Stuff to do in Seattle

I often get emails and tweets from total strangers asking me: “I’m coming to Seattle! What should I do?”

Initially I thought it might be worth making a list, but I actually think that 7×7’s list of 100 things to do in Seattle before you die is pretty solid. I’ve personally done at least half of these and found these items to be either tasks that I’ve enjoyed, or could easily imagine myself enjoying.

So, if you’re coming to Seattle and you and I have never had an in-person conversation before, please: Just consult the list.

Birthday #3 in Seattle

This photograph was taken two years ago, after I first arrived in Seattle from Boston. I remember when I first got here, often looking out into the city and wondering what the future would hold. What would my life be like? Would I even have a life here?

While Seattle feels a lot like home now, it was never a slam dunk that this move would be a good idea. It’s not an easy thing, to leave everything you’ve ever known and loved, and set out to a different place (with very little in the way of a support network) hoping that you can improve your condition.

 In the past year, I’ve met so many cool people, been to so many beautiful places, seen so many awesome shows, and gotten to create so many exciting things. The ENTIRETY of my concert film project with Stephen Tobolowsky (save post-production) happened all within the past 12 months, including meeting all the talented people that would help make it possible. None of it would’ve happened if I’d stayed in Boston.

 So on this birthday of mine, I’m grateful that I’m here, where I am, at this very moment. And I’m thankful for all the people in my life, whoever/wherever you are, who’ve given me any support of any kind, who have followed and subscribed to my rantings and ramblings, and who have encouraged my wildly implausible dreams.

 Life in Seattle hasn’t all been easy. In fact, more often than not, it’s been really challenging and stressful.

 But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Two Years

Exactly two years ago today, I walked into New Employee Orientation at Microsoft and into a new life (I took the above photo that day). I still remember how nervous I was, surrounded by all these hyper-intelligent people and unsure of of how profoundly everything was about to change.

Starting work at Microsoft was just the precipitating factor that set in motion a massive chain of events, culminating in the recent completion of principal photography for my upcoming concert film with Stephen Tobolowsky. Along the way, I’ve met the most awesome, wonderful, talented people. It’s hard for me to even remember what life was like before Microsoft. As my friend Lisa put it, it simultaneously feels like a lifetime ago, and also like just yesterday that I was checking into my Seattle temporary housing for the first time.

Working at Microsoft can change someone’s life. It can GIVE someone a life. It can enable you to have a career, to work on products that are used by millions of people, to live in an amazing city, to buy a house(!). Getting a job here is transformative. There are few days that go by when I don’t feel gratitude for it, even though there ARE days that are really challenging…

I remain appreciative to my colleagues Audrey and Terri for recommending me for my first job, and KC for giving me an offer when few others would’ve. Sometimes, all someone needs is a chance to prove themselves. If you provide one, then who knows what good things can come of it?

Ten Things I’ve Learned About Seattle


Shortly after I moved to Seattle from Boston, I wrote up a brief “Things I’ve learned so far” post. All that stuff is still true.

That being said, I’ve been living here for nearly two years now. Today, I’d like to supplement that post with a few things I’ve learned about this city, which I have come to love.

1. The traffic is comically terrible – Traffic in Seattle is a Kafkaesque nightmare from which you can scarcely hope to escape. Traffic patterns are almost completely unpredictable; one day you can cruise easily down the 520 bridge, and the next day, during that exact same time period, you can be backed up for hours. It doesn’t help that Seattle drivers seem to be terrified by snow, rain, and mild curves in the road, prompting them to slow to a crawl anytime they encounter any of the above. One of my most maddening Seattle experiences is being stuck in awful traffic for 45 minutes, only to arrive at the origin of that traffic: nothing. No root cause. Just people slowing down because they don’t like to drive too fast on the highway around curves. That being said, the Washington state’s Traffic Twitter account is amusing and useful. It provides a window into the madness that commuters face every day.


2. This place is frickin’ beautiful – Hopefully you can glimpse some of this beauty from my photos, but yeah, the Puget Sound area is gorgeous. I can’t remember any other time in my life, other than my brief trip to New Zealand, during which I could witness postcard-quality images on a daily basis.

3. The income inequality is significant and stark – I don’t think tensions here have grown to San Francisco-esque levels, but in Belltown, the inequality is as obvious as ever. Homeless sleep under storefront awnings every night. As I was leaving my garage last night, I saw some dude foraging in my apartment’s garbage container. Meanwhile, luxury apartments are shooting up left and right. It’ll be interesting to see how the whole thing plays out.


4. The food is still amazing, but… – Spending more time here has definitely made me appreciate the food scene here even more, especially compared to the food scene in Boston, which I can’t help but look back on with disenchantment and disappointment. The food here is just better, and you can get more per dollar than in lesser cities. But it’s not all great. While many styles of food are well-represented, the BBQ is pretty lacking in the city, as is the Chinese and Korean cuisine (although there’s some great Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese to be found). For some quality Chinese/Korean, I often need to head into parts north or to the East Side.


5. Construction is everywhere – From where I sit right now as I type this blog post, I can see (unassisted) no fewer than six construction cranes in my field of view. The real estate market here is about to explode, helped in no small part by Amazon’s plans to dramatically expand its workforce and urban footprint. This place is going to look and feel dramatically different five years from today.

6. There is no infrastructure to handle snow – In Boston, fleets of trucks dispatched by private towing companies would roam the streets at night, making the roads navigable for regular cars. Here, that just doesn’t happen. When it snows, the city shuts down, schools are cancelled, a State of Emergency is declared, etc. Beware snow’s ability to totally mess with your plans. On that note…

7. Seattle makes you soft – I lived in Boston for my whole life, and while it’s not at at all the most challenging weather environment, I went through dozens of brutally harsh winters and scalding hot summers. Seattle, despite its constant spritzy rain, is fairly temperate throughout the year. As a result, experiencing actual extreme temperatures after staying here for awhile can be a more jarring, unpleasant experience than usual.


8. Christmas just doesn’t feel the same – My brother brought this up when he was visiting me in Seattle for Thanksgiving: the one thing you really can’t get on the West Coast is the “feeling” of Christmas. How to define that feeling? I’m not sure. It’s the feeling of freshly fallen snow on the ground outside, silently coating the nearly-empty streets. It’s the warmth of a fire in a brightly lit house with a freshly chopped tree, and some hot soup or hot coffee waiting for you. It’s the smell of pine needles and wreaths and fruitcakes. It’s the sound of expertly-sung Christmas carols echoing through the halls. It’s the feeling I get walking through the white streets of Harvard Square on a December evening. I can’t really fully define the feeling of Christmas. But it’s not the feeling I get when I see families gathered at the Pacific Place mall to enjoy the fake snow that falls from the top floor of the atrium.


9. I love the dress code – People basically wear whatever they want. On the East Coast, if you dress business casual or wear a suit, you are professional and appropriate. Here, that kind of dress is considered formal. It’s fun to work in a part of the country where people are allowed (encouraged?) to wear jeans and flip-flops to work.

10. There’s something happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear – Between Macklemore being poised to sweep the Grammys, Microsoft making one of the biggest acquisitions in its history, Amazon getting people talking about its drone program, and a bunch of our local/celebrity chefs continuing to gain notoriety and win awards, it feels like Seattle is having a “moment” right now. It’s an amazing city full of entrepreneurial vigor and it’s incredibly exciting to be here during this formative period. While Boston will always be my home, I’m glad to be part of the Seattle during this time of my life.

Here’s hoping that 2014 brings even greater adventures.

The Wedding of Josh and Erin

I was honored to film the wedding of Josh and Erin this weekend (Erin, the bride, was coincidentally also in attendance at the last wedding I shot). The wedding was held at the scenic Kerry Park in Seattle. I did not attend the reception.



This video was shot on a Canon 5D Mark III with a Manfrotto 561BHDV-1 Fluid Video Monopod. Audio was recording separately using the onboard mics on a Zoom H4n. Song is “You Are Mine” (Instrumental) by Spencer Combs, licensed from The Music Bed.

I’m very pleased with how the video turned out, in particular from a color grading perspective. Again, I used FilmConvert while shooting on a Flaat 10 picture style. Every time I use FilmConvert, I feel like I get a better sense of what to expect from it – where I can push the software, and where I need to back off or avoid using it altogether. That being said, from a color/sharpness/composition perspective, there are a few shots in this video that rise to a level of excellence I’m very pleased with.

Also, on the video advice of Philip Bloom, I actually added a sharpening filter to most of the shots in this video. I think it really makes a huge difference; shots are crisper and have a lot more pop to them, only without the aliasing that would come from doing this on almost any of Canon’s other lower-end DSLRs. The lack of moire and aliasing on the 5D Mark III is truly freeing, and makes it difficult for me to want to shoot serious videos with my 60D anymore.

One Year in the Life of David Chen

Here it is. After endless seconds recorded and a dozen hours of editing, I’ve finally completed this video that features one second for every single day of this year of my life. I don’t know how much I have to add beyond the previous blog posts I’ve made on this topic, but a few lessons learned come to mind:

– The biggest challenge is to continue making seconds each day. It becomes exhausting to either a) create interesting moments, or b) find unique images in day-to-day life. As days went by, my motivation started to waver, as did my willingness to pull out a camera whenever something spectacular was happening. In these moments, I had to trust that the final product would be worth it. But to be sure, when I show this to people and they get excited about doing it themselves, the one thing that I warn them about is to make sure they have the commitment and discipline to take this project to its completion.

– On that note, recording food became a huge temptation. The reason for this is because if you think about it, food is one of the few things that is noticeably different from day to day, especially if you work a regular 9-5 job. It was an easy fallback, a crutch. As a result, more shots of food ended up in the final video than I probably would have preferred.

– Storing, organizing, and editing the video snippets became onerous. If you attempt this project, I’d strongly recommend you update the video every few months or so, rather than doing them in one fell swoop at the end. Cesar Kuriyama’s 1 Second Every Day app apparently automates this entire process to a huge extent.

– Watching and editing this video was an emotional experience. I remembered profound moments that I might’ve otherwise forgotten. I re-lived moments of lasting significance. My heart broke while contemplating the connections I’ve lost, and swelled at the relationships gained. More importantly, the project encouraged me to try to live life to its fullest – to find beauty in every day, and in the subtle moments that we might not think of. I might not have always succeeded, but I tried. In the end, the production of the project became as worthwhile as the final product.

– I’m still looking for a way to go beyond this project. One Second Everyday can convey a lot, but I still find it restrictive and wish there were a better way to capture my life and the lives of those around me in a way that will result in a watchable, enjoyable final product. Oftentimes it’s within significant constraints that art is made. I’m just searching and hoping to try out some different constraints in the near future (let me know if you have any ideas!)

– I’ve put together a version of this video that features a no audio except for a soundtrack backing it. I’ll release it later. I’m pretty happy with the version featuring a soundtrack, but I think this version with audio is the definitive version.

– If I were to title the video, I’d go with this: Huge Stretches of Monotony, Punctuated by Moments of Awesomeness. Perhaps that’s an apt description for many of our lives.

On a personal note, it’s been an absolutely crazy year. I changed jobs, changed lives, changed everything I’ve ever known. The least I can do is thank the people who appeared in these seconds or made them possible. They have made my life in Seattle what it is and have inarguably changed it for the better.

Shooting the Pacific Northwest Regionals Yo-Yo Championship

PNWR Yo-Yo Championships 1
I had the privilege of shooting the Pacific Northwest Regionals Yo-Yo Championship this weekend at The Armory in the Seattle Center. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had guessed that it would either be 1) a few guys doing some mediocre yo-yo tricks, or 2) an awesome display of talent from a subculture that I was only barely aware of. It was definitively the latter. Hundreds of people showed up at The Armory (dozens of yo-yo enthusiasts, along with their parents). These people have spent thousands of hours honing their skills and it shows. After watching them do a myriad of yo-yo tricks over the course of two days, I started to realize the appeal: there’s something magical about the ability to make a small, circular device at your fingertips appear to defy gravity.

For the entire shoot, I used only my Canon 5D Mark III and my 50mm f/1.4 lens along with my trusty 70-200mm f/2.8. There are unique challenges to shooting a yo-yo competition that I did not anticipate. You are shooting in a low-light environment, in a situation where both the subject and an object in the subject’s hands are moving rapidly. Thus, I had to shoot with the aperture wide open (f/2.8 or lower) but still be focused on the subject to get some decent bokeh out of it AND have a high shutter speed to freeze the action, lest both subject and his yo-yo become blurred beyond recognition. For most of these shots, I used an ISO of 2000 combined with f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/400th to 1/500th of a second. As expected, the Mark III’s high-ISO performance was exceptional.


I took a few hundred shots and only a few dozen were at a sharpness that I’d consider to be usable. There were two failures here: one is the fact that I haven’t mastered all the intricacies of the Mark III’s incredibly complex autofocus system, and the other is the fact that the 50mm f/1.4’s focusing motor just doesn’t feel like it’s well-designed for action. After some experimentation, I realized that all I really needed to make some compelling shots (compelling for me, at least) was to try and capture these performers’ expressions as sharply as possible. If the yo-yo was in focus, that was an added bonus.

Video on the other hand was much easier. I shot at 60 fps and ran the shutter speed fairly constant at 1/125, thus giving me the freedom to close down the aperture significantly. Even so, maintaining focus was challenging on some occasions. Note that I was going hand-held for nearly all of these shots, carrying a very heavy lens with no rig, and trying to focus simultaneously.

Here’s a video I put together of the event:

And here’s video of Zach Gormley, who I believe was this year’s champion. After you watch the mind-blowing things he does in this video, you won’t be surprised:

Thanksgiving 2012 – Seattle Edition

I remember distinctly the moment it hit me — the magnitude of the changes my life had undergone over the past 12 months. I was in a taxi hurtling dangerously through the streets of New York on a crisp fall evening in September, having just flown in to support the launch of Nokia’s new Lumia 920 phone. And as the cab weaved and dodged through the smattering of hapless pedestrians on the Upper West Side, I took a moment to reflect on how crazy everything had become. Just days earlier, I’d been in a recording studio in Los Angeles to record the first few episodes of The Tobolowsky Files for Public Radio International. Now, on behalf of Microsoft, I was about to partake in an event with hundreds of the world’s top tech press. A year ago, these weren’t events I could have truly fathomed.

In fact, a year ago, things overall weren’t looking that good for me. I was temporarily living with my parents after a major job offer had fallen through, and I was about to graduate from Harvard into a pretty uncertain future. While I still don’t think my future is written quite yet, I cannot be more grateful for how the past year has unfolded.

Mostly, I’m just thankful for all of the unique experiences I’ve had. In the past six months alone, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many amazing people in Seattle; of collaborating with a storied radio producer for Public Radio International; of working in the office next to one of the most talented PR people in the tech industry today; of being part of one of the world’s largest technology companies as it’s released some of the most important products in its 38-year history; of seeing my brother get married; of witnessing old bonds of friendship reaffirmed and new ones formed; of performing with Stephen Tobolowsky at the Moore Theatre to an audience of over a thousand people; of falling in love; of partying on Sarah Silverman’s rooftop deck; of seeing The Shins perform live as the sun set over the gorgeous mountains of Central Washington; of taking in the immense beauty of that place they call the Puget Sound. Even when times are tough, I cannot find it in me to complain with all of the blessings in my life.

It hasn’t all been easy and fun. In fact, a lot of it has been stressful, intense, painful. And looking towards the next 12 months, I can already predict there will be great difficulties ahead, professionally and personally. But even if my life went completely down the toilet right at this moment, I’d count myself lucky for everything that has happened. And I’d hope that somehow, somewhere along the way, I’d been able to pass at least a small smattering of that happiness to those who’ve crossed my path.

Happy Thanksgiving.

18 for 18

A super cool guy at Microsoft (whose work is tangentially related to mine) just announced he was leaving today after 18 years at the company. I was really moved by his going-away e-mail, which featured the following list: 

18 for 18 – Life lessons from a “lifer” at Microsoft

1995 Sometimes people just needs a chance to prove themselves.
1996 Quitting just because you may fail isn’t an option.
1997 Being good at something has value whether you get paid well or not.

1998 You have to work your tail off to get what you want.
1999 Sometimes failure is a better teacher than success.
2000 People are more than just what they produce.
2001 Having kids shifts your priorities.
2002 Not everyone has your back. (The bus hurts when it runs over you.)
2003 Listening is undervalued but you should do it anyway. It makes you wiser.
2004 Sometimes you have to force yourself into a new situation order to grow.
2005 Working for an idiot is really, really hard.
2006 Stand up for yourself but don’t compromise your integrity to get ahead.
2007 Hire people more talented than you.
2008 If you stay in one job too long you could become irrelevant.
2009 Never burn bridges. You don’t know who you will work with again. (Plus it’s stupid.)
2010 A rising tide really does lift all boats.
2011 Be kind, be direct, and speak truth.
2012 If you leave with friends, you have accomplished much.

***

Don’t know what trajectory my career may follow, but I can already tell these lessons will be helpful for me.

The First Three Months

I know updates have been sparse on here recently. Honestly, between my job, all my podcasts, and trying to do social things outside of those things to keep myself sane, I barely have any time to do anything else these days.

BUT! My 1 Second Every Day project soldiers onwards. Here’s a video that shows the first three months of my life in Seattle (approximately):

A couple of observations:

  • After three months of this, it’s difficult to fight some of the “sameness” that creeps into these images. By far, that’s the biggest challenge: trying to make sure what you shoot today isn’t similar to what came before it.
  • The biggest weakness of this project is that there is pretty much nothing here of my work at Microsoft. I don’t really do any shooting on campus because I don’t want to risk the possibility of revealing anything confidential, but it remains a huge part of my new life that remains undocumented.
  • When I’ve presented this project to my friends, the one thing they all overwhelmingly say is: “If I did a project like that, it would be incredibly boring.” As I mentioned in my initial post, maybe if that’s the case you should try and make some serious changes to your life. But I have a corollary now to add to that: you don’t need to have a super interesting life to make a decent video with this project. You just need to be able to find the beautiful, fascinating, amusing things worth highlighting in each day. I think it’s a challenge worth undertaking. 

What Kind of Week This Has Been

[This post appeared earlier on my Facebook, which you can also subscribe to]

There’s an episode of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION called “The Inner Light” (Season 5 Episode 25) in which the Enterprise discovers a strange alien probe. The probe knocks Picard unconscious, and while the crew struggles to revive him, Picard’s consciousness is transported to that of an alien world, where he inhabits one of its people’s bodies, QUANTUM LEAP-style. While there, he learns the people’s customs and basically ends up living an entire, meaningful lifetime in this world that was so unfamiliar to him not too long ago. But the alien species is dying; their planet’s environment is on the fritz. As Picard’s inhabited body is approaching the end of his life, we find out that the alien race will launch a probe into space, a means of carrying on the species’ memory as they face extinction. And turns out, it was Picard (the original one) who was chosen for this task. He awakes on the Enterprise to discover only 20 minutes have passed in the real world.

Sometimes it feels like a lifetime can pass in the blink of an eye. That’s what this week felt like to me, as though I have experienced enough emotion and learning and intensity to last me for a long, long while. In situations like these, I am overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion. I can only hope to make use of the lessons that I’ve learned, remember fondly those things that I’ve experienced, and honor those that have inspired me.

P.S. Damn, that was a good episode of Star Trek.

Identity

Sunset 7-8
This is the third of three posts covering a major transition in my life. You can also read the first one and the second one.

It’s been about two months since I decided to move to Seattle, and yet it has already felt like a short lifetime. I’ve started work at a totally unfamiliar environment, begun exploring some of the rich neighborhoods around downtown, hung out with some really great locals, and found a neat new apartment in Belltown. In the meantime, I’ve also kept producing episodes of all of my podcasts, including the /Filmcast, The Tobolowsky Files, and A Cast of Kings (plus, did you hear? I’m launching a new one too).

I was prompted to write this blog post because I got all nostalgic this week reading /Film’s coverage of San Diego Comic-Con. Not too long ago, I went to Comic-Con for two years in a row, back when my work for /Film was at its peak output. I remember the special place in my geek heart that Comic-Con had occupied since my college days. The place was supposed to be a mecca of pop culture, a place where you could really let your freak flag fly and no one would judge you for it. Indeed, pretty much everything I saw comported with that dream. People dress up in crazy costumes and just nonchalantly waltz around in restaurants and convention halls alike. The gods of the film world frequently make appearances. Every now and then, you get some actual insight into the creation of a film or a TV show, or something crazy happens, or something really adorable happens. It’s like a geek’s dream-world.

But covering Comic-Con was a challenge. I recall endless lines in the hot sun coupled with hours of waiting for no guarantee of making it into a panel, and staying up late into the night, trying to bang out some relevant stories for the site. It was all so thrilling and exciting and wonderful and terrible. But there was so much camaraderie there, amongst all the great writers I had the privilege to work alongside. Sure, we were regurgitating poorly veiled marketing material, but we were racking up a crapton of pageviews, paying the bills, and basking in our love of “the popular arts.” There are few experiences as exhilarating and as cathartic. I miss the people. I miss the insanity. I miss the video blogs (one of which was actually covered by The New York Times).

This year, I didn’t go to Comic-Con. In fact, I spent this past Friday at a business meeting in San Francisco, all day. My life is totally unrecognizable from what it used to be.

It’s remarkable, this culture of online pop culture writers that’s sprung up over the course of the past decade. These people travel around the world, interviewing celebrities, seeing stuff before we get to see it, getting their own stuff read by tens of thousands of people. It sounds like living the dream and for many people, it is.

Eight months ago, I was wrapping up my Master’s degree and thinking about my next steps. One of the options I considered was diving straight into doing all of this online stuff full time. Podcasting, blogging, interviews, etc., all of it. If I really made a go of it, I would’ve probably been able to scrape together enough money to get by. But other opportunities came my way and I decided not to go that route.

In deliberating, I was confronted with an unmistakable truth: I just didn’t love it enough.

I’m sure that many of my favorite online writers live comfortably, but it is difficult out there for an aspiring film writer. There are perils everywhere. Write about something in the wrong way or in violation of some arbitrarily established “rules” and bloggers will jump all over you on Twitter. Meanwhile, the old guard will look down on you if they think your writing is not “serious” enough, or if, god forbid, you actually want to make money doing what you do. All the while, everyone vies for a rapidly vanishing slice of nominal ad dollars spent on their sites. For many, these are all just minor inconveniences that are endured in exchange for the vast benefits enumerated above. But for me, it’s not  enough. At least, not right now. There are too many things that I want to do and to learn first, before I start living the life of Reilly. It may not be as outwardly exciting as going to Comic-Con or interviewing James Cameron, but I love the wonder and satisfaction of learning and overcoming and discovering in my current *gasp* corporate environment. That’s not to say that one can’t derive that from online work (it’s usually quite the opposite, in fact). It’s just to say that I can’t right now, at least without frantically worrying about my other life obligations.

At the /Filmcast, we recently marked the four-year “anniversary” of our first episode. It reminded me that while it’s certainly been a roller-coaster ride, the past four years have also been marked with a great deal of uncertainty in my life. I don’t know that I’ve settled into my final destination yet, but after a lot of struggle, things are finally starting to feel as though they have some momentum. I’m loving my new job, my new manager/boss, and all the awesome new things I’m learning. I like the way things are, even as I miss the way they were.

It’s possible that one day I will get back into the writing/broadcasting game and do it full-bore. But in the meantime, I’m content to watch from the sidelines, to remember the good old days, and to cheer on all of my colleagues. Regardless of how much of my life is in it, it’s a great time to be alive and to experience the pleasures of art, and the pleasures of loving it.

***

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

My First July 4th in Seattle

Readers of this blog know that I’ve recently settled into an apartment in Seattle after a great deal of searching. I’m pretty happy with my new place in Belltown and anticipated that it would have a pretty solid view of the fireworks, but I had no idea how good. Below you’ll find a video I shot and some photos I took of the show using my Canon 5D Mark II. These were all shot from my apartment out of my window.

A solid show, but it can’t beat the crazy stuff we do back in Boston…

The First 30 Days

What is one year like in the life of David Chen? We’re all about to find out.

Earlier this year, a woman named Madeline released an interesting video on Vimeo. She had shot one second of video for every day of her life during the year 2011. I found the result to be unexpectedly inspiring and moving.

Several months later, /Filmcast listener and all-around awesome dude Cesar Kuriyama took to the stage at TED to unveil his own “one second every day project“, which he’d been filming every day for the 30th year of his life.

Kuriyama is passionate about the project and believes everyone should engage in it. I think the final result is fascinating, a seemingly endless series of context-less images. Context-less, that is, to everyone but the filmmaker. It’s a compelling snapshot of one’s life, a video that is evocative for the creator and intriguing and enigmatic for the viewer.

So, I’m pleased to announce that I am also undertaking this project. My birthday this year was May 20th, right around the same time I uprooted my life from Boston and moved to Seattle. Starting on that day, I have filmed one second of video every single day. Around this time next year, I’ll plan to publish the result, a chronicle of my first year here.

In doing this project, I’ve made a few observations about how best to approach it. First of all, I think this project works best when the second that you record is somehow representative of the day that you had, or at least, how you want to remember that day. In practice, this can get a bit tricky; often times the most interesting that happens to me is an interaction I have with someone else. While I can frequently “anticipate” when a good “second” will arrive, it’s often inopportune to whip out a camera and start recording. Secondly, it’s useful to record multiple seconds for each day, giving you the option to choose from a number of them. As a result, it’s also important to have a robust cataloging system for all of your “potential seconds.” Finally, I don’t have experience with this yet, but it sounds like it’s useful to create a master file for the final video, then stitch the videos together intermittently and continuously add them to that file, as opposed to doing them all at the end. Alternatively, one could also create videos for each month, then bind them all together in the end. I may end up going this path because it will allow me to release regular video content, but it also robs the final video of some of its uniqueness. We’ll see. 

As a proof-of-concept, I’ve stitched together my first 30 seconds, representing my first month here. You can find this video below:

When I began working on the project, I asked Cesar Kuriyama, “What if you do this every day for a year and the resulting video ends up being incredibly boring?”

Kuriyama responded, “That’s good! Because then you’ll look back on how boring your life was and you’ll resolve to change things.”

Not a bad point, that. I don’t know what the end result will motivate me to do. I can only hope it will show a life lived full, with love, laughter, and friends, a humble aspiration for the beginning of my new life.

[I am indebted to Cesar Kuriyama for his counsel and for helping me to establish a workflow for pulling these clips together. Be sure to check out his other work.]

Is Dave Chen Still Alive?

There are many logistical challenges to moving across the country. One of them is the inability to bring your social network with you. I am blessed to have many friends in the Seattle area, but I am still new here and in the process of trying to integrate myself into the lives of those around me.

I occasionally worry about “worst case scenarios.” Like, what would happen if something terrible were to befall me? What if, God forbid, I died all of a sudden? How would it play out?

As a single guy living in a one-bedroom apartment, it would probably be days before anybody realized anything was wrong. To me, that’s an unacceptably long time for my corpse to lay in my apartment, unattended. “There has to be a better way!” I thought.

Thus, I bring to you IsDaveChenStillAlive.com.

The purpose of this website is to answer a very simple question: Is Dave Chen (me) still alive? The answer will either be yes or no, and is promptly displayed when you visit the website. How is this determined?

I discussed this project with my brother, Mike (a web developer) for quite some time. The way I figured it, I would log in to the website once per day and check some kind of box, confirming that i’m still alive. Mike did not think this was a good system. Here’s my reconstruction of our conversation:

Mike: Dave, you’re going to have to check this box every day for the rest of your life. Are you really ready to add this to your routine? Forever?
Dave: I’ve considered this, and the answer is yes.
Mike: This sounds like a terrible idea for many reasons.
Dave: Why?
Mike: Well, here’s one reason, and I’m just going off the top of my head here: what if you accidentally forget to check the box one day? Then people freak out because they think you’re dead. And then you need to re-assure them that you’re NOT dead. But then in the event that you ARE dead next time, people won’t actually believe it’s the case, thus invalidating the whole purpose of the site.
Dave: Well then, I’ll just have to work very hard not to forget.
Mike: That’s madness. I can easily come up with a better solution.

And he did! So now, every day, I receive an e-mail asking me if I’m still alive. If I click on the “yes” link, then the status quo is maintained. So really, if the site says “No,” then either Dave Chen is dead, or for some reason he did not have access to his e-mail.

So, IsDaveChenStillAlive.com! Bookmark it and you’ll always know the answer to one of my most pressing questions.

[Related: For those of you reading this also contemplate the journey to the undiscovered country, there’s a service called DeadSocial that will store messages to be delivered to your social networks until you die. Seems like a pretty cool idea, but I can’t say I trust any service with my deepest darkest secret messages, let alone one that will only deploy them when I’m dead. What if there’s a false negative, or more likely, an incident that causes an accidental message deployment? If you’re not dead yet, it could drive you to be!]

Places I’m Not Living

My rental application was APPROVED. Here's the view from the rooftop deck of my new Seattle apartment.

Over the past two weeks, I have seen many, many apartment units in Seattle. After much searching and deliberation, I’ve finally settled on a brand new apartment in the Belltown neighborhood, and it’s spectacular (the photo is above is a view from the rooftop deck). But even though I’m happy with my ultimate choice, this was a long, involved process that I’m not eager to repeat. No place I looked at was completely perfect; each one involved a series of trade-offs that I had to continually assess, as I decided whether or not I wanted to commit to spending tens of thousands of dollars on the property over the course of the next year.

At the end of this process, there were two finalists, each of which I made three visits to, frequently with friends so they could help me evaluate. It’s always been weird to me how blithely people approach things like car buying and apartment renting, often committing after a simple 5-minute visit. You’re about to spend like $30,000 on this thing that you’re going to have to live with/in for the foreseeable future. Why not perform some painfully thorough due diligence?

In order to expedite and organize the process, I frequently shot videos of each location, which was especially helpful when trying to recollect the property later. Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d share a few of them with you. You may find that they provide an insight into the Seattle rental market. It feels kind of weird for me to post these videos, because they contain specific locations in them  and I almost lived at some of these places. Alas, they were not to be.

I was initially totally taken with Lawrence Lofts in Capitol Hill. The view is just incredible. However, after a further visit with my friends (seen briefly in this video), they convinced me that the amount of square footage, the total lack of significant closet space, and the open-bedroom format did not justify the asking price of $1975:

Another strong contender was a location called Harbor Steps, located right near the bustling Pike Place market downtown. It is hard to describe how amazing the view is. Breathtaking. The units were also large and spacious. The biggest downsides come from the location; it’s located in a sprawling complex with thousands of other residents, and it’s right in the heart of one of the busiest areas in Seattle, with tons of tourists everywhere all the time. Parking is also a whopping $210 per month, which doesn’t get you your own reserved space. That is unacceptable in my book.

One of my finalists was Citizen apartments in Capitol Hill. Like Lawrence, the apartment complex is totally brand new. I was particularly fond of this unit, which had a ton of space (nearly 800 square feet) and had a decent south-facing view. However, the amenities were not great (no fitness center, with the nearest one half a mile away), and noise from the highly trafficked street below also made the deal potentially unappealing. Parking was $175, slightly higher than in many of the other places I saw, though obviously not as high as Harbor Steps. Nonetheless, I was nearly certain that this was going to be the place until I found my current apartment.

For comparison, here’s another unit in Citizen that has slightly less space, but with a courtyard view as opposed to a city view. This unit was $140/month cheaper than the above unit. Is the downgrade in view worth the downgrade in price?

One commenter pointed out that it was “gauche” for me to be occasionally evaluating the property in front of the actual rental agent, something you can hear a bit of in the videos. On the contrary, I think it provided some refreshing honesty. Imagine being a rental agent and showing dozens of people your apartment units for 9-10 hours six days a week (including weekends, when it’s most busy). Most people are totally poker-faced about what they think about a unit, and often say nothing until they are talking about it on the car ride home. The process can be frustrating and trying for the agent, who is just trying to do a good job and has nothing to go by. When people are actually honest about their concerns in this process, it’s a better experience for everyone.

HUGE THANKS to my friends Sarah, Megan, Audrey, Laremy, and Laura for helping me to navigate this treacherous process. Big thanks also to my rental agent, Kim Reidy, who was an invaluable guide throughout.

In the Past 14 Days

In the past 14 days, I have:

  • Moved myself and many of my possessions from my home in Boston to my new (temporary corporate housing) home in Seattle
  • Started a new position at Microsoft
  • Seen and evaluated dozens of apartment units (at least 20) in several different Seattle neighborhoods
  • Recorded three podcast episodes, and edited a fourth.
  • Put down a deposit on a new apartment
Things are slowly settling down, a little bit every day. And the adventure has just begun. 

Just Stop Trying Already

Readers of this blog know that I’ve recently started a new job at Microsoft in Redmond, WA. I’ve only been there for a week, but I’ve already started to feel a sense of pride creeping into my psyche when I read about the company’s breakthroughs in tech news. Conversely, I feel involuntarily defensive when people bash it.

Thus, it’s no surprise that Alex Goldfayn’s piece in Mashable this morning (“Why Microsoft Is Being Left in the Dust“) really got my ire going. Here’s the main thrust of Goldfayn’s argument:

If you want to know why Microsoft’s share price has been flat for 11 years while Apple, Amazon, and Google shares have soared, this is why. Microsoft is not innovating aggressively. It is not leading categories or blazing trails. No, it’s acquiring aggressively as a shortcut to innovation. That isn’t working. Its own history suggests as much.

Let me begin by acknowledging that Microsoft is not a perfect company. It’s a massive organization with nearly 100,000 employees and on a fundamental level, large organizations just can’t move as quickly as lean and mean startups. Microsoft’s track record in the consumer market has not been perfect (see this interview with MS executive Robbie Bach for a fascinating take on this), but it’s frequently come out with products that demand and deserve our attention.

Goldfayn’s piece is pretty meandering; he brings up a bunch of random examples and doesn’t really tie them very well to his thesis. The primary focus of his article is Microsoft’s recent investment in Barnes & Noble. Why invest in an organization that is so far removed from Microsoft’s core competencies? Goldfayn cites several acquisition examples to back up his claim that this acquisition will turn out to be ill-fated: 1) Windows Phone/Nokia, 2) The Yahoo/Bing search deal, 3) Skype.

With regards to Windows Phone, although Nokia had a rough quarter recently, people love their Windows Phones! With Windows Phone, Microsoft accomplished what any sane observer would have deemed impossible: it took a flagging operating system off the market (Windows Mobile), righted the massive ship, then came back from nowhere with a user experience that some reviewers have described as being “in a class of its own.” Windows Phone may not have the market share of other OSes but we are just getting started over here.

With regards to Bing, Goldfayn writes that “Google’s search market share is a dominant 66%, with Microsoft’s Bing a very distant second at 15%. After spending billions building and marketing Bing, Microsoft is barely visible in Google’s rear-view mirror.” Again, Microsoft has shown that it’s in this thing for the long haul, and its recent innovations in social search show that it’s not content to merely be a follower. Will the market share come? I can’t say, but I know that we’re the only company that has made significant inroads against Google. Who else can say that? Who else even has the capability to be able to do that?

And as for the extremely recent acquisition of Skype, even Goldfayn acknowledges that “it’s too early to tell”! Give it a few months, will ya? Sheesh.

There’s a broader trend here that really troubles me among the tech pundits, and that’s the following implication that I sense from reading pieces such as Goldfayn’s: “You stink at this so just stop trying already.” I read Apple-centered blogs such as Daring Fireball pretty religiously, and the unadulterated joy that the authors get from seeing Apple completely lay waste to their competition is palpable. It’s fun to root for the winning team; no doubt about it.

What we forget is that a world where one company dominates an entire industry isn’t really great for anyone (Microsoft is no stranger to this concept). Do we really want ridiculously important industries like search, mobile, and publishing to be dominated by a single company (i.e. Google, Apple, and Amazon, respectively)? Do we really want people like Microsoft to lay down their arms and just give up? Because if so, we’re asking for a world with less choice. We’re asking for a world where consumers lose big time.

As for me? I for one am glad we’re fighting these fights.

Things I’ve Learned So Far at Microsoft

I have been an employee of Microsoft for three days. For my first day on campus, all new hires went through New Employee Orientation (NEO), a glorious 9-hour session where experienced employees explained our benefits to us and got us up to speed on the technical ins-and-outs of working at the company. Since then, I’ve just been soaking up as much information as possible, trying to ramp up for the exciting projects I have in the weeks ahead (and which I hope to explain to you eventually, when the time is right).

In the meantime, I present a few stray observations I’ve made during my extremely short time here so far:

The People – Over 45,000 people work at Microsoft’s Redmond, WA campus, well above the number that populate many universities. The diversity of individuals is insane. There are FTEs (full-time employees) and contractors and vendors, recent college graduates and grandparents, people from every state in the U.S. and from dozens of countries all around the world. All types of viewpoints and personalities are well-represented, but there is one thing that everybody has in common: They are all extremely frickin’ smart. From what I heard about Microsoft back when I was at Harvard Business School, the interview/recruiting process is designed to winnow down the pool of candidates to only the best of the best. The intellect of the employees here is palpable, and there’s a really empowering sense that one gets from knowing that one is working with some of the most skilled people in the world.

The Benefits – My colleague at Microsoft described their benefits as “the Mercedes Benz of benefits.” I’m inclined to agree. In learning about our benefits, I feel very much like Alice in Wonderland; just when I think I’ve reached the bottom of the rabbit hole, I continue tumbling down. In a word, the benefits are astonishing. People’s lives can change due to the benefits they receive here. You can finally get surgeries done that you’d once deemed unfeasible. You can lose that weight you’ve been angling to get rid of. Most importantly, you can see IMAX movies for $3 a piece! When I learned that I’d be receiving an offer from Microsoft, I felt like I’d won the lottery. And while I don’t think that sentiment has changed, learning about the benefits here is like learning I just won the Power Play component of the lottery too.

The Cause – Nearly all the people I’ve met are not only more than competent, they’re also passionate about what they’re doing. They love this company. They love what the company is doing, and they love what it stands for. Ultimately, Microsoft is all about harnessing technology to make people’s lives easier. And while we all may struggle occasionally with an Excel spreadsheet or agonize over a Word doc, nobody reading this can deny that their lives have in some way been touched by the work that Microsoft has done over the past few decades (most likely for the better!).

People are doing things here that will change the world. They want to surprise and delight their customers. They want to take technology to its fullest potential.

I can’t wait to jump in.