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.

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