Category Archives: USA

g a l e s v i l l e

[ 10:41 sunday 19 october – galesville, maryland ]

landing at dulles yesterday afternoon something remarkable happened: the border protection officers let me into the country.

on my very first visit to the united states in november 2002 i walked blearily up to the passport control booth at san francisco airport, the officer swiped my passport and looked up at me with an expression that didn’t bode well. “i don’t know what this means” he said. “they want to see you out back”, scrawling a big red cross on my immigration papers and pointing me to the secondary screening room. i sat for an hour in the bare fluorescent-lit room, terrified, before i was called up. it became clear the officers believed i’d visited the usa before and was lying about it being my first visit. eventually my dazed brain made the connection with a new passport that had been stolen in transit from the passport office in 2001. presumably someone had tried to enter america with it, had been refused and this had triggering an alarm on the database when my passport was swiped. after another half hour they agreed to let me through but they made it clear there was no way to remove the information from their database so “it would be a good idea never to book flights with tight connections in future”.

thus it has been that every subsequent trip (and there have been a great many) i’ve been despatched to secondary screening and treated with more or less suspicion, each time having to explain the situation anew and pray the officers would be sympathetic. the moment when the officer in primary passport control swipes my passport, does a double take and commences to look at me as a suspected criminal rather than a legitimate visitor has become all too familiar. there’s always a slight fear in my mind that one day i’ll arrive more tired and crotchety than usual and inadvertently make some sarcastic comment that would result in an officer deciding to use their power to refuse me.

so yesterday when i arrived at passport control and the double take didn’t happen my heart started beating a little faster than usual. there was no disbelieving question “are you sure you haven’t ever been denied entry to the united states?”. no red cross on my immigration papers. the officer just took my fingerprints, carried on looked bored, stamped my papers, wished me a pleasant trip. i didn’t fully believe it until i’d collected my luggage, passed through the import check-point and passed into the arrivals lobby. but it was true, i was through without having to visit secondary. it made me feel surprisingly different about the country. for the first time my reception by the authorities wasn’t characterised by suspicion, delay and indignity.

i’ve no idea what changed. maybe the original database entry expired after five and a half years? perhaps the officer in primary was incompetent or dozy and failed to notice an alert on his screen? it will be interesting to see what happens next time.

having arrived i had nowhere booked for saturday night. before leaving london i’d done a quick search for interesting-looking places on the maryland coast and jotted down a few numbers. as i was waiting to pick up my rental car i phoned a few of them to see what was available. only the “pirate’s cove” at galesville had space so i booked it, collected my car, fed in the gps coordinates and set off.

galesville is a little harbour, popular with yachties, at the edge of chesapeake bay. the shore is lined with simple clap-board homes, decorated with pumpkins and candy ready for halloween. “pirate’s cove” provides the only tourist accommodation in the area, with five rooms above a seafood restaurant next door to a boat yard. i’m sitting having breakfast now with sun streaming through the windows and a steady breeze blowing in across the bay. i plan to drive down the coast to walk in one or two of the coastal reserves. this evening i’ll drive back up to washington ready for a string of meetings to commence tomorrow.

: c :

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d u l l e s

[ 17:46 thursday 11 september – washington dulles international airport, virginia ]

i’m sitting with a cup of tea at the end of concourse b, a vast white featureless corridor stretching as far as the eye can see. it’s actually been extended since i was last here and it now takes about twenty minutes to walk from one end to the other. i fear washington dc is a city i will never learn to love. it’s unrelentingly conservative, populated by blandly uniformed people and apparently lacks any iota of experimental culture. people hear wear clothes to go out in the evening that folks elsewhere would choose for the office. that can’t be good, can it?

monday afternoon’s presentation at the network roundtable went rather well. i was launching trampoline’s new technology for analysing and visualising social networks so it was a well-informed crowd. from time to time i sense a buzz in the room when i’m talking and this was such an occasion. the subsequent days were spent meeting various customers. this included my first visits to a couple of intelligence agencies. i was expecting terrifying security procedures but in fact it wasn’t much different from a typical international airport. the most bizarre experience was at the one and only agency that permitted me to bring in my laptop (though not connect it to the internet). here a man was specifically employed to stick a sort of rivet into my laptop’s microphone socket when i arrived and remove it again on my departure.

after an afternoon meeting at fort meade i made an impulse decision to drive out to the maryland coast rather than face the rush-hour traffic battling to get into washington. i picked a random point on my gps and half an hour found myself at the edge of a tranquil creek with neatly- tended lawns descending to the water and chesapeake bay beyond. i sat on the bank and watched the sun set over a power station then drove back into town.

yesterday evening i was walking down seventeenth street when a fellow in a kilt and flat cap strode past in the opposite direction and bid me good evening. i returned the greeting and we both continued on our way. but everything about this encounter was so wildly improbably that after a short while i stopped, stood pondering a moment then turned and ran back the way i’d come. he was walking at a good lick so it took me a few minutes to catch up. when i reached him i told him he was the first person to greet me on the street in the last three days in washington. we walked and talked together for the next thirty or forty minutes. he was kelly, born of irish parents who’d moved to nevada to run a petrol station. he’d come to washington a year earlier when he was kicked out of home.

chance encounters like this do more than anything else to remind me how wonderful the world is.

: c :

b l u e r i d g e m o u n t a i n s

[ 11:29 sunday 7 september – skyland lodge, blue ridge mountains, virginia ]

yesterday afternoon i flew into washington in the remnants of tropical storm hannah. the last half hour of the flight was excitingly bumpy and when we landed at dulles rain and wind were lashing the tarmac. i rented a car right away and drove west into the blue ridge mountains, which kaz had recommended as an escape from washington. as i rose higher wraiths of clouds were forming and swirling mysteriously around trees in the strong wind. several times i stopped to watch and take photographs.

there are two lodges in the hundred-mile stretch of mountains where tourists can stay. after looking on the internet last night i booked a room here at skyland lodge. the building was constructed in the early twentieth century from stone and wood on a plateau a thousand metres up in the mountains beside stony man hill, the second highest peak in the range. when i arrived everything was bathed in cloud. i checked in then straight away hiked up to the peak of stony man hill. the view from there was magical, with an apocalyptic black mass of storm clouds overheads, glimpses of the shenandoah valley spreading out in the twighlight to the west and twists of cloud swirling over me.

overnight the storm played itself out and i woke this morning to clear blue sky, birdsong and the sun filtering through the trees outside my room. now i’m driving to the northern end of the chain for a six mile hike. time permitting i’ll do another hike after lunch. i’m hoping to see deer, bears and turkey vultures amongst other beasts. the whole range is covered by the shenandoah national park so the habitat is relatively pristine. this evening i’ll drive back to dulles and check into the hyatt ready for my presentation at the network roundtable tomorrow afternoon.

: c :

m i a m i

[ 18:55 saturday 19 july – miami international airport, florida ]

i’m in my seat on the flight for london, taking advantage of a pre take-off delay to tap out a few words on my trusty laptop. following foo camp i took a couple of days’ holiday to stop off here in miami and visit shemoel at his family home. the main objective was for us to work out a modus operandi for producing songs together with me in london and him in san francisco.

this is the first time we’ve tried composing together instead of improvising. neither of us knew how it would work out but things fell into place smoothly. after two days our first song is already coming together. shemoel put down an idea which sparked me to add something, which in turn prompted him to change another section and so on. i recorded bass clarinet, vocals and a few electronic bits. shemoel recorded drums and the bulk of the electronics. we listen to a lot of similar electronic artists but we have very different musical personalities. i’m constantly delighted by shemoel’s perspective and how he responds musically in a completely different way to me. the process we followed over the last couple of days seems like it will lend itself well to long-distance collaboration. it will take more will power to keep it going but hopefully we can muster that.

we took breaks from the music to go swimming on the beach, hang out in sweat records (the epicentre of miami’s small experimental music scene) and join the full moon drum circle on the beach until the police broke it up. i managed to record half an hour of this on my new digital audio recorder.

it looks like the flight’s cleared for take-off so i need to shut my laptop. there are big tropical storms all the way up the florida coast. it should be an exciting ride.

: c :

f o o

[ 19:25 sunday 13 july – bodega head, california ]

here i am, a couple of hours north from san francisco, looking out to sea as the evening sun casts a golden glow over the jagged rocks. from where i stand a narrow ridge leads across to a guano-covered islet thick with nesting seabirds. below me is a little cove with a coarse sand beach an a kind of seaweed i’ve never seen before; thick elastic sheets dappled in cream and forest green. i nibbled at some but it was tough and rather flavourless. on my way here i stopped at a beach the other side of botega bay and took a swim in the icy-cold pacific.

for the past two days i’ve been embroiled in an event called foo camp just east of here in sebastopol. each year tim o’reilly, the technology publisher and impresario, invites three hundred technologists, scientists, artists and thinkers to spend a weekend camped out in the orchard behind his company’s offices. this year i was lucky enough to be included.

the event was structured very loosely. after supper on friday evening a couple of big boards were propped up against the wall with a grid comprising a dozen or so spaces along the top (ranging from meeting rooms to marquees) and time slots down the left hand side. anyone could take a giant sticky note, write down a topic for a session they wanted to lead and put it in a square on the grid. as soon as the boards went up there was a stampede of people eager to claim prime slots. this was followed by a gradual jostle of revisions through saturday and sunday.

some of the interesting sessions i attended included neuro-mechanics and techniques for disrupting how your brain functions, the emergence of data visualisation as a mainstream interface discipline and modifying the knowledge-worker lifestyle to be better matched to the ways of living for which we evolved. on saturday evening i led a session on the relationship between technological innovation and the emergence of new organisational structures. a lot of ad hoc conversations happened outside the sessions and there were all kinds of projects and activities going on at the fringes.

on saturday night the campus turned into a kind of esoteric kindergarten with clusters of people in every corner making puzzles, fabricating circuit-boards and playing games. i had a whale of a time playing gypsy jazz with my bass clarinet in a group consisting of two guitars, a ukelele and a baby accordion. this is the first time i’ve done anything other than experimental improvisation with the clarinet so having to play in key and in time was quite a challenge. the session ended with me singing a somewhat unorthodox of weill’s “mack the knife”.

the most striking aspect of the weekend was its fluidity and openness. things just happened. i was expecting it to be uncomfortably cliquey but in fact it was easy to walk up to anyone, however well known, and talk to them about anything you felt like. my thinking was challenged on several fronts, i made a bunch of new friends and i came away fired up to do great things.

: c :

o n t o u r / g r a n n y

[ 01:51 thursday 1 may – haggerston road, london ]

i washed up in london this morning after an eleven-day rampage across san francisco, silicon valley and new york. most days i worked fourteen to sixteen hours non-stop, not exactly my ideal pattern of activity. this stakhanovite fervour was required because i was interlacing several different sets of commitments. first, trampoline was one of twenty british technology start-ups picked for a programme of promotional events in california; second, we launched our new flagship technology in san francisco; third, the company had a stand at the web2.0 conference; fourth, i had a few seminars to deliver; fifth, i had a welter of meetings with customers and investors. everything worked out extremely well but i was comprehensively fried at the end of it.

mercifully it was possible to squeeze in a few extra-curricular activities. on friday i did a three-hour performance with shemoel, cyrus and others at the san francisco art institute; preceded by a tumultuous jam session on the wednesday. this was an utter joy. shemoel and i have decided to set up a small label as a platform for ourselves and others ploughing a similar musical furrow. the previous weekend daniel invited me to last ever san francisco performance by the beaux arts trio, which was exquisite. afterwards i spent several hours playing bach and schubert at the piano with his son nate. on saturday the weather was glorious so i rescheduled my new york flight and drove out to walk in the wilds of the marin headlands. nate came along and proved an effective hunter. without warning he would jab his hand into a bush and withdraw it clasping some writhing creature. during the afternoon he caught several species of lizard, a succession of plump newts and (the piece de resistance) an endangered san francisco garter snake with a half-eaten slug hanging out of its mouth. my thanks to simon and annie for sharing their homes in san francisco and new york respectively.

now my world turns darker. in the final days of the trip granny went into hospital with a thrombosis in her foot. surgery was not successful and the further recourse, amputation of the leg, was deemed impractical for a woman of ninety-two years. in the coming days or weeks she will develop gangrene and die. only when i finished my last meeting in new york and set off on the subway towards the airport did the emotional reality strike me. i had tears streaming down my face for much of the journey back to london. tomorrow i travel to ludlow to be with her.

: c :

b r e c k e n r i d g e

[ 13:51 sunday 16 march – denver airport, colorado ]

for the last ten days i’ve been snowboarding in breckenridge, three thousand metres up in the colorado rockies, with mum, dad and jill. this was my second time boarding, the first being a week at levitunturi in finland two years ago (described here: http://www.charlesarmstrong.net/2006/02/22/f-e-a-r.html) . that first week i progressed from zero to making it down green runs, the simplest grade of piste. i started this visit to breckenridge with no specific objectives. i didn’t have any sense what i’d be capable of or how much i’d remember from the first stint in finland. but i wanted to learn as much as possible and improve as far as i could.

i’ve been out boarding for four or five hours each day, including two half-day sessions with an instructor. the conditions have changed wildly from day to day. sometimes the sky was clear, temperatures rose and the surface snow became mushy. other times the temperature plummeted, inches of snow fell overnight and blizzard conditions persisted through the day. it was the latter i enjoyed the most; with few people out on the slopes, visibility severely limited, the snow deep and powdery. i could fling myself around recklessly, sometimes not seeing another soul from the beginning of a run to the end, knowing that i could fall and even come cartwheeling down the slope without any risk of injury.

by the last day i was zipping down some black runs, three levels up from the green runs where i started. most of the feedback my instructor nikki had given me had become instinctive. i was sometimes, though not always, getting a sense of fluidity and rhythm coming down the slopes. above all i was loving it. i’m already itching for my next opportunity to get back on the snow.

this is the first time in my life i’ve really got fired up about a sport (yoga is different). against all expectation i might even have the potential to get good at it. and i love the fact it’s something i can share with mum and dad.

big thanks to warren for letting us all stay in his flat, which was the perfect base.

: c :