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The Lord of the Rings Mythology Explained

Wallpapers:

If you like the artwork, there are 4k resolution wallpapers of the characters available at Patreon and Subbable

Script:

The Lord of the Rings has lots of different kinds of people: elven people, dwarven people, tree people, half-sized people, even people people.

There's like a million pages of background explaining this world that goes much deeper than the books or the movies, but if you don't want to read it all here's a four minute summary, starting with Wizards:

It's easy to mistake the wizards as humans trained in magic, like elsewhere.

But in the Lord of the Rings, wizards are low(ish) level angels. They're called Istari (get ready for lots of names in this video) and there are five of them -- Sauroman the White, Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown, and the two blue wizards.

Their power comes mostly from being supernatural and not so much from book learnin'.

They're sent (by who? We’ll get to that in a second.) to help the people of world stand against evil -- not wildly successfully either. Sauroman, the leader of the five with a mind of metal and wheels gets corrupted, Radagast, gets distracted by all the pretty nature, the blue wizards just kind of fade into the East -- possibly starting cults of magic and it's only Gandalf that stays true to the quest.

Now, where there's angels there’s a god and in this Universe that's Eru Ilúvatar.

In the beginning there was naught but Eru and the infinite timeless nothing, which is rather boring so he created lots of angels to keep him company.

Ilúvatar 's angels are called the Ainur and are divided into two groups The Valar (Guardians of the world of which there are fourteen or fifteen depending on who you want to count) and their servants The Maiar.

The Wizards are the Istari a subset of the Maiar, which serve the Valar, all created by Ilúvatar.

Ilúvatar and all his angels sang together to make the world. The harmony started out great But there was one Valar named Melkor, and just from the name Melkor, you know what's going to happen, even before learning he's also the smartest, and the most powerful of the angels. And also a bit of a loner.

Melkor didn't want to just be part of the chorus like his dimmer Valar co-workers, he wanted his own song and creations and so his voice became discordant from the others and... created all the suffering and evil in the world.

But Melkor's song also attracted some Maiar to his side including the balrogs. Which means the balrog is a low-level angel making him on the same level of the power org chart as Gandalf: which explains why an old man can hold his ground against a giant lava monster.

Through his discordant singing Melkor also created some of the evil creatures in the world such as the dragons and trolls. Which finally gets us to things that aren't angels.

Other Valar, also made their own non-angelic creations, though in a cooperative spirit with Ilúvatar.

Manwë makes the Great Eagles.

Aulë made the dwarves and his wife Yavanna made all of the animals and plants in the world before capping off that minor task with the Ents, her own race of sentient creatures.

While Ilúvatar seemed happy to leave it to his Valar to make most of the stuff -- he did personally create men and elves which makes them special and kind of above all the other living creatures. (Sorry Dwarves)

And of these two, the men are Ilúvatar 's favorite children: and he show's this by giving men shorter lives than everybody else and also the gift of death? Thanks a lot, Dad. But their short lives set them apart from the other creatures and they aren't tied to the music of creation and the world like everyone else and so are the able to forge their own futures. These qualities make them the get-stuff-done species of middle earth.

Elves, on the other hand, are so connected to the world they're practically made of nature. Same with the Dwarves in their own way, and the Ents of course. These species all but follow the flow of nature and it's partly why the humans have such a hard time getting them to do anything.

Even when faced with armies of Orcs, which brings us to Orcs. Melkor was powerful but couldn't make his own creatures as great as the elves and men and so cheated by corrupting some of them in the beginning and selectively breeding them over the generations into these creatures.

This business Melkor was up to of torturing elves, making monsters, recruiting angels from the other side eventually, but unsurprisingly, led to a war that Melkor loses and got him banished into the void.

All of the conflict in the Lord of the Rings comes long after the epic good vs. evil fight of that universe. Sauron, the Big Bad who caused all of the trouble in these books was just one of the Maiar, though an unusually powerful one, who started his career as Melkor's lieutenant -- after the war he did make a ring to focus his strength, but that's a story for another time.

Last, but not least, we have the hobbits. Even though they seem related to dwarves, what with the living underground and the vertical challenge, hobbits are a subspecies of men. For such an important and pivotal race there is little written of their origin other than the phrase 'related to men.' Turns out with a million pages you still can't talk about everything, just like in a four minute video.

Voyage to Nowhere: The Amazon Kindle Story

When Amazon announced the Kindle Voyage, it filled me with hope. Lighter?  Yes please.  Higher resolution?  Why not?  Magnesium case?  Sounds great.  Page-turning buttons?  Huzzah!  Amazon cares about Kindle again!  Instant pre-order.

But when the Kindle Voyage arrived, hope turned to despair.  Not just for the future of Kindle, but for the future of Amazon itself. 

What Readers Want

A promotional image for the Voyage reads: “passionately crafted for readers”. 

Imagine a restaurant that advertised its meals as: “passionately crafted for foodies” but a visit reveals sticky tables, dirty plates and a smoking chef. 

This is the Restaurant de Kindle and I’ve been eating there for years. Hoping – against all evidence to the contrary – that the sign represents the food. 

But actions, repeated over years, speak louder than words.  Everything Amazon does shows they don’t care about the details and pleasures of the reading experience.  There is no evidence to believe they will. 

Typesetting

I’ve already written much and spoken much about typography on the Kindle.  Please allow me to continue for just a little bit longer on this final Kindle review.

Kindle, from its inception uses ‘full justification’: changing the width of the spaces between words to force every line to span the screen.  This doesn’t give you more words on the page, just the same words spread unevenly across every line.  The effect makes ugly ‘rivers’ of space on the page and, for some readers, has the effect of speeding up and slowing down the narrator in your head.

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The effect is bad enough on the physical kindle but is magnified on narrower screens, such as on the Kindle app.  Add in Amazon’s inability to understand em dashes and the result is comically, insultingly bad for a product with the sole purpose of displaying text. 

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There are two options to improve readability: either break the words with hyphens at their syllables (as paper books and open source typesetting programs do) or simply don’t spread the words out (left justification) as is the case with this review. 

Amazon Kindle gives you neither option to fix the justification.  Search The Internet and you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of people asking, begging for Amazon to change this.  Users go to great lengths to manually left justify their books which turns each Amazon ebook purchase into a multi-step-DRM-cracking trial of customer loyalty. 

“Passionately crafted for readers.”

Let’s take a brief look at something that would be deserving of the above label.  Instapaper not only does justification right, but also includes dyslexie among its font choices to make reading easier for dyslexics.

That’s the kind of thing a product does when it cares about its users. Oh, and by the way, when Instapaper introduced dyslexie it was a one-man product not a billion dollar company. 

Is such a font available on Kindle?  No.  Is there any reason to hope it might be?  Since Amazon hasnt updated anything about their typography since 2009 I wouldn’t hold my breath.

It’s not about Dyslexie in particular, it’s about Amazon saying they love readers yet failing to make even the most simple, low-hanging-fruit changes to improve the reading experience. 

Fixing text justification isn’t asking a restaurant to find a new chef, it’s asking for clean tables. Yet Restaurant de Kindle does it not. 

Worse and Worse

Even when Amazon makes changes, you often wish they didn’t. 

Here is the first Kindle I owned:

A perfect device?  No, but it was pretty great (typographical issues aside).  It felt weightless and had satisfying buttons on the sides to turn pages.

Then Amazon introduced the Kindle Paperwhite. 

I was more optimistic about the paperwhite in my review but I found myself using it less and less over time.  The touch screen made accidental page-turns more frequent and white light is the worst for reading in bed.  It’s proven to keep you awake.  A design team that cared would have made the light warmer. 

Amazon also couldn’t manufacture screens that lit evenly.  I exchanged mine many times before giving up settling on a screen that was good enough but also made every page slightly more irritating to read.

These irritations, combined with the increased weight, contributed to less and less frequent use of the paperwhite. 

‘Button’

Rather than bring back the page-turn button for Kindle Voyage, Amazon birthed a Frankenstein's monster: This pressure sensitive white strip on the Kindle Voyage’s bezel.

This pressure sensitive ‘button’ is so bad, such an obvious worst-of-both-worlds construction its existence makes me doubt everything about the product team at Amazon.

To replicate the experience of the Kindle Voyage ‘button’ find an immovable surface in your house: a marble kitchen countertop will do. Place your thumb upon the surface, then press down – deforming your thumb. 

Not pleasant, is it?

imagine repeating that gesture thousands and thousands of times over dozens and dozens of books for every turn of the page.

This is no button, it’s a repetitive strain injury machine. And a committee of humans (presumably including Bezos) somewhere in Amazon saw it, approved it, and shipped it.

Such judgement cannot be trusted. 

If you want to avoid the RSI-‘button’ the Voyage does also have a touch-screen option like the Paperwhite.  But this too has been made worse. 

The touch screen, previously recessed, is now on the same level with the bezel which makes accidental pages turns more frequent.  This flatness doesn’t make reading books any better – given the way the rest of the device is set up it makes it worse. 

At Kindle design headquarters there should be a whiteboard with ‘Does this feature make reading better?’ at the top.  Instead Amazon is trying to make the Kindle into an iPad-like tablet rather than making a speciality device “passionately crafted for readers”.  The result feels like it fell out of an alternative universe where Palm survived into the tablet age.

Switching Costs

A recent two-week trip to America was intended to be a kindle testing ground but since Amazon does everything outside the US weeks or months late, my Kindle Voyage didn’t make it in time so I decided to try something else:

I used Apple’s iBooks for my reading on the trip. IBooks may not be the industry leader, but their product shows evidence of caring about the reading experience: 

  • There are multiple options for handling text justification.
  • You can tap both margins to advance the page. (Unlike Amazon who thinks readers always hold their books in the same hand. Have they ever seen people read books?)
  • There is an acceptable (though not great) dark mode.
  • Collections of books sync in an understandable manner.
  • You can make highlights in a book sample before you buy it.

Speaking of highlights: Amazon has no graceful option to update books. Updating a book, in Amazon’s world, is the digital equivalent of handing you a new book, then burning your old one.  Hope you didn’t have any notes or highlights in there. 

IBooks, meanwhile, can update books while keeping your notes and highlights intact.  ::gasp::

You Can’t Convince Someone to Love You

Reading books is a large part of how I make a living. My decision to switch away from Amazon’s ebooks doesn’t come lightly.

I have a huge sunk cost in terms of my existing library of books in Amazon.  The future costs will be large as well.  I buy, and still plan to buy, my audiobooks from Audible – which often lets you get the Amazon version for a dollar extra.  Now, many of the audiobooks I buy for work will have to be double purchased.

To be pushed over a switching-costs wall so high is serious business. This long-coming decision is helped by Amazon’s other blunders: Their Firephone is so terrible they literally can’t give it away and the existence of the Amazon Echo strains all reason. 

(Seriously, I dare you to sit through the Echo Ad without skipping. While you watch that train wreck unfold before your eyes, keep in mind that somewhere at Amazon is a team of humans, led by Bezos, who approved it.)

These bizarre products, combined with making the kindle line worse two generations in a row, and a neglected software system for half a decade makes Amazon feel unstable.  Mentally. 

I had been planning to launch a big, public campaign about Kindle typography to try and get Amazon to change her ways.  But I came to the conclusion: why bother?

A restaurant won’t get better no matter how much you care if the owners don’t.

Bose Quiet Comfort 25 Noise-Canceling Headphones Review

Shortly after starting a podcast with a friend he recommended to me the Bose Quiet Comfort 15 noise canceling headphones. While doubtful about wired over-ear headphones, which I hadn't worn in a decade, none-the-less I tried them out.

They immediately became required equipment.

Since Bose introduced the QC 15s five years ago they have become a common sight on frequent travelers in airports and train stations the world over. Now Bose has updated the line with the Quiet Comfort 25 noise canceling headphones .

Here are my thoughts on the QC 25s after three weeks, two trains, and one transatlantic trip.

The Reason You Buy Them

You buy the Quiet Comfort headphones from Bose to distance yourself from the acoustic intrusions of the world: construction, babies, jet engines, music, traffic, babies, and babies.

Take, to pick a random example, babies. Their voices designed by millions of years of evolution to be unignorable. In the confines of a crowded airplane, a single baby can tear asunder the calm and quiet thoughts of a hundred or more grown humans with a mere cry. What baby is going to pass up that kind of opportunity?

There is nothing -- legally anyway -- that you can do about a screaming baby, but the Bose Quiet comfort headphones are the next best thing. Your metaphorical smothering pillow, as it were.

And a pillow really is the best way to describe the effect. The noise canceling doesn't really cancel out the sounds of the world around you, as the name claims. The headphones aren't a mute, but make sounds muteed. The noise 'canceling' effect when combined with music, however, makes it easy to ignore the world and slip into isolated comfort. It works best for low constant sounds (Cabin airplane noises and street traffic almost disappear) and least well for irregular, high sounds (babies, sirens) but still makes them tolerable.

Once you stop actively listening to them, the sounds slip away from your mind. I've had the pleasure of living next to construction sites for, oh, the last five years. When I first put the headphones on, I can still hear the jackhammers, but any construction work that starts after that is hard to notice. Once in this state it can be startling to take off the headphones and be plunged back into cacaphonic horror.

All the above holds true for the QC 15s and, to my ears, the 25s are even better at reducing noise. So much better they can be too quiet for comfort in an already quiet room without playing music through them. If you have tinnitus you'll never want them on your head without some sound playing. (This has led me to the strange situation of playing recorded airplane cabin noise through the headphones, while on an airplane.)

The noise reduction is so good they need to come with a warning: these headphones are not safe to wear on the street. Sirens are still audible, but approaching cars are deadly silent. Without the ambient awareness of footsteps, people appear from behind without you noticing them in advance. If you're going to wear them on the street, even with one headphone off they can surprisingly limit your aural information.

What's the same

Two things that many people complained about the QC 15s are still the same in the QC 25s:

The headphones are still wired. This isn't a big deal: while wireless would be better, if the cost was battery life I'd rather stick with the wire. Besides, most situations where the headphones are at their best, like working in a cafe, are not high-mobility situations. If you plan to be moving around a lot Bose does have a line of wireless noise-canceling headphones. (I haven't tried these, I'm using and recommend the BlueBuds for wireless)

Second: the headphones still run on a AAA battery. People complain mightily and I'm baffled as to why: Running on AAAs is a huge advantage. The headphones are most needed when they can be charged the least. An 11-hour flight from London to San Francisco is no time to find yourself with dead headphones.

AAA batteries are easily bought at any airport or train station in any country. Charging stations, if available at all, are the rare oasis. Even if you find one, you better hope you didn't forget to pack yet another charging wire.

Bose claims the AAA battery lasts more than 30 hours -- and I believe them. Trying to run the headphones down by using them for everything all day took the better part of the week even on an old rechargeable battery.

Welcome Improvements

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The QC 25s are ever so slightly smaller than the QC15s. Glancing at them side-by-side it's hard to see -- but Bose picked all the right places to shave millimeters. For something you wear on your head small improvements in size and weight yield an outsized increase in comfort. You can wear them at work all day.

The case for the QC 25s is much smaller than the previous generation. New hinges in the headphones allow them to rotate to a collapsable position to fit in the smaller and, thankfully, more rectangular container. (A helpful illustration on the interior shows how they should go -- I use it every time)

One of my biggest complaints is also removed: the QC 15s would let you know the battery was about to die with a sudden 'clack clack clack clack' sound. It was loud enough that, if I left the headphones on in the room next to my bedroom when the batteries ran down in the middle of the night the clack clack clack clack could wake me. The experience of wearing the headphones when the battery went low was… not pleasant.

I have no idea who floated that terrible idea in the design meeting but I hope the near-removal of this 'feature' from the QC25s means they were fired. And hanged. I say near-removal because it took me almost three weeks to realize that the QC25s still do click, but so gently and softly it's easily missed. The tiny green LED on the side of the headphones now blinks when the battery is approaching the end of its life. Also as a plus, even without the batteries, the audio will still work (though with reduced quality and no noise canceling).

As a final small point: the new look is also much improved: the QC 15 was a little cyberman in its appearance. The black and blue color scheme is both less eye-catching (good) and more pro. The phrase 'anonymously handsome' comes to mind.

TL;DR:

The Bose QuiteComfort 25s are a welcome upgrade from the QC 15s. Never step on a plane or a train without them.