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The Nudist on the Late Shift: Book Review

February 15, 2009 1 comment

As the subtitle of this blog should clearly indicate, I’m positively fascinated by the workings and machinations of this crazy kooky Valley I call home. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for over five years and while I nowadays frequently harbor an ill-conceived and half-baked wish to move to Rio, I’ve committed myself to declaring the area home. For someone with deep-seated commitment issues, this is no small matter.

Stereotypically, I work in technology (boo) and at a web company (double boo) but I feel like a luddite, given that I completely missed and failed to appreciate the last boom and bust cycle. Over the years, I’ve acquired a legion of war, horror and success stories from people who were around to see the shit go down. Hell, the founders at Kosmix profited immensely from the last boom, I interned at MSN Hotmail, my previous boss supposedly wrote parts of the original Google business plan and I contracted (for a very brief period of time) with Marc Andreessen’s then-stealth startup now better known as Ning. So I’ve absorbed via osmosis and hearsay, no doubt, but a certain sadness lingers at having not seen it firsthand. Its like hearing about running with the bulls at Pamplona from 10 friends and knowing that the event is permanently canceled.

Where am I going with this? My fascination spills over into reading material, that’s where. Po Bronson wrote “The Nudist on the Late Shift” in 1998 as a chronicle of stories about people and institutions that made the Valley what it was at that particular point in time and space. Its a rollicking read for someone like myself, and its made all the more interesting (note: interesting does not mean good, necessarily) with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight.

The book is broken into chapters like “The Entrepreneurs”, “The Programmers”, “The Futurist”, “The Dropout”, “The IPO”, etc. It is written in a conversational hand and a starry-eyed tone of a freshman being introduced of a frat rush. We’re changing the world! These websites are being redone with Java applets! Programmers are the new studs! If you’re even as experienced in the software business as I am,  you’ll roll your eyes in sheer condescension more than a few times. The fact that Bronson is unquestioning in his belief that a particular company will get megabucks from top-tier VCs for rewriting their site in Java is vomit-worthy. I mean, I get it, those times were crazy, but I would have liked to see a more jaundiced and skeptical eye. There isn’t a single point in the book where the author says: these guys are building shit. It has no value to the world at large. But he doesn’t, and with the sweep of 10 years and the subsequent bursting of the bubble the book looks positively foolish in certain areas. Its also fun to note that Bronson completely misses (by virtue of mistiming and otherwise) almost every single real success story of the Web as we think about it *today*. Amazon? No mention. eBay? Nope. Google? Of course not, but that’s not the author’s fault given that the book went to print in ’98. The only one that gets mentioned is behemoth Yahoo. Sigh.

That being said, certain chapters are immensely enjoyable. “The IPO” details the journey of Actuate Software to their IPO listing. Really well written. The last chapter “Is the Revolution Over?” was my favorite since it takes a stab at explaining why Silicon Valley was and is “special”. “The Entrepreneurs” is a recounting of Hotmail’s genesis and evolution and holds a special personal place for me. Not only did I work there (and turn down a full-time offer) but I also found out via the book that Sabeer Bhatia, the founder, lived in my apartment complex in San Francisco. Growing up in India in the 90s, I heard Sabeer’s story. We all did. For God’s sake, there was a rumor that he was dating or trying to marry the hottest Indian movie star around at the time. I still vividly remember a magazine photo of him grinning out of the seat of his fire engine red Ferrari, being referred to as the poster boy of Indian success in the Valley.

As for the bad parts, the chapter “The Programmers” is the one I reserve the most venom for. As a programmer, I laughed at some of the poorly crafted portions of the chapter. I laughed at the “programmers with wildly imaginative lives” idea that Bronson tries to pimp so desperately it hurts. I reserved not too much sympathy for the programmers detailed in the book. They come off as elitist lazy douchebags with a huge entitlement problem. At the end of this chapter, I found myself vested with deep schadenfreude, which is weird considering that we all know that the comeuppance did of course arrive for such moronic behavior.

Lastly, the chapters called “The Futurist” (about some whackjob “visionary” named George Gilder) and “The Dropout” (about Danny Hillis) are plain old boring. Gilder comes across as an idiot, New York Times bestsellers notwithstanding.

On a happier note, I really loved the last chapter. It shows the author trying, really trying, to get under the skin of Silicon Valley the environment in 97 and 98. Bronson talks to Eric Schmidt who calls this industry “a good place to work but not a nice place to work”, meaning that we’re all busting our humps doing interesting, challenging work and also that we’re constantly in a state of mild stress and dissatisfaction, a natural consequence of our worrying overachieving personalities. I can’t attest to overachievement but everything else describes me and several of my friends to a T. The book describes how even movie previews at the Mountain View multiplex (a shithole I’ve frequented hundreds of times) were hijacked with wanted ads. Its insane.

All in all, if you live and work in Silicon Valley and have been here less than 10 years, this is a book you MUST read. You will most certainly dismiss parts of it, sometimes due to its obsequious unthinking perspectives, sometimes due to its poor attention to detail, sometimes simply because hindsight made so many smart people look so stupid. But by and large, you’ll come away thinking – “boy I wished I was around during those nutty days”.

I certainly did.

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The White Tiger: Book Review

February 8, 2009 Leave a comment

I had heard that some bald 34 year old Indian fella won this year’s Booker but didn’t actually see the book until I walked into CrossRoads Cafe in SF the other day. The premise sounded fascinating and I couldn’t wait to pick it up. Here’s my review:

The White Tiger is a dark comedy about Balram Halwai, a murder-philosopher who narrates his life experiences, his journey from crushing poverty to a decent upper middle class existence, over a period of 7 nights. Now, the publishing world does not suffer from a dearth of rags-to-riches stories but this one is focused uniquely on New India (or India Inc. if you will) and is also unique in Balram’s *voice*.

By and large, the book is an angry, vitriolic rant against New India’s sheer blindness, its sheer ignorance of the fact that 65% of its population is still very much agrarian, still very poor and still subject to the same travesties that are so entrenched in The Third World. Its not so much a novel as a shake-by-the-collars fight, a ferocious brawl against the idea that all is well now that Indians have cellphones.

Balram is quite simply the vehicle for these ideas. Balram is born in The Darkness (Bihar) and sees nothing but abject poverty, crushing lack of self-confidence, a culture deeply rooted in servitude (what Balram calls the Rooster Coop) and almost no option but to live and die in the squalor of the Indian underbelly. If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you’re somewhat prepared for the brutality wrought by the book’s narrative. But not quite. There are passages where I cringed nd ran over quickly even though I knew them to be true, all too true, from personal experience.

There are very few real surprises or twists and turns in the tale. As someone that grew up in India but spent most of their formative years in the United States, I wished (in vain) for something, anything, that showed redeeming qualities in New India. But this was not to be. Written for the express purpose of slaying sacred cows (even the much-revered and seldomly challenged legacy of Gandhi), the book fails to infuse any positive energy into any portion of the story. If you enjoy happy endings, you ain’t even gonna find a happy moment in this book.

But it is a rip-roaring read and an important book and one that you should read.

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My time in Foz de Iguazu, Brazil

February 2, 2009 6 comments

This post documents my time in Foz de Iguacu, home of the famous Iguacu Falls near the southernmost tip of Brazil, right next to the border with Argentina and Paraguay. If you aren’t familiar with this series of posts about Brazil (Yes, I dare call a set of 2 posts a series; call my lawyer if you have a problem w/ that), skip this post and get caught up.

So, here you go:

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As I try to fall asleep in my inebriated haze at The Maksoud Plaza Hotel at 4ish in the morning, I hear Kevin Rudolf’s “I See Your Dirty Face” accompanied by the sounds of a man dancing frantically to the terrible tune. This is no boozy drug-addled hallucination; yes, I’m in Sao Paulo, Brazil and my friend Praz is effervescent. I’m laughing helplessly at his antics while secretly considering strangling him to obtain some much-needed sleep.

You see, we’re all kind of wasted but mildly cognizant of the fact that a flight awaits us in a couple of hours. Since our planning skills are worse than pre-Katrina FEMA, we’ve decided on the spur of the moment to fly to Foz de Iguacu, a few hundred miles south of Sao Paulo. We’ve grudgingly handed over 500 dollars (yes, that’s greenbacks) to a fucking travel agency creatively named C-V-C. In return, we’ve received a ticket and a hotel room

that puts us in Foz for a mere 30 hours before we hopscotch over to Brazil’s crown jewel, Rio de Janeiro. Oh yeah, and we’ve also managed to score a free “gift” in the form of a travel bag that can fit a large rodent and not much else. The hideous gift will be a symbol of the gringos paying through the nose for the rest of the trip.

As we hurtle along the main highway to the airport, I’m riding shotgun and marveling at the fact that Brazil’s infrastructure is a valiant attempt at masking the poverty and squalor that lurks everywhere, just beyond our peripheral vision. The sky is a somber palette of pinks and grays, and in the quiet of the morning we stay away from the pre-pubescent humor that we love so dearly.

Then we arrive at Sao Paulo domestic airport – the wonderful-sounding “Congonhas!” – and the cycle begins all over again. As is the case everywhere in Brazil, the lines are long, snaking and a picture of chaos. You’d think a country with a population of 200 million would be able to better manage a line; hell, at least us Indians have the whole reproductive fecundity thing as an excuse.

Praz, of course, walks up to one of the few bored-looking airline clerks milling about and asks for an “upgrade”. I wasn’t there to witness it, but I imagine that he declares – “El Upgrade-o” as a sign of his seriousness of purpose. As expected, he get turned away because in order to be “preferencial”, one must be old, pregnant or at least attempt to not butcher Portuguese with happy disdain. We fail on all counts but rejoice in the knowledge of this beautiful new word that becomes yet another running joke. Try saying it – and make sure to roll your Rs. Then agree with me that the word makes you smile. Is it just me?

See a beautiful Brazilian girl? “That’s so preferencial“. Angry at the cabdriver for making you supremely uncomfortable? “That’s so not preferencial.”

We make our way down to the boarding gate and scope out a snack bar. This is as good a time as any to discuss the Brazilian obsession with cheese balls. Or cheese bread. Or bread with melted cheese inside. You see, they’re all the same product but faithful gastronomic chronicling is not my strong suit. In Portuguese, these little objects are called “Pao de Queijo” and the Brazilian people have taken their obsession to a whole new level. I mean, there’s a whole chain of stores named “Pao de Queijo”, complete with an airport wireless networked named “Pao de Queijo”. I make a mental note to make less fun of

Pão de queijo with coffee and a small cachaça ...
Image via Wikipedia

Starbucks upon my return to the US; at least they know better than to name themselves “Cheese Balls”. And before I let this rant go too far, let me outline the kicker: pao de queijo tastes like, well, nothing. Not spicy, not tart, not flavorful in any real sense of the term.

The flight itself is uneventful and everyone collapses in a nap, dreaming of all the voluptuous Brazilian women that are undoubtedly going to greet us by, around and under the giant waterfalls at Iguacu. Or maybe it was just me. In either case, the plane comes to a screeching halt and there we are.

Iguacu isn’t inside a tropical rainforest (in fact, we’re farther from the Amazon rainforest than ever before) but the environs feel like it just the same. There’s no concrete jungle or bustle of cars here. The roads are single lane and the trees stand sentry right at the very edge of the street. We’re about to walk out of the tiny airport as we see a strange, creepy family reunion scene. We’d like to walk right past but just like a car crash, we’re powerless in our ability to restrict rubbernecking.

Two Brazilian girls are holding a “Welcome Home, Mom” banner for a heavyset woman with a round face a few paces right behind us. In and of itself, this scene would inspire no attention. So to take it a step further, the women are dressed in clown costumes. Mind you, these are not the kind of half-assed clown costumes you’d see at a Halloween party. These are…PERFECT. Down to the disproportionately giant clown shoes, the clown hair (easy, sure), the makeup on the faces, you name it. If in good conscience I could have taken a photo, I would have.

Now, as stupid Americans we’re standing expecting mirth and merriment, maybe a little bit of Bozo the clown. Not so much. The older woman, carrying two suitcases both considerably larger than herself bursts into tears that could rival the falls in drop size and force. I get it. She’s happy to see the girls but it strikes me as a bit odd that they continue to wave the banner in their giant clown costumes as the woman wails tears of joy. P and V tear me away as I continue to gawk.

Our cab brings us to The Nadai Confort Hotel at the edge of the downtown “district” (if one is permitted to play fast and loose with the word). If we’re expecting a welcome relief from the Brazilian preference for colors that clash worse than Britney and K-Fed, well, we’re mistaken. The Nadai Confort – I think that means “Comfort” in English but I can’t say for sure – is Exhibit B in color palettes gone bad. Purple, white, green and a few other colors that I don’t have the ability to name all adorn the exterior of the building in overly bold wide stripes.

We drop our stuff and jump back into the cab to head to the falls.

Our cabdriver, Celio, is an older gentleman with a battered face, thick glasses and a genuine, beatific smile. Like a lot of Brazilians, he looks poor, relaxed and content. While Foz is a tourist center, it is nowhere as popular as Rio or Sao Paulo with tourists of businesspeople. I register major surprise, then, when I realize that he speaks some of the best English we’ve heard in days. I pause for a moment when he tells me that he’s been driving dumb tourists around for 40 years. When I ask him about Rio de Janeiro, he plainly states that he’s never been to either Rio or Sao Paulo. Both cities are too far and he’s never had the money to visit. As with all such moments, I say a silent prayer of thanks for my comparatively easy trajectory into adulthood.

Deprived of my morning coffee, I walk around the ticket window looking for the required jolt to my pathetic bloodstream. P and V throw their customary tantrum given that I’m holding them up like a damn old grandma. I flip them off and repair to a coffee station; I can already feel their snide remarks coming on. When I ask the local southern Brazilian woman for coffee to go, she stares at me like I’ve just asked her to take her clothes off. While she’s got a great smile on her face as she rattles off some incomprehensible Portugues, I suspect she’s telling the gringo to beat it. We eventually come to an agreement and she pours the strong liquid into a flimsy little corrugated plastic cup. I wistfully long for the American ingenuity that contrived the mundane plastic lid with a hole of just the right size. I shake myself out of my reverie before the Starbucks dream recurs and pound the coffee like a shot of Jack Daniels.

The next few hours are touristy, beautiful and uneventful. They are spent in the company of tourists from other parts of Brazil and Uruguay, with an old

Foz!

American couple from Arizona thrown in as the token white people. We take a speedboat right into the heart of falls and get sprayed as the boat driver gets us as close as humanly possible to a small section of the falls. P makes an R. Kelly peeing joke as the water is drenching us on all sides (“What if a guy were at the top of the falls taking a leak?”). V and I deride his perverse imagination. We dry off and proceed to view the panorama around the falls from viewing

decks. We then proceed to a highly questionable fast food meal – Brazilians really don’t know the first thing about making hamburgers and fries.

We trudge back to the hotel at 5pm; P and V collapse in heaps in the hotel room while I switch clothing and saunter out into the main strip in Foz and spend a few hours darting in and out of stores where the sales girls speak no English.

Dinner is awful. We muddle through a chicken lasagna that’s frozen in certain parts of the casserole while other parts are piping hot. I make a mental note to Google whether Brazilians are into frozen foods (Indos are most definitely not; I’m not sorry to say that I escaped soul-crushing TV dinners in my childhood). The only redeeming factor is the exhilarating variety of fruit juices on the buffet. Say what you will about Brazilian food, but these fools know how to juice the hell out of fruits. More on that as we make our way to Rio.

All in all, Foz de Iguacu reminds me of Wichita, Kansas + gorgeous falls. Nothing – and I mean nothing – ever happens here. The 2 Sleeping Beasts in our little entourage are zonked out and snoring by 11pm. My poor lonesome self spends the next hour plowing through Bill Bryson’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”. Pure coincidence, of course.

I can’t wait to get the hell out of Foz and over to Rio de Janeiro – home of Copacabana, Ipanema, the giant Christ statue that presents so many douchebag tourist opportunities and a giant hilltop poorly named “SugarLoaf” that showcases Rio as one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.

Over to the next chapter.