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Stateside With Rosalea: A Godwit Flies By

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

A Godwit Flies By

If you, like I, have ever wished that the writing at Stateside could be as well-informed as the writing over at, then wish no more! PA founder and Hard News-man, Russell Brown, stopped over last week in San Francisco on his way back to New Zealand from the Friends of O’Reilly camp in the North Bay. (O’Reilly is a technical publishing company.)

Earlier in the visit, Russell had been down in Silicon Valley and over to the East Bay, so he got to see a good range of the Bay Area and met a lot of the movers and shakers behind the developments now shaping the Web experience for all of us. For details about his visit you should of course read his posts at, from August 25 through September 1.

As he prepared to fly back to NZ, Mr Brown responded to my emailed questions on weighty matters of one sort or another!

There seems to be two conflicting internet developments: competitive popularity (where sites such as YouTube push content to the top according to how many people view it) and collaborative earnestness (where information is shared and developed using the wiki model). From the people you've met while you've been here, did you get the feeling that either of those models will fundamentally change the way most people get the news and information they find useful in their everyday lives in the same way that people's shopping habits have been changed by e-commerce?

I don't think the two are quite as polar as you suggest. Both YouTube and Wikipedia farm out authority to their communities in different ways. Traditional news journalism isn't going to go away (it would be a disaster if it did) but these other ways of handling news and information all have a role. E-commerce hasn't shut down the shops and malls and I doubt it ever will.

The rule is generally that media innovation is complimentary - TV didn't wipe out radio when it arrived, although a lot of people thought it would. Newspaper readership is falling though, and there are risks in that. really works pretty well, but it's never going to promote boring-but-important stories like local authority reporting.

There are also risks in people being able to personalise their news to the point that they get only the news they want to hear - and only the news that fits their prejudices. I've always thought that personalised news services should sometimes deliver people news they *don't* want ...

My local public transport authority, AC Transit, is talking about introducing WiFi for commuters on its TransBay service, yet it can't even provide enough buses to pick up all the kids and commuters trying to get to school and work in the mornings over here in the East Bay. Were your fellow campers working on stuff that is all very clever but not actually very useful?

There was actually quite a bit of discussion of social goals and political activism at sessions devoted to those issues. O'Reilly's mission statement is "changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators" and I think the focus on social good is genuine. At the Sunday debrief, two of the requests from campers were (a) that next year's event include some aid or community development people, and (b) that it should have as little environmental impact as possible - this year, the plates were paper but the forks were still plastic.

Both Steve Tomlin and Bunnie Huang of Chumby Industries seemed to want to do the right thing. Bunnie has done everything from work on supercomputers (his PhD) to hacking game consoles, and he told me he liked the idea of working on something that could be put to useful social purpose. They cited the idea of Chumbys for geriatrics - which could display pics of family, remind them to take their medications, etc.

I noted in the blog what I thought was a yearning for classic values. I think many of the people there despair of the direction America has taken -I had several conversations with people about the diminishing status of science and the loss of "yankee ingenuity", for example.

But the example you've cited is a nice demonstration of how people can get it wrong too. It's good if WiFi encourages public transport use, but it doesn't make much sense if the public transport capacity isn't there.

Did you eat any apple pie? After all, you were in Gravenstein country just a couple of weeks after the harvest festival!

No, but I had some applesauce. And I was really impressed by the Wholefoods store in Sebastopol. They don't seem so hung up on the organic thing as similar stores in NZ; it's just good food. One thing that really frustrates me in NZ is all the expensive US-sourced organic food products at those shops - sure, it's organic, but can you *really* justify the carbon miles on that tin of baked beans?

Is there any impression that's top of your mind when you think of this trip?

(a) Clever, thoughtful people that I could relate to. Tech people who get to NZ are usually on corporate message, and it's nice to meet people in the sector who aren't.

(b) The sheer range of atmospheres and environments I visited in a relatively small area. I loved IBM and Google but I didn't really like the valley, it seemed scorched and ugly. Berkeley and Sebastopol were nice and downtown SF is a fun, crazy, dirty mix. I won't be too sorry to get away from beggars, crazy people and crack dealers though ...

Did everyone seem big?

There certainly are some fatties, but I'm not all that svelte myself at the moment. I was amazed at portion sizes and how much people eat - I was consciously looking not to overeat after the first couple of days. And I'm amazed at how many people suck down those giant fat-and-sugar concoctions at Starbucks. Yuck.

I found both great food and really bad food.

Righto, better pack.



PS from Rosalea: Assuming gravensteins are in-store now Down Under, here’s a link to the Sebastopol apple fair website, where you’ll find an interesting history and some delicious recipes about that tart little number the Russians brought to California!

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