Saturday, July 31, 2021

Comments? Questions?
Send them to Pete at: ReleaseNotes@
comicbase.com
 

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Atomic Avenue  

Take that, iPhone!


40

Pfew! Another of those “Big, scary, round number” birthdays.

Last time one of those rolled around, I sadly noted that it looked like I was unlikely to ever become a rock star if it hadn’t happened yet. In the past decade, instead, I had two great kids, rewrote ComicBase for Windows, wrote ten new versions of same, launched Atomic Avenue, and learned to play “Still in Hollywood” on guitar.

Every year, I tend to look back on things and get sort of dizzy at all the ground we’ve covered. Looking back on a decade is a little mind-boggling. It all goes by way, way too fast...

 

Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

So there I was last Friday, sleeping in late after pulling a near-all-nighter at work, when I get the word: one of the producers at “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” saw my 9-year-old son Neil’s tape and wanted to have him show up for an audition in L.A. on Monday.

A while back, Neil (currently in 4th grade) got interested in this show, featuring adults getting flummoxed by questions from elementary school textbooks. An interesting feature is that the adults can get a limited amount of help from a crack squad of 5th graders when they don’t know the answer. Neil can easily answer most of the questions that come up on the show, so when a notice came out at the end of one episode that they were looking for a new “class” of 5th graders for next year’s show, Neil jumped on it and sent in his application. This had to be accompanied by a video tape of him talking about his interests (currently robots, Roller Coaster Tycoon 3).

We figured the whole thing was basically a goof, so we were as shocked as anyone to get a call inviting us to an audition. So, figuring the whole thing was a good excuse to see Legoland and the big cubical science museum in L.A., we packed up the car and headed down to Universal City, next to Hollywood.

We were under no delusions about the whole process: basically, we figured that Neil would be up against every Stage Mom and wannabe child thespian in the L.A. basin. Some of these kids have trained for this sort of thing from the womb, whereas Neil... well, he knows a lot about robots.

Basically, our advice for him came down to this: we don’t know what the producers are looking for but if they’re looking for a really nice kid who’s exactly like... well, Neil, then the part is yours. If they’re looking for anything else, you’re out of luck, because there’s no way you can out-act these guys and pretend you’re anything other than yourself.

With that in mind, we found ourselves, three days later, standing in the early morning air outside the Sheraton Universal Hotel, in a long line of nervous parents and smart kids clutching science projects. The kids had been requested to bring along something for a 3-minute “show and tell”, and Neil was holding “Drumbot”, a Lego Mindstorms robot he’d constructed a couple of years earlier.

Drumbot had been part of a musical duo with another robot, “Beep-Bot”, and together they had once done a magnificent rendition of The Blue Danube, beeping along merrily, and pounding out the song’s high answering notes on a collection of measuring cups using a spoon that had been electrical-taped to Drumbot’s arm.

Unfortunately, in the years since, Beep-Bot had been scavenged for parts and turned into first a Diet Coke-delivering robotic truck, then into an indecipherable pile of scraps. We also discovered that Drumbot, although still largely intact, had lost his programming when his batteries had gone flat, and Neil had to recreate the program the in our hotel room. As it turned out, the musical portion of the programming worked pretty well until the final phrase, where he apparently hit some sort of memory limit (it’s a Lego computer, after all!), resulting in a muddle of beeps and bloops in the final two measures terminating in a momentary, uncomfortable silence broken only by the final "Bamp! Bamp!" as the spoon taped to Drumbots arm spun up and down. The net effect was surprisingly funny, so he left it as is and got some sleep.

Once the kids got inside the audition hall, they were broken into groups where they took turns showing off their presentations and special talents. Some of the kids (including a championship inventor) were astounding; all were impressive in their own way. I figure if you had an actual school comprised of these kids, the reading and math scores would be off the charts (although the drama department would be out of control). I watched Neil’s presentation through a keyhole—I couldn’t hear a word through the thick door, but suddenly I heard the distinctive “Bamp! Bamp!” coming rhythmically through what must have been some poor production assistant’s headset. At the end, there was some laughter, some applause, and—astoundingly—Neil got asked, along with two other kids from his group, to stick around for a further, on-camera audition.

A couple of hours later, Neil showed off Drumbot again to a room full of assistant producers, camera, and sound folks. He was a little nervous, gave answers that were too long for TV, and drumbot’s arm actually fell off at one point, causing everyone—including us—to laugh. Still, Neil popped it right back on, asked, “Do you mind if I get another take?” then proceeded bravely forward with a successful second attempt at the robotic Blue Danube.

As we drove back to San Jose, we joked about the way the editors might cut up the footage—our bet’s on a brief montage of junior mad scientists and their not-quite-working inventions. If so, it should be a funny bit, and all of us chuckled thinking about it. In the end, Neil’s probably lacking the sort of showbiz savoir faire (he’s more Maker Faire) that you’d need to get through to the next round. Still, we had a great time, got a chance to see an actual television production from the inside, and Neil did a terrific job of just being himself.

I couldn’t be prouder of him.


Catching Up…

Blogging has been light (and will continue to be for a bit, as the workload ramps up to its normal early summer frenzy). By way of catching up, a few quick headlines:


Atomic Avenue Rockets Past eBay, Newkadia

Three months after its release, Atomic Avenue continues to grow by leaps and bounds. A few weeks ago, we cracked the 250,000 issue mark—a quick look at the ticker now shows over 328,000 issues for sale (or, about 3.5X the number of total issues for sale in all of eBay auctions!). Atomic Avenue also just passed the total inventory of the much-respected comic seller Newkadia. At this point, there are only a couple of online resellers, such as Mile High Comics and Lone Star Comics that have larger available inventories (and generally far higher prices), but we’re closing in fast. Thanks to everyone who’s visiting the system, posting their comics, and making it all such a success! Spread the word!

 

PGX Grading Now Officially Supported in ComicBase, Atomic Avenue

The new ComicBase 11.1.1 beta (b5) just posted now includes support for both PGX and CGC grading—both new and restored. I personally haven’t submitted books for grading by either service, so I don’t have any strong opinions about the relative merits of the two services. I do know I like having a choice of grading services, however, and we’re happy to make that choice more accessible to our customers.

 

Development Journal: The Joys of Virtualization

During my “Stealth Vacation” following the launch of Atomic Avenue, I had a chance to attend a couple of tech briefings by Microsoft and Altiris. One thing I picked up on was a lot of the presenters were using some sort of virtualization technology (usually Virtual PC if you were a Microsoft guy, VMWare if you weren’t) to show off their demos.

As a former Mac guy, I’ll admit the idea of running Virtual PC on...well, a PC…struck me as utterly counterintuitive. I’d always thought of it as a sorta-slow way to run PC software on a Mac. As a result, it really wasn’t something I’d looked into in any depth before. What the presenters were doing with it, however, was eye-opening. They’d set up a number of preset virtual machines on their laptops, and whenever they needed to show how they’d, say, do a certain type of install on a Vista Home Basic platform, they’d just launch that virtual machine, do the install, then close the virtual machine when they were done, blowing away any changes that had happened. When they needed to give the same demo in the next city, they’d presumably just fire up the same virtual machine, knowing that it would always be in its pristine state, no matter how much they’d mucked with it in the previous demo.

More than anything else in the briefings, my take-away thought was, “Wow, I really gotta check this stuff out for doing testing!”. Previously, we’d relied on a fixed test bed of machines with known “clean” configurations which we’d have to periodically wipe out and reinstall whenever we needed to make sure our own installers hadn’t caused some sort of unintended side-effect. This traditional approach also limits the number of platforms which a small software company like ourselves could test against, since each OS or configuration would require its own computer or partition to run on.

Anyway, for the past couple of days, I’ve been setting up a number of clean “reference” virtual machines on my workstation which I can now launch whenever I need to test some sort of configuration. Is someone reporting a glitch under ComicBase 11.1.1b4 with IE 7 installed (or not installed?). All I have to do now is fire up the appropriate machine under Virtual PC, do my testing, then close out and discard my changes. The next time I need to test something, I’ll still have access to that perfectly “clean” configuration which won’t have been affected by any changes or tests I conducted earlier. Awesome!

This should definitely make upgrade and Vista compatibility testing easier for us (it became clear we have to maintain separate testing environments for both the home and business editions of Vista).

One downside: my “main axe”: my 3.4 GHz P4 development system is turning out to be a bit of a laggard when it comes to running multiple environments. Newer computers using chips like the Core 2 Duo can actually enable hardware virtualization at the processor level, greatly boosting performance. In the end, this gave me the excuse I needed to finally order an upgrade for my own 3 year-old development machine. The parts to build the new system should arrive in the next couple of days—I'll let you know how it performs when I get it built!

 

Techshop

A few weeks ago, I attended the Maker Faire with Neil (and separately bumped into what seemed like everyone else I know). Amongst the battling robots, rockets, and assorted wonderful stuff, there was a pavilion run by an outfit up in Menlo Park called Techshop created by a former science advisor to the Mythbusters. Basically, Techshop is an office building turned into a drop-in workshop featuring every piece of high-tech machining equipment you can imagine, from CNC milling machines to laser engravers, to plasma cutters.

Having just gotten my Dell laptop laser-engraved with the Atomic Avenue logo, I was busy drooling over the open demonstrations of their laser engravers when I noticed a sign saying they were offering welding classes (among others). I’ve come to realize that I’ll never really be able to build the robot of my dreams (much less a giant astrolabe for our trade show display) unless I learn how to weld. Unfortunately, my previous attempts to get into classes left me shut out as the local vocational courses were filled up by long lines of people training to become...well, professional welders (and auto mechanics, etc.). When I found out that I could get a course on TIG welding (the kind you need for aluminum) for $30, and that access to all the shop’s goodies could be had for $100/month, my Visa card leaped out of my pocket and into their swipe machine before I could think twice.

Since then, I’ve been through a couple of welding classes, gotten enough practice time on the gear that my basic welds are starting to look halfway respectable, and also gotten time (and training) on their laser engraver/cutters. Along with the other industrial equipment, I’m looking forward to getting to play with their machine embroidery equipment later this month—I may even be able to get some new Atomic Avenue shirts done up... In any case, it’s all a ton of fun, and every time I come back from there I get new ideas for stuff I’d like to try making. You really can’t ask for more.

Now Playing…

Reggie & The Full Effect: Promotional Copy and Songs Not to Get Married To

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The Outline: You Smash It, Well Build Around It