Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Master Debater

Lots of people like to say that they love to argue, and I used to be one of them. An argumentative spirit is a sign of intelligence, of community. It's a sign of mutual respect to engage a friend in argument, a stark contrast to the less respectful cold shoulder. Or so I thought.

Lately, though, I've realized how fine a line there is between argument and discourse. In other words, the mutual respect we seek can be found in discourse, while arguments are just obnoxious exchanges between two increasingly-frustrated parties. It's a fine distinction, but it can make all the difference.

To define terms: in my lexicon, an argument is the result of a knee-jerk desire to oppose, a belligerence that spawns claims of "devil's advocacy" while just producing pigheadedness. On the other hand, discourse is a productive discussion that takes two opposing viewpoints and synthesizes something positive for everyone. Discourse makes everyone a little smarter, while arguments rob everyone of a few minutes of their lives.

Arguments, at least in my life, often take the form of something like "I like sitcoms." "I do not like sitcoms." "Elitist." "Moron." You know the type.

In the past few days, I've been fortunate enough to have some really good discourse-style discussions. It started off in the car with Aaron. While making small talk about our research's progress, we started bantering about the properties of the Central Nervous System. For 20 minutes, we just went back and forth about the plasticity of motor cortices, the potential for rehabilitation after stroke, the adaptability of the brain in general, and so on. This may sound painful to you, but it actually got my adrenaline pumping.

More recently - in fact, just a few hours ago - I noticed an interesting diagram on the whiteboard in my lab. I mentioned it to my labmate, who is working on developing an explanation for the unexpected results he found in a recent experiment. He bounced some ideas off me, and I mulled them over like any good (read: bored) labmate would. Suddenly, some lightbulbs went off, and we spent the next 45 minutes going back and forth about possible mechanisms for the perception of workspace curvature. We didn't necessarily disagree, but we were approaching the same conclusion from different directions, although we were both too stubborn to acknowledge that fact. At one point, I had to say, "Time out. Dude, this is so much fun. Okay, time in."

Perhaps the wackiest discussion of my academic career took place last night. Will, Aaron, and I were sitting in Will's room. Suddenly, we found ourselves debating the class-discrimination capabilities of somatosensory neurophysiology in regions of the body that are highly innervated but rarely studied... In other words, how well can genitalia perceive the difference between sexual partners? I have no idea how this came up. No conclusions were drawn. Hilarity, however, was all but inevitable. When Will and Aaron started listing hypotheses, I had a laughing fit so hard I almost doubled over.

Aside from the indisputable humor inherent to genitalia, it's hard to explain why these sort of experiences move me so thoroughly. Certainly it must be at least partially based on the fact that each of these discussions focused on my research (perception, not genitalia, jerk). However, I really want to attribute it to the back-and-forth.

More specifically, the conversations that I enjoy the most are the ones where the back-and-forth is a synthesis building from statement to statement, rather than dismissive rebuttal-fests between people who aren't actually listening to each other. If the discussion centers on the neurophysiology of the crotch, well, so much the better.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

because I haven't written enough about New England recently

I guess the theme for this week's posts is "New England". Last week's theme, if you missed it, was "Robots and Monkeys". Next week's theme will be "Pissing People Off", although I may start early. We'll see.

When my main man Dan Flan rode a bicycle from New Jersey to Maine, it wasn't just a whimsical windmill-tilting excursion. Dan was traveling North with the express purpose of reconnoitering a new life for himself. He came back to Jersey so enamored with New England that he promptly packed his belongings, quit his job, and moved to Maine.

celebrating at Dan's ever so epic Birthday Party

Before I go any further, let me assuage your concerns... I'm not quitting grad school, I'm still actually rather pissed at New England as a whole, and I sure as hell am not moving to Maine. It's a romantic notion, but it's not for me.

In one of his far-too-infrequent reports, Dan mentioned that the weird thing about the Maine is this: you've gone so far North that you actually find yourself in the Deep South.

Mark, who is a New Hampshire native, had said something to that effect in the past. I think it was when we were talking about NASCAR and how it's inexplicably popular up there.

Dan, however, was talking about the music scene. There's probably more to it than that, but the music is what really caught my attention. When Dan Flan talks music, it is best to listen. Trust me.

Dan DJed HPCX last year...
...need I remind you what happened then?

A ukulele-strummin' fiend and owner of a genuine electric piano, Dan's tastes can be a little, um, eclectic. For example, he's pretty much the only Karaoke civilian, so to speak, who has the cojones (or desire) to sing Prince or Hall and Oates.

To his delight, Maine has turned out to be a hotbed of Dan's sort of music. Specifically, the Bluegrass scene is top-notch. I'll go so far as to infer that Bluegrass' popularity is less about the redness of Maine-iac's necks and more about the prevalence of hippies. But that's only ancillary to the point.

It's best not to ask what's going on here...
...but it has something to do with Karaoke

Dan's excitement about Bluegrass has become infectious, and I had to check it out for myself... and, well, I liked what I found. Here's Yonder Mountain String Band singing "40 Miles from Denver"

I don't think they suck. It's okay if you do, though. Maybe you'll like this better.

In defense of New England

While I've been posting way too many "check out this sweet video" posts recently, here's one more that will hopefully brighten your day.

It was Disability Day at Fenway Park. When an autistic kid got flustered in the middle of the Star Spangled Banner, the crowd immediately helped him out. They didn't jeer, they didn't stay silent. Just listen to how tens of thousands of people came together to make this boy feel good.

There may yet be hope for New England.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Dear Santa

If you're wondering what I want for the holiday season, here's a helpful list:
Words can only say so much. Amusingly-narrated video demonstrations say so much more...

Screw the military applications. Screw the rehabilitative potential. Screw the myriad questions this raises about software design. This thing would be SO MUCH FUN.


Since this is just a prototype, it may be tough to get your hands on, not to mention prohibitively expensive. Therefore, please feel free to get me any of these.

I also like this picture, and you should too:
I can see what they're trying to do, but damn. That is one freaked out monkey. Cute idea, terrible follow-through.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Up your nose with a rubber hose, New England

Ah, the Northeast. Home of funny accents and cold weather. America's answer to Saskatchewan.

I traveled North with high hopes, which were (as always) coupled with an unshakeable sense of dread. Last year, my forays into NECCS were fun adventures, even if not personal successes. I was really hoping to repeat that.

For four hours, I drove to Massachusetts. In the grand scheme of things, this is really nothing, but damned if it didn't feel like I invested a lot of time.

I'll cut to the chase: They wouldn't let me race.

The reasoning behind the decision is legitimate, I suppose. I registered for the B race, but I'm a Cat 4. In the Mid-Atlantic, that's okay, but in New England, they've arbitrarily set their own cutoff at Cat 3. Since I've already scored ECCC points in the Bs, I can't race C's. Last year, this wasn't a problem, and I was assured that it wouldn't be this year either.

I went into the weekend looking for a fun race and some ECCC points. All I have left are these sour grapes.

This should be a description of the amazing, beautiful, fun course. Instead, let me tell you how glad I am that I didn't have to worry about cornering on gravel.

This should be a heroic dismissal of the pain in my knee. I'm okay with hurt. Hurt is inevitable. Hurt means you actually did something. Instead, let me tell you how glad I am that my knee doesn't hurt as bad as it would've if I'd raced.

This should be a description of my race, which would be similar to, but distinguishable from, every other race report. Ever. Instead, let me tell you how glad I am to relay to you my teammates' happiness rather than my own displeasure.

Here's the worst part: wondering about what might've been. Actually, there is no wondering. According to the ECCC Cyclocross Czar, had I finished even half of the B race, Rutgers would've won.

Nobody likes sour grapes.

Okay. Deep breath. This was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my fault. The rules are well-known, and I was acting outside of them. Nobody gets to expect an exception. I could've contacted the promoter, I could've made sure my upgrade went through in time, I could've blah blah f'in blah. The onus was on me.

I wouldn't turn down a refund, though.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Turning Japanese oh yes I'm turning Japanese I really think so

There is just too much wacky stuff going on in Japan for me to continue indulging in my stubborn monolingualism (which is a surprisingly low-scoring word in Scrabble). I swear, that whole country is Pee Wee's Playhouse writ large. It seems like there's no difference between a research laboratory and a gameshow in the land of the Rising Sun. I love it!

I wish, I wish, I wish there were subtitles in this video...

Fortunately, I've sat through enough presentations about visuomotor adaptation to appreciate the awesomeness of this little experiment. For example, watch how they totally lose the ball once it's out of their field of vision. We could talk about this study, or about this study. The brain is a beautiful thing, especially when you start peeking in.
Results from a study that asks,
'What if they'd kept wearing the binoculars?'

Instead, let's just continue to chuckle at the slapstick mishaps of the striped-pajama footballers.

Upon further investigation, we can draw further conclusions about the creators that gameshow. They are enamored of physical comedy, an obsession that is only exceeded by their affinity for stripey pajamas. Also, they really hate fat guys. Observe:

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Man of Equilibrium

I can't help but be amused by a recent turn of events, namely the utter imbalance in my daily life.

On the positive side of the ledger, there's a whole lot of positive: the academics. Whether it was destiny or the result of hard work, things are going well. It feels very much like my brain is firing on all cylinders. Listen to that baby purr!

The negative side, however, is pretty damn negative. I haven't done anything more physical than walking the 5 minutes from my apartment to my lab since HPCX... and that includes stretching, which I desperately need. The problems, stemming from tight tendons across my knee (damn you, you powerful sexy hamstrings!), have trickled down the kinematic pathways to other muscles, which are now very unhappy with me.

Compounding this, there's the fact that I've been pulling way too many late nights at the lab for the past few months, including an 18 hour code-fest yesterday. Sitting in front of a computer for so many hours has let my posture simply fall apart, and lord knows I needed the sleep I sacrificed to the Labview gods. Add a weeklong head cold from hell, and blend for a delicious daquiri of discomfort.

I feel like that geriatric professor you see in the Student Center, mumbling to himself about trajectory optimization or some such nonsense as he limps towards the coffee shop.

The big question is whether I'm happy with the current situation, whether I'd rather be on my game mentally or physically. That's easy! Progress is fleeting, certainly moreso than some ancillary bodyaches. You can pop an Aleve, but you can't pop a dissertation.

Besides, if nothing else, I'm a glutton for punishment.


After having added the non-sequitur image above, I couldn't resist adding this video...

It's a fun watch, and an Academy Award winner, too. For some insight into the mind of NinjaDon, though, pay special attention to the hands and their interaction with the chess pieces. This is groundbreaking, beautiful work, even for the late 90s.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

I Hereby Reject Your Dictionary, Sirs

The one good thing to come out of all of the new Facebook apps is my newfound ability to play Scrabble online. I'm always a fan of puzzles, although I'm usually more of a numbers sort of guy. Being able to do this sort of mind-calisthenics at my leisure is a good thing.

I've been a little frustrated by some of the words this game allows. "Moggy" should not be a word, nor should "vesta" or "quin" or "mabe" [upon further inspection, it seems that "vesta" and "moggy" are obscure british slang, "quin" is slang for quintuplet, and "mabe" just doesn't exist]. However, all of these words took part in the trouncing of your favorite NinjaDon. I am just too damn competitive to abide such affronts, but if the software allows it, then what can I do?

The software, by the way, is buggy. During my most recent game, I hit "refresh" and suddenly my ten-point Z was replaced by a 1-point A. The Z never reappeared. My heart ached.

Still, I soldiered on with a stiff upper lip and a burning Scrabbly rage. I fought valiantly, until the game dealt me a blow from which my resolve could not recover.

Did you see what it was that finally broke me? Allow me to clarify:

I hereby proclaim unto the blogosphere: Scrabble's dictionary is henceforth null and void. So it shall be posted, so it shall be done.

The Pen is Mightier

You may have noticed that I haven't written as frequently this week as I usually do (and if you haven't noticed, then clearly you don't read my blog often enough and I hate your guts). While I try not to stress about blogging as if it has deadlines, standards, or any importance whatsoever, there's still a subtle, interminable self-assessment that is constantly running in the background. Meta-blogging, if you will.

This week, I've realized that the decline in post-frequency isn't for want of ideas, nor of time. Instead, it's a lack of a muse. The Writing Muse is a fickle thing, an ephemeral little faerie that likes to flirt but never seems to want to put out. She's the worst kind of tease, but I love her anyway.

Sometimes, a little respect is all the Writing Muse needs. For example, it is not uncommon to curry her favor with a purchase of coffee. I ain't sayin she's a gold-digger...

Often enough, a little deceit is all it takes to melt the ice. You can't be too needy - staring at a blank paper, pen in hand, will only leave you blue. In fact, it is often when you least expect it that the Muse takes your side.

I was sitting in the student center on Thursday, poring over papers on post-stroke rehabilitation of the upper extremity. Every author had a different opinion about the mechanisms of neural reorganization, and most had the evidence to back their opinion. As confusion turned to frustration, and hot coffee turned to lukewarm sludge, the Writing Muse started whispering in my ear.

An hour later, I had the first draft of an Introduction section for the writeup of my project, complete with references, neurophysiological explanations, and a testable hypothesis. What had started out as a study session had become a hot-and-heavy make-out session with my Writing Muse. This is the real-deal, folks. It's only a first draft, but this is dissertation material. Ooh, it feels good to say that.

On the downside, all of the research-related writing has held back my blogging. It seems that there's only so much writing I can do in a day. This downside is completely negligible to say the least, especially when compared the giant strides I'm making towards being an actual adult of some sort.

I haven't ridden my bike in a week. There's no Karaoke until f'in December. My left knee cracks when I look at it funny. Will's cyclocross debut has inflated his ego, setting back my efforts to give him a body image complex. And yet, I'm so happy!

You know what? It felt so good before, I'm going to say it again: This is dissertation material. Yes.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Monkey Business

I've given this post the title "Monkey Business" only because neither "Ape Business" nor "Primate Business" work. "Chimpanzee Business" works even worse. However, the post is about a chimpanzee, a brilliant ape named Sarah.
Not Sarah. Cute, though, right?

So, in 1978, two researchers named Premack and Woodruff conducted an experiment on our fair maiden Sarah. She'd been trained since a young age to, among other things, operate some simple tools (keys, wicks, hammers, etc) and select the "best" option from an array of choices.

The experiments showed that Sarah could make the correct choice for tool use, even when she wasn't the one using the tools. For example, when shown a video of a human locked in a cage, then presented a set of photographs with a variety of tools, Sarah would choose a key, even though she herself wasn't locked in the cage.

This is a classic Theory of Mind experiment, in fact one of the seminal studies in the field. Primates, it seems, have the ability to perceive the mental states of others. This capability has been demonstrated in children as young as 15 months, which is also pretty amazing.

Most interestingly, it seems that autistic children lack this Theory of Mind mechanism. This fits with their lack of imaginative play, impaired communication, and difficulty with social interaction, at least from a neurophysiological standpoint.

This is all pretty straightforward stuff. However, I have the advantage of taking a class with an expert in the field. Last week, we were guest-lectured by another expert. With that many brilliant minds in the room, a game of oneupmanship was inevitable. The following story was the result:

The videos Sarah was shown were of Sarah's trainers. Some, she liked, and she disliked others. Depending on her feelings towards the trainer in the video, she would either help or not with her tool choice.

Moreover, given the chance, she would mess with the trainer. For example, if the trainer was shivering in a room with an unlit heating lamp, Sarah would choose a lit wick if she liked the trainer; however, if it was an unfavored trainer, Sarah would choose the burnt wick.

In other words, Sarah had the ability to abstract not just what the trainer wants, but also what would surprise the trainer. This is not only a surprising level of cognitive depth, it is proof that chimpanzees are capable of playing practical jokes.
'Up yours,' this chimp might say

I think that's awesome

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Videos of Pure Good

First, I will show you a video of a robot whose amazing technology is exceeded only by my amusement at the audience's reaction.

It seems that this animatronic marvel was created in the 19th century. NINETEENTH F'IN CENTURY. While we were putting iron on boats and debating the merits of human-ownership, the Japanese were laying the foundation for the Jetsons (while they weren't busy being ninjas).

This video is entirely in Japanese, but that doesn't matter. The big payoff, for me at least, is at 0:48, when they show us the mechanism by which the animatronics operate.

Next, I will show you one of the finest independent films of all time. No, it's not D is for Dope. It is a documentary capturing the 96-6 routing of the Theta Chi basketball team at the hands of the mighty Phi Kappa Psi warriors, circa 2001.

Of course, this video is worthless except for my nostalgia's sake, and also to see BigDG, Kuey, Buddha, and the rest put on a helluva show.

Pay special attention to the end of the video, wherein a janitor passes by and reacts to the score.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

In Response to Jenks

"Trust me, talking about being hurt is boring. As boring as talking about bicycles can get sometimes! (ouch, did I just say that?)"
-Molly Cameron

Noticias Grandes

Earlier posts here on TheSamuraiNinjaDon have made mention of the research-related success I've enjoyed over the past two months. It should logically follow that I am made of awesome.

To be fair, I'm only 85% made of awesome, with another 10% made of muscle and the remaining 20% made of sexy. But who's counting?

While I was lecturing my advisor's class, he was the keynote speaker at a conference in Spain. He took my hardware and a copy of my software with him, which I suppose was pretty cool. While it would inescapably stall my research, it would also provide a wonderful opportunity for the big names of Motor Control to tear me a new one.

As much as I can be more than a little prideful about the second-tier aspects of my life - karaoke, cycling, writing, facial-hair (oh, I miss my beard), among other things - there's an ambivalence to my attitude about my research. I want my professional work to be heartbreakingly brilliant, but at the same time, there's simply no way to get to that point without a few slices of humble pie along the way.

When my advisor returned from Spain, I braced myself. I was ready. It would be okay, if a little painful, to hear "they hated it" or "it's been done before" or "it's too intuitive" or "it's too counterintuitive" or "they rioted and your equipment was destroyed in the fire".

Instead, he asked, "Are you big on travel? How's your Spanish?"

It seems that the line to try my project during my advisor's demonstration started out at 50 people and grew over the course of the session. Heads of Surgical institutions and Chairs of Research departments raved about the possible applications in a variety of fields. The founder of the host institution wants to work with me to refine the project even further for use with his surgeons.

So, no humble pie for me in this story. Oh darn. What a shame. Surely I will have a big ol' frown on my face when I spend January in Spain.

Time to start relearning Spanish! Maybe I'll listen to Shakira?

I was curious

and I'm sure you were curious too. So, to answer the question on everyone's mind...

Yes, I most certainly can pull it off.

I miss my beard.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Waiting for the Paramedics

Sometime during the 10th hour of the 16.5 hr charity event my team organized for Lou Gehrig's disease (another story for another time), I got a phone call. It was pretty cold, so I thought "ooh, sweet, I will take the call indoors at the dining hall, where it is warm."

There were some weird people in the dining hall. This was on College Avenue, the campus where they teach History and English and Emotions and the like. The Engineering campus isn't exactly a Norman Rockwell painting, but the College Ave kids are just plain odd. I didn't spare any thought to the fat guy lying on a bench, to the goth girl fixing her all-black makeup, or to the ditzy girl chatting away on her phone.

Neither, apparently, did anyone else. When I got off the phone 10 minutes later, the goth and the bimbo had moved on, but the fat guy was still lying prostrate on the bench. He didn't look like he was taking a nap, either... he had a gym towl on his face, and he was stirring.

"Are you okay?" says I?
"Idunno, thinkIneedwater" slurs he.
"How do you feel?" I prompt.
"Dizzy nmyhands arenumb" he groans.

While I'd sat through a First Aid certification back in February, my freshest memories of care-giving have been the late-night vomit-fests with 21 year olds. So I treated him like a drunk.

"Watch him," I instructed the newspaper-reading girl on the next bench, who I'm pretty sure did not. I walked into the cafeteria and told the first staffer I saw to call whoever it is they're supposed to call when someone passes out in their building. He gave me a water bottle to give the dizzy guy. The newspaper-reading girl was gone, although her newspaper remained.

Trusting that Rutgers Emergency Services were en route, I did the only thing I could think of. Question after inane question, I kept him talking. He could only muster one-word answers, but still I persisted. It was like a very bad first date. Occasionally he would try to sit upright, and he'd inevitably collapse back to the bench. So I guess it was like a very bad first date with a baby deer.

Maybe 15 minutes later, the ambulance arrived. Once the EMTs addressed him, I took that as my cue to leave.

There's really no climax to the story, no resolution or moral. I'm not lamenting the fact that dozens of passers-by ignored a man who needed medical attention, nor am I trying to promote myself as the end-all of Good Samaritans. If anything, I'm just trying to demonstrate to my friends and family that despite my misanthropic rants and over-the-top claims of awesomeness, I may actually be a pretty decent guy.

HPCX setup

I spent 5 hours in Jamesburg today, setting up the HPCX race course. Mostly I did bourgeois "work" like taping the course and supervising the new kids ('there's supposed to be a hole there, it's how you get out of the pit'). I also got a chance to preride the course.

This is our 2nd year at HPCX, which means that I have to wait 16 more years before I can marry it. I LOVE this course. I want to make little half-Ninja, half-course babies with it. I want to retire to Florida or Arizona with this course, so we can play bridge with the neighbors.

Well done, Mark.

Biiiig smile on my face!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Writer's Guild Strike

It's time for me to weigh in on this Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike.

The WGA produced a video explaining their side of the story:

I've thought about this a lot, because I have a 3 hour class on Tuesdays wherein I don't learn anything useful.

Cutting right to the heart of the matter, it's easy to see that the WGA is on the moral high ground. The advent of streaming TV on the internet has resulted in increased revenue for the studios, of which the writers don't see a dime. While the writers haven't done any additional work to increase the revenue, neither have the producers! They clearly deserve a cut of the profits. Let's not be silly.

On the other hand, there is another non-negligible layer to this problem. We simply can't ignore the pragmatics of the situation, the cold hard economics. Now, my grasp of economics doesn't extend far beyond the concept of "supply and demand", but in this case, I don't think we need to look any further to see why the WGA is screwed.

There is a huge supply of writers. According to the WGA's video, something like 48% of WGA members are unemployed at any point in time. A glut on the supply-side requires a proportionally glutty demand.

So, are audiences falling all over themselves to watch the very best that the TV has to offer? (Please note that being an elitist connoisseur of TV who's also not too snooty to disdain it completely, I get to define what "best" means). Of course not!!! How many reality shows are there on TV right now? How many game shows?

Audiences don't want well subtle dialogue and clever plot twists. They don't want character development and story arcs. They want bright, shiny pictures and repetitious soundtracks. They want artificial drama, obnoxious personalities, and big breasts.

Take, for example, I Love New York 2. This is a show about a bunch of guys competing for the love of a woman nicknamed New York. She's famous for having fallen in love with Flavor Flave on his own competitive-romance show (Flavor of Love). That show's conception was the result of his documented romance with Brigitte Nielsen (Strange Love), which had blossomed on another reality show (The Surreal Life). This is Season 2 of I Love New York, because Season 1's winner promptly dumped Miss New York.

Thanks, VH1. Thanks for giving us indisputable evidence that people simply don't need the writers' skill sets to be entertained. Thanks for showing us New York's unnaturally ample cleavage.

Additionally, the writers want a cut of DVD sales, which, as I said, is only fair. However, we're all so focused on the distribution of monies that we miss what's really going on. People are buying DVDs because the shows are so damn involved. Can't figure out who the bad guys actually are on Lost? Not sure how Jack Bauer disarmed the bomb using saliva and chapstick? Distracted by the hot evil chick on Battlestar Galactica? Buy the DVD! It's the only hope you have of understanding the next season.

These primetime soap operas have turned the writers into drug dealers. People gets hooked by the intricate plot lines, and when the audience can't afford to miss a single episode, advertisers will pay big bucks. It's brilliant, really.

At least, it's brilliant until the dealers go on strike. Do they really think that people are going to pound on the networks' doors until the producers cave? These are the same people that sit like zombies 3 hours a night, every night.

The people will find something else to do that involves less work than voicing their opinions. They'll read books. They'll go to the gym. Okay, they'll probably just play video games. In any event, when the strike finally ends, no one will remember why they cared about Greg House, M.D., let alone Charlie Crews or Ned the Piemaker.

When the users go to rehab, the dealers are screwed.

So here's the thing, writers of WGA: You're expendable. Your product just isn't addictive enough. You deserve more money, but this strike is going to screw you, along with everyone else in your industry. I hope you're happy. Lord knows the people at Nintendo must be.

Blog by Proxy

One of my best friends has a mediocre blog. Sometimes he waxes eloquent, and sometimes he posts under the assumption that people want to read his gym schedule.

Mark's my friend, and I read every word of it.

I also spoke with him every day via the interwebs, or by phone if necessary. More often than not, the conversations were less about substance and more about pun-based oneupmanship. Still, it was a very comfortable routine.

Now Mark is in boot camp, en route to a commission in the United States Armed Forces. Instead of debating politics with me, he's crawling under barbed wire. Instead of commiserating about the womens, he's rappelling down 5-story walls. It is with the utmost selfishness that I say, I want my friend back!

Fortunately, the Army frowns upon blogging in one's free time. Mark's clever workaround is to pen letters to me, which I then post to his blog. Not only does this keep me appraised of my friend's progress, but it also lets him continue his very-therapeutic blog authorship. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that the quality of his blog has increased substantially now that he's going on daily adventures.

You should read it...

Monday, November 05, 2007

In Response to Last Thursday

Like all college students, I've seen some crazy things in my day. I watched a group of freshmen tolerate being hazed by a fraternity, because they didn't realize that they could say "I don't want to run until I vomit". I heard the periodic thuds and subsequent laughter of hard hat-wearing men sprinting head-first into a door, because everyone else was doing it. I was one of a dozen students who spent 16 hours deriving the equations for fluid flow through a rectangular tube, because we didn't realize that the highest possible score on the assignment was a "check-plus".

We're idiots. Fortunately, we're supposed to be idiots; school molds us into a state of cultivation and enlightenment, but even the most refined sculpture starts off as a hormonal, Wikipedia-citing lump of clay.

Being a group setting can lead to a backslide, and we revert to the adolescent indulgence of bad ideas that we thought we'd left behind. Some call it groupthink. Some call it mob mentality. I call it college.

In the right context, the group effect can be a fantastic asset. Struggling for that sense of inclusion with academically gifted classmates can force a student to raise their game significantly. Moreover, the lunacy of late nights in Brooklyn, elaborate pranks on housemates, and unplanned interstate roadtrips will inject some much-needed adventure into a comfortably bland lifestyle.

However, there is one product of collegiate groupthink that stands out as uniquely stupid. It is so unpleasant, so undesirable, that it simply defies understanding. Nevertheless, it is widespread, it is accepted, and in most cases it is gleefully facilitated. I am referring, of course, to the 21st Birthday Binge.

By no means am I a prohibitionist. I think that alcohol is a terrific social lubricant, and it's a well-established fact that beer is delicious. In fact, I'd describe myself as the opposite of a prohibitionist. I guess I'm a conhibitionist.

For one thing, I am a big fan of individual freedom. People should have the choice of how much to drink, and how often. And they do! Well done, constitution. This works out exactly as you'd expect: those that limit their drinking tend to excel, and those that go on benders generally handicap themselves - it's hard enough to study Biochemistry, let alone with a hangover. It's a sort of self-imposed Social Darwinism.

If I was some sort of politician, which I thank my lucky stars is not the case, I would be a proponent of lowering the drinking age. If someone tells you that the law prevents anyone from underage drinking, slap them in their lying mouth. All the law succeeds in doing is the promotion of binging - you never know when you'll be caught, so you have to get while the gettin's good. It doesn't teach responsible drinking, it teaches intoxication optimization.

This lesson is well-learned by the time Joe Undergrad reaches his 21st birthday. The result is not surprising: 21st birthday parties are inevitably shit-shows. They start off innocently enough, with a round of shots here, a round of drinks there. It's fun to drink with a group of friends.

It is when the Birthday Boy's friends enable the overindulgence in potent potables that the evening goes South. It's fun to drink together, but is it more fun when one member of the group is pushed too far? "It's okay, it's his 21st, everyone gets blitzed on their 21st". True, but why?

There is a subtle turning point in the party, after which the Birthday Boy is no longer really in control. He's having a great time, and there's just not enough processing power left in his booze-addled brain to predict the consequences of drinking more. Still, the friends keep buying shots. It's a party! It's his birthday! Celebrate! This, my friends, is decision-making time. Do you keep buying drinks, or do you cut him off? The latter decision is rare indeed.

The onset of nausea is sudden and severe. We've all been there, so I won't bother describing it. What is interesting is the behavior of all of the partygoers, who now treat the poor Birthday Boy like he's radioactive. It might be the greenish pallor of his cheeks that makes him look like he's bathed in uranium, or it might be his unsteady stance that sends a visual warning to keep away.

What happens next is unpleasant, to say the least. The 21st Birthday Binge gives way to a scramble for the nearest toilet, garbage, or bush. Soon, the poor kid doesn't care where he's puking, just so long as the fire in his stomach subsides. The sounds he makes would fit well in a horror movie. Dinner goes everywhere.

If he's lucky, he'll have a friend to carry him to a couch. The party will continue, because nobody wants to leave the comfort of the group. He's 21, and this is what happens when you turn 21. He'll be fine.

Why does this have to happen? Why do we push our friends past their limits? I think it's a sense of friendship, of magnanimity... and it's just easier to ignore the consequences.

In fact, there aren't actually any consequences. The party always continues uninterrupted, assuming the regurgitation took place elsewhere. The new 21 year old is too drunk to recall any of his misery, having blacked out while still the life of the party, and will remember the evening fondly after the hangover subsides. The only real loser of the evening is the stupid doormat who helped the Birthday Boy out.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Confessions of a Party Pooper

I don't like Halloween.

There, I said it.

Cobbling together costume that involves growing a beard and using clothes I already own is the limit of my "holiday" spirit.

Two years ago, I dressed as one of the more popular professors in the department. I wore torn shorts, a dress shirt, and a beard.

Last year, I was running a costume contest at a party, so the bar was set a little higher. I went as one of my labmates, wearing a red hoodie, shorts, mismatched socks, and a wig to complete the illusion.
The contest involved a prize: an Ipod.
This year, I went as Ryan from The Office, which means I wore a jacket and a beard. To do anything more, on a day that celebrates girls dressed like prostitutes and guys dressed like girls, seems silly. It's a holiday of hiding... and I'm far too awesome to hide.

Bah, humbug.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Guest Lecture

Before leaving for a conference, my adviser asked me to guest-lecture for his undergraduate course on Prosthetic Devices. I was excited. As much as I enjoy lecturing, there's no doubt that I have room for improvement, and opportunities to practice are few and far between.

I've given 15-minute presentations at conferences, and I've spoken for 90 minutes to high schoolers. This would be my first lecture to a highly trained, albeit inexpert, audience. Worse, these were undergrads, a species notorious for apathy, inattention, and an aversion to personal hygeine. As I said, I was excited, much in the way that one gets excited before a safari or a bungee jump.

Oh, and my adviser had told the students that nothing I said would be on the test. So I had that going for me.

It's been six and a half years since I graduated from high school. I'm in my thirteenth semester of heartbreakingly boring lectures given by mind-numblingly monotonous speakers. I may not be the best thing to happen to lecterns since Winston Churchill, but I've seen what it takes to be the worst, and I recognize how to avoid the pitfalls.

We've all had that professor whose idea of oration involves Powerpoint slides with too much text, all of which he drones, word for word. This professor often assumes that his audience is well-enough versed in the basics that can dive right into the big words. He always has one more slide than can fit in the allotted time, so he never stops to breathe, let alone allow questions.

I hate that professor. Don't be that professor.

The best speakers, in my not-even-a-little-bit-humble opinion, are the ones who are excited about material, or at least know how to fake it. They vary their pitch in a way that conveys emotion (gasp!), they pause after important points (wow!), and they even crack the occasional joke (heaven forbid!!!).

A good lecture isn't a public reading of a research paper; it's a play. It's a a one-man show, a long, passionate monologue. The audience may not be moved, but they should at least be budged.

Before my lecture, a well-wisher said "break a leg". How odd, to say such a thing to a lecturer! It fits my philosophy, though, doesn't it?

I put on a show, too. For example, it started as follows: "This lecture is titled Upper Extremity Prostheses, but only because it seemed wildly inappropriate to call it The Sound of One Hand Clapping". That wasn't the last of my jokes, nor was it the most offensive. They ate it up.

There were about a dozen powerpoint slides that I'd prepared, with demonstrative graphs and a video for good measure. The file was on a flash drive, which was in my pocket. On a whim, I did the entire lecture from an outline, using a whiteboard and markers.

That's how good I am.

Next time I'm giving a lecture, you'd better be there at the end with a standing ovation and maybe a bouquet. I promise you, I will break a leg, in the sense that I'll be taking a deep, grandiose, Victorian-era bow. It'll be awesome.