The Writing Confederation

Computers, anime, and writing – A confederation of topics

I Have Moved

I realize now, years later, that after I left this site and started another I neglected to post a forwarding address for those of you seeking to keep up with my writing. For all of you, then, here is a link to my new website: http://bit.ly/RrN993. Thank you all for continuing to be loyal readers.

You have my utmost gratitude.

Embarrassingly Misconstrued: Why We Shouldn’t Review Apple Products

Historically, Apple has always been so ridiculously far ahead of the curve that it’s not even funny. You can argue against this fact as much as you want, but even back in the early days of computing it was this way. For example, Apple was the first company to use that crazy device called the “mouse”; take a look at that crazy idea today. Similarly, it was Apple who first moved from the blinking terminal to an actual desktop interface, and the rest of the computing industry followed suit once they saw it as a huge success. It could be argued that Microsoft came out with the first good GUI, but the fact of the matter is that Apple ushered in the era of the graphical user interface, not Microsoft. Period.

After rocking the computer industry with their GUI, Apple entered the portable media player market with the release of the iPod, which was simply so awesome and so, so much better than everything preceding it that they were swept away as dust is before a storm. Today the portable media player scene is much the same: Apple holds the gold standard at the top with their iPod line, and everyone else begs for scraps below. It’s not a pretty picture, but that is the reality we live in. Apparently nobody understands that it doesn’t matter how cheap you make your device if it will always be compared with an iPod, especially since the cheaper you get, the wider the already gargantuan gap between anything anyone else can produce and Apple’s products becomes. If you want to beat the iPod, you have to make something better than the iPod, not cheaper, especially since as you get cheaper you inherently lose quality, which is what consumers really want in a portable device. To make an easily understood analogy as to why the iPods are so successful, it’s like really good wine, or for those of us under 21, like really good ice cream: once you’ve had a taste of what wine, or ice cream, should be like, you can’t go back to anything else. Sure, the cheap options will always be there, but it’s never something you will willingly go back to. Apple has given consumers that first taste, showing them what music players should be like, and now no matter what everyone will forever be comparing everything else to that golden standard. The perpetuating question in everyone’s mind: is it better than an iPod?

Another instance of Apple revolutionizing an industry can be found with the release of iTunes. In pre-iTunes days, digital music simply wasn’t something that was done, plain and simple. Apple changed that by releasing this crazy new thing called the iTunes Store that allowed users to buy a song and download the file to their home computers, all done over the internet. As John Siracusa once said in an episode of Hypercritical in which he explained why iTunes was so successful, iTunes was the Pearl Harbor of the music industry, took ‘em by surprise: came out of nowhere on Sunday morning and bombed their entire business. The big names in the music industry were left scrambling to cope with the new development until they eventually came to terms with Apple’s move and signed on. And don’t you think they’re glad now? As of today, iTunes Store is selling the most music of any retailer, digital or otherwise–more music than even chain stores like Walmart. Digital music is the direction we are moving towards, and once again this era was ushered in by Apple.

Just like with the iPods, Apple came in to the music industry and gave us a gold standard to compare everything against, and since that gold standard has been set they have continued to raise it, with Amazon and the few other companies that have attempted to enter the digital music retail business playing catch-up. There’s a simple reason that they can’t quite get there–to Apple’s level–though: there’s no reason for anyone to switch; Apple has not given anyone a reason to switch away from their service, and since Amazon and company are still working on providing the base functionality (plus a bit more, in some cases) that Apple has provided for years, there is little to no incentive for consumers to switch. Plus, almost everyone has an iPod nowadays, and Apple’s vertical integration with their products and software is so close and works so well that any hacky, DIY alternatives aren’t feasible or worth the effort. To use an old adage, why fix something that’s not broken?

And then there’s the iPad. Before the iPad was released, there was simply no tablet industry: it didn’t exist. The “next big thing” was going to be netbooks. For those of you who don’t even know what netbooks were, which you can (seriously) thank Apple for, netbooks were small, underpowered, generally crappy computers roughly the size of an iPad that ran Windows XP on a display with a resolution comparable to my iPod Touch and a keyboard with keys designed for fingers the size of a toddler’s. That future didn’t look bright to anyone–especially the nerds–but it was the only thing we had to look forward to. Then Apple comes out and says hey, these netbooks suck so let’s work our Apple magic and make something so incredibly awesome that nobody will even remember what netbooks were. Now, the conversation might not have gone exactly like that during the meeting, but the end result was that Apple created an entire industry that previously did not exist: the tablet industry. Apple created this new industry with the release of a product good enough to replace a computer with, and quite a few people have. Once again, Apple 1-up’d everyone else–they can’t even be called “the competition” because, quite simply, there is no competition, at least not in this space. Not yet. Just like with the GUI and iTunes Store, everyone is now playing catch-up to one of the most popular (Apple) products since the iPod.

The underlying theme throughout all of this is that Apple has time and time again raised the bar so high that nobody else can even see it; they have no idea where to even start looking except to copy Apple’s lead. RIM made a reach for Apple’s metaphorical bar with the Playbook, which was a shameless ripoff of Apple’s design, but missed and was crushed under the weight of the Blackberry TabletOS and poor engineering. Similarly, Motorola followed Apple’s lead with the Xoom and did slightly better than RIM–maybe got their hands on the bar, but slipped and plummeted back to earth. Why? Gravity, of course, but also because Apple didn’t see another company demoing an iPad-like device, then begin developing their own version of that device. No, Apple had been developing the iPad for years before we heard anything about it, in typical Apple fashion. (For example, Apple had been developing the iPhone 4′s antenna for four years. The antenna, for four years.) Plus, Apple had a jumpstart with the iPod Touch and the iPhone, too: it’s a lot of similar hardware technology, and they already had an excellent platform to run their new device on; namely, iOS. But RIM and Motorola, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of design and testing–or at least to Apple’s level–decided to not only steal Apple’s design (in RIM’s case) and delve right into this newly created industry, but to do so after a fraction of the time Apple spent in the R&D department. Thus the level of success they attained: arguably, zero.

When I first started thinking about this article, while I was mowing the lawn yesterday, the title was going to be something to the affect of “Every Apple Review Should Be Published Two Years After the Fact”, by which I meant that Apple products–especially, especially game-changers like the iPad–shouldn’t be reviewed until something like two years after their release for the simple reason that we have no measure with which to judge these products. Think about it: what did we have to compare the iPad with? netbooks? as I mentioned earlier, “netbooks were small, underpowered, generally crappy computers”, so any comparison with the undeniably great iPad is an apples-to-oranges comparison, no pun intended. Similarly, you can’t compare something like the iPad to a phone either because it does so much more than a phone; the iPad is in the awkward space between phones and computers, not really one nor the other. Again, to reference myself earlier in this article, “Apple created this new industry with the release of a product good enough to replace a computer with, and quite a few people have.” In short, we had nothing to compare the iPad with, though many comparisons were made against phones or computers; quite often, the iPad won. But that’s not the point I’m trying to move towards–the point is that any comparison at the time of X’s release, since that device is almost guaranteed to be way ahead of anything else currently on the market, or in the case of the iPad, the beginning of a new market, would be like an apples-to-oranges comparison; embarrassingly misconstrued.

Quick Update

Just wanted to post a quick update here to say that I’m still alive and writing. I’m also happy to report that despite my last post being over a month ago, I am still averaging more than 15 visitors per day, which is a decent number; and as of today, this blog has amassed 7882 views. Here’s a list of the projects I am currently working on and will hopefully post sometime soon:

Main Projects:
-The Comprehensive Handbrake Guide
The title isn’t set in stone yet, but it will most likely be something to that affect. Inspired by my popular article The Comprehensive Terminal Guide, this article will provide you with the knowledge and resources to utilize Handbrake to its full potential.
-Windows 8
I haven’t decided on a title for the Windows 8 series I’m planning, but I have a few different titles floating around in my “Titles” document. The plan is to write a John Siracusa-esq Windows 8 review to be published upon Windows 8′s release, which is supposed to be sometime next Fall. Depending on the status of my other projects I may occasionally post screenshots or short mini-reviews of Windows 8 as I am testing it and working on my full review, but as doing so would take away from the full review’s impact, this is unlikely.

Side Projects:
In addition to the two main projects listed above, I have an ever-growing number of side projects that I occasionally open and work on every once in a while.
-Writing
This is more of a series than a single article. I am currently sorta-working on several articles concerning the act of writing, some tips to becoming a better writer (including an article I have preemptively titled “101 Tips to Make You A Better Writer”), and a few on why I write. Stuff like that.
-The Comprehensive Terminal Guide
After its publication, many readers commented with (some helpful, some not) suggestions for the article on Hacker News, Twitter, and the main article’s page on this blog. I am taking those comments into account and adding even more information, as well as re-working the flow of this article, and hope to have it published sometime in the near future.

In addition to the side projects listed above, I am slowly gathering information to match some of the title’s I’ve come up with. If anyone’s interested, this is what my “Titles” document currently contains:

Hi, I’m a Writer and I Use .txt Files

Back to the Past: A Look Back on Four Years of Blogging and What I’ve Learned

Chasing the Dragon: (Why We Writers Write; Why we Write)

Installing Software: How the Things We Do Every Day Inadvertently Make Us Better Computer Users

I write in markdown markup

Dubbing makes me Sick: Why Every Time I Consider the Possibility of My Favorite Anime Being Dubbed in English, I Almost Get Sick.

I Won’t Be Installing Microsoft Office on my Next Computer: How SublimeText Has Changed the Way I Think About Writing

We’ll Never Have iTunes for Windows 8: Why Microsoft’s New Interface Has Made iTunes for Windows 8 An Unlikely Prospect

This is only a small preview of what’s to come, so keep checking back for new articles. Also, if you would like to see one article over another, leave a comment and I’ll bump the most popular articles to the top of my to-write list.

Review: Ano Hana

Here’s my review split into four categories: Story, Dialogue, Animation, Entertainment.

Story:

Ano Hana has a great story right from the beginning. Being one of this summer’s short mini-series, I wasn’t sure how Ano Hana would turn out, but I was pleasantly surprised right at the start. The story focuses on “The Great Peace Busters”, which is a group that six kids–Jintan, Menma, Anjou, Poppo, Tsuruko, and Yukiatsu–formed when they were younger. However, after the death of one of their close friends, Menma, the group slowly fell apart. The show picks up a few years after Menma’s death, where Menma has actually come back as a ghost because she had a wish that had gone unfullfilled. The rest of the story follows “The Great Peace Busters” as they slowly come back together to try to fulfil Menma’s wish, while reliving the painful past.

Out of a possible five stars in the story category, I give Ano Hana an easy 5.

Dialogue:

Dialogue is always a hard category for me to judge, but I knew exactly what I wanted to say about Ano Hana when I began writing this article: the dialogue is superb and supported the storyline extremely well. As I will say in the next category, special attention was given to the body language of the characters in Ano Hana, as was given to the dialogue: everything the characters said reflected their personality extremely well. So much so, in fact, that by the end of the show Jintan, Menma, Anjou, Poppo, Tsuruko, and Yukiatsu weren’t just characters: they were people with a personality–something I’ve rarely seen done well, especially in 11 short episodes.

Out of five stars in the dialogue category, Ano Hana easily earns 5.

Animation:

I’m a bit of a quality snob, so I wasn’t satisfied until I found 720p versions of each episode of Ano Hana. It took me three days to finally compile a complete series, mostly due to the fact that I had a very difficult time finding versions from my favorite subbers: Horriblesubs or Taka. In the end, I settled with a new player: m.3.3.w and ended up very satisfied. Look forward to my soon-to-be-released article The Comprehensive Anime Guide for my review of various big-name fansub groups.

Anyways, I’m extremely happy I ended up going with the 720p versions of Ano Hana. There weren’t very many oppurtunities for great scenery animation to reveal itself in Ano Hana like there were in 5 Centimeters Per Second, for example, but there is one avenue in which the animation of Ano Hana excelled: the characters. Ano Hana is a very emotional anime that mainly deals with the feelings of the members of “The Great Peace Busters”, so it was crucial that special attention be played to aspects such as body language and facial expression in order to really convey the intended feeling and mood of the respective scene. There were numerous times throught the show’s entirety that understanding the feelings of the characters was crucial to not only understanding the scene, but also to understanding the story as a whole. Thankfully, the animators did an amazing job in capturing and conveying the feelings of everyone throughout Ano Hana’s 11 episodes.

Ano Hana certainly deserves the 5 stars I am awarding it in the animation category.

Entertainment:

Finally, entertainment. This category is very closely related to the previous three, and is really just an oppurtunity for me to wrap what I’ve said in the past sections, as well as add or re-iterate anything I might have left out earlier.

Ano Hana struck the rare balance between brevity and depth that I have rarely found in other anime. Incidentially, School Days is the only series that comes to mind as having done this quite as well. With the storyline of Ano Hana, the series could have easily been dragged out to 24 episodes if the desire had been there; however, Tatsuyuki Nagai, the show’s director, managed to keep the show brief while not only presenting a superb story, but also giving depth to the plot and characters with flashbacks to the past.

Another thing that really struck me about Ano Hana is just how well the characters were portrayed. Each character had a personality, feelings, and a past, and that was displayed so very well throughout the series it’s simply not possible to explain in words; it’s just something you have to see. Again, this is something I haven’t seen done quite this well in a while.

Overall, the combination of excellent story, superb dialogue, and attention to detail in the animation made Ano Hana a very impactful show, despite its short runtime of 11 episodes. I would recommend Ano Hana to anyone that liked Clannad or Clannad After Story, School Days, or to anyone that likes the “slice-of-life” genre in general. Beware though, Ano Hana will draw you in and won’t let go until you reach the emotionally-charged climax at the end of episode 11; until then, you won’t be able to stop watching.

Out of five stars? Yep, 5 stars.

How to Convert Videos with Miro, Any Video Converter, and Handbrake

Video Arc Post #2: A Step-By-Step Tutorial of How to Use Miro Video Converter, Any Video Converter, and Handbrake



Special note: Finding, Downloading, and Managing Media is considered to be the first post in this arc.

Peoples’ interaction with video can be thought of as a pyramid chart, where the bottom is the largest percentile of people who watch videos on YouTube and Facebook, and the top of the pyramid is the small group of users that can take your home video and make it look as if it were produced in a Hollywood studio, then make it play on any device you want. As you get higher up the metaphorical pyramid though, there is a consistent need everyone shares: the need to convert videos from one format to another, while retaining as much quality as possible. Whether those videos are the raw FLV video file from YouTube, the obscure MKV file from a torrent, or the DVD rip of a movie, the need to convert a video file from one type to another is something many can identify with. Solutions to this problem range in difficulty from simply dragging a video file to an application and waiting for it to appear on your iPod to total control on every aspect of your video conversion. The choice between these two methods, between simplicity or total control, can be daunting though, and is often fraught with many hours, days, or even months of frustrating trial and error. That’s where this article comes in: in this article I am not only going to review three of the best video converters available as well as walk you through using each of them, but also introduce you to the key aspects of a video, why they matter, and what you need to do to make your video converter produce the clearest result possible.

Before I get to the meat of this article, here’s a quick flashback on a few articles I’ve posted in the past few months that relate to this one. In the other that I posted them, these areticles are as follows:

  1. Media
  2. Finding, Downloading, and Managing Media
  3. Torrenting Tips and Tricks

Most of the articles focus on using torrents, which are, in my opinion, the best manner in which to obtain videos, regardless of the type or quantity. If you are not familiar with the usage of torrents, I suggest you check out those three articles, and especially the first post in this arc, Finding, Downloading, and Managing Media. For those of you that are already well-versed in the usage of torrents, I suggest you check out Torrenting Tips and Tricks for a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years regarding torrents .

Alright then, here we go. The first thing I’m going to do is familiarize you with some key terms. Learning these terms will make the rest of this article much more understandable and will help you get more out of this.

  • The frame size, or resolution, of a video is its dimensions, generally given in pixel measurments. For example, a 480p video, which has a horizontal measurement of 640 pixels, a vertical measurement of 480 pixels, and an aspect ratio of 4:3, is displayed with the frame size of 640×480. Additionally, a 720p video, with an aspect ratio of 16:9, has a total frame size of 1280×720. Incidentially, there are also 1080p videos with a resolution of 1920×1080, but are not as commonly used as 720p videos, which are considered to be high-definition.

    It is important to note the aspect ratio in these different definitions: it is an important fact that will determine the quality of your video once converted.
  • Videos are simply a succession of still images. If you were to open any video in a decent video editor (Movie Maker definitely does not count), you would be able to move through the video by frames. Incidentially, animated GIF images are a great example of this, as they are simply a small succession of similar images giving the impression of an animation. The frame rate of a video is the speed at which those still images are cycled through your field of vision over a period of time, generally suffixed with the shorthand expression for frame rate: FPS (Frames Per Second). For more information on FPS, check out the Wikipedia article: Frames Rate.
  • A codec is a device or program that enables compression and/or decompression for digital media such as videos and music. Generally, this compression is lossy, although this is not always the case.

    • “Many of the more popular codecs in the software world are lossy, meaning that they reduce quality by some amount in order to achieve compression. Often, this type of compression is virtually indistinguishable from the original uncompressed sound or images, depending on the codec and the settings used.” (Source)
    • Lossless codecs are typically used for archiving data in a somewhat comrpessed format while retaining all of the information present in the original file. “If preserving the original quality of the stream is more important than eliminating the correspondingly larger data sizes, lossless codecs are preferred.” (Source)

      For the most part, I would suggest sticking with lossless formats when managing videos: once you lose quality, you can never ragain it.

Now that you’re familiar with some of the key terms discussed in this article, let’s move on to the rundown on the video conversion programs. The three reviews are seperated into three groups: simple, intermediate, and total control.

Simple:

By far the easiest video conversion program I have ever used is Miro Video Converter. Miro Video Converter, or MVC, requires you to preform three steps in order to convert a video: first, drag a video file into the Miro Video Converter window; second, choose the format, or device, you wish to convert the video to. Available options include MP4, MP3, iPhone, Zune, PSP–to name a few; finally, click the Convert button and wait for the video to be converted.

Part of the reason that Miro Video Converter is such an easy program to use is because it handles all the nitty-gritty details without needing any interaction from the user. Settings such as resolution, FPS, and various other parameters for the output video are automatically set depending on the device profile you select. This is great if you just want to convert that FLV file from YouTube to something you can play in Windows Media Player, but bad for pretty much everything else. To illistrate this point, consider this example: Suppose your device isn’t on the dropdown list of available devices to convert to. What do you do then? Which device profile do you choose? Therin lies MVC’s greatest weakness, which is, ironically, it’s main selling point: simplicity. This over-simplification is what eventually led me to search for another program.

Intermediate:

Any Video Converter has been my favorite video converter for quite some time. Any Video Converter, or AVC, makes converting any video file to virtually any format as easy as adding a video file, selecting the output profile (file format the video will be converted to), and clicking Convert. From this explanation, it would seem that there are few differences between Miro Video Converter and Any Video Converter, but that assumption is wrong: the explanation I just provided is only the tip of the iceberg. Before explaining how AVC out-preforms Miro Video Converter though, let me tell you a bit more about AVC.

Once a video is added, AVC will present you with various stats about the video that become invaluable when choosing settings for the conversion process. These stats include the file name, duration, the current video format, current framesize, current FPS, and the status, which is an indicator of whether the video file is waiting to be converted, in the process of being converted, already converted, or failed in the process of being converted.

Why are those stats valuable though? The short answer: quality. The more you know about the video you wish to convert to another format, the more quality you can retain in the conversion process. Remember earlier when I said to pay attention to the aspect ratio because it is an important factor in the conversion process? This is where that comes in: the single most important aspect of converting a video is the output resolution. In order to retain the highest level of quality, you must keep the output video’s aspect ratio as close to that of the original video’s aspect ratio as possible. So for example, if I had a 720p video, which we already learned to have the dimensions of 1280×720, converting it to have a resolution of 640×480 to play on my iPod would be disasterous because in doing so I’m changing the aspect ratio from 16:9 to 4:3. You can shrink a video all you want and it will remain clear so long as you retain an aspect ratio the same as or very close to the original video’s; it’s when you begin to change the aspect ratio that you run into problems. If I had proceeded with the conversion of a 720p video to 480p to play on my iPod, I would have viewed a result that was pixelated almost beyond recognition, especially when viewed on such a small screen.

The aspect ratio is not the only important factor in the conversion process though; maintaining a consistent frame rate is almost equally as important. In my explanation of video framerate above I explaned that the numeric FPS value is the speed at which still images are cycled through your field of vision. Let’s run through this example: suppose I have that same 720p video that I wish to play on my iPod. Now that I know converting it to a resolution of 480p is a horrible idea, I have decided to retain the aspect ratio and convert it to have a resolution of 640×360, effectively cutting the framesize in half. As a note, so long as you divide the length and the width by the same number, in this case 2, you will retain an aspect ratio close enough to the original to produce a crystal-clear video, assuming the original video was that clear. Having set the resolution for the conversion, what frame rate should I choose?

Let’s look at it this way: think of the video frame rate as a sandwitch, with the first piece of bread as the beginning of a second, the lettuce as a frame, the tomato as a frame, the mustard as a frame, etc, etc, until you get to the last piece of bread, which is the end of the sandwitch, or in this case the end of a second. Within a single second, x number of frames are cycled through your field of vision. For this example, suppose that number is 24. So in our hypothetical sandwitch, there are 24 ingredients between each slice of bread. Now suppose I chose to convert my video from 24FPS to 12FPS, because by having less frames the video will, incidentially, be smaller. Now think back to the sandwitch with 24 ingredients: if I wanted to make that sandwitch the same size as a sandwitch with 12 ingredients, I would have to squish that sandwitch and mash it up pretty well. We would be left with something resembling a sandwitch, but horribly disfigured and probably not edible anymore. The same goes for a video: as you try to decrease the output video’s framerate from that of the original’s, you are asking the video converter to squish more data into each frame than is already there, thus resulting static and pixelation in your video. See why the frame rate is important? To avoid this problem, I recommend using the original framerate of the video, which Any Video Converter conveniently displays for you near the name of each video.

What about going from 24FPS to, for the sake of an easy argument, 48FPS? Going back to the sandwitch example, what would happen if you took that sandwitch and tried to double the number of ingredients between the two slices of bread, but only by using the existing ingredients? In the sandwitch example, this would be impossible; however, when converting a video, this is possible. But, as you may have guessed, doing so will result in the same exact problem as halving the FPS: a pixelated video.

These two aspects–the aspect ratio of the video and the frame rate–are the two most important aspects of video conversion. If you can keep the aspect ratio and the frame rate the same when converting the video, you are guaranteed a video that is just as clear as the original.

Before continuing on, I would like to go over one final point. Throughout this article so far I have constantly assumed that you would be downsizing your video when it was converted, or keeping it the same size, but never assumed that you would be enlarging it. Why? One very simple reason: enlarging a video is probably the quickest way to lower the quality–even quicker than going from 720p to 480p. As with raising the FPS of a video past its original frame rate, enlarging the resolution is the same principle: trying to add data that is, quite simply, not there. To illustrate this point, go find a small picture on Google Images or your hard drive and open it up. Once it’s open, zoom in to 200%. You have now enlarged the picture, and it has become pixelated. The picture became pixelated because pictures are simply a collection of pixels grouped together and colored to form an image. When you enlarge that image, you must, in this case by zooming in to 200%, double the number of pixels in the picture. However, there are only so many pixels, so the computer must guess at what might be at x,y position and insert a pixel there without actually knowing what needs to be there to produce a clear image. The same goes for enlarging a video: when you ask the video converter to enlarge it by whatever percentage, you are asking the computer to insert data that simply is not there, so it resorts to guessing rather than telling you that you are asking for someting impossible. Keep that in mind.

Now that you know why the aspect ratio and the frame rate are so important, as well as why not to try enlarging a video, let’s move back to the tutorial on converting videos with Any Video Converter.

Once a video has been added to the conversion que in Any Video Converter, which is done by clicking the Add Video button at the top-left of the screen, the fun starts. The dropdown menu on the right side of the window–which is a list of different pre-sets for various conversion formats–allows for different conversion profiles to be chosen and then modified to fit your needs. For example, I can choose the Customized AVI profile, which will convert any video currently checked in the que to the AVI format once I click Convert. Once I have selected a profile, I can make various adjustments to the output video. These adjustments include changing the following aspects of the output video by selecting an option from one of the respective dropdown menus: video codec, resolution, video framerate, audio codec, as well as other options such as video codec and video bitrate to name just a few. From the explanation above, you will know how important these different aspects are.

Now that you know how to add a video, choose a profile, and convrt a video with Any Video Converter, let’s run through a short example. Suppose I’ve added that 720p video I was talking about earlier to the conversion que. To play it on my iPod, I need to use the Mobile Phone MPEG-4 Movie profile. After selecting it, I need to change the output resolution and make sure the frame rate is set to “Original” in order to keep the highest quality possible. However, the dropdown menu for the Frame Size option only gives me nine different options, none of which retain the aspect ratio of the original 720p video, or even come very close. I really only have one option: convert the video and deal with the pixelation. Or, rather than settle for a pixelated version of the 720p video taking up half a gig on my hard drive, I could use a different video conversion program. Unfortunately for me though, I was stuck choosing the former option for quite some time rather than the latter. That is, until I re-visited Handbrake.

Total Control:

I don’t really remember where I first heard about Handbrake from, but most recently it was during an episode of Hypercritical. For those of you who do not know what Hypercritical is, or don’t know anything about 5by5, please check them out. Hypercritical is a great weekly podcast featuring Dan Benjamin and John Siricusa, and 5by5 is an amazing podcast network that produces some of the best podcasts available to date. Anyway, John Siricusa made a passing mention of Handbrake on a recent episode of Hypercritical, and, since I was dissatisfied with Any Video Converter for the reasons stated earlier–namely that I did not have as much control over the conversion process as I would have liked–I decided to give Handbrake another try.

I say “another try” because I had tried Handbrake a few times in the past, but was not dissatisfied with Any Video Converter enough to motiviate me to learn how to use a new program. Therefore, I quickly uninstalled Handbrake and I went back to watching my pixelated videos from Any Video Converter. However, a few days ago I became annoyed enough at the lack of quality when playing videos on my iPod that I knew I needed something else. That something else, prompted by John Siracusa’s passing mention on Hypercritical, was Handbrake.

At first, Handbrake’s interface can be a bit daunting: with lots of buttons, quite a few dropdown menus, and a few dialogue boxes, Handbrake’s interface isn’t exactly the most intuitive. That is, until you learn how to use it. To help you learn to use Handbrake, let’s go through a tutorial to convert that 720p, AVI video to play on my iPod.

  1. First, look to the top, left-hand corner of the window for the button labeled Source. Once located, click it. A menu will pop down with three options: Video File, Folder, and Title Specific Scan. For now, ignore Title Specific Scan. Clicking Video File will allow you to select a single video file to convert; clicking Folder will allow you to select the “VIDEO_TS” folder on a DVD, which will rip the movie from the DVD and convert it. For this tutorial, I will assume you are converting a video rather than ripping from a DVD, so click Video File, select the video file from the Explorer window that pops up, and open it.
  2. If this is the first time you have ever used Handbrake, opening a video file will probably prompt an alert box to pop up informing you that you must select a default location for your output folder. To do this, click the Tools menu, scroll down to Options, and click it. In the General tab of the settings window, change the default output directory near the bottom of the screen. When finished, click close.
  3. Now that you have added a file to the conversion que and set a default output directory, choose whether you want the output video to be an MP4 file or an MKV file. Unfortunately, those are the only two video files you can convert to with Handbrake. If you need to convert to something else, I suggest you use Any Video Converter. In this tutorial, I will be converting to an MP4 file. To choose one or the other, click the menu and select either MP4 or MKV.

    Beside the dropdown menu that allows you to choose either an MP4 video or an MKV, there are a few checkboxes: Large File Size, Web Optimized, and iPod 5G Support. For now, ignore those. If one is already checked, leave it checked; otherwise, leave them all unchecked.
  4. Beneath the Output Settings section there are a few tabs: Picture, Video Filters, Video, Audio, Subtitles, Chapters, Advanced. First, the Picture tab. The Picture tab is the default view when Handbrake opes and allows you to control the output file’s resolution, as well as crop the video if necessairy. In this case, since I am converting from a 720p video to one that will play on my iPod, the output file’s resolution needs to be 640×360 in order to retain the same aspect ratio as the original video and be playable on my iPod, so I have filled the two dialogue boxes with the values 640 and 360, respectively. If the boxes for inputting a height and width for a video are grayed out, change the Anamorphic dropdown menu to “None”, which will enable you to change those values.

    Next, the Cropping section. To the right of the Size section, which is where you set the size of the output video, you can choose to crop the video. I generally choose the Custom radio button and leave all values set to zero so that I can be absolutely sure none of my video is cropped. I suggest you do the same.
  5. Now that we are finished with the Picture tab, click the Video Filters tab next to it. The Video Filters tab allows you to place certain effects on the video while it is being converted. Unless you are absolutely sure you want some effect applied to your video, I suggest you leave all filters set to “Off”. If you would like to preview what your video looks like with a certain filter on it though, Handbrake provides that ability.

    1. Go to the Video Filters tab and turn on any filters you wish to preview. I suggest turning on one filter at a time so that you can see exactly what adding that specific filter does to the video.
    2. Next, click the Preview button at the top of the screen.
    3. A long window will pop up asking you at what position you wish to start the preview at, and how long the preview should last. If you do not change either value, the preview will start at the beginning of the video and last for 10 seconds. Once you are satisfied with the start time and length of the preview, click one of the buttons to the right. On my computer, the buttons read “Play with QT” and “Play with VLC”. Depending on the media players you have installed on your computer, you could be seeing a different set of buttons.

      Once you’ve told Handbrake which media player to play the preview with, Handbrake will begin encoding the video. Since it is only a small sample, the encoding process for the preview video is short. When the encoding is finished, the window will expand to fit the video preview. From this window you can watch the new preview video. As a side note, the preview video is saved to your default output directory so that you can view it later. If you preview a video more than once, all copies will be saved with a slightly different file name.
    4. When you are finished checking out the preview close the preview window. If you are unhappy with the result of adding any of the video filters, repeat the process with different filters or remove them. When you are finished previewing the video, hit the Start button to begin converting the entire video.
  6. Next, in the Video tab, there are two different sections: Video and Quality. In the Video section you can choose the video codec and the framerate for the output video. I prefer to use the H.264 video codec as its quality to size ratio is better than that of the MPEG-4 codec. However, using the MPEG-4 codec will cause the conversion process to go faster. If you have time to spare and want your videos to be of the highest quality possible, I suggest using the H.264 codec.

    As we discusssed earlier, the framerate is very important to the quality of a video and should be left at the same level as the original. In Handbrake, the default is “Same as source”, which is what you want.

    Over in the Quality section you can choose the target size, in MB, of your converted video. I would caution against using this feature, as I am not exactly sure what Handbrake does in order to achieve the targeted size; I would suspect, however, that the video quality is compromised. Instead of choosing the target size, you can instead set an Average Bitrate or a Constant Quality for the video. Unless something is already selected I suggest leaving the options in this section set as-is, and if nothing is selected I suggest leaving everything unchecked.

  7. The Audio tab, next in line, has a single section to it: Audio Tracks. This tab allows you to choose the audio tracks to be contained in the output video. There should already be at least one track in the area near the bottom of the screen; this is the audio track for the video. Unless you want a silent video, leave this track in there. There are a few different settings you can change regarding the audio track: Source, Audio Codec, Mixdown, Samplerate, Bitrate, and DRC.

    • Source, as you may guess, is the source of the audio for the video. There should be only one option in this dropdown menu.
    • The Audio Codec dropdown menu allows you to choose an audio codec for the video’s audio. Here’s a quick rundown on each option:

      • AAC stands for Advanced Audio Codec and was designed to replace the MP3 codec, which will be discussed next. The AAC codec is a lossy audio codec, which means that it removes some data in order to achieve a small file size. However, the AAC codec generally received better sound quality than the MP3 codec at similar bit rates.
      • The MP3 codec, also known as MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III, is another lossy audio codec and is probably the most commonly used audio codec on the planet.
      • The AC3 audio codec was developed by Sony and is another lossy audio codec, although many consider it to be the best of the lossy codecs because it can handle 5.1 Surround Sound audio, whereas the other two codecs cannot.

      I generally stick with the AAC codec when converting videos, as it offers the best quality to size ratio out of the three options, and I do not have videos with 5.1 sound to deal with.

    • Mixdown: This is basically just choosing how you want your sound to be mixed before being added to the video. Again, leave this at the default.
    • The Wikipedia article on Sampling Rate defines the sample rate as “the number of samples per unit of time (usually seconds) taken from a continuous signal to make a discrete signal.” In other words, how often a sample should be taken per second to produce the sound you hear. This should be left at the default: Auto. If you raise the sample rate too high, you will only be rewarded by poor audio quality; lower the sample rate too much and you will be left with poor, jarbled audio.
    • Bitrate: Again to reference a Wikipedia article, bitrate is defined as “the number of bits that are conveyed or processed per unit of time.” This is, in a very basic sense, similar to the framerate: you are setting a value for the amount of data that can be conveyed over a certain period of time. And just like with the framerate, it is best to leave this as close to the original video’s bitrate as possible.
  8. The Subtitles tab. For most people, this tab is probably the least important out of every tab in Handbrake. However, that is not the case for everyone. The Subtitles tab handles, as you’ve probably guessed, video subtitles. If the source video does not already have subtitles, you cannot add subtitles with Handbrake; that must be done with a video editor. If the source video does, however, have subtitles, simply click the dropdown menu menu and select the language you wish your subtitles to be in. Note that Handbrake will not convert subtitles from one language to another: if the source video has English subtitles, you must select English subtitles from the dropdown menu. Also note that even if a video does have subtitles, those subtitles are not guaranteed to appear in this dropdown menu. This is because some video files–MKV and MP4 to name the two most popular–are actually a sort of container file, where the audio, video, and in this case subtitiles too, are all seperate. In AVI files, for example, this is not the case, and so the subtitles of the AVI file would not appear in the Subtitles tab.
  9. The Chapters tab. Much like in a book, chapters in a video seperate that video into parts. In my experience this feature has been more of an annoyance than anything else, but in some cases, such as when converting a movie, for example, chapters may be helpful. To enable chapters in your output video, simply leave the checkbox labeled “Create chapter markers” checked; to disable the creation of chapters in your output video, uncheck that checkbox.
  10. Finally, the Advanced tab. Unlike most Advanced settings windows, the Advanced tab in Handbrake is truly advanced. Unless you know exactly what you are doing–something that would be nearly impossible to teach in a single bullet point–I recommend that you steer cler of this tab. Handbrake will handle all the necessary settings, so you don’t need to worry about them.
  11. Now that you’ve learned to use all of Handbrake’s tabs and tweaked the settings so they’re just right, you’re almost ready to start the conversion. Here’s a quick tip though: you can save the current video conversion settings as a Preset, meaning that you can load all the current settings at any time with a single click. To create a preset, simply click the Add button at the bottom of the Handbrake window. A small window will pop up asking you to name the preset. Name it someting descriptive–for example, I’ve created a preset for converting 720p videos to play on my iPod, which I have named 720p. Change the dropdown menu from “None” to “Source Maximum”, and check the checkbox labeled “Use Picture Filters”; doing so will make sure all the settings you have changed so far will be preserved in the preset.
  12. Assuming you are only going to convert a single video, you can now click the Start button at the top of the Handbrake window, which will start the encoding process. The progress of the encoding will be displayed at the bottom of the window. Alternatively, you can click the Show Que button at the top of the window to view the current conversion proress in more detail, as well as the conversion que.

    If you wish to create a conversion que to convert multiple videos though, follow these steps:

    1. Open Handbrake.
    2. Add a video as you normally would.
    3. Next, either use the preset you created earlier or manually change the conversion settings for the video.
    4. Once you’ve set the video conversion up, click the Add to Que button at the top of the window between the Start and Show Que buttons. Clicking the Add to Que button adds the video that is currently set to be converted to the conversion que, and will also bring up the Encode Que window if it is not already open, displaying the current conversion que. From the Conversion Que window you can change the que order, as well as edit the conversion settings for a video in the que. To change the conversion settings for a video in the que, simply right-click the video you wish to change and click Edit. Now go back to the main Handbrake window, make changes to the conversin settings, and then hit Add to Que again.
    5. To add another video to the que, simple follow steps 2-4 for each video you wish to add to the que.
    6. At any time during the process of adding videos to the que you can start the conversion process. Once the conversion process starts you can add, remove, or change the order of any video in the conversion que. The video currently being converted is not displayed in the conversion que, so you don’t have to worry about messing up the encoding process by shuffling the order around a bit.

Resources:

Review: Cowboy Bepop

Cowboy Bebop.
I first heard of this show after watching an excellent AMV on YouTube that was created with footage from this 26-episode series. I have not been able to find that specific video to include in this article, but needless to say, it was made well enough to convince me to give Cowboy Bepop a chance. Now, having just finished the 26th episode, here is my review of the classic anime that “explores several concepts involving philosophy, including existentialism, loneliness, and existential ennui1.” (Source)

In 2022, the explosion of an experimental hyperspace gateway severely damaged the Moon, resulting in a debris ring and meteor bombardments that eradicated a large portion of the population. As a result, many survivors abandoned the barely habitable Earth to colonize the inner planets, the asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter. In 2071, with the police unable to patrol the entire universe, old western-style bounty hunting has become popular again. Cowboy Bepop focuses on the story of Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, and their eventual partners Faye Valentine, Radical “Ed” Edward, and Ein as they cruise the universe on the Bepop, collecting bounties and reliving their pasts.

Story.
Cowboy Bepop, unlike most animes I have watched up to now, does not have an easy-to-understand underlying plot that is built upon throughout the entire series. Instead, every episode is a story within itself, with each new installment ending its respective story. The exceptions to that rule are the last two episodes: episode 25 and episode 26, which end the series. The Wikipedia article for the Cowboy Bepop episode list explains the story well: “Usually [Cowboy Bepop] characters’ backgrounds are only obscurely alluded to, and the audience is never directly explained details or shown the full picture until the end. There are brief flashbacks, or characters will speak of things that happened in the past, and holes are intentionally left up to the audience to fill in.” By “the end,” the writer of the explanation literally means the end of the series: until the last two episodes, everything is sort of up in the air, so to speak, and it is not until episode 26 that everything is tied together, giving the series a profound sense of finality when it does end.

Animation.
Even without taking into consideration the fact that Cowboy Bepop was created ten years ago, the animation is excellent; taking that fact into account, the animation is amazing. Cowboy Bepop’s episodes frequently take place in outer space, so the animators had plenty of opportunities to do an excellent job in animating this series. They delivered on each opportunity. Cowboy Bepop not only features an excellent story, but also amazing animation to complement that story, present in each and every episode.

Summary:
Cowboy Bepop is not a series that you can watch and understand without putting any effort into understanding the story. Once you finish the 26th episode though, you will be glad you stuck with the series. All in all, I definitely recommend this anime to anyone who wants to see a well-made anime with a good plot, great animation, and a fantastic ending.

——–
1 Existential enui. “Existential” refers to existentialism as previously linked to; enui is the French word for boredom. Together, the two words form “existential enui”, which most likely means being bored with life.

Resources:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cowboy_Bebop
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Cowboy_Bebop_episodes
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existential
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ennui

Updated: About Me

Just want to make a quick post to say that the About Me page has been updated as part of my website overhaul (more on that later). Check it out–it’s very much improved over the last version.

SofaMoolah.com

SofaMoolah.com A few days ago I found a website called SofaMoolah.com from, I belive, a post on Hacker News. For more info on Hacker News, check out my recnetly posted article titled Hacker News. Anyways, I found Sofa Moolah and my attention was immeadietly drawn to the two most recent articles: My Early Business Life: A 6 Figure Business That Fell Apart When I Was 16 and The Conclusion: A 6 Figure Business That Fell Apart When I Was 16. As you may have guessed from reading the titles, the two articles are two parts of the same story: the beginning and the end of the story of Mathew Carpenter’s brief but very successful business three years ago when he was 16, abruptly halted by–well, I’ll let you check the blog out for the rest of the story. Without giving too much away about the story though, these two articles are excellent and of the highest quality, in my opinion. I learned quite a bit from each and finally closed their tabs feeling like I had gained great insight into the world of entropeneurship, which I had.

Now that you have a nice introduction to Sofa Moolah, here’s a bit about the site. You can read most of what I’m about to say on the Who We Are page on Sofa Moolah: Sofa Moolah was officially launched in June of 2011 (so pretty recently) and is run by Mathew Carpenter and Dan Walker. The purpsoe of Sofa Moolah is to (From the Welcome to Sofa Moolah page) “…document [Mathew Carpenter and Dan Walker's] journey of making money online while also showcasing interviews with other successful entrepreneurs, display case studies that work and also give out material that [their] users will find helpful.” In the two posts cited above, Mat has “hit the nail on the head” and done an excellent job of living up to the goal set in the Welcome post.

Currently Mat has made the majority of posts on Sofa Moolah, with Dan contributing the excellent article Work Online? My Insight Into Setting An Hourly Rate. The guys over at Sofa Moolah seem to be posting at a respectable rate, especially considering the length and depth to all their articles, as well as the quality that is present in each and every one of them. Keep an eye out for their site on Hacker News and who knows, maybe on some of the big-time media sites one day, too.

Alexa: The Web Information Company

Alexa: The Web Information Company

As I was writing my recent post about Hacker News, I wanted to get some stats about the website to put in my article–page views, site popularity, and the like. I had gathered this information on various websites in the past, but could not remember how to get this sort of information from a website I did not own, and especially a popular site like Hacker News. A quick Google search for “site stats” yileded the site I was looking for though: Alexa.com. Alexa.com is a “web information company” that, as its name suggests, provides information about popular websites to anyone looking. I was looking for stats on Hacker News (news.ycombinator.com), so all I needed to do was stick the domain in the search box and hit “Search”. Presented with the results, I chose ycombinator.com and was given global page rank of the site as well as the U.S. pagerank and total views to the site (an approximate value).

Besides finding information on specific sites like ycombinator.com, you can also get information on the most popular websites in the world. For example, Google.com is currently #1 (surprise surprise) with Facebook in second place and YouTube in third. Incidentially, I find it interesting that Google accounts for 5.7% of the total pageviews to any site in the world, with Facebook accounting for around 8% and YouTube accounting for around 3.1%. Alexa also provides information on trending topics as well. For example, the What’s Hot page shows “the most popular pages on the web right now”. Clicking on any of the links in the What’s Hot section brings up a page displaying a list of websites talking about that specific topic. The What’s Hot page does something else though, too: displays a list of hot products. The list of hot products resides beneath the list of hot topics and includes the hottest products from around the internet. Similar to the Hot Topics’ list, clicking on the product name will direct you to a page listing websites mentioning said product.

So that was a bit of a lengthy explanation of exactly what Alexa does. Here’s a summary:

  • Provides information on the most popular websites in the world.
  • Provides information on almost any website, available through search.
  • Provides a list of “hot topics” and links to pages that mention them.
  • Provides a list of “hot products” and links to pages that mention them.

Overall though, the information that can be collected about any website is by far Alexa’s strongest selling point, and also why it is a website I am continually going to reference as I write more and more on here.

As a final, unrelated note: this blog also has a page on Alexa. According to Alexa, at the time of this writing, my blog is ranked 1968282 in the world, and 668152 in the U.S.. Also, in the U.K. this website is ranked 205882.

Hacker News

HackerNews. Finding a good source of news is difficult enough these days, especially when trying to find a source that will offer you news to your liking. Getting news on a single topic, however, can be a bit easier–although it often isn’t–and especially so when that topic is technology. Blogs like PC Magazine, PC World, and TechCrunch all are great places to keep up to date on the latest in the world of computers and related technology; but if you are like me, those sites just don’t cut it. Whether it’s the annoyance of constantly seeing stories that stir little or no interest (Top Android Tablets << PC Mag; 4 Stupid Tech Tricks, Tested << PC World; I couldn’t find on on Tech Crunch), or you just don’t like the ad-filled layout of the sites, it’s likely you have some problem with them. Enter Hacker News. I discovered Hacker News (news.ycombinator.com) a few months ago after hearing John Siricusa make a passing mention of it in an episode of Hypercritical–one of my all-time favorite podcasts. At the time, I brushed it aside because it was just so simple, and I didn’t really get it. Then a few weeks ago Marco Arment, host of Build & Analyze–another one of my favorite podcasts, also from 5by5–mentioned it again and I decided to give it another try. Fast-forward to today and I use it every single day. In fact, I check it every morning after waking up along with Google Reader and XKCD. So what made me switch? What makes Hacker News such a great place for the trending technological topics?

First, a bit about Hacker News. Hacker News is run by a funding firm called Y Combinator. Check out the Y Combinator website for more about their (very cool) work. According to the Wikipedia article for Hacker News, Hacker News was founded in 2007 by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. Since its beginning, Hacker News has slowly gained popularity, mostly among the geeks and nerds in the technology industry. Today, Hacker News is extremely popular and amasses hundreds of submissions daily. Globally, Hacker News is ranked 1568, and in the U.S. Hacker News holds the rank of 764.

Hacker News was initially, and still may be, intended to be a social network “similar to the early days of Reddit.” (Wikipedia article excerpt) To use Hacker News, simply go to the website and start reading. The default view on the homepage is to see the top stories, which are decided upon by readers’ votes. From the homepage it is also possible to see the newest submissions, browse the latest comments, take a look at the questions users are asking, and there’s even a jobs page where people can post ads for jobs. There is another link at the top of the page though: submit. Clicking the submit link will take you to a page asking you to either login or create an account–either way, you must only provide a username and password (even for creating an account). Once logged in, you will have the option to submit a story to Hacker News. As soon as the story is submitted–and the only requirement for something to be submitted to Hacker News is defined as “anything that gratifies one’s intellectual curiosity“–it will appear on the new page, and if it is voted up enough it will eventually apppear on the homepage. That’s what happened to my article The Comprehensive Terminal Guide, which received approximately 2500 views from Hacker News on the first day it was posted there. After that, it went on to amass another 3000 or so views in the ensuing 10 days from not only Hacker News, but also from people whose attention had been grabbed by its ranking on Hacker News who were posting links to my article on Twitter and Facebook. At the time of this writing, The Comprehensive Terminal Guide has received 5552 views. The internet is a wonderful thing.

Anyways, that’s enough bragging. The point here is that Hacker News is one of my favorite news websites of all time, and something that I use every single day. The ability to post my blog articles there has driven some (as you’ve seen) major traffic my way, which I am extremely grateful to Hacker News for, and in combination with the great news stories that continue to be posted there, keeps me coming back.

An ending note: I found it humorous that 95(.81)% of the views to the ycombinator.com domain belong to news.ycombinator.com, i.e. Hacker News. Source: Alexa.com: The Web Information Company.

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