they don't really make more than their European counterparts. Same trick here. I think I am clever and just charmed a stewardess, but in fact, she's probably giving free wine to everyone on the plane. Slut.

The rest of the flight was similarly uneventful. The flies in Munich airport were as tenacious as always. The flight from Munich to Graz was quite pretty, with snowy Alps jutting defiantly above clouds that rolled off the slopes like lazy avalanches. I did not get any photos of them, since I was near a wing, but I shall try to sate eager readers with snowy mountains in Colorado from just a few weeks ago:

The trip to Colorado opened with a massive snowstorm. I tried to be accepting. It was almost November, after all, and the snow did make everything pretty. Yet it did not portend good hiking. I still had fun seeing the family and everything, but then noticed it ceased snowing after I arrived. And so I did get in some good hikes, with good pictures, of an unprecendentedly wintery hiking retinue. I found lots of good new hikes, and discovered that snow creates some new adventures in old favorites. Yellowjacket Mine, for example, is a whole different hike in the snow and ice. I lost two walking sticks just making it through. I promised them they would be recorded, and they are. To my two loyal former walking sticks, Mini Wally and Wally Nuevo, you did your jobs well, and saved me from a nasty tumble down a ravine. May you thrive on the bottom of the ravine, in whatever way a dead log may wish to thrive.

But the big news around town was not the weather, but the election for Sherriff. My uncle was up against his toughest competition yet, who took out full page ads slandering him, and used all kinds of dirty tricks. We all told ourselves it was politics as usual, but it wasn't, cause this was our family. I was there for over a week before the election, which was 2 Nov, and the biggest local contest was the race for sherriff. I tried to contribute with clever writing, but was badly humbled and upstaged by the master. Mom wrote such a persuasive and sweet Letter to the Editor that I was left dumbfounded. It was like having my tongue wrapped in a towel. Vastly superior English skills. I hope I can write like that when I grow up. Fortunately, Uncle Dominic was re-elected for the third time, sending a strong message that the locals like him. Local humans, anyway. I doubt the local bear community does, but they cannot vote.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fire at Will

Here are some pictures that were shot at the Hoopes-Ferrell wedding in Berkeley during Aug 2010.




Friday, October 1, 2010

Stand and Deliver

I coordinated a 21 square meter stand at the ICT Expo in Brussels from Sunday until Wednesday this week. It went well. All of the demos were successful, we distributed a lot of literature and met a lot of people, and had some nice meetings and discussions. Here are some pictures.

The Expo location in Brussels. Note the sky color.

Our stand in Brussels. 21 square meters.

Felip Miralles, the coordinator of BrainAble, who joined us at our stand. He holds a box of Mozart chocolates, which also joined us at our stand, but not for long. I had to ask Christa to bring extras, which she did, and also did not last long.

A BCI User at our stand playing World of Warcraft. Note you can barely see she's wearing anything on her head - this is the whole point of new electrode systems.

Busy stand!

Another visitor to our stand uses the Intendix BCI speller from g.tec

She spelled the name of her company (Space Applications) with 100% accuracy! No training or screening. She was chosen randomly and never used any BCI before. She also spelled her name with 100% accuracy, but I did not get a picture of that.

ScratchBot, a curiously named robot presented at a stand near us. The yellow things are whiskers, since the system is modeled after a rat.

Brussels Pouts III

Greetings from Munich airport, where I am delighted to have made it out of Brussels. Brussels was true to form. As before, the metro was badly overcrowded, with people shoving to get on and then reposition. There was no circulation at all, leaving it smoggy and very hot. With everyone in the car sweating like cattle, you can imagine how this was for me, in a full suit. The metro line to the Expo, which was hosting our event with 6000 people, ran once per 12 minutes during rush hour. They had an airline strike on Tuesday that took out three of the eight speakers I scheduled for my networking session yesterday, and a general transportation strike on Wednesday that delayed another one until half an hour before it ended. I’m rather pleased our 90 minute session went as well as it did. For that matter, our 21 square meter stand also did pretty well, and the ICT Expo seems to have been successful overall, both for our team and for many other attendees. Many of whom, like me, will be “rewarded” for successful grant writing with: more trips to Brussels!

And we got dissed by the Belgian prince. He was at the Expo on Monday, and saw some of our friends’ stands. Ours was bigger (21 square meters was a lot), better (five different BCIs that the prince could have used), and had considerably more staff, some of whom spoke both French and Flemish. They spoke Flemish because they are Dutch, which is in fact the same language, but Belgians like to call it Flemish to confuse Americans. So the Prince could have played World of Warcraft with his brain, or spelled, or other things, but didn’t. We were miffed. It reminded me of 2 years ago at CeBIT, when we were told to prepare for Frau Doktor Merkel, and she turned around after coming quite close to us. Perhaps the Belgian prince also did not want gel in his hair, but (unlike 2 years ago) we had numerous dry electrode systems there.

Brussels does have some good (though overpriced) food, and excellent (and often reasonably priced) beer. Many parks and cool old buildings. Perhaps not a bad city as long as you don’t have to travel within it. Probably a nice city 2 million people ago. Like Los Angeles, I guess, which has a far worse mass transit system but dramatically better weather.

But I am beyond that now, in the huge Munich airport, which I generally like because (like Frankfurt, and no other airport I know), they have free hot drinks and a generous supply of numerous different free newspapers. The Allianz lounge here has free decent chairs and free electricity, though not free internet. They have a Hofbrauhaus in Terminal 2, which I think might also be in Munich. Most importantly, since I flew through Frankfurt on my way to Brussels a few days ago, I could finally attain new insight in to the maddening mystery of the urinal flies.

As mentioned many posts ago, Frankfurt airport had little flies in urinals in the mens’ restrooms. This shatters any stereotypes about the German sense of humor. (Bonus points if they put any in the womens’ restrooms. Does anyone know? I almost checked, but I doubt that scientific curiosity would have been an adequate legal defense.) I was heartbroken to see that the urinal flies were no longer there, at least around the A gates, because I really wanted to succeed where I failed before. No matter how hard I tried, I could never budge one of those little buggers. They must have super suction cups on their feet or something.

I entered one of the bathrooms here in the G gates in Munich airport. There they were! Urinal flies in every urinal, right at the aiming point! Yay! Lemme at ‘em!! They defied me again, and I had numerous cups of (free) tea before giving them another shot, and they still held on. The German reputation for tenacity is alive and well in their urinal flies. I complemented a passing Lufthansa pilot, but am pretty sure he did not appreciate it.

But I still couldn’t figure out why the migration occurred. Why would the urinal flies leave Frankfurt for Munich? Do flies like spätzle? Do flies like hiking too? Do they prefer that south German accent over HochDeutsch? Perhaps Bavarian cows drop tastier food? Are they migrating to Salzburg, or maybe even Graz? It was really bothering me until I passed a sign advertising that airport Hofbrauhaus. Of course!! It is now late September! The flies are here for Oktoberfest! And what a fest they must be having, getting kiloliters of free alcohol-soaked urine from thousands of tourists per day. (I heard that the occasional German even comes to Oktoberfest.)

It also provides a workable plan on how to finally pry one of those clinging little bastards off. All we have to do is put tape over one urinal and an “Ausser Betrieb” sign on it, then put a cup over the fly. After a while, he will get thirsty and leave of his own volition, and then we got him!! I am so excited, I could almost, well, go visit the flies again. But instead, I will go find that Lufthansa pilot, who will surely be far more enthusiastic about my genius after he hears my plan.

"Did you hear about the two flies who were having an argument on a toilet seat? One of them got mad, and the other one got pissed off."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Buck Chomps Here

Been particularly busy since returning from the US. Most of my online posting has been here, to the page of our website with the conference I host next week:

Another reason is that I just haven't outgrown the Munson bear feeding story. It already occupied two blog posts, months ago, and I had ample intervening time to think up something more appropriate. But it still seems like the funniest thing I could write about. Anyway.

I'll move to a totally different topic and report on feeding a buck in Colorado. It was literally my last hour before leaving for the flight. I had found some rotting apples in the street 3 weeks ago, which would not have caught my attention before last year. But, as chronic blog readers know, last year, I realized that apples (even rotting ones) can be transformed into a wonderful and totally illegal deer hand feeding experience. I chased a doe and her fawn around that day but failed to get their attention. Interestingly, deer have very little interest in rolling objects. I tried to first woo the doe by rolling apples at her. It is much harder than playing with dogs. Dogs will eagerly track and follow a ball anywhere. Deer don't pay attention to any rolling object more than 5-10 feet from their heads. After a few tries, I managed to land one right next to her left foreleg, which broke the ice. I did then hand feed her, but had no camera. So all I got later was this:

The timid doe.

So, I was sitting on the deck on my last day of Colorado, and saw a particularly majestic buck go by. Really pretty antlers. So I followed my usual approach algorithm. Turns out it is much easier to roll apples to a precise location on grass, as opposed to a solid dirt road.

Velvet buck approaches. Nice rack!

Trying to figure out whether the camera will shoot him. Well, my friend, that depunds.


Post-prandial laugh. I think he liked the dinner theater.

Velvet buck, after first feeding, with Twin Peaks in the background.

(Brief aside - this is a picture from that mountain, Twin Peaks, which I had hiked the previous week.)

After this first feeding, I grabbed my brother to get some third person pictures. I was almost out of apples, so I decicded to try feeding some other miscellaneous fruits. These included a banana, and raspberries and other berries from my hike the last week with my brother:

Steve with wild raspberries we found (and ate) on the Neosho Mine hike.

Wild raspberries and aster flowers, ibid.

Raspberry bush, ibid.

Velvet buck - Second approach

Velvet buck eating an apple

Velvet buck pondering cranberries

Velvet buck rejects cranberries! Good boy.

Velvet buck ponders banana.

Velvet buck tries banana.

Turns out the buck did not go for the banana. Next time, I will try peeling it. You know, next time I forge a punch of pictures on Photoshop and joke about feeding wild deer, which would of course be illegal. And it would introduce a certain hypocrisy for mocking Mrs. Munson and other bear feeders.