Silicon Valley’s View of the World

February 6, 2016

As I have written about previously, California is another world. Endlessly fascinating, endlessly changing. It is also becoming the power centre of our current world. New York, London, Los Angeles, sure. But think Silicon Valley, a place so powerful that it has turned San Francisco into its “bedroom community”, according to Rebecca Solnit and others. (I suspect that if you live there, this is so not news.) Why has Qantas started direct flights to San Francisco from Sydney? Easy to answer, that.

Still not convinced? What’s the most valuable company in the world, by market capitalisation? Apple. Also in the top five: Google and Microsoft. Microsoft? I hear you say, isn’t that so last century? Apparently not.

In the November 2015 issue of “The Atlantic”, the “View from the Valley” column reported on a survey of 101 technology leaders. Go to the article for all the results, but here are some highlights:

Who would the tech leaders vote for?
– Hillary Clinton, 43%
– Bernie Sanders, 11%
– Jeb Bush, 5%
– Lawrence Lessig, 2%
– Marco Rubio, 2%
– Martin O’Malley, 2%
– Warren Buffet, 2%
– “Anyone but Trump”, 5%
– Undecided, 28%

Which TV show or movie of the past decade best captured the culture of Silicon Valley?
– HBO’s “Silicon Valley”, 37%
– “The Social Network”, 12%
– “Game of Thrones”, 7%
(This was before the release of the current “Steve Jobs” film.  My review to come next week.)

In 20 years, which of the following companies will still be in business?
– Apple, 95%
– Google, 94%
– Amazon, 91%
– Facebook, 75%
– Microsoft, 71%
– IBM, 54%
– Uber, 52%
– LinkedIn, 48%
– PayPal, 39%
– eBay, 29%
– Twitter, 23%
– Yahoo, 16%

(My comment: the ephemeral nature of the tech industry is a wonder to behold. And these hard insights are a real lesson to those of us who think that what we see now will be there in the future. Isn’t Yahoo about to disappear – despite the fact that it still has one of the biggest media audiences in the world?)

Could the Sony hack happen to your company?
– Yes, 74%
– No, 24%
Comment by Dev Ittycheria, President and CEO of MongoDB: “Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves.”

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

San Francisco then and now – in California the future comes crashing towards us

November 10, 2013

San Francisco in the late 1970s was not a happy place.

I know.  I lived there then, although I did not realise it at the time.

Events that took place during this time included the Patricia Hearst kidnapping (February 1974) and bank robbery (April 1974); the Jonestown massacre (November 1978); assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by fellow supervisor Dan White (also November 1978, a devastating spiritual and psychic “two punch”), events captured in both the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and the feature Milk; and the trial result of White, with riots in the streets (May 1979). There was a whole lot more.

I had only lived in one big city before then (Boston), so I think I assumed that this was normal for cities.  But it wasn’t.  It was weird and bizarre.

I don’t think that anyone has truly figured out the connections between these terrible events – and the pall of doom that they cast over that beautiful city’s spirit.  I have looked for explanations, and uncovered few.

Kevin Starr, possibly the best contemporary chronicler of California history and the California State Librarian Emeritus, has written a multi-volume series of historical books about the state, under the title “Americans and the California Dream”.  His books cover the periods 1850-1915, the 1920s, the Depression in the 1930s, the 1940s, 1950-1963 and 1990-2002.  Not the 1970s or 1980s.  Starr has not – at least not yet – grappled with this troubled time.

I was delighted to find two very different books that have.  In his 2012 book, The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love (not the 2011 American fantasy film starring Nicolas Cage), David Talbot (founder of Salon), deals directly with this period – the best attempt of analysis I have read.  Season of the Witch book coverAnd Ellen Ullman, in her novel By Blood (also 2012), also deals with the time (set in 1974) through a fictional gothic style story of a therapist.  Ironically, Ullman reviewed Talbot’s book in The New York Times, thereby stimulating a response from Talbot, in which he pointed out that his “San Francisco was not hers”.

That’s part of the point.  Everybody’s San Francisco is different.  It’s what makes a great city great; each of us has a different experience that somehow adds up to a whole.

In so many ways, California represents the future – and it has done so for a very long time.  As Starr writes in his book California: A History, by the year 2000, 32.4 percent of the state’s population was Latino and almost 11 percent of Asian origin.  San Francisco was “on the verge of becoming the first prominent American city with an Asian American majority.”

And then it happened:  as of 1 July 2013, officially California no longer had a “white” majority, joining Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas and the District of Columbia as “majority minority” states.  This foreshadows the future of America, predicted to be a “non-white” majority country by 2043, the “first major post-industrial society in the world where minorities will be the majority,” says immigration expert Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The geography of California, of course, is also exciting – as anyone who has ever visited knows.  As Starr writes:

“Just sixty miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the state, is Death Valley, the lowest point on the continent at 282 feet below sea level. Here temperatures can reach as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit, as they did on July 10, 1913. In midsummer the Central Valley can be as hot as the Equator.

Did the demography or the geography of California contribute to what was, in effect, that unhappy moment in San Francisco’s history in the mid to late 1970s?  I doubt it.  California has always represented some sense of freedom to Americans.  The early Hollywood Jewish moguls left the east coast for Los Angeles seeking fewer strictures on their work (and better weather).  Later generations – me included – moved there for economic opportunities, the weather and the lifestyle.  Perhaps it was that sense of freedom that encouraged such bizarre and out of the norm behaviour.

Northern California has now moved to a different moment – one that is equally bizarre in its own way.  An early November 2013 widely reported speech by Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur Balaji S. Srinivasan has canvassed the possibility that Silicon Valley should become its own country, because the USA appears now to be “the Microsoft of nations” (apparently a bad thing).  The speech has caused a great deal of exclamations over arrogance and “naïve libertarianism” (Nicholas Carr).  Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times called the speech, “an unusually honest articulation of ideas that are common among members of a digital overclass whose decisions shape ever more of our lives” (italics are mine).

The tech industry apparently now threatens Boston as the centre for higher education (MOOCs – massive open online courses), New York for finance and media (Twitter and blogs) and Los Angeles for entertainment (Netflix and iTunes), reported The Australian newspaper.  All true.

So this is the future of America, one that is increasingly likely NOT to look like its past.

(Post script:  Looking for one of the best recent movies to portray the San Francisco area?Fruitvale Station film poster  Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, opened in the USA a couple of months ago and opens here in Australia later this month.  It replays the accidental shooting of a 22 year old black man at the BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – Fruitvale station.  Highly recommended.)

Blue Jasmine – More admired than enjoyed

September 12, 2013

(This review of “Blue Jasmine” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 12 September 2013 in a slightly different format.  The film opens in Australia today.)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K., Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg

There are no funny-looking wisecracking Jewish guys in Woody Allen’s latest film “Blue Jasmine”.  In fact, there are almost no Jewish characters at all, unless you count a bizarre dentist.

What “Blue Jasmine” has, instead, is a bravura performance by Cate Blanchett in the title role, one of the most captivating this year, equal to her best screen work.  It’s a certain Oscar nomination.

There are few moments of open hilarity in “Blue Jasmine”, and some of those are provided by “Dr Flicker”, the Jewish dentist who Jasmine goes to work for.  Flicker is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, the Jewish actor (and star of the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”).   Those with sharp ears may remember that this is not the first “Dr Flicker” in a Woody Allen film:  in the opening scenes of “Annie Hall”, the young Alvy Singer visits a cigarette-smoking “Dr Flicker” with his mother, complaining to the GP that he is depressed because “the world is expanding”.

Well, Jasmine Francis (Blanchett) has the opposite problem.  Her world is collapsing.  In fact, “Blue Jasmine” is one long series of humiliations for this former Upper East Side socialite’s descent into poverty and mental illness.  Jasmine – also known as Jeanette – had been married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a fast-talking, Bernard Madoff-like financier.  They lived an uber-wealthy New York lifestyle of sophistication, fancy parties and weekends at their house in the Hamptons.

But Hal’s empire collapsed (how it did is part of the story, not to be revealed here), sending him to prison, and breaking up the family forever.  Left with nothing, Jasmine flies to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is dating Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and living in a marginal Mission District neighbourhood.  Using a complicated but effective series of flashbacks and dual story-telling, Allen counter-poses Jasmine’s struggles in San Francisco with her former privileged life in New York City.

Chili is an uneducated working class mechanic, just the sort of person Jasmine despises.  This sets up a “Streetcar Named Desire” sub-theme, neatly woven into the story – and of course Blanchett is well-known internationally for her role as Blanche du Bois in Williams’ classic play.  There’s a lot more family baggage:  at one time Ginger and her former husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) had invested the whole of a major lottery win with Hal, and lost it all.

For years, Allen has created memorable roles that attract a “who’s who” of acting talent.  “Blue Jasmine” continues Allen’s record of great film characters, especially for women, who have received twelve of the fifteen Oscar acting nominations for Allen’s films.

“Blue Jasmine” belongs to Cate Blanchett, although each performance is a delight.  In addition to Hawkins, Clay, Baldwin and Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard also appears as a diplomat and aspiring politician who falls in love with Jasmine, Louis C.K. as a boyfriend of Ginger’s, and Alden Ehrenreich as Jasmine’s estranged son.

Allen contrasts Ginger’s claustrophobic flat with beautiful bay-side homes in Marin County, north of San Francisco.  He has long been criticised for ignoring social and economic class:  surely the world is not all rich white people living near Central Park.  In “Blue Jasmine”, he introduces a number of working class characters and delves into class differences, although uncomfortably so.  I had a sneaking suspicion that the writer/director, like Jasmine, is “slumming” in this world, looking down on these characters and their modest homes.

Ultimately I admired “Blue Jasmine” much more than I liked it.  This film falls squarely into Woody Allen’s “serious” genre.  It’s not as bleak as his totally humour-less “Interiors”, but Allen gives us very little leavening of Jasmine’s descent and self-destructive failure in the way his “Crimes and Misdemeanours” alternated a very dark story with broad humour.  As a film about self-deception, human frailty and vulnerability, however, it succeeds.

Blue Jasmine Cate B GG Bridge

Woody Allen going strong at age 77

September 7, 2013

(This article appeared in the print edition of The Australian Jewish News in a somewhat different version on 5 September 2013, with the title “Oscar Winning Form for Woody Allen”, and online with the title “Woody’s Oscar-winning form”.)

Pop quiz.  Who are the most Oscar-nominated American film directors actively making movies today?  Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg each have seven directing nominations, with Spielberg winning twice and Scorsese once.

He is not nearly as flashy a director, but Woody Allen ties Spielberg and Scorsese.  His seven “Best Director” Oscar nominations include one win, for “Annie Hall”, in 1977.  Only William Wyler (12 nominations) and Billy Wilder (with eight) beat these three.  And of living/working film directors, only Clint Eastwood, Ang Lee, Milos Forman and Oliver Stone have two directing wins.  This is pretty elite company.

But Allen also holds more Academy Award nominations for “Best Original Screenplay” (15) and wins (three) than any other writer in history.  His writing Oscars (for “Midnight in Paris”, “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Annie Hall”) place him ahead of Billy Wilder and Paddy Chayefsky (both Jewish), as well as Quentin Tarantino and Charles Brackett, all of whom have received two screenplay Oscars.  Frederico Fellini sits a distant second in nominations with six, but no wins.

Mark it partly to longevity.  At age 77, Woody has directed an average of one film per year since his film career commenced in 1965 with “What’s New Pussycat?”

With next week’s Australian release of “Blue Jasmine”, Allen’s drama set in San Francisco and starring Cate Blanchett in the starring role, this tireless Jewish film-maker is back in the news.

And Blanchett’s role as “Jasmine”, a down on her luck former socialite forced to seek refuge with her working class sister (played by British actress Sally Hawkins), is one of the biggest acting triumphs this year.

Allen is already well-known for writing memorable film characters.  His actors have gained 15 Oscar nominations, with five wins:  Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”), Dianne Wiest (twice, for “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway”), Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”) and Michael Caine (“Hannah and Her Sisters”).  Others Allen nominations include Mariel Hemingway (“Manhattan”), Sean Penn and Samantha Morton (both for “Sweet and Lowdown”), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”), Martin Landau (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”), Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri (both for “Bullets Over Broadway”), Judy Davis (“Husbands and Wives”), and Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton – both for “Interiors”.

Of these 15 acting Oscar nominations, 12 have been for female characters. The pattern is clear:  despite Allen’s notorious personal history with former partner Mia Farrow – having an affair with and then marrying her adopted child, Soon-Yi Previn – he writes and directs great female screen roles.  Blanchett’s character continues this pattern, and gives her an early tipping for another Oscar nomination:  she already has five, including a win for playing Katherine Hepburn in Scorsese’s “The Aviator”.

“Blue Jasmine” also marks another milestone:  it is only Woody Allen’s second film set in the USA since “Melinda and Melinda” in 2004 (“Whatever Works” in 2009 was the other).  He effectively “moved” to Europe for a quartet of films shot in London:  “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, “Match Point”, “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream”.  He hopped to Spain for “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and to Paris for “Midnight in Paris” and finally to Rome for last year’s “To Rome with Love”.  The French, Italians and Spaniards love him.  In fact “To Rome with Love” was financed by Italians, with the only condition being that he shoot the film in Rome.  Two thirds of the total ticket sales from “Midnight in Paris” came from outside North America, particularly Europe.  Its popularity there boosted that film to become Allen’s top theatrical grosser, although with price inflation, the ticket sales were roughly equal to his classic New York films “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”.

The San Francisco setting of “Blue Jasmine” is unusual for life-long New York resident Allen. His first film as director – “Take the Money and Run”, in which he played a small-time and incompetent crook, was also shot there, with prison scenes actually filmed inside the nearby high security San Quentin.  Allen already knew that city well from his early days as a touring comic. Locals still remember the early 1960s when Allen was the opening act for Barbra Streisand at “the hungry i” nightclub.

Although Allen’s original stage play for “Play It Again, Sam” was located in New York City, the 1971 film version moved to San Francisco.   Although he did not direct the film (Herbert Ross did), Allen wrote and starred as a nerdy film critic haunted by a determined and tough Humphrey Bogart fantasy mentor.  Many notable San Francisco area landmarks appear in the film:  Allen’s character lives in North Beach, rides the cable car ride with actress Diane Keaton, and travels across the Bay to eat at a waterfront restaurant in Sausalito and holiday at Stinson Beach.

Woody Allen Diane Keaton SF cablecar(Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in “Play It Again, Sam”, riding a San Francisco cablecar)

In “Blue Jasmine”, Allen again uses San Francisco locations:  Jasmine’s sister lives on South Van Ness Avenue in a seedy section of the Mission District.  A number of scenes are shot near the Golden Gate Bridge, and the scenic water-side Marin County suburbs of Tiburon, Larkspur and Belvedere all feature prominently.

Will there be a Woody Allen film in 2014?  Yes.  His “untitled project” started production in the south of France in early July of this year, and stars Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver.  Will he still keep going into his ninth decade?  Wait and see.

The Internship – A movie parable on work in the digital age

July 13, 2013

Inside the film “The Internship” is a potentially very funny, satiric and deeply insightful commentary struggling to emerge about the nature of work in the new digital age.  The story is simple and yet appealing to “middle America” (or middle Australia for that matter):  two guys in their early 40s, Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) and Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay), have been laid off from their watch distribution company in Georgia (okay, think, the southern suburbs of Adelaide, then).  They struggle to find meaningful work in the new digital economy.  (Anyone recognise this situation?  I sure do.)   Nick even swallows his pride and goes to work for his brother-in-law, a sleazy mattress store owner (Will Ferrell).

But here’s where fantasy comes in:  Nick and Billy apply – as a pair – for an internship at Google in California, have a Skype video interview from a public library (no less), and successfully bullshit their way in, despite knowing almost nothing and saying even less (see footnote below).   Apply as a pair?  To Google?  Set aside the unreality here, there is something very satisfying for those of us who are not truly exceptional to think that perhaps we could make it into a Google internship, and from Atlanta, no less.

All power to “The Internship” for engaging with what I call “the present moment” of the rapidly changing workplace.  The film also contains some wonderful pop culture, social and literacy references that I do not recall having made it into mainstream films before.  My favourite is the scene that quotes Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which is about why highly successful people achieve their success despite extraordinary competition.

“The Internship” also is, in its own sweet way (and it is sweet), a film about northern California.  I have written separately about how northern California and the Silicon Valley IT industry promote the concept of “abundance”; “The Internship” inhabits this world perfectly.  But it goes further, providing us with delightful shots of scenic San Francisco, a sort of Edenic paradise where the sun always shines and the food is free (at least at Google).  In one scene, a team of Google interns are sitting and lying on a headland in Marin County overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and looking back to San Francisco.  If you know the geography of this location, you have to wonder, “how did they get there?”  It’s an awfully long walk (hours, really) from the nightclubs that they had been visiting in the city in the previous scene.  Okay, “it’s only a movie” (quoting Alfred Hitchcock, who reportedly said that to actor Ingrid Bergman).

Ultimately “The Internship” has some great ideas wrapped up in a script that too often takes the easy way out.  We have a long Harry Potter-ish “Quidditch” match, a very long nightclub scene, and a bunch of good guys/bad guys set ups.  (Max Minghella plays the nasty “bad” cheating intern.) The good ideas? The film nicely illustrates the value of salesmanship, relationship management and customer engagement, as well as the importance of wisdom, experience and strategy over short-term tactics, arrogance and youthful naiveté.

In one true-to-life way, “The Internship” does capture the structural re-adjustment of work in our time:  in the film there appear to be about 100 interns vying for only five places at Google.  The ephemeral nature – what Ross Perlin describes in his book Intern Nation as “the ugly new culture” of internships – is on full show here.  I wonder if Google, which apparently approved the script and helped the production, truly understood the nature of what they were endorsing, by showing publicly the cut-throat and frequently unpleasant nature of internship practice.

Despite all that, “The Internship” ends on a triumphant note.  Yes (Spoiler here!  Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know the ending!), our heroes are part of the winning team and get the jobs.  But the rest of them, the other 95, they all “lost”, right?  They don’t get the jobs.  It’s not “win-win”.  In fact, it’s very win-lose, and most of them lose.  This is a trend with many current films, where we are meant to celebrate triumph, but it’s actually disaster.  In “Man of Steel”, the bad guys lose – but New York City (and who knows where else?) has been devastated, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  In “World War Z”, the zombies are defeated – well, almost – but the world is a shadow of its former self.

The disaster in “The Internship” is not the other 95 interns.  They are bright young things with great educations from Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke and the rest.  They will probably all get good jobs, just not at Google.  No, the disaster is the changed nature of work, and the mattress salesman from Georgia or southern Adelaide.  He is not likely to find meaningful work in this age, if he can find any work at all as he ages.  And no amount of movie fantasy can change that.

The Internship image1


Nick and Billy’s successful application for the Google internship reminds me of a possibly fictional story about the writer Gertrude Stein.  Stein studied with philosopher and psychologist William James at Radcliffe College (part of Harvard University) from 1893 to 1897.  As the story goes, on her final philosophy examination paper one fine spring day, Stein handed the paper back in with only these words written:  “I don’t want to take this exam.  It’s too nice out.”  To that, James supposedly replied, “Miss Stein, you truly understand the meaning of philosophy”, and gave her an “A”.  I understand that generations of students have attempted to imitate Stein’s “stunt”, probably all of them without success.  But “The Internship” hews to the line that a few words of bullshit can cut through anything and get us in to Google or the “A” at Harvard.  The problem is:  very few of us are Gertrude Stein, and extremely few of us are dealing with William James.

Gertrude Stein portrait by Picasso(Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso)

California’s Lock on Our Popular Imagination

June 30, 2013

I grew up in New Jersey in the 1960s, well before that state entered the popular imagination through Bruce Springsteen, The Sopranos, Jersey Shore and you name it.

California, that’s where my imagination lay – settled somewhere in the hills above Los Angeles, captivated by American episodic network television.  Or watching the fog roll in through the Golden Gate, from the town of Tiburon, in Marin County north of San Francisco.  From my earliest memory, I wanted to live there.  I achieved that goal, although not until I was 24.  And part of me lives there still, my official state residence in the USA despite my long-term residency (or is it voluntary exile?) in Australia.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for four years and am a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley (Masters of City Planning – known as an “MCP”), and many of my most treasured life memories have to do with that great state.  I have flown into San Francisco or Los Angeles airports from Sydney or Melbourne more than 30 times, and each time my excitement builds.  Writing at this desk in Sydney, I can easily call to mind the smells of arrival outside the San Francisco airport terminals – Eucalyptus leaves mixed with diesel, with a dash of San Francisco Bay fog.  Never mind that Eucalyptus is in fact an Australian tree; like so much else, those trees smell much stronger in California.

Nathan Heller in The New Yorker (July 9 & 16, 2012) wrote about the “TED Talks” phenomenon and accurately captured a certain California, a “west coast mood” that:

Becomes palpable down near Big Sur, where the light changes from the buttery subtropical glaze of Southern California to something cooler and more filtered, where people start calling the Pacific Coast Highway by the simpler name of Highway 1.  It is the mood of professionals who wear Converse to work, own multimillion-dollar homes at thirty-two, eat local, donate profits to charity, learn Mandarin, and rock-climb in the Pinnacles on Sundays.

Yes, Nathan, except it’s not subtropical, it’s the Mediterranean.  But let’s not digress.

There are, in fact, two Californias of the imagination – the Los Angeles of film and television and the San Francisco and northern California, now of Silicon Valley and information technology.  Heller writes about how they mesh together, meeting somehow at Big Sur (and presumably Monterey, where people actually live).

The Warner Brothers studio water tower and a view of Los Angeles:

Warner Brothers studio water tower Los Angeles

For more than a century now – since the early years of Hollywood film in the early 20th century, California has often foreshadowed the future of America.  These two Californias now stand in for the two competing ideologies of the digital age:  scarcity and abundance.  The traditional media, represented by Hollywood and the entertainment culture, wishes to withhold content and thereby keep prices high through a “scarcity” approach.  That’s Los Angeles.  By contrast, the new media, represented by Silicon Valley and the San Francisco, promotes an “information” culture that wants to give (or shall we say, “sell”) people the tools to access the free bits of information that are out there.  Sound familiar?  Google, anyone?  Or perhaps Apple?

San Francisco: at the foot of Columbus Avenue and the view from Lombard Street looking east towards Berkeley:

SF Street view SF view Lombard Street

These are not my original ideas, but they do provide a useful way to understand both the challenges that the new digital age presents us with.

Along with the rest of the world, here in Sydney we watch Hollywood films (and are about the sixth biggest world market for them), we “google” for information, and our teenagers spend their days on social media networks created in the image of American colleges and universities (Facebook).  And that’s why California is worth watching closely.

These concepts illustrate how California has been able to reinvent itself and take command of the new 21st century business models.  Along the way, California also maintains its lock on how we think and imagine the past, the present and the future.

UC Berkeley Planning Professor Allan Jacobs awarded 2010 Seaside Prize

February 10, 2010

Professor Emeritus Allan B. Jacobs, from the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley, in January 2010 was awarded the 2010 Seaside Prize in Seaside, Florida.  This planned community was the location for most of the shooting of the Jim Carrey film The Truman Show (directed by Peter Weir).

Allan Jacobs taught at Berkeley from 1975 to 2001, following eight years as the Director of City Planning for the City of San Francisco.  I studied with Allan Jacobs at Berkeley during the period 1976-78 when I received my Masters degree in City Planning there, took three courses with him and was his teaching assistant (tutor) for an undergraduate course on introduction to city planning.

He was indeed one of my academic mentors.  Jacobs’ book Looking at Cities (Harvard University Press, 1985 – sadly out of print) was based in part on a graduate course which he taught called “Walking and Seeing the City”.  I was part of the first group to participate in this course (and have an acknowledgement in his book), which consisted of our spending six hours walking different streets and neighbourhoods of San Francisco every Friday afternoon – inevitably ending up at a San Francisco ethnic restaurant for dinner.  And what a course it was!  And the people we met along the way, including legendary (now deceased) San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen and California Democratic Party leader Willie Brown (Mayor of San Francisco from 1996 to 2004, and Speaker of the California State Assembly, 1980 – 1995).

I still walk city streets – wherever I am – seeing them in part through eyes trained by Allan Jacobs.

Milk film review

August 20, 2009

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Written by Dustin Lance Black

Starring Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco and Alison Pill

The recent DVD release in Australia of the film Milk makes it important to reflect on the significance of this film.  My review below originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News earlier this year – on January 29, 2009

Milk, the biopic about the life and death of gay Jewish San Francisco city councilman (“supervisor”) Harvey Milk, is both highly conventional and a fascinating example of how mainstream gay and lesbian life has now become in American culture.  It is also one of “the” films of the year, and destined to join Brokeback Mountain as the “gay” film which garners a wide general audience.  Directed by gay film-maker Gus Van Sant (To Die For, Elephant, My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting), Milk stars actor Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in a moving and convincing performance which will certainly achieve his fifth Academy Award nomination and just possibly claim his second win (note:  my prediction on this was correct:  Penn did win).  How could this tightly muscled actor turn himself into the voluble, emotional, thin, homosexual and Jewish Milk?  He does so, brilliantly, and thus anchors the film, giving the rest of the cast a powerful presence to play against.  The result lifts Milk from straightforward predictability to an often moving and riveting screen experience.

Milk tells the story of a particular time in San Francisco history – the early 1970s leading up to Milk’s death, when he was deliberately murdered along with Mayor George Moscone by fellow supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978.  For those of us living in San Francisco then – and I was one, a resident in the Mission District adjacent to the “Castro” where most of this film’s action takes place – this was a tragic time, and dare I say, a highly creepy one as well.  Just one week before Milk and Moscone were killed, the “Jonestown massacre” took place:  the mass suicide/murder in Guyana of more than 900 former San Francisco residents from the city’s “People’s Temple”.  This was a time when any strange thing could happen, and in fact much did.

One of the great achievements of Van Sant in Milk is in capturing this tumultuous moment in American social history.  Aside from a strong cast, he is ably assisted by cinematographer Harris Savides who helped to make another “historical” San Francisco film, the murder-thriller Zodiac (2007), so convincing.  I never met Harvey Milk, but I did meet a number of the minor characters who appear in the film and I well remember the odd feeling of that city in the late 1970s:  already post-hippie, post flower-child (trends die quickly), with political power rapidly moving from “old” money to the community-based activists like Milk and his liberal Jewish colleague Carol Ruth Silver (who I briefly worked with, and who appears in the film as another character; her character also appears, played by a different actress).

Milk makes extensive use of newsreel footage of that time, including that of a shaken San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein (later mayor of the city, and currently one of California’s two Jewish senators) announcing the deaths of Moscone and Milk.  This scene appears early in the film, so there is no doubt how it will end; the fun (if you can call it that, and it often is) is to see how Harvey Milk’s life unfolds.

Milk’s early life was peculiarly American mid-twentieth century:  the geeky, big-eared, second generation son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants was born in 1930 in Woodmere, Long Island, New York (as “middle Jewish” suburban as you could get), went to university and then served in the navy during the Korean War.  The film opens as he is living in New York, still hiding his homosexuality, but picking up younger men in the subway.  He moves to San Francisco and becomes fully “out”, opening a camera shop, and slowly turning from a Goldwater Republican to an ardent progressive Democrat.  Milk had a number of romantic relationships, and was notoriously bad at them, frequently choosing emotionally needy partners.  The film includes two of them:  Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Lira).  The film’s willingness to acknowledge Milk’s messy personal life is admirable.  There is a delicate balancing act going on here:  San Francisco gay life was (in those pre-AIDS days) full of wild sex and multiple partners, but Milk is portrayed as a serial monogamist.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but it does make the film that much more palatable for the “straight” audience.  Be warned, however:  this is not a film for those who are uncomfortable watching men being affectionate with each other on screen.

The real core of the film charts Harvey Milk’s growing political success – the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco, and his political battles, notably his successful opposition to “Proposition 6”, a California citizens initiative that would have prevented homosexual teachers from working in schools in that state.  The most interesting relationship in the film, one which is clouded with ambiguity, is Milk’s on-again, off-again attempts to work with Dan White, a highly conservative former policeman and fireman who was a City Supervisor from another district – and who ultimately killed him.  Van Sant’s interpretation suggests a potential (but unrealised) closeness between the two men which I am not certain actually existed.  But it is these ambiguities that make a good film.  (White served only a short prison sentence for the murders, which sparked riots in the city.  He committed suicide a couple of years after being released from jail.)

This is not the first time the story of Harvey Milk has been told:  in 1982 Randy Shilts published his book The Mayor of Castro Street and in 1984 Robert Epstein directed the Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (declaration of interest:  Epstein is my second cousin), which used much of the same archival footage – and is credited in Van Sant’s film.

“My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you”, Harvey Milk states a number of times in film, each time to widely different audiences, gay or straight.  For Milk, who was by then turning into a consummate politician, the meanings could be very different, depending on who he was talking with.  Gus Van Sant is an able enough film-maker to know simply when to let his main character talk, actively recruiting us into Milk’s messy but fascinating life.