Cancer, Bitcoin, Peter Dinklage, “litters of hot girls” and the bubble: A San Francisco dispatch


hackcancerThere is a lot of colloquial wisdom going around these days about how to tell when something is a bubble. I’m certainly no expert, so let me simply add some raw data for consideration.

Last night I went to a party in San Francisco, at the Great American Music Hall. It was one of an ongoing series of events by a local group called hack_cancer. The olde-timey marquee sign above front door read: “HACKCANCER PRESENTS:SILICON VALLEY VOICE.”

According to the “hack_cancer” splash page:

“HackCancer is made up of a group of philanthropic, young professionals in San Francisco who create fun events that bring together great people to raise awareness and funds for good causes.”

Promotional materials for the event said that 100% of proceeds went to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The event flyer had a QR code featuring the logo of a months-old Bitcoin startup yet to present a demonstrable product. The interior of the venue was awash in QR codes. It was “the world’s first Bitcoin fundraiser,” says Steven Chen, the founder and president of hack_cancer.

Chen was named man of the year by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for 2013. He is also the owner of 5A5, a steak restaurant in the Financial District. According to SFStation:

“5A5 Steak Lounge is as suitable for business dinners as it is for first dates and girls’ nights out, making it a favorite of the San Francisco steak-eating community.”

Great American Music Hall is a SF legacy venue: A chintzy gem of the original gilded-age, replete in ornamental gold-painted plaster whorls. I’d been to the GAMH plenty of times over the years, and had absorbed some of its lore. Highlights include its turn as a burlesque-show hall in the first part of the 20th century, its preferred status for Jerry Garcia solo projects, and site of famous live recordings by the Grateful Dead, Sonny Rollins and Robin Williams.

For tonight, though, the storied space would have to resign itself to being the Gilded Palace of …what exactly?

The entertainment was a band called CoverFlow, and consisted of daytime venture capitalists in off-the-shelf burning man garb. They played mostly current pop cover songs in constant medley mode, thereby landing two cheeky little jokes in one band name. At one point a panel of ‘judges’ was announced (more VC’s, a journalist from a music magazine), and a handful of ‘contestants’ were trotted out to sing along with the band’s backing.

In the crowd of 200 or so (Update: organizers later put the number of attendees at 550) were many attractive, well-dressed young women and considerably fewer attractive, well-dressed young men. Chen says that part of hack_cancer’s role in producing these events is to” leverage its personal network” to connect what co-founder Anjou Ahlborn calls “the beautiful community of Bay Area people.” Chen asserts that hack_cancer events have an average 55% females-to-males ratio. “That’s very different than the typical Bitcoin event,” he says.

The aethers chimed with the enthusiasm of youth and the precarious self-assurance of big dreams. The olfactory milieu alternated between perfume and farts. I didn’t see a single pair of Google Glass, but heard a lot of talk about the finer points of cryptocurrencies.

During a rare gap between songs, the band paused to thank Silicon Valley Bank for being the lead sponsor of the event.

Here’s a sample of what wound up directly in my ear:

“There are a lot of investors here. It seems like mostly VC’s, founders and lots of hot girls. Like litters of hot girls!”

“I think Satoshi’s dream will change the world. I mean, healthcare…science. Have you heard of PrimeCoin? They are going to solve prime numbers, like for real. And you know why? Because they are getting paid to do it. Think of the possibilities, you know? Like protein folding…”

“I hate paper too, but we do flyers now because social media is dead, you know. So we are going old school with the flyers, we actually got a company to print them, paid $ 100 for them… so, yeah, thanks for that back actually.”

“Actors want to come. The little guy [Peter Dinklage, of Game of Thrones] wanted to come, but he wanted $ 20,000 so we had to tell him no.”

That last one was from a stocky man with a head like the door jamb for a castle gate, slicked back hair and a wallet spilling over with crumpled one dollar bills that he continued to poke back into place as we talked.

He was referring to the next hack_cancer event, a Game of Thrones themed party at the Armory, home of, next Saturday. He told me there would be jousting knights — which, presumably, will also require horses. Chen says it will be “the first public event at the Armory,” adding, “the City of San Francisco has been very supportive with stuff like permits.”

In fact, early in its 100-year history the armory was the site of prize-fights and social events aimed at Navy recruitment. But that’s water under the castle.

Why Game of Thrones? “We want to take advantage of the buzz around Game of Thrones, and the following Sunday is the season premiere. For our marketing we try to think of events that would attract both genders.” Both?!  In this city, in this day and age, that seems rather limiting.

Past events have been themed around Mad Men and the Great Gatsby. Last year the group put on a “Mr. and Mrs. Silicon Valley” event – both the male and the female winner went on to join high-profile, but, alas, separate incubators.

I couldn’t fight the feeling that something was deeply wrong about all this, but why? It seemed innocuous enough, with its prom-like trappings and charity-event conceits. And a lot of work had clearly gone into putting it together.

Maybe I’m just being a jerk. After all, people were having fun and Chen expects to have raised $ 12,000 to $ 15,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, though he admits that Silicon Valley Bank donated at least that much to produce the event.

There was definitely a community among those in attendance. But a peculiar sort of community, where no one ever really stops working, and foxes and hounds can’t overcome their differences.

It occurred to me that despite all the external weirdness of this event, there was nothing inside that connected it to the deep traditions of weirdness that inhabit San Francisco, furry boots notwithstanding. There were plenty of people frothing about Bitcoin, but that’s now de rigueur.

Do the various folks who put this event together represent Silicon Valley culture consciously isolating itself from San Francisco’s, preferring their shared crystalline canopy of personality-driven, eternal business?

Or have the ‘hippies’, ‘ravers’, and ‘burners’ simply abandoned the ‘techies’ to their own devices?

About bubbles. If you still don’t see any connection, it’s possible I’m mistaken. Like I said, I’m no expert.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]