The more you know…

…the less you trust? That’s probably not right, exactly.

I’ve probably posted about this before: The frequent case that, if you know a subject fairly well, you’ll find that articles and books about that subject are wrong, at least in some details. This isn’t a big surprise.

But when you hit something on page 25 of a 300+-page nonfiction book that’s a snide aside, and also happens to be absolutely wrong, it can either shake your confidence in the book as a whole or, better, alert you to treat it as, um, semi-non-fiction.

The book in question: The Silicon Boys by David A. Kaplan–published in 1999. I expected an amusing, interesting, perhaps revealing read about the doings in Silicon Valley just before the bust of the dotcom bubble. It became obvious very early on that Kaplan was intent on making the people of the mid-Peninsula look venal and foolish, that–at least early on–he’s more interested in money and excess than in creativity and worth. That’s OK; I can filter for that attitude.

But here’s a quote from page 25:

“But most start-ups incubate within the confines of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in flatland towns like Palo Alto, Redwood City, Menlo Park, Cupertino, Milpitas, Sunnyvale, and Mountain View (a town that has neither), the high office rents notwithstanding.”

Take out that snide little parenthetical phrase–which, as far as I can see, serves no narrative purpose other than to put down Mountain View for pretentiousness–and I’d wonder a bit about “flatland towns” (most of the places named are cities with 60,000-100,000 population, and most of them have a fair amount of topographic variety) but go right on.

But “a town that has neither”? Did this jerk ever actually get out of his car in Mountain View and look either to the west or east? No, Mountain View doesn’t contain mountains itself–which the name doesn’t imply. The name implies that Mountain View has views of mountains. Which it does. On clear days, both east and west. On less clear days, only west.

Actually, within a three-page spread, I come across other nonsense. “The mountains”–hmm, on page 24 there are mountains bordering silicon valley, but on page 25 there aren’t–“are utterly inhospitable to development, filled with ravines, covered by poison oak, prone to burn, laced with earthquake faults, and susceptible to slides.” You could change that to “Most mountain land is protected against development” and it would be more correct and more meaningful, but less–what–damning? (Earthquake faults? Yep, the only earthquake faults around here are in the mountain ranges. Sure…) And he says San Francisco “constitutes a terminus to the north,” but in fact silicon valley ends considerably south of SF (I think most people would say Redwood City is about as far north as it goes). And on page 26, “If it weren’t for maddening round-the-clock traffic jams on the main drag, Highway 101”–well, sorry, but I was taking morning flights out of both SFO and SJC in those years, and “round-the-clock traffic jams” is just plain nonsense. At 5 a.m., you could breeze through either direction.

Oh, I’ll keep reading the book–but as semi-fiction. If he’s wrong on straightforward facts, why should I assume he’s right in his claims about the people in the valley?

Note: We no longer live in silicon valley. We now live in wine country, to our surprise…and radiation-lab territory, to be sure. Yes, we can see mountains from here too, in both directions.

3 Responses to “The more you know…”

  1. Bob Watson says:

    I’ve hit a couple books like that lately. I suspect there’s a lack of editing in the recently “right sized” publishing industry.

  2. walt says:

    Well, this one’s 11 years old, published by William Morrow, and the author is or was a senior writer for Newsweek. I think this is the kind of thing that’s legitimately the writer’s responsibility.

  3. Bob Watson says:

    You’re no doubt correct.