The real reasons the Google Bus protests happened: Best of the Web

Recently, you might have heard about protests in the Bay Area against buses carrying Google employees. As Kim-Mai Cutler in TechCrunch reveals, from tax laws to NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and affordable housing regulations to green regulations, the protests really aren’t about the tech giant.

In this very comprehensive article, Cutler runs through all the factors behind the San Francisco housing crisis, including NIMBYs and rental protection:

San Francisco has a roughly thirty-five percent homeownership rate. Then 172,000 units of the city’s 376,940 housing units are under rent control. (That’s about 75 percent of the city’s rental stock.)

Homeowners have a strong economic incentive to restrict supply because it supports price appreciation of their own homes. It’s understandable. Many of them have put the bulk of their net worth into their homes and they don’t want to lose that. So they engage in NIMBYism under the name of preservationism or environmentalism, even though denying in-fill development here creates pressures for sprawl elsewhere. They do this through hundreds of politically powerful neighborhood groups throughout San Francisco like the Telegraph Hill Dwellers.

So we’re looking at as much as 80 percent of the city that isn’t naturally oriented to add to the housing stock.

Oh, and tech? The industry is about 8 percent of San Francisco’s workforce.

These groups lead to a shortage of new housing:

While we have to thank these movements for preserving so much of the land surrounding San Francisco and the city’s beautiful Victorians, one side effect is that the city has added an average of 1,500 units per year for the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census estimates that the city’s population grew by 32,000 people from 2010 to 2013 alone.

Even today, you can see these factions engaging in behavior that might seem absurd in the context of a housing shortage.

These groups use a complex web of regulations to stifle new development:

One of the things that makes housing development different in San Francisco compared to other major U.S. cities is that building permits are discretionary rather than as-of-right. In other cities, if a developer already matches the existing zoning and height restrictions of the city plan, they can get issued a permit relatively quickly.

But for new housing developments in San Francisco, there’s a preliminary review, which takes six months.

Then there are also chances for your neighbors to appeal your permit on either an entitlement or environmental basis. The city also requires extensive public notice of proposed projects even if they already meet neighborhood plans, which have taken several years of deliberation to produce. Neighbors can appeal your project for something as insignificant as the shade of paint, although the city’s planning department and commission tries to get through minor appeals quickly.

If those fail, neighborhood groups can also file a CEQA or environmental lawsuit under California state law, challenging the environment impact of the project. Perversely, CEQA lawsuits have been used to challenge a city plan to add 34 miles of bike lanes.

The web of regulations, in turn, is part of the city’s colourful political history:

A charismatic, religious leader named Jim Jones had won the favor of city’s political elite and helped deliver the mayorship to George Moscone. Amid emerging allegations of physical abuse, Jones and hundreds of his followers defected from San Francisco to Guyana, where he sought to build a utopia.

Instead, he convinced more than 900 of his followers, including mothers and infants, to ingest cyanide mixed with punch in a mass suicide. It was an enormous tragedy for the city; nearly every family in the black Fillmore district knew someone they had lost in Jonestown.

Then, just nine days later, there was a double blow. Supervisor Dan White murdered mayor Moscone and gay political icon Harvey Milk in the heart of San Francisco’s beaux-arts City Hall. Tens of thousands of grief-stricken people marched down Market Street in a candlelight vigil.

Earlier in the summer of 1978, a cantankerous former small-town newspaper publisher named Howard Jarvis led a “taxpayer revolt” as property prices were soaring, threatening to throw home owners out of their homes because of rising tax bills. Jarvis’ idea was to cap property taxes at 1 percent of their assessed value and to prevent them from rising by more than 2 percent each year until the property was sold again and its taxes were reset at a new market value.

One argument that Jarvis used to rally tenant support for Proposition 13, was that he promised that landlords would pass on their tax savings to renters.

They didn’t. They pocketed the savings for themselves.

Again, this is a long and very comprehensive read, but it certainly gets to the bottom of San Francisco’s housing crisis that led to the bus protests.

Warren Snowden: The profile

For many years to come, people will no doubt debate the legacy of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

To some, he’s the brave renegade intelligence office who dared to blow the whistle on the US government’s online intelligence gathering programs. To others, he is a traitor who committed the worst act of treason imaginable.

Over at Vanity Fair, Suzanna Andrews, Bryan Burrough, and Sarah Ellison have compiled a fascinating profile of Snowden – and it’s a tale worthy of the best spy novel:

It had all begun some six months earlier, the way the best spy thrillers do, with a whisper in an exotic locale. This time, as befits the defining espionage story of our age, the whisper was first typed into a computer and sent to an expatriate American columnist and former lawyer living in a greenery-shrouded villa in Rio de Janeiro, then to a provocative documentary-film maker at her apartment in Berlin, and last to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist in his office in downtown Manhattan. The columnist, a 47-year-old named Glenn Greenwald, ignored that strange first overture. Greenwald had transformed himself into a crusader in the fight against aggressive government surveillance. His columns and blog posts for Salon, and for a British newspaper, The Guardian, had won him a devoted following among a broad coalition of civil-rights and privacy activists. That first e-mail, one of many that had popped onto his laptop on the morning of December 1, 2012, was cryptic. The anonymous sender, saying he had information Greenwald might be interested in, asked for his public encryption key (a so-called P.G.P. key), so they could have a secure online discussion. Greenwald didn’t have a P.G.P. key and wasn’t going to the trouble of getting one for so vague a promise.

The Snowden leaks, made public through The Guardian, Der Spiegel and other highly regarded publications, included some explosive revelations:

The N.S.A. laid bare in Snowden’s documents is an agency that has the capacity to collect data about virtually every phone call made in America, not to mention hundreds of millions of calls overseas. In order to collect even broader swaths of data, the agency works with its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to intercept communications traveling over fiber-optic cables running between the data centers of Internet companies. The N.S.A. has infiltrated video games, cell-phone apps, and every corner of the digital universe, looking for suspicious activity. Whenever it came up against a locked door online, protected by encryption, the N.S.A. attempted to break in, both by attacking specific encrypted material and by creating weaknesses, or “back doors,” in encryption platforms. Inevitably, much of the information amassed—in fact, most—was about ordinary American citizens suspected of no wrongdoing.

The revelations have challenged basic assumptions about what is private, ripping open debates, long festering, about safeguarding our nation versus safeguarding the Constitution. They have raised questions about whether we should be able, either collectively or individually, to keep a secret. Because of Snowden, we suddenly live in a very different world. People trust the Internet and their devices much less than they did, because it is understood that those devices can be used not only against individuals but also to control society and politics. Governments, meanwhile, are taking evasive and defensive actions. Hackers and the tech community are looking hard at new ways to ensure secure communications—at least for themselves, if not for everyone. “We were sleepwalking into abandoning our privacy, and Snowden has woken us up,” says David Cole, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, who specializes in national security and constitutional law.

Whatever you take is on Snowden – and opinions will be divided – you certainly can’t deny the impact he’s had.

The GitHub scandal: Is transparency the new industrial relations norm?

Over at Forbes, Kashmir Hill takes a look at the scandal recently gripping Github:

GitHub is not an inherently ‘sexy’ company. It is a repository for code, with a business model of paying for privacy: the code you store and edit there is visible to the world unless you fork over some cash to put it behind a wall. Lots of companies do pay for that privacy, but it has also become a very popular place for open source projects, so much so that developers now need to have a GitHub profile with evidence of some of their (unpaid) work in order to get their foot in the door for a job. It’s become LinkedIn for coders. All that gets venture capitalists excited enough to throw millions at the company, but it is otherwise kind of boring to a mainstream audience, like reading about how railroad ties are made.

None of that though brought them as much attention as Julie Ann Horvath, a female engineer and early employee of the toddler-aged start-up, who quit GitHub in March saying the company was sexist. What is very interesting and graspable for a mainstream audience is a good old sexual scandal. Horvath’s departure from the company and reasons why became very public thanks to her tweeting. “A reminder that what looks good from the outside may be systematically f***ed on the inside,” she said in one tweet, before giving a full account of the problems at GitHub to TechCrunch.

Horvath’s post raises a number of questions for employers in the age of social media:

It’s a new challenge for companies. What was once swept under the rug is now hotly debated by those involved all over social media, from Twitter to Medium to Secret. GitHub’s posting the redacted and summarized findings of its internal investigation to its blog may be a harbinger of the behavior we’ll see from companies moving forward when it comes to reacting to HR scandals.

In the case of GitHub, the response was to take to social media:

[Founder Tom] Preston-Werner resigned and wrote a blog post about it. Summary: ‘I didn’t harass anyone but I’m going away because my presence isn’t good for the company. Also, virtual reality is awesome.’ Preston-Werner’s wife, Theresa, also piled on with a blog post. Summary: ‘We didn’t harass anyone. Being silent about it sucked. Also, I didn’t realize people at GitHub thought I was trying to get them to work for free on my non-profit.’ Investor Marc Andreessen, whose firm has put $100 million into GitHub, tweeted his support, “We stand firmly behind both Github the company and Tom the person.” And Julie Ann Horvath aired her disagreement with the GitHub crew on Twitter (of course). “1. Bullying someone into quitting: Illegal,” she tweeted.

It’s worth conserving what you would do if your business ever found itself in the same situation as GitHub.

Asleep at the wheel: Why China is dominating the US electric bus market

Finally, Todd Woody in The Atlantic takes a look at a rapidly growing automaker in the US:

Next Monday, a battery-powered, 40-foot bus is set to roll off the assembly line in a former recreational vehicle factory in Lancaster, California, a blue-collar desert community north of Los Angeles, and be delivered to the local transit authority…

But here’s who’s driving this $800,000 bus: China. The owner of the factory and the technology that lets the eBus go 155 miles on a charge is BYD, the $38 billion Chinese conglomerate that makes everything from electric cars to LED lighting to solar panels. (The company is best known in the United States for the owner of 10 percent of its shares—a Nebraskan investor named Warren Buffett.)

According to Woody, the US has taken its eyes off the road when it comes to innovative electric vehicles:

While Americans tend to focus on invented-in-Silicon-Valley technology—Tesla!—the rest of the world is jumping onboard the eBus. BYD has signed deals to supply the vehicle to countries in Asia, Europe and South America. And the e6 has started to appear in taxi fleets around the world.  So don’t be surprised if you hop in one at LAX sometime in the next few years.

BYD is a company I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more of in the years ahead.


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