journalism, money, San Francisco

A Note on the Bloomberg San Francisco Office

On Monday morning, I got to see a glimmer of Bloomberg’s San Francisco office. The office, on the second floor of a converted pier on the Embarcadero, was highlighted in August 2007 as the largest leasing deal to come along in San Francisco since the dot-com boom eight years earlier.

At the time, the media company rented 30,000 square feet at $100 per square foot (triple-net), while most office real estate at the time was about $50 per square foot. The deal nearly doubled Bloomberg’s footprint in the city as reporters and salespeople moved into a sleek waterfront place. Again, the Times:

The offices have floor-to-ceiling glass walls, natural lighting, operable windows, historic trusses and views of the bay, Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge. The development’s bayside history walk wraps around the building and boats will be able to pull up to the dock.

And, true, it’s all there–ferries docked below the desks, stunning bay views, and the lavatory is positively space-aged. One analyst suggested they got a great deal, saying:

“I feel anyone who has not locked up their space for the next couple of years should do so because rents are going higher,” she said. “In recent years, there has been a move to get away from fancy offices, particularly among the law firms. We seem to have passed that.”

What a long, strange trip it’s been. Eighteen months later, San Francisco, while not lacking for lawyers, might have fewer than expected after the collapse of Heller Ehrman and Thelen; and a casual glance at rental rates shows even for Class A office space as low as $25, suggesting that now might be the time to lock up space for the next couple of years.


I wish I had a photo of the Bloomberg office to show you. Scores of twinned screen Bloomberg terminals in long rows, all facing Treasure Island; a glass-walled conference room, full of more twin-screened terminals facing a pair of large screens embedded into the wall; a full, free cafe with coffee, juice, and cappuccino machines, fresh fruit, and rotating silver snack stands full of Kettle Chips and Swedish fish. This is the life, no? Still, during the hours I was there, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a supervillain’s lair, the control room from which a plot for global domination is hatched and executed. All that was missing was the classic Mercator projection map of the planet, outsized letters spelling SPECTRE, and, of course, Ernst Stavro Blofeld in one of his various guises, along with his fluffy cat.

anticipation, irony, journalism, San Francisco

Chronicle of a Death Foretold?

This little news piece from 1981 is making the rounds. As the reporter notes, “this is only the first step in newspapers by computer”:

So many things to love here:

  • the “estimated two to three thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area”
  • the newspaper guy saying “and we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we’re not going to make much either.”
  • that the newspaper vendor is safe in his job, “for the moment”
  • that the reporter could be seen as believing it’s just the vendor who has to be worried
  • or maybe just that these two minutes of reportage, seen from a contemporary perspective, are shot through with a dreadful kind of irony.

Welcome to the future.

China, development, international, journalism

The International Suburban Style


A few days ago, the AP’s Daisy Nguyen published a report on the trend of building suburban-style developments around the world. Developers in China and India and Africa are looking to Southern California (pictured above, partially) for a growth model. While this should be alarming to anyone concerned about resources and climate change (and willing, if you’re an American, to adopt the do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do ethos), it’s a classic example of how growing middle class populations are importing elements of American life. The article describes, for example, a community outside of Shanghai:

Grassy front lawns and driveways lead to pastel-colored homes that mimic French, Italian or Spanish architectural styles. Customized kitchens, screening rooms and basement wine cellars are very different from Chairman Mao’s vision of communal living.

“It’s hard to tell you’re not in Southern California,” [Pasadena-based architect Andy] Feola said.

On the highways outside of cities like Beijing and Delhi, I zipped past billboards that advertised gated communities, some with McMansions and garages large enough for SUVs. They seemed out of place, but such are our preconceptions of places like China and India. (And, to an extent, disappointments–who travels around the globe to hang out in suburbs?) But they wouldn’t build them if there were no demand. As affluence increases, so does the market.

From the environmental perspective, one would hope sustainable design could mitigate the negative effects of such development. Whether that is being applied in a robust way remains to be seen. But for some, it seems, the prospect of mass suburbanization should go full steam ahead. In my favorite quote from the story, one American architecture professor said: “It’s too bad that we as Americans are turning away from suburban sprawl as Asia adopts it.”

Regarding green development–in China, anyway–an article last week in the Christian Science Monitor noted that one grand project has stumbled. The correspondent, Simon Montlake, describes the situation of Dongtan, a planned eco-city outside of Shanghai that was being designed by the engineering firm Arup. (A related article published in The Telegraph last October is well worth a read, too.)

Dongtan’s plan hits all the right sustainability buttons: energy from waste, recycling, limited carbon emissions, density, energy-efficient buildings, etc. You may have seen the feature on this project, “Pop-Up Cities: China Builds a Bright Green Metropolis”, in Wired last year. I’ve been in touch with Arup employees in the past and they seemed devoted to making this work, not just in terms of design, but socially and economically. It’s tough when, after a streak of good press, something comes along to trip up a project. (Last year, Conde Nast was particularly good to Arup, with the Wired feature and a New Yorker feature.)

One of the main sources for the Monitor article was Kira Gould, the communications director at William McDonough + Partners. Montlake briefly mentioned the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village project:

On a more modest scale, William McDonough + Partners designed an ecovillage of 400 households in northeast China, of which 42 houses have been built. The plan called for affordable solar-powered bungalows using local materials in a bid to free more land for farming. Instead, the developer built suburban-style tract homes that most local families have shunned, according to a PBS documentary earlier this year.

Ms. Gould concedes that mistakes were made in the design and construction of Huangbaiyu, the village. One complaint was that it didn’t create enough jobs. But that was never part of the project, says Gould. “We came to learn that economic development and sustainable development were often being used interchangeably,” she says.

To give you an idea of what that looks like, we have this:
a view of the model village

I should remark on a couple of points here, especially the take-away from my PBS report, as described in the article. I wrote a comment on the Monitor’s site a couple of days ago. (Shannon May, who studied the village, also wrote an interesting comment on the selfish reasons that have motivated Western firms to attempt green development in China.) My comment hasn’t yet been published; I’d guess the comment moderators have been short-staffed due to the holidays. In the meantime, here it is:

I’d like to thank Simon Montlake and the Monitor for mentioning the investigative piece I completed for FRONTLINE/World (PBS) earlier this year. But I must clarify one point raised in this article about my story.

The residents of this farming village currently live spread out in a long valley, near their crops, with livestock on their property. The plan created by William McDonough and his partners on this project outlined a single, dense community for the entire village.

While it is the case that the local developer built suburban-style tract homes, it is fair to say he did so based on the plan he received. (His modifications of details of the design are a point to debate.)

The planners recognized, before construction began, that the yards of the new houses would be smaller than those that currently exist. As noted in the narrative that accompanied the master plan: “The yards may be too small to support the number of livestock that currently occupy many yards in the village.” In practice, this meant the farmers could not keep their livestock–a major source of income–if they moved in.

And that, simply, is why no one wanted to. There was a fundamental flaw in the design: it neglected to account for this basic element of village life. The cause of this oversight is, to some extent, a mystery because no one from William McDonough + Partners would comment for my story. But the more important point to remember here is that villagers saw that this eco-village would require them to trade in their lives as farmers for lives in factories or offices or whatever would fit this suburban-style tract home design.

Who could blame the villagers, then, for hoping that some new jobs would come along with this high-profile international eco-village project, since participating in it would force them to give up their old ones?

Update: Nothing to update, which is my point. It is the 12th of January, and they’ve not included my comment. I have re-submitted.

Update: Comment now online at Monitor’s web site. 13 Jan 09.

journalism, ridiculousness, television

Produced by Sonia Narang

Television news tends to hide the credits for stories. Take this little report from Coney Island:

Although the story is dominated by the so-called “talent,” the story was pitched, shot, and structured by Sonia Narang, who has a year-long fellowship at NBC. She produced it. (If you want to hear funny stories about your favorite television news personalities, by the way, talk to a producer.) Or as they say at NBC, Sonia DJ’ed the piece. “DJ” standing for “digital journalist,” which is what we all are turning into, I hear.

If they include a credit for caption writer, maybe I can get a little nod. I took a stab at the early version of the script and, this being national television news, tried to write something appropriately clichéd and bombastic. A few relics of that since-buried text were used in the online story caption, which can be rather hard to find, actually.

Update: Aired on Today show last Saturday, December 27th.

Architecture, China, journalism, language

The Diane Dale Follow-Up at Greenbuild

Diane Dale and I encountered each other on the expo floor at Greenbuild last month. It was a Thursday afternoon, the 20th of November, and the conference was in full swing. We’d initially walked past each other without quite realizing it, but were soon standing together in the middle of one of the paths between the rows of exhibition booths. Scores of conference attendees streamed around us

Dale has worked with the architect William McDonough for several years. Since 2000, she has been the director of community design at William McDonough + Partners. Dale is of medium height, with blonde hair and rectangular glasses. She looks just like her picture. A couple of days earlier, she stood up during the question-and-answer section of the panel I participated in at Greenbuild’s International Forum. She didn’t have questions so much as comments, which I described in a previous post. In a nutshell, neither Dale nor anyone from McDonough + Partners, was especially happy with my FRONTLINE/World story on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village Project in China.

She started by saying she knew I had mentioned her on my blog. When I asked what she thought of what I’d written, she said she hadn’t read it (she later clarified that it was printed out for her). But she did want to follow up on some of the points I made in my blog post, and gave some additional information about the role of William McDonough + Partners in the Huangbaiyu project. She did most of the talking. Our conversation was probably about 20 minutes, maybe a little longer. I spoke briefly with Kira Gould, the director of communications for the firm, soon after, and then once more, briefly with Dale. For those interested in the details, I’ve outlined the points they made, as well as some questions and responses, after the jump.
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journalism, multimedia, science

Night of the Planet Hunter

Geoff Marcy is a Berkeley professor of astronomy and, in little more than a decade, his research team has discovered about half of the known planets outside of our solar system. I sat in with him one night this fall as he used the Keck telescope to scan nearby stars for planets. The result is a four-and-a-half-minute(!) audio slideshow in which he explains his work and how he got started in this somewhat unusual field.

artists's conception of 55 Cancri solar system

The piece is called “California Goes Planet Hunting,” and was produced for California magazine’s recent astronomy issue.

Artist’s conception of the 55 Cancri system courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech and W. M. Keck Observatory.

China, journalism

On Being Called Out

Yesterday was the International Forum of the gigantic Greenbuild Conference in Boston. The organizers of the forum invited me to speak and sit on a panel about New Communities in a green design context. My role was to discuss my Frontline/World story on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village. There were about 350 people in the audience, several standing along the back wall. I was on stage with Canadian developer Joe Van Belleghem, and the journalist Ken Shulman moderated. Joe and Ken each did a great job. I’m glad to have met them, and I enjoyed every minute that I was on stage with them.

During the question-and-answer portion of the session, Diane Dale, who directs community planning at William McDonough + Partners, stood up. She was well-spoken and gracious in many ways, but there was a sense that she was trying to call me out.

Although I think there may be an audio tape of the event, I caution that these are my recollections. I’m sure, once the tape comes out, we will all hear how inarticulate I actually was. Something to look forward to. In the meantime, I figure I might as well give a rough accounting for those who are interested. As several attendees noted after the exchange, there is always more than one side to every story.

Ms Dale introduced herself and said that she thought my presentation was not as critical as it could have been. She noted that her firm had been quite critical of the outcome and had learned many important lessons. She didn’t have questions so much as comments. The first of which, a big lesson learned, was the importance of translation–simply, good translation–which apparently hindered the effective communication of ideas and concepts.

In regard to the point of the yards being too small for animals, she noted that during the time of the design, SARS was floating around Asia. SARS, she reminded us, was a devastating, deadly illness. “They told us” that the animals would have to be kept separate from the houses.

And she seemed to question the fairness or purpose of this session because neither she nor anyone else from William McDonough + Partners was on the stage.

From what I recall, those were her main points.

I have a few initial thoughts that will no doubt be refined over time. Some of these points I managed to mention on stage; others have bubbled up since then, classic examples of l’esprit d’escalier. I neglected to address the SARS point while on stage, simply because I forgot. But that’s what blogs are for, I guess.

1. In regard to translation, two names immediately came to mind: Zhong Ping and Wang Miansheng. As far as I know, both are Chinese, native speakers. Both were employees of the China-US Center for Sustainable Development, which was the key coordinating organization for this project. These are people who have some influence within the organization and are familiar with the project, with China, with all the key elements of this effort. In fact, this is why I hoped to find Zhong Ping while I was in China (he was traveling); and asked to interview Wang Miansheng after returning to the U.S. (also traveling). To say that translation is a problem doesn’t jibe with having men like these on board.

Still, on the merits of Ms Dale’s translation point, I have to ask: if McDonough + Partners is a sophisticated design firm of international scope, why couldn’t they manage to hire one good translator in China? Hundreds if not thousands of other companies do it every day. I did it on a shoestring budget.

2. This SARS point. In the context of the Huangbaiyu story, this is news to me. When Ms. Dale says “they” told her colleagues about this design restriction, I’d like to know who “they” are. This issue is certainly not mentioned in the vision plan to justify the planners’ admission that “the yards may be too small to support the number of livestock that currently occupy many yards in the village.” My understanding is that this was written in 2004, or thereabouts, which places it after the main SARS outbreak. If SARS were a concern, why didn’t it say, “The yards have now been designed too small to support livestock in order to keep them away from humans due to disease concerns,” or something like that?

If this separation rule were an order from the central government, anyone familiar with the way things work in China will understand that just because the central government says it should happen, it doesn’t always happen on the ground, for better or worse. Had they ever heard of that?

For that matter, even if the animals were to be separated, what would be the method of taking care of them? Lone outposts of pigs and goats that farmers must trudge through the winter snows to feed and water every day? Should someone be posted nearby to guard them? Or would it be a single, collective space, where the community’s animals would live and which would probably begin to resemble a factory farm?

Frankly, I would have heard about the SARS issue much earlier had McDonough + Partners actually told me; but a year ago, they weren’t talking to me; before that, McDonough was publicly blaming the developer for the project’s outcome.

And in any case, as a journalist it’s not always enough for me to rely on what “they” tell me–it’s often better to just go and have a look myself. That’s why I went to Huangbaiyu rather than simply report on what McDonough + Partners might have told me here in America. I would hope a community designer would do the same: visit the place and take a walk around. It soon becomes clear that these farmers do live near and interact with their animals.

3. I think it’s perfectly appropriate that the USGBC invited me on stage to talk about this project in the context of my story. My reporting was fair and well-researched; the story is designed to give a look at the village and what contributed to the present outcome of the development. Another person who could deliver a fair, and even more thorough, analysis, would be Shannon May, the anthropologist who lived two years in the village.

That the McDonough people weren’t on stage does not seem especially critical in light of this. For what it’s worth, the fact that they did want a place on the stage suggests that they feel some sense of ownership or responsibility regarding the project’s outcome. The bigger issue this brings up is one of accountability, a point that is essential to my story. But if they wanted to go onstage simply to defend their reputation, that would defeat the purpose of the panel, because it becomes about them and not about the project.

As I pointed out yesterday at the event, it’s difficult to tell a story if people who are part of it refuse to participate. I spent a month trying to get on-the-record comments about this project from them, especially William McDonough. In fact, I corresponded with Kira Gould, McDonough’s communications director, who was sitting next to Ms Dale in the audience. McDonough and his firm had an opportunity to tell their story in my report. They are expert designers; I wanted to hear their expert conclusions. And they took a pass.

But now that the story’s out and I’ve been invited to speak on it, they want to be on stage, too. Frankly, this makes me think of someone who complains about an election but didn’t bother to vote. Like voting, a robust press is a part of what makes the democracy. Participation is key.

Several attendees who had no opinion or knowledge of the project approached me after the talk. A couple of them said that McDonough staffers had talked to them after my talk, as well. One woman said she’d just been told that the local officials completely cut the Americans out of the project, and McDonough + Partners could only participate as a kind of consultant with no real influence or control. Another attendee claims he was told by a McDonough staffer that they had almost no budget for their work on the village design, and that the budget barely paid for their plane tickets, which is why they couldn’t do a thorough job. Neither of those points came up during Ms Dale’s comments, though they sound as if they would be fundamental to the outcome.

Still, I was glad to finally hear something from William McDonough + Partners.

journalism, politics

Following up on Calling It

A few days ago, the Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed toward a brief CNN discussion on how best to call the candidates out. The reporter Candy Crowley prevaricates, pointing out that Obama’s side tells its share of the inaccurate statements about McCain. But Mark Halperin clarifies that McCain’s inaccurate statements are much more central to his campaign. As Coates wrote:

I get what she’s saying, but saying that Barack Obama stretches the truth to, doesn’t really address the fundamental argument–that the media should check these mo-fos when they lie….The point isn’t that the media should be harder on just McCain, it’s that they should do their job with all candidates. Saying “Well the other guy does it to” isn’t a “get of your job free” card.

Here’s the video:

And, following up on the earlier post, Call It as You See It, Chris Matthews seems to feel he’s struck gold, uncovering a vein of denial among some of his Republican guests:

journalism, politics

Call It as You See It

Chris Matthews recently interviewed a McCain representative named Nancy Pfotenhauer. He followed up on her answers, and had statistics in hand. He called her out.

If journalism, especially television journalism, was simply meant to provide an outlet for the various sides of a campaign to get their messages out, without any additional probing or challenges–well, maybe campaigns ought to pay for that air-time, because that’s called advertising.

The Obama partisan does comes across better, if not quite as composed (usually we wait for the conversation to devolve a bit before deploying a “let me finish”), and walks away unscathed. Maybe this is bias on the part of Matthews, the possibility of which I wouldn’t discount, but he also seems to have simply run out of steam. After all, Pfotenhauer begins to pick a fight with Matthews when it turns out that he and his staff have done some research, and it must be exasperating for everyone. (When he asks who she voted for in 2004, her response is to ask who Matthews voted for.) I guess only Gene Simmons and Bill O’Reilly can get away with walking out, mid-interview.

I tend to think of Chris Matthews as behaving like a really smart 14-year-old political junkie who knows how smart he is and sticks tenaciously to his understanding of things, but whose attitude is leavened with flashes of earnesty and humility, and who still wants you to like him.* The sort of kid you remember later while shaking your head and grinning. And sometimes Pfotenhauer talks to him as if he were. Considering the reputation Matthews has gained over the years, especially in the months since the Times Magazine profile, he seemed to pull back a bit later in this interview. But he did jab in the last word.

It’s become a cliché to point out that some of the best journalism on television is done by The Daily Show. Exposing paradox or hypocrisy is something that many feel is missing in the news–most thoughtful reporting and interviewing in daily journalism is dwarfed by the more straightforward, reflexive play-by-play or horse-race style of political and business reporting. But I think Matthews manages to get at one of the core paradoxes of the current iteration of the McCain campaign. And so, famously, did the Daily Show about ten days ago, in a piece on McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, which I include here, in part, because it also features the now-familiar face of Nancy Pfotenhauer.

*I’m guessing this is actually how many grown-up politicians probably behave, too.

India, international, journalism, movies

Golden Gate, Inc = Bollywood in Bay Area

Exterior shot of movie set in San Jose. 

Bollywood production with big Bollywood star comes to the Bay Area, and they wouldn’t let me take any photos. That’s the view toward their San Jose set yesterday. The city hall rotunda in San Jose was “Golden Gate, Inc.,” hence the sign outside. It is apparently also called “Golden Gate Engineering,” if the signs inside the rotunda were any indication. The discontinuity nerds will like that.

There’s nothing like a 600-word story with a three-person byline. But that’s what we got in the San Jose Mercury News today

Apparently, it is a bridge engineering firm. Hence the banners with the bridges in the windows of the rotunda, (barely) visible below.

 rotunda close-up with bridge banners

history, ideas, international, journalism

Unfamiliar does not equal Improbable

Kaplan has a worthy review of Donald Rumsfeld’s strategic legacy in the Atlantic. I’ll comment more on it later. But for now, a provocative point that Kaplan introduces in the piece’s lede:

In 1962, a Harvard economics professor named Thomas C. Schelling wrote an introduction to Roberta Wohlstetter’s Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. In a few hundred words, Schelling, a future Nobel Prize winner, delivered a tour de force about the failure to anticipate events. “We were so busy thinking through some ‘obvious’ Japanese moves,” he writes,

that we neglected to hedge against the choice that they actually made … There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable … Furthermore, we made the terrible mistake … of forgetting that a fine deterrent can make a superb target.

Schelling’s introduction so impressed Donald H. Rumsfeld that he memorized parts of it and, as others have reported, regularly handed it out before the Pearl Harbor–level attack of 9/11. In his subsequent planning for the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld took Schelling’s precepts to heart, thought pessimistically about all sorts of dire scenarios, and got the best possible result.

But only up to the point when organized Iraqi military resistance collapsed. In a tragic, latter-day extension of Schelling’s analysis, Rumsfeld was so busy thinking about the Iraqis’ “obvious” military moves—launching chemical weapons, making a last stand in Baghdad—that he neglected to hedge against what they actually did: melt away and return weeks later as small bands of insurgents. Because of the meager resistance to our interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the swiftness of our apparent victory in Afghanistan in 2001, which Rumsfeld had played a great part in orchestrating, by early 2003 the specter of a debilitating Vietnam-scale insurgency against the United States military had been sufficiently exorcised to seem “unfamiliar,” and therefore to be confused with “the improbable.” By the time Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad, we had become too impressed with our own military to see it as a “superb target.”