Category Archives: USA

h i g h w a y 1

[ 11:10 monday 3 march – garden street inn, san luis obispo, california ]

sun streams through stained glass, splattering abstract patterns across bookcases, rugs and a huge old upright piano. i don’t like staying in hotels but when it’s necessary i do my best to find somewhere like this. the garden street inn is a late nineteenth- century house carefully converted into a small hotel of thirteen rooms and furnished with a hotch-potch of antiques. it’s not part of a chain and the people who work here aren’t robots. i found it completely by chance. this was the hotel with the least depressing name when i arrived in the small town of san luis obispo last night and asked my satellite navigation gadget for a list of nearby possibilities. lucky me.

since my despatch from san francisco last weekend i’ve driven six hundred miles, done a dozen meetings up and down silicon valley, found my way to several noisily experimental music events and caught up with most of my friends in town. on saturday i set off from san francisco to make the epic drive down the cost to san diego at the opposite end of california. san luis obispo (“slo” in the local parlance) is about midway so i’ve got another few hundred miles ahead of me today.

rather than the faster north-south freeways further inland i chose to take highway 1, the narrow and wiggly road etched into the cliffs running down the coast of california. the driving is somewhat more demanding but it’s amply repaid by one of the most beautiful coasts anywhere in the world. the pacific crashes onto craggy rocks and sandy beaches with tranquil forests of redwood and beach rising up the hills behind the coast. on saturday evening i stopped in monterey to reunite with quinn and dip into the bil conference, a loosely structured gathering of non-conformist thinkers from a boggling array of fields. i set off again early yesterday morning and spent most of the day exploring big sur and the central coast, taking time for a long hike in julia pfeiffer state park and stops to explore various coves and beaches that intrigued me driving past. i was sitting on one of these watching the waves when i started noticing fragments of green translucent stone in the sand and suddenly twigged why it was called jade cove. at another place where i stopped to watch the sunset i was startled by a honking sound and looked down to find the beach covered with dozing sea lions.

as i continue south from san luis obispo the wilderness will increasingly give way to smog and sprawl. around tea time i’ll pass through the gravity field of los angeles, the apogee of everything i like least about california. i should reach san diego around seven this evening, just in time for the kick-off of the emerging technology conference. unlike the past two years i’m not speaking this time so i hope to hear more sessions rather than furiously tinkering with my own.

this whole trip has been something of a rite of passage. on previous visits i’ve studiously taken public transport to get to all my meetings around the bay area. most people looked at me in horror when i told them, an effect that only encouraged me. however this time there were so many appointments to keep it was simply impossible to do it without… a car. so i rented an anonymous silver-coloured korean machine and spent the week hammering up and down five-lane roads and learning the peculiar etiquette of american road-culture. there are two main highways running south down the peninsular from san francisco, 101 and 280. these quickly established themselves as poles in my sentiments towards california. 101 is the most convenient route for valley commuters, running straight through the soulless unending development on the east side of the peninsular. it always seems to be congested and packed with ill-mannered drivers in porches or range rovers. 280 on the other hand runs through the spectacular countryside on the west side of the peninsular. traffic generally seems to move more freely and the drivers are more courteous. within days i was doing everything possible to avoid 101, though this involved playing a variety of tricks on my satellite navigation gadget to quell it’s increasingly curt admonitions to get back on the shorter route. i started the week totally dependent on the thing and slavishly followed every instruction it snapped at me, obeying even when it decided that the best way to get out of san francisco was to drive right through the centre of chinatown. it felt like an accelerated teenage rebellion when i progressively started to ignore instructions i didn’t like and finally turn the volume down to zero when it really got irritating.

i’m ashamed to admit it but having the car did give me a tremendous sense of liberty and independence. i feel as though i’ve been corrupted in some unspeakable way.

: c :

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d e n v e r

[ 17:37 tuesday 6 november – united 732, denver airport, colorado ]

one hundred and fifty-six business people squeezed into a tube that will carry them from denver to san jose. serried ranks of standard- issue wheely cases line the overhead lockers. denver airport is an hour’s drive from the city itself, though all that lies between them is a vast empty plain. driving across this expanse from denver the spiky airport building slowly rises on the horizon like a giant white armadillo.

denver felt strangely derelict with a chill bone-dry wind blowing through vacant streets. it feels as if the city has some rather serious social problems. on each of the nights i was in town there was a fatal shooting within two blocks of my hotel, which was right in the city centre. to balance this rather bleak picture, on sunday night i walked out to a place i’d heard of called the “mercury cafe” and it was a gem. i ate a superb meal in its organic cafe with a riotous series of performances going on in the theatre next-door and a swing dance class continuing upstairs. a frail-looking gentlemen in full wizard regalia came in and sat down blandly at a table.

i flew in from san francisco on sunday evening to talk at a conference about social networks. now i’m heading to san jose to give a lecture at another conference.

departure is announced. time to close my laptop.

: c :

h a l l o w e e n

[ 15:53 saturday 3 november – leavenworth street, san francisco, california ]

the afternoon sun filters through maple leaves where i sit on the roof terrace atop warren and ann’s san francisco house. a humming- bird flits back and forth, restlessly probing flowers on one bush after another. the honk of sea lions drifts up from fisherman’s wharf half a mile below. a permanent gaggle of tourists chatters and snaps their cameras at lombard street’s famously wiggly section immediately beneath the house. each time i come i feel more at home. it helps when the weather is so sublime, unusual even for san francisco in november.

i landed here on tuesday for some conference presentations and a string of meetings. an hour after i arrived at the house i was startled by a bang followed by several seconds of creaking and lurching. reverting quickly to ann’s instruction i leapt up and stood under the open doorway, recognising that an earthquake was in progress. the following day it was reported as 5.6 richter, the strongest since 1989, with an epicentre near fremont on the east bay. san francisco’s way of saying hallo.

wednesday evening was halloween which it turns out is a key date in the city’s calendar, on a par with good friday in trapani. the festival here has transcended the conventional panoply of witches, ghouls and trick-or-treating to become a much broader orgy of self- expression and outrageous costume. the whole city takes part but the homosexual community seems to play a catalytic role and the castro, the city’s “gay ghetto”, has established itself as the centre of festivities with tens of thousands of revelers cramming into a few blocks.

however last year things got out of hand and there were nine shootings during the castro party so this year the city government decided to cancel it. they persuaded a lot of bars and clubs to shut for the day, closed down buses and underground services to the area and mounted a propaganda campaign on the theme “home for halloween”. but it’s hard to stand in the way of a public ritual that’s gathered such momentum and ten to twenty thousand people turned up despite the government’s efforts. people kept coming up and congratulating me on my costume which was slightly perplexing since i was just wearing my everyday clothes.

: c :

f o t o s : a m e r i c a

[ 21:12 sunday 10 june – brick lane, london ]

right, time for some catching up on the photographical front. here are three sets from forays to america during february and march:

nine photos from washington dc and boston (frozen potomac, eastern market)

seventeen photos from san francisco and stinson beach (aerial views, rainy beachscapes, seaweed)

sixteen photos from the o’reilly emerging technology conference in san diego (friends, wacky tech)

: c :

z e n

[ 22:16 saturday 31 march – green gulch farm, muir beach, california ]

i’ve just returned from sitting in the formal garden with vajra in the glare of the almost-full moon. the sky is perfectly clear tonight. our conversation was accompanied by the undulating chorus of toads from the pond and the unexpectedly close-sounding waves on the beach a mile away. green gulch farm is a zen buddhist monastery, inhabiting a collection of japanese-inspired wooden buildings dotted amongst tall trees, with fields stretching down the valley to the sea. vajra’s been a friend since we met in london ten years ago. when i heard he’d joined green gulch’s thirty-strong community last month i was delighted to take the opportunity to come and visit.

last saturday i felt an urge to get away from san francisco so i rented a car with the intention of coming up here. it was my first experience of automatic transmission so i entertained passers-by with my initial lurching progress. once i got the hang of it i took the panoramic highway over mount tamalpais to stinson beach where i spent several hours clambering over rocks and photographing seaweed that looked like giant spring onions. then i drove back over the mountain and pulled up here with the intention of surprising vajra. i arrived at seven just as the wooden block was being sounded to mark the start of the evening’s zazen meditation. my enquiries revealed that vajra was participating and i’d have to wait a couple of hours before it was finished. the place exuded a wonderful sense of calm and simplicity so i was in no hurry.

i took a seat in the library and pulled out a book. a lady called shoho, who was marking out cloth to sew, asked if i’d eaten dinner and when i replied in the negative she led me down to the kitchen and assembled a plate of kale (grown on the farm), baked potatoes and a hard boiled egg. it was delicious. after i’d eaten she invited me to join in the last part of the zazen which sounded interesting.

she led me to a different building where i left my shoes in an ante-room. then i entered a galleried hall where several people were doing a slow walking meditation, moving silently clockwise around the room. i joined them until after a few minutes a bell sounded and the doors to the main zendo hall opened. this was a much larger chamber, lit by candles, with low platforms along either side and a large wooden statue of buddha inside the door. each person bowed to the statue as they entered. shoho gestured towards a platform. i stepped up to it and sat with my legs crossed facing the wall. thus i remained for the next forty minutes until another bell sounded and everyone stood up and faced into the room. i moved to do the same but quickly discovered i’d lost all sensation in my legs. in preference to falling over i swiftly sat down on the side of the platform and waited, somewhat self-consciously, for the blood to return. after a few minutes i managed to stand unsteadily. by this point everyone else was chanting so i joined in as best i could. then everyone processed out of the hall and i tracked down vajra.

on thursday evening i flew back from san diego to san francisco and returned to warren and ann’s house on russian hill, where they’d kindly let me stay the previous week. i had a fair amount of work to catch up with on friday but once that was done i packed up my things, rented a car and drove back to green gulch where i’d booked a guest room (i’m typing on the bed now). after supper vajra and i walked in the moonlight to a vantage point above the ocean with the lights of san francisco in the distance. this morning i rose at half past seven and after breakfast went for a long walk on the wild hillsides and coastal paths to the south of muir beach. this afternoon i spent some time photographic the gigantic mussels, sea anemones and starfish down at the beach; then vajra and i walked up the coast to the north. the weather has been fantastic. i spent most of the day shirtless. this evening after supper i did another session of zazen, then went out to sit in the moonlit garden with vajra.

this brief retreat has been an oasis of calm amidst the prevailing frenzy. tomorrow morning it all starts again. i’ll drive back to san francisco then catch a plane to boston for a couple of meetings. i’ll finally return to london on tuesday morning.

: c :

e t e c h 0 7

[ 18:05 thursday 29 march – gate 7, san diego airport ]

the o’reilly emerging technology conference has just ended. for the past four days i’ve been in the midst of six hundred technologists, designers and thinkers in the gothic preposterousness of san diego’s manchester grand hyatt. it’s been marvelously stimulating. the conference has a striking inter-disciplinary character which appears to be emergent rather than planned. the majority of the people i’ve spoken to drew fluently on ideas and examples from many different disciplines in their conversation. the programme itself reflects this tendency. in addition to sessions on new technologies i’ve attended talks on the role of the jacquard loom in the development of computing, the significance of body modification and the historical relationship between magic and technology. in keeping with this spirit the session i presented with mike on tuesday (“collective intelligence, indeterminacy and the illusion of control”) referred to automobiles, democratic systems and a pod of dolphins that’s started wearing sponges on their noses. the last of these was, i confess, a little gratuitous.

i remember how much pressure i felt last year, how important it seemed to make an impact with my presentation. i started preparing several months in advance and spent much of the conference obsessively tweaking my slides. consequently i hardly went to any other sessions and didn’t really have much fun. this year was completely different. i was wrapped up in the investment process until a week beforehand so i only put my presentation together at the last minute. obviously i hoped people would find it interesting but there wasn’t the same sense of pressure as last year. i went to a lot of the other sessions and spent the rest of the time meeting people and learning about new thinking in all kinds of fields. it was a hoot.

etech is like an intellectual caffeine blast. there’s part of me that hungers to sustain that same level of cerebral intensity all year round but maybe that wouldn’t be wise for one’s sanity.

: c :

t h r e e m i l l i o n

[ 16:03 tuesday 20 march – marriott hotel, san mateo, california ]

i’m presenting two sessions at the dow jones webventures conference here in san mateo. the first is done, the second commences in twenty minutes. i’m sitting alone at a big round table in the main conference room now, catching up on my email. the room’s almost empty, just a handful of people whiling away time between sessions or desultorily chatting on their cell phones. easy listening music putters at an inoffensively low volume from hidden speakers, which is getting on my nerves. the carpet has a hideous diamond pattern in dark blue and lime green. the plastic rubber plants have seen better days. back in europe the technology community can’t stop fawning about silicon valley but it appears that silicon valley mostly boils down to places like this. it’s all rather depressing.

last week trampoline systems completed an investment deal bringing in three million pounds from a large american financier. this is what i’ve been working on since last november. it’s been one of the strangest and most intense experiences of my life. right until the last moment i couldn’t believe it was going to happen, i was just waiting for something to make the whole thing unravel. but week by week the pieces came together until finally there were no pieces left and the deal was done.

it’s six and a half years since i sat in my studio in johann hicks’ house on st agnes and had the idea of an electronic information system that mimicked human social behaviour. i remember the first time i sat around a table in victoria park square trying to explain it to james and craig, and shortly afterwards to warren. it took eighteen months from that point to raise £20,000 of grants and get to work on a prototype. by that time i was living on stromboli. it took another eighteen months to complete the prototype and raise £125,000 of seed investment, which is when i set up the company and moved back to london. three and a half years elapsed between that point and completing this £3,000,000 investment.

these are big spans of time, a significant chunk of my life. probably no entrepreneur ever realises how much time and effort will be required to get their business off the ground, at least for their first venture. when i made the decision, reluctantly, to come back from stromboli to london i told my friends i’d be staying for six months to a year. i sincerely believed that’s how long it would take to build the technology, get it into the market, raise a large investment round and hand over to someone else. in retrospect my naivety seems shocking. if i’d had a more realistic idea how long it would take i doubt i’d ever have left stromboli so perhaps that naivety was a blessing. i wouldn’t have missed this adventure for the world.

now that the fundraising is over and the money’s in the bank i emerge dazed and blinking into a subtly different world. i’m too tired to feel excited now. that will come later. i had to come straight over to california for this conference so i’ve scarcely had time to think. then next week i’m doing a presentation with mike at the o’reilly emerging technology conference in san diego which i haven’t even started work on yet. after that i’ll do a week in london and then, finally, i’m going away for two weeks’ holiday. no prospect ever seemed so idyllic.

: c :