Thursday, April 30, 2009

Post 11: Slow Down

Song of the day is Slow Down.

Last night I watched part 6 of The Beatles Anthology. It’s 1966 and things are starting to fall apart. The lads are chased out of the Philippines for snubbing the Marcos family, John says the thing about how The Beatles seem to be more important to kids that Jesus, they fail to fill Shea Stadium, and they are generally burned out from 4 years of playing to massive crowds screaming so loud that they (JPGR) can’t hear what they are playing. They decide they need to slow down-- maybe eliminate live performances and devote more time to making music in the studio. Starting with Sgt Peppers, most of their songs were filled with sounds that precluded live performance (given the technology available back then).

You may have noticed my posts have slowed down. It’s been a busy week.

On Tuesday, I gave my big lecture at Cambridge to the neuroscience community. The neuroscience tradition at Cambridge is incredible: Sherrington, the father of modern neurophysiology and the person who coined the term synapse; Hodgkin and Huxley, who explained how action potentials work; Adrian, who found that neurons respond in proportion to the intensity of their inputs; Barlow, great-grandson of Charles Darwin and modern work in work on the visual system. The crowd was pretty large, but I noticed a few people other than the ones I normally see. I’m pretty sure Hoarce Barlow was there in the front row, which was quite an honor. Sadly, I tried to pack too much into the lecture and had to rush through the end, which shortened the Q and A. But overall I think it went pretty well. Off to drinks on St. Andrews Street, and then to a very nice meal organized by Hannah Critchlow, neuroscience coordinator at Cambridge, and Bill Harris, an American/Canadian ex-patriot who chairs Anatomy and Physiology.

Backtracking. Saturday we had the gig in Grantchester with Simon Baron-Cohen’s group Deep Blue, and Sunday I got together with Bhisma, formerly from Simon’s autism research group, but now starting his own lab. I recorded him playing tabla, basically Indian bongos. Even though I had blown out my preamp and compressor with English electricity and American stupidity (mine), my recording interface has it’s own preamp. So we were able to hook up a couple of mics and have Bishma do his thing while one of my Amygdaloids songs, Theory of My Mind, played. Simon’s group, of course, is known for his work on theory of mind in autism, so it is totally fitting that we should have an autism researcher or two (maybe even Simon) playing on that song. We didn’t include Theory of My Mind on the pre-release version of Brainstorm because we didn’t get around to polishing it. But the tabla sounds awesome and hopefully we will be able to fine tune the recording and include it on the final CD.

Fastforwarding. I’m off to Valencia on Sunday to receive a prize. I have to give 3 lectures there in association with the prize, so I’m busily preparing those now. Once I get there, I’ll be busy with lots of things, like paella, rioja, and avoiding swine flu, as well as giving the lectures.

So slowing down is not an option the Spain week. And when I get back to Cambridge, I only have a few days before chunneling to Paris for the Fyssen Foundation 30th Anniversary gala and symposium. Nancy will join me in Paris for a long awaited rendezvous—we will have been apart for more than a month at that point. She’ll want to hit every museum and gallery in sight, so no rest for the weary.

Slowing down won’t happen after Paris either since I’ll just have a week or so left in Cambridge before returning to NY. It is all going so fast.

Now that I think about it, being away from home shouldn’t be a time when you slow down. You’ve got to take advantage of all the things the places you go have to offer since you only have a little time in each.

By the time I get home summer will be rapidly approaching. The heat and humidity are so powerful in Manhattan in summer that even the most driven New Yorkers slow down. I won’t have to make the decision about when to slow down. Mother Nature will do it for me.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Post 10: Synchronicity

Last Friday was the long-planned Cambridge-NYU McDonnell Foundation Network meeting. The chiefs of this network grant are Trevor Robbins here at Cambridge and Liz Phelps at NYU. We’ve met twice in New York, and this year we decided to meet on the other side of the Atlantic. My visit provided a suitable time window within which to do this. Still, it was hard to pin Liz down. She was jetting to Northern India for a meeting the Dalai Lama, and then to some other exotic place afterwards, but we found a tiny slot where she was free.

I can say, with no reservation at all, that this was one of the best scientific conferences I have ever been to. The size of the group was just right. The number of talks and their length were perfect. The discussion was sharp and to the point. But all of this could apply to many meetings.

What made this meeting so good, in my opinion, was the way the network has evolved and come together. When we started, we had the goal of blending the Cambridge group’s expertise in positive emotional states and instrumental behavior with our focus on simple forms of fear learning. The first meeting was an arranged marriage. We exchanged looks and words, but with some distance. The second meeting was much cozier, but still lacked coherence. You could easily tell which group a talk was from (even without the accents giving it away). This third meeting was different. People from my lab and Liz’s lab were talking about instrumental responses and positive reinforcement. People from Angela Robert’s group here in Cambridge were doing aversive conditioning in marmosets, and had designed a study of heart rate conditioning based on one of my earlier studies in rats that I told them about at the last meeting. Researchers form my lab were more attentive than usual to talks on addiction by Cambridge folks because we have come to see, partly through discussions with Barry Everitt, that our work on fear and avoidance may be relevant to addiction. Also, Barry’s team is deep into reconsolidation of fear, a topic my lab studies a lot (they probably started their reconsolidation work independent of the network, but it was still a point of major overlap and discussion). Talks by Liz, Trevor, and Barbara Sahakian’s groups fit seamlessly as well. During the breaks, students and postdocs from opposite sides of the ocean were chatting away planning experiments and scheming trips to NY or Cambridge to carry them out. Two wonderful dinners, one hosted by Trevor at a university club, and the other by Barry at Downing College, helped seal the deal. Also imporant to note is that, from start to finish, the Cambridge staff (Mercedes, Nicola, and Lorraine) ensured smooth sailing.

Foundations sometimes support these kinds of networks in the hope that something special will happen. This time it did. We achieved “synchronicity.” You may recognize this as the title of a late Police album. Sting got the term from Carl Jung, via Authur Koestler. It was the Police reference that stimulated the title for this post. But I looked into it, and the formal definition, as you might expect, is the experience of events that occur together in some meaningful way, and that would not have occurred by chance. Our synchronicity on Friday would not have happened by chance. Thanks to the foresight of Liz and Trevor in applying for support for the network, the generosity of the McDonnell Foundation, and the hard work, sincerity, and creativity of the researchers involved, we got there.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Post 9: A Hard Night’s Day

8:00 am. Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head (actually I showered first). Eager anticipation of the day, which will include rehearsal for the gig later in the evening with Simon Baron-Cohen’s band, Deep Blue.

10:15 am. Grab a cab to Simon’s home in Grantchester for rehearsal. Greeted by Simon and Bhisma. Daniela (drummer for The Amygdaloids who is here for the Cambridge-NYU Research Network meeting, which took place Friday) arrives soon. After meeting Simon’s very nice family, we go on a stroll in his back yard to a little footbridge that crosses a small tributary of the River Cam, taking us to a small wooded island that borders the Cam itself. A wonderful refuge. We come back and have a good rehearsal of Mind Over Matter, When the Night is Dark, and Piece of My Mind, the three songs we planned to do. Simon’s daughter Kate agrees to join us as a backup vocalist. She has a wonderful voice and things are going so well we decide to also try Theory of My Mind, a song fitting since Simon has been a leading figure in research on theory of mind in autism. We get a version down. All is well.

1:00 pm. Simon drives Daniela, Bhish, and me into Cambridge, and Bhish and I go in search of mic rentals, as we intend to try to record some tabla for use on one or two Amygdaloids’ songs. Our search takes us further than we thought, and I got back a bit late to make it to Annemieke and John’s bar-b-que. But Bhish and I succeeded in getting mics and we make a plan to meet Sunday afternoon.

5:30 pm. I head to the neighborhood social club in Grantchester where the gig is. Sound check goes pretty well. It had been a long day but it all looked like it was going to come together. Back to Simon’s for a tasty vegetarian meal.

8:00 pm. People start to arrive at the club. Lot’s of local neighborhood people of all ages, and quite a few Cambridge friends and colleagues, are there. And Damian O’Malley has come up for the evening from Bishop’s Storpford as well. Damian buys me a pint of Guinness.

9:00 pm. Deep Blue starts to play. Nice mix of soul, blues and R ‘n’ R. After their first set, we take the stage. The group consists of Daniela on drums, Bhish on tabla, Simon on bass, Kate on backup vocals, and I'm on acoustic guitar and lead vocals. The Deep Blue guitar player has offered to join us since we don’t have a lead guitar. I’m a bit uneasy about this since he didn’t know the songs and these are lyric driven tunes, not jam band songs with a predictable chord structure. But off we go. We start with Mind Over Matter. I blow the lyrics in the first verse (maybe I shouldn’t have had that beer) but recover OK. But then it gets messy. My fear comes to pass. The guitar player doesn’t know when verses and choruses come and go, and when you’re supposed to play quiet vs run off on a solo. His lead guitar has taken over, and the stuff he's doing doesn't match the place in the song where we are. I’m totally lost (boy am I missing Tyler, The Amygdaloids guitarist). Struggling for a way to get the song back on track, I jump in with the 4th verse, after skipping some parts in the middle, and we end the song pretty smoothly, but whoa what a mess. This was not the guitar guys fault. He was great, but he just didn’t know the song. We slide into When the Night Is Dark. That goes great. Kate has learned the parts and does a wonderful job on backup vocals. Bhish and Simon are locking into Daniela’s steady rhythm. The lead guitarist has followed this one pretty well. Phew. Back on track. Piece of My Mind went ok as well, but was not as tight as When the Night Is Dark. We decided not to venture into Theory of My Mind since we weren’t on our game the way we’d like to have been. So we thank the audience, and step off the stage. Deep Blue comes back for another set. Lot’s of dancing.

10:00 pm. Hanging around with the crowd while Deep Blue plays. Getting lots of good feedback on When the Night Is Dark, and supporting sympathy on the other songs. I meet a barrister who lives locally and just stopped by. He says my songs and vocals remind him of The Go Betweens, which our exec producrer Tim Sommer had also said. That was nice to hear since I've grown to really love Robert Forster's voice on Go Betweens' song like Quiet Heart.

11:00 pm. Damian calls a Panther Taxi to take us to my flat on Lensfield Road. I give Damian the bedroom since I had gotten use to sleeping in the living room when Milo was here, and kind of like the ambiance there, with my bed, computer, and guitar all close by. Reminds me of my 1- room studio apartment in Soho when I first met Nancy. And while I have a nicer view in my little room in Cambridge, I had Nancy then to share the Soho room with.

12:00am. I sit at my desk reflecting on the day. It was wasn’t the way I had hoped the night would go. Mind Over Matter is such a beautiful song, and we just didn't do justice to it. Still, it’s always fun to play music, even when it doesn’t work perfectly. I'm beginning to understand the expression, "that's show business."

12:30 am. I begin to type out my post about the evening. I title this post “A Hard Day’s Night.” But by the end, before I post, I realize I’ve written about "a hard night’s day." Next I will write about an excellent day and night of science that we had on Friday in the guise of the Cambridge-NYU McDonnel Foundation Network.

coda: The Amygdaloids versions of When the Night is Dark is available on iTunes, along with the rest of our first CD, Heavy Mental. Previews of Mind Over Matter and Piece of My Mind, and the rest of our new CD can be found at Check these out for a more satisfying versions of the songs.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Post 8: Radio, Radio

Although I have an office in BCNI (Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute), I prefer working (writing) in my flat overlooking Downing College. I keep the window open to let the incredibly clean fresh air, and the songs of the truly amazing birds that sweep from tree to tree in the yard, waft through. Black birds with bright orange beaks, grouse (just like on the bottle of scotch in my kitchen), a mallard duck with an emerald neck. A few days ago I watched a right of spring. A big dark grey bird with a bullseye on his tail had fluffed the feathers on his head, was flicking and flapping his wings in the direction of the object of his affection, and singing a sweet song (in bird ease, probably something along the lines of, "baby I need you're loving, got to have all your loving"). She seemed to take notice, but was playing hard to get. I turned back at my screen for a moment, and when I looked at the trees again they were gone.

Speaking of songs, I keep 105 FM, aka 209 Radio, going. This local Cambridge community station has diverse programs throughout the day, and you never know what you’re going to get. Usually I like the eclectic musical offerings--Miles Davis one minute, Tom Petty the next, and a little Motzart as well. Even some of the talk shows, like the one on the history of Cambridge, are interesting. 209 is the opposite of what Elvis Costello had in mind in “Radio, Radio” when he sang: “the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools, tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel.” 209, by contrast, seems to be run by intelligent folks who aim to keep the programming stimulating and unique.

209 actually reminds me a bit of WJFF, whose motto is “the best radio station by a dam site.” They say this because it’s supposedly the world’s only hyro-powered radio station, getting most if not all of its energy from the little spillover damm from Lake Jefferson that bleeds into the Callicoon Creek. WJJF is in Jeffersonville, NY, which is a few miles from our house upstate in the Catskills, and also just a few miles from Yasgur's Farm, the site of the Woodstock Festival in 1969, and Bethel Woods, the beautiful outdoor concert venue bulit next to the Festival site, complete with the official Woodstock Museum (not to be confused: the actual town of Woodstock is hours away over the mountians).

We are most of the way through recovering from water damage in our old farmhouse caused by the popping of a solenoid valve in the dishwasher, allowing hot, steamy water to flow into our kitchen and living room for a week or two while we were away in early March. When Nancy, Milo and I went up to enjoy an early spring weekend, we discovered a couple of inches of water, and mold (fortunately, due to an unintentional tilt in the kitchen floor, the water and mold stayed out of the older part of the house with 19th century maple floors). We called John the Handyman, who has worked for us, and he helped us organize things. The insurance company paid up quickly, and through a heroic effort in my absence Nancy single handedly pretty much put the house back together. Thank you my dear.

There’s jet black crow dancing around in the yard. I’m not kidding, he's keeping time as James Brown syncopates “Come on. Um. Get it. Get on the good foot. Um” on 209 Radio. Now the Specials are singing “stop your messin around.” I better take that as a sign I better get back to work.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Post 7: Hold on, I‘m Coming

Haven’t posted much this week, but I'm back.

Milo arrived on Monday. We had a great time, but his visti was cut short by an email informing him that one of his collections (exams) would be on Thursday afternoon rather than Friday. Thankfully, Business Drive (the wonderful car service used by Trevor and Barry) was able to get him to Oxford Wednesday evening.

Oxford has an interesting approach to exams. They take place when you return after a 6 week break between terms. No rest for the weary.

Today, the NYU crowd starts to arrive. Mieke, my former grad student who is here working with Trevor, has organized a punt on the Cam for the weary travelers. Tonight we have a dinner, hosted by Trevor and his spouse, Barbara Sahakian, a leading researcher on memory herself. Yesterday, in fact, my spouse, Nancy, asked me if I knew Barbara Sahakian, the Cambridge researcher featured in the new New Yorker article on memory enhancing drugs. I said indeed I do, and that I expected to be having dinner with her tonight.

We have a full day of idea exchange and debate tomorrow. It will be grueling for the NY team, with no chance for them to get over jet lab before having to perform. Barry is then hosting a dinner in Downing College Friday night.

The crazy New Yorkers, though, are all leaving Saturday, after a single full day in the UK and no opportunity to enjoy the beautiful Cambridge spring.

All except Daniella. I just had to tempt “Sticks” with the opportunity to play drums on Saturday and she changed her plans.

Daniea and I will play when Deep Blue, Simon Baron-Cohen’s band, takes a break. But first, Simon, Bhismadev Chakrabarti, and I play Mind Over Matter, with Simon on bass and Bhisma on tabla. We need a little rehearsal, which I think we’ll do at Simon’s on Saturday morning. Daniela will join us at the rehearsal, where we’ll run through Piece of My Mind, and maybe When the Night Is Dark. Daniela and Bhisma then plan to have a chat about a possible experiment that came up in the discussion before my lecture at Simon’s Autism Research Centre.

That’s it for now.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Post 6: Interstellar Overdrive

Last year Nancy and I saw Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a fabulous play with a great late 60s sound track that explores interactions between a fictional Cambridge family, the communist control of Czechoslovakia (wow, that’s hard to spell), and the the Velvet Revolution (the overthrow of communism by Czechs). Stoppard is Czech, though he’s lived in the UK quite a while.

The father and mother in the family are both Cambridge professors, he being an avowed Marxist and materialist (doesn’t believe in a soul), and she a classicist with a strong dualist bent (for her it begins and ends with the soul). Adding complexity to their positions, and fuel to her argument, is the fact that she’s dying of cancer. In spite of different parts of her material self having degenerated, and some removed, she feels she’s the same person. The discussions about the nature and meaning of consciousness in “Rock n Roll” are fascinating and subtle. Perhaps I’ll come back to that side of the play in a later post.

I participated on a panel at the Wilma Theatre in Philly about the philosophical, scientific, political, and musical themes that ran through the play last fall. Around the same time Tyler Volk (lead guitarist of The Amygdaloids) and I went to see the Plastic People of the Universe at Joe’s Pub in NY. The Plastic People were, and are, a Czech band inspired by The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa. A subplot of the play was their apparently very significant, although somewhat unintentional, role in the Velvet Revolution, and their relation to the Cambridge family via Czech students studying abroad. Gigs at Joe’s are not easy to come by, and Plastic People very likely landed theirs because of their centrality to the play rather than any new musical achievements since they seemed to mostly play their songs from the old days, at least as far as I could tell. Interestingly, another one of the real characters from the play, the Plastic People’s manager from the 70s, as well as a couple of current Czech officials, actually came up on stage at Joe’s mid way through the show. They were a little tipsy and had to be chased off by the Plastic People, who, true to their rep, seemed really uninterested in political or social issues and instead were totally focused on cranking out their wonderfully out of control garage band sounds, all sung in their native Czech tongue.

Another subplot in “Rock ‘n Roll” involved a character either seen or imagined (with the aid of psychoactive substances) by the philosopher’s teenage daughter, Esme. The character she saw or imagined was a boy roughly her age playing a flute on her garden wall in Cambridge. We never actually meet this character, though the play is, in some ways, about him as much as anything else.

As the play progresses in time, and the characters age, the focus shifts to Prague. But towards the end, the story comes back to Cambridge. After living elsewhere during her late flower child years, Esme, now a grown woman (played by the actress who played her mother earlier in the play), has returned to Cambridge. She becomes fascinated with a man she’s seen riding a bike through town, and comes to believe that this man was the young boy on her wall way back when.

The man on the bike turns out to be Syd Barrett, the troubled (some say schizophrenic) genius behind such early Pink Floyd wonders as Interstellar Overdrive, from their album Piper at the Gates of Dawn (no wonder Stoppard portrayed young Syd on flute). Interstellar Overdrive was, coincidentally, a song we (thanks to our exec producer Tim Sommer) used as sonic inspiration for guitar effects on the title tune from The Amygdaloids new CD, Brainstorm.

Though Syd lived in Cambridge for some time before his death from cancer a few years ago, he is said to have led a reclusive life (other than biking around), and I don’t think he was involved in the music scene here at all. If we can believe the stories that have been written about his hibernation in his mum’s old house, I have probably heard more live music in my two weeks in Cambridge than he did when he moved back to after leaving (maybe that’s the wrong word) Pink Floyd.

I had been feeling that Cambridge has massive music scene. But my bubble has begun to burst, at least a little. I’ve started to run into the same people over and over again. I went to Miller’s Music Store the other day to get a guitar pick, and the guy behind the counter was one of the fellows who played in the acoustic jam at Haymakers the night before. Not too much of a coincidence I guess. But then one of the other guys who played that night was also wearing a store shirt, and obviously worked there. Still acceptable since it is a music store, and musicians tend to work in music stores.

Still, it’s starting to seem like a smaller world than I naively thought at first (how could it not be; Cambridge is a small town). For example, Saturday night I went to The Hopbine, where I had such a good time seeing Jack last week that I wrote quite a bit about them in one of my posts. The band up this time was the Fridgidares, who claim to be Cambridge’s oldest blues band (not clear if that refers to how long they’ve been together or how old they are—not that there’s anything wrong with old musicians). I noticed a number of people who were there last week as well. Then while waiting for the band to start, two of the members of Jack walked up and thanked me for the nice comments about them in my blog. Not only am I starting to recognize people but they’re recognizing me. That’s not bad. In fact it’s nice. There seems to be a lot of connectedness amongst people who like live music here. There’s enough of them to support a lively scene, but not so many that you stay anonymous long.

Speaking of connections, I gave a lecture Friday at the Autism Research Center (sorry, Centre here) (ARC). Run by Simon Baron-Cohen, this is one of the leading autism research centers (centres) in the world. I was invited to speak by Teresa Tavassoli. Teresa and another postdoc from ARC, Jill Sullivan, attended the Sensation to Emotion Conference and Rock-It Science Music Festival in NY last month. When she learned I was coming to Cambridge, Teresa invited me to lecture at the ARC. I arrived a couple of hours before the lecture and had a very interesting time hearing about their work on autism, and discussing some of the new findings from my lab about memory and its susceptibility to change when retrieved. We actually discussed a possible experiment that that they may do on autistic children. We then had a quick lunch and headed down to the small meeting room, which ended up being jam packed and hot as hell. But all went well, and Simon gave me a lift back to the University.

Simon has a blues band here in Cambridge, and he’s generously invited me to play a couple of songs at their gig next Saturday. Simon and his collaborator, Bhisma Chakrabarti, will accompany me on “Mind Over Matter,” also from our new CD, Brainstorm. Simon is a bassist, and Bhisma plays the tabla, a kind of Indian drum. Then I’ll probably do another song or two with Daniela “Sticks” Schiller, The Amygdaloids drummer dubbed the Israeli metronome by Jeff Peretz, the producer of our first CD. Sticks will be here for our NYU-Cambridge meeting, which I will report on later.

It’s a crisp spring night with the sweet smell of new flowers in the air. I’m going to drift off to sleep trying to connect with interstellar reverberations of Syd Barrett playing his flute on a Cambridge wall not unlike the one that separates my flat from the Downing College Green. In fact, I think I can hear the faint sounds of a piper at my gate right now.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Post 5: guys, spies, rough stuff, and snuff

After a day of slogging over a grant on Wednesday, it was off to my Master’s Lodge for cocktails. I’ve written about how empressive Barry Everitt’s quarters at Downing College are from the outside. But they are spectacular on the inside. A curling, cantilevered staircase, lots of art on loan from the Fitz (Fitzwilliam) gracing the walls, rooms ready for any occasion (a recital, a banquet) and a magnificent garden that you get to by opening a huge window and stepping up on a little stool. Birds are chirping, flowers blooming, and spring is in the Cambridge air.

Over a glass of white wine (Riesling I think), conversation drifted to the local scene in Cambridge, and Barry told me that the park that I had been cutting through on my way back from music pubs in the outer areas of Grafton or Chesterton could be a rough place late at night. Local ruffians are known to hang in the dark center and beat you to a pulp if they don’t like the way you look. Not a frequent occurrence, he said, but obviously frequent enough for him to mention it. It all fell into place. Several times in cafes or pubs I’ve noticed “towns” (as in gowns and towns) with quite an edge, one giving a young Indian waiter a hard time after too many pints, and another in a pub across the way getting a bit out of hand. There does seem to be a rougher element in Cambridge than I noticed in Oxford when I was there.

But we were far from the maddening crowds tucked behind the walls of Downing, guarded by the ever vigilant porters that watch the entrances to the colleges with an eagle eye. Barry and I discussed one of the topics I’m here to learn more about—the role of the amygdala in addiction. Steve Grant, an old friend who now works on the program staff at NIDA has been trying to get me to apply for a grant on the role of the amygdala in addiction for a long time. But I was doing OK at NIMH and didn’t feel the need to pursue it. Lately I’ve had some trouble with my grants at NIMH and am ready to give it a shot at NIDA. It seems like a good time. The addiction filed has come to recognize that the kind of stuff we’ve learned about the role of the amygdala aversive states may be very important in understanding addiction. People don’t just take drugs to get high, they also take them to redcue aversive states, and the reduction in the aversive state reinforces drug use. This is exactly what we are studying in terms of avoidance conditioning, and is highly relevant to addiction. So I’m very excited about this grant, and getting lots of help from David Bush and Chris Cain. David did his PhD studying addiction, and Chris has been doing a lot of research on instrumental conditioning in my lab. Maybe we can get Barry to consult on the grant.

After a while, Barry and I walk across the lawn of the Downing quadrangle (one side is open but it still has a quadrangle feel because the flats where I live sort of form the missing side). We met up with Paul, the classics tutor at Downing. I was glad to have a few minutes with him since Milo, who is studying classics at the other place, will be here on Monday and I want them to meet. Should be interesting.

After some wine out in the yard, and brief trip into the tea rooom where Fellows put on their gowns, we go into the dinning hall. There’s only 6 or 7 of us, all guys (no women and no students of any gender). It’s vacation time and people are away. So we have the whole dining room. Everyone was very interesting and fun to talk to. Soon a delicious appetizer (a goat cheese plug wrapped in grilled zuchinni and graced with pommegranate seeds and a juicy red sauce) appears. That was followed by a tasty strip of beef with gravy, served with abundant potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower. Then came a chocolate mouse with some sort of curly pasty sticking out (like the front of Elvis’ hair in 1957).

Each step along the way, starting at Barry’s, on to the garden outside the dining hall, to the dinner, and finally to the cheese extravaganza in the back room, wines were matched to the occasion. By the end of the evening it didn’t matter since you no longer remember what occasion you were there for. The only thing that helped me keep my wits was a dip in the snuff container as it came around. A little pinch on the forehand, with the dark powder divided into two portions, with one going in the left and the rest in the right nostril. It was a jolt. Nicotine straight to the brain. Instant attention and focus. I had done snuff before, but was pretty rotten stuff. This was a different animal.

The conversation picked up steam. Mr X in politics had achieved quite a lot, but after all, he had studied ancient Greek and understood things that others didn’t. Then there was the Fellow from the past who hadn’t visited for 20 years. He was on his way to some mysterious operation in Switzerland but had gotten all the way from Leeds to Cambridge on 6 pounds 10, an achievement he was proud of. There were comments out of the side his mouth about who was spying for whom back in the 60s, and insisting that classmate John Clees, of Monty Python, truly was from Downing, in spite of his claim to the contrary. Then came the discussion about how back then you had to be in your room by 11 pm, and the most clever chaps knew all the various ways to get past the eagle eye of the porter through gates here that there that could be opened if you knew the tricks.

The dinner ended around 11. So I was not able to make it to see Jack at Hopbines. But no loss. All in all, a very interesting evening.

Song of the day: “I feel fine.” Why? Because I’ve been on a two track Beatles kick, reading “John Lennon,” Phillip Norman’s engaging biography, and watching DVDs from The Beatles Anthology, which my friends from Knock Out Noise (Tim Sommer, Jennifer Brout, and Stuart Chatwood) gave me for Christmas. In part 4, George and Paul, and George Martin, discuss how the feedback intro to "I Feel Fine" came about. They said John had been playing an acoustic electric Gibson and leaned it up against his Vox amp when all of a sudden the A string started to vibrate and the rest is history. They decided to record the feedback at the intro to the song. They all claimed this was the first use of feedback in R’n’R, and that Hendrix and others got the idea there. I thought that was interesting. What I’m left wondering is why it has to be the A string. What is it about 440 Hz that interacts with amp electronics to make the feedback? Anybody know?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Post 4: Curse of the Watchtower, or Life Imitates Blog

"There must be some way out of here." It doesn't matter that the joker said this to the thief. I'm stuck in a strange world that I've created. "I can't get no relief." Second Life is small potatoes. I've begun to believe that what I write in this blog is my real life, and everything else is just material for the next post.

"Businessmen drink my wine, and ploughmen dig my earth." Well, 0n Monday I drank the wine of a businessman, Damian O'Malley, whose wife Tricia ploughs the earth in their garden in her spare time when she's not dashing off to Ireland for work. David Bemis and Lisa Hoke from NYC introduced me to them. The O'Malley's had just returned from a ski trip in France on Sunday (helmets on head, I'm told) but Damian still managed to pull off a lamb pie with homemade mustard flavored crust, home baked bread, and salad from Tricia's garden (spring does come early in the UK). We had a lovely lunch with their charming and engaging twin boys and their older daughter (who, as it happened, was at the Little Red School House in NYC just about the time our boys started there) and her boyfriend (a college student studying molecular bio but about to take a test on neuroscience so I gave him a pop quiz on LTP and NMDA receptors).

Damian and I seem to be traveling in opposite directions but somehow meeting in the middle as life wraps around itself. I had 2 degrees in marketing before turning to psychology and the brain. He got a degree in psych before turning to marketing, but is now trying to find his way back to psychology, or at least to a place where psychology and marketing meet in a non-trivial way. I told him about neuroeconomics, which may be a way for him to proceed.

Tonight (Tuesday) I went to the acoustic jam at Haymakers in Chesterton. It was more of a blues jam. Johnny guitar from Jack, who I wrote about in post 2, organizes the jam every Tuesday. Amazing musicians get up there and play with each other. The Brits are still wild about Chicago Blues, and do it incredibly well. No, I didn’t play, in spite of an offer by Johnny. Stayed pretty late but then called a cab.

"Outside in the cold distance" I waited patiently for a Panther Taxi. But the “wildcat did (not) growl.” It purred up to the curb quietly and took me to my flat on Lensfield Road. I had "no reason to get excited." There were no "women who came and went," and the maid employed by Downing College to clean my flat was not barefoot earlier today.

During the day I'm been working on 2 grants. Getting lots of help from Josh , David Bush, and Chris in the lab back home. I've submitted lots of proposals in the last couple of years. Like a lot of my colleagues, I've had some difficulty getting funding from Uncle Sam starting in the late Bush years (signs are the Obama era will be better). I won't pretend that it's easy to keep slogging away at grants when they go unfunded after all the work it takes to do them. Yes, seems "the hour is getting late." My quarter century grant that achieved most of the things I’m known for scientifically is on the brink of extinction. "But you and I we've been through that, and this is not our fate." Indeed, I feel grant success is coming soon. Although “there are many amongst us who think that life is a joke,” the Princes at the National Institute of Mental Health who hold the purse strings have “kept their view” and “do not talk falsely now.” Actually they haven’t told me anything, but maybe life will imitate blog afterall.

"Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl." That, of course, is the enigmatic end to Bobbie's haunting song and Jimi's brilliant rendition, but also the end to this post.
Exciting news in Post 5. Don't miss it.

Post 3: One is the loneliest number

Remember 3 Dog Night? Their song, One Is the Lonliest Number, is the song that was floating through my synaptic space Sunday.

I've traveled to far away places for extended stays without Nancy before, but usually with a plan that she would join me, with children, at some point. This time Milo will come for a few days next week en route to Oxford, but Nancy will not make it to Cambridge at all during the 7 weeks. So “one” is a lonely number.

But the song is also apropos of what happened Sunday night. Sunday afternoon I got an email from Acoustic Stage, a group that puts on music around Cambridge. I found out about them before I left NY and got on their list. They just opened their own pub and are doing live music several nights a week. Sunday night is open mic might.

I decided I'd march off to the Corner House on New Market Street, again under map guidance of my iPhone, and see what it was all about. I wanted to check out the competiton and maybe work up the nerve to bring my guitar some Sunday night later in my stay. So I arrvie and there are 2 guys sitting around, looking a little nervous. The bartender was very friendly and told us all about the hopes and dreams of Acoustic Stage. The 3 of us non bartendeders in the pub introduced ourselves. Neither Gavin nor Chris had played Acoustic Stage events before, but were armed with their weapons. We had an hour to kill before the event started so we exchanged war stories of our experiences playing live music. Gavin kept saying, well there are only 2 of us playing, so you have to do a few songs. With all my might I resisted, saying no, no, each time he jabbed (all the time trying to decide which songs I would mostly likely remember all the lyrics of if on the hot seat, and frantically rehearsing the lyrics mentally to make sure I had all the verses down). Another pint of bitter ale might help. Confidence was building. I'd made friends with these nice guys who seemed very supportive. I could do it.

Finally, the evening began. Chris got up first and did 3 songs. Excellent performance of Oasis’ Wonderwall and some other songs. Then came Gavin. He had a technically demanding act, using a pedal to record a riff while he played it live and then the pedal would repeat the riff while he played over it and sang at the same time. Other than a minor equipment failure, it was an impressive performance as well.

Confidence way down. They were too good. But it was too late. The bartender walked up and said, "you're on."

As I strolled up to the stage, “One is the loneliest number” comes back to my mind. With Gavin’s Yamaha in hand, I stepped up to the mic and started strumming the opening chords to Inside of Me. So far so good. There's no formal intro. You just get up and go. So no one really knows who you are. I sang the first line. The volume on the mic was way too high and my voice boomed out too loud. Kept strumming. Did a little soundI checking (test 1 2) while strumming. Started singing again.

Well, I remembered all the lyrics and didn’t flub the chords, so it went ok. The small crowd (3 of Gavin's friends, and 3-4 others of unknown origin, as well as a random person or two passing through the music area on theiry way to the john) applauded politely—no noises of wild enthusiasm. Clearly I wasn’t at the level of these other guys. But I had to do another song, so I turned to Mind Over Matter. Flubbed the intro lick so started it over. Felt ok during the song. Actually thought it was ok. Again supporting applause, but no hooting and hollering.

Back to the tables. I was happy I’d done it. Even though the reception at the table was not, “Oh my God, where can I get your CD” I felt I got something out of the experience and am going to work on my act a bit before trying a solo again.

My friend and guitar teacher, and producer of our first CD, Jeff Peretz told me before I left that I can't just go up there and play the songs as if The Amygdalodis were there. Solo performance is a different animal. One is a lonely number. I've got some ideas on what to do.

Now the much promised equipment blow out. I plugged in my compressor and pre amp to do some recordings on the second day here, and started smelling smoke. At first I was blaming a faulty power adaptor that allows you to plug a US plug into those big clunky British outlets. But today I was talking with my office mate Annemieke Apergis-Schoute who asked if I was sure the equipment was capable of doing the auto transform from 110 to 220v. I assumed everything did this now. But I checked and she was right. The power on those take 120v and convert to 9v. So if I’m really lucky, all I did was blow out the transformer. But we’ll have to see. In the meantime, I’ve got a built-in preamp in my Protools interface box and can work with tha

As I said, Annemieke Apergis-Schoute is my office mate. I think she finds that amusing since she was first a volunteer, then a technician, then a grad student in my lab. Now she shares an office with her professor. I re-met her lovely parents today (Tues). They are such nice people.

Next post: Life Imitates Blog

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Post 2: WHY "FOR WHAT IT"S WORTH" by Joseph LeDoux

The reason I titled this self-indulgent exercise, this blog, "For What It's Worth" is not the obvious reason (that it's not worth much to anyone but me and maybe a few curious friends). If you know me at all you know my mind thinks in songs. Being a foreigner here in the UK, I keep walking around with Steve Stills voice floating through my thoughts: "there's something happening here; what it is ain't exactly clear." But with each day, I feel more at ease, and am finding my way around nicely.

Saturday, I went out with Tony Dickinson, a learning theorist, who took me to Hopbine's Pub, a 20 min walk from my flat. I used my new iPhone's GPS function to take me straight there through the open fields and twisty streets of Cambridge. Tony knew the band Jack well and introduced me to them. One of the guitarits, Kimberly, wrote the song Walking on Sunshine. His band was Katrina and the Waves (if you're from Louisiana that's got to sound like some kind of prophecy). The other guitraist, John, was quite a bit younger, but with your eyes closed could have been Carlos Santana (at leats almost, which is pretty damm good). There was a sassy lass on bass, a guy on drums I didn't meet, and a bear of a guy who does the singing. They started out with Walking the Dog and cycled through a playlist I could have written myself, including hits by the Doors, Santana, and Chuck Berry. They did a great version of one of my all time favs, All Along the Watchtower (Jimi's version). It was lots of fun. Hard to find this sort of low key event in NYC, where a really great bunch of musicians just play their hearts out all night while people down their pints and dance till closing time in a small intimate setting.

Although I've been working away on my textbook and on a couple of grants, there's not too much scientific brainstorming to report on yet since this has been a long holiday weekend. So I'll close this report by telling you what moved me to write the blog in the first place. I promise some science soon.

I got the idea of writing this blog after reading Peter Holsapple's two blogs about Rock-It Science, an evening of music that I helped put together with the assistance and support of Jennifer Brout and Tim Sommer, and their organizations,Knock Out Noise and the Sensation to Emotion Network. Rock-It Science featured some scientist/muscians (my band The Amygdaloids, Dan Levitin of This Is Your Brain on Music, Pardis Sabetti and Thousand Days, and Dave Solider), as well as some real rock stars, like Peter ( of the dBs and REM), Lenny Kaye (of the Patti Smith Band), Gary Lucus (of Captain Beefheart), Dee Snider (of Twisted Sister), Steve Wynn (of Dream Syndicate), Linda Pitmon, Stuart Chatwood (of Tea Party), Rufus Wainwright, The Kennedys, Coles Whalen, among others. Peter's blogs brought back wonderful memories of that evening in early March, and reminded me of details that would have slipped my memory had he not writen out his. Here's the link to Peter's second blog.
Here's a link to a review of Rock-It Science in Entertainment Weekly on line.

That's it for now. You'll have to keep reading to find out how my music toys got fried by my adaptor. And also to hear about my visit to The Corner House open mic last night. Did I or didn't I take the stage?

Stay tuned.

Post 1: Saturday April 11, 2009, Cambridge UK

I’ve spent enough time in the UK, and heard enough stories, to know that the weather in England is nothing to write home about, even though it appears that I’m doing just that. So yes it’s cool, damp, and cloudy. But the daffodils and fruit trees are in bloom outside my second floor flat, which has a row of six windows looking out over the Downing College lawn.

I’m here at Cambridge on sabbatical spending time with two of my favorite scientific colleagues, Barry Everitt and Trevor Robbins. Both work in the same area of research as me, and I've long respected their contributions. So it is a delight to be here.

Barry is currently Master of Downing College. A College Master is the lord of the land, ruler supreme of the estate (kingdom) he presides over. The estate known as Downing College consists of a group of impressive neoclassical buildings. It was founded in the 1800s and is called the newest of the old and the oldest of the new colleges at Cambridge.

I can see the large fortress where Barry lives to the right of my view. These are indeed quarters fitting of a Master, at least from the outside, and I’m sure from the inside as well. Barry appears to be a benevolent dictator since students here say one of the reasons they like Downing is because of its Master. One of Barry’s jobs is to sit at the head the faculty table at formal dining evenings. He does this roughly 2 times each week. I’ve been at high tables at the “other place” to the west of here (you shouldn’t say Oxford in Cambridge or vice versa, otherwise there’s noticeable uneasiness, with throat clearing), but am looking forward to dining at the Master’s side at Downing this Wednesday.

This is the third time in my career that I’ve set off across the ocean for an extended stay at a University. The first was a wonderful trip in 1997 to Israel, where Yadin Dudai, another one of my favorite colleagues, looked after me. Then came a stay at All Souls at the “other place” for a 2 month encounter group on consciousness. And now I’m at Cambridge with Barry and Trevor.

I’m at Cambridge for a few reasons. The idea first came to me when my son Milo decided to attend college at Oxford (oops, I mean"the other place"). So it seemed like a good idea to take a sabbatical in the UK and be close to Milo, but not on top of him. Initially, my wife Nancy was planning to come as well, but things have heated up at her place of work, with layoff and other realities of the new economy making it difficult for her to leave NY for an extended time. So here I am.

But I couldn’t really justify a sabbatical to Cambridge just to be near Milo. There were other reasons, more legitimate ones (academically speaking), as well. Cambridge was a natural choice because my collaborator at NYU, Liz Phelps, has a joint grant with Trevor and Barry that I am part of. This trip allows me to do more in-depth interactions in that collaboration. It is going to be especially useful to me to be here since I’ve had some friendly controversies over the years with Barry and Trevor about how the amygdala works, and this will be an opportunity for some lively face time discussing those issues with them and their colleagues. We'll have a joint NYU-Cambridge meeting in a couple of weeks where my jet lagged friends from NYU will be hosted by Trevor, Barry and the gang for a day-long brainstorming session followed by a nice dinner lead by our Master.

Before I left NY, I also made noises about starting my career as a solo musician in the Cambridge music clubs. I doubt that will actually happen. It’s hard enough to mask my limited abilities a singer and guitar player behind the talented folks I play with in The Amygdaloids.

It’s almost lunchtime on Easter Saturday. All of the UK, except the pubs, seems to shut down from Good Friday through Easter Monday. I was planing to have a pretty quite weekend, but have gotten two late, breaking invites. Tony Dickinson, an esteemed experimental psychologist from Cambridge has invited to go out and hear a band he likes at a local pub tonight. And Monday I'll visit a couple that I was hooked up with by David Bemis and Lisa Hoke, friends from NY.

Stay tuned for future exciting tales, such as, "how did the weekend go," and "getting all my gadgets to work but blowing out some of my favorite toys through the fault of a faulty power adaptor."