Saturday, August 04, 2007

SciFoo Camp Day 1

Well, I have just returned from SciFoo camp. For those not in the loop, SciFoo is a "un"conference organized by O'Reilly Media and Nature Publishing Group and it took place at Google Headquarters over the last few days. It is an unconference because there is little schedule made in advance - instead the attendees make the schedule once the meeting starts.

Over the next few posts I am going to be writing about some of the things I saw there. But here is an overview of Day 1
  • People arrived at the hotel during the course of the day on Friday. It was here that I met up with a variety of science bloggers, many of whom I had never met before but had heard of because I read their blogs.
  • At 5 PM buses started taking people from the hotel to Google HQ. I sat in a seat on the bus that was part of a four set set up (two seats facing two seats with a table). Also at the table were someone from the NRDC and Bjorn Lomborg, also known as "The skeptical environmentalist" after a book he wrote.
  • At Google people picked up some schwag, got their pictures taken for a faceboard, and then had dinner.
  • At 8 PM we went inside and went through the scifoo introductions, run by Tim O'Reilly and Timo Hannay from Nature. The first thing they said was "This year, unlike last yer, the discussions will be considered open and can be written about in blogs, etc." Last year, they adopted a silly policy that did not allow people to attach names to ideas.
  • Then we did the introductions. In this, each person in the room (there were > 200 I think) was supposed who they were and then three words or phrases to describe their interests.
    • I was amazed this year as I was last year about how some people are simply unable to follow instructions. Some would go on and on and on about their interests. It got so bad that Tim O'Reilly got out a gong and was literally gonging some people and threatening to gong others. I thought the best part of this rapid three word introduction was that one got an overview of the areas of interest of everyone there.
    • I did notice a surprising number of people who said "evolution" in their treethree plus words.
    • Most heartening for the evolutionary biologist in me, when most people said their three words there was laughing or polite tittering - but when Eugenia Scott said who she was (defender of teaching evolution at the National Center for Science Education), she got a round of applause. Go evolution.
    • (Note - picture is from Ester Dyson's flick page) ---- The first big surprise of the meeting to me and many others happened at this. I was in the back of the room sitting on some couches (along with all the other wise people who knew this evening would go on for a while - also on the couches were Ester Dyson, Roger Brent, Oliver Morton, George Church, and a few others). On about the 10th or so person, a woman stood up and said "I am Martha Stewart ..." Yes, Martha Stewart was at the meeting. It created a bit of a buzz, maybe out of celebrity shock. Although given the number of geeks at the meeting, the fact that Freeman Dyson was there as were a variety of other geek heroes, the celebrity alone of Martha Stewart being there was probably not the main reason people kept saying "Is that for real." Maybe it was also because she was not someone one would have expected. I for one was a bit intrigued because I have been going through two of her cookbooks like I once read Science Fiction novels - I love her recipes.
    • Another good introduction was when Freeman Dyson said he was not as smart as his kids. Then later George Dyson, his son, said his three words "Not that smart" which got a good laugh too.
    • A final good introduction was by someone I could not see who said "DNA Hacking and Carpentry" which led someone to say "Jesus is here?"
  • After this was all over - we got presented with 4 pre-selected talks - the only explicit scheduling of talks for the meeting. These talks were by:
    • Drew Endy from MIT talking about Biohacking,
    • Felice Frankel talking about "Envisioning Science" - a critical aspect of all of science which gets neglected much of the time.
    • Saul Griifth, talking about global energy budgets for the planet,
    • and Charles Simonyi talking about his recent space tourism flight. It was in his talk that everyone found out one of the reasons Martha Stewart was there - she was somehow with him as during his talk he turned to Martha to discuss menus for part of the 11 day trip. The other presentations were certainly interesting but Simonyi's was the feature of the night without a doubt. He had recently gone to the International Space Station with a Russian Crew, which only cost him 20-30 million dollars.
  • Then came the signing up for talks thing --- people went up to the front and filled in discussion slots on the big bullet board. And thus the "un" meeting finally got a potential schedule. More on this later. After this was filled in, there was a little reception downstairs and eventually people went back on buses to the hotel to go to sleep. Which I must do now.


  1. I can't wait to see the summary of the 2nd day! :)

  2. Have you seen Deepak's videoblog about Scifoo?

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with us! :) I'm a big fan of Martha Stewart's work as well, esp. the crafts. Don't like cooking so much....

  4. Jonathan, thanks for this great report. While reading various blogs, I have seen so much hints to SciFoo without really understanding what this is all about. Now, I have a much better idea, seems to be a great occasion for the more visionary folks among us.
    One thing: could you please give a brief explanation, why everybody in the SciFoo blogs is so excited about this Martha Stewart? As a continental european, I had never heard this name before. When I looked it up in Wikipedia, I found only one reference to a writer of cookery books. Is this the person you are talking about? If yes, why would anybody care?

  5. Suicyte - stay tuned until I write up day 2 --- you will find out why Martha was there. Martha Stewart runs a multimedia empire with books, magazines, TV shows, etc. Most of this empire is focused on homemaking related activities including crafts, cooking, gardening, etc. What I like about her in particular and why she fit in and this meeting in my mind, is her precise, scientific approach to testing various products, recipes, etc. What impresses me personally about her cokbooks is the fact that things both make sense and work extremely well. Too bad most methods sections in papers are not like that. I will write later today about Day 2 and what she did in her session.


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