Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Naked and unaware: art voyeurism

Oh yes, you know home-based voyeurism. In Silicon Valley, it’s hard to avoid. To be precise: the practice of walking or driving around beautiful places and marveling at who lives there. And feeling great if it’s you. To wit: Palo Alto’s Crescent Park or Professorville neighborhoods, the entire walled city of Atherton, and the mansions tucked into hillsides up and down the Peninsula along nausea-inducing windy roads (you know, the estates with their own vineyards / go-kart courses / private hiking trails, etc.)

But there’s something that gives me a special thrill beyond even the most breath-taking, palatial monument to Internet wealth. It’s peeking behind the walls at museums before exhibits are open to the public, or art voyeurism. It’s looking underneath the skirts of the museum. It’s naked art.

Seeing a Matisse lying around on a table, idly, without a rigid spotlight cast on it, produces goosebumps. Absent is the bored-yet-watchful guard circling visitors like a shark, waiting to see who steps too close to the artwork. Nor are there prim, proper wall texts from two common schools of art-writing thought: the “hit ‘em with abstract notions of ‘meaning’ and big, Ivy-League vocabulary until they’re awed” or the “dumb it down for a ‘modern’ audience” type of writing. In fact, there’s nothing. Just the work of art.

Sometimes not even a glass case stands between you and a Mesopotamian jar – not impressed? This thing lay in the Iraqi desert for 7,000 years! – or an Impressionist masterpiece. Gee, without the cage it’s usually in, that canvas is prettier than a postcard.

I had a chance to indulge in a little art voyeurism at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. A new exhibit called “Durer to Picasso” is coming. How dreamy-sounding. I've visited Durer's relatively intact 15th-century house in Nuremberg, Germany and stood silently in his chambers, trying to imagine the master heralded for bringing the Italian Renaissance north at his work.

Naturally, I strove to look in at this installation-in-progress. I peered beyond a wall-like divider and saw a table with a canvas on top. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the work itself. But there was the gallery, a little messy, with objects lying about, clearly neither prim nor proper. I was thrilled. I plan to try to get a better look next time. As I left, a grim-faced man wheeled in a cart with something swaddled in white, gauze-y looking material. Who knew what masterpieces lay below? And right near him, school-kids chatted casually, unaware of the unadorned art rolling past.

Another time, at Berlin’s Bode Museum , some exhibits remained incomplete right up to the press debut – shortly before the actual public opening. Oh, the temptation to touch the tiny sculptures, so bare, so inviting, so casually strewn about! (No, I ultimately didn’t.)

For art lovers, the temptation of art voyeurism crosses class lines. If you love art, you may not be immune to the temptation of advanced voyeurism – namely, walking into an incomplete exhibition and assuring yourself that even when you inevitably get caught, it will be worth it. Witness the immensely polite, proper and wealthy Texan, a friend of President Bush in fact, who took me on a visit to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. She grinned guiltily and suggested we just, um, slip right in here to take a peek at the exhibit under construction. Egads! She led the way and we peered at the paintings, up close, raw and without other visitors or a curator telling us how to think about it.

(Not to slight curators – they do really important work. They pour themselves into making an exhibit special and coherent for a wide range of visitors. And often their wall text is essential and helpful, despite the two less-fun categories of writing I describe above. But there’s just something magical about art, undressed.)

So we strolled through the exhibition, just beyond the roped-off area. And when caught, this Texan queen was charming to the guard. And not penitent in the slightest, I should add. "We just wanted a little peek," she said in honeyed voice.

Despite my Kimbell experience, I couldn't actually endorse entering an unfinished installation, given the risks to the art. What if you stumbled over a Picasso and fell smack down on the Demoiselles D'Avignon?! Could you ever forgive yourself? Casino magnate Steve Wynn accidentally elbowed and tore the canvas of Picasso's Le Reve (1932), interrupting a $149 million deal to sell it in 2006. Nevermind the damage to the poor masterpiece itself.

But it's worth a harmless look, a crane of the head. Try it. Go up to an installation-in-progress and peek around the dividers. Sniff about until a guard shoos you away. Getting a sense of the museum without its starched collar, white walls and disciplined aura is a great thing – a real work of art.

Images Creative Commons licensed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Yogurt wars takes on election frenzy

The owners of Fraiche -- the ultra-popular frozen yogurt store in downtown Palo Alto with legions of devotees including Facebook regulars and Steve Jobs -- have thrown their hat in the ring.

Riffing on the lawn signs popping up everywhere in town as the Nov. 4 election approaches –particularly the orange “Yes on N” libraries-bond signs -- owners made 30 signs proclaiming “Yes on Yummm!”

They’re now sprinkled on lawns and shrubs throughout downtown. Employees are wearing “Pro-biotic” pins – tongue-in-cheek election flair.

According to Fraiche co-owner Jessica Gilmartin, the signs are an effort to bring a bit of levity to a frazzled societal moment fraught with political tension.

And, she added, Fraiche wanted to remind customers how darn tasty it is, given the other frozen yogurt stores popping up in town.

Frozen yogurt, in this case, is not a synonym for “ice cream but less tasty” but rather actually meaning yogurt that is very cold. On the heels of the Los Angeles-born Pinkberry trend, such dessert purveyors have popped up left and right in Palo Alto, including Red Mango at 429 University Ave. --opened by a former Googler -- and Culture at 340 S. California Ave.

For a close-up view of the yogurt wars, check out the Yelp review thread for newly opened Culture. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Watergate Wannabes: 5 Tips

Journalism pros weigh in on “making it” these days in Silicon Valley


It’s not just “journalism.” It’s the magic juice that shapes perceptions. It elects leaders, exposes scandal, brings joy and reflects our times. It gives us meaning, sometimes. People hold it dear. People are addicted to it. They swap stories they’ve heard. They forward links. And more and more, everyone wants to take part in creating it through blogs and other new media.

If the newspaper is dying – full disclosure: this reporter just cancelled her Wall Street Journal print subscription because online reading was more convenient – news is certainly not.

Still, the future of news is precarious. Bottom lines at traditional publishing houses are teetering and perhaps likely to tip in this current crisis.

So I asked a group of experts: Whither journalism? As a young professional, this wasn’t just navel-gazing reflection –my future’s at stake.

And Silicon Valley is a particularly great place to ask this question, because here is where the innovations that have been both news’ downfall and its revolution, its destroyer and liberator, have arisen. Namely, the Internet. Also, Craigslist, Digg and a host of social media to which people now turn for information. And while I’m not sure who first blew air into a bubble that grew into the blogosphere, I know many of its staunchest supporters are HQ’d in the Valley.

The people I queried included a local Pulitzer prize winner; a journalist synonymous with the Valley scene after a decade of coverage; a longtime tech correspondent who recently founded a journalism-centric startup; a refugee from the Bay Area’s gutted journalism scene who fled to New York; a newsanchor titan from the good ol' days based in the Big Apple; and a survivor at a local paper, still staggering forth despite the disappearance of many colleagues.

Why the anonymity? These folks spoke to me as friends, not as interview subjects. Only later did I realize their perceptions coalesced on several points. This seemed worth sharing, as a new breed of conventional wisdom -- the conventional wisdom of crisis and opportunity.  They are:


1. Don’t go into journalism.

Things aren’t like they used to be. The pay is awful and no one’s hiring. If I had to do it again, well, I don’t know what I’d do.


2. You’ve got to love it.

Ok, so you still want to be a reporter. It has to be because any other job would feel like excruciating torture. Maybe you crave to know what’s going on, who is making deals or where the action’s at. Maybe you need the freedom. Or maybe you just like people so much you want to talk to them and write for them all day. But you’ve got to want it really badly. Or it will never work out.


3. This is a great time to be a journalist.

Everything is changing. I don’t envy you. It’s scary out there now. Geez, it’s ugly. But you’re young and creative. Create a blog, brand yourself, specialize your content, be indispensable. Don’t tie your fortunes to one paper or blog. Be your own product. Silicon Valley is a hot topic and it’s not about to cool off. You may watch the great bonfire of profits and creative-professional wages flare for another few years before something dazzling and fertile emerges from the burnt ground. It’s an exciting time. This is the great democratization of media. Try to be part of it.


4. Just work hard.

There are no shortcuts. I went to every bullsh*t panel and networking event because you never know. I try to meet three new people a month. If you can meet the right people, you can make it, because you will have access to information everyone else wants about the most exciting region on Earth—Silicon Valley. Venture capitalists in particular have their eyes on what everyone else is doing. So cultivate your network.


5. I love this job.

Not technically a tip, but a significant commonality nonetheless.

Newspaper image CC-licensed 

Monday, October 6, 2008

Economic Crisis? Tell it to my Porsche


This sign, spotted on the side of a stoop on Waverley Street in downtown Palo Alto, says “Porsche Street” in German. It intrigued me when I first saw it a month ago and now that the Dow is slip-sliding around, I thought of it once again. Porsche Street? Hardly. Even in Palo Alto, investment portfolios must be taking hits. 

I returned to wondering –WHERE DID THIS SIGN COME FROM?

And I have decided to crowd-source the answer.

 In other words, reader poll: 

Is the Porschestrasse sign a


a)      Kitschy souvenir brought home from the Porsche factory in Deutschland, akin to hanging a “Budweiser Boulevard” on your deck after a trip to scenic St. Louis?

b)      Trinket from nostalgic German expats who moved here to work in the Bayerische Motoren Werke –more commonly known as BMW – office a few blocks away?

c)      Proud plaque of a gaudy Porsche owner who wanted everyone to know that s/he not only bought a car that costs more than a pony but also has a facsimile of a German street sign to prove his/her ultimate “in-ness” vis-à-vis foreign autos?

d)      Sly jab from card-carrying Prius owners at the surrounding wealthy drivers?

e)      Random item a teenage boy purchased at a yard sale – its provenance possibly relating to a, b, c or d – then begged Mom and Dad to let him nail up outside, a-la a school flag?

f)        Invent your own.


Help me answer this. Or, better yet , email your friend with the side business selling Porschestrasse signs and tell him I'd really like to pick his brain.

Monday, September 29, 2008

VC = Visions of Collapse?

Some people use complex math models, others a method they call “common sense.” But no one has a foolproof method for predicting the financial future. Least of all the risk calculators whirring to a halt at major banking houses that will soon cease to exist, including Lehman Brothers and Wachovia.

(Of course, with a 777-point Dow Jones freefall today following House rejection of the proposed $700 billion economic-recovery bill, the market offers its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Think we’re all going to hell in a hand-basket? Then, by golly, it’s already getting hot in here.)

So perhaps that’s why it was hard to pin down a precise answer on what will happen to
venture-capital investing in the wake of the current market turmoil.

It’ll be fine, an industry representative told me.
In fact, market downturn could even spur innovation, according to Emily Mendell, the vice president of strategic affairs for the National Venture Capital Association.
Heck, laid-off tech workers could turn around and invent the Next Big Thing with newfound free time, she said.
"There's no recession of good ideas. There's always opportunity here. It could set off a whole slew of entrepreneurs who get laid off from their jobs and decide to take a risk and start their own business."
Yet blogs were less upbeat. A VentureBeat posting warns of bank-backed VC firms taking a serious head shot when they can no longer count on formerly guaranteed capital. As institutional lenders topple at a rate even faster than trendy yogurt stores opening in downtown Palo Alto, whither venture capital? Dean Takahashi asked in another posting.
“VC firms, for example, rely on large banks, endowments and pension funds for their cash. If enough of a VC firm’s so-called ‘limited investors’ default, or get scared and run, the VC firm may be forced to close,” he warns.
And Mendell admitted that VC firms may hold onto startups longer, fearful of downright murderous conditions for initial public offerings (IPOs)– meaning diminishing returns on investments as firms are forced to pump startups with more cash.

It’s cash that may be scarce elsewhere, angel investor Gadi Behar told me. Angels know the market isn’t ripe for going public and may hold back with their pots of gold and magic wands for a bit, he said.

And the whisper on the street out here is that VC is already feeling skittish – although no VCs told me so, point blank, today.
Hence the question mark at the end of the headline I eventually wrote: “Local venture capital 'insulated' from crisis?”

Of course, there will be nay-sayers who’ll say we’ll float through, no matter what.
I learned as much at the start of all this trouble.

Last year, right when the mortgage crisis hit – before it became a massive credit crunch, widespread banking failure and looming depression – I spent an afternoon calling folks to ask how local, affluent readers would be affected.
Jumbo mortgage loans will be tougher for the rich to get, realtors told me – a story the New York Times also ran the next day.

And one lawyer speculated the venture capital industry would get hurt. Money comes to Sand Hill Road from plenty of places – and some are likely to hurt from the mortgage meltdown, said Julia Wei, a real estate and mortgage lawyer in Palo Alto.
I put together the material I’d gathered and posted it online.

Boy, did our paper get heat for that posting. No, it wasn’t groundbreaking investigative journalism. It was a mix of local perspectives thrown together late on a Friday afternoon. But the suggestion that venture capital could be affected rubbed people the wrong way. Commentors called the article “horribly naïve” and told our paper to stick to covering City Council.
Well, then the chickens came home to roost and the industry has had its worst year for IPOs since 1978.

So, um, economic predictions. Sure, they’re often wrong. But when people predict that venture capital is not immune to negative market conditions, they seem to be onto something.
So here’s crossing my fingers for the economy this week. Not just for venture capitalists. For anyone needing a loan, anywhere; for bright young people –and bright older people – getting laid off in droves on Wall Street and elsewhere; for everyone who earns money and wants to keep doing so – here’s hoping things won’t be so bad.

Image of trading floor from New York Times. Money image Creative Commons licensed.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Steve Jobs: not dead. Unlike, perhaps, newspapers.

Legendary Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is definitely not dead. Print journalism, on the other hand, has a pretty weak pulse. The jury’s out on the newspaper’s life expectancy, as advertising and listings revenues that traditionally funded media move online – and readers follow en masse.

But the web revolution doesn’t take place without drawbacks.
Last Friday showcased the trade-offs of old and new media all too clearly. Bloomberg news service accidentally sent out Jobs’ obituary on its online wire at 4:27 p.m. Eastern.
Steve Jobs, the man who revolutionized computing and other stuff, too, is dead, the article said:

"A college dropout who co-founded Apple Inc., Jobs won ardent support by ushering 'cool' gadgets to market. He delivered the Macintosh, the first user-friendly computer, and conquered the online music industry with the iPod, making white ear buds fashionable."

Clearly unfinished, it had slots to fill in with the date and circumstance of death, as well as editors’ notes on who to contact for comment. Jobs’ friends and colleagues -- even California’s Attorney General Jerry Brown – were listed.

Someone at Bloomberg caught the error and removed the article, but not before news of the fake news spread with the superfast cyber-speed of which online marketers dream.

In the old, pre-Internet days, the Bloomberg faux pas would have merited maybe a mere mention in papers the next day, I speculate. But the Gawker posting that announced the gaffe garnered a quarter million hits in a couple hours. It now clocks in at about 358,000.

(Lucky Gawker writer. They’re paid per page view. While someone at Bloomberg is now majorly regretting the error, someone else is celebrating. One journalist’s screw-up is another’s meal ticket, it seems.)

The Jobs obituary incident showed the public what many already knew: major news sources prepare obituaries in advance of the deaths of prominent figures. They want to be ready with a well-researched roundup when famous, influential folks pass on.

As a reporter in our newsroom said, “The New York Times has whole file cabinets of these written and ready to go.” (Well, more like digital databases. But point well-taken.) And Jobs' health rumors likely triggered an update to his obit.

The incident illustrates the arguable drawbacks of instantaneous web news. To my knowledge, no one published the story before it was retracted. And they would have likely done some journalistic double-checking, anyway, before running it, especially since it was so clearly missing details such as time and place.

But what if the story ran? The instantly-known news wouldn’t have merely disoriented and upset Jobs and those close to him –argument enough that it has a clear negative effect -- it could have had other undesirable outcomes too. A sudden and needless drop in Apple stock comes to mind, but more importantly, the credibility of a major news source would have been damaged, perhaps deeply. Now, Bloomberg is just likely very embarrassed.

The faster news arrives, the more error-prone it is. Steve Jobs’ fake death reminded me of Heath Ledger’s real one. When he was found dead in a New York City apartment, our newsroom was surprised and suddenly engaged in following the story as reported by other outlets. It didn’t fall under our Palo Alto purview, so we didn’t cover it, but we did stay glued to our computer screen, Googling about for updates. As is often the case with breaking news, different sources had different chunks of information.
In the rush to get it out there, sometimes it was inaccurate.

For example, many sources reported Ledger was found dead in his apartment. But about an hour after the story broke, the New York Times reported that he was found in an apartment belonging to Mary-Kate Olsen. Hmmm....but then the Times later retracted that information, saying it was erroneously provided by police. In a show of just how much elbow grease is needed to get all the details, the ultimately final article, published in print the following day, listed 14 contributing writers.

We do the same thing at Palo Alto Online. We hurry to get news up on the site and sometimes make errors or misassumptions. More often, we post a story without key information, then go back and add to it as more comes in, in the case of major crimes, disasters or other unfolding events.

Sometimes speed has small consequences. I happened to visit the New York Times home page two minutes after they posted the story on Barack Obama being chosen as the Democratic nominee for president. The story had two errors in the first roughly 100 words. One word had an extra “s” and the word “of” was conspicuously missing from a sentence.
I mentioned the errors to a co-worker, who went to the story in her browser. She only found one. An editor or writer had already found the error and removed it. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before that second error also vanished.

The story went up perhaps sprinkled with small errors in a jubilant rush to announce what’s going on, but editors were reading it over again, performing what arguably should have been done before posting directly thereafter. The Times, like our paper, is convinced that getting the news up there twenty minutes earlier really matters.

Try it yourself. Check breaking stories on the Times or other websites, then refresh the pages and watch news mutate. Note whether or not the content actually changes. Often, particularly in breaking stories, it will.

In the pre-digital era, a news story would be vetted by an editor and copy editor before printing. Reporters often had more time to gather facts, analyze them and proofread stories. Papers had fact-checkers. This structure is still intact but it operates in a more fragmented and less thorough way in the effort to get news online. And that allows for slip-ups. Or, in the Bloomberg case, the mere existence of instant-news structures carries with it the Achilles’ heel of accidental proliferation. So much inaccuracy, spreading so quickly.

Not that there was a plodding, hum-drum pace circa 1990: plenty of dailies churned out detailed, thoughtful stories with remarkable speed. The industry itself set up awards for reporting done quickly but well. The pace of what we now refer to as “next-day news” didn’t seem so slow back then. And there was always television for a quicker, shorter scoop.

But now we can do things faster. So we do.

The assumption driving the current rush to get the news out is twofold: a) it is best to be the first news outlet to report a story because then folks know you’re working hard to keep them informed and are more likely to turn to you for news
and b) it’s best to report things quickly, so people know, and then update stories continually.

I’m not convinced speed is better. Isn’t it preferable to have in-depth pieces with more information and context in which to interpret the news, even if they go up online an hour later? I ask myself.

But it’s hard not to feel the pressure when you’re writing a story for the web. “Look,” you want to tell readers, “you can come to me. I’ve got the info. Read me.”
Just, please, cut me some slack. If the grammar is sometimes off, if the details are sloppy – hey, that’s the trade-off to get news at the speed of, well, reality.
Image Creative Commons licensed.

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Silicon Valley, meet Silicon Wadi

Something akin to the joy of petting a fluffy kitten or getting to the top of the iPhone waitlist came over me this week. The piece on ties between Silicon Valley and Israel -- nicknamed "Silicon Wadi" after the Arabic word for desert valley -- finally ran. Whoop-dee-doo! Check it out. Israel has more venture capital per capita than the U.S. (but not the Valley, of course) and an entire generation of whip-smart technologists emerging from the army. Dealing with threats and tactical challenges spurs innovation, Israelis say. (So, uh, does that mean the nation should thank Iran et. al.? Just kidding.)

Also, does anyone know what to make of Rackspace's not-particularly stellar IPO? The Times suggests it could be a question of Dutch auction vs. to-market sales tactics. The article declined to blame Sarbanes-Oxley. Some folks at AlwaysOn's and STVP's Summit at Stanford two weeks ago were also calling for an end to SOX-rage.

Speaking of SOX --yes, this is a free-form post; forgive me, just hopped off a red-eye this a.m. -- check out "24 Days" the tale of Wall Street Journal reporters whose coverage brought down Enron. It's a great read.

Now, off to get a real New York bagel!

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