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.