Category Archives: Atomic Avenue

Comic-Con: Now Bending Space and Time!

Everyone who’s experienced it knows that Comic-Con is a mind-bending extravaganza with the capability to tax every iota of your energy and endurance, both in preparation, execution, and in the long slog to and fro. And to top it all, this year it’s managed to seemingly tear the fabric of reality and reverse the flow of time itself.

To wit: ComicBase 14 was released into the wild at Comic-Con, but it won’t even officially exist until early next week. And since we were all working crazy hours struggling to get ComicBase 14 out the door in time for Comic-Con, that staff was so exhausted (and the office was thrown into such disarray) that we won’t have the extensive web site configuration and other materials ready to allow us to actually ship ComicBase 14 until next week. (I had hoped for earlier, but a round of flu has been knocking off Human Computing staffers members like Watchmen’s Mask Killer).

So there you have it: a product that doesn’t exist yet has been busy killing its creators, thus delaying its birth.

And the best part? In two week’s time, I’m actually going to be on a movie set  in Albuquerque…reenacting Comic-Con!

I swear, I couldn’t make stuff like this up…

(Almost) a Wing Commander!

Ever since we devised the rank system on Atomic Avenue (a mishmash of US and British Air Force titles for the most part, with no small hat tip to the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), there’s never been anyone who reached the 2500 rating points required to make the top rank: “Wing Commander”

Checking my feedback this morning, however, I noticed I’m getting awfully close…


In theory, this means ten more Five-Star ratings would put me over the top. I’ll admit, for a system that I helped concoct (and which I suppose I could rig by editing the database), I’m irrationally excited by the prospect of hitting the top rank.

(Maybe then I’ll finally get the key to the Wing Commander’s Executive Washroom! 😉

Coming Soon: ComicBase 14

It’s a big one…a really big one… and it’s coming up soon.

We’re just now putting the final touches on the amazingly cool ComicBase 14, and I, for one am tremendously excited.

For one, I’ll finally be able to open my big mouth soon about the amazing things we’ve been cooking up for the past year. My Facebook friends may have caught a couple of clues as to what we’ve been up to, but for the most part, we’ve been pretty good about keeping the new version’s feature set under wraps so we can have a proper “reveal” at launch time. And that date is coming up very, very soon indeed!

Watch this space: lots more to come!

Secret Stuff Afoot

I sort of have an informal goal of blogging about once a week, and I have to apologize because I find lately that I’ve got nothing to talk about–or more accurately, nothing I can talk about.

We’re hard at work on the next version of ComicBase (in a way, we’re always hard at work on the next version), but this time, we’ve decided to save the big surprises for the actual release date…and that’s a secret too. All I can say at this point is that it looks really, really cool!

As for other things, well since this is a blog loosely connected to my business, I’m never going to be talking about politics, religion, or anything that’s likely to personally offend anyone I do, or am likely to do business with. Since we ship on six continents, that pretty much leaves penguins as topics of open and freewheeling conversation (Oooh! Could I tell you a few things there! [actually, not really]). I also have to respect the privacy of family, friends, and customers, so even if there’s a Really Colorful Story I could share involving any of the above, I can only do so if I change all the names…

…but let’s be honest, I’m such a geek that the work I can’t tell you about is already pretty much crowding out the personal life stuff I can’t tell you about. Sigh.

So welcome to Pete’s unintentionally muzzled, very quiet lately blog. Product announcement (and much retroactive blabbing) to follow…at a time which has not yet been publicly announced, and which I thus can’t comment on at this point.

Internet Explorer 8 Ships, Fixes Dropdown List Problem

Microsoft finally made Internet Explorer 8 a “recommended download” with the latest set of patches on Microsoft Update. At first glance, there’s not a ton new with IE 8, but it does fix one incredibly annoying problem with all previous versions, including IE 7: Dropdowns containing many items no longer take a huge amount of time to be built, freezing the page (and computer!) during the process. Firefox and other browsers haven’t had this problem, but it’s nice to see IE finally getting this one fixed.

Why is this one important? My big point of pain was the “List of Titles” under the seller inventories on Atomic Avenue. After complaints from users, we tracked down what appeared for all the world to be a hard crash in IE 6 and 7 to the user’s going to my personal titles on Atomic Avenue, where my list of over 10,000 titles in stock resulted in a drop-down list which could take several minutes to fill on a fast computer.

Cutting down the number of titles resulted in an exponential decline in the time required, leading me to guess it was a case of the programmer equivalent of the blonde joke about painting lines on the highway–basically, the programmer was adding onto the end of the list in a way which involved constantly going back to the start, counting to the end, then tacking on the item there, rather than setting an index point at the end and tacking new data on from there directly.

On modern machines, the lazy, brute force way of adding to lists by counting from the beginning is normally not a problem, but when thousands of items are involved, you can quickly set up conditions so that the computer must walk up a number of items in the list equivalent to  [the number of items in the list] raised to second or third  power—each and every time they want to add a new item. Repeat that ten thousand times, and you can see how little programming inefficiencies, repeated with very large numbers, can become killers.

Once we discovered the original problem in Internet Explorer, we’d been forced to cap IE clients to seeing the first 2000 titles worth of content from a given seller when viewing individual inventories. This only affected a couple of sellers on the system, and was largely a temporary measure until we could address the matter in a more satisfactory way.

Unfortunately, one of those sellers with wide-ranging titles for sale was me! (By nature, we tend to grab one copy of everything in order to throw it in ComicBase).  Happily with IE 8 now available, we’re safely able to remove that limit (and warn users of older versions that they could do better if they upgrade to the latest version, or use another browser like Firefox which never had that particular problem). We’ll track browse usage in the months ahead and see whether we still need to engineer a workaround for older IE user.

(I’m hoping not, frankly, since any fix would not only be reasonably complicated, but would also involve a fair amount of overhead to load up the list, realize that there’s too many to be safely be shown by old versions of IE, then display smaller batches in a safer way. Having Microsoft simply fix IE seems much preferable, although if nobody ever updates their browser, we may have to rig up the workaround anyway, I guess…). In any case, kudos (and thanks!) to whichever person on the IE 8 team fixed this one!

Saboteurs Take Out San Jose Internet

If you’re wondering why the and sites were down yesterday, it wasn’t the normal server crashes, equipment moves, or other normal stuff. No, saboteurs actually cut the cables, disabling phone, cable, and internet service to a big chunk of San Jose, Morgan Hill, and Santa Clara.

The cuts were actually done in four different locations, and AT&T is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the culprits.  The FBI is also on the case.

Weird, weird times we live in…

A Year in Tech Purchases

One the the promises I’m trying to belatedly keep is to give follow-ups on how various pieces of tech gear worked out this year. Some, like the iBox2Go, got road-tested and reviewed earlier. Here’s my take on some of the other notables:

LG GGW-H20L Blu-Ray Burner

True tech trivia: ComicBase Archive Edition was the world’s first computer program to ship on the Blu-ray Disc format (The first commercially viable Blu-ray burners appeared weeks before our ship date and we were able to use them to port our entire art comic book library to Blu-ray in just a few days!)

At the time, however, there was exactly one Blu-ray burner on the market: the $1,000 Pioneer BDR-101A. Sure, the publicity of having the first Blu-ray product on the market alone made it an easy purchase for a computer software company to justify, but the $1,000 price tag ensured slow adoption in the consumer space. That, and this drive didn’t even burn (or play) CD’s–that required a separate drive!. Worse, unlike almost everything else in the tech world, it took ages for the price to fall significantly, particularly into the key $200-$300 range where serious consumers might want to jump in.

This year—finally!—the Blu-ray burner situation improved enough that we decided it was time to upgrade. The choice was the $269 LG GGW-H20L, and it’s been problem-free ever since it was installed. Not only does it burn to every format and type of disk under the sun, but it does it faster than ever, and in multiple layers too! (This means that it’s conceivable that the future may see a 50GB disk version of the Blu-ray Archive Edition someday (if only the media price would come down from its insane $35/slice level!)

The iPhone 3G (16 GB)

As part of preparing Atlas, we acquired samples of virtually every major brand of smart phone and smart device. And—since it was clearly going to be the talk of the smart phone world when it was released just weeks before San Diego Comic-Con—it meant that I was one of those poor saps sitting around for three hours to buy my iPhone 3G on the day they shipped. I’ll tell you now that I don’t think I’ve ever felt so positively foolish during any consumer purchasing experience.

Luckily, the phone itself turned out to be great—so good, in fact, that it became my regular handset (and yes, I sprung for the data plan as well—there’s virtually no point getting the phone without it). The gestural interface is downright clever, the phone speed and reception are definitely acceptable, and the integration of a the iPod features made it a replacement for the iPod I used to carry everywhere as well. I’ll admit that I still haven’t managed to get it integrated with our office email (and I’m not sure I’d want to if it meant that I’d be typing everything on a tiny, one-finger keyboard), and I’d love to see a more open platform in terms of song storage and the like.

Still, despite the hype, it’s a phone that definitely delivers on what it promises, and its mere presence has been a game changer for the whole handheld internet space. Even if you don’t have an iPhone, the browser on the phone you do have is likely far better than it would be if the iPhone weren’t resetting expectations in the market. (Remember WAP? Ugh)

Sony PSP-2000

A very cool lawyer (not an oxymoron, apparently) at the office next door was showing off her PSP to me and my son Neil this year, and I couldn’t believe how different the reality of handheld gaming was from my preconceptions. I’ll admit: my impression of the whole handheld gaming space was colored by the ancient Mattel Football game I’d played to death in 1978, as well as the less-than-impressive games I’d seen countless folks play on their washed-out Nintendo Gameboy screens. As a grown-up-type-person, I just wasn’t interested.

But as it turns out, The PSP is actually a fascinating little computer system, complete with most of the elements you think of as belonging to a “real” machine: Wi-fi, data storage, MP3 and video playback, sound in and out…even a full (albeit sorta terrible) web browser. You can even use it as a Skype handset for goodness sake—all for just about $169.

That said, the PSP is a bit of an odd duck as a gaming platform. The games it has are fine, if scant, but I’ve yet to find something truly addictive to get me hooked (although Daxter isn’t bad—particularly with the hookup to a big-screen TV). I think for me what I find most interesting is its potential as a lightweight computing platform and a place to tinker. (Tellingly, I’ve spent more time using it to listen to than I have actually playing games).

The XBox 360 (Professional Edition)

Finally bought one at Christmas after lusting after them for years. Generally, my impression is quite positive, although there are certain aspects of it that apparently can make small children cry in frustration. This would make a pretty good topic for a full User Interface Review–particularly of their NXE (“New XBox Experience”).

Having previously owned a PS3, the XBox seems less centered on showing off itself as a multi-purpose tech platform, and more as a sort of online gaming/media hub. Software support is impressive, although it’s a surprisingly closed platform, coming from a computer company. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it seemed a marked swing in the opposite direction from the chaotically freewheeling platform that Windows represents.

Other than it being Christmas, what finally made me jump into the XBox platform was the combination of a price drop, a bigger hard drive (making it usable for media) and the new integration of Netflix playback, letting me stream HD-ish movies directly onto the big screen in the living room. Watching “National Treasure 2” with the family just a minute or two after someone suggested it one night was a real treat—it really was one of those times where you spend half of the movie in sheer wonder of simply being able to do what’s now possible with technology in this Age of Wonders of ours…

Bam! Atomic Avenue Gets *Much* Faster!

If you read my previous post on the subject, you know that my tech-loving heart was broken recently by the goofy connector placement on the WD300 Velociraptor drives I’d ordered which made them refuse to fit in the servers for which they’d been ordered. With great sadness, I’d been forced to return the drives to NewEgg, and by hunting the whole bloody internet managed to scrounge up a single replacement drive in the “Backplane” model which was meant to fit in servers, albeit for a C-Note more than the more common version.

The replacement arrived about a week ago, and I ran a trial moving the Atomic Avenue database over to it. As I suspected, it resulted in an improvement, but it was relatively subtle: about .4 seconds saved on an intensive database search that normally takes about 4.8 seconds to complete. This sort of incremental improvement is the stuff that IT upgrades are made of, generally, but it’s nothing to write a press release about.

Still, I was encouraged and ordered a second drive. It arrived the very next day, and today we managed to get it loaded up with the ComicBase covers library. After redirecting the Atomic Avenue site to look on thew new drive, I started running some speed test on the site.

OMG! I couldn’t believe the difference! Individual comic detail pages now load in an average of about 1.3 seconds—almost twice as fast as before. And Title pages, which typically show up to 50 covers per page, more than doubled their speed. Right now, with three massive file copies going on with the server, as well as a full backup, there are only a couple of pages on the site which take more than 2 seconds to load!

Like an idiot, I of course have to push my luck with this. The big file copies mentioned earlier are in preparation for moving the actual Atomic and sites over to Velociraptor-based partitions in the near future. I doubt it’ll make a lot of additional speed difference to the outside world, but our own tasks of pushing updates, doing site compiles, and the like, may get a bit swifter. Even if they don’t, the $300/drive I spent on these seems like money well spent indeed!

The WD Velociraptor: The Wicked-Fast Drive that Doesn’t Fit in a Server

Ever since they were released, I’ve had a thing for Western Digital’s Raptor hard drives. Although these 10,000 RPM drives have always been both pricey and hampered by storage capacities about 1/4 of their contemporaries, they were just crazy fast: about 50% faster than the next-fastest drives in the consumer sector.

When NewEgg ran a sale on the newest version of the Raptor: the 300 GB Velociraptor, I decided to bust out my credit card and see if I couldn’t buy myself some more speed for the ComicBase and Atomic Avenue servers. The drives arrived two days later, and I spent the morning conferring with various IT folks about the best way to stage the upgrade to our various servers (the RAID configurations we use make any drive upgrade an adventure; trying to schedule the maintenance window for the servers was another challenge). Still, after a bit more than an hour on the phones, I had an upgrade strategy mapped out, and I was ready to start the upgrade prep work…all of which stopped cold when I realized that the new drives don’t actually fit in a standard SATA drive bay.

The deal is this: in order to pull off their speed tricks with this version fo the Raptor, WD used a 2.5″ (notebook-sized) drive form factor, and surrounded it with a big heat sink to let it fit into a 3.5″ drive slot (as well as keep it cool and reduce vibration and noise from the rapidly spinning disk). unfortunately, the arrangement has the side effect of moving the relative positions of the SATA plugs about 1/2″ away from where they would otherwise be. So, when you try to slide the drive into a hot-swappable drive bay like those used on…well, pretty much every SATA-based server in existence…it won’t fit.

Belatedly, it looks like WD figured out that this might be a problem, and designed a “backplane ready” version of the drive some months ago which restores the relative positions of the SATA connectors to their normal placement. Unfortunately, this version of the drive (model WD3000HLFS) is harder to find than a parking spot in Manhattan. Even WD’s own online store didn’t carry them.

Frustrated at having been thwarted after all this, I began to look seriously at even SSD (Solid State Disk) and SAS (Serial Attached Storage) drives, despite their ruinous costs and difficult upgrade paths. In the end, I managed to track down one “backplane-ready” Velociraptor from an online retailer, which we’ll try out to see how much of a real world difference we’ll see in terms of server speed. If it works out, we’ll weigh the investment in buying more.

Realistically I only expect to only shave some portion of a second off most of our database requests, but every little bit helps, particularly as the user loads climb. Benchmarks show Velociraptors performing about twice as fast as our current server drives do, but I really don}t know how much of a difference even the Fastest SATA Drive in the World will make in terms of total web page load times, since so much of the total transaction is bound by other factors. I just can’t believe that I couldn’t even get the first batch of drives plugged in, for goodness sake!

Road Trip Report: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I was in Orlando Florida, having just spent a Bickford-family-record of 1 gerzillion bucks for for a set of two day passes to Disney World, and a 1 day pass to Universal Studios. “Sure, I may wind up in debtor’s prison with expenditures like this” I thought, ”but at least the kids will have the time of their lives…and I’ll finally get to see Space Mountain!”

So, early on Thursday morning, we jumped out of bed and drove, shuttled, and monorailed our way to the Magic Kingdom. And it really was magical: random chorus lines debarked from street cars to perform impromptu musical numbers; fireworks went off in the distance at random intervals; lines were short, and I’d even succeeded in grabbing my FastPass to ride Space Mountain—the ride that had eluded me on every trip I’d taken to Disneyland since I was a wee lad of 8. It was a really terrific day.

Then, as I headed over to Space Mountain to slide into the express line with my FastPass, my cell phone rang. It was Mark, back at the office. “Hey… I just got in and the web site seems to be down.”

“Well, try restarting the server”, I said, thinking some random glitch may have caused things to seize up since I last checked on it some eight hours earlier. I held the line, waiting for Mark’s “All Clear”. But it wasn’t to be.

“Uh… I’m getting a message here on the server about not being able to load the OS…”

“Could you read that too me again?” I asked, not quite believing what I was hearing.

He read it again.

“That’s bad. ” I said, and the warm Florida day suddenly got a lot colder.

What followed was a long series of phone calls while Mark and the crew read cryptic message after cryptic message to me, while I suggested a number of increasingly more complicated troubleshooting steps, all of which failed. The only good news was that we had multiple, current backups of the server.

By the time I got back to the hotel room, we’d essentially ruled out any troubleshooting measure short of a full system restore. But even that ran aground. (Retrospect folks: we really gotta talk about your “disaster recovery” feature…). Shiaw-Ling acted as my hands and ears from afar, working long into the night, while I remoted in to try to get the machine on its feet.

By morning, it looked like we were nearly there, but I still knew I’d have to spend the rest of the day, at best, working on it. The kids (and I will be eternally grateful for this) decided that they didn’t want to do our second day of Disney without their Dad, so they wandered around Orlando while I—having slept all of 50 minutes or so that night—tried and tried to get the server working again from my remote connection.

Alas, I failed in my efforts and, exhausted, I decided around 8 pm that I *had* to get some sleep. I was just no good to anyone. Worse with the weekend ahead of me, there was nobody to reach on the West Coast to do hardware swapping and other such work.

In the morning, I tried a few ideas I’d had overnight, then did the only reasonable thing I could think of: I set the site to forward to a “System is Down” page, and went off to spend the day with my family at Universal Studios.

Universal Studios was also a delight, and the Simpsons Ride alone was almost worth the cost of admission. I’d never been to Universal Studios before, so I had no idea what to expect from any of the attractions, all of which added to my amazement when they all turned out to be so well executed (with the possible exception of the unintentionally hilarious “Twister”). Toward the end of the day, I called Shiaw-Ling at home and asked if she’d be willing to help out from the California end with another go-round at a system restore that night. To her eternal credit, she said yes.

That night, we labored well into the morning and actually succeeded in rolling back the server to precisely the point it was before all the trouble. The only thing missing which prevented us from resuming full operation was the need to get new SSL certificates from our Certification Authority. We put in the request for this, but the CA wasn’t working until Monday. Once again, there was nothing for me to do…so I went back to Disney World and had a great time with the family.

On Monday morning, there was still no word from our CA, but I managed to reach the CA and get the new certificates installed while riding in the passenger seat on the road up from Orlando. Other than a few mail hiccups, we were finally back on our game, after a nervewracking shutdown of almost four days.

So it’s hard to say how I feel about that leg of the trip. It was full of thrills and adventure in the theme park cities; and full of frayed nerves and dismal depression while I worked from an Orlando hotel room by modem to try to restore a machine on the other side of the country. We even contemplated aborting the whole vacation and having me jump a plane to get back to California to get the bloody server back up. I’m glad as heck it never came to that, but for a time, it felt like a near thing indeed.

And in the end, it all worked out. My terrific family stuck by their stressed-out Dad in his time of need (they even found me Dunkin Donuts and coffee for my late night work shifts), my daughter got to meet new BFF Minnie Mouse, and I finally, finally, got to ride Space Mountain with my son. And yes, the ride was everything I’d ever hope it would be. We even got to see the offices of the Daily Bugle and ride along with Spider-Man as he battled the Sinister Six at Universal Islands of Adventure. All’s well that ends well, I guess.