Coffee, ‘Johnny Z & the Camaros’, with some science in between…
[was going to post over the weekend, but procrastination ensued. as usual]
A great week at San Francisco for the Biophysical Society annual meeting, ending rather badly with two weary hours at the San Diego airport because I am a dunce who manages to lose car keys while waiting for the luggage! (To top it off, apparently these fob-thingies are some ultra super-duper gadgetry that requires NASA scientists to make and a pretty penny to replace. Gah.)
But overall, one of the pleasanter conferences I’ve been to. Some quick thoughts on food & drink (most important of course), the conference and the city. Real sciency stuff for a separate blog.
Food and Drink (mainly limited to places around the Moscone convention center and Union Square):
- Blue Bottle Coffee: A case of beer to Purely Narcotic for this recommendation. It’s hidden away from the main streets (the Mint Plaza location), so I wouldn’t have found it on my own. But so glad to finally be able to walk into a coffee shop in the US, order a Long Black Americano and not worry about it being served in gigantic saucers filled with water to kill the taste (actually, made a fool of myself by starting to explain that I wanted the regular cup size, only to be stared at with a ‘…but that’s what we do anyway’). Of course, the quality of the roast itself is top-notch and the barista approaches the pulling of each cup with zen-like devotion. Their brioches, and other assorted sweets and savouries are yum as well. No better way to open the day.
- Samovar Tea Lounge: Just above the convention center in the Yerba Buena gardens and usual lunch-spot. Bit of new-age pretentiousness about the place, but great selection of teas and – this turned out to important after nights of drinking – healthy food.
- Papalotes: This one was recommended via Twitter as well by geetika1255 (so that settles the question of whether Twitter serves any purpose?) and has gained fame recently with their chef beating Bobby Flay in a burrito throw-down. Therefore, as expected, there was a huge crowd outside the smallish place in the Mission area. But they did an admirable logistical job of seating people just as their food was about to be ready and then politely moving them out for the next batch. Food was good, everything was freshly grilled etc. But coming from San Diego, with its Mexican-food-at-every-corner-ness, it wasn’t such an overly exciting experience. The Aussies were suitably impressed though.
- Tropisueno: Stepped in only because it was next to the convention center and it was pouring. Came out very satisfied with the Mexican fare here – their spices were quite exquisite. But the margarita with agave nectar and house salt (whatever it was) was the winner – nice kick to it without overpowering. Would highly recommend.
- Pakhwan: Went here for a dinner partly out of nostalgia, partly because the Aussie contingent were craving for ‘Indian-style rice’ (I assumed they wanted biryani). This hole-in-the-wall place on O’Farell St had sustained us during my previous visit (seven years ago) for the same conference – back when we were PIGS. They have an actual tandoor in there, so both the tandoori chicken and the Bihari kebabs were moist and succulent. The began bhartha was wiped clean off the plate. Biryanis were so-so.
- The Daily Grill: The bar at the hotel I stayed; not too memorable other than the fact I got into a mild argument with the bartendress about how a Sazerac should be made (she was shaking the stuff, and I was telling her to stir) – but I bowed to the fact that she’d been bartending much much longer than I’d been making Sazeracs. I ended up drinking two of her concoctions and then going back later in the week for more. Now if it was a Martini, I’d have fought till death (though I doubt a good bartender would dare to shake when asked for stirred martini).
- Johnny Folley’s Irish Pub: Any place that serves Guinness does well by me – thusly, I have a built-in stop function that kicks in whenever I walk by an Irish pub. However, was it just me or their Guinness a wee bit watery? I had the Black and Tan to begin with and thought the less then usual robustness was just the layers mixing in too quickly. But subsequent drinking of just Guinness on its own was less than satisfying as well. Oh well, the lamb shanks more than made up for the drink.
- Lefty O’Doul’s: Didn’t have any food here (seemed like diner-style food) but had a few beers with friends on the first day. Had to comment because of the really nice waitress who served our drinks. It is rare to find someone reciting from memory the whole lot of 12 beers on tap – from light to the heavy - in order. Was also amazed how at the end of it, she helpfully pointed out how much each person owed without actually splitting the bill. Way to go.
- Gold Dust Lounge: Velvets couches, golden chandeliers, old oil paintings, statue of a gold-rusher as you walk in – a funky little place, with almost a dive bar-ish atmosphere. Easily the best place to hang-out after a tiring day at the convention. A bit pricey for the beers – but they have margarita specials ($3.50) till 830p. However, after 830p is the time to be hanging out there when Johnny Z and the Camaros sit behind a cramped bar-space and belt out 60-80s hits. More than the music, it’s old Johnny Z’s dry wit which makes it a lot of fun. Don’t walk in without expecting bit of borderline insults (I got the usual, Indian-must-be-call-center-dude-with-funny-accent treatment *yawn*). For a couple of bucks in tips, they’ll take requests (just don’t ask them to play Bon Jovi). Made my friend happy by playing Land Down Under. Truly mixed crowd as well – everyone from AARP members to wannabe hipsters, with equal parts regulars and tourists (a few nerdy biophysicists walked in as well, and were made appropriately made fun of by the aforementioned Johnny Z). If you do head out there, take plenty of cash – they don’t do cards. Expect a surly waitress, or two.
The actual conference:
- Bummed out by the lack of wi-fi in vast areas of the conference center. For a conference that was promoting the use of blogging (BPS had four official bloggers at the event) and Twitter to disseminate information, this was a huge fail.
- Poor planning for many of the talks – sessions that are historically always well attended (anything to do with ion channels), were given smaller rooms with hardly any standing areas left while concurrent sessions went empty. Also the National Lecture by Roger Tsien was filled out very quickly, which was bit of a downer, but we did get to hear and see the presentation in a different room. Other than these minor issues, a good conference, as usual.
- Good science, but nothing earth-shattering, no disruptive technologies. A few cool ‘out-of-the-box’ applications for existing technologies. Old controversies still raging even as participants have mellowed down. Roger Tsien’s lecture was wonderful as usual. His lab has succeeded in developing imaging techniques by which tumor cells in the living body can be highlighted by fluorescent light. This helps surgeons in cutting out the majority of the tumor without relying on guess-work. Even better, the tumor cells can be contrasted to important tissues like the nerve cells, which surgeons need to avoid. Current technologies have worked exceedingly well in mouse models. Next – clinical applications in humans.
- Personally, the conference was a huge boost in terms of networking and meeting up with lots of people. There are many regulars at this conference, and catching up with them on the edges of the actual sessions is satisfying. I actually get much more scientific information and exchange of ideas this way than attending actual talks. It also feels good when someone you’d interviewed with once for a postdoc job five years and haven’t seen for a while remembers your name and interests very well.
- Big thanks to the Aussie contingent for making it fun in the post-conference evening dinners and drinks (see above).
Bad weather and a busy meeting ensured that I did not have too much time to explore SF, but have been there couple of times before and done most of the touristy stuff. Certainly this won’t be the last trip either. In spite of the mainly gloomy weather this time, fondness for SF remains. Possibly not a place to live permanently (though given the quality of coffee on hand, I am sorely tempted), but great for brief visits or even spending a year or two like we did down under. San Francisco has that certain vibe, sorely lacking in San Diego (even in the Hillcrest/Gas Lamp-type happening areas).
Note about Virgin America’s service trying not to sound like a paid advertisement: must be the funnest, most comfortable US-domestic airline around. Starting from their red-carpeted check-in area that often plays eclectic music, to the mood-lighted, almost Vegas-like cabin interior, leather seats (with enough space), power-port on every seat, personal entertainment unit with free and paid stuff, easy ordering of food/drink through the personal unit and most of all, the easy-going attitude of their staff; these guys have managed to make flying within US fun again (I know SouthWest does a few of these things, but I’ve had some bad experiences from them). The humorous way they handled the fog-related delay of the flight into SF (we were held up at SD itself) and also the manner in which the extremely tired staff at the SD airport went out to check if I had dropped my keys on the plane speaks volumes of their customer service. Wish they served a few more destinations.