Wednesday, August 13, 2008

SciFoo Before- and Afterthoughts

Beforethoughts

When I got the invitation to SciFoo, I thought I'd decline. I halfways assumed I ended up on this email list accidentally and had a scheduling conflict already (I meant to be in Germany at this time to help my husband with his move). In addition to this, they didn't reimburse travel expenses and my budget for such purposes is typically permanently overstretched (they payed the hotel though).

Mostly however I've been hesitant because I am very skeptic about the merits of unconferencing. I'm not much of a believer in creative chaos - it is typically more chaotic than creative, especially if crammed into two days. The possibility that anything comes out of such a gathering except for empty words, a large exchange of business cards, and self-celebration just seems very small. The only thing I knew about SciFoo was what Lee told about last year (which had something to do with Martha Steward, I can't quite recall the details). It didn't sound like a meeting I'd want to be at. If the only thing you bring back is names of people with Wikipedia entries and a T-shirt, I can find better ways to spend my time and money. Neither did I ever have a large interest in visiting Silicon Valley, and had never heard of O'Reilly Media.

So, why did I go then? Well, first, out of curiosity. Second, because California is always nice. Third, because it was a good excuse to avoid Stefan's move. Forth, because I'm in a midlife crisis and don't know what to do with my life anyway (but don't worry coz I've said that for at least ten years now).

Afterthoughts

Thus, admittedly I was negatively biased upon arrival. We were told the first evening we're supposed to socialize and make friends and have FUN! Luckily, there were plenty of British people around who looked about as enthusiastic as me upon being told to socialize at 10pm with a 9 hour jetlag.

Despite my cynical attitude I realized fast most of the people on the meeting were luckily reasonable, normal though over-averagely intelligent, and one could actually have sensible discussions. I mean, seriously, I was afraid I'd be facing 48 hours full of smalltalk and 'What are you doing, oh how interesting' with totally crazy VIPs (California seems to attract them).

The first evening I talked to some bloggers about how weird it can be to meet people you only knew online previously. Some of them are just what you'd expect, but others are quite different. It didn't come as a surprise to me I'm considered falling into the latter category. My writing output doesn't match my chatting desire. Typically, I'm a spectator who will process information later. So that's what you get right now.

Surprisingly though it was easy - it was really easy to start a conversation. The atmosphere was very relaxed, the desperados trying to impress others were missing which I believe makes a big difference to conferences I typically go. It seems to me everybody assumed everybody else is at SciFoo because he or she is doing something interesting. In addition to this, everybody could suggest and hold a session under the same circumstances. Thus the organizers did not impose any hierarchy of plenary and parallel sessions which put all of us on an equal starting level. Likewise, we were all staying in the same two hotels, no economy housing elsewhere for the financially less fortunate.

I have neither founded any company, nor written several books, nor won a Nobelprize, but it turned out being a theoretical physicist is quite cool these days which was an uplifting experience to begin with. I ended up having dinner with a Nobel-prize winner because Frank Wilczek's wife apparently thought I look like a nice person to sit with; most interesting conversation I've had was with a guy from Pixar (Toy story 3 is coming), I learned something about advertising in science and politics, the doom and gloom of a civilization heading for break down (that's you guys between Canada and Mexico), data sharing, and city planning (I used the opportunity to complain extensively about the lack of sidewalks in North America). Funnily enough, about half of the people I talked to wondered like me what they are doing among all the VIPs (just check the blog reactions).

All together it was a very positive experience. Though the intensity of the meeting has advantages (most notably, more people will be able to come), a large disadvantage is that you aren't really able to follow up on a thought or a conversation and to get something running at place. One would hope that people keep contact with each other, but there is always the risk once they are back at their desk you turn into an annoyance in their inbox. It would have been nice to stay for some days for some more relaxed meetings with people who you've found share some of your interests. Also, because of the large amount of parallel sessions everybody was left with the feeling of having missed something - an effect that I noticed often happens at conferences with parallel sessions but usually fades after some days if people have a chance to catch up and hear what was going on elsewhere.

Bottomline

What did I learn from that?

  • Well, for one it seems to me an important aspect of the success of that meeting is a carefully assembled list of participants, and a carefully unassembled schedule.


  • In addition, creative exchange benefits noticeably from having only participants who actually are interested in being at the meeting. (In contrast to the invited plenary speaker who will leave immediately after his talk.)


  • Not trying to worsen differences in experience or career by dividing participants into different housing or different types of talks also seems to considerably improve casual exchange.


  • Constant supply of food and drinks keeps people in a good mood (Nothing new about that. Btw, I still need $1500 for catering at our upcoming conference, otherwise people will have to eat the PI-pens. If you know anybody who can afford that, please, please email me.)




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23 comments:

Jean-Claude Bradley said...

Nice thoughtful post. Yes it is easy to let connections fade after the meeting. But blogging certainly helps consolidate those connections.

changcho said...

Ah; had the time to post just now. So you were in the Google campus...just blocks where I work. Yes, the O'Reilly books are famous for being extremely good about computing topics (java, Linux, Windows, emacs, etc.). Sounds like you enjoyed your stay in Mountain View, CA.

Bee said...

Hi Jean-Claude,

Not sure about the consolidation, but blogging certainly helps to keep track of people. I am always relieved if somebody writes a blog where you can see what is he up to these days and what's been going on etc.

Hi Changcho,

Funny :-) Next time I'm around let's go for a coffee or something. I see, O'Reilly doesn't seem to publish the kind of book I typically read so that explains why I haven't heard of them before. I haven't seen much of Mountainview, but admittedly to some extend most US cities are very similar anyway except for the geographic differences. How is living and working in that area? Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bee,

I don't think you have a cynical attitude. Sometimes you are kind of ironical like a Britain would be :-) By the way I like British humor. Following your blogs, I think you are trying to do your best to contribute to the science community in a good way; you simply seem to be a bit pessimistic sometimes.

And it seems you are a bit concerned about the move of Stefan, because both of you are stay some time on two points on earth. Well so that seems to be an explanation of you being a bit depressed right now.

Kind regards

Kay zum Felde

Bee said...

Hi Kay,

Thanks for the kind words. I don't think of myself as pessimistic, it just happens that I often end up offering that point of view simply because nobody else does (which seems to happen considerably more often in North America than in Germany). I think of my contribution usually more as that of a critic: whatever it is you do or suggest, you can rely on me to dislike it, it seems to come naturally to me. I think progress is driven by curiosity as much as by dissatisfaction. If our ancestors had constantly told each other everything is great as it is we'd still live in the stone age. Unfortunately however, I just seem to come off as unenthusiastic or pessimistic.

To quite some extend however that seems to be a cultural phenomenon. E.g. I don't have that problem in the largest part of the EU. And I too like British humor :-)

Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

With all of what you have said with the benefit of hindsight it appears that it was worthwhile. It also is evident that for the organizers V.I.P. comes out meaning very interesting people, of which it’s not surprising you were identified. Although I don’t believe that such meetings are even remotely conceived as being able to solve the world’s problems, it does present a collection of people who in their own way as individuals have some thoughts about how that might be done and at least care.

Best,

Phil

bellamy said...

I think you're generally perplexed, which is evident in a bit of your manner, and confirmed by your admission of a 'mid-life crisis'. You might recall several posts ago I asked what vexed you.

Perhaps you need something quite out of the ordinary. And I'm in a familiar location along the way, either to or from the west coast, if such is the case.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Funny you're saying that because my thoughts were going the same way. You know that I keep saying if there is ever to be a change that helps us deal with the problems our societies are facing presently it's not going to come from politics, it has to come from the scientific community (preferably globally). That brings up the question how to catalyze that. I agree with you that the SciFoo group of people is a good selection, but the aim of that meeting is entirely elsewhere. Also, if that was the purpose I'd probably want to include some politicians and some more people from the social sciences. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Bellamy,

Thanks :-) Yes, you are probably right. I'm generally perplexed and confused that seems to be the groundstate of my mind. I find it very hard to make sense of human behavior, I'm doing much better with maths, thus my reservations about everything that includes socializing. Best,

B.

"There's definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour"
~Bjork

Uncle Al said...

For catering without budget talk with a fast food giant like Carl's Jr. Perhaps you can trade advertising endorsement for edible chattels. Imagine being the Paris Hilton of quantized gravitation. Like this,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9P1TTJrho58

but instead writing all over a black/white board with g(mu)(nu) or heterotic strings. Big fluffy hair. One presumes lab coat not bathing suit. (There's Amanda Peet and Amanda Peet.)

Carl's Jr's big burgers are mouth-waterers. Science is not a debate over red or white wine. Pretense is reserved for more important topics.

Tk said...

So SciFoo is not much about Sci or Foo. It's about socializing. A lot of money spent on socializing good time.

This nevertheless indicative of Sci on the upswing after many years of 'who cares'. During the 80's and 90's when computer tech was on the upswing there were a million conferences with hundreds of varieties. And yes there were lots of TechFoo type conferences. Because Tech was cool and there was a lot of money to go around. Today, Tech has become a boring commodity and budgets are tight. Most of the famous tech conferences are history. Enjoy things like SciFoo while they last!

changcho said...

Hi Bee - sure. Living and working in the Bay Area is quite nice, although I don't live in Mtn. View, and the work commute can take anywhere between 25 and 60 mins. depending on traffic and/or on whether I have to drop off my kids at school or not (currently they're on vacation). I'm relatively lucky since many people working around here have far longer commutes to work...

best.

Giotis said...

Hi Bee,

"You know that I keep saying if there is ever to be a change that helps us deal with the problems our societies are facing presently it's not going to come from politics, it has to come from the scientific community (preferably globally)".

This must be surely a wishful thinking. People (scientists included) and politicians don't control the way society is evolving. The only true power is the economic power. The Politicians and the scientists are its servants like anyone else. The economic elite (both nationally and worldwide) shape the future according to its own interests. People have the impression that they control their destiny through their elected governments but that is just an illusion. So forget about it; all the scientists of the world don't have the power to change anything.

BR

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

I find it very hard to make sense of human behavior.

Darn! so I shouldn't ask you for advice about...

Best,
-Arun

Anonymous said...

Hi Bee,

I think you are right, that being curious is as much as dissatisfaction the driving force of humans at least in the case of a scientist. It is also depending on the personality. To me Feynman, f.e., seemed to be much more driven by his curiousity than by dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction can cause curiousity. F.e., myself, finding out that some theory has weaknesses I often become curious in order think about some other concepts to get to a new point of view. Most times this yields again in dissatisfaction since in reality usually only a few new concepts survive, but every new idea that works endows me with 'wings' which means I become much more curious to know more.

Kind regards

Kay zum Felde

Bee said...

Hi Kay,

There is certainly truth in what you say. Dissatisfaction by itself isn't constructive. There must also be the desire to find out the cause and make things better. I can relate very well to what you say. Very often however, there seem to be many more ways to make things worse than better. I never liked thermodynamics ;-)

Best,

B.

Bee said...

PS: You don't have to comment as 'Anonymous' even if you don't have a blogger ID. Chose option Name/URL, you don't have to enter an URL.

Bee said...

Hi TK,

Sure, I think meetings like that serve an important purpose for the community. In the case of SciFoo it helps on the interdisciplinary side and for cross-fertilization which is a good thing as far as I'm concerned. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

Well, one can learn to work with things even if one can't make sense of them. Think quantum mechanics. Same thing with humans. I rarely understand why they do what they do, but I've learned to live with it.

I always give advises when asked, but it's not always advisable to follow them ;-)

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

Sure, I'm the queen of wishful thinking, but I prefer to call it 'vision'. You are wrong, the world isn't ruled by economy. It is fairly easy to see why. Our economical as well as our political systems are faith based. That's scary but true. You can see it when they break down. Money is a promise, it is empty if people don't believe in its value. Laws are equally empty if people just decide to ignore them. And the more trust is lost, the less trust we have in the power of economy and politics to organize our lives in a good way, the more desperately people will look for something trustworthy. Something that's not faith based, something that's not rethorics, something that's not big speeches and empty promises. Science is the only thing they can fall back upon. It is not a coincidenc that while political and economical issues become more and more complex, more and more difficult issues get oursourced to academia. We're all looking for a reliable method to circumvent trial and error when we can't afford errors. That's why I'm endlessly repeating it is a huge mistake to let advertisement tactics creep into scientific argumentation. It erodes trust in the last instance we have to initiate change. Best,

B.

X said...

Hi Bee,

“Because I'm in a midlife crisis and don't know what to do with my life anyway (but don't worry coz I've said that for at least ten years now).”

“Sure, I'm the queen of wishful thinking, but I prefer to call it 'vision'.”

For you since I agree with Bellamy completely.

You are not a queen. Amalie Emmy Noether and Marie Curie for example are queens. You are 3-4 years old completely confused girl who even ready to throw away everything you know and learn and to start something new for you and again irrelevant.

You are doing well, your blog maintain reasonable SNR (BTW try to explain to your hero L.Smolin what the definition of SNR is). And try to be a TEACHER.

Regards, Dany.

stefan said...

Dany,

take the effort not to completely distort the quotes you are citing ("queen of wishful thinking" is different from "queen", so is this a deliberate misquotation to launch the following insult?), and stop insulting your host and giving content-free unsolicited advice, unless you are interested in your comments will be deleted without further notice.

Thanks, Stefan

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Yes of course this was not the focus of SciFoo yet could have been one of the subjects chosen in as things were open to some degree. Perhaps next time you could start such a dialogue by submitting and posing the question. Actually Martin Rees’ concerns touch somewhat on such things and yet as you say he didn’t come off that well. I haven’t read his book so cannot comment in that regard yet from the brief TED lecture of his I viewed he touched on part of it in outline.

I agree the politicians at some point need to be brought into the mix and yet I would say it should be at a much later stage since you face the likelihood of having it distort and render the process useless much the same as big business can.

I think that first the problems must be clearly identified and the various optional solutions and weighted benefits need to be made clear as being accurate. I think the scientific community for the most part needs to bypass the political system and speak directly to the people without relying or trusting on the politicians to carry the message or represent them. Al Gore is an example of this where although he has had the issue be recognized he has distorted the sources of the problem and shifted attention in regards to solutions to ineffective directions. No I say have the scientists first form a clear consensus and take that directly to the public. The first step is to appoint your spokespeople and your leaders which may not be in all cases the same.

Best,

Phil