A 48-hour mind warp!

It all started some months ago with a decidedly odd email inviting me to take part in something calling itself the SciFoo Camp. My first reaction was this was some sort of hoax and that somewhere in the text I was going to be asked to part with some money or sign up for something weird. None of this happened so before deleting this very strange missive I decided to do some googling. The Internet, including a short Wikipedia article, informed me that the SciFoo camp was indeed something real and consisted of an exclusive, invitation only, unconference held once a year at the Googleplex in Mountain View in California. My second reaction was that they had sent the invitation to the wrong person. Come on, I don’t get invited to exclusive invitation only unconferences, or even conferences, anywhere, let alone in the Googleplex.

Intrigued, but now somewhat disconcerted, I carefully reread the email and discovered that the organisers where offering to pay for my hotel and full catering during the three days of this unconference but not for my travelling expenses. End of story! Some weeks I have difficulty finding the train fare to Nürnberg, a plane ticket to San Francisco is definitely not within my meagre budget. I don’t even possess anything I could pawn or sell to finance such an expenditure.

Having reread this exiting but in the end frustrating invitation several times I formulated a more than somewhat cheeky response. I stated that I had first held the email for a hoax and then, having convinced myself that it probably wasn’t, came to the conclusion that it had been sent to me by mistake, being intended for somebody else with the same or similar name. However in the unlikely circumstance that it really was for me I thanked them for their kind and generous offer but pointed out that I must reluctantly decline, as there was no way I could afford the airfare. I clicked the send button, with a metaphorical tear in my eye, and forgot about the whole thing. The last is not quite true, as one doesn’t usually forget something resembling the offer of a lifetime, but I didn’t dwell too much on the subject.

Imagine my surprise when about a month later I received another email saying, no it wasn’t a hoax and yes we did intend to invite you and under the circumstances we have decided to pay your airfare, if you want to come. Now it truly was the offer of a lifetime. I’m one of those people who grew up on West Coast Rock, City lights Beat Poetry and the writings of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey amongst others and here was somebody offering me a free return plane ticket to the Bay Area with a wacky unconference thrown in gratis. It didn’t take me long to accept. I still needed money to extend my stay in the Bay Area, I didn’t intend to just fly over for the conference, if I was going to fly that far I wanted to experience a little bit of that San Francisco and district magic. A very generous friend offered me an interest free loan against my inheritance (not very large but enough to pay of this loan), a very nineteenth century thing, to enable me to spend a few days in the Bay Area to recover from jet lag before the unconference and a few more playing tourist and visiting friends and acquaintances before I flew back home.

All was set. I flew over on Wednesday 24 June and due to the combined ineptitude of yours truly and the incompetence of both AirBnB and PayPal I arrived in San Francisco without a place to stay. Not a wise move, as I now know to my cost. After a couple of frustrating hours of finding nothing I finally capitulated and booked into a rather shitty motel room for one night for a little under $300 a rather substantial fraction of my shoestring budget. By this point I had been awake for 23 hours and had decided that sleep at any cost was the better part of valour. The following morning saw my plan-B fail dismally. Before leaving Germany I had transferred money to my PayPal account, PayPal having refused to make the necessary room bookings from my bank account. This transfer had taken six instead of the supposed one to two days finally taking place on the morning when I flew out of Germany. This was one of the reasons I still didn’t have a room when I left. I now intended to book a room online using this money. I quickly found several suitable offers on AirBnB and tried to make the booking. PayPal kindly informed that payment could not be made at this time! In Germany I had not been able to sort my problems with PayPal because their hotline had been out of service, now they had shafted me one more time. Fuck you PayPal!

I now turned to plan-C! Josh Rosenau from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) had suggested I should look in when I’m in the Bay Area. Having first ascertained the address and the nearest BART station I headed on over to Oakland hoping Josh would be able to help me out of my predicament. When I arrived at the NCSE Josh was in a conference but the truly amazing front of house lady Ninah Pixie (that’s her stage name!) gathered me up, waved her magic wand and solved all of my problems. With a friendly smile and apparently no effort Ninah found me an affordable motel room just around the corner from the NCSE, took me to the bank and helped me to get Euro changed into dollars and turned my evolving nightmare back into a dream.

When I first entered the NCSE Ninah had asked me why I was in the Bay Area and I said that I would be attending SciFoo at the weekend and she said, “Oh, Genie’s going too! She’s coming in in a minute so you can meet her”. Genie is Eugenie Scott the legendary founder of the NCSE and leading warrior in the American struggle against the Creationists, Intelligent Designers and other forms of ant-science inanity, for example she is also heavily involved in the battle against the climate change denialists. I mention all of this because Eugenie is the type of person who gets invited to SciFoo. People who are nationally or even internationally famous and leading lights in the respective fields of science, which of course immediately prompts the question, “how the fuck did I ever get invited to this particular bun fight?” of which more later. Whilst I was at the NCSE I had interesting conversations with both Josh Rosenau and Glen Branch.

On Friday I took the Cal Train down to Palo Alto where I was booked into a hotel for SciFoo. My hotel room was bigger than my flat in Germany! Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Now I was just a couple of hours away from the SciFoo Camp my first ever unconference. So just what is an unconference, I hear you ask. An unconference is a gathering that has no predetermined theme and no set agenda. The content of the conference is determined by the participants, during the conference itself. I will explain in a little while how that functioned at SciFoo but first of all what is SciFoo. SciFoo is a yearly unconference organised by O’Reilly Media, Digital Science, Nature and Google. The Foo in SciFoo stands for ‘friends of O’Reilly’, O’Reilly being the principal initiator of this particular bun fight.

Around five o’clock I took the shuttle bus from the hotel to Mountain View and the Googleplex curious as to what was awaiting me. The first thing that happened after I arrived in Mountain View and had started tucking into the delicious buffet that had been set up to greet the participants was a soft American voice asking, “Thony is that you?” I looked up and saw Evelyn Lamb, University of Utah mathematician and Scientific American maths blogger. Evelyn and I read each other’s blogs with enthusiasm but we have never met. Unlike myself Evelyn had obviously read the list of participants and knew that I was going to be there. The weekend could not have had a more pleasant beginning. If you like maths and you don’t read Evelyn’s blog, Roots of Unity, you should!

The buffet was followed by the first of a whole series of excellent meals. In terms of food, drinks and snacks Google knows how to take care of its guests. I’m sure I put on several kilos over the three days of SciFoo. We then got introduced to the organisers and to SciFoo. Tim O’Reilly from O’Reilly Media, Timo Hannay from Digital Science, and Cat Allman and Chris DiBona from Google open source plus a lady whose name I have unfortunately forgotten introduced themselves and the SciFoo Camp. The emphasis of the whole introduction was informality and fun. The organisers permit themselves to invite about 250 top scientists from overall in the world to Mountain View for the weekend basically to have fun! Which brings us to the participants. They ranged from Nobel laureates to doctoral students. All of the participants had distinguished themselves in their individual fields and many of them belonged to the category ‘famous author’. I’m not going to name any names because it would be just name-dropping and I had just as fascinating exchanges with the non-well-known, as with the eminent. All of this of course raises the question, how the hell did I ever get an invitation? I remain convinced that it was some sort of administrative fuck up but Timo Hannay assured me that I was supposed to be there. Maybe he was just being nice.

After the introduction by the organisers, we the participants had to introduce ourselves with just three words or three short phrases. There was even a gong in case anybody tried to speak too long. It wasn’t needed. All entered into the spirit of the situation and there were lots of clever and amusing introductions. One lady historian of science (there were three of us all together) from MIT just said, “History Matters!”, which garnered a round of laughter and applause. A famous science writer introduced himself as a high school drop out. Yours truly was fairly boring, “history of science, myth-busting blogger”. An introduction that brought me a series of conversations over the weekend from those curious to know what I mean by myth-busting.

After the introductions the participants posted on a schedule board the topics that they would like to discuss. There were nine conference rooms with eight sessions on the Saturday and three on the Sunday making a grand total of ninety-nine sessions on offer covering a bewildering range of topics in science and science communication. The organisers encourage the participants to leave their comfort zone and attend session outside of their own expertise. Like almost everybody else I followed this advice and as well as attending session close to my own interests I was, for example, in sessions on the peaceful use of drones and on the use of psilocybin to help terminal cancer patients come to terms with their impending deaths. All participants had name tags with their first name written large and their family name written small and we were also encouraged to just approach somebody offer a hand, introduce ourselves and start a conversation. Everybody did just that during all the breaks and all the meals leading to many fascinating exchanges.

The informality encouraged by the organisers led to a delightful phenomenon during the session that mostly took the form of discussions rather than presentations. You had on average about twenty people in a session and without anybody really directing the discussion everybody spoke without anybody interrupting anybody else. All the participants were friendly, courteous, thoughtful, restrained. As somebody emphasised during the closing session there was no hierarchy and absolutely no displays of ego. Given the nature of the participants a truly amazing experience.

So what about content? I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you on that. If I went into details this, already overlong, post would turn into a medium length book. All I will say is that it was one of the most intellectually intense, stimulating and exhilarating forty-eight hours in my life and I thank the Fates, Norns, Gods, forces of Karma or whatever that led to me being invited to this once in a lifetime experience. On Sunday afternoon, after it was all over, Eugenie Scott was kind enough to drive me back to Oakland on the other side of the Bay to the one I had travelled south on so my weekend included a panoramic round trip of a large part of the Bay Area. The Gods were truly being kind to me.

I spent another four days in the Bay Area playing at being a tourist. I did all the cliché things; I walked the full length of the harbour front in San Francisco (eating a Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia along the way), I wandered around Haight-Ashbury and looked at the Grateful Dead house (did I mention that I’m a Dead Head?) with my friend Darrel Rutkin, historian of astrology, who lives on Masonic and whom I first met on a country bus in Middle Franconia, whilst reading Monica Azzolini’s excellent The Duke and the Stars. I surveyed Golden Gate Park, at the entrance of which Jim Harrison, star Renaissance Mathematicus commentator, picked me up in his car and took me for an excellent Burmese meal. I met up with Twitter friend Shannon Supple, Berkley University’s Bancroft Library librarian for rare books and special collections, and went for a good Spanish meal in Oakland. I visited the legendary City Lights bookstore were I spent ten minutes debating with myself as to whether I should buy a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl (I already own one!) as a memento. In the end the cynic won against the fan and I didn’t! On my last day I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and down into Sausalito, later taking the ferry back across the Bay to San Francisco. Here I had a true Bay Area experience because the fog was so thick you could only just see the water from the bridge. All my other days had been clear and sunny!

All of the people I met were kind, generous and friendly and my visit to the Bay Area despite its ominously bad beginning turned out to be totally positive and more than I could have ever hoped for. I own a huge debt to the organisers of the SciFoo Camp for having made all of this possible. I still don’t know why they did but they did and for that I thank them with all my heart.

For those who actually come here to read about the history of science, I already have a couple of things in the pipeline and normal blogging will recommence next week.


Filed under Autobiographical

12 responses to “A 48-hour mind warp!

  1. Will Thomas

    Thony, I just want to say that that is an awesome story, and I just about fall over every time I envision you treading the suburban landscape of Silicon Valley, or saying the words “SciFoo” and “unconference.”

  2. How incredibly cool. Your Grateful Dead karma must have been at work.

  3. excellent blog. I hope they invite you again.

  4. Cat Allman

    Thanks for coming and enjoying yourself, Thony! I enjoyed our conversations.

    • All of the people I met with and talked to at SciFoo were friendly, kind, generous but if I had to choose I would vote you the nicest with Timo a close second ;))

  5. M Tucker

    Thony, I am so glad your stay in San Francisco and your experience at SciFoo was so wonderful. This post really moved me and I want to say:
    Ninah Pixie – You are a very special person! Thank you for turning Thony’s experience around.

    Thony, I know why you were invited and your readers here know why you were invited. I am pleased that the people who put SciFoo together are aware of your work. I too had never heard of SciFoo but I am very gratified and impressed that it exists. Your post was very moving to me because of how it all came about, the disaster, the unexpected recovery and the delightful time you eventually had. I am a fourth generation Californian and when you began your story I thought, how great! Thony will get to have a fabulous San Francisco adventure! I get a big kick out of people enjoying our state and San Francisco is our best large city. I could go on much longer about how thrilled and moved I was that you had such a great time, that you met so many truly amazing people and you really did have a tremendous San Francisco visit.

    I will close this long post with a list of the things that resonated with me in your post.

    NCSE – the NCSE blog is another blog that I visit regularly. Great to know they are as wonderful in person as on their blog.

    Eugenie Scott – You got to meet her! I have been amazed with her work for years.

    Evelyn Lamb – You got to meet her too! I was there when she first started on the SA blog and she is outstanding.

    “two historians of astrology meet on a country bus, highly unlikely!” – I liked that story. Not only because of the unlikely meeting but to find out you do not seem to own a car and depend on public transportation; and you read while riding.

    I depend on the bus, 3 hours per day. I read while riding, and waiting. I read science, history and history of science (the occasional novel for a change of pace). I have loved your blog since I discovered it some two years ago. You are a fantastic scholar and a tenacious myth-buster and that is why I keep coming back.

    Don’t sell yourself short, SciFoo was lucky to have you and they did the correct thing by covering your airfare.

    Google San Clemente and select images. That is the beautiful “Spanish Village by the Sea” where I have been lucky enough to live for the past 17 years.

  6. Tim O'Neill

    Great story – couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bloke. But did you debunk many HistSci myths? Our friends in the STEM fields are nice and all, but their grasp of the history of science tends to be woeful at best and riddled with nonsense more often than not. As you (and I) know all too well …

  7. Jeb


    “we were also encouraged to just approach somebody offer a hand, introduce ourselves and start a conversation.”

    First time I encountered this was when I had to attended an unusually complicated form of ritual (funeral using an old and highly elaborate form of Catholic mass). I had not a clue what was going on but at one point you were instructed to offer a hand and say something about yourself to the person next to you.

    Was the only graspable moment of it all in an otherwise bewildering situation.

  8. Thony, in your post you say this: “So what about content? I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you on that. If I went into details this, already overlong, post would turn into a medium length book.”, sorry to burst your bubble, and I’m sure I’m not alone on that, but I’d love to read that medium length book. I can only imagine the type of conversations one has in such a free environment and I’d love to have a glimpse at that, no matter how small and brief it might be (just don’t make it to small).

    If you find the time just let us know a conversation or two that were really interesting.

  9. Hi Little Brother, sounds like you had a blast! So glad it all went well in the end and you had such a good time. Love from us all!

  10. Pingback: Send me back to Silicon Valley | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  11. Pingback: California! | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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