Archive for May, 2009

Youtubery: The defenders

May 30th, 2009 by Reinder

Via Aggie, via Seeing Eye Chick:

Designing webcomics for a range of sight impairments

May 29th, 2009 by Reinder

I posted the following on a Comicgenesis forums thread about comics for the visually impaired about two weeks ago:

The assumption among most commenters here seems to be that people are either perfectly sighted or completely blind - a lazy assumption that Bruce Tognazzini, former interaction designer for Apple, has some things to say about: Inclusive Design, Part One, Inclusive Design, Part Two. Read those and throw the "all or nothing", "we can't give blind people the full experience so why give them anything at all?" or "let's tack on some features as an afterthought" mentality out of the window. Instead, design your comic and website from the ground up so that people with a range of impairments can use it.

Sight impairments:
Many people are near-sighted. Everyone in my family is. That is usually easily corrected and in any case the computer monitor is usually close.
About five percent of all males have some form of colorblindness. When was the last time you tested your site and comic in an online colorblindness simulator? (Ur....... two years ago, in my case)
My parents are in their late sixties and have aging, presbyopic eyes. They need large print on their monitor - does your website force small type, low-contrast type or white-on-black with seriphs? Give people a way to set their own type size easily. (I can see reading glasses in my near future myself.)
For more severe vision impairments, you could provide a magnifying glass feature. This can be implemented in DHTML/Java or you can point to a browser plugin that does this. This group will also benefit from screen-readable text hidden in the alt attribute or elsewhere on your site, as will very young readers, the completely blind or readers with severe dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

Speaking of which, studies have shown that if you design with some consideration for the very young, the very old or people with learning disabilities, everybody else also benefits because completing tasks on a website becomes easier for everyone. Get ahead of everyone else by designing inclusively!

(Do I practice what I preach? Not fully, yet. I've only recently started thinking about these things again. But the next iteration of my website will have more of these considerations built in)

I'm reposting it here because there's one disability you can't design for and it's "I can write but I can't read" syndrome, which is very prevalent on the web in general and on large forums in particular. While several people including the original poster either got it or said that that was what they were thinking about all along, it took but a handful of follow-up posts for the thread to go back into the "but comics are a visual medium so designing for the blind is stupid, ha ha ha you are stupid/if you take away the visuals it's an audiobook not a comic, ha ha ha you are stupid" mentality. Instead of whining in the forum itself about how my contribution is being ignored, I've decided to repost it somewhere where smart people can read it (and whine a bit about how my contribution is being ignored. Well like I said in my last post, I have a cold and feel like I am entitled to a bit of whining today).

Related: Colorblind web page filter. I posted this link before back in 2005, and it still works. At the time, reader Branko Collin wrote in to say the GIMP had a colorblindness filter built in, but I've not been able to find it in my recent-ish versions of the program.

In Tennessee, comic looking better

May 29th, 2009 by Reinder

Today's Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan update is the first one ever that I made while on vacation. I'm staying with Aggie in Tennessee for two months, and that's too long to go without updates, so I'm making them here. I've got a little workspace in her studio now where I can put my laptop, external drives and Wacom tablet and my papers to draw on. I'm also trying to set aside a few hours every day to work on whatever needs doing for my websites. Later during my stay, I will have things set up so I can telecommute to my day job back in NL, though to do that for any length of time, I will need to start getting a visa before I next come back here. For now, though, I'm just trying to cultivate the working habits I will need. What with this update getting done during the week and more being scripted now, I'm off to a good start.

Of course, it doesn't help that I've caught another cold, just like back in March. I think getting exposed to the local germs is doing it, because both times, the cold started at around day 4 of my stay. Luckily, during an eight-week stay, that won't be as bad as catching a cold around day 4 of a week-long stay.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that for the time being, I am finally in a good position to deliver more frequent updates. I'm going to shoot for two a week for a while - this cold that I've got won't stop me because I will just stay in more for a couple of days. The outlook for the comic has got a lot better, and so has the look of the comic itself: I'm drawing it on larger paper to give myself some more space and I'm very happy with the results.

Return of the Son of the End of Free, Part II

May 17th, 2009 by Reinder

Over the years, I've become skeptical of paid content as a viable model for most of the content being published online, particularly for webcomics. In the previous part, I discussed what I believe are the reasons micropayments have historically failed and free content resurged in the mid-2000s.

I believe Rupert Murdoch's plan to start charging for The Wall Street Journal online will also fail, but for a different, much simpler reason: this recession is much worse than the last one, and end users are keeping their wallets shut much more. Even if the problems with the infrastructure and the immediacy of micropayments are resolved and users finally start understanding the concept, they are going to pinch their pennies, hard, and refuse to pay for anything they can get for free elsewhere. Entertainment, which is much less fungible than news, will not be safe from this: if the money simply isn't there, people won't buy it and will instead go with the inferior good that they can afford. Or they will simply entertain themselves: the choice won't be between a paid Radiohead album and a free Hootie and the Blowfish album as Scott McCloud argued in the essay I quoted in Part I, but between a paid Radiohead album and a game of Monopoly with the family, a free knees-up at the Irish pub or an hour practicing Radiohead songs on the guitar.

However, there are two long-run scenarios in which I micropayments and subscriptions may win out. I hope these won't come to pass as neither of them will be pretty. They are The Big Content Squeeze of 2010 and the Google Power Grab Scenario. In both, Rupert Murdoch's assertion that the Internet will never be the same again will be correct.

The Big Content Squeeze of 2010
The recession continues through 2009 and into 2010 and it hits hard. Initially, this means more free content in the form of blogs as newly unemployed people turn to writing. However, it becomes harder to finance the content. Small-time bloggers move from their own hosted space to free bloghosts to save money. Then the free bloghosts stop being free and the blogs vanish.
Meanwhile, newspapers stop treating their free content as loss leaders, and start seeing them as the profit-eaters they really are. Some switch to micropayment solutions, which fail, before shutting own their sites. Others shut down at once. This robs the remaining bloggers of much of their material, because most news/politics/gossip/satire bloggers do not do original news gathering and are entirely parasitic on the so-called Mainstream Media (the idea that bloggers are "citizen journalists" is pure, unadulterated Bloggocks). The quality and interest level of those blogs drops and so do their revenues. Bit by bit, the entire Long Tail of all websites disappears. Comicspace loses its advertising revenues and its venture capital funding at the same time. Keenspot loses its advertising revenues. Both firms close their doors and only the most succesful comics hang on to their existence, on independent hosts and subsidized directly by their users. Eventually, the Short Head, the highest-quality, most popular websites, starts getting eaten as well. By that time, though, content is no longer abundantly available and is indeed getting quite scarce. People who want to read news or blogs or webcomics online have the choice between paying for them or not getting any at all. In this new landscape, micropayments are a viable model once the recession starts bottoming out. By time the recovery is finally under way, micropayments and the sites financed by them are entrenched, the infrastructure for content paid for by advertising is dead and gone and new, free content sites will not be immediately competitive because users will be loyal to the content they have already paid for.

This end result, of course, isn't all bad. The result of this Darwinian process will be a smaller number of sites that have high quality by a number of metrics. They won't waste the users' time, they will be well-made and worth paying for - for a time, at least. They will also have to stay strictly within the mainstream and within the boundaries of acceptable opinion and taste. There will not be a significant Long Tail of niche sites. As the successful media get entrenched, the lack of competition and the need to avoid giving offense may lead to blander, less interesting content - it will continue to very be good at a technical level but will it challenge the reader? And if it doesn't, where else will you go if you do want to be challenged?

The Google Power Grab
This scenario, on the other hand, is one whose outcome won't be good at all. In this one, Google develops a working micropayment system (currently, Google Checkout does not support true micropayments as defined back in 2000, but is suitable for larger payments. I don't know anyone who uses it, though), and sits down with News Corp and all the other big media outfits until they all sign up to use that system exclusively. Because Google already has your data, you probably already have an account with it and most people trust it far more than they should, it is in a position to make its system ubiquitous and immediate in one fell swoop, and it has the funding to ride out the rest of the recession. It can also give preferential treatment to sites covered under its micropayment system, making them show up first in searches and embedding micropayments code into its search links so these sites perform better than non-micropayment sites. People will still be reluctant to use them for as long as the recession lasts, but they will be pressured into accepting them earlier than if any other party supplies the micropayment service (because they will be shut out of the best search results if they don't) and once they get more money into their pockets again, they will start embracing them.

In this scenario, Google leverages its power to gain even more power, and unlike in the Big Squeeze scenario, the big media win without having to raise their game for even a moment. The landscape changes irrevocably, to the advantage of parties that are already entrenched.

I'm not happy with both scenarios. The first one seems more likely right now than the second, as I recently read an essay (on a Dutch newspaper's blog, no less - but I unfortunately didn't take note of where it was and can't find it anymore) in which the writer recommended that newspapers shut down their websites entirely so they'd stop competing with their paper editions. But I'll be glad if neither come to pass and consider not having a good, viable micropayments system on the web to be a small price to pay for that.

Return of the Son of the End of Free, Part I

May 17th, 2009 by Reinder

So the big media news last week was that Rupert Murdoch wants to start charging for the Wall Street Journal online, and the coverage brought back a word that I hadn't heard in a couple of years and that I didn't really expect to hear again: micropayments.

I'll talk about the new End of Free (there was a website by that name, once, but I can't find it anymore) and how I think it will play out in part II of this series, but I want to indulge in some nostalgia/give the younger readers a little history lesson first.

Ah, Micropayments. Scott McCloud loved them, Jakob Nielsen loved them, back in the days of the Dot.bomb. They were touted as an alternative to subscriptions beginning about a decade ago, when it first started becoming clear that banner ads weren't going to keep bringing in the $40 CPMs that they did back in 1997. When the 2001 recession hit and avertising revenue really tanked, demand for payment based content distribution models grew and a large number of firms popped up that offered content on either a subscription or a micropayment basis. Modern Tales was originally one of the subscription-based content providers; there was a micropayment-based site called Bitpass that was popular with cartooonists for a while, which I experimented with a bit half-heartedly at the time. Modern Tales, of course, is still here but it offers most (or in practice, all) of its services for free, financed mostly by advertising. Bitpass is gone. This seems to be the pattern everywhere, with only the formery subscription-based sites even lasting long enough to make the switch back to free content financed (just) by the much lower advertising CPMs common today.

What went wrong? Why didn't micropayments work out? I think there were three closely related reasons.

Firstly, micropayments didn't become immediate. There was no single infrastructure for them - instead there were a number of micropayments providers, plus some of the content providers themselves. Users had to sign up to a new site for each individual content provider or third-party scheme they came across, they had to get their account credentials, maybe make a deposit through a fourth party, thenthey could make the micropayment, then they could be redirected to the content they wanted. It was clunky and it meant that on top of the monetary micropayment, the user's time investment, at least for the first transaction, went through the roof. People online like immediacy and they hate uncertainty and waiting, so users weren't too keen on the whole process. So as Clay Shirky argued as early as 2000, people hated micropayments.

Secondly, users didn't just hate micropayments, they didn't understand them either. They did not understand the distinction between a micropayment and a payment, or between micropayments and subscriptions. Originally, a micropayment was defined as a small payment between a quarter and a fraction of a penny. By the time of the arrival of Bitpass in 2003, typical transactions offered were in the 25¢ to 75¢ range, and the fact that this was so was a big part of Scott McCloud's rebuttal to another Shirky piece accurately predicting Bitpass's failure, in which McCloud argued that this one would be different. By 2005, users in internet forums like the Comicgenesis forum were using the word "Micropayment" to refer to Modern Tales' subscription fees or regular Paypal donations. The term had been swept under the rug and never heard from again.

Third, the recession ended just at the time when the price of bandwidth and hosting plummeted. In other words, businesses started advertising online again as the cost of publishing came down dramatically. Free content became worthwhile again.

I haven't kept track of how the recession is affecting online ad revenue. My own ad income is up since I joined Webcomicsworld and ditched my Google ads, but that's not enough data to go on. However, I don't think it's a coincidence that this idea starts raising its head again in a new recession and comes from an industry that is having a really hard time.

In part II, I'll discuss some scenarios in which I think the idea may turn out to work after all. They are not going to be pleasant for people who like easy access to content (free or not) or

Youtube find: early Pentangle recording from 1968

May 16th, 2009 by Reinder

Embedding is unfortunately disabled on this live recording of "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme from 1968, but it's worth a look, both for the musicianship and for singer Jacqui McShee's unearthly appearance. And dig the way bassist Danny Thompson detunes his lowest string at the end to hit that last, extra-low note!

Here's one that will allow itself to be embedded:

They still used that stage arrangement on their 2008 reunion tour!

Caption Contest 4

May 16th, 2009 by Adam Cuerden

Today's image, like the last two, is from my collection of the works of Sir Walter Scott.

...So, what might this scene in the novel be about? Do we really want to know? Evidently so: Put your captions in the comments!

(As always, if you cannae see the image, click on the link to go to the blog proper)

Vote incentive for May 15: another redrawn panel

May 15th, 2009 by Reinder

Thumbnail of another redrawn panel for the remastered Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan storyline The Corby Tribe. Click to vote for Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan on Top Web Comics and see the panel in full

Thumbnail of another redrawn panel for the remastered Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan storyline The Corby Tribe. Click to vote for Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan on Top Web Comics and see the panel in full

Vote for Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan on Topwebcomics today to see a another re-drawn panel for the re-masters, this one from the 37th episode. As you can see there, the original panel never made it into the published product but was instead cut up to make two panels. Yes, that nude-with-arms-crossed pose gave me a lot of trouble at the time, and still does. The new version can be included as-is, though. See also the other redrawn panel and its original.

I've left the vote incentives lying for a week because of lack of preparation time. I'll start posting some more next week, though probably not one a day.

To vote, click on the link. You will be asked to click a button twice to confirm that you are voting for this comic and that you're not a bot or script that automates voting (you will lose all faith in humanity's capacity to choose good over evil upon hearing that people have apparently done that in the past). The final page in the process has the vote incentive image. Vote incentive images will only be available until they are replaced, so you will have to vote today to see these sketches; there will be new incentive art up tomorrow.

(Or if you've come to this post via a web search, why not simply visit the comic this post is promoting, Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan?)

Caption Contest 3

May 15th, 2009 by Adam Cuerden

I hope noone minds these: They're a bit of a chance for me to show off my art collection, as well as (hopefully) good fun.

As always, click on the "Caption Contest" link if you can't see the file. By the way, the winners will be announced by an extremely partial judge - me, Adam Cuerden - about one week after the image is posted.

I don't know how long this series will run. I have LOTS of 19th-century art, so, really, it depends on when it stops being fun.

Kaizers Orchestra – Våre Demoner (2009)

May 14th, 2009 by Reinder

The fifth studio album by Norwegian gangster-polkarockers Kaizers Orchestra is a bit of an odd duck - it's a compilation and also a new album, and it's a studio album that often feels like a live album. Kaizers have re-recorded a number of songs that were previously played on tour, put on demo's and played on the radio or otherwise previously recorded but not commercially released, spanning their entire nine-year recording career. It almost works, too: though the songs can be traced back to the writing sessions for each of the previous studio albums, the record as a whole sounds cohesive, warm and lively, with a good balance between the group's traditional beats (two-step, tango and rock) and pump-organ/guitar interplay and the brass, horn and banjo additions that broaden the sound of individual songs. Våre Demoner could pass for an album of completely new material easily, except for one thing: this time around, the Kaizers' sound's charm wears off before the album is done and things begin to sound somewhat samey. The tracks that were left off the earlier albums were, taken as a whole, almost as good as the material that did make the cut, but not quite.

This makes Våre Demoner an album for the dedicated fan rather than a good introduction to the band playing their best work; for that, any of the first three studio albums will work a lot better.

Våre Demoner was a limited release in Norway, with only one pressing being made based on the amount ordered during the first week of release. The Dutch iTunes store still has it though as do iTunes stores elsewhere.
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Below is a run-down of the individual songs and which original writing sessions they were taken from:
"Medisin & Psykiatri" is the best track on the album; a menacing intro followed by a two-step that sounds more like an old Johnny Cash track. Originally from the Maestro sessions.
"Våre Demone", also from the Maestro sessions brings a neat Sixties/surf influence to what is otherwise a typical Kaizers Orchestra track.
"Die Polizei" from the Evig Pint sessions and featured in live shows dating back to the Maestro tour at least. A slow, melancholy track.
"Fanden hakk i hel" from the Maestro sessions is hystrionic but unremarkable.
"Kavalér" from the Evig Pint Evig Pint sessions, is more jaunty, but was probably rightly left off that album.
"Gruvene på 16" from the Ompa til du dør sessions is slowish and laid-back, probably more so than it would have been if it had been recorded at the time.
"Señor Torpedo" also from the Ompa til du dør sessions. Has a stomping bass beat that is similar to "Kontroll på Kontinentet", the opening song from that album and probably their best-known song.
"Den sjette sansen" from the Maskineri sessions is a pretty unremarkable track.
"Sonny" from the Evig Pint sessions has a strong lyrical resemblence to "De Involverte", one of the best songs from that album, and is pretty good in its own right.
"Prosessen" from the Ompa til du dør sessions is an OK song given a nice lift by the added banjo part.
By "Stormful Vals" from the Ompa til du dør sessions, the album is beginning to outstay its welcome. Luckily it's the last song on the record "proper" and it's an OK song with neat brass and horn arrangements. It might be a grower. It's not a waltz, by the way.
By the bonus track "Under månen" from the Maskineri sessions, the record has definitely outstaid its welcome. What did that track sound like again?