The Untold Story of Industrial Light & Magic

A great piece in Wired this month on Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects company founded by George Lucas in 1975.

Industrial Light & Magic was born in a sweltering warehouse behind the Van Nuys airport in the summer of 1975. Its first employees were recent college graduates (and dropouts) with rich imaginations and nimble fingers. They were tasked with building Star Wars’ creatures, spaceships, circuit boards, and cameras. It didn’t go smoothly or even on schedule, but the masterful work of ILM’s fledgling artists, technicians, and engineers transported audiences into galaxies far, far away

As it turns 40 this year, ILM can claim to have played a defining role making effects for 317 movies. But that’s only part of the story: Pixar began, essentially, as an ILM internal investigation. Photoshop was invented, in part, by an ILM employee tinkering with programming in his time away from work. Billions of lines of code have been formulated there. Along the way ILM has put tentacles into pirate beards, turned a man into mercury, and dominated box office charts with computer-generated dinosaurs and superheroes. What defines ILM, however, isn’t a signature look, feel, or tone—those change project by project. Rather, it’s the indefatigable spirit of innovation that each of the 43 subjects interviewed for this oral history mentioned time and again. It is the Force that sustains the place.

Interview with George Lucas has the origin for the name:

LUCAS: We were working on the articles of incorporation and we said, “What are we going to call this thing?” We were in an industrial park. They were building these giant Dykstraflex machines to photograph stuff, so that’s where the “Light” came from. In the end I said, “Forget the Industrial and the Light—this is going to have to be Magic. Otherwise we’re doomed, making a movie nobody wants.”

And there are gems about how computer graphics were introduced for Jurassic Park.

Read the whole piece here.

On Marc Andreessen’s Plan to Win the Future

Tad Friend, writing in The New Yorker, pens a fascinating profile of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (and the firm which he co-founded and is currently a general partner, a16z). A representative snippet of the man:

Something of the transporter beam clings to Andreessen, a sense that he just rematerialized from a city on the edge of forever. He’s not great at the basics of daily life: directions confound him, because roadways aren’t logical, and he’s so absent-minded about sunglasses that he keeps a “reload station” with nine pairs on his hall table. Perhaps Edison haunts his conversation because Andreessen is a fellow-tinkerer, except that his gadgets are systems and platforms, and his workshop is his own mind. He regularly reprograms his appearance and deportment—his user interface—to suit his present role, and friends refer to chapters in his life as versions of an operating system: “Marc 1.0,” “Marc 2.0,” and so on. A charismatic introvert, Andreessen draws people in but doesn’t really want them around. Though he has a crisp sense of humor, it’s rarely deployed at his own expense. He hates being complimented, looked at, or embraced, and has toyed with the idea of wearing a T-shirt that says “No hugging, no touching.” He doesn’t grasp the protocols of social chitchat, and prefers getting a memo to which he can e-mail a response, typing at a hundred and forty words a minute. He didn’t attend Netscape’s twentieth-anniversary celebration, because it combined two things from which he recoils: parties and reminiscing.

Curious what would have become of Facebook if it weren’t for Marc’s advice to Mark Zuckerberg:

In 2006, Yahoo! offered to buy Facebook for a billion dollars, and Accel Partners, Facebook’s lead investor, urged Mark Zuckerberg to accept. Andreessen said, “Every single person involved in Facebook wanted Mark to take the Yahoo! offer. The psychological pressure they put on this twenty-two-year-old was intense. Mark and I really bonded in that period, because I told him, ‘Don’t sell, don’t sell, don’t sell!’ ” Zuckerberg told me, “Marc has this really deep belief that when companies are executing well on their vision they can have a much bigger effect on the world than people think, not just as a business but as a steward of humanity—if they have the time to execute.” He didn’t sell; Facebook is now worth two hundred and eighteen billion dollars.

I empathize with this philosophy for the world:

“I could never tolerate not knowing why…You have to work your way back to figure out the politics, the motivations. I always stop when I get to evolutionary psychology, and why we have tribes—oh, O.K., we’re primates cursed with emotions and the ability to do logical thinking.”

This is a key paragraph on how venture capitalism is more about errors of omission:

In venture, it’s not batting average that matters; it’s slugging average. Boldness is all. When Google Glass appeared, a16z joined a collective to seek out investments, and Andreessen declared that, without the face shield, “people are going to find they feel, basically, naked and lonely.” Google withdrew the product in January. But, he would argue, so what? His thesis is that such a16z failures as Fab and Rockmelt and Digg and Kno are not merely a tolerable by-product of the risk algorithm but a vital indicator of it. It’s fine to have a lousy record of predicting the future, most of the time, as long as when you’re right you’re really right. Between 2004 and 2013, a mere 0.4 per cent of all venture investments returned at least 50x. The real mistakes aren’t the errors of commission, the companies that crash—all you can lose is your investment—but those of omission. There were good reasons that a16z passed on buying twelve per cent of Uber in 2011, including a deadline of just hours to make a decision. But the firm missed a profit, on paper, of more than three billion dollars.

A must-read all the way through if you’re at all interested in tech, Silicon Valley, or entrepreneurship.

Preparing for Mars on Earth

hi_seas

The New Yorker has an interesting feature on what it would take to successful man a mission to Mars. The piece focuses on a University of Hawaii computer-science professor named Kim Binsted and the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS program. A dome is set up near the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii:

The dome has a porthole, looking across the saddle at Mauna Kea—a legacy of the first study there, during which the benefit of a windowless exterior (protection from radiation) was found to be less significant than the drawback (the crew hated it). For our visit, the porthole had been covered over to keep the crew’s isolation complete. Quiet as parents on Christmas Eve, we ferried tubs of rice cakes and wet wipes from Costco into a back entry porch. Menus had been worked up during two previous missions in the dome, lasting four months each, during which food cooked ad libitum, even from reconstituted ingredients, rated much higher than the kind of meals-in-a-pouch necessary during zero-gravity travel. Back into the truck went black plastic bags of trash and boxes of saltines that had passed their shelf date. “ ‘Principal investigator’ sounds pretty glamorous,” Binsted said, as she climbed behind the wheel. “But a lot of what I do is space janitor.”

The portions describing their exercise routines caught my attention:

Exercise is built into their routine, as it would be for astronauts trying to maintain muscle mass in low gravity (Mars has three-eighths the gravity of Earth), and the chatty exhortations of Tony Horton, the self-described “fitness clown” who devised the P90X workout routine, permeate their conversations. The communication lag means no surfing the Internet, but Zak Wilson, who is twenty-eight, speculated that e-mail, even if it’s time-delayed, will help astronauts feel less isolated than old-time sailors trapped in the Antarctic ice. Wilson brought a 3-D printer, and as he finds himself casting about for useful items to make—iPad wall mounts, a Scotch-tape dispenser—he concedes that watching the extruder swing back and forth, depositing tiny bits of material with each pass, is “maybe not a terrible analogy for our stay here.”

The team even made a video of them doing p90x:

Worth reading in its entirety.

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Further reading from the HI-SEAS participants: Jocelyn’s blog, Zak’s blog, and Martha’s blog.

The Fenokees and the Origin of Fantasy Sports

In a piece titled “Dream Teams,” Ben McGrath recounts the story of how fantasy sports were started. It began with a man named Daniel Okrent, who met with some friends at La Rotisserie Française, an eatery on East Fifty-Second Street in New York City, from which, of course, we get Rotisserie baseball.

I think this paragraph about how fantasy baseball (or perhaps all fantasy sports) lose their allure over time:

“In the first year or two you’re playing, you are much more engaged with baseball than you’ve been since you were seven years old,” Okrent said. “And then, by your fourth or fifth year, the actual game has lost meaning for you. You’re engaged in the numbers that the game spins out and engaged with millions of others in the same way. It has no relationship not just to the fan attachment that you may have had to a particular team but to the physical thing that’s taking place on the field. It’s the representation of it in a number that’s what’s important. I’m thinking of our original group. A couple of them really don’t give a shit about baseball at all anymore.” He added, “When people say, ‘How do you feel, having invented this?’ I say, ‘I feel the way that J. Robert Oppenheimer felt having invented the atomic bomb.’ I really do. I mean, pretty terrible!”

As for myself, I was an avid fantasy baseball player in the early 2000s. But after four to five years, I lost majority of my interest.

My Favorite Longreads in 2014

I must admit 2014 has been a slow year in reading for me, compared to the last four to five years. There are no excuses, only that other priorities shuffled to the top of my daily/weekly life. The blog remained active throughout the year, but dwindled in both quantity and quality. Nevertheless, I can still recommend my favorite top five #longreads of the year, as I look back through my archives. They are as follows, in chronological order as they appeared on this blog:

1) In a long piece titled “Einstein’s Camera,” Joshua Hammer profiles the photography of Adam Magyar [Medium]:

In a growing body of photographic and video art done over the past decade, Magyar bends conventional representations of time and space, stretching milliseconds into minutes, freezing moments with a resolution that the naked eye could never have perceived. His art evokes such variegated sources as Albert Einstein, Zen Buddhism, even the 1960s TV series The Twilight Zone.The images—sleek silver subway cars, solemn commuters lost in private worlds—are beautiful and elegant, but also produce feelings of disquiet. “These moments I capture are meaningless, there is no story in them, and if you can catch the core, the essence of being, you capture probably everything,” Magyar says in one of the many cryptic comments about his work that reflect both their hypnotic appeal and their elusiveness. There is a sense of stepping into a different dimension, of inhabiting a space between stillness and movement, a time-warp world where the rules of physics don’t apply.

Magyar’s work represents a fruitful cross-fertilization of technology and art, two disciplines—one objective and mathematical, the other entirely subjective—that weren’t always regarded as harmonious or compatible. Yet the two are intertwined, and breakthroughs in technology have often made new forms of art possible. Five thousand years ago, Egyptian technicians heated desert sand, limestone, potash, and copper carbonate in kilns to make a synthetic pigment known as “Egyptian blue,” which contributed to the highly realistic yet stylized portraiture of the Second and Third Dynasties.

2) In a piece titled “Big Score,” Elizabeth Kolbert enlightened us about the history of the SAT exam [The New Yorker]:

In the early decades of the test, scores were revealed only to schools, not to students. This made it difficult to assess the claim made by the College Board, the exam’s administrator, that studying for the SATs would serve no purpose. Still, a brash young high-school tutor named Stanley Kaplan concluded, based on the feedback he was getting from his pupils, that the claim was a crock. Kaplan began offering SAT prep classes out of his Brooklyn basement. Accusations that he was a fraud and a “snake oil salesman” failed to deter his clientele; the students just kept on coming. In the nineteen-seventies, Kaplan expanded his operations into cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami; this is when the Federal Trade Commission decided to investigate his claims. The commission found that Kaplan was right: tutoring did boost scores, if not by as much as his testing service advertised. The College Board implicitly conceded the point in 1994, when it changed the meaning of the SAT’s central “A”; instead of “aptitude” it came to stand for “assessment.” Then the board took the even more radical step of erasing the meaning of the name altogether. Today, the letters “SAT” stand for nothing more (or less) than the SATs. As the Lord put it to Moses, “I am that I am.”

Originally featured here.

3) In “Old Masters at Top of Their Game,” Lewis H. Lapham (founder of Lapham’s Quarterly), reflects on his work ethic and experiencing failure [The New York Times]:

I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

The context of the piece then goes on to short interviews with influential individuals in their 80s and 90s…

4) Ian Urbina, made me reminisce about the way I create passwords and sometimes the mental anguish I go through remembering them all. In a piece titled “The Secret Life of Passwords,” he explains why passwords capture our imagination [The New York Times]:

Many of our passwords are suffused with pathos, mischief, sometimes even poetry. Often they have rich back stories. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — these keepsake passwords, as I came to call them, are like tchotchkes of our inner lives. They derive from anything: Scripture, horoscopes, nicknames, lyrics, book passages. Like a tattoo on a private part of the body, they tend to be intimate, compact and expressive.

5) Capping off the list is Brian Phillips’s piece titled “The Sea of Crises,” in which he juxtaposes a sumo wrestling tournament, searching for a long-lost individual, and traces history of a failed coup attempt by  Japanese writer Yukio Mishima [Grantland].

Outside of the general trivia about sumo and Japan, I loved the descriptions in the piece:

Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, the biggest city in the history of the world, a galaxy reflected in its own glass. It was a fishing village barely 400 years ago, and now: 35 million people, a human concourse so vast it can’t be said toend, only to fade indeterminately around the edges. Thirty-five million, almost the population of California. Smells mauling you from doorways: stale beer, steaming broth, charbroiled eel. Intersections where a thousand people cross each time the light changes, under J-pop videos 10 stories tall. Flocks of schoolgirls in blue blazers and plaid skirts. Boys with frosted tips and oversize headphones, camouflage jackets and cashmere scarves. Herds of black-suited businessmen. A city so dense the 24-hour manga cafés will rent you a pod to sleep in for the night, so post-human there are brothels where the prostitutes are dolls. An unnavigable labyrinth with 1,200 miles of railway, 1,000 train stations, homes with no addresses, restaurants with no names. Endless warrens of Blade Runner alleys where paper lanterns float among crisscrossing power lines. And yet: clean, safe, quiet, somehow weightless, a place whose order seems sustained by the logic of a dream.

What were your favorite longreads of 2014?

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Related: here are my list of favorite #longreads from 2013.

Sumo Wrestling, Yukio Mishima, and a Search for a Forgotten Man

I’ve been a fan of Brian Phillips’s writing ever since reading and recommending “Pelé as a Comedian.” This year, Brian’s best writing probably comes via his piece at Grantland titled “The Sea of Crises,” in which he goes on a two week trip to Japan. During his visit, he witnesses a sumo tournament, traverses around Tokyo and other parts of Japan, and recounts his fascination with a failed coup attempt by a Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, which ended in ritual suicide, seppuku.

A wonderful description of Tokyo:

Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, the biggest city in the history of the world, a galaxy reflected in its own glass. It was a fishing village barely 400 years ago, and now: 35 million people, a human concourse so vast it can’t be said toend, only to fade indeterminately around the edges. Thirty-five million, almost the population of California. Smells mauling you from doorways: stale beer, steaming broth, charbroiled eel. Intersections where a thousand people cross each time the light changes, under J-pop videos 10 stories tall. Flocks of schoolgirls in blue blazers and plaid skirts. Boys with frosted tips and oversize headphones, camouflage jackets and cashmere scarves. Herds of black-suited businessmen. A city so dense the 24-hour manga cafés will rent you a pod to sleep in for the night, so post-human there are brothels where the prostitutes are dolls. An unnavigable labyrinth with 1,200 miles of railway, 1,000 train stations, homes with no addresses, restaurants with no names. Endless warrens of Blade Runner alleys where paper lanterns float among crisscrossing power lines. And yet: clean, safe, quiet, somehow weightless, a place whose order seems sustained by the logic of a dream.

It’s a dream city, Tokyo. I mean that literally, in that I often felt like I was experiencing it while asleep. You’ll ride an escalator underground into what your map says is a tunnel between subway stops, only to find yourself in a thumping subterranean mall packed with beautiful teenagers dancing to Katy Perry remixes. You will take a turn off a busy street and into a deserted Buddhist graveyard, soundless but for the wind and the clacking of sotoba sticks, wooden markers crowded with the names of the dead. You will stand in a high tower and look out on the reason-defying extent of the city, windows and David Beckham billboards and aerial expressways falling lightly downward, toward the Ferris wheel on the edge of the sea.

This is a beautiful description:

It takes a sumo novice perhaps 10 seconds of match action to see that among the top-class rikishi, Hakuho occupies a category of his own. What the others are doing in the ring is fighting. Hakuho is composing little haiku of battle.

The majority of the piece gives the reader this feeling as though one is in a ship, being gently throttled back and forth as Phillips describes his experiences of traveling and getting lost:

So I wandered, lost, around Tokyo. I went to the shrine of Nomi no Sukune, the legendary father of sumo, who (if he lived at all) died 2,000 years ago. I went to the food courts in the basements of department stores. I thought I should look for the past, for the origins of sumo, so early one morning I rode a bullet train to Kyoto, the old imperial capital, where I was yelled at by a bus driver and stayed in a ryokan — a guest house — where the maid crawled on her knees to refill my teacup. I climbed the stone path of the Fushimi Inari shrine, up the mountain under 10,000 vermilion gates. I visited the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, rebuilt in 1955 after a mad monk burned it to the ground (Mishima wrote a novel about this), and the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, weirder and more mysterious because it is not actually covered in silver but was only intended to be. I spent 100 yen on a vending-machine fortune that told me to be “patient with time.”

Highly recommended in entirety.

 

The Secret Lives of Passwords

Ian Urbina, writing in The New York Times, confesses his fascinations with passwords. In a piece titled “The Secret Life of Passwords,” he explains:

Many of our passwords are suffused with pathos, mischief, sometimes even poetry. Often they have rich back stories. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — these keepsake passwords, as I came to call them, are like tchotchkes of our inner lives. They derive from anything: Scripture, horoscopes, nicknames, lyrics, book passages. Like a tattoo on a private part of the body, they tend to be intimate, compact and expressive.

On the changing state of the passwords looking into the future:

This year, for example, Google purchased SlickLogin, a start-up that verifies IDs using sound waves. iPhones have come equipped with fingerprint scanners for more than a year now. And yet passwords continue to proliferate, to metastasize. Every day more objects — thermostats, car consoles, home alarm systems — are designed to be wired into the Internet and thus password protected. Because big data is big money, even free websites now make you register to view virtually anything of importance so that companies can track potential customers. Five years ago, people averaged about 21 passwords. Now that number is 81, according to LastPass, a company that makes password-storage software.

The TL;DR version:

Passwords do more than protect data. They protect dreams, secrets, fears and even clues to troubled pasts, and for some, they serve as an everyday reminder of what matters most.

It’s a wonderful piece, but makes me wonder about all the people Mr. Urbina interviewed who felt compelled to reveal (or maybe make up) their passwords to make themselves or their lives sound more interesting than they really are.

Anyway, my antidote to the humanizing of passwords: download, install, and use 1Password.