Tuesday, August 15, 2006

SciFoo Camp Impressions Day2

You know a meeting is good when you simply have no time to check email let alone write in a blog. That was the case at scifoo and is why I am writing now a few days after the fact.

Day 2 was much more epic than the first since of course it was a full day of fooing. I managed to get up pretty early despite the late night (well, I cheated a little compared to others - I was up late but had only half a glass of very bad "single" malt). Many people looked a little rough around the edges in the morning in the hotel lobby... Nothing too surprising there as those who flew in, especially from overseas, met the wrath and illogic of modern airline security. The people from the UK in particular had some pretty good stories about being told they were not even allowed to buy books IN THE AIRPORT to bring on the plane. You might think then they would at least shut down the book sales, but of course no, that would cost them money.

So with TSA delays and jet lag and possibly some drinking I am not sure how they made it out early in the AM. We then all piled into a google provided bus and headed over to googleplex again. The conversations were lively along the way, although some of them had nothing to do with scifoo.

Then we got to googleplex for breakfast. As with food the night before, the food was mostly top notch although never pretentious or wasteful. Although I must say there were some unusual things mixed in (like some pretty heart attack inducing pieces of breakfast cake). I am sure the google nutritionist we met the night before was not overhwlemingly in favor of those items. Yes, google does in fact have some type of nutritionist. I never talked to her in detail to find out what that meant, but I did talk to a few scifoo folks about my theories that she was really a spy (she just seemed to pay way too much attention to all of the actual sessions to simply be the nutritionist; plus she always seemed to be talking on her two way radio). Maybe she had something to do with my theories about the addiction of the word google (see my previous post about this issue). Nutritionist - addiction --- seems like there must be a connection there.

Anyway, then the sessions began. Here's how it was set up. Outside, there was a coutryard with a paved patio section and a giant tent with tables for eating. Inside the main door was a giant room with camping stuff laid out all over the place (in homage to previous foo camps where people really camped). You had to walk through this open air camping section to get to the large grid showing the sessions being offered (people were still filling out session offerings throughout the day). Some sessions were downstairs near the camping room, and others were upstairs and a short 2 minute walk away. In addition, we were near a large cafeteria which including these giant bins with snack food (most of it on the healthy side of snack food which was fine with me) and a large fridge with a diversity of drinks.

I spent much of the day going to sessions relating to "open access" or "citizen science" but triedto force myself out of my box as much as possible. Among the most memorable sessions I went to were one on biology inspired robots (they had a robot gecko that could climb using millions of tiny hairlike projections like geckoes really use). See this Berkeley news release for some examples. Overall, the day was great. I got to catch up with some colleagues, and hang out with my brother who had been unable to come the night before. I also went to some great sessions on exploration (including of the earth's oceans and of Mars).

Not much was disappointing, although I was still somewhat dismayed to see how scientists support open source software, and open access to data, but then do not always support open access to publications. When asked why, they give the lamest explanations, like, "well, that is just the way it is done." Perhaps most tellingly, the technology and engineering and physical sciences folks seem to get the Open Access to publications movement more so than the biologists and other life science folks. Maybe that is due to the existence of the physics archives and things like that. Or maybe biologists do not like to speak up when there were multiple folks from Nature there, and they did not want to jeopardize their chances of getting a Nature paper. I think the real explanation is that many of them are, how should I put this politely, afraid of change (note I wanted to say chicken shit there but then decided to be polite).

Anyway, overall the day was great. I even did a presentation jointly with Tom Knight from MIT, where he discussed genome engineering and small genomes and I discussed how one studies mcirobes in their natural environments. I only wish I had thought of this more in advance and had done fewer slides and simply drawn on the board or just talked since we did not leave a ton of time for free discussion. Nevertheless, there were lots of people there and lots of really good questions were asked. Tom even inspired me to consider working on the group of organisms her works on (mycoplasmas, spiroplasmas and their relatives which are these really interested bacteria that do not have cell walls and tend to have really small genomes).

What I noticed happening was that as the day progressed, people spent less time sort of wandering around aimlessly between or during sessions and more time talking to other scifoo folks in the camping area of the main room. In addition, the google herders, in their black shirts, were frequently out in this area also having discussions (in addition to being positioned carefully at all intersections where we might wander off into nofoo land and possibly bump into some magical new google initiative we were not supposed to see). Message to google - you should be careful of the folks with the wandering insect like robots since they did not attract the attention of the intersection guards. In general, the google herders who were there were all very helpful and generally engaging but never obtrusive (they reminded me of stories Ihave heard about the staff on survivor who are always there but try to mostly stay out of the way).

And eventually, the main sessions came to an end and we wandered back outside for dinner in the open air or under the tent. By then everyone seemed to at least have someone they felt comfortable talking to and everything was much less awkward than the night before. Not to say that all was perfect - there were of course the awkward moments and some highly strange people. But unlike many conferences I have been to, since this was a pretty select crowd, even the highly strange people were generally quite interesting once you got past their veneer.

So eventually people piled in to the buses and went back to the hotel. Of course, the night could not end there. But this time, instead of going to the lame bars, we decided to have a party in the hotel lounge. A few of us went out and bought some stuff to drink at a nearby store and we then had a quite pleasant evening talking about Mars, evolution, Nature, and scifoo in the hotel lounge. The only drab moment was when the receptionist came in and said something to the effect of "guests are beginning to complain about the noise" that we shut the doors and talked a little more quietly. I even came up with a good term to use in a new paper I am working on thanks to some of the Mars exploration folks who were there. Eventually, I went to sleep. And thus Day 2 did end.


  1. Anyway, overall the day was great. I even did a presentation jointly with Tom Knight from MIT, where he discussed genome engineering and small genomes

    Did you know that prior to getting involved with biology Knight was one of the designers of the MIT Lisp machine in the 1970s? He's even the main character in one of the "AI Koans", which are anecdotes about AI reseachers put into the form of Buddhist koans:

    "Tom Knight and the Lisp Machine"

    A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.

    Knight, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: “You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong.”

    Knight turned the machine off and on.

    The machine worked.

  2. Hadn't even a clue ... we need Buddhist Koans for genomics, despierately.


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