Summer in USA

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Date: July 2012.

Place: San Francisco Bay Area, USA.

Event: Holidays + Rationality Minicamp.

Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) is an organization in Berkeley concerned with spreading rationality. Its fans discuss mostly on LessWrong blog pages. An entertaining introduction to the topic of rationality is a fan fiction "Harry Potter and Methods of Rationality".

In spring 2012 LessWrong announced that CFAR prepares three Rationality Minicamps; two weekends, and one week. Because America is a bit far from me for a weekend trip, me and Barbara have signed up for the week. Then we added another week of holidays before the minicamp, because compared with the prices of plane tickets the expenses for the few additional days are negligible, especially if you can stay over at your friends.

Twice more people have signed up for the minicamp than it was possible to accept, which is why the organizers did a selection using a questionnaire and a Skype interview. Because we are two smart people (Barbara does scientific research, I am good at blogging and smiling at a webcamera), not only we were both selected, but we also received a discount. Then a more detailed questionnarie and Skype interview followed, which will be repeated a year later to determine whether given minicamp was useful for us; whether we really behave more rationally, and whether we have successfully achieved our goals for this year.

Just before leaving I heard that everyone is supposed to bring their notebook with the following software installed: mind map editor FreeMind, graphical editor yEd, statistical package R with R Studio environment, plus probability calibration programs developed at CFAR. This took me by surprise, because I did not have a notebook; despite sometimes wanting it I have never bought it, and recently I just used Barbara's one when necessary. But now we will have to work both in parallel, and I have only two days left to departure. So I used the Alza website to display all notebooks with 15 inch monitor sizes (I hate the miniature keyboards with keys randomly rearranged to save space) and chose the cheepest one. Three hundred euros, that's great, so I quickly install and set up programs; and while waiting for the program installation, I pack my suitcase.

Saturday, 14th July 2012

In the morning we grab our suicases and get on the trolley-bus towards the main bus station. From there we get a bus to Schwechat airport. It's noisy like a beehive. There is a machine for automatic check-in. Its menu provides a few options; one of them is scanning the passport, but the program does not react. Other options, such as entering a flying ticket number (which of the dozen numbers written on the electronic ticket would that be?), also end unsuccessfully. There are hundreds of people around us, only one lady from the personnel, and a bunch of similarly unlucky people near her. At the end we are shown we have put passports to scanner the wrong way; we we supposed to not only put them on the designated place, but also to push them in, which was not obvious from the instructions. We don't ask why the other options have failed, because we are in a hurry after having lot a lot of time. While in the hurry, we don't notice that we have received seats away from each other. That's because Barbara had her US visa from when it was necessary; I have only ordered the „ESTA“ by internet. This is why we get our boarding tickets from different clerks, so we receive different seats despite buying the flying tickets together online. Luckily, in the plane an agreeable young gentleman swaps seats with Barbara, so we sit near each other. And we sit in the first row in given section, which means that we can stretch our feet while flying.

The flying company gives us meals twice during the flight, the meals are great, but it's difficult to manipulate the cutlery with your elbows squeezed to your body because of the narrow seats. Most of the time we talk or I keep clicking something on the notebook. The batteries on my notebook last a long time, but not forever. I have configured everything necessary, and they played one game of the Battle for Wesnoth.

We are near to USA, I fill one paper (I am not a terrorist, and neither do I bring food to America), Barbara must fill two papers, because she has the visa. New York, get off!

The New York airport is much larger than the one in Vienna. We stand in a long row, we have scanned fingerprints and retinas, we hand over the filled papers. (Barbara receives a small card she is supposed to keep with her and hand over when leaving the country, because she has the visa. I don't have to do anything like that. At this moment she is pretty angry at the visa.) And we are officially in the USA.

At first we have no idea where to go, because none of the information tables mentions San Francisco. Finally we find out that the airport consist of multiple buildings and we have to go to a different one. The building are connected by the local „Air Train“. You can't get lost, because it has only two tracks: clockwise and counter-clockwise. That's great!

Handing over our suitcases we learn that we have to pay 20 dollars a piece. But we have already paid for the flying ticket, and it was supposed to include all travelling costs. Sorry, new rules. We are told that we can take the suitcase on the board, and then it is free. Well, that's not helpful, because we have many items forbidden to bring on the board (which is why we put them in the suitcase), such as a pocket knife, scissors, sprays, shampoos, and whatever else. We leave for a moment to calm down and discuss the further strategy. An airport guard notices us and after we explain him our problem, he says that is not likely and goes to defend us. Unsuccessfully. (Which at least relieves us that the problem was not caused by our lack of English.) Finally we open our suitcases, move the forbidden items from Barbara's suitcase to mine; my suitcase will travel for 20 dollars, and Barbara will take hers on board.

As a part of increased American security, we have to go through the X-rays. More precisely, I have to go. Barbara is only checked by a metal detector. Affirmative action!

In the lobby I want to recharge my notebook, but... a cultural barrier. American socket inlets have different shapes. In one of the shops they sell adapters, but after seeing that they ask 30 dollars for a small piece of plastic, I decide I can spend a while without a computer. Meanwhile I have also found out that the wi-fi advertised on the lobby is also not free (not included in the price of the flying ticket), but need to subscribe somehow, I don't know how, somewhere, I don't know where, and I'm already too tired. I have slept through most of the flight to San Francisco.

In San Francisco we already know to find the Air Train and travel to the BART station. BART is a mostly underground railway connecting a few cities in the San Francisco Bay Area: San Francisco, Berkeley, Alamo, Walnut Creek etc.

Minna Street, San Francisco European Guest House

We get off at the Civic Center station, walk two blocks, find our hostel, get a room - it's already 10:00 PM local time - and we tired fall asleep.

The last detail: American's don't use duvets. In the bed you cover yourself with a sheet and a blanket. Until you get the necessary know-how, you will entangle yourself every night.

Bed in the hostel

continued...

viliam@bur.sk