Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cut Off!

It was always going to happen one day, and here we are.
The CJP computing department has decided, in all its wisdom and hard-work ethic, to block Facebook.
I only logged on a little bit.
Just a few minutes here and there.
I hardly spend any time goofing off on line.
Hardly any at all.
I rarely even blog.
A friend of mine, one who logs on to Fb rarely and never updates her status or posts jokes, commented recently that when you talk to people on Fb you think you've communicated but you really haven't. It's all too shallow; this new virtual way of being friends is just a fake and misleading version of being real friends.
Well, I might agree with some degree of truth there, if all there is to a relationship is exchanging one-liners. But I find that as an addition to an established, in-person, friendship, Fb really helps me keep in contact with people I see just once a year, if that. I live so far away! The time difference makes it awkward to call, and email has its place, but Fb is like seeing each other in passing all the time. It isn't stopping and having lunch together, but we don't expect it to be.
Anyway, I'll miss being able to keep it open in the background. I'll miss seeing that Liz is off to an SCA event this weekend, and Georgia is cranky from not napping, and John's cold is about gone. Things people don't email me about, but which do significantly contribute to feeling a part of each other's lives. I just didn't know how much until that tenuous connection was cut off.
I just hope the computing guys don't go after Blogger next!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Saturday Shootout

As you can see, I've been out of town all week. So since this week's Shoot Out topic is open, I figured I'd show you a little of my community, in it's temporary town: the Denver Convention Center.

Here we are in downtown Denver for a week. By 'we' I mean members of the American Association for Cancer Research, the AACR. It's time for our Annual Meeting, which means about 20,000 researchers and doctors, 6000 posters, hundreds of talks, and lots of excellent science! It may be the "A" ACR, but half the attendees are international.
Everybody wants in to the AACR. Alas, no bears allowed. In fact, sound and image recording devices are forbidden too, so I'm unable to show you any of the sessions or the huge poster and commercial vendors area.
Here's my wayward poster tube, delivered after only 36 hours delay. Battered and dirty and sad on the outside, the posters inside were still intact.
Here's a poster session just getting started in the morning. I hid behind a pillar to take this. Each session lasts 4 hours and you're supposed to stand next to your poster for the first two, so that people who come around to see it can talk to you about it. A lot of beautiful collaborations get started hanging around in front of posters. I think the best thing about it is how many of the really big names in the field will stroll through the poster session and stop to talk to the grad students and post-docs standing nervously next to their work. At the fast food outlets outside I keep overhearing 'Guess who read my poster! He actually asked me a question! I almost choked!'

With about 6000 posters divided into 6 sessions, that's a lot to see in just a couple hours, but they're arranged by topic and there's a map. The downside is that the oral presentations are going on at the same time, another 6 - 12 sessions in parallel, and there are very tough choices to make about where to be.
Internet access is free on provided computers, or you can sit in the wifi area with your own(below). This is about a third of the provided computer area and there isn't usually much of a wait, now that portables are so cheap and popular.
Researchers milling around at the end of the day. The sessions end around 5, which may seem early (why not spread things out more so there are fewer presentations in parallel?), but A) things start at 7 or 8 and we're exhausted, and B) now is the time to coalesce into small groups of colleagues over a glass and later dinner to get into the gritty details.

So that's a brief tour of the AACR's annual meeting, my town for a week. Next year: Washington DC.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Shootout Saturday

My humblest apologies for being late on the Friday Photo Shootout. I'm spending the day in airports and planes and the pictures just aren't loading.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Depends on what you're looking for

I may have knocked Sunday's plenary session a little hard. Long synthetic presentations by the giants definitely have their place. When you go to one, you're usually either newish to the subject and need that overview, or you know it well but it's that special extra insight of the superexpert that will tweak your worldview in just the right way to bring it all together or suggest that missing experiment or make that key connection.
It's the downside of the size of a meeting such as this one that there are necessarily many sessions going on at once. Short talks chock full of data, new or semi-new, have to be skipped in favor of other talks. Hard choices have to be made, and detailed maps of when to leap across the hall to a different talk, then across the convention center, then back again. (People are constantly coming in and going out, thus my plea for more aisle seats - sometimes the aisle seats are the only ones occupied!) So my disappointment with the Big Head session had a lot to do with it.

Weekend at the AACR

The AACR is big big big. Only today (Saturday) the exhibit hall and poster area are closed. Aww. The one: no free chocolates and post-its and journals and odd bits of plasticware. The other: there are so darned many posters that it's a shame they aren't spread out over one more day.
Ironically for such a big show, by four in the afternoon I'm kind of at loose ends. Not much of interest is happening after 3 today, and the friend I so want to see while I'm here is currently and unexpectedly in San Diego. He'll be back soon; I'll still spend time with him before leaving.
And it's raining. What a gyp! It's the perfect time to wander around with my rabbity companion, but no, it's pouring rain. Only one thing for it. Go shopping. Let's see what downtown Denver has for books.
My hotel is not so nice as I'd hoped it would be, and a lot farther from the convention center than I'd imagined. Chosen partly because the price is more or less covered by my daily lodging allowance and partly just because it was the only one I found without going even farther away that had a room open for all the six nights I'll be staying. I've stayed at other outlets of this chain before, no problem, but this place is really quite run down. The bed is comfortable and the room large and clean, but the outside and the lobby area are just nasty. I've already overheard several complaints, one for a broken tv (I haven't turned mine on), one where the clerk was offering extra blankets to make up for a broken heater (are they that full? or are the other rooms no better?), and when asked if guests could use the computer in the lobby apparently set there for that purpose, she just shrugged it off and said that it hadn't worked for ages. At least my heat works. It's noisy and generates a lot of wind for not an excess of heat, but I didn't freeze.
Sunday morning I'm awakened by the phone ringing. It's my poster! It's just been delivered. See, they never lose my stuff for good. Ok, I'll come down for it.
Hey wait. I'll go get it when it's properly morning. It's 3:04 right now.
Who in their right mind phones their hotel guest at 3 am? Really, it could have waited for a more reasonable hour of the day.
And now the worst part of being awakened. If I'd stayed asleep, I would have woken up with the sun. But now I've been roused, my body realises, hey, it's 11am already in France. Great.
Sunday it's meeting meeting meeting. Poster session, plenary session, symposia, forums, mini-symposia.

Talking Heads at the AACR

The big talks at the AACR are attended by more than a thousand people, all getting up and leaving or moving in between one speaker and the next in a huge football field room with screens showing the action in every hue of bad color balance imaginable. They should set up the rows of chairs with far more aisle seats!
But really, what is so interesting about the Plenary Session? Is it to see what Francis Collins or Bruce Ponder looks like after all? Because if you go there to hear the latest results, something new and different, you'll be disappointed. The Big Talks are useful for summarizing and putting into context more or less recent findings. They'll improve your image of the Big Picture. But there's not a word said that hasn't been published, reviewed, published again. Experimental data is far too experimental to present here. Leave that for the little talks.
Non sequitur:
Dining in Denver, I have just been served a nice little salad, and I find myself at a loss. There is no bread! I have been in France so long I cannot eat salad without bread.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Heading to the Civilized West

Here we go to Denver, to see Darryn and the AACR's annual meeting. Even on the flight from Clermont, there are other AACR-goers. On the leg from Paris to Newark we pick up several more. Cancer researchers everywhere!
In my poster tube there are two posters, mine and a colleague's. I have a lame old poster tube, just grey plastic with orange stick-on ends. One of the ends got lost when Yannick checked the tube on his way back from San Diego last month, but I haven't had time to go find a proper poster tube, one with screw-on ends and a shoulder strap. In this small town there likely isn't one. So both ends are all taped up.
Since hauling a poster tube in my hand everywhere is a pain, and I've got hours to kill wandering around various airports (I always wander; I get my fill of sitting during the flights), a purse and a carry-on already, I take Yannick's example and check the stupid tube. It's happened to me before to set it down and wander off without it.
It's nice to be hands-free! Now just to pick up my bag and my tube here in Newark to get through customs.
Um, got the bag.
Yep, the bag came through just fine. Waiting on the poster tube.
The carusel is empty. The Paris crowd has all moved on. London and Caracas are coming in.
How many times has this happened? Going to France from California, twice or thrice. Arriving in Atlanta. Arriving in San Diego. This is number five, at least. Happily, I've never had luggage permanently disappear. I've had a jar of sweet pickle relish come open. I've had, after a bomb threat that made them check every bag, a lipstick left open by the security team to color my new suit rather copiously. I've had bags so meanly handled that every cd case was cracked, and once a hardcover book that looked like it had been dragged behind the plane.
I'm confident they'll get it to me in Denver. My poster session isn't until Tuesday; I may not even miss it. And if they don't, well, better the posters than my clothes. I'm sure the AACR will understand.
In Denver, they're having a bit of a problem. You'd think they'd be used to snow here, but four inches have thrown them into chaos. Our plane sits on the tarmac for half an hour just waiting for a gate, although there are several unoccupied gates visible. Insufficient ground crew, apparently. Once inside, I try to make efficient use of my time, by reporting the loss of my poster tube without waiting for our flight's baggage service to end. Nothing doing. I'm told it's quite common for stray bags to be followed along on the right connections even if it didn't show up for me at customs. So instead of getting that paperwork out of the way while the nice ladies are otherwise idle, I have to wait around, and come back later when they've got a line full of disgruntled customers all missing their toothbrushes and good suits.
The snow has thrown something of a wrench into ground transportation, but the roads aren't that bad and it wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the 17,000 people arriving for the AACR. The shuttle drivers are naming their price and getting it, the taxi line is more than an hour's wait. Not really being dressed for snow, I make a shuttle reservation at one of the inside counters, with a harassed woman who will, yes, guarantee us transport into the city, but no, will not say when. Tonight. As soon as the vans make it back from their last round.
So fine. Understanding it'll be a while, I go find a comfortable seat and a glass of wine and take advantage of the airport's free wifi. I almost get too comfortable. The Blue Sky shuttle woman has been sending her clients over to this section of the airport, then gathering them up in groups of 11 to take them to the shuttle, which is not parked with the rest of the shuttles. But when she comes to get a group, you'd better leap up and follow or you won't be in the lucky eleven with a ride to town. Darn good thing this netbook is so light, I can carry it in one hand with all my bags slung over my shoulders, and save & shut down while walking rapidly across an airport! Couldn't have done that with a poster tube in one hand.
It's well past 11pm when I finally arrive at my hotel. It's so good to have a bed at last!

Friday, April 17, 2009


it's not easy blogging from the airport. The My Town Friday Photo Shoot Out post is below - just scroll down.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Still in the Stone Age

For the past few days I've been reading the news reports from Afghanistan about the new laws being established.

It's now illegal for a woman to refuse sex with her husband.

It was long an acceptable argument even in America that a woman's place was to serve her husband. This went so far as being essentially owned by her husband, unable to own property, inherit, vote, or make any decision contrary to her spouse's wishes. She had no control over her future, her body, her children, or her life.

This is what is being written into law today, in the year 2009, in other parts of the world.

I hope that you will join me in supporting the emancipation of women everywhere, through actions such as joining and supporting the organisations listed at the right with your time, money, and efforts. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the ACLU (which leads several international initiatives) are all working toward a more just world.
It's important!

Friday Photo Shoot Outs: Local food & restaurants

I like Barry's and Si's and Reggie's contributions to the My Town Friday Photo Shoot Outs so much I decided to join up. Now I've got to get around to all the other participants! Every week there's a theme and we go out for a fresh look at our local communities.

So Hello. I'm an American living in the agro-industrial heart of central France. For this week's project I'd hoped to range a little farther than just-down-the-street, but the weather has not been at all cooperative. Next time!

Aubière is a small suburb of Clermont-Ferrand, and in the town center has very little to offer in the way of dining out. There are two restaurants in the pedestrian sector, neither of which I've been to, neither of which if French. The restaurant on the main square is open for lunch but not for dinner. In fact, the only ready-made food available in the evening is from the pizza truck that comes around Tues-Weds-Thurs. Darn good pizza. And there's a new kebab place, right next to the church.

There are three bars on the square, and three or four more on side streets. They open early and close early. Not a lot of nightlife in Aubière! Not in old Aubière that is – to the north the town limits include a vast semi-industrial and commercial area. There, there are chain restaurants and hotels and a multiplex movie complex, McDonald's. I don't go there to dine (last bus home at 7:35).

Chinese takeout truck at the Sunday market. Below, my favorite of the bakeries. From the line, which is reasonable just now, it looks like everybody's favorite.

Anyway, there's plenty to eat in Aubière. We have four or five bakeries, two butchers, a greengrocer, a portugese wine shop, and a convenience store. No cheesemonger unless it's on one of the little pedestrian alleys and I haven't discovered it yet. Take a tour around the market Sunday morning and there's every fresh food you need, and many stands with ready-made specialties. Roast chickens, meat dishes, paella, squid in a tomato-cream sauce, aligot and truffade (potatos with garlic and cheese: truffade is chunky and has onions, aligot is tricked-out mashed potatos) This is where I do my food shopping. I bring my own egg cartons. I tell the cheese people how much to cut off for me, and they'll let me taste it before I make my choice (though beware all the little taster plates on offer – taking a bit means if you like it you'll be buying some – it's not graze as you go!). At the roast chicken carts they take orders for geese, ducks, and rabbits too.

Tunisian treats. They sell ten kinds of olives, too.

One vat of paella, one vat of squid in tomato sauce.

Oysters for the Easter feast.

One of the roast chicken stands. Below the chickens on rotating spits there's a trough of potatos catching the drippings.

A vat of aligot, next to dozens of sausages mixed with onions and peppers.

So by and large, the local specialty is Fresh. You can now drive to the hypermarket down the road and get all your shopping done in one go, and save money doing it. But many people like to walk around the market with their baskets over their arms, picking and choosing, and, if not always dealing directly with the producers of what they buy, at least cutting out a step or two of middlemen. I like that. I like buying my honey this morning from the guy who keeps the bees, my fungus-covered cheese from the maker, my eggs laid by chickens not more than half an hour away from here. The strawberries did come from Morocco, but I just couldn't resist, and local fruit is still at the flowering stage.

There might be a good coat of fungus on the outside of the disks of St Nectaire, but it's great cheese. And you can taste it to choose the one you like - mild, more 'done', very 'done'. I like it in the middle.

You can taste the honey before deciding, too.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I didn't know it was going to stick

French people love nicknames. Not in our American way of shortening regular names; no, they will never reduce Robert to Bob, or Jacqueline-Inès to Jacki. But funny, descriptive nicknames they like, sometimes ones you don't say to the person concerned.
So a while ago I was chatting with our administrative assistant over coffee, who asked me to describe the position of my 2nd-year Master student, Alex. And, for some reason I have no memory of, I said he was a sort of embryonic doctoral student.
And now the whole lab knows him as L'embryon.
Which he kind of likes.
Glad I could contribute.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Jetlag as a medical disorder.

Over at Mind Hacks on Tuesday there was a piece concerning the push from pharmaceutical companies to classify jetlag as a medical disorder. The better to sell their miraculous remedies, ‘natch.
Now, my readers can probably tell I take a dim view of solving problems with pills, even health problems if they’re little ones going away on their own anyway. But this, gee, I gotta make this work for me. Every time I take a 2-week vacation in the States, or go there for a conference, now I’ll be able to put in for sick time to get over the pain of returning!
It’s a golden idea!It must be said, the 9-hour difference between the West Coast and France isn’t too onerous going west - you just stay up late and sleep late and that’s it. But coming back is hell. I walk around groggy for a week. And I know that sunlight is the best thing for resetting your internal clock, maybe a little melatonin to get the sleep schedule back on, but it still takes a while. The French are insane with taking this leave and that leave, and I bet an official medical disorder would get me two-three days of kicking around the garden!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Excursion to the Atlas (7 of 7)

Oof. Last evening and I’m glad to have it to myself. I’m exhausted from a morning of shopping the souks for gifts and the afternoon on a little trip to the countryside.
I just wish I could have had all day in the country. Getting some fresh air was a treat, and with the rain they’ve had this year everything is green and blooming.
Just to make my bag heavier, I hauled a book with me, uselessly. This is because Hassan is so habitually late and it’s so difficult to park near the hotel, that I read in the lobby for a good half hour waiting for him, and then had to jump into the double-parked car pronto.
I like Hassan. He’s got a real sense of dry humor, and he’s always yelling ! Badia ! in an Arabic way that is quite different than his neatly spoken French. On the other hand, he’s quite a fan of Brian Adams, and every time I ride in his car it’s the same cassette, over and over. ‘Please forgive me...’
We’re taking his car on the trip, and meet Badia at a swanky hotel where she uses the gym. She has YJ and his wife Edith with her - it was a convenient place to leave her car. Finally they emerge from touring the swimming pool, after a certain number of Badia!!s shouted into the phone.
Off we go southeast to the foothills of the Atlas mountains. The first 15 miles or so are flat plains dotted with random mansions, shacks, and olive groves, but all the same I have the urge to request a photostop every two minutes. This herd of sheep. That roadside shop, all beg to be captured. But I wait, and we start to climb, gently, into the foothills.
The sun has gone, hidden by thick clouds as soon as we start to gain altitude, making the landscape nice, but not spectacular. Along our route we pass turnouts where camels and their handlers are waiting for tourists to stop. Shops selling carpets or metalwork, or pottery line the road.
We stop for tea in a popular spot. Even in early April, on a Thursday, the parking strip is nearly full and all the picnic tables are taken by families having a break. There’s a lively snowmelt stream with a rickety rope and plank bridge that Edith, YJ, and I dare to cross: our hosts take the more secure crossing. On the far bank families are sitting on rugs, enjoying picnics they’ve brought and tajines and tea ordered from somewhere. BB finds a nice shady clearing a few yards up from the bank, identifies the proprietor, and orders a table, five chairs, and mint tea.
Kids are playing, women are chatting, the poppies are in intense bloom. Upstream a party of women is washing clothes in the stream, just like since forever.We decide to take a walk upstream, me in hopes of obtaining a vista of the now-close snowy peaks of the Atlas. But it isn’t to be. We walk along the road a hundred meters, then give up, not wanting to battle the traffic. Which isn’t much, but it is persistent. Then the idea is to go back to an intriguing shop we passed, all covered with carpets on one side and a hill of pottery spilling down from the other. This time we make several photostops, though the poor light didn’t do the countryside justice.

Descending into the Marrakech plain, Edith mentions there’s a saffron garden nearby to visit, and, after a touch of confusion, we make the detour. Hassan: You’ve got to take the detours in life!
It’s a great place to stop. I finally get a look at a garden going full-tilt and trash-free. Orange trees in fruit and bloom, roses, olives in rows, poppies in the field where the saffron crocuses are in their leafy phase. Those flowers come out in November, unlike the crocus just fading in my own yard. It’s a short tour, a last breath of clean air, and a cup of mint tea spiced with all kinds of things from the garden. Orange blossom, rosemary, sage, marjoram, even geranium leaves, all go into the tea at one season or another, many of which sound excellent. Too many different things, alas, are in this particular cup.
Traveling back to the city in the late afternoon, we remark on how many people are just hanging out by the side of the road. Families are picnicing. Women are gathering who knows what. Kids are playing, riding bikes, waiting for their mothers to be finished talking. Random men are standing around.
It’s the perfect angle of late sun to wander among the olive trees taking photographs, but we are all tired and I get the idea that our hosts have things to do still today. It was very generous of them to take the afternoon off just to haul us around the countryside.

We make plans for next time. Everybody is in favor of meeting in a different city, say Fez, for a day and night there before coming down to Marrakech. We also are eager to arrange a Franco-Maghreb breast cancer genetics gathering where we can at last get the Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan groups together. And definitely we’ll be speaking to our computing department about the spam-blocker!
It’s seven by the time Hassan drops me off at the hotel, and the lobby is swarming with a newly arrived gaggle of young tourists, all trying to check in at once. Great. This hotel is dreadfully noisy, all hard surfaces and little insulation. As predicted, there are comings and goings and raucous laughter until well after 1. I sleep very badly, both because of the noise and because I’m coming down with a sore throat. My wake-up call is at 4, and a friend is coming at 4:30 to round us up for the airport. At one point I get up to use the bathroom and hear a honk outside that isn’t like the usual traffic noise. Booting up my computer, yep, it’s 4:34. No way I slept through the call; there just wasn’t one. I throw on my clothes, grab my pre-packed luggage, and that’s it for this time. Oh, except for missing my connection in Paris because the baggage thing was too slow - it takes me 14 hours to get home

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Majorelle Garden (6 of 7)

This garden in the heart of Marrakech was established by a French expat in the early 20th century. Now open to the public for 30 Dh (about $3), it’s one of the most popular visits in the city. If you can ignore the teeming crowd of tourists, each trying for his own perfect photograph, it is a quiet and wonderful place.