ELMI Conference, Davos, Switzerland (May 2008)

March 30, 2008

27 May 2008

I left EPFL at 11AM this morning. The beautiful train trip to Zürich seems routine, so I read a math book. The beautiful train trip from Zürich to Landquart I spent half the time reading a math book. On the unbelievably gorgeous train trip from Landquart to Davos I just gawked.

From Zürich, the trains were full of other people going to the ELMI conference. At the station in Davos, most stood around looking at bus schedules or being lost. But not me, no! I seized a map from the tourist information desk, and set forth on foot to find my hotel, the Arabella Sheraton Hotel Waldhuus (that's Waldhaus, but with a quaint, Swiss misspelling).

Davos, the hotel, and the conference center are succinctly described "out of my price range." The town sprawls over a long valley, with luxury hotels every block. My room is a two room suite, with a two section bathroom, a marble shower, and two balconies looking out on the alps. I am admiring the clouds racing over the snow-capped peaks in the last light of day as I write. I must add: there is a Gideon Bible on one nightstand, and "The Teaching of Buddha" on the other.

The conference center specializes in events like the World Economic Forum. Our conference has the feel of the gardeners who have convinced the household servants to serve them high tea in the parlor while the master's away.

Axelrod from Michigan gave a talk on TIRF, including a couple of fun new ideas about measuring membrane orientation next to coverslips, then we all gorged ourselves on hors d'oeuvres. I was sociable and met four people, then took a long walk west along the valley through Davos.

28 May 2008

The Waldhuus has a splendid breakfast buffet, at which I fortified myself for two and a half hours of talks, followed by a coffee break with croissants, followed by more talks, followed by lunch. This morning's talks were on thick specimen imaging and fluorescent labeling methods.

What should a talk for this conference be? Enough detail of optics, label chemistry, or application area to be more than a waste of time is impossible since the most of the audience lacks the necessary background for any of the three. Of course, most of the speakers haven't even thought about this, and are giving the same talk they always give.

I went to one workshop, where a man soberly told me and a few others what a point-spread function is. I skipped the rest and took a hike up one of the mountains. A poster session --- which is approximately the worst environment to discuss science possible --- and dinner filled the rest of the day.

And after dinner, two men started playing alpenhorns, those long, straight things everyone sees in Swiss stereotypes. And then one of them played bugle calls on it while standing on his head. After this, I retreated to reading a paper on Galois connections, then headed back to the hotel.

29 May 2008

This morning's talks focused on assorted new microscopy techniques, and were very good, particularly the final one by Tony Wilson from Oxford. He has figured out an extremely clever way to focus microscopes really, really fast. It turns out that you can only achieve 1.5x magnification and still optically image a volume perfectly.

So he takes the output of a microscope objective, images it backwards through another microscope and onto a mirror, then from the mirror back through the objective and onto a detector. The mirror is about the same size as the specimen --- a few microns --- so it can be moved extremely quickly and accurately. Viola: high speed focusing.

After lunch I attended a workshop by Definiens, who have turned image analysis around. Classically, you massage your image until you can segment it perfectly in one fell swoop. Instead, they oversegment horribly, and then merge regions until they achieve good segmentation. This turns out to be a much better way to do things.

I wasn't interested in the other workshops in the afternoon, so I went hiking again. Davos lies in Grunewald, the easternmest, newest, largest, and least developed of Switzerland's cantons. The canton consists of mountains striated with rich valleys. The woods are remnants from glaciation, which means they greatly resemble those of the high Appalachains.

Davos, in keeping with the Swiss obsession with outdoor sports, is laced with hiking trails. They stay in the woods up on the slopes in the main valley, but come down into the pastures in the side valleys, and wind past stone barns banked with dirt and sod uphill against the winter snow.

At junctures as I climbed towards the ridge I stopped and looked across the valley at fingers of white creeping down the mountains. Some were streams; others were still snow. Even in May, the landscape is dotted with snow packs several feet thick. In winter, this place must be impassible without snowshoes.

A gala dinner at a sanatorium-turned-ski hotel on one of the peaks filled the evening. We rode up by cablecar, and stood around on the terrace overlooking the valley sipping glasses of wine (or water in my case) until the black flies started bothering people. Then we trooped in for dinner.

From the Tiffany-esque stained glass, I think that the building has been maintained in its grand state of the 1920s. The walls are muralled. The fireplace is lined with sculpted ceramic tiles. We filled the grand dining room with its enormous mirrors, and I pontificated at my neighbors over a dinner of perfectly normal roast chicken masquerading under some pretentious and singularly unappetizing name. After dinner I skipped the disco and caught the first cable car down to the city.

30 May 2008

Those who made it to the first talk this morning coincided exactly with those to take the first tram home with me last night. The highlight of the morning was a talk by a lady from McGill which showed that fluorescence recovery after photobleaching measurements require an additional set of controls: in the range that causes bleaching, the photons can also reversibly dissociate protein complexes.

The only workshop of any interest after lunch was an open session about the Open Microscopy Environment project by Jason Swedlow, but I wasn't feeling sadistic enough to go ask mean questions about a project I'm already acquainted with. I took the bagged lunch the conference center provided, tossed in a couple extra croissant which I hoarded from the coffee break, and caught the train home.

Fred Ross
May 2008
Lausanne, Switzerland

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