Silicon Beach: 5 People Making L.A. a New Tech Industry Capital
Los Angeles may be 350 miles south of Silicon Valley, but it's making strides to close the distance between the two in terms of sheer brain power and inventiveness (with a little bit of entertainment thrown in for good measure). Here are five people from our People issue helping to make that happen.
5. Caroline Roman and Lauren Brokaw: Gossip Girls
Before she ended up milking cows at a boarding school in Vermont, Caroline Roman cycled through the doors of numerous prestigious schools in Los Angeles: Buckley, John Thomas Dye, Harvard-Westlake, Beverly High. None of it prepared her well for college. She went to Boston University, her safety school, and between trips to Europe was an indifferent student.
But her private-school upbringing gave her an elaborate network of friends. And that led to her current calling.
Roman, 35, is an online chronicler of the social life of L.A.'s Westside. Her website, the Daily Truffle, covers fashion, parties and politics from a native's perspective. Having grown up with the children of moguls and celebrities, Roman reports on their milieu with an insider's grasp.
"L.A. is notoriously a tough town to crack," she says. "We're hitting hard targets."
Roman launched the site in February 2009, intending it for her friends from school. She brought in a co-editor, Lauren Brokaw (Beverly Hills High School '03), to write fashion reports, and they quickly built a reputation as keen observers of L.A. social hierarchies.
Roman recently garnered exclusive access to fund-raisers for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney -- closed to the press. At Romney's event, she noticed that dots on name tags got attendees into the "in room." At the Obama fund-raiser, pink wristbands signified VIP status.
The site has a fondness for velvet ropes, routinely covering invitation-only parties and fashion events and chronicling unauthorized VIP tours at Disneyland. (There's a secret, members-only restaurant called Club 33. Who knew?) They also tap a network of high school student correspondents to lift the veil on L.A.'s private schools. Last year, the site dished about each school's prom. One scoop: Harvard-Westlake forced students to sign a pledge not to buy tickets to after-parties, after students drank too much at one following a semi-formal and were taken to the hospital.
They love to detail events where products are foisted on elite "influencers." A current favorite is Mulberry, a British handbag maker that attracts A-list stars to its hotel parties. (Sample: "I think Mulberry's creative director, Emma Hill, is a major genius/god.")
For obvious reasons, they're sensitive to charges of elitism. "When you talk about rich people and the things they can buy, it can get into an area where people don't want to hear about it, and I get it," Roman says. But, she says, she hopes to offer a bit of demystification, like breaking down the "true costs" of being a Beverly Hills housewife.
It's a tricky balance, and Roman and Brokaw realize they often act like publicists rather than journalists.
"All these people wouldn't want press anywhere near them, judging them," Roman says of the site, which describes itself with the tagline, "The press you invite when you don't want press."
"We never really judge. We're not going to go into an Obama event and talk shit about him."
At its best, their site allows outsiders to glimpse another world while giving insiders a sense of community.
"There's a conglomerate of schools where everyone went to the same house parties and everyone dated the same people," Roman says. "Wherever I go, there they all are." --Gene Maddaus
4. Dan Goods: Thinking Outside the Lab
Standing in his studio at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Dan Goods places a small cube of gel in a visitor's hand. He looks the visitor in the eye.
Then he gets out the blowtorch.
"Trust me," he says with a grin.
The flame hits the translucent cube, but there's no heat coming through the cube's bottom. When the flame is extinguished and you pass your hand over the top, it's barely warm.
As an artist who works with space engineers, Goods gets to gobble up scientific data and create digestible tidbits -- and make art come alive. That means playing with substances like this aerogel, a baffling material made of 99.8 percent air, which is used as insulation from heat in spacesuits and in the Mars rovers. It's also the stuff used to collect dust from a comet being studied. Goods has used the substance to create smoke-like light displays in two exhibitions, one at JPL and another at the Technorama Museum in Switzerland.
He is used to generating some awe. With his quick movements and child-like sense of "wow, that's cool," Goods isn't exactly a typical lab employee. For nearly a decade, he has been JPL's only "visual strategist" -- and, in fact, the only visual artist working as a regular employee at any NASA center. He has crafted installations about finding planets around other stars, including one where he drilled a hole into a grain of sand, and another, at Pasadena's Museum of California Art, showing what it might be like to explore the surface of Jupiter.
One of Goods' roles is to help scientists and engineers harness their idea-generating energy -- that's why he has set up brainstorming communal spaces for them, including Left Field, which looks like a preschool playroom crossed with a robotics lab. The furniture is modular, and shelves are packed with play enhancers like Legos and pipe cleaners. The process of taking things from abstraction to a concrete idea works in both art and science, he explains.
Goods also launches independent art projects outside the lab. He recently was preparing to install a huge, data-driven sculpture at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, as well as a dynamic "digital mirror" for a BMW store in Paris.
His work often returns to the themes of science and challenging materials. Inspiration is everywhere. While Styrofoam computer packing may be a nuisance, for Goods it might also be an opportunity to build robots. He hopes that engineers who see such creations will be inspired to think outside the box.
"I can give them a different perspective or help them communicate what they're doing," he reflects. "Sometimes, I can see the bigger picture, and I can help remind the scientists of why they're doing it."
Asking questions and creating wonder at a place like JPL is just part of the artist's job. --Katharine Gammon
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3. Bill Simmons: He Writes, He Scores
Bill Simmons has lost 15 pounds. He's sleeping less. His hair has gone gray. All for a website. "It's more work than I thought it was going to be," he says.
Last June, Simmons raised eyebrows by starting Grantland, an ambitious sports and pop culture site, named for legendary sports reporter Grantland Rice. It's a literary, experimental subdivision of ESPN.com, with a quarterly print journal and contributions from such nonfiction-writing hiperati as Chuck Klosterman and Malcolm Gladwell.
The 42-year-old Simmons is in jeans and a dark blue polo, sitting in his new office in the L.A. Live complex, which looks like a dorm room on move-in day -- a phone on the ground here, a Boston Celtics hat there. The place is meant as a staff hangout -- Simmons writes his column from coffee shops. That column, often topping 6,000 words, made him the definitive sportswriter of the Internet age. It's written not as a fly on the wall but with the subjective passion of a fan, often answering reader questions and drawing meaning from a single free throw in a Celtics-Lakers Game 5 with a kind of Talmudic fervor.
Simmons built a following writing as "The Boston Sports Guy" for AOL in the 1990s before jumping to ESPN.com. He came to L.A. in 2002 to write for Jimmy Kimmel's then-brand-new ABC late-night show, which, he says, "was kind of like going to the pros" (yes, he talks in sports metaphors).
His favorite contribution to JKL was when John Kerry was asked if he'd googled himself, and Simmons suggested they run the clip with "googled" bleeped out, leading to Kimmel's still-recurring "unnecessary censorship" bit. "I always bust his balls saying I came up with it, and he says it's his idea because I worked for him," Simmons says.
But he was doing 14-hour days while still writing his column, and he found it hard to keep up on sports. "I just could feel it slipping," he says. "It felt like I was going to start faking it soon."
He had to choose, and he chose the column.
He likes watching sports three hours earlier here, though he notices how "bandwagon-y it is, with stuff like when Manny Ramirez took off in 2008," he says, or when the Clippers got hot in January. That's typical of cities with warm weather as a distraction but especially true in mercurial Hollywood.
Still, the entertainment industry makes L.A. an ideal place for Grantland's merging of sports and pop culture, in pieces like a March Madness-style bracket to find the greatest character from The Wire.
While ad sales and human resources are distractions, Simmons likes his new role as a coach, helping a young writer like Katie Baker shape what he thinks is the best hockey column around. He recently scored an interview with President Obama for his wildly popular podcast, The B.S. Report.
Simmons doesn't monitor Grantland's web traffic much, preferring to trust that people want to read something good. "Something that I finish," he says. "It's really hard to get people to finish stuff on the Internet." --Zachary Pincus-Roth
2. Jenna Marbles: The YouTube Star
One Friday in July 2010, Jenna Mourey drove home from her job at a tanning salon in Boston; she had to shower and change for her night gig as a go-go dancer. As she walked into her apartment, she decided to film herself getting ready.
She enjoyed go-go dancing (getting paid to dance -- in flats!). But she had a master's degree from Boston University in sports psychology and counseling. Her life was, as she says, "ridiculous."
"I went to school, tried really hard, did everything I was supposed to do, and now, like, what the fuck is this mess I'm in right now?" the 25-year-old recalls thinking. "I'm going to work dancing in my underwear, making myself look like a whore on purpose."
That night she edited together a video called "How to Trick People Into Thinking You're Good-Looking" and posted it on YouTube. By the time she got to her night gig, the other dancers had already passed it around Facebook. It has since been watched 38 million times.
Jenna Marbles, as she now calls herself, eventually started posting weekly to her YouTube channel, which has 2.9 million subscribers (No. 6 on the site), and almost half a billion views. Most of her fans are teenage girls, who relate to her foul-mouthed, brutally straightforward comedy sketches on the plight of young womanhood.
Her video "How to Avoid Talking to People You Don't Want to Talk To," for example, was inspired by a guy who was pestering her in a Rhode Island nightclub. She gave him a bizarre look -- picture a scared clown -- and didn't say a thing. The technique spread among her female fans, to the point where the creepy guys now know what it is and give it back. Articles about "the face" painted her as some kind of YouTube feminist but, like most entertainers, her process is instinctual. "I fucking hate that," she says. "They're giving me way too much credit."
From Jenna's video "How to trick people into thinking you're good looking"
L.A. is a magnet for successful YouTubers, so in September Marbles moved from Boston with her boyfriend to a three-story townhouse on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. She'll meet with production companies ("Those are so stupid") and occasionally audition ("I'm terrible"), but traditional Hollywood doesn't yet know what to do with her, and she already probably makes six figures from YouTube ad revenue.
Marbles' power has started to dawn on her. She's often recognized while hanging out with her boyfriend on the Santa Monica Pier. One fan who has cancer emailed her to say that she watched Marbles' videos from her bed, and her mom cried because it was the first time she had seen her daughter laugh in months.
But despite her success, Marbles still films her videos with her laptop camera in her bedroom, which, one recent day, was littered with T-shirts and shampoo bottles. Her weekly deadline is Wednesday at sundown, as her only light source is the window.
"The way I work is not necessarily effective," she says. "It's pretty messed up." --Zachary Pincus-Roth
1. Adam Lisagor: The Video Guru
If you've been to the website of a buzzy new tech startup in the last few years -- Groupon, Airbnb, Square -- chances are you've seen the work of Adam Lisagor. Not just his short videos, which are passed around the Internet to promote and teach you how to use these products, but also Lisagor himself, the 34-year-old creative director who stars in them. He's the guy in the thick-rimmed glasses and frizzy beard, an uber-accessible Everyman who walks you through a complicated idea with refreshingly deadpan yet thoroughly earnest delivery.
"The purpose of the videos is to make the information exciting," he says. The result is somewhere between a Michel Gondry movie and an OK Go music video: highly visual, rich with metaphor, giddily clever.
A video for a new app called Mixel, for example, features a multicultural cast sitting on a brownstone stoop, building and sharing iPad collages, as their primary-colored creations interact in the air over their heads.
It often looks a lot like good children's television -- which he takes as a compliment. "What is Sesame Street if not simple but respectful of kids' intelligence?" he asks.
Lisagor grew up in Camarillo and spent Thanksgivings with relatives such as David and Jerry Zucker of Airplane! fame. He was most influenced by their Kentucky Fried Movie. "I used to watch it pretty much nightly," he says. "It's sketch-based, but each sketch is a short film in itself, whether it's an educational film or a kung fu movie or commercials."
After Lisagor graduated from film school at New York University, he worked in commercial production and visual effects. He had given up on his dream of becoming a director, when, in 2009, he created his own iPhone app -- Birdhouse, which lets you compose and save ideas before posting them to Twitter -- and made a video to promote it, in his Silver Lake backyard. It was surreal, goofy, smart -- like nothing else online. Tech companies started calling.
Now, from his Arts District studio, Lisagor hand-picks clients, who range from the fledgling, L.A.-based Small Demons, which catalogs cultural references in books, to at least one big-box retailer (which can't be revealed until the deal is inked). He also produces his own content: the falling-down-funny podcast You Look Nice Today, and the men's fashion web series Put This On. And he has 34,000 followers on Twitter, where he can lob one-liners: "Flying on an airline without Wi-Fi is like sleeping over at a friend's house that doesn't have Nintendo."
While Lisagor's personality adds an authenticity that a slick agency can't provide, there's another reason for his success: He makes videos only for what he believes to be truly great products. (Those glasses? The Warby Parker frames he pitches.)
"I try to work with clients who have the right motivations," he says. How does he know? "You get a feeling," but Lisagor also has another indicator: "It's always disappointing when they use the word viral. It crushes my dreams." --Alissa Walker
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