Requiem for Warhol

Once, in a Warhol team brainstorming meeting, I had a pretty good idea.

Warhol was the team responsible for the YouTube video editor, which was sometimes described as “iMovie in the cloud.” You could assemble new videos out of pieces of old ones, apply various special effects, add titles and transitions and so on, all in your web browser. It was pretty sweet.

There were some basic features we knew we needed to add to the editor. “Undo,” for example. Fast “scrubbing” through clips, and easy clip splitting and merging. Audio “ducking” and “pre-lap” and “post-lap.”

But in this meeting we were brainstorming ideas that could distinguish us from tools like iMovie, rather than merely achieve parity with them. What’s something that a YouTube-based video editor could do better than others?

To me the answer was clear: it could use YouTube’s unfathomably vast collection of videos as a stock-footage library, allowing users to create mashups from among billions of source clips.

There was one problem: nearly all those billions of videos had been uploaded under the terms of the standard YouTube license, which prohibited third parties from using videos in novel ways (ways that the original uploader might not approve of, after all). True, there was an option to upload your video under a Creative Commons license that did allow reuse by others. In fact I had personally worked on adding that option. But that option was not well-known, and hadn’t existed for long, and it required uploaders proactively to choose it, so only a tiny fraction of the videos on YouTube were licensed that way. The overwhelming majority were legally unavailable to would-be masher-uppers.

My idea for fixing this was called “reactive licensing.” You could create a video in the editor using whatever clips you wanted, pulled from all over YouTube no matter how they were licensed, but you couldn’t publish your video until getting approval from the clips’ owners. You’d click a “request approval” button and we’d send a message asking those owners to review your video project. They could respond with “Approve,” “Reject,” “Ignore,” “Block,” etc. If you got all the needed approvals, your edited video would become publicly playable.

Reactive Licensing generated some excitement. Here was something that YouTube, and only YouTube, was perfectly suited for. I whipped together a working prototype and we were just about to staff the project when the Legal department quashed it. Turns out a prospective use of someone’s video in a mashup—even one visible to no one but the creator and the owner—still violates the terms of service.1

Some time much later, Legal pushed through a change to the standard YouTube license (for unrelated reasons), and now Reactive Licensing became feasible! A couple of us on the Warhol team got excited again, and I started gearing up a development effort. But things had changed since I’d first conceived of Reactive Licensing. For one thing, both management chains—engineering and product—had been entirely replaced, from my boss all the way up to and including the CEO of Google. There were a couple of departmental reorgs thrown in to boot. For another, Google had become fixated on mobile computing, determined not to miss the boat on that trend as it felt it had with social networking. Everything that wasn’t a mobile app or couldn’t be turned into one became a red-headed stepchild, and the video editor was fatally desktop-bound. Finally, the creator and chief evangelist of the Warhol project had left to go work at Facebook. With his leadership, YouTube had harbored an institutional belief in the importance of balancing video-watching features with features for video creators and curators. Now, despite my efforts to keep it alive, that belief seemed to have departed along with him and the other managers who had supported it. The priorities that came down to the Warhol team now amounted to building toy apps that barely qualified as video-creation tools, such as the Vine workalike, or the thing for adding fun “stickers” to a video. (“Wow!”)

By that point my days at YouTube were numbered. This stuff simply wasn’t interesting—not to me, nor (I was sure) to our users. There were many interesting things we could have been doing, and that we knew our users wanted, but my strenuous efforts to make any of those happen were all denied.

My days at YouTube had seemed numbered once before, years earlier, after a frankly undistinguished tenure on two other teams that held little interest for me.

Back in those days, it was Google’s policy not to hire engineers for any specific role, but to hire “generalists” whom they felt could learn whatever they needed to know for wherever Google most needed them. I knew this when they hired me, but I still expected they’d put me on their new Android team (because I’d just finished 5+ years at Andy Rubin’s previous smartphone startup, Danger) or on their Gmail team (because I’d spent most of the preceding two decades as an e-mail technologist). I was surprised and a little disappointed when they put me at YouTube instead. I had no particular interest in or knowledge of streaming video. But more than that: YouTube was and is designed to keep you in a passive, semi-addicted state of couch potatohood, for which I was philosophically misaligned. I wanted to produce tools people could use. I wanted to empower the little guy and disintermediate the gatekeepers. Working on e-mail all those years, I’d been able to tell myself I was improving the world by making it easier for people to communicate with each other. Helping YouTube reach a milestone like a billion hours of watched video per day failed to move me.

On the other hand, Google was the Cadillac of software engineering jobs, and in those days it was still doing pretty well at living up to its “don’t be evil” motto. That, and the proximity of the YouTube office—half an hour closer to home than the main Google campus—was enough to energize me for a while… but only for a while.

If I hadn’t learned of the Warhol project, or if I’d been unable to transfer onto that team, my time at Google would have been over after two mostly forgettable years instead of seven mostly exciting ones. I hadn’t dreamed it was possible to build a working video editor in a web browser, but once I knew it was, I was hooked on the idea of delivering an ever more powerful creative tool to aspiring moviemakers who lacked the fancy computers and software they would otherwise need. To me it was the early days of desktop publishing all over again, but for video. Here at last was a niche at YouTube that wasn’t about driving increased “watch time.” It was about nurturing artistic expression.

We had big plans. We had working prototypes of a variety of special effects. We would build “wizards” that could make suggestions about shot sequences and pacing. We would give guidance on composition and color. We would commission educational materials from professional filmmakers. It would be “film school in a box.”

But even at its height, the Warhol project never quite got the resources or the marketing it needed, and certainly not enough executive leadership. Only seldom did we get to add one of the essential missing features we needed (like “undo”), to say nothing of the ones on our blue-sky wishlist. The rest of the time we were diverted onto other corporate priorities, such as specialized video-editing support for the short-lived Life In a Day tie-in, or addressing some complex copyright issue, or fixing bugs and performance problems.

Still, the YouTube video editor was well-loved and well-used by a small, dedicated group of users in the know. I myself relied on it while my kids were growing up for sharing well-edited videos of them to the families back east. But given its declining importance to YouTube’s management, it was just a matter of time before they killed it, like so many other beloved but neglected projects at Google. And now that inevitable day has come: the YouTube video editor will be discontinued on September 20th.

  1. For you copyright nerds: This was due to “synchronization rights,” an aspect of copyright that prohibited us from combining two videos in a way that could be construed as synchronizing one to the other. The design of the Warhol service was such that the edited video was created on our servers, and the result streamed to the user’s computer. If we could have arranged for the actual edits to happen on the user’s computer—ironically, the way iMovie works—we would have sidestepped the sync-rights issue. While not impossible, that would have been a cumbersome experience that defeated the purpose of a cloud-based video editor.

    Sync rights doomed another feature I’d hoped to create: “serendipitous multicam.” I was at a school play at my kids’ elementary school when I realized that nearly all the parents were shooting the same video. Several of them would later upload their videos to YouTube. If it weren’t for sync rights, YouTube could identify clusters of videos all recording the same event (using Content ID, the same audiovisual matching system used for detecting illicit uploads of copyrighted material), arrange them on a common timeline, and present them as different “camera angles” in a video-editing project, allowing everyone to stitch together their own best-possible movie from them. []

Close encounter of the Burtt kind

Back in 2013 I took my family to see a 30th-anniversary showing of Return of the Jedi (at “George Lucas’s favorite movie theater”). Before the show there was a costume contest: kids dressed as Jedi knights, stormtroopers, Yoda. Some women in gold Leia bikinis. After the show there was a panel with three of the Lucasfilm staff who’d worked on the movie in the 1980’s: two people I don’t remember, and Ben Burtt, the Oscar-winning genius sound designer.

Ben Burtt created the hum of lightsabers, the roar of the Millennium Falcon, the beeps and whistles of Artoo Detoo, the pew pew of blasters, and a hundred other sonic inventions besides. If you think about (or ever get to see) what the raw footage of Star Wars sounded like before his effects were added, you’ll quickly understand how much of that film’s wizardry was aural and not visual. Ben Burtt is my hero.

So after Ben Burtt told a bunch of terrific stories from back in the day at Lucasfilm (the other two panelists had little to say), and after the audience broke up, I just had to approach Burtt to shake his hand and tell him this:

“In 1977 I smuggled a tape recorder into the movie theater and recorded Star Wars. I listened to it over and over the way other kids listened to their favorite records. I have to tell you: the visual effects don’t hold up so well nowadays, but in all this time no one has ever surpassed the sound design.”

Burtt thanked me and, playfully immodest, agreed. He told me that, as a kid, he too smuggled a tape recorder into a movie theater once to capture the audio of his favorite film: Goldfinger! Great minds…

The Aristocrats!

My sleeping brain has done it again.

Warning: crude humor ahead, which is surprising since my waking brain doesn’t “work blue.”

In this dream, we were visiting our friend and Archer’s sometime Shakespeare acting coach Scott at his cabin in Muir Woods.1 He told Archer this joke:

Q: What do the townspeople call the King’s fucking-cake?
A: A cake fit for a Queen!

In the dream it took both Archer and me a moment to get the joke. (I first thought it was a play on the gay-man meaning of queen, but it’s not.) But then we both did, and both laughed. I was at once appalled that Scott would tell that joke to my 11-year-old son and perversely proud that Archer got it.

My sleeping brain came up with a dirty joke that I didn’t get right away! How does that even work?!

  1. He does not have a cabin in Muir Woods. []

Remembering the past no guarantee of not repeating it

In February of 1992, Apple Computer flew me from Pittsburgh to California and put me up at the Cupertino Inn for a series of job interviews over a couple of days. I extended my stay in order to visit a few other companies too.

One of the companies on my list was a tiny e-mail startup in San Rafael called Z-Code. I was planning to visit them in the afternoon after spending the morning at a prominent computer magazine, interviewing for an editorial position. That visit went very well, and so had the interviews at Apple; and having driven from Cupertino to San Francisco for that interview, I now had a sense for how long the return drive would be, and how much farther out of the way a visit to Z-Code would take me.

If I hadn’t been such a Star Wars nerd I might have skipped it altogether. But I knew that Skywalker Ranch and Industrial Light and Magic were in San Rafael somewhere and I harbored a secret hope of spotting them as I navigated to my Z-Code visit. I visited Z-Code and, to my surprise, found that opportunity more compelling than the ones at Apple and at the magazine. Two months later I was living in California and working at Z-Code and the rest is history.

Now, almost a quarter century later, I’ve had a very similar experience. I interviewed successfully at a number of well-known medium-to-large-sized companies over the past several weeks but found a tiny startup – that I had almost dismissed, at first, as not worth my time – to be the most compelling. Tomorrow I begin at Chain.com.

Am I a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or what?

Last night I dreamed I was at the beach with my kids. We saw a food shack with its menu painted on a board in front, and one item on the menu was a “Tomato Rahway.” “Do you know Tomato Rahways?” I asked my kids in the dream. “We had them when I was little. It’s an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich with a slice of tomato under the cheese.”

I was briefly awake in the middle of the night after that dream, and I marveled at how my subconscious was able to dredge up the memory of Tomato Rahways after perhaps forty years of not thinking that phrase even once.

When I woke up for real this morning, the first thing I did was a Google search for [tomato rahway]. 1 It doesn’t exist, at least according to the Internet, and it now appears my brain conjured out of whole cloth not only the phrase “Tomato Rahway” and the association with a very specific food item that I probably never even saw let alone ate, but also the idea, like a cherry on top, that it was an old childhood memory, which apparently it wasn’t.

What the hell, brain?

Anyway, I officially proclaim that the name for an open-faced grilled-cheese sandwich with a slice of tomato is now “Tomato Rahway.”

  1. In the process, I stumbled onto a Googlewhack for [“tomato rahway” -plum], which links to this. []

From the home office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

There is nothing I can say about David Letterman that isn’t already being said in tremendous quantity, and occasionally quality, all over the Internet. (Example.) Nothing, that is, except to relate my David Letterman Dream.

Background: I was a David Letterman fan from the very start of his national TV career. I saw him as a new comic doing stand-up on The Tonight Show. I rejoiced when a snow day meant I could stay home from school to watch his short-lived daytime program. His HBO special, “David Letterman: Looking For Fun” seemed designed to appeal especially to me, personally. I was there for the first episode of Late Night, and many more thereafter. His arrival on late-night TV just as I began the slow transformation to adulthood assured me I was inheriting a hipper and more interesting world than the genteel one inhabited by Johnny Carson and my parents. I didn’t know then to call it “postmodernism,” I just knew that there seemed to be a secret joke at the heart of pop culture and Dave and I both got it.

A few years later, halfway through college and finally living in a place of my own, feeling alternately independent and lonely, my sleep-wake cycle shifted crazily late and life an unpredictable whirl of schoolwork, friends, and cherchez la femme, Letterman became my reliable daily refuge. His frequent willingness to expose the machinery behind Late Night — the offices, the studio, the local environs, the staff and crew — was the first clear indication I ever had, and a strangely reassuring one, that a future writing top-notch TV comedy awaited me if I wanted it.

In a nearby parallel universe, Dave and I were buds.

I visited that parallel universe once in the most vivid dream of that sleep-deprived period. I got onto the elevator at the ground floor of Rockefeller Center with Dave and several others, some celebrities, some not. We all chatted amiably. As the elevator rose, it also shrunk, because 30 Rock, it turns out, was a pyramid, and that’s what pyramids do to elevators. So at each stop a number of people were forced to get out. Finally it was just me and Dave riding the last few floors to the top. Together we hatched a scheme where I would come on Late Night as a guest. Dave would introduce me as a big celebrity. (“Ladies and gentlemen, a man who needs no introduction…”) We’d make up movie premieres, charity events, and awards ceremonies for me to describe having attended. The joke would be on the audience as they tried to figure out where they were supposed to know me from.

To this day I half believe that if I had ever actually befriended David Letterman and pitched that idea to him, he would have gone for it, and I’m just as sure that no one else on TV from then until now would have.

We’re not fledgling

THIS ASSET PURCHASE AGREEMENT (this “Agreement”) is made and entered into as of and shall take effect on March 1, 2015 (the “Closing Date”), by and among [company that may not wish to be named quite yet], a California corporation (“Buyer”), ZANSHIN, a California corporation (“Seller”), and Seller’s principal shareholders, BARTON SCHAEFER, STEVE WEBSTER, GREGORY FOX, and ROBERT GLICKSTEIN (collectively the “Majority Shareholders”).

Thus ends, for all intents and purposes, the story of Zanshin, the company that my friends and I started in 1996 after resigning en masse from Z-Code. It will continue to exist in name and in certain administrative functions, but [unnamed company] is buying substantially all its assets and hiring away most of its employees.

Z-Code was the producer of an award-winning cross-platform e-mail client, Z-Mail. In 1994 Z-Code’s owner Dan Heller sold the company to Network Computing Devices (NCD), a hardware company. Much of Z-Code’s staff was baffled by the sale and considered it ill-advised. Indeed there followed a corporate comedy of errors as first Dan was let go and then NCD’s top leaders, Judy Estrin and Bill Carrico, were fired. As we’d predicted, NCD’s sales staff had no idea how to sell software. As the World Wide Web started gaining traction, we were alarmed when NCD’s clueless new CEO, Ed Marinaro, tried to repurpose Z-Code’s staff of e-mail software experts as developers of a new Windows-only web browser called Mariner. Meanwhile, we were denied opportunities to make badly needed improvements to Z-Mail, and finally, after a number of grassroots efforts to turn things around had failed, a bunch of us gave up and quit to start our own e-mail software company.

After considering and rejecting several names we settled on Zanshin, a Japanese word meaning some badass combination of “emotional intensity” and “follow-through.” We discovered it in this passage in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, describing a swordfight between avatars in the high-resolution virtual reality called the “Metaverse”:

The businessman reaches across his body with his right hand, grips the handle of his sword just below the guard, draws it out, snaps it forward so it’s pointing at Hiro, then places his left hand on the grip just below the right. […]

The businessman turns out to have a lot of zanshin. Translating this concept into English is like translating “fuckface” into Nipponese, but it might translate into “emotional intensity” in football lingo. He charges directly at Hiro, hollering at the top of his lungs. […]

“Emotional intensity” doesn’t convey the half of it, of course. It is the kind of coarse and disappointing translation that makes the dismembered bodies of samurai warriors spin in their graves. The word “zanshin” is larded down with a lot of other folderol that you have to be Nipponese to understand.

And Hiro thinks, frankly, that most of it is pseudomystical crap, on the same level as his old high school football coach exhorting his men to play at 110 percent.

We incorporated with our own money (proceeds from selling NCD stock) and the help of a fancy Sand Hill Road lawyer. We rented a house in Petaluma where some of us lived and all of us worked on bringing to life our vision of a beautiful and functional e-mail manager built on the theory that, done right, e-mail could serve as the repository for all one’s private information and communications. In hindsight our plan was not sufficiently well-defined, and neither was our project development timeline. More than two years passed of writing code together every day, grappling with the early web and our ever-problematic dialup Internet access, pushing the boundaries of the IMAP e-mail protocol and the fledgling GNU C++ compiler, and taking turns cooking for one another, watching The Simpsons together, and generally not operating with an adequate sense of purpose or urgency. By the time our e-mail client, code-named Lawndart, finally began sparking to life, the entire e-mail landscape had changed beneath our feet. Free clients like Outlook Express and Eudora had become ubiquitous and were good enough for most people, and free web-based mail from Microsoft and Yahoo was starting to take off. Even if we had gotten Lawndart to market, no one would have cared.

The only software we ever released was a Lisp-like text-markup language called Latte (“Language for Transforming Text”) and its followup, Blatte (“Better Language for Transforming Text”), which we open-sourced and gave away as a kind of corporate calling card. Somehow or other this led to Zanshin getting an extended consulting gig with Amazon.com, for which a couple of us ended up traveling back and forth to Seattle a lot. Things I remember from that time:

  • Checking in and out and in and out of the Residence Inn on Lake Union week after week;
  • The offices in which we did our work, and several of the people we worked with;
  • Various meetings and meals;
  • Keeping in touch with my new wife via the late-90’s-vintage phone I carried on a belt clip;
  • Being extra fastidious about tracking my time, reporting my progress, and keeping expenses down

but I’m damned if I can remember the nature of any actual work we did for them. Nevertheless, the gig went so well that Amazon offered to relocate us all to Seattle and hire us. Andrea flew up to Seattle to get the vibe of the place. Together we decided it was definitely doable.

Back in California we had a few long talks about Zanshin’s prospects and how we all felt about packing it in and moving to Seattle. Some of us were in favor, some were opposed and felt that Zanshin had some life left in it. We recognized that our dream of a high-tech e-mail client was dead; but in those long-overdue discussions we started to conceive of some exciting new ideas for the server side of e-mail and, in the end, convinced ourselves to stick it out as a software startup. We turned Amazon down.

We began describing to ourselves, and then to some business consultants, a collection of server-side e-mail features that collectively we called “MSpace.” Zanshin moved out of rented houses and into actual offices, and we took a little extra investment to keep us going (including from the notorious Gary Kremen, owner of the sex.com domain).

One way and another, our plans for MSpace took a detour into the realm of e-mail marketing — spamming, essentially, but ethical spamming as we were always quick to point out, for reputable marketers only, never sharing e-mail lists, and always providing no-hassle opt-out. I wrote a high-performance e-mail delivery engine and the aforementioned Blatte language for creating dynamic customizable templates, and Zanshin, operating its e-mail marketing service under the name iPost, finally started earning money.

This whole time I had been moonlighting as a founding member of the Internet Movie Database. In 1998 Amazon.com bought the IMDb (a coincidence not related to Zanshin’s consulting gig) and early in 2001 they asked me to join full-time. Five years of earning first no salary and later only a token amount had taken its toll, particularly since Andrea and I were planning to start a family; and the e-mail marketing business, though it was taking off, failed to move me. After consulting with my partners we agreed that I’d wrap up work on iPost’s delivery engine and then be done.

However, Andrea had joined Zanshin a couple of years earlier herself and she remained even as I went on to work full-time for the IMDb, and later for other companies. The e-mail marketing business amassed a surprisingly healthy client list and collected enough revenue to pay competitive salaries to a growing staff of developers and salespeople. I returned for a couple of short contract gigs from time to time. But as the years passed, the margins got slimmer and slimmer and the industry consolidated behind a few ever-larger players. Two of the other original founders had also left. New-product ideas always came second to dealing with never-ending customer issues. There was still momentum in the business, but it was unclear for how much longer. The time for a change had come, and I am grateful to Andrea and my Zanshin partners for making it happen.


Postscript. The title of this post comes from an episode at Z-Code. When a magazine, in its review of our product, Z-Mail, called our company a fledgling startup, we bristled, having by then grown quite a bit and able to count companies like Chevron and Silicon Graphics among our business partners. I undertook to make a sign for the office reading, “Z-Code Software: We’re Not Fledgling,” and it became a frequently heard catchphrase.

Just got it, part 2

Seven years ago I wrote about belatedly getting the joke behind “born lever-puller,” Gnip Gnop, and “Fargo North, Decoder.” I wrote:

Can’t help wondering what long-overdue realization is next…

I now have an answer. Just a couple of days ago I finally “got” the name of Keebler’s E.L. Fudge cookies.

A little of Andy lives on in me

In 1978, it was rare ever to encounter a computer, much less someone who had one at home. The “personal computer revolution” was only about a year old, with Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack all introducing their first consumer models in 1977.

Of the people who did have computers at home, surely only a small fraction were so generous with them as to allow their sons’ twelve-year-old friends to spend afterschool hour after hour, day after day, month after month sitting at them, tapping in and trying out dumb little programs; and an even smaller fraction were also seasoned programming experts with the desire, ability, and patience to impart some of that expertise to receptive but very green ears.

This weekend I, one of those twelve-year-old friends in 1978, mourn the passing of Andy Kane, one of those generous and patient computer owners. Andy was one of the many reasons I was lucky to befriend his son Chuck in the seventh grade. He was a living example of the ability to make a career out of writing software and he contributed significantly to nurturing the then-embryonic skills that today support me and my family. My condolences to his; I will always be grateful.

You can’t go home again, unless you are just in the nick of time

1999: Andrea and I (finally) get married at Sunset Point, a beautiful circle of palm trees atop a grassy knoll overlooking the Seven Seas Lagoon and, in the distance, the Magic Kingdom, at the Polynesian Resort in Walt Disney World.

The years that follow: we start a family, hoping always to return to that magical spot.

2013: We (finally) return to WDW and Sunset Point, this time with the fruits of our union.

A few months later (as I learned just this morning via a Google Follow Your World update), Sunset Point looked like this:

Gone forever, to make way for the construction of new villas over the lagoon, and as part of a general revamp of the resort, probably in anticipation of Disney’s upcoming Polynesian-themed film Moana.

Walt Disney himself endorsed the continual reimagining of his parks, and no doubt the Polynesian will be as magical after these changes as it was before. But that circle of palm trees was my one favorite place in the entire world. Goodbye Sunset Point! Thank heavens we made it back to you just in time.