Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

30 Jun 2010, 13:23 p.m.

Foo Camp, Generosity, and Surrender

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Sumana Harihareswara, Steven Levy, and Chad Dickerson at Foo Camp 2010, photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid / few Foo Camp-related notes and links. Leigh suggests this Twitter search should you like to look through that particular collective stream of consciousness. (Cuttingly funny link I found via that search: It Must Be a Marketing Problem.)

Thanks to Scott Beale of Laughing Squid for the photo of me with frickin' Steven Levy (yes, the one who wrote Hackers) and Chad Dickerson, CTO of Etsy. Chad and I met at a retreat, the first year I worked there and his first year as a Salon alumnus. I'm the one who looks like Geordi LaForge; to my right is the desktop support guy who did a poetry fellowship at Stanford. Oh, those early Salon memories.

Selena Marie Deckelmann led a Foo Camp discussion about the ethics of endless permanent logging: "Forgetting should be built into our applications by default," she suggests. This ties into Danny O'Brien's Open Source Bridge keynote, in which he told us we need to change logging defaults on Apache and the like to be more sensible to protect dissidents. And that reminds me of some threads floating through my Foo Camp experience: We're the ones creating others' user experience. That's hospitality, that's generosity, that's the natural authority and dominance that happens, or that we take on because it needs to happen and we're the ones we've been waiting for. We have an obligation to take care of the people who depend on us. Where we have power and strength, we need to recognize that and use it responsibly, not just flee from and resent it. And where I say "we" I mean "I."

On generosity:

After I arrived in San Francisco but before heading to camp, I realized I'd need a warm jacket in Sebastopol, and hadn't brought one. Long story short, I ended up with an eight-year-old's maroon fringed hoodie, as seen here (again, Scott Beale of Laughing Squid). Got a few compliments, though the sleeves were a bit short. I happened to mention this situation in front of Bubba Murarka, who then literally lent me the coat off his back. I don't think I had a single conversation with him all weekend, which means that someone from Facebook gave me a tangible benefit without requiring any personal information. Just kidding! We talked about getting our parents to accept it when we date & marry white people. I think.

my becoated back + scores of digerati & cognoscenti; photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid At the camp, I was supposed to share a tent with Leigh, but the tent she'd borrowed would have been rather too cozy. As we were making arrangements to store our luggage in Thor's tent (interrupted by scifi recommendations of course), a guy I was talking with mentioned that he'd brought a six-person-sized tent and was sleeping in it alone. I gracelessly invited myself in and David Forbes proved himself a generous host who easily outgeeked me on tax history. David, the book I mentioned is Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam by Daniel Dennett, Jr. From the Introduction:

...Nevertheless, all the contributions to the literature of Muslim taxation within the last forty years have been monographic in character and limited in area to particular provinces of the Arab Empire, with the result that there is no single work to which a student who might be interested in the general problem to turn; and if he attempts to master the secondary literature, he will discover so many conflicting data and opinions that his confusion will be increased rather than resolved. This book, therefore, attempts to present a broad view of the system of taxation as it existed in East and West throughout the lands once subject to the Persians and the Greeks, and it is based on all the evidence the writer has been able to discover. It is not, however, a synthesis of the latest opinion, for, as the reader will presently discover, I have views of my own and an axe to grind....
Anthemic! Also, David, in case you're wondering how I knew to get you Gouda, popcorn and orange juice from the Lucky supermarket down the road as a host gift, it's because it takes five seconds to Google you and you mentioned them on FormSpring.

Also in the gifts-from-strangers category: the contagiously enthusiastic Dan Shapiro ran a session in one of the tents with miraculin tablets. Incredibly simple demo: let a tab dissolve on your tongue, swish your saliva around, then taste something sour like lemon juice or vinegar and it'll taste sweet. I knew it'd work, but I hadn't anticipated how joyous, convivial, and transformative it would feel, like a secular communion. Is this what psychedelics are like? You've hacked your senses and now pain is pleasure, sour is sweet, perspective is topsy-turvy, wrong is oh so right. The most numinous scheduled session I experienced.

What is it that makes us more receptive to gifts and transformations? Built-in boundaries, trust, security, self-esteem, love. Sometimes it's harder for me to accept a gift than a setback. One useful concept from Christianity, I've found, is grace -- the undeserved good thing, the good thing one can't possibly deserve, but there's no point in fighting it. Surrender. Minutely I move closer to being willing to lose myself, because every time I do, I'm still there when I come back, and more whole than before.

Speaking of pills: I use melatonin to help me sleep on planes or when jetlagged. On the flight back to New York, I offered it to my rowmates. The fella on my left said, "No thanks, I lived through the sixties and took enough pills from strangers."

And that made me laugh, but also reminded me how egalitarian and generally Californian the whole thing was. Tim O'Reilly made I think 3 cumulative minutes of speeches between his opening and closing, and the closing included his request that we do as he'd done, creating more value than we capture. Imagine what generous things we can do! The joy transforms me and I marvel at it.


02 Jul 2010, 16:02 p.m.

I was newly impressed by Dennett's breadth before I found that Jr. is his father. So I reverted to my previous impression of Dennett's breadth, but that's not so bad.

05 Jul 2010, 12:37 p.m.

Several thoughts, but only one quick comment for now:

The Marketing Problem link (good story) reminds me of a lesson I learned by contrasting SGI's and Macromedia's approaches: creating a product with cool tech and then trying to convince people that they want it (like SGI's VRML authoring tools) is a much harder problem than discovering a need and creating a product to fill it (like most of Macromedia's software at the time). (I'm vastly oversimplifying, but it was a useful paradigm for me.)

Linda Stone
06 Jul 2010, 0:27 a.m.

Lovely post! A Great, great Foo! Enjoyed meeting you.