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The how of Foo [Camp]

August 30th, 2005 · 1 Comment

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Many have asked me How was Foo? (including here). This post is my best attempt to answer the question…

I’ve included a number of details to help describe what it was like and to help others who may be planning similiar ideas…

The invitation I received to Foo Camp was a gift. As danah boyd described in her post, it’s a privilege to be there. I like danah’s explanation of her choice to go to Foo. I had mixed feelings about it, sorry and understanding that others were hurt when they weren’t invited, cautious to mention I had chosen to go. I wanted to go to Foo, to participate in the community, to give my “Making Masks” presentation, to listen and to learn from everyone there.

Running away together for the weekend

Since Ted also happened to get an invitation it made for a fun excuse to run away together. I wish I had captured a picture of us rolling our suitcases down the sidewalk on the way to the bus [before the ferry and airport etc..] Friday morning. It’s an unusual sight! At first neighbors who saw us offered us a ride, and then they realized we were going away without our kids…which led to the opportunity to make a joke or two…

Come early, stay late

Foo Camp is located at the O’Reilly offices in Sebastopol, Sonoma County, California which is far enough north of SFO to make traffic a serious consideration especially on a Friday. The O’Reilly instructions recommended leaving San Francisco by 3 pm and that’s what Ted and I did, after flying into the city in the early afternoon. If I could I would have arrived sooner. The early birds get the worms and at Foo the early birds get the best sites for camping whether on the lawn or in the building (including offices with doors!) and best choice from the box of donated swag. I’d also recommend packing warm clothes. Despite the forecast of 80 degree weather, the evenings were particularly chilly and I was grateful I’d packed fleece (but sorry I’d missed the swag sweatshirts!). Packing a large towel from home is helpful too. And ear plugs were especially helpful, I heard, for those in the tents. I also later wished I had more time to stay but with babysitting a big factor in our family’s equation, I need to go home as soon as possible.

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camping on the third floor at Foo: our romantic retreat!

Getting to know you

Friday night began with quick introductions around the packed room for all 200+ of us that were there. We were each allowed to say our name, affiliation and three words to describe ourselves. See David Weinberger’s list for some of these excellent three word combos. Using words that were distinctive helped to start conversations later. For example, one of Ted’s three words was “homeschooling” ( I think the other two were “Apache” and “Chandler”) and during the rest of the weekend, others would ask us about homeschooling. I chose “storytelling” and that too opened doors. I do wonder what happened to the guy whose three words were “baby due tomorrow” – [he then had to explain it was a scheduled induction]- we nearly all dragged him out the door and sent him home!

Find a slot!

Next came the sign up for sessions. Everyone is encouraged to bring a talk or discussion topic to share. Foo Campers move en masse [see Ted’s photo] towards enormous boards marked with grids outlining the schedule of the weekend: 140 sessions + total. At first it’s a bit of a free-for-all, with people grabbing pens and scribbling on squares, jostling among each other. This part was crazy. It was difficult to find a time slot that didn’t conflict with something else that seemed exciting or intriguing. I also wished the schedule had somehow been put online. The physical aspects of the board – later stationed in a covered walkway outside – including its height and width, made certain sessions and rooms easier to read and write than others. But somehow everyone finds a place to present. I ended up presenting my “Making Masks” talk twice, once in the morning and again at night, for those who missed the first time. Even after two performances, there were still people who told me they had wanted to see my talk. At Foo, there are always so many exciting sessions, it is difficult to choose just one or two to try to see in the hour!

Also, due to the number of options offered, many sessions averaged in attendance from 10 to 20 people, the size of a workshop. For my talk, I appreciated the intimate setting and the flexibility of schedule which allowed especially the evening version of “Masks” to continue in depth and dialogue. [here’s a picture and here is a kind review of the morning version]

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Session highlights:

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Open Source Biology lead by Drew Endy included discussions of optimizing the genome and also the difficulties of trying to collect royalties on self-replicating creations.

Do we want wheat in 2050 to be as good as Windows 98?

Take the genome of a natural biological system and optimize it 
If you view biological systems as programs – 3.6 billion years old time for a rewrite

uncontrolled replication in the environment – royalies 
make a replication machine – you have to give it away at that point.

If we screw up…can’t reboot….

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Esther Dyson on space travel and personal health information

Next I stopped by Esther Dyson’s session which she split into two halves, one that focussed on space travel and the other on personal health care information. The end of the first topic included a dialogue on the ethics of space travel, whether it is selfish to want to “see the blue marble” as someone described it. Esther said:

0 G is probably safe. Going into space is not. The risk is worth taking. I want to go into space when I figure I’m kind of done on earth. I’d rather go that way than lung cancer…give my body to science or experimentation

We also discussed the problems of pollution with bits and atoms, environmentalism on the Web and in the physical world.

The portion on health care information ended up shorter than the space session. Esther Dyson advocated that we will have better health care and better health when consumers, people like you and me, can control our information. There was talk of various companies interested in this space, including Amway, which someone mentioned is marketing genetic tests and then subsequent health-related products under a different company name.

After my recent ER encounter and the following process in which it was made clear to me without being explicitly stated that I was in charge of coordinating my health care needs in a crisis, despite my physical pain and lack of knowledge [of my own body or the medical situation], I strongly believe in having access to my records.

Someone asked why he should be concerned about his health care information.

The immediate response from the group was “How old are you?”

Many told him that soon he would be concerned about his health care…as soon as he got older or had a crisis. [in around 3 to 4 years someone estimated!]

Suddenly I saw one result of the segregation that may exist in the technology community. With age, generally comes more health problems. Once you have a health problem it changes the way you view health care. Yet the technology crowd, from what I’ve seen, seems to be mostly on the younger end of the spectrum. Many whom I’ve met I’d guess are also on the wealthier end of the economic spectrum. And I also suspect that those who are at larger tech companies have better benefits and may be unaware – as Ted and I were – of the difficulties of finding and paying for insurance and health care in general. I thought of Ronni Bennett and her desire to educate others and document what it means to grow older – and her documentation of the inequities of age in our society. Here again is another gap where technology could help older people but can we make it work from both ends – could we help the older people use the technology for their empowerment and could we encourage younger people [perhaps in corporations but also via open source methods] to invest the time to build the structures [hardware, software and social] that are necessary?

Tricks for Writing Essays

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After lunch I ended up sitting next to Paul Graham as he shared tips for writing essays. I wouldn’t say that I want to be a writer just like Paul Graham. If I were to write essays and books, they would be in a different niche from his and a different style. But I would like to be as provocative and innovative as he is. Ted and I have discussed some of his essays and I know Paul has influenced us both in our thoughts on creativity and parenting. He has wisdom and experience. I was grateful for the opportunity to learn from him. Here are some notes.

I used talks as a way of forcing myself to write essays 
When you read stuff aloud you notice sentences that you stumble over them 
I read all essays out loud 
When you read them out loud multiple times, that helps you realize the boring slow bits

That’s one of the tricks. Use a lot of pronouns. Talk about something and then refer back to it. 
Sentences are all linked together …that makes it fit.

part of what causes flames is lack of revision 
the first time you write something down you often write it in too dramatic or assertive a way 
you’re terribly offensive and you seem foolish

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Paul explained how he responded to critiques and mentioned regrets. He also mentioned essays he hasn’t published for fear of other’s reactions, and topics he doesn’t write.

Creating Passionate Users 2

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Kathy Sierra led a vibrant Creating Passionate Users session, focussing on the Koolaid point. Her blog began from a session at Foo Camp ’04. I’d read the notebook Ted brought home from Kathy’s OSCON tutorial and I’ve enjoyed learning from her. I wasn’t able to write specific quotes since my computer needed recharging. Kathy’s presentations are dynamic and fun. The discussion on what to do with Koolaid tension and cult-accusations featured excellent suggestions from others in the room. I wish we had had more time to continue the discussion and I also wish Kathy had had more time to present some of her material on the ways the mind learns and remembers. I’ll just have to wait for the Creating Passionate Users book coming out in 2006!

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Identity 2.0

Dick Hardt’s Identity 2.0 talk was one I had to see, in part because I’m interested in identity but also in part because I was interested in his presentation style which had received Ted’s praise at OSCON. It’s fast and funny and accurate (too fast for me to take a good photo!). The kind of presentation that you have to keep watching so you won’t miss a word – literally! I saw smiles appearing on faces as he presented. Later I had opportunity to talk to Dick about the ways we change our identity with audience.


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Sunday morning I enjoyed Howtoons, led by Saul Griffith. Howtoons are “Tools of Mass Construction”, a subversive science curriculum presented in cartoon form with materials that cost less than $1 an experiment so that kids can explore by themselves, on their own initiative. 
”What is the set of skills that kids should not be allowed to survive childhood without?”

I hope that Howtoons creates a community component where others can share their creations. I can also see the potential for a club idea, where people could gather together once a week or once a month to do experiments together and show off, for example, their marshmallow shooters. [I want to make one of these!]. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming Howtoons books!

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how to count in binary using fingers

Everyone interested in science education should take a look at Howtoons. Saul also mentioned this essay on I, Pencil which also makes for interesting reading.

“Women 2.0”

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All three of the sessions I attended on Sunday addressed gender differences. And it was a contrast to attend Foo Camp three weeks after Blogher. It did seem masculine to me in culture at least at first. But Asa Doetzler commented in one session I attended that Foo had the largest percentage of women than other tech conferences he had attended in recent months. More women seemed to be at Foo in person than on the wiki pages.

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The final session of Foo for me was on Women in Open Source, a discussion I was eager to hear since Ted had attended a similar panel at OSCON the week I went to Blogher. I was curious to see which problems were discussed and which solutions were proposed. In this group that was 75% female, three questions seemed to emerge:

1. What can we do about the social roles and the ways girls learn to encourage more women to end up in open source?

2. How can we support each other? (social-oriented)

3. What can we do now to help women in open source?(task/goal-oriented)

Agreement seemed to be that a goals should be concrete and anchored to something tangible. Also the research work of Maria Klawe at Princeton was mentioned. Mentoring was another way women could encourage other women although one woman said she had never gotten it to work.

What also seemed clear to me was that those women who are in Open Source are women who have survived the current system. Danese Cooper was the first woman interviewed by Slashdot – yet much of that Slashdot interview concerned how shaggable she was. In response to viscious emails, Danese said I just hit delete and I can do that for a long time. Other women mentioned that they feel more comfortable in a group of men than a group of women.

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I suspect women who are already in Open Source have certain characteristics and experience. They’ve learned to survive viscious emails, sexist interviews and mostly-male communities. But what if many women don’t want to try to acclimate to that kind of culture? Women who are already in the Open Source community have insight. But I also believe that those who are just starting may have valuable insight too. How can we change the community or the situations so that different kinds of women – and others from diverse backgrounds – can succeed? As Alolita Sharma said, the same issues that inhibit women from being participatory are the same as newbies from developing countries.

My favorite quote of the session came from Larry Wall: They don’t understand this is Women 2.0.

if this is women 2.0, I’ll be curious to see women 3.0 and 4.0. In the Howtoons session, Saul Griffith shared gender observations. Apparently they have received numerous comments and criticisms from every side of the spectrum regarding the female character in howtoons, but none for the male. He also shared that 10 year old boys want to make skateboards fly while 10 year old girls say they want to read their friends’ dreams – a more complex and yet-unsolved problem in science. Saul also described the effect of a rocket making workshop on a group of girls – for an hour afterward, all the winner could do was talk about how she wanted to become a NASA engineer.

Homophily at Foo and elsewhere

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danah boyd and David Weinberger together helped guide a discussion of homophily and community.

Bless O’Reilly” danah said, appreciating Tim and his team’s efforts to put together a group of campers from different perspectives, technologies and experiences, trying to build bridges and learn from the conference themselves.

Foo camp received criticism for the fact that is is invitation-only. The acronym “Foo” stands for “Friends of O’Reilly” although Tim has now said he regrets the name, for it implies that those who are not invited are not friends. Of course, nearly all conferences have a limit of registrants, as dictated by the facilities. I can’t imagine Foo becoming much bigger than it is now.

I think it’s debatable which kind of conference could have more diversity: one that is self-selecting, allowing anyone to register, or one where a team such as Tim O’Reilly’s writes the list. Some conferences may only attract those who feel comfortable with those involved. Blogher surprised me with its array of new voices, encouraged by an advisory board of strong women. Yet I’m also convinced by Foo Camp that an invitation-only conference could also be an exciting cocktail mixed across communities, encouraging creativity.

In the session danah helped lead on homophily, we discussed silencing by collective action. Someone mentioned that we are diverse, but we have a quiet diversity. There are conservatives in the room and at the conference, for example, but they are not speaking. Even Paul Graham in his session (on essay writing, not the homophily session) mentioned he has essays he’s afraid to publish due to what others will think of him. We silence ourselves and we silence each other.

We make assumptions and broadcast them across the group, promoting an image of homophily and homogeneity. We all want to feel safe. We want to feel the same, at least in some sense. We want to belong. Yet we will each be ourselves only when we are free to be different and when we are accepted for who we are.

How can we help everyone find a voice so that creativity, innovation and diversity can occur? How can we engage totally different viewpoints? Tim O’Reilly has offered an example by his invitations bringing together people across disciplines and perspectives, people who might not ordinarily mix together. How can we expand the community and use what we’ve been given to help others? I was encouraged by Asa Doetzler’s sharing of his involvement in his community, with neighbors and others, hanging out with old friends who are non geeks and discovering what they need. I wish we had had more time for discussion but hope we can continue the dialogue through the decisions we make. I also hope to write more about my own application and experience later.

Forget to pack your ego

All communities, parties and conferences have their own psychology and sociology. The Foo invitation creates its own culture too. Some wonder – even out loud – why they were invited. It’s easy to feel intimidated or insecure when you recognize CEOs and other tech stars you’ve seen in magazines and books standing in line for ice cream sundaes next to you.

Awkward moments can occur when you try to make table conversation and ask the standard “What do you do?”. Sometimes the person sitting next to you drinking keg beer from a plastic cup is someone powerful and famous and then you feel stupid for not knowing who he was. And sometimes the person sitting next to you created an incredible invention yet you don’t know who she is or what it was she did, and feel stupid again.

I write all this only as advice [and as one description of the atmosphere at Foo]. While packing the sleeping bags and towels, leave the ego at home. This should be standard fare for all conferences anyway. Go prepared to meet new people, faces and voices you may or may not know, but all of them and each of them with something to share and something you can learn from them.

Perhaps instead of asking “What do you do?” or other similar inquisitions, instead try “What was the coolest thing you did this week?” as an opener (credit to danah boyd for the idea!).

Of course, the flip side of the invitation aspect is that everyone who is there got the same invite. No one is a speaker. No one keynotes. We are all the same. Whatever happens is whatever we make happen.

Someone mentioned that it was amazing to walk into the bathroom just as Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO) was walking out. It is fun to be in a community without the usual hierarchy. We all eat the same food at the same tables and attend the same sessions. It’s a unique opportunity to create community and build relationships across the lines we sometimes draw within corporations or technologies or disciplines or even among ourselves. It’s a fun mix of people filled with interesting ideas and innovation, people who are willing to go on adventures, whether its a game of Werewolf or a genetic sequencing challenge.

It’s a great time to listen and learn, to give and receive. I was honored to meet many friendly people with whom I hope to stay connected, people I’ve been wanting to meet for a while. If I listed all the names it would be too many! Thanks to all of you!

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breakfast foo

Tim O’Reilly and his team are giving this party, providing us all with tasty provisions and a place to camp, paying tens of thousands of dollars. It is sponsored by O’Reilly, some of the attendees have O’Reilly connections and some of the sessions concerned O’Reilly. Friday night I enjoyed seeing Tim O’Reilly present data on book sales, using various tools to track topics. I suspect it was an updated version of the one Tim Bray saw at the original Foo.

Family friendly

Foo was very family-friendly. Tim O’Reilly’s family was there; I thought that was cool. There were quite a few other couples there, besides Ted and me. And kids! Wee ones toddling around or babes carried in arms. This was the first conference I’ve attended where I’ve seen a mom nursing a baby. I noticed this because I’ve been waiting to see this for a while: when I was planning to attend my first conference, BloggerCon II, someone (a blogger and reader of this blog) also wanted to come and asked me whether anyone would be bringing along a breastfeeding baby. I was glad to see how family friendly Foo was. We missed our kids, especially after bringing them with us to Northern Voice and Gnomedex (thanks to those conferences for accommodating us!), but we were also able to participate better at Foo Camp by going alone as adults.

So as I was sitting on the airplane, coming home, I realized how many gifts I had gotten this weekend. My mother had babysat our kids, and then my brother and his girlfriend had come over to help my mom get somewhere on Sunday evening. There was the gift of the invitation from Tim O’Reilly and his team. The gifts of those who encouraged me and took the time to come to my session. Everyone who listened and gave to the discussions we enjoyed long after I’d finished my slides. The gifts of all those who led a session and put themselves and their work out for others to see. The many who helped me with my talk and have read this blog and helped me as a person. All gifts I didn’t expect. Even the gift of a weekend away enjoying a Sunday morning walk on a quiet trail in Sebastopol.

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As Robert Scoble wrote, Thank you Tim for teaching us Foo camp life, for initiating the example and getting the idea going. This is all the beginning of many things, the start of a trail, a road into further adventures, as the success of Bar camp proved.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Sour Duck // Aug 31, 2005 at 9:03 am

    Julie – Thanks for this detailed, post (as I didn’t attend the event).

    I particularly enjoyed/appreciated:

    – the picture of you giving your “Making Masks” presentation (and others’ blog entries on it)

    – the Kathy Sierra pointer and the link to the “Kool Aid” graph

    – Howtoons (yes!!!)

    – “It did seem masculine to me in culture at least at first.” For myself, seeing that photo (http://www.flickr.com/photos/twleung/36466040/in/set-805909/) of a sea of men was sobering after attending Blogher.

    – I didn’t realise “Foo” stands for “Friends of O’Reilly”, thanks for that. 😉

    – Larry Wall’s comment: They don’t understand this is Women 2.0. 😀

    – the whole “Forget to pack your ego” part

    – the breakfast bun photo. 😉

    Thanks again!

    – SD

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