Telecommuniculturey

High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Shameless Provincial Flirting: The Halifax Report, days 1 & 2

According to google maps, it's 2,608 km from the Lord Nelson Hotelin Halifax to Telecommuniculturey HQ, estimated driving time, 1 day, 2 hours. It's saying something about my deep and inevitable love for Halifax that I even want to talk about Halifax given that I am now entering into hour 15 (update: now in hour 18 [final travel time: 23 hours for a 2.5-hour flight]) of my time in Canuckian airports and it appears that by the time I arrive home, assuming no further shenanigans (and I'm not assuming that by any stretch of the imagination), I could have driven from point A to point B.

So, J and I were maritime bound for the SMBE Annual Meeting. After my traditional nuit blanche on Saturday, cursing NCBI, dbSNP, and all its evil works, we met up at scenic O'Hare International, scored the "Economy Plus" rock star seats (without paying the upgrade costs), and were on our way. The good luck associated with the lack of flight-related drama continued as we completely failed to die in a flaming auto crash, despite the fact that the driver was doing 120 kph in a torrential downpour.

After some small confusion about our rooms, we were assigned two that were exactly what we wanted, up in a sort of semi-private corner of the 9th floor. I was blown away by the view from my window of the Public Gardens until I saw the view from J's room, which happened to be the rooftop beer garden of Your Father's Moustache (something weird is going on with that website at the moment, but I'm hoping it's temporary). We tried to be good little nerdlingers and see if it was still possible to check in for the conference, but we'd just missed the end of the opening night festivities. (In all earnestness, a shame. I'd have liked to see the opening lecture, "Continents, consumption and consumers: genetic signatures of human migration.")

Due diligence done, we headed moustache-ward. Along the way, we saw and saluted a pirate in front of Robbie Burns, as one does. In the hall leading up to YFM, we saw a flyer for the Haunted Hike of Halifax and said, more or less simultaneously, "We have to do that." Also, being scientists, we intuited that the flyer's indication that the tour departed nightly from in front of the Burns statue explained the presence of pirates. You see, we were still smart at that point, our brains having not yet been eaten. Atop the 'stache, we enjoyed some absofreakinglutely kick ass fish and chips, fine fine beer, and equally fine desserts. (I had a chocolate truffle cheesecake that was, as advertised, actually truffle-y, not just chocolatey. And then this killer brownie thing.) We called it a relatively early night in the interests of Og no face planting in the dessert and/or falling off the roof.

Monday morning dawned a bit overcast, but by the time we emerged from Smitty's, our bellies full of much-needed diner breakfast, complete with crack-laden breakfast potatoes, the sun was shining and it had warmed up considerably enough that I knew I'd need to make a lunch-time run to a drugstore for knee-highs (Og packed at about 8:30 AM and left the house not long after; I suppose sie would like a pat on the head for remembering hose at all, but The Other was not in the mood to reward behavior that involved wearing full-on pantyhose underneath pants.) In the morning, we registered and picked up our superior swag bags (which actually contained pens, something that seems never to have occurred to ASHG, which also routinely saddles us with bags perhaps appropriate to carrying codpieces, but not much else). We sat in on a session about the genetics of domestication, which had a great paper on dogs and another on barley (with important implications for beer).

After the first round of morning sessions, we enjoyed the goodies provided during the coffee break (and, hello, coffee, juice and decent pastries reliably available during the coffee break? sweeeeeeet). From there, we headed to another session on tools for annotating and working with high-throughput data sets. The tools actually seem worthwhile and as if they work, which is, of course, more than we can say for NCBI on both counts. By lunchtime, we were trying to adjust to such competence and practicality in the field, and we were ready to run my, by now quite urgent, hosiery errand after having quite good food (albeit food of dubious Mexicanity) at a Mexican restaurant in the building next door to YFM.

The second of the afternoon sessions were for the graduate student award competition, and most of them were quite good: solid, important research and well presented. I admit that I was looking forward to taking the short cut to this paper about chimps having more fast-evolving genes than humans, as I've only had the chance to do a cursory read so far. The presentation was good, but I still have some concerns about the data included. The conservative approach is almost always the right one, but in this case, it's most likely to cut out genes that are genuinely evolving rapidly in humans. Still, nice papers overall.

Monday night was one of our scheduled fancy schmancy dinner nights. Our destination was Onyx, also directly across from the Lord Nelson (you could totally live at the Lord Nelson, were it not for the tragic lack of free wireless or other internet in the rooms). We had been attracted by the great rating, but worried that we were not nearly hipsters enough for this place. As you can see, the website is . . . well . . . just completely silly. Fortunately, the restaurant is not. We were both struck with an immediate need to fondle the accoutrement, from the textured silk napkins (which you could actually buy, I assume, on the hotel bathrobe principle: Everyone was taking them anyway) to the leather table runners to the real cork binders for the wine list. It was also soothingly dark and not loud (despite being on the busiest street in Halifax) (two nonnegotiable requirements for Og and J) with funky but not unpleasant music. Our server did warn us that on Fridays and Saturdays, it was strictly animal noises and whipping, so we'd come on a good night. We sucked down a caipirinha (me) and a fancy mojito-y thing (BSD) like juice as we perused the menu.

They had a prix fixe menu that, unfortunately, seemed to exclude some of the must-have appetizers. The server laughed in her friendly Canuckian way and assured us that we could have any appetizer we wanted, there was just a small extra charge for a few of the others. Rock star. We started with oysters on the half shell to share (we do not have a problem and we can stop any time we want to). I then had escargot served in mushroom caps with the most interesting sauce: kind of a mexican crema and a very light green sauce that was not quite salsa verde, but had a pleasant kick. It's not that I object to escargot as a vehicle for butter and massive amounts of garlic, but this was an interesting, very tasty, and new to me preparation. I definitely needed selections from the varied and delicious bread basket to sop up the sauces, too. J had the duck, which was sublime: It was a lesson to every dry, stringy duck slathered in nasty, jam-like plum sauce on what they should be: Perfectly done meat, not greasy in the least, with just a hint of delicately sweet sauce, all wrapped in light, flaky pastry.

For the main course, I had the seafood cannelloni. The shells were an excellent cross between a silky flour tortilla and freshly made pasta. The chipotle in the dough was smoky overall, but there was also a nice, sharp fresh chile flavor that lightened up the creamy sauce and the cheese accompanying the seafood. As for the seafood itself, it was fresh, well-prepared, and had distinct textures and flavors—no mishmash of puréed seafood and ricotta here. J had the cornish hen, which was a beautiful fusion of curry and molé. Accompanying the main courses, we scored the last bottle of the Diemersfontein 2005 Pinotage from South Africa. The cork was giving our server some gyp, which she was altogether too embarrassed about (it happens to the best of us). For dessert, we had the chocolate hazelnut mousse pyramid (me) and the creme brulée trio (J). Mine was the only thing less than great (a little on the pasty side), although it was still quite good. Judging from the inhalation of the plate as a whole, I take it that the professor had no such complaints with his dessert with which he also had a local ice wine that he enjoyed very much.

After dinner, we decided to change out of our finery and walk off some of the dinner on the water front. Based on the helpfully provided maps in our swag bags, we intuited that if we walked away from the conference, we'd be heading for water. On the way, we passed by at least three stores that I needed to check out. At the waterfront, we consulted a directory and headed for the most sticky-outy of the businesses, most of which are clustered at the north end (we and the Lord Nelson were at the south end). Along our walk, we met a very sweet rottweiler doggie and his owner, witnessed other, possibly inebriated, people trying to run up to the top of this "wave" statue," and decided that we needed to come back to visit Cow's at some point during the week. We made it already to the end by the casino before heading back south in search of a place to sit and have a drink. Most of the waterfront was rolling up its sidewalks by then (Monday night, after 10 PM), and so we headed back in the vague direction of our hotel. We came across a place called the "Golden Triangle" (not much of a web presence, it seems). We sat in the bar area, but three steps up from that was a proper restaurant, and another three up from that, an area with live music. On the able suggestion of the bar tender, I had a Propeller Bitter and, later, I did a good deed by taking the freshly pulled pint of guinness left by my neighbor whose cab had finally arrived.

Shortly after we'd come in, two guys came in, one from Wales and one from Manchester. Although they'd clearly been drinking beforehand, they got in under their own power and, for about 5 minutes, seemed fine. They ordered a couple of guinnesses as well, and then in record time, the Welsh guy was singing at the top of his lungs and pounding the bar, much to the embarrassment of his pal. Nothing more eventful than that happened, but we were somewhat baffled how he'd gone from able to walk under his own power to that hammered that quickly.

Anyway, we settled up our tab and really were virtuously heading back to our hotel when the exterior of a particular bar caught our eye. We then noticed that it was called the Press Gang, which we found amusing. We were peering inside and making mental notes for later when a man nearby said, "Don't be shy, go on in!" Not wishing to be impolite Americans, we did. As we sat down, the bartender said, "Just so you know, we're closed." We apologized and started to get up. He looked scandalized and said, "Oh, no, I can give youse a drink! Sit on down." How very Canadian. I had an IPA at his suggestion and didn't regret it (although IPAs are not usually among my favorite beers). J spelunked around their scotch list and astutely noted that they had real (well, as real as one can get nowadays, which is realer than the pernod one gets in the states) absinthe. The sazerac light bulb went on over our heads and we asked the bartender if he'd ever heard of one. He said no, but dutifully wrote down the recipe we tried to provide.

On that note, we did finally make our way back to the Lord Nelson, obtained some tasty carbonated caffeinated beverages from the vending machines, and so to bed.

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