20 September 2018

Countdown To Inktober 2018

I've officially become that guy, that guy who uses spreadsheets for almost everything imaginable. I tried setting this up as a checklist in Evernote, but it wasn't particularly convenient. 

It's currently the 20th of September, which makes it exactly ten days until the start of this years Inktober. This will be my third outing, I'm very excited for it, and maybe I'll get some of you to join in if you haven't already by talking about it here. 
For those who arrived late, Inktober was started back in 2009 by an illustrator named Jake Parker. It's grown significantly in that time, and while there are many takes on it, but the original goes something like this: the official Inktober site publishes a list of 31 single-word drawing prompts, a slew of adjectives, nouns, and verbs. You've then got 31 days to bring each individual prompt to life through the traditional medium of ink. That's the barest of the bare bones about it, and as I said, there's no one approach as all artists are of varying technical skills, comfort zones, and work ethics. 
Obviously, the important thing is to have fun, but of equal importance is to challenge yourself, push your skills, get out of your comfort zones, and try a new work ethic. Artists have a reputation for being rather persnickety and temperamental, working in a kind of ad hoc sort of flow. While I'm firmly of the opinion that creativity is not like a faucet or light switch that can simply be flipped on or off, I don't buy into the pretentious rhetoric that it's so elusive and nebulous that forcing it in even the most passive way would vaporize it on the spot. I think that's selling yourself short. Too many people see it like the Golden Goose; finding out what makes the fowl tick will stop its ticker dead, on account of being dissected. In reality, it's more like a muscle. You can injure it, of course, and there's certainly limits to what it can do, but you won't know it until you try, but it's best to take it slow, stretch it a bit, and pace yourself. 

I like to follow the official prompt list because it's the most well-known and it creates a nice common ground to see what everyone else is doing and how everyone approaches the same challenge, often in wildly different ways. 

For this year, the challenge I've set for myself is that I'm actually doing 2 prompt lists, the official and a new one I found on Instagram through a stationery company called MosseryCo. They're the pink column of the spreadsheet, with Jake Parker's being the gray. These lists are published in the early days of September to give participants some prep time, and I'm taking full advantage of it. I mean, I've got double the workload this year, so it's for the best. Yeah, this means quantity over quality (or at least some repetition), but like NaNoWriMo (in November) it's more about the process than the results. It's about getting rid of old and bad habits while trying to get used to new and good ones. 

In terms of medium, I'm probably playing faster and looser than ever. My first year was fairly strict, I made proper, traditional ink drawings in my sketchbooks, and the only digital work involved was some color correction and lighting adjustments in post. My second year I tried a hybrid approach of using an Iskn Slate tablet to "record" my traditional drawings and then digitally paint over them. What both of these years had in common was that there was more than one occasion I made an exception to my own rules. This year, I had an idea that if there was ever a day when I couldn't come up with anything, I would look to the corresponding day on the other list and combine the two. As I've been going through the pre-planning stage, though, I haven't felt much desire to do that. While there are some common/recurring themes between the lists, they are ultimately separate entities that will be resulting in at least 62 full-fledged drawings. As for bringing those drawings to life, I'm keeping that open depending on what's best suited to the idea, but the majority of drawings will be made using Paper by 53. It's hardly the most robust drawing app. In fact, the fine folks at 53 will insist up, down, left, and right that Paper is not a drawing app, but a notetaking app geared towards more visual thinkers. It's meant for making flowcharts and Venn diagrams rather than full, proper illustrations. Of course, that never stops anyone from using it as a drawing app, hence their own hashtag #madewithpaper, but it's overall not the strength of the app. It's got limitations and even, dare I say it, some shortcomings, but that's what I love about it. 

However you decide to participate in Inktober, I'd like you to keep something in mind. To crib a phrase from Stan Lee, every year is someone's first. If this is your first, I bid you welcome, hope you meet a lot of interesting people, and overall hope you have a lot of fun. 

03 September 2018

Elegoo Arduino Uno R3 Super Starter Kit (promoted)



This review is long overdue as I'd received this in the early weeks of July. I hadn't done anything with Arduino microcontrollers for nearly a year, the last big project being a few versions of Peter Knight's Auduino granular synthesizer. Fun as that was, I think I'll stick with some of my iPad apps when I need a backing track for a video. As for similar microcontrollers or single board computers, more recently I'd done a few projects with the BBC Micro:Bit, including an electronic die (1D6). Beyond that, there simply wasn't a lot that interested me to keep me invested in the scene. On the whole, the only serious electronics project I've had on my mind is a robot arm, but I'm in no real hurry to get that under way. As such, when Elegoo contacted me to review one of their Arduino Uno starter kits, I initially ignored it. When they contacted me again, I decided to reply to tell them I was only interested in a robot arm, which their kit would not really have been able to aid me with. Their representative mentioned Elegoo's intention to expand their product line to include more robotics kits, so I'll admit I will be looking forward to see what they can offer. 
In the meantime, the more I thought about it, I realized taking on a robot arm would be a little outside my area of expertise. Synthesizers are fairly straightforward, as are guitar pedals, and while I'm still currently building a 3D printer for my job, it's only busy work and fine-tuning at this point. That's when I thought of a tilt and pan head for a smartphone. It was a good, simple project that seemed the perfect gateway drug for making a robot arm. Arrangements were made, and I received my kit within the next week. 


I've gotten Arduino kits before, which I'll often advise over buying them on their own, as even if you use only half of the included components in the starter kit, it's often a far better value than sourcing your components later (better to have and not need, etc.). Still, as a rule, these kits tend to be fairly sparse, even in the higher end of the price range. You'll get the UNO, a few jumpers, resistors, and LEDs, with the rest being an assortment of odds and ends very strongly geared more towards instructional purposes than anything practical. If you're using these in a classroom setting, you'll be lucky if the stepper motor lasts the full semester, while the box it all came in will live on as a pencil case passed down through the generations. With this Elegoo kit, however, albeit I didn't pay for it, I can say it feels like its typical asking price. Nothing feels like an afterthought, though I am going to say some of the inclusions feel a little half-hearted. 

One accessory that really surprised me in terms of its practicality is the DC power converter. It's meant to plug into the included breadboard, supplying your choice of 5V or 3.3V to the power and ground rails. This turned out to be a very efficient solution for supplying power to the Arduino itself as well as the two servo motors. The converter itself can be powered via USB, but it also includes a barrel jack for a 12V power supply. Instead of providing this, however (likely due to international considerations), we get a 9V battery and a simple wire adapter. 
Again, this isn't a knock against it, but it wouldn't have been missed were it not included. If anything, one would probably get more use out of it if they cut off the barrel connector and used the battery with some other arrangement, maybe a wearable or something like that. 

As for the included CD-ROM: 
At this point in time, I just about refuse to believe it's any way economical to print a bulk order of CD-ROMs. I can't even tell you the last time I installed anything anywhere from a disc (my Playstation doesn't count). Going back to the school setting, between Chromebooks and tablets, it would only make sense for a teacher to get a copy of the disc on the off-chance they're not able to download the contents directly from Elegoo's site on that particular day. Speaking of downloads, I do wish it was possible to download a single language or individual lessons rather than the entire package at once. Sure, 110MB is small and the information is as useful as it is extensive, but it's not especially convenient for quick reference. As for the disc, I'd rather see a flash drive included containing the files. It would be more readily accessible on modern devices and being writable would make it handy for students to modify and share Arduino sketches with each other, among any other practical uses one may have for a flash drive.

Anyway, back to practical applications. The following is my best effort at getting the most crucial components of a tilt-and-pan head underway: 
This is where I had problems. I didn't program any kind of delay into the action, and with how responsive those servos are, my rapid movements may have stalled them. It's a minor problem that's easy enough to fix, but even if I managed to fry these little guys, they're as inexpensive as they are commonplace. That's not a knock against the quality, just a reminder these kits are for education, experimentation, and prototyping. Once you've ironed out your bugs and kinks and whatever, these parts are all, as we've said, fairly commonplace and easy enough to source. As such, Elegoo has managed to provide a rather robust sampler dish for the DIY crowd. 

24 July 2018

Dropped a Pin in my Coffee on Twitter

OR:
The Painful Sting of Spam


When I posted my Ko-Fi link to Twitter and pinned it to the top, I was very surprised by the response it got. It got a number of likes, and even a few retweets. I was very appreciative of this. Unfortunately, it also got replies in the form of spam. A self-proclaimed artist who steals most of his assets and then slaps his own name on them has a habit of posting spam links on forums on Thingiverse. He's been banned from Thingiverse at least twice by now, and had some of his models taken down on other sites for violating the Creative Commons agreements on his stolen assets. I've written about him several times and talked with many of the artists he's ripped off. I've openly mocked him, for which I make no apology, and he's done absolutely nothing to prove me wrong. 

There was retribution, however. It's extremely petty retribution, but annoying in its toxicity nonetheless. 

The way many sites handle spam is not to delete the comment so much as obfuscate it. The first time I saw this was on DeviantART, when I was dealing with an art thief and all-around bully who didn't quite understand how comments worked. What would normally have gone in a private message or even the main comment thread on my profile page went straight onto my most recent upload. I didn't want to outright delete the comment because that would leave a "comment deleted by artist" label, which looks really tacky and potentially makes it look like I'm censoring criticism rather than cleaning up spam. The matter's academic by now since DeviantART handles comments a little differently since then, and this particular individual had been banned before for similar behavior, so now those comments have their own special sort of "There Once Was a Hole Here" label. In short, he's gone and I get to save face. 

Bringing it all back to the semi-current situation (I did this circa October of last year and kind of forgot about it until today while rearranging my Wordpress page), this spammer replied to my pinned tweet about my Ko-Fi page with his own damn site. Now, you would think I could simply delete a tweet that is a reply to my own post, but Twitter isn't set up that way; every reply is a comment unto itself, so to speak. This isn't necessarily a problem, except that when it comes to spam, what I would hope should be an obvious thing to spot, Twitter likes to give the benefit of the doubt a little too much. It's funny to me how much people complain about Twitter being trigger-happy with suspending accounts and deleting tweets that are barely offensive, while I can't seem to get spam off my own pinned tweet. 

If I pin a tweet linking my own Ko-Fi page, how does a reply that's nothing more than a URL to someone else's website not qualify as spam? Better question, when he replies two or three times with the same URL to his own site, how is that not spam? Why does that report need to be queued? Harassment and bullying can have a lot of reasonable doubt to it when it isn't outright racist or life-threatening, but a URL with no context posted multiple times not only to me, but to several others virtually picked at random should be as open and shut a case as it gets. 

It may seem that the obvious solution would be to block the user in question. Sure, but blocks aren't retroactive. Yeah, my page would effectively be invisible to him, as he would also be to me, but everything he's already posted as replies to my tweets are still there, and still visible to anyone else. It's literally the same problem as reporting his replies as spam. The only difference is that the spam may eventually be dealt with, whereas if I block, the best I can hope for is he gets banned and all his tweets receive the unperson treatment. 

Sadly, it seems Twitter is holding onto a very archaic idea of what spam is. They're more than welcome to prove me wrong, but it's based on whether or not they think there's a real person behind it or simply a bot programmed by someone and left to run. I don't know if these are really a thing anymore (I haven't seen them on Twitter in years, and they only cropped up on Instagram for about a month before disappearing), but there used to be these "promotional service" accounts that would temporarily take control of your account and tweet a self-promotion on your behalf. It would seek out relevant hashtags and then add your message as a reply. For example, if you were trying to push your 3D printing services, your stock reply would show up attached to any tweet that used the hashtag "3DPrinting" or whatever. If this sounds like a bot, that's exactly what it is, but here is where things get a bit Kafkaesque. The bot works at a speed that is only about equal to a human being. That is, there's enough of a delay between posts that it could just as easily be done by someone casually browsing the hashtags and typing up the reply themselves. The idea is twofold, that this tricks any automatic algorithms searching for hummingbird levels of communication, and that it doesn't violate Twitter's terms of service anyway because it's self-throttling. 

I've heard some sects of the Amish have a similar attitude about technology, that there's nothing wrong with them using a machine to do a job, so long as it only works as well as a person or an animal. That's fine for them, but Twitter isn't trying to maintain a lifestyle consistent with a particular era of history. Spam in 1998 is no different than the spam of 2018, and every bit as irritating and unwelcome. The only difference is that I am fundamentally lord and master of my e-mail's inbox, while my social media page is a little more democratic by comparison. The former is a letter SLIPPED UNDER my door while the latter is a wheat-pasted flyer SLAPPED ON my door. 

My point is Twitter may be more aggressive with spam than I am giving them credit for, but my experience has not given me any reason to rethink my position to the contrary. When I flag something as spam, and it only hides it from my view until the report is deemed worthy of action at a later point in time (possibly never), that is not even addressing half the problem. I don't want my front door used as someone else's billboard, and the fact that I can't see it from inside my house is not peace of mind. 

Basically, I wanted to use a paint scraper, but had to get a new front door. I deleted the pinned tweet (which I hated doing), reposted it (likely to the annoyance of followers), and repinned it (effectively erasing all the likes and retweets along with the spam). Twitter, we need a better solution than this. 

04 July 2018

They're All Coming Out Of The Network

Preface: I'm currently juggling a few different drafts I've left alone for far too long, but this is still based on all currently available information regarding the implementation of new privacy policies in the wake of Facebook's recent troubles. It is being released on the fourth of July as it relates to freedoms and liberties. 

On the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a quote from John Stossel comes to mind, "I want to say, 'give me a break' but I don't know who to say it to." People were placing a lot of blame on Mark Zuckerberg while also feeling for him when he had to explain Social Media basics to legislators. It's virtually the entire situation in a nutshell, getting mad at someone over something everyone openly resolved to take for granted. Facebook costs you literally nothing to use, as do most social media services, the unspoken contract being that you're there on their terms, renting space for the cost of some number crunching and putting up with a few ads that are minimal compared to what you'd get on network television or print media. In 2018, playing dumb over this exchange is beyond naive. 
Speaking of naive, what I'm about to say probably qualifies as such and maybe will put my stance on this issue in perspective. For starters and in regards to campaign interference, I can't think of a time when I ever changed my vote based on an advertisement. If you're inclined to that approach to electing our leaders, you may as well not vote at all. Furthermore, I don't know what most people's advertising experience on Facebook or elsewhere is like, but if gathering my information means that all the banner ads I see on sites are for products and services I already partake in (Amazon, B&H, RedBubble...), then I call that a victory. I only wish ads on television were as relevant to me. I stopped watching television because I was sick of 3-5 minute commercial breaks every 10-15 minutes, and mostly for crap I wasn't the least bit interested in. To be fair, it irks me a little when I see the same movie trailer about a dozen times in a typical night of watching YouTube, but four years of film school have given me the critical mind needed to spot all the little tricks and tropes that make some trailers effective and others misleading or downright bad. I make a game of it, is my point. I may not seek it out, but should it rear its head and roar like a mighty beast, I hold aloft my magic sword and say, "BY THE POWER OF THE GRAY MATTER IN MY SKULL, BRING IT ON!" 
Speaking of wielding weapons, let me be clear that none of this in any way exonerates Cambridge Analytica for what they've done. Regardless of what users did or didn't know they were opting into, this is a breach of trust and privacy. They took more information than they were allowed to and misrepresented their own intentions to Facebook. The double-edged sword of having heaps of information about you out there in the ethereal web of clouds is you're not alone, and you're nowhere near as special as you think you are. It's like that "What Happens in Vegas" campaign; it's true that if you're just some desk jockeying yahoo from the mundane midwest, you can briefly lead a double life while cruising The Strip and, barring any serious criminal activity, no one's going to call you on it. Then again, if you're already famous, the city that needs sunglasses at night has no shortage of spotlights to shine up your skirt as you get out of your car. This data breach tried to make everyone famous. 
The silver lining to this shitstorm is that nothing is being left unsaid when it comes to what sites ask of you when you partake in their services, putting the terms of use on more equal footing. People are now more inclined to look into what they're signing up for and the sites now can't simply toss out a wall of legalese and hope nobody digs any deeper than that. It's also caused a very interesting phenomenon in my email's inbox. Sites and social media services I signed up for years ago and virtually forgot about are now reaching out to me to tell me they're going to play nice with my data. It's probably sending them some mixed signals for me to close my account and/or unsubscribe from their mailing lists, like I broke up with someone but didn't say as much until years later when everyone stopped caring and I was already walking down the aisle for the third time. 
"Oh, hey! Yeah, I remember you. Bye now. I'll send for my stuff later." 

16 June 2018

Driving Miss Daily

Once upon a time, Douglas Adams had a radio show with a totally uninspired name he couldn't tell enough people wasn't his idea called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Future. It only had a few episodes and has only aired every few years, but it's easily-available on the Radio 4 site... wait, what in Hel's Realm is RealPlayer? Anyway, their last episode was about the idea of convergence, what we today may refer to as the Internet of Things. IoT is a common name in the hacker/maker/modder community and refers to a networking of several specialized devices. Probably the best, most common example of IoT if you're still lost on the concept would be any sort of peripheral you can control with your smartphone, like a bluetooth speaker or a lighting system. Instead of one gadget that does everything, it's several gadgets that do a few things. Almost 20 years earlier, for this radio program(me), one of its speakers painted a scenario in which the technology to make connected devices would be so streamlined and inexpensive you'd literally pick up a gizmo off the street, post something, and then drop it back on the ground before carrying on with your day. Hyperbole aside, while we're nowhere near using our tablets the way some countries use bicycles, there's probably a drawer somewhere in all of our homes that would make anyone from back then think we'd made it. 
Unless you're crazy diligent about trading in your smartphones or you've got some wicked protection plan for your tablets, you've likely held onto more than a few. Those that aren't taking up real estate in your junk drawers are probably lucky enough to be dedicated music players, alarm clocks, cameras, gaming devices, and maybe even digital sketchbooks. Such was the case for my Xperia Z Ultra, a very early entry into the "phablet" market, and still impressive in terms of size and resolution. It was my gateway to a fully-digital workflow. I'd done digital art before when I had my laptop, but I was still scanning drawings and bringing them into GIMP as layers to rearrange and edit. I'd long since given away my little Bamboo tablet because I never got used to the hand-eye disconnect, and I didn't have a mouse to get around the hassle of using a trackpad or trackball. My first Android phone was so small and the drawing apps available were so rudimentary I never bothered with that either. When I got that Sony, however, it was a whole new world, especially when I came across Zenbrush. Between that and Pixlr, it became my daily driver. I ended up giving away my laptop because I stopped using it. I still don't have a proper home computer apart from the old Chromebook I mentioned in my last journal entry. Over the next few years of having the Xperia, I started to move away from the single device setup into a multi-gadget workflow again when I decided I wanted Zenbrush 2, which wasn't going to be available for Android. That was when I resolved to get my first iPad, the mini 3. As you might imagine, I started using the Xperia less and less for drawing. Later on and totally out of the blue, I had to send my Xperia in to Sony to fix a bricking issue. This was going to take some time, so because I'd bought the phone unlocked, I had a golden ticket with my cell carrier to get just about any phone I wanted. I'd been seeing some YouTube videos about shooting videos using only an iPhone, so I thought I'd give that a go. I got my iPhone 5C, used it for a few weeks and fell in love with the camera so much that when I got my Xperia back, I kept the 5C as a dedicated camera. Following Inktober 2017, I upgraded my iPad to the Pro, and sent off the mini 3 with the 5C to an Alzheimer's charity to be repurposed as music players for the elderly. I was also eligible again for an upgrade with my carrier, so I got the SE to use as a backup in case I needed to send in my Xperia again. January rolled around and for my trip to Albuquerque to see family, I decided I didn't want to bother with two chargers (as my iPad goes with me everywhere), so migrated to the SE and simply never bothered going back to the Xperia
This created kind of a goofy situation that probably shows off how persnickety I can be more than anything about convergence. As I only use my iPad for drawing, and the SE's smaller screen isn't always desirable, I used the Xperia around the house for music, Twitter, Comixology, and occasionally drawing. Unfortunately, it's developed a fatal flaw. 
I'd looked into sending it in to Sony again a few months ago because its USB cover had broken off. It turned out whatever protection plan I had in place that let me get it fixed the first time wasn't available anymore and I never realized how long I'd had it. They literally told me to find a third party to fix it because they couldn't even give me an Out Of Warranty repair quote. This had happened before I migrated to the SE, so maybe I unconsciously saw the move as inevitable. It was also reaching a point where apps like Facebook and Instagram stopped working because its version of Android was so old. 
Fast forward to about a week ago, when I set it to charge up overnight and awoke to find that it couldn't get past about 74% battery life and was hot to the touch. I didn't think much of the heat because it's got a big battery with a charger that pumps a lot of amps through it, so hand-warmer was also on its list of duties. I figured something got jostled loose or maybe the wall adapter was going, so when it drained down to critical, I plugged it in again and left it plugged in all day. When I turned it back on, it was still stuck around 74%. I discovered that the instant I plugged it in, my app that monitors my CPU temp would immediately warn me of overheating. Using a different wall adapter with a lower amperage made no difference. Either the charging circuitry inside the phone was going out, or the battery itself has finally lost its full capacitance. My money's on the former, but in either case the only way I get more than a few hours of use from it is to turn on its Ultra Stamina mode, which only lets me access a handful of applications (mostly phone and camera related), reducing it to an alarm clock that is literally on its last day unless I decide to tempt fate and charge it up again. 
The app that took up the most space was Autodesk Sketchbook, and while I had backed up PSD files of most of my stuff some time ago, I realized how long it had been, so I spent about an hour one night when it was plugged in backing up everything to Google Drive.
Let that be a lesson to you digital artists out there. Even if you've already heard it, here it is again. There are two types of backups, those that fail and those that haven't failed yet. 

BACK... UP... YOUR... STUFF  

How long ago did you do that? Too long. Do it now. How many storage solutions have you got? Not enough. Get one more. 

Anyway, it's not like I stood to lose anything super precious; even when I drew on the Xperia, they were often silly little comics or cartoons for blog posts or Twitter. Still, it's an important habit to keep up, and I only wish it was this convenient and streamlined back in the day of using Zip Disks on my iMac

This marks the end of an era, with Hanging Lanterns as the last painting on my Xperia Z Ultra. Thanks for everything, big guy. 

I think 4 years is a pretty good lifespan for a smartphone. 

20 May 2018

Deadpool's Gong Show ft. Michael Jackson

In preparation for the long-awaited sequel (out in theaters as of the time of this writing) my roommate and I rewatched the original Deadpool film. To its credit, it holds up far better than it has any right to, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead is still the coolest superhero name ever. I can't say I enjoyed it more the second time around, but I certainly enjoyed it as much and did notice something interesting that I hadn't before, and that's an odd string of notes in the score. It's something of a leitmotif for DP, so I had plenty of opportunities to listen for it and try picking it apart in my head. It was a synthetic sound, very bassy, and made me think of a gong, like the transition effect used all over Law & Order, but with more of a sting to it. 

It finally hit me toward the end of the film that it sounded almost exactly like the opening notes for Michael Jackson's Beat It. Wikipedia wound up having a surprisingly in-depth look at the score, noting that since all of Pool's musical references were from the 1980's, especially WHAM!, it was decided to use instrumentation from that period. It mentioned two synthesizers, an Oberheim, and a Synclavier. The Oberheim link only showed me the entire range of equipment, so I focused on the latter. Sure enough, buried in a lengthy list of notable users was the King of Pop, with Beat It specifically cited for its notable "gong" sound. 




That should be where this story ends, but there's a twist to it. This "gong" sound isn't actually from Beat It. At least, it's not originally from Beat It. A full year before Thriller was released, Sycnlavier released a demo disc of their new Sycnlavier II model. It's about 24 minutes of small samples. It's at around 6 minutes and 40 seconds, following some jaunty xylophone-like sounds, we hear the gong.




But we don't simply hear the gong, we don't simply hear it in all its ominous glory; we hear it verbatim, all 7 notes. 

For the sake of giving credit where credit is due, all synthesizer sounds on Thriller were a team effort consisting of Steve Porcaro, Brian Banks, and Anthony Marinelli. The demo disc was effectively a promotional item from Synclavier, with Discogs crediting Denny Jaeger with that particular track.

Liner notes for Thriller do mention Jaeger, who went onto work for Jackson on BAD, but only after reaching out to Jackson upon spotting the match. This is not meant to be some call for justice or a knock against the King of Pop. If anyone was concerned about plagiarism or infringement, they've made peace with it by now. After all, Jaeger is credited with programming and performing the track for the demo, all under the hire of New England Digital, who intended the effect to be a built-in patch for their new synthesizer. Songwriter Tom Bahler, who wrote She's Out of My Life originally for Frank Sinatra before Michael Jackson made it famous, was actually the one who first played the effect for Jackson while writing Thriller. The rest of the programming team was anxious about using it, since it was so distinct (and a stock sound that literally worked right out of the box) and they'd have preferred to work more with the synth to produce original sounds. Michael, however, was insistent on using it. 

Okay, that explains the sound itself being featured, but it isn't just the sound, it's the full set of notes. This is an important distinction to make for legal reasons. Without getting into the exact economics of it, it is far less expensive to license a song to be covered (buying the sheet music, so to speak) than it is to sample even one second of a song's original recording. So, are the Synclavier II's gong sounds as they appear on its demo disc being sampled or covered in Beat It

The short answer is nobody really knows, it's in all likelihood a recreation using the original instrument in question, but the matter is almost academic. It does make me wonder if someone were to use those same 7 notes from the demo disc if they'd be getting a legal notice from the estate of Michael Jackson, New England Digital, or anybody at all. Then again, who would they be fooling? Sure, seven notes doesn't seem like anything special, but think of the first two notes of Elvis "The King of Rock" Presley's Jailhouse Rock, courtesy of his guitarist Scotty Moore



How often can you identify a song by the first two notes? Most people can probably identify Beat It by the first one. Suddenly all the red tape of legal ownership becomes a moot point because the two are linked by an almost unbreakable cultural consensus. 

Most of the information for the latter half of this entry is sourced from an article by Gino Sorcinelli for Medium.

22 April 2018

The Good Advice You Just Didn't Take

I get a lot of questions on Quora about YouTube, namely the annoying ones about how to get more subscribers (and/or how much money will I make off this very small subscriber statistic). As much as I'm annoyed by these questions, I think they're still valid as it's often easy to overlook what exactly attracts you to a YouTube channel in the first place. One of the best litmus tests I ever heard came from the now-infamous Nostalgia Critic, Doug Walker, "What are YOU looking for?" This advice is hardly exclusive to the Shouting and Remembering Guy, but it's the most direct take on it and gives the best jumping off point for moving forward with your own YouTube endeavors. While many of these Quora questions are just thinly-disguised spam, every now and again someone is looking for legitimate feedback on why their fledgling channel is struggling to leave the nest. I took one of these on at great, unapologetic length, as is often my way on these things. In my defense, however harsh, blunt, tactless, condescending, or even outright mean you think I come across as, the entertainment consuming audience as a whole is far, far worse. Think about it, they don't have to give you feedback. They can give you the silent treatment and walk out the door at any time to leave you wondering what you did wrong. Now tell me who's harsh and mean and all that jazz. I'm not asking for a parade or a medal, only that you trust the purity of my intentions when I tell someone bad at what they do that they're bad at what they do. 

The question in... well, question, read:
Why is my YouTube video getting low views and very low subscribers? What am I doing wrong?
This was followed by a link to a YouTube channel with maybe about 30 or so subscribers and a handful of views and dis/likes on some videos. What follows is my answer, near as makes no difference to verbatim: 


Shortest, simplest answer: because whenever you’re not being boring, you’re being annoying.

Still reading? Good, that means you’re either a glutton for punishment or legitimately willing to gracefully accept criticism. Either way, we’ll get into what I mean by annoying and boring. I’ll be focusing on your Ghost Rider/Mad Titan video primarily; a little bit goes a long way.

Visuals. There’s nothing wrong with using a slide program to make your videos. It’s actually very efficient… if you know how to do it right. There is a problem with using a slide program to make your videos when you do it poorly. Firstly and most obviously, don’t show us that it’s a slideshow. Trim the part of the video that shows the slide program before you go full screen.
I don’t show my iMovie timeline at the start of every video, and even the most budget-conscious smartphone can trim the starts and ends of video clips (so we don’t have to see you reach to and from the phone to start and stop recording). You want your videos to look like polished, finished products, not tech demos for “tech” that gives cave paintings a run for their money in terms of antiquity and obsolescence in the telecommunications field. Second, let’s talk aesthetics:
What am I looking at, highlighter on typing paper? Why don’t you just use Comic Sans and have done with it? I mean, you’re already talking about comic books, why hold back now? A plain white background? Watch almost any movie ever and tell me if the end credits are black text on a white background or white text on a black background. The eye, being lazy, is drawn to white space, so by framing your comic panels with nothing but bright white space, you’re actually distracting from what you want to be the focus. White absorbs colors, and I can promise you your panels will look more colorful and striking against black (why do you think some sites and devices have “night modes”?).

The sound. Good grief, the sound. Did you build your microphone yourself in the dark, with your eyes closed, wearing oven mitts, and with little to no understanding of how a microphone works? How many tin cans went into its construction? Are you using wet strings instead of wires? Now, before you go telling me about what you can or can’t afford, how you’re just a poor boy from a poor family and that I should spare you your life from this monstrosity known as open market capitalism, take a moment to look at the walls of your room, and then look in your closet.

My point is unless your microphone is welded onto your 1998 Compaq Presario’s CRT monitor, you need to take that recording operation into your closet and use the clothes on hangers as baffles.

Baffled? Compare the hanging clothes to "professional-grade" sound dampening acoustic foam. See the similarities? 

Closet too small and/or packed with crap? Have only the clothes on your back to be baffles? Two words: Blanket fort. I’m not even joking. You’d be surprised how well towels work for sound dampening. 

Now comes the hardest part to change: you. I can talk your ear off about acoustics and mixing, blind you with details on lighting and editing, and even direct you through scripting and writing, but I can’t make you a more charismatic, engaging, and insightful person. You’ve got to do that on your own. Let’s start with delivery: I counted about a dozen “ums” and “uhs” in a span of about 30 seconds in your video, your video that you yourself wrote on a subject you yourself decided to elaborate on.

IT’S YOUR SCRIPT! IT’S YOUR WORDS! IT’S YOUR SUBJECT OF CHOICE! WHY DO YOU HAVE TO THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO SAY WHEN YOU’VE ALREADY WRITTEN IT, REVISED IT, REREAD IT, REWROTE IT, AND ALL OTHER MANNER OF REVIEWED IT? IT’S WRITE IN FRONT OF YOU… RIGHT… right in front of you.

Your script is right in front of you, isn’t it? Better question, you did write a script, didn’t you? Bear in mind, by script, I’m talking about something as minimal as bullet points, an itemized list of talking points to help keep you on track and from going off on unnecessary tangents. Hell, draw a picture if it helps you.
See how I can use black text on a plain white background if there’s more to the composition than black text on a plain white background?

I said I would only talk about your Ghost Rider vs. Thanos video, but I checked your “iPhone screen recording” that was your earlier Thanos video, and you’ve got many of the same problems with opening that video as you do with Ghost Rider:

“okayimuhmakingthisvideonowpleasermemebertolikesharesubscribecommentumtoyourumfamilyumanduhfriendspleasewatchmyvideos…”

If you’re in that much of a hurry to get through your own videos, what’s to stop someone from taking it a step further and not watching them at all? If you’re just going to read some Wiki pages while fumbling through some screenshots, why should anyone stick around for that instead of looking up the information themselves? If the presentation is boring, the quality of the content doesn’t matter.

If you care more about your metrics than your content, you’re doing it wrong.

That's the end of the answer proper. It was followed up by a comment from the aspiring YouTuber thanking me for the feedback and providing me a link to a new video (on a new channel of his) to ask if this improved on the previous videos. 

The sound was even worse. (turn your volume down before clicking the link). 

I asked, along with why a new channel would be necessary, if he was being annoying and irritating on purpose. The comment has since been deleted. 

I can't help you if you're going to make the same mistakes over and over again. 

09 April 2018

Spoiled On Legos

For all the ranting and raving and raging I've done about Sketchup, some may wonder why I keep going back and trying again at it. Is it pure stubbornness? Maybe. Is it because more often than not it actually does work and produce usable results? Yes. In fact, at least two of my most popular and liked models on Thingiverse were made in Sketchup. There's a fine line between valid criticism and outright negativity, and I realize I tend to feed into that negativity feedback loop when I complain about how almost every other step in every other Sketchup tutorial is a workaround for something the program can't do, how what's streamlined in one application is almost abstract in this one. For that skewed view which I'll elaborate on in a moment, I owe Trimble my sincerest apologies, for whatever they're worth. 
Speaking of fine lines, my overall issue with Sketchup is that it walks a very fine line between having a learning curve and being badly-designed. As for that latter point, I'm here to give Trimble a great big pass wrapped up in my apology like a pig in a blanket because even if we all agree their software is badly-designed in some key areas, it's not entirely their fault. Without getting into a long, drawn-out history of how Sketchup came to be as it is, the fact of the matter is Sketchup is not a 3D modeling tool. At least, it's not a 3D modeling tool out of the box. 
Sketchup was made to be a visualization tool for architects, landscapers, and interior designers. All of these jobs have one common thread that Sketchup uses as its foundation, and that's... a foundation. Before you can make any sort of structure or even arrange existing elements within a structure, you need to know how much real estate/floor space you've got to work with. Barring any low ceilings or overhead lighting or air traffic considerations, this is fundamentally a two-dimensional exercise. 
That's "Josh" by the way. He's the default height reference for every new document. 
Think about it. If you didn't have the benefit of modern CAD technology, you'd be using a straight-edge, a pencil, and a piece of paper, not to mention a tape measure and maybe some masking tape to mark out spaces on the floor. 
You certainly wouldn't be stacking cardboard boxes in the middle of the room unless you've got some enormous on-hand supply of moving boxes of various sizes depending upon your needs. My point is that Tinkercad, one of the programs I use for my 3D printing work, is absolutely horrible in this capacity.
Not pictured: Josh.
Ignoring the fact that Tinkercad was never meant to be an architectural tool (and therefore all your default dimensions are in millimeters), there's also the matter of exporting the model into a usable format. Tinkercad exports to the STL and OBJ formats, which are 3D. There is a 2D format it can export to, but it's a simple vector image (SVG) meant for laser-cutting, and not very useful if you're trying to show a client how a location is going to be arranged. Sketchup, meanwhile, allows me to export my current view of the scene as a PNG file (that's in the free browser-based version) as well as having an entire host of 2D tools for sharing one's work as architectural blueprints (that's in the full-size version). 
Sharing one's work aside, this comparison is meant to demonstrate the fundamental difference between the mindset of someone who would need Sketchup and someone who would need Tinkercad. The best analogy is that Sketchup is like cutting posterboard and foamcore to build your structures while Tinkercad is like playing with Legos
Not pictured: Emmet.
This is not meant to put down either program. Both are perfectly valid solutions to their respective problems, just as foamcore is a perfectly valid material for making architectural models and dioramas while Legos are a perfectly valid material for making mockups of physical objects or scenes (even practical protoypes if we want to get Technic...al). 
We can work on the decor.
Going back to what I was saying before, Sketchup was originally a visualization tool for people more concerned with open floorspace than tight tolerances. After Google picked up the project to make it some sort of plug-in for Google Earth, it seems the need for 3D functionality increased and suddenly all these new features need to be shoehorned into a program not intended for them. Even on their own forums, many users often joke about making circles and spheres in Sketchup. I built up a small archive of screenshots demonstrating the results of early attempts at mastering the delicate and subtle art of making spheres, but I won't put them here. It wouldn't be fair. Rather, I would encourage you, even if you've only a passing interest in the subject, to give the free, browser-based version of Sketchup a try, maybe sit through a few tutorials first to get an idea of what you're in for, and see if it's something you want to invest in. I even used its visualization/layout aspect for a recent DIY project of a computer monitor stand that used a combination of scrap wood and metal, as well as some 3D printed parts (which were modeled in Tinkercad). 

17 March 2018

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time was far, far better than I thought it would be. Between a literal life-changing stage play I saw as a kid to an almost painfully humdrum TV movie, I went in thinking this could go either direction (awesome or boring) if not disappoint and simply be bad. It's another case of the trailers not quite doing the film its justice. They tend to focus on the bigger names in the cast (Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine, Mindy Kaling), who aren't even the leads. I can understand that from a marketing perspective, but it's a double-edged sword; most moviegoers these days can sniff out a film that plays it safe from a mile off. There's a saying in cooking that the first bite is with the eye, and trailers are the first bite of a movie. It doesn't help that as much as I like the book, A Wrinkle in Time is better known for its off-beat approach to sci-fi and quirky-yet-relatable characters than its actual plot. Taken on its own rather than part of a larger series of cosmic-fantasy reality-benders, it's a fairly straightforward Fish-Out-of-Water/Who Am I/Hero's Journey sort of affair. Again, that's not a bad thing, not as a starting point and certainly not if you've got a good cast to make you invested. That's the real strength of this movie; the main cast is awesome. This is probably the best ensemble of child actors I've seen since Ender's Game. You are genuinely invested in their plights, which are further hit home by the visuals. The book didn't dwell too much on its visuals, as it shouldn't, so it didn't garner a lot of expectations on this front, and by this point we're so saturated in fantastic imagery it's hard to stand out. Somehow, though, this film achieves it. It's not so out there that it's distracting, like its trying to buoy the rest of the movie, but it's still very inventive.

Only two things truly bug me about this movie, one's a nitpick that's in no way a dealbreaker, and the other's more of a question. Firstly, Aunt Beast is mentioned once and seen for all of 3 seconds. It's a somewhat creative look, but easily the weakest piece of art direction in the film. The stage play had furry starfish the actors could shift around inside to operate different limbs, emphasizing their non-humanoid form. Here, we have mammoths with spider-legs, seen way off in the distance... in a haze... before swiftly moving on to the next scene. Like I said, not a dealbreaker, and if the Ixchell had simply been omitted, I wouldn't have even cared. Speaking of omissions, notably absent are the twins. The Murry family is only Meg and Charles-Wallace. Granted, they didn't have a big role in the book, but they were important later in Many Waters. What I'm wondering now is if Disney is going to go ahead and make the other Time Quartet books (Quintet? An Acceptable Time is canon...ish? I'm spoiled on numbered spines, what's wrong with me?) are they just going to have the current collection of kids carry on and rewrite the plot to them, or are they somehow going to find a way to introduce the twins later, maybe as visiting cousins? The Time Quartet In Five Parts (?) was essentially Young Adult fiction before the great Hunger-Potter Explosion, when publishers didn't market these much outside of school book fairs, and the authors tended to play pretty fast and loose with overarching structures and deadlines. My point is the cynic in me fully expects Disney to try and do for the Time Quintaret as a franchise, but it doesn't look like they're taking any steps to do that, and while part of me is okay with that, it's a very odd strategy for The House Walt Built between Marvel and Star Wars. It's like I want more but I'm afraid to ask, if that makes sense.

07 March 2018

If You Love TinkerCAD So Much....

UPDATE 13-MARCH-2018: After much e-mail correspondence with the CEO and founder of SelfCAD, along with concerted efforts between him and his staff, some issues described below have been resolved. Still, more remain as of the time of this update. My final assessment as of now is that this program is not in a state of viability that makes it worth my time and effort to invest in. I've formally requested a refund of my annual license which I am assured will go through in a few business days. 
I have no intention of retracting or editing this entry beyond this update, as at best I could simply replace it with an at least equally-lengthy exploration of the new issues I was able to demonstrate for the SelfCAD team earlier today. Rather, I'm going to leave that new information between us for them to use as they see fit moving forward. Although I'm no longer using SelfCAD, I want to make something clear to anyone whose interest in the program led them here. 

Go ahead and try it. 

No, I'm serious. For all I've said and all the more I would have to say, I don't begrudge SelfCAD or anyone involved in the project for the state of the app. I have the fullest confidence they will sort out the issues and get to a state that will hold its own against the likes of Fusion360 and Sketchup, and certainly run circles around TinkerCAD and OpenSCAD
There's also the notable possibility that you could use the app and never have any of the problems I had with it. A fellow engineer mentioned giving it a try and falling in love with the sculpting features (which I barely bothered with at all), and was shocked at the screenshots I posted. He never encountered these errors, but he used the app differently than I did. To put it another way, your mileage may vary. You've got 30 days, use them.

I'm honestly still looking forward to an iPad version. I'll be there day one to try it out. 

END OF UPDATE.

TinkerCAD is a very simple 3D modeling program meant for 3D printing. Many scoff at its simplicity, calling it a kid's toy. What's ironic is that many of the scoffing remarks seem to come from people who use OpenSCAD. OpenSCAD is a needlessly complicated and obtuse graphics modeler the use of which is best described as attempting to teach a graphing calculator to play chess. To be fair, at least their dismissal has nothing to do with the price tag. That distinction gets left to the other scoffers who swear by the likes of Autodesk Inventor
As far as 3D printing goes, Inventor is overpowered. More than half of its features are completely useless, and I don't like paying full price for something I can only use half of, I don't care if it's somehow nice to have the option for more. There's no denying its usefulness and versatility, I simply have no need for it. That said, I'm always looking for an alternative to TinkerCAD, since there are times when I find myself using far too many workarounds for its limitations. Tragically, there used to be a middle ground to this paradigm in the form of 123D (also from Autodesk), which has since been discontinued. To fill this gap, Autodesk overhauled Tinkercad to have a few more features than previous versions, and the rest of their focus has gone to a CAD program called Fusion360. I've used Fusion360 and while I don't hate it, any time I tried importing a model to modify or edit, it never, ever got the scale right. No matter what I set the original model to, meters became feet, feet became inches, and millimeters became yards. It seems as if I have to start completely from scratch within its borders and never venture outside its ecosystem. I looked into the issue to see if I was doing something wrong. It turned out this was a known issue and Autodesk had not yet fixed it. The forum post that outlined this was dated 2015, and I was first trying this program in 2017. 2 full years and no progress on a simple matter of making the program understand scale, the most basic principle in technical drawing and engineering. It'd be laughable were it not so infuriating. 
I've talked before about how tech support is often so reluctant to admit when their program can't do something, reasons being 1) It's their product/paycheck, of course they're not going to talk trash about it, however valid the criticism, and 2) there's always the possibility of a feature being added or a known issue finally being resolved. Here's why this outlook needs to be shut down. To address the first point, if your program cannot work as it has advertised itself and/or is simply not suitable for a given application, it's less suspicious to spell out what exactly your product can and cannot do so you can focus on what works and get it in the hands of the right people who can make the most of it. Secondly, if I'm paying for an annual license, every day I'm made to wait on getting an issue resolved is time I can't actually use the program. I can't wait on a possibility. I'm going to find something else, and I'm either not going to renew my license, or I'm going to fight to get it refunded, and with the issue I'm having now with SelfCAD, I have a strong leg to stand on. 
SelfCAD is a browser-based 3D modeling program just like TinkerCAD, but with an interface somewhat closer to Fusion360. It doesn't have the scaling issue of the latter, but it is going to take you some time to work out exactly what scale the program is working in. To be fair, the only reason this is a problem is that not only is SelfCAD create 3D models, but it can also prepare them for 3D printing by having its own slicer. Scales can ultimately be adjusted when moving from program to program, of if the model is only going to be viewed on a screen, but when printing a physical object, it's important to get the scale right. While I have had some issues with the slicer, they don't compare to the issues I've had with making a simple model, not being able to make it, and then being given two pieces of advice from their technical support team that simply do not pan out as insisted. 

All I'm doing is taking a simple shape, like a cube or a hexagonal prism, 
twisting it, 
and then putting a cylindrical hole in the middle of it. 
Setting aside the practical use of this model, this shouldn't be a great challenge for a program meant for producing three-dimensional solid objects for 3D printing or other means of fabrication. However, when the time comes to subtract the cylinder from the twisted block:
It's a little hard to tell what's going on from this angle, but removing the cylinder has hollowed out the entire interior of the twisted block. 
This should not be a difficult task to perform. I inform SelfCAD of this issue through their site and get an acknowledgment in my email inbox:
"we have received your message and are currently investigating the issue."
Along with this, the following video from their YouTube channel is included: 

Seems simple enough, except I followed this tutorial exactly and got a different result. At least, it seems I got a different result; we don't see whether or not the bat symbol got the same sort of hollowing out or if it had a proper rectangular hole. I bring this up in my reply to that first e-mail. Roughly 5 whole days pass before I get the next reply:
"If you apply the Add Thickness tool with thickness set to 1 to cube after the hole was made, you should get your desired result."
No. No, I do not get the desired result. I literally get a worse result. Not only is the shape still hollowed out where it shouldn't be, but thickening the walls have thrown off all the external dimensions. 
Adding thickness does not fill in the volume around the space left by the subtracted cylinder. Instead, it adds thickness to the entirety of the hollowed shell, expanding its overall size. 
I mean, this is almost insulting. Who would call this a viable solution to the problem of making a cylindrical hole in a given shape. I honestly wonder if they tried this themselves before passing the info off to me. Also, on the off-chance I'd gotten the wrong information, I tried applying the thickness to the shape before subtracting the cylinder.
I don't even know how to approach that situation, especially when the "undo" shortcut simply stops working for no good reason. I shared these updates with SelfCAD, and I have yet to receive a response. Given the 5-day turnaround on the last interaction, I'm not optimistic about receiving this update in a timely manner. The only reason I'm even concerned about the turnaround time is that I've purchased an annual license to use this software. If it can't handle what should be the simplest task possible, and everyday I can't use it effectively goes against that annual license, I'm wasting money on something that doesn't work, and can't even get a straight answer on whether or not that's supposed to work to begin with. 

To give an idea of how simple this process should be, here's the same exact process done in TinkerCAD:
SelfCAD, I am legitimately regretting my contribution to your cause. Not only does this not make me want to buy another annual license, but I'm going to lobby for compensation on what I've already paid. This is absurd. OpenSCAD doesn't even have this problem. 

I kid you not, the day I wrote this, I got an email from SelfCAD inviting me to their ambassador program. How can I represent something that it seems no one at the company knows how to operate?