Hard News by Russell Brown

It's all good, mostly

It wasn't quite the first contact I would have desired. The man on the immigration desk didn't seem to like me. In response to the usual opening question, I told him I was in the United States for a conference. He looked at my two-year-old "I" visa, which said I was a journalist, and decided that both statements could not be true.

"It says here you're a journalist," he said, eyeballing me. "Why didn't you tell me you'd be doing that?"

"Well, yes, I'll probably write some stories, but I've been invited the conference as a delegate" I said.

"But you'll be there as a journalist."

"No, as a delegate. But, yes, I'll be writing some stories about my trip."

"You say you 'will' be writing stories now," he said, pouncing on a target only he could see. "See, you've changed your story already. Do you know it's an offence to lie to a federal officer?"

I really didn't know what to say next. Eventually, after one of the most confusing and pointlessly hostile verbal exchanges I have ever endured, he stamped my passport. What the fuck was that all about?

Fortunately, immigration man was the only American I've met who wasn't upbeat, polite and friendly. Even the security staff manning the endless security hurdles in stuffy, sweaty halls were pretty cool. The heavy manners of a fearful security environment are inescapable at the airports. Photocopied A4 sheets are sellotaped to doors with the news that the "threat level" has moved to "orange". A honest appraisal of the recent scares would suggest that the "threat level" has not really changed at all, and that a good deal of the shaking-down is arbitrary and for show, but, hey, it's not my country. It's still hell of a relief to not have to be anywhere near an airport for a few days yet.

I've been busy. First stop on Tuesday was with SixApart, home of Moveable Type and LiveJournal, and, more recently Vox, an impressive personal-blogging platform aimed at noobs, and experienced bloggers who want a closed-circuit channel to communicate privately with friends and family. The user-friendliness of the back end of Vox was pretty amazing, as was its integration with Flickr, YouTube and Amazon. I have a Vox invite, so I'll have a bit of of a play and report back sometime.

I interviewed SixApart's co-founder Mena Trott, a bubbly bohemian who wouldn't look out of place in a K Road café. The company has a mostly open-plan floor of a nice old brick building, where about 100 people work (there are 40 more in other locations, mostly overseas). She and her co-founder Ben have closet-sized offices of their own.

In what seems to be the manner of all tech firms, Six Apart lays on free drinks by the truckload; delicious fruit nectars and flavoured mineral waters. Their kitchen is also home to something called the Keurig Premium Coffee System, which affects the appearance of an espresso machine, but is in fact the creation of Satan himself.

You insert a pre-packaged pod of coffee and press the button. What comes sluicing out to fill your paper cup looks like hot coca-cola. It is very possibly the worst cup of "coffee" I have ever had in my life. The search for acceptable coffee becomes an underlying theme. Like the PA readers who wrote desperate emails for our coffee posts a while ago, I've been obliged to resort to Starbucks. Starbucks espresso is not bad so much as truly, desperately average; about the cup you'd expect to be served in, say, Taumarunui (I hope I'm not doing Taumarunui undue insult there). Its latte is definitively insipid.

Our next stop was the Google campus, a place of busy calm; light and air. It seems designed to expose process - you walk past a window and there's a meeting going on inside. Food (three meals free a day for employees) is everywhere, and there are rooms for massages when they get a bit tense. People whizz around on electric scooters and all the buildings have large whiteboards for people to scrawl random creative geek shit on. You can feel the brainpower bubbling beneath the surface. The PR girly who walked me around had a Masters in Psychology.

From there, Gnat and I and his Irish programmer mate Brian went to Sushi Blowfish to Die For, a high-concept sushi-fusion restaurant soon to open its first non-US branch in Auckland (the founders have recently been in NZ overseeing the new place, which is being established by a returning expat couple who were long-term customers of the San Francisco restaurant).

I had thought, well, another sushi bar in Auckland: so what? But I can see the niche now. One dish didn't quite work for us but most were divine. My personal favourite was the Ritsu rolls: high-grade tuna wrapped in nori, dipped in a light tempura batter and briefly deep-fried. Yes, I know, it sounds wrong, but it was incredibly delicious.

Presentation is a hallmark: the sashimi combination comes atop a ceramic pot of dry ice and arrives at the table oozing exotic white vapour (we took a movie of that, but I haven't been able to get the files off my phone yet - I'll post it next time). The cocktails were excellent too - especially the one made with sake, lychees and lime juice. Could I come along to the Auckland opening please? I'd like to do that again.

Gnat and I moved along to the inner-city apartment of SixApart programmer Artur Bergman. Artur is Swedish, and the crowd of clever people assembled there included several Brits (all, it seemed former BBC employees, including Tom Coates, who wrote the stinging Who's Afraid of Ashley Highfield? post that everyone's linking to lately). They worked for Yahoo, Google and Flickr.

The purpose of the gathering was to play a few rounds of Werewolf, a sort of blend of roleplay and strategy. No computers: just one card per person that tells them their role - the rest is gameplay, which consists largely of observation and argument. I can see why people making social software would like this game. I had thought I wouldn't like it, but it was pretty good fun.

We were up too damn early the next day for the drive to the IBM Almaden Research Centre, which was a lot better than I expected. It was in fact, really, really cool. The place itself is a 1970s California modernist complex set atop a beautiful hilltop near ugly San Jose. Its long, broad halls are paved with stone and walled with wood and its front desk is manned by a friendly black woman called Nicole M. James, whose mother occupied the same seat for 20 years.

Our first presentation was from the WebFountain project, which focuses on handling very large bodies of data. They have the entire public Internet archived on one system (half a petabyte, if you were wondering), which made up the corpus for a demonstration of semantic searching. That is, searching for concepts and relationships. I had to resist the screaming urge to ego-search myself, but we did do Theresa Gattung.

Other points of interest: the overall average colour of the web is a blue-tinged grey. In South East Asia it tends more to a red or orange tinge, in Korea is it starkly monochrome and the Germans have an inexplicable fondness for pink and purple. Also, Almaden can take any term or relationship you like and turn it into an RSS feed for the entire Internet.

I also liked Fringe, a project that turns the traditional IBM internal contacts directory into a kind of corporate MySpace - friending and all. They're working on identity-production style integration of media as a next step. It was presented by a laid-back dude in a Green Day t-shirt. It's clearly not your Dad's IBM any more.

We stopped in at Apple Computer on the way back. We were pretty tired after five hours of presentations, and after a brief chat with some Kiwis I'd been forbidden to interview under Apple's crushing press policy, I shopped for some merch at the Apple Store and we piled back into the car to head for Sebastopol.

We, I should explain, means me, Gnat (re-pat Kiwi and O'Reilly employee Nathan Torkington, who is the angel behind this trip) and his offsiders Rael (a South African Jew) and Surj (a British Indian). They all share a relentless, tasteless sense of humour that makes them a pleasure to be around. By the time we reached our hotel last night I swear that my whole head hurt from laughing.

Along the way, we stopped off in Berkeley, with which I was immediately more comfortable than the blasted hills of the valley, with its strip malls and millionaire enclaves. ("Mountain View, Cupertino - all the famous names are shitholes," Gnat explained. "Except for Palo Alto, which is Stanford.")

We ate at a brilliant little restaurant called Breads of India and did a little tour of the town, where it was "rush week" at the university and the gently sloping paths around were flocked with pretty young things looking to pledge to their future soroities. We passed the famous computer science department (home of BSD and all) and exited via what Rael called "gourmet ghetto").

And here we are now in Sebastopol: granola town. It's nice - full of craft shops and cafes, with a great record shop and an interesting-looking used bookshop nearby. Best of all, and finally, there is really good coffee not 20 metres from my hotel room door at a hippyish café which also served me a lovely light cherry-and-almond muffin that was in a different cosmos to the stodge on every corner at Starbucks. The barista remarked to me that the espresso was coming out beautifully today. Oh yes. Coffee that doesn't taste the same every day, everywhere.

I have a little work to do before I can wander around in the sunshine, so I'd better see to that. The hotel wi-fi is too iffy to bother uploading pictures (or even to faff about with more links), but I'll do y'all a gallery next time. It's kind of nice to have a day to process rather than absorb all the stuff that's coming off all the fiercely smart people I'm meeting. Foo Camp will be smart people up the wazoo for three days and I'd like to have something to say for myself there. So please, look after New Zealand while I'm away and I'll catch you later.