Thank you, thank you, Roger Ebert

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I’d like to share some of my personal memories with Roger Ebert upon hearing of his passing this morning:

• Witnessing a slightly tipsy Roger break out into a broadway song medley at the piano during the close of one of his Ebertfests. Thank you, Roger, for inviting me to take part of your personal movie extravaganza that you shared with your fans.

• Sharing a conversation on the beach with him in Bahamas while on his “Ebert & Roeper Sea Cruise”. He seemed a fantastic, loving step-grandfather and babysitter to his rambunctious grandkids. Chaz was wearing our bright orange “FRESH” tomato t-shirt and said it was her favorite and most comfortable shirt. 🙂

• Sharing an afternoon with Roger in Seattle the week before the debilitating surgery that would take away him away from the TV screen. While we never did get to complete our partnership deal that would have provided spotlights of the Tomatometer and Roger’s reviews on our respective web sites, he remained hopeful and supportive of the possibilities of our online media.

• I messaged him with a photo of his face emblazoned on a big billboard in the middle of a very busy intersection in Beijing which he found unbelievable and wished he could have explored China more.

ebert

• And, of course, my childhood memories of my favorite “Siskel & Ebert” moments, particularly he brawl over Eddie Murphy “Raw” (sorry, Roger, I agree with Gene on this one), “The Untouchables” (again, agree with Gene), “Hoop Dreams”, “My Dinner with Andre”, and “Dark City”.

It’s not often that you get to meet your childhood hero and I feel blessed for having met and received frequent words of support from a hero of mine.

Thank you, Roger. I watched you and Gene every weekend during my childhood and you inspired me and many of my generation with your enthusiasm and eloquence, elevating not just film criticism, but of all of film.

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Alive.cn covered in the press and my podcast interview

It’s been a radical summer building out Alive.cn. It’s been a while since I’ve been back to the nuts and bolts of startup life doing everything from programming to hiring to sales to taking out the trash. I’ve had my partners Patrick and Raffi living in my two bedroom apartment for weeks as we rapidly build out the new service together. Guess who gets stuck on the couch…

To that end, it’s good to finally see some coverage of Alive.cn in the press. First, here’s an article that Raffi did with Marketing Interactive introducing the new service.

In addition, I just did a podcast chat with CRI radio host John Artman about my entrepreneurial experiences. His own podcast is just getting started so the talk is all about “startups”. The chat is about an hour long — not sure who in the world is interested in hearing me blabber for that long, but if you wait till the end, you WILL get to hear my billion dollar new startup ideas.

Download: Podcast interview with John Artman

Checkout more China internet talks with John Artman

 

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An inspiring story from Pixar’s Oren Jacob

A great story on Techcrunch today regarding Oren Jacob, a former CTO of one of my favorite companies in the world, Pixar:

“… In the winter of 1991, Pixar had some major layoffs and the company shrank to less than 40 people. Oren was still an intern at the time and had attended both the “you’re being laid off” meeting and the “you are the few who are staying” meeting and decided he liked the latter one better. He went home for the rest of the week, didn’t attend any exit interviews, didn’t turn in any keycards and just showed up for work the next week to a company that was now focused solely on animation.

The guy who dealt with keycards never deactivated his key. Oren kept showing up. Folks were surprised to see him in the hallway, but he played it cool and nobody raised a fuss. Many months later, paychecks started showing up in his box again and continued for 20+ years. Over those 20 years Oren worked obsessively hard and rose through the ranks of the company to CTO.”

Here’s a guy who is passionate and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The story of how he got INTO Pixar is equally amusing. Plus, he was inspired to get into animation and join Pixar at the SAME “Spike and Mike’s” animation festival screening of Pixar’s early short “Tin Toy” that my middle brother and I attended way back in 1988. My brother has gone on to do movies … I’m equally passionate (if not more) about movies as I am about online startups but I guess I took a different fork in the road than he did when I went to college…

Incidentally, way back in the very early days of Rotten Tomatoes, we used to monitor our incoming traffic on movie release days to see if we had any online visits from the studios. This was even before Rotten Tomatoes was a real company and was just a hobby site that our partner Senh was working on and I helped to host and provide technical assistance. One of my fond memories was during the release of “A Bug’s Life” when we noticed a flood of visitors with Internet IP addresses from Pixar visiting the site. What was funny would be that we could see these same visitors would continually hit “refresh” on the Rotten Tomatoes reviews page for “A Bug’s Life” meaning that they were even more obsessed about the Tomatometer score than we were. What a thrill for our “newborn” web site. At the time Senh, who came up with the idea for Rotten Tomatoes, was pulling all-nighters just to keep the site up-to-date with the latest reviews, but we were all pretty excited when we saw the Pixar visits. Being huge Pixar fans, we had bought tickets in advance to see the film on opening night at Oakland’s Jack London Square AMC theater. I guess the excitement was too much for Senh because he fell asleep right in the middle of the movie — not an indicator of the quality of the movie… he was just was too tired from pulling an all-nighter collecting reviews for the movie the night before.

Anyways, Pixar was in Richmond at the time and would eventually move to become our neighbors in Emeryville and we would go over there to visit our friends and ex-coworkers there on occasion. The most memorable visit was to award Brad Bird the Golden Tomato award for “The Incredibles“.

Go Pixar!

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mongoDB Beijing: My presentation on alive.cn and building a new entertainment database

While I’m still relatively new to mongoDB, I’m taking the opportunity to give some insights on building a new multi-lingual, comprehensive entertainment database using linked open data. The presentation will go through an evolution starting with the early days of Rotten Tomatoes when we assembled the movie information manually to my current efforts with Alive.cn.

I wanted to invite technically-minded Beijing folks again to a presentation that I’m doing on Thursday at the mongoDB conference. While I’m still relatively new to mongoDB, I’m taking the opportunity to give some insights on building a new multi-lingual, comprehensive entertainment database using linked open data. The presentation will go through an evolution starting with the early days of Rotten Tomatoes when we assembled the movie information manually to my current efforts with Alive.cn.

mongoDB Beijing Conference (Thursday, March 3)

I’m still not certain yet whether I’m going to deliver my presentation in English or in Chinese. Obviously, I’m much more comfortable speaking English, but would like to make sure that the audience is getting the message correctly. In any case, I’ve presented both English and Chinese versions of the presentation below. I decided to go with a movie theme in the visuals throughout the presentation to keep things in line with my “entertainment database” topic.

Looks like some of the presentation fonts and layout didn’t get transferred too well with the upload to SlideShare, but you can get the general gist below:

Building a super database from linked data

用互相关联的数据创建超级数据库

Anyone care to share some tips on presenting at a conference?

P.S. Thanks to Terry, our awesome UI/UX Engineer for helping me translate the slides and also, of course, for the awesome still-in-progress design work on alive.cn.

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My Top Films of 2010

Below is my list of my favorite films of 2010. The list is all over the place (reflecting my diverse taste in films). Unfortunately, I didn’t really watch any Chinese films this year that caught my fancy.

My guess for which film will get Best Picture at the Oscars tonight? “Black Swan”

I know a lot of people are pulling for “The Social Network” to win, but in my estimation, the subject matter is not very appealing to the aging Academy voters (don’t forget, 50%+ are over the age of 60). On the other hand, I can also imagine “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan” splitting the older voter’s vote and “The Social Network” being the choice of the younger voters. Also, “The King’s Speech” won the PGA Award which is a pretty predictable indicator of who will win the Oscars. Okay, I admit, I really don’t know who is going to win.

Nonetheless, take a moment and glance at my personal list of favorites:

  1. [amazon_link id=”B0036TGTDO” target=”_blank” ]Blue Valentine [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] Blue Valentine (Tomatometer: 88%): It’s a pity that this small, but beautifully acted, shot, directed, and edited film didn’t get more acclaim. It’s a simple film chronicling the travails of a relationship, but done in such a novel and well-acted way.
  2. [amazon_link id=”B0042KZJIM” target=”_blank” ]Restrepo [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] Restrepo (Tomatometer: 96%): More gripping and moving than any action film this year. This documentary following the peril of a U.S. army battalion in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley is a must-see.
  3. [amazon_link id=”B0041KKYEW” target=”_blank” ]Black Swan [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] Black Swan (Tomatometer: 88%): I loved The Wrestler, but more for Mickey Rourke’s acting than for any directorial skill. I feel like Arronfsky has finally achieved the directorial promise that he had shown, but not fulfilled in his prior films.
  4. [amazon_link id=”B00275EHJQ” target=”_blank” ]Toy Story 3 [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] Toy Story 3 (Tomatometer: 99%)
  5. [amazon_link id=”B003L20ICO” target=”_blank” ]The Kids Are All Right [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] The Kids Are All Right (Tomatometer: 94%)
  6. [amazon_link id=”B002ZG981E” target=”_blank” ]Inception (Two-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] Inception (Tomatometer: 86%)
  7. [amazon_link id=”B0034G4P7Q” target=”_blank” ]The Social Network (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] The Social Network (Tomatometer: 96%)
  8. [amazon_link id=”B003UESJHY” target=”_blank” ]The Fighter (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)[/amazon_link] The Fighter (Tomatometer: 90%)
  9. [amazon_link id=”B003UESJFG” target=”_blank” ]Megamind (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)[/amazon_link] Megamind (Tomatometer: 72%)
  10. [amazon_link id=”B002ZG99NG” target=”_blank” ]The Town (Extended Cut) [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] The Town (Tomatometer: 94%)

Still need to see: Winter’s Bone (Tomatometer: 95%), Biutiful (Tomatometer: 66%), Rabbit Hole (Tomatometer: 86%), Exit Through the Gift Shop (Tomatometer: 98%), Daddy Longlegs (Tomatometer: 86%)

My picks for:

Best Director: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

Best Leading Actor: Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine (but I’d really vote for Christian Bale in The Fighter)

Best Leading Actress: (Tie) Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right; Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Best Cinematography: Matthew Libatique, Black Swan

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Best “lean startup” book is not about startups at all!

[amazon_link id=”0452271878″ target=”_blank” ]Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player[/amazon_link]

The internet start-up community can be pretty insular, so sometimes it requires ideas and memes from outside this small group of very driven, goal-oriented people.

My original passion has always been films (even more so than technology) and amongst my favorite directors is Robert Rodriguez, the entrepreneurial, DIY director of El Mariachi, Sin City, Spy Kids and more. While my opinions about his movies vary widely, his book chronicling the crazy pursuit he made to make his first independent feature film, the wild and raucous El Mariachi, reads better than any “tech start-up” tale. The tale inspired me to open my first start-up in college, Go! Designs.

“Rebel Without a Crew” is Rodriguez’s entertaining retelling about how he sold his body to medicine, hustled/fought/stole his way to making an excellent independent film and I believe that the spirit is definitely akin to the lean startup spirit that surrounded the early days of the dotcom revolution.

Rodriguez has a list of “rules for independent filmmaking” at the end of his book which I feel like could be easily transported and used for tech entrepreneurs.

If you’re thinking of a doing a startup, or if you’re an entrepreneur now and are seeking an injection of true inspiration and motivation, pick up this fascinating book.

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Beijing mongoDB conference: I’ll be showing a shiny new Alive.cn

mongoDB

mongoDB is one of the hot new NoSQL databases that have recently come out and is the database platform for new Alive.cn, the new multilingual entertainment database that I’ve been constructing. I’ve been a MySQL user ever since we started Rotten Tomatoes over ten years ago, so I’m still relatively new to mongoDB, but I really like the philosophy of simplicity and flexibility for things like dynamic and lazy schemas, auto-sharding, on-the-fly indexes, etc. I’m dealing with a wide variety of complex data schemas across very large datasets in this new project so it’s nice to be able to waste time having to stuff everything into a “one-size fits all” design.

In any case, the nice folks at 10gen, the company that develops mongoDB, will be conducting a free developers conference in Beijing on Thursday, March 3 and I will be delivering one of the presentations. I hope to prepare something that shows the power of flexibility of using mongoDB with various linked open data sources (or combining this data with social media data sources like Facebook, Twitter, and Sina Weibo) or something along those lines. I’ll deliver my talk in English, but hope to have Chinese slides as well and, of course, you can come up and chat with me in Chinese.

mongoDB is increasingly being used by many notable social companies overseas like foursquare, Disqus (which I use on my own site), and Eventbrite. If you’re interested in learning about this alternative to MySQL, check out more details.

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Stephen’s mini-autobiography

Stephen Wang

I was born in the United States in Toledo, Ohio to Taiwanese parents, but eventually landed in Columbia, Maryland where I grew up. As a child, I would spend summer in Alhambra, California (near Los Angeles) where the primarily Chinese-American community stood in stark contrast to the mostly white Columbia. I developed an early interest in programming primarily from my Commodore 64 where I initially began writing computer games in BASIC.

As a young, nerdy teenager I was able to hide my social ineptitude by transforming into a punk rock, liberal flag-waving youth. Some of my more memorable achievements as a teenager include helping to organize one of the first public performances by punk rock gods Fugazi during freshman year of high school, spending multiple nights protesting the first Iraq War in front of the White House, and directing multiple high school plays as part of being a theater geek. I was addicted to the music of the Violent Femmes, Smashing Pumpkins, and The Smiths.

As a consequence, it shouldn’t be a complete surprise that my next step was to go to the University of California, Berkeley, once the home to liberalism and protest. However, upon entering Berkeley, I actually became much more moderate and my passions shifted away to more pragmatic goals. I entered Cal in 1993 initially with a double major of Computer Science and Political Science, still split between whether wanting to be a computer engineer or a lawyer like my oldest brother. I really enjoyed my political science classes more than my computer science classes, but became hooked on the World Wide Web after seeing someone using the early NCSA Mosaic browser for the first time in 1994. I immediately began devouring materials on HTML and CGI programming and became a resident expert about the Web amongst my friends (who, at the time, were mostly interested in playing Doom). Luckily, this personal passion became a part of my professional life.

Furthermore, my other primary passion was movies which I had watched endlessly and can debate like any proper film geek. My middle brother has a similar passion which has resulted in him pursuing his passion as film producer, while I have applied my interest in work like Rotten Tomatoes and Alive Not Dead.

After college, I remained in the San Francisco Bay Area until 2005 and took part in the Internet boom by co-founding companies Rotten Tomatoes and Design Reactor.

I eventually decided to move out to China at the end of 2005 because I wanted to improve my Mandarin Chinese and to take part in the huge change and opportunities. I stayed about a year in Xiamen, Fujian which is a beautiful coastal town across from Taiwan and still my favorite city in China. In late 2006, I moved to Hong Kong to start my current venture, Alive Not Dead, and stayed for about three years. I then moved to Beijing in October 2009 and lived there for three years before returning to Hong Kong in August 2012. I’m currently living in Guangzhou.

To read more about my professional life and other autobiographical tales, be sure to check out my About Me page.

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Alive Not Dead (2007-2013)

We started a social network supporting artists called Alive Not Dead in Hong Kong in partnership with several prominent Hong Kong actors. The site now has over a thousand artists and 600 thousand registered members and I recently moved to Beijing to continue it’s expansion.

Alive Not DeadNote: This post is part of an extended auto-biography which is collected in my About page.

As our first China company, Xiaban.com, transitioned to becoming the local BBS web site, XMFish.com, my business partner Patrick Lee and I decided that we would pursue new opportunities that would allow us to return to my original passion of film and entertainment and to move to Hong Kong. We had witnessed how the social network Myspace had grown leaps and bounds faster than our former acquirer IGN Entertainment despite being acquired at the same time and for around the same amount of money and by the same owner, News Corporation. As a consequence, we partnered with the members of band Alive to create a new online community of artists, alivenotdead.com.

Patrick had been the primary investor and executive producer for the directorial debut of popular Hong Kong-based actor Daniel Wu (吴彦祖), The Heavenly Kings (四大天王). During college, Daniel was the co-founder of the University of Oregon Wushu Team and frequently came down to Berkeley, near his original hometown, to practice with us and Cal Wushu Team. Daniel and another Cal classmate of ours, Terence Yin (尹子维), were now successful actors in Hong Kong and presented Patrick with the idea of doing creating a boy band similar to F4 or the Backstreet Boys comprised of popular Hong Kong heartthrob actors. In reality, the boy band, named “Alive” and additionally comprising of actors Andrew Lin (连凯) and Conroy Chan (陈子聪), was a cover for a mock-umentary that they were filming that would expose some of the hypocrisies and urgent issues in the Asian entertainment industry. For a period of a year and a half, Alive recorded and released several songs and even went out on a concert tour throughout Asia in the guise of a boy band when, in reality, they were documenting the process for their film. When finally released during the Hong Kong International Film Festival in April 2005, the film and the fake band’s secret mission landed as a media bombshell (The Standard (HK), San Francisco Chronicle), but eventually went on to earn Daniel the award for Best New Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

Alivenotdead.com was the original web site for the Alive band and, eventually, The Heavenly Kings movie. It was created by the Alive boys as a place for fans to read their updates as well as connect with other fans on the site’s message boards. It also hosted fan boards for several of the independent Hong Kong bands that were featured in the movie and had accumulated an impressive 30,000+ registered members. As the promotion for the film was coming to an end, the Alive boys presented Patrick with the idea of converting the web site and it was eventually we came across the idea of building an online community similar to Myspace that would allow artists to connect with their fans. Patrick and I were primarily interested in returning to something entertainment-themed as this was my original passion; additionally, we wanted to pursue a model that could grow exponentially as Myspace had, but do it in Asia. Daniel and Terence sought to build a community that could support and largely run artists including filmmakers, musicians, and others.

As a consequence, we worked through early 2007 to launch a new alivenotdead.com in April 2007 with seven initial “official artists”: the Alive band, Daniel Wu (吴彦祖), Andrew Lin (连凯), Conroy Chan (陈子聪), Terence Yin (尹子维), world-famous Chinese action star Jet Li (李连杰), and Chinese-American actress Kelly Hu (胡凯莉). Jet and Kelly came on-board as initial artists on the site since we had been doing their official web sites for numerous years already extending back to our Design Reactor days.

The official artist membership rapidly expanded from the initial seven artists to it’s current roster of around 1,600 artists (as of January 2011) with primary coverage in Hong Kong, Singapore, mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and Asian-Americans in the United States. Artists can publish and share blogs, photo albums, events, and maintain their own fan forums. For a while, we experimented with artist stores that allowed artists to sell merchandise directly from their profiles. Fans can also register and create their own blogs, photo albums, etc. and connect with their favorite artists and as of January 2011 we have over 600,000 registered members.

A lot of the work we’ve done recently on Alive Not Dead has been towards connecting artists with each other as well as with advertising brands as a way to generate revenue. With the financial crisis in 2008, we pivoted to expand our efforts on working with artists and advertisers on offline events in conjunction with online advertising. At the current time, we work with many top brands (e.g. Adidas, Nokia, Esprit, Diesel) to create online marketing campaigns that draw attention to artist concerts, art exhibitions, etc. which employ Alive Not Dead artists. We also host the most popular and fun annual, costumes-mandatory Halloween party (“Dead Not Alive” Halloween 2010, 2009 (another link), and 2008) in Asia 🙂 .

Working closely with artists, we’ve also expanded our alivenotdead.com platform to help some high profile Asian artists power their official web sites. We power the official web sites for Jet Li 李连杰 (JetLi.com), Jackie Chan 成龙 (JackieChan.com), and Karen Mok 莫文蔚 (KarenMok.com).

In October 2009, I decided to move from Hong Kong to Beijing in order to accelerate our expansion in mainland China. I personally wanted to return to mainland China where I had moved originally when I first came to Asia, and especially to Beijing which is the epicenter of the unique and tremendous internet industry in China. Additionally, Alive Not Dead had recently landed a partnership with web portal, Tom.com, that would allow us to begin hosting and promoting the alivenotdead.com community within mainland China with the help of a local partner. Since then, I’ve been working to reach out to other internet entrepreneurs and engineers, improve my Mandarin Chinese, and grow an online destination for a local Chinese audience.

Update: After departing Alive Not Dead in April 2013, the company was acquired by the Southeast Asian social networking company Migme in early 2014. Alive Not Dead continues to grow under Migme’s stewardship.

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Xiaban.com (2005-2006)

After departing Rotten Tomatoes and IGN, I moved to Xiamen, China to help my friends Patrick and Jimmy with their internet startup, Xiaban.com. Now it has become XMFish.com, the leading online community in Xiamen.

Xiaban.com and XMFish.comNote: This post is part of an extended auto-biography which is collected in my About page.

After leaving my role as head of the recently acquired Rotten Tomatoes and a VP at the even more recently acquired IGN Entertainment, I rejoined my frequent business partner Patrick Lee in the Chinese coastal city of Xiamen, Fujian province, where he had teamed up with his original business partner from his first company, Jimmy Zhuang (庄振宁). Jimmy, a college classmate of ours, was originally born and raised in Xiamen prior to moving to California for high school and, eventually, university at Cal.

Our initial web site in China, Xiaban.com (下班网), was initially a customer loyalty platform for merchants whereby customers could swipe a loyalty card at hundreds of different participating stores and receive points which could be redeemed for prizes and discounts. Merchants could sign up to receive powerful, aggregated data about their customers including demographic data, spendings statistics, and comparison data with their competitors. Furthermore, we provided a way for merchants to target SMS-based ads to their customers — every time the card was swiped, the customer would receive an SMS confirming their points along with an advertising area for merchants that could be targeted by neighborhood, customer demographic, or store category. We rolled out this powerful platform across nearly a thousand stores throughout our Xiamen with plans to expand nationwide. When I came into the company as Chief Operating Officer (COO), I was additional tasked with redoing Xiaban.com as a Yelp-like web site that would help us rapidly expand our brand throughout China. Like Yelp, our site allowed users to find the best places to eat and shop from a comprehensive, nationwide database of merchants and share their reviews and tips with other consumers and friends. We further tied in these member services with data accumulated by using the Xiaban loyalty card so members could check and redeem points and prizes online. Unfortunately, the site’s traffic was leapfrogged by our rapidly growing competitor, Dianping.com, and at the end of 2006 we decided to pivot away from the capital-intensive loyalty card platform. Instead, we acquired XMFish.com (厦门小鱼社区), a rapidly growing local community web site in Xiamen. XMFish.com’s traffic was on a phenomenal growth path in the local Xiamen area and was already becoming the most important online destination in Xiamen. As part of the new company, we grew XMFish to become the most trafficked website in the province and a vital and positive community in the Xiamen area. By building online ad sales on the site, we were able to grow both the web site and company stably.

At the current time, XMFish.com has expanded to included neighboring cities and has even begun offering our loyalty card again in partnership with local banks including ICBC. The site has become the primary online platform for local advertising and has been extended to include services like group buying and an online shopping of local merchants with same-day delivery.

While I departed from my full-time position in December 2006, I continue to frequently return to Xiamen.

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