The Monterey coast was beautiful as usual. This was the fourth time I was at the Asilomar conference centre, and for the first time, it was really sunny throughout. My talk as part of the third meeting on the Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction methods (CASP3) went very well. It was historic in the sense that for the first time we saw some progress in ab initio methods with regards to the protein folding problem, and some of the predictions we did indicated that we were definitely doing something right! I came out of the meeting invigorated, with a whole bunch of ideas that I am already implementing for CASP4.
Besides general socialising and arguing about science, hiking/walking around the beach area, and playing soccer on the beach, we went out to the Monterey Aquarium. I am not a big believer in aquariums or zoos, in that I think they objectify the animals, but the Monterey aquarium was cool. Witnessing the complex dynamic system of a school of fish travelling together was simply amazing, and having a Manta Ray suck shrimp off of my hand was fun (he comes, he eats, he leaves, without saying thank you):
From Asilomar, I had to go to San Diego for a day to help plan out a bit of a BWF Quantitative Challenges in the Genomic Area conference in the year 2000. It was a fun day helping decide how to put it together; had a great lunch at Il Fornaio in Del Mar; and got a bit of the sun.
It was (apparently unusually) very cold in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The first day I was there, I drove and walked around the Stanley Park area which is North America's largest urban park at almost 1000 acres. Among the highlights of the park are the large sandy beaches and a bunch of intricately carved Totem Poles. I also explored a lot of Downtown Vancouver (I was staying at the Best Western Downtown). Among the many restuarants I tried, I found Stephos, a Greek Restaurant on Davie, and A Taste of India on Granville, to be pretty good food. The next day, it snowed, and I drove out to Port Moody which was a nice scenic drive.
On the 23rd, I had to get to the U.S. Consulate for some work, and in the afternoon, again as it started snowing, I drove to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which is 450 feet across and 230 feet above Capilano River. The snow and the gloomy weather made for some striking scenery (the white dots you see on the picture are snow).
On Christmas day, I drove up to Whistler Mountain in a semi-storm, again an extremely scenic drive, witnessing mountains surrounded by water, and somewhat risky (there were three accidents along the road). Whistler is one of the popular places in the world for skiing and for the first time I tried out downhill skiing. Ignorance of how downhill skiing works (I had only cross-country skiied before) made the experience more heart-pounding than necessary. I rented my skis, went up the gondola all the way to the top of Whistler (which resembled a winter wonderland), put on my stuff, and got off. Except that what I encoutered (I'm quite sure it wasn't a beginner's slope) made me go down really fast. I fortunately survived to make it down to the next plateau without falling where I immediately took the gondola back down. I traded in my downhill skiis for cross-country ones and had a great time skiing in the grooved trails around the base of Whistler. The Whistler experience was good in that it turned me seriously on to downhill skiing, and later on you'll see how I learnt to do it properly.
On the 26th, I decided to take a trip up to Grouse Mountain and ride the gondola to the top. When I arrived there, I found that there was a trail one could climb to the top. I instantly decided to climb (read: crawl up) it, even though I was warned against doing it with my tennis shoes while there was snow on the mountain and the trail was partially frozen and I had less than an hour of sunlight left. This was probably among the most dangerous and dumbest things I've done, but it was also quite exhilarating---if I had slipped and fallen once, it would been a disaster. The people who saw me go up were so concerned that there was someone at the top who was watching out for me to make sure I made it. The meal I ate at the top at Bar 98 was one of the best I had ever had! A group of people who thought I was alone and invited me to spend the night at their house, illustrating the friendliness of the people.
While I was in Vancouver, I saw The Faculty and Star Trek: Insurrection. The former was at a theatre on Granville and the latter was at the complex in Metro Town, which is a huge mall. I only went there because the day was so miserable.
Vancouver, BC, and Canada in general were very impressive to me in many respects, and except for the cold it probably is a great place to live. As is well-known, it was generally cleaner than the U.S. on average. Vancouver is a place where many movies and TV shows are filmed, including The X Files and Millennium, and as we see in the aforementioned shows, it can be a bit gloomy. I bet there is a greater incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in Canada than in southern parts of the U.S. but the darkness didn't really affect me---it can get just as gloomy in San Francisco during the winter (I do like the sun a lot, however).
Also, I must say I found the girls in Vancouver to be extremely attractive (more so than around the places I've lived in the U.S.). A few friends of mine discussed this at the conferences I went to (see below) and we attributed this to the following two factors: (i) generally people look different (i.e., dress, hair style, etc.) in a new place and this has a certain appeal, and (ii) Canadian girls appear to be smaller and thinner (talk about blatant (and sexist) stereotyping!).
I arrived in Kona, Hawai'i on January 4. I was supposed to arrive on the third, but thanks to United Airlines, I could arguably say that I had one of the most unluckiest days of my life that day (which is good, since it makes me appreciate all the other days). But once I made it, everything went great!
On the first day, I picked up my Chevy Sunfire convertible and drove around in the sun to the music of Queensryche, Kraftwerk, Primus, Shadow Gallery, and The Residents. I spent the evening in downtown Kona, having a great time (and dinner at this great Indonesian restaurant called Sibu's Cafe---excellent food!).
The next day I went hiking around the Waipi'o valley region, and did some work on the grey sand beach with my laptop. However, sand in your keyboard isn't exactly good for the machine. I went to Sibu's for dinner again!
Finally, I got to do what I was anticipating the most: go toVolcanoes National Park, home of the most active volcanos in the world. The volcanoes in general are responsible for creating Hawai'i's Island chain, and two of them, Kílauea and Mauna Loa are still adding to the Island of Hawai'i. The latter is the most massive mountain on earth, occuping a volume of 18,000 cubic miles. The shield volcanoes in Hawai'i are not of the explosive variety popularised by movies like Dante's Peak, but rather produce tons of fluid which solidify around the peak in a gradual sloping manner.
We drove and hiked a bit around various spots on Crater Rim Drive, which goes around Kílauea crater's summit caldera and craters and checked out the Sulphur Banks, Jaggar Museum, Devastation Trail, the Fern Forest and the Thurston lava tunnel. Walking around the sulphur steam vents in Halema`uma`u Crater surrounded by hardened lava was like being in a futuristic landscape. We hiked up to the active lava flows at dusk. The red glow of the active lava flow reflected off of the steam as the molten rock fell into the ocean was quite an incredible sight and I highly recommend getting a glimpse of this if you make it out there (picture courtesy of Igor Jurisica because my crappy camera wasn't capable of doing the job). We ended the night with dinner at Ken's House of Pancakes in Hilo (which is dead at night).
On Thursday the 8th, I gave my talk on my ab initio structure prediction results from CASP3 and had lunch with Steven Benner on the beach. We then headed out to the Punalulu'u black sand beach and got some glorious views of it at sunset. In the evening, wad dinner at Sibu's (yet again)!
On the day I headed to Santa Fe, I took a helicopter ride to view the active lava flows into the ocean, Hilo, and the northern valley region of Hawai'i. The views were amazing. The helicopter ride was worth it in some respects, but unless you really can afford it, I recommend the walk to the lava flow at dusk.
After doing the helicopter ride, I went snorkeling for a bit. The day I chose to do it wasn't the best, because the waves were really fierce and they had dragged away most of the underwater life forms, but I did get to see some puffer fish, some fish with stripes which I don't recognise, sea urchins, and some cool corals. Taking steady pictures with an underwater camera when the waves are constantly pushing is a difficult task, unfortunately most of my underwater pictures turned out to be not so great.
For dinner, we went to---you guessed it---Sibu's (this may make it sound boring, but I personally felt the food in most places in Hawai'i was pretty mediocre). Took the plane to Santa Fe with a list of things to do when I go back someday.
After we picked up our Subaru Legacy Outback Wagon (hint: if a rental agency ever asks if you're interested in an upgrade for a low price increase, say "no"; chances are they're out of the car you reserved and want you to pay for the upgrade), we headed out Petroglyphs National Monument near Albuquerque. There was some hiking to do around the monument area and it was fun, but the petroglyphs themselves were okay. I find it hard to appreciate them for what they are---we were wondering whether they had been done by kids and whether people at that time viewed them as we do In other words, will our grafitti become petroglyphs of the future?
We then headed out to Santa Fe and the next day I gave my talk on protein folding which also went very well. After that, I was pretty much free for the rest of the meeting. That evening, a bunch of us went up to Taos.
The last time I was in Santa Fe, it had snowed a lot and we did some cross-country skiing around the vicinity of Bandelier National Monument (in fact the park was closed and climbing up (and coming down!) the boarded-up ladders was an existential experience, to say the least). We expected to see some snow so we could do the same, but unfortunately we were disappointed. After lunch in Taos, we decided to put the four-wheel drive to test by going off-road and hiking down to the Rio Grande river where we mastered the skill of making flat stones skip across across the river without sinking.
I should comment that the Subaru Legacy Outback Wagon handled incredibly well off-road and during sharp turns going downhill. Aside from its somewhat unaesthetic appearance it's a great car/wagon I think.
Monday, January 11, was the protein folding day and so I listened to most of the talks. I did get some shopping done in Santa Fe though and added a couple of bracelets more to my collection. Santa Fe street markets are really cool, but the items in the shops are exorbitantly priced. We walked into a store where a bracelet was ~$100, and immediate it was reduced to ~$50. We got the same kind of bracelets from the street marketers for ~$10.
On Tuesday we headed out to Ski Santa Fe for a full day of skiing. I decided, having learnt from my experience at Whistler, to begin by taking lessons. By the time the first lesson started, I had already skiied down the beginnner's slope. As soon as the instructor learnt I had already gone down the slope, my lesson became a bit more advanced and he taught me how to do some cool things like how to ski (and stop!) backwards and go through a slalom course. The one other person who took lessons with me fell quite a few times but I didn't through the lesson. At the end of the day, I didn't want to leave!
Two days later, on Thursday the 14th, I returned to the slopes with John, who had been skiing since he was tyke and he said that if I hadn't fallen then I wasn't learning how to ski and put me on the intermediate slopes. This time I did fall (and slide several feet most of the time) but by the afternoon I had manage to go down an intermediate slope without falling.
I found skiing to be extremely exhilarating and at the present moment, I am very excited about downhill skiing. It's tempting for me to give up science and become a ski-bum!
There's nothing like spending the day skiing and immersing yourself in a jacuzzi (from left to right: Michael L, myself (front), Brenna, Hugh (front), Willy, Julie, Michael S). Any aches I was feeling (which weren't much) disappeared after spending a couple of hours in warm water (of course we all looked like prunes).
On Wednesday night we went dancing at an 80s disco called Paramount right in downtown Santa Fe. The DJ was pretty good and there was some good music. We relaxed in the jacuzzi for the night.
After the skiing session in the morning on Thursday, we headed out to the Puye Cliff Dwellings, which are Indian ruins similar to what is seen at Bandelier National Monument. The ruins are what remains of villages that Pueblo Indians built during the course of three hundred years, between 1250 and 1577 AD. A self-guided tour takes you through various styles of rooms, kivas (ceremonial chambers), and stairways that have been cut and worn into the cliffs, all of which are in pretty good condition considering their age! We stopped off at White Rock to get a last glimpse of the Rio Grande river from high above. Visiting Puye Cliffs and the Rio Grande river was a definite highlight and a great way to say goodbye to New Mexico!