Crazy people invite me to lunch.
They forget their sentences mid-word. They tear at their unsliced personal pizzas holding knives and forks, unsure how to assert those unfamiliar implements against usually fingered food, imaging the wedges that might have been, then making eye contact again, picking up a thread of conversation from the ether and continuing utterly unaware of their non-sequitur. Subjects shift between all the topics your grandmother advised you against. Politics. Religion. Sex. Then back to money. Always money.
I know how to react to the crazy people and their pizza. Though, there are reactive impulses that are hard to resist. Like - the urge to help them with their food the way I would have with one of my toddler children. These are business men. Entrepreneurs. Angels. These are men in expensive Italian St Croix golf shirts and one never knows how they would react to my stuffing a paper napkin down their collars and urging them to, "Sit up," and that the way to hold the fork is in the fingers, not the fist. I see it happening in my mind and it's all I can do to keep it from becoming reality. Some day it will. I can feel it.
I know how they would take my rejecting their political positions - because after all we're talking about business and personally I like having an income so business is my game as well as theirs and that automatically makes me accepting of all their utterances. And who am I to object to anything, I who espouse so many objectionable realities?
These guys believe that social networking is a religion and the religion is money. If you can get a billion bucks adding the word "temporary" to the term "naked selfie" - then anything goes.
And anything does go, right? This is Silicon Valley. We invented "go," and then immediately afterward "e-mail," and "never e-mail your sex tape."
I have enjoyed working in Silicon Valley these past years. It has been exactly as weird and exciting as everyone imagines who is not in Silicon Valley.
These things are true about Silicon Valley:
you cannot get a date in Silicon Valley
there is no good bread in Silicon Valley
you can't get a good house for under a million bucks
the rush hour starts at three in the afternoon
the public transportation doesn't go anywhere anyone wants to go
you camp out in line a day ahead of time for the new iPhone
you camp out a day ahead of time to get your kid into preschool
everyone with a house has a gardener and an automatic sprinkler system
you know at least three people who have cashed in multi-million dollar option deals
everyone has an idea for a new product
only the paranoid survive
we are all crazy paranoid
My latest crazy lunch friend has an idea for a company to do something in electronics that everyone does already, only he's going to do it on Facebook so it can be accessed by cell phone apps.
I ask him why he thinks anyone doing serious electronics design for a living would want to do their work on Facebook, where they can be observed, tweaked, and commented upon by every high-school kid with network access, and even their mothers.
He says, "Because soon literally everything will be on Facebook. So I want to get there first."
I remind him that everyone is already on Facebook. He's too late.
He gives me that first startled, then utterly puzzled and intrigued look as if I've burst into flames. How can I say that, he wonders.
"Because they already have a billion users," I remind him. "Nobody is not on Facebook. Even monks with vows of silence. Even things. Things on Mars. The Mars Rover is on Facebook."
"But they bought Instagram for a billion dollars and Instagram has nothing. And then Snapchat. What the hell does Snapchat have? They get paid for deleting your pictures. Why couldn't we be paid for doing real electronics on Facebook?"
"Your competition will see what you're doing and steal your ideas."
He rejects that notion. The Chinese steal everything and what has it got them? Polluted air and Pet Rocks. So we should just get all knowledge out in the open. Everything will be open source. Open source your dreams. That's it. We'll give away all our most secret ideas and the world will be better and we'll make billions. With a "b". Thousands of millions. So much money we'll have to push it out of the way when we get up in the middle of the night to pee. How can I walk away from the idea of tripping over bundles of hundred dollar bills on the way to the toilet?
"Because you're crazy," I tell him, as if he doesn't already know.
"They said Bill Gates was crazy."
"No, they didn't. Nobody said that. He's from Seattle. It's different."
"They said Steve Jobs was crazy."
"Nope. Not him either. Not even after he died."
"Well, you know what I mean."
"No, I don't. But I didn't get Instagram or Snapchat or Waze either. So, who am I to say? Maybe your idea will make billions."
"So you'll join me? When can you start? Monday. You'll start Monday. You have a staff meeting at 9AM on Monday. I need you to fire Tim, first thing. He's not working out."
"What? Start? No, you're nuts. Who the hell is Tim?"
"Tim is your predecessor. Maybe he wants the job you have now. You guys just switch. Everybody wins."
"Does it make more sense when you hear this stuff in your own head? Because it's sure confusing when it comes out."
"This is a billion dollar idea and I want you in from the beginning. Oh by the way, we have a three million dollar round to close and I need you with me to make the pitch on Tuesday or we can't make payroll on Friday. Can you get together a half-hour of PowerPoint to pitch Bessimer? I want to go to Redwood, too. You know Rajeev, there. He likes you. I told him you were in and he was ready to write a check."
"Are you out of your mind? Wait. Don't bother answering."
"Joe, somehow I sense you're not really seeing this vision. Maybe I need to be clearer. You need more detail. Ok. Look, I was going to save this for later but here it is: Facebook. Electronics. We do electronics on Facebook."
"Yes, you said that."
"Open source. I didn't say that."
"No, I said that. I said open source proprietary electronics design on Facebook was dumb."
"But I didn't say this yet. Now just shut up and think. Think about this. Visualize - Electronics on Facebook. We bring in thousands of people to help. They're all already there. You said it yourself. Billions of people. There. Facebook. Crowd funding. Kickstarter. Crowd sourcing. Crowd design. People will like it. Get it? Like. On Facebook you push this thumb button when you think something is cool, and everyone will think we're cool. What's cool? Electronics. Everyone loves electronics. Imagine a world without telephone. You can't. It would be like cave man days. Think. Facebook. We'll get a ton of thumbs. You see it now, right? So I need you to start Monday and you have to fire Tim. He doesn't share our values. Not a team player. Definitely not a thumb. We have to start speaking the lingo. It's a hash-tag kind of thing. Flash mob. Arduino. HTML 5. Haboob. It's in the cloud. You get it now. I can tell."
"I think I should have got the pepperoni. This plain cheese is boring."
"Ok, so you're not in. How about Dave? Do you think I can convince Dave? You'll help me. You share the vision. Could Dave fire Tim on Monday, you think?"
We have no more bookstores in our town. We used to have three. Then the big chains put the small independent guy out of business and we had two. Then Border's Books bought Crown Books and we only had Border's. Then Amazon whacked Border's and Border's closed. Then we had none.
Then a crazy lady who used to sit in the coffee shop decided she was tired of not having a bookstore. She went to some of the local rich people who agreed that our quaint high-end Northern California hippy-ish town lost some of its character without a bookstore. So they gave her some money and she opened one.
I stopped at the bookstore on the way back from the coffee shop where I had to pick up my dark virgin roast. Better than Peet's. Better than Starbuck's. Better because it's virgin, and who wants coffee with skeletons in the closet?
The bookstore was very nicely appointed, though I have more books on my tiny Kindle than she had on her shelves. This is the miracle of flash memory and cloud-based data which has made paper books an anachronism understood only by people who remember dinosaurs and Karma Chameleon. I picked up two titles and brought them to her at the cash register.
I said, "I need to buy books from you simply because you exist." Really. I said that. I have nothing to lose.
"Buy a lot, then. The rent is very expensive."
"I hope it works out for you," I said. "I really like having a bookstore within walking distance of my house."
She looked a bit forlorn as I handed over my twenties. "I think I could sell all the books here and not be able to pay a month's rent."
"Difficult business model," I said, because I couldn't figure anything else, and the images of her store space going up for rent were very vivid in my mind.
"It's the ghosts," she said. "They're what's making things difficult."
"Ghost of Border's books? Crown? Barnes and Noble? People buy e-books but truthfully, there's nothing like the feel of turning pages in your hands..."
"No, I mean the original owners of this building. This used to be the village blacksmiths, back during the gold rush. They went out of business, too, when the automobile came in. The ghosts tell me all is lost. They haunt people's iPhones."
I nodded. Because in Silicon Valley that's what you do when people say things with complete conviction that are utterly incongruous. We hear things daily that make no sense given our backgrounds. People speak to each other in jargon and endless technical detail as if everyone lived the same life and could be expected to understand the inner workings of one device or program or another. After a while you get tired of asking for definitions for every noun and verb and adjective. You seem dumb if you don't know your XML from your HTML. So you just nod and forget a human is talking. Everything goes well. The fabric of society remains intact.
But this crazy bookstore lady with no possible means to succeed was not having my Silicon Valley brushoff.
She said, "No I'm really serious. Ghosts. They're wrecking business. People come in here and get a bad feeling and then they leave."
"Well," I said, "Maybe when you say you can't make rent no matter how much you sell..."
"I need to get rid of these ghosts. Do you know of any ghost repeller? They have these things for rats that make an ultrasonic sound and it keeps them away. The hardware store has plastic owls you can put on the roof to keep the pigeons from pooping all over your shingles. Do you know something that works for ghosts?"
I said, "I find the best way to eliminate a ghost problem is simply to not believe in them," because it was the first thing to pop into my head. I said it with total conviction and the sincerity of a physician advising a patient to quit smoking.
"Totally. They can't hang around if you don't believe."
"That's pretty simple." She put my books in a bag and handed them to me with my receipt. "I'll do that. Thanks so much."
"And it works. Guaranteed. "
"It sounds perfect," she said. "I'm sure business will be very successful from this point forward. "
"It will. Have a great day."
The thing about crazy people is that as long as you say what you think with conviction, they accept it.
The other thing about crazy people is that once they accept something, it becomes true.
Just ask the WhatsApp guys.