Vienna – Day 1

If you didn’t already know, (Fritz), Prof. Maxwell, and I spent 4 days in Vienna, Austria this past week. This is the first entry about our trip.

There’s nothing like a long day of international travel to really wear you out. I spent most of Tuesday morning packing, getting various code from the engineering CVS repositories to work on my computer (so I could theoretically do work on the trip), and just generally wasting time.

I headed over to Hicks, and left messages with my mom, my dad, and my sister, to say goodbye before I left. As it turns out, they all called me back fairly quickly. I talked to my sister for a while, and said goodbye to my dad. My mom called when we were almost to the airport. Prof. Everbach gave us a ride, which was nice of him.

Our check-in went smoothly, and we boarded our A340. I’ve never been on the large 4-engine Airbuses; the only heavies I’ve been on are 747s, DC-10s, and 767s. They’re very nice planes. Lufthansa spared no expense on the over-engineered headrests, for example, even in economy class.

Before we took off, I had the good fortune that the rather large woman next to me was able to move into two open seats on the other side of the plane. This meant that I had an extra seat for sleeping later. As it turns out, this didn’t matter much, but it was nice to have the extra space.

I was pleased to find that one of the plane’s music channels was good European electronica. Of course, we had to use their headphones, with a weird non-standard connector. I don’t understand why they don’t just put a standard stereo miniplug jack on the armrest. They could still have their weird connector so people wouldn’t steal the provided headphones, but then we could use our own pair if we wanted. Maybe I should just make a multi-adapter for the various obnoxious connectors out there.

Bruce, Fritz, and I talked for a while about grad school. I admit that my main aversion to it is because of my bad experiences working at a biochem lab at the University of Minnesota. To make a long story short, I was convinced that long-term exposure to academia turned you into an insane, mean, anti-social freak. That may still be the case ;o), but I’ve had infinitely better experiences working with Bruce. At any rate, he mentioned a masters program for just-graduates at Cambridge University in England, one that he did right after graduating from Swat. I admit it sounds very intriguing. They pay for a year of studying in England, along with room and board. Bruce said that Fritz and I have a good chance if we apply, because we’ve been published. I will definitely consider it over the next year, even though I had planned to work right away.

I did try and sleep over the Atlantic, but it didn’t work very well. I’m not sure if I was ever actually unconscious; it was very cramped and uncomfortable. I gave up after a little over an hour, and picked up in the middle of Brother Bear. It really saddens me that Disney is making such crappy movies. At least Pixar, powered by Steve Job’s enormous Reality Distortion Field, makes awesome movies.

I suppose at this point it is technically Day 2 of the trip, but since I didn’t really sleep, Tuesday and Wednesday blend together into a single day. Time zones are really confusing for the body.

The service on the flight was amazing. The food was really good. I’m convinced that it’s only the american airline industry that is hurting. We had a good laugh at some of their ads, including AIRobics (exercises to do in your seat) and the Lufthansa travel set, which we bought as a gag gift for Jake.

We didn’t have to wait too long for our transfer in Frankfurt. It was there that the whole everyone-in-Europe-smokes thing hit me. If they’re going to allow smoking in buildings, they really need better ventilation. The whole place, despite looking very nice and modern, smelled sort of like Paces. EW. I got the window seat on our flight to Vienna, so I was able to get a very nice view of the Austrian and German countrysides.

There was pretty much no customs to speak of; flash your passport, get a stamp, and you’re in the European Union. Very fast. I wish the US were that trusting.

We took a taxi to the hotel, and we got a great view of the city along our way. Even utilitarian buildings are nice to look at. Many of the buildings have steep red-tiled roofs. I guess it’s the architectural style around here. They even try to make new buildings look like older-style buildings. The trolleys (both the retro-looking old ones and the futuristic metal paneled ones) were neat. Our hotel was definitely very nice, if first impressions are anything.

We all took the time to take showers, which felt really good after being on airplanes for a really, really long time. I nearly killed myself stepping out of the shower, because the bottom of the bathtub is about 20 cm above the floor level. I stepped over the edge of the tub expecting a floor to be where one wasn’t. That would have sucked. As it was, the only medical problem I had to deal with were some annoying big toenail problems.

We decided to hop a train into Stephansplatz, which is the center of the city. There are several blocks that are pedestrian only, including a huge plaza. We really just wanted somewhere to eat, so we got off a stop early at Karlsplatz and walked several blocks looking for a good restaurant. We eventually settled on a little outdoor place. I was unadventurous and had a burger. Believe me, the food improved over the course of the trip. I also shared a Weissbier with Bruce for lunch. It was really good, but not really my taste. I just like the dark porters and stouts a lot more.

The plaza has this huge cathedral in the middle of it, and a bunch of street performers use it as their base of operations. There were so many restaurants! I wish we had had more time to try some of them. We decided to save the shopping for our free day on Friday.

We took another train line from Stephensplatz out across the Danube to the glass city that is the new business district in Vienna. We got off at the stop for the convention center, and walked in to get registered. I had left my student ID in my other pants, but they let that slide, and I still got the student price that I had preregistered for. However, Fritz literally got the last large T-shirt. I had also pre-purchased one, but they wouldn’t let me have one in another size, because those had also been reserved. Seems kind of unfair, but whatever. I got a refund.

At registration, we got these hideous looking red bags with a ton of stuff in them. I can’t believe how much paper they gave us; I still haven’t looked through all of the pamphlets yet, although I think most of them are irrelevant now that the conference is over. I would like to take the time and look through the conference proceedings CD and read some of the papers.

Bruce wanted to run off right away to a session that was already in progress, so Fritz and I wandered around the conference center a bit, checking out some posters and vendor booths, and generally being very tired and zombieish.

I suppose I should explain this conference. It is called CHI, and it is really a conference about computer-human interfaces. However, they’ve started a program called CHI Fringe, in which highly contested papers or papers that didn’t quite make the cut or don’t quite fit under the CHI umbrella can be presented. This is how our paper was accepted. You can see the whole list, including a link to our paper, here. The theme of this year’s conference was “connect”, which they continually reminded us of.

All three of us went to one of the last sessions of the day, about games, which is where we heard about the ESP Game that I mentioned in this post. There was also a neat real-world game that was a sort of electronic tag involving GPS and PDAs and coordinated search teams. It looked neat.

After the session, we met up with some people that Fritz and I had met at IJCAI in Acapulco this past summer: Bill from WUSTL, and Dave from INEEL. Bill brought a team of undergrads for the USR and robot host competitions at AAAI, and Dave is a Swat grad who now works for the Idaho National Labs. Doug and Dave from INEEL, along with their ATRVJr, are the team who will continue to beat us soundly in USR. We don’t mind coming in second, especially since they have a team of full-time employees, and a couple orders of magnitude more money than we do. We’ll continue to do the best we can. We have some great plans for this summer and next year…

We coordinated our dinner plans with them, and headed back to the hotel to dump our stuff. The public transportation in Vienna is amazing. I think the trains run every 2 to 3 minutes. We almost never had to wait, and on top of that, there was always plenty of room on the trains. Compare to New York’s subways at rush hour…

We met up by the cathedral Stephanskirche in Stephansplatz, and started looking around for a restaurant. We eventually settled on this nice place down one alley and grabbed some outdoor tables. Dinner just kept going and going… but there was plenty of great conversation. It’s very cool to be able to talk to these amazingly smart roboticists as if they were normal people. ;o)

I had a beef cutlet, which was very good. Bruce got these amazing pancake things that I can only describe as a hot-ham-and-cheese inside of a crepe. I had a decent darker beer, but still not quite to my taste. I like the really rich and smooth dark beers. I eventually finished up dinner with a chocolate-filled crepe… mmmmm :oD. Almost everyone got hot chocolate too, which was really, really good. It’s nice to know that the Engineering department is shelling out for all of this good food.

Once the amazing dinner hit my stomach, I just wanted to sleep. It didn’t help that I’d only gotten about 5 hours of sleep in the last 36. However, we needed to prepare our paper presentation for the CHI Fringe session on Thursday morning. We put BBC World on in the background, and heard some actual good news coverage. I’m very annoyed that I had heard almost nothing about the EU accession in the US media. It’s a very, very cool thing, but I guess it’s not very important to most Americans.

Fritz was pretty much down for the count, so we let him sleep while Bruce (with a little bit of my help) put together the presentation he’d be giving on our paper. We tried to make it as concise as possible, since we only got 10 minutes, while still explaining the entire USR task, plus our approach, to a bunch of interface people.

The funny part was when both Bruce and I would go silent for a minute or two, completely zoned out, and then realize that neither of us had said (or thought) anything for a while. We did eventually finish, and hit the hay.

European pillows are waaaay too soft. I need something that’s thick enough so that when I lie on my side, my head and neck are straight. I definitely missed my pillowZZZZZ…

More days to follow, after I get more work done…

Pharaoh Story” from Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Webber