August 2009 Archives

Scream Sorbet

I don't tend to like sorbet (or sherbet, the fizzier dairy-added version); while flavorful, it always seemed to me that sorbet was far too icy for my tastes; in essence, many of the sorbets I have tried have been more like eating frozen juice, rather than a tasty frozen treat. At the Mountain View Farmer's Market this weekend, I sampled some rather lovely sorbet from Scream Sorbet.

A half-dozen plain stainless steel jars with the name of the flavor and ingredients stand on a table, along with paper bag for composting the sample spoons from past patrons. In the back is a smaller table with an large ice chest and various supplies such as paper bags, and plastic containers. The sorbet flavors are named plainly, and are named after the source. The flavors were Chocolate Raspberry, Vanilla Almond, Strawberry, Crenshaw Melon, Concord Grape and Elephant Heart Plum; the ingredients, likewise were very simple -- usually just fruit, sugar, water and sometimes pectin or sea salt. The Vanilla Almond is made from whole vanilla beans and almonds and ground down to powdery levels. Scream Sorbet sources their ingredients from organic, local and seasonal produce from the farmers markets they go to. The sorbet is freshly made from the night before, one quart at a time. They also employ the use of quick-freeze machinery and titanium blades in the production of the sorbet, which results in the ice-free smoothness.

Scream Sorbet can be found in many farmer's markets throughout the bay area. Their prices are reasonable: $3 for a single scoop, $5 for a double, $10 for a to-go container of six scoops. The containers are packed to order, so flavors can be mixed and matched as well. They provide to-go containers as well as ice packs to keep it cool on the way home. In the future, they hope to be able to provide pre-packaged containers.

Twitter, Facebook and Yelp

Golden Age Comics are the New Benjamins

Recently, a meth ring was broken up, and the investigators discovered over $500,000 worth of comics in plastic cases. It seems that golden age comics proved to be a good way of laundering money. The basic method became buy golden age comics with dirty money, and then re-sell the comics on eBay.

On Free e-books and the Future of e-book Publishing

When I initially got the Amazon Kindle DX, I was a bit apprehensive about the usability of the device, but in the recent weeks, I have discovered that the saving grace of the device is the ability to read PDFs as a valid format; paired with Google Books, the amount of free reading material is nearly limitless.

Google Books has recently made their downloads available in EPUB ebook format as well, which seems to be the format that non-Amazon e-book readers are favoring. In February, Tim O'Reilly had some very interesting things to say about Amazon and the epub format in an article in Forbes:

    "The Amazon Kindle has sparked huge media interest in e-books and has seemingly jump-started the market. Its instant wireless access to hundreds of thousands of e-books and seamless one-click purchasing process would seem to give it an enormous edge over other dedicated e-book platforms. Yet I have a bold prediction: Unless Amazon embraces open e-book standards like epub, which allow readers to read books on a variety of devices, the Kindle will be gone within two or three years."
As a user of the Kindle, I agree with O'Reilly to a certain extent -- the Kindle needs to change to embrace other formats, and for Amazon to succeed as a marketplace for e-books, they need to offer e-books that are available in other formats. One of the strengths of physical books is that rarely do I need to worry about the format, whereas, that seems to be the biggest issue on an e-book; ultimately the consumer's question will be whether or not the books will work on the device.

While CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray all look very similar in format, the marketplace has done a great job in educating the consumer about the differences between the formats, and in fact, many devices from many different companies can handle all three formats, regardless of where the CD/DVD/Blu-ray was purchased.

All of Amazon's Kindle books come in the proprietary, DRM-restricted AZW format; Sony plans to sell all of their e-books in ePub format by the end of the year, doing away completely with the Adobe DRM-protected format, and Barnes and Noble will be selling their books in ePub format as well. With all the device makers and booksellers rallying to be united against Amazon's Kindle and storefront, it is only a matter of time before Amazon also embraces the ePub format. On the hardware side, this will undoubtedly require a firmware patch for the older Kindles to accept the ePub format, but that should be an easy enough thing for Amazon to provide through Whispernet or as a download off the Amazon website.

If Amazon goes to the ePub format, Amazon can also sell books to other readers; while the Kindle has a very nice profit margin1 for Amazon, it is likely that repeat purchases from Amazon's website for content for competing e-readers would also be substantial; Amazon, if it wants to keep the Kindle in the market would also keep some material exclusive in AZW for Kindle customers only (such as the free promotional books). While publishers might be tempted to sell books in ePub on their own, my guess is that for the majority of publishing companies, the cost of maintaining an online storefront would be prohibitive in comparison to striking an e-publishing deal with Sony, Barnes and Noble or Amazon. While the cost of distribution of works online is approaches zero, it is not, as bandwidth for distribution is paid for by the customer or by the e-reader manufacturer. Amazon's Kindle 3G is provided by Sprint 2, and Sony provides bandwidth via AT&T. Neither of the devices come with data contracts as the device manufacturer pays for the bandwidth

There is little reason for Amazon to not adopt the ePub format, as ePub also has DRM protection as an option. My guess is that at the time the Kindle 1 was released, ePub was still too nascent a format to support; it has only been recently that e-books have been gaining in popularity, and ePub has only begun gaining in popularity recently. Adobe PDFs can be far too big and expensive to transmit wirelessly, which is why I supect the first two Kindles require an e-mail service to convert them into AZW format. I also suspect the AZW-formatted files to be optimized for Kindle Readers, as the Kindle has a limited set of characters and fonts to use. Converting to ePub would however mean that Amazon would again be a primary distribution channel, rather than a publisher, and that may be something that Amazon doesn't want to happen.

1 The Kindle 2 has a parts cost of $186, not including the cost of unlimited access to Sprint's 3G network; this means that the Kindle 2 at $369 had a nearly 50% profit margin; if we assume that the Kindle DX has a similar profit margin at $489, that might put the cost to build to be in the ballpark of $240-260. Recently the price of the Kindle 2 has been dropped to $299, changing the profit margin to only 38%.

2 Sprint's current mobile broadband prices are $60 for up to 5GB of data per month/300MB roaming, with 5 cents/megabyte after that. Given that books downloaded over Whispernet are relatively small, I suspect that Amazon likely has a contract (for say five years) and pays a lump fee for access to Sprint's 3G network, and while the Kindle is certainly a profitable device for Amazon, the longer one holds on to a Kindle, the more expensive it becomes for Amazon, and ongoing Whispernet costs are likely in part subsidized by Kindle book purchases from the Amazon store. The websurfing experience on Kindles thus far has been abysmal, and I strongly believe that this is intentional, as it keeps the data usage low, and largely relegated to purchasing and downloading books, which is very inexpensive. Despite all this, Amazon can afford to pay the bandwidth for the Kindles, as it is only a small cost to them compared to what the bandwidth for running their main website is.

What a Wonderful World / Left 4 Dead Video


Wherever you go, there you are

I feel a little old: Buckaroo Banzai is 25 years old.

45 Days of the Kindle DX

When I first received the Kindle DX in July, I wasn't sure if I was going to keep it. In fact, I came up with a long list of reasons why the Kindle DX just wasn't quite ready yet.

For the most part, the Kindle DX is still not a fully there product; within the last 45 days, Barnes and Noble has appeared as a new contender for the e-book marketplace, and Sony has not only decided to drop their prices down to $9.99, but also to support the ePub format. These are all potential market factors that will make a big difference in the fight ahead. The ePub standard is a file format that is a free and open standard, which has the ability for DRM; Amazon Kindles can read ePub files, but the content from Amazon's store is in their own proprietary AZW format. Amazon in effect has made it easy to read other digital book file formats on the Kindle, but not made it easier for the competitors readers to purchase books from their bookstore. This approach is very similar to the initial iTunes store; as long as the users had the device or the software, the content would work; break away from the device and software, and the content wouldn't work. The difference here is that Amazon is just a website; there is no Amazon e-reader software available for the computer, and thus, the point of entry for most people to the e-reader experience is by taking the plunge and purchasing an e-reader device. While Amazon has a selection of free books; it took me less time that you would think for me to break down and purchase a digital book from the Amazon store.

On day one, I didn't really explore the resources available for e-books; in fact, the Kindle DX reads a great deal of formats, and a great many resources make their works available in formats the Kindle DX is capable of reading. While some of these sites are pay-to-download, a large number of them are free. I have also discovered that being able to read PDFs on the Kindle DX is a great thing; while the screen of the DX is smaller than a 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, it's about the right size for reading PDF files; while the support for PDF isn't completely there in that it only zooms once, it will allow search and some other limited functionalities; enough that I've been making my own PDFs to read on the Kindle DX.

For any one e-reader to succeed, the price of the e-readers needs to hit about half the cost as it is currently; a price of around $200-$250 is probably the sweet spot where the consumer would be more open to purchasing a black and white device, and in fact with all the competition entering into the market, it is no surprise that Amazon recently dropped the price of the Kindle 2 down to $299. Part of the problem is that the e-books are still too expensive for the average consumer; the average e-book has a cost between $7-15 dollars, which still seems like a lot of money for something that is merely digital bits, and digital property has little value to those outside of games. The solution here, then, would be for Amazon to simultaneous drop the price of the reader and the e-books; the goal at this point should to grow the market, and move beyond the early adopter/techno-savvy user stage and move into the mainstream.

Because the Kindle uses Sprint 3G, and the user never pays for it, in some ways the Kindle has a much lower total cost in ownership than an iPhone.

Of course, on top of that are the rumors of the Apple iTablet, which may turn out to be the giant iPod touch that ends up winning the e-reader market because it can do more than read e-books.

Movie Review: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

G.I. Joe is the last big blockbuster movie of the summer; at a cost of almost 200 million, it's easy to see where the money went: explosions and special effects. The plot is a very simple good guys versus bad guys, and the movie is best enjoyed with brain solidly switched off until the credits roll.

The movie begins with a scene in France, where McCullen is found guilty of selling weapons to both sides of a conflict, and forced to wear a metal mask for the remainder of his life; we flash forward to the present day, with his modern day ancestor James McCullen, head of M.A.R.S., an organization which has finished developing a nanomite weapon for NATO; these nanomites, when deployed are capable of quickly digesting metal. For the majority of the next two hours is the back and forth of the Joes getting the nanomite warheads and the bad guys stealing it back; in between the good guys train, partake in witty banter, discuss philosophy and reflect on the traumatic events of their lives. The movie is an ensemble action spy film, a sort of James Bond film, where none of the stars have the presence of being a movie star, and spend way too much time explaining the events of the film.

Is the movie a two hour toy commercial? Not any more than a film like The Dark Knight is, though the flying Hasbro logo 30 seconds in may suggest it. There are toys available for the vehicles and the characters, but it doesn't go out of its way to shamelessly promote the toys, though the amount of toys that could be made from the gadgetry introduced in the movie could keep Hasbro in the black for a long time. Of the characters from the 80s, it is in fact the bad guys that still resemble their toy counterparts; the good guys have been largely revamped (save for Snake Eyes, whose design remains unchanged). Rated PG-13, the movie misses the target age audience for the toys, and it is highly unlikely that collectors will pick up on the new toyline to satisfy their nostalgic urges.

The movie isn't designed to make you feel or think; it's a mindless action film, with explosions and CGI effects galore; any expectations of being more than a visual feast for the eyes, will result in being disappointed.

Flynn Lives

The trailer for the upcoming sequel to the 1982 film Tron, Tron: Legacy. The website for the film reminds me of what you'd see for a ARG.

Alice in Wonderland


Buffy vs. Edward


I think this video highlights one of the major differences in the way that female characters are portrayed in the two vampire properties; in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the protagonist is equally just as capable (and perhaps even more so) as her male vampire partners; while in Twilight, Bella is quite simply an object to be captured; she is no equal to her partners, and is quite the stereotypical damsel in distress and yet this inequality is what Bella and Edward's relationship is founded on. The juxtaposition of the two makes for an interesting mashup, as the difference in a Buffy response to Edward's actions is likely more true to reality.

The Matrix Online is now offline for good

The Matrix Online Servers are now officially closed.

The Matrix Online debuted several years ago; originally a game from Warner Bros. and SEGA, Sony Online Entertainment picked up the game rights from Monolith six months after its debut; this game is one of the few major MMOGs which has shutdown the servers entirely; most of the time, MMOG servers remain until the cost of maintenance exceeds the income from the players. The previous major MMOG to be retired was Asheron's Call 2 in 2005; many of the first-generation 3D MMOGs such as Meridian 59, Ultima Online and Everquest still have many active subscribers.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox Trailer

This adaptation of Roald Dahl's book of the same name started originally as a collaboration between Wes Anderson (Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums) and Henry Selick (Coraline, James and the Giant Peach) at Revolution Studios in 2004, the project moved to Fox Animation Studios and began production in 2007; Selick left to direct Coraline, and much of the crew were also whose who worked on animating Corpse Bride.