The new, new thing in Japan: write a novel on a mobile phone

You think BlackBerry users are weird because because they don't mind hammering out email messages with their thumbs? Well, in Japan a new generation of authors are writing entire novels on their mobile phones. This article relates that "half of Japan's top-10 selling works of fiction in the first six months of the year were composed ... on the tiny handset of a mobile phone."

The writing style is characterized by "clipped one-liners, emoticons and spaces (used to show that a character is thinking), all of which can be read easily on a mobile phone interface."

One such novel is Moshimo Kimiga, written by a nursery school teacher on her mobile phone and originally distributed in installments to mobile phone readers. Now that it is available in hard cover, it has sold 420,000 copies since January.

I still can't decide if this is a wonderful example of making an art previously practiced by a relative few available to the many, or if it's just depressingly weird. You tell me!


Finally, my phone knows where I am

Google announced a new version of Google Maps for mobile phones almost a week ago. It uses cell tower location data to determine approximately where you are, without needing GPS. Now I know you're thinking, "triangulation!" but Google doesn't say that word anywhere.

This was just too cool to pass up so I've been trying valiantly for the last week to get it running on my BlackBerry Pearl 8100 (on the Rogers network in the Vancouver area). I am happy to report that after multiple permutations of installing, uninstalling, power cycling and battery pulling ... it works! It's in beta (what a surprise), and surely Google will figure out how to make it install more reliably soon.

What do I mean by "it works"? Instantly after firing up the application it showed my estimated location with a blue flashing dot and indicated that it was accurate to about 1700m. In fact, it was much closer, about five blocks. And that's indoors where GPS wouldn't work anyway.

For those us used to having GPS locate us to within the correct side of the street, not five blocks away, this may seem like it's not going to be good enough. But if you are as directionally challenged as I am, you'll take what you can get. And Google claims that it will get more accurate as it used more. (How the heck does that work??)

You can find out all about it here. It would be a good idea to check first if your phone is supported.


No more shaky pans?

Isn't it annoying how difficult it is to get a smooth pan or tilt even when using a tripod? You go to all that work to get a rock steady picture, but then discover it is almost impossible to avoid shaking the camera a little when your hands grab the handle to start the movement. A better tripod head might help, but the idea of a motorized device to do the camera moves is pretty attractive.

This sounds like a problem that money could solve and indeed there are many options if you are willing to spend $5,000 and up. But if that's not in your budget, you might want to take a look at the Bescor MP-101 ($120 at B&H). It is a battery-operated (an AC adapter is optional) motorized pan head. I couldn't find reviews or user comments about this unit anywhere, so I took a chance and bought one.

Installation and use is simple. You attach it to your tripod head and then attach the camera to it. The remote is simple and easy to operate. You set the pan speed with a slide control and then press the arrow in the direction you want to move the camera. It will also tilt, at a fixed speed.

There is also has an automatic mode which will continuously pan the camera back and forth between the angles of your choice. Maybe this is good for a security application? I can't think of any time I would use it.

I've made a few sample videos with my Canon XH A1 to show you the results. The first shows a pan of a forest scene at the fastest speed, using a wide angle. Frankly it doesn't look very good but that's not the fault of the Bescor. For reasons I don't fully understand (but which are discussed here), panning doesn't look good with this setup. At the slow speed though it looks great. Fortunately the tilt speed is slow, so that works. Unless you are zoomed in which case it's too fast. Sigh.

  • Inexpensive
  • Quiet
  • Pretty smooth
  • Easy to use
  • Good range of travel
  • Motion starts and ends abruptly
  • Slowest speed is still too fast (especially on zoom)
  • Occasional hesitations during travel
  • Some minor glitching when reversing directions
  • The wire to the remote control is not very long (but an extension is available)

If you need an inexpensive motorized pan and tilt head, the Bescor MP-101 could be the one for you. It does a good job within its limitations. For my purposes, the jury is still out as to whether it will be useful. Look at the sample video (about 50MB) and judge for yourself. I bought mine at B&H Photo/Video.


Cherry blossoms in HD

This picture is one frame from an HD movie taken with the XH A1 in 1080i mode. Click on the image to get the full size view. It looks better than most of the images I take with my still camera.


Should I pay 4x for HDV tapes?

Crikey. I've just learned that although you can use regular mini-DV tapes in an HDV camcorder, maybe you shouldn't. According to wikipedia (today, at least): "Because HDV uses the same tape form factor as DV, users should be able to use any high quality MiniDV tape in their HDV camcorder. However, because HDV has a lower tolerance for drop-outs because of its long-GOP compression, many HDV users purchase either 'master' quality Mini-DV tapes or specially formulated HDV tapes."

But tapes advertised as being for HDV cost four times as much as regular mini-DV tapes. Surely this is a rip-off, comparable to the hugely-inflated prices of Monster cables? Please someone tell me that regular tapes from a reputable manufacturer are good enough!


Canon XH A1: Big and Wonderful

As promised in my last post, I bought a Canon XH A1 from Beach Camera. As usual with Beach, the transaction was smooth and the shipping was quick.

I am on a journey that I suspect is common to a lot of semi-serious videographers out there: the first step from a decent SD camcorder to HD. I have had great service from a pair of Panasonic PV-GS400 camcorders for the last couple of years. The PV-GS400 was hands down the best camcorder in its price class and it is very sad that Panasonic no longer produces it and instead has chosen to dumb down its product line.

But it was time to think about HD anyway. The choice was to take a small step up to a consumer HD camera or take a big step up into a prosumer camera. I had gotten used to the nice manual controls on the PV-GS400 and didn't want to give any of that up. So I made the big step forward. The XH A1 is about (gulp) three times the price of the PV-GS400.

The first thing you notice is that the XH A1 is a lot bigger than the PV-GS400. (See picture.) But it is much sexier looking. I mean, come on, look at it!

It's heavier too, weighing in at about 5-1/2 pounds. The little pipsqueak Panasonic is only 1-1/2 pounds. I thought the weight would kill me, but I walked around for about an hour with it, taking pictures of random things, and it wasn't too bad.

The second thing you notice is the quality of the pictures. Oh my! This baby is worth every penny. More on the picture quality in my next post.


Canon offers $250 rebate on XH A1

I've been ready to make the switch to an HD camcorder for a little while now. But it's been hard to choose. The consumer camcorders are amazing for the price, but too dumbed down for the serious hobbyist. And the professional ones are ferociously expensive unless you're, well, a professional.

Based on the not-quite-astronomical price and several rave reviews, I have settled on getting the Canon XH A1. Today I started scouring the Web for the best price from a reputable dealer. (What is it about camera equipment that attracts so many vendors with shady selling practices?) I soon tumbled on to the fact that Canon is offering a $250 rebate for cameras purchased between March and June of 2007. Hooray!

No one legit seems to be offering a better price than Beach Camera, and I've had good experiences with them in the past, so that's where I'll go to buy it.


GPS Text-to-Speech Feature a Must-Have

I have an absolutely atrocious sense of direction, but I have been fortunate enough to be born in an era when the miracle cure is available: GPS.

I am on my second GPS receiver now and have used several in friends' cars and rentals. My latest is a Garmin C340. It's a wonderful little unit that I like the best of any I've used. But it has one feature that really wins the prize for me: text-to-speech.

This feature means that actual names are used in the driving directions instead of generic descriptions. For example, instead of, "In 200 feet, turn right," you are told, "In 200 feet, turn right onto Alameda Parkway." Makes a huge difference.

Now you might expect it would be difficult for a little guy like the C340 to do this perfectly, and you'd be right. It's actually amazingly good, but there are the odd amusing glitches. Examples:
  • "Marine Dr" -> "Marine Doctor"
  • "Granville St S" -> "Granville Saint South"
  • And my favorite... Just for laughs I changed the voice to Australian. I was surprised when it then interpreted "WA 451", which should have been "Washington 451", as "Western Australia 451". Switch back to the American voice and it comes out correctly. Ha ha.
The C340 is very easy to use and small enough to throw into your carry-on luggage when you're traveling and can't count on the rental car having GPS. The display is not bright enough on sunny days and the voice could be a little louder, but other than that everything works great. Highly recommended for the directionally-challenged.

Canadians: The usual retail outlets don't carry this model, preferring the C330 for some reason. But the C330 doesn't have text-to-speech. Don't buy it! Order the C340 over the Web or buy it retail in the US.

Note: I have no affiliation with Garmin and I'm not smart enough to figure out how to get affiliate $ from anyone.