The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games, academia and life dare to converge

ISAL’s ALIFE XV Conference: A Personal Reflection

“I was in Cancún, Mexico, sitting in a disappearing-edge swimming pool, on a bar stool that was actually under the water, watching palm trees sway in a sultry breeze against the unmistakable aqua splendour of the Caribbean Sea; drinking coconut, lime, and tequila from a scooped-out pineapple, with salt spray of breaking surf and sun kissing my skin. Translation: I’d died and gone to heaven.” ―Karen Marie Moning

I’ve returned from the ALIFE XV Conference now: held in Cancún, Mexico, for the first time, this conference deals with artificial life. This is a field where life and natural processes is studied by means of simulations, robotics, engineering and biochemistry; my research is related on the software side of things, since I primarily work on building agent-based models to illustrate biochemical reactions at the molecular level. The emphasis is on illustrate, since my models largely lack a solid implementation of protein-protein and protein-substrate interactions to act as a predictive model. So, back in February, my supervisor and I submitted a paper to the ALIFE Conference about my research, which was being held in Mexico for the first time. Another paper about a project a colleague had worked on was also submitted, and in both cases, our papers were accepted. Owing to logistics, I attended this conference alone, flying out to Houston last week. Unlike Laval, the flights proceeded very smoothly, although when I had arrived at Houston, I realised I had forgotten to arrange for transportation from Cancún International Aiport to the Zona Hotelera. Fortunately, some quick thinking rectified that, and by the time I boarded my flight to Cancún, my transportation was confirmed. So, I was able to reach the Zona Hotelera without difficulty and set about preparing for the pair of presentations I would give.

The first day of the conference was uneventful, and I attended several of the different workshops and keynotes. On the second day, I presented my paper and sipped a lemon daiquiri with my evening meal (chicken au tequila). The third day saw the trickier of the two presentations: my colleagues were unavailable, and I was to give a presentation on their behalf. Although I was quite nervous, that presentation went quite well. The remainder of the conference was dedicated to speaking with the other attendees (some know my supervisor and others were my instructors during my undergraduate), attending different keynotes and learning about the exciting research being done in the field of artificial life. As it turns out, NetLogo is gaining the capacity for multi-scale ABM, and I also heard a keynote about how tumour cells propagate (in addition to how blood vessel formation is disrupted severely during tumour development). There were other keynotes on how infants’ attentions gradually move from face to hands as they mature, and how networks might be useful in relating the different scales of a model together so that an individual’s behaviour can in fact, be used to predict what might happen throughout the system. ALIFE XV was a spectacular conference, and not all of the exciting elements lay in the conference itself. The food and locale were both amazing. During the mornings before the first keynote presentation was set to begin, I took strolls along the white sands beach near the conference venue. The weather was remarkably pleasant: there was no rain or even cloud cover during duration of my stay in Cancún. So, I was able to take to the beaches in the mornings and relax under the morning sun, marvelling at how warm the water was and walking along relatively quiet beaches. From the food side of things, the conference provided dinners on a few of the evenings (there was one excursion to Porfirio’s Cancún, where dinner included crab tacos, Mexican-style steak and Churros, and the farewell dinner was a surf-and-turf, featuring steak on a bed of mashed potatoes, prawns and vegetables). On other evenings, I stepped out and sat down to dinner at Casa Tequila, a restaurant serving Mexican and Mayan dishes that also has some of the best atmosphere I’ve seen anywhere: I dined under a sidewalk patio with Mexican music playing all around.

  • Nothing beats walking down the quiet beaches of Cancún at eight in the morning: this is before other beach-goers begin showing up, so for all intents and purposes, I had most of the beach to myself to stroll along and explore. Even at this hour, though, it was still around 29°C, so it was plenty hot.

  • A short ways down the beach from the entrance near Plaza Forum By The Sea, there’s a small rock face that juts out from the beach. The first morning I walked this, I brought my full shoes and tread carefully so I wouldn’t get sand in my shoes; during later excursions, I wore my swimsuit and brought sandals, walking bare-foot along the beach. To prevent myself from burning, I liberally applied SPF 60 sunscreen, and for the most part, it was effective.

  • Before anyone poses the question, these morning walks did not negatively impact my conference performances. I woke up at six in the morning, had breakfast by seven, spent around an hour on the beaches and returned to the conference venue (a mere 120 meters away) just in time to take in the first keynote of the day. The conference ran from nine in the morning to six-thirty in the evening, and I attended most of the sessions.

  • On my second morning, there were no clouds in the southeastern skies, so the photographs I took turned out amazingly well. Armed with my sunscreen, I stood on the water’s edge and allowed the waves to wash over me: unlike the icy waters of the Pacific near Vancouver or those of Lake Okanagan in Kelowna, the waters in Cancún are a comfortable 29°C. Aside from the clusters of kelp, they’re pleasantly clear.

  • Besides the more obvious modifications I’ve made to each of the images, the colour balance, saturation and hue in each of my images have not been altered. The vivid turquoise colours of the water and white of the sand are exactly as I saw them on the beaches. Every image in this post was taken with an iPhone 6 and then subsequently resized to fit the 16:9 aspect ratio. The water colours arise from the shallow water that allows light to reflect off the sand or reefs at the bottom, preventing the longer wavelength colours from being absorbed and results in this distinct colour.

  • For the presentation I delivered, I used the original variant of my thesis defense presentation. I had enough content to last around 25 minutes, but the thesis presentation only allowed a maximum of 15 minutes, so I trimmed out quite a bit of content to ensure that I could succinctly describe my project. Armed with more time, I could elaborate further, and similar to Laval, one of the questions I got was concerning my background, given that my research involved molecular biology and simulations to a substantial extent. Thankfully, the questions I got were rather easier to answer than those of my thesis.

  • For my colleague’s presentation, I was mostly familiar with the project’s concepts, but less so for the implementation. I practised this one extensively and read enough of the background to give a reasonably solid talk. After the presentation ended, the audience seemed impressed with the project. With both presentations done, I took a few more liberties with my time and went souvenir shopping.

  • I realise that Cancún is probably too nice of a place for an academic conference, so I clearly must be bullshitting readers if I said I went to Cancún for a conference. To convince readers that ALIFE XV did indeed happen in Cancún , here are the conference proceedings published to the MIT Press. The entire thing, with all of the papers, is around 26.3 MB in size and consists of 753 pages of content.

  • During the second evening, after I delivered my presentation, I was feeling quite pleased and decided to have an alcoholic beverage of some kind. I eventually settled on a lemon daiquiri, sipping it under the warm evening sun at Casa Tequila after dinner. I got a minor headache of sorts and decided to close my eyes for a bit on the hotel’s roof: when I woke up half an hour later, the sunset was underway and gave rise to beautiful cloud patterns visible in this image.

  • All of the images in this post have been vacation-like in nature, so to thoroughly convince the reader that I was in fact at a conference, here is a poster bearing the ALIFE conference’s name. With this post over, it means I’m formally back, and while I will note later that I’m going to write about Amanchu! and Planetarian to some capacity in the near future, the two posts that are immediately upcoming (i.e. to be finished before July is over) will be When Marnie Was There and Pure Pwnage T3h Movie, both of which I watched while flying to and from Cancún, and both of which occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. The former made me cry my eyes out, and the latter, I could not stop laughing.

Thus, yesterday morning, I was a little saddened that the conference was ending whilst preparing for the journey back home. I flew back amidst thunderstorms and several delays, and are back now from my second conference. Like Laval Virtual, I learnt quite a bit about the diversity of research occurring in the field of artificial life, and some of these experiences will be useful even as I wrap up my thesis paper and gear up for application of my experiences in the industrial setting. The ALIFE XV Conference marks the first time where I travelled alone (in Laval, I was accompanying one of my colleagues); this definitely was an eye-opening experience. Lacking a travel buddy of sorts, there was no second person to converse with or bounce ideas off of with respect to itinerary. As well, I needed to observe double-vigilance to look after my belongings. However, I did experience all of the freedoms associated with travelling alone, and since I was travelling light (this is the first time I’ve given presentations off the iPad Air 2), moving about at the airport and in the city was quite straightforward. I further learnt that I have no problems with dining alone at all: while some folks are embarrassed to do so (solomangarephobia is quite real), I feel like it’s a scene straight from a Tom Clancy novel or similar when I eat alone in a restaurant. Given my experiences in Cancún, I would definitely like to make another return trip: perhaps on my next trip, if I’ve got a week, I will book visits to the Mayan ruins and explore those in greater detail, as well as enjoy the beaches once more. For now, it’s time to get my mind back in routine and start work. Returning to the blog side of things, I’ll be writing about Amanchu! and Planetarian for the summer season, at intervals that work best with my schedule: we’re in the depths of summer now, the perfect time to explore and enjoy the long days that summer has to offer.

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