Author Archives: Ian Kennedy

The week that was (04-12-19)

A California store is looking for the man who stole a chainsaw by stuffing it down his pants and walking calmly (and gingerly) out the door.

It took less than five minutes for a group of men in balaclavas to operate an excavator to scoop up a gas station ATM and drop it into a waiting getaway car.

“We breached the bathroom door and encountered a very thorough vacuuming job being done by a Roomba,” said a sheriff’s deputy after responding to a 911 call from an Oregon woman reporting that someone was in her bathroom with the door locked and that she could see shadows moving under the door.

Election hacking was uncovered at Berkeley High School when the student commissioner discovered irregularities in the leading candidates’ electronic ballots.

The BT Tower in London was lit up last weekend not with its usual bands of color but the Microsoft Windows start up message.

A skull and a pair of pants were all that was left of a suspected rhino poacher who was attacked and killed by an elephant and then devoured by lions.

A Dutch F-16 somehow managed to hit itself when the jet accelerated into a dive and caught up with and passed the 20mm rounds it fired and was shot by said rounds as the plane pulled out of its firing run.

The Swiss have determined that coffee is no longer vital for survival and therefore will be removed from the nation’s emergency stockpile.

Legalization of marijuana in Oregon and federal restrictions against transportation across state lines has resulted in a surplus of weed (1 million pounds), enough to last for the next seven years.

Photo credit: xkcd

The week that was (04-05-19)

Monday was April Fool’s Day which is always busy day at SmartNews because even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms have a hard time detecting satire. Now, onto the news that was, unbelievably, real.

Scientists published a paper that concluded that music by dubstep star Skrillex can keep mosquitoes from biting.

“By coincidence, and rather amusingly, they recognised each other in the sauna,” said the Swedish police officer after his colleague apprehended a fugitive while they were both naked.

In the Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, who plays the Ukrainian president on TV, got twice as many votes as the current leader Petro Poroshenko, and will face him in a runoff vote on April 21st.

A 64 year-old civilian man was injured last month when, during his ride with a French Air Force military jet, his ejection seat fired, sending him soaring into the sky.

Residents of a Seattle suburb are dealing with a unique problem. Majestic Bald Eagles are swooping down, picking up trash at the local dump, and raining it down on houses in the area (perhaps in protest?).

A man who just left jail was re-booked into the same prison he just left. He was booked for burglary, grand theft, and possession of stolen property. He was caught trying to steal a car from the prison parking lot.

As far as the British Passport Authority is concerned, Brexit has already happened and the UK has already left the EU. New passports issued on March 30th did not have the “European Union” label on the cover.

Elon Musk shared future plans that will help offset the costs of owning a Tesla. The auto-piloted cars will drive themselves around, picking up passengers, competing with Lyft and Uber and earning money for their owners while they sleep.

Photo credit: Reddit user O1oll

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Algorithms don’t get humor

April Fool’s Day is always a busy day at SmartNews as our news discovery algorithm get overly excited with all the cool, interesting and unique news released that day. Here’s a running log of what we’ve had to gently remind the algorithm is actually just a joke.

Hope you had a good April Fools.

The week that was (03-29-19)

A truck spilled several bags of marijuana across a San Francisco area freeway (880 in Emeryville if you must know). CHP posted on twitter, “Roses are red, violets are blue, your spilled weed is green and we have a citation just for you!”

A Florida man decided he wanted to get all his neighbors high and set fire to a bunch of pot in his backyard. Meanwhile, in Houston, the DEA is looking for someone that can burn 1,000 pounds of marijuana an hour.

A Verizon worker was suspended for three weeks without pay for using a company bucket truck to rescue a cat that was stuck on top of a utility pole. The neighborhood rallied and raised over $3,000 to tide him over.

Organizers of the annual Philly Naked Bike Ride moved their event one month earlier to mid-August because September is too chilly.

“Welcome to Edinburgh!” announced the sflight attendant cheerfully as a British Airways flight touched down. The only trouble was the flight was supposed to be landing in Düsseldorf.

As England stumbled towards the EU door like an unwanted guest, a new study says that one in three polled in the UK look forward to a day when Artificial Intelligence can replace politicians.

People in Northern France finally figured out why vintage Garfield phones keep washing up on their beaches.

Photo credit: Reddit user ectofooler

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March Madness is our Koshien

What an amazing game played by UCF against Duke yesterday. I keep coming back to the final basket, those final seconds when everything hung in the balance, how it almost made it in, just a slightly-softer-touch. UCF was so close to upsetting a #1 seeded championship team. It was never supposed to be that close.

“It was up there forever, I felt like, in slow motion,” he said. “Once I saw it go past the midpoint and roll out, there was, at that point, nothing left to do.”

Heartbroken UCF proud it pushed No. 1 Duke during close NCAA Tournament loss

Then today I saw the locker room speech by the UCF coach, Johnny Dawkins, father of the player who just missed that last basket and a former player for Duke, the team that won. You can hear the sniffling in the background and really feel their loss. These boys, some of them seniors, were playing in the last game of their entire basketball career. They are at the peak of their career, if they are not getting picked up by a pro team, this is it.

For me it was an exciting game and an close loss. Exciting for sure but my bracket’s intact, I’m moving on. Just a close call. But to these kids, the loss must have been devastating. So many years invested up to that one final moment.

There is an annual high school baseball tournament in Japan that is very much like the March Madness tournament here in the United States. 4000+ teams across the country play in a national tournament that ends up with less than 20 teams going to a the famous Koshien Stadium in Japan in mid-August. The entire nation turns in during the hot summer evenings to watch their nation’s youth play their hearts out.

March Madness is our Koshien

Elizabeth Holmes – The Inventor

After watching the HBO documentary about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, I’m all in everything about how she pulled the wool over so many eyes and got so many people (mostly older men points out my wife) to hand over their wallets. It’s a cautionary tale for the fast & loose culture of Silicon Valley that is starting to bump up against more traditional and heavily regulated industries such as medicine, banking, and transportation. Think of CRISPR, cryptocurrency, Space-X and Tesla as examples of projects that need to take extra care as they innovate so as not to lose the public’s trust.

Here’s my reading list:

The week that was (03-22-19)

Jelly Belly, the California-based jelly bean company that was a favorite treat of Ronald “just say no” Reagan, debuted a cannabis-infused jelly bean. The national pharmacy chain CVS announced that it began selling CDB products in 8 states.

Worlds collided over at Porsche where they announced they will be releasing an all-electric 911 car bringing into question what makes for a “genuine Porsche.”

Louis Vuitton is making basketball shoes.

An Italian politician who vocally opposed a new law making some childhood vaccinations mandatory was recently hospitalized after contracting chickenpox.

A driver in rural Massachusetts followed his GPS a little too closely and ended up driving his jeep deep into the forest where it got stuck.

A truck carrying a load of salami and bacon caught fire in Northern California, it must have smelled delicious.

Students at Switzerland’s Bern University of the Arts discovered that the type of music you play to cheese will effect its taste. Apparently “cheeses that were played hip-hop music were described as slightly sweet.”

Photo credit: just read the thread

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Mr. Jimmy

One of the highlights of SXSW 2019 that I want to expand on a bit was seeing the premier of Mr. Jimmy, a documentary film about the Jimmy Page tribute artist, Akio Sakurai.

The film is a loving appreciation of Japanese attention to detail and craft. In much the same way that Jiro Dreams of Sushi introduced the world to the lengthy apprenticeship and dedication of the world’s best sushi chefs, Mr. Jimmy dives into Sakurai’s singular 35-year devotion to replicating the lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page.

Sakurai’s intimate knowledge of all phases of Led Zeppelin’s musicology allows him to recreate any song from any era exactly matching the phrasing, pace and tone. He can even play entire solos from specific concerts that he has collected in the bootleg CD shops of Tokyo’s Shinjuku 7-chome neighborhood.

If you want to hear the famous 30-minute version of No Quarter played on June 21, 1977 in Los Angeles, Sakurai can play it for you, note-for-note. In order to capture the exact sound, Sakurai insists on using the same (now vintage) equipment that Jimmy Page used. The same guitars, amps, cables and even pick-ups. He plays the acoustic portions of Stairway to Heaven on the same guitar used by Mr. Page. The exact same one. He spares no expense in his pursuit.

Before the screening of the film, the director (Peter Michael Dowd) told a story of when he first heard Sakurai play. As a Led Zeppelin fan himself, he understood the time it must have taken to get the sound just right. Sakurai told him it took him 30-years to learn that particular song to his satisfaction. Dowd could tell from the look in Sakurai’s eyes that this was not just a term of expression. It really did take Sakurai thirty years.

There are wonderful snippets of dialog with the constellation of craftspeople who support Sakurai’s quest for perfection. They each have a gleam in their eyes as they know they are working for someone who notices every detail they put into their work. From Shinji Kishimoto makes Sakurai’s pickups to Rie Nakahara, the costume designer, who pours over concert footage with Sakurai in order to capture and recreate the stitching and creasing of the custom shirts worn by Jimmy Page.

It’s this pursuit of the pure experience that has attracted a devoted fanbase in Japan that is equally obsessed with the church of Zeppelin. His fans in Japan study his every move as if they are experiencing the band for the first time. Most of them have never seen the original band so a Mr. Jimmy concert is their only experience of a live Led Zeppelin show. It all comes full circle when Jimmy Page attends one of Sakurai’s concerts while visiting Japan. After the show, Page compliments Sakurai and they exchange a moment when Page recognizes a telltale lick that reveals which era’s style he was playing. The master giving an approving nod to the apprentice.

The film follows Sakurai as he leaves his family and steady job (at a kimono maker) in Japan for the United States to follow his dream. We see him struggle with his Western bandmates who are more realistic about playing the hits, selling tickets, and having fun. “No one wants to hear an 8-minute guitar solo, even if it is faithful to the time period.” they say to Sakurai. They are not used to getting post-show pages of feedback on their performances – criticisms about how they sang or placed their hands. Sakurai and Led Zeppagain eventually went their separate ways and Sakurai seems happy to leave the “jukebox band” behind.

But true artists eventually find each other and we see Sakurai form another band, joining together with Jason Bonham, the son of the late-John Bonham (drummer for Led Zeppelin) for a world tour. It’s a dream come true.

Please see this movie. It was a labor of love (the director sold his car to make a second trip to Japan) that investigates Japanese otaku culture through one person’s journey, a hero journey but with a twist. Sakurai can never truly become Jimmy Page but instead the audience has internalized a bit of Sakurai’s obsession. I have been listening to old Led Zeppelin bootlegs for the past week.

After the movie, we were treated to a few songs played by Sakurai himself who was in the audiences. Here’s a clip I filmed of him playing The Rain Song which we were told was written on a dare by George Harrison who complained that Led Zeppelin never wrote any ballads!

Jimmy Sakurai plays for the audience after the premiere of Mr. Jimmy

SXSW 2019 Highlights

It’s been twelve years since I last was at SXSW – time flies – I wrote about it then so for continuity’s sake I might as well share some highlights from this year.

What I learned

Following the success of the New York Times’ The Daily podcast, the Grey Lady will dip its toe into broadcast TV with a weekly show called, you guessed it, The Weekly. Following the same formula, The Weekly will go deep on one story and, in 30 minutes, bring viewers the broader picture of how a news article comes together and convey things via video that cannot be expressed in print. The Weekly will air sometime in June on FX.

I saw Senator Amy Klobuchar expertly deflect a pointed question about her comb/salad incident, brushing it off as, a mom thing and moving on to a broader point about expecting the best from herself and her staff.

I saw the intersection of two writing cultures in the The New Yorker but Make it Internet panel. I learned that while you “post” something online, you “close” it in print. The young writers who post regularly online shared their experiencing getting edited for longer pieces in print where they still use words such as “teen-ager” and “web site” is written with two words.

Lots of talk about Artificial Intelligence and how it will impact journalism and storytelling (film). Sony demonstrated software that can write music. Many media outlets admitted to deploying AI to write summaries of high school sports or financial earnings reports and some are using AI to look for anomalies in large datasets for primary investigation. Several funny stories shared of flat-footed AI recommendation systems, “You’re here for the parenting, stay for Iraq!” and how one-dimensional AI can be (intense interest in how to raise a baby does not evolve into how to raise a child).

This reminds me of what Kathy Sierra said about apps in 2007 at my first SXSW,

All apps have a Asperger’s Syndrome.  They cannot pick up on visual queues from their users such as when someone is angry, frustrated, or confused. If a user has these reactions to software, they quickly fall below the suck threshold.

Kathy Sierra, SXSW Keynote, 2007

We must always remember that any Artificial Intelligence was born in the mind of someone, somewhere and has the biases of that person or team of people baked right into it and remains static, not taking in the inexplicit contexts of its environment,

What I experienced

SXSW is much bigger than it was 12 years ago. While I was last in Austin for the annual Online News Association meeting which took over the JW Marriott, SXSW sprawled over not only the JW Marriott but also the Austin Convention Center and Fairmont Hotels with pavilion and bar takeovers all across town. I don’t think Rainy Street was a thing back in 2007. It is not only the Interactive festival but also gathering for music and new film releases which I was somehow oblivious of the last time. I thought I could plan ahead and pick and chose what I wanted to see but soon realized that would be an exercise in frustration and that it was better to just have a rough idea of a few things you wanted to seek out and then let the winds of chance take you from one thing to the next.

Using Foursquare in Austin during SXSW unlocked a preview of their Hypertrending map

I wandered into the Japan pavilion where the Japanese comedian, Yuriyan Retriever (ゆりやんレトリィバァ) narrated a guy who was creating a stop-motion video on his iPad in front of the most-patient audience I had ever seen. I’ve written about her before, she’s got a great bit on the Oscar’s acceptance speech.

Framed “covefefe” tweet at The Daily Show’s Presidential Twitter Library
Late-night on Congress Street

SXSW with your son

Tyler had the week off from college so I suggested he come down from Boston to Austin and take advantage of the hotel room and get to know the city and take in the festival. Unfortunately he came down with a nasty cold for the first two days but we did get a chance to walk (and scooter) around a bit on Monday and Tuesday. I loved just walking around and experiencing things through his eyes.

SXSW Hacks

While Twitter and Foursquare famously launched at SXSW – this year was the coming out party for electric scooters. The grab-and-go rentals were everywhere with competing pods from Uber/Jump, Lyft, Bird, Lime, and others. In my unofficial survey, the late-model Lyft scooters had the most “umph” to them.

The Interactive badge got me into all the media sessions that I wanted to attend and they had this new SXXPress system that, like a Disneyland FastPass, let you jump the line and grab a guaranteed seat. Also discovered a hack to get into the more popular talks was to attend the talk in the time slot prior and squat in a seat and make small talk with your neighbors. This hack probably won’t work next year as many were catching on to this as the festival went on.

Be sure to check out a film or band in the evenings. While the Interactive lanyard will not give you first dibs or get you into the big name premiers, it will get you in for free if space is available. I caught the premier of the excellent documentary, Mr. Jimmy and the Welsh band Novo Amor.

I booked my hotel very late but was able to score a room at the Marriott Residence Inn at The Domain which has a Costco-sized Whole Foods which is a wonder to behold. The Domain is way out of town and costs $20+ in a Lyft but discovered a tram station 10-minute’s walk away that only costs $3 and takes you right into town, next to the Convention Center. Riding the tram I learned:

  • West Austin is where rich housewives gather for yoga sessions an Kombucha exchange parties,
  • People in Austin get discounted passes to SXSW, many also volunteer which gives them access to events when they’re not working,
  • The Domain is a soulless retail development and signaled to many locals the end of Austin

Yeah the BBQ is awesome. Iron Works, Coopers and all the other places – there are tons of places to eat. If you’re looking for something else, Gus’s Chicken (it’s world famous ya know) is good for lunch and the Texas Chili Parlor is a must do when finishing out a night on the town.

The week that was (Ides of March)

Fed chairman Jerome Powell used a piece of fine art to illustrate how too much focus on the details can sometimes obscure the bigger picture.

“We have artificially created a state that evolves in a direction opposite to that of the thermodynamic arrow of time,” said Gordey Lesovik, a quantum physicist from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. In other words, his team has figured out how to reverse time.

A crematorium in Germany caught fire.

A suspected burglar broke into a garage in Indiana and was crushed to death by the 900-pound safe he was trying to steal.

Police in a small town outside of Denver posted a selfie of a suspected shoplifter discovered on a phone he left behind. “Please contact the Lakeside Police Department for your cellphone and your Shoplifting Charge. Hope to see you soon,” said the caption.

A Florida man dressed as Spiderman robbed a Winn-Dixie Wine and Spirits Store.

A trio of scientists realized the planets are not consistently on the same side of the sun so if you calculate average absolute distance from each other, it turns out Mercury, not Venus, is closer to Earth.

New research suggests changes in diet from agriculture lead to an evolution of the human jawbone and allowed for new sounds that require the lower lip to touch the upper teeth such as v and f.

Photo credit: Reddit user AhsanXD

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