Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mulholland a Christmas Carol--a holiday play

Los Angeles now has its own holiday play tradition with this 5th run of Bill Robens' musical A Mulholland Christmas Carol. The play is at A Sacred Fool theater, 660 No. Heliotrope, for a pre-Christmas run and is presented by two fine small theaters--Sacred Fools and Theater of Note. The play, the best written about Los Angeles since Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit, shows the choice between greed or generosity and is particularly appropriate for the 2008 holiday season in the new recession.

Robens rewrites Dickens class tale "A Christmas Carol" about greed, poverty, and justice making Ebenezer Scrooge, the mean spirited wealthy man, into William Mulholland, the man who built Los Angeles Department of Water and Power at the beginning of the 20th century. A small band with violin, keyboards, guitar, bass, and drummer played the score while the excellent cast sings the wonderful musical numbers. The show also has fine choreography including the Owens Valley farmers dancing traditional country dances while they sing "Our Owens Valley Song," a song of praise to rural California.

The story begins the day before Christmas when Mulholland at his DWP office won't give the drought-struck Owens Valley farmers any water and threatens to lay off his clerk Van Norman. That night Mulholland is visited by four ghosts. The first is Fred Eaton, ex-mayor of Los Angeles who helped Mulholland steal Owens Valley water, now a ghost in chains. The next ghost is explorer John Wesley Powell as Ghost of Christmas past who shows Mulholland scenes of his youth when he first came to Los Angeles as a poor idealistic young man who sings "Los Angeles River," a lovely song to L.A.'s very own river.

The play delightfully satirizes water politics and corruption in the song "Land Grab" with Harrison Gray Otis, builder of the Los Angeles Times newspaper; Moses Sherman, developer of the city's first electric car system; and rest of the cast singing and dancing out how Los Angeles got all of Owen's Valley Water leading to a twenty years water war.

The next Ghost of Christmas present is Teddy Roosevelt who along with Mulholland sing Roosevelt's mantra "Bully" about forging ahead to get what you want before the Ghost shows Mulholland the suffering of Owens Valley farmers in the drought-stricken region as well as the poor Christmas of his clerk Van Norman and his family.

The Ghost of Christmas Future, a black robbed figure, points out to old Mulholland two alternative futures. He can continue to build the Saint Francis Dam which will then burst--it really did spectacularly burst onstage--to drown hundreds or he can stop building the dam and share his water with the Owens Valley farmers and his wealth with his clerk Van Norman and his family helping them have a better Christmas. The alternative futures in December, 2008, are California alternative futures.

So rush to this show if you want to have a real Los Angeles holiday play. Also, hopefully the play will be videotaped as well as a recording made of the score and songs. The play is the most wonderful way to teach history, so a videotape as well as CD should be in Los Angeles' libraries as well as its schools..

Sacred Fools Theater Company
660 No. Heliotrope, Los Angeles Ca 90004

Friday, November 07, 2008

Best Silicon Valley novel: Pat Dillon's "The Last Best Thing"

Pat Dillon's funny satire The Last Best Thing is by far the best novel about Silicon Valley in the last 20 years. Despite the dot com explosion of the early 21st century when most start-ups went bust, the basic myth of Silicon Valley that any enterprising young person can come to the Valley, work hard in a start-up and make millions young still lingers. In September during the financial crises New York Times magazine even had an article on how Silicon Valley maybe could save the economy, so the newspaper should read Dillon's novel.

Dillon satirizes J.P. McCorwin or J.P., head of a start-up who like many heads of Silicon Valley companies is charismatic and legendary. J.P.s legend began when he headed R & D of Infinity Corporation where he had helped develop many new spiffy products. Dillon quickly punctures the myth: J.P. 's new products "defined both narcissism and overpricing and excited everyone except consumers and financial analysts" so he was fired. Dillon portrays how J.P., who was once a countercultural radical, has changed: the man who once hung out with French anarchists while studying at the Sorbonne has recreated himself after reading Any Rand and wants to serve God and greed at the same time as getting revenge against his former company. The name of J.P.'s French sidekick is priceless: Baba RAM DOS. Dillon is the only novelist of Silicon Valley who satirizes the Bay Area's cultural evolution from 1960s to the 1990s from counterculture to using computers for greed and revenge.

Even better, the novel wonderfully capture's J.P.s '60s rhetoric to his employees and journalists to ring in the suckers. He has no product but boasts to all the product will change the world and get them all rich. It's about time that a novelist skewered the heads of start-ups like J.P. who rushed to get millions of venture capital and were obsessed with stock shares when they had few or no products and no profits. The myth of Silicon Valley is a hard one to puncture but Dillon does so hilariously. A lot of the plot is absurd which wonderfully captures the absurdity of rushing to sell stocks with no profits to back it up as so many did in the Valley. Like Dillion says the J.P.s of Silicon Valley were selling "vapor."

Dillon also satirizes people's escaping into online fantasies. Brad, the head of marketing at J.P.s company, is having an Internet affair with the online sexpot Rose D. rather than deal with his falling apart marriage, his alienated son, or his wife's bullying his daughter. When nearing the climatic online moment with RoseD his laptop catches fires. After another laptop explodes, Brad finds that the second victim Jason, the programmer, was also online hot and heavy with RoseD. Brad is aware that both men are competing for the same virtual woman.

This novel is the first to explore the Valley's geography and history while other Silicon Valley novelists recreate Anywhere U.S.A as they describe mansions, offices, chains, and fast food joints. Dillon uses two characters--Brad the marketing guy and Maria Cisneros, the Mexican-American Executive Assistant--to symbolized all those who grew up in the area but feel like outsiders to explore this geography and history. Brad feels left-out on the day when all his Palo Alto neighbors celebrate their private colleges with banners so he hoists his old San Jose State t-shirt to the gable over the doorway, which provokes put downs from his Yuppie wife.

Maria grew up in as daughter to a vineyard foreman in Santa Clara Valley, the pre-Silicon Valley. She grew up on farmland in the eastern foothills then sold to developers which her retired father always laments, but she went on to get a Stanford MBA. In the job interview with J.P., Maria is seduced by J.P.'s tales of both producing the Last Big Thing to make a bundle of money improving the world so she gives him thousands of both her and her dad's hard earned money as "seed money." She lives now in glitzy new Silicon Valley but left her heart in old rural Santa Clara.

Maria and Brad are the naive ones taken in by financial seductions of the J.P.'s of the world. While the FBI hunts for RoseB, J.P. plans to use publicity to get a "buzz" while he still has no product to sell but still plans a IPO to make a killing in the stock market before he cuts and runs. Both Maria and Brad are like Kafesque characters lost in this absurd world. Brad realizes he's head of marketing but has no idea what the product he's supposed to market while Maria has to write a SEC prospectus for the IPO also without knowing what the product is. Dillon satirizes their naivete as they slowly gain forces to try to understand what J.P. is doing and who RoseD is? Dillon's novel is so good because its the only one to completely step outside of the get-rich-quick myth of Silicon Valley to show us how naive and propesterous this myth is.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Three Good Silicon Valley novels

I've been reading a lot of Silicon Valley literature in preparation for California Studies Association next conference in De Anza College in April, 2009. The conference is on Silicon Valley.

Well, here are short takes on three good Silicon Valley novels:

1. Matt Richtel's "Hooked," a fun, absorbing murder mystery about addictions. Nat Idle the hero, a S.F. medical journalist, is sitting in a San Francisco Internet cafe when a woman hands him a note in the handwriting of his dead girlfriend Annie telling him to leave immediately. He walks out and then the Internet cafe blows up. Idle uses his journalistic skills to search for who bombed the cafe and to investigate if Annie is really dead. Annie was/is a venture capitalist, daughter of a leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist. So the novel takes us from the mansions of venture capitalists to the down home S.F. bars where Idle hands out with his friends, from encrypted files to geeks who open such files. In a lighthearted way the mystery is really about addiction to love and addiction to computers and how the two are intertwined.

2. Po Bronson's "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest" is a fascinating novel about young engineers struggling to escape the treadmill of bad jobs and boring lives in Silicon Valley. The head of research at La Honda Research Center in the Silicon Valley hills assigns new engineer Andy Caspar to La Honda's worst research job: designing the $300 computer. Caspar recruits three other software and hardware guys at La Honda and inspires his team to take their job seriously. After they are all fired, they begin their own startup--the four idealistic young guys trying to make a go it amidst the nasty politics, betrayals, and backstabbing of the older men in the computer industry.

Bronson gets the details right from Caspar's boarding house for penniless Stanford grad students, to all four engineers' romantic problems, to the 'board" meetings the four engineers have in the local fast food joints to the mind games the engineers play such as the infinity loop. Infinity loop is a prank engineers play getting a newbie to go on a wild goose chase ending exactly where they started. The infinity loop in the novel is the model for all the traps or loops or treadmills in society that make people go round and round ending exactly where they started. The engineers are aiming at jolting society out of its infinity loop.

3. Po Bronson's "Bombadiers is a satire of corrupt bond traders on mid-1990s San Francisco. While not actually set in Silicon Valley, the novel captures the 1990s spirit of yuppies struggling on awful jobs to make big bucks and how their companies mercilessly manipulate them. Bronson worked for a time at First Boston, an investment bank, so he really captures the atmosphere of Bay Area yuppies on the make--whether in finance or Silicon Valley of the 1990s. Actually, the two fields were closely intertwined.

Sid Geeder, the hero of "Bombadiers," is the King of Mortgages, the top seller of terrible overpriced bonds based on bad mortgages from failed S & Ls. Geeder and all the other salespeople know the bonds are terrible and know that the bonds are unpayable, but gleefully he sells bonds worth millions to those he hates as a way to undermine to government. To sell the bonds, Geeder makes up lies that "were well-constructed bombs that blew up few years down the road." Geeder is a "bombadier," spewing out his bombs--lies--about the financial system in order to make his $4 million in stock. Now that all those bombs of securities based on bad mortgages have blown up the global financial system, this novel is utterly fascinating in a ghoulish way.

Bronson's chapter "Addictions" shows how the bonds salespeople are all addicted--to greed, to drugs, to lousy romances. Addictions seems to be part of the job. Another fascinating chapter "Information Economics" deals with how "the Information Economy was a Ponzi scheme spiraling out of control" starting with information glut stemming from computers and the press as well as the investment bank spreading rumors aka lies through the information system to help sell bonds. If a reader wants to understand the mindset of bond and stock traders knowingly selling bad securities, this novel is for you.

Another fascinating chapter is "Assets" detailing how this extremely rich investment bank tries to stay as liquid as possible--everything in its offices is temporary and it can fire all its salespeople at any moment. The company's biggest asset is its workers' brainpower: "the firm strategized incessantly to milk its employees' brainpower while simultaneously keeping them so strung out, addicted, and off-kilter they didn't know how valuable they had become." What's fascinating is "Bombadiers" as well as "Hooked" show how Yuppie's addictions hook them into the nasty system while the characters in "Bombadiers" as well as "The First Twenty Million" struggle to escape this vicious system or get out of the infinity loop.