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.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A time to fly

Landed at Heathrow after nine hours of flying. It’s difficult to get your head around the trip – less than 75 years ago it would have taken weeks of perilous rail and sea travel to make the same trip. And now the person sitting next to me is bitching because she’s ten minutes late on the landing…

Anyway, that said, the flight was well worth bitching about. I don’t know what’s gone wrong with Virgin Atlantic, but this’ll be the last ticket I book with them. This has to be the worst crossing I’ve had in the last decade, at least from a European airline – you expect lousy service and poor food from an American airline after all.

The staff themselves used to be the best in the industry, when it comes to engaging with customers and getting life’s little niggles sorted out. BA crew may be more professional, and I’d definitely prefer them in the event of an in-flight emergency, but Virgin crew manage to keep smiles on their faces and make the whole experience a little less wearing. Not so any more, and I can sort of understand why.

Virgin used to be known for their excellent aircraft and in-flight entertainment system, as well as a fun attitude. This time around the aircraft was, for the want of a better word, shabby. The seat cushions were worn and slightly dirty, the cabin walls chipped and stained and the handset controller was reaching the end of its lifespan – all cracked plastic and a headphone socket that provided stereo only if jiggled and held at an angle.

The company is clearly trying to skimp and save where possible. The meal was undoubtedly the worst I’ve had on a cross-Atlantic flight, worse even than Continental and that’s saying something. A small, limp salad with no dressing, a stale bread roll with no butter and the ‘beef, veg and mashed potato’ that tasted predigested and had been microwaved to death, with a thick, crusty scab of skin on top that was appealing as it sounds.

There was one drinks service, the only one during the entire flight, with staff administering homeopathic amounts of booze from larger bottles rather than the little ones you used to get. After a few hours I wandered down to the galley to see if I could get a scotch and was told they had run out, and the only dark spirits left for the economy section was a pint of brandy – a taste of which I declined. The staff did what they could, but were clearly turned off by the whole experience and having to apologise for their employer.

Got off the plane thankfully, got a SIM card and topped up my Oyster before heading into town. I’m staying with an old friend in South London, but stopped off for my first pint of Winter Warmer in two years. It was very good indeed, but went straight to my head and so I decamped to the house while I still could. Stayed up catching up until about 9pm when 30+ hours of sleep got the better of me and I passed out.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Saw this on my way to work today, looks like the protests have come to San Francisco. Got to love the 'look at me!' cammo gear, very SF.