Sunday, December 19, 2010

Doctor Who

Over the last four months I have watched the all of the new Doctor Who serieses (seri? I don't know what the plural of series is). If you have seen them, then you know how awesome they are. If you haven't, then this is the next thing you need to watch them. I don't mean you should put it on your to-watch list. I mean you should stop watching whatever it is you are watching, even if you are in the middle of another show, and only stopped to read my blog, and watch Doctor Who. Seriously. There won't be a quiz this week on the blog, so you can stop reading and go watch Doctor Who. I won't feel bad you didn't finish my post.

So, you are still reading. That must mean you want more information on where to start. I recommend starting at the beginning (of the new series starting in 2005), although the first few episodes, while good for TV, are not really indicative of the brilliance that will follow. They are entertaining, but you probably won't understand my enthusiasm until you get to The Empty Child, which is the first episode written by Steven Moffat in series 1 (a series is like a season, except British). Whenever you see his name during the opening credits, you are in for a treat. Doctor Who episodes are generally excellent, but Moffat's are a step or two above the rest. They are wonderful blends of science fiction, horror, and humour. But Moffat is not the only brilliant writer, and the characters are so fun that even the less exciting episodes are enjoyable. Series 1 is excellent, but the others are better. The story is better if you watch it in order, so start with series 1.

"What is the show about?" you ask. If you haven't asked that yet, feel free to do so now, for I will tell you, in a spoiler-free manner. The main character is a mysterious time traveller named the Doctor. (When he introduces himself, people sometimes ask "Doctor who?", hence the show's name). He travels around and has adventures in space, on other planets, and on earth in the present, future, and past. He usually has a human companion or two who travel with him. His time machine looks (from the outside) like an old-school British police phone box, due to a malfunction in the time machine's self-disguising mechanism. The show is full of friendship, humour, adventure, and sometimes horror and tragedy. It is extremely well written and the stories are high quality science fiction. The doctor changes bodies sometimes (this happens, coincidentally, whenever an actor decides not to come back for another season). It's like how James Bond is played by many actors, except the show actually explains why he looks different.

If you still aren't convinced that you need to watch the show, then before watching from the beginning, watch one episode from the middle of season 3 called Blink. It stands well on its own so you can follow it once you've read the above paragraph. Watch it in the dark. Then go back and watch series 1.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


I am on my third phone this week. The first one, my old trusty iPhone 3GS, suited me fine, but it had a date with the pavement and they hit it off smashingly. I got an iPhone 4 to replace it, since that cost as much as a screen repair from Apple. Unfortunately, the phone they gave me was completely broken. I assume the correct behavior for an iPhone is not to run much slower than my 3GS and have random screen corruption and restart every time I try to run an application. I took it back for a replacement and hopefully this one will actually work. The iPhone 4 is nice. The screen is amazing. It's like going from DVD to Blu-ray (almost; the resolution is 4x higher, not 6x like Blu-ray over DVD). You can see small text in images clearly and the text looks perfect. I've never seen anything like it. It's like the amazing screen technology Bella had in the movie Twilight. The camera shows a close up of her internet research on (SPOILER WARNING) vampires. You can see the Google search box perfectly; there are no pixels at all. She had a MacBook, and I know none of them actually have screens like that. No computer does. But the iPhone 4 looks like it does. Very nice. Photos look too yellowish sometimes though; I hope they fix that. Most photos end up okay though, and the new HDR and flash capabilities are really cool. The phone seems about the same speed as the 3GS, except in the Schlock Mercenary app, which scrolls less smoothly than it used to.

Since I dislike Apple, I wish someone else would make a good phone so I could stop giving Apple my money. For me, a phone must do the following:

  1. Phone calls (OK, they all do this)
  2. Internet and email (Any smartphone)
  3. GPS navigation (They all do this nowadays)
  4. Camera (Again, standard fare)
  5. Play audiobooks (For some reason Zunes can do this but Windows 7 Phones can't)
This leaves me with two options: Android and iPhone. The iPhone has a much nicer interface, supports and has better software, and has the best screen right now. So, since no one else has shown enough interest in my money to make a phone I want to spend it on, Apple gets my business. I can put away my dislike of Apple* and choose the best tool for the job, which is currently an Apple product. This could change once better Windows 7 phones come out with Audible support and higher-resolution screens. Or if Android can get their act together and hardware-accelerate their slow UI and provide proper 3D support, I might consider that again.


* I don't like Apple because:

  • Force of habit; I've been on the PC side of the PC versus Mac debate since middle school.
  • They make upper mid-range computers but charge high-end prices (My 17.3 inch laptop cost $700 less than a current 17 inch MBP, which it soundly beats in every area except battery life)
  • They don't support movies except in an obsolete, legacy format (DVD)
  • They act smug about things they either don't really have (better UI and stability) or only have due to their unpopularity (fewer viruses)
  • They completely messed up the e-book market and they don't even make an e-reader
  • They always put form before function

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

John Bellairs

John Bellairs was my favorite author when I was a child. He is still one of my favorites. I recently re-read his novels and found that they are still wonderful even though I'm over twice as old as when I read them the first time. John Bellairs started his writing career with humorous books like The Pedant and the Shuffly and St. Figeta and Other Parodies. The first is a silly short story, and I haven't read the other. Those are not examples of what made John Bellairs great though. John Bellairs is one of the best horror authors ever. His first horror book was his last book for adults, The Face in the Frost. It is a slightly awkwardly-paced fantasy book with moments of genius that were the first indication of how good Bellairs was going to be. It's a decent book, but it's nothing compared to his next book, The House with a Clock in its Walls. House is the first of his books for young readers and is an excellent example of what the rest of Bellairs's books were like: it takes place in an old mansion, has loveable characters, and is a horror/mystery. Bellairs wrote about many fascinating old mansions, so he must have thought they were as cool as I do. The protagonist is a young boy, Lewis Barnavelt, whose parents have been killed, so he goes to live with his uncle in a mansion. After this book, Bellairs wrote two sequels before creating a new protagonist, Johnny Dixon. Johnny, a Catholic boy, befriends a history professor, allowing Bellairs to bring lots of antiquity and history into the stories. Like with old mansions, I also share a love of these things. In fact, since I read these books at a tender young age, I am not sure if it wasn't Bellairs who taught me to love old and mysterious things like mansions and medieval history. Most of the books Bellairs wrote were about Johnny and his friends. Bellairs created one other set of characters, featuring the protagonist Anthony Monday, and one of these books was my first Bellairs book: The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb. Although there are only four Anthony Monday books, and the first doesn't even have anything supernatural in it, Anthony is my favorite character. His three supernatural adventures, including the first book published after Bellairs's untimely death, are some of the coolest stories Bellairs wrote.

When John Bellairs died in 1991, he had two partially-written books and notes for two more. John's son, Frank, got Brad Strickland to finish them. Strickland did an amazing job, and the first two are two of the best books in the series. In fact, The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder might be my favorite one of all, and Bellairs only wrote the first couple chapters or so. However, that gave him time to do what he does best and set up an excellent setting and atmosphere, which Strickland was able to use well to create an awesome adventure. It was a good combination of both author's strengths. Strickland continued to write books about John Bellairs's characters, and while not as good as the original Bellairs stories, they are pretty good and I hope they keep coming. It's been over two years since the last one, so I hope he hasn't decided to throw in the towel.

I discovered John Bellairs because the covers of the books were so cool. They were dark and fit the mood of the stories perfectly. They were done by the greatest illustrator ever: Edward Gorey. The subtly creepy drawings effectively screamed "READ THIS BOOK!!" to any young reader passing the juvenile section of the library. For me, it was love at first sight. Unfortunately, somebody has decided that today's youth are too stupid to understand atmospheric illustrations and have replaced the cover art with lurid cheesy standard scary kid's book style pictures. It's like plastering a billboard over the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. The new covers aren't bad, but the publisher has Edward Gorey art for this series, so I cannot understand why they don't use it.

As I mentioned earlier, I collect books. The treasure of my collection is a copy of The Eyes of the Killer Robot signed by Bellairs in 1986. Since he died 19 years ago, his signed books are hard to find, but AbeBooks had a couple when I checked. They also had The Chessmen of Doom, but that one was more expensive, and Robot is a better book.

If you haven't read Bellairs's books, give them a try. If you have read them and like them, Joseph Delaney's Spook's Apprentice series is the current successor to the awesomely creepy juvenile literature throne.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A postscript to the movie format debate

A couple of years ago there were a lot of people saying that Blu-ray would never catch on because digital downloads would be the way of the future. However, these predictions turned out to be wrong and I have not heard the announcement the death of physical media as much lately. It was ironic that digital download proponents said they would make Blu-ray irrelevant, since Blu-rays are the one video format they can't supplant. The convenience of digital downloads (and streaming video) make them a good replacement for other low-fidelity video sources like DVD. Streaming video can look as good or better than DVD video. However, it does not even come close to Blu-ray's quality. This is commonly misunderstood due to the 1080P myth, which is that one 1080P source looks as good as another. However, streaming 1080P video is highly compressed to the point that most of the detail gets compressed out of the image. At that point it just looks like an upscaled DVD (no jagged lines, but no detail either). Blu-ray is so much more than that. The lack of compression makes for a great picture, but also results in amounts of data that your ISP really doesn't want to deliver. In fact, some ISPs that get mad if you go over 250 GB in a month would not want you to watch more than 6 or so streamed Blu-rays per month. So digital downloads are no threat to Blu-ray yet. They are to some extent replacing DVDs, but mostly as rentals, not as purchases. People like to have physical copies of their purchases, so I am not sure if digital distribution will ever completely replace physical media even after the internet can handle delivery of premium content like real HD video. Another issue is digital suppliers' unwillingness to provide the same quality as the physical version. I don't use services like iTunes because they don't sell uncompressed music. Maybe I can't hear the difference, but I want all the bits! I'm annoyed that I have to settle for 16-bit stereo music in the first place because DVD audio never caught on. 5.1 24-bit music would be cool. Digital video downloads are always compressed, and even when bandwidths allow streaming Blu-ray quality, they will still cut corners with compressed video just to save costs on their servers. So physical discs are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Blu-rays are great, but what if you cannot afford an HDTV and Blu-ray player yet? Do you just stop buying movies or continue to invest in an obsolete format? One day you will have an HDTV and your DVD collection will suddenly be the wrong format. You can play them, sure, but you'll kick yourself for spending all the money on DVDs when the Blu-ray would have served you better in the long run. Fortunately, the movie studios have made this easier by including a DVD in the case with Blu-rays. Now there is no excuse to buy DVDs (well, unless they are significantly cheaper). You can buy the BD/DVD combo and watch the blurry version now while having the good version for the glorious day when you get an HDTV. Speaking of future-proof, unless you want to buy movies twice, wait to buy the ones that were made in 3D but are only available in 2D now. This is why I have not bought Avatar. It's a decent action movie but a phenomenal 3D movie, so I'm not going to buy the 2D version now and then feel silly when I get a 3D TV sometime in the distant future.

Are Blu-rays worth the upgrade? They are awesome, if you can afford an HDTV. They let you see the movie much more clearly. This doesn't necessarily mean the movie is more enjoyable, but it's just nice to see clearly. That's why people wear corrective lenses instead of walking around in a blur. It's a luxury to have an HDTV, but BD players are cheap enough compared to them that there's no reason to squander an HDTV by watching DVDs on it. That's like buying a mansion and then living only in a tent in the living room.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Writing archaically is fun

Writing has become very easy nowadays. Ballpoint pens and cheap paper make writing easy, convenient, and boring. I love antiquity, and when I saw a metal-nibbed quill pen at Barnes and Noble a few years ago, I bought it for fun. I had always assumed that using a pen that you dip in ink was very difficult, inconvenient, and messy. I was wrong on all three counts (although the last one is true if you are careless). I quickly learned that a good nib (id est*, the pointy end) could hold a lot of ink, enough for several lines at least. So dipping the pen is not really that much of a hassle. You end up stopping for other reasons, like thinking or listening to the professor in class, more often than the pen needs to be dipped. Don't use an inkwell with slanted desks though, unless you really like the color of your ink and want to wear it. In general, don't leave the inkwell somewhere it can fall or get knocked over, and don't touch the opening of the inkwell or the tip of your pen with your hand. If you are careful, you'll most likely not get any ink anywhere you don't want it to be. As for the difficulty of using a dip pen, once you get used to the feel of a nib, it's mostly just like writing with a regular pen. Italic nibs require you to slow down a bit, since the edges of the point are less rounded and thus do not glide as well. For my fountain pen, I got a cursive italic nib, which is an italic nib that is slightly rounded for quicker writing.

Writing with an italic pen, in italic lettering, makes your writing look like it's from the middle ages. It's pretty sweet. I taught myself italic letters after I got my fountain pen, and now I have two distinct handwritings. My regular handwriting is illegible, and has been compared to Egyptian by multiple independent sources, none of whom can read actual Egyptian. One of my high school teachers said he tried to read my homework for five minutes before realizing that he was holding it upside down. The funny thing is that when I write italic, my handwriting is beautiful. It's partly because I have to go slower, but it's also because it looks all medieval-like so I care more about making it look right.

I use my italic fountain pen when I am out and about, where inkwells are not welcome. You need a desk or three hands to use an inkwell. At home I have two quill pens, one with a pointed metal nib and another with a calligraphy nib. I don't have real quill pens (where the nib is cut from the feather itself) because I don't know how to cut the nibs yet. I also have a glass pen, which is fun to write with and more portable than a quill. It's easy to wash the ink off of in the drinking fountain so this is what I use at school.

After I found some pens I liked and learned how to write in italics, I decided it was time to become more authentic. So I tried to find parchment. At first all I could find was parchment paper, which is just a translucent paper that people use in wedding invitations and the like. But I managed to find some real parchment (made from animal skins) at an art and writing store near the Sorbonne in Paris. I bought a couple sheets (for 10€ each, yikes!) and am still saving them for a special (id est, worth 10€) occasion. The discovery prompted me to look harder, and I found a website, Pergamena, which sells sheets of it. It's still really expensive, but they also sell scraps. For $25 you can get a 1-pound bag of leftover pieces of parchment. Since animals are not square, after the nice pieces have been cut from the hide, there are strips that do not fit. Also, during the process of making parchment from skins, mistakes or imperfections can cause holes to appear as the parchment is stretched. So the bag has an assortment of small pieces and also some large ones with holes or thin parts that were not good enough for the nice sheets they sell for a lot of money. I just wanted to write on it for fun though so the scraps have been just fine.

Parchment is not like other paper. For one thing, being written on is not its main function. Animals use their skins first, not as a writing surface, but as a membrane between their gooey bits and their hair. So even after the skin has been made into parchment, it needs additional preparation before taking ink well. Untreated, it's greasy and the ink will just form droplets on top of it. And the other side is even worse since it's kind of fuzzy and can make the ink run. The parchment needs to be sanded and then degreased with a powder like ground gum sandarac. I was especially happy about that, since it gave me an excuse to get a small mortar and pestle to grind it myself.

Next, I plan to get better at preparing parchment without leaving scratch marks from the sand paper, and I also want to learn to cut feather nibs. You can get goose feathers from Michael's for $2 and then cut them into a pen if you know how. Buying a pre-cut nib is expensive ($10) and the point wears down anyway after a little while.


* I don't like abbreviating foreign phases because it makes people say dumb things. For example, invitations frequently say "Please RSVP". "Répondez s'il vous plaît" is French for "Respond please", so they are saying "Please respond please". If people wrote out the whole phrase, they might realize that RSVP is a phrase and probably includes the word "please" already. In this case, I have written out id est, which you might recognize from the abbreviation i.e. Many people, including me before I looked it up, are confused about the difference between i.e. and e.g. Writing them out fixes that. Id est does not look like "for example"; it looks like "that is". Similarly, one would be hard pressed to forget that "exempli gratia" means "for example". So, until everyone gets it right, I expand my abbreviations. I write out et cetera even though everyone knows what it means just because I like Latin and look for excuses to use the little of it I know.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The most recent, at time of writing, blog post

As the title may suggest, I don't have anything to say, but I am not letting a silly thing like that get in the way of a perfectly good blog post. The last couple posts have been stories, so I must insert a real post here before tackling this week's writing prompt from the folks at in the next post, if I get around to it.

I am going to force myself to not talk about books. I've written lots of posts about them already. Football is out as well, as I have already said pretty much all there is to say on the subject. I could talk about ducks, but most readers know what those are. Same goes for frogs.

I'll just talk about the news this week. Tuesday November 2 was a big day. It was the day Towers of Midnight, book 13 of the Wheel of Time, came out. It was written by my two favorite authors: Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. Besides having a cool title, it is the penultimate book in the series. This is exciting and also sad. On one hand, we only have one more book to go to find out what happens. On the other hand, we only get one more book after this. Another good and bad thing is that Brandon Sanderson is awesome at finishing the series in the absence of Robert Jordan. It's great that the ending to this, the greatest literary achievement in the history of mankind (in my humble opinion, although wrong people might disagree), is in good hands. However, the downside is that Brandon can't write book 2 of the Stormlight Archive yet. Maybe I take that back. Writing A Memory of Light (WoT 14) will make Brandon a better writer, as writing The Gathering Storm (WoT 12) prepared him for The Way of Kings (SA 1).

That was news, which just happened to be about books, rather than me just talking about books again. So this blog post is still not about books, like I promised.

In other news, NaNoWriMo started. NaNoWriMo, like it sounds, is one billionth of a WriMo. Since NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, we can safely assume that a WriMo is one billion national novel writing months, or eighty-three thousand, three hundred thirty-three national novel writing years and four national novel writing months. That is why they are using such a small unit. NaNoWriMo is just during the month of November. Basically, the idea is that participants write a fifty-thousand-word novel in that month. There is no time for proofreading, agonizing over wording, et cetera. It's an exercise to get people to write.

Elections were this week. I thought it was funny last election that Obama's thing was "change". It was remarkably unspecific. Remember, prior to the election, US citizens were never attacked by winged monkeys and the dead did not rise up to terrorize the populace. Now, if Obama had made that happen, it certainly would have been change, and yet I don't think the people who voted for him had that in mind. Luckily for him, people assumed he meant good changes, and luckily for us, we haven't had any zombies or airborne simians show up. But I still think slogans should be a tad more specific.

That's enough news for today. Enough blog post too. The next post might be a Writing Excuses prompt or a discussion about Europe and/or its languages.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A story from yesteryear

George and the Dragon

By Brentus, circa 2009 at 2 AM

George was walking home from college one day. He saw a dragon. He looked to see if it had captured any princi (which, as everyone knows, is plural for princess). However, there were none to be seen.

“Now look here,” said George, “How the deuce can I rescue a princess if you haven’t captured any? Dragons these days don’t lift a claw to work. Do you expect the populace to terrorize itself? And how can I save a princess if there’s no dragon to save her from. I’ll never get married like this.”

“But I like princesses,” said the dragon, who had not been to school and was thus ignorant of proper pluralization, which is a word. “I wouldn’t want to bother them.”

“My dear boy,” said George, “I’m sure they don’t mind. Go ahead.”

“If they don’t mind, then why would you need to rescue them?”

“Well, they would mind, see, if I wasn’t going to rescue them. But I am. So they will understand that it is a necessary prerequisite to getting saved by a handsome prince, like me.”

The dragon looked pensive, because he was. “I must be missing something here, because that actually made sense, and I am pretty sure it shouldn’t have.”

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Writing Excuses 5.6 prompt

Those of you who have been faithfully following this blog, if existent, would remember that I said I would post things I write, other than just blog entries. So I will use this place to do the weekly writing prompts given in the excellent podcast, Writing Excuses. These stories are just quick practices, and will not be particularly good as I will speed-write them. This week's prompt is: "Two critics who reviewed Dan Wells' book and who had completely opposite reactions actually read two different books…". Allons-y!

The Book Identity

By Brentus

Mr. Fiend checked his watch for the third time and cursed. It was not a real curse, since Mr. Fiend was just a codename, and in any case, real fiends are more creative with their last names. He was running out of patience. The truck should have been here twenty minutes ago. He casually leaned against a street sign which gave the names of two streets at this T-intersection of the quiet suburban neighborhood. He hoped it wouldn't rain, but the clouds looked threatening. It was harder to look casual standing around in the rain. The street was deserted at this time of day, with all the children at school and the adults working or staying inside. He was just beginning to realize that leaning against a street sign for no reason didn't really look all that casual anyway when he heard the rumble of the truck coming up the hill. He started to walk slowly to the house where he knew it would stop, assuming Mr. Demon hadn't messed up the address again. Mr. Fiend wished there was a less awkward way of secretly sending packages than slipping them into delivery trucks while the driver was not looking, but their secret evil organization, EVIL, had limited resources and could not risk sending packages registered in the computer system or deliver them with EVIL personnel. But they had found that long-range trucks would sometimes make stops on their way out of the city if there was a delivery close enough to the route, so they would order packages sent to people living there so they could secretly stash their parcels in the truck as it left town. A similar method was used to retrieve them at the other end.

The driver got out of the truck, found the package, and walked up towards the door. Mr. Fiend dashed over to the truck, placed the package in the usual place, and then sauntered away as the truck driver finished getting a signature. His work here was done. The rest was up to the receiver, Mr. Monster.


Mr. Monster checked his watch for the third time and cursed. He wasn't any better at it than Mr. Fiend, but he was just as impatient. It was raining hard and his shoes were soggy. Soggy shoes were not in the EVIL pamphlet. "See the world!" It said. "And then rule it!" Well, when he was in charge, soggy shoes would be a thing of the past. He just wished they weren't such a noticeable part of the present.

Headlights suddenly sprung up through the rain. The truck came to a stop, but one house down from where he had expected. Oh well, he could still walk quickly and make it in time. As the driver headed up the walkway, Mr. Monster dashed through the rain to the truck. He cursed again when he saw the package was not where it was supposed to be. But then he saw a package labeled "Mr. Monster ARC" in the middle of the truck. It must have shifted during the drive. Mr. Monster ducked around the truck just before the driver headed back up the walk.


Mr. Monster sloshed in through the double doors of the local branch of EVIL. He nodded to the secretary, and hurried past to his desk. Finally, they would have the documents necessary to gain access to the FBI databases. He tore open the box, wondering what Mr. Fiend had meant by "ARC". He was impressed by the disguise. Usually Mr. Fiend sent him a book with papers sloppily glued onto the pages. But this one looked like it had been printed just for him. He began to read. It appeared to be in code too, as it cleverly disguised itself as a young adult fiction novel. He began to worry that the code might not be easy to break. But he was enjoying the story.


John Smith's scathing review of Dan Wells' new novel appeared on his blog the following day. It was the worst review by far that it had received. While Bob Jones had given the book a glowing recommendation, praising the clear prose and quick-moving plot, Smith's review was very different. It read:

"I hate to say it, but the much-anticipated sequel to I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells is a total flop. I began to worry before I even opened the book, since the publisher didn't even care enough to give it a real cover. They only scrawled the title of the book, Mr. Monster, on the shipping box. In fact, they didn't even print the book, they pasted the pages over the text of an existing book! I receive many advance review copies of books and never before have I seen such shoddy publishing. Unfortunately, that was one of the best parts of the "novel" (my apologies to the word). I would say that the plot failed to provide a compelling story, but there just wasn't one. And not only is there a lack of character development in the protagonist, but there is a complete lack of the character himself! Instead, Wells ignores the plot, characters, setting, premise, and genre of the first book and just gives us a bunch of secret FBI codes! The only mention of a villain is an address on one page of something called EVIL. This book is a disgrace. Let us hope that the third and final book gets the series back on track, since the first book left me wanting more. More story, not FBI codes."


Shortly thereafter, the members of EVIL were arrested by the FBI on charges of conspiracy. The bureau rewarded the critic for his help in uncovering the plot by giving him an actual copy of Mr. Monster.

Friday, October 15, 2010


"What's this?" you ask. "Another post about books? Isn't he interested in anything else?" Well, I am interested in lots of things, just not all at the same time. Right now I like books. It's important for bloggers to write about interesting stuff. Otherwise it's no good at all. For example, I will now write a paragraph on American football.

American football (which I shall just call football for the rest of this paragraph) is a popular sport in the United States. People like to play it and watch it on television, presumably because they find it entertaining. There are two teams, and they compete against each other. They play on a field with grass, or sometimes turf. The grass has lines on it. The lines are parallel to each other and run across the field from one side to the other. They are spaced 10 yards apart. The teams line up when they decide that's a good idea and then attempt to run into each other, unless they are holding the ball, in which case they try to not get run into. Sometimes they throw the ball, and sometimes they don't. Just when it starts to get interesting, the referee blows his whistle to make everyone stop attacking each other. Eventually, the teams move the ball to the other end of the field and receive points. Sometimes they kick the ball too. The ball is pointy on the ends so that players can throw it with one hand. The game is apparently so tedious that the audience has difficulty cheering. To address this issue, the teams employ "cheer leaders", who lead the cheering, like a conductor leads an orchestra, only their batons have exploded on one end and have streamers sticking out. The teams play the game until the timer says they can stop.

That is what happens when bloggers write about things they don't care about. So no more imaginary, hypothetical complaints out of you.

In recent years, there has been a revolution in the format of books the like of which has not been seen since the printing press. E-readers are changing everything, the good and the bad things. E-reading makes buying and reading books way more convenient. However, this is not without cost. As people begin to move towards e-readers, they consequently buy fewer physical ones. This means that physical bookstores are going to start disappearing, which means you can't go and peruse real books or have author book signings. Disneyland claims to be the happiest place on earth, but bookstores are even better. They are even better than libraries, which are the second happiest place on earth. Disneyland can come in third I guess. And since we are ranking happy places, the best bookstore I have ever seen is University Book Store next to the University of Washington in Seattle. But what can be done to save bookstores? I don't know. Hopefully we won't lose bookstores altogether. But I admit I am part of the problem, since I buy most of my books electronically now. There is an upside. E-readers are so convenient that people are more likely to buy a book rather than drive to the library, so authors and publishers should make more money, which is good.

Speaking of e-readers, there has been some confusion about what they are for. As more and more devices become integrated (e.g. phones, cameras, PDAs), people expect electronics to do everything. However, the Kindle, Nook, and other dedicated reading devices are really lousy at doing anything else. In fact, they are not even good at some kinds of reading. They are excellent for black and white, sequentially-read books. But any book you want to flip around pages in quickly (like a text book) is awkward since you can't just flip anywhere instantly like with a real book. And for color magazine articles, the screen is too small and not color. The Kindle DX fixes the size issue, but is still black and white. When the iPad was announced, Steve Jobs decided to try to break into the e-books market (he sort of broke in, but mostly he just broke it. See my first post). He touted the tablet as an e-reader, even though it does not have the e-ink screen that is the main feature of e-reading devices. LCD screens like the iPad has are good for lots of things, and are better for magazines and comics which need color. However, they are still backlit, which means that they are not as comfortable on the eyes as paper or e-ink. So the iPad is a tablet device that can display books, but is not really designed for reading novels. Remember, e-readers didn't even bother existing until e-ink came out just for this reason. But Steve Jobs said it was an e-reader and confused everyone into thinking it was a Kindle competitor, despite the very different goals of the devices. People even thought the Kindle 3 might "upgrade" to LCD (a much older and less appropriate technology), and Jeff Bezos had to come out and explain why the Kindle 3 continued to use e-ink screens (basically, so the Kindle would be a great e-reader, rather than a lousy iPad clone). It's kind of like the head of Honda explaining why the new Accords are still using engines. It should be obvious, yet enough technical writers questioned it that he felt he needed to offer a response (mini-rant: tech writers can be awfully dense at times, like the ones who jumped on the Vista-hating bandwagon and doomed the world to XP for 3 more years). Anyway, this is my attempt to clear up the confusion, for the 3 or so people who actually read this blog. Kindles are good for reading books page-by-page, and not much else. The screen really looks like paper with ink, so it is as easy on the eyes as a real book. iPads are good for everything except comfortable reading because they have the jack-of-all-trades but not-as-easy-to-look-at LCD screen. So if you plan on reading books electronically, get a Kindle. If you want to read mostly magazines and web articles or need a multipurpose device, then the iPad is a better choice because it has color and is faster at navigation. Basically, you are choosing between a book-like experience with the Kindle and a computer-like experience with the iPad.

So perhaps the one problem will help solve the other. People will buy iPads, try an e-book or two, get tired of reading novels on the screen, and go buy books at their local bookstore and keep it in business. Yay!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book collecting and various media

So last time I said this post would be about "book collecting and various media". I can talk about book collecting, but dashed if I know what I meant about "various media". I assume I was going to deliver a brilliant discourse on television reading (see last post) or something, but I must admit I haven't been brushing up on my various media lately. I've been sticking to books and Dr. Who. That's kind of various I guess.

So, book collecting. I like to do that. Books are just nice objects to have. They feel good to hold and peruse, they smell good, and you can read them. I have always collected books, although earlier in life my collection consisted mainly of Goosebumps books. I got rid of those when I outgrew them, but I continued collecting books. I started collecting hardcover John Bellairs books (the ones with Edward Gorey's awesome covers), although I only had a few until I bought the entire series from e-bay a couple years ago. John Bellairs shared my love of old houses (or maybe I got it from reading his books) and the setting and characters were great, so those books were some of my favorites when I was in elementary and middle school. But it was the amazing cover art by Edward Gorey that first attracted me to them, so it's nice to have those editions in my collection. I read them again in grad school and they are still great.

A few years ago I got to meet Ray Bradbury when he came to the local library. I got a copy of Fahrenheit 451 signed by him. Then, a bit later three big science fiction authors came to the UCLA book festival: Harry Harrison, Joe Haldeman, and Robert Silverberg. I got books signed by them too, and that got me interested in signed books.  It's neat to have a copy that the author has actually physically written in. is a good site for finding signed books, although it's more fun to get books signed in person. However, some people are dead so you can't do that. But when you can, it's cool to meet the people who wrote the books. They invented and created the worlds and characters that made their books so fascinating, so in a way it's the closest you can come to meeting the characters. I wish I had gotten to meet Robert Jordan. But it was cool to meet Robert Silverberg, Ray Bradbury, Harry Harrison, Brandon Sanderson, and Dan Wells. I met a few others but I haven't read their books yet (Joe Haldeman, Brent Weeks, and Terry Brooks). I just got books signed since I was at the signing.

Despite collecting books, I prefer to read them on the Kindle. It's way more convenient and comfortable than a physical book. There is only one side, so you don't have to reposition the book in your hands all the time. Also, remember that I read books by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan. They are huge. But I can fit them all into a paperback form factor with the Kindle. And on vacation you can finish one book and buy another without needing to find a bookstore or pack a bunch of separate books. And for the lazy, a Kindle means you don't need to get up and go to the bookshelf to change books. So my bookshelf is full of books I have not physically read.

I also have a few old books, like a 17th-century math book and a French astronomy book printed on the royal press in Paris (back when there was royalty in France). Old books are really cool. They look like proper tomes that you'd see in games like Myst. And people back in the renaissance or other periods of history read them, and even wrote in them. As a European history lover, that is really cool to me. Last spring, I spent a day in Metz, France, at the home of my second cousin once removed, Jean Marc. He is awesome. I mention him now because he also like old books and he even had some that had belonged to and been written in by our ancestors. That was extremely cool to see, and I have some photos of some of them I might put up.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


I love reading books. I grew up without a television, so books were the only way I could read stories. [Editor's note: Why does everyone laugh at that sentence? I didn't have a TV, for all I know you read on those too] Even back in elementary school, I read mostly science fiction and fantasy. I'm not sure if my brain is just wired to like those or if it is because my father read me books like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and The Hobbit, while my mom checked out Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books and the Narnia books from the library for me to read. In fact, my mom was the one to introduce my dad to J. R. R. Tolkien, so she is a great judge of good books too. As I got older my friends showed me more cool books, especially the Wheel of Time series.

These days I am always looking for new awesome books, but it is hard. There are a lot of mediocre books out there. There are a lot of good ones. But the excellent ones are harder to find. The trouble with excellent books is that they are hard acts to follow. It's hard to get into merely good ones afterwards. I am having this difficulty right now. I am coming off The Way of Kings, and it's dashed hard to find a book to interest me after reading that. Brandon Sanderson (TWoK's author) has that skill that makes a book unputdownable. I call it book charisma. It's like a slightly lesser version of what Robert Jordan had that made Crossroads of Twilight more intriguing to me than other fantasy books in which stuff actually happened. CoT is a long book covering many characters only briefly so it is uneventful, and yet Jordan's storytelling made me not care. I can see why it annoyed fans who waited a year for it to come out, but now that there are almost 3 books following it, I don't mind reading though it at all. In fact, if I could have a 200-book version of the Wheel of Time where the plot progressed at the rate it did in CoT, I would be happy. Jordan and Sanderson both have this gift for storytelling that makes their books compelling regardless of the actual events taking place. They are good at having awesome events happen too though. But not all authors, even those who can write exciting stories, have this gift of storytelling. Fortunately, while I was waiting between the latest Wheel of Time book and The Way of Kings, I discovered a third author who is right up there with the best fantasy authors: Patrick Rothfuss. His only epic fantasy book is The Name of the Wind, which came out 3 years ago and is the first in a trilogy. The second is coming out next year, which isn't nearly soon enough. He has also written a children's picture book, The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed, which is awesome but much shorter. I hope I can find more great authors, otherwise I will be out of luck in the long intervals between the books I am looking forward to. The awesome upcoming books I know of are, in order of emergence:

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (September 2010)
Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (November 2010)
The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (March 2011)
A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Early 2012?)
Book 2 of the Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson (Late 2012?)

Stay tuned, the next post will be about book collecting and various media. Then I will write some book reviews so that I can convince Pat Rothfuss's publisher to send me an ARC of The Wise Man's Fear so I don't have to wait so long. The book reviews will be separated off into a special blog, The Book Warlock. Check it out!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Second Post

The moral of the last two weeks is: if a book you have been looking forward to a lot is about to come out, don't start reading a trilogy a week before. I had to put off reading The Way of Kings for another week while I finished the Hunger Games trilogy. It was Terry Brooks's fault, even though he didn't write any of the books I'm talking about. When he came to the University bookstore a couple Tuesdays ago, he said that he had been tempted to not show up so he could stay home and read a new book that came out that day called Mockingjay. There were copies of it all over the bookstore, and they had even had a release party at midnight that day. I decided to see what the fuss was about, forgetting that I had only 7 days before The Way of Kings, and started reading The Hunger Games, which starts the trilogy that Mockingjay concludes. I was partly through book 2, Catching Fire, when The Way of Kings came out and I had a choice: read the new book I had been waiting for while forgetting what was going on in the Hunger Games trilogy, or finish the trilogy and put off the new book a while longer. I decided that the trilogy was good enough to finish properly and so I did. It was quite a trilogy so I'm glad I finished it. It was good enough that I actually enjoyed it even though it was keeping me from The Way of Kings.

The Way of Kings is a 45-hour-long audiobook. That hopefully means it will last through my drive home to Los Angeles in two weeks even if I start reading tomorrow. I am going to a signing next week when Brandon Sanderson comes to Seattle, so I hope no one gives away spoilers. There is nothing worse for someone not finished with a book to have someone ask the author, "How did you come up with the idea for the part at the end when Dumbledore kills Darth Vader's sled, only to find that it's made of people?"

Dr. Who is awesome. Watch it. The Doctor is not only awesome, but he's awesome in a British way. British things just tend to be better. Proof: P.G. Wodehouse, Christopher Nolan, Terry Pratchett, Dr. Who, Radiohead, Muse, the accent, blackcurrant juice, sweets, Wallace and Gromit, etc. The Doctor not only travels through space and time, he does it in a 1950s police box. And does he have a blaster, or a tricorder, or a lightsaber? No, he has a sonic screwdriver. If that doesn't sound awesome, you haven't seen enough Dr. Who.

It has been a month and a half since I first saw Inception, so I have had time to watch it again and cool off from the initial excitement. And I can still confidently say that it is the best movie I have ever seen. I give it a 10 out of 10, and in order to keep things to scale, I have to move the previous 10s (e.g. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Empire Strikes Back) down to about 7. They didn't get worse, but the scale had to change to fit Inception.

I will start reviewing things like books on this blog, mostly so I can get Tor to send me ARCs of books I am impatient to read. But I won't start today. I will leave my many readers with this question: why do people enjoy boring books? I'm referring to bestsellers that I haven't read that are about real people's life experiences or introspective journeys, or fiction about boring characters' life experiences or introspective journeys. Or books about how to invest, etc. Have the people who read these books already exhausted the science fiction and fantasy section, so they are forced to turn to these boring books? That can't be the case, or more of the good books would hit the bestseller lists. What is it that makes people want to read stories about the contemporary real world? We don't need the book, we live here already! A book is like the TARDIS (follow my advice two paragraphs ago if you don't know what that is) and can take you on fantastic journeys and adventures to other worlds, or at least to more interesting times in this one (e.g. medieval Europe). Why read about people going to jobs and doing their taxes or traveling to boring places when you could read about magic or space? I'm being a little facetious in belittling everything outside the realm of speculative fiction, but I'm also genuinely concerned that the reason many people don't read very much is that the books they always see people reading look mind-numbingly boring. Of course, they wouldn't be bestsellers if they looked boring to everyone. And many great books might look boring. There should really be some kind of idiomatic expression about how a cover isn't a great way to judge a book.

Books need rating systems on what content is in them, like movies and video games have. Elitist Book Reviews puts this information in their reviews, which is big help. There are many interesting-looking books that I consider buying but then don't because I don't know if they are going to be a swearing sleazefest or in good taste. I am currently stuck with books EBR reviews and YA novels. Another good way to see what a book is like is to download a sample on your Kindle.

I tried to end this post a couple paragraphs ago, but I failed. Let's try again.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A post of deliberately unspecified ordinal status

Most blogs probably have a first post talking about it being the first post in the blog. But I shall entirely avoid mentioning that this is the first post, so as not to bore all the people who come to read this blog with such an inane observation. They can already see that this is the first post, and don't need a discussion about it. However, I will warn you not to devote large amounts of time to searching for the previous post, because there isn't one. But that is all I need say on the topic.

I have wanted to have a blog for a while now, but could not think of a good name. As you can see at the top of the page, this is no longer an issue. Now I just face the formidable task of writing a blog that lives up to the name (which, by the way, is inspired by, ducks, and John Bellairs).

I will discuss awesome things such as speculative fiction, technology, and European history. Occasionally, I might post things I have written (things that aren't blog entries, I mean. Obviously, I must post a blog entry in every blog entry). These will be short stories or maybe even poems if I think of any funny ones.

The new Kindle will be out this month! I am excited. It is just in time for the release of Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, although Macmillan has priced the e-book at $14.99, which is almost as much as the hardcover is on Amazon. This removes the book from the "impulse buy" price range for many people. The publisher's idea is that now people will run out and buy the hardcover instead. Now that the Kindle is becoming much more affordable and widespread, the increase in sales from the convenience of the Kindle platform could easily offset the loss in hardcover sales. The really ironic thing is that publishers raised prices because Apple told them they could. Apple's influence here is ironic because Apple's e-reader, the iPad, is suitable for magazines and maybe textbooks with diagrams, but not for serious reading. For a novel, a computer screen like the iPad's LCD just doesn't cut it for most people. The Kindle is so successful because its screen looks like paper and is thus easy on the eyes, like a real book.

Revenons à nos moutons. The new Kindle's screen is even better than before, and fixes my biggest gripe with earlier models: the color of the plastic body. My old Kindle's screen looked great outdoors, but the white borders would reflect a lot of light and blind me while I was trying to read. The new graphite color will fix that.

I'd like to conclude by encouraging everyone to watch Inception while it is theaters. It is transcendently awesome. It's my favorite movie ever by quite a large margin.