RIP Syd Mead

Visual Futurist Syd Mead passed away early this year. I’ve been a long time admirer of his since making the connection of his work and the sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner.

When I was young I used to draw spacecraft and futuristic spaceports imagining an exciting world of the future. Little did I know there were people who actually did this for a living and I was, in my own amateurish way, trying to be Syd Mead. It was no different than when I’d shoot hoops in the driveway pretending to be Michael Jordan.

I’m fortunate to own a copy of The Movie Art of Syd Mead Visual Futurist and since his death I’ve spent a lot of time looking through his work.

There is a lot of polish to the final concepts but one thing I love about this book is the focus on how he would sketch his way into the final ideas.

His process was not of dealing with futuristic ideas in isolation; when he imagined the future it was a totality – an entire world. In interviews he describes coming to his ideas not just as a matter of “concept” but one of problem solving… thinking about the future and how it might take shape in the face of the conditions and circumstances of arrival.

This sort of design thinking requires detail: measurements, proportions, materials… many other things into which Syd wove his final ideas and renderings.

During his life he worked on many projects – it would be difficult for anyone to have missed his influence. Blade Runner still tops my list (with Aliens as a close second) but there are so many others. I leave off with a short documentary on his life.

Becoming a Writer

Sadly this content emanates from a series of tweets. Although it has been unrolled, I’m adding a redundant backup here.

Brian Kopelmann on becoming a writer:

1) No teacher ever singled me out and told me I should consider a career as a writer. Come to think of it, no fellow student ever did either.

2) I was also a late reader. I had a big verbal vocabulary. A gift for remembering/using words. But I didn’t really become a reader until the summer after 4th grade. My mom gave me the book Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing. I stayed up all night to read it. Then read all summer.

3) Eventually, I taught myself to read very quickly. I didn’t develop some kind of technique, but I learned a kind of hyper focus–the entire world would disappear when I read which allowed me to read fast and comprehend a great deal.

4) Still, I struggled, badly, in school. If a subject was boring to me, I wouldn’t do the work in the class. Couldn’t, really, so, instead, I would read novels during class, hiding them behind the book I was supposed to be dealing with.

5) I acted in high school plays and assistant directed, but again, not once did a teacher or fellow student suggest I should try and make a career as a performer or writer or creator in the arts.

6) And, although I always felt great kinship with artists, I didn’t think I could be an artist either. I always thought artists were predetermined, special, picked out ahead of time, anointed.

7) Now, I don’t want to lie or be falsely humble: I knew I was a smart person, or smart enough, and I knew I had a way with words–that is, I could write an essay or paragraph and do it in a memorable, easy to read way.

8) But I truly thought that I didn’t have the stuff really creative people had. And I was, secretly, a perfectionist. So if I couldn’t spin gold right away when I tried to write something, I wasn’t able to finish it.

9) This inability to finish work, this giving up, this quitting, felt like suicide to me. Led to self hatred. Even as I found success professionally, in a related field, but not as an artist, I would sometimes try to write, and then quickly give up.

10) And then, months later, would wake up in the middle of the night, try again, delete it, throw it out, wake up hating myself. But somewhere in there, my wife, Amy, told me she knew I was a writer. That I should try it. That I deserved to try it.

11) Soon after that, our first child was born. Looking at him, I knew I didn’t want to be the kind of father who would lie, who would tell him he could be anything he wanted as long as he tried, if I, myself, hadn’t tried to live it, too.

12) And I realized that being blocked led to something dying in me. And that like any other kind of death, this death would be toxic, and the toxicity, the bitterness would leach out of me onto those I loved. I didn’t want that to happen.

13) And so, finally, my best friend @Davidlevien gave me Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, and I found myself in it. I found what to call my fear and inability to work. And I started doing morning pages, each day. These pages unlocked and unblocked me.

14) They gave me a ritual, a beginning of the creative day, a way to get beyond perfectionism. They made me realize that no one can anoint you as an artist. You have to do the work, each day, and then, maybe, you just become one. By doing.

15) Shortly thereafter, I stumbled into a poker club, called Levien, told him there was a movie we should write. And that became Rounders. I tell you this because I see from the questions/ comments you ask that many of you are as scared as I was.

16) And I want you to know that you are smart enough. That the teachers didn’t know. That the echoes of their voices don’t matter. And that if you show up each day to do the work, you won’t need anyone else to tell you anything. You will just be, by virtue of doing, an artist.

17) (I understand the ways in which it was easier for me than for most. I was raised with money. I was a white man at a time when that gave me a huge leg up. I had no college debt. I made money young. But none of that stops you from doing. It just made it easier for me).

Brian Kopelmann, twitter thread.

Wired for Struggle, Worthy of Love and Belonging

“…we perfect, most dangerously, our children. Let me tell you what we think about children. They’re hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say, “Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect — make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh.” That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” That’s our job.”

– Brené Brown

Too Much Time On Their Hands

When I was in college, and the nascent web first began to emerge on our computer screens, I’d breathlessly show a friend something I thought was exciting and, while acknowledging some novelty around the matter, said friend would respond that whoever was responsible had “too much time on their hands.”

It’s been long enough now that not only have these people emerged from a 90s style internet presence of anonymous handles and minimalist pages of text, they’ve grown up and gotten careers. Take Eve as an example – I had one of those crush/fascinations with her back then  because of her obsession with pi – she grew up to be a honcho at Google leading efforts on AI.

Paul Graham’s essay The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius is, for me, evocative of people like Eve. People who used to litter the web with interests like number theory, history, or pop culture. Granted, Paul’s essay describes something he calls “disinterested obsession” and how that is linked to discovery and work that is meaningful. In the essay he uses a high threshold for “genius” with examples like Darwin, Newton, and Ramanujan.

It is my belief that disinterested obsession in people; a love for something “… they’re not doing to impress us or to make themselves rich, but for its own sake” operates much closer to us in people who have successful and productive careers. Maybe it is the chemical engineer who loves Tolkien or the academic publisher who reviews comics – these are people who weren’t satisfied with dialing in perfunctory sociology papers on the fast track to mediocrity.

What I find myself thinking in reflection is how I’d like to encourage my kids to develop passions that go beyond validation of their peers and conventional recognition. I’m also inclined to think, for myself, how I can modify my own interests from many shallow hobbies into a few deep mine shafts. 

Anew, 2017

I’ve blogged on and off for many years. There was a time I would pad my years of experience but it is long gone; 19 years ago I came away from a job interview and played D-note Devotion at the maximum volume that my old Honda speakers could muster.

I am “self taught” – what that really means is that I built by intuition, read a lot of books, and did a lot of undirected experiments, learning more through failure than accolades. At that time my work was based in the Microsoft stack of technology. I graduated from basic web development to Visual Basic, then to Java, and spent the bulk of my professional life programming the .NET Framework. Three years ago I started working with Android and it has been my home since.

Beyond my professional life there are many other interests. I read like a hyena, scavenging through lots of material with what I hope is a vicious bite. I like games of strategy and skill, especially chess. I am a husband and father of two young boys.

My intent here is to rebuild that notion of an online presence. I will post on a variety of topics with the hope of finding a groove. I will not preempt myself by attempting to limit my scope early on. My first, and probably most “successful” (measured by the satisfaction I got writing) blog was all over the place. This is my attempt to rekindle that mess.