PE5: Corel’s Wrong Direction

Way back in 1990, a program called Fractal Painter was published by Fractal Design. It offered a “natural media” approach to digital art: mimicking real world art tools and media in the digital environment. You could  – if you had more artistic skills than I – make an image onscreen that looked like it was a photo of a real-media image. Images had texture, oils had highlights. You could mix colours like you do in real life.

It was brilliant, exciting and ground-breaking stuff.

In 1997, after gobbling up several other products (including Poser 3D), the company became Metacreations, but it and extended itself a little too far, and split into fragments that were individually acquired by Microsoft and Corel.*

Corel continued to publish – and enhance – Painter. It turned Painter into the foremost “natural media” digital art program on the market. Its latest incarnation is Painter 2016, a remarkable and powerful art program that sells for $500.

The price, however, deterred many users who wanted a simple art program for non-commercial uses or to just make art-like variations of their digital photographs. So Corel developed Painter Essentials,  at a modest (under $50) price. PE was, essentially, Painter-light, offering a stripped-down subset of Painter tools.

The big draw in Painter Essentials (PE) was its auto-paint feature. It automated the brush and pen strokes. With a few clicks, users could turn a digital image (a photograph, for example) into an art-like rendition. Oil, charcoal, pencil, watercolour, impressionist, modern, pen-and-ink… just a few easy clicks to create an art-like image. Even watching the process work was mesmerizing.

Want a photo to look like a charcoal sketch? A watercolour? A Cezanne or Van Gogh painting? PE 4 had those options. But better yet, it had options to control the brush size, colours, canvas, stroke frequency and so on in each category. That meant users could personalize images in many ways previously unavailable except at much higher cost.

People loved PE. It filled a need for creating beautiful art without the effort, time or cost of Painter, but without the talent required to use all those tools. It offered enough control to make each resulting image unique and give users a feeling they had accomplished something other than just clicking.

It had many powerful tools and features – Painter’s brushes – to make it more than a toy.

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Digging and dying

MinecraftAbout an hour after I started playing Minecraft for the very first time, I died. As game experiences goes, that sucked. Not exactly a “thanks for your purchase” ingame welcoming message from Mojang

Not that I’m unaccustomed to dying. In most computer games I’ve died: Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, World of Tanks, World of Warcraft, Ghost Recon, Diablo, Borderlands, Left 4 Dead, even in Civilization. Dying is part of gaming.* But most of the time, I know why. Sure, I may not have seen the sniper who nailed me from a distance, or the elite dragon that snuck up on me from above, but I understand why I died.

Not this time. It probably had a reason but it sure seemed like an arbitrary process. I had survived a short while, built a small shelter in which to hide a night, gathered a few resources, made a craft table and taken my first steps crafting a very few items – planks, sticks, slabs and a precious wooden shovel. It was all tickety-boo, or so it seemed.

About an hour after I started, I died while climbing a hill. Don’t know why. I wasn’t attacked. Didn’t fall. Was it lack of food or sleep? My political views? An in-game virus? All I know is that one minute I’m merrily whacking stones, and the next I’m dead.

That kinda sums it all up, doesn’t it? Be on my gravestone, if I have one: He died. Didn’t know why. Well, after reading a bit online, my first guess is starvation. Which I don’t think I should have suffered, given that my character was ingame for only perhaps three virtual days. A week, 10 days, maybe I’d understand.

Damn, I wish it came with a manual. There are, of course, books you can buy… but for now I’m referring to online guides (some of which are very good… like this one)

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Server upgrade coming

Sometime in the next two weeks, I will be amalgamating servers for the several sites I manage and conflating them onto one, new and (I hope) faster and more efficient server. There may be some downtime while the files and databases migrate, like virtual birds, to their new home.

I hope that the digital gods of server migration allow my moves to go smoothly. I would sacrifice a virtual dove to propitiate them, if I could only find their virtual altar… would that I were the digital Odysseus…

For most users, it will, I expect, be but a momentary blip in the service, a temporary lapse of rant soon reconstructed. No more than a couple of hours of downtime while the ether is busy with transient bytes flitting hither and yon. My biggest concern is the Blue Agave forum which operates on an Invision system… the transition to the current servers wasn’t all that smooth when I moved a few years back. But we’ll see how it evolves… I might need the aid of Invision’s tech team, too…. but that should not concern you.

If things don’t go smoothly, and it takes longer than expected, it may be the result my clumsy handling of the tools (while still technically inclined, my edge has, I admit, lost some of its crispness as I age). Or it may be some deeper, larger problem that requires tech support to save me from myself and the quicksand of SQL content.

I can migrate the static files easily enough, but depend somewhat on online tools to make the transition for the blog and WordPress databases. And then there’s all that PHP stuff…

Anyway, things may appear and disappear, and off error pages emerge, but take heart that I am not vanished from the network, merely taking the high road to the deep north, as Basho did, but of course virtually, and expecting to return momentarily. Should my site appear gone, take heart that it has not shuffled off this mortal coil, but merely retired momentarily to a far, far better place…. and will reappear when the digital stars align.

Refresh, refresh, refresh and return and it will all be made clear. I hope. If not…. well, I can always start afresh.

The WOW Factor

WOWAfter two years away from the game, I was recently convinced by a friend to return to World of Warcraft again and play in the fantasy universe of WOW. At 10 years old, WOW remains the biggest, most-subscribed, most popular MMORPG, with around 10 million subscribers.

By technology’s rapid-aging standards, WOW is a grandfather game; maybe even a great-grandfather. It has certainly spawned a lot of offspring, although not all are legitimate.

I started playing WOW back in 2005. although I didn’t play it seriously and attentively until a little later, after the first expansion. Then I got heavily into the game, so that for a long stretch, barely a day went by without at least doing the daily quests for one or more characters.

I dutifully paid my monthly subscription fee for years. I upgraded to the first expansion set, The Burning Crusade. Then the Wrath of the Lich King. And also the third, Cataclysm, coming out in late 2010. When the fourth expansion set, Mists of Pandaria, was released, in the fall of 2012. I was already losing interest and the corny fighting pandas the expansion threw in just didn’t make me want to shell out another $50 plus the $15 a month.

WOWI slogged on for a few more months, but in December 2012, I finally gave up. I wasn’t enjoying the way the game had evolved. I wasn’t having fun any more.

I had long stopped being obsessed with finishing pointless quests, running back and forth collecting useless items for some NPC. And running was what I did most of the time. You can’t get a mount to travel faster until level 20. Flying mounts at level 60. A lot of the grind is spent running. My fingers were getting stiff.

My game time had dwindled from hours a day to hours a week. Then a month. Finally, I simply didn’t care any more.

I was tired of the repetitive canned responses from NPCs. The voice acting was old and stale. The cartoonish scenery and characters no longer amused me. I had had a small boost to my enjoyment when they added flying mounts (Cataclysm?), but that soon became tired, too. Questing and collecting and making things became a grind, not fun.

I was never big on some of the game’s aspects, even from the start – battlegrounds and raids weren’t attractive to me. Nor was PvP. I preferred questing, often solo or with a single friend, and the occasional dungeon crawl with a mixed party. But after I reached the pinnacle – level 70 at first, then cranked to 80 –  with most of my characters, it simply paled. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The expansions added territory to explore, new quests, new opponents, but generally they seemed to be a kind of kitchen-sink approach: stuff was added, changed, removed with seeming arbitrariness. The new races, the new enemies didn’t seem to match the logic of the original game series. Sometimes it felt like the whole WOW universe was designed by 14-year-olds with lots of passion but lacking a solid background in fantasy.
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Facebook, Likes and Big Data

GizmodoI suppose you could call it ironic. There was a story from a ‘friend’ on my Facebook news feed today called “Quitting the Like” all about escaping Facebook’s data collection processes by simply not “liking” items or comments you see.

Right below this ostensibly anti-Facebook story were three related links produced by one of the Facebook data-collection bots all about the same thing: breaking free from Facebook’s data mining. I suspect the FB programmers hadn’t planned it that way. But aside from the irony, it caused me to read them all.

The first story, fully titled “I Quit Liking Things On Facebook for Two Weeks. Here’s How It Changed My View of Humanity” is by blogger Elan Morgan who explains:

I no longer wanted to be as active a participant in teaching Facebook how to advertise to me as I had been in the past, but another and much larger issue was my real curiosity: how was my Facebook experience going to change once I stopped feeding its engine with likes?

Her conclusion is that by not feeding the bots through the automatic reflex of clicking “like” below a ‘friend’s’ (real or artificial) post or comment, and instead by writing something positive in a comment, you can increase the human interaction on FB and reduce the generated noise.

Quit the Like and experiment with amplifying a better signal. What will happen to your Facebook without your likes? What will happen to your perception of not only your Facebook friends but the world at large? What will happen to us?

That’s an interesting approach, one I had considered but never taken. It encourages me to try it, but I also wonder if sharing a post also generates the same sort of algorithmic reaction. Is a ‘share’ a formulaic equivalent to a ‘like’ or are they weighted in some manner? And I am not sure the algorithms don’t also track comment density and content: is replacing ‘like’ with a comment merely a cosmetic change, or does it have a significant effect?

Gizmodo reported FB is doing some automatic liking for you, behind the curtain:

You might think clicking “Like” is the only way to stamp that public FB affirmation on something—you’re wrong. Facebook is checking your private messages and automatically liking things you talk about.

What I’d really like to know is how FB’s bots manage all the content, beyond the like button. So they weigh keywords, track what we post, how we comment, share and so on? I suspect they do, but how they parse the results is a fascinating, sometimes a bit scary mystery.

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