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Back from Oz

December 5, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m back safely and only (somewhat) worse for the wear after my trip from Australia. It turns out that ten days is a long American vacation but the rest of the world disagrees. Every European and Australian I met Down Under remarked on how we must be “mental” to try to vaca in just ten days. “You need a month at least”, was the common tut-tutting refrain.

But regardless, I’m back and happy to be Stateside. There’s nothing like leaving the States to be reminded of how amazing America really is. There’s a lot of talk about Americans’ boundless energy, welcoming nature and visceral belief that the future will be better than the present. But it takes a trip to another continent to be truly convinced of the same. For my money’s worth, nothing beats the US. Nuff said.

Pictures to follow.

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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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My time in Sao Paulo, Brazil

January 12, 2009 8 comments

This is a personal account of my time spent in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I’d been saving it for a Brazil travelogue that I of course want to write and publish for a small amount of money; but then I realized that my writing skills are subpar, my work takes up a lot of time and in general I’m too ADD-riddled to write anything long form. So here you are:

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We almost didn’t make it. Sitting in Los Angeles airport at the American Airlines “rebooking” counter at 1am on December 22nd, I wondered aloud how our magical trip had gotten fucked so quickly out of the gate. We’d missed our connection from LA to San Juan (yes, I’m well aware that that’s actually in Puerto Rico but it was a leg of our trip on the way to Brazil) and were trying to make sense of our impending nightmare.

As a longshot, we asked the nice feisty black lady with the extra-long pink fingernails and ginormous Starbucks cup if we could simply skip our San Juan leg and fly straight to Sao Paulo. Coz, you know, when you pay 2000 dollars for a ticket, you want to visit *fewer* places than originally intended. She agreed, but this is what our flights looked like:

San Francisco –> Los Angeles (overnight layover) + Los Angeles –> San Diego + San Diego –> Dallas + Dallas –> Sao Paulo.

Foto Noturna Edificio Tim - São Paulo - Brasil
Image by Julio Mejías via Flickr

Without going into the particulars, let’s just suffice it to say that 35+ hours spent in airports, airplanes and motels is a royal pain in the ass. So we get off in Sao Paulo on December 23rd at 1pm and walked into an industrial-looking, busy airport. The first thing that strikes you when you walk around normal Brazilians is their (by alternate turns) funny and sexy Portuguese – just ask a Brazilian woman to pronounce “Rio de Janeiro” and you’ll find it incredibly sexy. Then ask her to go off on a random rant and you’ll want to jump off a bridge.

We walk out of the airport into the sweltering heat – its summer, bitches! I notice that even a concrete second world jungle like Sao Paulo is incredibly green; if you’ve ever stepped into the shithole environs around Bombay International airport, you’ll find Sao Paulo a welcome relief. After a few minutes of trying to find the airport shuttle, we’re approached by a cabbie who senses dumb fuck Americans ambling about and wants to close in before the other vultures get a fair crack. Since the cab cost is 90 reais and the same we’d pay for the airport shuttle, we relent and pile our shit into the Peugeot. I ride shotgun with my cheapo Exilim pointed out the window.

It’s only been about two minutes in the car until Edouardo Souza yells out “Pirikeeeeta”, a Portuguese word that we’re unfamiliar with. When we display our stupidity, he lets go of the steering wheel for five terrifying seconds and gesticulates that he’s referring to, ahem, female anatomical parts. A nervous laugh issues from the back of the car as P and V grasp the particulars of the situation. I mean, we’ve all been to Vegas and what not but we’re just getting used to the idea of lewd behavior from a cabbie we don’t quite understand.

Edouardo takes the laugh as a sign of approval and explains to us in broken English that “pirikeeeeta” is faaar more important to him than water and air. My nerdy Stanford friend in the back isn’t horrified but mildly asks the motorista if he is married, what with the cheesy wedding band prominently displayed on a meaty digit. “Sim, Sim”, he asserts (yes, yes). He then stares at the woman in the next car over and compliments her “melancia” (melons). I’m not uncomfortable yet but am slowly getting there.

Sensing that this vein of jokes while delightful has played itself out, Edouardo asks us where we’re from. I proffer “San Francisco” and he tries to assess whether I’m straight or gay (a frequent occurrence in Brazil) simply because I live 2 miles from the Castro district. His pea-sized brain suddenly tired of this line of inquiry, he brightly exclaims:

“MADONNA!”

Madonna on the festival in Coachella in 2006
Image via Wikipedia

And now in a quasi-Italian singsong manner: “Madonna the best! The best!”

Not wanting to burst the man’s bubble by discussing the finer nuances of shitty American pop, we murmur a gentle assent. He then quizzically throws out the words “New Jersey” to see what reaction we have. Since I don’t know how to say “Armpit of America” in Portuguese, I simply repeat after him, “Yes, yes, New Jersey!”.

Greatly encouraged by my unalloyed willingness to just roll over, Edourdo now loudly yells “Bon Jovi! Bon Jovi the best!”

This may have been the point when I simply tuned out and rode in silence until we got to Avenida Paulista and our hotel – Maksoud Plaza. As we pulled up, Edouardo Souza’s inner Italian proclaimed – “Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Bon Jovi, Maksoud Plaza, the best!”

I should have known better than to take his word for it.

I wasn’t alive during the seventies, but in 1979 Maksoud Plaza was possibly an interesting hotel to spend a night. Now its just a way to remind yourself how depressing the 70s must have been. The inside of the hotel is a garish, screaming collision of every color known to mankind. There’s a buffet/cafe/bakery that sits off to one side in the lobby. It is buffeted by a small pool which for some reason sits in front of a giant LCD screen playing Brazilian soaps. For good measure, the hotel staff threw in a horrendously colorful Christmas tree with creepy ornaments on one side.

As if making a silent excuse for its obvious lack of good taste, a scale model of the Maksoud Plaza sits towards the center of the expansive lobby. The slowly yellowing label reads “Maksoud Plaza, 1979” so we can be assured that this particular eyesore was built by another generation of Brazilians.

My friend V asks the concierge about a good “churrascaria“. With the knowing look of someone about to score a commission, she busts out a flyer for “Vente Harregano”, which we are informed is “the best!”. I am really getting sick of Brazilians’ callous use of superlatives at this point, but I relent when she mentions that the restaurant sends a van to the hotel to pick up guests.

Nice! I’m thinking of a classy evening spent in style as the restaurant sends over a masculine town car. We can smoke cigars after dinner and go to The Skye Bar for a beautiful rooftop view of town, I think to myself.

Count me dismayed, then, when at 830pm I step outside to see a large airport shuttle-like van, painted in a particularly nasty gold color with a giant “Vente Harregano” logo on the sides. The meat van has arrived to pick up the fat Americans. I’m just glad I didn’t have a big fucking camera slung around my neck – I’d be forever destined to tourist hell.

So we pile in like the good sports we are and arrive at Vente Harregano.

A churrascaria – if you’ve never been to one – is explicitly designed to make vegetarians throw up out of disgust and serious carnivores salivate out of visceral anticipation. You make a great pretense of munching on the salad bar’s offerings and then graduate onto the meat, which is brought around on skewers by waiters who are more persuasive than insurance agents. Hell, the table you sit on usually has a diagram of a cow with all the different parts marked on it – rumpsteak being the one that inspires the most jokes. Personally, I had a quiet Crayola moment and wished I could paint the cow’s ass in brown and its shoulders bright purple.

Two hours and several caipirinhas later, we’re stuffed to the gills and completely hammered. I start making noises about Skye Bar in the posh Unique hotel and how we’re really too drunk to hail a cab. Praz quips like the hustler he thinks he is, “Why not just take the van?”

And so it came to pass that at 1130pm, as fashionable Paulistas stand in line outside the elevator that took them to the Skye Bar at the Unique Hotel, three drunk gringos pull up in a giant Vente Harregano meat van. The moment is soured further by the fact that the driver of the van puts out a two step red staircase to allow the gringos to get out of the van. Simply hopping out would be slightly masculine, so we pass in favor of stepping out daintily like a bunch of parlor ladies.

Praz, in his drunken exuberance yells, “Well, this looks badass!!”, drawing looks of extreme disgust from the Paulistas ahead of us in line.

A few minutes later, we we’re ushered into the Skye Bar.

Alisson at Skye Bar
Image by heather via Flickr

The Skye is a beautiful space packed with gorgeous Brazilians. The open air roof is filled with cool, dark corners exclusively reserved for makeout action and manly umbrellas with stylish red lighting. Since it’s our first night out, we’re a bit shy about approaching strangers and are content to make the following observations about Brazilian nightlife:

  • Brazen making out is highly encouraged and nothing to bat eyebrows about. Americans look prudish in comparison.
  • Brazilians smoke a hell of a lot more than their American counterparts and nobody gives a rat’s ass about secondhand smoke in bars.
  • As is well known about Latin America, the men can be aggressive and the women can be strangely receptive to aggression.

As the reader can tell by this neat bulleted list, the gringos are not the life of the party that night. But the vino does flow freely until 330am and we stumble into the hotel room at 4am. Part of me wants to bum rush the ugly Christmas tree and watch it totter and fall with a deafening crash.

We now recollect that we have a flight to catch at 6am and juvenile Praz insists on ordering room service while playing “I See Your Dirty Face” at the loudest possible decibel level.

Sigh.

The trip has only just begun and I’m already tired. On to Foz de Iguacu! That, however, will be the topic of a different post.

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My Brazil Itinerary

January 3, 2009 5 comments

Here is my Brazil itinerary. I am posting it because when we were planning our trip a lack of good, simple, one-weekish itineraries was hard to find. You can thank me later 🙂

Background: This itinerary is most suitable for those who have less than 10 days to spend in Brazil. Ideally, you should enjoy the club/bar scene inordinately more so than other cultural pursuits (museum visits, theatrical performances, etc.) to derive max value out of this list:

Day One, 1pm: Land in Sao Paulo Airport. 

Day One, 230pm: Check into Maksoud Plaza Hotel on Avenue Paulista in Sao Paulo. I honestly CANNOT recommend it unless you have a weird fondness for the 70s. 

Day One, 7pm: Dinner at Vente Harregano Churrascaria. The food is fantastic and costs 80 reais. We got carried away with the drinks and ended up dropping 75 dollars US (yikes!) on dinner each. The funniest thing is that the restaurant will send a van to your hotel to chauffeur you to dinner. So basically even though you drop 80 dollars, you can’t be a high roller whilst stepping out of a meat van with a giant logo on the side. LOL. 

Day One, 11pm: Headed to the Skye Bar at the Unique Hotel in Jardim Paulista. I picked it because it came highly recommended by the NYTimes Travel section. The Skye bar is FANTASTIC! The views of the city are pretty damn nice and the weather was wonderful. We ordered expensive-ish drinks (10 dollars US each). Our entry into the bar/hotel was less than suave, given that we got there by convincing the meat van to drop us off. Great story, though. 

Day Two, 7am: Fly to Foz de Iguacu, home of the wonderful Iguacu waterfalls. Waking up at 5am to catch the flight was a royal bitch, of course. 

Day Two, 9am: Get on a flight to Foz de Iguacu, home of the Iguacu waterfalls. 

Day Two, 1pm: Visit the falls and realize that there are very few (or nearly none, actually) American tourists at the falls. The 500 dollar plane ticket starts to not look like the smartest idea. 

Day Three, 10am: Get back on a flight to Rio

Day Three, 2pm: Check into Copacabana Premier hotel in Rio in the Copacabana district. The hotel concierges speak English which is a joy and a relief. 

Day Three: Realize that nobody is around on Christmas day. Spend the afternoon drinking caipirinhas. 

Day Four, 10am: Do a full day city tour of Rio. Visit Christo Redentor, the famous chapel and Pao de Acucar. 

Day Four, 11pm: Head to Club 00 in Leblon. Pay 20 dollars US as cover and remark once again that Brazil is NOT cheap at all. Not at all, even if you are used to San Francisco prices. 

Day Five, 6am: Return home from Club 00. A long night filled with booze and cigars and great hip hop top 40 shit courtesy of the DJ. 

Day Five, 11am: Pack up and get ready for a trip to Buzios. 

Day Five, 1pm: End up at Rio airport to rent a car since all other rental shops were sold out. The lack of planning is evident once again. 

Day Five, 2pm: Head out for Buzios. We don’t speak the language and have never driven in Rio, so this is a bit foolhardy to be kind. Hell, we don’t even have cellphones or a calling card. 

Day Five, 6pm: Get to Buzios after getting lost a couple of times courtesy of shitty GPS directions. 

Day Five, 7pm; Check into Bon Bini resort at Buzios, drink a coffee and head out for dinner. 

Day Five, 8pm: Walk in Rua das Pedras. This street is highly upscale and is bursting at the seams with extremely attractive Brazilian people. Think Santa Monica, I guess, for lack of a better comparison. 

Day Five 830pm: Walk into Patio Havana. Fantastic food, good mojitos and Cuban cigars to boot. The bill is 400 reais at the end of the night – fuck. 

Day Five 11pm: Bribe our way into Anexo Lounge. 

Day Five 1am: Be a little bit miffed that even kids our age who went to private schools speak zero English. What the fuck? Some of these guys claimed to have flown in from Brasilia on a chartered jet. 

Day Five, 4am: Head back to the hotel.

Day Six, noon: Head to Geriba Beach. Fantastic beach, very clean, lots of attractive people and the weather was nice.

Day Six, 3pm: Leave for Rio. Back in Rio by 530pm this time given the lack of mishaps.

Day Six: 6pm: Check back into Copacabana Premier.

Day Six: Roll into Mud Bug, a local watering hole in Copa. Also try Shenanigans, a popular tourist bar (Irish, of course) and change our minds given that it was dead.

Day Seven: A day finally spent in Rio hanging out and just taking in the city. The weather is nice and the beach is packed. Head to the beach and visit Barra da Tijuca and Ipanema beaches. Make headway through the beach reads.

Day Seven evening: Watch a Bossa Nova show in Vinicius bar in Ipanema. Excellent music.

Day Eight: Try to take a chopper ride up to Christo Redentor. Fail miserably on account of logistical mishaps. Take a bus to the Christo train base and find that the place has turned into a COMPLETE TOURIST ZOO. We abandon the idea and cab it back to the hotel.

Day Eight, 10pm: Head to Baronnetti in Ipanema. The club is jumping but unfortunately plays techno which I’m not a big fan of. My fedora is a HUGE HIT, much to my pleasure.

Day Nine, 5am: Find a cab and head back to Copacabana. Eventful, fun night, nuff said.

Day Nine, 11am: Wake up, shower, pack a bit, head to the beach and hang on Copa beach for a few hours. Beers on the beach along with a bunch of other tourists.

Day Nine: 6pm: Pick up last set of Cuban cigars. My friend P haggles and we pay 40 reais a pop. Our most expensive acquisition but these are Cohibas after all.

Day Nine, 9pm: Start drinking at the hotel bar. 2 rounds of Caipivodkas get the night going.

Day Nine, 1030pm: Pick up 3 champagne bottles and head over to the beach. Copa is a ZOO at this point and everybody is dressed in white.

Day Nine, 11pm: We pop our champagne bottles and start drinking out of each, no glass. Ghetto but fun.

Day Nine, 1115pm: Run into a couple of American girls on the beach. They’re cool and we spend the rest of the night with them at the beach.

Day Ten, 330am: Happy new year! The place is still jumping but we’re dead tired. Head back to the hotel room.

Day Ten, 2pm: Get on a flight to Sao Paulo, followed by a flight to JFK, followed by a flight to SFO (don’t ask).

Day Eleven, 2pm (PST): Get home!!!

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