Monday, January 27, 2014

Even Techcrunch is Writing About Housing

It's been a long time since I looked at Techcrunch. After the AOL acquisition, then the terrible redesign, I found it rather frustrating to look at. I think Pandodaily serves up content better most of the time. Anyway, I found my way back there on Friday afternoon and I came across this post, It Doesn't Have To Be This Way by Kim-Mai Cutler. I found it eerily similar to the post that I published -- supported by a host of facts that probably help reinforce the story.

It's an interesting read, but the idea that the reason that BART doesn't span the Bay Area being that San Mateo county didn't want to pay to transport lucrative Santa Clara county residents through their district is a bit off. If it were that simple, you probably would have seen BART into San Jose 25-30 years earlier. But regardless of whether you buy the historical explanation or even whether you see BART as decent mass transit, the reality of "not enough regionally integrated rapid mass transit" is undeniable.

For me, the biggest difference between Cutler's piece and my own is that the Techcrunch piece is more of a "Can't we all Just Get Along" theme meets "Build More Houses". To me, it seems like there's a lot of that going on already and, as I mentioned in my post, I'm not sure that it's helping. Anyway, interesting to see the dialog.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Moving On: Tales from Silicon Valley Lost

We've reached the end of 2013 and it's been a year filled with changes. In my world, one of the bigger changes underway is moving. It's with some melancholy that I find myself leaving Mountain View and the apartment where I've lived in since 1995. And, as we wrap up the year with packing, sorting, and throwing away things that have accumulated over the years, I find myself looking back over the years and the changes that we've been through.

There are many different reasons people move, but in one respect, there are really just two rather polar kinds of moves. One, where you find yourself launching into a new world, embarking on new adventures. And the other, where the ground beneath you drops away and you find yourself falling towards your new destination. One is full of hope and optimism. The other carries the sense of loss, of unrealized opportunities and unfulfilled dreams.

When I first moved back to the Bay Area back in 1991, I came out here with a handful of clothes, a sleeping bag, my bicycle and my electric guitar -- my amplifier got lost in the Greyhound luggage process. And now, twenty years later among all of the other stuff I need to move, I find myself with two bikes, a third frame, tons of loose bike parts, four guitars, an amp, various music electronics, and two sleeping bags with a host of associated camping gear.

The items that we accumulate all seem so important and necessary at the time. And yet, they can feel like such a burden when, looking back, you are faced with the reality that you haven't touched them in years. Even then, it's hard to let go of something when your mind tells you that you might use that again if you just get the right window of time. Even in the present day, it's hard to measure utility in your imagination.

Marking the Passage of Time
The great purge of stuff is a reminder of the many changes that have taken place over the years. Having experienced the desktop publishing revolution, the Internet, and then the cloud and Web 2.0, you can almost track the history of technology in the five or six outdated computers that I've had to get rid of. During the move, I finally decided to let go of my old Macintosh Quadra 840av. While I'd used school and work computers for several years before then, the 840av marked the first computer that I owned (not including the old Timex). Innovative for what it was at the time, it featured an on-board DSP to accelerate processes like Photoshop filters. It could also be used as a software modem when coupled with a Geoport adapter. I think it was the last of Apple's 68-series processor Macs. You can also mark all of the technologies that have gone away since that system: floppy drives, SCSI drives, the Apple display connector, modems, dial-up, and the capacity -- my iPhone has more storage than that system ever had, even with both of it's hard drives and the Syquest drives that I used to depend on.

And then there's the story told through the software. Stacks and stacks of original install floppy disks. Variations on desktop publishing tools -- Quark, Pagemaker, Freehand and Illustrator, software to rip Postscript on an inkjet printer so that you could proof your work. And who could forget all of the software from Kai Krause -- while the Internet generation still uses Photoshop and may have heard of Kai's Power Tools, few of them probably remember the days when he was a rock star at Macworld or the Seybold Conference. And then, there were all of my other software tools, the 3D rendering software packages, the various generations of Fractal Design Painter, software that no longer runs on the current OS versions, even as the processing power has dwarfed it's requirements. It's ironic that my old set of water colors has retained more utility.

Looking back at marketing, there are all of those things that used to be important but matter so much less now. Take printing -- having finished shredding documents that amounted to more than 12 trashbags of paper and materials, there's part of me that doesn't want to produce another piece of paper ever again. And graphic design -- in the world of web publishing, with A/B testing and SEO, I always try to explain that aesthetics takes a back seat to performance, measured analytically. Or tradeshows, most of which struggle to bring a fraction of the attendees that they might have 15 years ago -- why go to a tradeshow when you can get better information on the web? For every one of these, there are a host of companies in the support chain that have faded or disappeared, jobs that have come and gone.

Sometimes you hold onto the bits and pieces of stuff, the props for that moment you imagine when you can tell that story, "here is how this idea came together." And then when you find yourself looking at the pieces 15 years later and realizing that, not only is there no audience for your message, the medium is obsolete and the industry is gone.

A Home is not a House
For all of the changes in technology and industry, time has brought a cultural shift here that feels like a deeper loss. In many ways, the notion of community is gone -- ironic when you consider how frequently that term is used in social network software. You might argue that it's just me looking through the lens of time, but there is more too it than that.

Take the story of my apartment complex as an example. When we first moved there, way back when, there was a strong community there. There was a mix of young professionals and older residents, with a significant percentage of the community that were, by some apartment standards, long term residents. And they weren't long term residents because of rent control or they were trapped by the terms of a lease; they were there because it was a good place to call home.

The resident manager at that time was also a long term resident who lived there like she was part of the community. Several years after I'd moved in, I worked at a start-up with a guy who'd lived in the complex before I'd moved there and before he'd bought a house. He remembered the complex and the resident manager fondly. This is the essence of word of mouth.

But sometime around 2006 or so, they brought in a new resident manager. Instead of participating in the community, she managed the place like a gun-for-hire-CEO. Locked in her office and only accepting limited audience during business hours, she ran around the complex like Eric Cartman, making up rules and trying to impose her authorit-eh. She seemed to be on a strategic campaign to alienate and run all of the long term residents out of the community. In the months before we left, she forced us into new rental agreement terms and my roommate said she was threatening to give us a 60-day eviction notice sometime in early 2014. The business shifted to a bare-bones customer service model with outsourced facilities management. They're goal shifted to customer churn.

In that way, leaving the apartment was a mixed blessing. While aspects of it stand as home with the familiarity and foundation that you know; given the choice, I would not move there today. Nor would I wish it upon someone else. Their management strategy hasn't just destroyed the community, it's shifted to slum-lord. Sure, there is now modern exercise equipment in the exercise room, but it's window-dressing on a product that no longer includes support for plumbing, appliances, carpets, or any of the other things that there were once included. No, I wouldn't recommend it, nor would I wish it on anyone.

It's difficult to explain the how the culture has changed in one simple example. Everything that seems so broken could also be explained through the lens of progress. More density could be more housing available. Crowded bike cars and overwhelmed trains could also be more people taking public transportation. More people from different places could be more diversity. It reminds me of a discussion about the (now long gone) San Jose Live. "I like it because there are so many different types of people there," said one. "Aren't they all really the same type of people," said the other. 

It's Getting Ugly Here
We have a lot of names for it -- or aspects of it. Sometimes it's gentrification, sometimes it's income inequality, and sometimes it's just the Google Bus. It's often defined by the fashionable places to live and centers where there are jobs. In the late eighties/early nineties, that was Scott's Valley. Most of the people clamoring to live in the City now probably don't remember the period when rents in San Francisco were lower than the desirable places in the South Bay.

Two or three times in the past month, there have been reports of people in San Francisco and Oakland protesting the Google Bus. They've stood in front of them, yelled at the people inside -- even thrown a rock through one in Oakland. San Francisco is talking about charging all of these non-city transports $10 per stop for using -- and blocking -- the official city-operated bus stops.

Them and Us
In the early days of the Google Bus, it seemed like an interesting solution to a broader problem. At the time, there were still a lot really smart software people living in the city, working at start-ups, freelancing, and telecommuting. These were the people that preferred lofts and crowds to the quiet life in the Mountain View area. In those days, the bus seemed like a convenient solution -- picking people like that up, giving them a ride down 101, provide wifi and eliminate a bunch of cars. After all, when you think about how long it took for Caltrain to allow bikes on the train, it might be decades before they made power or wifi available.

But the Google Bus has expanded like crazy. And the animosity has grown. Nobody perceives these companies as local companies. It's not like the old days of factory towns, hiring locals, creating jobs, and generating wealth in the local economy. The tech companies -- as championed by Google's great hiring-only-from-top-schools-with-top-degrees-and-GPAs-philosophy and echoed in other factors like the H1b Visa -- hire people from other places and they drop them here. Instead of being members in one community or another, the various tech workers seem more like gypsies in both their community of residence and their community of work. Your neighbor didn't get hired by Google, but they might have been supplanted by someone that works at Google. 

Home is not a House -- Even if the Rent is Too Damned High
Sarah Lacy at Pandodaily just published this post pointing to the issue as a San Francisco housing problem. While I agree with aspects of her article -- there is a problem with housing and density -- I still believe that there is an aspect of the culture that is eating our area like a virus.

Housing prices have always been high here. In 1992, for the rent that I was paying for my one bedroom apartment, I could have lived in a large, three or four bedroom house back in Memphis. And while the senior management at the Semiconductor company that I worked for all owned beautiful houses in Saratoga, Los Gatos, and the San Jose hills, for most of the employees, owning a house was a stretch goal, something that was always a couple of steps out of reach, waiting for a financial windfall. So, while most of us weren't buying houses in Palo Alto, Atherton, or Los Altos Hills there was still a sufficiently affordable apartment community to support living here and making it home. Life on the edge, riding the start-up wave from rise to collapse wasn't a problem -- you simply needed to accumulate enough resources to carry you through until the next wave.

Years ago, one of the reasons why I moved to the Bay Area was that there were a lot of opportunities to work and build a life here. In some ways, this is the story behind the story. While we like to see the world through all of the exciting opportunities that we have here in the Bay Area, what's missing in the story is the collapse of opportunities elsewhere. Years ago, for people living here in the crowded and expensive bay area, there were still significant job options in the Sacramento area where you could go, afford a big house, and still be paid well and respected for your skills.

But these days, the economic collapse of everywhere has been profound. It's hard to fault someone for wanting a job and needing to go where the jobs are. But it seriously frustrating to sit and watch the politicians from other regions of the country stand on the throat of the economy and choke the life out of the economy -- or any potential recovery. Adding insult to injury, these are often the same ones that, standing at the threshold of the collapse, mocked California for the state's financial situation, mock the Bay Area for its culture. Their doctrine and practice is closely interwoven into the broader economic collapse.

Mark Zuckerberg and the Treasure of the Lost Temple of
There is a mythology that hangs over Silicon Valley, driven by the days of the dot-com era. It is a dream, sold around the world and perpetuated by movies like The Social Network, Bravo TV's Start-ups: Silicon Valley, or even Amazon's Betas (a show I actually find amusing) -- you move to the Bay Area, work at a start-up, go through an IPO, and be rich. Except, in the media the work usually involves a whole lot less work and a whole lot more parties, Nerf-gun wars and fun -- but success is always big. And it's punctuated by a lot of scenic B-roll footage of San Francisco. 

Sarah Lacy's comment on the Bravo show touches on the broader trend that has shaped the Bay Area in many ways:
But I was wrong about one thing: I dreaded that it could unleash a “Wall Street”-like torrent of wantrentrepreneur douchebags flooding Silicon Valley. Turns out it won’t, because no one watched the horrid mess.
The reality is that, going back to the dot-com era, from the very moment that people started shouting out, "there's gold in that there valley", our area has been deluged with "we're only in it for the money" douchebags and the people that look up to them as fashionable. It's those people that read the Steve Jobs story and only see the businessman, where so many of the other aspects of him -- designer, scholar, hippie -- are more fundamental to the essence of our Bay Area culture.

Today's Silicon Valley grows increasingly intolerant not because we don't like different; rather, the greed-heads exploit the mythology of Silicon Valley to alienate us and crowd us out of the places that we like to think of as our home.

Save Silicon Valley Before all is Lost
It used to be that when you saw all of the new housing going up, you thought -- finally, with a few more houses, maybe things around here will be more affordable. It never quite works out that way. In the years following the economic collapse, many homes around here sat empty, closed by foreclosure, locked out of the market waiting not for long term local residents, but rather for the return of the speculators and the deep pockets of new money descending on the area. When new construction is goes up, most is houses and condos -- not apartments -- because strip-mine-style extraction of cash is easier than building a long-term residential apartment business.

Are we building new schools? Are we building new transportation lines? Are we adding transportation infrastructure options like more frequent trains on our existing systems like Caltrain? No. Because this isn't about making the area better for everyone around here. It's about exploiting the existing market, extracting cash, and moving on.

To quote Hunter S. Thompson from his mayoral race in Aspen, "change the name Aspen, Colorado to Fat City. This would prevent greed heads, land rapers, and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name ‘Aspen’. These swine should be f–ked, broken, and driven across the land."

Maybe we should consider rebranding Silicon Valley as 'Fat Valley'.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Google Glass - Here Comes Trouble

I must say, I was reading through the news headlines today and I came across this tidbit about somebody getting arrested in a movie theater for wearing Google Glass. Of course, it's one of those surprising stories that isn't all that surprising.

These days, it's difficult to go for more than a few days without hearing yet another story about someone wearing Google Glass and getting into trouble -- trouble that's a result of wearing Google Glass. From the woman that got busted for driving while wearing Google Glass, to people in bars and even people in the bathroom, people wear the device and trouble quickly becomes their next fashion accessory.

I have to wonder whether this is the kind of pre-launch product coverage that you want to have. Unlike the early hype on Google+ (before people really got a chance to use it), I'm not running into people that are anxiously anticipating owning the product. In that way, if these kinds of stories were post-launch, it might seem more like a "News of the Weird" episode than an ominous harbinger of unexpected problems.

In that way, I'm hard pressed to think of a compelling reason why I want one.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Marijuana and Messaging Strategy: Insights that left me giddy

As you probably already know, PandoDaily is one of my favorite reads. And since they acquired Paul Carr's NSFW company earlier this year, they've added some great writers and really boosted their content. One piece that I came across recently is an incredible article by David Sirota.

How Colorado disrupted the Drug War is a deep dive into the messaging strategy that empowered what might seem like one of the least likely states to reform their marijuana laws to disrupt the status quo and change the narrative on drug law reform. It's particularly interesting when you think about the inter-relationship between fear and the messaging surrounding the issue.

Fear is an extremely powerful message driver. Even now, if you were to consider discussing this article with your colleagues at work, you'll probably find yourself feeling anxious with your internal Safe-For-Work alarms going off. This isn't sex, politics or religion, but in some ways it's worse -- it's drugs. And 'pro-drugs' is just about as third rail as it gets.

I would put Sirota's piece in the category of Must Reads.