Last night I got back from spending around 5 days in the Bay Area for Spring Break. I stayed in a hostel in downtown SF for three nights and then I stayed with a friend who is doing a PhD at Stanford. When initially planning this trip my aim was just to visit somewhere interesting on the west coast of the continental United States. I chose the Bay Area because I wanted to get my PGP key signed by some Debian Developers and that area has a high concentration of DDs, and because I wanted to see my friend at Stanford. But in the end I liked San Francisco a lot more than expected to and am very glad that I had an opportunity to visit.

The first thing that I liked was how easy it seemed to be to find people interested in the same kind of tech stuff that I am. I spent my first afternoon in the city exploring the famous Mission district, and at one point while sitting in the original Philz Coffee I found that the person sitting next to me was running Debian on her laptop and blogs about data privacy. We had an discussion about how viable OpenPGP is as a component of a technically unsophisticated user’s attempts to stay safe online. Later that same day while riding the subway train, someone next to me fired up Emacs on their laptop. And over the course of my trip I met five Debian Developers doing all sorts of different kinds of work both in and outside of Debian, and some Debian users including one of Stanford’s UNIX sysadmins. This is a far cry from my day-to-day life down in the Sonoran Desert where new releases of iOS are all anyone seems to be interested in.

Perhaps I should have expected this before my trip, but I think I had assumed that most of the work being done in San Francisco was writing web apps, so I was pleased to find people working on the same kind of things that I am currently putting time into. And in saying the above, I don’t mean to demean the interests of the people around me in Arizona for a moment (nor those writing web apps; I’d like to learn how to write good ones at some point). I’m very grateful to be able to discuss my philosophical interests with the other graduate students. It’s just that I miss being able to discuss tech stuff. I guess you can’t have everything you want!

One particular encouraging meeting I had was with a Debian Developer employed by Google and working on Git. While my maths background sets me up with the right thinking skills to write programs, I don’t have knowledge typically gained from an education in computer science that enables one to work on the most interesting software. In particular, low-level programming in C is something that I had thought it wouldn’t be possible for me to get started with. So it was encouraging to meet the DD working on Git at Google because his situation was similar: his undergraduate background is in maths and he was able to learn how to code in C by himself and is now working on a exciting project at a company that it is hard to get hired by. I don’t mean that doing exactly what he’s doing is something that I aiming for, just that it is very encouraging to know the field is more open to me than I had thought. I was also reminded of how fortunate I am to have the Internet to learn from and projects like Debian to get involved with.

Moving on from tech, I enjoyed the streets of San Francisco, and the Stanford campus. San Francisco is fantastically multicultural though with clear class and wealth divisions. A very few minutes walk from the Twitter headquarters with its “tech bros”, as the maths PhD students I met at Stanford call them, are legions of the un- and barely-employed passing their time on the concrete. I enjoyed riding one of the old cable cars through the aesthetically revealing and stark combination of a west coast grid system on some very steep hills. I was fortunate to be able to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge on a perfectly clear and mist-free day.

Meeting people involved with Debian and meeting my old friend at Stanford had me reflecting on and questioning my life in the desert even more than usual. I try to remind myself that there is an end date in sight and I will regret spending my time here just thinking about leaving. I sometimes worry that I could easily find myself moving to the big city—London, San Francisco or elsewhere—and letting myself be carried by the imagined self-importance of that, sidelining and procrastinating things that I should prize more highly. I should remember that the world of writing software in big cities isn’t going away and my time in the desert is an opportunity to prepare myself better for that, building my resistance to being swept away by the tides of fashion.

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