(A bit over) A year in Oakland.

Naturally, I say “I’m going to blog more”, and then I get sick for a week and a half, and nothing gets written. Never fails! I should have said, “I’m never going to blog again”, at which point, I don’t doubt the health-fairy would come and make me all better.

But I never seem to do things that way.

I was thinking about blogging about work a bit more, since I’ve been given some leeway to do so, but I kinda feel like there’s a bit of low hanging fruit I wanted to tackle first…

Guess what – I’ve been living in California for 14 months. And you know what? It’s been fascinating. I’ve been amused, frustrated, annoyed and thrilled at the experience, and I think I should share some of it with you. As one zookeeper said to the other, Do you want the good gnus or the bad gnus?

Ok, lets start with the down side. Oakland – and much of what I’ve seen of the bay area – is far less clean than Canada. I’d heard Americans come north and say that Canada is clean, but I have to say that the overwhelming impression when you come south is the opposite. For bonus points, I’ve been living near an overpass, where people love to dump their garbage. It’s not pretty, and there’s a level of grit that’s just always there, presumably courtesy of the vast volume of traffic from the highway behind our house, and the busy street in front of it. Worse, though, I’ve seen people toss stuff out of moving cars, open their doors at street lights to casually let garbage fall out, and sometimes even just walking along, drop whatever they’re carrying if they don’t want it anymore. It has been very hard to teach my daughter how to be responsible when we’re constantly seeing examples of what not to do. Fortunately, my daughter has figured it out – and she likes to tell people that littering is wrong. I support her campaign entirely!

There’s also the unexpected social constructs of the bay area – It’s hard not to notice the racial divides that are present here. I could be wrong, given that I don’t spend a lot of time exploring that aspect of life here, but there seems to be a socioeconomic divide that falls along racial lines. Oddly enough, I don’t recall that happening in Canada to the same extent. It’s there, but not nearly as close to the surface as I seem to find it here.

Finally, I have to admit I’ve had a LOT of dealings with the IRS and the CRA, over the past year. For those of you who aren’t yet 18, or have only lived on one side of “the border”, those are the U.S and Canadian tax agencies, respectively. Overwhelmingly, I have to say that the attitudes of the people at the two agencies are night and day. After dealing with the IRS, I actually look forward to dealing with the Canadian Revenue Agency. Where the IRS gives off an air of “we’re too big to care about you” in pretty much all of it’s interactions, the CRA seems friendly and almost like they’re really there to help you – even when they’re trying to extract more money out of you than you’ve ever owned. Bizarre, that. At any rate, I’ve amassed a significant number of stories, if anyone ever wants to hear them.

In contrast to the above, I also have to admit, there are some amazing things about living in the bay, which make me really glad I’m here.

First, watching Oakland transform is pretty damn cool. Despite the garbage and selfish attitude of a small minority of the residents, Oakland is transforming. You can see the city is repaving streets to create bike paths, new buildings are going up everywhere, and houses everywhere are starting to get a little more care. It’s probably mostly “gentrification”, as the rich from San Francisco realize that this side of the bay is actually convenient for living and working, but it’s not a dirty word. It may be displacing some people, but the influx of families and artists and all of that is kinda like watching a flower bloom in slow motion. The neighbourhood I’ve lived in for the past 14 months has seen a creeping increase in the number of children in the area… and come spring, I have no doubt my daughter would be out there making friends at the park again.

Well, she would be, if we weren’t moving. We’ve found an apartment that will fit us better – and upon doctors orders, we will be further from the aforementioned traffic, which has been an issue for us. But, after a year, you start to find all these interesting pocket neighbourhoods, which you’d never find if you don’t make your way off the beaten path. I grew up some where where a “hill” was a couple of meters tall – and there weren’t many of them, so this is fascinating. The bay area has hills and valleys and microclimates and beaches and wineries… (don’t mind the meandering topic but)… oh my god, if you go a bit out of town, there are parks that blow your mind. On our first real family outing, we ended up at Limantour beach on a semi-foggy day, and were entertained by several pods of whales and dolphins parading up and down the beach, close enough that I probably could have hit one with a rock, if I’d tried. (And I have a lousy arm for tossing rocks…) When California decides to put on a show, it’s mind blowing. Sonoma in the fall was incredible, where my daughter and I played for an hour in the falling leaves, and Napa had us ooo-ing and aah-ing over incredible produce in the market in the summer.

And then there’s the people. Yes, there are homeless people, and aggressive panhandlers – especially around the Berkeley BART station! – but the overwhelming majority of Americans have absolutely no problem suddenly breaking out into a conversation at the drop of a hat. Random people will cheerfully begin chatting with you, when you least expect it. It’s the opposite of living in a Canadian Suburban Centre. At times, it’s surprising, but it’s always interesting and it makes you feel just a little more connected into a community that has as many people as any random 3-4 Canadian provinces combined. While I can’t say I’ve made a lot of friends outside of work, I can say I’ve met a lot of interesting people in my neighbourhood.

I haven’t decided which of the above stories, or even the many unmentioned ones, I want to tell on my blog yet, but I’m starting to think that a bit of Oakland is going to spill over into my writing, along with a bit of bioinformatics. To be be entirely candid, sometimes it’s hard to tell which one is stealing the show.

A surprise revelation today.

I feel like blogging about blogging tonight… but I’ll keep it short.

I’ve realized that blogging and twitter were an extension of my interest in living on the cutting edge of bioinformatics. I’m always interested in new technologies and new developments, and when I cut back on blogging (mainly because my priorities shifted as a parent… sleep, glorious sleep.), I also cut back on my interactions with the field around me.

That was mostly OK for a while. When I was working at UBC, I was able to attend lectures and interact in the academic world, so I had a bit of a life line. However, in Oakland, I haven’t been tied in to that greater flow of information. It sort of snuck up on me this morning, and I realized two things today.

The first is that I’m way out of touch, and it’s time to re-engage. I actually don’t begrudge the loss of interactions over the past year or so, really. The things my team and I have accomplished in the past year have been nothing short of awe inspiring, and I’ve learned a lot about my work, pipeline bioinformatics and what you can really make a computer do if you try hard enough. (Order of magnitude performance increases just make me feel warm and tingly… one day I should post the performance graph of Omicia’s software.) But, it’s time.

The second thing I realized, is that the lack of engagement drove me to reddit’s bioinformatics forum for a similar reason. I love writing, but without stimulation, you have nothing to write about. Reddit gives you a series of writing prompts, which can be fun, but I can get the same thing from reading other blogs and twitter – and that’s far more interesting than Reddit’s usual repertoire. (How many times can you give the same advice to people who want to get into bioinformatics?)

Regardless, If you’re looking for me, I’m going to be back on twitter, feeding my addiction to science and bioinformatics.

And yes, as of a few days ago, my daughter finally learned to sleep through the night. Strange how everything is connected, isn’t it?