So here I am back in Davis after an exhausting and pretty exhilarating 2 days.
Friday, I drove from Davis to Sunnyvale the location of the hotel all scifoo camplers were staying at. I stopped on the way in Walnut Creek, to pick up Jason Stajich another one of the scifoo participants (a new Berkeley post doc who works on things related to what I do and thus who I already knew). We saw little traffic in the drive from Walnut Creek to Sunnyvale (it was Friday PM but the traffic was in the other direction most of the way).
We then dumped our stuff (well, I had to change rooms first. My "non smoking room" smelled like someone hung up the sheets in a smoking lounge at the aiport for a month) and hopped on the bus to Googleplex. We had no idea what to expect.
Got to Googleplex and we herded off the bus into a reception area where we picked up some typical conference goodies (name badges, the obligatory logo bag). But already things smelled a little different when they gave us some type of puzzle box for our personal entertainment. Then they proceeded to have use write down some keywords describing our work and they took our pictures (these were later merged together and put up on a bulletin board so you could see if they was anyone else there you just had to talk to). I confess, I never looked at the board. I thought it would be almost against the spirit of the whole thing to seek out people I had some commonality with. I wanted to get to know people I would otherwise probably never encounter.
Then we got the first glimpse of the Google wonderful obsession with decent food. I have been to conferences with really good food and really bad food. This was the first conference/meeting/workshop that I had been to where the food was abundant and potentially healthy (as in, there were always somewhat healthy options) and yet never overbearing. Not only was the official lunch and breakfast and dinner food quite good, but they had these collections of drinks and munchies freely available throughout the day. This included a diverse selection of organic and/or vegan snack items which made me quite happy as I have been drifting more and more towards organic foods and even a litle bit towards vegan foods for some time.
There was a giant tent outside (maybe this was in homage to the foo "camps", although I think it might have been a permanent fixture there). And we mingled. As at most meetings where I knew very few people, it was a little hard to feel comfortable at first. Do you simply go up and introduce yourself to people "Hi, I'm Jonathan, and I work on evolution" or do you just find the one person you know and stick to them, or do you sit down at a table and mix anonymity with sociality? I chose the latter option and began to get to know some of the scifooers (not sure wat the offical term is for participants in these things).
Eventually, after mingling for a few hours, we were herded inside to a large room and we got the "introduction" to the meeting. The introduction was minimalist but and then we spent about an hour or so, going around the room giving a few words about what we work on. This was not the most useful thing in the world but at least it was not too tedious. This was because we were instructed to say only three words (I was way at the end, after some pretty good humorous lines were used so I just said "intelligently designed evolution"). Some people went over their limit, but it did not drag out too long. There were some pretty good little ditties in this session -- only later did I realize that some people knew what to expect in advance and probably had been thinking about this for some time.
That evening we had a few mini presenations but the key to the evening was the unveilling and the signing up on the giant scheduling board. Basically, there were slots for rooms and times. Some rooms were big and some were small. And people signed up for topics in the rooms. It was quite chaoitic op by the board while this was going on - people trying to decide things like "Do I sign up for a big room, or is that too arrogant" or "Should I do more than one presentation". I did not initially sing up for anything ( I confess, I had not really come prepared to lead a discussion - having not really understood what scifoo camp was going to be about).
The other key to the evening was the adoption of Chatham House rules. This I guess is some British thing whereby nobody is allowed to attribute anything to an individual without their permission. So if someone there said they thought someone you knew was a rube (someone told me this), you could post it in your blog (as I just did) but could not say who said it, without permission. This supposedly would make people speak more freely. I think this was not necessary for this group of people as a did not sense that people were holding back on saying anything negative for fear of attribution (I did see some serious sucking up going on in various venues but when you have the founders of google walking going to sessions, as well as some of the biggest names in various fields it is hard to avoid some fawning).
Eventually, evening number one at Google came to a close. I STILL did not know what to really expect for these open sessions, but I was getting to know people and having a pretty good time (except for the missing reading bedtime stories to my 1.5 year old daughter). We took the bus back to the hotel and it seemed to early to crash so a bunch of us went around the corner from theo hotel to what must be one of the lamest bars in the South Bay (when we walked in one of the patrons complained that we did not have enough women with us like he was going to somehow magically hook up if only there were more women there). But a group of use did hang out there for a couple of hours (the single malt we ordered tasted more like gasoline thant anything else but hey - gas is expesnive these days so maybe they did the switch with good intentions) before wandering back to the hotel (we peeked in the other bar - it was even more suspect than the first).