Saturday, August 09, 2008

SciFoo Camp - 1st day

Here I am, at the SciFoo Camp in the bay area. I did fly in yesterday and of course I am up way too early now, waiting for the sun to rise. I almost missed the flight because we were stuck some hours on the 401 - I'd really, really like to know who has the ingenious idea to close two of three lanes of one of the main highways to Toronto for a construction on a Friday morning. I suspect it to be a real world experiment for traffic jam formation. It took 30 minutes to create a 10 km backup and raise the average blood pressure by 40 points. PI's driver did his best, constantly cursing all the Canadians who don't know how to drive (he's German), and otherwise complaining he couldn't watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic games.

Toronto does US custom pre-clearance so requires you to arrive at least one hour prior to departure. I am three minutes too late at the airport and just freak out when I'm told I'd have to wait for the next flight. I have someone talk to a manager, am put in the front of a queue and run through Pearson International to jump on a plane. To my surprise, even my bag arrives with me. I'm really getting better with yelling at airline personnel.

San Francisco welcomes me with blue sky, sunshine and a Yellow Cab driver from Chicaco. A black women with clothes size 14 who constantly chews gum while cursing all the BMW drivers, calls me honey and upon arrival at the hotel goes "Ooh, aah, wow, hey, boah, looks expensive!" Indeed, that's the reason why I'm not staying any night more than what Google pays. And yes, it's a nice place, at least the sinks are not made of plastic.

Shuttle buses bring us to the "Googleplex" and I feel like visiting Disneyland, just that the people welcoming us wear Google-shirts instead of Mickey-Mouse ears. Welcome to Google! We all get name tags, are photographed, are handed a SciFoo T-shirt and a SciFoo bag, and some other nice things. Everywhere there's security personnel. I look at the schedule, which says 5:30 pm: Socializing. Gee, what am I supposed to do? I hold on to a glass of red wine (a good one) and talk to somebody about climate change models who to my irritation constantly looks past me, then suddenly he goes "Hey! Did you see that guy? That's Neal Stephenson." I'm not blind and I can read, so I nod, "He's REALLY famous!" the guy goes. I nod.

Luckily, some familiar faces appear: there's Garrett Lisi, Stephon Alexander, Paul Davies, Martin Rees, Frank Wilczek, Michael Nielsen, Lee Smolin, Fotini Markupoulou, Max Tegmark and Olaf Dreyer, and some other people I've met online, Robin Hanson from Overcoming Bias and Neylon Cameron. Some people say hey, they read my blog and nice to meet you. I have a brief chat with a women named Jill Something whose face looks strangely familiar but I can't place her anywhere. With some hours delay it occurs to me I've seen her on that TED video (thanks Phil for sending the link!), I feel strangely misplaced among all the VIPs.

After some dinner, we all gather in a room for the introduction. I didn't really expect there to be so many people, I would estimate maybe 250 or so. I haven't been at a conference that size for a long time. Tim O'Reilly and Timo Hannay make a brief introduction about the spirit of the meeting: Mingle and interact. Talk about what's on your mind, even if it's not a finished work or not your area of work altogether. We're supposed to make at least a dozen new friends, he says. I don't think I have acquired a dozen friends within my whole life.

Then we all have to introduce ourselves, name, institution and three words that describe our interests. It feels to me like one of these memory games, 250 faces and names, how many can you recall? What I recall one hour later is that almost everybody is a native English speaker, evidently the majority of participants is from North America or Great Britain, and even those who are not live there. I recognize two French accents, and there's another German, living in London, who I meet later at the buffet fishing a Warsteiner out of the ice-water.

For those of you who don't know how to unconference, here is what happens then: Boards with empty schedules are put up, people run to grab pens and occupy a slot, that's supposedly fun. There are various rooms in different sizes and you have to guess are there 5 or maybe 120 people interested in the topic? Add what you're planning on, a discussion, a presentation, a demonstration, a group therapy? I take a pen out of somebody's hand and write "The Marketplace of Ideas" on a yellow post-it, then jump to the board and stick it onto a random slot. Turns out however, nobody knows what that's supposed to be about. Heck, don't these people read my blog? So I add a subtitle "Why the academic system sucks".

I'm scheduled for 3pm, wish me good luck.


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23 comments:

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

We're supposed to make at least a dozen new friends, he says. I don't think I have acquired a dozen friends within my whole life.

I imagine friendship means different things in the German and the American cultures.

Quoting from your own blog -

"Problems occur, however, when Germans and Americans meet, for Germans often interpret American "friendliness" behaviors as the beginning of deeper friendships, which the Americans may not be intending at all. Americans, even if unconsciously, tend to know these distinctions exist. They know when friendliness is meant, and they know when a different relationship--a deeper, more enduring friendship is developing. More than once the German-speaking interviewees in this book talked about their first reactions to Americans' statements like "Hi, how are you?" and "Let's get together sometime," which the Germans took literally. They were quite disappointed when the Americans looked shocked at their detailed explanations about how they were, or when they never did "get together" with them.

Conversely, Americans can interpret German "respect" as distance or aloofness, or negative honest assessment as rudeness. If a supermarket clerk were not to say anything to many Americans upon reaching the cashier, it would be perceived as a problem, most probably unfriendliness. Similarly, telling a friend how bad she looks would also be construed as rude."

Anyway, as long as your sense of humor is not exhausted, this should turn out OK.

Best,
-Arun

Arun said...

BTW, you're a thought-leader, did you know that, Bee?

:)

(from the link to the SciFoo camp)

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

Indeed, I meant to link to that earlier post about US-German differences, but couldn't find it. Good to have attentive readers :-)

Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...

Wow, it sounds amazing, if a bit awkward. I'm very jealous. I'd be more interested in Google than the science stuff. Can you take any photos inside the Googleplex? Can you sneak out when nobody is looking and copy the Google ranking algorithm onto a pen drive - it's bound to be on one of their PCs.

Andrew Thomas said...

The difference between a Googolplex and a Googleplex. "Page shows that the number of states in a black hole with a mass roughly equivalent to the Andromeda Galaxy is in the range of a googolplex".

Uncle Al said...

"Why the academic system sucks"

An admirable command of colloquial English, the US Department of Education, social activism, and grant funding as a professionally-managed business enterprise.

Best efforts will not substitute for knowledge. Ignorance is not a form of knowing things.

Anonymous said...

"Why the academic system sucks"

You're my personal hero !!! :)

Bee said...

Hey, I have groupies, how lovely :-)

Andrew: We're allowed to photograph each other but not the buildings or any other 'intellectual property'.

Best,

B.

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

I'm scheduled for 3pm, wish me good luck.

What's the time shift to San Francisco, again? Anyway, that should be now pretty soon - so good luck :-) Let's hope that some people get the point of the marketplace fallacy!

Cheers, Stefan

Giotis said...

I don't know Bee. This seems to me like some kind of a PR scheme by Google. These big corporations interact with society only to increase their profits and to gain control over things. I don't think they really care about anything else but to increase their influence over various groups of people. In general i don't like the idea of them being involved in every aspect of human activity. But then again i don't know, maybe i am prejudiced and this SciFoo camp is something different. I wish you could luck anyway.

BR

PS. Btw did you ever watch this documentary? Truly remarkable. It analyses the function of the big corporations in the modern world and their "Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power".

Uncle Al said...

Discovery arises from boredom. A bored good mind imagines blue roses. Blackboards are good, whiteboards are bad. Markers smell and go dry - distracting.

Google knows! Stockpile high autists, add chores, periodically impose terrific boredom. Folks always doing stuff never create anything. Management comes later (from each according to his ability, to each a pink slip thereafter).

alethea said...

Now that was a very interesting post and comment thread. Just so you know. Don't be too hard on yourself. You're qualified. Looking forward to hearing what leading an un-session is like.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“Luckily, some familiar faces appear: there's Garrett Lisi, Stephon Alexander, Paul Davies, Martin Rees, Frank Wilczek, Michael Nielsen, Lee Smolin, Fotini Markupoulou, Max Tegmark and Olaf Dreyer”

Well one again you have made me wish I was but the fly on the wall where you are standing. You describe these as just familiar faces, when to me they are people who will most likely remain ones whose thoughts and ideas I’ve read in books. Martin Rees I did see at the podium at U of T several years back and Smolin and Fontini I’ve seen at lectures and yet have never spoke to any. It is also interesting that they invited Jillian Taylor for now I'm even more convinced that who ever organizes these things has a good handle on who should be there, including you know who ;-) My problem at such an event would be getting sleep and being frustrated I couldn’t attend all the talks and discussions.

Best,

Phil

amaragraps said...

Hi Bee: You mean Robin Hanson? What a wonderful mix of intense and interesting people. No wonder you're inspired. I'm looking forward to hearing more of your experiences about this 'camp'! Ciao, Amara

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I forgot to wish you luck with your untalk regarding “The Marketplace of Ideas”. Instead of the co-title being "Why the Academic System Sucks" how about “Isn’t it Time we Install Elevators in the Ivory Tower” They still might not fathom it yet curiosity may get the better of them:-)

Best,

Phil

Arun said...

Greetings to the thought-leader! How did the unsession go?

SciFoo sounds like a particle physics experiment - collide a lot of interesting particles together and see what emerges :)

Chris Oakley said...

Hi Bee,

As you have some fairly prominent representatives of the academic system at the conference, you could make the subtitle of your talk a bit more specific. How about "Why the academic system - which includes Paul Davies, Martin Rees and Lee Smolin - sucks"

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

Well, the meeting isn't actually organized by, but hosted by Google. It's organized by O'Reilly and Nature. Yes, I am sure Google likes the publicity, I don't see what's bad about this. It seems to me like a good match. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Chris,

Not sure what you're trying to say here. The whole point of what I am trying to communicate is that the blame is not on single persons but that the system isn't set up appropriately. Of course there's some kind of survivor bias for those who succeeded within the system. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, it is a bit annoying admittedly that so many talks are crowded in so little time in parallel sessions which makes it impossible to go everywhere one wants to go. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Dear Amara,

Thanks, I've fixed the typo. I'm really bad with names, but at least I was close :-) Best,

B.

bellamy said...

Hahahah, I see no one has commented on the Neal Stephenson gig. He's an SF author. I haven't been pressed to read him as it's seemed he's sort of the metaphorical descendent of William Gibson (and perhaps several more obscure other - perhaps Olaf Stapledon), and if none of you know him, well, we know what you read (or, rather, don't).

Incidentally, the difference between SF and sci-fi is the difference between movies and books....or movies and fuckin literature...and there are several retired as well as still-practicing scientists who author SF. For example, Gregory Benford. You might check him out.

chimpanzee said...

"Heck, don't these people read my blog? So I add a subtitle "Why the academic system sucks"."

I was at SIGGRAPH 2001 (Los Angeles), & spoke with Dr. Bertram Herzog/Fraunhofer Inst/Computer Graphics. Even back then, I was making probes of an Interdisciplinary R&D Inst (7 yrs later, I've revived it at SIGGRAPH 2008). This is what BH told me:

"Forget it!"
-- B. Herzog
[ about Academia making infrastructure adjustments to accomadate a more Interdisciplinary interaction. I.e., "horizontal" cross pollination. Academia (& even Industry) are vertically structured ]

Fraunhofer Inst was created after WWII, as a pro-active think-tank to solve R&D problems..BEFORE they are encountered. Unfortunately, B. Herzog died this year..July 18!!! I was shocked at the slide during the keynote Awards speech, about BH's untimely death.

Flickr blog/Awards

Turns out, I met with a Frauhofer Inst rep at the Pioneers meeting (German prof, Technische Universitat Darmstadt). This guy was really smart, & understood my idea about Alternative Energy (electric car companies, e.g. Tesla Motors) + Interdisciplinary Science. He rattled off Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen, BMW as potential clients. You see, Tesla Motors had a major engineering snafu: AC induction motors (which have instantaneous torque curve) blowing up transmissions. Xtrac & Magna were the 2 notable vendors. The US (& Europe) are seeing a WAVE of Alternative Energy companies jumping into Green Tech cars (Sweden, Germany, US, et al). Turns out, that Xtrac is heavily involved with Offroad Racing (the initial target market of my Jumplive.com project, which spunoff to Physics conferences..which explains my presence here). They recently cracked a shockload problem in offroad racing (very similar to the Tesla Roadster issue), in conjunction with a major Class 1 racing team: All German Motorsports (in San Diego area, who is a good friend of mine). They run BMW M5 motors, & a lot of European supplied parts (torque limiters, exhaust systems, etc) & recently hired a German champion rally driver Armin Schwarz. They got 1st place (!!) in the recent SCORE San Felipe 250, there 1st ever win!! They followed it up with a 3rd place at the Baja 500 (June).

I attended a SIGGRAPH 2008 course "Art of Grant Writing", where they emphasize that CONCRETE applications get funded (not blue sky ideas) & that a successful Proof of Concept & multimedia will help get proposals get funded. Whoah! The above is the latter, it woud be a cinch to get it approved. Partners would be Fraunhofer, All German Motorsports (w/German driver Armin Schwarz), Xtrac, myself, Caltech, UC San Diego/CALIT2, Georgia-Tech/GTRI, Intel. An ex-intern from my grad-school days is now Director of Research @Intel & VP of Corporate Technology, & they have funds available. Another ex-grad school officemate is VP of Georgia-Tech & President of GTRI. An ex-UIUC alumni (Dr. Larry Smarr, who founded NCSA) is now at UC San Diego/CALIT2. Another funding source is standard NSF, & even DoE/Dept of Energy (who has initiatives in Alternative Energy). Of course, DoE funds HEP..so this is where physicists can get involved. Remember, Joanne Hewett (who is actively involved with Public Outreach efforts for HEP) said "if you don't have a product, you're considered useless". Well, enter Tesla Motors & their breakthrough concept vehicle..the Roadster. There you go. I was babying this idea, of putting select physicsts in a Roadster, to give Physics a "product association". Some female physicists were contacted (Kea, Bee, Joanne), Joanne responded positively..Kea & Bee had a response like Grigori Perlman ("I'm a pure mathematician, I don't get involved with promotion/politics"). Anyone else know of female physicist candidates. I'm about to send a query over to Harvard: L. Randall & M. Franklin. I bet LR responds positively, she really has been doing some serious public outreach the last 2 years.

1 of the Intel founders is Gordon Moore, who makes philanthropic donations to Caltech. So, this strengthens this Intel/Caltech tie in. 1 of Caltech's Mechanical Eng profs is on leave to Northrop-Grumman, to exploit the Aerospace-Alternative Energy combo. I have a really strong contact @Northrop-Grumman, 1 of my Dad's ex PhD students. Caltech, Stanford, CMU, Princeton had teams in the recent DARPA Grand Challenge & Urban Challenge, Stanford won BTW (led by Sebastian Thrun in a Red Bull sponsored VW Touareg). I've been in touch with Caltech faculty advisor, about some DARPA proposals.

Upshot:
If my Interdisciplinary Inst thing gets funded, because of "concrete" Alternative Energy "Need"..then, I can possibly bring everyone elses vision of an R&D Inst into fruition. Kea's Category Theory Inst, Louises XXX in Hawaii, Garrett's science hostel (Maui, Nevada, California), Bee's xxxx (don't know too much about her future plans). My design for an R&D Inst, is based on the Insect model: Distributed Architecture (i.e., it doesn't have a single centralized locations..it's distributed). I.e., there would be satellite locations for R&D (call them hostels if you want). See Distributed Intelligent Systems Laboratory for example.

I need a few more iterative rounds of idea finalization, then it's onto some serious proposal writing. Fiscal Year 2009 proposals are due in Oct, preferably submitted as early as Sept.

I am psyched!! Maybe a 3rd party like myself can help some "orphan" displaced physicsts (Kea, Louise, Garrett, Bee, Amara, et al) find their place in this wacky world of Science. Oh, btw.."Academia sucks!"