My Week at a Machine Learning Conference – Part 1, Iceland

I just got home from a couple of weeks in Europe. I spent most of the time in Barcelona, at the NIPS 2016 conference, and then visited Iceland for a little bit on the way home.

On the way to Spain, I had a 12 hour stopover in Iceland. The plane arrived there at 2 AM on a Sunday morning, and since I knew everything would be closed (and I was going to come back a week later, and stay for 5 days), I wasn’t sure whether it was worth it to take a bus into Reykjavik, which is 40 minutes away from Keflavik airport.

I decided to just hang around the airport, and maybe grab some sleep. Icelandic has had a huge tourism boom in the past 5 or 10 years, and I don’t think the airport has scaled very well, but I found a relatively empty area and settled down. There was a guy a few rows away from me having a fairly audible video chat, and I noticed he had a Scala sticker on his laptop, and mentioned Peter Thiel several times. I gave it a fairly good chance he was also going to NIPS. Later in the week, I thought about this guy, because although he’d fit in any sort of startup/tech meetup, after being at the conference for a few days, I wasn’t so sure he fit the NIPS crowd. My main takeaway was that I’d been pronouncing “Thiel” incorrectly.

About 2 hours into my stopover, I realized that hanging out at this cold, boring airport for another 10 hours was going to be sort of hellish, so I bought a bus ticket to downtown Reykjavik. Within an hour, I was downtown, carrying my extremely heavy carry-on bag (no wheels) and my equally heavy personal item (a leather messenger bag stuff with a laptop, a couple of cameras, battery packs, etc). I realized pretty fast that I had made a huge mistake when picking what luggage to bring, a mistake that would make me miserable for pretty much the entire trip.

A couple of months ago, before booking the trip, I asked on Twitter whether it was worth going into Reykjavik early on a Sunday morning, and a bunch of very nice, helpful people assured me that it was worth it. I don’t want to go on a tangent about the power of the Internet here, but it’s amazing what a resource it can be.

Before everybody was hooked into social networking, it would’ve been hard to find an answer to my question, but in 2016, it took maybe 20 minutes before at least 5 or 10 people had provided suggestions for things to look for, and told me that yes, it was indeed a great idea to head into town. I still find this kind of thing amazing, setting aside the fact that all these people were completely wrong. It was a terrible idea.

Reykjavik at 5 AM on a Sunday in December was cold, dark (sunrise was 11 AM), and deserted. I spent a few hours walking around, with my heavy bags, and.. I guess looked at some buildings and some ducks – I hardly remember. I did have a sandwich at some bakery. It was actually a great sandwich, and I followed it up with a big cookie, which is completely out of character for me – I guess I was trying to salvage the trip. That was actually quite a nice little moment I guess, having a pretty decadent cookie, early in the morning no less.

As I was finishing the food, I saw a very reflective piece of metal on one of the cabinets, which let me see behind the counter. There were two cheerful, friendly ladies working; I’d guess that they were students. One had just gone down some stairs with some cleaning supplies, and the other, who could easily be described as a dainty, elfy, Bjork-soundalike, took the opportunity to sit down where nobody should have been able to see her, and she gave her nose the deepest, most vigorous picking I’ve ever witnessed.

I thought later that maybe I’d seen a child pick their nose more wildly than this lady, but I don’t know if that’s actually true. Kids get a lot of runny noses, and they’re not very self conscious, and I’ve seen them do some brutal things up in those nostrils, but I think this actually may have been worse – maybe because this lady had the strength and precision of an adult. I tried to look away, but I wasn’t able – this is my fault, not hers. My only excuse is that I guess I fancy myself to be a bit of an anthropologist, and this was, in a way, an interesting look back at Iceland’s Viking heritage. I could easily imagine a group of tough sailors showing up on the Icelandic shores over 1000 years ago, surveying the land, grunting in approval, and then waiting until they had a moment alone to pillage their noses.

At around 10:30, I gave up on Reykjavik and hopped on a bus back to the airport, where I waited for 4 or 5 hours before I headed off to Barcelona.

[Continued in the next part, which is why the title of this says “Part 1” – the next part will be Part 2. There will at least be one more part after that, probably Part 3.]

Some kind of historical building I think. I’m not sure, it was closed.
This building also looked somewhat historical. I think it was a pretty nice building, architecturally, but it was hard to tell, since it was so dark. Anyway it was closed, and there was nobody around to ask.