Marc Andreessen’s Library: Books still have power

September 15, 2016

Books still have power.  Did you know that the Silicon Valley venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz has a carefully curated library of 800 books in its waiting room?  A lot of people do now, because of this article in Wired magazine by Cade Metz. Each of the books has been selected and placed there by Marc Andreessen, the firm’s co-founder (and one of the original Internet browser inventors through Netscape).  The collection – focussing on Hollywood, Silicon Valley and computer programming – is so legendary that “as authors and publicists come through, many of them slot in their own books—sometimes in bulk”, Metz writes.  “Andreessen is the room. And the room still has the desired effect: It makes you want to talk to the people inside.”

According to the article and the photographs accompanying it, the library includes many of my favourites, including Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own:  How the Jews Invested Hollywood, David Thomson’s The Whole Equation:  A History of Hollywood and Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus.


Film review of Steve Jobs

February 14, 2016

(This review of “Steve Jobs” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on February 11, 2016.)

Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Walter Isaacson
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterston

When Apple tops the world’s list of companies by market valuation (yes, number one), it is natural to be fascinated by the new film “Steve Jobs” about its visionary co-founder, played by Michael Fassbender. It also helps that Steve Jobs was larger than life, a major presence in the both corporate and technology worlds over three decades, far out-classing his brilliant but less confident Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen).

With “Steve Jobs”, Jewish screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) establishes his primacy as the top screen “interpreter” of technology company founders, following his Oscar-winning screenplay of “The Social Network”, about the early days of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Despite the direction of Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Sorkin “owns” the creative force of “Steve Jobs” in a way that few screenwriters can do.

Like “The Social Network”, some of the facts and many of the interpretations in “Steve Jobs” are disputed by those who were close to the action. Sorkin originally developed his dramatic flair with stage plays; “Steve Jobs” could, in fact, be one of them. It runs on a three-act structure, with each “act” centred on one technology launch by Jobs: the Macintosh in 1984, the NEXT Cube in 1988 and finally the iMac in 1998.

The film includes flashbacks and scene-setting documentary footage, including the famous “1984” Super Bowl advertisement for the Macintosh computer, but most of “Steve Jobs” takes place within the buildings where the three launches took place. At each launch, six real-life characters from Jobs’ life seek him out, all stating their case of what they want from him (behaviour, money, recognition, love, acceptance).

Psychologically vulnerable former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) wants a reluctant Steve to acknowledge the existence of their daughter, Lisa (played by different actresses at ages 5, 9 and 19), as well as money to live on. Young Lisa simply wants a father figure, which Jobs churlishly refuses to be. Russian-born Jewish Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the Apple Head of Marketing, is the one employee who can stand up to Jobs’ bullying, and acts as his personal and professional conscience. Much is made of Hoffman’s “shtetl” upbringing; she is one of the most interesting Jewish characters to appear in American films in the last year.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Rogen) wants Jobs simply to recognise the contributions of his Apple 2 design team, something that Jobs steadfastly and boorishly refuses to do. Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels) wants Jobs to behave properly with his board of directors. And lead Apple designer Andy Hertzfeld (Jewish actor Michael Stuhlbarg) just wants Jobs to treat him like a human being, not a cog in a machine.

Did all of these characters interact with Jobs at each launch? No. But Sorkin’s “dramatic license” allows the film to show how all of these intimates developed their relationships with Jobs over time. It’s a classic technique, brilliantly executed.

The result is a wordy and at times claustrophobic film, which may not be to everyone’s taste. The personality of Jobs that emerges – a supremely confident, charismatic, controlling and not-very-nice-man – can also make the film difficult to watch. In addition to Sorkin’s fine screenplay, however, the performances are all strong and frequently riveting, with Fassbender and Winslet (both Oscar-nominated) standing out.

Although Jobs was not Jewish, the film has many Jewish connections: both writers – Sorkin and original book author Walter Isaacson; and the characters Hertzfeld and Hoffman, along with the journalists Walt Mossberg and Joel Pforzheimer, are all Jewish. Although Steve Wozniak was not Jewish, Seth Rogen plays him like a character who is. Australian Sarah Snook (not Jewish) and Jewish actor Adam Shapiro also appear.

(photo below:  Michael Stuhlbard, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs”)

Stuhlbarg Fassbender Winslet

The Intern and The Internship films have a common theme – the importance of wisdom and age

September 8, 2015

I have yet not seen the new Robert de Niro/Anne Hathaway film “The Intern”:  it opens here in Australia in mid-October, a few weeks after the US opening on 25 September.

According to the trailer (see below), this film has a whole lot in common with another film with which it may be confused: “The Internship” (2013) – which, by the way, for reasons I cannot fathom is MY MOST POPULAR POST EVER (yes. the upper case letters are on purpose).  By latest count, I have had somewhere upwards of 4,000 or more views of my review of “The Internship”.

From the trailer, one major theme of “The Intern” is that even in this “” age of youth culture and 25 year old CEOs, maturity, wisdom and experience are still valued.  That clearly was a theme of “The Internship”, and what a comforting theme it is … for those who are in the baby boomer generation who see our skills dating and the digital economy undergoing such rapid and profound changes.

The “tag line” of “The Intern” is “Experience never gets old”.  A fantasy?  Perhaps.  More like probably.

I think ageism in the workplace is a far more significant phenomenon than the professional experience of a 70 year old (the Robert de Niro character) being recognised by a corporation (except, of course, if you are a major investor, with lots of cash … but that’s a whole other story).

But “good on you”, Nancy Meyers – a baby boomer if there ever was one (born 1949), for keeping our fantasies alive.

View the trailer here:


When digital media decides that it has to go analogue

July 31, 2015

How ironic that the world’s greatest and largest digital broadcaster, YouTube, has decided to use “analogue” promotion for its “Fan Fest” here in Sydney. Search online and you will find almost nothing other than this page and a “waitlist” holding page on Ticketek.

Remember YouTube claims the following statistics. With more than one billion users, every day people are watching hundreds of millions of hours and generating billions of views: up 50% year on year. Some 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. That’s correct, every minute. Put that in perspective: that’s 432,000 hours of NEW video every day. No one can watch even a minor fraction of that, and mega-computers are needed just to keep track of it all.

With all of that digital reach and power, how come YouTube has decided to blanket Sydney bus stops with its Fan Fest posters, such as the one in Randwick (on High Street, outside of the Prince of Wales Hospital) below?

It does say something about the power of the “tangible”, and the limitations of digital advertising and social media in promotion, when YouTube (and its parent company, the all-powerful Google) has decided to utilise “outdoor advertising”. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America traces the earliest advertising to ancient Egyptian times. The modern billboard industry is widely accepted to have its start in the mid-1860s, with 1870 marking the beginning of modern outdoor advertising.

Food for thought in our digitally disruptive times.

YouTube Fanfest bus stop poster

The geography of digital

December 29, 2014

Here’s more proof that despite the digital world appearing to be sitting solely in cyberspace, geography matters for digital businesses – perhaps even more than ever.

In his article “When G,M. Was Google” in The New Yorker of 1 December 2014, Nicholas Lemann writes:

One of the ironies of the tech economy, duly noted by Schmidt and Rosenberg, is that while the products and the users are geographically untethered, the businesses that supply them are increasingly clustered in one physical location, Silicon Valley. That’s because of the unusual, and apparently non-replicable, infrastructure of support there: the Stanford engineering school, the Sand Hill Road venture-capital firms, the angel investors, the talent pool of coders and engineers, the technical-infrastructure providers.

Did you get that phrase – “increasingly clustered”?

So much for the work from anywhere, do all work from home concept. People still need – and indeed want – to be physically proximate to each other.

The reference to “Schmidt and Rosenberg” above comes from the book How Google Works, by Eric Schmidt (former Google CEO) and Jonathan Rosenberg (former Head of Product Development).

Has the “Digital Tipping Point” arrived?

August 2, 2014

Yes, says Deloitte Australia: the “digital tipping point” has definitely arrived, with permanent and irrevocable changes to our information and entertainment consumption.

According to Deloitte, here in Australia this happened some time in this past year. To summarise the main points of their 2014 Media Consumer Survey, the “digital tipping points” here in Australia are:

– Using the Internet is likely to eclipse watching TV as the preferred source of entertainment within a matter of months.
– We have gone “tablet mad” across all age groups – more than half (53%) of Australian survey respondents are now ‘digital omnivores’ – owners of a tablet, laptop and smart-phone, up significantly from 28% last year.
– Smartphone ownership is at 81%, an increase of 21% over the last three years.

Other findings include:
– When we watch hit TV shows, we “binge”: some 72% of their survey participants watch back-to-back episodes (three or more) in one sitting – and more than a quarter of us (26%) are doing this once a week.

– And there’s very bad (and not surprising) news for newspapers, with 92% of Australian survey respondents unwilling to pay for news online:

Compared with other surveyed countries, Australia has the lowest newspaper subscription rates per household, whether print or digital (22%), compared with the top ranking Japan (53%), the UK (51%) and China (44%). An additional 8% have digital-only subscriptions. Within the surveyed population, newspaper subscriptions have declined by 5% over the past three years while digital-only subscriptions have grown by 26%, albeit from a very low base.

Some interesting good news for print magazines:

We love our printed mags – the printed magazine is still holding its own and remains the preferred way to read magazine content (49% of all survey respondents). Nearly half (49%) of magazine subscribers indicated that if the price of their favourite magazine was the same for various options of physical or digital copies, they would prefer to receive the physical copy only, rather than both.

And here’s a cool infographic that summarises the key findings.

Overstating the facts? Probably, as it’s not likely that their survey reached many of the bottom 20 percent of Australians, who experience “digital exclusion”. But the trends are apparent.

Still not convinced that the digital has changed our communication forever? A recent Time magazine article by Katy Steinmetz (August 4, 2014 here in Australia, published a week earlier in North America), notes, “The total number of words in all text messages sent every three months exceeds the word count of all books ever published, according to text-analytics firm Idibon”, which is a genuinely “new age” company  that is based – where else – in San Francisco.

Food for thought.

her – a stylish and beautiful film about emotional disconnection in the digital age

February 25, 2014

Some 48 hours after watching the film “her” in the cinema, I am still haunted by its stylish and uncommon beauty, and its sly, understated but yet biting theme of emotional disconnection in the digital age.  Under its off-kilter romantic dramatic exterior lurks a science fiction film that raises deep questions about our present fascination with personal technology “solutions” and how this will change the nature of human interaction in the near future.

Have you ever sat with a group of people, and realised that everyone was staring into a small screen, silently swiping or typing or reading or listening through earphones?  This is the future that “her” posits, although with a difference.  Living in a higher density Los Angeles that looks uncommonly like China (the exteriors were all shot in Shanghai; will the China of today irrevocably become the future of tomorrow?).  Our main character Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) ironically writes letters for a living – yes, real letters for real people who are unable to express themselves emotionally.

Everyone in “her” lives in a frictionless world, talking into their ear pieces, with a bland, pale set of colours, sort of “Apple-lite” (seen any Apple advertisements recently?).  Nobody is physically injured in “her” (although Theodore does trip, once); everyone seems to glide through a world that has been made so safe through technology that personal feelings are shielded.  The result?  Our closest relationships are those with the “operating systems” of our computers.

Does this sound like far out sci-fi, or just a slight exaggeration of the present?  I vote for the latter. (Who or what did you spend the most time with this week?  Your computer, or your life partner?)

Jonze is a genuinely gifted director.  Following his collaborations with Charlie  Kaufman (writer of Jonze’s uber-trippy films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”), he has come into his own writing this one.

One of the beauties of “her” is that the film truly has the courage of its convictions:  yes, what would genuinely happen if (when?) artificial intelligence becomes so sophisticated that they become our best friend.  When my friend recently swore at Siri, the iPhone’s voice intelligent system, Siri admonished her.  Really, how close are we already to Jonze’s world?

Even the name Twombly – Anglo-Saxon and yet unusual – is highly evocative.  The most recognisable person with that last name is the painter and artist “Cy” (Edwin Parker) Twombly (1928-2001), whose works were inspired by “ancient Mediterranean history and geography, Greek and Roman mythology and epic poetry”, resulting in sometimes “inscrutable” works that include “iconography, metaphor and myth”.  As Christy Harrison has pointed out, “the film’s colour scheme often seems to be directly lifted” off the artist’s canvas (see her post for two screenshot/painting comparisons).  Danny Bowes notes that Phoenix’s character even dresses like the artist.

If you live in Sydney, as I do, you will have to rush if you wish to catch “her” in the cinema – and this is a cinema film, that a widescreen experience greatly enhances, bringing you into its odd and ever so slightly bizarre world.  We watched it at the Macquarie Centre, in an afternoon weekend screening that was the only one that day.  “her” has been nominated for a number of Academy Awards:  best picture, best original screenplay, best original score, original song and production design.  In a different year – one without the flashy, louder nominated films (you know who you are) – “her” could have featured more highly in both the nominations and the actual winners.  But that’s the way it goes in the near future.

her #2

her Theodore Twombly apartment

(Australian readers note:  The Art Gallery of NSW holds Cy Twombly’s “Three Studies from the Temeraire”, acquired in November 2004.)