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.