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Fear and loathing in La Vallée

Like any writer, the one thing I fear and loathe the most is my weekly deadline.

Like any writer, the one thing I fear and loathe the most is my weekly deadline. Since I often file from the field, that guarantees endless opportunities for constructive procrastination. The other night I wound up chasing a rumor through the most desolate blocks of San Francisco's Marina District, where it finally ditched me on Pixley Street. I stopped to inspect a ramshackle cottage for rent and my prey slipped away like an odorless vapor.

Which reminds me of something that inspires fear and loathing in Silicon Valley--real estate. Unreal estate is more like it: endless miles of barren suburban sprawl, indistinguishable burb upon burg that learned something from Las Vegas, something ugly. What's more, it's all worth its weight and then some in gold, or even Yahoo stock certificates. Real estate is so hot in this neck of the woods, folks, you'd think we were in danger of being swallowed up by the Sun.

In fact, that's exactly what some Santa Clarans are griping about after Sun Microsystems dropped some serious dinero on a local ballot initiative that would permit the computer workstation maker to buy up some prime grazing lands right in the middle of town. Sun won the measure, and its singed opponents, who say they were outspent 100 to 1, are claiming Sun bought the election.

Furthermore, Sun's foes allege that the industry stalwart landed its deal to purchase the property (many of whose Beaux-Arts structures that will fall to the wrecking ball) by way of some hanky-panky with the state. "The process that the state employed to sell this property was not proper," gripes the No on D site. "Property must first be offered to other state agencies, Parks & Rec, local agencies, etc. This was not done...The deal Sun has with the state specifically stops any other interested party from being considered." These other interested parties included historical preservationists (who let them into the Valley?) and a bunch of bleeding hearts who wanted to turn the site into housing for seniors. Tant pis pour vous!

But as is usual with the Silicon Valley real estate market, the money is what's really funny: Sun is paying $34 million for 82.5 acres, or $412,000 per acre. That compares to $2.2 million per acre Intel paid Informix for 27 acres of the Valley in 1997.

(Skindustry moles report that Cisco Systems' recent land grab of 80 acres in Milpitas and 150 acres in San Jose is valued at $400 million. That comes out to $1.74 million per acre, which is less than what Intel paid; but hey, you should at least get a break for buying in bulk.)

Measure D's enemies are down but not out, having just filed a lawsuit to challenge Sun's environmental impact report. But Sun remains gung-ho about the project and dismisses opponents' claims as politically motivated. "It's truly an amazing project, and unfortunately we were the victim of someone who was looking to get back into politics," said a McNealy minion. That someone would be Eddie Souza, former mayor of Santa Clara, who took on the current political establishment with his opposition to the project.

Sun denies it spent too much on the election and too little on the property. On the first point, the company said the 100-to-1 figure was "grossly exaggerated," but that it had not yet tallied the final count on how much it spent. About that bargain-basement purchase price, the company explains that it was negotiated two years ago, before the real estate market exploded. Sun also defended the bidding process, saying it competed with 300 others and came out with the highest bid, fair and square.

There you have it, folks: a Silicon Valley soap opera that doesn't involve Larry Ellison and his rest stops on Highway 101. My only wish for both parties is that we can keep technology from dividing us all.

Even scarier and more loathsome than my (blown) deadline this week was my in-box after last week's column. First of all, hats off to the many dozens of you who were able to access the Chinese tourism Web site using Navigator. Some of you actually requested a medal, but you'll have to be content with my thanks for passing on the nice little hack someone has since posted to the site: That little warning that used to say "You'd better use Internet Explorer!" now reads, "We'd better use 100% pure Java!" with a nice little logo and a link to "java.sun.com." Next thing you know, Sun will be offering China some tips on democracy and finance. As the man who takes my fedora and coat at Tadich's likes to remind me, "Tipping is not a city in China."

The other half of your kind letters--the ones that were not demanding my head--were demanding the head of Bill Gates. As I recall, it was mine on a platter and his in a mug shot, and the latter I am happy to provide in the accompanying image. However, I do not vouch for its authenticity; it arrived in a suspicious, unmarked package along with a police report from an unrelated incident involving one Geraldine Evans of Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose path brought her head-on into our favorite reckless driver in the same year the mug shot was taken for a separate incident.

Bill Gates
The head of Microsoft Corporation

Ms. Evans survived her encounter with Monsieur Gates, as did her 3/4-ton truck and Gates's passenger, a guy by the name of Paul Allen who (if you can believe this coincidence) would grow up to be an investor in CNET: The Computer Network, which pays me to dig this kind of information up about him. What did not emerge unscathed from the collision was the green Porsche Gates was driving, or perhaps his sense of gallantry.

"He was kind of rude, to be perfectly honest," Ms. Evans reminisces. "He didn't ask me, 'Are you OK?' He was like, 'How dare you?'"

Evans, who is a secretary at an Albuquerque elementary school, concedes that she ran a stop sign, which she says she couldn't see behind a parked truck. But she still blames Bill for the accident, saying he was speeding. Just the facts, ma'am: The police report notes that The Road Behind the green Porsche had a fresh 40 feet of skid marks on it in a 30-mph zone.

Despite the fact that her truck was damaged, her insurance rates went up, and that Gates wasn't very nice about the whole thing, Evans says she doesn't have any hard feelings. The secretary admits she uses Microsoft Word. "I'm glad that he did well and all," she added. "But it was still his fault. He was speeding."

Now that I've beat that dead horse, here's another: The parody apparently isn't over, at least not for GeoShitties. That spoof is a target of the lawyers over at GeoCities, according to The Juicy Cerebellum's online manifesto. But those soggy brains are resisting the forces of corporate trademark law, unlike other sites we've mentioned before that have merely cracked under pressure. You may think rumors aren't worth peanuts, but I think they're all they're cracked up to be. So shell 'em out!