Monday, June 28, 2010


Quite unexpectedly, the security people in Los Angeles were far kinder than in Frankfurt. I learned this through a tale of cultural differences during my flight.
At LAX, I got some Mexican food for lunch. I enjoyed it with no small amount of whimsy, even though I have enough Mexican food in my luggage to quite literally feed me for 2 weeks, and will be in Cali again in 2 months. I talked them into giving me a salsa container, then filled it with really good roasted tomatillo salsa and tried my luck at security. It was not what I expected at all.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m trying to take this delicious salsa to Graz. But, this container looks like more than 100 ml. Can you tell me how much I can take?”
“You cannot take liquids on board, sir.”
I repeated exactly what I just said, verbatim.
“OK, sir.”
“Can you please tell me how much I can take?”
“100 milliliters, sir.”
“Right. So, of this container, how much can I take?”
This went on for a couple minutes until I worked out that they actually had no way at all to measure out 100 mL. This seems pretty basic, since it is a fundamental unit of measurement in a modern airport security line. I tried to bribe her with two Mozartkügeln, no luck. Then a female supervisor came over with a totally unexpected announcement.
“Sir? If you like, we can test it for you.”
“Go ahead. It’s pretty good.” I drank a little to demonstrate.
“No, sir." She smiled a little. Promising. "That's not what I mean. We can test it for you. To make sure it is safe.”
“And then I can take it through security?”
“Yes, sir.”
Huh. I had no idea that was an option. It worked. They took my salsa, tested it with a little wand that presumably said “no nasty nitrates,” and then they let me through with at least a half pint of salsa. After confirming with the security people, and bribing the cute supervisor with my last remaining Mozartkügeln, I went back and purschased lots more salsa, which they tested, and approved. This struck me as a totally novel paradigm in airline security. I was so inspired that I hit on the TSA security supervisor there, but got denied. Some things never change.
I mentioned many times that Frankfurt is a good airport, and I never had any problems there. No longer true. I disembarked and the line through customs and passport control was fairly bad, though not exceptionally so. I went to terminal B and they no longer have free tea and coffee there, though they still have newspapers for free. Worst of all, they renovated their bathrooms and they got rid of the little flies!!! Every time I go through here, or Munich, the high point of my trip is going after those little flies that the Germans paint in to the urinals. I blogged about it repeatedly. I was sure that the fly population had probably reproduced since I last said hello during my trip out to California, and I might have to visit a few different urinals just to keep them down. But no, the “new and improved” urinals just have regular white porcelain. Boo! I should write a letter to the airport people, or better yet, the local fly king. They have to have some leader, perhaps called the Lord of the Flies or Frankfurt FührerFliege or something. Maybe I could even taunt him into bringing his posse out to San Diego, where they can try their luck taking over the urinals in my home town.
But then I hit security, which predictably followed cultural differences. To my great annoyance, I had to go through security again, which was also a problem in LA. I boarded in San Diego, went through security, connected in LA, had to go through security again, then connected in Frankfurt, and had to go through security again. Even Stapleton airport, amidst a famously delayed and thoroughly corrupt construction effort, manages to stick some long underground tunnels (or shuttles) so people, especially international travelers, don’t have to go through security every time.
Anyway. There was no line at security, so I figured I would have some flexibility cajoling them. First, of course, they did discover my roasted tomatillo salsa. The Frankfurters were, well, frank, as well as attentive and thoroughly inflexible. “Sir, what is this?”
“This is Mexican salsa.”
“Where did you get it?”
“At a Mexican restaurant at LAX. It then cleared security and-“
“You took this through a security checkpoint?”
“Yes. They said they could test it to confirm it is safe. They did. Then, they said the salsa was OK to take onboard. So, it is definitely clear.”
“It is clear in America. Not here.”
“I am sorry, sir.”
“I will give you some very nice Austrian chocolate.”
“We are not allowed to take anything, sir.”
“Can I take 100 mL of this salsa?”
“Can I buy a 100 mL bottle at the store, pour out the contents, fill it with salsa, and discard the rest?”
"You can have the rest of it." Bad move. Probably less appealing than Mozartkügeln. Sure enough:
"We are not allowed to take anything, sir."
“Do I have any other options? Can I put it in my checked luggage?”
The resulting procedure was clearly beyond the available time, so I asked if I had any other options. “You can drink it now,” he replied helpfully.
“This is Mexicanisch salsa. Sehr scharf. Is there water nearby?”
“Yes.” I noticed four other people were now watching, clearly amused.
“Have you ever had Mexican salsa?”
“Have some.”
“I am sorry, sir, I cannot drink it. It is not allowed.”
“Do you have any tortilla chips, or maybe a burrito or quesadilla to go with it?”
I really wanted the salsa. Or at least that salsa flavor. One last taste of roasted tomatillo to keep me going. And 2 of the now-five people watching me were female.
”OK. Just to entertain you, I will drink it.”
So I did. Managed to keep a straight face, and smile. Six people applauded. I bowed and tried not to puke, retch, or wince. As I mentioned, it was a really slow day at that checkpoint.

I asked one of them for her contact info, telling her I would be back through Frankfurt soon. “I am sorry, sir.” Some things never change.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

For Why The Bell Tolls

We returned from the beach pretty tired, or at least I was, after thrasing about for 3 hours after 3 weeks of no exercise. I turned on the television and started hitting the up buttong. The fourth one was the Military Channel, showing a commercial for the Military Channel. "Hey Josef, check this out! One of the first channels I hit is the Military Chennel. That is very American. And it's a commercial, and I have no idea what it is on, but I bet it is somehow about America winning World War 2." Now you have to admit, that is a pretty specific prediction. "The Military Channel" could be quite broad. The show promptly returned as the announcer said, "That left three American carriers ready for action at Midway."

We then met more labbies at a local Outback Pub to watch the Celtics beat the Lakers in (one of the seven games of) the Finals. Markus gloated. See later headlines.

The rest of the week was progressively less busy. On Monday, we visited the impressively upgraded Makeig lab at the UCSD Supercomputer Center, which looked good before they moved. Christa gave a talk and we had lunch at the also-renovated Faculty Club. On Tuesday, all my labbies returned to Austria except Josef, with whom we visited a couple producers at Blizzard, and then the following day we visited the Polich lab, where Michael Tangermann and I gave talks.

Since Josef stayed an extra week, he got a fuller palette of San Diego food and culture. The Blizzard people took us to Claim Jumper, which I called the Artery Jumper and explained was all American consumerism double plus. They delivered, with an absurd burger called the WidowMaker and aggressively unlimited iced teas. We noticed a lot of other Blizzard people there, easily identifiable by their black Blizzard T-shirts. Some evil competitor could just bug the local Claim Jumper and get all the info they need, plus enough saturated fat to survive the winter. John Polich fed us from the local Berto's, so I got Josef and Michael a fine selection of taco shop fare including California burrito, al Pastor burrito, taquitos, and nachos. Josef later had a machaca breakfast, replete with tortills, salsa, refried beans, and good ol' American style hash browns, with a helpful explanation of hash brown cooking by the waitress. (It was a short conversation. Shred potatoes, cook over vegetable oil, maybe cover to trap moisture.) We went to a Padres game at Petco park with a couple friends of mine, and 2 random chicks in line gave me 2 free tickets. I tried to pay them, but there was a Padres ticket agent standing there. So I said I would just share my 5 dollar bag of kettle corn, and gave it to them, plus my card and a smile, and never saw them again. Still a good deal overall. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, with a nice view of the ocean and ample overpriced ballpark crudites. I instead brought Peanuts and Cracker Jacks from outside, since I knew they would play that song some time, and thus completed my cultural grand slam. We did root, root root for the home team, but the Padres failed to deliver. Josef later saw another Finals game at another pub. In all three cases, the Padres or Lakers lost. Lesson: send Josef to see home games of enemy teams.

I am now at the Neural Interfaces Workshop in Long Beach, where a lot of interesting work is getting attention. A few people who are here were also at Asilomar. The Long Beach conference center is flanked on all sides by fashionable entertainment, with an amusement park and well manicured lawns by the harbor and booming upscale restaurants everywhere. One of the most memorable facets of this conference, though, is the way they tell people to move along. Usually, when a poster session or coffee break or whatever is ending, and it's time for people to move along, they dim the lights or make an annoucement or something a few minutes early. Only when people really linger past the deadline do they send in their squat blue-suited security personnel to shoo you.

But here, the convention center operators send their security goons out into the poster area a full 10 minutes before the session ended. Their method of announcing the upcoming end of the session? Ringing bells. Everyone brought an antique looking bronze bell with a black handle, like something a schoolteacher would use to tell Tom and Huck and Ben Harper to shut up and sit down. Security walked around the room, following clearly preplanned lines, ringing bells. They were obviously moving around the room to deliver their sonic assault as widely as possible throughout the room. Whenever they hit the edge of a carpet or something, they sharply turned 90 degrees, as if they were trained at marching and trying to show off. They avoided eye contact. They said nothing about why they were doing this.

All of this began while I was talking about my poster. None of us had any idea what was going on. "Yes," I said, "We have a website here, with some articles available for free. And also - pause - do you know why they are ringing bells like that?"

Three other people: "No."

Long Pause.

Me: "Well, maybe they will stop soon."

They didn't.

Ring ring.

"OK, well maybe, we can talk more later. Here are a few flyers, and my card."

Ring. Ring Ring. One of them tried to say something, then gave up. Someone else walked by, who I knew had a Psychology background. "Hey." She stopped. "Do you know why they are ringing bells like that? Is a Russian psychologist going to feed us dog food?" She laughed. The three other people didn't. Damn engineers. Maybe they didn't get the joke, or maybe they had no sense of humor. Can't tell with them.

Ring ring.

I don't understand ring ring. Fire alarm? Happy New Year? Chow time? Austrian religious holiday? Cable car stop? Donate to the Salvation Army?

Ring ring.

Santa is coming!! No? Jesus? No. Stop, drop, and roll? Burglars? Exit, stage left, from The Gong Show? Somebody died, and the funeral procession cuts through Exhibit Hall B of the Long Beach convention center?

Ring ring.

This is not effective communication!

Ring ring.

Then a bell ringer walked by. RING RING!

"Excuse me." No reply. No eye contact.

"Ma'am, you, with the bell? Excuse me."


I asked a bell-less security person: "Why are they ringing bells like that?"

"That is to inform the guests there are 5 minutes left."

"There were 10 minutes left when you started."

"That is to inform the guests that the event is ending soon."

So they didn't communicate very well either. Important note: if you ever organize a conference, no bell ringers.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Millions of beaches. Beaches for free.

After the drive down the coast, we made it to San Diego for a weekend of not-working before our visit to Scott Makeig's lab on Monday. The freeway system in San Diego exposed a source of confusion that had nagged me since Santa Barbara. As we were driving around on Saturday the 5th, Josef asked me if we could go to West Beach. He had also asked, in Santa Barbara, if we could meet someone at West Beach there. I told him that I wasn't positive, but I didn't think Santa Barbara had a West Beach.

But now, I was pretty sure. There is no West Beach in San Diego. Plenty of communities around here named "Beach" - Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Solana Beach, etc. But no West Beach.

"Josef, I don't think there is a West Beach in San Diego."

"There is. I saw it on the freeway sign."

"But I never saw it anywhere, and you keep reporting West Beach everywhere. I mean, it would be kind of a redundant adjective, right? We're on the west coast. Where else would a beach be? I know of North Beaches, and South Beaches, but no west beaches around here. Or east beaches, for that matter."

"There it is. On the sign!"

"Ah. That's 8 West. Beaches. The "West" matches the freeway direction, not the beaches."

I had to admit, it was a reasonable misunderstanding. Whle we're at it, I wish they would make up their minds on whether PCH is a freeway, highway, Scenic drive, road, Carlsbad Blvd, etc. All the "Begin freeway" and "End freeway" signs along PCH in central California are unhelpful. Tourists don't really care about the technical details of when and why and where a road can be designated a highway or freeway. If you wanna sneak in some cross streets, fine; just leave it as a highway then.

But, of course, the beach needs no name to shine. The beach, by any other name, would not only smell as salty; it would instantly turn the foulest word pure. The brightness of the beach would shame that term as daylight doth a lamp; her skies would through the airy regions stream so bright that birds would sing and think it were not night!

On Sunday, we met up with others from our lab and I guided them to Garnet Street on Pacific Beach. I had promised a day with no clouds, or maybe one or two. Indeed, I trained Josef to play the fun San Diego game "Count the Clouds" in La Mesa, which is typically cloudless. His take: "Have you played Count the Clouds, Clemens? It is an easy day, and does not take very long." But the beach was entirely cloudy, with no sun at all, on an early afternoon! I was flabbergasted. Actually, the clouds were kind of pretty, but I didn't think labmates would agree. So we forged ahead anyway. Then, they deemed the water too cold, although it seemed fine to me. So we had to rent wetsuits, and I said we should get some boogie boards too, since it was their first surf lesson. Also, the waves were iffy.

We went to the beach and geared up. I pointed out how there was a line of surfers out there, and that was where the best waves are. I explained that we will first go to the line of smaller waves to practice and learn when to catch waves, and then we can get more aggressive. Markus was not convinced, eager to rent some shortboards and go rip it up with Kelly Slater in a tsunami somewhere. I said, dude, one step at a time. I also warned the lifeguards that I was launching gremmies, and he said thanks, be sure you surf right in front of our tower, and I said, yup, that's why we put all our towels right there, in front of your lifeguard tower. I also told them we would stay away from the line of board surfers, and I would just teach them whomping around the shore.

This plan worked out exceptionally well. There were surprisingly few kids whomping that day, and boogie boards are made for those cute little 3 footers. I had to admit, it was more fun than I remembered. Günther and Markus caught on pretty well, and Günther caught a pretty impressive 5 footer. We rested, went back, and repeated until we were pretty well beat. Nobody got any major sunburn, nobody got hurt, no equipment damaged; not a bad recovery from a beach day that, literally at least, started quite gloomy. The final comment of the normally laconic Günther as we left the beach nailed it. "That was great."

"Millions of peaches. Peaches for me. Millions of Peaches. Peaches for free. Lookout."
--The Presidents of the United States of America.

"You see, Clemens? All of this beach is a huge playground. It is huge, free, safe, healthy, fun, social, relaxing, and enriching. And kids love it."

"Don't they clean the seaweed?"


"All the seaweed on the beach. Do they clean it?"

"Uh. No. What's wrong with the seaweed?"

"It is just sitting there and rotting."

"Um. Well, sure. I mean, what else would it do?"

"They should clean it."

"Who is they? Besides, it washes up all the time. Nobody has any problem with it. Kids play in it all the time. I used to. Look how I turned out."

Friday, June 18, 2010


I should temporarily advance the recollection of my Cali adventure with some telephonic musing.

The Lakers and Celtics have been grinding out a really competitive Finals series. And every time the Celtics won, I would get a phone call from Markus Neuper. He is a Celtics fan. Yes, an Austrian Celtics fan. Deal with it. Anyway, he would call me whenever the Celtics won. He likes taunting. I never called him when the Lakers won. But, he definitely liked letting me know when the Celtics won.

But I am checking my cell phone, and I see no call.


Maybe my office phone?


I wonder why he didn't call?

The game is over.

It just ended.

I'm sure he saw it.

I don't see any email from him either.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Down N Out

The conference ended on Friday, but the grand adventure continued. That morning, we went to rent a car and were graced with a pretty cheap five-class upgrade, from "intermediate" to "premium," from a Pontiac G5 to a convertible Seabring. An hour or so later, and amidst a wee bit of confusion, this car departed for San Diego with 2 Austrians who never made the trip (Josef and Clemens). We of course took a mostly coastal route, from Monterey to San Diego. Jack Johnson's dulcet voice came on just as we hit the famous yet underloved Pacific Coast Highway, followed by a fine blend of road trip music from the car's satellite radio.

Highway 1

We were in no great hurry to make it south, with liberal stops for pictures that I will post sometime later. Our first longer stop was to see the elephant seals a bit north of Cambria. There they were, dozens of massive, 2 ton beasts, wallowing on the sand. They really don't move gracefully on land, and they look ridiculous anyway, and sound pretty silly. I bet they don't smell too good either. I watched them, just laying there on the beach, sometimes rolling over or flipping sand. Minutes went by. Roll over. Flip sand. Bark. Accomplish absolutely nothing, be silly, lounge on the beach all day. Wow. And I instead drive and work and write blog entries. I deem elephant seals noble beasts, and kindred creatures.

Elephant seals

They think I'm cute.

After a brief trip to the Hearst Castle gift shop, just a few minutes south, we continued to Santa Barbara. I thought about taking the labbies to Hearst Castle, but decided not to, for the same reason I did not take the (Austrian native) labmates to Disneyland, or a San Diego Mission, or anything vaguely castle-like anywhere in SoCal. I took my job as SoCal cherrypopper quite seriously.

And so our next stop was at the In - N - Out in SB, a true California icon. The labbies agreed it was a tasty burger, and were fascinated by the array of secret ordering tricks, which are mediated by an elaborate secret dialect. It seems rather like Styrian. I told them they only need to remember "Animal Style" to get by at In - N - Out. Oh, and don't get discombobulated when they ask you if your burger is "to go" at a drive thru. Yes, I realize it sounds obvious at a drive thru. But "box it up to eat in your car" is a valid option, and fueled many a trip along the 1, 5, 15, 40, 66, and the other state and interstate highway numbers that support so many great American road trips.

A couple hours later, we drove through Camarillo. My old friend Victor Wang is from there, as is the hot chick from Big Bang Theory. The trip through LA went as well as could be expected. As I told my labbies, there was not much traffic because it was pretty late on a Friday. I had good fun playing tour guide and pointing out all the sights. And (as I mentioned many times) the play the same music in Austria as in the US, so the songs were familiar to them. The difference was that some of the locations in the songs are in fact along the drive. Tom Petty's "Free Fallin" hit the radio just after we drove by Mulholland; I got to explain it and the reference to Reseda.

It was a shame driving through Pendleton at night, since I really, really wanted to see that beach on the way down. But missing traffic was probably worth it. I did notice an increase in monster trucks as we entered San Diego, but overall, traffic was surprisingly light. We made it safely, and then the next major phase of the So Cal sojourn began.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Hard to believe last Friday was only one week ago. Friday morning began on the beach, with over 100 conference attendees at the beach bonfire I mentioned before. This last one was an unprecedented blowout, with well over $600 spent on drinks that were gone by 1:30. The event was made possible by another remarkable cooperative effort among quite disparate and often novel groups, with Berlin and others getting drinks, teams from Fort Collins and Albany (and me) transporting firewood, several of us from Graz hauling leftover food that the conference people graciously let us take, and a crew of dozens on cleanup duty. And it all came together quite well, and I even made my money back. I'm already scheming for next time.

There were minor hitches. I tore something in my throat screaming Austrian names with Gerv, and it is still recovering now, but it was worth it. Chad Boulay and Bill Sarnacki hauled a huge log that would have bedrocked an epic bonfire. They put it down near the firepit, and less than a minute later, Niels Birbaumer and Herta Flor designated it for seating. I sure as hell wasn't going to kick them off their log, especially once they got going singing Italian songs with the Roman BCI team. So, I hauled another, bigger, heavier log to the fire. A pine log, with lots of little protrusions, that I carried on my right shoulder for over a quarter mile. Dammit. I learned my lesson and put it right on the fire, and it did the trick. The fire kept going, but the beer did not, which is another hitch. The Dutch people, characteristically, had a different take on when the beer ran out. "Where is the beer?" asked Erik Aarnoutse around 1 AM. I told him we were down to just Budweiser, but it was over by the fire. "No, I said beer." I always said the Dutch are a clever people.

I'm told the party went on well after my departure around 3 AM (did I mention no more beer?), and the site was spotless the next day. What teamwork! This adumbrates a bright future for the BCI community. And indeed, while the conference was pocked with a few strident arguments and flaring jibes among the increasingly ragged attendees, people got along quite well overall, with a lot of mutual respect and love. Theresa Vaughan earned a standing ovation at the closing banquet, and I know that most attendees felt it was far too little.

I started doing something I wanted to do every time: I went around and asked attendees to sign my copy of the conference proceedings. I explained that it was for posterity, or sentimental reasons. I told other people it was so I could sell it in 20 years instead of writing more grants. I told yet others that it was so I would have copies of all signatures of everyone who is senior now, and most people who will be senior later, in case I have any trouble getting their signatures on more important documents later. Also, I'll start this blog, and get their passwords when they log in to make comments. But remember not to tell anyone about it.

Most attendees of the 2010 BCI Meeting. This photo was taken on Thursday afternoon in front of Phoebe Hearst Social Hall