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Being a geek in San Francisco

I’ve been in this city for barely 24 hrs, but already I’ve discovered being a geek in San Francisco is totally different to London.

For a start you can just tell this is a ‘tech city’ by the advertising along Highway 101 (the route between the airport and downtown). The latest Sun servers and are two large billboard advertisements that popped out at me as we drove to Chris’s in our rented Jeep.

But back to being a geek – the first major, and I guess expected, difference between London and San Francisco is that you bump into industry people quite easily. Ok, that’s partly down the fact that Chris is Mr Connections, and arranged a welcome dinner for us which included Tantek and Nick Douglas from Valleywag (and others). But I can also see how having a Dodgeball account is mandatory for a happy geeky social life.

Sure, in London we have geek dinners and there’s lots of opportunities to meet up with other peeps who work at BBC (lunch in the White City canteen, in the local BBC bars, etc). But it’s not every night…

The other great thing about San Francisco is the coffee shop culture. It’s 18:30 on a Sunday evening and we’re in Ritual Roasters with our laptops out sipping on large cups of extremely tasty java. And of course there is free WiFi (every coffee shop has wifi). Looking around me there must be at least a third of the café’s cliental using laptops. Having your laptop out in a coffee shop in the UK would not only be slightly unusual but also pretty fruitless – or expensive — as most coffee shops either have no wifi or wifi paid for by the hour.

In the UK, we have pub culture – which doesn’t suit me at all. I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t particularly like smokey atmospheres. And there’s only so much lemonade you want to drink. Coffee on the other hand is not only my solitary vice but I’m also quite the connoisseur. WiFi in the pub, I don’t think so… Spending the equivilent of £2 on a coffee and being welcome to sit in a cafe for as long as you like using their chair, table and wifi in London… Forget it.

Earlier today we were in Brain Wash – a mad establishment on Folsom Street that’s both a café and a Laundromat. Sofia and I were in the café section (we didn’t have any washing!) having a drink and surfing the net on my laptop. The guy sitting next to us leaned across to enquire about my views on my IBM Thinkpad X32 (he had an older model and was looking to upgrade). We got chatting and it turned out he was a Linux expert who had suffered badly from the dotcom fallout. He was now fixing Audi’s but still keeping up with the industry by occassionally writing for the O’Reilly Linux website.

We ended up chatting about the tech industry, living in San Francisco and also the control mechanisms American media. You just would never had that type of conversation with someone in the UK… In fact you wouldn’t have any type of conversation with someone in a café in the UK; leaning over to speak to someone else would be seen as either madness or a flirtatious gesture.

But there are more subtle things to the San Francisco tech scene. For example, Chris is working on a project to create an off-the-street co-working facility and collaboration space for developers writers and independents. Imagine a shop-unit with dedicated desks, meeting areas, power, wifi, etc which you can visit when you want. (you can check out the wiki for more information). I can’t imagine that happening in London – there isn’t the domand but more subltly there isn’t the culture. Independent self employed contractors tend to work at home or create their own ‘private’ shared office spaces.

(Will upload some photos to Flickr soon)

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  1. Nice to meet you too Ben. You also met Amber, Eran, and Assaf too.


  2. What am I? Chopped liver? Hmmm? I believe I invited Tantek and crew to join us…;)

    I never want to be ‘just the girlfriend in the background’. 😛

  3. Oh master organizer Tara, we dare not put ourselves in the same league as you. Please accept our humlbest of apologies.

  4. Oh master organizer Tara, we dare not put ourselves in the same league as you. Please accept our humblest of apologies.

  5. crikey, i went to “brain wash” nearly 15 years ago – it was pretty hip back then! re: collaboration spaces. artists studios are a good model to foster – cheap, shared, based around social networks and highly creative spaces. i see a lot of parallels between technical creativity and artistic creativity.

  6. Hey Ben – London did have its own ‘drop-in’ space for developers and geeks. It was called ‘Backspace’, and used to live in lovely offices in Clink St –

    It was run by the legendary James Stevens, and was host to an evolving community of artists, geeks, programmers and plain nut-jobs. I was in Yorkshire at the time (1996-1999), but went there a few times for events and conferences. It was very, very, laid-back, and was run on a wing and a prayer (James was always proud not to receive funding from the Arts Council, et al). Unfortunately, their landlord sold the space to developers, and the backspaces offices are now, ironically, a Starbucks (no doubt with paid-for wifi hotspot).

    Looking at the site now, it was way ahead of its time, with projects for community eventlogs, favespace (a proto delicious) and a ‘personal log’ that any backspace user could contribute to. I guess the difference is that if it had been in SF, some of these ideas would have turned into successful companies, whereas in London, it all dissipated once the developers moved in. Maybe we’re better at being property entrepreneurs than tech entrepreneurs?

  7. Sweet Ben, good to hear how different things are in San Fran.

  8. Matt Matt

    There is a place in Angel, Islington which sounds similar to backspace. Can’t find the site right now, but you can rent desks/meeting rooms by the hour etc. Free wifi and power. In this really cool looking old warehouse.

  9. Ben,

    Stop. You’re making me miss the place. By the way, if you want to listen to your self, whilst on the go, just give yourself a call at:

    Number Type Number
    PIN Access (800) 289-5570 then PIN: 9991251983
    PIN Access (407) 386-2174 then PIN: 9991251983
    Skype VoIP +99000936 9991251983
    FWD VoIP **86919991251983
    SIP VoIP

    The number for your feed is 0001.

    Just trying to push botcasting into new frontiers.

    Enjoy San Francisco, and be sure to check out those wacky SF bay swimmers with the orange bathing caps.


  10. Having now spent nearly a month in the US (Palo Alto) I too am struck by just how friendly everybody is. Tonight (at the Adaptive Path thing) I was able to speak with so many more people just because it is so much easier to do.

    For somebody like me who suffers very poor social interaction skils and very little confidence, I’m absolutely loving this country – it’s like I’m cured!!!

    (It was nice to meet you and your better half too!)

  11. Some truly great blog posts on this site, thank you for contribution. “For today and its blessings, I owe the world an attitude of gratitude.” by Clarence E. Hodges.

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