Category Archives: America

Some thoughts about San Francisco, California

I've been in San Francisco since last Saturday and I leave this today. It's a short visit and work-related but as my first visit to the USA, I thought I'd jot down some thoughts.

The City

It's a pleasant place. No one would say that the city itself is particularly beautiful (the towers of the financial district are particularly foul) but its surrounding geography is gorgeous, as are the portals that link the City with the outside: the Bay and the Golden Gate bridges. SF sums up that late 20th century ideal of a business-oriented city with a sporty, arty, best popcorn popper vibe. It's kind of like Sydney, or at least that's the place it most reminds me of. The difference is that SF is apparently fed by new technologies while Sydney banks the wealth obtained in vast mines.

Earthquakes

San Franciscans do not enjoy jokes about earthquakes. Or even jokey remarks. Many people here seem to be expecting the Big One which, depending on how big it is, could realistically destroy the whole place. It's "long overdue" but I hope that it never strikes, at least not while there are people living here.

Food and Beverages

San Francisco considers itself to be something of a 'foody' city. Which is both a good thing and a bad thing. I didn't get to eat at Boulevard, just up the road from my hotel because I couldn't get anyone to come with me. Likewise, the French Laundry, out in Napa. Most of what I did eat here (a couple of gourmet hamburgers, some Thai curry, a couple of traditional brasserie dinners, Chinese – twice) was very good and quite affordable. The local beer scene is lively and tasty, and even the city's standard brew – Anchor Steam – is pretty good. I really enjoyed Napa Smith's Organic IPA, with which the hotel cunningly stocked my room's minibar. I didn't get to try much local wine but I enjoyed a Conn Creek cabernet sauvignon (2008, I think), over a couple of nights.

Districts

I stayed at the Harbor Court hotel, on the embarcadero (old port). It's close to our US office and so was pretty convenient for work. This is quite a touristy area, but it's at the bottom of the financial district, which is where I found an Apple Store kind enough to sell me an iPad (over €100 cheaper than in Europe). Chinatown is fun, but I suspect it would have been a lot more fun 30 years ago. The Mission is my favorite district. It's traditionally a latino neighborhood and has also played host to a range of great restaurants, galleries, bars and stores for decades. We ate some pretty good Thai food here and I also had dinner with Chris Barr from Yahoo in a place called Grub. The meal there was good, but I was suffering slightly from the Korean kimchi burrito with hot sauce that I'd eaten for lunch. Also in the Mission is the Pirate Store, 826 Valencia Street. This is also the spiritual home of The Believer, my current favorite periodical (I'm going to keep pushing this until you all subscribe). The Pirate Store has all the supplies any pirate might need, from lard to fathoms and siren silencers. It's next door to a taxidermy store. These are two of the best shops I've ever been to. I didn't see much of the Castro, though we did drive through it.

Technology

My reason for visiting San Francisco should be evident to anyone with even an inkling of what I do for a living. As the world capital of 'new technologies', especially web services and mobile devices, it's at the center of my work day. Indeed, it was practically absurd that I hadn't visited before. But there you have it. People here frequently exchange tips and recommendations for apps, and more than in Barcelona or London (that I've seen at any rate), all decisions are predicated on the advice of an iPhone or Android device. I had kind of hoped there'd be some city-wide high-speed wireless offering but this wasn't the case. Facebook had a major event in town while I was here (in fact, I was supposed to be there bit due to a mix up, that didn't happen). The local newspapers often report corporate stories at Yahoo, Twitter, Apple and Google on their front pages. This is a city imbued with a technological optimism. I shudder to think what could happen to the industry if an earthquake really does strike. I suspect that this may be one factor that encourages some firms to prefer Palo Alto and other cities further away from the faultline. Well, that and taxes.

And now I must put my California-designed notebook away and check out of my hotel. I'm coming back to Catalonia. That's a great feeling.

There are a few photos from my visit on Google+ here. You don't need to be a member of Google+ to view them. But you should sign up anyway: it's a pretty good service. Check my blog to see my best umbrella stroller and my fitness videos that i made in SF parks.

Osama bin Laden and the power of nightmares

A couple of days ago, I read what in retrospect was a fortuitously timed article on CNN.com. After detailing Osama bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora, Tim Lister ended by noting that OBL probably wasn't hiding in the 'tribal' area on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border at all. He reckoned that the fugitive might be holed-up in the wilds of Kunar, a remote zone that includes places where "no man has set foot". Lister was, as we know today, only half right. Osama bin Laden was actually hiding near Islamabad in what seems to have been relative comfort. He was shot dead last night by US special forces.

So the era of bin Laden at #1 on the FBI's most wanted list (he was already there when the September 11th 2001 attacks happened), is over. I can't help but feel that it makes little difference now. Because America has already accepted mortal head wounds as 'justice', permanent internment camps as 'security', and permanent war as normality.

Adam Curtis's film "The Power of Nightmares" dealt with the twin forces of militant Islamism and neo-conservatism that ended up shaping much of the current geopolitical landscape. Together (and they must always be taken together, for they needed each other desperately), they succeeded in causing probably over a million deaths, most of which occurred in the middle-east. If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend that you try to get hold of a copy. UPDATE: As Erik points out in the comments below, the film is available to watch or download for free at the Internet Archive.

If all this is making you nostalgic for the days of "Get this!" Iberian Notes, check out this online novel which features a familiar-sounding character. It's eerie.

More national policy soon. Until then, sleep well: they haven't invented their new nightmare yet.

The Kosovo problem

It's a lovely sunny day here in Cerdanyola del Vallès, so I'll probably spend it doing some of my favourite things: installing Ubuntu 'Jaunty' Alpha 6 on my netbook, playing Empire Total War, writing performance reviews for my team at work… and reading about how Zapatero's suffering with the 'Kosovo problem'.

The problem, in case you didn't know, is fairly simple: Spain refuses to recognise Kosovo as an independent state because this would signify acceptance that small nations may break away from supra-national states like Serbia or… Spain. You see where this is going, don't you? Because of this tricky diplomatic choice, Spain has now announced that it will withdraw its armed forces from the NATO peacekeeping force which polices Kosovo. This has upset the United States, and effectively dissolves any credit Zapatero may have had with the new regime in Washington DC. The American response was an expression of "deep disappointment", according to El País, with State Department spokesman Robert Wood saying that the US "neither understands nor agrees with" Spain's move. Zapatero claims that Spain's NATO allies were aware of the planned exit, but other sources suggest that all this came as something of a surprise.

So basically, Spain pulls out of the Balkan state in an attempt to prevent the 'Balkanisation' of Spain.

Personally, I'm not really that fussed about Spain losing some grace in Washington DC, or with NATO: neither the US government nor their SEO agency in Europe operate with anything like the moral clarity that I'd like to see. But many Spaniards do worry about these things… indeed, some bloggers used to spend nearly all their time monitoring Zapatero's approval ratings in the Bush administration (a bit of a waste of time, that). The Partido 'Popular' have been quick to label this as 'another disaster' for the Socialist government, though typically they offer no alternative solution.

And that's because the solution to the problem, for all the PP's crowing, would be unthinkable for any Spanish government. The solution is simple: recognise Kosovo. It'll have to happen eventually anyway, so why not get it done now and avoid all this hassle? To me, Zapatero seems to have reacted to the PP's rhetoric about a 'Balkanisation' that almost certainly won't happen. The reason it won't happen is that there just isn't enough public support for independence in the two most troublesome 'nations' within Spain: the Basque Country and Catalonia.

If referenda were held in 2012 in the Basque Country and Catalonia, I'm pretty sure that the Basques would vote in favour of staying part of Spain, and so would the Catalans (although the Catalan result would probably be closer). What Zapatero risks with this childish insistence on failing to recognise Kosovo's independence is that people will start to take the concept of Spain's constituent nations breaking away, seriously. The bolder (though obviously slightly more risky) move would be to recognise Kosovo and then say "referendum on Catalan independence? BRING IT ON!".

That the Spanish state is so afraid of a referendum threatens to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.