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Mar. 21st, 2010

phantom gray

G'bye, LJ

Well, I enjoyed being here while I was here, but it doesn't make much sense for me to be here anymore. My life is busy, and I need to consolidate the things I log into.

So things are moving. I'm still online, but you'll find me in different places, should you need me:
If for some reason you need to find me, go to one of those two places.

G'bye, LiveJournal, I shall miss you.

Apr. 2nd, 2009

phantom gray

The Last NVIDIA Card I'll Ever Own

This is an angry rant about something that is simply plainly stupid. Be forewarned.

Bye bye, NVIDIA

This computer has an NVIDIA GeForce 9600GSO video card in it.

I bought this card last August (or thereabouts) to replace another NVIDIA card that was dying (sometimes it wouldn't display anything at all, at random). I had purchased that card only a year before that to replace another video card that was dying (the picture would occasionally fritz out or jump around the screen, until one day it simply displayed no picture at all). I had gotten that card as a replacement for another card that was dying that was less than a year old.

In total, in the last ten years I've owned twelve cards with NVIDIA chipsets on them. And if you do the math on that, the average card lasted less than a year. In fact, there were three years in the early 2000s that I had a card with ATI chips instead, so that means the average NVIDIA card has lasted less than eight months.

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And so, in summary, let me say this: If you're an average user buying computer equipment, DON'T BUY NVIDIA. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. I learned my lesson the hard way, and I'll never make this mistake again so long as I live.

Mar. 20th, 2009

phantom gray

ProColor, Part 2: Mouse Capturing

It's time for the second article in my occasional series on the ProColor color-picker. Last time, I gave a rough overview of what ProColor is and why it's designed the way it is. In this article, I'm going to cover some the topics in reverse and discuss capturing the mouse on a web page.

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Mar. 12th, 2009

phantom gray

The ProColor color-picker

I'd like to talk a little bit about web coding, specifically client-side Javascript and DOM coding.

For CMXpress, I needed a good drop-down/pop-up color-picker for use with Prototype, and it seemed to me like such a thing ought to be an easy thing to find, but in reality, it turned out to be as rare as a blue moon. There are some basic controls out there, some with irritating popups, some with tolerable design but ugly licensing, and I couldn't have any of that. CMXpress is open-source, under the BSD license, and I needed something that would play nice with that. I also needed something that would play nice with Prototype, and that ideally would be friendly to your garden-variety end-user and that would also ideally look like a control that was native to the browser.

So, since nothing fit the bill, I built ProColor. You can see a screenshot below, or you can visit ProColor's website and download yourself a copy.

In a future posting, I'll talk about how ProColor works internally. And if you want to learn how to use it, that's well-documented on ProColor's own website. Here, I'd just like to spend a little time elaborating on what it is, why it is that way, and what it can do for you.

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Nov. 29th, 2008

phantom gray

Gainless Employment :-(

I've been hunting for a new job since the start of October.

It started out as a light search two months ago, but I'm now searching really hard, and I'm starting to be worried.  The economy's bad, and it's not a good time to be hunting for jobs.  In theory, I'm in the one sector that has growth potential — computers, especially web programming — and I'm highly skilled and well-educated, but those facts don't seem to be helping much.

My current employment consists of a lot of consulting work, and some sales of some software I wrote.  That was fine when I was a bachelor, but now that I'm married, I'm earning for two, because my wife got laid off in July and hasn't successfully found full-time work yet.

It's not like I'm asking for much; I'm a talented, skilled professional, darn it, but I'm willing to work for peanuts just to get off my feet:  Several folks in the industry think I'm worth about $75K/year, so I started out hoping for $70K/year with benefits, and I've watched my price point slide from $65K to $60K to $50K and now I'm getting close to being willing to settle for anything over minimum wage.  (Okay, I'm not <i>quite</i> that desperate yet, but ask me again in a month...)

We're already not buying Christmas gifts this year, and we've cut back on everything.  We don't waste money:  I'm half Dutch and half Jewish!  We haven't bought electronics of any kind in over a year, we haven't bought clothes, we have a small 900-square-foot apartment — we've been thrifty.  But even so, thanks to my wife's lack of income, her (large) student loan payments, the rising cost of everything (including our depressingly large health-insurance premiums), and my current meager income, about a week ago we hit negative for the first time:  We owe more money than we actually have.  I don't know how I'll pay December's bills when they come around, much less my $1000 quarterly tax bill in January.

So the upshot is that lately I'm highly unambitious about art and writing and life in general.  I'm doing little else lately but job-searching and hearing "You're a great candidate" but never hearing anything beyond that, and I'm feeling generally pummeled by the world.  Maybe this'll seem like nothing in a few months, but right now, I'm at the bottom of a pit, and the narrow shaft of sunlight that's sustained me is thinning by the day, soon to vanish altogether.

Nov. 6th, 2008

phantom gray

A Final Politics Post

lj-music: Ikimono-gakari

Well, folks, the election's done, and I wish to offer my heartfelt congratulations to Barack Obama. He won soundly, and earned his new job. Let's now all cross our fingers and hope that he really is as good as we all think he is. It's gonna be an interesting four years, folks.

I'd like to conclude the series of journals I've been writing on politics here with a commentary on something I read in the news today. It probably comes as no surprise that the Republican Party is doing some soul-searching right now, demonstrated well by this AP interview with RNC Chairman Mike Duncan:
Republicans, Duncan said, "are going to take a deep breath and listen to the American people." The party is creating a new online forum that will allow people to explain "how we let them down" and "what we can do to restore confidence in our party," he said.
I'm a registered Republican, a moderate centrist. I voted for Obama.

Why? I voted for Obama not because he himself was a centrist — he's definitely not — but because the modern Republican Party and its platform moved so far away from the center that it didn't include me anymore, and Obama at least tried. There is no "big-tent GOP;" if anything, the GOP's tent shrank remarkably over the last few years to exclude nearly everyone who's not a hardcore evangelical Christian.

So, GOP, when you get your forum up, here's what I'd suggest if you want my vote again:
  • No more dumb wars. You can wage a war if you want, but focus on the target and have an end-game. If you can't explain from the outset in exacting terms precisely what victory looks like, you shouldn't be involved in the war in the first place. I know people who voted against you because they lost friends in Iraq — but you dishonored those losses by never giving them meaning, by never showing how they could add up to victory. Iraq's a loser because it has no end-game; Afghanistan's tolerable to the American public because there's an exacting target: If we kill or capture bin Laden, the war's over.
  • Curb your evangelicals. I know the Christian Coalition is a respectable chunk of the Republican base, but there are a lot of us out here who see the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world as cut from the same cloth as the Ayatollah. The more influence they have over you, the less I want to be anywhere near you.
  • Prioritize wisely. Guns, God, and gays are fine topics, but when there's a war on and the economy's in the toilet, most of the public doesn't care whether gays are marrying or teenagers are getting abortions because we have bigger problems to deal with. All politics is local, and you lost because you didn't pay attention to the highest local priorities.
  • Litmus tests scare people away. In the same vein, if you want a bigger tent, you'd better be willing to let moderates back into it. I don't cast my vote based on which candidate shouts loudest about abortion, pro or con: I'm more concerned with fiscal issues than social ones, so when you play up the social ones, I tune out, with good reason.
  • Remember your platform. You're the party of small government and fiscal conservatism --- or at least you used to be. For eight years now, you've wasted money like a drunken teenager on spring break. When you were actually conservative, people voted for you, but right now, you're more liberal than your opponents, and the voters can see that.
So there you go, GOP. You have four years to reform yourself and show me why I should be voting for you again. Good luck; you'll need it.

Oct. 25th, 2008

phantom gray

Inkscape 0.46

I do most of my artwork with CorelDRAW version 11, and today I was encouraged to try Inkscape (again). Now the last time I tried Inkscape (about two years ago), it just wasn't even close to powerful enough for my needs. I'd get supremely frustrated if I tried to use it for anything big too; it was missing a large number of the features (especially PowerClip) that I (ab)use heavily to create drawings like this.

So I played around with it, and it's improved a lot over the last couple of years, but it's still incredibly weak in its handling of clipping objects, which are pretty much essential to all of my shading. Its clipping support has gone from a usability grade of F to a grade of D+; that's an improvement, but it has a long way to go. Overall, it went from a D- to B-; there's a lot to like there, but it feels very incomplete compared to its commercial competitors. Much of what it improves over CorelDRAW 11 is stuff that CorelDRAW X4 or even CorelDRAW 12 has, if I ever get around to upgrading; and there's a lot that CorelDRAW does that it doesn't.

So if you ever talk to the Inkscape people, this is what I'd need to see them change (at a minimum) for me to consider switching to it:
  • A clipping system (like PowerClip) that (A) doesn't destroy or hide the clipping object, (B) lets me readily alter the clipping object's shape, (C) lets me easily add multiple objects to the clipping object or remove them on a whim, and (D) lets me go inside the clipping object and alter its contents without removing them first. Their clipping system does none of these.
  • An objects docker that shows the entire document tree. Maybe Inkscape has such a thing, but I couldn't find it, and I looked all over. This is an incredibly useful tool, and I refer to it frequently.  It has other dockers (right-side tool panels); there's no reason it can't have this one too.
  • Direct import of CorelDRAW .cdr files; I won't switch if I can't bring my artwork with me.  Having a dubiously-supported third-party tool doesn't really cut the mustard.
  • Object blend. I use this a lot, and while their path thing can do this (I think), it seems very cumbersome compared to simply selecting two objects and clicking "Blend."
  • Right-click zoom-out. When you have the zoom tool selected, the right mouse button should zoom back to the previous zoom level, not pop up a menu. There is not even a button anywhere in the interface that I can click on to perform this same simple task right now, which makes navigating around the picture a real chore.
  • An actual useful right-click menu for the node tool. I expect node-related operations to be on its menu, not object-related operations.  Having to move the mouse up to the toolbar for every node operation involves a lot of wasteful mouse motion.
This doesn't even get into printing support, color management, paragraph text, or any of a hundred little niceties that are missing. About the only thing it gives me over CorelDRAW is bug fixes for some features, and I'm willing to place bets those bugs have been long since fixed in newer versions of CorelDRAW.

On the plus side, some features I did like in Inkscape were its nice handling of alpha on all objects and its ability to easily gaussian-blur objects.  Those are really neat features, great for performing really sophisticated shading, and I'd love to have them be a part of my standard toolset; but things like PowerClip and blend and other tools I use daily are more critical to me.

So, well, good try, guys, and keep it up; you'll be competitive eventually, but for now, Inkscape is still a little too weak for me to use regularly; but, unlike two years ago, I can at least now see myself potentially using it in the future, if the feature set becomes capable enough for my needs.

Oct. 1st, 2008

phantom gray

Wedded Bliss

On Saturday, October 4, 2008, just as the fall leaves start to turn (and a mere three days from today), the lovely Songbird and I will be married near sunset in a little white Methodist church in the even littler town of New Milford, Pennsylvania, a pretty picture that's right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Say hello to the soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Inker :)

Inker & Songbird :-)

We have about 120 guests who will be coming from all over the world (literally!). There'll be the ceremony itself (very traditional, too!), the reception, music, a sit-down dinner, dancing, and an open bar, so it's gonna be one heckuva party.

On the night of the reception, she and I will disappear around ten o'clock, to hop into our limousine to the Philadelphia International Airport to catch our early-morning flight to the sunny warm aqua waters and fresh winds of the Aloha State.

Me, I'm incredibly happy and terrified out of my knickers at the same time. I've never been good in front of large crowds, and I'm a lot more comfortable behind the scenes than being the center of attention. But I really, really want to be married to Songbird; she's the best thing that's ever happened to me, and if that means I have to spend a day scared [bleep]less, I'll do it in a heartbeat. Songbird, I love you, and I can't wait to see you walking down the aisle on Saturday.

Sep. 12th, 2008

phantom gray

Update and Cleanup

So it's been some time since I last posted here, not because I really wanted to delay, but because the past few weeks have been pretty rough. First, I banged up my arms on the boat and could barely type for a week; then I accidentally jabbed a knife into my thumb (ow) and couldn't type for most of another week; and lately I've just plain been busy.

Part of that's because I've been preparing (gulp) to go job hunting: My current work is good, but I'm getting married really soon, and my current income and Songbird's current income just aren't enough to cover our collective bills — that, and I've been thinking for a while now that it was time to start doing something different career-wise.  Despite the fact that I own my own (very small) company, I really do feel like I'm going in the wrong direction right now.

Luckily, I work in the computer industry, and folks pay pretty well here, so we'll be okay once I find a new job, hopefully in web-dev stuff; that's been a lot of fun to work on as I've been doing it more and more over the last couple of years, and it's a place where I feel like I can actually contribute something meaningful.  But job hunting is scary no matter when or where you do it, and as it's been seven years since I last did it, I'm pretty rusty on the whole resume-and-interview process — not on my work skills, which are, as always, in tip-top shape and very current, but on my interview skills.

Anyway, to that end, I've decided to clean up this blog a little; I've removed some of the sillier postings and personal postings from awhile back, and left mainly the more recent postings and stuff about CMXpress, since that seems to be why most people are coming here anyway. Anybody who really wants to delve into my private life can find plenty of it elsewhere online.

But let's get into the meat of the topic: What's the status of CMXpress?

The answer is that it's in progress. We did a successful rollout of it to Crossworlds back in June, and Crossworlds has been running on it ever since, which is good. That said, I learned a lot during that rollout, and realized that it wasn't quite ready for the general public yet. Thom was willing to put up with some installation headaches to gain its administration tools, but the average Joe-on-the-street isn't going to be able to. (C.D. Rudds, who draws and writes SailorSun.org, has been working with it a little bit for his new site, Wolfpac, and that's also demonstrated some areas where it's needed more cleanup and end-user-friendly-ization.)

So some parts of it were pulled back into the workshop for retooling; during the Crossworlds rollout, I went through three or four version numbers in a hurry, patching and fixing and upgrading. I've since done a lot of work on the installer, and fixed a lot of interesting (and ugly) bugs in the backend, and added in some services that really should've been there since the start (like logging). It also needs documentation by the barrel; this is a huge and powerful package, and right now, I'm really the only person who understands it fully, and a lot of folks who are testing it have been griping about that fact.

And, of course, there was about a month during July when I was swapping out its BBCode parser with NBBC, because the old parser was slow and was covered under GPL, which isn't very friendly toward my preferred BSD license.

So where's that leave us? Right now, I'm working on the logging-and-statistical facilities, so that site owners can get a handle on their visits and visitors, which is useful for a wide variety of purposes (not the least of which is paid advertising). I've backported some of the new code to the old Wotch site, so that their database is kept in sync with CMXpress's preferred format (Lordy, Lordy, I can't wait to finally switch in the new code at the Wotch site). The search engine is in pieces right now, too, and needs some work; and I've seen a lot of evidence from the test sites that the custom-page facilities will need to be done, finis, finito before I can release CMXpress to the public too.

I know I told folks that I was hoping to have it released this summer, and I'm sorry for not releasing it yet. But I think it's better this way: The test sites have identified some places where it still needs work, and their discoveries (and my subsequent bug-fixes, patches, and upgrades) will help all of you who are waiting on it. Ideally, this thing should just be install-and-go, but it's just not quite there yet.

One other topic that arose as I was talking with Becky Heineman the other day was a simple enough question: She pointed out that she'd needed a webcomic engine for Sailor Ranko, and so she just built one in a weekend, and added most of the facilities she wanted within a week or two after that; and given that that was so easy for her to do, what was the point of CMXpress? To this question, I have several answers, and I think they're all valid:
  • Most webcomic authors aren't a Becky Heineman, for one thing: Becky's a star programmer, capable of coding anything she wants in relatively short time. Whereas a typical webcomic author knows how to write and draw, and if he's lucky he can scrabble together a few lines of PHP to help automate the site a little, but coding a solid backend is beyond him.
  • Becky's engine is no doubt powerful and well-suited to her needs, but it probably doesn't scale to other sites. That's the same problem the current Wotch code has and that many webcomic sites have: The code's acceptable enough code for the needs of that site, but it was designed to run that one site, not hundreds of others, and isn't easily customizable for another site. There's a very good reason we've repeatedly turned down requests for the current Wotch site code — it's ugly and unportable.
  • CMXpress provides sophisticated and easy-to-use administrative services. A coded-over-the-weekend system provides very minimal administration (I should know; I've built enough of those kinds of things). A good general-purpose package should be so incredibly point-and-click-crowd-friendly that anybody can manage reams of data, and the Crossworlds rollout has shown CMXpress is meeting that goal: Darin Brown, the artist for Crossworlds, is very computer-phobic but has used CMXpress to post a comic or two by himself, and I consider that a very successful benchmark.
  • CMXpress provides a solid API. The API of most backends is somewhat ad-hoc: You add stuff by altering a line of code here and there. For CMXpress, I wanted to do better than my last webcomic engine, and build a system that a programmer could love, with a clean, tight API that makes a lot of nasty stuff (page templates, BBCode, form handling, administration, etc.) really easy, and that ensures that site changes can usually be done without altering the engine. I'm tired of reinventing the wheel, and I think that even the webcomic authors who are programmers probably would rather the hardest work be done for them too.
  • CMXpress is maintained. This thing was built first and foremost to meet the exotic needs of the Wotch, and that means I still am going to be regularly adding features and patching bugs because of my involvement with them. Although I've drawn some webcomic pages in the past, I'm not a webcomic author and don't really want to be; I'm a coder, and I'm quite happy with that job. This means that you can fix bugs and add upgrades to your own site just by downloading the latest copy of CMXpress and installing it: It's a lot easier to steal my bug fixes than to make them yourself, even if you are a programmer.
  • CMXpress is needed — whether any other site ever uses it or not, Crossworlds is already using it, and the Wotch needs it very badly, and Tsel's asked several times if he can install it on Cheer! too. For those reasons alone, I will continue working on it. People want it; it has a purpose; there's the answer.
All that said, there's nothing stopping anybody from building their own webcomic engine and distributing it; competition is healthy for the market, and in the end, the users win, and the readers (like me!) win too.  I'm gonna keep working on CMXpress because people want it and need it, but if a competitor arises?   May the best webcomic engine win :-)

Aug. 21st, 2008

phantom gray


I had a fight with a steak knife and lost today. I'm typing this one-handed right now. My hand will heal, and I (thankfully) didn't need a hospital visit, but this touch-typist is down for the count right now. So... uh... there you have it. If I'm not talking over IM or responding to your comments, now you know why.

I'm glad I knew to quickly apply a tourniquet, and I'd like to thank my Songbird for her support; I doubt I'd be doing well right now without her.

Edit, 12 hours later: I can type a little better today (still minus a finger and on painkillers), so here's what happened: Hold your hands out in front of you, palms down, about shoulder-width apart. Pretend you have a knife in your right hand, and a scrubby brush in your left hand, and that your hands are over a sink. You've finished cleaning the knife, so you put the scrubby brush behind the sink. You go to put the knife away in the rack to your left, but you miss, and the tip of the knife strikes the back of your thumb, right at the joint.

Lots of blood spurts out of the stab wound, because you hit an artery. You cry out, your fiancée comes over, and she quickly helps you apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding while you wash it under cold water. The stab wound is small but deep, but doesn't hit the bone, thankfully. But the loss of blood is making you woozy, so you lay down. She applies antibiotics to the cut, and then a bandage, and makes you take a bunch of painkillers, and you spend the next few hours laying down and drinking liquids, trying not to pass out. Eventually, you slowly recover, but your thumb hurts like hell. It's a very small but very deep cut, so there's not much a hospital could do, so you don't go, but it still hurts.

Funny thing is, I know knife safety. I carry a swiss army knife in my pocket, and have since I was 16, and I use it all the time. I've never gotten even so much as a tiny cut from it; I get more injuries from paper cuts than I do from knives. But... all it takes is one mistake.

On the plus side, I learned firsthand that our new steak knives are really nice and sharp! :D

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