Monday, 21 June 2010

To providence and back …

Last week I had the slightly odd experience of going to the States for two and a half days, to the project bamboo workshop event in Providence, Rhode Island.

If you live in Australia and you wish to go to an overseas conference you have to resign yourself to spending a lot of time cramped in an aluminium tube eating indifferent food and watching somebody else’s choice of movie. Actually I flew United, and the food wasn’t that bad, even if being offered a pastrami sandwich at four in the morning showed perhaps a little cultural disconnect. The other nice thing about United is that they appear to have this unofficial policy of upgrading customers on longhaul flights to premium economy where possible for the domestic legs of the journey, giving you that crucial little bit of extra space to curl up in. So from Sydney to Los Angeles it was cattle class, but from Los Angeles to Providence it was civilised.

Flying into Los Angeles I was astounded when the homeland security clerk in all seriousness said ‘welcome back to America’ stamped my passport and waved me through, so astounded that I didn’t notice he’d forgotten to put the the bottom half of my green waiver form in my passport.

But I was in, and in the land where food means meat and chemicals, where turkey salad sandwiches have four slices of turkey and a single lettuce leaf, and where vegetables means fried potatoes – America basically does not do vegetables – as if it were a nation of thirteen year old boys refusing to eat their greens. I’m always reminded of George Bush saying he did not like broccoli and he was damned if he was going to eat it now he was president. And that seems to sum up America – meat and fried potatoes in ridiculous servings, but not much in the way of fruit and vegetables.

Strangely, the incessant ads for medications to treat bowel disorders don’t come as a surprise.

However, onto the workshop. There are obviously things I can’t disclose about the workshop but essentially I went to discuss our continued involvement in Bamboo and to try and get some congruence between what was happening in Bamboo with work we’re already doing on metadata and making data more accessible. And broadly, I think that part went well. I also met a whole lot of funny interesting folks who were doing some good and interesting work, particularly as regards Hubzero an online collaboration and computation tool that allows people to draw together research collateral and easily run simple analyses on the data.

One could see immediate advantages of the social sciences – imaging a range of datasets with common metadata descriptors and a range of standard tools making running and sharing analyses simple – no more having to hand craft analyses or work out how best to combine datasets.

And that’s probably as much as I can say about the work related aspects of the meeting.

I decided at the last minute to take the Ookygoo with me in preference to my office MacBook pro, and I didn’t regret the choice as it meant I could basically getaway with an overnight bag and a small backpack. As always my little Asus performed perfectly allowing me to do everything one needs to do at a workshop – tweet, email, write draft papers on Google docs (and no worry of losing any crucial drafts), easily distribute them as doc and odt, and share them, as well as skype home.

Interestingly of the four or so people at the workshop who did not have a Mac, three of them had an Asus Eee and one had a Dell netbook all with the 10 inch screen. As I’ve said elsewhere, my only regret about the Ookygoo was buying the 7” model rather than the slightly more expensive 10” model. I couldn’t tell you how many of the netbook users were linux and how many xp, but I’d guess 50:50.

Tweeting was interesting – around the presentations and discussion there was a continual update on who was saying what and people raising points for discussion via twitter – so rather than shouting out or asking questions at the end, twitter provided a live communication channel. To get a flavour of this take a look at the tweet archive at

And then, after two days of intense discussion it was over and time to come back. I couldn’t get a flight back on the Friday evening that worked so I had a little time in Providence.

Downtown Providence is distinctly tatty. Somehow I thought it would be full of nice eighteenth and nineteenth century building, nice bars and restaurants, with a cultured nightlife.

It wasn’t. Perhaps with a car one might have found such places, but round about Kennedy Plaza in the Arts precinct, it wasn’t happening. A pity really, as Providence could have been nice in so many ways.

What else to say? Another 30h, spent in airports and aluminium tubes, just long enough at O’hare to decide I dislike Chicago airport intensely, too crowded, too poor a range of eating places, and why o why do you need to show id to buy a drink?

I might hope to be mistaken as being in my late forties rather than mid fifties, but that’s as far as vanity goes. No one is ever going to ask me if I’m over 21.

The only other thing of note was United’s insouciant response to the missing exit card - ‘take a new blank card, fill out the exit section, write duplicate on it and give it in on exit’.

One just hopes that Homeland Security’s metadata schema can cope with that and match things up properly or else next time I can see myself in a grey room with a steel desk explaining all of this ….

{update 23/06/2010}

See Pete Sefton's excellent blog post for context on the ANDS metadata and party data story

{update 24/06/2010}

See Jon Laudun's posts (day 1 , day 2) for a more professional account of the event ....

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