Category Archives: ComicBase

Construction Time Again: System Upgrades for ComicBase and Atomic Avenue

We’re doing a huge set of behind-the-scenes changes to our networking here at ComicBase and Atomic Avenue central. The impetus for the changes is that AT&T fiber optic networking just became available in our building, which should allow us to more than double our network speeds, and even bring back onsite the servers that power the ComicBase.com and AtomicAvenue.com sites.

For us, it means that updates, pictures, and corrections should process more quickly. It should also spare us from an hour or two of thumb-twiddling time each week as we push the gigabytes of new data that are part of our recent updates down the wire to the production site.

If all goes well (fingers crossed), all it should mean for everyone else is that the sites work faster–with the potential to go even faster in the future due to the increased bandwidth that fiber offers us. As battle-scarred IT veterans, however, we should warn folks to expect the odd bit of downtime as we reconfigure firewalls, DNS servers, and about a million other fiddly bits in order to pull the move off.

In particular, there’s almost certain to be from a few minutes to a day of squirreliness as the internet’s  various name servers get used to the idea that we’ve changed the IP addresses of the mail, web, and database servers behind comicbase.com and AtomicAvenue.com. If so, please be patient, wait an hour, and try again. If you still have a problem, give us a call at 408-266-6883 and we’ll be all too glad to get it sorted.

“Hey, I’ve got an Idea…!” The Secret Story of Sidekick

“Damn it! It just can’t read the update file any faster!”

It was late 2012, and I had a little bit of freedom after the launch of ComicBase 16 to try to take on some of the “Big Issues” for ComicBase’s future. High on the list was better mobile support (more on this in a separate article), a possible replacing of the underlying database technology, and possibly even facing down the prospect of completely rewriting in .Net.

“Dotnet” as it’s pronounced, is a Microsoft technology that had clearly been the future of the company’s development path for some time–but which promised to pose a monumental struggle for porting the mammoth code base behind ComicBase. We’d actually done an investigation of what it would take to make the move three different times over the years, but had to turn back each time when it became clear we’d have to essentially rewrite and refactor what had become a very large and complex program. Worse, if we somehow managed to rewrite ComicBase in .Net, our developers would get the benefit of much better build tools (albeit at the price of endless hours of programming and re-testing), but the customers would be unlikely to notice any difference at all.

Actually, that last part isn’t quite true: the progress bars in .Net are decidedly nicer. The rest of the changes would be technical and architectural in nature–which is to say, virtually invisible to the end user, unless we used the rewrite as an excuse to polish up various bits of the program using the newer technology.

But for today, I wasn’t worried about any of those things. I had decided that I wanted to see what could be done to make the weekly updates faster.

Introduced in ComicBase 10, the weekly updates did something previously unimaginable: the ComicBase staff had taken on the job of keeping all our customers updated with all new comic information the same week the comics appeared on the stands. We’d supply all the new data on every comic released each week–along with its artists, writers, storylines, and other special information–and our customers would be able to simply download it and have their database be instantly current, instead of adding all that data in themselves. All the customer had to do then was simply check off which books they had in their own collection, or better yet, use a barcode scanner to “bleep” them in to their own collection.

For understandable reasons, the weekly updates were a huge hit, but it meant that we had to take on the incredible amount of work to acquire several hundred new comics each week, as well as keeping up with the constant pricing changes that were happening in the world of comics. We opened up our own Diamond Comics account, and soon were ordering one copy of virtually every issue sold, which our indexers would scan and index within a day or two of their arrival so they could be part of the Friday update.

Later, we added in a “Submit new or corrected data” feature to ComicBase which allowed several dozen amazing customers to add to the wealth of knowledge we were processing, and the pace of additions to the database doubled, then doubled again. Soon we were processing thousands of new issues and additions each week, and the database grew to encompass virtually every English-language comic that had ever been printed–as well as hundreds of thousands of foreign books.

But now there was a new problem: the sheer size of the database was starting to make the process of downloading and processing the weekly updates an increasingly lengthy process for our customers. What once took them only a few minutes was starting to stretch on for 15 minutes or longer–sometimes much longer if they had a slower machine or were upgrading a very old version. If customers hadn’t been updating regularly, it was not unheard of for an update to contain hundreds of  thousands of  updates to everything from pricing to artist credits. Unfortunately, updating this much information meant that customers were spending too much of their time watching progress bars while they waited for all those changes to be incorporated.

So I had decided to take some time and really pound on the code for the updating process, trying to wring the last bit of performance out of it. Numerous late night hacking sessions ensued, but for every clever programming trick I came up with that saved a few ticks of the clock, the time savings soon vanished as the flood of new comics swelled the database to ever greater scope.

After yet another late night of coding, I was discussing the problem with my wife Carolyn as we walked over to Starbucks on our morning routine. “I think I’m at the limit–no matter how fast computers are going, it just looks like it’s going to take several minutes to even read–let along process–the update file. After all, it’s got something over 10 million distinct pieces of information in each one.”

“Can’t you cut it down?” she asked?

“Not that I can see. There’s no telling how long it’s been since someone updated, and we need to be able to catch them up to date even if they haven’t checked for updates all year long. We could cut down on the amount of data we offer, but a big part of the appeal of the program is that it’s the biggest database of comics in the world.”

“If only there was some way to have the updates happen automatically so that people weren’t standing around waiting for them each week–.”

“Hey, I’ve got an idea…”

(to be continued)

More Pixels, More Weirdness: Retina Displays and the Sudden Importance of Resolution Independence

A buddy of mine who still works at Apple got me in on a deal for a new MacBook Pro with a shiny new “Retina” display. For those who’ve lived a charmed life immune from the Apple hype machine, “retina displays” are what Apple calls their ultra-high resolution (typically 220-330 DPI) displays, which come (somewhat) close to the human eye’s limit for ability to distinguish individual pixels. It’s a crazy sharp display, with a native resolution of  2560×1600 on a 15″ form factor. All told, it’s a ton of pixels.

I can tell you from firsthand experience that it makes for razor-sharp text display, and the sheer beauty of well-designed fonts on it has gone a long way toward rekindling my love of the fine points of typography. It’s also easily the nicest, lightest, and most capable laptop I’ve ever owned.

But–and you knew there was a “but” coming–all those pixels are causing me a lot of trouble when it comes to ComicBase, due to the insane ways which Windows deals with font scaling.

The problem comes down to this: if you actually try to run a MacBook Pro 15″ at its “native” resolution of 2560×1600, the pixels are so impossibly small that you’d need either the eyes of a teenager or a jeweler’s loupe to be able to read the type. To work around this, you have to tell Windows to scale the display to use a “custom text size” of 200% in the Display Control Panel. Windows then attempts to make all the application’s elements twice as large, solving the “tiny pixels” problem.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t do such a great job of resizing layouts which use graphics, leading to all manner of half-drawn screen elements and tiny pictures in the middle of what are now double-sized text layouts.  And of course, one of the biggest victims of this slapdash resizing is that old graphic-and-text-heavy app ComicBase.

In the past, we’d advise folks who ran into this problem to simply use “normal size” text, and run their displays at native resolutions. For better or worse, however, the advent of super-rezzy retina displays makes this advice no longer realistic. As such, expect yours truly to be devoting a lot of energy and special coding to ensure the next release of ComicBase looks terrific on even the most hardcore displays.

After all, what’s the point of having Really Shiny new tech toys, if your favorite programs aren’t going to look terrific on them?

Happy New Year!

At the start of 2012, I proclaimed that it was the be “the Year of Awesome” and for the most part, it feels like that’s the way it came out for me. (I say “for the most part” almost entirely based on an incident involving my gall bladder–an organ I barely realized I had–deciding this summer that it wanted to quit Team Pete, and letting me know in a very painful manner).

Other than that little incident, it was a fantastic year for me and the family. I can even report that Human Computing had its best year ever, far above my own best expectations, thanks in no small part to an amazing Holiday Sale at www.comicbase.com which will be keeping the shipping folks awfully busy when they return to work tomorrow.

This year, I’m stealing an idea from my friend Tony Garot and am making it a goal to do 10,001 push-ups over the course of the year. Having done my first set this morning after rolling out of bed, I can attest already that (a) It’s going to be tough, but probably achievable, (b) I am really going to focus on vacuuming more if my face is going to be that close to the carpet on a regular basis, and (c) push-ups are really weird with a mild hangover. I’ll try to post to let folks know how it’s going.

Beyond, that, there’s the usual goals to lose weight and exercise more. I’m holding off calling  them actual resolutions, since in all honesty, I don’t know how I’ll do once the full chaos of the new year kicks in. I’m going to give it a real shot, however, and will likely go with a calorie-controlled approach combined with a preference for protein over carbs whenever possible. I did some experimenting with the low-carb/however-much-protein/fat-I-felt-like-eating approach this summer, and I can report that while I didn’t really lose much weight, I felt pretty good, wasn’t hungry, and didn’t put any weight on. If I can keep my focus together (always a dicey bet) we’ll see if adding some caloric control to the mix can actually take some pounds off. Wish me luck on this one.

Finally, I’m going to try to blog more. Blogging has been tough here for a while for a few reasons: First off, much of what has me wanting to vent in the last few years has been one outrage or another in the political arena–but I have a self-imposed restriction against political blogging. I live inside the bubble here in California, and I get enough of the rants of others to keep me informed how nothing makes you cool to a person like having them go off on a political tirade. I’ve also acquired a near-universal distrust of politicians in general over the years, which makes me a terrible political advocate. So no, unless I lose my mind, you won’t see political blogs from me, other than to report on how one policy or another is affecting my life.

The second reason that blogging has been tough is that on a professional level, I move in a couple of different circles, and the folks who know me as a comic software creator aren’t often the ones who know me as a user experience consultant, etc. Even if you cared, much of what I work on is “NDA’d” in nature, so I can’t talk about it in any case–even when I have a great story like the design meeting I had to sit in once where someone insisted that a “fiasco” was a Mexican party where you hit a pinata and get candy. (And yes, although I’m not giving it away here, I’m likely to use that one in a screenplay at a future date).

Despite all this, I am going to make an effort to say something interesting as often as I can. And I hope you’ll be here to read it, and won’t hesitate to comment.

Happy New Year!
-Pete

Comic-Con is Over…Let Summer Begin!

It’s now almost a week after Comic-Con, I’m back in my home office in San Jose, and I’ve managed to clear enough piled up comics, receipts, camera parts, and juggling balls away that I can make out about 10 square inch piece of actual desk. I’ve also managed to cut down the bags of computer cables and Comic-Con swag to a level where vacuuming my office wouldn’t be an exercise in surrealistic comedy.

On Monday, we’ll be launching ComicBase 16 to the world in general, after a successful preview launch at the show. So far, it’s looking like it’ll be a great release for us, and the only technical hiccups we’ve had to date (fingers crossed) have been minor and easily dealt with. We’ve still got some publicity materials to put together (as well as a bunch of web site updates to do), but it looks like it’ll be a great launch of a very cool new version that’s been a long time in the making.

And so, with the chaos of Comic-Con starting to fade, I’m really looking forward to enjoying the summer, as well as the creative freedom that happens when I’m not staring down a product launch deadline. I’m really looking forward to heading up to Sacramento for the State Fair tomorrow, hopefully taking some good shots with my new Canon 5d Mark III, and sampling all the best of the fried exotic foods category. (Last year, I tried both crocodile and deep-fried Oreos–both were delicious in a “man, this has got to be bad for me!” kind of way).

I’m also looking forward to getting back into the swing with guitar playing (which I was actually starting to get a handle on before I managed to rebound a pry bar into my wrist while pulling up an old kitchen floor a couple of months ago, damaging the nerves which led to a couple of fingers in my right hand–ow!). For anyone else taking up guitar, I can’t recommend Rocksmith enough — it’s like Rock Band with a real guitar, and a very nice levelling system that paces the difficulty to how well you’re starting to nail the song phrases. It’s a great way of tricking yourself into doing the thing that’s hardest on any instrument–practicing. I’m expecting my level of guitar awesomeness to take a real hit after a couple of months away (and a semi-gimpy hand), but I should be able to climb up the old learning curve and actually get some of my guitar mojo working again).

Let the summer (all…err 3 of 4 weeks that are left of it) begin!

 

Is Comic-Con About Comics Anymore? (And if not, does it matter?)

“So how was Comic-Con?” asked what seemed like the millionth friend of mine who knew I just got back. “From what I can see on the news, is it even about comics anymore?”

I’ll confess, I’m of two minds on the subject. On one hand, the ghosts of some eighteen previous Comic-Cons keep rattling around in my head, and I remember when the entire show floor was full of people selling actual comic books. Fifty-cent and dollar comic boxes were everywhere, and I managed to haul away several long boxes full of finds for my own collection. It was a glorious time.

But over time, actual comic sellers became a smaller and smaller part of the show. Today, purveyors of comic pamphlets occupy a mere four or five aisles in a sprawling convention hall that runs the length of eight city blocks. Even when comic publishers, artists, and small press are figured in, actual comic books are almost as much a minority in the convention hall as straight male hairstylists in the Castro. In my darker moments, this fills me with something approaching despair (about the lack of comics, not hetero hairdressers, mind you).

But really, when you look over the vast nerdapalooza that Comic-Con has become, it’s hard to stay dour for long. Just think about it: for every conceivable sub-section of geek culture, Comic-Con offers five days where you can tribe up and enjoy the company of your fellow fans. Whether you prefer to dress in a snarky gamer T-shirt, as Wolverine, or as a laser-toting Victorian dandy, you can find others who share your love for your particular brand of pop culture.

Catwoman and Joker Cosplayers (picture from the fabulous comicvine.com cosplay gallery)

You can spend your loot on action figures, video games, steampunk-inspired watches, or even software to manage those thousands of comics you’ve been piling up since you were a kid. You can meet the people who created and starred in your favorite movies, wrote your favorite books, or drew that amazing painting of the robots with donuts. This year, I even bumped into a guy who produces old-time radio dramas about zombies.

And yeah, even as the convention spills out to dominate downtown San Diego during its run, having overflowed the bounds of a million-square-foot convention center, you’d still turn it into a tiny, diminished thing if took all the comics out of Comic-Con. It’s no longer a great place to find that copy of Batman #473  you’ve been searching for–the internet has taken over much of the action on that front. But instead, Comic-Con glories in Batman video games, Captain America movies, and more comic-themed art, T-Shirts and action figures than you can shake a Batarang at.

So yes, Comic-Con is still about comics, even if it’s not so much about comic books. It’s about being a fan, loving cool things, and getting a chance to have fun with other folks who love the same things you do. And that, is a wonderful thing indeed.

It’s a Small, Interconnected World

It looks like we might be a little late getting our 1st quarter updates out for the ComicBase Blu-ray Archive Edition. For years, while 50 GB Blu-ray media has been hard to come by in the US, we’ve been sourcing ours directly from Japan. Unfortunately, the nuclear reactor troubles they’ve had after the recent earthquake have forced our supplier to leave Tokyo temporarily for their own safety.

As I read my supplier’s apologetic email this morning, I had to sort of marvel at a world that lets us so personally and smoothly deal with a supplier that’s halfway around the globe–even in the midst of a great tragedy.  We wish them–and all of Japan–well, and hope things turn around for them soon.