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September Geek Camp. Get in touch with the tech/geek community in London at the end of the summer.

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      03.02.2008 09:11
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      An uncoference

      ~~~ What is a Bar Camp? ~~~

      A Bar Camp is an unconference.

      At a conference, there are often people hired to speak on a given topic and guests will listen. At a Bar Camp, there are no hired speakers. The same people that attend the talks will be giving them.

      The original Bar Camp and all of the London ones last for a weekend. Some of the smaller ones only last for one day. During the unconference there are several time slots and several rooms available. Those who wish to give a talk, on whatever subject they feel like, will choose a room and a time slot. Everyone is strongly encouraged to give a presentation on something, but no one actually enforces this rule. At some of the smaller Bar Camps, there might not be enough time for everyone to talk.

      Bar Camps are aimed at tech geeks. This means that a lot of the talks will be about computers or websites or programming. I've found that the easiest way to described a Bar Camp is to say that it's a geek gathering.

      The events are completely free and food will be provided. There may be freebies as well. There's no accommodation provided, even for the weekend events. You can book a hotel or, more commonly, you just bring a sleeping bag and kip where you can.


      ~~~ The origins of Bar Camp ~~~

      In computer science, there are some words that have become commonly used as "dummy" names. If you want a name for your variable and don't care what it is, call it "foobar." One of my lectures gave examples of logic in terms of foo and bar. I'm not sure where the words came from, but they're often linked together and they will turn up in loads of examples of programming.

      A group in America set up Foo Camp, advertised as "the wiki of conferences." Essentially, it was a conference whose content was created by those who took part. The name came from the abbreviation of "Friends of O'Reilly" since Tim O'Reilly was the organiser.

      In 2005, a previous attendee of Foo Camp decided to set up an alternative. He'd liked the idea behind Foo Camp, but didn't like the slight snobbery to do with who got invited and who didn't. So he decided to set up a Camp of his own, which would be open to everyone.

      The name was just a joke.

      Since the first Bar Camp, there have been two more London Camps and others have been held in 31 cities around the world.


      ~~~ So you don't camp out at a bar? ~~~

      No, but this is a gathering of geeks, so there will be a substantial amount of alcohol.

      At Bar Camp London 3, the guests managed to completely empty Google's beer fridges, something the employees had never seen before.


      ~~~ My experiences ~~~

      I went to Bar Camp Leeds, which my boyfriend was involved in the organising of. This was a one day event that included several guests who didn't know what a Bar Camp was but who'd just heard that there was free food.

      Then, the very next weekend, I attended Bar Camp London 3 in Google's London offices. This was a much bigger event in terms of location, number of people and the amount of experience. There were loads of people who'd been to both previous London Bar Camps, there were people who'd been running Bar Camps in their home towns. There were people from different countries joining in the fun. I'll be focussing on my experiences of the London Bar Camp, but a lot of what I say can be taken to apply to most Camps.

      I will go into more detail on some of the main features, but I think the whole thing can summed up in two words: great fun! If you're into computers and are, for preference (this isn't required), a little bit weird, you'll have a great time.


      ~~~ Arrival ~~~

      I caught a horribly early train down from York in order to arrive on time for the start. This meant I arrived a short while before the official start. There were a handful of others who'd arrived early. We sat in the reception to the office building since they couldn't let us in until the official start.

      When the time came, we each given badges with our names and BarCampLondon3 written on them, along with Google's and the BBC's logos, since they were the major sponsors. We were told to keep the badges on at all times.

      We were taken up in the lifts to Google's canteen where there was a selection of food available for breakfast. There were pastries and toast, but most of the food was healthy stuff like fruit salad, yoghurt and dried fruit. We sat there with our delicious breakfasts and the rest of the guests began to arrive. It was very informal and every milled around a bit, getting second helpings, joining in with interesting-sounding conversations and introducing themselves to complete strangers.

      Once everyone had arrived, the official welcome began. This was a talk from two of the organisers which described how the event would work and gave a few rules. These talks were kept brief, humorous and to the point.

      Then came the introductions. This was one point that I thought the event could have done without. Everyone stood up, gave their name and said three things about themselves. This took ages as there were about a hundred and fifty of us and no one could possibly remember everyone's names. I think we would have been better to skip this whole process and just let people get to know each other during the event.

      Once the welcomes were over, we headed to the atrium, a large, open space in the middle of the offices, where the boards were set up. These were white boards divided into a grid of rooms and times. We were all given pens and paper and wrote our talk titles on the paper, which we then stuck in our chosen slot on the board.


      ~~~ The talks ~~~

      Bar Camp is aimed at techies. Most of the talks were written with this in mind so the majority of them were to do with computers. There were talks on the merits of specific programming languages, there were tips for designing good websites, there were talks on game design, there were case studies of technological developments. It was an enormous range of topics because everyone talked about something that interested them. However, not all the talks were about technology.

      There was a session teaching how to play a card game. There was a talk on self-publishing and writing over the internet. For one session, a group went to the front and encouraged the audience to ask them any question that came into their heads.

      Some of the talks were serious. Some of them were amusing. Some were a mixture of the two. I went to one talk Norm's Laws, which contained a load of useful rules to follow while programming, but told in an entertaining way. I remember one rule in particular: "Always write a program assuming that the person who uses the code after you will be an axe murderer who knows where you live." I'm currently using someone else's code for my final year project and I wish they'd followed this rule.

      The thing about Bar Camp is that you don't know what you're going to find until you get there. Some people will give the title of their talk on the website when they sign up, but others won't even get written until the day they're given.

      The time and effort that goes into each talk varies enormously. Some are rushed together in a few minutes, others are meticulously planned with slideshows and examples. A few are recycled from Bar Camps elsewhere.


      ~~~ After the talks ~~~

      In the evening of the first day, there were a few things organised. They were playing the Matrix sequels on a projector in one of the meeting rooms. And there were a lot of games of werewolf. For those who haven't played werewolf, it's a bit like murder in the dark, but somewhat more sophisticated.

      It was very informal though. People moved around the offices, caught up on emails, played werewolf, watched bits of films or whatever they felt like doing.

      At midnight, Google had organised a treat. There was a chocolate fountain with marshmallows, waffles and fruit kebabs.

      People went to bed whenever they felt like it. For a couple of guys, that was never. People just found a quite spot with their sleeping bags and went to sleep. There were beanbags and giant cushions lying around the atrium and a lucky few managed to use these as beds. Most people just made do with whatever they could find. I got a surprisingly good six hours sleep lying on the floor of a conference room using my pillow as a mattress and a beanbag as a pillow.


      ~~~ The food ~~~

      The catering was all provided by Google and it definitely deserves a mention. I heard one guy say that he'd accept any job Google offered him, even sweeping the floor, if they would continue feeding him like this!

      The lunches were a selection of sandwiches, sushi, vegetable crisps and a small selection of hot food such as chicken wings and sausage rolls. For pudding, there was a selection of cakes.
      The dinner on the Saturday was a Thanksgiving dinner, with turkey and all the trimmings. There were vegetarian options as well. It was all amazing.

      The breakfast on the Sunday had an option of fruit and yoghurt, as well as toast and pastries, plus a decent selection of cooked foods. You could have eggs and omelettes cooked to order!

      And, as if that wasn't enough, all around the offices were snack areas which had selections of fruit, chocolate, biscuits, freezers full of Ben and Jerry's, fresh orange juice machines, huge selections of tea bags and just about anything you might want to snack on. There was even a cheese board!

      Even if you don't care about computers, it was worth being there for the food.


      ~~~ Computers ~~~

      This was an event hosted in Google's offices. Of course we had an excellent internet connection.

      Most of the guests brought laptops with them and were able to check emails, blog, post photos of the event and anything they would normally have done at home. There were even people broadcasting talks to another Bar Camp in Germany using webcams.

      A lot of people used their computers for their talks, giving Powerpoint (or equivalent) presentations.

      It's safe to say that a lot of the attendees were the sort who go into withdrawal if they don't check their email every ten minutes, but I do think you should bring a computer. It's not essential and you could enjoy all the talks and organised activities without one, but you might feel a bit of an odd one out.


      ~~~ Signing up ~~

      Booking of tickets is all done over the internet, as you would expect for something like this. Tickets are completely free and the organisers go to great lengths to ensure that people don't sign up and then flog the tickets on ebay. You have to give your name when you sign up and may have to show ID before you're allowed into the event.

      There is an official website for Bar Camps in general: http://barcamp.org. On this page, you can see a list of all upcoming Bar Camps in all countries. Click on the one you're interested in and there will be a link to a sign-up page.

      Because it's free, tickets tend to go pretty quickly, particularly for the London ones. I know quite a lot of the people at Bar Camp London 3 had set up email alerts and suchlike so that they'd know the instant the tickets became available. Others were checking the site several times a day when they knew the tickets were about to be released, just so that they didn't miss out.

      Supply is a lot lower than demand. If you want to go to a London Bar Camp, you'll have to be quick off the mark when the tickets are offered.


      ~~~ Overall ~~~

      I had an amazing time. I will definitely try and get to the next Bar Camp London. I'm already signed up for one in Manchester.

      Bar Camps are brilliant fun and completely free. They're a wonderful way to meet people, learn new things and just have a good time for a weekend.

      I would strongly recommend attending one if you're into computing, whether as a job or a hobby. They're definitely for a specific target group, but not everyone attending was an IT professional. There were many who were just interested in computers but who worked in or studied other fields.

      There have been a few more unconferences in the same style on different topics. Given the success of Bar Camp, I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't a few more of these turning up. If someone organises one on a subject that interests you, go along.

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