What I’m missing the most after all that time in Spain

Spain was an 8 year experience for me. Since I’ve now moved on, it’s time to list what I’m missing the most.

The Food. And not just the obvious stuff like jamon iberico or our CTO’s paella, what I really miss is the contrast between northern Spain’s wintery grub and southern Spain’s flavor. Most people don’t realize how varied Spanish food is. For me, some of the best stuff on earth is up north. Sure, I love what the South has to offer as well. But when it comes down to it, I gear up for FabadaCocido or Marmitako on a cold day much more than I look forward to Salmorejo, Migas or Tapas on a hot one. Favorite region to eat in? That has to be Galicia, best seafood I’ve ever had.

The Meals. It’s not just the food but how they eat it. There are two things I’ve love to bring back to the states, and both are things that restaurants can’t easily replicate. The first is the sobremesa, which simply means the conversation that people have (often for hours) after they finish eating. Spaniards are inclined to socialize more in a public environment, and the restaurant incentives also permit it as well: servers are paid hourly so if a party “camps” on a table for hours after eating, it won’t hurt their pay day.

The second thing i’d bring back is the menu del dia, which is basically a three course lunch for a very affordable price (11 euros is more or less a standard). Having been used to SF prices, I’ve often wondered how they pull this off, and I believe I have it somewhat figured out. Since Spanish kitchens only serve food from 2pm to 4pm, they can scale in all their resources for that time frame and prepare a limited choice of first and second courses before. It’s not necessarily top shelf quality, but the variety is so welcome, especially when comparing it to the same neighborhood options around work in San Francisco

The Spanish Bar: It’s a beautifully tacky thing. It’s full of things that would never work back home: gambling machines, napkins and crumbs all over the floor, a ridiculous amount of florescent light overhead, the smell of “frito”, dead pig legs hanging from the roof, and food left all day on the bar. Think about how an American health inspector would react in a Spanish bar. Just perhaps, maybe we are too health conscious for disallowing beautiful things like this. 

It takes you a bit to get passed the above, but once I did, I realized the entire day can pivot around these spaces, almost like a club house. I went to a bar for breakfast, which was often just a cafe con leche and pan con tomate (this needs to be brought to the US urgently). You can go to a bar for a menu del fia and you definitely go to a bar for a caña after work. Quite often, you run into the same people, socializing with them along the day. And it´s the first place where friends and even families with kids meet and engage with each other.

Persianas: think of these like plastic curtains that you can roll over the outside of your windows. They “protect” the window, but really, they keep the sun out when you want to sleep in. You can’t help but have late nights in Spain, kitchens open the earliest at 9pm (many in the states close down at that hour). Saturday and Sunday mornings will see persianas down all over town until people start moving for lunch at 2pm.

The common thread between all these elements is the quality of social life. I don´t mean to give the impression that this is about raging each weekend, or sacrificing work for life. Life is most enjoyed with friends and family and Spain´s customs are built on increasing the natural repetition of that. The spontaneous beer with a friend in the end isn’t so spontaneous, people usually operate knowing it is a possibility. By contrast, meeting friends back home usually requires weeks of planning and approvals.

Now, there is a list of things I don’t miss as well. It would definitely start with the work day hours, small elevators and the customer service. But, and it’s not a big spoiler, there are aspects of both the US and Spain that I’ve grown very fond of, and the grass is always going to be greener on the other side.

If nothing else, I’m just very appreciative of having been able to get to know Spain for as well and as long as I’ve known it. I’m grateful to the all the friends and colleagues who showed me their home and I’ll be returning the favor (check me out on Nomaders for activities in SF).

When an interest becomes a product

If I didn’t work in technology, I probably would be an archaeologist, or maybe an historian.  I was never sure which one.  Back in school, I had a number of classes on archaeology, and what they always said might be very true: “the life of an archaeologist is really quite boring”.  I can grant them that, most of the ancient sites I’ve been around are nothing but a scattering of rubble, and then, even the most magnificent ones leave me with more questions.  I’m stuck having to go look up more Wikipedia articles or even pick up a couple books on a place I just visited.  It’s as if I wasn’t prepared enough for the experience, or I wasn’t in a position to get more out of it.

I’ve noticed the same with the many documentaries I like to watch.  One of my favorites, Byzantium: The Lost Empire, happens to be one that sparked my interest in all things Byzantine.  John Romer is an archaeologist who hosts the series.  At one point, when talking about the philosopher Plethon, Romer says that “people just liked to listen to Plethon, not taking a word of notice of what he said”.  Sometimes I think the same thing can be said about Romer, whose enthusiasm about little Byzantine churches, interlocking cornices and old stones makes subjects seem almost mystical (if you like him, check out stuff by Michael Wood as well).

Nevertheless, I’ve always had a problem with documentaries, and its related to something mentioned before: it is just very hard to follow up on things that documentaries refer to.  I’m stuck having to look up more info on something I just watched.

Romer goes through this documentary visiting parts of Turkey, Italy, Syria, Greece, etc. and every time there is a new site, he briefly mentions it, neglects to show it on a map, or doesn’t provide nearly enough detail to satisfy my interest, however personal it may be.

It’s a problem with video too, there is just no way to interact with it (besides pause and play).  You can tell this story to the startup world and they would call this a “pain” or a “problem”.  This forms the basis for the semi-famous concept of an elevator pitch, which hooks in a “solution” for all the misery.  The great news for me is that I’m working at a startup that has such a solution for my personal pain point.

I joined The Mad Video because I recognized the sheer amount of value interactive video brings, not only from a general perspective (it’s easy to say “look at all the people using Youtube”) but from a pretty personal history, one that you can see detailed above.  I’ve heard investors often mention that they only make investments in products they’d actually use: which requires a special mix of product and personal interest.  That’s obviously a theme I can identify with.

We’ve been in a beta phase for a couple months now, trying to improve the platform on a daily basis.  And we just got to the point where it’s easy to tag an hour long documentary, and link in maps and basic Wikipedia articles - something I was obviously pretty happy to do for first part of Byzantium: The Lost Empire, now interactive - which I’m glad to share here (if you haven’t seen an interactive video before, just roll over when the video is playing to show tags).

I’ll also embed the video here - just as soon as Tumblr lets me ;-)

Catching up on my “Founding Father” history

I had been to Philadelphia before but during a recent trip I began to notice the sheer amount of Benjamin Franklin references all around the city. They’ve named stadiums, bridges, colleges, ships after him. This, combined with all the statues, busts and quotes (I was around UPenn, which he founded) got me interested in finding out why Ben Franklin got all this recognition. And why visitors to Philadelphia are subject to such Franklin overload.

I picked up a book by Walter Isaacson, the same guy who wrote the recent bio on Steve Jobs. Only about 100 pages in and I’m already thinking that I should have paid way more attention to my grade school U.S. History classes.

I won’t go into too many details about Franklin’s life, which anybody can look up on Wikipedia, but I wanted to share something that really caught my attention: the rules he made for himself to live by when he was only 20 years old.

These weren’t rules that he created for any religious reasons (the book so far makes him out to be a deist). It seems as if his religion was “practicality” - these were just the outlines he observed that can lead to success in life and society. He knew he also couldn’t live by them all the time. So, he did the next most practical thing, he made a calendar to devote each week of his life to executing on one of them, “leaving all others to their ordinary chance”.

  1. "Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation."
  2. "Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation."
  3. "Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time."
  4. "Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve."
  5. "Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing."
  6. "Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions."
  7. "Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly."
  8. "Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty."
  9. "Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve."
  10. "Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation."
  11. "Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable."
  12. "Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation."
  13. "Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

The one that stands out to me so far as I’m reading the book is his frugality, probably the one rule that he mastered quite early in his life (many other rules he would need to work on).

I’m looking forward to reading about the details of his adult life. This is all rather new to me because all that I knew from before was the Founding Father stuff, that he seemed to love French prostitutes and that he discovered that lightning is electricity.

So far, its been a great read on a quasi-philosopher, scientist, journalist and entrepreneur who could be a great model for these times. You can see elements of these fields in pretty much everything he does.

Yosemite is a “must see” place and this vid does it justice. In fact, this could be the best time lapse video I´ve seen, they are getting a bit too common out there but this is an amazing production… Good to hear its Marin kids behind it!

It never gets old. I think it may be one of the best musical compositions ever, and one of the best performances ever: The 2nd Movement of Concierto de Aranjuez, by Joaquin Rodrigo and performed by the great Paco de Lucía.

Its a unique piece of music - inspired by the death of Rodrigo’s son in childbirth and written while his wife was near death herself. They had had their honeymoon at the gardens of Aranjuez near Madrid. Usually a symphony will drown out a lead guitar which is why you hardly ever see it in this setting. Rodrigo was able to find a brilliant way to have the symphony follow the lead.

Rumor has it, this video records Paco de Lucía playing Concierto de Aranjuez for the first time with an aging Joaquin Rodrigo in the audience. Afterwards, Rodrigo is supposed to have said he had never heard it played so well.

I’m happy to be part of this program, Jovenes con Futuro (which means Youth with Future in english), that is finding young and talented Spanish programmers and bringing them to Silicon Valley.

Its an interesting time in Spain, suddenly entrepreneurship became a real hot topic as its been building up more political steam especially in the context of the crisis.  But I’m concerned that there is a lot of misinformation that surrounds a convenient but careless pushing of this kind of agenda.

Its easy to point to success stories, to compare differences between startup cultures, to call for younger people to not be scared of failure, etc.  While these points are of course quite relevant in Spain, I still think this is just skimming the surface.

What is needed is more positive references, examples, tangible feedback from those who have done this before (entrepreneurship taught in school as well but thats another topic).  Whats needed is to answer this question in a real way - whats needed to get a startup going in Spain? This also requires confidence and optimism - instilled at young ages in people who are given opportunities. 

I’m not Spanish, so there is nothing necessarily patriotic about my involvement here - its gratifying enough to be involved in a sector I enjoy and to find young people who enjoy it as well.  We are coming into the second year of this program that, at least to me, finds positive examples for the Spanish to look to and starts a constructive longer term process of getting it right.

Me and a couple friends put together the video above that will introduce you to the participants currently in Silicon Valley.  I hope the message gets across… And If you happen to be a young Spaniard, feel free to apply at www.stepone.com/jovenes.

"We Stopped Dreaming"

The US Government ended the space shuttle program and along with a number of Americans, I’m a bit disappointed.  

I work in tech, I love the sciences and I think that when institutions promote these kind of activities it inspires future generations.  Countries need dreamers, it is at the core of entrepeneurship and innovation.  With all of the arguments for the diminishing role of the US amid the recent political mess and credit downgrade, the fact that the US cuts down investment in space shuttle program is telling.  To me, its the biggest indicator that these arguments may be true. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in the video above (in reference to the spending cuts on space exploration) that “we have stopped dreaming”.  Its not all bad news, there are still more discoveries, moon landings and giants leaps to be taken.  Its just that now other countries will be taking them, and new generations abroad will be doing the dreaming.  Maybe in this global world it was probably bound to happen anyway.

Interestingly enough, Tyson will be hosting a new series that will build upon Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”, which is a personal favorite.  Both Sagan and Tyson are the kinds of popular scientists that both relate to their audience and have the ability to explain complicated things.  

Sagan’s series, broadcast over 30 years ago, was incredibly optimistic.  To him we were “just wading into the shores of the cosmic ocean”.  I’m looking forward to Tyson’s upcoming series, and I hope he finds a way to inspire us to keep dreaming.  However, I think it will be tough to match Sagan’s optimism in this current climate.

SIDESTORY - Video - Tyson talks about Carl Sagan’s influence on him, and about the responsibility of fostering the new generation to study the universe.

I took a recent trip to a place I´ve always wanted to visit in Spain ever since seeing a BBC documentary (highly recommended) on the Spanish Civil War .  The documentary opens with a scene in the town of Belchite, in the province of Aragon a bit outside of Zaragoza.  The following comes straight from Wikipedia:

Between August 24 and September 7, 1937, loyalist Spanish Republican and rebel General Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War fought the Battle of Belchite in and around the town near Zaragoza. The whole town was destroyed. Franco ordered that the ruins be left untouched as a “live” monument of war. A new town was constructed near the former.

Its places like this that make Spain such an interesting country.  The modern history fascinates me just as much as the ancient.  Both histories are very tangible in living monuments, artwork and ruins, and both have a direct application on everyday life.  

Much of the Aragonese countryside was destroyed in the war, some friends even tell stories about how they found bullets and played in the trenches as kids.  

A couple pictures are above, and the full gallery can be seen here.  I didn´t realize it at the time but the area is also near Fuendetodos, the birthplace of the artist Francisco Goya. Belchite must have looked quite similar at some point.

One of the best short films I’ve seen, I don’t even understand all of it cause the Spanish is a bit quick but the production and photography, even the credits at the end are all very well done.  Kudos to Israel Sas and his Canon 5D Mark II.

One of the things I most miss about back home is getting right at that hamburger craving that comes around every once in a while.  Nothing beats Phyllis’ and if you’re from the Bay Area you know what I mean (or Blimps if you’re old school ‘Fax).
Here in Madrid there are some good spots around but nothing really satisfies it completely.  I went to Hard Rock Cafe the other night with Spanish friends and even they all realize that’s about as close as it gets (and yes, I’m aware of Alfredo’s Barbecoa and the Peggy Sue’s chain, a decent option is HomeBurger as well).
Hamburguesa Nostra has the most interesting marketing approach to cooking your own burger at home. Their menu really breaks down their 30 different flavored paddies nicely.
But you can’t take it away from the land that makes stuffed hamburger presses - Amazing stuffed hamburger press from Williams-Sonoma.

One of the things I most miss about back home is getting right at that hamburger craving that comes around every once in a while.  Nothing beats Phyllis’ and if you’re from the Bay Area you know what I mean (or Blimps if you’re old school ‘Fax).

Here in Madrid there are some good spots around but nothing really satisfies it completely.  I went to Hard Rock Cafe the other night with Spanish friends and even they all realize that’s about as close as it gets (and yes, I’m aware of Alfredo’s Barbecoa and the Peggy Sue’s chain, a decent option is HomeBurger as well).

Hamburguesa Nostra has the most interesting marketing approach to cooking your own burger at home. Their menu really breaks down their 30 different flavored paddies nicely.

But you can’t take it away from the land that makes stuffed hamburger presses - Amazing stuffed hamburger press from Williams-Sonoma.