Laura Marling and her band took a break from SXSW and invited the On The Road crew to crash their Air BnB rental near Zilker Park for an intimate and fast-paced acoustic version of her song “Strange.”
Wondering what’s going on at SXSW Music Conference? Turn on your radio and find out.
KXT 91.7 is broadcasting live until 6 p.m. There’s a huge lineup of bands, including Gang of Four, Ryan Bingham, Twin Shadow and more.
And don’t forget to check out our coverage of the music conference. There are some mighty awesome photos up now.
With thousands of concerts, parties and impromptu performances to see at South by Southwest this weekend, how do you sort through the noise? Mark Abuzzahab, Program Director at our sister station KXT, is in Austin. He talked to me about a mother-son act, a Fort Worth singer on the brink of big things and other acts he’s looking forward to.
- Follow the sights and sounds in Austin this weekend at KXT@SXSW, our special site devoted to the music conference.
- Tune in to KXT 91.7 from noon to six Friday for the live broadcast from the Public Radio Stage at South by Southwest
- Listen to the interview that aired on KERA FM
Who are some of the bands we may not have heard of that you are excited to see?
Some of the movies playing next month’s Dallas International Film Festival have been screening in Austin over the last few days during South by Southwest. The Big Screen team is just back from covering the festival, and this week we’re talking about films we saw there that will soon play here.
Hundreds of features, documentaries and shorts screened at the film portion of South by Southwest this weekend. KERA’s Stephen Becker couldn’t quite see them all. But he did chat with me about some of the highlights.
Listen to our interview, which aired on KERA FM.
More South by Southwest Film coverage from Stephen:
- Behind the Scenes at “House of Cards”
- David Gordon Green won’t be pinned down
- Evel Knievel lives on
- Ava Duvernay, motivational speaker
- Exploring the limits of free speach in “Welcome to Leith”
Any overarching themes that you saw at the film conference this year?
SB: Well, the real takeaway for me was just how strong the documentaries were this year.
New tech start-ups piled into Austin this weekend, all of them hoping to grab a foothold in the crowded digital marketplace. Alan Melson, KERA’s Vice President of Digital Media, has been blogging from the South by Southwest Interactive Conference. We chatted about the trends that were really grabbing attention.
Listen to this report, which aired on KERA FM
Other posts from Alan Melson at SXSW
- For computers, our evolving language can get lost in translation.
- How kids change the way we design apps for adults
- New art trends influenced by biology and tech
You’ve had a busy weekend with hundreds of panels and demonstrations. Is there anything rising up that everybody is talking about?
Well, Anne, besides the usual marketing blitz, complaints about Austin traffic and the ongoing quest for the perfect breakfast taco, a term that keeps coming up again and again is the “Internet of Things” – the idea that more and more objects, like your watch or your thermostat, can connect to the Internet to either send or receive data that will make your life easier. Conference director Hugh Forrest estimated that over 70 sessions this year somehow referenced this concept.
If you ask a large group of people if they’ve used natural language processing before, you’re likely to get a collective question mark in response.
But ask the same crowd if they’ve asked Siri a question on their iPhones, as Howard Lau and Farzad Ehsani did at this past weekend’s SXSW session “Lost In Translation: Slang, Search and Social”, and you’ll probably see a decent show of hands.
Apple’s Siri technology is just one example of how natural language processing (NLP), the field of study and development concerned with the interaction between computers and human linguistics, has been put to work in real-world applications. Lau and Ehsani, who lead companies working on different aspects of the technology, explained why it’s an exciting and maddening area of software design because of the complexity of meaning and tone in the language we use.
“The more a word is used, the more ambiguous it becomes,” said Lau, CEO of Attensity, which provides data analytics – including social media monitoring – for large companies. “You need other words around it to disambiguate it.”
Computers have gotten much better at speech recognition over the past decade, and there are plenty of examples across a spectrum of products where that technology is now being used. However, Lau said uniquely human characteristics of language present a tremendous challenge for programmers. Emotion is hard to convey, for example, and slang is ever-evolving; words take on very different meanings based on geography and a number of other factors.
“Language is fundamentally tribal, meaning that we exist in special interest groups – training groups, professional groups, social groups, generational groups,” he said. “ … Language marks who is in our tribe, and who isn’t.”
Ehsani, whose company Fluential builds a health and wellness smartphone app with speech recognition functionality, said there have typically been two different methods for NLP: Following a set of clearly-defined rules for how language works, or throwing a ton of data at a machine so it “learns” how language works. He said the current approach favors using both.
“There are 40 different rules on how to pluralize in English,” he said. “That’s a lot for a human to learn, but easier for a machine if you give it enough examples.”
The pair cited IBM’s Watson machine, which famously won on Jeopardy, as a great example of how NLP was paired with artificial intelligence to achieve an astonishing ability to interpret human language. Similar applications are now found in Siri and other similar consumer speech-recognition interfaces.
However, the amount of new linguistic data to parse through is staggering. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years, Lau said, and the majority was unsorted text. His firm continues to try new methods for interpreting slang while tracking how its clients are talked about online.
“Social media is only one component – there are also e-mail logs, customer service notes, press releases, financial statements and more,” he said. “All these need to come together in a common model for analysis and interpretation.”
Lau and Ehsani said the future will bring even more ways in which NLP is applied in daily use. New languages are the next frontier; although the majority of work to date has been done in English, they said the research is going global, from companies building speech recognition platforms in China to work by the U.S. Department of Defense on Arabic recognition technologies.
Still, the constant evolution of how we communicate will always present a challenge for companies as they work to develop machines that can do a better job of understanding it.
“There are two parts to NLP: language and technology,” Lau said. “The language part doesn’t get enough attention.”
AUSTIN – The first thought in Beau Willimon’s head each morning is, “I’m going to die.”
Willimon is the show runner for House of Cards – basically the guy who guides the ship. And reminding himself of his mortality actually frees his mind up creatively. That’s because, for him, creativity is about failure. Of a thousand ideas he has for the show, maybe five will be good by his estimation, and two might be original. The rest are all failures. And when you fail that often, it’s healthy to remember that at least you’re not dying in those moments.
Sunday afternoon, Willimon guided a packed hotel ballroom full of budding writers and directors through his process for creating House of Cards, which just released its third season on Netflix last month.
A major topic of discussion was diversity – specifically, how a show can portray a diverse array of experiences in an honest and real way. What frustrates Willimon is when he sees a television show or movie in which, say, a minority character is really just a token.
“We’ll make the judge black, because that way we’re gonna show this very smart, powerful, intelligent person sitting behind the bench who’s African American,” he said. “OK, but you’re creating a symbol or a cypher. You’re not actually writing a character. That in its own way is another form of neglect.”
He takes the same rigorous approach to diversity with his female characters. Since the beginning, Claire Underwood has been positioned as her husband’s equal. And in the new season, presidential hopefuls Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp go toe-to-toe with the president and don’t back down.
Which doesn’t mean that his characters are genderless.
“Claire has hot flashes. That’s a real thing. It would be really weird if Frank had hot flashes,” he joked.
The trick is not allowing the gender-specific aspects of the characters to define them.
“One should not reduce that character to those experiences. So if her only story – or her main story – was parimenopause, then we’d be sort of reductive in relegating this female character to something that only a woman can experience. It’s much more interesting if that’s just a real part of her life that we touch upon because it’s happening, but it doesn’t drive her story.”
Another topic during the session was how the show balances its real-world feel while playing in what’s, essentially, an alternate universe. Barak Obama isn’t the president in House of Cards, etc. That makes viewers wonder about the more ripped-from-the-headlines plot points. For example, Season 3 has a major Russian storyline.
But as Willimon reminded us, those scripts get cooking a year before we see the episodes.
“When we started working on that storyline, my biggest fear was that nobody would care about Russia, because Russia wasn’t in the news,” he said. “Eerily, as we were filming Season 3, Ukraine and Crimea happened.”
A similar thing happened with a Season 2 storyline about sexual assault in the military.
“We’re not prophets – we don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “We’re participating in the same zeitgeist that you guys are. And if you’re just open and absorbent, sometimes you stumble upon things without even realizing it that everyone cares about but just doesn’t know it yet.”
Other odds and ends:
Willimon grew up in St. Louis and had the same 7th grade acting teacher as Jon Hamm and Ellie Kemper. … In the original British version of the show, the main character is named Francis Urquhart – a name that was a little too Scottish for the American show. So Willimon changed the character’s last name to Underwood because, well, it was fitting to keep the same initials. … As for a Season 4 – all Willimon would say is no formal announcement has been made yet.
AUSTIN – The conference room that David Gordon Green’s doing interviews in looks like the one in Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back. The one where Lando hands Han over to Vader.
“I actually just showed my 4-year-olds the trilogy for the first time,” Green says. “We played Ewoks this morning.”
Green’s latest film probably won’t play quite as well with the kids. Manglehorn stars Al Pacino as a man so fixated on a lost love that he’s blind to the real family and friends all around him. It’s another tough-to-categorize film from a man whose entire career is hard to sum up. Ten years ago, the Richardson native and Austin resident was an indie darling with George Washington and Snow Angels. Five years ago, he was the king of the stoner comedy with Pineapple Express and Your Highness. And lately, he’s focused on men grappling with their past selves in Joe and now Manglehorn.
“I like to surprise myself. People like to think a director has a particular signature – I’m Alfred Hitchcock and I direct thrillers. Or I’m M. Night Shyamalan and I do this other thing,” he says. “And in a lot of ways, it’s a good business model if you can have that signature. But I don’t have the attention span just to do the same thing.”
One film he hasn’t made yet is one for kids. With those twins in the house, he says it’s not out of the question.
“I have one idea that I’ve been chewing on, but every time I start writing it, it ends up too melancholy for children I think,” he says. “Every time I start doing it, it ends up like The Straight Story – which is a beautiful movie. But you kinda engineer something for a G-rated audience and it ends up more for old people.”
Look for more here from our interview about Manglehorn and directing one of the screen’s all-time icons a little closer to the movie’s June release.
AUSTIN – Saturday night, two guys in their mid-40s sitting a couple seats down spent the better part of the movie we were watching high fiving each other, trading thumbs ups and generally acting like a couple of joyful 1970s teenagers. It was actually adorable.
The credit for their bliss goes to Being Evel, a documentary about daredevil Robert “Evel” Knievel that is playing SXSW after debuting earlier this year at Sundance. The movie charts Knievel from his days evading the law in his hometown of Butte, Mont., through his rise to stardom and ultimate fall from grace. Sprinkled throughout are plenty of sweet motorcycle jumps.
Knievel’s darker days – in which he drank heavily, ran around on his wife, berated the constant media hordes and even served time for beating a promoter with a baseball bat – also get fair treatment.
“Our memory of him is so kinetic and action-oriented,” director Daniel Junge said after the screening. “He was a hero to me as a kid like he was to so many of our generation. But as I grew up, we learn that our heroes are sometimes less than heroic. … So this film, 35 years later, is a way of trying reconcile that childhood image with the person I came to know as an adult.”
The time that’s passed since Knievel’s prime has allowed for some perspective on his popularity. In the age of disillusionment over Vietnam and Nixon’s lies to the country, Knievel was all truth. Whether he landed the jump or not, what you saw was what you got.
Being Evel is also a reminder of what a true pioneer and showman Knievel was. With his white jumpsuit and cape, he was Liberace on wheels. And in hindsight, it does seem truly crazy just how much he made it up as he went along. His first big stunt, in which he jumped the fountains at Caesar’s Palace, was just a hunch he had that he could do it. And he almost did, until his tire clipped the ramp on the other side, sending him skidding like a rag doll 60 feet. That one caused a pair of broken ankles, a broken wrist and plenty of scratches and bruises.
But it’s Knievel’s fearlessness and willingness to give it a go that’s inspired everything from skateboarders to Jackass. Without him, there’d probably be no X Games. As someone says in the film – no one wanted to see him die, but they sure didn’t want to miss it if he did. ABC’s Wide World of Sports never missed a chance to show his latest stunt.
“As kids, we didn’t really care if he made it or not – it was about the attempt,” Junge said.
All of his big attempts are here – his failed rocket-propelled trip over the Snake River Canyon, the time he just missed clearing 13 double-decker buses in front of 80,000 in Wembly Stadium. They’re the stunts that inspired people like those guys in the audience to set up a couple of small ramps on their streets to see if they could jump their BMXs over their buddies.
Sometimes you made it, sometimes you didn’t. Either way, you had a story to tell in the lunchroom on Monday.