On being a traveling salesman of science…

When my advisors (a combination of current and past ones) suggested that I get on the “2 weeks, 5 cities” tour, I was initially very excited.

As it turns out, however, they were not talking about an all-expenses paid tour of Asia and America’s best nightlife spots.

For mild entertainment and posterity value, a few frackload of random tidbits gleaned over the past 10 days and 25,000 miles (counting):

Boston is a nice city. Somewhat nicer than I imagined (was perhaps one of the only major US city I had never been in). At least in the middle of July, when the sun is warm and rain had apparently stopped pouring, just in time for my arrival there. But weather concerns apart, it feels like one of a rare breed of US cities, where you can live (fine) without a car. Which automatically puts it toward the top of my book. It also has lots of nice tree-lined avenues with cute little houses, and plenty of coffeeshops with semi-witty names and lovely US-style breakfasts (baaaacon…) that nearly make up for the filtered sock juice they call coffee…

Coincidentally, and with no bearing on the above statement of appreciation: Everybody in Boston is a 20-something upper-middle-class white person who only wears pastel polo shirts. Really: everybody. Even Asian people there are white. And they wear pastel polo shirts. On their way to one of the 259 Ivy League universities within walking distance of Fenway park.

I am told there are black people living in Boston too.


Upon confirmation, my sources insisted that they really meant African-American, not Indian (Indians are also white in Boston, but some of them do wear white short-sleeves instead of pastel polo shirts).

In between a lot of half-mumbled droning and powerpoint pr0n, centered around the life and death of proteins, worms, projectile vomit-inducing bacteria and many others, I did learn a couple cool things.

Did you guys know that the differences in some pathways of circadian cycles, from one individual to the next, have been scientifically linked to sleep dephasing issues? In Time Magazine-talk: Science has proved that there is such a thing as “morning-people” and “evening-people”. I know, it’s neat, isn’t it.

In fact, all that revolves around circadian cycles, and the incredible chemistry and mathematics involved in creating multiple near-perfect body clocks, each running on their own period, is quite awesome and fascinating.

That being said, scheduling a talk on circadian cycles in the middle of a hot Summer afternoon, following half a day of presentations and one heavy american lunch, is as close an attempt at humour as one may get in such places.

If you have no idea what that paragraph above was about, even after reading this: congratulation on most likely going through High School without getting beaten up every week after PE.

Guess who the computer at Kansai International Airport selected as the lucky winner of a voucher for a once-in-a-lifetime, super-extra-fun, “additional security controls and full body check before boarding” prize.

Guess who, out of a rough 50 speakers presenting their work along the week, had the honour of giving the very last presentation of the last day of the conference, hot on the tail of a mere 8 hours of talks.

Hint: those were both the same person.

I am still not quite sure what miraculous circumstances were involved in yours truly not being booed off the stage of Boston University’s School of Biomedical Engineering Sciences. But the favoured hypothesis revolves around liberal use of the mesmerizing “blow up” transition effect in his Keynote presentation.

My one and only regret about the patent-pending “chocolate pretzel” finger food made available in the conference rec room: not bringing back any, so I can present them to the next person who dares criticising British food. Say all you want about the blandness of lamb in mint sauce: no sane Britton has ever willfully tried to make food by dipping a bread-like substance in salt, then chocolate.

I am still open to the idea that the whole thing was an industrial mistake (“Damn, we completely forgot to use unsalted pretzels for the chocolate batch”) unloaded at competitive prices to cost-conscious conference caterers.

Around the top of the List of People Your Do Not Want As Your Neighbour on a 12-Hour Flight: 1) Morbidly obese North-American man with lax body hygiene standards. 2) Bratty 12-year-old kid on serious Ritalin withdrawal with no conception of personal space boundaries. 3) Japanese salaryman drowning his existential fear of death (aka looming retirement to a life at home with his wife) in mini-bottles of cheap red wine and lukewarm beer, drank as fast as JAL hostesses will bring them, before taking on the task of becoming your best friend by asking you the same 5 questions a dozen times each.

Great thing about being on the 6-flights-in-7-days program, is that it is perfectly possible to enjoy all of the above, and still have room for a couple boringly normal flights, merely spent trying to find the best way to fit your knees under your chin, while seriously suspecting your seat’s back of being less than 90º in so-called “upright” position.

Northwest sucks. Tracey (and Co) rules!

Good to know: when they screw up your domestic NRT-KIX connection and leave you stranded in a closing airport at 9pm, Northwest Airlines will give you the option of riding Shinkansen (the following day) at their expense. As for accommodation: you better have awesome friends living in Tokyo, or hope that the weather is warm above the sidewalks of Shinagawa station.

Also good to know: JR counter guys will not, unless specifically asked, give you a receipt for your overpriced 16,000 yen Nozomi + Airport shuttle ticket. You will usually realise that somewhere halfway between Tokyo and Osaka, shortly before you also realise that the last ticket gate eats all your tickets, leaving you with absolutely no proof whatsoever that you ever rode shinkansen on that day, and a very useless Northwest refund claim form.

To my lovely Bostonian who described Boston Summer as an object of fear, on account of unbearable heat and stickiness: do not visit Kyoto, Tokyo or Singapore during the Summer. Ever.

Oddly enough, the extra couple degrees of Singapore weather aren’t so tough, when experienced from a luxury condo overlooking the residence’s 24h olympic swimming pool and door-to-door taxi service to the convention center downtown. I always knew it would pay off one day, sharing a couple school years with the future masters of the finance world (the smart ones: those who still have a job today).

Running one of the largest worldwide conference in your domain and requiring from your speakers that they run their slides exclusively through “the presentation rooms’ laptop […] equipped with Windows XP SP3 and Microsoft PowerPoint”… makes me both extremely irritated and smugly satisfied that I have moved on to another domain ever since.

For no good reason I can think of, I am absolutely, utterly, in love with Singlish… “And if these not fit, you bring them back tomorrow lah. Can can lah!

Leave a Reply