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Scifoo 2008

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I’m off to the Googleplex tomorrow for Scifoo 2008, sponsored by Google, Nature and O’Reilly.

Here’s the Nature web page; maybe I’ll show up in some of the photos. This one is from last year:

With all the interesting people and talks (and Olympics going on in the background!), I doubt I will post very much for the next few days!

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August 7, 2008 at 10:06 pm

Posted in foo camp, science, scifoo

Foo camp 2008 coverage

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Nice article and photos here (Techcrunch) and here. My sessions were “The information security industry is broken” with John Viega and Dan Kaminski, and “The technology of hand to hand fighting: MMA” 🙂

Techcrunch: Shangri La for geeks

275 or so people congregated on the small town of Sebastopol, located 60 miles north of San Francisco in the heart of wine country, for the 2008 Foo Camp this last weekend. Attendees included technologists, professors, researchers engineers, major company executives, billionaire entrepreneurs, students, press and the odd astronaut.

They all had one thing in common – a love of technology. Foo Camp, which stand for Friends of O’Reilly, is an annual three day tech event put on by O’Reilly Media at their Sebasopol headquarters. They supply a huge lawn area where attendees put up tents, food and drinks, bathrooms, Wifi and one very large blank piece of paper marked off in a grid.

There is no structure to the event – if an attendee wants to hold a session on anything at all, they simply write the name of the session somewhere on the grid, which tells people what day/time and place the session will be held. People attend any sessions they like, and with 15 or so happening at any given time, there may be 2 people, or 75 people, in any particular session.

Sessions this year included, to name just a few: “how to fly the space shuttle” by a former astronaut, “the future of news,” “user generated meta data,” “the metrics of virtual worlds,” “decentralizing social networks” and “online hate/trolling.”

In one session on Sunday that I co-led with Tim O’Reilly and Danny Sullivan, we debated the need for competitive search. This was an offshoot of a previousdebate we held on our blogs, but this time with audience participation in real time (including people from the companies being discussed).

The sessions are in an unconference format, meaning the leaders are there to guide the discussion only. Audience participation isn’t just encouraged, it’s a well exercised right (in the picture to the right, you can see Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales behind the table with his hand raised to make a comment in the “user generated meta data” session led by Esther Dyson). With so many different types of interesting people in any given session at any time, the conversations tend to be fascinating, and occasionally explosive. …

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July 14, 2008 at 7:29 pm

Posted in foo camp, geeks, technology

Foo camp 2008

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I’m off to foo camp tomorrow. I doubt I’ll have much time to blog, although you never know…

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July 10, 2008 at 1:56 pm

Posted in foo camp, technology

Conference fun

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My summer schedule is filling up already!

Paris, May 26-28: Black hole information at Institut Henri Poincaré.

Foo camp, Sebastapol, July 11-13: woo hoo! O’Reilly Media’s annual un-conference. My report from last year, including video.

Sci Foo, Googleplex, Aug 8-10: co-organized by Google, O’Reilly Media and Nature. Flickr photos from last year (2007).

Trento, Italy Sept. 1-5: statistical thermalization, at the European Center for Nuclear Theory (ECT).

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May 11, 2008 at 11:40 pm

Rise of the money machines

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As far as I could tell there was only one other physicist at foo camp, and he is CTO and head quant at a big hedge fund. He and Tim O’Reilly ran a discussion called Rise of the Money Machines 🙂

From the Economist’s review of the new Peter Bernstein book Capital Ideas Evolving (sequel to Capital Ideas, which was quite good).

Economist: …Indeed, Mr Bernstein seeks to show how financial giants such as Barclays Global Investors and Goldman Sachs Asset Management have built on the insights developed by the academics. If there are ways systematically to beat the markets these days, they probably require men with physics doctorates and massive computer power rather than a smooth manner and the right contact book.

There is the equivalent of a technological arms race as modern fund managers vie to find the best computer models and to trade quickly before their competitors spot the same opportunities. …

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June 26, 2007 at 3:29 am

Foo camp impressions

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Beautiful weather, but very cold at night.

Too much to absorb!

Larry Page came by helicopter. Jimmy Wales is in a tent like the rest of us. Dirac’s grandson is here. Data mining is big. Hedge funds are on the mind, even here. Lots of people working on Web 2.0 and collective intelligence. Facebook’s new platform is impressive. MySpace and Facebook in a technology race. Biobricks? Founders of Red Hat, Skype, Wikipedia, Amazon, MoveOn, Digg, Delicious, BitTorrent…

Report and video from WSJ reporter Kara Swisher about the event. I’m at the end of the video, explaining the game “werewolf” to Kara.

Sadly, I was not there to see Google’s Larry Page land a helicopter on the lawn up at Tim O’Reilly’s annual geekfest called Foo Camp, so I could mock him to his face.

(Note to Larry: That better be an awfully big solar footprint you’re building at the Googleplex in Silicon Valley to replace all the carbon emissions your various flying machines spew.)

Since I had to trade kid duty, I could only get up there Friday night for the opening festivities, which are held annually at the Sebastopol headquarters of O’Reilly Media.

Still, it was well worth the trek north of San Francisco to get a short glimpse of some new and sometimes quite wacky ideas about the future of digital development.

The conference is almost entirely user-generated, as people sign up to lead sessions on a variety of sometimes esoteric topics in rooms scattered all through the facility.

While most conferences look at the here and now, Foo Camp is aggressive in its quest to get people to think outside the box. In fact, if there were a box, the brainy denizens of Foo Camp would probably turn it into a time machine/beer dispenser/robot ninja warrior.

It could happen.

Many big wheels and many more big brains were there to figure it all out. Indeed, as you will see from this video, there is still a very pure and very infectious enthusiasm after many years at Foo Camp, even though some have complained about its ever-larger size.

So, for those who wanted to go and could not get in, here is a rather long glimpse at the first night of Foo Camp, including campers trying unsuccessfully to introduce themselves with only three words, a look at the tents, a talk with Tim O’Reilly and some in attendance explaining why they come:

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June 24, 2007 at 3:51 pm

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The bunnie and the chumby

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Hardware hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang has a blog. Huang grew up in Michigan and earned SB and PhD degrees from MIT. Well known for his reverse-engineering exploits (e.g., Xbox), he co-founded hardware startup Chumby (their product is a low-cost wifi data device) and is working in Shenzhen to set up production.

I highly recommend the following posts from his blog.

On the US technology education deficit.

…I was chatting with UCSD high speed integrated circuits professor Jim Buckwalter about the nature of the graduate student applications he has received.

The statistics were astonishing. Of the thousands of applicants, only 80 were from the US. To put this in perspective, he had more applicants with the surname “Lee” alone than he had domestic applicants. And UCSD engineering is no slouch; according to the rankings they are #11 in engineering overall.

…The enormous disparity in domestic applicants to higher education in crucial fields such as high speed circuit design is a bit disturbing. With numbers like these, it is inevitable that the US will lose its edge in technology. I guess it wouldn’t be as bad if these foreign students actually stayed in the US and started companies, but my experience in China has shown that just about every company I talked to had US-educated management from schools like Berkeley and Stanford.

At the SEG electronics market in Shenzhen (what Akihabara used to be).

Ten years ago, Akihabara was the place to be for the latest electronics and knick knacks and components. I’m convinced the new place to be is the SEG Electronics Market in Shenzhen (although to be fair I heard there is a competing market in Korea that’s supposedly even better–the Japanese test-market their stuff there even before they try it in Akihabara!).

…Chips that I couldn’t dream of buying in the US, reels of rare ceramic capacitors that I only dream about at night. My senses tingle, my head spins. I can’t supress a smirk of anticipation as I walk around the next corner, to see shops stacked floor to ceiling with probably a hundred million resistors and capacitors.

…Oh my god! Sony CCD and CMOS camera elements, I couldn’t buy those in the US if I pulled teeth out of the sales reps–and behind the counter, the guy sometimes has a datasheet–ask for it. A stack of Micrel regulator chips–over there, a Blackfin DSP chip for sale. The smell, the bustle, the hustle. It’s the ultimate electronic component flea market. Over here, a lady counting 256 Mbit DRAM chips…trays of 108 components, stacked twenty high, a row of perhaps 10 of them–she has the equivalent of Digikey’s entire stock of DRAM chips sitting right in front of me.

Reflections on capitalism in China: electronics manufacturing, basic labor economics, efficiency, corruption, etc. (See also Shenzhen diary.)

Minimum wage In Shenzhen, the minimum wage is about $0.60/hour. However, there is a very competitive labor market in China–there is a shortage of workers and mobility between factories is unimpaired by employment agreements. Therefore, employers must provide a very competitive benefits package for their employees, which typically includes dormitory housing, food, medical care, schooling, and day care; there are no retirement or unemployment benefits.

…workers have an 8-hour day, 5 days a week, and employers are required to pay 1.5x overtime and 2x on weekends. As far as I can tell, employers honor this. So in the end, these laborers earn a discretionary income of at least $100 per month, or $1200 per year. This is surprisingly comparable to the $2,075/yr discretionary income of US households that earn under $50,000 (link), which is probably the correct reference point for comparing minimum wage workers in both countries. I haven’t even adjusted for the cost of living difference between China and the US–but let’s just say 100 RMB goes a loooong way if you are just buying food…

…The fully-burdened rate of a worker in China is around $1.80 it seems–this is the rate that the employer pays once all the benefits (free food, housing, medical care, day care, etc.) are factored in. At these wages, laborers are cheaper than pick-and-place machines. In the US, you typically pay between $0.05-$0.25 per component placed on a PCB with a pick and place machine in low volume (100’s to 1000’s).

…In the end, I guess the trillion-dollar question is: will the Chinese economy surpass the US? I think, after being on the ground there and seeing where things are going, the answer is an unequivocal yes. While their current position is beneath the US, the first derivative is positive, the second derivative is also positive. Even if the economy were to start cooling down today (second derivative goes negative), I think they have enough inertia to soundly position themselves above the US for total GDP in about a decade or two. [OK, that’s off a bit, but Bunnie is an engineer, not an economist. See here for what I think is a more realistic estimate.]

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June 18, 2007 at 8:03 pm