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walking west

Friday, October 6, 2000

It's that time again: time to shut down the weblog. Maybe for good, maybe for evil not.

This will be my last weekend in San Francisco before I fly back to Australia, so I won't be spending it typing posts into Blogger. All the old posts are still here, though, in all their bloggy goodness, so why not head back to week one of the archives and start reading (backwards, from the bottom of each page up) to revisit all the golden moments of this once-in-a-Millennium event. Marvel at the wonder of the Opening Ceremony. Gasp at the drama of Rory's forlorn search for an H-1B visa. Cheer as Rory runs to victory in the Men's 4x100m relay. Wonder what's so good about this 'big idea' he keeps going on about. Offer him a job at your San Francisco start-up.

What have I learnt from the exercise? Quite a lot about the challenges of living in the Bay Area in 2000. First, that 'dot-com' is a dirty word in San Francisco. Work for a hip young web start-up and you will be the target of suspicion and resentment, and for good reason: tech firms are driving out all of the artists, bands, and 'ordinary folks' who have made this city such a vibrant and fascinating place.

Too many people with too much money are looking for too few places to live. Real estate prices have increased 40 percent in the past year. Landlords are evicting pensioners from fixed-rent apartments to redecorate and jack up the price. It costs a thousand bucks a month for a studio apartment. That's one room, not one bedroom. And you're lucky to get that; plenty of people spend months in hotels or sublets (sharing an apartment) while looking for something of their own.

Yes, tech salaries are high here. Even if you're fresh out of college you'll start at US$45-50,000 a year. But California has its own income taxes on top of federal taxes, so you'll lose about 40 percent straight away. Subtract rent (and in the Valley rents are even higher than in SF), and you're looking at a much more modest sum to buy that new G4 with Cinema Display, and 365 burritos and Cokes.

If you're unlucky enough to live any distance from where you work, you face terrible commutes. One hour each way would be the least of it; I've heard of people doing three hours each way. Add that to the 60, 70 or 80 hours a week your employers will want in exchange for all that money they're paying you, and there's not much time left for a life outside work. Which is why so many geeks live for their work.

Got kids? Childcare or a nanny will cost at least two grand a month. Got a car? Parking in SF is impossible, and the bridges over the Bay are gridlocked for hours every day. Got milk? Even if the ads remind you to buy some, you won't have time to drink it.

Why did you want to come here again?

Because... for all of that, this is a wonderful town, dripping with character (literally, if the fog has rolled in for the day), full of great sights, great food, great people. There aren't too many cities like it that I've seen, and I've seen a lot.

But I do wonder, now that I've been here for a while, how long it can take the pressure. Restaurants need waiters, and waiters can't pay Bay Area rents—or if they can, they won't be able to for much longer. Cosmopolitan cities need creative people, and musicians and artists are being driven out by high rents too. In five years, San Francisco could well look like the rest of the Bay—an SUV (sports utility vehicle, or 4WD) in every garage, a Circuit City and Taco Bell on every corner. Then it would just be Silicon Valley without the sun.

I'd hoped that Jane and I could live here for a few years before all of that happened, but now I wonder if it's too late. San Francisco is still the city we fell in love with three years ago, but that could all change fast. Congress has just passed legislation to almost double the number of H-1B visas issued each year, from 115,000 to 195,000, in response to tech industry demand for overseas workers (mostly programmers from India and China). Most of them will end up in the Bay Area—alongside the American internal migrants also flocking here—looking for rentals and houses that don't exist, forcing the urban sprawl ever outwards, increasing commute times even more.

Why don't the big firms encourage more telecommuting? Well, they do; some have branch offices in outlying areas to save their employees a long commute to head office every day. But why not build them further afield, interstate, in some depressed area where real estate is cheap?

Well, when it comes down to it, why did Silicon Valley emerge here, and not in Cleveland? I'd say it has a lot to do with San Francisco being just up the road. Living in or near SF is the trade-off for all those hours at the desk and behind the wheel. And plenty of people are willing to trade their tech skills for a chance to live in or near San Francisco. Like me. It's not just for the stock-options (in companies that may not exist next week).

One day, though, this won't be the only place where Webvans patrol the streets and broadband connections are commonplace. When the world is wired, we'll all be able to work from anywhere, and live anywhere. Then some of the pressure on the Bay may ease...

Just in time for the Big One.

::link this::


Sorry to continue the, ahem, 'rhymes with banking' theme, but I cannot believe this:

wank /wangk/ n.,v.,adj. [Columbia University...] Used much as 'hack' is elsewhere, as a noun denoting a clever technique or person or the result of such cleverness. May describe (negatively) the act of hacking for hacking's sake ("Quit wanking, let's go get supper!") or (more positively) a 'wizard'. Adj. 'wanky' describes something particularly clever (a person, program, or algorithm). Conversations can also get wanky when there are too many wanks involved.

Well, quite.

::link this::


If you saw a tall red-haired guy in Market Street yesterday desperately trying to stop himself laughing, that was me. That's because I saw a woman walking across the road holding a shopping bag that said WANKO. Sorry, WANKO®—a registered trademark, yet!

Such a shame that this retailer doesn't have a website. Wanko.com redirects to an ISP, and a Google search doesn't bring up much, apart from this woman who'll have a hell of a time if she ever travels to Australia, New Zealand or the UK. I love the way Google asks: 'Did you mean: wank'.

Ahh, cross-cultural communication, it's such an endless source of amusement.

::link this::


Thursday, October 5, 2000

Time for another cull of the list of 'further readings' on the left. Trouble is, everything I've culled is still stuff that I read—all too regularly. And there are dozens more that I could add... One day I'll have to actually build a links page around here somewhere. If it's anything like my Favorites file, though, it'll be over 200K. Those aren't 'Favorites'. Those are 'Everything I Ever Looked Ats'.

::link this::


It's four days until I get on yet another plane and keep walking west. (Or, strictly speaking, south—to LA—and then west, to Honolulu and Sydney. And I'll be flying, not walking. But 'flying south and then west with a two-hour lay-over in LAX' doesn't really sustain the title metaphor very well.)

I've spent the week wandering around San Francisco, seeing some corners of it that I hadn't, meeting people for lunch, hanging in cafes, and all of that good metropolitan stuff. I finally got out to the Golden Gate Bridge before dark, and stood underneath to bathe in the roar of traffic; if there'd been an earthquake at that moment I'd hardly have heard it.

It's only slightly bittersweet now to think that I won't be living and working here; I'm already preparing mentally for what comes next, and the other options are all fine. We wouldn't have tried this gamble without a decent fall-back position. And besides, I have lived here now, even if it's only for six weeks. That's more than a tourist visit, for sure.

So what's next?

Well, I've been reluctant to say here, because it's going to start looking ridiculous, but... I'll still be walking. (Doesn't this guy ever sit still?)

Three years ago Jane and I flew around the world, and accrued a bunch of frequent-flier points insufficient to fly us anywhere. Afterwards, the airline kept sending their junk mail to one of our old addresses. Jane tried several times to change it; finally, in February, she tried one last time over the phone—and asked, 'By the way, can we get anything with those points?'

Turns out they had a sale on for that week only: 20,000 points per person to South-East Asia, down from 80,000. We had 24,000 points each, so Jane booked us on a flight towards the end of the year. This was before we were even sure we were going to Madagascar, let alone all the rest of it.

Fast forward through several eventful months... and those flights are coming up on October 15th. What with one thing and another, that's a lot closer to my return from the US than planned. We always figured we'd just ditch the trip if I got a job here and had to start quickly (seeing it didn't cost anything), but now... well, it's as good a place as any to hang out and write and plan great things.

So if nothing much happens at this site for the next few weeks, don't be surprised; I'll just be busy thinking about the next step over a green curry in Bangkok.

::link this::


The audio track for Fray Day 4 San Francisco is now online. That's me at 2:44:00. Haven't listened to it myself yet. [Later: now I have. Phew, I sound relatively normal.]

::link this::


With Fray Day 4 quickly receding into the past, it's been a little remiss of me not to send a few shamelessly linky-lovey hellos to some of the people I talked to on the night and subsequently. (OK, so I've sent them emails, but I can't pass up this once-in-a-lifetime chance for public name-dropping.) So hale fellow and well-met to Ed Champion, Tom Cosgrave, Jack Saturn, Matt Haughey, and several other people whose surnames and URLs I didn't catch. Oh, and to Derek of course. And thanks to the others who have emailed me about it all, particularly Christopher for going that extra mile and signing my (fairly sad and lonely) guestbook. (What's that? You'd like to sign my sad and lonely guestbook too? Why shucks, be my guest.)

And while I'm at it (just think of this as the credits at the end of the movie; you can get up and make yourself a cup of coffee if you like), thanks also to my regular correspondents James, Scoot, Paul, and especially (for idea-jamming above and beyond the call of duty) Owen.

::link this::


Are you a Mac user, like me, who also has to deal with Windows disks? Sick of having long Windows filenames truncated to 8.3 DOS names by the Mac OS? Then you need the freeware Joliet File System for Mac OS extension.

::link this::


I've just been listening to Kid A for two days. It's as if Radiohead have stripped away the rock band and left essence of weird. It'll be interesting to see if this becomes 'popular' music in the way OK Computer did; I like it, but it certainly won't be for all tastes. (My review is now sitting in another corner of this site.)

::link this::


Tuesday, October 3, 2000

S-t-r-a-n-g-e. But I like it. And it has one of the more clever Easter eggs I've seen. (Hint: it's not on the CD itself.) You won't be getting that via Napster.

::link this::


Monday, October 2, 2000

Australian As She Is Spoke: a hilariously misguided list of 'typical' Australian sentences strung together by an American journalist from a slang dictionary. 'Life in the big smoke leads some to speculate that the planet is bound for the Black Stump.' That's about as typical as 'my trousers wave mysteriously with delight' or 'frogs make yclept astronauts'. This and other US journo gaffes are discussed, with eyebrow quizzically raised, in this fine article (via wetlog).

And if you've never heard of English As She Is Spoke, you owe it to yourself to investigate.

::link this::


Sunday, October 1, 2000

MetaFilter is currently in full-flight on personal websites and creativity, sparked in part by a long piece on weblogging touted by JZ a couple of days ago.

Zeldman says that the latter piece is 'certain to be misunderstood by people who miss the point because they are standing too close to it'. Maybe; but understanding it need not mean totally agreeing with it. I'd certainly agree with its suggestion that personal websites should be about more than weblogs, and that words like 'revolution' are a little over-the-top when talking about weblogs, which are being written by maybe 1/6000th of one percent of the population of the world.

It's fair to question the 'opportunity cost' of weblogs. (Forgive the economists' lingo. I've just finished reading P.J. O'Rourke's Eat the Rich.) If people are spending time writing weblogs that they would otherwise have spent writing or creating something less ephemeral, then we're all a little worse off than we might have been.

But that has to be balanced against the opportunity cost of not writing weblogs. In my own case, weblogging has come at an incredibly busy and unsettled time in my life; not the best environment for embarking on the Great Novel (or the Great Site Update). Without this daily infusion of thoughts and snippets, my site probably would have stayed fairly static for the past six months.

More than that, weblogging has given me a chance to think aloud in public, one thought at a time. I've had room to talk about whatever I'm thinking about that day, and enough feedback from readers to refine those thoughts and keep me focussed on the better ones—while I'm in the middle of thinking about them. (This last point is important. Once you've fully explored an idea and moved on, it becomes harder to revisit it and incorporate new elements into your thinking. Not impossible, it's true, but harder.)

There's only one other place I've found the same kind of mental stimulation and collaboration: university. And universities are some of the least ephemeral institutions we have. For something as humble as weblogging to capture some of the intellectual stimulation of being a graduate student is pretty impressive.

Sure, not every weblogger thinks interesting thoughts. Some weblogs are painfully slight. But such examples don't represent much of an opportunity-cost, either. It's hard to imagine the writer of a blog that's one step removed from a chat session turning around and surprising the world with the next Moby Dick. They've added to the noise of the internet, but they haven't taken anything away. Well, apart from the time spent reading them by people who could otherwise be writing the next Moby Dick. So yes, there is an opportunity cost—for those who can't guess that the link to 'My KEWL Webloggy Thing!!!' probably won't lead to challenging reading.

As for weblogs being ephemeral, I'm not so sure. I certainly look at the archives of my own as more than just left-overs; they make interesting reading in themselves. (I hope.) I only wish Blogger allowed you to list posts chronologically within an entire archive page, and not just within a single day's entries—the reading-backwards thing is fine day-to-day, but not so great all in one hit. (I ran into this problem when preparing Seven Weeks for deep storage a couple of weeks ago. Who can face sorting all of that into chronological order by hand? Not me.)

All of which is why I've kept doing it. And some of which is why I'll give it a rest soon (like, next weekend) and get on with other things. You can be sure, though, that Walking West won't be my last weblog. After all, I was a university student for almost ten years.

::link this::


Since I missed a couple of days last week, I didn't get a chance to mention my visit to the Cartoon Art Museum. It's currently showing a Charles Schulz retrospective, with Peanuts strips from the 1950s to the end. The bulk of them are from the 1990s, which adds a melancholy air to the show, because at the large scale of the originals (somewhere between A3 and A2) you can see how incredibly shaky his hand was towards the end—starting, in fact, from the late 1970s. What willpower it must have taken to draw those lines every day for two decades.

My favorite period of the strip has always been the early 1970s. All the main characters were there, with the important additions of Peppermint Pattie, Marcie and Woodstock. Snoopy was in full fantastic flight as Sopwith Camel pilot and a cast of other characters. Charlie Brown was at his Charlie Browniest, and the pathos and depth of the strip were at their fullest. It's no coincidence that the strips being reprinted in the Sunday papers at the moment are from those years.

At the museum shop I picked up a copy of Daniel Clowes's Ghost World. Stylistically very different, in a way it captures something of the effect of Peanuts, even though it isn't played for laughs. There's a lot more beneath the surface of this story of two aimless teenagers than hits the eye on a first reading. (It helps that it's beautifully drawn, too.) I'm not sure how well the movie, due in 2001, will capture those strengths: it may be a case of more is less. Or maybe it'll be next year's American Beauty.

::link this::


Well, I'm over that passing maudlin phase, you'll be pleased to hear. That's one good thing about being 32 and not 16. A gloom that once would have lasted a week now lasts a day. Spending an evening with friends helped put things back into perspective.

One thing now completely in perspective is how important the Big Idea is. No, I'm afraid I won't outline it here, although it's not a million miles from things I've been exploring for a long time. I've realised on reflection that, like other big ideas I've had, a lot of the pieces have been tumbling around inside my head for a long while. Same thing was true when I had my eureka moment halfway through my PhD; I re-read a piece I'd written earlier and found a lot of it was already there. I love the way the mind works. It's a giant permutation machine, trying out combinations of all the pieces you feed it.

So, I've had this idea. And like any good idea, it's only a starting point: there's a lot of work ahead to make it happen. I'm still figuring out the best way to make it happen—given that I'm currently unemployed and of no fixed abode. But it'll happen. One way or another, this is what I'll be working on for the next couple of years. And even if it fulfils only half of the potential I can see in it (and that the few people I've run the idea past can also see, which is encouraging), it'll be an important contribution to the web. I'm tempted to go beyond 'important' and use the usual string of hyperbolic adjectives, but I'll leave those to the e-businesses and B2B start-ups developing their exciting cutting-edge sites to propel pork-belly futures-tracking into the next millennium, or whatever, blah blah blah. Their web is not my web. The internet is more than fax machine or stock-ticker.

So where to from here? Well, I've got a week left in San Francisco, so I'll have to make the most of it. Besides another attempt to see the bridge at sunset, I might rent a car for a couple of days and see how far down the coast I can get before I have to turn back—assuming the 'marine layer' (to use that beautiful local euphemism for Fog) doesn't descend mid-week.

I've also been writing about Madagascar, which I definitely want to keep up. When I go through my diary of the trip I'm reminded of how many incredible things happened, and what an amazing story it will make if I can tell it in full. The brief anecdote I relayed at Fray Day was but one of many.

Jane sent me a travel insurance claim form a while ago so that I could claim back the medical costs arising from my lemur bite and rabies shots. (Which were huge. On the advice of the insurer's medical hotline, I flew out to South Africa for a couple of days to get the first shots. International airfares at short notice don't come cheap.) There's a page on the form to describe what happened and to itemise the costs. I think I'll need more than a page.

So, I'm at the end of three months seeing some amazing places, I still don't know where we'll be living by year's end, I've got a book crying out to be written, and an idea that warrants venture capital, an office, and an enthusiastic staff working hard on it for a year. I'm old enough to know what I'm capable of, and young enough to do it. It's daunting. But all things considered, life is good.

And this was my year 2000. Keep your hovercars and jet-packs; this has been more of a future than I ever would have imagined.

::link this::


Old West