Launch of alive.cn

It’s been a fast three months since we first came across the idea of launching a new addition to our company. To tell the truth, while we’re going to keep alivenotdead.com up-and-running, the launch of alive.cn means that we’re transitioning the company to a slightly new model. I say “slightly” because, in reality, it’s an expansion of something that we were doing already with alivenotdead.com — helping connect brands with celebrities to do endorsements, events, etc.

The big change for me, however, is that it also means that my alivenotdead team mates Raffi and Patrick will be spending a majority of their time in Beijing with me and that we will be adding on a handful of new teammates as well.

Check out the new site and I hope to bring more good news soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

The things you treasure as a company founder

Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs
Steve Woz and Steve Jobs in Apple's early years

As a founder, you’re like the Greek god Zeus pulling Athena from his head and bringing her from nothingness into the World.

I really like this recent interview with Michael Scott, the oft-forgotten FIRST CEO of Apple. Our perception of Apple is now of this gargantuan monster of a company that has always existed, but I can guarantee you that the most treasured memories by both Steves are likely from the first several years of Apple’s founding — these are the important moments where every day’s seemingly inconsequential decisions have potentially unexpected impact on the legacy and culture of the company.

BI: What was the culture that developed at the company in the early days?

MS: Well, I guess the biggest part of the culture was that Holt made our coffee in the morning. He made the coffee to suit him, and it was so strong that it would keep us all up forever. That was subsequently a big fight that we had.

Ann Bowers…. who was…. I forgot the guys name, but she was the wife of one of the founders of Intel, she was our first VP of Personnel. This was a couple of years later. She was on this kick saying that we should not supply caffeine to the employees because it was unhealthy. And I just said, “No,” because we weren’t a committee and we didn’t need a vote on it.

I would say that the challenge was, who was more stubborn, Steve or me, and I think I won.

The other argument at the meetings was would Steve take his dirty feet and sandals off the table, because he sat at one end of the conference table, and Markkula sat at the other end chain smoking. So we had to have special filters in the attic in the ceiling to keep the room filter. I had the smokers on one side and the people with dirty feet on the other.

[Laughter from us.]

It was not funny then. Everybody has their pet peeves.

It’s difficult to imagine these kind of long-lasting memories having impact when you’re in the middle of the “fog of war” during those first few years of development. Right now, the alivenotdead team is closing in on a transition point where we will be a pivot. It gives us a unique opportunity similar to starting a whole new company with a new team members and new experiences and reading this interview really makes me excited about the prospect of building new lifelong memories to reflect upon.

More news later…

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

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.

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

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.

The Gap enters China: Wing Shya + Annie Leibovitz take over Beijing

Wing Shya + Annie Leibovitz photograph ads for The Gap's entry into China
Covering the walls of the Wangfujing subway station in Beijing. Wing Shya + Annie Leibovitz photograph ads for The Gap's entry into China. Each of the photos pair a Chinese artist with a Western artist.

Yesterday was my first day returning to my Beijing office after a long break away for the Chinese New Year. Leaving work and entering the subway station, I came across a welcome surprise. San Francisco apparel store icon The Gap has finally arrived in mainland China. I still claim to be from the San Francisco Bay Area (hence, the name of my blog “Sino Francisco”), so I’m glad to see the iconic brand make it’s way into China, although possibly too late after the wildly successful launches by Zara and H&M several years ago.

More interestingly, though, was that the launch ad campaign, which is currently saturating Beijing, was shot by alivenotdead artist and Hong Kong’s celebrated photographer Wing Shya 永康 along with Annie Leibovitz. What a combination! Both are noted for their celebrity portraits so the combination just makes sense.

The campaign pairs a Chinese artist with a Western artist; besides Wing and Annie Lebovitz, it also features prominent Beijing DJ and frequent Sam Lee 李璨琛/DJ Becareful collaborator, DJ Wordy, and personal favorite Beijing actress Zhou Xun 周迅.

Wing Shya featured in one of our Alive Not Dead promotional flyers

Wing Shya has been the most sought after photographer by celebrities here in China and Hong Kong for many years for his ability to capture seemingly naturalistic, unaffected essences of his subjects. He especially came to prominence as the stills photographer/creative marketing designer for many of director Wong Kar Wai‘s films. Alivenotdead collaborated with Wing for our very first event in Hong Kong, a retrospective of his work along with an epic concert upstair by several alivenotdead musical acts.

Diesel and alivenotdead collaborated in 2007 for a retrospective of Wing Shya's work. Afterwards was an epic, rocking concert upstairs by several indie hip-hop acts.

Check out this wrap-up and photos of the event by Hong Kong Hustle. Such great memories of the awesome event.

My favorite of Wing’s work, however, has to be “Prevation”, a “live-action” manga he shot with additional design by Alvin Goh and featuring my buddy and fellow alivenotdead partner Terence Yin in a teddy bear suit.

Wing extended his reach last year as co-director of the hit Chinese romantic comedy Hot Summer Days 全城热恋 that introduced the world to the currently red hot Angelababy. Being a fan of both Wing and the enchanting Zhou Xun 周迅, I also really enjoy this recent photoshoot video that Wing recorded for i-D magazine:

Or watch a HD version of the video on Vimeo if you’re not blocked in China.

In any case, congrats to Wing Shya and it’s great to see him and his work so prominently displayed around Beijing.

Annie Leibovitz and Wing Shya featured in the new The Gap ad campaign in Beijing

Speak of the devil… build your own OpenCalais like supermachine

In line with my recent blog mentioning OpenCalais, the topic extraction tool, DBpedia, one of the awesome linked open data projects I’ve been using a bunch for Alive.cn, just released their own topic extraction tool, DBpedia Spotlight. If you are okay with downloading 9GB of Lucene indices and setting up their scripts, you can have your own self-hosted topic extraction tool. They basically open sourced something that is worth a lot of money in a previously relatively closed space.

What is topic extraction? Check this demo out and enter any block of text — say, a recent news article. The benefit of using DBpedia’s solution (besides it being free) is that it automatically ties topics back to their DBpedia topics which already have a huge storehouse of Wikipedia-derived linked open data.

The Man versus Machine Jeopardy Challenge

Jeopardy Feb. 14 2011 – Human vs Machine IBM Challenge Day 1 Part 1/2

It’s the probably the most public test of the advances in linked open structured data and semantic text analysis, I’m really following closely this tournament pitting IBM’s super-computer Watson against the two most successful Jeopardy champions. I suspect that they’re using the same publicly available data sets that we’re using for constructing Alive.cn.

I wonder, however, why they chose to rely only on electronically fed questions rather than going the final mile and adding a voice recognition interface on top of the system. Voice recognition accuracy has gotten so good these days, but I wonder if the final few percentage mistakes makes a critical difference against the best human players.

There have been some other truly AMAZING projects in this field. Two I’d like to highlight:

  • Google Squared: This Google Labs experiment is an amazing mash-up of topic extraction and turning unstructured web data into structured data. Simply type in any category (example: “Chinese Emperors”) and it will bring you up a spreadsheet of items in that category and some properties. Next, you can add your own properties (“Inventions”) and it will automatically fill in the results using searched data from the web converted back into structured data. It’s truly one of the most remarkable things to come out of Google, but a bit more work on it (say, a voice recognition interface) and it could be a mainstream breakthrough.
  • OpenCalais Topic Extraction: Another semantic analysis tool that will pull out “topics” automatically and link them against linked open data. Try out the free demo and copy-and-paste a news article. After submitting the article, you’ll see it has linked together topics on the side automatically.

Like I’ve mentioned before, I feel that we’re right on the tipping point in the next several years where there will be advances in knowledge extraction and interpolation that will have a revolutionary effect on everything including how we interact with computing and having exponential advances on data forecasting. Projects like Wikipedia (an unstructured data source) are just the beginning.

P.S. My favorite comment about the Man versus Machine Jeopardy contest: “Why couldn’t they have programmed Watson to use the voice of Sean Connery?”

Don’t use a hammer to do a screwdriver’s job

Don’t use a hammer to do as screwdriver’s job. While their intentions are honorable, lawmakers shouldn’t be trying to compel Facebook to change their real names rules when more anonymous, popular alternatives are available.

Facebook aims to build a platform that, as crazy as it sounds, is bigger than just forum for political activists, and the pressures from other real-world concerns like fraud, spam, and ensuring trusted, interpersonal communication might outweight the benefits of anonymous posting.

From the New York Times…

Facebook Officials Keep Quiet on Its Role in Revolts