Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Drawing my Math Webcomic

Almost three years ago, I wrote a post I called "Drawing for a Webcomic". Back then, what I was really doing was illustrating a serial. Now, it's a legit comic. So I thought I would update the post, in part because I feel like I'm terribly inefficient. Let me know if you agree.
I'd ask Koch, but he only speaks in riddles.

STEP ONE: The script

I write the script in TextEdit on my Mac. Usually about four comics worth at once (roughly a mini-arc), which tides me through a month (I publish every Monday). That said, episode titles and mouse rollover comments tend to be put in the week I thumbnail, unless a really good idea strikes me sooner. The script is also extremely flexible, as you'll see.

STEP TWO: Refining the mental image


This step involves thumbnails, effectively a tiny version of the finished page. I learned about the technique at Anime North 2015, and it makes lots of sense. My thumbnails are set up in columns, even though my final panels are a 2x2 square, in part because I hadn't decided on that format when I started, and in part because I find it easier to fit 8 on a page this way.

You can see strip #22's thumbnail pictured on the right. After drawing it out, I realized I'd put Expona on the wrong end of the bar - she'd be looking off the page in Panel 4, hence my arrows and remark "look left" (to have her face the prior panel). This is where I try to vary the character sizes between close ups and long shots.

STEP THREE: Refining the actual image

I jot down the script (more or less), then fit in word balloons before sketching. This step usually takes a couple of passes, one for the overall setting/character location and one for the detail. Sometimes I will do that on a panel-by-panel basis. Here, still with strip #22, I made two overall passes so you can see the difference.
First pass - words and positions

Backgrounds are a pain in the ass. First, because although this step alone takes about two hours (half an hour per panel), it's somewhat mindless work. Unless I have to account for the position of things in the background - that needs thinking! And I cannot simply drop in a prearranged background, because of how my perspectives zoom in and out.

I had no idea how annoying backgrounds would be when I wrote my "Xeno: Paradox Princess" parody, which required objects for the protractor/chakram to hit. I now hope to avoid objects wherever possible. There's also the fact that I will usually need to do a web image search for a frame of reference with a new item, like the exterior of the "Bowditch" here.
Second pass - Faces and detail

Above, you'll see the second pass. I added a shot glass onto the bar, to try and fill the otherwise empty space. The 'Hmm' in Expona's thought bubble (Panel 1) was an addition for the same reason... and while that word will be at the start of the sentence, the lettering itself is a full step later on.

STEP FOUR: Inking

Essentially a third pass, using black ink. Sometimes I catch minor mistakes here, like the fact that I missed drawing Expona's watch in Panel 2. Basically, this step is exactly the same as it was three years ago. There's merely more ink needed.
Third pass - Refinements

You may notice, I don't ink the panel boxes themselves. That's because they're merely guidelines for me when drawing. Ditto for the words, in fact they'll get erased out (see lettering, below). This is the point when I would ACTUALLY scan the thing in. On the same printer I had three years ago, which only my old computer has drivers for.
Pencils erased, scanned in now

STEP FIVE: Panel Template

At this point, I take the scanned image and grab it, panel by panel, dropping it into my panel template file. The "Any Qs" and copyright are already on there. Aside from those, the template is a 2x2 grid, all panels the same size, and it is layered such that I can put the image under the lines. I grab my squares (as square as possible), then shrink the panel layer down to about 300 by 300 pixels (so roughly 25%). The title also gets grabbed. This is the simplest step, but if I drew outside the guidelines, sometimes I'll need to resize and regrab.
Dropped into the template

STEP SIX: Lettering and Cleanup

I'm getting better at judging the spacing for word bubbles. But sometimes I misjudge, or need to rearrange words in a sentence so they don't escape. This time, I decided to have Expona say 'Trigonometry' rather than 'Trig' in the last panel, thus had to pull her word bubble further apart (rather than pushing it closer together). The text is inserted line by line (line breaks are never positioned properly).

The font I decided on back in August was Candara, size 18. Why? Well, it's free. Also, it has a boldface option that's basically the same size as regular text. (When everything is in all caps, you need boldfacing to imply capitals. With this font, I can simply type over an old word with a boldface version.) It doesn't do "Crossbar I's" though, so I have to adjust those manually.

If you don't know what those are, have a look at Expona's last dialogue bubble: "I MEANT IS THERE..." The first 'I' is on it's own, and thus needs top/bottom bars, whereas the 'I' in 'IS' is merely a stick. Incidentally, the 'LISSA' tag in Panel 3 is a different font, Optima. I don't recall why I decided to change it for character intros.

Once the words are in (and script readjusted), with their bubbles being digitally fixed, I tidy up any other pencil markings I see; areas where I extended a line too long, etc. Then I flatten the whole thing (removing layers), resave it as a PNG, and get ready for the next step.

STEP SEVEN: Colouring

I do this the same way I did three years ago as well - basically reach into the prior file, grab the last image of the character, put it (temporarily) on a new layer, grab the colours with the eyedrop tool, and use them on the new strip. If there's objects being introduced (like the Bowditch here) I mix colours up a bit and see how they work out. The pinkish (on the sign and the stool) was to coordinate with Lissa's hair.
You can read this comic in context too

Sometimes final touch-ups are needed. For instance, I noticed that the shelves looked a bit like sequential bars stretching backwards, so cut and pasted a new line for more dimensionality.

STEP EIGHT: Posting

I now transfer everything to my current computer. I have the "Next/Previous Page" table in a file that I can cut and paste into the HTML (exactly like my time travel serial). The comic script can then be pasted underneath that, though sometimes I'll simply retype it. The mouse rollover comment is added through the HTML. After the post has gone live, I can finally add it to the table of contents.

And that's it! The whole process likely takes between 4 and 5 hours, but it's rarely done continuously; I take breaks before the image is inked, then sometimes after scanning and/or before colouring. Three years ago, it apparently took less time, but I was doing less of it.

Now, is that process terribly inefficient? Is it even worth it? I suppose that's for you to answer. Let me know below. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

TANDQ 15: Animated Discussion

In 2014-2015 I wrote an education column called "There Are No Dumb Questions" for the website "MuseHack". As that site has evolved, I have decided to republish those columns here (updating the index page as I go) every Wednesday. This fifteenth column marks the last in the series. It originally appeared on Thursday, June 2, 2015.

Should TANDQ be resurrected in 2016? Well, if so, what would you want to read about?

What animation is acceptable at your workplace?


There’s my question to you. As I’m not at your workplace, YOU tell ME (in the comments, or email if you prefer) - what is your workplace, and what is the threshold of acceptance there? Would you be allowed to have, say, “Despicable Me” minion figurines at your desk? A “My Little Pony” poster? Could you wear a “Sailor Moon” brooch on the job? Yes, I’m trying something a bit different here, turning this last question back to you. I’ll explain why the subject came up, then provide my own answer too.

This particular idea came out of a panel at an anime convention regarding “Fans in the Professional Workplace”. On the panel were a lawyer, a banker, a teacher, a graphic designer and a librarian. (I’m simplifying the job descriptions slightly.) Now, obviously there are lots of fandoms out there… and on a related note, I recommend checking out the recent “Fan I Am” series of postings by Steve Savage. (Have you considered politics as a fandom?) But I’ve decided to target animation. Partly because it was the primary topic at the panel, but also because there’s a lot of conflicting information about it on the internet, and out in society.

There’s this notion, particularly in America, that animated films are “children’s entertainment”. But are those attitudes changing? Or are we merely expanding the demographic? What about outside the US? The more I look, the more I feel like animation has lots of misconceptions tied to it, perhaps because it bridges so many different genres. Even Ben Zauzmer, who used data and statistics to predict almost all of the 2015 Oscar winners, missed out on his prediction for “Animated Feature”. (For that matter, why didn’t “Lego Movie” even qualify?) So when an audience member in that panel I attended indicated that she was soon graduating from post secondary, and essentially asked how much one could or should put anime out there, I was intrigued. It felt like something relevant for this website [MuseHack]. But there was no clear answer - as often happens with good questions.

YMMV

To be clear, I’m not talking about whether it’s proper to engage in your hobbies while on the clock. Nor am I suggesting fandom should be completely excluded from a resume, given the lessons it provides that may be relevant to your career. What I’m looking for is the middle ground. Can one person name drop “My Little Pony” in a workplace with the same ease as someone else drops “Game of Thrones”? Remember, one of those shows involves rather more violence and death! Well, it turns out the answer is likely no, as “FiredBrony” found out in 2013. (See my “You Can Be Fired for This” link below. Though let’s not pretend the issue is specific to gender.) So I ask again, in an age where new graduates are worried about simply getting entry level jobs, which workplaces are more accepting of one’s interest in things like anime and animation? My suspicion is “Your Mileage May Vary” (YMMV).

I’ve done some online searching, but figure it’s better to hear from those with actual experience. To that end, let’s first consider the people on that panel. The lawyer had to be totally undercover. The banker was mostly undercover, in part because when she was a summer student, she’d had complaints from older people at work about her reading manga on her lunch break (seen as “unprofessional”). The graphic designer could get away with subtle decorations (like an anime belt on casual Friday), but wouldn’t comment about it randomly. The teacher could potentially say something depending on the audience - for instance, recognizing a Totoro shirt is a safer move than recognizing “Kill la Kill”. And towards the other end of the spectrum, the librarian could discuss anime and manga with coworkers, and even use it to connect with people when done correctly.

While we’re on the subject, some other thoughts that came out of the panel was how the mention of anime (like volunteering at a convention) could make your resume more memorable - but you may also want to look up the hiring manager on LinkedIn to see what the company expects. There was also mention of the fact that, if you type in “The Manga Guide to” into a search engine, you’ll find they’re being used as a learning tool beyond the high school level. Someone’s even doing their PhD as a graphic novel. Is there a generational divide forming? At minimum, I suspect the definition of “professionalism” may be evolving.

Anyway, here’s my answer: I’m a high school mathematics teacher. As the teacher advisor for the anime club at our high school, I have some anime CDs on my desk, and occasionally discuss it with students. I could discuss it with coworkers, but there isn’t much interest. I haven’t thought much about American style animation; I’m no fan of the Simpsons, but I don’t get hassled for that. How about you?

For further viewing:

1. Yes, for the Millionth Time: You Can Be Fired for This

2. Why animated films are the UK’s favourite - and why that’s not likely to change

3. History of Early Animation (video)

Gregory Taylor is a high school mathematics teacher in Ontario, Canada, who does serial writing in his spare time. He can be found on twitter @mathtans, and runs a few blogs including "Mathie x Pensive".

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Know Any Support Groups?

Back at the end of September, I felt like I was in a “Good Creative Place”, particularly related to my personified mathematics webcomic. Well, that’s deteriorated.

Part of it is some other personal difficulties I’m going through, which has me thinking more about my hobbies. Part of it is the fact that the recap post I wrote here last weekend got two Twitter endorsements and six likes with little effort, which is miles away from any reaction to to the actual CREATIVE stuff I do regularly. Part of it is fatigue.



Someone recently mentioned online support groups in connection to a completely different matter. I’m wondering if maybe that could be a thing I need, and if anyone knows of support groups out there for the following things:


1) MATH FICTION WRITING


I personify mathematics. Still. That serial began in July 2011. I learned it was a serial in March 2013. I gave it up in May 2014. I brought it back as a webcomic in August 2015. Strip #20 posts on Monday. It’s the most important thing I do after family and work.


...Or not.
Back in August & September, I used to be getting 100 hits. Since mid-October, that’s dropped; the average is now about 70 hits (lowest is 59). I had no comments on it through the month of November.

Why I Sigh: I know I’m no XKCD, Ben Orlin, or (x, why?). But when things like the @solvemymaths Mr. Men regularly seem to get 4 or 5 likes and RTs and I can’t even manage THAT after FOUR DAMN YEARS... is my drawing THAT bad? I like to think I’m improving. I know, I’m probably deluding myself.

What Keeps Me Going: Scott RTs me. I did actually get comments from him, Chris Burke and Ashtar Balinestyar prior to November. I had one person ask me about the strips last month - at work, at a time when teachers are pretty busy. And sometimes I reread Audrey McLaren’s old comments from April 2014.

There’s also the fact that I post the images separately to Tumblr, so any hits there wouldn’t show up in my count. But I think only John Golden is tracking me there.


2) SERIAL WRITING


I have been publishing (after editing and drawing) a time travel serial since April 2015. How’s that going?
-Part 1: 129 Hits. Last hit: Nov 28th.
-Part 2: 30 Hits. Last hit: Nov 25th.
-Part 3: 25 Hits. Last hit: Nov 22nd.
-Part 4: 27 Hits. Last hit: Oct 20th.
-Part 13 (Arc 3, my BTTF tribute): 11 Hits. Last hit: Oct 25th.
-Part 24 (End Book 1): 10 Hits. Last hit: Sept 20th.
-Part 32 (published a month ago): 3 Hits. Last hit: Day after publishing.

I have had ONE SINGLE POSTED COMMENT through 36 entries in the story, and it was more an observation. (Granted I’m not including the couple comments regarding the blog itself, or remarks outside the blog.) Two posts out of the 36 got a WordPress “like”.

Why I Sigh: Whenever I go to someone else’s serial, and I see a single, solitary comment. Like, WOW. To me, that’s epic. Oh sure, sometimes people remark on my site itself, but on November 26th it was back to 0 Hits for me! Heaven forbid I learn anything about my actual story!

What Keeps Me Going: I did get a 3.5 star review in “Web Fiction Guide” by Billy Higgins way back in May. John Golden tweets at me sometimes. Scott Delahunt (my beta) reblogs the whole thing on Facebook, possibly much to the chagrin of his followers. And I had a really nice remark about my writing in general when I did a guest post over at “Legion of Nothing” for April Fool.

There are also 5 “followers” who may be reading through email. Silently.


3) MATH SONG PARODIES



I’ve written almost 30 of the damn things. The students seem to like them. But it’s like every PD I go to these days is telling me that “singing songs for students may engage them, but they’re not learning” so fine, I suck as a teacher, thank you. I actually couldn’t watch the TMC15 closing video - I didn’t want to see parody joy in others when (outside of the classroom) the vibes I get are silence trending to “what are you doing with your life”.

I really need to start putting together my annual Christmas parody. Did you even know I’ve done those annually for four years? Well, whatever. Last one only had 40 views on YouTube. I can’t even suggest what keeps me going here, because I haven’t written a song parody in months.

I’m a teacher. I pride myself on an ability to give feedback to others. You’d think I’d know where to get some myself. But no - I feel like the only feedback I ever get is the stuff related to my job itself. Which, granted, is appreciated. And the thought is an exaggeration. But December is traditionally lower for views in general, so I guess I need more to keep me going these days.

So, anyone know of any support groups for that stuff?

All I can do is sigh.
All I can do is wonder why.
All I can do is try, try, try...

Sorry, I think that got a bit bitter. Thanks for reading to the end. Namaste.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

TANDQ 14: Vote of No Confidence

In 2014-2015 I wrote an education column called "There Are No Dumb Questions" for the website "MuseHack". As that site has evolved, I have decided to republish those columns here (updating the index page as I go) every Wednesday. This fourteenth column originally appeared on Thursday, April 30, 2015.

How can I influence a democratic election?


Vote. That’s your best shot, particularly in light of voter apathy. And when you do vote, make it an informed decision, particularly if you’re getting others around you to vote too. I’ve noticed lots of voting talk lately, from the United Kingdom’s general election this May, to the Canadian federal election later this year, to the Hugo Awards ceremony in August. Oh - if you haven’t heard, that last is getting more press now due to the “Rabid Puppies” group (sometimes confused with the “Sad Puppies” group, but they’re in their third year). But take care, as not all democratic voting systems are the same! Let’s delve deeper.

Many countries that are (or were) British colonies will be familiar with the “first past the post” (FPTP) system. It’s more formally known as the “single member district plurality” system, and basically involves marking an “X” next to your candidate of choice - the candidates having been previously chosen by their political parties. When the votes are finally tabulated, whoever has the most “X”s wins - even if that individual did NOT collect an overall majority. To illustrate, let’s say we have three candidates: A, B and C. The election results are A: 25%, B: 35% and C: 40%, so C is put in charge of 100% of the district, despite the fact that 60% of people chose someone else. We can see from this that there are problems with FPTP - not the least of which is that in the long term it encourages a two party system (see the video link at the end). But it gets worse.

Mathematician Donald Saari has shown that the results of a plurality voting system can produce an outcome that is the exact reverse of actual voter preference. See his website for some introductory lectures, or search the internet for the famed “milk-beer-wine” example. As an abbreviated version: Given my election results above, consider a case where all those voting A and B would have ranked C dead last (meaning 60% of voters now really dislike the result) while all those who did vote for C would have picked A as their second best choice (meaning NO voters would rank A in last place - despite A being listed as “least popular”!). Obviously, ignoring those rankings is a big issue! Can including them fix the problem? Well, not entirely. But a ranking system is what they presently use for the final ballot of the Hugo Awards.

Rank and File


What ranking does fix is the problem of “strategic voting”. For instance, if a person really doesn’t want candidate C to win, then even though they like A best, they may choose to throw their support behind B, who has the better chance of beating C. This “spoiler effect” is what can lead to recent UK news articles like “Vote Conservative in seats Ukip can’t win”. I suspect it’s also behind the latest trend in overall election campaigns, which don’t seem to say “Vote for me, B!”, so much as “Don’t let C win!”. Fortunately, this issue evaporates with what we call “Instant Runoff Voting” (or in Australia, “The Alternative Vote”). It’s still a plurality/majority system, but you don’t mark a single “X”: you rank your candidates by preference. This means that, given the same election results above - we’d have no clear majority. So we drop out “A”, and the SECOND choice on their ballot is redistributed. If they all hated C, this results in B: 60% and C: 40%, meaning candidate B is declared the winner!

Of course, this preferential voting system doesn’t eliminate issues like gerrymandering, or address the problem that all voters could have been satisfied with “A”, and the system is still susceptible to mathematical paradoxes. (Not all relationships are transitive in nature: If A beats B and B beats C, it’s possible that C beats A.) But this system does mean that you don’t need to worry about how the other people in your district are going to vote! Which implies that candidates have to campaign based on their platforms, not against someone else’s. The final voting for the Hugo Award gets even more interesting here, in that “No Award” is a valid ranked choice. So to win, the first nominee who ends up with over 50% of votes must be subsequently tested to ensure that the “No Award” choice was not ranked higher than them on relevant ballots. To read more about the Hugo voting system (and to see how they pick their runners-up), go to their website here. Note also that their award nomination process is not the same procedure.

At this point, having torn down Plurality systems, what’s left? Why, the Proportional Representation systems, used by many European democracies. The idea here is that you get two votes - one for the governing party, and the other for a party candidate. Ergo, if the final results show a preference of 50% for Party 1, 45% for Party 2, and 5% for Party 3, the seats are filled to that proportion with the top candidates, as chosen by the second (simultaneous) vote. It’s more mathematically fair... but it’s not perfect either. Proportions cannot be exact, and there is a need for larger districts, meaning less local representation. Of note, in 2007, the Canadian province of Ontario held a referendum on whether to adopt the “Mixed Member Proportional” variation on this system - a system with double the seats compared to the regions - so feel free to watch Rick Mercer’s analysis for more. (The proposal was defeated by 63% of Ontarians, and “First Past the Post” remains in effect.)

Wait, doesn’t that referendum mean that Ontario held a vote on how voting will take place? How very meta. And yet, it’s only by proposing such things that any (necessary?) democratic reforms can occur. Which brings us back to the introduction: Vote, and try to do it in an informed way. It’s probably your best shot at influencing things... short of becoming a candidate yourself.

For further viewing:

1. Why Democracy is Always Unfair

2. Some Sad Puppy Data Analysis

3. The Problems with First Past the Post Voting Explained (Video)

Got an idea or a question for a future TANDQ column? Let me know in the comments, or through email!