Category Archives: ComicBase

Mac Mini: The World’s Most Power-Efficient Windows Server (?!)

We all knew Apple made pretty computers with great interfaces, but have they also managed to create the most power-efficient Windows server machine on the market?


We just wrapped up a huge round of server upgrades at and Last to go were our three oldest servers which we use to run a bunch of essential but boring jobs like our DNS, email, Microsoft Exchange, and Active Directory Domains.

The old servers were “1U” jobs–your basic short, wide, and very long boxes packed to the gills with heat-generating electronics. These were cooled–barely–by a suite of fans at the back of each box blowing at hurricane speeds.

Having these servers around the office was like having a cleaning woman permanently parked in the back room vacuuming up a storm. In fact, the noise of these servers was enough of a factor that finding a “server room” to put them in where they (a) wouldn’t overheat and (b) wouldn’t drive us all bonkers with their unceasing roar–was a major part of the search for our last two office locations.

So what replaced these power-sucking, heat-generating, noise-blasting behemoths? A trio of tiny Mac Minis running Windows Server 2008, thanks to Apple’s Boot Camp utility which lets you dual-boot them as either Windows or Mac OS X machines.

These are computers so diminutive that we can fit all three of them side by side on a single level of our server cabinet. They’re so quiet and power-efficient that they don’t even have (or need) fans to cool them. And the total power draw? About 57 watts total when they’re running full-out at their assigned jobs!

Now, I can’t recommend the Mac Mini for every server job. For one thing, their small, slow, laptop-style drives make them unsuitable for anything involving the storage of any great amount of data, or where disk speed enters the equation in any real way. For instance, they’d make pretty mediocre file servers or web servers, and fairly horrific database servers. They also lack a lot of server niceties like hot-swappable drives, redundant network adapters…or any of the other things which IT folks tend to gush over but rarely turn out to be useful in the real world.

But for jobs like DNS service, where the computer can load all the data it’ll ever need to serve in a small amount of its RAM, they seem (so far) to be working out as well as the buffest, most costly machine we could have thrown at the problem. Better yet, they’re doing it at a fairly trivial hardware cost, in near-perfect silence, and with a power draw hundreds of watts less than the servers they replaced.

I don’t know how Apple managed it, but I’m blown away that Apple–known everywhere for pretty interfaces and beautiful design–may have also created the world’s most energy-efficient server in the bargain. Well done, guys!

The Apple Tablet and The Future of Comic Books


Noted comics writer James Hudnall writes in his blog that the rumored Apple Tablet (concept art shown below) could wind up saving the comic book industry. I agree that the Apple Tablet is going to be hugely disruptive to the print media world, for many of the reasons listed in another blog.


Here’s how I see the whole thing playing out: Sometime in January or February, Steve Jobs will get up on stage and announce the Apple Tablet. Essentially, it’ll looks like a big iPhone, complete with touch screen, glossy plastics, and impeccable industrial design. Wi-Fi is also a given, along with some sort of interface (Bluetooth?) which lets you set it in an equally impeccable cradle for charging, keyboard, and mouse access.

But the real win is going to be as a portable media “slate”–think HD movies, full-screen video conferencing, and the like…and then imagine reading a book on it.

This is where Jobs turns the demo over to little Johnny from Public School 323 somewhere. Johnny’s class will have been road-testing the Apple Tablet for their science textbooks, and he’ll hold up the tablet to the camera where it shows an elegant textbook cover which “opens” through the use of a gesture. Pages will be “riffled” similarly until Johnny arrives at some science diagram, perhaps showing the way an LED emits photons. Johnny will then tap the diagram with his finger, and it  will come to life showing an animation depicting the whole process. Next will come history books showing famous speeches next to the picture of the speakers involved, recipe books showing video instruction for the dishes being cooked, etc.

And then–if I were Steve Jobs–I’d have Amazon’s Jeff Bezos come out on stage and announce that all those jillions of Kindle books which can already be read on your iPhone will also work on the Apple Tablet. Ditto for the Barnes and Noble book inventory.

So what about comics? Well, for a start it’s easy to imagine Marvel…err.. I mean Disney (of which Jobs is a board member and single largest stockholder) doing comics either specifically for the platform (a la Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D.) or simply making sure that the already-strong Marvel digital offerings include making it possible to buy any current (and possibly older) Marvel comic directly through the device at a fraction of the cost of buying it in paper form.

Although motion comics are expensive to produce, and still in their infancy in terms of technique, all modern comics are likely to pass through a digital “final” form (e.g. PDF) on the way to the printer anyway. Running it through a batch process to whip out the digital reader version is simplicity itself for the publishers.And if they sold the digital copy in a way which clears them a single dollar per copy, they’d already be more profitable to publish than the paper versions.

In this digital future, you’d lose the feel of paper and some of the other qualities (not least of all resalability) of the physical comic, but readers would also have them in pristine, archival format for an eternity without needing filing, comic boxes, or bags. And they’d cost a lot less–probably no more than $1 to $1.50 per issue.

Not everyone will go for it–at least not at first–but expect a larger and larger percentage of the comic buying audience to switch to digital in the same way that newspaper readers have. (And the month that an Australian reader can get their Marvels in this format for $0.99 instead of the $7.50 or more they currently pay, it’s all over on the newsstand).

At first, expect the readers–especially Apple’s–to be expensive enough that they appeal mostly to early adopters and those with fair amounts of spending money. But that’s not such a dissimilar demographic from the comic buying audience as a whole right now (comprised mostly of post-college males with higher than average family incomes). I think the digital future will be one us far faster than most would dream now.

To steal a surfing metaphor, a big wave is coming for the world of comics. You either gotta get on your board and ride it, or get prepared to go under.

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“Creative Destruction”, or “Server Crashes (The Good Kind)”

In memoriam…

Economist Joseph Schumpeter is famous for popularizing the term, “Creative Destruction” to talk about the way economic progress relentlessly grinds down the old to make way for the new in a never-ending cycle of “reinvent yourself or die”. For instance, buggy whip companies were driven out of business by Henry Ford’s horseless carriages which, being horseless, did not not need to be whipped quite as often. (They also pooped less). Similarly Polaroid had a monopoly on self-developing film but lost its business when digital cameras made film irrelevant, and suddenly you had other ways of taking pictures you didn’t want the photo developing guy to see.

For a little software company that’s been doing this ComicBase thing for seventeen years, we live and breathe this whole “creative destruction” thing ourselves–whether we like it or not. We started out shipping ComicBase on six compressed Mac OS 1.4 MB floppy disks, went on to become early adopters of CD, DVD, and digital video, and were the first PC program in the world to ship on Blu-ray Disc format. (We just made history again by being the first commercial PC program to ship on Dual-layer Blu-ray format!).

We’ve had to make the transition from Mac OS 7 to PowerPC processors, then wrote an entirely new version–in another language, no less–to let us run on PCs with Windows 95. Naturally, this led to later versions which in turn offered support for Windows 98, , Me*, 2000, NT, XP, and Vista, as well as new technologies like 64 bit operating systems and the growing use of mobile and handheld devices of all stripes.

*Which is to say that the constant glitches you experienced while using Windows Me were just the operating system blowing up, not ComicBase.

Ironically, we had to discontinue our original Macintosh version when Apple decided to mothball HyperCard, the development environment it was written in. Thankfully, Apple later introduced Intel-based machines which once again let the Mac folks use ComicBase under Windows, thanks to Apple’s Boot Camp software (and numerous other programs like VMWare, Parallels desktop and the like). It actually works so well that we even use a Mac Mini as one of our demo machines at San Diego Comic-Con–Not that I don’t still get regular hate mail from fans of the long-dead HyperCard version…

And of course, we’ve embraced the internet in a big way as well, starting with a basic HTML web site way back in 1996, and steadily revving it, rewriting it, and expanding it in the years that followed until it now does everything from real-time comic price quotes, to weekly price and title updates of the world’s largest comic book database. Then, since we clearly lacked anything else to do, we created Atomic Avenue–the vast online marketplace of comics which now boasts more comics for sale than all of eBay (1.2 million and counting!).

So what’s the point of this running travelogue through ComicBase history? In a roundabout way, it’s to explain why I treated five of our most loyal and longest-serving server machines to ignominious and painful deaths in the past week.

One by one they fell: “Spectrum” (our office file server) was repeatedly bashed and thrown onto the hard floor of our office until bits of plastic and metal came flying off from its horribly twisted case. “Judy” (backup and utility server), “Elroy” (our old production web server), and “Astro” (the production database server) had their disk drives ripped out, cards scavenged, then were mutilated and chucked into a dumpster parked behind our building.

And then there’s Goddard (our old test database server)…It’s probably best not to even talk about the things we did to him before the twisted bits that remained joined the bodies of Judy, Elroy, and Astro in the dumpster.

I feel really weird about all of this because in a big way, there was nothing wrong with those servers. They were all working absolutely fine when we sent them to that big shiny server rack in the sky. It’s just that their technology was getting too old, and it became possible to economically build new servers to replace them which offered twice the performance, were far quieter, and consumed less energy. We tried to find a nice retirement home to shove them off to via Craigslist and Facebook, but to no avail–they were heavy and cumbersome to ship, their technology was too specialized and dated to be worth selling, and nobody volunteered to adopt them before the time came for them to be put down.

So, after months of planning, machine construction, and staggered software installs to reconfigure all our interrelated sites and services to use the new machines, it became time for the old servers to be, well,  creatively destroyed (at least, as creatively as we could be without the use of explosives!)

So long, fellas. I’ll sort of miss you when I browse my Network Neighborhood and don’t see your names there. At times like that, I’m sure I’ll think of the fun times and the pain we had together, and get all nostalgic for a second or two (except Judy–we never really bonded for some reason).

But rest assured:  if we’re doing our job right, the day will come before too long, when your replacements will be blinking their little LEDs nervously as we assemble the machine that will replace them.

ComicBase 14.0.3 and the Awesomely Large Database Bug Fix

I just posted two beta (translation: we‘re pretty sure they work perfectly, but we don‘t want to get cocky until some other folks beat on them) builds of ComicBase 14.0.3 and ComicBase Express 14.0.3. If you‘ve got ComicBase 14 already, you can download the updaters here:

Of the three issues these builds address, the one I never saw coming was an “Overflow” error which we traced to an ancient routine in ComicBase which counts the number of titles in your database (prior to things like showing progress bars and statistics). What was the overflow in question? As it turns out, a few folks have actually managed to add more than 32,767 titles in their databases (A title is a comic series (e.g. Action Comics–not to be confused with the 437,000+ individual issues currently in ComicBase).

As it turns out, 32,767 is one of those magic numbers in computer science–2 to the 15th power (if you start counting at zero) — and the limit to a data type known as the “signed integer”. Go beyond that, and you get an overflow error.

Once I located it, it took but a moment to fix the problem (the new limit is 2 ^63rd power: a bit more than a 9 quintillion). But I had to stop for a moment and just marvel at how far this little comic project has come in the 16 years since we started with the then-huge database of 20,000 issues from 297 titles. (And back then, I figured it was just a “mopping up” operation to add in everything those 297 titles didn’t cover, thus my dimensioning of the title count as a simple integer). Man, I couldn’t have been more wrong about the scope that ComicBase would one day become.

So anyway, please try out 14.0.3 and send us notes to let us know how they work out for you. And let’s all pray that I never have occasion to revisit that particular limit again!

Barcode Scanners – Sales, Success, and Sudden Shortages

When we added the barcode scanning feature to ComicBase years ago, we sort of had the idea that a few folks might be interested, but they they might not know where to grab a barcode scanner of their own. Thinking ahead, we made a deal with the supplier of the Manhattan barcode scanners we’d chosen for our own use in the office to get a couple of extras to sell to interested customers.

We ordered two scanners, thinking we might be stuck with them if they didn’t sell. Instead, they both sold instantly, so we ordered five more.

Those sold quickly as well, so we upped our next order to ten… then twenty five… then case lots… and before long, our little software company had actually become the #1 seller of that particular barcode scanner in the country.

Fast forward to this year, and we caught a break on the pricing of the scanner. Rather than just pocket the extra profit margin, we decided to take a chance and heavily discount them down to a previously unheard of $89 each. As a result, we sold so many in just a few days that we cleared our entire inventory in under a week.

“Wow!” I thought, “we’re really onto something here! Let’s do some bundles so that folks upgrading to ComicBase 14 can grab a barcode scanner at the same time and I’ll bet we’ll sell a ton of them!”. We did…and we did.

We moved so many, as it turns out, that we actually sold out the entire remaining supply of that scanner in the U.S. The distributor literally ran out and had to order more from the Pacific Rim where they’re manufactured.

Since then, it’s been a somewhat awkward few weeks over in the shipping part of the company as we had to arrange to ship the software ahead of time as we deal with the back-order of the scanners. We even made a couple of customers a deal and sold them the scanners we pack along to trade shows to demo ComicBase. But now even those are gone and all we can do is desperately wait until September 11th when the Florida-based distributor gets the big shipment in.

A few days from then, we should get ours, and start making life difficult for both our mailman and our art staff (apparently the replacement batch of scanners are now black, but otherwise identical. Unfortunately this will mean a bunch of work to shoot new product photos and lay out all the various ads we use to show them in the proper color). I personally think the new black color looks cool, but for all I know, there’s a home office there where someone’s not only had their heart set on beige, but has also picked out a matching desk and drapes to go with it. Far be it from us to want to cause an unwelcome surprise where office decor is concerned!

To All Software Vendors: Keep It Real on Upgrade Prices

OK, upgrades are on my mind a lot right now, and I don’t want to tell anyone how to run their business—it’s hard enough running my own. But to all you software vendors out there, can we please keep it real when it comes to upgrade pricing?

I’m catching up on phone messages and emails after our big cameo on the silver screen, and among my many messages were two from the vendors of some development tools we use in-house. These are fairly expensive products, and the messages were pleas to buy their latest and greatest. Although I’m happy with the products in question, I won’t be jumping on either upgrade deal anytime soon.

The reason? The programs in question cost several hundred dollars apiece, and the upgrades in question were incredibly minor (e.g. “now with better support for Word 2007 XML export!” or “more responsive menus! [I’m not even kidding on these]). But, because I’m a valued customer—the companies in question are offering me an upgrade discount of…about 15-25% less than buying the whole product over again.

To wit: the first product costs $799 to buy in the first place, but upgrades can be had for the special upgrade price of just $599 (but only if I act now–otherwise the upgrade price goes up to $699!) In comparison, upgrades to ComicBase typically run about 1/3 of the original price ($99.95 for the upgrade to the $299 Archive Edition, or $49.95 for the $129.95 Professional Edition).

Normally, I’d just shake my head in disbelief, but this time, in a fit of misplaced inter-company generosity, I made the mistake of actually telling the salesman of the special $599 upgrade why I wasn’t taking him up on his kind offer:

“Hey look, let’s say I get $800 worth of value out of buying your product from a starting point of nothing, which is pretty much the minimum I’d need in order for it to make sense to buy a $799 product in the first place. That’s not chump change for me, and the product really has to deliver in order to meet that. But when you price the upgrade at $599, you’re saying the difference in value between the two-year-old version I’ve already got and the new one is by itself worth 75% as much as a whole new program.”

“I mean, are you really telling me that the ‘Improved Word 2007 XML support’ is such a great feature that I’m going to get 3/4 of the value from it alone as I did going from nothing at all to the current version?”

I didn’t think so either.

What the salesman apparently didn’t recognize was that when you ask me to buy a $699 upgrade to a $799 product, it was less a question of upgrading, than trying to sell incredibly similar software to someone who already owns a copy. Upgrades are generally easy to sell: you’ve already found the customer, and done at least one thing which makes them happy. New purchases are much harder. And that’s effectively what they were asking me to buy.

Honestly, though, I sympathize with anyone running a business, and we all have to choose our best shot at a strategy for success. Ours is to keep upgrade prices as low and attractive as we can make them, and be as aggressive as possible with the data and feature set so that our customers really look forward to each year’s upgrade.

Every year, it’s really a game of, “What can we do to make this version so awesome that anyone whose subscription just ran out will be dying to grab the next one?” We don’t want to merely justify the upgrade price, we want to pack in an excess of value so that as many people as possible will feel that grabbing the current upgrade is one of the smartest buys they’ll make this year. (And I for one completely believe this–especially in the case of ComicBase 14! I know that we won’t get everyone to upgrade every year with this strategy, but our customer retention rates have been known to make a lot of other companies green with envy. And that’s the way I want to keep it.

But that’s just one man’s opinion. I wish these other folks the best of luck with their strategy (and I really do enjoy their products). But please, stop calling to ask why I didn’t grab the new version this year, and get your engineers to do something more than “improved menu speed” to justify an almost-the-same-as-new “upgrade” price.

ComicBase and Atomic Avenue Go to the Movies

A couple of weeks before Comic-Con, I was heading out to grab coffee at the Starbucks across the street when a strange call came into the office. Joe answered it, and I could hear him saying things like, “You want to borrow what?” and “I don’t think we normally loan that out…” to the caller. I stopped, puzzled, and made pantomime motions to Joe along the lines of “Who the heck is that, and what do they want?”

It turned out that the “Who” was the production company working on the new Working Title/Universal Movie “Paul” (Written by and starring Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). The “What they Want” was to borrow our Atomic Avenue rocket–indeed, our entire show booth–for use in the movie, where they apparently were called on to restage Comic-Con for several scenes.

Cut to yesterday, and I was sitting in an extras holding room in the Albuquerque convention center. It’s a room full of  Stormtroopers, Steampunks, a platoon of Princess Leia’s (slave girl version from Episode 5) and the odd green-skinned woman ala Star Trek, the original series. In short, it was exactly like every movie you’ve ever seen portraying extras looks like. We were along for the ride playing ourselves, manning a slightly stripped-down version of the ComicBase booth (no computer monitors).

Unfortunately, I can’t go into any details about the movie, but it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. And it certainly gives you a whole new perspective on the monumental job it takes to bring a motion picture to life. For instance, a small army of craftsmen and set decorators just days to recreate Comic-Con, and legions of production assistants are constantly handling everything from errant wookie costumes to set calls. The actors are also working their butts off, doing take after take (yesterday ran from 6am to after 9 pm) in scenes that–when they’re all cut together–will probably just look like a couple of guys having a laugh. And to his great credit, Neil also worked “booth duty” right up until the very end, and is back for the second day of shooting today.

Gotta run–they’re ushering the “attendees” into the hall, and it’s time to man the booth…

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…

Kindle Hacking: Changing the Screen Saver Pictures on the Kindle 2 and DX

Article_HeaderThis may or may not have anything to do with the soon-to-be-announced ComicBase 14, but for my fellow Kindle fans out there,  I wanted to share some tips I’ve learned in the last month or two to help you make the most of your Kindle 2 or Kindle DX (I’m afraid I don’t have access to an original Kindle, so I can’t vouch for hacks which are meant for that platform).

First up: I love the screen savers on the Kindle, but I wanted  like to swap up the pictures for ones of my own choosing. But the pictures in question live on a hidden partition which isn’t user-accessible. Here’s how you do it:

1. Get your Pictures Ready

For the Kindle 2

Get your favorite images, and save them in 600 (width) x 800 (height) format, in .jpg (or .gif or  .png) file format. Make sure you leave a bit of a margin in your image as the viewable area of the image will be slightly smaller than the physical dimensions would indicate. Color is fine, but keep in mind that you’ll be viewing them in 16 shades of gray on the Kindle. Also, smaller images load faster than large ones, so try to keep the image sizes under 300K or so.

The Kindle will cycle through your images in order of their file names, so if you have a particular order in mind, you might want to save the files with a number in front of their name, e.g. “01_My First Image.jpg”)

For the Kindle DX

The same advice applies as with the Kindle 2, except that you will want to save your images at 824 (width) x 1200 (height)

2. Plug In Your Kindle via USB.

It will appear as a removable drive under My Computer

3. Set Your Computer to Show Hidden System Files

Go to Start > Settings > Control Panels > Folder Options and click the View tab. Scroll down and uncheck the “Hide protected operating system files” box, then click OK. This will let you see the hidden “System” folder on your Kindle.

4. Copy the appropriate “hack” to the top level of your Kindle

The following hacks come from MobileRead Forums user ClarkNova. I’ve tested them myself and can verify they work great on my Kindles, but they’re not official releases from Amazon, so caveat hacker (use at your own risk). They both basically work by showing the invisible partition on your Kindle which holds the built-in screen savers, allowing you to modify that folder. They’re also reversible using a second hack (at the end of this article).

For the Kindle 2

Download and unzip the above folder. Copy the enclosed file,  “Update_kindle2_user_screen_savers.bin” to the top level of your Kindle.

For the Kindle DX

Download and unzip the above folder. Copy the enclosed file,  “update_DX_screensaverhack-install.bin” to the top level of your Kindle.

5. Update your Kindle

Unplug your Kindle from your USB connection and restart it by pressing its Home button, Menu button, choosing Settings, pressing Menu again, then clicking Update Your Kindle. When the it’s done, it will restart.

6. Copy Your New Pictures to the Kindle

Plug in your Kindle Again via USB and you’ll see a new folder in your Kindle’s System folder called “screen_saver”. Inside are all the original Kindle screen saver pictures which you can add to or replace with your own pictures that you prepared in Step 1. Because we’re good like that, we’ve thoughtfully provided you Eight Fantabulous Glen Orbik Original Paintings from ComicBase, in Kindle 2 and Kindle DX format which you can download as well.

7. Restart your Kindle

Unplug your Kindle from your USB connection and restart it by pressing its Home button, Menu button, choosing Settings, pressing Menu again, then clicking Restart. Your new screen saver images will now appear in rotation. 


Undoing the Hack

If you ever want to go back to the original screen savers, just plug in your Kindle, and copy the the “Update_kindle2_restore_default_screen_savers.bin” file (for the Kindle 2) or the “update_DX_screensaverhack-uninstall.bin” (for the Kindle DX) to the top level of your Kindle. Update your Kindle by doing the Home, Menu > Settings, Menu > Update Your Kindle routine, and it’ll undo the hack and restart your Kindle.

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!