Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Conferencing on the East Coast


In April of every year, physicists around the world gather for the meeting of the American Physical Society (APS). This year, the conference was held in Savannah, Georgia, and I was to give my first APS talk!

The flight was uneventful and, arriving in Savannah, I managed to collect my rental car while dodging 4 consecutive attempts to upsell me. The econobox Ford Focus was electric blue and had leather seats, which is just fine by me.

I drove straight to the convention center, which is just opposite the old town on the river bank. A cavernous space concealed numerous meeting rooms and incessant millings of physicists, while a giant glass wall occasionally gave a view of gigantic container ships cruising up and down the river.

The first day seemed focused mainly on education, with one interesting talk given about using the hyperloop and other awesome ideas as a segue to estimation problems. After lunch, I paid for staying up all night on the plane with a quick nap, then returned for the welcome reception, and one final town-hall meeting on 'Re-imagining the April APS meeting'. 

As it happens, APS traditionally holds two meetings a year, one in March and one in April. The March meeting has grown to about 10,000 people over the last few decades, while the April meeting has gradually shrunk to about 1300. Much hand wringing and questioning followed, but given the various issues brought up during the session, I'm surprised it hasn't vanished entirely! As an example, APS April meeting usually covers high energy physics, but there's a bigger conference called DPF in Europe, and most high energy physicists work in Europe, because they have the LHC, so most of the fancy results get announced at DPF. Other traditional mainstays of the April meeting include nuclear physics, which outside of North Korea has been on a long decline ever since all the elements were discovered. Additionally, the April meeting was once held traditionally in Washington DC, to afford better access to congressional members, but is now seen as too costly. Instead, the meeting, which is still not cheap, jumps around each year and is now seen as a good venue for professors to give their students practise giving talks. There were many suggestions, but most were remarkable only for their inability to actually address the key issues.

Speaking of talks, there was, as usual, a wide spectrum of talk quality. Something I've become more aware of over the years, I took some notes of particularly egregious elements and compiled them into a recent blog post entitled "The worst conference talk ever". http://caseyexaustralia.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-worst-conference-talk-ever.html 

Soon enough, it was time to drive back to town and try to find my couchsurfer. During conferences I prefer not to stay in a hotel, even if someone else is paying. Soon enough I located J's place, a nice cottage with a few garden blocks next to it, containing an intimidating dog, an aloof cat, and, of course, J. J is an art professor at Savannah College of Art and Design (or SCAD for short) and had some incredible paintings in his house and studio. We went for a drive that evening and J showed me the old town's 24 squares, some fancy old houses spared during the civil war, and the ~100 buildings owned and restored by SCAD, which has apparently reversed the fortunes of this town.

Next morning I bounced out of the air mattress at the first sound of dog claws coming to wish me good morning. Soon after J pilfered some eggs from his chickens and we ate breakfast. I drove through the foggy morning beneath tree-lined tunnels festooned with spanish moss to Whole Foods, where I raided their counter for lunch supplies. The conference center had only one rather dubious kiosk selling incredibly fast food, so I was sure to bring several loaves of bread.

If Saturday went slowly, Sunday picked up a lot. I gave my talk, entitled "Spectral Characteristic Evolution: A new algorithm for gravitational wave propagation", in which I spent most of the time talking about the problem and constructing an elegant coordinate system, and a couple of minutes showing convincing looking results. After lunch there was another town hall session on APS corporate reform and open access publishing, which about 20 people (including me) attended. I've always been interested in open access, but the issue is extremely complicated and divisive. To be sure, there are now MUCH cheaper electronic publishing models, but peer review still takes time, not that the reviewers are paid, of course. Adding to the complexity, countries which fund a lot of science research, like England or the US, have indicated that they will compel public access to publicly funded research within the next few years, possibly simultaneously with its publishing in (mostly) library subscription funded journals. Like everything else, the situation is in a state of rapid change. I'm a relatively new entrant into physics academia, but I can count the number of times I've gone to a library to borrow a book or ask for a journal on one hand. Of course, some types of research use the library system far more than mine, which is mostly new, mostly cutting edge, and mostly done at Caltech. 

Still, the attitudes to for-profit publishing has taken a hit in recent years as the various practises of the Elsevier publishing group have been widely seen as opportunistic and exploitative. I recall once asking a senior member of the Caltech administration if they'd consider making a statement in support of open access, as many other university leaders had already done, and they assured me that the traditional model was the only viable model for protecting the strength of peer review. How so sure, I asked, and was told that his colleagues on the board of one particular publishing group and he were quite certain that their model was the way to go!

And if I hadn't already had enough of introspection, I was recruited to be part of a focus group looking at internal publishing of the APS. In particular, it publishes and mails out a news paper and glossy magazine once a month to all ~50,000 members. In most labs I've seen they're stacked up like cord wood, and are even occasionally read. The group helped APS to understand what the non-tenured (ie 99%) of APS was after, and mostly it concerned job openings, career stuff, meetings, funding for meetings, and so on. Towards the end, a new print publication was mooted which I strongly critiqued on the grounds of expense, environmental harm, and broad irrelevance. The readership of accurate scientific reporting has greatly increased in recent years via facebook and twitter, but articles need to be written and published online within hours of a result to be shareable or clickable, and print media just doesn't cut it. There's an online version of the various existing publications, but as if to underscore my point, an article that just made it into print in APS news talked about the impact of tensions in Ukraine to NASA/Roscosmos cooperation in space and on the ISS, and largely downplayed it. 48 hours before, a NASA directive to discontinue all non-ISS related work had leaked and had already trickled through all the blogs, facebooks, etc and disappeared. That is, even the most up-to-date reporting currently existing in the popular APS literature was at least 3 days out-of-date. And there is a terrible need for science articles written by people who won't get 50% of the detail wrong.

With that out of the way, L, S and I decided to explore Tybee island, a coastal town at the mouth of the Savannah river. We drove down over marshes and wetlands, eventually reaching a nice looking beach with a big wooden peer. As soon as we stepped out of the car, we were nearly blown back to Savannah. We dodged seagulls and a few brave pigeons practically disintegrating in flight and went to the end of the peer. It must not be a very good peer, because the (rather small) waves were breaking beyond it, but we watched a few ships track in and out of the mouth and enjoyed the view. Before long, L's hair was a complete disaster threatening to attain sentience and secede, so we struggled back to the car and drove into town. With a quick detour via a very fancy ice cream shop, I stranded them in town and drove back to J's place. 

Monday morning started with a talk about Ice Cube, the neutrino experiment in Antarctica embedded in a cubic kilometer of ice. Apparently it has detected some astrophysical neutrinos, which is quite exciting. Next up was Neil deGrasse Tyson, talking about physics in the twitterverse, his recent show Cosmos based on the original series by Carl Sagan, and a few other rather amusing things. One of his best lines was to get a show of hands who votes Republican. The room of about 1000 people included half a dozen brave enough to raise their hand. He turned the premise on its head by reminding the audience that as many anti-science people vote democrat as republican, only the democrat types tend to be crystal healers, astrologers, new agers, and so on, who generally lack a political dimension to their crushing inanity.

The rest of the day unfolded in its usual way, including the regular poster session. Poster sessions are a mixed bag, varying between the odd undergrad who hasn't got enough material for a talk or doesn't know how to integrate something, right up to 'independent researchers', or the usual cosmic crackpot background. Especially for someone who works in gravity research, crackpots are a part of life. Yet talking with them is often just as frustrating as talking with an antivaxer or young earth creationist, and not usually as fun. Humans just find it really hard to practise questioning everything, starting with themselves.

That evening our topical group GGR (gravitation stuff) had its meeting, where we talked about growth. Apparently we're right on the cusp of having enough people to qualify as a division of APS, with all the associated benefits and privileges. And if LIGO works, who knows what will happen.

The next day, Tuesday, was the final day of the conference. With no big closing ceremony or formal dinner, most members had already left and it was rather quiet. All dues-paying members can present a talk if they so choose, and so most of the crackpot talks got bundled into a couple of sessions on Tuesday suggestively entitled "New Directions in Astrophysics" and "Frontiers in Gravitation". In one of those sessions, the chair hadn't even bothered to show up, which was perhaps a mercy. No two crackpots are quite the same, but a good number often mention similar ideas, which gave me an idea for playing bingo. Any mention of the phrases "Einstein was wrong", "Stephen Hawking says", "Steady-state model", "God", etc earns you a point, while any mention of a relevant physicist or a correctly used equation loses a point. S, J (different J) and I hightailed it from a talk about "Creator God Rules The Universe Because Hawking Built The Big Bang On A Foundation Of Quicksand" to the airport, where our timely arrival was rewarded with significant flight delays. I eventually made it to NYC after only a few loops around the Jersey shore, while J, S, and B were all stuck in JFK airport overnight.

Arriving at an airport is always slightly disorienting, as though you're consciously aware of the different latitude. Probably just an effect of altitude and dehydration. I stretched my metatarsals and strode to the airtrain and subway, disappointed to find my pass from 2012 had somehow 'expired'. With a slight feeling of vertigo, I realised I was on the NYC subway without a map, for the first time ever. I only got slightly lost before finding my friend K's place. K and I first met about 4 years ago on a different couch surfing adventure, and have stayed in touch ever since. When I'm in town we usually catch up, which is just frequently enough that there's usually a new house, new job, and so on to catch up on!

By this time it was dark and the apartment above a bottle shop was cozy and warm. We made a strategic foray to a laundromat across the street, ate pasta, and consumed some Game of Thrones.

Next morning K had already gone to work, so I stumbled out of bed and caught a train into town, getting off at Times Square. Walking through NYC, it's always easy to fall into the belief that it's a very sophisticated tableau or post-modern drama being enacted in front of you at all times. I'm not sure if I think NYC is the best place on Earth, but it's certainly unique. People with incredible accents screaming at kids or dogs, crowds of comically short people milling around, towering sky scrapers, the hustle and bustle. I worked my way down town, pausing to check out the blade runner building over the tracks on 10th and 33rd. I'm still not sure what it is, but it looks much less imposing up close. 

Down the high line, then across town to Stuyvesant Town. Walking past I had always found the aspect rather intimidating, but this time ventured inside to find a lot of playgrounds. I continued to the south to check out the alleged locations of Rent. Even though Jonathan Larson and his friends all lived in Greenwich. Still, Tomkin's Square Park is there, and the yuppie infested coffee shop where Life Cafe was, and the lot next to the building on 11th and B, now the Toyota Early Learning Park. Soon enough it was time to head home to relax a little before heading back to the Flatiron school in Very Lower Manhattan for a lockpicking workshop. It was good to have an expert (Schuyler Towne) on hand to explain some of the subtleties I've never appreciated.

Around 9pm it seems like it's time to sleep, but NO. K's friend A, with whom I originally couch surfed in NY, was having dinner at Lot 2 in Park Slope, so off I went on the R line and enjoyed a lovely lamb dish with A and her friends B and J (different different J). A was doing some incredible grad school stuff, J was about to start making harpsichords, and B had escaped Christian fundie home schooling and seemed to find my geological ramblings interesting, which is a first. After dinner I pointed out Jupiter and Mars (in opposition!) and then walked back to K's place, where another excellent sleep was awaiting!

Next morning I woke rather late, packed my things, and took the subway to the upper east side where I met an old friend S, with whom I used to sing in Fluid Dynamics. Now studying medicine at Sinai, she brought a nice friend with her, and shortly joined by an old Australian friend C working in New York we raided a buffet style Indian lunch restaurant. It was so tasty I had not one but two full plates, but then again, I was eating breakfast and lunch in parallel. The girls had to disappear to "study" for an "exam", whatever that means, and C and I retired to his elegant raw brick lined apartment to examine cats, contemplate complexity theory as applied to music, and compare notes. Of course, C once had the misfortune of being my lab TA, so it's always good practise to reinforce his mistakes and feelings of regret by making purposeful arithmetic errors and suggesting inefficient algorithms. I was, I must confess, a demanding student at times.

On the way back to collect my things I stopped by Kee's Chocolate Shop on Thomas and Spring. Now a mere satellite for the main business, they make chocolates so good I once ate a few despite the allergy induced discomfort I was to endure for a week or so. This time, however, I managed to restrain myself and delivered the package complete with a pasta repayment (with interest) to my generous hosts. I packed the last of my things while slightly bewildered by the sound of one of K's housemates laying down rap tracks, and headed for Penn Station with only a short detour to return the house key. Walking through the financial district wearing my Occupy Mars shirt drew a few odd looks. Opportunities for travel and renewing old friendships are somewhat intermittent, and as I rattled under the Hudson another whirlwind trip drew to a close.

Google had suggested that trains to Philadelphia could be had for between $100 and $200, depending on speed and comfort. Remembering another route which was about the same speed and somewhat cheaper, I bought a NJT ticket to Trenton. For the first time, the scale of abandoned industrial might in Newark really dawned on me and I wondered where it all went. Part of the Rust Belt, the shift away from northern heavy industry is something I still don't fully understand. I suspect a rapid period of city and infrastructure building was spurred by high levels of immigration across the north east, but lacked the generational renewal necessary to keep the forges hot. Transition to a zero growth economy is still regarded as one of the more difficult economic problems.

At Trenton I bought another ticket to Philadelphia center city, for a total ticket price of $24. Of course, the bus is much cheaper, but trains are trains! I freakin' love trains. In Philadelphia I found my way to my cousin J's place. J (different different different J) lived in a central part of the city and worked in sustainability, which is pretty awesome. I found my way into his building and up to his flat as he came down to meet me, which had the somewhat odd result of me sitting at his kitchen bench as he came in the door. We hit the streets and headed north to chinatown for a well deserved bowl of ramen with assorted sides. Yum!

The following day I got up during the mid morning and walked to the nearby Macy's store. Extraordinarily thorough readers of this blog will already comprehend the significance of the central Philadelphia Macy's store, but for the casual reader who has somehow got this far, I will give a quick summary. Originally the Wanamaker department store, the building is home to a few oddities, including a 2500lb bronze eagle and the world's largest playable pipe organ. Occupying a series of chambers around the central six story atrium, the organ boasts around 30,000 pipes, including an insanely amazing string division. The console is helpfully located in the women's underwear section. At noon each day a 45 minute recital is given, following which I set out for Rittenhouse square feeling downright strange.

Eventually it dawned on me that I hadn't eaten breakfast or lunch, so I found a shop and bought a meat sandwich of the sort that Philadelphia is famous. Apparently it's called a "hoagie", though without cheese, of course. I continued my trek through the city, eventually stumbling upon the Franklin institute, one of two science museums one block apart. It seemed to contain 4 different theatres including a planetarium, an Imax, a 3D, and something else. A moving exhibit on Pompeii was excellent, as it contained all the cool little stuff that wasn't there anymore when I visited in 2006. Jewelery, surgeon's tools, and other shiny objects, complete with the requisite dramatic music and CGI eruptions. The rest of the exhibits were rather dated, including one section on space exploration where the styling was nearly as retro as the ethnographic museum I once saw in Hovd, Outer Mongolia. Part of me suspects that I'm no longer at the optimum age for these museums. Part of me is in denial. They also had a pretty cool Tesla coil suspended from the ceiling.

Walking back from the museum I dodged skateboarders in Love Park, guerrilla gardeners in various empty lots, and found my way to the Navy Yard shuttle.

So it turns out that Philadelphia has the oldest navy yard in the country – even older than the country. It has been built on a few times since then, including a bunch of dry docks and a few gutted air craft carriers. But, for the most part, its industrial machinery is cold and its buildings empty. Trying to promote urban renewal, the city has granted tax breaks for innovative companies with a sustainability focus, including the one J works for. Urban Outfitters has also retrofitted a bunch of buildings down by the river with an ultra modern factory, complete with indoor gardens, art installations, skylights, and all the other stuff that finally seems to be gaining a foothold in some places it's desperately been needed for a long time.

We walked to the nearby stadium and, courtesy of a friend of J's, watched a baseball game between Philadelphia and Atlanta. From where we were sitting, we had a great view of the play but basically no idea of the score, which was just perfect. We understood the rules just well enough to have a vague idea of what was going on. A massive selection of food suppliers behind us kept us stocked with food and drink, and we enjoyed several hours to catch up on perhaps half a decade of news between us.

Just before it started to rain we strategically retreated and found our way back to the apartment where J and I studied our Australian accents with the help of renowned comedian Jim Jefferies.

Next morning I woke early but relatively refreshed. Eventually we set out for a food truck for a bacon and egg sandwich (health food!), and then walked to the Mutter museum. I had been once before, but they've moved some things around, and given a bunch of the placards a fairy tale theme, with all the awful horrific stuff left in. Which is appropriate, given the subject matter. Of course, the Mutter museum is the College of Surgeons' Museum of Abnormal Anatomy. Lots of skeletons, body parts in formaldehyde, and plenty of peculiarities and curiosities. J, who is not normally queasy, found the plasticized veins and arteries quite difficult to look at. Of course, I had all this stuff instead of Sesame Street as a kid, so I'll probably only have nightmares for a few weeks.

On the way back we stopped at the market, where I located an excellent olive and thyme loaf of bread to consume during our walk to the Liberty Bell and other assorted historical stuff of which I was vaguely aware. At some point we noticed that Benjamin Franklin's name was basically everywhere, and in honour of the great man, we read his letter of advice concerning older women. I was then entertained to discover that he had met Casanova when representing the new republic in France and they had discussed the issue of steering balloons. At the time, of course, the laws of fluid mechanics were not well understood and it was thought (despite evidence of ships at sea) that balloons were fixed in the wind. Barring external power or rapid rotation, this is basically true.

We headed back to the apartment for a quick nap, then went for a final afternoon walk to the Delaware river and a local antiques market, before I found my way to the station amid a sea of extraordinarily good looking young women enjoying the extraordinarily good weather, and headed out to the airport. The usual TSA theatre and hassle and I boarded the flight back home. Otherwise uneventful, we had some fun turbulence over the Rockies and lightning flashed out my window for nearly the entire flight. My customary welcome back to LA was complete when my pre-booked airport shuttle was 40 minutes late!



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