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:
Bad Blood – by John Carreyrou – the book by the guy that broke the story
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!
It’s been twelve years since I last was at SXSW – time flies – I wroteaboutitthen 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
North Korean chefs visiting Vietnam for the Trump – Kim summit were intrigued by several dishes being prepared by chefs of the Metropole Hotel. Shrimp Cocktail and Thousand Island dressing was something they had never seen before.
Kevin Kelly is the master of optimistic projection. Drawing a line Just as VR and AR start their decent into the trough of disillusionment, Kevin Kelly and Wired comes out with a cover story that looks beyond the immediate applications and imagines the opportunities in the great beyond.
The first big technology platform was the web, which digitized information, subjecting knowledge to the power of algorithms; it came to be dominated by Google. The second great platform was social media, running primarily on mobile phones. It digitized people and subjected human behavior and relationships to the power of algorithms, and it is ruled by Facebook and WeChat.
We are now at the dawn of the third platform, which will digitize the rest of the world. On this platform, all things and places will be machine-readable, subject to the power of algorithms. Whoever dominates this grand third platform will become among the wealthiest and most powerful people and companies in history, just as those who now dominate the first two platforms have. Also, like its predecessors, this new platform will unleash the prosperity of thousands more companies in its ecosystem, and a million new ideas—and problems—that weren’t possible before machines could read the world.
Information – People – Places & Objects. Who is going to figure out search on the mirrorworld? The social graph was the innovation that organized the social web. What will be the innovation to organize the world of places and objects? Voice UI?
Kalashnikov, makers of the AK-47, machine gun of choice of terrorists and jungle guerrilla fighters, announced a low cost drone that can deliver, “three kilograms of explosives and detonate on impact.”