|Brad Stone Interview||UserPreferences
Inkwell welcomes Brad Stone, author of the new book _Gearheads_ (http://www.gearheadsthebook.com/), in which he covers the history robotic sports. Steven Levy says "On the surface _Gearheads_ is a book about robots - fearsome, heavily armed, and in some cases highly illegal machines, and the talented mechanical artists who build them. But secretly, it's also a deeply moving narrative about dreams, and how they're dashed."
Brad Stone has been writing for Newsweek since 1995. As a general assignment correspondent for the magazine, he covered the 1998 Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa homerun chase, the infamous serial killer nurse case in Indiana, and the jury deliberations in the Timothy McVeigh trial.
Since 1998, as the magazine's Silicon Valley correspondent, Stone has owned one of the best perches in the nation from which to cover the boom, bust, and rebirth of the high-tech economy. He has covered the Microsoft anti-trust trial, the Napster saga, the contentious HP merger with Compaq, and the proliferation of digital consumer devices.
In spring of 2000, Stone reported in Newsweek on a new kind of entrepreneurial activity whose focal point was north, not south, of San Francisco: the increasingly visible sport of robot competitions. His investigation into the Bay Area origins of the enthusiastic community of robot builders and artists led to the writing of Gearheads.
Stone has also written for Wired, More, and the Sunday Telegraph magazine. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, attorney Jennifer Granick, their cat, Mr. Boodles, and a variety of expensive and largely unnecessary robotic appliances and toys.
David Nunez (http://www.davidnunez.com) leads the discussion. David lives in Austin, Texas, where he specializes in connecting the computer technology industry with education, encouraging students to explore robots, multimedia, and computer games as sexy introductions and gateways to careers in engineering and IT. As Information Technology Cluster Director with The Capital Area Training Foundation in Austin, David facilitates relationships between high tech professionals and educators and works closely with multimedia, software, networking, and computer manufacturing companies in the Austin area. He encourages their collaboration among each other and with the K-14, post-secondary, and workforce development communities in Central Texas.
David is a member of the EFF-Austin Board of Directors, where he conducts programs that help students probe the ethical and social implications when developing and using technology. He also does community outreach and new-member recruitment, and he's secretary of the organization. More pertinent, David is EFF-Austin's liaison to the Austin-based Robot Group, and is planning a revival of Austin's infamous Robofest in a mission to delight the public with technology using both geeky and artistic demonstrations of technology.
As a member of The Central Texas National Engineers Week Steering Committee, David's responsibility is to help manage recruitment of engineers to work with students on engaging, hands-on projects (with names like "Gumdrop Dome" and "SLIME!")that demonstrate principles of Physics and Engineering. In his spare time, David is learning to build his own robotic art in his dark, twisted, dungeon of a garage.
inkwell.vue 181: Brad Stone, _Gearheads_ #1 of 38: David Nunez (davidnunez) Wed 23 Apr 2003 (01:00 PM)
Welcome, Brad... and welcome WELLians.
My personal email is email@example.com - I'll welcome your offline questions and feedback at any time in these two weeks...
However, please feel free to jump into the conversation, here, at any time, folks.
Brad, I'd like to start with a standard "Why did you write this book?" question. In particular, I know that you've written extensively about
However, could you please share what is about the Robotic Sports/Art/Combat story that appeals to you, personally?
inkwell.vue 181: Brad Stone, _Gearheads_ #2 of 38: Brad Stone (bradstone) Wed 23 Apr 2003 (06:07 PM)
I first got involved by attending all the local BattleBots and FIRST robot competitions in the year 2001 for an article in Newsweek. They were exhilerating, heart-pounding events, in different ways. At FIRST (Dean Kamen's competition for high schoolers) you just fed off the energy of the students. At BattleBots, the whole thing was an amazing spectacle: the destructive 300 pound robots battling, the roaring crowd, the vibrant community of tech and art-loving people from all walks of life...
But I probably would have lost interest after the article if it hadn't been for meeting Marc Thorpe. He was an ILM model maker for the Star Wars flicks, and the founder of robot combat. His event in the 90s was called "Robot Wars." But he got into bed with the wrong investor and ended up enduring years of litigation, bankruptcy and sickness. I saw it as a great American business tale, and in fact it mirrored alot of what was going on in Silicon Valley at the time in terms of founders losing control of their beloved creations. So thats what got me interested in telling that story in my first book... and of course, there were all these weird, brilliant characters (like Mark Pauline, the founder of the art group SRL, and Dean Kamen). I thought it could be a rich narrative.
inkwell.vue 181: Brad Stone, _Gearheads_ #3 of 38: David Nunez (davidnunez) Wed 23 Apr 2003 (07:42 PM)
You're right. The story behind the scenes was often more bombastic than the noise and drama of the robots, themselves!
(although I imagine nothing was noisier than Mark Pauline's pulsejets on bots like the Running Machine!)
"Losing control of their beloved creations" might be a theme for many people involved in these events. Marc Thorpe especially seemed a tragic figure whose creation grew up too quickly for its own good.
And then there's Mark Pauline and Survival Research Labs (SRL)...
Gearheads opens up with some vivid descriptions of the utter chaos of a live SRL show. SRL is world-renowned for their art happenings and has obtained quite a bit of fame even outside the geek world.
Unlike the other builders and promoters in the book, Mark seemed to WANT his art to get loose and out of control while he, and only he, held onto the reigns for dear life.
In fact, he never, throughout the story that unfolds in the rest of the book, chose to give up that power over his artistic vision to investors and television producers.
What is it about Pauline and SRL that allows his artistic vision to enjoy some mainstream success while avoiding the pitfalls of commercialization?
inkwell.vue 181: Brad Stone, _Gearheads_ #4 of 38: Brad Stone (bradstone) Fri 25 Apr 2003 (02:58 PM)
David, hmm, that's a tough one. I'm not so sure how really mainstream SRL got in the 80s and 90s. Certainly people in the art, technology and robotics worlds knew of them, and as Wired was celebrating the intersections of those fields in the 90s, its readers did as well. To the extent that SRL enjoyed mainstream success, it was because its shows were true spectacles and completely unique. No one forgets the time they show up in the dead of night to an abandoned industrial lot, get their eardrums blown out and nearly die in a hailstorm of flaming animal carcasses...
As for how Pauline was able to avoid the pitfalls of commercialization, it's simple because he avoided it. Whenever anyone approached him about using SRL photos or video, he refused and went after them if they did it anyway. Filmmakers asked him about using SRL bots in their work and he demanded ridiculous control over their projects in return. He simply had no interest in that stuff. And he's stubborn as a mule.
In the book I try to juxtapose Pauline with Marc Thorpe. Pauline enjoyed being the bad guy outside of mass culture. Thorpe adapted some of SRL's ideas, scaled them down and opened them up to garage tinkerers. He wanted to generate a mass phenomenon and build a business on top of it. Unfortunately he got roasted in the process, partly because of his own naivete... Incidentally, I really grew to like and respect both guys during my research. At the Gearheads book party a week ago at Fort Mason, they were reintroduced to each other after nearly 10 years and buried the hatchet which resulted from their financial dispute in 1994.
inkwell.vue 181: Brad Stone, _Gearheads_ #5 of 38: David Nunez (davidnunez) Fri 25 Apr 2003 (04:19 PM)
It sounds then that Mark and Marc had different missions, as well...
One was pure art and politics while the other was taking the geek mainstream and making some $$$ to boot?
When you met last met with them, how were these guys interpreting the progress in accomplishing their missions through their chosen medium, robots?
inkwell.vue 181: Brad Stone, _Gearheads_ #6 of 38: Alex Mead (vamead) Fri 25 Apr 2003 (05:06 PM)
I appreciate Jon L. sending review copy, which I devoured over last 2 days. This is a delightful and insightful book with a lot of deep issues at its core. Here is nascent review, with some beginning thoughts:
The belligerent prehistoric primates confronting each other in Stanley Kubrick's "2001 - A Space Odyssey" are initially just screeching and raucously jumping up and down to intimidate each other, but it's all sort of comical -- no one gets hurt. Then, perhaps influenced by the presence of a perfect black cuboid that ominously appears (coming from whence, some higher race of beings?), one primate picks up a massive dessicated animal femur, which we see will make an excellent club, and we know the course of prehistory is about to change -- Weaponry has been invented. Zoom forward 100K years and we see the results of coevolution of weapon and its bearer, high technology man exploring space in vast complex machines, some of which have their own synthetic intelligence and self-awareness. Kubrick's powerful 1968 film continues to resonate with us, decades later, as a testament to our composite and conflicted nature, rooted in the belligerent primate, but also striving toward subtle states of feeling and awareness, felt in the movie's music and those strange, incomprehensible final sequences, musing on life, death, and the unknown.
So, we may not particularly _like_ the fact that some deep primeval stratum within us revels in combat, seeing our enemies routed, overrun, dismembered, bloodied -- hearing that "our troops" have taken the enemy city, blown their leader to bits! If we're thoughtful, we may be a little embarrassed to admit that we can spend countless passive hours watching the sanitized rituals of individual physical combat (fencing, boxing, or wrestling) and the even more abstract ritualized forms of group combat (football, baseball, soccer, polo).
Really, aren't we loftier creatures than that? Could we really be amused by watching two mechanical devices, being remotely controlled by their "Gearhead" human builders, thrash around and try to destroy each other? Good grief! And could this sort of thing remotely be called Art? What sort of pathological minds would assemble a bunch of steam-shovel size machines to hurl flames and 2x4 lumber at each other, mangle each other and everything in sight, and subject their audience (those oh so edgy onlookers) to real physical hazards? Shouldn't we at least _try_ to cultivate our higher, socially responsible natures, and encourage our youngsters to learn about technology in ways that foster constructive creative thinking and cooperation?
Yeah ... I suppose that's right