23 August 2017

Cheaper Tablet Than H420

Huion, a company known for making cheap graphics tablets, including some full-fledged pen displays meant to compete with the Wacom Cintiqs. To put the caliber of materials we're looking at in perspective, Scott Adams has used a Cintiq UX21 since around 2004 to draw Dilbert. It's equivalent today would be the 22HD, starting at around 2,000USD. Most of my artist friends use a Wacom Intuos of some variety, which go for between 200-300USD. I have an ISKN Slate, which has a roughly 8x5" drawing area and costs around 180USD. There's also iPads, which are becoming increasingly popular, but the software selection is still limited and doesn't give you the full range of tools a desktop solution would. 

Huion's H420... is 30 bucks. It has a drawing area of 2x3". It's basically one step below those screens you sign at the grocery store when you use your credit card. However, someone at Huion decided to market the thing as a full-fledged graphics tablet on par with Wacom's budget-conscious Bamboo series (which go for around 100USD), and some artists took on the challenge. Ultimately, it's not the tools, it's the talent, but along with bragging rights and impressing clients, the advantage of something like a Cintiq or an Intuos is that you've got more room to work with for precise movements (the drawing area essentially mirrors you screen, so think about that trackpad on your laptop for an idea of the interface) and you spend far less time fighting the technical challenges than you normally would, letting you focus on the creative challenges. 

I'll be using DeviantArtMuro, their browser-based drawing and paint program and post the result. Muro is free, widely-available, and has a playback function for showing a timelapse of the process. 

19 August 2017

Blame My Paranoia

I hope I live long enough to see 3D printers this big.
My formal introduction to the work of Tsutomu Nihei follows a rather common pattern. I saw Knights of Sidonia on Netflix, and from there I found the rest of his bibliography, though I've yet to dive into any of it. I found out about Blame! through Classic Game Room, along with Biomega. Comixology filled me in on the rest. 

I'm currently waiting on the arrival of a somewhat obscure DVD as part of a not-quite review that discusses some oddities in the dynamic of digital versus physical media, a kind of meditation on the unadvertised mission statement of my weblog, discussing examples of media that don't fit broadly established genres or categories and subsequently fall through the cracks. 

I watched Blame! knowing very little about the story of the original manga. I'd read some snippets here and there, either descriptions or reviews, but beyond Kiri (Killy?), his weapon, and the Terminator-like setting of humans against machines, I had no real clue what to expect. This led to a bout of what could best be described as cognitive dissonance. My mind had expectations for the storyline that went in the polar opposite direction, though hardly to my dismay. It simply makes me wonder if anyone else may have the same quasi-existential experience. 

In the distant future, humanity has effectively cracked the post-scarcity economy, allowing us to build and create without any real restrictions. The megastructure that results from all this is maintained entirely by machines under the guidance of a supercomputer called the Authority. Under the Authority, robots called Builders continue to expand the structure while Safeguards enforce security. At some point, thanks to a contagion, humans lose the ability to interface with the netsphere (the internet), leaving the Authority to make like the brooms from Fantasia and carry on as it always has with only the vaguest of direction. Builders now build without rhyme or reason, a la the Winchester Mansion but on a larger scale, and Safeguards kill humans on sight, classifying them as interlopers. Many millennia pass, but small pockets of humanity manage to eke out a living despite the constant threat of extermination. 
Our story starts with a group of upstarts from a village of human survivors scavenging for food against the better judgment of their elders. A veritable Mickey Mouse operation from the start, the plan goes horrifically awry and about half the party is butchered by killer department store mannequins. The remaining few are about to meet the same fate when they bump into a stoic man in black who wipes out the Safeguards with one shot of an otherwise unassuming firearm. He asks if anyone possesses something called a Net Terminal Gene. The kids have no clue what he's talking about, but insist he come with them to meet the other villagers on the off-chance someone can help. 
The old man of the tribe, known only as Pops, explains that Kiri is a traveler, known through oral traditions, like most of their knowledge. Sadly, what they know as far as what Kiri is looking for is extremely limited, almost superstitious. One story stands out, though, that of a ghost that lives below the village in a place called the Rotting Shrine. 
To the surprise of likely no sci-fi fan worth his salt, said ghost isn't a ghost at all, but a holographic projection. It appears to be of a woman, but the message has become distorted and corrupted beyond coherency. Walking right past where the humans fear to tread, Kiri unearths the head and spine of an android and employs what people in the tech industry know as Emergency Repair Procedure Number 1: hit it. 

This is the part where the ignorance of the humans in the story and my own ignorance of the original source material collide and merge into a twisted ladder of not quite dramatic irony and an assumed idiot plot. The android introduces herself as Cibo (pronounced "Shee-Boh" for some reason) and starts telling the story of how she came to be as she is... without really explaining what she is. She says she's a scientist who tried to restore order to the megastructure. The whole time this is going on, all I can think is, "So, she's a human consciousness transferred into a robot? But, if that's the case, how can Kiri perform a retinal scan? Why would that work?" Furthermore, I thought, "Given one of the villagers previously established that there are Safeguards which can take on human forms, do we have any reason to believe what Cibo is saying?" Then there's the villagers, who don't seem to question any of this whatsoever, though to be fair only believe about half of what they're being told. That's when Cibo drops a line I'm going to paraphrase for emphasis: 

"Take me to the automated factory and I'll make anything you want. Even food." 

I dunno. I can imagine quite a lot.

Again, knowing nothing about the source material, tell me that line is anything but a massive red flag billowing in the wind. I mean, there's "Too Good To Be True" and there's frigging magic beans, Hansel and Gretel, Gingerbread Man riding a fox that say ring-a-ding-ding-ding.... The point is, for the next 10-15 minutes, I was almost yelling at my screen, "Tonto! Don't go to town! They're gonna beat y'up again!" I was ready to write off the villagers as cannon fodder and the story as an idiot plot. An idiot plot is a plot wherein the only reason anything transpires the way it does is that the protagonists are total morons with no common sense and even fewer survival skills. Think about it: here's a group of people who hide from robots that want to kill them, and now here's the skeletal head & shoulders of a robot promising them anything they want if they take her to a factory... that's automated... as in, run by robots.  
Where the Hell is Admiral Ackbar when you need him!? Do these villagers really have no concept of what a human being is supposed to look and act like, especially a dead one? Did they see the first Hellboy movie too many times? To be fair, the team that decides to go along with Kiri to this factory have their fair share of doubts. The fact is, given their circumstances, they have no reason not to go. I was expecting a bleak story, but this was starting to get ridiculous, drawing out what seemed like an obvious betrayal in the making. While things do go horribly wrong, Cibo's actually on the level. That's not a spoiler; that's saving you from the embarrassment of energy wasted in anticipation of something that never happens. 

It turns out Cibo is the M to Kiri's James Bond. The story of the manga has very few recurring characters and generally flimsy alliances. Cibo, however, is as much the face of Blame! as Kiri, to the point she takes the trope of Main Character Immunity to almost comical proportions, even in the short span of the film's run time. 

There's a real Ship of Theseus theme to Cibo that I rather dig; that she was a normal human being, then gradually augmented herself, eventually reducing her very "self" to a stream of data, transplanting herself into a completely synthetic body, and even transferring/copying herself from one form to another as needed. We typically apply it to inanimate objects like ships and tools as a meditation on sentiment, but applied to an existential context it becomes infinitely fascinating and equally terrifying. At the end of the day, all "we are", all that "I am" is a string of memories, shaped by experiences, and stored imperfectly in a fundamentally frail physical form. 

Speaking of physical forms, I'd said before I was waiting for a DVD to arrive, which was true when I started writing this a few days earlier. That situation has changed:  
Thanks RightStuf
Things are going to get complicated.

15 August 2017

PC Master Race... Leans Left?

This is a partial paraphrasing/rewrite/expansion of an article I wrote on LinkedIn about something I meant to talk about on DeviantART (and may still since I want this to focus on gaming and not art) but that's about as complicated as this story gets... maybe. 

A lot of artists I know use graphics tablets, with many of them calling their mice bars of soap and about half as useful for drawing digitally. It surprised me, then, to learn from Ash Vickers of Megacynics that vector art is primarily done with a mouse. It made sense the more I thought about it, especially as I started experimenting with vector graphics. I also started doing CAD for work, which also uses a mouse (Solidsmack has a wonderful article about using a stylus for CAD, by the way). Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me. This made what happened next a little more scary than it normally would have been. 

I'm right-handed (that's not the scary part) and one morning, I found that I slept wrong somehow and my right arm was extremely sore. It more than likely would have gone away on its own (and it did), but given that I had a full day of design work ahead of me using that very arm, I would be playing a dangerous game of either keeping my arm in pain or making it worse. This made me really anxious, if rather pitifully so. I sat down at my desk, looked at the arrangement of peripherals on my desk, and took a calculated risk. The keyboard got shifted to the right, and the mouse hopped over it and landed on the left. My left hand was going to have to learn CAD and vector work the same way sadists and deadbeats teach nervous kids to swim, chucking them straight into the deep end. 

There wasn't even five seconds of adjustment. 

Seriously, I didn't even need to switch the left and right buttons in the control panel. Using my middle finger for left click and my index finger for right click felt every bit as normal as the opposite arrangement on my right hand. Okay, there was a little bit of a learning curve in the precision and accuracy department when it came to clicking and dragging, so let's bring that five seconds up to about five minutes. This was all about a year ago, and I have no intention of going back. In fact, I'd like to invite all of you to give it a try. You can switch the left and right mouse buttons if you want to, but you may be surprised how intuitive the setup truly is. If you're skeptical, and you're at your desk while reading this, I want you to look down at your current arrangement of mouse and keyboard. Unless you're using a small laptop or you specifically asked for a narrow keyboard, yours likely has a number pad, with a little cross of arrow keys separating it from the nation of QWERTY. Those arrows are going to become important later. This added real estate, which is wider than your hand when it's in a relaxed position, creates a rather onerous compromise when it comes to productivity. 

Seriously, why does this look weird?
Think about it, in order to center the home row of your keyboard under your screen, you have to put your right arm at almost a 45 degree angle away from your body to operate your mouse. This is a little less drastic if you have a trackball, but let's save that discussion for when we talk about Centipede and Missile Command. (let's just say if you're not tossing the keyboard aside and putting that beautiful billiard ball front and center, you're doing it wrong!). If your job involves more typing than clicking, you may be okay with this and it's entirely possible it will never pose any problems for you. Likewise, if you need your mouse more than your keyboard, then having home row off-center can be equally tolerable. In either case, though, you're missing a trick, quite possibly the ultimate office life hack.

If your HR department has invested any time and effort into discussing office ergonomics with you, it may be familiar to hear something along the lines of keeping your arms as straight as possible. This is spot-on. Arguably, your muscles can get used to being at odd angles, but 1) you shouldn't have to, and 2) your muscular system is fundamentally give-and-take. If muscle group A has to work a little harder, muscle group B doesn't. Simple isometric exercises and stretches can help with these, but like we said in point 1, you shouldn't have to. 

Here's where this gets interesting: gamers already get the most out of this clumsy arrangement, but only because of a compromise. The typical keyboard-and-mouse arrangement for something like a first-person shooter or a few other genres that involve navigating a three-dimensional space works out like this: the mouse controls the camera or where your character looks, while the W, A, S, and D keys move your character forward, left, back, and right (respectively). In this setup, the far left side of the keyboard and the rightmost reach of the mouse allow your arms to rest straight in front of you. 

You've nailed it... or have you? 

In my CAD work, I don't use my keyboard that often, not compared to the number pad. It's used about as equally as the mouse. Having my mouse on the left lets me center the home row of my keyboard, which puts my arms straight ahead, with the left resting on the mouse, and the right resting on the number pad, with those arrow keys almost equally accessible. I've even got the arrow keys on the number pad thanks to the Num Lock key if needed. 

Having my mouse on the left lets me use the arrow keys for what they arrow keys are made for. 

Yes, that sounds obvious, but if that's obvious, why is the WASD arrangement somehow "the norm"? What do you typically use the left analog stick on a game controller for? The camera, with the right analog stick controlling your movements. Funnily enough, this arrangement for dual analog controllers as pioneered in Alien Resurrection for the Sony Playstation was heavily criticized at the time before quickly becoming the norm. Now consider that in old-school gaming, especially in the arcade, movement controls are on the left. Meanwhile, left-handed arcade sticks put movement controls on the right, where right-handed console gamers operate movement controls anyway. 

Gamers are already fundamentally ambidextrous and we don't even realize it. 

It's only appropriate, then, that Razer (By Gamers, For Gamers) would be pretty much lead the charge in producing left-handed ergonomic gaming mice. There are others, but they're playing catch-up on the whole, with many content with catering to office environments where fewer buttons are required. 

Ironically, despite what I said earlier about not needing to reverse the mouse buttons in the control panel, the default layout of the left-handed Naga mouse reverses the clicks. Luckily, Synapse (the application Razer offers to customize their mouse buttons) makes the switch easy. Unfortunately, because it's an application, it's not there right away when I boot up, and there's a few minutes every morning when I have to mentally swap sides until everything gets up and running. For the sake of convenience and not dealing with adding more programs to startup, I swapped the clicks in the Control Panel. So, the left-handed mouse is actually less intuitive to my left hand than an ambidextrous one without modification. Razer, if you're reading this, worry not, for I forgive you ;) ... but if you really want to make it up to me, maybe you can put that MOBA-friendly Naga Hex mouse on fast-track to getting a left-handed version? This 12-button keypad is kinda tedious ;P