Just got it, part 4

I saw Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid when it came out in 1982. In it, Steve Martin, as a 1940’s-era film noir private eye, is cleverly intercut with scenes from actual film noir classics from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.

At one point he visits Burt Lancaster in a scene from The Killers and finds him apparently hungover, so offers to make him a cup of his “famous java.” He goes to the kitchen, gets a saucepan, and shakes coffee grounds into it from a bag. He shakes and shakes and shakes and shakes and it goes on so long it becomes hilarious.

Finally he tosses in two whole eggs, breaking them open with a fork and stirring them into the coffee grounds, shells and all.

I always thought that the eggs were a bizarre little comic button on the coffee-making sequence. He stirs whole eggs into coffee grounds, haha, the weirdo! But as I learned just recently, this is in fact a common practice in some places.

What’s more, this is often referred to as “Swedish coffee,” and Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers is “Swede Anderson.” I get it now!

(Previously.)

Klein, bottled

I don’t want to get myself in trouble, so right off the bat let me say that I am in no way likening myself to Jesus Christ. Yet when I think about a thing that happened to me in the summer of the year I turned eleven, I feel a certain kinship with him. And I don’t just mean being Jewish.

This story begins several months earlier, when I turned ten and received the most consequential birthday gift of my life: a portable Panasonic tape recorder.

Remarkably, a photo survives of me opening that gift. Clearly I am pleased.

Observe the nerd-tastic football jacket that isn’t.

You can draw a straight line from that moment to my participation as one of the founding members of the Internet Movie Database.

Like this: Around the same time, my family became one of the earliest subscribers to HBO. Home Box Office had the unique and, to a budding cinephile like myself, irresistable proposition in those pre-cable-TV days of showing movies uncensored and uninterrupted by commercials. Consumer videotapes were not yet a thing (much less laserdiscs and DVDs, and streaming could not even be imagined) and so movies could not be enjoyed on demand — unless you were content to replay just the audio of a movie you had recorded by placing a mic near the TV’s small speaker. I recorded many movies this way, listening to them repeatedly the way other people listened to their favorite records. Occasionally I listened to one tape so many times that I memorized it, and years later this questionable talent landed me the job of IMDb Quotes Editor.

Another of HBO’s main attractions from its earliest days was its “On Location” series, a collection of unexpurgated performances inaugurated in 1975 by the comedian Robert Klein (one of the top performers, with the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin, keeping the flame of standup comedy alive during the decade between its flowering in the 60’s and its explosive ubiquity in the 80’s). I was a fan, and in 1977, HBO aired a followup concert, “Robert Klein Revisited.” I tape-recorded it and there was just enough time before summer vacation for me to memorize big chunks of his routine.

School was out and we were among the annual migration of Jewish families from the swelter of New York City to a couple of months of bungalow-colony life in the Catskill mountains. Bungalow-colony life did not include TV. (And, in case contemporary readers need reminding, there was no Internet, nor any personal electronics.) For entertainment, we went outside.

Late one Friday afternoon, sitting at the picnic table in front of my bungalow, I “did” some of Robert Klein’s recent show for a couple of my friends. They laughed at the jokes, which felt tremendous, and even though it may have begun in conversational fashion, by the end I was in full-on performance mode. We all had a good time, even if some of the words coming out of my mouth went over all our heads.

The next Friday, one of my friends suggested I give a repeat performance, this time for a bigger audience. Without my really knowing what was happening, the word had spread about my “show” and there was now a group of a dozen or more kids in front of my bungalow. Rather than sit at our picnic table I stood atop it. I did exactly the same material in exactly the same way as the week before. And I killed! My mom, amazed, watched from the door of the bungalow as her very own Borscht Belt tummler worked the crowd, a story she told and retold for the rest of her life. (My dad would arrive later that evening, along with all the other dads after a week at work in the city.) Meanwhile, my original couple of friends, who’d heard exactly the same routine a week earlier, listened to my new fans’ cheers with pride at having been in on the act at the beginning.

One week later, my Friday-afternoon act had transformed into a ritual. Someone announced it over the P.A. system! The crowd in front of my bungalow had grown to 20-30 people, including a few bemused adults. My original couple of friends were now my handlers, prepping me for my performance. All of this had somehow happened without any involvement from me. For my part I was awhirl at being the center of attention, but was also growing reluctant to do the show. For one thing, I had no new material, and largely a returning audience who’d heard it all before. For another, I simply didn’t understand at least 10% of what I had memorized, and so I could do nothing other than repeat it as faithfully to the audience as my tape recorder had repeated it to me and hope that they responded just as faithfully with the laughter that the recording had led me to expect. I had no ability, none at all, to riff, edit, or otherwise adapt the material to the mood of the “room.” I could not have articulated that at the time, but thinking on your feet is of course an essential skill at the heart of standup comedy, and I was vaguely aware of, and uncomfortable about, not having it.

As expected, my recitation of Klein’s lines was received less enthusiastically than the week before, for the expected reasons. There was still laughter and applause, but none of that energy that flows like a current between audience and performer when things are going well. I was considerably less thrilled to be the center of attention. Still, it was enough of a success that when the following Friday rolled around, I was enjoined to perform yet again.

But I found very quickly that it was no longer about me or the act — if it ever even had been. The ritual was now about the ritual itself. A couple of friends, having armed themselves with water pistols, proclaimed themselves my bodyguards and insisted on escorting me during the preliminaries leading up to the show. This included a trip to the P.A. shack, where another self-appointed minion was in charge of announcing the upcoming show to one and all, and where my job apparently was to supervise the announcement. On the way back from there we encountered another group seeking to do crowd control or distribute fruit juice from my mom or perform some other show-related job, and my bodyguards got bossy and territorial. It was tribal, and it was ugly, and I didn’t like it. Before long, too many competing interests trying to impose too many different kinds of organization on an event too flimsy to bear much organizing in the first place caused the whole thing to fizzle. I did not go on, and the ritual did not repeat, and I was relieved. (Anyway, it was time for the summer to become all about Star Wars.)

To sum up: I had a message, and I delivered it to a growing and receptive audience. Yet my delivery of this message was the seed crystal around which an elaborate structure formed, a structure that had little or nothing to do with me or my message, and everything to do with the needs of the people forming it: their need for power, their need for meaning, their need to feel useful, their need to be part of something larger than themselves. Does this make you think of any major world religions, and the humble message-delivering central figure they all claim in common?

Again, can’t stress enough: not likening myself to Jesus. For one thing, his message actually was his. For another, I don’t doubt his riffing ability.


Just got it, part 3


I’m fifty-one, and I’ve read A Visit From St. Nicholas nearly every Christmas Eve my whole life. But it’s only this year that I finally realized that “his droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow” refers to a smile, because that’s the shape of an archer’s bow, and does not refer to some sort of concentration pucker, looking like a bow you wrap gifts with. (Previously.)

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.