Sunday, March 16, 2008


Carolyn and I had a good time Friday and Saturday at SciBarCamp at the University of Toronto, but we blew off going today.

Yesterday, I attended a nice session on John Searle's classic "Chinese room paradox."

I also led a session on the World Wide Web gaining consciousness. One fellow, thinking he was above the rest of us, demanded of the fifteen or so people at my session, "How many of you have ever considered that consciousness might not really exist?" He expected us all to look blankly at him, and wait for him to enlighten us -- but, of course, every hand in the room went up. As I pointedly said to him, at a gathering like this it's not safe to assume that you are the smartest person in the room. :)

Later, the same guy tried to lecture my SF-writing colleague Dr. Peter Watts, saying "Let me explain evolution to you." Peter, of course, is a marine biologist, and knows the topic cold -- as he made quite clear to this fellow. :)

After that, science journalist Dan Falk moderated a panel on "What is time?" Panelists were fellow SF writer Karl Schroeder (one of the organizers of SciBarCamp), physicist Lee Smolin, and myself.

That's Lee and me pictured above. We were supposed to write our names and our interests on our name badges. Lee's says, "Lee" and the greek letter pi -- 'cause he works at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which is known as PI. I decided the simplest way to express what I was interested in was just to write "42" -- Douglas Adams's shorthand for life, the universe, and everything. :)

Carolyn gave a very good session (in the most beautiful room in the building) on science poetry (her session title: "What rhymes with neutrino?").

I have to say I preferred the way the original SciFooCamp organized its events (that blue T-shirt I'm wearing is my SciFooCamp shirt, by the way). There, they simply put a big timetable up on the wall, with room names and their capacities listed across the top and timeslots down the side. If you wanted to present, you picked a time and a room size, and wrote down what you wanted to do. It was fast -- every slot filled quickly. It was efficient -- you didn't end up getting counterprogrammed against something you wanted to see.

SciBarCamp adopted a much more elaborate system, in which people proposed topics in writing, others voted on them, and then the organizers after everyone had gone home for the day decided what would go when and where for the next day, and emailed out schedules. So, of course, silliness like having me scheduled (for the panel on time) opposite a discussion about the relationship between science and science fiction happened. And we ended up with huge blocks of time in which there was only one event; the other three programming rooms just sat vacant. I hope if there's a second SciBarCamp they'll use the SciFooCamp model for how to set up programming.

Not to grouse too much, but when the organizers take it upon themselves to schedule they become de facto responsible for maintaining that schedule, monitoring sessions and making sure they don't go overtime ... except they did this only sporadically. And so because of a combination of starting late (for no good reason that I could see) after lunch on Saturday, and then not keeping the events in synch, we ended up with a confusing mess of a schedule by Saturday afternoon. Again, a SciFooCamp-style self-organizing schedule makes all participants responsible for the timetable, and works better, especially when you're dealing with 10-minute and 20-minute programming blocks. Still, everyone had fun, and that's what counts. :)

Also, we'd been told that there were reservations at the Duke of York pub for after SciBarCamp wrapped for the day on Saturday ... and there were. But the programming ended at 5:00 p.m., and the reservation was at 8:00 p.m. People were suddenly told to go to dinner on their own and then return three hours later to the pub. That struck me and Carolyn as ... less that optimal ... since the Duke of York, of course, has full food service (incidentally, it's the pub that the character Lenore works at in my latest novel, Rollback). Rather than kill three hours, we headed back to Mississauga.

Still, the organizers deserve great credit for their initiative, and for getting a lot of really interesting people together on short notice. I had a good time, and would go to another such event.

(Photo: Physicist Lee Smolin, science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

SciBarCamp in Toronto

In 2006, I was a participant at the inaugural Science Foo Camp (or SciFooCamp; "Foo" is short for "Friends of O'Reilly," the giant computer-book publisher).

The event was co-sponsored by O'Reilly and the journal Nature (which published one of my stories back in 2000 -- "The Abdication of Pope Mary III," a little number called "gob-smacking" by Publishers Weekly).

SciFooCamp was held at the Googleplex -- the international headquarters of Google -- and I loved every minute.

Something a bit similar (and a direct spin-off) is being put together in Toronto this month. Says Timo Hannay of Nature:
Together with a few friends in the Toronto area (including Lee Smolin, who you may have met at SciFoo) I am helping to organize an "Open Source" version of SciFoo, named SciBarCamp, in homage to both SciFoo and BarCamp. The event is being held in Toronto from the evening of March 14 (a Friday) to Sunday March 16.
I'll be there, and am very much looking forward to it. Unlike the invitation-only SciFoo Camp, SciBarCamp is open to anyone, although there is a cap on attendance.

(The name BarCamp is a sly reference to the original O'Reilly FooCamps; "Foobar" is a common hacker term, and "bar" is what comes after "foo" ...)

The idea is that you come and participate for the whole weekend -- you're either in or you're out, basically, just like summer camp. :) And participate is an important word; this isn't a passive series of seminars. Rather, people are expected to present or at least engage in Q&A at the sessions that emerge.

In fact, one of the things I like best is that people are penalized for using PowerPoint:
The talks will be informal and interactive; to encourage this, speakers who wish to give PowerPoint presentations will have ten minutes to present, while those without will have twenty minutes.
More info is here.

At the original SciFoo Camp, I led a session the possibilities of the World Wide Web gaining consciousness (and publicly acknowledged that this was brainstorming for my upcoming WWW trilogy).

To give a sense of how high-powered the original SciFooCamp was, the photo above shows a few of the people who came to my session there: Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation, Google co-founder Larry Page, and SF writer Greg Bear.

More about my time at the original SciFooCamp in 2006 is here.

I'm very much looking forward to SciBarCamp (not the least of which because it's being held at Hart House at the University of Toronto; for several summers, I taught an intensive course in writing science fiction at Hart House).

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site