Departures: Local: Scarlet Comes to Town

It was Sunday November 9, 2003, but I was thinking about the earthquake and fires of 1989. In 1989, San Francisco's Marina district had been a place of disasters, and I was thinking that I was in the middle of one of a disaster there in 2003. It was early in the morning. I had rung the doorbell of the house where I'd been told that Lea W. was living. But the sleepy-looking lady who answered the door, though she exhibited many positive qualities, was not Lea.

I said I was a friend of Lea and Scarlet's. She looked at me funny. And then I started apologizing as fast as was humanly possible. And along the way, she said, "Oh, are you looking for Lea?

I was at the right house, but Lea was living in a basement in-law apartment. The nice lady let me into the house and pointed me at a stairway down to Lea's area.

I felt kind of bad about ringing at the wrong door, but as I headed down the basement steps, I heard the doorbell ring again. I wasn't the only one who had gone to the wrong door.

There was Scarlet, and Lea, and Piaw, and me. So it was like a reunion of the 1998 San Juans sailing trip. And there was Lisa and there was Tim (Tim of Mirapoint, not Tim of the 1997 Channel Islands sailing sailing trip), so it was even better.

North to Marin and the North Pole

We went up to Mount Tamalpais, to the Pantoll Ranger Station. I was in a car with Tim, and told him about my visit to Fort Baker the week before. Specifically, I told him about seeing the Coast Guard chasing Santa Claus.

This led to conjecture about why the Coast Guard would chase Santa Claus. I thought he didn't stop to pay customs and tariffs when crossing national borders. Tim thought that Santa probably had a free trade agreement with most nations. If a national leader refused Santa free passage, surely that leader wouldn't get any presents.

I wondered how many elves must be in Santa's diplomatic corps to work out all of these treaties.

"You're Not Going to Put this Picture on Your Web Page, Are You?"

We hiked. It was foggy. The Steep Ravine Trail was gorgeous, of course, all lush green mosses and ferns contrasting with orange pine needles on the ground and damp stone, a chuckling creek.

Piaw was settling in at Google, putting together a software release plan. Tim was trying to convince Piaw that Mirapoint was getting better. Scarlet had made a border crossing into the USA without her passport after September 11 2001. Lea was a few months into a three-year research fellowship at UCSF.

We talked about fun things to do in San Francisco. We talked about geology, about formations which endure because they offer more resistance to the weather than others. We talked about bicycling, Eric House, and the exploits of Gary Fisher.

After the hike through the fog, we were pretty damp.

Photo: Tim, Piaw, Lisa, Scarlet, Lea Photo: Larry, Tim, Piaw, Scarlet, Lea

Marin County is Like a Movie Where Strange Things Happen For No Reason

We headed up to the headlands, up to a scenic overlook. There are gun bunkers there, and we walked up to a bunker tunnel. At one end of the tunnel, there was a lady with a flute or recorder. In the middle of the tunnel was a lady singing. Their music harmonized and echoed and was beautiful. Our group wanted to reach the area on the other side of the tunnel, so we walked through, not scraping our feet, keeping quiet, surrounded by music. We mostly kept quiet, until we noticed that past visitors had left graffiti--cave paintings of bison. Then there was some giggling. The music followed us out of the tunnel.

They Were Out of Dan Tat

At the City View Dim Sum Parlor, I didn't want any mango pudding.

They day before, it had stormed, but I'd walked along Ocean Beach. I'd watched pale, dry sand blown over dark, wet sand. The sand had blown in wisps and tendrils. I'd watched it, a vector field that roiled and changed over time. I'd affected the system by walking through it, my sandals breaking through the wet sand to expose dry sand underneath, dry sand that could be picked up through the wind. It had been wonderful and I'd stayed out in that wind for a while. And then it had started raining.

So I had quickly sought shelter. And when the rain let up, I made my way to Golden Island, where I'd had dun dan with almond.

So on Sunday I wasn't in the mood for pudding. Scarlet didn't want pudding either. It reminded her of food that had been predigested.

Going Southbound

It was Monday, November 10, 2003, and I ran across the street in front of the San Antonio Ave Caltrain station in night-dark Mountain View, flagging down the North Bayshore Employer Shuttle. It had just delivered a load of high-tech workers from their office parks to the train station, and I wanted to hitch a ride back to the office parks.

I asked the driver if that was OK, and it was. I asked him if he went to the Google building, and he said, "Which Google building? Old Google? New Google? The big Google?" Uh-oh. I was going to visit Piaw at his office, and I knew he worked at Google, but I hadn't realized that there were so many buildings in the Googleplex.

The bus driver said that he was born and raised in San Francisco, that he grew up in the Mission. He said "Boy, oh boy." He said "Boy, oh boy" a lot and I just barely restrained myself from slipping the phrase into my own conversation.

Underbelly of the Arcade Experience

I was early, and Piaw needed to get some work done while waiting for the other visitors to arrive. So we went into the building zero gym. Piaw said hi to the guys playing foosball, voiced regret that the pinball game was out of commission, parked me in front of a MAME cabinet, and started up 1942. Yes, it was a geek gym. (There were also weight machines, treadmills, and other things for people who actually think gyms are for exercising.)

Piaw took off. I played 1942. The foosball guys finished their game and took off. I played more 1942. Then things got interesting, though I can't explain them very well. Two Googlers showed up to figure out what was wrong with the pinball machine. They slid out the cover glass, and lifted up the platform that the ball would normally roll on. This exposed the guts of the machine, the first pinball guts I'd ever seen.

There were wires everywhere. It didn't seem like all of the sensors and controls were connected to a single controller, it looked like a distributed network. There were little electric ball-pusher things, and, uhm, other neat stuff I don't have the vocabulary to describe. It was pretty cool.

They put the machine into diagnostic mode. Apparently, this caused it to display the status of its sensors on screen, because this allowed them to confirm that the "drain sensor" couldn't detect when the player had lost a ball. Or, rather, it wasn't a broken sensor, it was an LED which sent out the light beam which the sensor detected. Anyhow, one of the Googlers said he could bring in a replacement LED.

I resisted an urge to devote my life to wandering the earth as an itinerant pinball machine repair person.


Lisa showed up, and we played foosball. She had fond memories of playing foosball at school. She certainly schooled me.

Scarlet, and Lea showed up. We had dinner with Piaw and Naomi (another Googler) in the Google cafeteria and talked about Google. Piaw and Naomi seemed pretty psyched up.

As we ate, Scarlet noticed that there was a wall-mounted camera peeking over our shoulder. She waved at the camera and said, "Mmm, mmm, this sure is tasty!" Piaw said that this was a web-cam, so that Googlers in their offices could see if there were seats available. I thought about the Openwave solution to this problem: shrink the company to a fraction of its former size, freeing up plenty of cafeteria space.

I noticed that, even more than I appreciated the gourmet cooked squash, the thing I liked best about the Google cafeteria was the presence of sriracha hot sauce amongst the condiments.

I Can Mention Perforce, I Saw It Mentioned In An Interview

I'm not sure exactly what I may and may not say about the Google offices without giving away company secrets. You have perhaps already read 20 bazillion articles about Google, have read about the five-star chef, the massages, the toys.

I will say that there is a wall covered with a timeline on which are written certain events in the company history. Anyone can write stuff in.

I noticed a couple of entries in tiny writing, right next to each other. "[Dude]'s first check-in to the main branch." Immediately afterward: "[Dude] first breaks the main branch." Ouch. I pointed that out to Piaw. Piaw said, maybe I should write something on there about "Piaw first breaks Perforce." I said, "Perforce? You broke the software that collaborating programmers use to share their code with each other?" (I really did give all of that expository text, for the benefit of the non-techies present.) "Well, I made a very big query."

Maybe I'd become bitter and cynical about start-ups, but hearing that Google used Perforce made me feel better about them than seeing the free candy in the break rooms. I wasn't looking at the toys, I was looking at the books on shelves. There was a copy of Effective C++. Yayy.

Green, Gray, and Blue. Steep. Many Cows.

Then Piaw and Lisa showed slides of the photos Lisa had taken of their recent bike ride in the Alps. I'd pointed some friends of mine at the ride report, and my friends had been surprised: the report had lots of material about biking, but almost nothing about the sights. I'd guessed that this was a ride report aimed at other bike riders who were thinking of riding in the area--the audience would need help figuring out logistics, but wouldn't need help in in appreciating the views.

After seeing the slides, I was pretty sure that Piaw hadn't written much about the sights because he didn't want to be chased by an envious mob. The Alps were pretty.

The Price of Fame

Piaw mentioned that when you start at Google, you immediately get handed three bike jerseys. "Bike jerseys? Why bike jerseys?" Piaw clarified: "Well, you get to choose three items from the Google store..." Scarlet finished: "...and of course, what else would you want but bike jerseys?"

All this talk about Google bike jerseys inspired a question from me:"Hey, what ever happened to that guy Chad?" I'd always wondered why Google never updated their "Chad bikes America" page. Had Chad quit Google, and were they too embarrassed to admit it? Had he been lost at sea? Were the Google marketing folks just too lazy to update the page?

Now was my chance to find out. What ever happened to Chad?

"You saw him," Piaw said, "He was one of the guys playing foosball when you got here." So Chad was alive and well, and I totally hadn't noticed him..

It's a Pun. From a Movie.

We adjourned to the parking lot and talked more about Google.

Lea and Scarlet liked the Google atmosphere. They were impressed by the idea of on-site massages. Piaw said that new employees got a couple of free-massage coupons, and another coupon each birthday. He also said that these coupons served as the currency of an underground Google economy. If you wanted to ask a favor of someone, you might offer them a massage coupon in exchange.

In fact, Piaw had scheduled a massage for this very day, but had canceled. He was too busy for a massage today. "In fact, I've got all these coupons, but I'm always too busy to use them," he said.

I was all set to yell, "No time for rub, Doctor Jones!" but someone said something much less geeky, so I kept my mouth shut.

Back to Civilization

I talked with Lea as she drove us up to San Francisco, Scarlet snoozing in the back seat. She said that the Google atmosphere reminded her of MicroSoft, before the lawsuit. And she remembered the atmosphere of MicroSoft after the lawsuit: much less cheery, much more corporate.

If I'd been more awake, I might have said, "Yeah, but everyone outside MicroSoft knew that MicroSoft was evil before the lawsuit. But everyone outside Google loves it, right? Google will remain a beacon of benevolence in the world, right? It can grow to become a 1500-person company but retain its soul, right?" But I was sleepy and bleary and probably just muttered something noncommittal.


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