Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Trip to Berkeley

I'm on vacation starting Monday ... heading back to Winchester to see the family including my sister who is visiting from Australia. But work demanded one more genuflection ... there is a Drupal conference this weekend in Berkeley called BadCamp, and it was certainly useful for me to go notwithstanding that I am not really a geek, I just play one on TV.

[To set the stage, I am, martini in hand, recovering from my day's exactions by watching Polyester ... this is probably a two-day blog post, but I am going to pretend that it is all taking place this evening, snuggled under the covers and preparing for a Sunday of performance ... update ... oops, never wrote another word after setting the stage which I blame on the martini. I actually managed to sleep through Polyester. I woke up at 5:05 ... how twisted is that I do not seem to be able to sleep past somewhere between 4 and 6 every morning. So I am going to finish this in bed in the dark while the rest of the city snoozes contentedly on Sunday morning.]

So, where were we ...yes, I am not really a geek, I just play one on TV. I go to these things not so much to sharpen my skills as to learn the flow, to understand the medium, to know how to talk to the guys who actually make the things work. Frankly, at my stage in life, I am going to be managing technology not creating it ... in the broadest sense. Sure I can bang out a quick web page and I am pretty slick on page-layout stuff, but only marginally competent on photo or video-editing. But all the content needs to be gathered and massaged, and that is where I come in. (My job is transitioning in this sense, and I plan to spend some time thinking about these terms while I vacation in fabulous Winchester.)

So with these chestnuts of wisdom squirreled in my larder, as it were, I descended into the 24th Street BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Station. I took BART pretty much daily to Berkeley for years as I pursued my three Cal degrees, but I hardly ever find myself on the system nowadays. It really is sweet ... perfect place for a half hour read. (I am taking a time out from my Central Asian middle period reading to tackle the lively The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins, and that was my companion today.) BART sounds nice too ... the trains, I mean. And it is sufficiently clean and tidy notwithstanding that it is a heavily used urban transit system. It is not regal, though, like CalTrain which I ride daily now to my job at MRU. IN that sense, BART tells you what is happening, where CalTrain prefers palatial silence ... no announcements, no info. Just a train ... you figure it out.

So a half hour later, there I am at Shattuck and Center in downtown Berkeley ... or Berzerkeley as I generally prefer. The place is awash in studied unconcern and self-conscious coolness. Non-Bay-Areans (if I may) might figure that the two most liberal cities in America scant miles apart would feel the same ... but Berkeley is as un-San Francisco as San Jose or LA to me. It is a world apart ... isolationist, and frankly it feels more American to me than San Francisco. I am not entirely sure how to explain that ... but it is unpolished and raw like America is. It is not a jewel, but more like a big farm where the animals go about their business of eating and belching and littering. Perhaps it feels more American to me because it resembles Ann Arbor, one of the first American towns where I spent a lot of time.

When I return to my alma mater, I am unnerved a wee. Excited, giddy, uneasy. I try to walk the same routes I used to take. Cal looks great these days; the campus glows, and the major construction is confined to a long strip on the far south side. I was trying to admire the new East Asian Library but couldn't come up with words ... later one of my colleagues from MRU told me he thought it looks like a modernist mosque, and he had it right on. A little disappointing. Even so, it has fundamentally changed the weighting of the campus and made what used to be a spot to walk by while getting elsewhere into a hub.

And so, I arrived at the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, one of the finest buildings on campus and one which I only ever entered during my long stay here to look at the lobby. There is a pond outside that used to have fish, but is now, like so many ponds, just a fetid collector of trash ... I suppose the fish are gone as part of the great chloramine scandal ... but I will not go there now.

I like to say to my mother that I am now a wikian drupaller. And now in the lobby of Hearst, I am in the company of all manner of drupallers, wikian or otherwise. One of the guys at the sign-in table liked my Museum of Anthropology t-shirt and we had a long chat about Canada ... alas that turned out to be my only significant exchange with someone I did not know before I arrived. That stems as much from my own tendency to stand to the side and observe as from anything else. Of course at these affairs of enthusiasts, one avoids being exposed as a neophyte. It is the same in all conventions of believers ... I once found myself at a convention of killie fish enthusiasts by way of my then lover who had a brief dalliance thereabouts. The in-talk there, all the little in-jokes and snide asides ... just like every other in-crowd. Of course, being in an in-crowd does not make you cool in the broader sense. In fact, enthusiasts, if I may, are the least cool of all people. Hence, geekdom.

Geekdom. I got a cool, free T-shirt with a bad boy logo ... more like a bad drip logo in the powder blue that drupallers appear to favor. I like the T-shirt because it says "Bad Camp" which sounds naughty, and because it is black. I was surprised it was free ... evidently that exposed my newbie status as they were a little "oh well" about telling me so. Not nasty, just "in". In fact, nothing nasty here anywhere, a very welcoming atmosphere, but no doubt about the in-ness. Found this comment on the feed at the web site: "I was wondering if there was any thinking to having a party or social gathering (at a venue or bar or restaurant) on Saturday night? It's fantastic when a sea of Drupal swarms a place to drink, dance, and hack code." Yes, it is fantastic when a sea of the in expose the out to their in-ness. I wanna be a geek, too.

I attended three sessions ... skipped the middle session in the afternoon to do nostalgic tour of the campus and check in at one of my old coffee-shop haunts. As I said, this sort of thing is not about the latest techniques or advanced programming for me, but to get an understanding of how to manage and be involved with technology like this. So I am looking for flow and paradigm ... and naturally I have plenty of time to observe the interaction of geekdom and maleness ... maleness is my favorite topic any day of the week. So, no offense meant, but I was quite taken with the co-presenter in the first afternoon session I attended.

He seemed sweet and innocent ... rather blond, and evidently a farm boy of some kind as he sported a T-shirt with an inscription "Is this heaven? No it's Iowa" with an arrow pointing to a map of Iowa. Obvious geek. Tight body ... indeed very tight to the point where he didn't seem to be able to unhinge his neck from his shoulders. Lots of uhs and ahs, and constantly leading his sentences with "basically". When he wasn't speaking, he got his hands into the back pockets of his jeans, or stood nervously arms akimbo for a bit before throwing those hands behind him again. His feet dancing. He had to move past his co-presenter to point something on the projection at one point, but he quickly scurried back to his off-position, deferring, each movement behind the other fellow who was vastly more assured but equally informed and informative. The other fellow, tall and truly ill-dressed, looked like a garage band bass player grown past where the style makes sense. That hair ... he must stop every now and then during the day to find a pillow to muss it ... talk about looking like you just got out of bed. Not a studied look, at all. There were no studied looks at Bad Camp.

The Iowa boy works with five monitors. The other fellow made the point, and a light giggle trickled through the audience. Iowa boy was pleased. So was I.

What did I learn ... there are lots of tools and add-ons, and I figured out three things that we can do with our Drupal installation to solve specific problems. Again, I can't do them ... but I know they can be done, and I know how to set up the meetings to argue that they ought to be done.

The other presentation I went to was very advanced. This presenter, probably five years older than Iowa boy, just as cute, but vastly more assured, smoothed his way through what I saw as a complex installation, but never lost his audience for a moment. No highs and lows, no excitement, but ... to channel Cesar Milan ... calm authority. And what did I learn ... all the key terms and the order of creating a module. You see ... and I am constantly saying this at work ... I am looking for the narrative in technology, and I leave the mechanics to the mechanics.

So eventually, the day was over for me. I hung out in the lobby to make sure that my colleagues knew I was still there ... well, and to see if I could catch another glimpse of Iowa boy or smooth presenter ... no such luck. Had a chat with TC who is our server guy at work. Neither he nor I are coming on Sunday ... life, or in his case wife, demands a little attention and an all-weekend Drupal conference is best attended by the young and uncommitted, or by those who still thrill to a sea of night-swarming drupallers making the scene.

A not very efficient, long walk back to BART across the campus, cell chat with my sainted ex whose birthday I managed to forget again. One last thrill ... I managed to sit amongst a group of three louts ... well-behaved louts ... each of whom was sporting a beer. They spoke unaccented English, but slid into patois Spanish from time to time. One guy had his beer up his sleeve ... nice trick. Late 20s, over-fed, dingy-beclothed, bad hair, too loud by only a third, I would say. Suddenly, from nowhere, two BART cops, built like brick shithouses, and cinched into uniforms so sharp you would cut yourself if your ran your hand lovingly along the creases. Talk about calm authority! "I guess I better put this away" lead lout proffered submissively. "I have a better idea," lead cop barked. "Since you held up this train, why don't we get off and discuss this on the platform. For a moment I feared he might think I was part of them, but of course I had an open book as opposed to an open can, and they paid no never-mind to me.

So that was my trip to Berkeley. Long may it reign.

Photos of the Cal campus by Arod, taken with my new Lumix FZ5 with its Leica lens and 10x optical zoom. Sweet. More photos here. Top photo is a frieze on the Life Sciences Building; second photo is the ceiling of the lobby of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building; third photo is from a mosaic on the Old Art Gallery behind Sproul Hall; bottom photo is the Golden Bear on Lower Sproul. The little Drupal logo is, of course, not my photo.

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