San Francisco and the changing future of tech

December 26, 2013

The day after I graduated high school in New Jersey, I flew to San Francisco.  It was my first trip to that city, and I was visiting my girlfriend, who lived in Tiburon.

The next ten days became one of life’s memorable “moments”, and San Francisco has played a role in my dreams ever since.

And I am not alone.

More than probably any other city in the USA – and possibly the world – San Francisco is setting the trends, pace and norms of social interaction for the twenty-first century.

The latest person to chronicle this evolution is Nathan Heller, whose article “Bay Watched: How San Francisco’s new entrepreneurial culture is changing the country”, appeared in the October 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.  (The full article is freely available on The New Yorker website.)

Heller is an interesting character.  He grew up in San Francisco and graduated from Harvard University in 2006, a classmate of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.  In fact, Zuckerberg lived only a few rooms away from him during their freshman (first) year.  In his devastating critique of how the film “The Social Network” got Harvard wrong, Heller writes of his classmates: “The kids entering Harvard in 2002 came largely from pressure-cooker public schools, dorm-room entrepreneurships, the cutthroat upper echelon of prep institutions, or, in my case, the all-weather-fleece-wearing wilds of San Francisco.”

Zuckerberg, as we all know, came from a combination of “upper echelon of prep” schools (he attended Phillips Exeter Academy) and “dorm room entrepreneurship”.

All of this is relevant to Heller’s insights into the new technological elite.  He grew up where it is happening, and he went to college with those (Zuckerberg et al) who are making it happen.  By his own admission, Heller never learned how to drive, and currently lives in New York City.

Heller’s description of San Francisco is both literary and colourful:

San Francisco has traditionally been a Dungeness crab of a city, shedding its carapace from time to time and burrowing down until a new shell sets….  San Francisco has never been dominated by anything, but it’s always ended up pre-eminent in something. Gold, for instance. Free love. Microchips….  Those irked by change rarely stay long.

Lately, the pattern has begun to break. San Francisco is an industry town. This industry is usually called “tech,” but the term no longer signifies what it used to. Tech today means anything about computers, the Internet, digital media, social media, smartphones, electronic data, crowd-funding, or new business design.

At some point, in other words, tech stopped being an industry and turned into the substrate of most things changing in urban culture.

Heller continues that, “Everyone had a sense that Northern California was the source” of these major cultural changes, yet few people actually understand why.  San Francisco has come to personify the new capitalist technological elite, one that is increasingly populated by the young.  Its “growing startup culture has a dreamy, arty, idealistic bent: this is the whimsy of youth carried to a place where youth and whimsy have not often thrived.”  This is a throw-back to the 1960s, but with a major difference:  unlike the hippie “communitarian” focus, this “rising metropolitan generation … is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams—and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise.”

This is not limited to the San Francisco Bay area.  You find it in parts of New York City, in Austin, in Seattle and in the back streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Here in Sydney, there is a thriving young tech entrepreneurial culture nesting in inner Sydney suburbs, from Pyrmont and Ultimo through the central business district to Darlinghurst and Surry Hills and reaching to the lower north shore.  The same exists in Melbourne, and – I am sure – many other major cultural capitals.

This is not a particularly new phenomenon.  I sensed this in my own flirtation of working as a business development manager in a (soon to fail) tech start-up during 2000 and 2001.  We wore collared t-shirts with the company name emblazoned on them, and – even then – took all of our cultural cues and most of our professional language from Silicon Valley.  I was the second oldest employee.

So while not new, as 2013 comes to a close, San Francisco has increased its dominance of our tech dreams.  Facebook did not exist back in 2000 (Zuckerberg and Heller were still juniors in high school), Google was still in its infancy and Apple was struggling.

I cannot predict where this world will be in another ten years, but I do know this:  San Francisco will continue to personify the hopes, dreams and business models of that world, one that will arrive sooner than we think.

San Francisco from water


Why is American assimilation different from European?

November 26, 2013

Ever wonder why assimilation of migrants in the USA is so different?  Well, it is.  Certainly not like here in Australia.  And especially not like in Europe.

In a fascinating article in the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “Assimilation Nation”, Jason DeParle provides good insights:

Compared with Europe, the U.S. attracts more immigrants who share the dominant faith. (Imagine if Mexicans built mosques.) An economy that, until recently, had lots of entry-level jobs has made it easier for immigrants to find work. American schools generally provide students second chances, while Europeans are more likely to leave stragglers on vocational tracks. The U.S. also had Martin Luther King Jr.—the civil-rights movement, cresting just before the current mass migration started, bequeathed a robust apparatus for promoting opportunity. And American culture sells, in all its tawdriness and splendor. In Europe, the children of immigrants sometimes cling to the Old Country more than their parents do: sons import brides. In the U.S., the bigger danger is assimilating too fast: children get fat eating french fries and watching TV.

These are the reasons that so many of the worst fears of protectionists in the USA have not come to pass.  The migrants are, by and large, Christian.  And their young people, by and large, are given lots more chances to “join” the country.  And there’s a history:  ironically, the African-Americans helped to pave the way.


What makes Americans Americans, and why I love them

February 17, 2013

David Denby, one of The New Yorker‘s film critics, does what a good critic should:  he writes reviews that transcend their subjects.

In the January 28, 2013 edition of The New Yorker (p. 81), he reviewed Michael Apted’s 56 Up, and commented thus about the British subjects of Apted’s astonishing historical “follow them through life” documentary series”:

In all, these men and women don’t seem to have the seething ambitions and the restlessness of so many Americans.  They don’t expect to get rich, somehow, next year.  They may be happier than we are but they’re also less colorful.

Three sentences.  A very good summary of the American character, particularly from the viewpoint of this American expatriate living in Sydney, Australia.  Well, most of the Americans I know definitely do NOT seem very happy (at least compared to Australians), but they sure are more colourful.  (Different spelling of “colourful” this time purposeful.)


The Brooklyn Rail

December 23, 2011

Here’s a publication worth noting:  The Brooklyn Rail, a Brooklyn (New York) based non-profit organisation that distributes its journal free of charge, with all staff, editors, and contributors working on a voluntary basis – and relying exclusively on the philanthropy of foundations and individual donors to meet production, operation and program expenses.  Originally founded by playwright Emily DeVoti in the (northern) autumn of 1998, the original “intent was to create a broadsheet containing a short series of slanted opinions designed to be read on the L train back and forth to Manhattan.”  It distributes 20,000 free printed copies around New York City and is available on the web – no subscription, no charge.

It unashamedly leans left-ward and boasts a stellar group of supporters including writer Paul Auster.  Fascinating model of a non-profit media organisation.  Worth checking out.


Books that changed the world

September 15, 2009

Some years ago Melvyn Bragg wrote a book about books that changed the world.  Now Bryan Appleyard has done an article in the UK Sunday Times (July 19, 2009) entitled 12 Books That Helped Change the World.  (reprinted in the Weekend Australian on September 5, 2009).

It’s worth a look, if only to check if you have read them.  For the record, the books are:

The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale (1952) – I admit to having read this one in my youth, recommended by my father

The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (1957) – not read

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962) – I still carry my 32 year old copy around on my bookshelf.  Environmental classic.

The Use of Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono (1967).  He invented the idea, for goodness sake.

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970) – I missed this one (wrong demographic), but read The Women’s Room (by Marilyn French) instead.

In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. (1982) – the first and possibly most popular of the management literature.  If you had written it, you would be a multi-millionaire now.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988) – admit to not reading this one.  Appleyard describes it as “usually bought but unread”.  Have you read it?

The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fkuyama (1992) – an interesting and debatable choice.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000).  I am a fan.  Read my review of this book.  Also read my review of Gladwell’s Outliers (2008).

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006) – only an atheist would include this one.  Not my choice.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007) – an interesting choice.  Has it changed the world?  No, not yet.  Read it anyway.  I have only read parts but go to it frequently.

These are all, in Appleyard’s words, “big ideas” books.  I suppose he wanted only non-fiction, but fiction can also be big ideas.  Think about it – do any novels belong there, having “changed the world”?  More on this, along with a few of my “best” lists, soon.


Woodstock 40 Years On

August 10, 2009

In just under one week, we will come to the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, which took place from August 15 to 18, 1969 in the small upstate New York Catskills Mountains town of Bethel, New York. 

In anticipation of the event, there has been a great deal of reference to it in the media, including Ang Lee’s film Taking Woodstock, based on the book by Elliott Tiber, entitled Taking Woodstock:  A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and A Life (reprinted 2009) – see my review of this film (published August 27, 2009) in the Australian Jewish News.

A nice article by Gail Collins entitled “Three Days in August” discusses two other books about Woodstock has just appeared in the New York Times Book Review on August 6, 2009.  Collins did in fact attend the event with her brother.

She writes (in part):

The Woodstock festival (“Three Days of Peace and Music”) has been celebrated for 40 years as a great moment in American cultural history, although we’ve never quite agreed about why.  Sometimes the argument seems to be that it was important because nothing terrible happened.

“It was unique in that there were a half-million people not stabbing each other to death at a concert, and that hadn’t been done before,” said Grace Slick, who sang there with Jefferson Airplane.

“Nobody killed anybody, nobody raped anybody, nobody shot anybody.  In the history of humankind, I think it’s probably the only group of people that size that didn’t do any of that,” said David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

We will pause for a moment to contemplate the dark opinion American musicians circa 1969 entertained about humankind in general and their fans in particular.

To really appreciate Woodstock, you have to understand that it was, in many ways, incredibly awful — the rock concert in the middle of nowhere that attracted so many young fans it became a nation unto itself, surrounded by a ring of stalled traffic.  The weather was terrible.  The lines at the concession stands were endless.  The smell from the Port-o-Sans was ferocious.  “It was the most horrific stench I have ever smelled in my life,” one woman said.  “And once I got done with what I had to do there, I literally had to walk around to clear my head a little bit because I thought I was going to fall down.”

Woodstock was unique not because 400,000 people — give or take a hundred thousand or so — refrained from murder, rape and robbery.  The point was that they treated one another very kindly under extreme circumstances.  They shared food — or drugs, which seemed to be in much more plentiful supply.  As they walked back to their campsites in the crowded dark, they refrained from pushing or shoving. And almost every adult they encountered said they were remarkably polite.

There was a lot of that revisionism going on.  The summer of 1969 was, of course, long before the age of the cellphone and laptop.  Except for a few extremely overworked pay phones, the kids at the concert were totally cut off from the outside world.  A nation of worried parents saw helicopters flying over miles of abandoned cars and listened to reports about doctors treating one drug-overdose case after another.  While the concert was under way, the rest of the country presumed the worst.  (My own mother, at 85, has wiped out practically every memory of anything unpleasant in our family history.  But she still has never forgiven me for taking my 19-year-old brother to Woodstock, while she spent the weekend waiting for a report of his grisly death.)  It was only after the music ended on Monday morning and the last of the youths made their trek home that a consensus began to form that the whole thing had been pretty neat after all.

On August 14th, Collins also wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times entitled “To be old and in Woodstock”.  My favourite line from this piece:

The Woodstock-mania must drive young people crazy since it is yet another reminder that the baby-boom generation is never going to stop talking about the stuff it did, and that when they are old themselves there will probably still be some 108-year-old telling them how everybody slept in the mud but that it was worth it because Janis Joplin sounded so awesome and the people were all mellow.

Books on Woodstock:

Back to the Garden:  The Story of Woodstock by Pete Fornatale (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, US$24.99).  Book excerpt available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/books/excerpt-back-to-the-garden.html?ref=review

The Road to Woodstock, by Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, US$29.99).  Excerpt available at http://browseinside.harpercollins.com/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061576553

Also see the Wikipedia entry on Woodstock.


Australians are watching films less like Americans … we think

May 10, 2009

In this weekend’s (May 9/10, 2009) Sydney Morning Herald, David Dale writes that for years Australians have been “predictable mini-mes of American moviegoers”.  But something seems to be changing.

For thirty years, he reports, film distributors:

Have operated on the assumption that any big budget international movie will make in Australian dollars roughly one tenth of what it made in American dollars.  Thus Titanic made $US601 million over there and $58m here, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in both countries. Jurassic Park made $US357m and $33m; The Sixth Sense made $US290m and $29m; Independence Day made $US306m and $29m; Forrest Gump made $330m and $31m; Shrek the Third made $US321m and $34m.

But, shock! horror! something has changed.  In order to follow this pattern, the Hugh Jackman film Wolverine – with a great local angle and a much beloved Australian star “should have sold $8.5 million worth of tickets on its first weekend (in Australia).  In fact, it sold $6.6 million worth.  That left a giant question mark hanging over our national identity.”

What’s happening?  Dale looks at the most popular films in the USA and Australia over the last 12 months and concludes the following:

“The one-tenth-of-America rule no longer applies….  The majority of moviegoers in the United States appear to be boys under the age of 14, or people who think like boys under the age of 14….  and Australians are more diverse in their tastes than our cousins across the Pacific.  In addition to action adventures and kiddy cartoons, we are open to historic melodramas, musical comedies, epic romances and teenage vampires.”

These conclusions are different than his of a year ago (May 19, 2008), when he wrote an article entitled “In film, it’s not independence day yet” and analysed the respective box office performance of the top 25 performing films in Australian box office through mid-May 2008, testing it against the “one tenth” formula.  Although he had expected a significant divergence from the formula, he found that one half of the films closely followed the “power of 10” formula, with Australians liking British films substantially more.

Quirky accident, or a changing cultural trend?  Within the margin of error, or a new mark for Australian culture?  We shall see.  Watch this space for more comparative Australian-American cultural analysis.


“From the Lower East Side to Hollywood” book review

March 29, 2009

Book review of From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture by Paul Buhle (Verso Books, London & New York, 2004)Jewish film, television and popular culture are endlessly fascinating – at least to we Jews – and every couple of years a new book is published with yet more information.  One recent addition to the genre is Paul Buhle’s From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture.  Buhle is a Lecturer at Brown University in the USA, a columnist for Tikkun magazine and one of the most noted experts on the Hollywood “blacklist”.  He is an acknowledged leftie, and noted commentator on Jewish cultural issues.

But here’s the interesting thing:  Buhle is not Jewish.  This fact certainly puts a whole different perspective on his writing, when you realise that this is not someone who grew up in a Jewish household, seeing the world through a Jewish lens that he later applied (as so many of us do) to his academic pursuits.

Buhle’s book is very up-to-date, and is therefore able to draw upon the extraordinary research of what has become the recent classic in the field of Jewish film and TV, J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler’s collection entitled Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting (Jewish Museum, NY, 2003), which was also an extraordinary exhibition in New York’s Jewish Museum in 2003 (more on both Shandler and Hoberman another time).  Buhle takes a thematic approach to his subject, with chapters entitled “Where Did It Come From?”, “From Jewish Stage to Screen”, “The Printed Word and the Playful Imagination”, “Assimilation” and “Up From the Avant-Garde”.  By his own admission, his categories are not strictly chronological and “drift toward the present”.  The result is a relatively dense and at times rambling read, but not without its many pleasures and insights.

One insight, clearly enunciated and thoroughly supported, is the role of Yiddish in the development of Jewish influence in popular culture. Yiddish was the natural territory for the artistic vernacular, just waiting – some centuries in preparation – “for the moment when a mass, commercial, popular culture could be created”.  And the Jewish propensity to rebel – not only against the non-Jewish world but against Jewish institutions, helped to “forge the keen edge of innovation” that made Jews so successful. Buhle puts it simply: “Jews happened to be in the right place at the right time, and kept on being there ….” Others have covered this territory, most notably Neal Gabler in his book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (a great read), and Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot.  But Buhle brings a special style, more akin to Irving Howe (The World of Our Fathers).

There is much that is new in From the Lower East Side to Hollywood, notably numerous capsule biographies which elucidate the subjects. I did not recall Lenny Bruce’s upper middle-class background of a podiatrist father and his joining the navy at age seventeen.  Nor was I aware that Brooklyn-born Jewish singer Cindi Lauper managed a women’s wrestling champion (although do I care?).  And that the rarely-seen film Romance of a Horsethief (1970) was the revolutionary Yiddishist version of Fiddler on the Roof.  And I certainly did not make the direct Jewish connection from Mad Magazine (“certainly the most Jewish and easily among the most influential comics ever”) to Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons.  (More on the Simpsons another time.)

But perhaps Buhle’s greatest contribution to our understanding of Jews and popular culture (one rarely mentioned by most scholars) an extensive analysis of Jewish comics (yes, illustrated stories), dating this back to Morris Winchevsky, and his 1880s column in Arbeter Fraynt (Workers’ Friend) of London, the first widely circulated Yiddish labour paper.  This tradition was followed by Harry Hershfield, whose “Abie the Agent” (about a Jewish salesman) ran from 1914 to 1940 in the New York Journal.  Buhle also traces the careers of Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross, Al Capp, Max Gaines, Art Spiegelman, Bob Kane (the inventor of “Batman”) to R. Crumb (not Jewish, but both of his wives were) and Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame).

“And who was Spider-Man anyway?” Buhle asks.  “Peter Parker, his alter-ego, lives in Forest Hills, Queens, a probable next Jewish stop outward from Brooklyn.”  He quotes The Jewish Forward when it complained that “The trouble with Tobey McGuire’s Spidey … is that he isn’t Jewish enough.”

From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture is a bit like a rave from a highly intelligent and entertaining friend, free-associating as he goes along, all 280 pages worth.  If, like me, you are endlessly fascinated by Jewish participation in English language popular culture, this is an essential reference.

(Review first published in the Australian Jewish News 2004; not available online. Published on wordpress.com on 29 March 2009)

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Adam Sandler, Jewish style

March 29, 2009

Adam Sandler is one of the best-known Jewish comedians and actors today.  To read my article entitled “Jewish Comedy, Adam Sandler Style” in the June 26, 2008 edition of the Australian Jewish News, click here.


What Girls Want – Stephenie Meyer, Caitlin Flanagan and the “Twilight” series

March 28, 2009

As I write this, Stephenie Meyer has six of the top ten “bestsellers” in the Sydney Morning Herald list (supplied by Nielsen BookScan) published on Saturday 29th March 2008, in first, second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh places, with the book Twilight appearing twice (the “regular” edition in fourth place and the film tie-in in seventh place).  This may not be unprecedented (the Harry Potter books often monopolised the top places in this list in their time), but this has been going on for quite some time and speaks to a significant cultural phenomenon that I am not certain we all understand.  (Nielsen BookScan USA also lists Meyer’s books in fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth position.  BookScan New Zealand lists them in first, second, third, fourth, fifth and eighth position.)  The New York Times bestseller list, which appears to count things differently – there Meyer has her new The Host book in the hardcover list of fiction, none in the paperback trade fiction list, none in the paperback mass market list, but then grabs first place in the children’s “series” list – with 85 weeks and counting. 

Caitlin Flanagan, a feature writer for The Atlantic, has come closest to explaining the powerful appeal of Meyer’s Twilight saga.  In her article entitled “What Girls Want” (December 2008 issue, pp. 108-120), she provides one of the most interesting, nuanced, and beautifully written analyses of what teenage girls want – and get – from reading fiction, relating it to Judy Blume, Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Prep and Catcher in the Rye.   Flanagan’s extensive review article draws from personal experience, self-knowledge and has a clarity of writing that is almost breath-taking at times.  Some quotes:

The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.

And this:

It’s a page-turner that pops out a lurching, frightening ending I never saw coming. It’s also the first book that seemed at long last to rekindle something of the girl-reader in me. In fact, there were times when the novel—no work of literature, to be sure, no school for style; hugged mainly to the slender chests of very young teenage girls, whose regard for it is on a par with the regard with which just yesterday they held Hannah Montana—stirred something in me so long forgotten that I felt embarrassed by it. Reading the book, I sometimes experienced … (a) slingshot back to a world of sensation that, through sheer force of will and dutiful acceptance of life’s fortunes, I thought I had subdued. The Twilight series is not based on a true story, of course, but within it is the true story, the original one. Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.

And this:

Years and years ago, when I was a young girl pressing myself into novels and baking my mother pretty birthday cakes, and writing down the 10 reasons I should be allowed to purchase and wear to the eighth-grade dance a pair of L’eggs panty hose, I knew that password. But one night a few years after that dance, I walked into a bedroom at a party and saw something I shouldn’t have, and a couple of months after that I unwisely accepted a ride to the beach from a boy I hardly knew, and then I was a college girl carrying a copy of Hartt’s History of Renaissance Art across campus and wondering whether I should take out a loan and go to graduate school, and somewhere along the way—not precisely on the day I got my first prescription for birth control, and not exactly on the afternoon I realized I had fallen out of love with one boy and had every right to take up with another—somewhere along the way, I lost the code. One day I was an intelligent girl who could pick up almost any bit of mass-market fiction that shed light on the mysteries of love and sex, and the practicalities by which one could merge the two, and read it with a matchless absorption. Valley of the Dolls had been so crucial in my life not because of its word to the wise about the inadvisability of mixing Seconal and Scotch, but for the three sentences that explained how to go about getting undressed before the first time you have sex: go into the bathroom, take your clothes off, and reemerge with a towel wrapped around yourself. One day I was that girl, and one day I was not, and from then on, if you wanted to tempt me to read a bit of trash fiction, I was going to need more compelling information than that.

For other articles by Caitlin Flanagan in the The Atlantic, click here.  For her New Yorker articles, click here.