Queen of Narnia.

tilda swinton as the white witch, in chariotChronicles of Narnia is a pretty good movie, with some truly beautiful visual effects (especially those to do with snow, fur, and talking animals). But Tilda Swinton as the White Witch is an awesome villain, maybe one of the greats — right up there with Darth Vader and Khan. I was cheering for her to win. Aslan who? Give me a spiffy Art Nouveau-inspired ice castle and a chariot drawn by polar bears over medieval tents and pennants any day. (more pictures)

Queen of Narnia.

iPod/iTunes tip.

When you install iTunes for Windows, it defaults to the setting that automatically keeps your iPod in sync with your iTunes library. That means if your computer doesn’t have much music on it, and you plug in an iPod that you’d topped off with music from another computer, all the music on your iPod will get wiped out. Worse, there’s no way to change this behavior without first plugging in an iPod. Catch-22. Stupid, stupid product design.

iPod/iTunes tip.

True music.

Chavez RavineI’ve been listening to Ry Cooder’s album Chavez Ravine for about half a year now. It’s an amazing album — an impressionistic, lively, even danceable historical tour through the Chavez Ravine neighborhood of Los Angeles — a predominantly Mexican neighborhood that was bulldozed in the 1950s to make room for Dodger Stadium. If you only know Cooder through his work producing The Buena Vista Social Club, this album is a revalation — it spans everything from UFOs to hepcats to the McCarthy hearings, and Cooder does a great job bringing the various characters and issues to life through his music.

Listening to it this morning, I just made a connection: on one track, there’s the voice of a man speaking about how he got taken down by the anticommunists in the 1950s. Turns out this man is Frank Wilkinson, an early advocate for affordable housing, who died earlier this month. There’s a nice Wikinson obituary on NPR. After Wilkinson refused to state whether he’d been a member of the communist party, he was suspended from his job. Wilkinson took his fight to the Supreme Court and spent the rest of his life being an ardent champion of free speech. Amazing to realize that it’s actually his voice there in the tune “Don’t Call Me Red.”

More Cooder trivia: Ry Cooder once played banjo for Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys.

Here’s a good review of Chavez Ravine:
Real Roots Music / ‘The Buena Vista guy’ Ry Cooder goes home to re-create a lost moment in time

[Cooder’s] answer is this complex series of mood pieces, story songs and magical-realist vignettes — cool cats on the make, a Chinese laundryman doing business in a Mexican neighborhood, young Latino boxers aspiring to greatness at the Olympic auditorium, sailors hired to beat up pachucos, maniacal developers planning to seize desirable real estate, anticommunist politicians persecuting utopian civil servants, troubadours waxing nostalgic about the old barrios, a “space vato” in a UFO observing it all and the land itself offering a final prayer in the form of a Central American “Cloud Forest Poem.

True music.

Loving, by Henry Green.

Loving; Living; Party Going (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)Set among the servants and masters in a huge, old Irish castle during World War II, this is a masterfully-written, very modern, short novel (published 1945) with beautiful, restrained description and pitch-perfect dialogue. There’s very little interiority–you almost never learn what the characters actually think, and some of the descriptions are even hedged, as if conditional or uncertain. But for all that writerly style, it’s also a charming, funny, and surprisingly touching love story. **** 1/2

Loving, by Henry Green.

Always make new mistakes.

Seven years ago, I started a company called Utipia with two other people: a fellow journalist, and a talented developer who happened to be my brother. We wrote a business plan, raised some money from friends and family, incorporated, and built a working demo to show how our clever content could be cleverly delivered to the web sites of our nonexistent partners.

Unfortunately, we knew next to nothing about business. Probably our biggest mistake was not getting somebody on board, right away, who had experience starting and running a small company. Our second biggest mistake was trying to start a content company just as the dot-com market was imploding. We burned through half of our seed funding, couldn’t raise any more money, and couldn’t get any traction in the increasingly cautious market of 2000. Bad timing! We also wasted a lot of time and money on nonessential “accoutrements” of doing business in Silicon Valley: a Delaware incorporation, a polished business plan that used all the right buzzwords, a splashy demo at Demo. All bad moves. So, after about a year of suffering, we folded it up and returned what was left of the money to our investors. I returned to consulting and journalism, sadder but wiser about the ways of business.

Now it looks like Dan Gillmor has learned a similar lesson. He had higher-profile backers than Utipia did, he had an experienced business partner, and to his credit it looks like he was able to attract a significant (if smallish) audience to his site. But he made a lot of the same mistakes we did with Utipia. Among those mistakes: Relying too much on big-name partnerships that never materialized. Getting distracted from the project’s central mission. Believing that covering business as a journalist makes you qualified to run a business. And, trying to hang on to your identity as a writer and journalist while simultaneously wearing the hat of an entrepreneur.

I wish Dan well. As for myself, I know that if I ever start a company again, I will do a few things differently. I will stay focused on a more manageable goal, expanding the scope of the mission only once we have solid enough footing to support that. I won’t incorporate unless it’s absolutely necessary (and if it is, I’ll do it myself, without engaging expensive lawyers if at all possible). I’ll focus on generating revenue — any revenue — from day one, rather than placing all my bets on partnerships that may not materialize. And I’ll bring in more expert business help earlier on.

As Esther Dyson says, “Always make new mistakes.” Actually, I prefer Samuel Beckett’s formulation: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

From Dan: A Letter to the Bayosphere Community | Bayosphere

Always make new mistakes.

Screening the Latest Bestseller.

My story on the Sony Reader and the e-book market is the lead story on Wired News this morning. Check it out!

Wired News: Screening the Latest Bestseller

image of Sony Reader

Electronic books have traditionally gone straight from the manufacturer to the remainders bin — but the market has never gone away entirely, despite years of tepid sales and failed predictions.

Now a new device from Sony is generating buzz worthy of a Stephen King novel. Some people are even wondering whether the Sony Reader might be just the ticket to kick the e-book market into high gear.

Scheduled to go on sale this spring for between $300 and $400, the Reader is a compact slab about the size of a small paperback book (5-by-7 inches, and a half-inch thick). But it’s the 3.5-by-4.8-inch display that made it the buzz of the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month in Las Vegas.

Screening the Latest Bestseller.

Screening the Latest Bestseller

Electronic books have traditionally gone straight from the manufacturer to the remainders bin — but the market has never gone away entirely, despite years of tepid sales and failed predictions.

Now a new device from Sony is generating buzz worthy of a Stephen King novel. Some people are even wondering whether the Sony Reader might be just the ticket to kick the e-book market into high gear.

Scheduled to go on sale this spring for between $300 and $400, the Reader is a compact slab about the size of a small paperback book (5-by-7 inches, and a half-inch thick). But it’s the 3.5-by-4.8-inch display that made it the buzz of the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month in Las Vegas.

The screen uses E Ink technology developed by a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company. It consists of 480,000 tiny “microcapsules,” each of which contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When current is applied to electrodes underneath these capsules, they turn black or white, depending on the polarity of the current.

The result is a display that looks far more like ordinary paper than a liquid crystal display, because the pixels reflect ambient light rather than transmit light from behind. There’s no flicker, because the pixels are completely static (in an LCD or a cathode-ray tube display, by contrast, pixels need to be “refreshed” 60 times per second or more).

The E Ink technology also conserves batteries because current is used only when pixels need to change their color — between virtual page turns, the Reader consumes no current at all. Its batteries will last for about 7,500 pages, according to Sony.

Publishers are excited. Random House and Simon & Schuster said they’ll have 3,000 titles apiece available through Sony Connect for the Reader’s spring debut.

But will consumers take the bait? Even though an estimated 65 percent of new books are already available in electronic form, e-book sales still lag far behind those of printed books. According to the trade group International Digital Publishing Forum, e-book sales in 2004 totaled $9.6 million and will probably have topped $15 million in 2005 (final figures for last year aren’t yet available). Meanwhile, overall printed book sales for 2004 were $23.7 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.

It’s not for a lack of dedicated e-book devices, either. In 1997, a company called NuvoMedia released the Rocket eBook reader, the first of several such devices to hit the market in the late 1990s. These devices were similar in size and shape to the Sony Reader, although they used older LCD screen technology. None were commercial successes. Even Sony’s Librie, which uses the E Ink display and was released to the Japanese market in 2004, hasn’t sold that well.

“The problem was that the devices weren’t very good, the screens were terrible, the prices were too high and there was a terrible selection of content,” said Michael Gartenberg, a vice president at JupiterResearch, a market research company. By contrast, Gartenberg said, the Sony Reader is small and readable enough to interest consumers.

Also piquing publishers’ interest is the fact that Sony plans to integrate its Reader with its online Sony Connect store. It’s a not-so-subtle nod to Apple’s success in selling music through the iTunes Music Store, which makes buying and transferring songs to iPods extremely simple.

Currently, e-book readers for laptops and PDAs can be difficult to install and configure. What’s more, digital rights management built into the books means consumers don’t always know what they’ll be able to do with the books once they’ve purchased them. Sony is instead promising a very simple purchase-and-download process.

“The pain is lessened somewhat if you have a seamless experience,” said Nick Bogaty, executive director of the IDPF. “You don’t hear a lot of complaint about DRM with iTunes,” although it does have rights-management restrictions.

The market may also have changed since the late 1990s. “I think consumers in general are ready for digital reading,” said Keith Titan, vice president of new media for Random House. “Before, reading digitally was a completely foreign experience. Now, people are starting to think, ‘I’m reading all these PDFs, all these RSS feeds, and I could really use a device.'”

Sony has said that the Reader will be able to display content from RSS feeds and from PDF files in addition to e-books in Sony’s own BBeB format.

In the end, whether the Sony Reader winds up kick-starting the e-book market depends more on Sony’s marketing and pricing decisions than on the sexy E Ink technology, according to Gartenberg. “The technology looks like it’s in place. What it comes down to is if they can deliver enough content at a reasonable price,” Gartenberg said.

Books have been written on sheets of dried, mashed plants for about five millennia. Paper is a cheap, relatively durable and versatile technology. Sony’s new Reader will not spell the end of that long history, but it could be the opening of an interesting new chapter.

Link: Screening the Latest Bestseller

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

Screening the Latest Bestseller

Bound to Please, by Michael Dirda.

Bound to PleaseBound to Please, by Michael Dirda

What can I say? I haven’t felt this transformed by a collection of essays since I read Jeffrey Steingarten’s first book, The Man Who Ate Everything. Like Steingarten, Dirda has an infectious enthusiasm for his topic (for Dirda it’s literature, instead of food); an impressive, seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of his subject; and the ability to write naturally, easily, and even humorously. This is not just a bunch of book reviews, it’s a friendly, eclectic, and well-informed tour through a whole world of literature. Above all, the reviews are advertisements for the pleasure of reading, and virtually every one had me adding at least one more title to my reading list. I’m now looking forward to discovering Herodotus (blame my classics-impaired education for that oversight), Baudelaire, Flaubert, Ronald Firbank, Avram Davidson, Randall Jarrell’s essays, and a couple dozen more. God knows when I’ll have the time for all this, but I’m looking forward to them nevertheless.

Dirda wields a tremendous amount of erudition with a light touch, and the result is readable, entertaining, and inspiring. ***** (five stars)

Bound to Please, by Michael Dirda.