Thursday, February 25, 2010


There is a madman ranting on the street outside my apartment. He's been at it for over 20 minutes, enough to spur me to write about him. I can see him part of the time, since he wanders. He does not wander randomly. He's clearly making an effort to rant at different passersby. He yells at them, committed and enthusiastic, for several seconds, clearly quite sincere and convinced he has something portentuous and actionable that he must communicate. He doesn't seem especially angry. I mean, you wouldn't want to fuck with him, but I get the impression that he thinks he is helping people. If they listened, their lives would be better. I'm not sure, because he's ranting in German. Maybe he rants in German because we're in Austria, but perhaps he is such a devoted ranter that he learned German.

I really look forward to speaking better German, because it really is the language of ranting. I don't mean any association with the reputation of German as an angry language. That would be racist and totally beneath me, like any allusion to [censored]. Besides, German sounds angry even when nice happy people in love speak it at regular volume in a grassy field 'neath splendid Alps on a gorgeous day. This is why The Sound of Music was in English, even though it was filmed around Salzburg - it would have otherwise been a horror film. The hills are alive! With the sounds of victims!

Ranting would not work in French. I mean, sure you could do it, but it would be totally different. This ranter is getting the expected reaction - people move away from him, quickly, protectively, with a nice mix of backward glances and trying to avoid the ranter's attention. If he ranted in French, tourist girls would put their arm around him while their boyfriends took pictures, and people would try to paint his face like a mime and later throw money in his hat and applaud whenever he paused. If he ranted in Russian, everyone would assume he is drunk. In Southern California, his rant would lose steam as he realized how nice the sun is, and soon some rantee would give him a j, and he'd wander toward the beach. If he ranted in Italian, his rant would be over, cause he would have gotten laid by now.

It is actually a testable hypothesis. I wish I had enough money to fund this research project. (Not because I would. I just wish I had that much money.) You could have professional actors deliver the same rant, at the same decibel level and attempted affect, in different languages. Record how many passersby react in different ways. Get some undergrad to tag the video and code how people react in some quantifiable way. There will be substantial and statistically significant differences in how people react. You could publish it in some sociology journal, and it would make a great YouTube video and probably earn mention on CNN. I can help you develop the study, but you have to put me on the author list and give me a chance to learn Italian.

German ranting mastery also explains why Germans are great philosophers. I learned this at a very early age, not though intellectual snobbery, but because Monty Python selected them as one of two teams in the philosopher soccer game, and I figured that at least John Cleese was an intellectual snob, so he would be able to choose the two best philosopher teams. Wittgenstein writes like he's trying to torture future translators. Nietsche's ranting is fun only because it is so infused with megalomania and allusions to grandeur.

I can hear the ranter as I type. What makes it funnier is that it is 2 AM on a Thursday night on a street lined with clubs for college students. The closest thing in San Diego would be ranting at 1 AM on a weekend on the west end of Garnet, or maybe Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana, which is in southern San Diego. There are a bunch of 19 year olds, dressed up, drunk, loud, amiable, who are outside to smoke or move between clubs. He's not ranting to a random agglutination of commoners; this is a select crowd, at a special time. Perhaps there is wisdom in his choice. Friday or Saturday would be too busy, with cops and club security guards. Monday and Tuesday are dead. And, get them when they are drunk, more open, more amiable, perhaps more reflective, more open to your message that Jesus is in your bottle of milk, and not elsewhere.

Unfortunately, I was not watching during the onset of the rant, and so I didn't see what caused it. It makes me wonder whether this rant, and indeed rants in general, are planned or spontaneous. (My blog entries can be both, depending on whether I'm near a computer, free, and sufficiently pleased with my own comments to write about them. This one is obviously in the spontaneous category. And is indeed somewhat ranting.)

Maybe it was premeditated. He had a vision of coming here to rant for a while. It was part of his plan. He was thinking, earlier, dammit, I really have something good to rant about, and the corner of Elisabethstrasse and Beethovenstrasse 'round 1 AM would be perfect. Or perhaps he did not sense the ideal collusion of people, traffic, lighting, and quark rays at 1 AM. Maybe he wanted to rant earlier, but he was tied up with something - work, pressing ranting obligations elsewhere, book signing tour, had to get the tux pressed, cabinet meeting, late for the pub quiz, elephant stuck in the tree again, German class, security guard at the asylum still on duty, had to meet Jesus Christ at wings night at Hooters, got rejected from painting school, forgot to finish reviewing that article for the Journal of Neural Research. Actually, the worry about pending ranting obligations elsewhere should worry me. If any of you see him in a Munich beer hall, learn from history and [censored].

Or it could have been a spontaneous rant. He just got some bad news, or hallucinated some, or maybe he was fuming over something bad that happened that day, and he just went off. We all feel the beginnings of this sometimes. It's not so different from a guy talking to himself in his car, just much less inhibited. I could see how, with a lot less self consciousness and inhibition, I could just take the next step and start ranting at strangers over the last thing that bugged me. Maybe the madman is going on about the same thing. Dammit, the Journal of Neural Research rejected my article again! Aaaargh! It's always fucking reviewer two! Hey, you! Random stranger! Never submit there again! And you, you - Resign from the Editorial Board NOW! I demand it! Everyone! You! You! Little girl! Blacklist them! You! Mowhawked teenager! Ignore that journal, and tell your library to cancel their subscription!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Barcelona V

I've been here in Barcelona for the last week. It is, I think, my fifth trip to a city that I first visited only last year. Also, the title "Barcelona V" kinda fits with some of their metro stops, such as Jaume I and Alfons X.

I discovered Park Guell over the weekend, which is a really good place to visit. Lots of cool structures and art interacting with the native terrain and flora, and much of it looks a lot like home. Indeed, I would go so far as to dub Park Guell the greatest park in southern California.

On the second day there (Sunday), I realized the musicians were playing exactly the same thing as the first day. And, well, why not? They really had it down. Just a few measures, really not even a complete tune, but it seemed to work when you're going for an audience that listens for maybe one minute on average.

Most of the week was devoted to work, a kickoff meeting for the new BrainAble grant. The kickoff meeting included a dinner after the first night, which happened to coincide with my birthday. And all of Barcelona held a carnival, starting on 11 Feb, where lots of people wore masks and danced and sang. I admit I was a bit flattered, that the whole metropolis would start a week-long festival just for me! I mean, a 3 day festival just for me would have been acceptable.

Natives were out in droves at the kickoff meeting dinner. I was given a mask and balloon hat, which helped me convey an auro of professionalism at the dinner meeting:

Mi Mascara!
Actually, it is a new type of noninvasive BCI

A trio of musicians also slunk about, playing a combo of a seemingly homemade drum, a seemingly homemade string instrument, and a seemingly hometaught larynx. We could hear them going to other rooms of the restaurant, playing very badly, and I didn't say anything because I thought maybe it was some Catelan traditional song, and I didn't want to offend anyone. But then the trio came to our room, and I definitely noticed the hosts wincing to some of those high notes. I mean, they were all bad, but the yodelist was truly fingernail-curling. I wince at the memory. That could be a new category of BCI control: remembering the Catelan Carnival Yodelist.

A couple days later, I had to move to a new hotel because the 3GSM conference starting on 14 Feb caused all the hotel prices to increase. So I'm at a hotel near the ariport, and they just had a big parade to celebrate the carnival. I tried to explain that I am leaving soon, and they did not actually have to go through with the whole carnival in my honor, but they didn't listen. So, I just stood there and watched. It was a little like Halloween. Everyone had costumes. Some people distributed candy. And, people threw toilet paper over trees in the middle of the road. So I waited for something more fun, like slutty nurses or kids pooping on porches, but no luck. I will have to speak to the manager about this. Thanks to this project, it looks like I will have to return to BCN on Jan or Feb in each of the next 3 years, so they need to get my carnival right.