I was collected at the airport by Kuei-Fang Tai's husband (whose name I didn't catch) and delivered to my Hotel, an Irish Inn. Seeing what the route was like, I'm glad I wasn't driving this one. My room wasn't ready (it was an early flight), so I went for a walk down to the waterfront. I took a walk around a pond that we would call a lake, to come to the real lake. Lake Michigan, in fact. One of the Great Lakes. You can't see the opposite shore from the bank. You can't even see it from the top of the hill. It's probably only called a Lake rather than an Inland Sea because it's composed of fresh water rather than salt. The walk around the pond took me over an hour. I don't think I'll try the lake. You can imagine early explorers coming across it and going "hello - wasn't expecting the Atlantic just yet" and blaming it all on the navigators (probably their wives), thus preparing for the invention of the motor car.
Milwaukee itself is another spread-out American city, except there are squirrels everywhere. I walked into the Downtown area to discover (as the song puts it) what made Milwaukee famous. It's beer. Lots of it. About one watering hole per 100 inhabitants is the latest approximation. It certainly felt like it. There are also lots of restaurants, mostly linked to the consumption of beer. It took me ages before I found something approximating a normal shop. When I did, of course, I found they'd all clustered together and hidden inside an old warehouse. This was the main (possibly only) shopping Mall for miles, at mid-afternoon on a Saturday with only 59 days to go until Christmas. Imagine what Meadowhall would be like; Princes Quay; the Trafford Centre. Then take away 90% of the people and you're about right. I went back again on Sunday just to check they weren't hiding. I even had a choice of tables in the food court. A choice of about a hundred.
On Sunday I also visited the Historic Third Quarter (historic in that the big warehouses have been abandoned & put to other uses - mainly art galleries and arty shops) and the All Saints Cathedral. I plumped for the "Eucharist" at 8am (please remember I had jet lag and that the clocks had just changed - it felt like 10) over "Solemn Eucharist" at 10am. I was concerned to discover that it was a BCP (Book of Common Prayer) service, but it was too late - I was up, dressed and sitting in a pew. My time at St. Michael's in Hull served me well - when the bell rang I didn't think "strange ring tone" but quietly stood up along with everyone else. The Episcopalian BCP isn't the same as ours. It has a Rite 2, which roughly equates to the good old ASB (Alternative Service Book) service I knew from my St. John's days. I was made to feel very welcome, both by the congregation (at the Peace) and by the Dean (who preached for about 20 minutes without notes in a structured, coherent fashion. Respect).
I had the odd experience of being stopped and being asked for directions. Twice. Of all the people around, these cars stop & ask the new kid in town. Twice. Of all the... hang on - for a moment I forgot where I was - who else is walking around? I also had the somewhat surreal experience of watching a bus come hurtling towards me with the name "Downer" on the front.
I was collected the next day by the director of the Bioinformatics Research Centre, Peter Tonellato, and (in order to set the priorities for the week) we went for breakfast first. The Centre had put together an excellent programme for the week: front-loaded with demonstrations and information, with space to think and write towards the end. I spent the day in the company of the Human Systems Group who showed me their predominantly web-based data collection systems. They also took me to lunch - when a group of predominantly Chinese say theyíre taking you to their favourite Chinese restaurant, you know youíre in for a good meal. I was taken in a car in which the driver had thoughtfully loaded Stingís "Englishman in New York", just to remind me of my outcast status (mind you, he was Russian...). The day was rounded off with another meal, in the company of Peter T. & Jed Mathis (who would be giving me a lift to & from the Centre each day). So much good food... just as well I did all that walking at the weekend, otherwise Iíd be needing two seats on the plane to Seattle.
The BRC (Bioinformatics Research Center) is very focused: itís into web databases in a big way and itís into genes in a big way. Especially rat genes. I heard a rumour that BRC means "Brown Rat Company" but I didnít believe it. Mostly because Iíd started the rumour. Theyíve recently expanded from about 8 people who do everything to about 45 who do bits each and are due to expand a bit more, so they must be doing something right. With expansion comes the need for better processes so I had some very interesting discussions on the subject of QA, project management and the like. It was nice to feel that Iíd been able to give something back.
The BRCís hospitality is phenomenal. Not only was I ferried to & from my hotel, but I was taken to lunch and dinner each day. Dinner topics ranged from how strange America is, to the pros and cons of fuzzy logic, to backpacking across the world. We also did some sight-seeing and went to the thing that Milwaukee should be famous for... Harley Davidson.
Mr. Harley & Mr. Davidson & Mr. Davidson started it all in a shed in Milwaukee in 1903. They made three bikes that year. Nowadays they have three factories - the one in Milwaukee makes the engines, so we went on the tour of the factory. Even if youíre not into motorbike engines, itís worth a visit as they let you sit on the display bikes in the lobby...
Milwaukee is one of the few States not to have a Helmet Law. Thereís also a big rally every HD birthday. Next yearís the 100th. Can you imagine what itíll look like? Sound like? (I suspect youíll be able to hear it for a few miles or so). Probably a bad weekend to roll into town on a Honda, then.
Whilst in Milwaukee I also visited Point One, a spin-off from the BRC. Iíve always been intrigued by these small start-up companies as they often use staff from the original organisation, along with ideas & software developed there. I couldnít imagine the NHS being too impressed or encouraging, fearing that the start-up would make money, take up too much of staff time etc. Point One is part-owned by the Medical College (so they will be very happy if it makes money) and the view is that it enables them to keep hold of talented staff who would move on from a postgraduate position anyway. Whilst it answered some of my questions, I still think that thereís a culture change needed before weíd see such things in the NHS. Which is odd, when you consider how many medics work privately as well as in the NHS.
America (as I mentioned earlier) does Halloween. England doesnít. Partly because it doesnít have the tradition in order to understand it, and partly because itís suspicious of things that look occult. So, when I was invited to a Halloween party, I took the opportunity to see what it was really like. If you want the detached, cynical Englishmanís view, then itís an excuse for kids to dress up and run around the block, banging on doors and collecting as much candy (thatís chocolate bars to you & me) as they can carry. Sometimes more. Then they go back to a house to count it all (and trade the stuff they donít like for stuff they do) whilst the adults sit around, talk, drink & eat. If the kids dressed up as fairies (some of them do anyway - thereís also a fair smattering of pirates & ninjas) and they called it "fairy night" the church would probably host the parties. Replace the costumes with a bit of off-key harmonies and youíve got carol singing. Thatís my cynical view, anyway. Besides, the chilli was good and the company pleasant, so why should I complain?
I learned many things from my time in the BRC, but one particular thing stood out: how to look after visitors. They have it down to a fine art. I hope weíre as welcoming in Britain.
Before I left I was able to give something else back, in the form of a presentation of some of my work. About 40 people attended, which apparently was a very good turnout (I thought it might be the free pizza, but apparently they have that at all presentations). I had far too much material for the hour, so was editing as I went, but it was well received with many questions afterwards, especially on the Radiotherapy and software QA material. Iíd settled into the BRC very well and was enjoying my time there immensely: but again it was time to go. With just a few covetous glances at their supercomputer (I wouldnít mind having just one of the 40 parallel Alpha processors), it was time to re-acquaint myself with airports. Oh yes, I was "randomly" selected to have my bags searched. Quelle surprise. Still, at least Chicago failed to lose my baggage.
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On to Seattle