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San Francisco’s wonderful cable cars (in full)

Last August I was commissioned to write a piece about San Francisco’s cable cars, which had recently come back into service after a pandemic-forced hiatus. But I misunderstood the assignment, thinking it was for a weekend slot, rather than a weekday column — a difference of about 500 words. After filing my long copy, the editor said it was “heartbreaking” to cut down, because she could tell I had blast writing it. Reading it back today reminded me she was absolutely right, I really did. So here it is in full.

(The shorter published version can be found here.)


At the point where California Street meets Van Ness Avenue, a little girl peers up at the cable car headed in our direction. She keeps watching. “It’s slower than a snail!” she yells.

That’s unfair. No snail that I’m aware of has a top speed of 9 and half miles per hour, a fair clip when you’re clinging to the outside of one of these cars, as this girl soon was, clattering up and over the hill.

It’s a joy that until the beginning of August had been out-of-bounds for some 16 months. In March 2020, San Francisco’s cable cars were taken off the streets as coronavirus set-in. It was the longest break in service since 1982, when the system was taken offline for rebuilding after decades of penny-pinching.

The first time people rode on these cars was in 1873. In still running, it has become the oldest cable car system in the world. It’s the only designated national landmark in America that moves. The first line, on Clay Street, was conceived by Andrew Hallidie, a British man who emigrated to the city during the Gold Rush and who, the story goes, saw horses falling down San Francisco’s steep hills in the rain.

A recent apartment move has made the California line my daily commute. It takes me from gritty Polk Street and up past the beautiful Fairmont, the city’s classiest hotel. There’s a statue of the great Tony Bennett on its front lawn, his arms outstretched in deliverance of the climatic note of I Left My Heart in San Francisco. It was here in 1961 he performed the song for the first time, paying tribute — how couldn’t you? — to the “little cable cars” that “climb halfway to the stars”.

It takes some effort to get them there: each weighs around 15,500 pounds (7,000 kg). “They think it’s easy!” laughs Tom Leal, a born-and-bred San Franciscan who has operated a cable car for 18 years. He now also teaches new recruits, a pressing need due to a number of staff moving on, many retiring, due to the Covid-19 break in service.

Tom and his colleagues are known as “grips” or “gripmen”, since that’s essentially what they do all day. From the front of the car, they operate the vice that lowers down to grip the cable running underground all day and (mostly) all night, pulling the cars uphill and stopping them slipping down the other side. Another lever applies a brake, and there’s a foot pedal that applies a further brake — though seems to require the full weight of the operator on top of it in order to achieve much. The whole dance gives the impression the cable cars are not so much operated as they are tamed.

“I gave up asking questions,” wrote Rudyard Kipling, in American Notes, of what he called simply “the mechanism”. “If it pleases Providence to make a car run up and down a slit in the ground for many miles, and if for twopence halfpenny I can ride in that car, why shall I seek the reasons of the miracle?”

Tom, the gripman, is sitting on a small wall outside the Cable Car “barn” — the depot — which contains the “powerhouse” that runs the cables, and also doubles as a free museum. The cables need to replaced every between 75 and 250 days, depending on the severity of the strain they’ve endured in that time. Changing the cable is “painstaking”, taking around five hours in the dead of night.

When I introduce myself, Tom’s colleagues scatter — a boss named Kevin has told them not to speak to the press. Heaven forbid readers of a newspaper were to learn, or more likely be reminded, of one of this city’s most charming attractions.

The cars are particularly charming right now — they’re free to ride, rather than the usual fare which, at $8 one-way, is as steep as the hills. Such a toll is apparently necessary to offset the cost, and will surely go up. In February, city transport officials were warning that the deficit faced on their books meant the cable cars were a luxury San Francisco may not be able to afford if it’s to also run the real services of buses, trams and trains in a post-pandemic world. No wonder, then, the cars’ return to the streets had a feeling of divine intervention, as the San Francisco Chronicle described it — observing that the two men operating the first car out of the barn were both named Jesus.

It’s clear the people have missed them. They shout in approval as they go by. “You’re back! So good to see you!” one woman said one recent Friday. Tom tells me it’s not uncommon for people to break into applause.

“That’s all I get all day long. We’ve been up for nearly month now and I hear it every single day. I think it’s a relief that things are getting back to normal.”

But then, are they?

“You know, it feels like it’s coming back. But then sometimes. . .” he pauses, perhaps thinking of Kevin. “Sometimes it doesn’t, you know?”

The routes of the cable car force you to see all sides of the city’s shifting fortunes. My trip passes through the city’s Chinatown — the oldest in North America — which has seen visitor numbers fall through the floor. Many of the buildings you pass bear the words “Stop Asian Hate” on their exterior.

Things are quieter still as you pull into the city’s financial district, the end of the line. What seemed like a growing buzz earlier in the year has somewhat subsided. The Financial Times came back to its Montgomery Street office in July, but the likes of Uber, Google and Facebook — some of the city’s largest tenants — have pushed their return-to-work plans into 2022. A great deal more follow their lead. By mid August, just 19 per cent of workers are back in San Francisco’s offices, according to security firm Kastle Systems, which shares a sampling of data on keycard and fob access.

The Powell-Hyde line, one of the most popular with tourists, starts near Union Square, where you’ll find vacant shops and vacant faces. Some say the notorious Tenderloin district is the most shocking when it comes to the crisis of drug addiction and homelessness, but I’d argue the juxtaposition of Union Square, where tourists queue up outside Gucci, yards from human desperation, gives a harder jolt to your conscience.

At the other end of that line is Fisherman’s Wharf, with its barking sea lions, clam chowder and street performers. Pre-pandemic, it was one of the most popular tourists spots on the West Coast. Today, where once it teemed, it now murmurs — though hotel occupancy has been steadily rising since January, according to statistics from City Hall. Still, many waterfront restaurants remain boarded up. The usual throngs of cyclists heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge have dwindled.

But the cable car endures, as it has always done, through earthquakes, a huge fire, political pressure, and now, it seems, a pandemic. At the Friedel Klussmann turnaround, where the cars are reorientated to go back the other way, a steady line of people wait to hop on. Klussmann is honoured here for her part in leading the movement to protect the cable car in a growing push for moderation and electrification.

“It’s a monument,” says Tom Lauzze, a tourist I meet, of the cable cars. He’s here for a few days to escape wildfire smoke in other parts of the state. With him is Amy Sell, who says she lived in San Francisco around two decades ago and misses it deeply. “This is my favorite city in the world,” she says. “It just has that… European feel.”

That’s a common way of describing the place. It’s how I was told it would be before moving here. The least American of all of America’s cities, they say — a compliment or a put down depending on who is saying it. The city’s long history of liberalism and accepting all-comers, regardless of skin colour, status or sexual orientation, makes it shining beacon of acceptance not just in America but across the world.

And yet, a lot of hearts have been left here lately — an exodus prompted by Covid that poses a threat greater, perhaps, than anything that has come before it. On the cable car, at least, it’s easy and comforting to forget anything is amiss.

“San Francisco is the only city I can think of,” architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “that can survive all the things you people are doing to it and still look beautiful.”

’24-karat breakthrough’

I love the Popular Science print archive on Google Books. Exceptional writing about complex and exciting technologies; a magazine that rarely missed a pivotal moment.

Here’s an article from July 1970 heralding the first ever watch made without moving parts*. Its writer, Arthur Fisher, doesn’t fall short in telling readers the significance of what they’re about to read:

“Breakthrough. It’s a much-abused word–a pity at a time like this. Because here is a genuine, 24-karat breakthrough in timekeeping.”

The article then becomes a detailed explanation of precisely how the technology works, complete with a diagram of the circuitry. Fisher wraps it up in about 250 words, ending with the price: $1,500 — an eye-watering $10,000 in today’s money.

It’s fun to draw a line from this technology to something like the Apple Watch. Like Apple, the makers of the “Pulsar” decided it needed to conserve battery power by having it “light up only on demand”.

(* “unless you count the oscillations of its quartz crystal”, that is. Pop Sci’s attention to detail was always second-to-none.)

On influencer-journalists

If all or most journalists were columnists in the influencer-journalist vein, we would not get stories like The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files or The Information’s investigation into Apple’s secret deals with the Chinese government. Elizabeth Holmes wouldn’t be a convicted felon. We’d have remained in the dark about Donald Trump’s taxes—not to mention those of the hundreds of billionaires ProPublica exposed last year.

Jessica Lessin, writing in The Information, touching on an important point regarding the inherent weaknesses of influencer (or newsletter) journalism. As she notes, the model is enticing for all involved, readers included, but it can’t replace investigative work done by a large editorial body (and its expensive lawyers).

I’d also argue that the role of traditional broadcast media is underappreciated too. It may feel like a straightforward occurrence every time there is a speech/rally/whatever on television, but getting material out there requires nothing short of an army: the camera operator, the sat truck operator, the technicians, the producers, the reporters, the travel planners, the diary planners, the archivists and so on.

They’re all part of one big expensive puzzle that means you can, with one Google search, find footage of exactly what was said at any given event. In other words — we’re all in this together.

On background, the tech press needs its own correspondents’ association

Every now and then, a publication that covers tech news will step out and say “enough is enough” to the irritating tactics used by PR teams at most tech companies.

Most recently, it was The Verge, which announced an updated policy on the terms of “on background”, a most frustrating designation that sits between on and off the record: information that can be used, but usually not directly quoted, and in some cases you can’t reveal where it originated. Spin, in other words.

To emphasise its point, The Verge published a list of particularly absurd abuses of “on background”, with such gems as a delivery company going “on background” to talk about the popularity of fried chicken. I laughed because I recognised it — DoorDash had given me the same spiel too.

But there are more serious reasons why “on background” needs to stop. Take Amazon, which often uses it by default on issues firmly and urgently in the public interest: labour disputes, product safety, and the circumstances behind firing dissenting employees. 

So what can be done? The problem with The Verge’s approach, noble as it is, is that it’s mostly useless unless the rest of us join in. A handful will — and the post caused some reflection within the team I work in — but the depressing timeline from here on in, I predict, will be the gradual loosening of The Verge’s policy, before it ultimately succumbs to the norm when its editors see rivals getting stories out the door more quickly or with greater depth.

What’s needed is some unity and organisation. In Washington, the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) has a century-long tradition of upholding basic journalists standards and principles, so as not to allow any administration to play different outlets against others. It’s obviously not perfect, but it’s something — and no coincidence that its formation was prompted by a row over “off the record”. 

Whether through a lack of history or team spirit, the tech press has no equivalent group. Indeed, some among us are more than happy to capitalise on a publication’s upped standards by eagerly publicising their own, lower ones.

A tech correspondents’ association could solve several key issues. First, it could do something simple: define specifically what the terms “off the record” and “on background” mean to its members, with a nod to how it may be perceived in different markets.

Second, it can demand its members refuse “on background” unless in very narrow circumstances. Specifically, breaking news situations where a flack has useful information relating to an evolving story, but has not had the necessary approvals to share the information on the record… yet. An important principle here would be to perhaps treat such moments not as “on background” but as “pre-record”, and come down hard on companies that do not follow up officially within a reasonable timeframe.

Third, it can bring some much needed bargaining power to the tech press as a whole, pushing for basic principles for events — such as speaking out against companies, like Apple, that believe they can dictate which specific reporter at an outlet is permitted to cover a launch. 

The growth of newsletters makes the need for such a group even more pressing. Losing the shackles of the newsroom should not mean leaving standards behind. But faced with the financial pressures of going it alone, the temptation is understandably far greater.

Newsletter writers are therefore vital but vulnerable. A tech press association could maintain and enforce core standards. Even better, it could provide protection for the lone rangers with legal representation or advice. For those yet to get into the industry, it could, like the WHCA, provide resources and scholarships to help improve diversity and inclusivity among its ranks.

Finally, an effective tech correspondents’ association could provide a united front at a time when the tech press is under unprecedented attack, from companies like Facebook suggesting outlets have an ulterior motive when reporting on its failings, or the growing hostilities between venture capitalists and the reporters assigned to cover them.

The tech press has evolved in the past few years, from fawning to fighting, and unquestionably holds great power with subject matter that becomes more important to more and more people with every passing day. As we go on, a well-governed association is ultimately about gaining respect from two constituencies: earning it from readers, demanding it from tech companies. And then once a year we have a legendary party.

Farewell to Rory Cellan-Jones

Las Vegas, where else, in 2017

Rory Cellan-Jones leaves the BBC this week, and he will be sorely missed.

Not just by our viewers — for whom “That Rory” is one of the most trusted voices on the air — but also his colleagues who will be lining up to offer a heartfelt farewell to one of the kindest, most decent people in British journalism.

I was lucky enough to work closely with Rory over several years. You learn a lot about a person after 12+ hours traipsing through endless grotesquely-carpeted corridors in the convention centres of Las Vegas, or after a long day of broadcasting that begins with a 5am wake-up call from 5Live, and ends with the stresses of the News at Ten.

It will surely come as no surprise that throughout those kinds of experiences, Rory was the ultimate colleague, mentor and friend. From the airing of my first TV package, when he took time out to point out many rookie errors to this rookie, to the kind words offered over a leaving toast on my final day at the BBC, Rory offered nothing but generosity and support.

That’s not a given in the news business. In an ego-driven industry, where correspondents can be protective of airtime at the expense of newer reporters, Rory went out of his way to elevate the careers of those around him. I was lucky enough to be one of many to benefit, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.

Sadly, his departure signals the end of an era of technology coverage at the BBC, not just as it relates to him, but the structure of technology reporting in the BBC’s newsroom in general.

The unfathomable decision to move the technology news team to Glasgow has seen several people with decades of combined experience walk out the door. Expertise a private company — or maybe just a smarter public broadcaster — would have done a lot more to keep. The geographical upheaval has no basis in logic, and will serve to diminish the BBC’s access and influence on key stories and with important sources. It makes no more sense to move BBC Tech to Glasgow than it would to relocate BBC Shropshire there too.

In short — the licence fee payer, and anyone who cares about the health of the British technology industry, should be disappointed that the BBC no longer considers technology news a priority*.

But, for the moment, let’s put that worry on ice. Since I can’t do it myself in person on Thursday night, I’m instead raising a virtual glass to Rory as he heads on to new things, projects I’m sure will continue his record of accessible, meaningful tech journalism. I also hope, above all else, it’s a chance to put his feet up.

Rory, it was an absolute blast. Thank you.


(* I should stress that this is not a commentary on the calibre of the team that will be working in Glasgow. In particular, having worked with Zoe Kleinman for even longer than I have known Rory, I can say there’s no-one better to take the reins. If there’s anyone who knows how to navigate this new era, it’s Zoe.)

“These days, it sure seems like to be a reporter, you have to be independently wealthy or famous. But journalism used to be a solid career for people from a wide range of backgrounds.”

— Peter Jakubowicz writes in Newsweek: “I Was a Reporter. Now I Drive for Lyft”. He writes of today’s reporting on the working class: “I rarely see even a hint that anyone involved has any idea what it’s like to be a worker in 2021, or has taken the trouble to hear what workers have to say.”

Its deep-learning voice-transcription service can now scan your Google or Outlook calendar for Zoom sessions, automatically sign in at the appropriate time, and produce a live transcription that you and other participants can correct, annotate, and highlight in real time.

— The feature set of, the breakthrough voice transcription app, continues to get more and more impressive. My question: when I send along Otter-Me, what do the others on the call see? And do they consent to being recorded? This would be very useful for court hearings that I can’t monitor all day. . . but a judge might not be so pleased with my little timesaver.

“Tabs, it turns out, aren’t the best tool for assisting with complex work and life tasks that people perform on the internet. Their simple list structure makes it difficult for users to jump between sets of tasks throughout the day. And despite people using tabs as an external form of memory, they do not capture the rich structure of their thoughts.”

— A team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon examine the effect of tab overload on our brains. As you might expect, it’s not good. Not good at all. They propose reframing how we think of tabs, breaking them down into tasks, and have launched a Chrome plug-in to help.

I’ve been carrying the secret for 25 years. Today, I’m coming clean. This is the untold true story of a corporate April Fools’ prank gone wrong.

— an (unnamed, probably ex-) Microsoft employee shares funny details of “Microsoft Coffee”, an April Fools prank that went well, perhaps too well, 25 years ago. After VW’s “Voltswagen” mess this week, many are calling for an end to April Fools gags. I’m minded to agree — but let’s be narrower: let’s bring an end to April Fools gags backed by the company’s dull PR teams. Maverick employees working in secret? I’m all for it. Discussion about Microsoft Coffee on Hacker News has people wondering whether this is in itself an April Fools gag, given there’s no other mentions of Microsoft Coffee anywhere. I dunno. Seems real to me, this line in particular: “The PR flacks, on their own, tried to clean up and bury the whole thing, out of fear that BillG might get really angry about it. (He never did. Nor did Legal. In the end, it was all a huge overreaction by PR.)” …. emphasis mine.

[M]ost of us share the opinion that it’s disagreeable, logistically, for the boat to be stuck. The boat being stuck is inconvenient. It’s a big disruption! Nobody can say it isn’t a big disruption. None of my distant relatives will get into arguments on The Face Website about whether or not the stuck boat is making a nuisance for lots of people. I like that.

— Stone Soup, a newsletter, with my favourite take so far on why the Big Stuck Boat is the feel-good story of 2021.

Contact lenses for the colour blind

From Phys.Org:

Gold nanocomposites are nontoxic and have been used for centuries to produce “cranberry glass” because of the way they scatter light. So, Ahmed Salih, Haider Butt and colleagues wanted to see whether incorporating gold nanoparticles into contact lens material instead of dye could improve red-green contrast safely and effectively.

I’m not sure my own colour blindess (red/green, green/brown, blue/purple) is sufficiently debilitating to warrant the discomfort of contact lenses, but this sounds remarkable. Hopefully an improvement on colour blind corrective glasses, star of many a viral video, that simply turn the world into a bad photoshop.