Daily Archives: August 1, 2010

SciFoo Follow-Up

Rebecca Saxe, David Eagleman, Me, Jonah Lehrer, Paul Bloom & Laurie Santos at SciFoo - (Photograph courtesy of John Brockman)

I am here in San Francisco International Airport awaiting my flight home to Blighty so I thought I should take this opportunity to blog about my SciFoo experience while it is still fresh in my mind. I flew into SF on wed where HarperOne put me up in the gorgeous Clift Hotel – very dark interior but very stylish decor. The next morning I made it down to KGO to do a one-hour live interview with the incorrigible Ronn Owens. He has the number talk radio show in the Bay area and although he is somewhat conservative in his leaning, I had an absolutely hoot as he was in a very playful mood. We did a bit of banter about the wonders of some mattress company that sponsors the show which was hilarious. Basically I said that we didn’t have mattresses in England and that we all slept on straw. It was that kinda show. Anyway, I am invited back on his if I return and that’s an offer I intend to take up.

Unfortunately my TV slot was cancelled at the last minute (bloody typical TV people) so I headed down to Mountain View where Google is based. They put us up in the Sheraton at Sunnyvale which is one of the worst situated hotels I have ever encountered – bang smack in the intersection of motorways with no way of wandering around to find shops or restaurants. One surprise was that Molly Bentley contacted me by email I ended up doing an unexpected slot on the SETI radio show which turns out was only a few blocks away.

On friday, various SciFoo stragglers started to turn up. I met Adam Rutherford who is a damn fine man. He kindly gave me a bullet casing that he had filched from the set of CSI New York where he had just done some filming so that I could give it to my little Esmé who is currently obsessed by the TV show. Laurie Santos turned up followed soon after by Rebecca Saxe. So I immediately felt better. Then Andy Marr came by the bar and we exchanged hello’s. In fact, I was to see a lot of Mr Marr over the next 2 days so I hope he doesn’t think I am a political journalist groupie. Michael Shermer turned up with his enchanting daughter followed shortly after by Paul Bloom. Ok this sounds like a name dropping post but really given the secrecy surrounding SciFoo, I thought you might like to know who turns up this sort of event.

So as was the case last year, we were all bused over to the Googleplex where we were processed 1)photo – 2)three things to answer – 3)goody bag of swag – and the offer of nibbles in the form of asparagus. After hearing someone’s tale about how asparagus makes your urine smell funny, I have always avoided this hors d’œuvre. Then there was the introduction by the hosts, Nature’s Timo Hannay, Google co-founders Larry Page & Sergey Brin, and of course, Tim O’Reilly after whom the event gets its name – Friends Of O’Reilly (SCIFOO). There were over 300 guests, which is the biggest the event has ever been, but we all duly stood up one by one, stated who we were and gave a three word summary. Predictably people tried to outdo each other with witticisms but it was all in good spirit. Then there was the mad rush to grab slots to assign talks for the following day. I had already pre-arranged with Michael and Paul and warned them about the sign-up scrum where wealth and Nobel prize count for nothing. It was brutal but I got two great slots – or so I thought.

The next day the talks began in earnest. I had booked a big room for Michael and myself as I was convinced it would be standing room only. Unfortunately, prior to our talk on Reason & Belief, there was a 2 hour session of lightning 5 min presentations which burnt everyone out because there was a mass exodus when our turn came to give a full hour. We had booked a room that holds 120 and only about 25 people were there. So we went ahead anyway and while Michael was great, I stumbled though a badly prepared rant about skeptical activism and woo bomb detectors. One problem I think was showing the Jesus dog’s butt slide to get a cheap laugh which did not even raise a titter (Mental note: not everyone finds pareidolia of Jesus funny). Anyway, the discussion was heated and people wanted to keep talking over lunch so I guess we achieved our gaol. Bill Nye (the Science Guy) came up afterwards and congratulated me which was cool as I was a bit low about my performance.

Anyway, one down and another slotted in with Paul Bloom in the afternoon. That one was a much smaller room with an audience of about 20 but we had Andy Meltzoff, Pat Kuhl, some Nobel physicist, birdman Richard Prum, Jonah Lehrer and most importantly Tim O’Reilly. Now this was a good showing because we were up against a parallel session that had Andy Marr, Armand Leroi, Adam Rutherford, Marcus du Sautoy and Aleks Krotoski and the rest of media presenters – so this was a good but Paul had expected more. But that’s SciFoo for you. At one point, Danny Kahneman (Nobel Prize for economics) was gonged off the stage for going over his 5 minute allocation. Where else would that happen? Anyway Paul and I gave a good show with at least 30 mins of interesting discussion.

So my heros of the meeting were David Eagleman (“Sum”) who is simply awesome – great talks and great guy. We also exchanged signed copies of our respective books! Jonah Lehrer – supersmart , Armand Leroi – lovely guy and naturally engaging. Ani Patel – and his dancing cockatoo. The jetman Yves Rossy who flew across the channel with a rocket strapped to his back. Vaughan Bell from Mind Hacks was also great. And by far one of the superstars was Lawrence Krauss who just blew my mind.

I seemed to make alot of friends and this was much, much better than my experience last year but given that you don’t tend to get invited back, then I have been left with some wonderful memories and contacts.

Anyway, signing off as they have started boarding.


Filed under General Thoughts