Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution

A few weeks ago, during my family’s Spring Break vacation, I had the pleasure of reading a great history of George Lucas and the massive impact he and the extended Lucasfilm family had on the technology behind filmmaking, and, ultimately on the broader technology ecosystem. This book is exhaustively researched and is almost textbook-like in its presentation of annotated photos and topic-specific sidebars. Unlike a text-book, however, it is a real page-turner. I devoured Droidmaker in a few days sitting poolside in Hawaii, Mai Tais firmly in hand.

What was most enjoyable about this book is it is not simply a George Lucas biography – while Lucas is (obviously) the main figure in the book, author Michael Rubin (full disclosure: he’s an old buddy of mine) does an excellent job placing Lucas and his mentor-colleague Francis Ford Coppala in the context of filmmaking history. Rubin deftly illuminates how their collaboration and competition served to move the filmmaking techniques and technology forward, way up in Northern California, far removed the ossified and technophobic power center of Hollywood. Rubin worked at Lucasfilm early in his career and enjoyed personal access to many of the seminal figures in this book, including Pixar founders Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith as well as George Lucas himself.

There’s plenty of nerd-fodder in here too. Rubin is comfortable discussing the technological intricacies behind video vs. film, frame buffers, computer generated animation, stop-motion photography, 3D rendering and more. I happily geeked out on the discussions of frame rates of film vs. video and 3:2 pulldown techniques used to transfer film to video. The masterstroke in this vein is the discussion of how the guys in the computer division (which later became spun out as Pixar, when Steve Jobs bought the team and technology from Lucas) simultaneously solved the thorny problems of eliminating image jaggies and creating motion-blur in computer-generated graphics. In a single moment of insight (after working for years on both problems), they realized that temporal and spatial randomized sampling while rendering each frame of a computer animation were the key to making the final product look realistic. Or, more specifically, film-like.

The discussion of the technology are informative and approachable even for the non-technical reader (though I admit to having some exposure to the intricacies of digital media editing as a life-long musician and occasional digital audio engineer). These tech discussions reminded me of another great tech history book I read and reviewed recently: Racing the Beam, which is the history of the Atari 2600 game console.

Droidmaker is a great read and really made me appreciate the immense contribution Lucas made to filmmaking but also to digital media technology in general: his personal investment (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars) in fundamental R&D in computer animation and digital audio and video editing in the late ’70s and well through the 80’s led not only to seminal companies that were birthed at Lucasfilm, like Pixar and THX, but also deeply influenced the broader path of technology evolution that led to the emergence of independent companies like Avid (digital video editing) and Digidesign (digital audio recording and editing with the ProTools platform).

So go pick up a copy already!

Pogoplug in the News

The fine folks at Cloud Engines, makers of my favorite consumer electronics gadget, the pogoplug, have been very busy in 2010. They launched at retail here in the US and Canada and followed quickly with announcing availability of the pogoplug in the UK and Europe. It has been fun to start seeing French and German showing up in the pogoplug twitter stream.

They’ve been receiving a flurry of great product reviews, including a 9/10 rating from The Inquirer in the UK and a five-star rating and an Editor’s Choice Award from Cnet-France.

Back here in the US, the pogoplug was just reviewed by Katherine Boehret in the WSJ in the Mossberg Solution. She also did a video review of the device, which you can watch below.

I’m also super-excited for a bunch of new features that will roll out for the pogoplug over the next couple months. Stay tuned…

Apostrophes and Plurals Don’t Mix

Warning: grammar rant ahead…

FOR THE LOVE OF PETE, PEOPLE, NEVER EVER USE AN APOSTROPHE WHEN PLURALIZING A WORD!

Sorry, I had to get that off my chest. I don’t know what is so confusing about this, but I encounter this mistake many times a day. Because I had an excellent English teacher in high school who was a big influence on me (thank you, Mrs. Noland), I am known among my friends and colleagues as a bit of a grammar nazi. In fact, I am a proud member of the Facebook group I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar. I am comfortable with this.

If you are writing anything for public consumption, using bad grammar and misspelling words makes you look, at worst, unintelligent, and, at best, careless.

While I can overlook many grammatical errors that result from misunderstanding subtler nuances of the English language, this particular rule is so easy, I can’t understand where the source of confusion comes from. Apostrophes are for contractions and possessives. Never for plurals.

I understand that keeping it’s vs. its straight can be tricky, since its is the one case where there is no apostrophe in a possessive, but this still has nothing to do with pluralization.

So get it straight, people. Please.

Repeat after me: I will never use an apostrophe when pluralizing a word.

Ahh, I feel much better.

I should also mention that I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar has been turned into a very amusing book, which my friend Amy was nice enough to give to me a few days ago – she knows me well. I highly recommend the hard copy version.

Topspin and the Future of Music Marketing

I’ve had the pleasure of working with the fine folks at Topspin Media since I joined the board of the company when Foundry Group invested in Topspin’s Series B in 2008, and I’ve been fortunate to know Topspin’s co-founders, Peter Gotcher and Shamal Ranasinghe since the late ’90s.

Topspin was founded with the premise that the key to any artist’s success in the digital age will hinge on an artist’s ability to engage directly with their fans and build a meaningful and authentic artistic and commerical relationship with them. Topspin provides sophisticated artist-focused and data-driven tools to enable artists and their management to run their businesses online.

Now that Topspin has been working with hundreds of artists and has a couple years of real-world experience with their platform in production, they’ve built up enough data to start to share some of their findings about managing, measuring and marketing with data. Shamal gave an excellent presentation at the Midem Conference in Cannes last week, and the deck is packed full of Topspin’s learnings about best practices for running direct-to-fan campaigns.

Here’s the presentation, which is well worth a read for anyone interested in the latest thinking on music marketing in digital age. For a more in-depth discussion of these slides, check out Shamal’s post on the Topspin blog.

Long Hiatus / Random News

It has been a while since I’ve written a blog post. I think some of it is twitter-induced. Instead of a blog post, I simply tweet a URL and feel that I’ve done my part. Ahh, the lazyweb. Actually, there is now an official description of this phenomenon: the Gresham/Morgan Internet Law. My friend Howard Morgan pointed out on his blog that cheap tweeting drives out dear blogging. Guilty as charged.

Rather than simply blog about my insufficient blogging, there are several things in my world (more specifically in the Foundry Group portfolio) today that merit a mention:

First, EmSense (one of standard bearers in our HCI theme) announced today that they’ve raised a $9m round, led by Technology Partners. EmSense has made a ton of progress this year establishing themselves as a serious player in the neuromarketing space, and I’m excited to have Technology Partner’s Roger Quy join the board. He’s probably one of the only VCs out there with a PhD in neuroscience, so his endorsement of EmSense is particularly meaningful.

Second, today Topspin Media announced that registration for Berkleemusic.com’s course “Online Music Marketing with Topspin” starts today. Berklee is one of the premier names in music schools, and this course represents a first step in Topspin expanding the reach of their software beyond the private beta they’ve been running over the past year.

Here’s a quick video preview describing more about the course:

Third, Oblong was featured last week in a Bloomberg TV series called Bloomberg Innovators. Oblong’s founders and technology are featured prominently in the show, as are I and my partner Jason Mendelson (and his Galaga machine). If you haven’t seen Oblong’s tech in action, now’s your change. Bloomberg doesn’t allow embeds of the video, so you’ll have to follow this link.

And, last but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for the Defrag Conference, happening next week in Denver on November 11-12. This is the third year of the Defrag Conference, and it gets better every year. Come join folks like my Foundry Group partners, Defrag founder Eric Norlin, Andy Kessler and Paul Kedrosky as we geek out in the mile high city.

Bay Area Food Log

My family just got back last week from spending a month in San Francisco. While we’ve lived (quite happily) in Boulder over the past three years, we spent 17 years in the Bay Area and like to get back there on a regular basis for an extended stay to reconnect with old friends and to reconnect with the great cuisine the Bay Area has to offer.

Any of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook probably saw me post status updates as we did our food tour, but I didn’t always remember to do it at each meal. So I looked back at my calendar (and my news feeds) to try to reconstruct a (mostly) comprehensive list of where we went out to eat during our month in the Bay Area. While we tried a couple new places (La Ciccia and Range), our destinations were more oriented towards old favorites, honed over many years of living in Northern California. Here goes:

7/18 – Yank Sing, San Francisco (lunch)

7/18 – Kokkari, San Francisco

7/19 – Pizzeria Picco, Larkspur (lunch)

7/19 – Taylor’s Refresher, San Francisco

7/20 – Sushi Ran, Sausalito

7/21 – Golden Flower, San Francisco (lunch)

7/21 – Slanted Door, San Francisco

7/30 – Tres Agaves, San Francisco (lunch)

7/30 – Mijita, San Francisco (dinner)

7/31 – La Ciccia, San Francisco

8/01 – The Village Pub, Woodside

8/02 – Tacubaya, Berkeley (lunch)

8/02 – Little Star Pizza, San Francisco

8/03 – 21st Amendment, San Francisco (lunch)

8/04 – Quadrus Cafe, Menlo Park

8/04 – Spruce, San Francisco

8/05 – Sancho’s Taqueria, Redwood City (lunch)

8/06 – Stern Dining Hall, Stanford University (lunch)

8/06 – Straits Cafe, Palo Alto

8/07 – Tres Agaves, San Francisco (lunch)

8/08 – Ame, San Francisco

8/12 – Yoshi’s SF, San Francisco

8/13 – Gialina Pizzeria, San Francisco

8/14 – Fish, Sausalito (lunch)

8/14 – Isa, San Francisco

8/15 – Yank Sing, San Francisco (lunch)

8/15 – Range, San Francisco

We also made numerous trips (in person and takeout) to Pizzeria Delfina (Pacific Heights location), Bittersweet Cafe and La Boulange (Fillmore & Union St. locations), but I can’t recall the precise days we visited those fine establishments. The careful reader no doubt noticed my pizzeria and taqueria fixation. What can I say, they are two of my favorite food groups.

We also hit the world’s best farmer’s market (the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market) numerous times during our stay. Late July and early August are prime season for heirloom tomatoes and peaches and nectarines. And the king of all purveyors of stone fruit is, of course, Frog Hollow Farm.

The stand-out dinners for me during the month were La Ciccia, Ame and Range. The restaurant I’m most disappointed we didn’t make it to was A16, which we really enjoy, but somehow never made it there.

I’m always looking for suggestions of new places to try when I’m in SF (which is often). Please mention your favorites in the comments!

Kindle: My Next Notebook?

composition_book_business_card-p240049682448575295uffl_400.jpgkindle_dx_hands.jpg I’m a big fan of my Kindle 2, and I use it nearly every day. I like to read, and I like to read several books at the same time. I also travel frequently, and often I find myself reading new releases, which meant I’d find myself trying to cram multiple hardcover books into my shoulder bag, which was bad for my shoulder bag, not to mention my shoulder. I’m even contemplating acquired the new, larger-screen Kindle DX.

But, the feature I really want will have to wait for the Kindle 3: I want a touchscreen on the Kindle that responds to a stylus so I can write on my Kindle. This could mean allowing me to take notes on the margins of a book I’m reading, but the main reason I want it is so I can get rid of the last analog vestige of my day-to-day-life: the composition book. I simply want the ability to create blank pages on my Kindle and then scribble upon them.

I started using composition books back in 1995 to take notes, jot down ideas and generally manage my day-to-day life and have continued using them to this day. If memory serves, my inspiration for using the composition book came from Vinod Khosla, who at the time was at Kleiner Perkins and was an investor and board member at Excite. If the lowly composition book had any part in making Vinod so effective, I figured I couldn’t go wrong by trying to integrate habitual note-taking into my life. It turned out to be a remarkably effective tool for me, mainly because I find that (for me, your mileage may vary) the simple act of writing something down really helps organize and cement that thing in my mind. I still keep a stack of all my old composition books in my office drawer and sometimes refer back to a filled-up book months or even years later.

If I could simply take notes on my Kindle with a stylus, I’d be a happy man. I’d effectively have a composition book with an infinite number of pages, and, ideally, it would be backed up online and accessible on the web as well. I’d ditch my composition book, save a few trees and have a digital archive of my life available online. I don’t even need the Kindle to give me character recognition or anything like that. My handwriting is so bad anyway, I doubt any algorithm could ever be up to the task. But as long as I had the ability to tag pages, search and browse through them on my Kindle and online, possibly share individual pages with others, and perhaps even farm out some of the pages to be transcribed (no doubt via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk), I’d be even more enamored with my Kindle. Amazon, are you listening? This is my number one feature request for the next-generation Kindle. Whaddya think?

Startup2Startup Panel

Last night, I had the pleasure of being on a panel discussion with Dave McClure, Jeff Clavier and Howard Lindzon, moderated by David Cohen of TechStars. This was a Startup2Startup event, graciously imported to Boulder for a night by Señor McClure, that guy with all those hats. We started the evening off with margaritas and dinner at Tahona and then retreated to the TechStars bunker for the panel.

Entitled “The Ultimate Platform Hotness Smack Down”, the purpose of the panel was to compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of four platforms: Facebook, the iPhone, Twitter and the native web / search ecosystem. Each of us represented one of the platforms, and I was the one who championed the native web / search ecosystem, no doubt given my history as a founder of a now-defunct first-gen internet search engine and portal. It was a fun event and it was great to hang out and talk platforms with folks from the Boulder/Denver tech community as well as my fellow panelists. Dave put up the slides from the panel, so take a look:

New Gadget: Verizon MiFi

While I wait with eager anticipation to get my hands on the new iPhone 3GS, I’ve been enjoying a new gadget: the Verizon MiFi. The MiFi is a combination wireless 3G EVDO modem with an integrated router/hub and wifi, all delivered in a sleek black unit the size of a small stack of business cards.

I use a MacBook Air, and I had a Verizon EVDO USB modem, but the aesthetics of having the dongle hang off the side of my MBA bothered me, and then the unit stopped functioning, giving me an excuse to jettison it. The beauty of the MiFi is the ability to share the connection with up to 5 users — very handy (and a great way to make friends) while in the back of a car with colleagues, at a local coffee shop or anywhere that lacks free wifi. The connection is really zippy and Verizon’s coverage puts AT&T’s to shame.

Ironically, I sometimes even connect my iPhone to the MiFi because it enhances the performance and coverage I get over using AT&T’s 3G crappy network, which brings me to an opportunity to rant about just how bad AT&T is. AT&T is lucky the iPhone is a such a great device – the iPhone is so good it is succeeding in spite of the inferior network users are forced to subscribe to.

Apple’s iPhone 3GS announcement this week really put AT&T’s weakness in focus — they announced that iPhone software 3.0 would support MMS messaging and tethering functionality, two oft-requested features, yet Apple had to footnote their announcement to mention that both features were “coming soon” for those of us unlucky enough to be stuck with AT&T’s lame service.

I can imagine that Apple will be more than eager to jump to a new carrier when their exclusivity with AT&T ends. For shame, AT&T. You’ve got the most popular mobile computing device ever created tied to your infrastructure, yet you are squandering this opportunity with your lame network. I’m no network architect and I’m sure I don’t appreciate the complexities around build-out and capacity planning, but I’m guessing AT&T’s crappy network is not a result of unsolvable technical issues, but rather lack of will and general organizational inertia and incompetence. Or maybe a calculated decision to enhance profits in the short term by delaying capex. But neither scenario puts AT&T in a good light.

And yet, despite all this, I’ll be stuck with AT&T since I plan to upgrade to the new iPhone as soon as I can. I just wish I had a choice in carriers.

Bing Juice?

IMG_0415With all the hubbub surrounding the launch of Bing, I finally got around to spending some time with MSFT’s new search engine over the last few days. My behavior, along with millions of other search lookie-loos out there, likely single-handedly accounts for MSFT’s probably temporary increase in search market share since the launch of Bing.

I may analyze Bing more in-depth in a later post, but for now I’ll confine my reactions to the first act that many people engage in upon using a new search engine: the vanity search.

Let me say one thing: Ryan McIntyre won the lottery when Bing launched. Not, me, but rather one Ryan C. McIntyre, a financial representative with Northwestern Mutual in Caspar, Wyoming. That Ryan McIntyre is at the top of Bing’s search result page when someone searches for “Ryan McIntyre” on Bing, but he’s several pages deep in Google’s search results. If Ryan C. McIntyre is watching his web traffic, he’s probably seeing a sharp increase in the number visitors coming from Bing as well as a bump in traffic proportionate to Bing’s market share.

I’m the second Ryan McIntyre who shows up on Bing, and I am the second Ryan McIntyre who shows up on Google, so in that respect the results are similar, though on Bing I show up ahead of another Ryan McIntyre who tops the results on Google…

Despite my blogging, my ownership of the URL ryanmcintyre.com, the stories in the press and other blogs that mention me, my bio pages at Foundry Group, Mobius VC and the many portfolio companies where I sit on the board (all of which result in more links to my blog and presumably better page rank), I’ve never been able to unseat my Google nemesis, Ryan McIntyre, who sits atop the Google search results page for “Ryan McIntyre”.

Ryan is a singer-songwriter from Waukesha, Wisconsin, he gigs regularly and has an active MySpace page, which results in concert reviews and venues linking to him on a regular basis. His profession, even more than mine, ensures a steady stream of links to his website, giving him major Google juice.

It is easy for me to understand how both I and Ryan McIntyre the touring musician wind up near the top of the search result on both Google and Bing, but I have to say I’m downright confused how Ryan C. McIntyre the financial representative came to be so endowed with Bing juice such that he shot to the top of MSFT’s search results page. Go figure.

Minus this surprising anomaly around my vanity search results, Bing seems like it delivers reasonably good results, though not markedly different than Google’s, which is a problem for Microsoft since changing user behavior around search is going to be difficult without delivering qualitatively and quantitatively better results to the user — which is what Google delivered when they first came on the scene, something that was once difficult for me to admit back in my Excite days, yet was obviously (and painfully) true.

This lack of a stark difference between MSFT’s and Google’s search results is going to make it challenging for Bing to deliver on their (methinks quixotic) quest of becoming verbified. Besides the search results themselves, the actual word bing will also hinder MSFT’s desire for verbification. If I email someone and explain to them that yesterday I xeroxed a document or googled myself, they will know what I mean, but when I tell them that last night I binged on jelly donuts (true story), they’re just going to think I have self-control issues with food.