One last day, and I am tired. I reflect on dinners with Chris, who alternates between being completely outraged by the things that are bothering me as well, and completely fed up. I admire his passion for it; I can’t really get that worked up about especially since I know I’m of limited means to do anything. I like a lot of things, and am having a great time even though I see troubles. Chris is a bit of a perfectionist, which both gives him the inability to enjoy things for what they are, but also much stronger ambition to change them.

Today is the game show, one of the highlights of LISA. I’m not of a mind to laugh at the moment, so I skip it, go back and pack my clothes for return on Saturday. The day is beautiful and the rest is welcome. I have a chance to re-charge, read a book a little while, play a game on the computer, watch the NBA preview for the weekend. The Patriots are playing Denver on Monday Night Football the next week.

I went to one last dinner with Chris, who had been somewhat abruptly ditched by people who probably didn’t notice what they were doing to him — and should have — and Skaar, who I hadn’t met until now. Skaar proved to be externally a gruff reserved Scandinavian and below that a man of sparking intelligence and humor with the most devastating one-liners of the conference, such as “Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s on drugs.”

The rack of lamb was marvelous, and we returned and hesitantly ended up in the party suite again. The crowd was subdued; everyone is over-LISAd. People drifted around and finished some alcohol; what is left could have still half filled the hottub. Whenever people started talking computers Patrick and I waved down the world. We piled on the couches, and I felt more secure and warm than I have all week. Patrick threatened to educate me using Beyoncé. I forgave him his Motown inclinations. Michigan does that to people.

It was a marvelous finish. I realized I was on vacation even though I did everything I set out to for Harvard’s sake and my job. I had a fantastic time, but only because I met LISA on my own terms, and not its own. It has problems, and I am more sad at them than angry; the sadness of personal helplessness — I don’t have time to run for the exec, nor would I be likely to win election if I did. But where I am helpless others may not be so.

I got to know Chris in particular a good deal better, and met and got to know new people in JD, Mark, Patrick, and others. I saw Peg, and had more fun with Lois than I have in months. I got to have a great conversation at the booth with Toni and then failed to recognize her with her fake teeth and Halloween costume the next night. There were many people I knew going in that I didn’t talk to much, and that was all right, because there were many I did.

Perhaps I’m used to dealing with much more stressful travel and much more intense interpersonal dances — when people are aware of issues they tend to get talked about more. Perhaps suffering through years of badly run tournaments meant that I could approach LISA and not have to worry about the vortex of towering self-made significance that many others are overwhelmed by. I knew when to take a break and when I should give things up, like staying up late Thursday or the Game Show.

The last night, Friday, I didn’t sleep. We stayed up the night, and then Chris suggested as we were drifting off that we clean up the room a little, which I found admirable. I hope Geoff woke up pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t a disaster; he suffered much to provide us that space. Chris and Patrick and I wandered to an all night restaurant and ate a vague meal at 5 AM until we had to go back and prepare for our respective flights.

As we left the parking lot of the other motel with the family restaurant, a line of fire trucks six football fields long were lining up and leaving the parking lot in a sort of formation. The flag at the motels and hotels were flying at half mast, and all the lit signs were thanking the firefighters and police officers, more than 5,000 last I heard, who had fought the fire’s spread. They hadn’t quite won, but they had outlasted.

And as the dawn broke and we began to split our ways for our flights home, I saw a parade of names on the doors of the fire trucks. Las Vegas Fire Department. Flagstaff Fire Department. Grand Canyon National Park Service. Los Angeles Fire Department, despite having fires of their own. Phoenix Fire Department. Mesa, AZ. Bullhead Creek, NV. Many others I didn’t recognize.

A parade of names, little banners of pride in cities and states that had answered the call of a desperate city burning. They merged onto the interstate as a smoke-seeded rain at last pelted down, the first light of dawn bleeding through the clouds, and went home.

The horror of good ideas

By Thursday the wind finally had finished its shift, relieving San Diego of the smoke if not the fire. The technical sessions were interesting in their own right, though many were ill suited to my own job and my own domain. Many people grew hostile when I told them this simple truth; everyone things their solution is right for everyone and their assumptions are right for everyone. I’m amazed how many sysadmins can have the intellectual audacity to hold deeply seated opinions about infrastructure and especially security in the absence of any supporting data whatsoever.

We as a profession have a skewed sense of risk management; I suspect the world is not quite as hostile as we think. Most others design their systems so as to minimize failure and breakins; my systems, given our requirements, are designed instead to minimize the cost and effects of failure and breakins. It comes down to the same results, and I am both happy and well regarded in my choices by my small band of users engaged in their various unspeakable acts of computing. However, a horde of sysadmins is absolutely convinced that I will pay dearly for my approach, despite our computing being structured this way for eight years how, despite our empirical evidence accumulated over that time, and despite the fact that they can’t really point to anyone else or any other data that supports their conclusion.

The gap between potential and actual is very strong at these conferences. I listen to talks and think “Oh, good idea!” a thousand times, but I know of them only a handful will actually turn into good ideas. But that is enough. It’s good to think in the abstract, to plot ahead a little. Ironically, I do that most in the Hallway Track; outside of the talks, at lunch or in lounges talking with others about the world. I get more ideas, thing about more things.

That night, I go to sleep while it’s still Thursday. The parties apparently grew in intensity when I left. I’m happy to be unaware of it.

What Extravagantly Extroverted Teenagers Can Teach

Wednesday began the technical sessions, and my life became considerably more social. I had met a guy named Mark who worked less than a block away from me at Harvard; amusing how travel of 3,000 miles is sometimes needed to make up for institutional divisions at home. The crew of new folks from the parties and sessions was slowly expanding around me, and I was feeling much less disconnected from the conference. When you sit in the hallways and watch, the great middle passes by barely noticed, while the more extreme examples of weird stick out.

I began to think more of the last day, the social maelstrom, in a constructive manner less hazed by gin and tonic. The SAGE exec board had reportedly suffered through a 10 hour meeting over two days this past weekend. I thought about the callousness combined with joviality that marked the parties and the presiding Mafia.

No meeting of 10 hours is going to be productive or necessary. So that is the first thing my students can teach SAGE; of time limits and restraints in debate. I get the feeling that a single exec member can hold up an entire idea simply by disagreeing with it; that while officially a 6-1 vote should pass a motion, the 1 can filibuster simply by never shutting up. I wonder if they’d like a moderator, or at least someone to write some standard rules of procedure for them to use.

After thinking so, I keep slipping and referring to the conference as “the tournament”. The feel is very similar, with less rushing around and fewer surprises. However, after a year and change on the MFL board, I have renewed respect for what the we do in contrast to SAGE.

SAGE appears to spend quite some time talking about talking about things and deciding to decide and other such meta-activity. There is a lot of talk of reaching out to a large but apathetic membership, but only tentative efforts that fail — perhaps through their tentativeness, not their intrinsic value. Maybe it’s time to start a dozen subcommittees or projects and be unafraid to let ten of them fail.

At any rate, the MFL in all its hideous glory manages to directly run three tournaments a year, advise eight or so others, implement rules changes, interface with a national league, encourage new members and growth, and its members still have time to coach, prepare, and manage our own individual chapters and speech leagues.

Many of my ideas came together at the SAGE community meaning that night. Community meeting is a misnomer; it was a presentation by the exec and a chance for questions afterwards. It’s sink or swim time, now; SAGE is a little more separate from the mothership, and has to make itself real.

Then, just as we should have started the sidestroke, a semantic discussion about lobbying from people who wouldn’t know US political realities if they walked in wearing a name badge and four ribbons broke out. Sysadmins sometimes thrive on breadth of knowledge, but I have serious doubts anyone who claimed to know how to approach Congressmen actually did. A fair amount of the trouble was format — free for alls without end are never a good idea. The meeting was run like a paper talk.

However, they’re not papers, they are political functions. Political is a dirty word in this community. But my teenaged students gather every weekend to debate the merits of programs and legislation. They are given three minutes to speak their piece, which encourages them to come up with substantive, structured remarks and not free-for-alls with little to back them. When the crowd doesn’t want to hear it anymore, they can vote it done and move on.

When the SAGE crowd didn’t want to hear it anymore, they filtered out the back or opened their laptops to check their email or stock quotes. I looked up to see if the Celtics were playing; they were, and Vin Baker’s probably soon to fail renaissance continued into the regular season. That was the highlight of the night. I have never seen a group that large attempt a meeting without any form or structure. I have also never seen a meeting that produced more quiet grumbling.

I hesitated to say anything on the microphone; my interesting history makes me pause, and I don’t quite know how to be a more public figure without stirring up old stories best left behind. But not only did I know that I could have fixed half the troubles with the meeting with a stopwatch, a gavel, and a bad attitude, I knew that at least a dozen high schoolers I teach or judge could have done the same.

A Chinese literary school in the early 1920s revived ancient forms of verse and poetry that had been abandoned after the forms stagnated in the previous century under the repressive culture of the Manchu Dynasty. They revived the forms and put creative ideas into them, which the Manchu poets had failed to do, as a way of sparking creativity, which did indeed follow. Direction and restrictions made them innovate to pack meaning into small spaces. Their elegant term for it was “dancing in fetters.”

I wonder if the difference isn’t a realization that sysadmins are predisposed to ignore. I see good personalities, interesting folks, people who are great to talk to and listen to among the Established Crowd and beyond. However, I didn’t see much attention for group dynamics. I haven’t ever seen bigger tensions go blithely ignored like that before. Hints, subtext, posture, emotions — all sort of flew around looking desperately to be noticed.

CFL nationals last spring was one of the hardest weekends of my life. But when Josh needed to talk alone, everyone cleared out of the room, more or less. When Jared needed a moment to chill out, people left us in the corner and didn’t butt in. When Meredith and Alyssa needed turns on the temporary couch, Jonathan instantly grabbed the Washington Post and sat out in the hallway, uncomfortable and tired.

On Wednesday of SAGE, a great conversation I was having with Mark was cut short when drunken Scandinavians suddenly invaded the area of the pool patio we were sitting in. I asked Geoff, who seemed haggard and tired and not just because of a lack of sleep, if he was doing all right. I made sure to pitch it in that serious, “I don’t want a polite answer, I want a real one” voice. I hope it did good. Later, I realized Trey had been doing the same thing. So I was not alone.

The gay mafia

Tuesday was the first party. I wandered into the Party Suite on Peg’s directions. The suite officially belongs to Geoff Halprin, the president of SAGE, the sponsoring organization of the conference. However, it clearly belongs to the alcohol, and run by the Gay Mafia.

The Gay Mafia, as one quasi-innocent first timer named Patrick had asked earlier, is what “runs SAGE.” It was an old accusation, and offensive at first. No one would name it mafia if three program chairs in a row were straight. The response was lighthearted — they made “Gay Mafia” ribbons and wore them, showed some solidarity.

But as Tuesday’s night grew into Wednesday’s morning, swifter for the seven kinds of gin and six kinds of scotch, I saw a different power: playful, touchy-feely amorous attention from the gay men in the room, returned or not. A gentle touch of affection had an implicit promise of more buried in it, if only the recipient asked. Granted, we’re a little hung up on casual touch and even sexual undertones, in theory. But people wouldn’t sit on couches and talk to avoid discomfort. People were made less welcome for their own beliefs.

I spent the night talking to Chris. He was very uncomfortable with the scene; both because he usually is, but also he’s more sparked and fiery and inclined to crusade than I am. He’ll be on the SAGE exec some day, but not the Gay Mafia. But SAGE in a way is that party suite. The group has yet to grow beyond a social organization — it has only recently been given self-rule, and the board members are still trying to change their mentality from opposition to governors. And even when that happens, any association should be able to gather its members in festivity rather than gravity.

But the Gay Mafia unwittingly pushes people away, makes welcome only the guys straight or gay who are comfortable with random affection. I’m a relative newcomer, gaining a ticket in because of Lois and Peg. If I hadn’t known them, I may not have been welcome. I may not even have known that scene exists.

So I left the party suite and went into the hottub, inhabited by much the same crew, but a bit more quietly. Patrick was there and Chris and Trey and others. Trey noted that I seemed remarkably relaxed. I hadn’t noticed, but it was true. After all, human interaction is my bread and butter after all, and I hadn’t gotten enough in months. All my stress was 3,000 miles away. I ended up going to a very late night meal with Chris and sleeping through the first session in the morning. I wondered whether I was in the middle of a change, a reaching out for new people, or simply was creating another clique loosely aligned with the existing ones.

Paradise Burning

Monday was the day I’d promised myself the beach; last Thursday had brought the season’s first snow to Boston. But San Diego was still burning with fury. I stayed in for much of the morning, watching news of destruction in place names that I did not recognize. I imagined millions watching the same news, but hoping to hear that their aunt in Pomay was all right and that the Cedar fire wasn’t going to turn north into Ramona or south into San Diego itself.

If it had turned south, it would have aimed itself right at us, but there was too much city and not enough brush between me and it to make it a real danger. All the same, the fire had already leapt across two highways. More than 300,000 acres ended up burned by the triple fire. Around 1,200 homes were lost, about 20 lives.

I talked to people back home and mentioned The Fire. None of them had any idea. Our age is colored by the CNN effect — instant news! But instant communication isn’t all technology. Governor Davis here was calling in the military; Arizona and Nevada were sending firefighters flying down to us. However, New York had not yet noticed, and so no one else knew. My mother didn’t even call me in worry.

The Fire was palpable here, touched everything we did. The hotel handed out breathing masks. I grabbed one intending to use it as a souvenir. I stuffed it into my bag and remembered it only later when I had to walk to a store to pick up a replacement part for my computer, and labored breath and felt the burning. The mask didn’t do much good after I slipped it on, but it let me think I was doing something.

I felt like a voyeur, playing the audience at Natural Disaster. I only saw the thing on TV and maps and choking sky. I have no one in San Diego closer than friends of friends. I can only watch and not let myself be annoyed too much at the inconveniences, because I know whole towns are burning.