May 30, 2006

Nerds and rich people.

It's what you need to make the next Silicon Valley. How do you get nerds and rich people in the same place? When do rich people want to live in a place that nerds like? And what do nerds like?
What nerds like is the kind of town where people walk around smiling. This excludes LA, where no one walks at all, and also New York, where people walk, but not smiling. When I was in grad school in Boston, a friend came to visit from New York. On the subway back from the airport she asked "Why is everyone smiling?" I looked and they weren't smiling. They just looked like they were compared to the facial expressions she was used to.


Michiel said...

The second link is broken, and I don't see the connection between the subject and the first link. Shouldn't you be linking to this?

Dave said...

"What nerds like is the kind of town where people walk around smiling. This excludes LA, where no one walks at all, and also New York, where people walk, but not smiling."

This is why NYU and Columbia's Law & Business Schools are ranked so highly.

Because nerds don't want to be in New York City.

What kind of abject idiocy is that? Those who think technology industry lives and dies on the backs of computer programmers (or whatever the stereotype du jour is) ignore the point that technology companies, too, need expert lawyers and marketers and finance people.

Matt Roth-Cline said...

Dave: You didn't read the essay, did you?

The essay argues that those people will come once business starts booming. But to start your new silicon valley, you need critical masses of both programmers and money.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

That's a weird perspective on New York.

Anyone who's been here lately knows that it looks more or less like any other big city in this country. Everybody is college educated and, to one degree or another, 'nice'.

Rents are $1500/mo 20 minutes out in Brooklyn! Hello! You gotta be a major yuppie or a trust funder to live here. La Vie Boheme is gone. Yout don't see scowling artists and freaky junkies anymore. The competitive lawyer/media/business types all go to yoga.

Ann Althouse said...

Sorry to screw up both links! Fixed now.

Dave said...

Matt: Didn't read the article because the links were broken.

Will read later if the links are fixed.

Matt Roth-Cline said...

Dave: that's a pretty weak excuse for uninformed ranting.

MadisonMan said...

I've always thought I was a nerd. My wife calls me a nerd. Yet I dislike Boulder and Berkeley. So apparently I'm not a nerd.

I need to redefine myself, I guess.

And matt r-c: Right on!

Zach said...

Boulder is a nice town, but it's extremely business-unfriendly. (I live there now) Basically, it's a town that decided to specialize in being a nice place to live, and counts on people making their money somewhere else. Plus, it's extremely expensive as is. How are you planning to fit 20-40,000 more people into the same area?

Graham's too fixated on his "creative class" thinking to really think this one through. Denver is a fine city, built on a flat plain (so expansion is cheap) with a great downtown and something like half the costs of Boulder, about 30 minutes away from Boulder.

Paul Graham tends to weigh his own aesthetic preferences much too highly in his analysis (if you doubt this, read one of the many essays where he concludes that the next hot new language will be ... Lisp!) I like the Boulder/Denver area as much as the next guy, and I'd love to work here, but I'm not sure why Boulder and Portland make the list of cities with destiny, and fast-expanding cities like Las Vegas and Houston don't. I suspect it's because Graham doesn't personally want to live in Las Vegas or Houston.

Nonetheless, I think the essay would be quite a bit sharper if it considered other fast-expanding cities, even if only to conclude that Boulder and Portland were better. As written, it's just Paul Graham's list of funky cities he'd like to live in.

Ann Althouse said...

"As written, it's just Paul Graham's list of funky cities he'd like to live in."

Yeah, his failure to mention Madison bugs me. He does mention Ithaca -- where he went to school -- but dismisses it because it has winter.

Glenn Howes said...

I suspect I'm as close as anyone reading this to the kind of techno-nerd the article writer is discribing.

I think the writer is simply extrapolating his personal preferences to geekdom as a whole. There are plenty of suburban loving geeks running around, and plenty who prefer Pittsburgh to San Francisco. How can you say that geeks live in Silicon Valley because of the personality and libralism of San Francisco? The center of Silicon Valley is San Jose, as vanilla a city findable in California (although there is a ample Vietnamese food.)

On a personal note, I'd rather live in Duluth, MN than San Francisco. Every year, I go to Apple's Developer Conference in SF, and every year I wish they'd move it back to San Jose.

Maybe one reason for one city being a tech hub is a nexus of Chinese and Indian immigrants, some place where they can buy familar foods and smell familar smells. After all, Pittsburgh has the lowest concentration of Asians of any major city in the U.S..

Or maybe, it's just the law of expanding returns, the network effect, and the first mover advantage all rolled into one. The bigger the geek population the larger the geek magnetism. Perhaps, tele-presence technologies will eliminate this and factors like home pricing and taxation will cause my fellow geeks to join me in New Hampshire.

Why isn't Madison a tech hub based on this guy's premise? It has an excellent research University. It's certainly a walking/biking city with more bookstores per capita than anywhere else. I'd be happy to move there, but there are very few coding jobs there.

MadisonMan said...

He does mention Ithaca -- where he went to school -- but dismisses it because it has winter.

Winter would certainly disqualify Madison then as well. Paul Graham certainly sounds kinda whiny when it comes to weather.

Jonathan said...

I think Graham makes some valid points, but (like everyone else) the farther he gets from areas he knows well the weaker his speculations become. His conflation of political "liberalism" and open-mindedness is a howler, for example, and his casual acceptance of discredited pop-leftist notions about the evils of "sprawl" and of what makes a city work (see Joel Kotkin for counterarguments) detract from his case. However, he seems insightful about the need to create incentives for creative people and wealthy prospective backers to live in the same area (of course this is the discussion theme with which he probably has the most experience).

Some of this is taste. The problem with Madison, Minneapolis and Chicago is that they have unpleasant weather a lot of the time, particularly for people who don't like cold. It's probably a lot easier to get people to move to the SF Bay Area or a place like Boulder, particularly in the case of young, single men for whom housing prices are not a major consideration.

One problem with NYC as a startup hub is that costs are very high there. Also, despite its vaunted "liberalism" I think it's a stodgy place from a business perspective. It is very much a big-business town. Graham's point about the importance of the character of the local population -- is it stodgy or open-minded? -- is one of his strongest.

I think Zach's point about Denver vs. Boulder is insightful. However, given Graham's weakness in understanding urban issues I doubt it will be fruitful to look to him for enlightenment. I nonetheless look forward to his follow-up essay.

L. Ron Halfelven said...

Of course winter is absolutely unknown in Boulder.

VW: qzqdhozl. Hey, did Graham mention Mexico City?

Richard Fagin said...

"Forbes FYI" ran an article several years ago titled, "How the West Kicked Butt" in which many of the same issues were evaluated.

The authors concluded that the physical climate in Silicon Valley had quite a bit to do with its entrepreneurial success. With 300 perfect days a year, people don't mind missing a lot of them to work 22 hours a day, and the ever present earthquake risk drew out those predisposed to take risks.

Stanford some time ago displaced Harvard (law/business) and MIT (computer science) as leaders.

Maxine Weiss said...

I would think Milwaukee would make it before Madison.

I never realized there was such a rivalry between the two cities.

Peace, Maxine

Ron said...

I find New York much more friendly than, really, I do!

Matt Roth-Cline said...

Glenn Howes: I'll give you a run for your money on the techno-nerd scale. :)

If you've read any of his other essays, you'll find that projecting his own preferences onto the market at large is basically what Paul Graham does. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because PG has a lot of good experience and his preferences usually do align quite well with mainstream geek culture.

One reason why Madison hasn't taken off as a tech town is that we don't have a lot of investors here. The local market for programmers is actually quite hot right now, but most of the work is contracting for the state gov't. That sort of work generally doesn't attract the sort of programmer that is really interested in entrepreneurship. But the relative dearth of investors is a much bigger problem.

P. Froward said...

For those who aren't in the business, Zach's remark about LISP is on target: LISP is a programming language from the 1950s which is considered very elegant (as in math, not as in Vogue), but not very practical. It's marginal in academia (excepting Graham's alma mater, MIT) and virtually unused in industry. It's been a widely-exposed failure in the "market" for fifty years. It has had its chances.

Graham is a dabbler and a blowhard. His ideas are superficially plausible, but they're usually about a millimeter deep — sometimes even in programming (see above), which is one of the very few fields he knows anything about.

Sometimes he lapses into absolute gibberish, like when he offers Google as an example of a company smart enough not to use Java: He explains that when they hire Java programmers, they like to see some Python (a programming language he prefers) experience as well. No joke: He uses their ads for Java programmers to prove that they don't use Java. WTF? That essay is about how smart people don't like Java, and those job ads from Google are the only real data he offers. But he doesn't even link them; knowing Graham, it may have been only a single ad, from which he extrapolated. Aside from that, Graham offers nothing more than some vague impressions about what he thinks his friends like. That's his usual method.

Glenn Howes has it right. Graham suffers from Eric Raymond Syndrome: He thinks he can learn everything worth knowing about a whole cluster of professions merely by looking in a mirror. He's a fool.

In programming, you can reliably generalize in ways which are perfectly nonsensical in the real world. It also happens that programmers are often unfamiliar with reality, particularly the human race. It's not rare for programmers to make asses of themselves this way.

He does have a reasonable grasp of the obvious, at least: The thought of a "civil servant" funding startups is as hilarious as he says it is.

P. Froward said...

Incidentally, Graham really did help start, and run, an extremely successful startup. He's not actually a moron. But that was right out of grad school; it's the only programming job he's ever had. His experience in the industry is very narrow.

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that there are different types of nerds. The ones whom I am most familiar with are more interested in the outdoors ementies than the indoors types. That was true in both Austin and Boulder. Now, coming from Colorado, I could never understand outdoor activies in Austin, but many of the engineers I worked with there were avid bicyclists, both mountain and road biking. (But I still don't see why you would prefer mountain biking in Austin than in Boulder).

BTW, as to the comments about Boulder - whatever growth there is around the town is definately not in Boulder, but rather much of it is around it, where it doesn't have to conform to the ZPG Boulder mentality (and resulting sky high housing costs) - for example, the US 36 corrider.

But I think that the authors have some good points. The problems with Boulder (and CO in general) are that the university system is not world class - because, in the example of CU, the relatively conservative population is tired of paying for Ward Churchills, and there isn't the level of VC money there.

I have experienced the difference a couple of times with Silicon Valley. Not only is it easier to find financing, but you also have an easier time getting an experienced money man involved - someone who has been through acquisitions and IPOs enough to be good at it, and to find the financing. You can often tell if a company is serious about this sort of thing precisely this way - they may be young, but if they have an experienced money guy on-board, they are serious (and a serious contender, because these guys don't go with losers). And these money guys also tend to live in places like Silicon Valley, and like to be able to drop by and keep their eyes on things.

Bruce Hayden said...

The problem though that Silicon Valley is facing is that it isn't that attractive a place anymore. I have pictures of my great-aunt and great-great grandparents camping out in Palo Alto in the 1920s, before she moved to Hawaii. It was rustic then - there is not a house to be seen from their camping spot. Try camping anywhere near there today.

As a result, we have seen a big move by some of these big CA firms to move as many of their engineers out of Silicon Valley, and, in particular for us, here to CO (but also Oregon, Idaho, etc.) A lot of those geeks would just rather live someplace like CO, OR, ID, etc. than in Silicon Valley, both from a quality of life point of view, and a cost of living point of view. And, ultimately, some startups come out of that (we have our share of 3rd and 4th generation startups already). Not as many as Silicon Valley, but noticable.

Wickedpinto said...

Now, and while growing up, I assure you I wasn't rich, I was BARELY working class, and right now for myself I am LESS than working class.

My parents had a child who performed in school, and I performed VERY well, in fact, in 4th, and 5th grade I spent more than half my day tutoring kindergarteners and 1st graders.

In middle school I tutored advanced students (not just me, all but ONE of my friends did so as well, so it was "natural" for me to do as my friends did)

In 8th grade, I was a good student, in 9th, I was an advanced credit student, and then I realized what a LIE the whole thing was.

I was a revolutionary of sorts, against the communistic school system, am I like john lennons ideaology?"

I tell this story, I had an algebra teacher who would give us COMPLETE syllabus' on day one of each "period" I think there are 3 or 6 periods per "Semester"

so I would literally do all my homework for the priod on day 2, or 3, granted the last period was a bit more difficult, but I worked harder so I actually delivered the full syllabus of homework earlier, to prove I was smart, I was that kinda kid.

I FAILED those classes, cuz I was a capitalist, though I didn't know the words. "I learned it, I proved it, I passed it, no reason to show up"


Nerds, AND Rich people are not EVER the BEST people.

I'm not the best person, but somewhere between my indifference of judgement, and the open action of acknowledgement? Thats. . .Thats what makes for common human effort I think.

chuck b. said...

Bruce Hayden said, "Try camping anywhere near [Silicon Valley] today."
and reveals he hasn't got a clue what he's talking about and thus calls into question everything he has to say about everything else he talks about so constantly.