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February 28 , 2006

Office-Shopping

Blogging may be a bit on the light side for a while, as I’m spending a lot of my time lately looking around for new offices for Human Computing. We’re going to be hiring additional staff, and we’re simply running out of space in our current digs. Ideally, we’d like to find something in kind of a cool, dotcom-era space—although I’d like to avoid the Aeron chairs and bankruptcy that seemed to go hand and hand with that sort of thing.

For those who’ve never done it, commercial real estate shopping doesn’t seem to be quite as refined a process as it is with residential real estate. There’s no realtor.com you can go to in the Bay Area which lists every property for sale, along with loads of interior pictures and the like (although www.loopnet.com is trying). Commercial realtors also seem to be either uninterested or unable to show listings outside of their own agency, greatly limiting their usefulness in helping us to find a suitable place. So far, this has meant a lot of calling around and slogging through location after location.

We’ve seen a few possibilities so far, but so far,each of the locations seem to have at least one severe drawback which keeps it from being a slam dunk. We’ll keep you posted as things develop...

 


February 18 , 2006

MirrorMask

Mirrormask
We’ve got lots of news scheduled for next week, having (almost) recovered from our big Wondercon extravaganza. For now, I just wanted to quickly jot down a little bit about MirrorMask, a very strange and cool movie I just got hold of on DVD.

MirrorMask is the first full-blown movie from Dave McKean (Mr. Punch, Cages, Violent Cases, and cover artist for the entire run of Sandman), with a screenplay by his longtime collaborator Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Death: The High Cost of Living). Shot almost entirely against blue screen (á la Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), it does an amazing job of bringing McKean’s drawings and design sense to life, resulting in a movie that is absolutely stunning in its bizarre beauty.

Although I thought the plot was comprehensible enough (circus performer girl having trouble with her mother falls into a strange fantasy world once her mother falls gravely ill), it’s definitely an Art Movie. While not quite as inaccessible as, say, The City of Lost Children, it can definitely stand toe-to-toe with movies like Solaris (Tarkovsky version) in the thematic difficulty department. Gaiman does a capable enough job with the overall story and provides both witty lines and interesting dialogue, but he does occasionally fall into a trap of being too clever by half, twisting the plot in ways that seem interesting in themselves, but which only really serve to muddle up the story. (He cops to one particularly egregious bit on the commentary track, where the girl meets her [presumably unconscious] mother in the dream world, and the mother claims that she—not the daughter—is the one doing the dreaming. Gaiman had this “whose dream is it?” angle suggested to him by someone late in the game, but while it seemed clever to him, it doesn’t actually make any sense as part of the story).

That said, it’s definitely worth checking out (and I’ve already given it a second viewing, just to hear the excellent commentary track from McKean and Gaiman). The disc also sports a fair amount of extras, including Q&A sessions with McKean and Gaiman shot at Sundance and the San Diego Comic-Con, although, curiously, no theatrical trailer. (It can be found online here).

 


February 3 , 2006

Wondercon and the Art of the Gratuitous Deadline

Having done this ComicBase gig for fourteen years or so, I’ve started to realize a few things about myself. Most relevant at the moment is that I’m absolute rubbish at schedules.

Sure, we almost always hit our hard deadlines, but only because we work like maniacs all year ’round, and even then almost always give up nights and weekends for months before ship date, and usually pull a couple of all-nighters as well.

But why? Surely, after more than a decade of doing ComicBase, I’d have learned to better manage the schedule so that every release doesn’t involve some breakneck dash toward the finish line. What the heck’s wrong with me?

A few years back, I figured out the answer. The problem is that I like the work too much—and with ComicBase, there’s an essentially unlimited amount of work that can be done. Whenever the schedule shows signs of not ending with several 80–100 hour weeks, I inevitably discover that we’ll just about have time to add some cool new feature… or track down some more obscure comics to add… or gather more cover images… or clean up more data, or... the list is endless.

We really give it our all for each new release of ComicBase, and I tend to be insanely proud of everything we’ve accomplished—but at the same time, I always chafe at the things that didn’t quite make the disk. And immediately after shipping, we start working on getting all those things (and much more) into the next version. Thus it continues, year after year.

By now, you’ve probably realized that the corollary to this “every version of ComicBase will (just barely) hit its deadline” rule, is that “No version of ComicBase will ever ship much before its deadline”, for all the reasons cited above.

Unfortunately, this also seemed to be holding for the development of our upcoming online sales system, Atomic Avenue. The project started about two years ago, and we’d set a sort of squishy g0al for ourselves of having the system in test by the end of last year. However, this was one of those infamous “soft deadlines” with no real pain associated with missing it. As a result, we were finding ourselves constantly torn away by competing projects which seemed more pressing. (Management rule I am still struggling to master: “The urgent is the enemy of the truly important.”)

With so much work to be done, how was I ever going to get the necessary focus together to finish up Atomic Avenue before July’s San Diego Comic-Con, the next natural Big Horrible Deadline?

In times like this, I turn for advice to the immortal words of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who famously wrote that, “The prospect of hanging focuses the mind wonderfully.” So, although we hadn’t exhibited there for some years, we decided to schedule an early public hanging for ourselves by signing up for February’s Wondercon, where we promised to show off not just ComicBase 10 (including a Giant-Size new addition!) but also a working demo of Atomic Avenue. It we were ready to roll, we’d wow ’em—if not, we’d run the risk of mortal schedule embarrassment. In my twisted world, this is known as a “win-win scenario”.

And wow, did Dr. Johnson’s treatment ever work for this longtime sufferer! Although we’ve been working on the back end of Atomic Avenue for years (it actually powers the updates in ComicBase 10), the past few months have really seen the system taking shape. In one week’s time, it looks like we’ll be (just about!) ready to show off a system that I think is going to be reasonably... ah heck, it’s just darn cool!

If you’re going to be at the show, please come and check it out. We’ll be the folks with the flashy lights and computers underneath the big rocket ship. We’ll also be holding a user’s group meeting at the show where I’ll go into more detail on the project, answer your questions, and let you in on what we have planned next.

Hope to see you there!