Austin, Texas
August 14-17, 2005

Who holds a conference in Texas in August??

I attended the Botany 2005 conference at the Austin Hilton this year. This was my first scientific conference, and although I did not present, as I have nothing to tell people yet, I learned what to expect from conferences, observed what makes a good and bad talk or poster, met some people, bought the t-shirt, and got some ideas for my project. One talk in particular, from a person at U. Florida, was fantastic and hearing it was almost worth the price of admission.

The Hilton is a fabulous, absolutely brand-spanking new hotel with flirtatious doormen and excessive air conditioning. I was distressed by the overall lack of things to eat at the conference, though. Back in my previous life, our conferences and meetings always had donuts at the very least. Economists can't live without pastries! Here, we had all the water we could drink, and coffee (no tea) was grudgingly doled out twice a day. Luckily, there are lots of other places to get food in town, provided you're willing to walk in 99-degree heat and 110% humidity.

I stayed in the Dobie Center, a privately-owned dorm just south of the UT campus, and proceeded to get lost every single time I walked into the building for the next three days. The dorm also had the world's most uncomfortable beds and was freezing inside, and my next door neighbor apparently had a party every night I was there. However, it was 1/3 the price of the hotel.

Transit is decent in Austin, cheap (50 cents, or free, depending on the route), and not very heavily used. I went to the conference in the morning, then returned at noon to the dorm to dump my stuff and eat at Schlotzsky's, which I have missed terribly since they left Chicago. I then walked from the dorm north to campus, which is very pretty and entirely unlike campuses in colder climes. The architecture is a mix of classical Beaux Arts and Spanish mission, white marble and red tile roofs and inspirational quotes above the doorways.

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The infamous bell tower at UT that figured into Charles Whitman's killing spree in 1966

Next I walked south from campus to the State Capitol, whose grounds are crammed full of symbolic memorials and gorgeous ancient live oak trees.

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Texas State Capitol Building

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Monument to "our
Confederate dead"

Monument to the Texas Rangers
cute old church
north of Capitol

From there I continued south on Congress and west along the river to leave a flower at Stevie Ray Vaughan's memorial. I was very irritated that I'd forgotten my iPod, and had to settle for sitting quietly with him and playing Little Wing in my head for a while. You know he died 15 years ago this month?

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Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial on the shore of Town Lake

By this time, I was getting horribly overheated and would have given $10 for either a drink or a bus, but neither was to be found amidst the tangle of pedestrian bridges and riverside highways. Instead I plowed on and headed towards the Treaty Oak site, where mirabile dictu, the lot is surrounded on two sides by an upscale strip mall containing a Ben and Jerry's. A sympathetic employee sold me a bottle of water and refilled it for me after I drained it. Then of course I had a vanillachill, because I may be tired but I'm not insane.

Bridge across the Colorado
Congress Avenue Bridge
Frost Tower
Bromeliads in a tree at Auditorium Park
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The 500-year-old Treaty Oak, valiantly fighting off development pressure and vandalism

After the Treaty Oak, I walked north along Lamar, poking into a couple of shops, admiring the houses perched on the hillsides, and returned to Congress, hoping for a Dillo (The dillos are free! The dillos are free! proclaim these cute little trolley buses). No dice, and I ended up walking back to Dobie, where I collapsed in a soggy puddle. Later I scored an indifferent gyro from a Chinese lady at the downstairs mall, visited the comic book store, and went to bed.

Moonlight towers, very odd light fixtures unique to Austin
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I spent all day Tuesday at the conference, with a break for lunch at Chipotle. In the early evening I attended a new member reception, with blue corn chips and queso and cold Shiner Bock. I drank my two free beers rather quickly and was fuzzy-headed when I left the hotel, but about 2 blocks later the heat and exercise had burned off the alcohol entirely. I walked south on Congress to just across the river, where I watched the Mexican free-tailed bat flight. There were people lined up all along the bridge and in the park below - it's a major event. Close to sunset, one bat flew out, then another, then ten, then suddenly they were streaming out and swirling through the air in an incredible and eerily silent display. They continued to stream out for at least 20 minutes, probably more - I left once the sun was down. The spectators were quiet and appreciative, and nobody seemed to mind the faint mist of bat pee. It's a good idea not to stare up at the bats with your mouth hanging open in awe.

August is prime viewing season for the Congress Avenue Bat Flight, where 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats stream out from joints under the Congress Avenue bridge every evening in search of tasty bugs. It was fascinating although I don't think my little digital camera does it justice. More info here:
Sign is hard to read;
basically says
"You are going to get peed on"

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Back to the dorm (by bus this time) and a dinner of granola and juice because it was late.

Had actually planned on skipping lunch today so I could have a Starbucks breakfast and then an early dinner at the airport, but when the lunch break comes along and you have nothing to do, you might as well eat. Today's lunch was at Cozzoli's ("From New York!"). Their pizza was strange and bready and greasy and had no sauce to speak of. I fantasized about envious Austinites gathering round my table while I taught them what pizza is supposed to be like by sketching a cross-section of Chicago-style deep-dish. Not that anyone expects pizza to be good in Austin, and I have to admit that I did not try any tex-mex or barbecue while I was there. The thought of partaking in a local eatery like Antone's or Stubb's made me feel lonely and gloomy, so I stuck to familiar chains whenever possible, despite Austin's concerted effort to avoid chainification (part of the admirable "Keep Austin Weird" local commerce and arts campaign). I attended a session in the afternoon that degenerated into grad students going on at length about strategies for taking the GRE, so I slipped out and caught the airport bus (50 cents is much better than $20+ for a cab!) and was in the air an hour later on an AA plane that smelled like pee. Home was a downright frigid 82 and I was very glad to be there with my sweetie and my doggies and my mattress.

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