Interesting Articles: July 18-24th 2005

* Tattooed Fruit Is on Way. i.e., labeling fruit using lasers instead of stickers. (New York Times)
* A Gene for Romance? So It Seems (Ask the Vole). Yet another neat article on simple genetic control of complex behavior. (New York Times)
* Corrupted PC's Find New Home in the Dumpster. A sad story about computers being so complicated that people throw them out rather than reinstall the operating system. (New York Times)
* The Framing Wars. At first you might think this is just another article about framing. But really it is an interesting piece about how politicians have reacted to Lakoff's book and how it has affected political battles in recent months. (New York Times)
* Jon Stewart, Faking It and Making It. An neat and funny interview on WHYY's Fresh Air (via NPR).
* Public radio programs trying to move to the screen: Lake Wobegon Goes Hollywood (or Is It Vice Versa?), With a Pretty Good Cast (from Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion); Close Your Eyes and It's Almost Like Radio (from Ira Glass's This American Life). (New York Times stories)
* R We D8ting? A cute (cautionary?) tale about relationships and text messaging. (New York Times)

Interesting Articles: July 11-17 2005

* Graffiti Archaeology. (Referenced in Digital 'Antigraffiti' Peels Away the Years, a New York Times article.)
* Cancer Drugs Offer Hope, but at a Huge Expense. The real question here is: How much do you value a month of your life? (New York Times)
* The Editor's Tale. A cute (fictional, I assume) story about a publisher that turned down Harry Potter. A fun short read. (New York Times)

Los Angeles Weekend Trip

With two friends, I took a quick flight down to Los Angeles to go exploring for a weekend (July 16th and 17th 2005). I wrote a travel diary but only distributed it to my friends via e-mail -- it's not on the web. My pictures from this trip, however, are online.

Trip to Banff: Day 8 (Greek Festival, the Glenbow Museum, and Jazz)

[This is the only blog entry written on the same day as the activities described.]

These pictures go with my activities for the day.

Surprisingly, I'd seen almost everything I wanted to see in Calgary yesterday, so this day started off slowly as I reviewed what events were going on this weekend that I wanted to attend.

After a bit of internal debate between the Greek Festival and the Inglewood street fair, I decided to go to the former. Arriving there at 10:30am, it hadn't really started yet. There were a few (unexciting) booths selling items. I was told I was the first customer to order food. I had a spanakopita (spinach pie in puff pastry) and a baklava, both fairly good. Then, rather than sit around and wait for it to get started, and since the museum was supposed to take a while, I left. The few people I talked to were really surprised I was a tourist; the organizers only expected locals and only thought locals would hear about this festival. (I heard about it through a small poster in my wanderings.)

Glenbow Museum turned out to be a quite respectable museum with a lot of exhibits (though practically a whole floor was closed special exhibits) and took me about three hours to see everything at a very leisurely pace. It has a number of international exhibits like those on Buddhism and West Africa and a number of local Canadian ones such as exhibits on Canadian Indian tribes, ranching, the fur trade, and the growth of the railroad. They also had a neat display on Warriors from all cultures and societies, discussing the different weaponry and tactics and going into depth on the contrast between a professional Warrior class versus citizen soldiers.

After the museum, I still had a few hours to kill before my flight. So many so that I couldn't just take a very long pre-flight meal. So I referred back to my notes about the Calgary Jazz Festival events and found there was one event going on in the mid-afternoon: a Jazz Jam.

The bar it was held in was small but cute and fairly empty. (See the pictures.) Someone asked me if I was a musician soon after I entered. It appeared a majority of the people in the bar were, confirmed by the fact that the performers jamming changed and introduced new people fairly frequently. They were great; I enjoyed them more than any of the three performances last night. And they re-did a song I really like, Cantaloop (originally by US3).

Feeling guilty sitting there, I ordered the bar's drink special ($3.75 CAN Caesar). It was similar to the Marriott's but with a long snap pea instead of celery. I guess this drink is popular in Calgary.

After an hour, I left, intending to grab some good food before my flight. (I felt bad leaving because they were very good and having fun (as was I) and the bar was still somewhat empty. The people I talked to suggested I come back next week; it turns out this was a weekly event that just happened to be co-listed with the festival. Again, there were more people surprised that I didn't live nearby.) I walked to the aforementioned Divino but it was closed. (According to the AAA book it should've been open. But then, most decent restaurants in Alberta seem to close after lunch at 2pm and reopen at 5pm. So I guess it was one of those.) Then I went to the next restaurant on the list: Cilantro. But it too was closed. But by this point it was almost 5pm, and I needed to head to my flight. (And I wasn't actually very hungry; I would've just eaten if given the opportunity to eat good food.)

And now, after returning the rental car and passing through customs (which happens on the Canadian side when flying to the U.S.), I'm sitting in a lounge writing this post.

Trip to Banff: Day 7 (or, Calgary and its culinary experience)

[This is written after my trip, from my notes and memory. You'll soon see the reason for this title, as I ate at six eating establishments and visited or mention a few more.]

This is Friday. These pictures go with my travels for the day.

Having decided to spend the day exploring Calgary, after waking up in Canmore I spent a little while trying to find an internet cafe. After all, I wanted to look up to see what the chowhounds said about Calgary restaurants to know where I should eat that evening. My main goal was to eat traditional regional cuisine, which involve a heavy emphasis on meat (since Alberta is large in the ranching/bovine industry). I also needed the internet to decide where to go in the evening, i.e., what events were going on in Calgary. A gas station attendant gave me very detailed directions to an internet cafe near a particular video store. But I found three video stores in that area, and never found an internet cafe. This would turn out to be portentous.

(A digression: There seem to be very little variation in gas prices in Canada: seemingly at most two cents per liter difference at any gas stations, generally regardless of where the gas station is (how remote) and whether the station is full or self service. Must be a quite regulated product.)

Having given up, I decided to grab an early lunch at the other restaurant I had remembered hearing chowhounders heartily recommend in Canmore: Valbella Meats. It turned out to be a meat shop, mostly selling uncooked meats and sausages and so on (including, like almost every counter-ordering food place, an assortment of pot pies). I got a butcher's selection (an assortment of meats) sandwich, which was excellent because the meats were great. (This produced a sharp contrast with the deli sandwich I had yesterday.)

Upon entering Calgary, the first place I stopped was Canada Olympic Park, the site of the 1988 Winter Olympics. During the summer it's used for luge or skeleton practice, mountain bike courses, indoor skating practice, and miniature golf. I looked around the base camp level, drove around the base, and took a few pictures, but decided it frankly wasn't very exciting and certainly not exciting enough to pay for a lift ticket to go to the top and look around.

Heading to downtown Calgary, I parked by the outskirts of central downtown and started walking downtown, stopping by every hotel I saw to ask its availability and price for the evening. I wasn't going to caught last minute like the previous night! But the prices I kept getting were pretty steep: $120+ CAN for a single night.

In any case, when I hit the center of downtown (at just before 2pm), I realized I was hungry, looked around, and hopped into the James Joyce Irish Pub. Had a Guinness (beef) Pie (yet another place that sells meat pies) which was quite good and hearty (and hot, temperature-wise -- it really kept its heat). Also had a pint of Guinness, forgetting that I actually don't really like Guinness. It's just too thick. The place as a whole had a nice pub-like atmosphere; I liked it.

After a brief excursion east to pick up some walking maps of Calgary, I followed some suggested tours. The main street in downtown is the Stephen's Avenue walk, a car-less promenade with wide sidewalks, a number of historical plaques, many many commercial establishments (yet managing to be non-gaudy), and relatively few homeless/beggars. I liked it.

I also liked the city layout. I know it's not uncommon, but numbering Streets and Avenues systematically from the city center along with annotations like SE or NE makes figuring out where places are much easier.

Like Portland, they have a tram that's free if you're staying within downtown.

Calgary is rightly called the Texas of Canada, at least in the sense that I could see many preparations for an upcoming famous rodeo/festival called the Calgary Stampede. And there were a number of stores selling western garb. And besides, much of this part of the province is heavy into livestock and oil.

Anyway, during my walking tour I stopped by the information center. They had a single coin-operated computer connected to the Web. I wanted to use it for a while to view restaurant reviews and hunt for an inexpensive hotel but it felt weird so I asked the information center where the nearest internet cafe or kinkos/computerized copy shop was. It turns out there isn't one in central downtown! They gave me directions to one at the edge of (the dense walkable part of) downtown; a short free tram ride later and I was there.

And it turned out this "internet cafe" was just a coffeehouse with, again, a single coin operated computer. And this one was in use, so back I headed to downtown, planning to swing by the information center again later and plop in a few coins. Indeed, I did later make it back and quickly found an inexpensive hotel (Comfort Inn) just a fifteen minute drive from downtown and with free internet.

Anyway, at some point during the day I wandered around and found a nice chinatown. More like the LA chinatown than SF or Oakland, it was full of wide streets and short buildings. Judging by the restaurants, they have a large Vietnamese population.

Another cool feature of Calgary is raised tunnels. Calgary has bridges 15 feet above the ground connecting buildings downtown together. (Hence they are called the +15 walkway.) The network is quite connected; one can travel to most buildings downtown via these pathways, which sometimes pass through shopping malls in the interior of buildings. The point of them is obvious: people don't have to go outside during Calgary's bitterly cold winters.

They have a cute small (man made) island park in the river just north of downtown (Prince's Island). I actually revisited this, as you'll discover later in this narrative.

Another feature of Calgary that probably exists because people can't go outside for most the year is Devonian Gardens. This is a massive indoor garden (supposedly the largest in north america) on the upper levels of a building downtown. Very pretty, very relaxing. I saw more than one couple posing for wedding photos there. And, as you can tell, I went a little overboard with macro mode on my camera, but some shots came out quite well and I'm happy.

After exploring all this downtown and going to the information desk and their coin operated internet connection and researching and booking my hotel, I checked in and used its internet connection to look up restaurant reviews and Calgary events and plan my activities for the evening and following day. (I flew out in the early evening the following day.)

Much reading on chowhound later, I had a list of four restaurants that I considered the best or most distinctive of Calgary's offerings: the River Cafe, an elaborate expensive four-star dining experience; Cilantro, a slightly off-beat restaurant everyone seems to like; the Divino Wine and Cheese Bistro, an unusual restaurant providing an eclectic selection of international offerings; Caesar's Steak House, supposedly the best restaurant that reflects the area's prominence in the meat industry. (Interestingly, both Divino and Cilantro are owned by the same parent, which also owns the Buffalo Mountain Lodge where I ate on Day 1. This fact probably deserves another blog post discussing how they can succeed in managing a number of top-notch restaurants while most places have quality decreases as they grow.) Due to my lack of decision making skills, I decided (hehe) to try the visiting the restaurants from the north to the south and to eat at the first in which I could get a table on this Friday night.

The furthest north was the River Cafe, a restaurant whose emphasis on local ingredients and rumored difficulty in getting a table reminded me of Chez Panisse. It turned out this restaurant was the only commercial building on the island of Prince's Park! What a wonderful setting and place to be. And, surprisingly, when I found the cafe I wasn't turned away by the maitre'd for lack of a reservation; rather, the restaurant was closed. Apparently the heavy rains that flooded highway one on day one of my trip also flooded the river and washed out the small access bridge upon which the cafe gets food supplies from the city, so it's been closed for the last week. Well, at least I tried, and at least it makes an interesting story.

The next further south restaurant was Caesar's, and they had seating available. I ordered the (medium) rib eye steak and it came with a number of addition items: a salad (mostly iceberg lettuce, tasted a bit old), french onion soup (also not very good), and some garlic toast (quite good, very garlicy and really like garlic bread, but toasted to give it some extra crunch). After the salad and the soup, I was worried how bad my meal would be. But then I remembered a chowhound's advice that said this place served the best steak, in particular rib eye, of the multitude of steakhouses in Calgary, but nothing else here was worth eating. So my hopes were still high.

And they were not to be disappointed. I'm usually not a steak fan, but this steak was excellently cooked, moist and slightly pink on the inside, and the idle amount of fat/marbling. (I usually don't notice marbling in meats, but this time I did and I could tell it was perfect.) The steak also came with some funky baked mashed potatoes, much like a mashed potato that had it been baked until it had a solid/crispy outside but still a soft interior. A very nice contrast of textures. (Incidentally, the steak was a perfect size given the rest of the items. This fact was dumb luck since I ordered the 300 gram one without any idea, because I couldn't remember the metric-to-english conversation ratios.)

So what did I do after dinner? I came prepared! In my hotel room earlier I noticed the Calgary Jazz Festival was still happening this weekend and I'd jotted down the schedule and locations of all the events tonight; there were a number of them. Although I could make it to an official concert in a performance hall, I decided I'd rather see the nightlife by attending less elaborate productions in bars/restaurants/jazz clubs.

My first post-destination dinner was a restaurant whose name I don't remember on the east edge of downtown. (Incidentally, getting between these restaurants and the musical venues later in the evening was easy. I had paid for parking in a lot near the River Cafe and the company that runs that lot seems to run the majority of lots all over downtown. So the ticket stub I got for paying for evening parking I just kept with me as I transferred from one lot owned by this company to another. Very convenient.) I was a little hesitant to enter because I wasn't expecting a restaurant; I was expecting a bar or music club to be a venue for the jazz festival. But the flirty hostess did her job and affirmed I was in the right place and had me seated at the bar near the artists.

The jazz was pretty good though not what I traditionally think of as jazz. It was a quartet that included a vocalist and a guitarist; a little more rocky than expected but melodies were definitely jazz as were the sultry vocals. But what I remember most about this experience was not the music but rather the excellent glass of Italian pinot grigio I got from the bartender. I wish I knew its name.

As I was walking around downtown figuring out where to go next, I passed Murrieta's. It wasn't on my list of jazz festival venues, but the place was happening. I could hear music pouring out the second floor balcony, and people overflowing the stairs heading up to the place. So I went in, ordered a drink out of guilt (vsop brandy), and listened to some good rock music with great guitar work. This was actually the best music of the three I heard this night.

After finishing my brandy, I went to the cozy bar/lounge in the Marriott Calgary to catch the tail end of a jazz festival performance. This crowd was small but the band was fun and energetic. Again, mostly out of guilt for a free show, I ordered a drink: a caesar (because I didn't know what it was). Turned out to tomato juice, tobasco sauce, worcester sauce, vodka (or rum, I forget), with a little apple and lime juice and a stalk of celery throwing in for mixing. Decent, with quite a kick from the hotness; the alcohol was untasteable.

The band finished its set after about twenty minutes and packed up (it was after midnight), so I finished my drink and headed back to my hotel. I'd seen enough and had enough of Calgary and Calgary's nightlife for one day.

Perhaps surprisingly, I never visited the Calgary Tower -Calgary's analogue to Seattle's Space Needle- (because it was overcast most of Friday (day 7) and Saturday (day 8)).

But, what struck me the most as I went to sleep tonight was that I actually had "done Calgary." Aside from the museum (which I'd see tomorrow) and possibility visiting more restaurants, I'm happy that I understand the whole of what Calgary is and what they have to offer. (On the other hand, I lived in New York City for two months and didn't quite reach this feeling there.)

Trip to Banff: Day 6 (or, rushing around the rest of the Canadian rockies)

This is Thursday. The workshop ended early this morning with an interesting session in which people shared the unsolved problems in this field they thought were possible to solve and useful to have answers to. I took lots of notes and now have some ideas of future research directions in this area. :)

Since I wanted to spend all Friday exploring Calgary so I could have a little part of Saturday to wrap up Calgary before I flew out Saturday evening, this meant I had one day -Thursday- to do all of the Canadian rockies that I could. I'd already read some guidebooks and picked up tons of brochures at every opportunity, so I had a good idea of what there was, what I wanted to see, and what I could manage to see. Given this knowledge, I knew I could manage to do pretty much everything I wanted in one very busy day.

Below is the detailed narrative of everything I did. I took a lot of pictures along the way, and some of them actually include me! (I had previously forgotten how to set the timer on my camera, but remembered this morning to look up directions on the web. So I went a little overboard with timed pictures, taking them whenever I was somewhere and could find a flat surface on which to rest my camera.)

First I headed north to Lake Louise, which was a wonderful blue, conveniently close the road, and packed with tourists.

Second, I drove west into Yoho National Park and swung by the spiral tunnels. These didn't look cool at all -just two pairs of tunnels entering and exiting a mountain- but were neat engineering feats explained in detail through countless interpretative signs. In short, the original grade of the railroad through this area was a tremendously steep 4.5% and caused many problems (and good stories). The spiral tunnels are circular tunnels built into the mountains to reduce the grade: the trains enter and leave in nearly the same place in the mountain but at a lower altitude. The grade was reduced to 2.2% by this technique (which, mind you, is still quite steep by railroad standards).

I tried to go north to view the supposedly quite majestic Takakkaw Falls (Takakkaw means magnificent in Cree according the guidebook), but the road was closed due to remaining snow?! Yes, this was June!

At this point, I started thinking about trying to time lunch. I had a strong recommendation for a restaurant in a hotel back in Lake Louise that closed for lunch at 2pm, and wanted to make it. So I hurried along.

I drove a bit further into Yoho National Park and passed the town of Field. It was a (dying?) small old manufacturing and railroad town that appeared to not have changed in the last few decades.

A little past Field I found the Natural Bridges -another neat engineering marvel- where water has worn away the bottom of large rocks that cross to the river (to make, well, natural stone bridges).

Rushing back to Banff National Park for my intended lunch destination, I found I missed it by ten minutes. Oh well. But in the process of finding the hotel (which wasn't easy because my guidebook had the directions wrong) I found and photographed a very cute little village.

I did have a backup plan for lunch: a little deli that is supposedly quite decent in the strip mall in the center of town. The sandwich I had there was fairly good, primarily because of the good quality of the honey wheat bread with which it was made; the meat and cheese itself was relatively poor and tasteless.

One digression: Over the next couple days, after noticing them first at this deli, I observed many many stores sold meal pies (e.g., chicken pot pies, beef pot pies). Seems to be popular in Canada.

After lunch I headed north, with my intended final destination as the Columbia Icefield (glacier), a two-hour drive each way. On the way north and back south I stopped at many vista points and lookouts (more than six), including Crowfoot Glacier, Bow Summit by Pietro Lake, and Mistaya Canyon (not unlike Natural Bridges). I've labeled the pictures that I can actually identify where they were taken.

The drive north (along the Icefields Parkway) was pretty, passing through many forests, snow-tipped mountains, and winding rivers, and pretty nice in the sense that the road was very well maintained and had practically no cars. (And, as near I could tell, no police either. The rest of Banff definitely had a noticeable police presence enforcing the speed limit. But none were on the Icefield Parkway!) The drive was also nice in the sense that my car had cruise control -a feature my car at home does not have- so I could lay back and relax and look at the sights a little more than I would have been able to otherwise.

After many viewpoints I entered Jasper National Park and, a few kilometers later, found the Athabasca Glacier and the Icefields Centre. I knew I could pay and ride a big heavy-duty bus to the top of Columbia Icefield and look around, but I did that years ago and so wasn't that thrilled about doing it again. Instead, I hiked a bit up the Athabasca Glacier. It's one of the glaciers created by the "overflow" from Icefield and is conveniently close to the road, so the hike was short (although brutally cold and windy). And you wouldn't believe how many warning signs I had to walk by before getting to the small sliver of the glacier that the rangers monitor to make sure it won't collapse. But one item in the hike made me truly realize I wasn't in America. In America, despite all the warnings, they'd rope off all the safe areas and make it difficult to get to the possibly unsafe parts. Here all they did was put small cones every ten feet delimiting the boundary.

After the glacier and many photographs, I decided to wander the Icefields Center to see pictures of what I missed by not taking the bus to the icefield itself, and also to learn some about glaciers and icefields and whatnot. They had some pretty neat exhibits, especially showing how one can study how the earth has changed over time by examining layers in glaciers.

It was around 6pm by the time I was done. I had already decided to stay the night in a town called Canmore, a place with good restaurants just outside of Banff National Park on the way to Calgary. So I had a good two-and-a-half hour drive back south, stopping very rapidly at vista points (run! "okay, I saw it, photographed it, let's move on!"), back past Lake Louise, Banff, and out to Canmore. Once again, during this late drive I appreciated the fact that the sun sets very late.

Another item I appreciated during all this during was Banff's (very low power) park radio. (I could only get a reasonable reception within about 15 kilometers of the town of Banff (i.e., it didn't even cover a quarter of the park).) But I enjoyed it during some of the drives today, as well as some of my drives around Banff on days one and four. They had cute programs: stories about a bear wandering around the south side of Banff, tales about the dangers of scrambling (hiking steep slopes), radio plays promoting environmentalism, an interview with a woman that does bear population estimation and migration tracking, etc. The features repeated pretty often but were definitely fun in an old radio sugary but not saccharine kind of way.

A neat feature of the highways in the park that I meant to photograph but forgot was wildlife bridges. Much of the highways are fenced in on one side or both (to prevent high-speed collisions with animals) but there are occasional bridges over the road. The bridges are covered with lots of dirt and grass; some even have trees growing out of them. The slopes up to the bridges are very gradual. Knowing Canada's national park system (as judged by the radio station), they probably studied the wildlife migration corridors and placed bridges appropriately. Very cool and caring.

In any event, I made to Canmore and went to one restaurant that I'd previously researched that chowhounds seemed to love: Crazyweed Kitchen. (The other restaurant in Canmore they also loved was Valbella Meats, which I planned to go to (and did go to) the next day.)

Crazyweed Kitchen was a cozy place: only a dozen tables, one hostess/waitress (who was nice enough to chat and flirt with me a little throughout dinner), and one chef. I had a nice mixed green salad with a tangy dressing and an amazing fresh perfectly cooked salmon, alongside some nice creamy vaguely spicy corn and vinegary greens with sauteed shitake mushrooms. I know it doesn't sound like anything exotic, but the flavors were actually quite inspired and unusual (and good). I was quite pleased with my meal, and with my glass of white wine (I forgot what kind, but it was from one of the restaurant's selections of open bottles of good wines they wanted to use up).

After dinner (9:45pm), I started very rapid hotel hunting, beginning with inexpensive places that had internet connections. (I really wanted internet to help plan my Calgary activities for the next day.) The first place I went to had one vacancy: for a three bedroom suite. A little expensive... They referred me to another place, but that place had ceased allowing check-ins. Then, it was 9:55pm. I knew according to my guidebook that most hotels in Canmore closed the office at 10pm. So I rushed to a cheap place listed in the guidebook (without internet service) and got myself a room. (I knew it had vacancies because I drove by it on the way to the restaurant, so this last minute adventure isn't quite as risky as it sounds. But it was still a little scary and made me vow to find a hotel earlier for Friday night.)

Trip to Banff: Day 5 (or, finally my presentation)

Finally, the day of my presentation! I'd finished it last night and spent two breaks today rehearsing in my room. I felt ready.

And indeed I did fine. I was scheduled to go at the end of the most dense day of talks, with seven scheduled before mine. And I think my talk was appropriate for this slot. It wasn't conceptually new or deep but rather just a new application of some theories and some neat observations of what occurs in this context. Nothing complicated or hard to follow but still (hopefully) relatively interesting enough that people wouldn't be bored.

I got a few minor compliments on the talk. One person even said I used "just the right amount of animation," which I took as quite a compliment given how easy it is to underuse it in talks and how ugly powerpoint gets when it is overused.

The only part that bothered me about my talk is that I was antsy and picked up a can of coke to drink at the beginning of the talk and forgot to put it down! I held it during the whole talk! That's a little odd. I guess I could claim that mathematicians are now being sponsored by Coca-Cola?

Other than the presentation, I didn't do much. I didn't have the inclination to go anywhere and decided I should relax, partially to save up energy for my long day of exploring (after the conference ends) the following day. I called my parents and also planned my activities (running around the Canadian rockies) for the next day.

Of course, this blog entry would not be complete without a mention of food: lunch included carrot cake, breaded pork, mac and cheese; dinner included coq a vin, lasagna, and baked rice with tomato and cheese. All up to the buffet's usual reasonably good standards.

Trip to Banff: Day 4 (or, all of Banff in a day)

Today we had the afternoon free. I planned to see everything I wanted to see in Banff today in order to free up my Friday for other sights in the Canadian rockies. And, indeed, I succeeded in this goal of seeing everything I desired in Banff.

These pictures accompany this day's adventures.

After lunch (a basic cod dish, a basic beef dish, a good salad, and chocolate cheesecake to die for), I headed downtown and walked the length of the main street and a few side streets. The downtown is cute and very walkable. (Most tourists come in tour buses and therefore don't have cars.) The buildings are a wide assortment of styles built in the last hundred years but all looked clean and new. It was nice. There were also small plaques by many buildings describing when they were built and what they were originally used for. Them, and the mere fact of their existence, really demonstrate the flavor of the place.

There were many intriguing looking and sounding restaurants in downtown Banff, including a number of Texas-style steakhouses and many Swiss restaurants (including but not limited to fondue). The latter were especially tempting to me because we don't have many Swiss restaurants in the bay area. Sadly, one cannot go to a fondue restaurant alone and I wasn't planning on heading back toward the conference site early enough to find someone and convince them to go out to eat with me (even if I knew who I'd try to convince).

Downtown also had a nice indoor mall with lots of displays commemorating Canadian skiers (such as statues, historical signs, antique skies, and trophies). Not many malls in the U.S. have such character.

At the mall I exchanged what little money I had ($30) in U.S. dollars to Canadian currency. It's amazing that I survived so many days in Canada without doing this. I wanted to convert more currency so I wouldn't have to worry about where I was and how to pay for items at places that didn't accept Visa but none of the ATMs would take my card to withdraw money. This lack of money would come back to haunt me later...

I browsed in the local bookstore, which also reflected local and Canadian tastes and values. It gave me some books to add to my book queue. If one can judge a town by what it reads, this town definitely passes.

After ignoring some small museums, I hiked to the real Bow Falls viewpoint I'd missed yesterday. It was okay: pretty but really just as pretty as everything around Banff -- not exemplary.

By this point I had most of the energy baked out of me. The sun was straight over head all this time, and the temperature was in the 80s. I decided to do the rest of Banff exploration via car, partially for this reason and partially because the rest of the sights were much farther apart.

First on the list was the Cave and Basin, basically a hot spring. It, being a small smelly pool of water, was quite disappointing and certainly not worth the $4 admission. But I did get to watch an interesting short video here about how this hot spring caused the founding of the Banff National Park and the whole Canadian park system in general. It's quite a dramatic tale, with con artists, betrayal, forged signatures, and more.

Then I drove to Cascade Gardens, a small gardens with lots of what-was-meant-to-be streams. (See the pictures for what I mean here.)

The base of the Banff gondola (which goes to the top of Sulphur Mountain) was next. The base had a nice overlook of the river, but I didn't want to pay around $25 just to ride to the top and get to see yet more impressive landscapes. It'd seen enough impressive vistas of Banff and the surrounding countryside that another view didn't excite me. (Besides, I'd apparently ridden this gondola once when I was very young.) I thought briefly about hiking up and riding the gondola down but decided I didn't have the energy for the 3 mile-ish climb uphill. And I didn't have the time if I wanted to fit in more before dinner.

Then came the viewpoint at the bottom of Bow Falls. In addition to the falls -again, nothing impressive- I found a well-hidden restaurant. (See pictures.) What a neat location! (Sadly, I looked up the restaurant later and found it wasn't really any good.)

Finally, I visited the impressive Banff Springs Hotel, a massive mansion of a hotel the railroad built when it realized the Banff railroad stop was growing as a major tourist destination.

And one neat fact: many signs (and all government-erected ones) at all these tourist sights were in both English and French (though I heard a number of other European languages spoken on the streets of Banff).

Dinner was pretty satisfying at the end of the day: a breaded veal cutlet with tomato and melted cheese on top (good), a zucchini patty with sour cream (good), and a tortellini with tomato cream sauce (okay). Later in the evening I grabbed a locally brewed wheat beer from the conference room's refrigerator (only $2 -- a very good deal). It wasn't anything special but it did help accomplish its purpose: to help me relax and go to sleep easier and earlier in preparation for my presentation the following day.

Trip to Banff: Day 3 (or, an unintentionally long hike)

[This is written after my trip, from my notes and memory.]

This was yet another day in which I wasn't disappointed by the fact that I had free (to me) buffet food in the dining hall next door. (That is, if there was not free good food nearby, I'd be encouraged to go and explore Banff's many restaurants. But this lack of encouragement didn't bother me because the dining hall buffet was quite good.)

Today I got to eat chicken primavera on spaghetti, a salad with a really really good creamy cucumber salad dressing (which sadly never reappeared at the salad bar the rest of the week), pasta carbonara (good, not too creamy as some restaurants tend to serve it), and an assortment of good desserts. And, once again, I got to enjoy the tremendous view -- this time from sitting outside! The weather was like typically perfect California weather, in the 70s. Or, as the forecast here would put it: 22 degrees.

I've been pretty stressed these last few days preparing for my talk. I actually have never previously had to travel to a conference to give a presentation. This is my first! I feel a bit guilty, running off and hiding at every opportunity and working on my presentation rather than hanging out with other attendees during the brief 30-minute breaks.

To de-stress a little before going back to work in the evening, I left at around 4:30pm to take a short hike. Little did I imagine it would accidentally turn into a long hike. There are pictures that accompany this narrative of my long hike.

How did this transition from short to long occur? I planned to just walk to the Bow Falls vista (a ten minute walk), swing by part of downtown to look around, and then head home. But when I was nearing the vista, I saw a sign: Bow Falls Trail to the left, Viewpoint to the right. I took the trail, assuming (correctly) that it'd be more interesting and (incorrectly) that I could easily hit the viewpoint on the way back.

After walking for ten minutes without even seeing any falls, I found myself at the level of the river. Should I turn around or keep going, I wondered. I kept going. And going I went. Another ten minutes and I wondered where I was, and then realized I had some maps in brochures in my backpack. I figured out roughly were I was (but these maps didn't have any scale!) and decided to try to follow the trail when it veers left and rejoins a road. Then I'd be able to continue and see a vista point before following the road all the way around to the far side of town. I figured I might be able to do all that and fit in a little looking around town.

Boy was I wrong! The first problem was finding the trail veering left. There were lots of minor trails splitting off from the one I was on, but no signs. I'm not sure where they went; a few seemed to just fade away. I kept hiking assuming I'd find the real trail back to the road.

Eventually I'd followed my trail far enough that I realized I was out of the hills and in the valley and beginning a 10+ mile hike to another town. Turning around, I took the nearest veering and headed back to the road. This trail, too, split multiple times and I just headed uphill, knowing that the road was at the top of the hill. Eventually I got there, though I think the last two hundred feet ended up involving climbing a dried creekbed, not a trail.

Back at the road, I headed down to view the vista point, which was a "short hike from the road." It took me half an hour to get to that part of the road (bah: lack of scale on maps!), then the short hike was another 1.5 kilometers each way. I hiked it enough to realize the vista it approached wasn't as nice as some vistas I saw on my preceding hike, then turned around.

At this point it was 7pm. I'd hiked for 2.5 hours without making it entirely to either the falls overlook or the vista point. Dinner would close in half an hour; the Konane tournament started in an hour. I certainly couldn't follow the road around to town to look around; I was around 2 miles from the dining hall. If I booked it, I'd just make dinner in time. And I did book it, and I made it, and thus concludes my story of a short walk to a overlook that turned into a three hour hike in my nice shoes.

At round two of the Konane tournament tonight, and I found out my previous 2-and-1 record was beginner's luck. This round (against harder opponents), I went 0-3, sometimes losing by substantial margins. Oh well.

Trip to Banff: Day 2

[This is written after my trip, from my notes and memory.]

I woke up early in the morning to wander down to the lounge to have breakfast before the workshop began. They were having a continental breakfast, which they would have all week: pretty decent croissants and muffins and okay fruit, as well as an okay selection of cereals. The muffins and croissants were not the American-sized overly large variety, but were relatively cute and normal sized. The cereals I gradually decided I liked over the course of the week, especially the one I made by mixing uncooked oats with an almond-based granola. But the most surprising of all this breakfast stuff was the directions on how to cook scrambled eggs in the microwave. (Beat two eggs, add four tablespoons of water, cover tightly, and microwave for a minute.)

The day was pretty full of neat talks, but I won't bother blogging about obscure mathematics that most people reading this won't care about.

The Banff Centre (yes, British spellings of everything) has good buffet food, well above the level of traditional dorm cafeteria but below the level of Google. Lunch included a good jimbalaya, peas, home fried potatoes (which were done impressively well: nicely browned and crispy outsides yet soft and full cooked but not overcooked insides -- they must know they do this pretty well because I later noticed they actually have a tray of it at every meal), pita with cucumber and hummus, and southern fried chicken which was tasty but not greasy. Dinner was cajun catfish (sadly oversalted), zucchini sauteed in olive oil (this is impossible to mess up), dutch apple pie, and more.

The most noticeable item is the care for the health of the customers. In addition to the service-people wandering around looking to pour drinks and warn you when they're going to close the buffet, they had margarine with the rolls that emphasized they contained no partially hydrogenated oil or trans fats. Mind you, this is pretty impressive because it's hard in the States to find a butter substitute without partially hydrogenated oils. So the fact that they have it in Canada really is a sign that they care.

This complex and area is stunning -- examine the pictures of the dining hall and the view from it.

In the evening we had the first round of a Konane tournament. Konane is a pretty fun two-player game, sometimes called Hawaiian checkers, and quite reminiscent of peg solitaire. I went 2-and-1, which quite surprised me given that I'd only played it once or twice in the past. But I believe the same is true of mostly everything at this conference.

Why a Konane tournament? It's because this is a conference on games, and Konane is an interesting game for which there are no experts and no known good strategies or good openings. The tournament is meant to get people to start thinking about this game and develop some results.

Trip to Banff: Day 1

[This is written after my trip, from my notes and memory.]

My trip to Banff to present a paper at the Combinatorial Game Theory Workshop started off well: when I arrived at the airport I found I had been promoted to executive class!

I wasn't that impressed with executive class. Sure, the seats were larger and more comfortable, but then I'm not a large person and don't need a large seat. There is no space for storing items beneath the seat in front of you, so you have to get up often to the overhead bins to exchange books and papers and the like.

The glass cups for beverages did feel nice. But lunch was poor. (This is with Air Canada.) Lunch included a bad rice dish (couldn't finish), some tasteless (supposedly gouda) cheese and crackers, a salad, some grilled chicken strips, and an oily roasted red pepper. I wouldn't have minded passing on the whole thing; in fact, regular class normally doesn't get lunch on this 2.5 hour flight. However, regular class did get lunch this time of some pre-made sandwiches due to some complicated food-service strike reasons. (I think the people that load snacks were striking so the airline needed to get some sort of food and ended up buying everyone sandwiches.) Those sandwiches probably were better than my executive lunch!

So in the end I don't see a convincing reason to ever fly executive class after this experience. There are no additional benefits I really appreciate. (On the other hand, I did have access to the executive class lounge in the airport. However, I went through security before realizing the lounge was before security and was too lazy to go out again, so I didn't get to experience it.)

When I landed, I had to go through customs. This was a little fun, since I brought a ziplock bag of blueberries on my trip and hadn't managed to finish them on the plane. So I declared them, went through the importing fruits-and-vegetables line, made the official have to track down the rules for importing blueberries from California, and he decided that I couldn't import them. Then, after I decided to stand there and attempted to finish them (and offered some to the official, who said he had to decline), he looked at the size of the ziplock and just made me promise to eat them all and not throw any away, and sent me on my way. heh.

I picked up my rental car -a nice green Chevy Optra with an amazing turning radius- and headed west toward Banff. It was raining very hard. As I drove, I noticed:
* Outside of Calgary everything is very green. Green fields and lots of evergreens in forests. The landscape is not rolling hills but would better be described as plains, sometimes angled.
* The plains have occasional cows. This was much nicer than the packed herds of cows one can see off of I-5 in California that stand densely in a dirt field (because they'd eaten all the grass).
* Calgary itself has an adult store in every other strip mall, surprisingly well advertised. (Do they need them more during the winter? Is Canada just more accepting of these types of stores?)
* Funny signs: (1) KFC sells baby back ribs. (2) A highway interchange with a sign a few hundred feet before it: "Important Intersection Ahead"
* The mountains on the way into Banff were stunning, especially one spot in which fog was filling a valley between two mountains and the clouds had just parted to let a ray of sunlight through and strike the valley. I pulled over on the highway to take a picture. Sadly, I discovered that although I had charged my camera batteries the previous night, I had neglected to take them out of my charger and put them in camera! And the charger was buried in my luggage. So I missed with photo opportunity. *sigh*

Transcanada highway 1 was closed for flooding due to the amazingly heavy rain, so I had to detour. But this wasn't much of a problem, just another mild surprise on this day of traveling.

After arriving and checking into my room -a single, much like a hotel room, that shares a bathroom with an adjacent room-, I plugged in my laptop, booted up chowhound, and started investigating what restaurants in Banff are any good. Half an hour later, I was on my way to the restaurant in the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, a restaurant known for Albertan/Canadian cuisine (an emphasis on meat). While the lodge was easy to find, the restaurant was harder. There were no signs advertising it. It was unannounced, quietly adjoined to the lobby inside the main building. The place was truly a lodge: everything made of heavy woods, and with a fireplace. I ordered a plate with elk (like a strip steak but milder) and venison (like broiled filet mignon, but tougher). It came with a tomato relish (that was so strong it dominated everything, so I pushed it to the side and ignored it), asparagus, a single carrot, and a few potato chunks. The dinner was a nice adventure in game meat, but nothing pleased me that much and I felt it wasn't worth the money (~$32 US). I also passed on the wine after flipping through the impressive (30+ page) list -- too expensive for me, especially since I didn't see anything that I knew I'd like and would match the meats.

On the way home, at almost ten pm, I was struck by how the sun hadn't quite set yet. It didn't occur to me that this would happen (Canada being at a higher latitude), and it was actually slightly unnerving. More on that in a later blog post.

Interesting Articles: July 5-10 2005

* Explaining Differences in Twins. This article proposes that genomes change significantly over time within an individual. While the article is short on details, especially on whether they mean the DNA actually changes or whether the activation pattern does (the latter is obvious; the former is implied by the article, and is an intriguing proposal). (New York Times)
* Many articles on Teflon (all on the same page -- scroll down for more). All sorts of stuff, ranging from health effects, discovery/invention of, manufacturing, chefs' opinions, etc. (San Francisco Chronicle)
* I'm the Boss, and I Say No Lentils, on the eccentricities of chefs. (New York Times)
* Just a Minute, Boss. My Cellphone Is Ringing, on cell phone rules at work. (New York Times)
* Out With the Old Phone, in With the Cash, on places to sell/donate old phones. Posted here for future reference. (New York Times)
* Camera sees behind objects. i.e., neat image processing trickets can infer how objects not facing the camera appear. (Technology Research News)

Interesting Articles: June 26 - July 4 2005

* To Catch a Thief. i.e., a freakonomics-esque approach to reducing crime. (New York Times)
* Remembrance of Things Future: The Mystery of Time. i.e., a discussion of physicists' opinions on time travel. Only gets interesting starting on page 3 with the section beginning "A Brief History of Time Travel." (New York Times)
* Crisp, Complex and Refreshing: a review of American pale ales. (New York Times)
* Calories May Not Count in Life Extension. i.e., calorie restriction isn't all it's cracked up to be -- its role is mediated by changes in nutrional distribution. (Science News)