30 April 2020

My Open Letter of Protest to DeviantART

My primary objection to the recent overhaul known as Eclipse is the sheer ineptitude by the staff and owners to produce a unique user experience distinct from similar platforms. Not only is the site a pale imitation of ArtStation, but the months' worth of troubleshooting, delayed updates, and bug hunts both leading up to and following the launch further demonstrate a disconnect between DeviantART and its users. These technical issues are to be expected with any website that goes through a major update, but the scale and duration in this case, coupled with the development team essentially working from a cheat sheet, is unacceptable. This is not the site I signed up for all these years ago, and I have invested too much of my time and effort into it to abandon it completely over this matter. Many users are proposing a halt to using the site for the first 3 days of May to make their voices heard. I applaud this effort, as well as the numerous petitions seeking to get fundamental changes and fixes made. I may or may not participate in the upcoming boycott, and I have certainly signed a number of petitions, but I will offer my own mission statement moving forward in terms of my use of the site.

Put simply, I refuse to pay for something that has failed to imitate another site under the false premise of innovation.

  • I will not renew my Core Membership, nor will I be gifting any to others.
  • I will not be using the new Wix integration to make a portfolio. 
  • I will not participate in any contests, events, giveaways, or promotions.
  • I will not seek badges of any kind, and all llama badge trading is halted.
  • I will not make any direct purchase from the platform, including prints.
  • I will not use any media sharing options that will direct traffic to the site.

You will have to rely on advertising revenue exclusively to receive any cooperation and participation from me. Lest we forget, Patreon nearly imploded due to a policy change nobody asked for, which punished patrons for supporting multiple creators at once while pretending to be for the benefit of the creators when it only hindered their efforts to grow and prosper. Voices were raised, words were heeded, and Patreon reversed the decision. Please take note of this.

To any users reading this, I invite you to follow my example and/or those of others airing their grievances. 

Goodnight, and good luck. 

21 April 2020

iSE What You Did There

My first iPhone was an iPhone 5C. I had to send in my Xperia Z Ultra to get fixed, and this was likely going to take a few weeks, so I needed a backup. For as few calls as I get and for as many things as I could have done on my tablet, I knew the moment I physically couldn't get to my phone for any length of time is likely to have become the peak of my popularity. 

I could probably spend a week telling you why I never bothered with iPhones up until this point, suffice to say it's mostly circumstances. I went with the 5C as it was the inexpensive one, and I found it interesting that Apple had designed it that way, with slightly cheaper materials than its 5 and 5S siblings. I have to say my first impression was not positive, and not simply from going to a 4-inch screen from a 6+-inch "phablet" but from a fairly versatile and accommodating operating system like Android to something that frankly felt like a toy. I warmed up to it well enough, and the camera was certainly an improvement over the Xperia's, which always felt a little off. Pictures simply never looked as good as they could have, no matter how much I tweaked the settings. Maybe I just wasn't as adept at photography as years of 35mm had led me to believe. Maybe Sony was trying to upsell me on their add-on camera accessory (which I nearly sprang for). Maybe it was simply out of date compared to the 5C
In any case, I switched back to the Xperia upon its return but kept the 5C as a camera. A few months later, I was going on a trip and didn't want to pack two different chargers (the other being my iPad), so I swapped SIM cards and never looked back. The Ultra was certainly worth it up until its internal battery finally bit it and Sony stopped supporting it; the larger screen made it a good gateway drug into digital art, but when Zenbrush's next iteration was going iPad exclusive, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Anyway, the 5C served me well until I was eligible for an upgrade, and that was when Apple delivered what is easily to date my favorite iPhone, the SE
The SE was marketed almost as a kind of apology from Apple for the 6 and upcoming 7, as if to say, "Yeah, these are kinda chintzy and gimmicky, here's a not-Jitterbug model. KTHXBYE!" It reminded me of when I was a Linux user. Mint would release a new OS every year, with support typically overlapping by a few months or sometimes up to another year. If it seems laborious to reinstall an operating system on your PC every year, it is. You have to bear in mind Linux is generally targeted at people who probably spend more time with the access panels OFF their computers than ON. That said, there were plenty of more casual users who just wanted an OS that wasn't Windows or Mac. For these types, they offered "LTS" or long-term support versions of the OS. These were typically a previous year's version, usually one that was well-received, that offered support for 5 years instead of the typical 1-2ish.  
This was more or less Apple's promise with the SE, that it was outside of the typical naming/numbering convention of the iPhones and therefore was meant to have a longer "shelf life" than the other models. It's easy to forget that Apple is rather supportive of their older hardware, to the point that properly "retiring" a device is practically headline material. As for what was being supported, the nuts and bolts of the SE were the guts (processor, memory, etc.) of a 6S in the shell of a 5S. For my money, this was genius. As I said, I loved the 5C. I still think the 5's were the best iPhones ever got. Now, those wanting to upgrade could get a little better performance while keeping all those accessories they'd built up over the years. Also, manufacturers of those accessories weren't going to have to liquidate their stuff. You had a legitimately stable platform. Granted, said platform only ended up lasting about 2 years, but September 2018 was only when it was discontinued. Support carried on for some time later, and as I said, you had a backlog of accessories and add-ons that would still work for it. 

Rumors of an "SE2" abounded for years. Most of them were wishlists, along with some very detailed renders, but nearly all of them worked under the premise that Apple would start from scratch, designing from the ground up. It made sense, building on what already worked while fine-tuning certain shortcomings. It seemed as though people were missing the point of the SE, that it's not for following trends, that those hot, must-have gimmi--er, features are not for everyone. When it came time for Apple to unveil their next big lineup of flagship phones, the XR seemed to quash the majority of SE2 rumors. The XR seemed to fit the bill. It had the FaceID in lieu of a home button. It lacked the edge-to-edge display due to having a different type display than the others, but still made good use of the real estate. The camera was good, but kept the features list short enough to appease most casual photographers. Above all, it looked, for lack of a better term, like a toy. It looked, to the XS/Pro/Max, precisely what the 5C looked like to the 5 and 5S

Fast-forward to 15 April 2020:

Before getting a better look at it, my first thought was that this new, proper SE would be a rebadge of an original X, maybe with a few hardware tweaks to bring the phone up to speed with something like the XR. What we got instead was an iPhone 8 with the internals of an 11I wasn't too far off; the original 8 had the same internals as the X.The 8 also shares a similar form factor to the 7, with many accessories being cross-compatible. So, there you have it; we've hit all the hallmarks of the original SE

  • Not everyone likes "edge-to-edge" displays. 
  • Some people like the home button. 
  • FaceID isn't exactly reliable
  • Not everyone needs a bigger screen. 
  • Some people simply want a phone. 

Sadly, there's no rose gold option, but there's a Product (red) edition, and that suits me just fine. My Mophie battery case is certainly going to be a happy camper. 

19 April 2020

My Not Quite Office Setup

When the Apple Pencil debuted, there was a quiet debate in the community as to how Steve Jobs would have felt about it. The starting point for this discussion was a talk he gave about the iPhone, in particular how frustrating he found the idea of a stylus. 
The counterpoint to this is that Jobs’ issue with the stylus was how it was used as a workaround for a bad user interface, that of a scaled-down desktop OS rather than something dedicated and befitting the medium. This is the reason for the whole tile-based, gesture-controlled philosophy of iOS and, by extension, Android. This was definitely a risk, and not a well-received one at the time. 
As a card-carrying member of that initial camp envisioning the iPad as an OSX-enabled touchscreen-enabled laptop akin to some of the tablet computers HP had out at the time, I remember being legitimately annoyed at how the iPad was just going to be a giant iPhone. I’ve spoken before about this disconnect between people like myself who seek more productivity-focused devices and the average consumer who simply want to watch videos and read emails. In my defense, I wasn’t totally wrong about the target market and the initial capabilities of the iPad. Between the price and the size of the app store on launch, it was an over-engineered e-reader, a digital picture frame with a battery, anything but a productivity-focused piece of hardware. It had creative potential, no doubt, but it felt like it had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from that casual market who saw it as having their toy taken away to be a mere tool. 
While I stand by my initial criticisms, I’m happy to have since been proven wrong. I’ve been drawing on an iPad for about 4 years now and I frankly don’t want to draw on anything else. As for other types of productivity, that’s been a little more trying. I recently purchased a new Bluetooth keyboard that’s gotten me writing more. I also recently learned that newer versions of iOS have added mouse support, allowing me to unbag my Lofree Maus and use it to... well, that’s still in a trial phase. 
Mouse support is actually something that’s been present in iOS for some time, as part of the accessibility setup for people with mobility issues. With the recent release, it’s now more discoverable to people who wouldn’t have otherwise given the accessibility part of the menu the time of day. The cursor appears as a dot which seamlessly morphs into the more familiar vertical line cursor we’re used to seeing in word processing apps, and if you’re not happy with only the single click nature of an Apple mouse, you can customize the buttons for other functions. Windows users know mice have a left and right click (as well as a center click and scroll, but we’ll get to that in a moment), one being for selecting, the other being for a kind of context-sensitive menu. Fortunately, iOS has this, though it’s not activated by default. It takes a little getting used to as it’s not quite the same as right click on Windows, but the added versatility is welcomed. The scroll wheel seems to be reversed depending on the application and has a bit of lag on it, but I think that’s just another session of rummaging in the menu away from working as it should. Then there’s middle click, and we hit a very big wall. 
Not every Windows mouse has this, typically the more gimmicky or stylized ones, and chances are even if you’re aware of it, you can count the instances in which you’ve needed it on one hand. If you work in 3D at all, whether it’s full modeling or simply viewing models, you know how essential middle click is to that workflow. If you’re going to do any kind of CAD work, you need that middle click. That’s why if I were going to do more CAD work at home, I’d likely spring for something in the Surface line. I can certainly do some 3D work on my iPad and even use my Pencil for some of the more complex features, but this is only good in a pinch. I’m certainly not going to be asking our IT department to take my desktop back. 
In the end, I think the “is it a computer yet?” approach to iPad functionality is the wrong mindset. The computers I grew up with are not the computers used today. The very fact that I use “computer” to refer to a desktop or notebook (remember when we called them laptops?) itself is an arbitrary choice, as even pocket calculators are computers, yet we don’t criticize them for not allowing us to read email. 

11 April 2020

You Can't Go Home Row Again

If you've been following my written exploits and conquests for any length of time that approaches or even precedes the 2008 mark, you're aware I have an obsession with keyboards. It's not so much one of fascination so much as utter frustration and an insatiable urge to overcome various obstacles such as availability. I once described in great detail the process of using the virtual keyboard of a Playstation Portable (PSP), which is probably best described as a cross of T9 Predictive Text and the original arcade version of Missile Command that used a bowling ball instead of a cue ball to move its cursor. I also expressed an early love of Twitter, which is still my absolute favorite social media platform, warts and all. I love its immediacy and conciseness (for better or for worse), and I especially loved the fact that this whole operation existed before smartphones took off, and what few "smart" devices existed had itty-bitty physical keyboards that even hardcore console gamers found exhausting.
Sony Mylo (short for My Life Online) 2006-2010
I have to explain another strand of the slightly sinister origins of this obsession. When I was a kid, I marveled at watching people type, and all without looking at the keys. It was like a superpower to me. How could people possibly remember all those buttons? By the time I took a proper typing class in middle school, I ended up taking to it pretty quickly. I wasn't especially fast (that came later) 
Glossing over a few key details of what came next (because I'm very ashamed of this display of my more spiteful and condescending side), now that I was more adept at mastering the home row and even special keys of the typical typing interface, I became exceedingly frustrated when I'd watch people struggle to put together simple sentences. I even once had a job in a computer lab while at college, and nearly stormed out on my first day as I watched in agony as our department head (who insisted on being an IT expert) entered some of my personal information by HUNTING AND PECKING... SLOWLY... AND STILL NEEDING TO HIT BACKSPACE MORE THAN ANY OTHER KEY! GAH! 

I said nothing since part of me thought it was some sort of empathy test, given this particular computer lab was reserved for disabled students who often have mobile or cognitive differences. Regardless and for lack of a better term, something in me broke. The Moonwatcher in my mind got sick of huddling in the dark wondering where the sun went at night and decided to take a tapir's thigh bone to the situation. I resolved to find the smallest, most uncooperative keyboard I could find, and find out how fast I could type on it, so nobody else would have any excuse. 

Speaking of supremely insensitive arrogance, here’s a fun fact for you about the late Harlan Ellison. He never wrote on a computer for the entirety of his career. In his later years, he practically hoarded manual typewriters (specifically Olympias), to the point of having a fridge full of ink ribbons. He said he taught himself how to type, and it does show. He hunts and pecks with his two pointers, insisting that putting literal foot-pounds of force behind his keystrokes was what gave his writing its edge. Given his body of work, who am I to call bullshit on his methodology? 

None of this in any way should excuse legitimately bad keyboard designs, and they are out there en masse. If I push a key and nothing happens, that's a bad keyboard design. It's why I've always hated laptop keyboards, often referred to as "chiclets" due to the shape the keys have to be in order to maximize space. You'll certainly find no shortage of blog entries and YouTube videos from computer enthusiasts ranking and ranting about their least favorite keyboards, especially those who were fresh on the scene of the "bedroom coder" era of microcomputers. Here's a few frequent entries:
By Bill Bertram - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5
By Daniel Ryde, Sk√∂vde, CC BY-SA 3.0, 
By Tocchet22, CC BY-SA 4.0
By Evan-Amos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
You'd think with this back catalog that it wouldn't be anywhere near as easy to find similarly awful keyboards in this day and age, but sadly this is not the case. To be fair, computers like the ZX-Spectrum and Odyssey 2 never intended people to write on their keyboards. Their target demographic was novice programmers, who typically only have to write a few command phrases and maybe a full sentence here or there. Trying to use home row or touch type wasn't simply difficult, but almost counterproductive. That's what frustrates me about laptop keyboards as they are fundamentally meant for portable productivity. 

All this leads me to the last few weeks, during which time I've found myself using one of the most unlikely keyboards I'd ever consider and not only getting used to it, but legitimately questioning my whole approach to typing. 

Tactile feedback? Sounds like violent criticism.

My 10.5-inch iPad Pro isn't exactly the right size for full and proper touch-typing like the 12.9-inch version might allow, but in addition to the light touch technique I'll get into in a moment, there's the Swiftkey method, which a friend of mine likened to dancing (which is still one of the most beautiful descriptions I've heard for something as mundane as typing). 

This isn't available in the default keyboard of an iPad or iPhone, and which Android devices pack it in involves a fair bit of guesswork and even hearsay. Fortunately, Swiftkey is available across all platforms. The gimmick is to run your finger (or a stylus) from key to key, creating a kind of constellation the software decrypts into full words. It's a simple enough idea, and fans of Palm Pilots likely recognized it as the next logical step of graffiti

If this is starting to sound like comparing apples to oranges, it may well be. A synergistic mix of not-quite-hunt-and-peck (as you can’t rest your fingers on the keys which are already too close together for that) and finger skating hieroglyphic star charts seems like a convoluted solution to a simple problem, though I’d invite you take a pen and paper, put them next to your keyboard, and count the number of “pieces” in each kit. 
It’s rather like that ageless phenomenon of previous generations resenting the current ones for how much easier daily life can be in certain areas. I’ve never used a fully manual typewriter, only an electric. It would rattle my desk with each keystroke to the point where a full paragraph would send something on my upper shelf tumbling below and startling me. It was a beast, but I loved it. I don’t think I could go back to it anymore (paper is precious), and with a manual I’d probably complain about it hurting my hands and fingers. Even the keyboard on my Apple IIsi offered a serviceable typing experience. Since then, with the exception of the keyboard for the Sega Dreamcast classic Typing of the Dead (doubled my typing speed in 2 weeks), it’s been a succession of awful keyboards. The worst keyboard was the one built into an old HP Chromebook I set up in my kitchen. It already had an external monitor because the screen was horrendous, so plugging in a keyboard was a no-brainer. That’s when I found the Logitech G413 Carbon on sale at Target

Although part of Logitech’s G series of gamer-focused peripherals, the Carbon is by far the most understated of the bunch. On the whole, the only thing that gives it away as a keyboard targeted at PC gamers besides the red-and-black color scheme is its price tag, which is notably lower than its mechani-kin but eclipses your average office space offerings. Chances are, unless you’re a gamer or require a particular set of ergonomics or at most are a serious typing enthusiast, I’m going to speculate the most money you’ve ever spent on a computer keyboard was around 20USD. Against that, the Carbon’s 60-80ish appears more than a little exorbitant. Bear in mind that because these use mechanical switches instead of rubbery sheets of bubble wrap and are targeted at gamers, even this entry-level model is built like a tank. It’s an investment that pays for itself faster than you think. 

I tried for one of those USB-Lightning adapters meant for connecting digital cameras or external hard drives, but for the life of me I could not get it to work with the Carbon. I was all set to resign myself to using a different Logitech keyboard, one I’d been using for some years with my Xperia smartphone. It was a laptop-styled keyboard, but it was convenient, especially its case which folded out into a stand for a tablet. So, I stuck with it. It served me well for many years, but time hasn’t been kind to it. It’s actually warped slightly now, so the “n” and the adjacent keys (including the space bar) work intermittently. It doesn’t help the Carbon basically spoiled me and now I need to find a bluetooth mechanical keyboard that is mechanical but isn’t a Kickstarter which isn’t going to be ready right away if at all (backed out of one a few months ago and learned everyone’s still waiting), isn’t stupidly expensive, but... 

Oh, hello. 

04 April 2020

A Long Overdue State of the Scroll

I think I'm experiencing a touch of the writer's block when it comes to my Blogger page. I've written plenty elsewhere, be it WordPress or Quora or even DeviantART and Instagram. Here, though, I have about a dozen or so drafts that I get very far in and then... well, it just sits there. I have my reasons for leaving various drafts in the bin, but I can't deny the possibility it simply boils down to a lack of motivation. It's got nothing to do with engagement or Search Engine Optimizations or whatever metrics people judge their online presence by. As a wise-ass man once said,

"I'm no leader. 
I do what I have to do. 
Sometimes, people come with me."

Gratitude is something I think about a lot, and let the record show I have no shortage of it. If you’ve been with me from the start, whether you’re new, or if even if you briefly visited but moved on to other things, please know I appreciate you. Though it’s only text and images on a screen, but you’re in more or less full control of what content you allow into your private headspace, the sanctity of your mind. So, my being part of that if only in a very cursory fashion is a legitimate honor.

I keep wrestling with the idea of posting my art here as I once did. Ultimately, I don’t think I’ll bother, not even with my Inktober posts. My overall goal is to get back to the once-monthly-at-minimum model, more akin to a magazine than anything more immediate and reactionary. I’ve mentioned my WordPress page, which I once regarded as a kind of aftershow, using entries here as jumping-off points for tangents. It’s changed from that and is now a wholly separate entity except for the name. There’s still some common DNA such as an emphasis on skepticism and critical thinking, but applies it to broader socio-political topics. Here, we generally like to have fun. I may get angry or passionate about something here, but with very few exceptions, it’s all in good fun.

I am fundamentally a humanist. Believe it or not, my occasional expression of cynicism, pessimism, or anything that could be regarded as misanthropic or anti-social (in the proper clinical sense, not in the “It sounds like introverted, therefore it must also mean the same thing” sense too many people make and need to stop), my reasoning and motivation behind it is that I want people to do better. I know people can do better, and we don’t need acts of terrorism, hurricanes, floods, and pandemics to drive us towards it. You’re not always going to get it right. You’re going to screw up. We all do, we all have, and we all will. What separates us is what we do afterwards.

I’ve messed up. I failed to keep up with my own schedule. It’s probably not even the first time I’ve done so for this site. So, what am I going to do? I’m going to keep going. I’m going to keep posting here. Thank you all for sticking with me.

Goodnight, and good luck.