Report from Cancun

June 13th, 2006 by Potato

After 3 days of begging, pleading, threatening with the hotel to let us use the wireless network since the free internet in our rooms was out, they finally realized that they might be responsible for a mass scientist internet addiction suicide pact if they didn’t open it up, so I’ve finally got some internet access. It’s only in the lecture rooms and the immediate area though, so I won’t be checking my email much. I’ll try to write a few in my room and cut/paste when I come down to the talks. Also, there’s a good chance my webserver will die towards the end of the week, and I won’t be able to get it back up until Monday morning, so be patient if the site disappears!

Notes on the trip:

Day 1:

That was the fastest I’ve ever been through security in Toronto. They had me take my laptop out of my bag as usual so the thieves could identify me, but then never even did a swipe test for explosives, let alone trying to get me to turn it on and all that jazz that eats up time. The guy in front of me had a huge camera case with like 24 different lenses, and the swipetest lady had to get them all, so after he packed up she just walked off on her break. I’m left standing there wondering if I can just pack up and go or if someone else is going to come test my laptop, and maybe look in my shoes and anus like they did in Washington, but they just waved me through.

I found Stephen King’s the Dark Tower part 3 in the airport book shop and bought it (my local Chapters only seems to stock 1, 2, 4 and 6, and I want to read them in order). I ended up starting into Sabriel (Garth Nix) on the plane instead (it looked easier to read in turbulence), and so far it’s been really engaging. I met my supervisor at a breakfast place in Pearson, which was good because part of my terror at having to take an international flight was doing it all on my own. It was good for him too because he hadn’t read the instructions on what to do once we got into Mexico, so I guided him through that part.

The plane ride wasn’t very good. We had about 3 hours of mild turbulence (on a 4 hour flight). Not so much that people were hitting the ceiling, but enough that I was really glad the people beside me slept the whole way and didn’t order any drinks. Oh yeah, and the seatbelt light was on the whole time. Most people ignored it though, including the family that had been split up in front and behind me. The mom and the ~1 year old screaming hellspawn were in front of me, and the dad and the jackrabbit ~4 year old were behind me. So for most of the ride this baby is just wailing its head off and this kid behind me is kicking the seat, and the two parents are stumbling back and forth trading off duties, while the airplane shakes and shudders…

It’s not a new idea, but there really should be a law against taking infants on planes (the kicking was less annoying than the screaming, and it only affected me, whereas nobody likes hearing a wailing baby on a plane, and they almost all wail). I know, I’m biased against air travel in the first place, but really, your infant who can’t speak and won’t remember any of what happens to it will not really get a whole lot out of your beach vacation – dump them at the grandparents, or a wet nurse or whatever it takes and go away yourselves if you must, but for the love of god don’t bring them on a plane unless you absolutely must (for instance, when emigrating one-way and only once). Remember, this is from a guy who generally likes kids (there was actually a cute moment where I crossed my eyes and the baby in front of me went all “blurgggle hehe!”): if you bring your baby on a plane and it cries for more than 90 continuous minutes, I will take it from you, and wring its little neck (if I’m feeling merciful; if not I’ll throw it out and leave you with the decision of whether or not to jump after it). That, or put them in a separate (mostly) sound proofed section. E.g.: move the galley section up a few rows from the very back, and then in the tail cone you can stick a dozen cheap seats for babies and their families. It’s also conveniently close to the washrooms!

Anyhow, we got to Mexico and there was a relatively long line at immigration. When we finally got up, they scanned our passports, stamped them, stamped the immigration forms we filled out on the plane, and sent us on our way without saying a single word to us.

Our flight number was up on a baggage carousel, so I sat at that for almost half an hour with no sign of our luggage. In the end, it turned out we had spent so long in the immigration queue that our bags had been taken off the carousel and put in the unclaimed luggage section. From there it was a smooth ride through customs, they just asked where we were coming from and sent us through with nothing to declare. It wasn’t quite that simple, actually: the Mexicans have a fairly elegant way of selecting people for random screens. You press a button below a traffic light: if the green light comes on, you walk out of the airport. If the red light comes on, you have to empty your bags. I don’t know if it actually makes it random in a fair way, or if it just provides that illusion to travelers while someone behind the scenes chooses the light based on the usual mix of racial profiling, behaviour, appearance, and a smidgen of good old fashioned randomness.

Checking into the Gran Melia wasn’t too bad, the guy who helped me was actually from Scarberia, though that didn’t leave much to talk about aside from “Hey, we’re both from Canada… ok, can I have my room?”

Unfortunately, once I got up here it was a different story: there is no internet access. The free in-room data ports are here, but they’re just not actually connected to anything (we have two dataports, so I theoretically didn’t even need to bring my networking stuff to get both of our computers working). There’s wireless access in the lobby (which does barely sneak up here with one bar of service), but it requires a login that runs at a steep $5 (US) for 15 minutes. That’s $20/hour, and likely over $200 for the week if I were to use the internet as I had planned when I got here (I was going to use Skype to call home, I had a bunch of emails I had put off writing, I was going to look up some papers by someone presenting here). I might break down and check my email in a few days for 15 minutes… but that’s really excessive pricing to begin with, let alone when there’s a big conference here (ok, a small conference; slightly larger than a large symposium). There are a lot of scientists who brought computers hoping to get some work done in the off hours (or even just email each other after the talks while the ideas are still fresh). At ISMRM when similar problems arose, they brought in a few email stations: just open-access computers for people to check their webmail at. A time limit kept them from being monopolized (and the hard stares of a hungry crowd behind the users), and they were completely free.

Anyhow, the room itself is pretty nice: marble in the bathroom, the beds look decent (though we had to order more pillows since they’re really flat; plus Mexico has a smaller double bed than we do). The décor is good (for a hotel), and we have our own private balcony to soak up the sun. There is air conditioning (but not in the girls’ room!), and it’s about adequate. It’s definitely cooler in here than out there, but it’s running on high and making a lot of noise just to keep up. I’d say it’s about 22 C now that the sun has gone down. Comfortable enough, but hardly cold (which the noise would make you think).

Day 2:

The A/C finally caught up overnight, and we woke up to a room at a lovely 19 C. The talks today weren’t very good: one of the biggest problems was that so many scientists seem to need to cue themselves off of their slides, and the room is set up with the screen and lecture in opposite corners, so you look at it from a pretty oblique angle from the podium. It also makes laser pointing difficult. Unfortunately, scientists seem to be not only completely ignorant of the basics of personal hygene, but also the concepts of how microphones work and contrast. We had a few people come up to the mic, test it, then turn around to read their slides and speak like that, and no one could hear them, so the poor hotel tech guy had to run up and physically place the microphone in front of their faces. Then one guy just didn’t take the hint and turned around a few more times, out of the way of the mic again. It wasn’t too bad though, since his talk was terrible (starting with the illustrious title of “the proper use of statistics on the field of bioelectromagnetics” – we thought it would be a basic tutorial on parametric and non-parametric stats, perhaps with some scathing examples of bad stats published in BEMs recently… instead it could have been summarized with one slide that said “Do good stats, it’s important.”). People also had terrible presentations prepared, with no concept of contrast for readability. One guy had an abstract background that basically looked like the sun in one corner with a deep blue background. So a whole quarter of the screen was white/yellow (with yellow streaks at that since it was kind of starbursty), and the text was… yellow. Another guy had a picture in the background of what looked like a lake on a cloudy day, so you have some very white sky for the whole top half, and some pale blue water (reflecting the clouds) on the bottom, with nearly invisible white text on top of it. You can tell he never even looked at it for a practice session, since he was trying to just read the screen word-for-word, and could barely make it out himself, after walking up to the screen (which also prompted the A/V guy to run up and move the mic for him).

I’m not looking forward to my talk tomorrow too much with this setup…

Anyhow, something else I forgot to mention is that the toilets here are pretty strange: the flusher is sort of spring loaded so there’s resistance when you move it, but you only have to move it a tiny bit for it to suddenly go bang and flush. It’s a little odd.

Day 3, morning:

My god, they *both* snore.

Day 3, later:

So last night I just couldn’t sleep: I had my talk and I was somewhat nervous about it, and both of my roommates were snoring. AL was snoring with a low, constant wheeze that was just a bit louder than the air conditioner and my earplugs could compensate for. I could have slept through it, however, since it was nice and regular… if not for the added harmonies of CC, who has a terrible, world-ending grunt/gasp snore that is very loud and very irregular. Sometimes, he would snore so loud he even woke himself up.

I decided I just couldn’t sleep through that (though if I managed to get asleep, I could probably stay asleep through the snoring), so I grabbed my book and read in the lobby until about 4 in the morning, when I was finally sleepy enough to give it another go. It still took a while after that, but I eventually got the hang of it and managed to sleep – almost slept right through breakfast, too.

The days here are *long*, starting at 7 am and going until almost 6 with the talks, with social events to follow. I was pretty nervous and sleepy for my talk, and now I have virtually no recollection of what I said. I know I left out some points I came up with the night before based on the talks of the first day (no true replication efforts in BEMs, etc.), but not what I actually said. The room was packed, right to standing room only. Ok, it wasn’t quite that bad, since people vastly prefer aisle seats, there were plenty of spare seats in the middle for the people who did end up standing. Nonetheless, it was a daunting sight. Everyone says I did okay though, and despite coming close my voice never actually cracked (but my pointing was uselessly shaky).

It’s over now, and I had a big plate of nachos and cucumbers for dinner (which go together surprisingly well).

After the social event, a few of us had another drink at the hotel bar and then decided to go for a night swim, but security kicked us out of the pool, so we went to the beach, where I lost my room key. Then another security team stormed the beach blowing whistles (it’s shark season, and the tide was going out with a fury), so we went back in. On the way back, we saw a roach that was almost 3” long – good times were had by all.

Back in the hotel I realized not only did I lose the room key, but I also lost the gift Alex had entrusted to me from the BEMs society for his sponsorship. I also found out that something in the water had eaten at or caused an allergic reaction with my feet and legs, because I was just covered in tiny little red bumps. Fortunately they don’t itch much.

But yuck!

Day 4:

It took a little bit to fall asleep last night with the two lumberjacks beside me, but I managed to get a decent sleep… by sleeping through the morning plenary and barely making it to the talks I did want to see (it still wasn’t a very good lay in, at least for me: I was still out the door by 10 am). The bumps on my feet have gotten bigger and started to itch; there’s one on my hand too. I’m suddenly afraid I didn’t pack enough Benedryl (I’m already down to 5, with 3 and a half days to go).

I haven’t complained much about the hotel, so I suppose it’s time to remedy that. There is no concept of hot water here, which I find odd given the fixtures all have two taps; must be imported from the States then. The showers, even with just the ostensibly hot tap on, are not even luke warm. The cold tap is only marginally colder. It’s made showering somewhat of a pain, especially since it’s so hot and sticky that I take two showers a day. Sooner or later I’m going to have to shave or they won’t let me on the plane, and that’s going to be a bitch with cold water.

Almost everyone who ate the beef last night got sick (except my supervisor, who we theorize might be sick on the inside, but too drunk or large to actually take notice). We all packed tiny travel bottles of hand sanitizer, but suddenly today everyone remembers to carry them around with them :)

The maid staff comes by 3 times a day, and it’s getting annoying. They move our stuff around, even if no one’s moved anything since the last maid moved stuff. They come in in the mornings and make our beds like you would expect a normal hotel to do, putting the icky top patterned sheet back on the bed, and the coloured pillows that you’re not actually supposed to sleep on. Then in the afternoon they stop by for just a few minutes to move our stuff and put out another room service menu. I think we have 6 in the room now; I’m surprised they don’t just wallpaper the room with them. Later in the evening they stop by again and take the icky top sheet off the beds, put away the covered pillows, and lay down a chocolate mint. It’s all very superfluous.

It’s an extremely expensive hotel for all of this, and they employ Dark Arts to conjure up the bill. Someone recommended that we check our detailed bill long before it came time to check out, so we had the front desk print us off a copy. They charge us $5 US per day for “bell boys” and $9 US per day for room service (they told us they would include gratuities, but yikes, I’m not that good a tipper!). The room rate is nowhere near either of the conference rates quoted (we’re getting hit for about $130 US/night, while student rooms should be $115 and supervisor rooms $150), and they’re charging us $65/night for the cot for our third person (despite promising to honour the quoted rates for our first hotel, which was $115 per night and $10 for a cot).

Everything else here is expensive, too. The food and drinks can be deceptively expensive, since they give us the drinks in tiny glasses or bottles. $2 for a coke is not unheard of at a bar or restaurant for us, but you usually get somewhere in the 350 mL neighbourhood of liquid – I think these are running at more like 100-150 mL (they’re less than half a can). Most ridiculous was my phone call to use my calling card: $61 US for less than 10 minutes to what should have been a toll-free number.

Most of the front desk and restaurant staff speak passable to decent English, so it’s been pretty good for us here. However, the maids and repair people don’t speak a word, so it’s very difficult to tell them what’s wrong with the air conditioner, or that there’s no need to barge in every 3 hours.

The conference hasn’t been a spectacular one. There were a fair number of no-shows, and many talks were sub-par. Also, the side discussions haven’t been as good as they were in Dublin or Washington – it seems when a talk that’s uninteresting comes up, rather than going outside for a coffee and discussion, most people are slinking away to their rooms or hitting the beach. I can’t really blame them, since I’ve just slinked up to my room to write on the computer.

It raises an interesting question about where we should site conferences, though. For an upcoming conference in a few years, it’s been decided that Canada will play host, so it’s essentially fallen to our lab (as Canadians) to try to decide on where exactly in Canada we should host it. Some people say our only real options are Toronto, Ottawa, or Montreal, since it will be easier for people to get to a large city and there will be more things to do so they can turn it into a vacation. But most people don’t really even pretend that a conference is going to be a vacation, so that may just needlessly make things more expensive, and not really live up to people’s expectations of Canada (green spaces, nature, etc.). A good compromise has been London, where not only are we already located (which gives people the opportunity to tour our lab and see things first-hand rather than on powerpoint), but is also close enough to some open spaces and nice river walking trails that people can spend a little bit of time with nature. Plus, it’s close enough to Toronto that people can still easily go see a ball game or show or whatever, and large enough to have the hotel and meeting room capacity we need. Another suggestion was to really go all out and go to the Maritimes or northern Ontario. There are a number of resorts in those places that we could rent out, but it would probably end up being more expensive than London (unless we went in the off season). One further suggestion was to rent partial blocks of a number of nearby places (which might be cheaper than dominating a resort large enough for all of us) and then arranging for shuttle busses for everyone.

It’s a surprisingly interesting problem, with many factors being considered, right down to having to force people to take connecting flights (hardly anything flies direct to London or Ottawa, and busses would be necessary if we went for a nature retreat).

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