Archive for November, 2006

Project Wonderful’s messaging system.

November 29th, 2006 by Reinder

I've been using Project Wonderful for a few weeks now, both as an advertiser and a website publisher hosting the ads. My own advertising sales aren't too great, so far; all my slots have some spaces left that are going for $0, and my total earnings are less than a dollar a day. But I've seen a few places where bids have been going way up so it's quite possible to get some money out of this ad system. While I'm waiting for that to happen to me, I'm putting up many little ads in the $0 to $0.10 range myself.
I do this largely because I can. The interface is very straight-forward and invites advertisers go gamble away small amounts of money. But there is one thing wrong with it that breaks Project Wonderful for me, which is that the server sends far too many messages. Dozens a day, telling me in cheery tones that my $0 bid on some tiny little site has been approved, is the high bidder, has been outbid or has been canceled with no reason given*). If, like me, you take the bottom feeder strategy of taking out many low bids on many different sites, you'll be flooded past the spam threshold, train yourself to delete automated messages unread, and then miss the personal message that another user has also sent through the system. This just happened to me and is the reason why I'm posting this now instead of incorporating this complaint in a longer review that I had been planning to post on one of the other comics blogs. But even before that, the flood was a nuisance: the many low bids that I make simply aren't worth the time spent reading those messages about them. Project Wonderful needs a digest option.
[Update]: Hidden in the profile configuration page for PW is a link to a page where you can change your contact preferences. That should take care of the worst of the flood.

*) This is the result of another flaw in the PW design, which is that ad blocks can't be shrunk or expanded while there are still active bids on a block. I guess it would be rude to kick off one advertiser to shrink the ad block by one button space. But publishers will want to tinker with the size anyway, so now if they want to do that, they have no option but to kick every bidder off and start anew.

Cognitive Seduction

November 29th, 2006 by Reinder

Cognitive Seduction and the "peekaboo" law offers a good explanation why drawing on the blackboard in my cartooning classes works so much better than showing the students the finished art (say, from the previous hour, kept on a flipover) or handing out printed examples. It's not just a matter of them observing the process, it's a matter of them also puzzling together what it's going to end up as and activating their brainmeats while doing so:

In learning, the more you fill things in and hold the learner's hand, the less their brain will engage. If they don't need to fire a single neuron to walk through the tutorial, lesson, lecture, etc., they're getting a shallow, surface-level, non-memorable exposure of "covered" material, but... what's the point? Obviously this doesn't mean you just never tell them anything period. This is about graduated hints, mental teasing, cognitive treasure hunts, sparking curiosity, etc. Things that engage the brain. (This is part of the brain-friendly strategy we use in our books.)

Whether you're trying to get someone's attention, keep their attention, motivate them to stick with something, or help them to learn more deeply and retain what they've learned, leave something for their brain to resolve. Do something to turn their brain on.

Fifth in a series of workshop postmortems.

November 28th, 2006 by Reinder

I didn't have much to say about Thursday's second workshop in Haren with Regular Client School. It didn't go smoothly, primarily because my own concentration was flagging a bit. Some nice work got made though, and I'm sure the kids will do all right for the rest of the project. Nothing out of the ordinary happened.

Nevertheless, I think doing three workshops in a week helped me hone my skills for my return to the Praktijkschool in Emmen. I did a lot of things better than last week: I engaged the kids more from the start, showed more, and more relevant examples, was more responsive to questions from the group even when the questioners didn't always speak clearly. And —most significantly— I eased the class into working with a theme. After three attempts at trying to get the theme into the heads of kids at this low level of academic achievement, I finally figured out how to get them on board with writing stories on the discrimination/social exclusion theme. Like I said last week, working with themes is always a hurdle, even with bright kids or adults. I think it worked this time, because I brought up the sponsors' plans for an exhibit and then said the exhibit had the theme, rather than introducing it as an arbitrary restriction on the class itself. And my examples and introductory talk (again, with lots of questions to the class and some prodding of the more vocal kids in the room - if they're gonna talk, let them talk on-topic) were clearer and more relevant to the kids this time.

In all, win. This class wasn't the easiest to keep order in, but I'm learning to accept a certain level of background noise. If I was a regular teacher giving a course, I'd keep the length of the classes closer to that of the kids' attention spans, but that's not an option right now, so my next best option is to ride the ebb and flow of attention, finding the precise moment when the kids need some centralised control, providing it, and then letting them loose again.

Two more to go, both next Thursday, in Diever. Weather allowing, I'm taking my bicycle on the train, getting out in Assen, and cycling the rest of the distance. It's a very difficult location to reach, or so I'm told.

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being held to ransom?

November 25th, 2006 by Reinder

Because I do.

I called my computer supplier again, and they had run into another problem. The new, non-warranty-replacement motherboards, which I asked them to put in after all in the hope of ending the wait for my machine, can't hold the 4 512 MB memory sticks and need 2 1024 MB sticks to keep the same amount of memory. And they need to take a closer look at the machine just to figure out which sticks will fit and what they might be able to do with the older sticks, which may be resellable but probably won't be. Nearly three weeks in, I'm facing more expense and another weekend without access to data I need. And it would have been such a relief to be able to send bills.

I can't miss my stuff much longer; If I don't get my machine back today I'll try and reconstruct my "invoices sent" data from my gmail account and my bank statements so I at least know how to number the next few, as well as which internal invoices for the studio's internet connection I've already sent this year.

What also miffs me is that they mentioned a second problem, which is that they can't boot up with the new hard drive I ordered, because it doesn't have any OS on it. Seems like they're worse than my workshop students at remembering info I've already told them. I take care of putting an OS on the disk, because I don't want Windows on that machine.

(Actually, I'm wavering on that a little bit. It might be worthwhile to multiboot again, just so I can use Photoshop in an emergency. If I can get a cheap license, and I can get it before I get the PC back, whenever that is, I might give it a try.)

I blame myself for the first week of waiting and its consequences, but the second and third week earn this particular supplier an "I don't think I'll be buying from you again" card. One of the problems is that they have been too busy to fix my machine quickly; that's one problem I'll be glad to help them get rid of.

Workshop postmortem IV.

November 22nd, 2006 by Reinder

A change of pace today. I went to a regular customer, a school in Haren, to give a cartooning workshop to HAVO/Atheneum 4 students as part of their annual cultural project.
Prior to the workshop, I had a talk with studio-mate Jeroen who is setting up a series of classes for media students aged 16-20, which starts tomorrow. We exchanged tips for working with the various audiences. I advised Jeroen, for example, to keep comparisons with other media in mind; for example, building a cast of characters could be exemplified by pointing to the cast of a popular TV series like Seinfeld. Jerry Seinfeld is a Tintin-like figure in that he's a fairly blank character surrounded by secondary characters who are more colourful visually and characterisation-wise. The setup is slightly more nuanced than Tintin because Jerry has his quirks and is a stand-up comedian, but the principle is the same. What with the recent flap about the actor playing Kramer losing it onstage and hurling racist invective at his audience, I got to see and read more about these characters than I had in a while, and I could see that in the Letterman interview about the affair, Jerry Seinfeld still had a thoroughly nondescript face.
Jeroen, for his part, helped me with my difficulties about introducing a theme, encouraging me to let my students free-associate for a bit. Today's workshop did have a theme again, so I got to try that out. I decided at the last moment to take a copy of Groningen bij Nacht along, because the theme was "The City".

The workshop itself was a surprisingly difficult gig. I knew in advance that I'd be working with a class without interference from the teacher, and this hadn't been a problem in previous years, but this class was unbelievably talkative and impossible to get quiet. There were factors that contribute to restlessness in these classes. There were a dozen other workshops going on at the same time, including a dance class in the recreation room. So everyone has the urge to flutter from one room to another, while the classes are being taught by guest teachers who can't impose punishment. I'm a bit envious of the artists who teach more physical classes; while it was clear to me that the students in my room wanted to draw, they clearly found the sitting still that inevitably goes with drawing too difficult.
But those factors are present every year, and this year the talkyness was exceptional. Feh. Luckily, these kids have a little more in the brainbox than the ones I've been teaching lately, so they can multitask. They did absorb what I told them, even when they didn't appear to be listening. But man was it tiring, especially having to repeat the organisational instructions all the time.

The kids also balked at the idea of having 13 hours of homework assigned to them, which I can understand. Comes with the activity these workshops are part of, though, so all I can tell them is that if they weren't spending those 13 hours on this, they'd have to spend it on some other homework.

I did again split the class in two, mentioning the theme briefly at the start but leaving it there until after the break. Seems to have worked; the kids could focus on the theme, and did some pretty good free-associating. In fact, they did a better job at tying their work of the previous hour in with the theme than classes at that level did at previous workshops. So I'm sticking with that method.

Again, the class ended with sufficiently developed work from the class, as well as the formation of groups of students who will cooperate on comics. So, difficult though these two hours were, they got results. I'll be back at the same school tomorrow, teaching a mixed group of HAVO and Atheneum students, Years 4 and 5. I'll be bringing more copies of Groningen bij Nacht. Hopefully, the next group will be a little quieter.

Dutch election candidate endorsement: Vote Oosterhuis in 2006!

November 21st, 2006 by Reinder

Speaking of the Socialist Party, I'm voting for them tomorrow. It's the most left-wing vote I've cast in many years.
I don't base my vote on their platform, which I haven't read. Election platforms serve merely as signposts anyway; they don't ever get implemented undiluted in Dutch government.
I don't even base my choice on the, to my mind patently obvious, observation that the Socialist Party are the only left-of-center party in the Netherlands who are able to bang two rocks together. It helps, but on its own, it doesn't excite me.
Tomorrow, I will cast my vote for the number 30 on the Socialist Party list, Huub Oosterhuis, based on his outstanding performance on the issue of Making Rita Verdonk Cry. Making Verdonk Cry is an issue I care passionately about. I would go as far as to say there is no more beautiful sight in this world than Rita Verdonk Crying, if it wasn't for the existence of sights in this world that don't include Rita Verdonk at all.*)
I do not believe that Oosterhuis' comments a few weeks ago, comparing the Dutch Immigratie en Naturalisatie Dienst to the Dutch police collecting Jews during World War II, were all that inappropriate or beyond the pale, though I'll admit that such comparisons are rarely constructive. The IND, in any case, have failed to convince me that these comments were inappropriate; indeed, their counterargument could be summarized as "we're only following orders", which I'm pretty sure was the whole point of the comparison in the first place. Anyway, I'm still open to persuasion, but would very much prefer the next round of arguing about that to take place on the floor of the Tweede Kamer, between Oosterhuis and Verdonk themselves. With luck, there'll be tears.

*) Developing this line of thought further, the most beautiful sight in this world, a Zen moment of perfect beauty, is a picture of the next Dutch Cabinet without Verdonk, observed by someone who knows that outside the picture, Verdonk is bawling her guts out.

Workshop postmortem the third

November 21st, 2006 by Reinder

Today started rather badly: I was spending a lazy morning at home, convinced that I wasn' t going to need to do anything before getting on the bus at 11:17 to teach a cartooning workshop at a Praktijkschool in Emmen. At about 10:30, the phone rang. It was the coordinator at the school, telling me she was afraid of this, that she'd meant to call to confirm yesterday and that I was supposed to be present at the school for a 105-minute workshop at that very moment. Oops.
The prospect of missing one of the workshops was pretty much my worst nightmare all month, a black cloud hanging over me all these weeks, and now it's happened. Why?
Mistake #1: I didn't write the appointment down on paper immediately after the morning block was booked (it was booked after the afternoon appointment).
I'm crap at taking notes. To compensate for this, I rely on my email inbox to tell me when all my appointments are. This would have worked well enough (not as well as actually owning a calender to write appointments down in, but just about adequately, considering that I look at my inbox several times a day, and the last time I had a calender, it languished at the bottom of my rucksack) if it weren't for mistake #2:
Mistake #2: I put the wrong value on the cost of a new motherboard and an afternoon spent installing my PC. Two weeks ago, My PC broke down with all my administration stuff still on it. I was given the option of buying an inexpensive replacement motherboard instead of waiting for the warranty replacement to come in. The €50 cost wouldn't have been a problem, but I thought I was really too busy to do the follow-up work - reinstalling everything just to make sure it would work properly. Wrong choice - having my data back earlier would have been totally worth the hassle, no matter how busy I was.
I've taken steps to rectify this mistake, but I won't get my system back until Thursday, no matter what.

Having apologised profusely, I went on to doublecheck everything, finding in the process that for one thing, taking the 11:17 Qliner to Emmen would have resulted in me being late for the afternoon workshop as well! So I took the 11:02. Later, I would find out that I really ought to have taken the 10:32... but if I had, I'd have missed the coordinator's call and I'd have had a nasty surprise on arrival.

Lessons learned:

1. Public transport in southern Drenthe is even worse than I remembered from my three years commuting there every day. It's tempting to say the Qliners are crap; they are not. The real problems are that there are no passenger trains between Groningen and Emmen and that the Qliners have to use the sclerotic N34 road just like all other vehicles. If I wanted to design an infrastructure with the goal of keeping the peasants in their place so they don't get uppity, the road and lack-of-a-railway system between Groningen and Emmen is exactly what I'd come up withy.
2. All your contacts must have your cell phone number. I know that's a no-brainer for everyone else just like keeping proper notes is, but I still don't quite trust the damned things, even though I've been using mine more and more. I just might be in the market for a cell phone with a calendar function, now that I mention it...
3. Online travel planners like Totally not to be trusted.

So there I was at the train station, calling the already quite harried coordinator to ask her to pick me up because the connecting bus didn't actually leave in time to get me to the school on time. I was in a bit of a panic by then, feeling that the spirit of Murphy had dropped down from the heavens, pointing his finger at me and going "Your turn." But that was where the misery ended; the coordinator showed up, we arrived in time and even had an opportunity to discuss teaching techniques and the qualities of my students before getting down to the nitty gritty of pumping young heads full of mad artistic skills.

And I'll admit, that went rather well. Compared to my first shot at teaching at a Praktijkschool, I was better able to communicate to the class, keep their attention, and pitch the workshop to their ability. Improvements included modulating my voice so it was low-pitched, high-volume and slow-paced; keeping my hyperactive movements under control and bringing back to the class a lot of what I do in my workshops at primary schools. I also waited to introduce the anti-discrimination theme until the second half of the class, figuring that it would be better to focus on the art for its own sake for the first hour and that the class would not be able to remember it long enough anyway. This worked, and even earned me praise from the class's regular CKV teacher.
I still find the actual introduction of the theme awkward to do; the fact that I'm expected, in practice, to teach two things, one of which I'm not a specialist in, makes it difficult for me. In addition, I have found over the years that classes respond negatively to having themes dictated to them, and this one was no exception. Themes are abstract, leading the students' imagination away from what they can handle into some kind of mental wilderness. In fact, now that I think of it, adult artists also often have problems with themes, as studio-mate Edmond's experiences as the showrunner for 21 themed issues of the zine Gr'nn have shown.
Nevertheless, my paycheck says the workshops have to result in art about a theme, to the best of my ability to wring it out of the students. Luckily, I now have one catch-up class scheduled for next week, in which, at the advice of the regular teacher, I will do for the students what they themselves can't quite do - turning the theme into a subject and giving them concrete instructions for a sequence of four or five panels. These kids need those extra instructions.
I learned some more about the Praktijkscholen:
1. I'd refered to them in English-language communication as "Special Ed"; but in fact, they're one step above Special Ed proper. Many of the kids in the system do go on to a higher level of vocational education (source: a newspaper article pinned to the walls, about the problems kids from a Praktijkschool experience when they progress through the education system).
2. Nevertheless, the expected attention span in a Praktijkschool class is about 20 minutes. Regular classes last 20 minutes to half an hour. The fact that I kept them engaged for the better part of my 105 minutes is quite an achievement. I might make the catch-up class slightly shorter, because the final quarter of an hour got a bit chaotic, but for the most part, I'm now doing fine.

Once again, I got results out of the class. I'll need to do some sifting before I hand everything over to the organisers, but art was created, most of it was finished, and all of it was on-topic. Like I said, a big improvement to my previous attempt.

On my way back on the Qliner, I sat behind a candidate MP! Socialist Party candidate Rosita van Gijlswijk was busy making calls to the media to arrange several appearances over the next 24 hours. I spoke to her briefly, joking that I hadn't expected to be traveling on a campaign bus. I liked the fact that she traveled by public transport - not that a limousine would have got her to Groningen any faster, this being the N34... It was fun to listen to her working for a while; she's clearly very experienced at working with the media. Rosita's place on the party list is in the zone where she might get elected if the polls are correct, and she seemed to be in a winning mood.

Project Wonderful ads now live on

November 19th, 2006 by Reinder

Webcartoonists, bloggers and other people who might like to plug something for free or very cheap: look at the area around the navigation bar on all comic pages. I have a row of ad buttons that you can bid on through the new ad service Project Wonderful. At the time of writing, I have threetwo spots still empty, which means that they go for the low, low price of $0. Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan has a good track record when it comes to getting people to click on links posted on the front page, and this particular block of links appears on hundreds of pages, close to a part of each page that readers actively look for. I think they're going to be very effective.

I picked Project Wonderful because they've got an innovative formula for selling ads. You bid on them based on a price per day, and if you're the highest bidder, your ad gets shown until it expires or is outbid. You only pay for the time your ad is actually shown, so if you bid a dollar (feel free to do so), and your ad is outbid after 12 hours, you only pay half a dollar. The going rate is shown on the website along with the ads, which makes things transparent not just for potential advertisers, but also for the readers, who get a clearer picture of how much, or how little, a webcomic is bringing in. Over time, this may adjust some reader attitudes towards cartoonists who don't have spotless update records...

Over the past two weeks, I've used Project Wonderful as an advertiser myself, and I've had quite a few people coming in from some of the ads I posted. I found the interface easy to work with (though I do think the website sends too much mail!) and had a lot of fun picking sites that I might advertise on. It has the immediacy of playing in a scratch card lottery. I'm not sure the service is ideal for big, time-sensitive campaigns because getting outbid would disrupt such campaigns. I suppose, though, that if the campaign is important enough, advertisers can prevent that by increasing their maximum bids.

However, for cheap, small-scale, permanent promotions, it's very, very good. Put a button on a smallish site for next to nothing, get some visitors in from there, do it again on another smallish site, and over time, it adds up.

Project Wonderful is another brainchild of Ryan North, of Dinosaur Comics, Oh No Robot and RSSPECT. Ryan is a true innovator within the webcomics field, and if he goes on like this, one day every last one of us will be his bitch. I won't mind, personally.

Kel Cameo in PSI, and stuff I like

November 16th, 2006 by Reinder

The Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan character Kel appears in A Pessimistic Sense of Inadequacy today, as a sunbather who gets hassled by a park ranger. It's always fun to get cameo'ed!

Other stuff I've noticed lately: What Birds Know has been criticised for its slow pacing, and I think the web interface, pretty though it is, distracts from what readers want, which is to just read the comics, but it does have lovely full-colour art and a wonderful sense of suspence and mystery, especially when the birdies of the title finally go nuts. The art reminds me somewhat of Linda Medley's Castle Waiting, which reminds me that I ought to order the collection that Fantagraphics put out of that comic. Read What Birds Know in one sitting over a nice cup of tea or maybe two.
Minus has whimsy, magic, cuteness and lovely colours. While some of the plots seem a bit obvious, they work, proving that a good story doesn't have to have surprise endings or gags.

Finally, Ryan Adams seems to think he's Willie Nelson on the CD studio-mate Josje brought in. Good, though.

Workshop Postmortem 2

November 16th, 2006 by Reinder

Before this morning's cartooning workshop at a secondary school in Gieten, I'd had a phone conversation with the class's art teacher, who mentioned that that class had been giving her a hard time recently. That sort of thing always makes me worry, and so even before I'd met these kids, they'd grown, in my head, to a bunch of violent, screaming, crack-smoking monsters.
Fortunately I followed up that conversation with a chat with one of the project organisers, who I wanted to warn that the finished work from the first workshop might not be up to his expectations. He told me not to worry about that, and as for the next workshop, he reminded me that there are "a lot of tired people in education". That helped, but I still found myself dreading the class a bit.
I got out of bed at an ungodly hour to catch the Qliner to Gieten (which, as it turned out, was delayed - the bus terminal in Groningen is a bit of a nightmare right now), found the school easily, and met the class teacher, who was more cheerful in person but did say again that this class was a difficult bunch, prone to arriving late and arguing with one another in class... but when I asked what year and level they were in, she replied they were first-years, added a four-letter acronym to describe their level, and said they were twelve.

I did have that written down somewhere, but in my head, they'd got older and bigger.

Now, I may be a bit out of my depth teaching special-ed teenagers, but first-years at a secondary school aren't that different from the Group 7/8 kids that I've been giving workshops to for 5 years. I can handle those. I switched to using my basic lesson template for group 7/8, with a few tweaks based on my experiences from last Monday, and mostly breezed through the workshop. Class was happy, teacher was impressed, art was produced. There were some disruptions, but nothing like what I had envisaged. No finished work, though, as the class had in fact arrived slightly late and the art teacher wanted to use Friday's class to catch up. We'll get the work soon enough.

Next stop, Diever, I think. Transport will be the biggest problem. If not Diever, then it's the other special-ed school I've been booked for, for which I'd better be very prepared.