French Toast in the Renaissance

As mentioned briefly here and on Twitter, I spent the past week at the Renaissance Weekend in Charleston, SC. This is a biggish smart-people festival, running for 30-odd years now, bringing together a wide array of people from politics, finance, science, and the arts. Bill Phillips has been going to it for years (though he wasn't there this year), so when I got the invitation, I jumped at it.

Unfortunately for blog purposes, they have a strict policy about everything said there being off the record, so I can't post really detailed stories about anything, but it was a very cool experience. And also weird in a lot of ways-- I think I was one of about six people in attendance who wasn't associated with at least one start-up company. Everyone was extremely nice, though. They give first-time attendees blue nametags to distinguish them from people who have been there before, and this turned out to be really helpful, because there wasn't anybody there I had ever met before in person (I did meet Ray Jayawardhana, who I knew a little bit from Twitter, but that doesn't quite count). People spotting a blue tag were very good about striking up conversation, though, and made me feel very welcome.

They kept me pretty busy-- I had something in the 11:00 hour every day, I think-- and I gave my "What Every Dog Should Know About Quantum Physics" talk twice-- once in its usual form, and a second time in a cut-down version for a group of kids whose median age was about eight. That was, let's say, a unique challenge...

The most intimidating moment of the event, personally, was something that had looked pretty innocuous-- I was slated to appear on a panel after lunch titled "An Immodest Proposal," which boasted a long list of participants, each of whom were given two minutes to talk about a proposal-- serious or humorous-- about anything at all. I didn't really bother to prepare anything specific for this, because the topic was so vague-- I figured I'd just listen to the other participants, and ad-lib something that matched their general tone. I was a little surprised when I came in and didn't see the big panel-discussion table I was expecting, but a dais with three chairs and a podium. This is, apparently, one of the higher-profile after-lunch talk topics, so we were called up individually, given a very generous introduction by former ambassador Phil Lader (who founded the whole Renaissance Weekend thing with his wife Linda back in the early 1980's), and delivered our two minutes to a ballroom full of people. (The speakers who had returning-attendee nametags mostly had pre-written their remarks; one said he'd had to do this in the past, and had bombed with an ad-libbed piece, which did wonders for my confidence...)

Happily, Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist lends itself nicely to an elevator pitch (basically this excerpt from the introduction that ran at the Science of Us), and I was toward the end of the list of speakers, so I had plenty of time to think about how to adapt it to the format. I think I acquitted myself fairly well, and several people told me they liked it. As is often the case, while I was sitting on the dais listening to myself be introduced, I was utterly terrified, but became very calm as soon as I stepped up to the mic. This happens to me a lot with public speaking, and the most terrifying thing is the worry that this will be the one time it doesn't work...

The setting was a high-end hotel in Charleston, SC, which allowed me to fill in the biggest gap on the East Coast part of those "visited states" maps that go around Facebook every so often. (Anybody in West Virginia, Delaware, Indiana, or Mississippi looking for a speaker, drop me a line, so I can fill in everything east of the Mississippi...) Charleston is a beautiful city, but it was kind of odd to see lots of public monuments to Confederate generals. I'm not a huge fan of that, to say the least.

(One statue praised General Beauregard for keeping Charleston "inviolate" through the war, which was actually kind of funny, having just read these letters between Sherman and Grant where Sherman basically argues that Charleston isn't strategic enough to be worth the hassle... For the record, I'm finding that "live-blog" of the Civil War fascinating, and if you're looking for a way to kill time, you could do a lot worse than plowing through their archives.)

Anyway, it was a fun and interesting experience. I don't know that I'd be up for doing this every single year-- it's a little pricey-- but I had a great time, and will certainly consider doing it again if they'll have me back.


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Forgot to mention: While I couldn't resist stealing a Steven Wright joke for the title, there wasn't any French toast at the Renaissance Weekend. There were Belgian waffles the last day, but most days I had bagels for breakfast. Surprisingly good bagels, given that we were in the South...