Monthly Archives: June 2008

Interesting Thought of the Day

From tech writer Michael Malone:

The awful truth that is probably dawning on Bill Gates is that the more he is lionized by the world, the more ineffectual he will likely become. Ahead lie awards and honors for his good works, but it is the big bad works behind him at Microsoft where Gates really changed the world.

Read the whole thing

Feeling my Age

It was my birthday today, and my folks called up to wish me a happy birthday. (They also sang “Happy Birthday” to me over the phone in a pretty impressive two-part harmony). It was nice.

At some point in the conversation, they asked me if I felt my age.

“It depends”, I replied, “When I was up playing Ghost Recon 2 until 3 in the morning to welcome in my birthday, I guess I felt pretty much like a kid…”

“…but when Neil and Kelly came in to wake me up at 8:30 this morning and poked their sharp little elbows into my spleen while jumping on the bed and shouting ‘Happy Birthday!’…”

“…At that point, I definitely felt my age.”

Bill Gates on Microsoft Usability Frustrations

You’re not the only one frustrated with Microsoft. This from a 2003 email sent by Bill G. himself:

I am quite disappointed at how Windows Usability has been going backwards and the program management groups don’t drive usability issues.

He goes on to rip everything from file naming to the need to call his own contacts in order to figure out how to download Microsoft Movie Maker from the company web site. For UI folks it’s fascinating reading, as well as a cautionary tale of how lots of little annoyances can add up into a full interface meltdown.

Check it all out at Todd Bishop’s Microsoft Blog

New Round of Custom Instruments for Rock Band

Want them already.

Rock Band drums

(I Also want bigger picture of the drums so I can make out the margin notes)

So Obvious It’s Brilliant (Plus the Secret Origin of Atomic Avenue)

I love this story–not just because it points toward a possible way of fighting a devastating disease, but because of the sheer simplicity of the approach.

Now, I have no idea whether this sort of approach is the Next Big Thing in oncology, but I’m attracted to the story because it seems to be a great example of someone looking around, seeing how something (in this case, advances in cloning technology) has changed the game, and revisiting an old problem with a fresh set of eyes. Suddenly, an amazing insight like, “Hey, if this guy’s immune defenses are being overwhelmed by cancer cells, why don’t we just send in an army of cloned reinforcements from his own cells?” becomes almost blindingly obvious.

Of course, once the first person thinks of something like this (and it works), everyone in the audience can just sort of shake their head and look sadly at the other researchers who’ve spent decades trying to perfect other approaches and wonder why they were wasting their time on something that now looks like a hopelessly pointless and old-fashioned way to address the problem.

To wit: Obviously the way to stop dealing with scratches and crackles on record albums is to encode and play back record albums digitally! Obviously it makes no sense to haul around a huge, battery-sucking boom box on your shoulder to listen to music when a tiny set of headphones attached to a Walkman (or later CD or MP3 player) lets you listen to your tunes wherever you want without annoying everyone else around you.

Sure, we say “obviously” now, but until someone thought to use the decades-old technology of Analog-Digital converters and lasers to record and play back music digitally, all the “smart” audiophiles were spending countless hours trying to de-static and dust their record albums, and researchers were focused on devising avant-garde tone arms and improved, diamond-tipped record styluses. Similarly, before Sony introduced the Walkman, music lovers were more concerned with how big (and heavy!) the boom box needed to be in order to hear good bass, and whether Duracell or Energizer made the best batteries. Had the Walkman not disrupted everything, the next great area of research would no doubt have concentrated on making and perfecting rechargeable D-cells.

In the crazy world of computer software, the technology shifts come even faster. There are any number of fashions and fad involving feature sets, languages, and technology platforms. Often, the wise path is to hold your fire until the picture clarifies a little, or you really sense that a trend is catching on (otherwise, we’d have likely done a ComicBase for the Apple Newton or Pippin—anyone remember those?). At the same time, ComicBase has been among the first programs anywhere to embrace internet-driven software patches, CD-ROM data distribution, DVD (and dual-layer DVD). ComicBase is even down in tech history as the first software program ever distributed on Blu-ray Disc. Not too shabby for a program whose whole purpose in life is to keep track of comic collections!*

Still, all those technologies were years in development, and the uses were pretty much built into the technology itself. What’s really exciting is when someone takes an older technology (like Analog/Digital converters and lasers) and applies them in a game-changing new way (storing and playing back digitally recorded music on a CD). These are the shifts that take the world by storm and make being in technology so interesting. (Right now, my #1 hope is that there’s something in the works—somewhere—which is going to let me get where I’m going without paying $4.49 or more per gallon.)

One of the big new changes in our life here is the much faster internet pipe that was part of our new office location. Computer folks like ourselves are always after more speed, but what started as an imperative to keep up with the growth of Atomic Avenue has already turned as well into a way for us bring in on-demand cover picture downloading (part of the Archive Edition of Atlas), new online services like renewals and product downloads, and more.

But as cool as all this is, what I really wonder is: What’s the next “blindingly obvious in retrospect” innovation whose components are already here…and we just don’t know it yet?

*Probably the biggest “Blindingly Obvious In Retrospect” moment for us was Atomic Avenue itself. After a decade or so of doing ComicBase, we were bemoaning the largely theoretical nature of guide values for comics, along with the paradox of a comic market that seemed almost entirely dysfunctional in that most store inventory would never actually sell, while comic fans would drive themselves crazy looking for rather ordinary comics they needed but which nobody was bothering to bring to conventions or post at auctions.

Suddenly, we thought to ourselves, “You know, there are tens of millions of comics that have been entered into ComicBase—all with prices. What if we just gave everyone a big button marked “Sell” which would let them post their comics to a central site. Then, anyone looking for a regular comic like Hellblazer #85 could not only find it, but probably find a dozen copies in various conditions. And whoever sells their comics on the system would be able to put their books before the entire world and just wait for orders to roll off their printer!”

Apology Form

This could save a lot of work. Anyone got a PDF version so it can be filled out online? 😉

(Hat tip to Hud)

The Real First Day of Summer

…is obviously today. School let out late last week, the weather’s great, and–following a dip of a few days (graduation parties? Father’s day?)–Atomic Avenue traffic just set a new morning record.

Sadly, since our whole year tends to focus on the San Diego Comic-Con, summer is actually my busiest time of all. I don’t normally catch a break until a month or so after Comic-Con when all the action has died down a little. Hopefully, this year we’ll be able to get free and take that big cross-country trip we’d been dreaming of for the past few years. Even with record high gas prices, you don’t get too many chances to road trip it across America seeing as many of the lower 48 states in one go as humanly possible…

Well, that’s the motivation, at least… now back to coding…

700,000 Comics for Sale!

Woohoo! Atomic Avenue passed the 700,000 comics for sale mark today! We’re now at more than nine times the number of books available as all of eBay’s comic auctions–combined!

We Love Robots…But Not on Our Forums (Sorry!)

Even though I was in the middle of More Important Things (which, by definition is sort of…well, everything), it was that fourth forum spam message in six hours which sent me over the edge. Suddenly, the idea of retro-fitting our third-party (and incredibly hard to decipher) forum software with a CAPTCHA to help deter spam robots went from the “sometime where I get a few hours after Atlas’s release” timeframe to Right Bloody Now.

“CAPTCHA’s (“Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”) are those squiggly, hard-to-read sets of letters which are popping up more and more frequently in order to make it difficult to overwhelm forums and other systems with automated attacks. The theory goes that by requiring a human being to actually pause and decipher such letter codes, the spammers out there will find their productivity cut from being able to attack millions of systems per day to at best hundreds. More commonly, the automated scripts they employ will simply fail in their efforts and move on to the next system on their list.

I’m not in love with filling out CAPTCHAs myself, but I was really getting tired of deleting spam. On the bright side, it seems to have (temporarily) stopped cold the flood of new, patently bogus accounts which we’d see piling up in the forums as “pending approval”. (We’d always required new account owners to activate their accounts by clicking an email link–a simple measure which by itself would stop hundreds of bogus spam accounts per month). Adding a simple CAPTCHA at registration seems to have at least temporarily helped stop even more.

So, although anyone who knows us at all knows that we love robots here at Human Computing and Atomic Avenue, Spambots (and their dirtbag owners) are not at all welcome. There’s no stopping determined spammers who want to spend a lot of time posting messages, but when being a professional spam-creep depends on posting millions of bogus messages per day, it doesn’t make any sense to do it where it’ll take you longer to post the message than it will for the board owners to delete both the spam and your account.

Holy Cow! Big Updates and Big Praise for the Editors!

Have you guys been checking out the last couple of updates to ComicBase? Thanks to a trove of comics we brought back from Germany and England (as well as new submissions from customers), we’ve managed to add almost 15,000 comics to ComicBase in the last two weeks alone. To put that in perspective, that’s about 3/4 as many issues as existed in the entire first release of ComicBase some 15 years ago!

I also wanted to give some much-deserved praise to Shiaw-Ling for all her amazing work researching and pricing thousands of comics written largely in German, with publishing histories that would be befuddling to even the most experienced native speakers. It’s difficult, important work, and unfortunately, some of the worst of it (I’m thinking of “Illustrierte Klassiker” — “Classics Illustrated” in German) is yet to come. But it’s been an enormous undertaking, and I, for one, am very impressed by what she’s accomplished in just a few weeks. Well done, Shiaw-Ling! (And not to be outdone, thanks to Mark for handling thousands of additions and corrections to the database this week as well! [and thanks to all of you for sending them in!])

Next week: cracking the 400,000 issue mark?