Sunday, 17 June 2018

I like driving in my car, I'm satisfied I've got this far

9. Driving

I know what you’re going to say - driving on the wrong side of the road is weird. But there’s much more to it than that.

More than any other country America has been built around the automobile. The car might have been invented by Europeans but Ford and others turned balky, recalcitrant beasts into a mass-produced vehicle that anyone could use, and use them America did. 

It is a country uniquely set up for the motorist. In certain states you can get drive though liquor, pharmacy, cash point, and once a drive-through that sold both guns and booze. Texas.

This is subsidised by very cheap petrol. When I arrived in 2008 people were panicking because gas prices had risen to over $4 a gallon. Pointing out to the taxi driver that it was closer to $10 in the UK brought incredulity and horror. The US is built around low petrol prices - this is an auto nation.

Which is why it’s surprising that modern American cars suck quite so badly. I’ve seldom found an American rental car that’s fun to drive and built well. Admittedly I haven’t driven a Tesla yet but getting a Chevy, GM or Chrysler from the rental shop fills my heart with dread. I know I’m going to get a poorly-built vehicle with the throttle lag of a stoned snail and the cornering ability of Concorde on roller skates.

America still makes great muscle cars that, in the words of Douglas Adams, “Look like a fish, move like a fish, steer like a cow.” My father-in-law has a 1970s Camaro that is utterly beautiful as a work of design and has an engine with a roar that puts hairs on your chest, but is somewhat finicky when it comes to mechanical issues.

It was the same when I reviewed the 2015 Ford Mustang. The PR was so proud that this was the first Mustang to use a limited-slip differential, something most manufacturers had incorporated a decade ago. My former colleague Rory Reid loved the car, which is understandable as he has the skills to tame the beast, but it was a tad too much from my taste and skill level.

As a driving car it had its charms. The engine was a monster and the tyres nice and sticky. You could go from ten to 100 in the blink of an eye or the slip of a foot, the torque was amazing and if you stuck it in sports mode there was a lot of slidy fun to be had.

But the build quality would have made a BMW engineer’s fists itch. The bodywork was poorly finished and out of alignment, the interior trim was shoddy and it burned petrol faster than the Iraqis at the end of Gulf war I. Plus is was overloaded with tacky gimmicks, like the side mirrors that used LEDs to light up the pavement with prancing horse silhouettes or the glowing door panels.

So when my wife’s beloved Volvo died (yes, I married a hairy-legged Berkeley feminist who drove a Volvo - albeit one with an excellent subwoofer in the back) we bought a Prius. It’s about as exciting to drive as rice pudding, but it’s fuel-efficient and good enough. 

That said, I’ve got my eyes on a Miata (Mazda MX-5) once I can economically justify it to myself. Had one in the late 90s and it was enormous fun. It's still a nicely-balanced car that was forgiving, not overly engineered and cheap enough to thrash around a circuit once in a while with some mods.

Welcome to the jungle

Had my first driving holiday here in 2005, when gas and cars were cheap, in US terms. Back then petrol was a couple of dollars a gallon and a week's car rental cost 120 quid when I booked it. I put over 2,000 miles on that car, driving Route One down the California coast to Hearst Castle, across to Las Vegas, round the Grand Canyon and into Utah then over the Rockies to Tahoe and down into Napa before returning to SF.

The different side of the road did fox me at first. The first night of driving I turned onto a highway and was dazzled by car headlights coming towards me. After a few seconds of processing time the brain went “You’re an idiot” and I pulled over, did some deep breathing and then did a u-turn to get back on track.

A few weeks after I moved out here I hit a small, green problem. For those of us of a certain age in the UK our driving licences were sheets of green watermarked paper with our credentials stamped on - no photo, no barcode, just a signature you put on yourself, Since it cost ten quid to get the new photo-ID laminated format, and mine was good until the 2020s, I saw no reason to change.

I’d reserved a U-Haul van to drive to Ikea (a store that is proof the Swedes may have given up going a-viking but can still bugger up your weekend with a lost instruction manual or hex key) in Emeryville and buy a bed, dresser and sundry supplies, but the rental place took one looked at my fold-out green paper British license and gave me the bum's rush.

Hertz was more used to the traditional British licence but had no vans. Instead they sold me on an SUV that should be able to carry my swag back home if enough seats were folded down. I got into the car, spent five minutes trying to start it before a staffer explained you needed to depress the brake pedal before the engine would fire up. Red faced, I set off on my route.

It was a nightmare ride. The SUV handled like a Sherman tank with pogo-stick suspension and driving across the old section of the Bay Bridge was bloody scary. The road is lined with steel girders, so if you're hit you’re in a world of hurt. Plus the fact that despite the 55mph speed limit I’ve seen people hit 70 regularly and 80 on occasion.

Street law in SF

After collecting my flat-pack furniture, I loaded up the car and headed home. But I hadn’t considered SF’s one-way road system. Many of the roads in the city are one way and I turned down a wrong street. Thankfully a good citizen jumped in front of the truck and stopped me, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this.

I got to my lodgings, unloaded the furniture and parked across the street. This, as it turns out, was a big no-no. It’s a bizarre American quirk that in many places you can only park in the direction of the flow of traffic. So if you see a parking space on the other side of the street you have to go past, turn around and see if it’s still there by the time you got back.

On the streets of San Francisco the rules are enforced with ruthless speed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), who tool around the city on three-wheeled scooters called Interceptors - although rather different from Mad Max. But they can spot an infraction from 50 paces and have the same easy-going views on law breaking as the head of the Spanish Inquisition.

Park a car with the wheels not turned in to the pavements? That’s a fine. Park too far into the road? That’s another. Park too long to some pavement that’s the wrong color? That’ll be $237 please. You can even get ticketed for parking over the entrance to your own driveway, bizarrely enough.

I woke up the next morning to find I’d got my first ever parking ticket in 20 years of driving. In true passive-aggressive Californian style I’d been ticketed not for parking the wrong way round on the road, but for parking more than 18 inches from the pavement. The fact that I was about eight feet away from the correct pavement made this darkly comedic.

Thankfully this story has a happy ending. When I went to pay the ticket the cashier told me that it had been filled out wrong as the issuer had forgotten to sign it in the correct box. Thanks to form-filling rules my pristine driving record remains untouched and my wallet unemptied.

Getting street legal

If you’re over here for any length of time past three months then you need to get an American licence to drive. I know one Brit who would this out the hard way after not sorting this out for over a year; US cops do check and the penalties can be severe.

That said, the US driving test is a complete piece of piss compared to the UK exam, which I failed twice. There is no test for parallel parking, hill starts (since automatics are the morn) or three-point turns. What you do have to master are the sometimes arcane, but occasionally excellent driving rules over here.

As mentioned, if you are parking anywhere on a slope in SF you have to turn your wheels so that if the brakes fail you will roll into the kerb not the road - which in practice makes sense. The rules technically don’t apply on flat streets but hearsay is that the SFMTA carry spirit levels and a cold heart - so just swing the steering wheel as you park.

But the US leads the world in other traffic rules areas, such as the right hand turn. On most streets in most states you can turn right even on a red light if the road is clear - unless signposted otherwise. It’s a superb idea, saving both time and fuel, as delivery service UPS has shown.

As for the test, after some swotting you face a 36-question quiz and you’re allowed six wrong answers. It wasn’t too hard, I got two wrong but am still convinced the ‘correct’ answer on one was faulty if you had to take into account road curvature while hydroplaning. But you don’t argue with the Department of Motor Vehicles; its custodians aren’t to be messed with.

I’d been warned about the DMV within days of landing. Legends of endless queues (lines in Freedom tongue), slow and lazy staff and an obdurate attitude that made granite look easily moldable abounded. But the key thing is to book ahead and head to Oakland.

One visit to the main SF DMV is enough to convince me that a lot of the rumors were right; it was a mess. Very few staff, confusing system and a belligerent populace made life interesting, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who has had a good experience there. So I took some good advice and booked an appointment to the Oakland Rockridge DMV.

For Londoners, Rockridge is the equivalent of Notting Hill to the City of Oakland. A neighbourhood that isn't so much up-and-coming as has upped, come, and is having a post-establishment soy latte with a side of organic gluten-free bruschetta. A two-bedroom house with no view costs over a million in this suburb and a garden would double the price.

Booking an appointment means a two week waiting time - compared to three months in SF. The staff were rather helpful, if very strict. My hand slipped during my last eye test and was told in a tone that would not be brooked that I would have to retake the test from the start.

The driving section of the test was unusually easy - seven minutes from start to finish - but this might have been accidental. Five minutes into the test we came across another instructor’s car grounded on the central meridian of a road not far from the DMV.

I pulled over (applying the hazard lights just to be sure), my instructor shouted across to her colleague to make sure he was OK, and then told me to head back to the center. She signed off on the form, telling me to be sure to watch for stop signs, and hurried off. With that I was ready to roll.

Freeways - fun but occasionally unfriendly

One of the side effects of the Second World War was that US generals saw Germany’s autobahns and thought “We want some of that.” In the 1950s the US interstate highway system flourished and changed the nature of the country.

Interesting side note here - British motorways curve, by in large. This is to deal with hills in the way but also because the planners thought that people would be less likely to fall asleep at the wheel. In the US you can go over 100 miles of entirely straight roads, thanks in part to the wide-open spaces. It’s boring as all hell. You find yourself releasing the wheel and seeing how long it take before you have to steer again, just to break up the monotony.

Now, as the cliche goes, a trip of 100 miles is a long trip for a Brit, while 100 years is a long time for an American. The freeway system can make driving long distances across country a joy, but closer to cities where the populace commutes, it can be an absolute pain.

Take Silicon Valley. I live 50 miles from Google headquarters, but if they call a press conference at 9am then I know I’ll have to leave at 6:30am at the very latest to get there on time, and that's risking it. Sadly, taking Caltrain takes even longer, so I’ll usually take the BART train to the end of the line and Lyft it from there.

Driving on the freeway can also be unnerving. One change in the US driving test needs to be an appreciation of stopping distances. This was drilled into us in the British driving test, work out how far you would need to travel if the car in front slammed the anchors on. Over here that’s not taught it seems, and it really needs to be.

I’m a careful driver, I leave a lot of braking space just in case something goes wrong. But when you do so on California freeways two buggers then try and cram themselves into the gap you’ve left. It makes me wish for the old days of the Car Wars game, when mounting twin 50-calibre machine guns on the front of the car was considered acceptable. Undertaking is also a thing here, so you need to watch out in both mirrors for people who have watched too many Fast and Furious movies.

Pick your state

In the last decade I’ve driven in over a dozen states and they all have their own peculiarities. Here’s a quick capsule review:

California - Leaving aside the mad traffic during rush hour Golden State drivers are usually quite considerate. The roads are wide, the cops pleasant, and drivers who aren’t time stressed are largely sensible.

That said, LA is traffic hell, San Francisco is a pain to drive in with its multiple and seemingly arbitrary one-war streets, and don’t try getting across the Rockies between December and April unless you are going through one of two or three mountain passes - Tahoe is almost always open however.

But the Bay Area also has the Pacific Coast Highway, the finest driving road in the world I've yet seen. Although frequently buggered by landslides it winds its way along the California coastline taking you past amazing vistas, perilously engineered bridges, hoards of sea lions and the most expensive petrol stations outside of Alaska.

New Jersey - Possibly the most insane freeway driving ever. You haven’t felt buttock-clenching concern until you’ve been tailgated at 75mph by three tons of SUV driven by someone you suspect is one meth hit away from smashing you into a bloody puddle. Plus in New Jersey you aren’t allowed to fill your own car with petrol but must entrust that to someone who can’t get a better job.

Arizona - The roads are wide, the people friendly, and it’s the home of Navajo Nation. On my way to the Grand Canyon I stopped off at a diner and got chatting to a cop who clocked the accent (see earlier post). He explained that the police don’t go there, since the locals occasionally take potshots at them, so speeding isn’t a problem. 

As this is a public blog I will say that I never once went over the speed limit and definitely didn’t blast through the Painted Desert with three figures on the speedometer and AC/DC cranked up to 11 on the stereo.

Maryland - Think New Jersey but with slightly more polite drivers (only slightly) but a system that will shake the money out of you. There are toll points everywhere - so much so that it cost more to drive across the state in tolls than it did in petrol costs. Also a pronunciation point. For British visitors the state isn't pronounced Mary-Land. In the same way Arkansas is spoken as Ark-en-sore not Ark-kansas Maryland is pronounced Murry-land. Using the wrong wordage may induce smirks.

Boston - Just don’t; life’s too short.

Nevada - Around the cities it’s pretty bad - lots of cops with quotas to fill, the Vegas strip should never be driven without a limo complete with fully stocked drinks cabinet, a chauffeur, and hardcore air conditioning. But out in the desert you can drive though amazing countryside for miles without seeing a soul and stop to viewtthe night in a low-light environment and enjoy the Milky Way in all its glory.

Florida - See Boston but 10 times worse, with the optional extra of someone using your nipples for target practice.

Utah - Possibly my favourite state to drive in. Nice wide roads, polite drivers and stunning scenery. Just remember to pack your snow tyres; you won't be allowed to some skiing resorts without them and if you’re in the state you will want to hit the slopes. Park City is without a doubt the best skiing I’ve had in the US.

Safety first

This post has gone on way too long. But I want to end on an important safety note for visitors.

If you are pulled over by the police for any reason while driving there is an etiquette that can be deadly not followed. Stop as soon as you see the lights, wind down the window, turn the engine off, and keep your hands on top of the steering wheel in plain sight as soon as possible.

I’m going to cover this in a later post but US and UK policing are very, very different. America is an armed society, or at least one in which law enforcement approaches everyone as if they could be carrying. Traffic cops have the worst of this; they get shot more often than most other kinds of police officers and adrenaline levels are high.

So don’t play the smart arse, never get out of the car, and issue a warning before you move. It may sound paranoid, but it’s not worth the risk. And that goes double if you’re not white, as experience has shown, sad to say.

In 2016 I covered the death of Philando Castile, who was shot during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota and bled out next to his girlfriend and four year-old daughter. It’s not the kind of story The Register would usually cover because of the lack of tech angle but she live streamed the killing on Facebook, and the police subsequently used her phone to try and delete the footage while blaming it on a glitch.

It subsequently emerged Castile informed the officer he had a gun in the car (he was a member of the National Rifle Association - which usually kicks up a storm when members are prosecuted but stayed quiet in this case), told the officer he was reaching for his licence, and was shot seven times while doing so. The officer involved was acquitted of any wrongdoing.

US policing has changed since Sergeant Esterhaus’ days in Hill Street Blues. For drivers, and for cops, heed his advice and “let’s be careful out there.”

Editor's note: This is getting out of hand, I can rant for hours it seems. The next post will be up when I have time.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

10 years on; lessons learned in a move to the US

Ten years ago today I stepped off a rather fetid flight from London onto San Francisco’s with two suitcases, $9,000 strapped around my waist, Little Panda (my teddy bear of nearly half a century) and a plan to stay for a year, hire my replacement and then head back to the UK. Let’s just say it didn’t work out that way.

The decision to move to SF (never Frisco or San Fran as I later learned) had midlife crisis written all over it. I was 39, just out of a toxic relationship, and the opportunity had come up to spend a year-long sojourn in the city after our West Coast editor resigned. As a tech journalist the chance to work in Silicon Valley was irresistible, and it looked like a year where I could learn a lot and have tons of fun before returning to a promotion in the UK.

It was a tumultuous first few months that saw the global economy seemingly melting down, Sarah Palin nominated as vice president - which I thought at the time was the most bonkers political appointment we'd ever seen - and venture capitalists erecting a mock tombstone on a boardroom table and ushering in startup CEOs and showing them what the future was. I also found out the job I had planned to return to no longer existed.

So I stayed, and have learned a lot, but one of the major curiosities has been quite how different the US is from the UK. Growing up I’d tended to assume that the US was like a brasher, younger brother to Britain; Rome to our Greece, late but vital in world wars, and a fellow member of the brotherhood of English-speaking peoples. But it is a very different land; better in some ways, worse in others - and more extreme in both.

When I first came over some of the most fun writing was the Friday Top 10 list. My colleague and I would sit in Morty’s sandwich bar over a pint and a small amount of bread surrounding a ridiculously large amount of meat and toppings arguing the question of the week and then we’d be up until late evening Friday finishing the edit. For the record, Cherry 2000 remains a lousy movie. We still argue over this.

So in that spirit here’s ten things I’ve learned over the years about life in the Land of the FreeTM. Some funny, some serious, but all based on experience. I’d originally intended to do the whole ten in one blog post but there’s too much to say. Once I hit 5,000 words I knew that’s too much to digest, so instead you’re getting one post at a time.

My problem with deadlines is well known - just look at the blog for goodness sake - but here’s the start of this and by my pretty floral bonnet I’ll post until the job is done, I hope you enjoy it.

10. Language

Two countries separated by a common language was how Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, or possibly Oscar Wilde summed it up. No matter who said it, it’s very true.

The very first time I came to SF, back in 1994, I discovered this in a most embarrassing way. I was in a bar with my then ex-fiance and ran out of cigarettes. Assuming there would be a vending machine (note to younger readers - in days of yore you could buy cancer sticks from machines; Joni Mitchell even wrote a song about it) so went looking for one.

After coming up empty I asked the bartender where the “fag machine” was. The look of quizzical horror on his face brought home to me that fag, British slang for cigarette, had a rather different meaning over here. It also explained the odd looks I got when I announced I was popping out for a fag break.

There are, of course, common words you quickly realise make no sense to Americans. Asking where the loo is will usually cause bafflement. Asking someone where their flat, rather than condo or apartment, is gets similar blank stares. And don’t even get me started on aluminium…

But even after years over here it’s odd that some phrases I grew up with cause confusion or amusement to our American cousins. Swimming costume, for example, still causes giggles as it’s apparently nonsense. Bathing suit (which makes just as little sense as no-one slips on trousers and a jacket before a dip) is the correct term over here.

Rucksack is another. Most journalists carry one of these daily but it’s a backpack apparently. Sticking plaster is another; over here it’s known as a Band Aid, which is a brand if we’re being pedantic. Then again, for Brits of a certain age we Hoover rather than vacuum.

After a decade I’ve grown used to performing mental translation as a matter of course. My wife has even started picking up English phrases that she loves - “Bugger that for a game of soldiers,” is one of her favorites.

Local issues

In some ways being a Brit in the Bay Area is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it’s one of the few places in America where they are used to us. In many parts of America (looking at you New York, Utah and Palm Springs) a British accent is a passport to getting away with a lot of stuff. It’s just so quaint apparently, and has side benefits.

Having a British accent can open doors. I’ll admit to exploiting it somewhat for female attention over here for a number of years. It’s amazing how many cosmopolitan New Yorkers go weak at the knees for a post British accent - I considered writing Hugh Grant a thank you letter - and in much of the country it signifies someone cultured and intelligent.

Europeans must find this very odd. After all, back home we’re the fighty drunks or perfidious Albion. But surveys have shown that having a British accent in the US makes you more trustworthy and seemingly more intelligent - as shown by the shopping channels which are full of Brits hawking useless products with a cheeky grin and posh wordage.

The downside of this is when you’re asked “I love the accent, say something, say something!” It gets really tiresome after a while but in the Bay Area there are so many Brits the accent has a negligible effect. That’s very liberating in many ways.

But even in the Bay Area it works sometimes. When I went to get my driving licence renewed I made the mistake of putting the licence card itself in the renewal envelope and posting it. When I got back to the office my boss explained the mistake and I went back to try and rectify matters.

I’ll admit to shamelessly overdoing it. I explained to the post clerk that “I’d been a complete nincompoop,” and “buggered up completely.” He cheerfully found my envelope and, after checking my other ID, allowed me to remove the card. When I got back to the office they were amazed I got away with it.

Side benefits

It’s also something of an advantage in other ways. I do occasional TV slots over here and was ranting on air when the word wanker slipped out. I apologised afterwards but the host loved it. I explained it’s actually quite a rude word but was told “It sounds classy when you say it.”

One memorable episode of The Week in Tech, I tried to moderate the term dog’s bollocks (another phrase that causes amusement and confusion over here) by saying something was “the puppy’s package.” They liked that one so much they named the episode after it, even after I explained that it could be considered a bit rude.

The other big cultural difference here is in swearing, something my friends know I do too much. I found this out the hard way when I came over to work in out US office for a few weeks trying it out before making the decision to move out full time.

Our publication had a corner in shared office with another publisher and everything was open plan. Tom, the editor I was replacing, cheerfully greeted me on the first day by jokingly promising that he’d saved an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) group test for me. UPS’ are the worst possible things to review because they are single use items with very little to write about. I know, tech journalists can have a really geeky sense of humour.

Anyway, in the spirit of the joke I advised Tom to “go fuck yourself with a chainsaw,” which he took in good spirit and we got on with our day. But the rest of the office had clearly heard and did not approve. No-one said anything directly, although instant messenger windows started popping up on screens across the floorspace, and I found a copy of the employee guide book placed on my desk after lunch - my first experience of the peculiar passive aggression that's so common in the Bay Area.

People over here don’t swear as much, or as vehemently, and the words they use are very different. For example, simply using the word c**t (or dropping the c-bomb as it’s known) is absolutely verboten. This causes problems for Aussies and some Brits, for whom it can be an insult but also a term of affection or praise.

While I haven’t slipped into the kind of mid-Atlantic accent that bedevils Bill Bryson and Lloyd Grossman, certain Americanisms have started to take hold. When last back in Blighty I inadvertently used the word hella - Northern Californian for ‘Hell of a,” as in “that’s a hela nice mango kombucha smoothie,” - and got similar blank looks and occasional sniggering about how I was going local - which was a fair point in some regards.


Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Back in the saddle again

Coming back to work after a long break is always a killer and I’ve been away over three weeks. There was a definite air of what-the-hell-do-I-do-again about the week so this blog’s a bit late.


Monday - Back in the swing
Tuesday - Will this hell never end
Wednesday - A new blow
Thursday - Unpleasant alarm call, industry rant
Friday - The long weekend awaits

The alarm going off was expected but still a shock. The jetlag had just about worn off but it’s still unpleasant even if you know about this. The walk into BART for the commute felt familiar but still slightly odd - part of me expected to pop into a nice pub for a fry up.

After so long away my desk was a mess of stuff that need clearing before getting down to work - a vacant desk gets all the rubbish. My gift of Thorntons toffee seems to be going down well too, at least with the Americans. Toffee like that seems rare over here and at the end of the day one put the bag back on my desk and asked me to keep him away from it.

The week before I’d come back the site had broken a major exclusive that brought in literally millions of readers. That’s great for bringing in ne readers, but we’re all now looking around for the next big thing to keep the readers who are new to the site coming back.

To add to the ennui of a return to the working life the Bay Area rainy season appears to be kicking in. Going to work in the rain isn’t fun but we need the water - it has been a very dry winter and, after the wildfires north and south, we should be thankful water is falling from the sky at all.

I’ve only been out here nine years now but it does seem the rains are getting later. November used to be the start, but in recent years they seldom come before Christmas. That is hurting the Tahoe ski resorts - a couple of winters ago they had no snow until January - and long term it’s not going to refill aquifers.

Owing to some opdd rules farmers can use as much water as they like if they drill down into the aquifer and pump it up. This has led to very water-intensive but profitable crops like almonds to proliferate. But as a result we’ve now down ot dangerously low levels of subterranean water in the state. 

The early week’s rains will help a little, but not as much as they might have. Two days of hammering rain dumped around a fortnight’s worth of rain down, but much of it ran off the hard earth and into the sea. The mountains, our reserve water supply, got a good dump of snow but still way down on what it should be.

Pitchforks at the door

The rains had eased off on Wednesday evening as I made my way home. A goodish day, some interesting stuff written and a couple of good longer term leads. I filed my last story under embargo so that it would run in the UK early afternoon.

Embargoed stories are a pain in the backside, but much beloved by certain sections of the industry. In a few cases they make clear sense - you’re making a coordinated announcement that can't go off before a certain period, maybe for legal of financial reasons, or to coordinate the news of a new security vulnerability.

But the vast majority are embargoed because someone has decided that this is the best time to get news out, or so a vendor can play favourites by giving some hacks the early scoop. But it’s largely an embuggerance and leaves an extra door open for Mr Fuckup, and so it proved to be.

Thursday morning began in an unpleasant fashion. Not ‘angry mob or armed SWAT unit breaking down the door bad, but with an unexpected phone call at 6:30am. I know parents out there will laugh at such untrammeled luxury of a long lie-in but for a chap used to waking later it wasn’t fun - not to mention the dread.

Early morning calls are almost never good. There’s always the fear that someone has died, you’ve been unexpectedly fired or something very bad had happened. Thankfully in this case it was just an anxious PR. The story under embargo had gone live, but one of the parties involved had made a mistake and set the deadline for publication a day early.

While it’s possible to take stories down, it’s a pain in thew arse and isn;t always warranted - after all, we followed the instructions to the letter. In this case though we came to an agreement and sorted it out. Never would have happened without an embargo - just saying.

The weekend has landed

Friday felt good, if pressured. There were lots of stories to do but also a lot of admin. Next week is a long weekend and then I’ll be a away for a week. There’s a security conference down in the Valley on Tuesday and Wednesday, so I’ll overnight down there. Then it’s back home for a night and fly out to Washington DC until Sunday.

The weekend left us curiously lazy. The last of the trip washing was done, cooking ensued for the forthcoming week, but we didn;’ get out that much, other than for shopping runs and chatting with the neighbours and catching up on local gossip.

Winter makes for slow weekends. THe wind’s either not strong enough for sailing, or way too strong, and the weather makes hiking less fun, The recent rains will have turned Tillden into a mudbath.

Still it’s a long weekend thanks to Dr King and a time for reflection. I want to stay off politics but the president's verbal timing couldn’t have been worse. I’ll leave you with some wise words from Ronald Reagan - not a phrase you hear every day.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Say hello and wave goodbye

This blog has sat idle for many years, but a post by Lucy got me thinking about things to do for the New Year and restarting it - in a limited fashion - seemed like a good idea at the time.

It’s easy to disavow such posts - look at the number of people frantically deleting comments once it becomes an issue (looking at you Toby Young). But with long-form posts such as the antiquitaed blog you can do some reasoned writing.

Part of this is that, after two and a half years since seeing many of my family we felt out of touch. We’ve just come back from 19 days in the UK - my first family Christmas in eight years and by goodness I’ve missed them.

Saw a lot of people,but missed seeing a lot more and the ephemeral nature of phone calls, Facebook posts and emails just doesn’t give the same connection. So, once a week I’m going to do a weekly update that will hopefully be fun.

This post will be slightly longer than normal because I don't start work until Monday, am jetlagged to bugger so keep odd hours with nowt to do. That said, i’ve a lot to get off my chest. It’s also late, but it kind of grew on me.

The abbreviation tl;dr has become commonplace meaning too long, didn’t read. So here it is, but there’s more detail below.

Dec 31 - Fond farewells, reaching for the lasers
Jan 1 - Alarms? Massive techno
Jan 2 - Virgin interuptus, greens
Jan 3 - Marrow and the British pub
Jan 4 - Unpleasantness
Jan 5 - Home again home again clickedy click
Jan 6 - What have I done?

Lining the stomach

New Year’s Eve saw us say leaving the East Coast of Scotland after days of post-Christmas recuperation. It’s a land of windswept beaches, utterly mad kite surfers (seriously - the North Sea is the Arctic in December but with a nicer name and one bloke was going out in a 5 wetsuit at best) and some of the most beautiful countryside in the world.

We started the day as we had started every day in Scotland, with a fry up. The first morning there we dined on the full Scottish - bacon, egg, mushrooms, a fried tomato, baked beans, a slice of tattie cake, black pudding and haggis.

The last three need explaining, and possibly the one before that. Tattie cake is is potato and flour mashed together and cooked and black pudding is a pig’s blood sausage with oats and belly fat that’s fried or baked.

Haggis, feared by far too many, is minced sheep’s heart and lungs mixed with grains and spices and boiled in the stomach. A Scottish friend also described it as “what’s left of the flock after some English bastard has gone through it.” Fry it and you’ve either a filling main meal with mashed potato and swede (rutabaga in the US) or a breakfast addition.

After breaking the fast we headed east to North Berwick for a look around. Very windy, very lovely, and then on to Glasgow. No one does New Years like the Scots - Hogmanay is legendary - and we were off for a special one.

So, you’re not 25 any more, but who cares?

After saying goodbyes we checked into a hotel near the night’s venue and went for a walk around a damp city. It had been over 15 years since my last visit but Glasgow in the rain is never going to be good and we went for an early dinner and then back to chill out before the gig.

We were going to see the New Year in with Optimo, one of M’s favourite DJ combos and a gig I always come to in SF. They have been playing for over 20 years and mix good beats with a smart mix of other stuff.

The gig was at the Glasgow School of Art and a two floor job - pop’n’stuff down below and then Optimo doing four hours up top. When we first got there it was a tad worrying - we felt like the oldest clubbers in town by about 20 years - most of this lot weren’t even glints in their parent’s eye when JD Twitch and JG Wilkes took up the calling.

A very good gig,but the difference between US and UK clubbing was very stark. British clubbing is a much more easy-going atmosphere whereas there are a lot more drunk or coked-up arseholes shouting at each other in US clubs.

The music was superb, the crowd crowded but chill, and we had a whale of a time. But the venue heated up quickly and I was sweating like a Sun journalist at confession by 2am. An hour later and we decided to call it a day - we were soaked and a little bit tired. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

20 years ago there the weekend could end up with hitting Dogmatique at 10pm on a Saturday, heading back to a mate’s for tea and toast, then hitting Strawberry Sundae in Vauxhall at 9am and dancing until mid-afternoon before staggering out and sleeping until Monday dawn.

New Year's Eve was always special though. Return to the Source with the clubbing crew in Brixton  - six hours of dancing before they chucked us out and everyone waited at the Wimpy Bar drinking tea until  the Underground opened for the morning

This year we made it back to the hotel by 4am, winding through very drunk but good-natured revellers. I’d forgotten the ability of alcohol to induce superhuman strength in northern partiers. It was close to zero but there were underclad folks with skin like stilton rolling around in the street with bottles and fish suppers aplenty. We showered and went to bed as befits the old folk.

After what felt like a couple of hours I woke up, saw the dawn’s early light, and checked the phone. This made it clear the dim light wasn’t dawn but dusk, and we’d slept through until past 2pm. And there was another night of clubbing to come.

Glasgow is dead on New Year’s Day and rightly so. We managed to find somewhere to eat and then went back to the hotel to rest up. I binge watched British TV - still good and I think I understand the Bake Off controversy - Sandi’s great but Noel isn’t. But what’s with all the gambling adverts? It’s tackier than the drug ads on US television.

SW3G had a 10pm cut-off time so we got there a little early. A much bigger venue with a couple of thousand people, three rooms and banging sets from Slam and Jeff Mills. The latter was superb - 90 minutes of build covering the classics and then another 30 of hardcore techno with a friendly crowd and superb sound.

It was a top night. Think Turnmils without the pretension, Half of Fabric without the crowding and a jovial atmosphere to boot. Got home and asleep by 5am, just about.

Resisting Virgin/shafted jokes

It was time to head south and so, after a very late checkout we dragged ourselves down to Glasgow Central station.

A quarter of a century ago this was one of the nastiest and most dismal stations in the UK. Nowadays it’s much nicer, a cleaned up classic Victorian. Sadly Virgin wasn’t the same - I’d forgotten how British trains have become.

I’m old enough to have travelled on British Rail, the old nationalised system, which wasn’t great. Read some Arthur Conan Doyle and you’ll realise how pivotal the railways used to be, running cheap and reliable services around the county. Beeching crippled the system in the 50s and it has been downhill from there.

The last time I was in Glasgow we took the night train back south and it was marvelous. Two berth bunk cabins, a drinks car with armchairs in it and breakfast when you got into London at dawn. Sadly that’s been privatized and it would have been £150 for the two of us.

Virgin wasn’t too bad, I suppose, because we’d been able to book well in advance and book seats. The latter is crucial - the aisles were filling up by Carlisle and by the time we got to London it was standing room early.

Fellow hack Sara Yirrell has written an excellent book on the commuting life. I can’t imagine how she did the Midlands to London commute daily. I’d be kidnapping the ticket inspector screaming “Take this bloody train where it was supposed to be hours ago!” judging from some recollections.

Two massive annoyances. Firstly the toilet. Yes, larger than the old BR bogs, with a big curving door that left you slightly concerned it would swing open at an awkward moment. But within seconds of entering you were played an advert by Will Ferrell about his new film. I wasn’t planning to see it but definitely won’t now after being cheerfully cajoled to try it while peeing into a stainless steel throne that always looked one corner away from overflowing.

Secondly - and I know you expect to get burned on the buffet car but this was taking the piss. BR “food” was bad and expensive, this was OK and extortionate. Luckily the train was delayed by nearly an hour and so we got half the cost back, which covered the bill nicely.

After a soggy and frustrating trip to North London we discovered that London Underground ticket machines don’t accept Scottish paper money. We’d collected some of these up north and I’d forgotten how they are as popular as a rattlesnake in a lucky dip down south.

Incidentally, the new plastic notes were a shock - they’ve even got transparent panels in them! At first I hated them but they grow on you. We can romanticise the old currency and it had a depressing ability to tear and shred. They’re a bit weird but make sense it seems.

Final days

Our last day in London and I’d promised M a trip to St John, so we headed down to Smithfield.

Mum was a big believer in offal and game when we were growing up; liver was a regular thing and Granny cooked a stonkingly good rabbit. I still love a soft liver, steak and kidney pie, venison or a well-cooked cheek or heart, and St John does the lot. For a price, but fresh and delicious.

After much searching I’ve found a butcher who can supply these titbits, but at a price. Oxtail is more expensive than mince - which seems perverse - and rabbit is more expensive than good steak, despite the buggers being everywhere. You also can’t sell US venison - it’s all imported from New Zealand. I have to go hunting.

Anyway, after a lovely lunch we did a last round of pub visits. There’s something unique about a British Isles pub; no one can really copy it and it’s one of the institutions I miss most in the US. With one or two exceptions there’s nothing like them in America.

In George Orwell’s classic essay on the British pub “The Moon under Water” he nailed the essence of it. A community centre with food and drink, a meeting place and house of celebration or just somewhere to have a pint, read a book, and then go on your way.

In the US you rarely find a pub without a TV in it, and it kills the atmosphere. The constantly flickering image draws the eye and kills conversation, and comfy seating is as scarce as hen’s teeth. A good UK pub has a TV for special occasions but ideally comfy chairs or booths, a nice fire, and a decent food menu.

Met up with family in a closer pub to home and then took them out for a thank you dinner and final chinwag. Email, phone calls, IM, even videoconferencing and virtual reality, will never beat opening a second bottle of wine with friends and family and really chewing the fat.

Fly the Scandic skies

The previous night’s fun made the next morning all the harder - saying goodbye and heading to the airport for the flight home.

After nearly three weeks together you get back into the family rhythm and the knowledge that you won’t see each other for a year or more is hard. All the messaging systems in the world can't replicate a hug from those you love and miss. Lips quivered, eyes were wiped and it was a morose trip to the airport

We were flying from Gatwick, which meant a second trip past the South Bank tower block frenzy that seems to be engulfing London. We passed them on the way in and we passed them on the way out - and they had all the charm and charisma of a road accident in both directions.

I thought the Shard was bad, the walkie-talkie building even worse, but the tasteless monstrosities that are going up in that area are almost at a Nevada level of tackiness. I get that there are sharks who need to launder cash, but have some taste about it.

We got to the airport and stocked up on food. The Norwegian food on the way over was dire and I wanted to stock up on crisps. Flavours like smokey bacon, roast chicken, Hula Hoops and McCoys are unavailable in the US and it was time to stock up.

The flight was meh - 11 hours in an admittedly nice 787 tube is never going to be fun and Norwegian’s video selection is pretty bad. But our seatmate was a talented artist who abided by the middle seat rule, the two kids opposite were well behaved, and power sockets were plentiful.

At Oakland the queues were no worse than SFO and the inspectors as serious. I joked about why he’d asked if we’d brought snails into the country and got a pamphlet back with the word snails circled so I’d understand.

Then it was home via the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. Say what you like about the Bay Area but after New York and possibly Chicago and Boston, it has the best public transport system in the US. Pathetic compared to the rest of the world but...

The key to beating jet lag is readjusting the body clock, so we stayed awake until 9pm and then went to bed,


OK, that didn’t work. We’ve spent the last couple of days roaming around like zombies trying to get body clocks back on time. Much cooking has been done and we’re staying in the house. Monday isn’t going to be pleasant.

It wasn’t so bad as it turned out, but I am late on this post. Not sure I can keep this wordage up, but we’ll see.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Home from home

Up at my sister’s at last, and it’s very nice. B is my only sibling and, if I’m honest, she’s the more responsible and thoughtful of us – as this visit is showing. Not to diss my other relatives, indeed Mum arrived shortly after I did, but B’s the example that makes me want to up my game.

Take the food for example. While I’ve missed some foods I haven’t been organized enough to get around to eating them – with some exceptions. I should have known what was up when B refused to say what the evening meal would be. When I found out it was haggis, with tatties and neeps, both I and my stomach wanted to hug her for her thoughtfulness. Then came the news that tomorrow it’s a full English for breakfast – my cup runneth over and my waistline may follow.

And what a meal it was. The haggis, lovingly encased in its stomach casing, came out of the oven where it had been baking for a little over an hour. A sharp slash released the spicy meat and grain filling and it was accompanied by the traditional potatoes and swedes, with cabbage on the side and a single malt to pour over the top.

I guzzled shamelessly, before we rolled into the sofa and off to bed. It’s good to be home.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Back to America

The alarm went off at 6:30am, but I was up before that. I’d will not to submit to jetlag with naps in the afternoon, so it’s been four or five hours sleep for most nights. Still, it’s hard to get up when the bed is warm and the world is cold and dark.

The purpose of today is the renewal of my visa, and it means going to the fortress that is the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square – possibly the only diplomatic residence in London that has anti-tank barriers. An early morning appointment was picked, since the last time I was here it took nearly five hours of interviews and mental prodding to get my visa.

One of the most annoying things about the embassy is the lockdown security – understandable up to a point but a pain in the arse if you can’t have your phone or keys with you. Thankfully a nearby chemist has lockboxes to store your stuff, but if I can’t help feeling that the tight security when you enter should be enough. Thankfully the security staff are British, so you can have a chat with them about stuff while waiting.

Amazingly the whole thing went like clockwork – visa approved in an hour and a half and I was back on the street. There was nothing else to do but to get a fry up and then chill out for an hour or so until my next meeting. Someone has made the embassy seriously efficient, and they deserve thanks.

In the evening it was time for the old VNUnet team to get together around a table and chew the fat. Tremendous fun, but all conversation are officially off the record.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Get your Cheese on

Many years ago, a PR by the name of Bill Moores came up with the idea of holding a Christmas party in one of London’s oldest pubs, the Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street (the spiritual home of all British journalists) for a lunch, and then afternoon, of drinking and feasting.

Sadly Bill’s no longer running the party, but Sourcewire has carried on the tradition and it’s the place everyone in the tech press (and other areas) meets to drink, eat and catch up. It’s free beer and steak and kidney pie for a few hours, and then everyone spreads out and goes to other watering holes.

It’s my first one for three years and it was a joyful day to catch up with everyone again, to see some of the old faces and a few of the new ones. The beer may not be ideal (it is a Sam Smiths pub after all) but the atmosphere in the low-ceilinged pub is perfect – it’s one of the city’s oldest watering holes and it’s not hard to imagine Samuel Johnson, Tennyson or Conan Doyle sitting down for a pint and a chat (although not at the same time of course.)

There were some great writers at the annual meeting today, not on that level (at least outside our own heads,) but the conversation was interesting, it was great to see so many old friends and almost everyone came away from the meeting happier than at the start of the day – but only just.

As I staggered back to my bed, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit depressed. Three of the major technology publishers are holding redundancies and a lot of good hacks are either changing professions or facing a fight for the increasingly small freelance pie. I’d thought the bloodletting in the industry was dying away – it appears there is still some way to go.