I was accepted this week to present a poster at the Ultrasonics Industry Association conference. It’s in April, before ISMRM, so it will actually be my first poster at a real scientific conference. Maybe. It seems to be very much an industrial forum, so I’m not sure whether it’s a scientific conference. I feel like I need a taxonomy of meetings.

The Medical-Dental-Legal Update

Last week I noticed a sign in our hotel lobby welcoming participants to “The Medical-Dental-Legal Update”. I was intrigued. It looked to be some sort of extraordinarily generic conference. The poster didn’t list any dates, and there was no other evidence in the hotel of any conference at all, never mind one big enough to justify the title.

I think most people are aware that business conferences often get held in fancy resorts. I learned about this when I was maybe 12. We were camping on the beach on St. John, USVI. Walking along the shoreline I ran into another kid of a similar age and asked him

Me: Why did you come here?
Him: My dad is here for a conference. He’s a radiologist.

This makes sense, more or less. Conference organizers know people are more likely to come if the meeting is held at a high end vacation destination, and less likely if it’s in some drab motel or faceless convention center. That’s true even though a hotel in St. John is more expensive than, say, a Best Western in Columbus, because the company/practice/office/firm is paying, not the people attending.

Actually, there’s a bit of a tricky problem here. If a doctor’s practice pays for a vacation trip, the expense of the trip is taxable income in the sight of the IRS, and the practice might as well hand over the cost of the trip as a cash bonus instead. To make the system work, the conference can’t be a “vacation”. It has to be a business expense, which makes it non-taxable. For a business-related meeting, this is a fairly believable interpretation, although the US Virgin Islands might not be the optimally frugal location to hold such a meeting.

Business meetings in paradise are an old story. A newer twist is educational seminars. Many professional fields, especially regulated professions like doctors, require “continuing education” to maintain certification. Continuing education credits are awarded for attending seminars, and hospital cities like Boston are full of these lectures. I’m sure it didn’t take long before someone saw the obvious opportunity here: why attend lectures in your own city when you can attend them in Hawaii or Cancun? That makes the whole trip a business expense, of course…

Wandering around town on Thursday I saw a “free newspapers” box full of brochures for The Medical-Dental-Legal Update, and I decided to take a look. At first it seemed like a classic continuing education seminar series, and so I read the opening description

The 2009-10 Medical-Dental-Legal Update is a unique and accredited 20-hour survey of pressing issues in Malpractice, Risk Management, Healthcare Law, Practice Management and selected Clinical topics. Produced on broadcast grade digital media and presented in structured classroom settings, American Educational Institute offers over 900 weekly opportunities to attend at your choice of 30 premier resorts, and you may begin your attendance on any weekday.

[emphasis mine]

It took me a moment to digest… and then I remembered wandering into a far corner of the hotel’s basement and seeing a few people at desks watching a TV screen at the front of the bare room. The Medical-Dental-Legal Update is a video recording. The AEI could show their videos anywhere in the world, stream them over the internet or send them to you on DVD, but that would defeat the purpose. Instead, they only show them at the finest resorts at the top tourist destinations. “AEI offers the perfect way to mix business with pleasure”. They have masterfully taken the tax-exempt business trip to its logical extreme, in the basement of the Christiania hotel at Vail Mountain, and 29 other venues.

I guess AEI expects that the reader might be skeptical, because the next section is titled “Full Compliance with Tax Laws”:

Seminar tuition and associated travel, lodging, and meal expenses are tax deductible if the primary purpose of your trip is to maintain or improve professional skills. While you should always consult your tax advisor regarding your personal situation, AEI courses are designed to comply fully with current tax laws.

So you can entirely deduct the expenses of your trip to Palm Springs, Aruba, Aspen, Orlando, Puerto Vallarta, Maui, or Breckenridge, as long as you can claim with a straight face that your primary reason for going was to watch these videos on a TV screen.

This is not a recipe for a well-functioning society.

Day 5

We got lucky, sort of. The weather reports were conservative, and by 9 AM we had 9 inches of snow with more still coming down. I went out skiing with my grandfather and an instructor in the freshly fallen snow.

Skiing in fresh snow was an amazing experience, but by no means easy. It seemed to require an entirely different control scheme from packed snow, and we both took a fall within the first few minutes. Thankfully, it’s also a great cushion.

Later on, I skied with the instructor alone. She led me past an “Experts Only – Variable Conditions” sign to Headwall, a black diamond that had been closed due to wind and visibility. It was still nearly a whiteout, with curls of snow peeling off every ridge. “Come on!” she said, “you’re gonna get to lay down first tracks”.

It was hard, and I fell over within the first few turns. It takes more than one day to learn to ski in powder. Actually, even though the snow seemed lighter and drier than anything I’d seen before, the experts told me that it was wet and dense compared to true Colorado snow. One termed it “Sierra cement”.

Regardless of the experts’ opinion, I got my first taste of gliding, almost surfing, on a fluid cushion of snow. I can see why people like it.

Day 4

Vail is almost the worst case scenario for sunburn. The two mile elevation, balmy weather, cloudless skies, and shadowless expanses of pure white snow all worsen the propensity for sunburn. Despite being dressed for skiing, and dousing myself in large-caliber sunblock multiple times a day, I was still uncomfortably burnt this morning. I decided to take a day off and mostly stay inside.

I did venture out for lunch, though. Vail is the land of the $18 panini, but I was looking for something a little lower falutin. I walked through the whole commercial district of Vail before finding, hidden at the furthest edge of West Lion’s Head, an unassuming breakfast place (hours: “7:00ish to 2:00″) called The Little Diner. It was a good approximation to a greasy spoon, even if orders were taken on a touchscreen tablet, and they whipped up a great Denver Omelette in no time.

By the end of day yesterday the mountain was beginning to show brown spots, and a few blades of grass could be seen poking through the snow. Today was the third wonderfully warm day in a row, great for walking but no so great for skiing.

The weather forecast calls for a few inches of snow overnight and into tomorrow, meaning tomorrow morning could be optimal skiing conditions. I’ll be well-rested.

Day 3

My brother Jeff came to visit today, and we skied together for most of the day. Jeff’s many levels above me in ability, with a style more like the instructors than most of the guests, but I could follow behind without being a danger to myself or others. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a chance to ski with Jeff before, so it was a really fun day. We covered a whole lot of terrain, covering many different peaks and bowls all across Vail.

The weather was warm yesterday and today. Yesterday this seemed to damage the skiing, turning the mountain into mush. This morning, the mush had frozen into a hard shell, and even groomed runs produced an unpleasantly familiar scraping sensation. As the temperature rose, though, the ice unbound, and the skiers scraped it into a luxurious cover. By the early afternoon, the snow was truly pleasant. It might have been the best day yet.

Day 2

I had planned to join a lesson this morning at 9, but I left my lift pass in the room, so the lesson went off without me. Instead, I skied around alone, wandering through what looked to be easier trails, wherever they went. Some trails were narrow and winding, hemmed in by dense pines on both sides, running on and on and on.

Other trails, like Flapjack, turned into enormously wide slopes, filled with skiers. There, downstream of a confluence, the wide slope was dense with skiers, and I wound up in a collision. I wiped out and lost both skis; the other guy was basically unperturbed. I might have left a little bit bruised, but it’s hard to distinguish from the general soreness.

I caught up with the lesson I’d missed, with the same instructor as yesterday and another member of our little group, far more experienced than I. We focused on moguls, which were basically a disaster for me. The instructor kindly allowed that my questionably fitting boots were “at least half” of my problem. On a mountain with this many moguls it’s a bit frustrating not to be able to attack them, but I expect I’m going to need more than three more days to pick up that skill.

Vail Village is very kitschy, aggressively faux-Alpine, with Bavarian and Austrian architecture and cuisine. Any direction you look, though, the snowcapped mountains loom over the fresh cobblestone streets and bland bronze sculptures. The landscape has an authenticity that nothing can erase.

First Day

Vail is famous for the snow, the climate, and the terrain. I didn’t really get to experience the snow today. Winds yesterday up to 60 MPH were sufficient not only to close much of the mountain, but blow off the loose powder. What was left across the whole mountain today was loosely packed snow, the sort one might find on the best slope of the best mountain in New Hampshire on the luckiest skiing day of the year.

The climate is bizarre. For example, today’s high was about 46 degrees, but the group of us here (including two men in their 80s) ate lunch at a picnic table outside, without a second thought. We were worried about getting sunburnt, perhaps, but not about getting cold. The thin, dry air must have such low specific heat and conductivity that it cannot chill you. It’s wonderful.

The terrain is also absurd. Vail has 5,289 acres of skiable terrain, according to Wikipedia. I haven’t done the full calculation, but I think this is likely more than all of New Hampshire combined, and maybe even Vermont. All terrain types are represented across 34 lifts and several distinct faces. Today I skied everything from slow winding easy trails to a vast unbroken black diamond mogul field, without seeing more than the smallest fraction of the mountain.

Part of the reason there’s so much terrain is that the slopes are often hundreds of feet wide. Grooming them, I watched from a chairlift today, takes a parade of nine massive grooming machines, running in a perfectly spaced staggered parade, with sirens blaring to alert nearby skiers. I can see why they avoid grooming most of the mountain, resulting in what could easily be 1000 acres of mogul fields.


This morning I flew to Vail for a week with my grandfather and another family. The Boston taxi drove through a pre-dawn maelstrom to the airport. The flights were uneventful enough.

In Vail, we rented skis, picked up lift tickets, and generally got the administrative business out of the way. Tomorrow we will put on our boots and walk right out of the hotel onto the slopes. By tomorrow afternoon, I should have some idea why people say skiing in the West is so much different from New England.

The base of Vail is 8120 feet above sea level, and while it’s hard to be sure, I think I can feel the elevation. Even sitting still, I feel like I’m breathing deeply. The summit is 11,570 feet. We’ll see if I can ski at all, this high up.


Today I got what might be my first scientific poster since high school. Scientific meetings these days always have easels and corkboards, so nobody uses trifolds, but otherwise it’s basically the same as a high school science fair. This poster is for the session at the Biophysics Recruiting event on Saturday, which is a general scientific audience, so the poster is pretty basic. I made it with this guy’s LaTeX poster template, which turned out ok, if not exactly beautiful.

I got it printed by PhDPosters.com, which was ridiculously convenient and cheap. I haven’t taken it out of its tube yet, but if the quality’s any good there’s no reason to make a poster any other way.