Tuesday, September 27th, 2005
Thumbs Up for Serenity
Just got back from a press screening of Joss Whedons’ new movie Serenity (brilliant idea, by the way, to hold a blogger-oriented press screening. Kudos to the marketing team!). As for the movie: in a word, “Wow!”.
If you were a fan of Firefly, the TV series from which this movie sprang, you’re absolutely going to love this movie. You really get the feeling watching it that you might be seeing the start of the next Big Science-Fiction Franchise, a la Star Trek and Star Wars. I’ll leave the in-depth reviews to others, but I think I’ll be making a Human Computing movie day out of it when it comes out in general release.
Thursday, September 22nd, 2005
The UPS truck shocked us yesterday by showing up with our comics (and disks and other packages) at 9:30 am, instead of the 5:30 pm he’s been running at for the past couple of months. As a result, we got an early start on indexing this week’s comics, and actually managed to the week’s update posted on Wednesday night, instead of the usual Thursday night.
We also pushed out ComicBase 10.0.5, an update which should improve the performance of the update process on computers which have been getting bogged down at either the 50% or 75% marks of the update (where it scans for issue changes and adds new issues, respectively). We’ve been fighting an elusive resource issue with the Microsoft database engine, but it’s looking good now. Note that you may need to compact your database after installing the update in order to see the performance improvement. (The week-to-week update runs in about 3 minutes on a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 system with the database stored on the local hard drive; your mileage may vary, particularly if you haven’t update in a while, or your database hasn’t been recently compacted using File > File Tools > Compact & Verify ComicBase).
Wanted: 80 Year-Old Southern Grandma
A couple of months ago, I cashed a bunch of Amazon reward points I’d been saving and picked up a deep fryer. Ever since, I’ve become obsessed with trying to recreate authentic, southern fried chicken, but my attempts so far have been…well, not quite disasters, but nothing I’d want to eat again.
The Betty Crocker Cook Book’s recipe for fried chicken came with batter that would have been better suited for a mutant corn dog. Joy of Cooking was no better, and my experience with recipes found on the internet has made me suspect that malevolent restaurateurs must be deliberately spamming food sites with implausible recipes so that people will be forced to eat out.
I think that what I really need is an 80-year-old southern grandmother—or at least her recipe for fried chicken. Sadly, my actual grandmother is from up-state New York, and—although she makes an astounding apple pie—is not really in a position to help me out of my current dilemma. If anyone reading this is fortunate enough to have authentic southern grandparents, however, I’d consider it an immense favor if you could take pity on this struggling neophyte and pass on their favorite family recipe.
Saturday, September 17th, 2005
In this Week’s Update…
It was a slow week for comics, but you’d never know if by the size of this week’s update!
We indexed some 338 new books this week, raising the total to over 262,000 comics in ComicBase 10. For those keeping track of such things, ComicBase now includes some 20,784 titles from over 2,506 different publishers.
On a typical week, we’ll get some 200 new books in—basically one of everything solicited by Diamond. This week was a bit slower than usual, with only a hundred or so new comics. Still, we managed to add a record number of older comics, ranging from off-brand Harvey titles of the sixties to self-published mini-comics, to variant and second printings of today’s hot comics. Thanks to everyone who submitted info to us on these, including big shout outs to Jeffrey (“King Harvey”) Kolker, Scott Davis, David Struensee, and Manuel Galceran. Thanks, folks!
One of the more frequent questions I’m getting recently is “How do I submit new comics or corrections to ComicBase?” For now, the best way to go is to send all such things to email@example.com. For new comics, we’d ideally like to see the following:
- The title name
- The issue number
- Cover date
- Cover price
- Any storyline names
- UPC code
- The ISBN, if applicable
Also, if you could send along a full-size scan (100% at 100 dpi), it helps immensely.
We really appreciate it when folks send us data and corrections, and we make it a top priority to drive the additions into the next week’s update.
So far, we’re doing a pretty decent job of getting the updates out within 48 hours of new comics hitting our door, which generally means that for normal weeks, you can download everything that’s new as of Thursday night or Friday. On weeks when the comics are delayed by a day (such as Labor Day), still make every effort to push the update by the end of the day Friday.
Monday, September 12th, 2005
It happens every year, but it seems that it happens earlier and earlier each time.
Today I got the first email asking when the next version of ComicBase was going to be ready (because, you know, they didn’t want to buy ComicBase 10 now only to find out that the new version was coming out soon).
ComicBase 10 has been out for just over seven weeks now.
An EAN13 “barcode with 5-digit supplemental
If you’re having trouble getting your “barcode scanner to scan the full “barcode on EAN13 codes with 5-digit “supplementals” (the type used most frequently on modern comics, where there are five digits in slightly smaller bars at the right hand side of the code), make sure you're holding your scanner straight so that the whole code is seen by the scanner. Otherwise, it might get picked up as the more basic EAN13/UPC style code without the supplemental digits, and won’t be matched in ComicBase.
If you’re still having trouble, you might want to consider changing the scanner’s setting from “Autodiscriminate supplementals” to “Decode with Supplement” (page 24 or 26 in our Manhattan Bar Code scanner’s manual). This will force the scanner not to accept the code unless it can see the supplemental part of the code. It will improve the reliability of the scans with most comics, but you’ll be sacrificing the ability to read EAN13/UPC codes which don’t have supplementals at the end. (This shows up primarily on a handful of small press comics). These codes can still be keyed in by hand, of course.
Bonus Tip: Want to test if your scanner is configured properly? Try scanning codes into Notepad or Microsoft Word, then carefully comparing the digits to the ones printed under the “barcode.
Zen and the Art of Moped Maintenance
Spurred on by the $3.21/gallon gas I had to buy to get home from the Garbage concert in San Francisco this weekend, I decided it might be time to pull the old Spree out of the back of the garage and see if I could get it running again.
For folks who weren’t in college during the 1980s, the Honda Spree was the classic cheap moped of the era, retailing for about $500, and perfect for tooling between classes on the vast University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. They have a top speed of about 30 mph, but they’re a blast to ride, and get about 80 miles per gallon. (It’s also sick fun popping the seat and filling up the puny gas tank for a buck or two—particularly if there’s a Minivan tanking up at the next pump).
Unfortunately, this baby has been sitting in storage since before Neil was born, and is going to need at minimum a new set of tires and battery (and probably a full carb clean and fuel flush) before it putts to life again. By the time I get done with the necessary maintenance, I’m sure any fuel savings I might have made will be moot. Still, it’ll be fun to see if I can get this Reagan-era artifact to do its thing again.
Saturday, September 10th, 2005
We pulled the trigger on ComicBase 10.0.4 today, which should show up automatically when folks go to check for updates. Hopefully this new version (which adds some new indexing to the database) should solve the performance choke some customers have been reporting at the 75% level of the price and issue updates. (If not, please drop firstname.lastname@example.org a note). We also laid a couple of other minor glitches to rest, and added a barcode "Jump" box to the Titles dialog, which will allow folks to either type in a title's name, or jump straight to an issue using its “barcode from the same dialog. (Although for most cases, I still prefer the Jump command for this).
This week’s update was a bit late going out, since the comics didn’t show up on our doorstep until Thursday at 5:00 pm. With a bit of hard graft, however, we were able to push out the update less than 24 hours later. It also helped that this week’s load was a bit lighter than most: only 226 new comics/31 new titles to worry about.
Unsung Update Heroes: A big tip of the hat to Jeffrey Kolker and David Struensee. David’s been a real help in providing us with data on variants and dealer premiums we would have otherwise missed (we order one of virtually every comic solicited by Diamond, but some of these variants are only given out to dealers who order certain quantities of the same comics). Jeffrey’s been providing us with countless Harvey scans, as well as pointing out various omissions in our Harvey coverage. Thanks again, guys!
I got a chance to plow through a couple of comic-related books recently: one great, and one...well, not so great.
The not-so-great one was Comic Wars : How Two Tycoons Battled Over the Marvel Comics Empire--And Both Lost. This should have been the fascinating story of how Wall Street tycoons and fabulous mismanagement nearly drove Marvel Comics (and wide swaths of the comics industry) into the grave in the mid 1990s.
I picked this one up at Barnes & Noble’s cheap books section a while back, and only now got the chance to give it a read. As interested (and invested) as I am in the subject matter, however, it made for a mind-numbing slog. The big plot is about how Revlon magnate Ron Perelman overleveraged then-booming Marvel Comics to the point of near-bankruptcy before becoming embroiled in a power struggle with legendary corporate raider Carl Icahn over the future of the company.
Unfortunately, the book quickly bogs down in an interminable recounting of every business meeting, creditor proposal, and court motion in what turned into a several year-long legal battle between Perelman, Icahn, and Toybiz owner Ike Perlmutter. The overall drama of the conflict, as well as its effect on the editorial side of Marvel, and to the comic industry at large, gets lost in a long string of business thrusts and parries which for the most part held no real significance. Worse, author Dan Raviv has a disconcerting habit of taking a “fly on the wall” perspective to relate minute details of meetings he could not have witnessed, and recounting long strings of quoted dialog from private meetings which, charitably, could only have been approximate retellings of what was actually said. The net effect is that the books comes off as both dull and untrustworthy—a deadly combination for a non-fiction book.
Far, far better is the new Foul Play! : The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics! by Grant Geissman. This history of the art and artists of the infamous E.C. comics is that rarest of all things for a reference book: a real page-turner.
Geissman, who also co-authored Tales of Terror: The EC Companion did a yeoman’s job of unearthing tons of fascinating source material and ephemera from E.C. Comics, including fan letters, publicity photos, rude (and biting) Christmas party gag posters, and even a polite notes from Ray Bradbury reminding (in the kindest possible way) that he was still owed $50 from the use of a couple of his stories.
What’s even more important is that Geissman uses all this material to tell stories—something far too many historians forget to do. He starts by relating the basic history of how a publisher of Bible adaptations went on to become the home to the most infamous (and well-loved) horror comics of all time. Then, he goes on, with each chapter, to introduce the legendary creators who formed the E.C. staff. Geissman tells each creator’s personal story, interweaving it into the history of E.C. itself, as well as tracking their later careers (and sometimes, tragic death). Best of all, he illustrates each creator’s unique contribution with complete reprinted stories from the pages of comics such as Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Two-Fisted Tales.
I can’t think of the last time I picked up a reference book—a reference book!—and found I couldn’t put it down. Kudos to Geissman for a terrific, well-researched, and fun history of some of the coolest comics that the field has ever seen.
Wednesday, September 7th, 2005
ComicBase 10.0.4 — Almost
We’ve almost got the ComicBase 10.0.4 update ready, pending feedback on one issue.
Apparently, there’s an issue with the Microsoft Jet 4.0 Database engine (which ComicBase uses) which can cause “choking” under certain conditions, one of which is when a database hasn’t been compacted in a while, and a large number of changes have been made. This is starting to affect some of our customers when downloading the latest content update, which includes some 33,000 price changes, courtesy of the folks at CBG. After making all the price changes, the updater then tries to figure out what issues are new to this update. Unfortunately, on some machines out there, this is triggering the Jet issue and the new issue check (which normally takes seconds) can run for an hour or two instead. Obviously this isn’t an acceptable situation.
After a lot of digging around and discussion on various different tech boards, we’ve come up with two possible solutions. The first is to force the database to compact after doing the price updates. This seems to work, but would add a few minutes to every update—a situation I’d very much like to avoid if possible, since normally, weekly updates only take a couple of minutes to run.
The second possible solution involves adding a different kind of index to the database, which (at least in initial testing) seems to solve the problem with a minimal performance hit. I’d very much like to get feedback on this second approach (now available as a 10.0.4 beta update at http://www.comicbase.com/Support/Updaters/Win/ComicBase_10_0_4.exe
Thursday, September 1st, 2005
Sausage Making and Magical Thinking
When I was considering whether to start a blog, I really fretted about the reaction from folks who would be seeing the day-by-day workings of a software program in development. In fact, I very nearly decided to call the whole thing off.
Like most other companies, we had previously done all our public communications in fairly tidy little packages: press releases, newsletters, and the like. One big advantage of this style of communication is that it’s fairly safe: you have time to consider the image you’re conveying with each piece of material, and you can put things out when you choose, usually in conjunction with some good bit of good news like a product release, or the addition of some cool new feature.
A big downside to this sort of communication, you don’t really get a sense for all the man-years of labor which go into each new version of ComicBase. Instead, new releases just sort of drop out of the blue.Mind you, there’s definitely an upside in not broadcasting the day-to-day struggle against the forces of chaos, and the many slips and setbacks that happen along the way to the ship date. Software, like sausage, isn’t pretty when it’s being made.
As much as I feared potential customers running the other way if they read about the day-to-day chaos of a small software company, I did entertain a hope that it might cut down a bit on the belief that all the millions of bits of information in ComicBase, and all the tens of thousands of pictures and countless lines of program code just sort of show up on their own.
For any process that folks can’t readily observe—and writing software and compiling databases usually falls into that category—it’s easy to start believing that the task wasn’t really all that hard. When you see a large building going up, day after day, you can appreciate the enormity of the work involved. However when large parts of the construction are done off-site, and only slotted into place at the end, it makes it makes it look like there’s really nothing to it.
Imagine if highway overpasses were built that way: instead of crawling through construction traffic for years, you’d simply wake up one morning and see a new roadway open up. Under such circumstances, it’d be awfully tempting to label construction workers as lazy S.O.B.s, since it’d be obvious that they could build overpasses in a week or so “if they really wanted to.”
So I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised when folks send us grouchy emails complaining about amazingly resource-intensive tasks which must seem quite reasonable as they judge the (lack of) effort involved: Why don’t we have cover scans for every comic, instead of “just” 100,000 or so? Why didn’t we add credits for each comic’s letterer, colorist, inker, and editor, instead of just the artists and writer? When are we going to get off our lazy butts and add synopses of each issue’s story, instead of just the title as a whole?…
I’ve gotten tons of mail like this over the years, and sometime’s it’s really hard to not just type back, “Because it would take years, and add hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to the price of the product.” But that, as they say, would not be a positive thing to say.
So instead, I started a blog. It’s a chance for me to talk off the record, to talk about things which are too quirky or low-key to warrant their own press releases, and it’s a chance to answer questions and comments in a public—but not overly solemn—forum. And I figured it’d give me a shot at showing everyone how the sausage—and software—is made…