“Going viral” used to be a good thing in Silicon Valley. As we head into the third year of spikes and shutdowns, the phrase that once meant a rapid spread of a popular social media post suddenly evoked both the terror and inconvenience of the continually evolving coronavirus pandemic.
Gas, coffee and computer chip shortages—these were all part of the Great Supply Chain Disruption of 2021. On top of those woes, essential employees were in short supply.
Teachers. Hospital workers. Truck drivers. It’s a situation partly COVID-related, but also driven by baby boomers hitting retirement, and a drop in immigration.
One thing that was not in short supply in 2021: Disasters, natural and otherwise.
The year of turmoil began on Jan. 6, when a crowd of boys who have little to be proud of assaulted Capitol Police officers with bear spray and flagpoles, entered the U.S. Capitol and terrorized elected representatives of Congress and their staffs.
January didn’t bring an end to attacks on elected officials. Members of city councils and school boards alike have heard from angry citizens who seem hell-bent on exposing themselves (and their children) to the coronavirus and its emerging variants, rejecting masks, vaccines, science and history.
Explosive anger was a top contender for emotion of the year in 2021. Toxic workplace frustration reached a zenith in the South Bay on May 26, when a 57-year-old VTA employee shot and killed nine coworkers at a Valley Transportation Authority rail yard in San Jose before turning the automatic pistol on himself as police closed in.
Then in the late summer, Mother Nature erupted, serving up multiple catastrophic wildfires, spreading haze throughout the state. Locally, the Santa Clara Valley Water District declared a water shortage emergency in June.
In between all the disasters, natural and human-made, life went on.
Protesters threw stinky substances at the Menlo Park headquarters of Robinhood, an online stock trading app, after it halted trading in old school video game retailer GameStop. The move came after Redditors pushed its market cap up from a little over $1 billion to more than $34 billion in less than a month.The runup, which involved Elon Musk and was foreshadowed by San Jose financial savant Michael Burry, required investment house Melvin Capital to undertake an emergency raise of $2.75 billion, more than the gross domestic product of 40 nations, to cover its short positions. Michael Jordan lost a half billion of his personal net worth, but he’ll make it up in overtime.
San Jose congressional Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the one member of Congress to work three presidential impeachments, got to notch four with the House voting for a second time to impeach Donald Trump one week after the insurrection. As a congressional staffer to Rep. Don Edwards, she had participated in the impeachment investigation of Richard Nixon, then served as a member on the House Judiciary Committee during the Bill Clinton impeachment.
Venerable San Jose-based retailer Fry’s Electronics shut its stores and website in a move that was not fully unexpected but still came as a surprise. For 36 years, the chain had been an icon of Silicon Valley and one of the biggest supporters of local sports teams, math institutes and arts organizations, but in the end, rising real estate values and continuing brick and mortar retail woes made it more financially interesting to make its properties available for development.
For the average Joe, the evolution of caring about non-fungible tokens (NFTs) started and ended in 2021. But the hype of these collectible digital files took off in March, after artist Mike Winkelmann, better known online as Beeple, sold an NFT for $69 million— earning him the title of third-most expensive living artist. Underpinned by blockchain technology, folks in the worlds of fin-tech, crypto and Silicon Valley start-ups have been pining to be on the starting line of NFTs ever since, whether or not anyone else cares about owning these unique (yet arguably easily reproducible) digital files.
The Delta variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus—named after the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet—hit the United States in March. The first “variant of interest” to make the global rounds, it wouldn’t be the last in 2021. We’re already up to number 15.
He is not normal
If Elon Musk were truly “the id of tech,” as Kara Swisher claims, he would do anything to satisfy his companies’ appetites and never take no for an answer—in case you’ve misplaced your Freud. On an earnings call in April, he admitted that Tesla “literally raided every electronics store in the Bay Area” because its Fremont plant had run out of USB cables. Following that display, he hosted SNL, where he announced that he has Asperger’s, and offered this non-apology for his occasionally antisocial behavior: “I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars on a rocketship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?“
Stanford University computer science professor Jeffrey Ullman was awarded the industry’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize— given to achievements like the World Wide Web and Pixar’s CGI tech—for textbooks he authored. However, celebrations quickly turned sour after 78-year-old Ullman defended past blog posts questioning Iranian students’ loyalties, intentions and abilities amid the decades-long, oil-driven U.S.-Iran crisis, and rationalized land theft from Native Americans as par for the course in human history. More than 1,000 signatures were collected urging the Association for Computing Machinery to reconsider its ethics and diversity standards—especially following the reckoning over racial justice throughout 2020.
At a meeting on May 5, the Cupertino City Council decided to take advantage of state housing-density incentives without actually creating more affordable housing units. “We’re not in a dictatorship,” Mayor Darcy Paul said, citing “locality rights”—don’t bother looking for that term in a legal dictionary. Apparently, the mayor had not seen a letter that arrived the previous day from the California Department of Housing and Community Development specifically rejecting the ordinance he had championed. Three weeks later, City Manager Deb Feng resigned abruptly.
Tit for Tat
Months before any 2022 elections, political mudslinging started off with a bang in May. In an interview with The Fly columnist, Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone said his opponent “Gary Kremen is sucking the tit of the union.” The 80-year-old’s immediate regret proved accurate; as the Silicon Valley Democratic Club censured Stone, calling for his resignation and an apology.At least 75% of members felt the quote was “offensive, sexist, misogynistic and anti worker.” Stone jabbed back while apologizing, accusing Kremen of “toxic behavior” on the Valley Water District board and “[profiting] from the exploitation of women” by owning the URL sex.com. Who knew the race to assess property taxes could get so steamy?
The Flea Market
Vendors at the San Jose Flea Market began a 50-hour hunger strike to protest plans to replace their businesses with $2.5 billion worth of high-density, transit-friendly housing near the new Berryessa BART station. Council unanimously approved the development after the Bumb family doubled its relocation assistance to the 430 vendors to $5 million.
IPads for Guns?
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Eric Geffon dismissed bribery charges against Apple global security chief and gun permit seeker Thomas Moyer for an alleged offer to give 700 iPads to the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s department. The judge called the case “pure speculation...not supported by the evidence.”
Pandemic-closed shopping centers reopened, but some uninvited guests appeared. In what turned out to be practice runs for the holiday season, thieves stole 36 handbags valued at more than $100,000 from Louis Vuitton at the Stanford Shopping Center. The previous month, a group of ten made off with 43 bags worth $150,000 at the same center’s Neiman Marcus store.
Global climate change, a century of forest mismanagement and a stretch of uninsulated PG&E power lines conspired to create the Dixie Fire—the second-biggest wildfire in California history, which erupted in July and burned nearly a million acres. Only one of those causes could be held liable in a court of law: PG&E now predicts it will lose $1 billion due to lawsuits on this fire alone.
Scan to Read
If having a successful 2021 was a competition, the QR code might just come out on top. The barcode’s pixelated cousin—first introduced in 1994—replaced paper menus at restaurants, karaoke song lists at bars and eventually California’s oversized paper vaccination cards throughout the pandemic. Despite concerns of excluding poor, unhoused and technologically averse folks, the accelerated rollout of this mark across the country means it’s likely here to stay.
The bizarre dust still hasn’t settled at eBay Inc., two years after (former) high-ranking executives waged an “aggressive cyberstalking campaign” to stifle two journalists running an online ecommerce newsletter—complete with live cockroaches, a bloody pig mask and a book about surviving the death of a spouse. Alongside ex-eBayers’ criminal charges, the victims outside of Boston, Massachusetts, filed a civil lawsuit against the Silicon Valley giant in July, for conspiring to “intimidate, threaten to kill, torture, terrorize, stalk and silence” the couple.
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s entire office was disqualified from prosecuting attorney Christopher Schumb, and all charges were dropped against him. Schumb had been charged with bribery after he took meetings and made a phone call on behalf of a Facebook bodyguard who wanted a gun permit and made an overly generous political contribution to an independent expenditure committee in support of Sheriff Laurie Smith.
A years-long debate about the future of Reid-Hillview Airport finally came to a head in August, after an airborne lead study found elevated blood lead levels within 17,000 samples from children under the age of 18 living in residential neighborhoods nearby. Despite ongoing tests and pushback from private aviation enthusiasts, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to ground operations as early as January 2022—contingent upon approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Freedom to Infect
San Jose has been able to boast the highest percentage of vaccinated people among the 10 biggest cities in the US since nurses started putting shots in arms. In August, a month after the city passed the 85 percent mark, Mayor Sam Liccardo proposed a way to encourage the holdouts by mandating proof-of-vax-status at city-owned venues including the Convention Center, California Theatre and Shark Tank. Proving the need for such a law, angry, unmasked protesters shut down the council meeting where the plan ultimately passed unanimously.
Smith in hot seat
County supervisors began turning up the heat on Sheriff Laurie Smith, voting unanimously on a vote of ‘no confidence’ for her stonewalling in the supes’ probe of continuing jail deaths. Even Mayor Sam LIccardo got in on the act, calling for her to resign. Things would only get worse as the year wore on, with the release in November of shocking videos of the 2018 death of a mentally ill inmate in a county transport vehicle. Then the county’s Civil Grand Jury released its report in December accusing Smith of multiple counts of corruption. The six-term sheriff is to face her accusers again this month, to answer the grand jury report.
Following a nod from the California Attorney General’s office, attention (and investment) in psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms picked up steam. The California Psilocybin Initiative was allowed to start gathering signatures for a 2022 ballot measure to either legalize or decriminalize the cultivation and sale of “magic mushrooms.” This appeal directly to the Golden State’s voters may be the most promising progress,after several failed attempts at legislation over the years.
Thankless in Los Gatos
Long a hotbed of contentment, civility and smooth jazz, Los Gatos became a front of the culture war this month when a handful of folks showed up at a series of city council meetings to voice their concerns about LGBTQ “terrorists,” “communist” Mayor Marico Sayoc, BLM, CRT, etc. During public comments, one angry mom complained that the youth-services organization Sayoc heads as her day job is trying to turn the mom’s “beautiful, beautiful daughter” into a boy. After a commenter got personal about Sayoc’s school-aged son, the mayor’s husband burst into Town Hall hurling F-bombs and demanding that the protesters cease harassing his family at their home.
Allies Now Opponents
Downtown councilmember Raul Peralez saw his hopes of becoming San Jose’s mayor grow more distant when his mentor and political ally decided she wanted the job herself. County supervisor Cindy Chavez’ campaign announcement included endorsements from residents trotted of two San Jose suburbs—Monte Sereno and Gilroy— but the announcement lost some luster when energy lobbyist Carl Guardino’s meeting calendar surfaced and a shootout at a Halloween party at the family home of Gilroy Councilwoman Rebeca Armendariz left three young attendees wounded and one in the morgue. Chavez rebounded by announcing endorsements from 49ers co-owner Jed York and the team’s former safety, Ronnie Lott, neither of whom lives in San Jose.
A Name Changer
On Oct. 5, whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the Senate Commerce Committee that Facebook knowingly hurts children and the rest of us because of its excessive interest in growth and profit. A month earlier, the company had to apologize because its algorithm identified black men as “primates.” On Oct. 28. Facebook changed its name to Meta.
It’s not every day a couple of San Jose high school students find themselves on stages at The Late Show and Lollapalooza. But it’s somewhat fitting that the Peach Tree Rascals’ first song — produced in a backyard shed in the shadow of Silicon Valley—went viral (and gold) on social platforms like Spotify and TikTok. Thousands of fans online and at shows have since set Peach Tree Rascals on track to join San Jose’s long list of musical exports— from the Doobie Brothers and Los Tigres del Norte to Shinobu and Smash Mouth.
Smash and Grab
A wave of smash and grab robberies hit San Jose’s Westfield Valley Fair, Oakridge and Eastridge malls. Hammer-wielding, hoodie-wearing thieves helped themselves to purses, sunglasses, cologne, perfume, jewelry and other expensive products, a trend that spread panic at high-end stores across the U.S.
Beautiful but deadly
Highway 280 is touted as California’s most beautiful freeway. This is largely due to the work of environmentalists and elected officials who together preserved land in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the foothills that the highway traverses—pretty, and excellent wildlife habitat. For that reason, 280 is California’s deadliest freeway when it comes to wildlife—roadkill on the highway is estimated to cost the state almost $6 million a year. Enter the Roadkill app, built by Los Gatos resident Michael Schneider, who hopes to activate “citizen scientists” to digitally mark locations of unfortunate critters so their carcasses can be repurposed for food and taxidermy.
The statue of Thomas Fallon raising the American flag in San Jose for the first time in 1846 was controversial from the minute it was proposed in 1988. Then-Mayor Tom McEnery, a historian and, like Fallon, a proud Irishman, intended the statue to commemorate the beginning of what he called San Jose’s “American period.” Others, including local Chicano activists, saw the 16-foot-tall statue of a white man on a stallion as a celebration of American imperialism. While Fallon might not be guilty of crimes as heinous as those committed by other bronzed heroes who have been toppled in recent years, the San Jose City Council unanimously decided to end 33 years of controversy and vote him off the traffic island.
A Better Merry Christmas
Just days after getting a $750 million cash infusion, direct mortgage lender Better.com CEO Vishal Garg fired 900 people during the holiday season in a company-wide Zoom call. “If you're on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off,” CNN Business reported he said, after reviewing a transcript of the call.
Best, Worst Month for SCU
December was an emotionally rough month for Santa Clara University. While the women’s soccer team managed to host and play in the NCAA’s College Cup, protests about mental health services (or lack thereof) erupted on the other side of campus, after three students died within weeks of each other.
Supervisors Pick Districts
In 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger upended California’s political landscape by spearheading a citizens’ initiative campaign that wrenched the power to draw political boundaries from politicians. The initiative created the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which in the final days of 2021 released a map of new congressional and state legislative districts. The Santa Clara Board of Supervisors did things the old-fashioned way—redrawing districts that appear to benefit themselves and allied interest groups such as labor unions. Controversies erupted over splitting up the downtown district and separating Los Gatos from the South Valley to ensure that the board’s only historically conservative to moderate seat leans left in future contests.
If you couldn’t get a Wifi signal over the last week, it was because everyone in Silicon Valley was sucking up bandwidth trying to find out if the Elizabeth Holmes jury had come back with a verdict. As the year wound to a close, they still hadn’t, and murmurs about the possibility of a mistrial ensued. Jurors have dropped like flies since the trial began on Sept. 8. One was dismissed for work hardship, another for anxiety and a third for playing Sudoku. At this point, though, prosecutors may not mind a second shot at Holmes, after what many thought was an open-and-shut case backed by a long trail of texts, doctored reports and secretly recorded investor meetings. Holmes’ lawyers threw out a lot of excuses for her multimillion-dollar fraud — including blaming journalists for not catching her (even though John Carreyrou actually did) — but in the end it may all hinge on whether the jury bought her doe-eyed, failing-memory “Who,me?”defense.