A Weekend at Foo Camp

Well...  I was lucky enough to get invited to Foo Camp (which was last weekend) and I figure "What the heck!  Let's do it!".  

Foo Camp is held at the O'Reilly headquarters in Sebastopol, CA which is 1 to 2 hours (or more depending on traffic) north of San Francisco.  It is an invitation only event whose name stands for "Friends Of O'Reilly" and involves about 300 diverse and interesting individuals from different walks of the computer industry (and related industries).  Tim O'Reilly host it at their headquarters and supplies very nice buffet food, showers, rest rooms, and meeting rooms.  I was informed that the best way to enjoy the event is to camp there which means either pitching a tent on their lawn or finding an available space in a meeting room or hallway to throw a sleeping bag.  It was an option to get a hotel room in town.  Now... I haven't camped in about 20 years so this required some thinking... 

I concluded I had two options:

  1. Stay in a hotel room and ensure I remained sober enough to drive at the end of the evening, OR
  2. Buy a tent at REI in Santa Rosa and then hit the high-end liquor store in Santa Rosa to buy enough whiskey to lubricate a serious subset of the 300 attendees.

Naturally, I chose the second option and bought six bottles (some of my favorites and others I hadn't tried). 

So, I flew from Seattle to SFO late Friday morning (July 11th).  After picking up a car at Avis, I hit the road north (and the traffic) at around 1:15PM.  It took until about 3:30 to get to Santa Rosa and the REI camping store.  Buying a tent was an experience, too.   REI doesn't have any cheap tents but, boy, do they have some nice ones!  So, I ended up with a two-man tent which, in reality, was exactly the right size for me, my duffle bag, and the box of whiskey.  By the time I'd hit the REI, the liquor store, and driven all the way to Sebastopol, it was about 5:30 and things at the O'Reilly campus were really hopping.

The campus has three buildings and is the regular workplace for quite few people.  Naturally, some of the areas were labeled as not for the Foo Camp attendees since not everyone wants someone sleeping in their office filled with all their things.   Lots of the space was graciously made available.   A large circus-style tent was set up for dining and around the back of the campus were a number of tents with chairs set up for meetings.  It was really very well done.

So, the next job was pitching the tent (which is NOT my forte).   The lawn had been pretty well staked out by the time I got there so I went around to the side of the dining room tent and found a spot between the big tent and the sidewalk.  This made me the closest tent to the beer and wine which really wasn't a problem for me (I brought earplugs) but the WELL lit sidewalk meant my tent was, well, WELL LIT.   This, too, didn't phase me but obviated the need for the flashlight I'd scored at REI.  I was surprisingly successful at tent construction and soon moved into my new 54" by 80" abode. 

At dinner on Friday, I saw my friend Jesse Robbins who (I believed scored me the invitation to Foo Camp.   I met Jesse during my tenure at Amazon and he is one of the most knowledgeable people I know about Disaster Management.  Jesse has been trained as a firefighter and is ALWAYS thinking about how can a data center and its applications survive failures.  It was good to see him!   At dinner, I met Adam Jacob who is working with Jesse at a new gig called HJK Solutions which is working to help companies develop their operations.  Cool stuff!   I also met Brady Forrest of O'Reilly.  I had known of Brady because of the work he has done in running various conferences.

So, the format for Foo Camp is pretty informal.  There is a large board set up that has columns for rooms (or tents) and rows for time slots for meetings.   People rush over and slap up a topic that they want to present.  Partnering with people of like interest is encouraged.   It is also encouraged to reduce your one hour time slot to 30 minutes if you think your topic is best served by a shorter period.  The entire conference is self-organized and pleasantly quirky.  

The first evening was random discussions as people drifted in before, during, and after dinner.  There was beer and wine and lots of fun people to talk to.   After a while, I realized I was tired and set off to find a place to brush my teeth.   Having succeeded with that, I crawled into the sleeping bag at 11:30.

So, camping is (sort of) OK...  One thing I remembered from my youth but, now, vividly remember is my LEAST favorite part of camping.   That's when you wake up in the middle of the night and REALLY have to go pee.  Now, to politely accomplish this, you have to successfully unzip the sleeping bag but the zipper always gets stuck.  Then, you have to put on enough clothes to avoid getting arrested or, worse, hit on by a Foo Camp attendee.  Don't forget your shoes as you are about to search for a Men's Room... yuck....  Finally, you have to unzip the tent flap AND the rain cover for the tent and crawl out on the lawn.    Hopefully, you remember the location of the facilities in your exhausted stupor.   After finding the Men's Room and returning, you have to undo the entire process in order to get back to sleep.   I hate this part!

On Saturday morning, I was pretty close to the first one up since I was seriously wanting to take a shower.  Remember, there are a couple of hundred people competing for one men's and one women's shower.  Unlike at most baseball games, the ladies have the advantage in contention for scarce resources at Foo Camp.  So, I scooted into the shower at around 6:15AM (not too bad since I crashed at 11:30).

The sessions started at 10AM and I went to a number of excellent ones.  Sometimes, it was hard to select between the various cool sessions.   I remember the following ones:

  • Data center power -- James Hamilton (my friend from Microsoft) and Jeff Hammerbacher who leads the Facebook data team (but will be leaving soon).  Both James and Jeff were filled with information about running large and dynamic data centers.   The power issues for data centers have been on my mind the last few years and I find that James is a wonderful font of knowledge.   I most definitely love that he is at Microsoft and my friend... I plan to come pepper him with additional questions in the months to com.   Jeff, also, has tons of knowledge from supporting the data needs of Facebook as it has undergone its explosive growth.  This was a fun and invigorating discussion in which I met an attendee, Roger Magoulas who is a research director at O'Reilly.   I have a feeling that there will be opportunities for me to work with Roger, too.
  • Parallel Programming -- Kerry Hammil of Microsoft Research.   We had a fun discussion of the difficulties of getting applications (and, indeed, their libraries and OSes) to be parallel.  There were about 25 great and interesting people participating in this group and, not surprisingly, I participated, too.     This was such a lively discussion for me that it ended up in the hallway and we skipped the next session.
  • Beyond Relational DB -- Emil Eifrem (of NeoTechnology) and Terry Jones (of Fluid Technology) -- These were really two different folks with two different reasons for wanting to build a datastore that is different than relational.   For NeoTechnology, it was about making an optimized graph representation of data.  By custom designing for a graphs, they can do specialized queries quite fast.  For Fluid Technology, they are allowing data to be represented in a fashion where annotations (or additional attributes if you will) can be stored by any observer of the data.  Basically, if you can look at an entity, you can add an attribute which is then stored in YOUR store with your privileges.  Filtering of the entities can be done based on whatever attributes you can see (ones you've stored or others you can see).  Both systems are interesting.  I had a number of discussions during this session (and afterwards).  During this, I met Esther Dyson (who is an investor in Fluid Technologies and quite a fascinating person).  I also met Jeff Jonas (who I very much enjoyed, too).

Next, came dinner... Actually, what happened was Esther, Jeff, and I slipped away to the big dinner tent and Esther spent some time online showing us a demo of a startup she is on the board for called 23andMe.  This is a fascinating company which makes its money by allowing you to pay them for a genetic analysis.  This analysis can yield information about how closely your genes are like those of your family.  Esther had a large number of family members whose genes were processed so they could be compared to each other.  We spent some time looking at the variance and similarity of siblings, aunts, parents, half-siblings, and more.   It was very interesting.  This then led to a discussion of the implications of certain markers that are related to different disorders.  What do the genes mean?  When should lay people gain access to information about their genetics?  How can it be presented to people so they understand (and do not react improperly) what a certain pattern of genes will mean for them?  Apparently, some states (I think California but may be wrong) are demanding that genetic information only be made available to someone via their doctor. What are the tradeoffs associated with that?

Continuing over dinner, I got a chance to hear more of Jeff Jonas's work at Systems Research and Development (SRD) which was acquired by IBM in January 2005.   Jeff's interest is in processing VAST quantities of information to see surprising correlations.   He applied this technology to help flesh out folks that were trying to cheat the casinos in Las Vegas (which is where he lives).  Later, it was tapped by the folks at Homeland Security to find patterns associated with folks trying to do acts of terrorism.  Jeff is very interesting and I hope to get the chance to work with him more.

So, after dinner at about 8:30, I figured it was time to break out the six bottles of whiskey (two scotches and four bourbons).   There was a fire pit and that seemed like a great place to set up.  The beer that the nice O'Reilly folks had supplied was brought over and soon we had a party going.   One at a time, three other whiskeys were produced by other volunteers.   A few hours later, I noticed some Gin and Tonic had been added.   Since there were about 300 people, this was not an overwhelming amount of trouble.  Also, a walk around the campus revealed many different people involved in different passions.  There was one group in a meeting room with about 8 different musical instruments just making wonderful sounds.  Others had people doing puzzles (I think my friend Pavel Curtis was one of the ring-leaders in that effort).  Others were playing various games and I did notice some hula hoops in play.   Someone had set up a croquet mallet, a ramp, and a rack to break old china... this makes a MARVELOUS sound whose effect is enhanced by whiskey.   The following photo was taken on my friend Jesse Robbins camera by another attendee.  You can see James Hamilton, me, and Jesse by the fire.


Check out James' blog for his perspective of the event.  (Picture stolen from James' blog and, in turn, from Jesse's Flickr site).

So, I partied until about 2AM.  I remember long and interesting discussions with Mark Fitzsimmons and then later on getting to know some of the Microsoft Research folks better including Lili Cheng, Jennifer Chayes, Christian Borgs, and Linda Stone (now ex-MSFT).   Just an amazing group of people that I would love to get to know even better!

Then, it was back to the JOYS of the tent and the middle of the night zipper-fight.   I managed to sleep until 8:30.

The next morning, it was waiting in line to shower and then I had to pack up all the stuff!   I got all done except the sleeping bag and tent when I went off to see a talk by Terry Jones on the calculations to track the changes in Flu virus genetics and the challenges of creating an effective vaccine.  Esther Dyson (who is both funding Terry's company and working on the board of the genetic company 23andMe) was there for the discussion.   It was (and is) fascinating the extent to which data analysis of LOTS of information is having a profound impact on something as surprising as the design (and prediction) of the contents of the annual flu vaccine so as to create immunity to infection for what the scientists THINK (and hope) is going to be the dominant mutation of the flu virus.  It was VERY interesting and Terry's knowledge was very impressive.

So, that morning, Esther realized I was heading to SFO asked me to give her a ride.  What a treat to chat with here for a few hours!   I scrambled to pack up the tent and give it away to a nice  couple that are Foo Camp regulars... they keep a stash of supplies for later Foo Camps.   I asked them NOT to keep it for me.   Having discerned that there is at least one taxi in Sebastopol, if I get invited back, I will exercise a THIRD option:

    3.  Hit the high-end liquor store for whiskey, cause trouble on the second evening, call a taxi, and stay in a local...  I think I'm spoiled!

Esther and I had a lovely chat and covered our respective backgrounds and passions (she is into space flight amongst other things).  Quite a lady and quite an enjoyable drive to SFO.  I dropped Esther off, returned the rental car, and managed to get an earlier flight home that I had reserved (which was GREAT since I needed the sleep and was happy to see my wife, Lisa!).

I hope I get the privilege to attend this eclectic and fun event again (but without the tent).

- Pat





Foo Camp was fun!   Thanks to Tim O'Reilly for having me!

- Pat

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