Skip to main content

ICMC 2008 at Belfast

I attended the International Computer Music Conference 2008 at Belfast. This was my first real academic conference -- I was a volunteer at ISMIR 2006, but that was in my own town, and I only attended four talks.

ICMC didn't really feel real. I mean, for the past few weeks I'd been scrambling to finish my thesis, preparing the defense, giving the defense, making the thesis corrections, getting packed, surviving the trip, preparing the slides, giving the conference presentation. I hadn't had time to really think about flying across the world and visiting another country. OTOH, this might have been a good thing; I might have been more freaked out if I'd had longer to think about it.

Or maybe it just didn't seem real because I was sick and jetlagged.


This was the first time I'd left the province (or flown at all) since 2000 or so. And that time, I just tagged along with my family and let them figure out what to do / where to go. I was traveling with my supervisor, but we ended up in separate seats -- I went to a self-serve kiosk at the airport to get my boarding pass, but he insisted on lining up and seeing a checkin person. He wasn't checking any luggage, though. Anyway, the ticket guy told him that the flight was very full and he couldn't change seats. It turned out to be not such a big deal, though -- he got me through security and whatnot; the flight itself wasn't particularly worrying.

What was worrying was Heathrow. There was a bus to take us to the other terminal, so that was ok... but our path was highly circular and didn't look at all official-looking. Most of the path looked like normal corridors, with alternate hallways and escalators blocked off by tape. We eventually came to an immigration place, and my supervisor went off to the EU line (with his non-Canadian passport) while I went to the non-EU line. Which really bugged me, by the way. Here I am, a loyal servant of Her Majesty the Queen, being treated like an American. :(

... anyway, it turned out that I was in the wrong immigration line. I went to the big "non-UK / non-EU" lineup to my right; I was supposed to have gone straight and then branched to my right a bit later, at the "connecting flights" lineup. Not particularly the mistake I wanted to make in my first experience with a foreign country's immigration. :(:(

But the immigration officer was quite nice about it (that's probably the first time you've ever read that phrase :), and directed me to the right place. I went through that, but of course my supervisor was in another part of the airport -- he'd gone through the main EU immigration area instead of the EU connecting flights area. He waited in the baggage claim area for a while, then gave up and went to the gate.

Meanwhile, I'd gotten ahead of him and found myself in the main departure lounge (never having seen the baggage claim area, since that isn't needed for connecting flights). I found the gate, and we met up again.

Oh, and I have to say that England is a dump from the air. All those fields are ridiculous. I mean, even the forests fit into geometric shapes! It looks pathetic. I can't wait for the return flight to see real forests and mountains in BC. (I loved the beginning of the flight away from Vancouver, though. Yummy jagged snow-capped mountains. I want to go hiking again.)

Room / Streets

My room here at the dorm was bigger than my bedroom in Victoria. It was much nicer than I expected... although the power plugs on the desk didn't work. They said "30 mA switched" on them, and my laptop charger says "980 mA", so maybe that's it. This meant that I can choose between having internet (via ethernet) in my room, or sitting in the floor lounge with power . My small eee laptop doesn't have a very good battery, so this was a non-trivial issue.

Also, Queen's University Belfast didn't have a lot of power plugs. I've been spoiled by the ECS building at UVic, where half the seats in the lecture halls have power sockets. I only found two audience power plugs in each of the lecture theatres we were using. :(

The bathrooms have separate hot and cold water taps. When I first saw this, I thought it was really quaint... but then went I went to wash my hands, I realized it wasn't so charming. How am I supposed to get warm water?! The hot tap is hot. I briefly tried swiping my hand under the hot water and then under the cold water (trying to mix them), but that didn't really work. I've therefore been using cold water.

Drivers were are insane... the taxi from the airport was almost always accelerating or braking, and that seems like normal traffic behavior here. There doesn't appear to be any notion of cruising. And when a light changes or they turn a corner, they immediately zoom off. We used to call that Alberta driving in Vancouver, but it's much more so here.


Pretty good haul from this conference:

  • conference bag, of course.
  • umbrella, "in case you forgot one". I actually did forget one... or at least, I'd forgotten that umbrellas were useful at all. At UVic, I just let my hair get wet while I biked, but I had waterproof pants. The umbrella was useful a few times.
  • A4 paper pad, pen
  • conference schedule, concert info, etc. So far I've managed to avoid all the concerts / installations / artsy stuff. (you need tickets for the lunchtime concerts, and I was in bed around 6pm due to jetlag, so I missed all the evening concerts)
  • assorted touristy maps, brochurs, and voucher booklet.
  • a small flat box of peppermints. When I was investigating the bag, I couldn't figure out what they were, so I joked to my supervisor that they probably weren't esctacy pills. (those are small and white, right?)
  • 2 GB usb key with all the proceedings. Quite nicely laid out, too, with cross-referenced pdfs.

When I saw the usb key, I thought it would only be 1 GB, so I was quite pleasantly surprised. I've vaguely considered buying a bigger usb key, so this'll be quite useful once I delete the conference meterials from it.


I was presenting rhythmic exercise creation -- basically the first half of chapter 2 of my thesis. This was the least prepared I've ever been for a talk; I was still working on slides 20 minutes before the actual presentation, and I'd only ran through it three times.

It went better than I expected. I talked too quickly, and finished in about ten minutes (I had 15... but the previous group had gone over time, so the session chair was happy about me). I covered everything I wanted to cover; if I'd added more material, it would have gone into too much detail.

I even included info about my Masters thesis on the final page, saying "this is out of scope of the paper, but if you were wondering what I'm actually doing with these exercises...". A few people downloaded the thesis; we'll see if they have any comments later in the week.


My tiny eee laptop is doing quite well. It auto-detected the full screen at something like 600x400 instead of Yx480, so my slides were cut off at the bottom. But I managed to find the xrandr command to change the resolution of external VGA very quickly, and I wrote a to set it appropriately. Some people were very impressed to see me plug in my laptop, start X11, change the resolution, and type "make show" to begin the presentation.

The only problem is the battery, which I mentioned earlier. But the small keyboard and display are no trouble for me, and with the success of giving a presentation, I feel much more positive about this beauty.

LilyPond Fame?

I've heard that lilypond was used more widely in Europe than North America, but I never quite realized how much. When people mention it in their presentations, they just say "we used lilypond" and don't feel compelled to explain what it is. Half a dozen people recognized my name from the -user list, and when I mentioned that I was one of the main developers of lilypond, I could feel the atmosphere of the room change. Actually, during one of the questions of somebody else's presentation, I chimed in with some info about converting formats to lilypond.

So maybe all that time wasn't as wasted as I thought it was. I've certainly regretted not spending more time on Marsyas or chuck or some of the other big North American projects... if I'd spent half the time on chuck as I did on lilypond, I'd have gotten much more recognition at ICMC, given how many Princeton people were there... but maybe all the lilypond work was useful after all. If I end up going to Europe.


On the final morning, I was so fed up with presentations that I decided to do the tourist thing and walk around Belfast. (besides, the sessions weren't at all in my research area)

It was... I think the best term is "underwhelming". I mean, once you've seen one neighborhood of houses in the UK, you've seen them all. At least, judging from London, Oxford, and Belfast. How can people stand those red brick identical houses?! Ditto for shops. At least, non-city-center shops. Those had some different displays, but still nothing fancy. Halfway in between the identical-brick-buildings and stores in a North American city.

Oh, and the parks are a joke here. Fenced off lawns and trees. The whole point of grass is to be walked on! That's why it grows so short! And the whole point of trees is to be climbed. Not that I've actually climbed a tree in the past twenty years... but in Canadian parks, there's always the option of tree-climbing.

And I can't get over how silly those lawns are... the ones where you can see the direction they raked them in. Yes, they actually rake their lawns. I saw somebody doing that at the university on Thurs morning.

If I had paid attention during art history stuff as part of my compositions classes at SFU, I could probably make some snappy comment about how this demonstrates the Romantic character of the UK ("the great man triumphing over nature and bending it to his will" or whatever), while the Canadian parks demonstrates the Enlightenment character of Canada ("it is not rational to cut the grass, since the bunnies will eat it for us. Therefore we should leave nature alone and let the park forests and grass grow as they want" or whatever). But since I didn't, I can't.

Oh, and I was quite disappointed with the girls in Belfast. I didn't seen any long-haired blond girls. You know, the ones you always see playing harps and stuff? Nope. I haven't seen anybody with hair longer than mine. So much for the "celtic beauty" stuff.


Also in the "sad disillusionment" category are the accents. I've finally realized that not all European accents are sexy. And some of them are almost impossible to understand! I really didn't think I'd have this problem in the UK... I mean, I can understand anybody in Canada (apart from maybe East Coasters), and Canada covers so much more land than the UK. OTOH, I guess the UK has far more people than Canada does.

This might sound really weird to European readers, so let me clarify: until I went to Belfast, my biggest exposure to Euroepan accents came from James Bond films. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that not everybody in Europe sounds like a Bond girl! :(

In Vancouver, we don't have many recent European immigrants. I know a few people who moved here ten or more years ago, but that's it. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are Asian... come to think of it, there were a few Asian Bond girls, but since I heard non-sexy versions of those accents all the time in high school, I never became fixated on them.

I did have lunch one day with an Oxfordian. His accent definitely was sexy.