Summer Update

Last Edited – May 20, 2011 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Graphic Design, Personal

Hello, and welcome back! I say this pretty much every time I post, but it is true: I need to update more often. Once again, this las semester was pretty busy, but it was fun and I got a lot done. My classes were relatively easy and I was finishing my Interactive Qualifying Project both of which went quite well. My IQP was working with the Student Development and Counseling Center (SDCC) at WPI to find out what students knew about the center and what their attitudes and opinions were. We were somewhat surprised about the results, and the center was pleased with how the project wrapped up. As for my other classes, I took Foundations of Computer Science, Intro to Computer Graphics, and Intro to Artificial Intelligence. Foundations of CS was mainly about languages and types of state machines (finite automata, Turing machines, etc.) and their relationships. I really enjoyed the class and found the material to be very interesting and relevant to some of the interests I have in the theoretical side of CS.

Graphics was a blast and I learned a lot about OpenGL and how it operates as well as getting a good refresher on linear algebra and matrix operations. We did a lot of work in both 2D and 3D, and one of my favorite projects was implementing L-Systems in 3D. L-Systems are methods for iteratively generating fractals, one of the most famous of which is the Koch snowflake. We also did some modeling, all of which had to be hard coded which was a pain since every time you made a change you had to recompile the application and run it again. One of my other small grumbles is that we had to work using X forwarding off of the Linux servers since we were required to write code for only those machines. While it was sometimes frustrating, it was ultimately very rewarding and taught me a lot about how computers handle graphics internally and will really help me as I write plugins and extensions for other graphics applications.

Much more aggravating and much less interesting was my Intro to AI course. The material itself was interesting and in some cases useful, but the way the course went made it the worst class I have ever taken. The biggest problem was that there was no communication between the Professor and the TAs, so no one knew who was managing what project, or what exactly was supposed to happen with the homework. Additionally, very little was ever covered in lectures, so the whole class was completely dependent on a book which the professor forgot to have the bookstore order. In all, it ended well, and I apparently understand AI well enough to get an A, but I don’t really know how to apply anything I “learned” in this class.

On the summer front, I am still looking for a job and doing design work in the meantime. I have finally started doing some icon design for the WPI Helpdesk in earnest which I expect will be done in the next week or so. It has been really fun to try and come up with ways of representing some weird things like “Emeritus Professors.” I am also starting to do design on a larger scale and have a couple projects in the works that I will be starting on soon. One of the big things I did in the past few months was for a couple friends of mine who started a web hosting company. I did their site and logo for them and would highly recommend you check them out at I am also working on another project with a few friends which is a freelance work hub for us for design, software development, and consulting. I will post more details once things get more firmed up, but it is something I am excited to start. If you are looking to set up a website and would be interested in a quote from me, just shoot me an email.

Fall Semester

Last Edited – January 2, 2011 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Graphic Design, Personal, Programming

This previous semester has been pretty busy for me, but quite fun. I took a lot of interesting courses in computer science as well as some of my electives. A Term I took software security engineering which was really tough, but it was also the best CS course I have taken yet. For our first assignment, we were given a virtual machine running a web based grade book and told to break in and change our grade. That is all the information we got at first. As the assignment progressed, we were given access to the source code to look for holes we could exploit, and after breaking it as many was as we could, we had to fix it. Some of the rest of our assignments were in the same vein but with different languages while others were merely analysis of protocols and procedures such as OAuth and OpenID.

I also took a digital music cours during A term which was a lot of fun, and more of a sound art class than a music class. We worked with non-traditional methods of creating music and sound such as modulating voices or recorded sounds and trying to stay away from strict timing and rhythm in our work. It isn’t something I would do for a living, but it was a really neat class and was a good course to take against some of my harder classes. A term I also took Human Computer Interaction, which was also really cool. As a designer, and more specifically a web designer and programmer, HCI is very important to my work. Making sure people understand the ideas I am trying to get across is key, and can be very difficult. I learned some great ways of analyzing user interactions and designs to help improve them.

In B term I started on my Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) which is designing and running a survey to help WPI’s counseling center to understand why students may or may not be going to the center for help and to assess student’s general knowledge about the center. It has been fun working with the center, and our advisor is one of the best at WPI. B term I also took Webware which was a breeze, but did introduce me to Java Server Pages which are interesting, but really frustrating to work with in the context of the Google App Engine. One day I spent several hours working with my professor to figure out why some JSP pages would run fine on the local implementation, but would not run once they were deployed to the server. Eventually he gave up and just gave me full credit for it since even he couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

Probably the best course I took this previous semester was my Intro to Digital Imaging and Computer Art class. It seems silly to some people that I would take this class, but it is required for my IMGD major, even though I am not really working on the requirements for that anymore. It was a great way for me to finally become comfortable with Photoshop and really push the limits of what I could do with Maya. I finally understand the different blend modes that are available in Photoshop and other programs as well as better ways of doing selections and filling in empty space. As for the work we did in 3D, I have figured out that I suck at building models, but I am really good at lighting scenes and applying textures to surfaces.

This next semester should also be quite interesting since I am taking some interesting CS courses such as Computer Graphics and Computer Animation, which will be really challenging, but really neat. I am also going to be finishing (hopefully) my IQP and looking for more internship opportunities this summer.

I have also been somewhat busy doing design work, and I am building a new site for the design firm I have finally picked a name for: Nuro Design. I am also moving most of my hosting over to a new webhost, Alacrity Host which is run by some friends of mine, and I highly recommend their services. The new site should be up soon, and will feature my portfolio of design work, but some of it will be maintained here under the design section. More of my work will be going up here in the meantime, so look for an update to that effect in the next couple of weeks.

The Webcomic Archive Update

Last Edited – July 17, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Comics, Graphic Design, Programming

Right, I have this blog thing I should update, yeah. Anyway, I have been pretty busy with work at the Helpdesk and finishing my classes so I haven’t had time to blog as much. However, before work picked up I did a redesign on my comics archive site and did some rebuilding of the base code as well. The first big change is that I created a real design for it, not just a really basic 1990’s era text only design. Please let me know what you think. I also converted all of the display code to PHP so it runs a little faster and will do layouts much better. I was also smart enough to put it on a basic template system I came up with so I can change designs simply by editing one file rather than having to dig it out in a bunch.

The Webcomic Archive’s new look.

On the back end of things there I set up the update as a cron job on my web server. For those unfamiliar with cron it is a way of scheduling things to run and it works really well. Currently all of the comics are updated every hour, but I am having some problems with formatting download strings so they are not always up to date. I also tried to streamline some of the download code only to discover that I did a good job the first time around. All told the download script (in perl) is about 120 lines without comments which is really good considering my first effort (in C#) was close to 1000 and was for very specific archive formats.

I have also extended the number of comics I am keeping in the archive to 25 and the list is still growing. All told I read around 60+ comics and I may one day have all of them up there, barring any major difficulty. If you have any comics you would like to see there, please click the link over on the Archive and let me know what it is. If you have a suggestion of a comic I should read I am always willing to hear about it, but be warned, I may have already read it.

The freelance work front is also going OK and I have a couple jobs in the pipe that I am still working out details on finishing. One would be an e-commerce site which would be great for me because that is one of the areas of web I don’t have as much experience with and would really like to do. If you know anyone looking for web design services, point them my way and I’d be happy to talk to them about their needs and hopefully work something out. I am also finally getting used to CS5, and let me tell you it is awesome. The new features make it easier to work with and give a designer many more options and much more power. I still can’t get over Content-Aware fill in Photoshop; it is a dark magic.

For anyone who remembers Vector Hammer, my tutorial series, I am thinking about doing more with it (read: I haven’t done anything more yet, but I plan to) so any suggestions for what you would like to see would be awesome! I am starting with Illustrator tutorials but I am willing to do them on just about anything I am good at. Programming, Photoshop, Fireworks, Flash, Dreamweaver, whatever. Well, that is all for today so I leave you with a little design project of mine that I had piddled with for a while. Enjoy!

Web Design

Last Edited – June 6, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Graphic Design, Personal, Programming

So recently, I have been working on some other design projects including building a website for my parents. They are trying to move away from the property manager they use to rent their Condo they have in Granby, Colorado, and asked me to build them a marketing site for it. I decided that I would build a site which focused on the property, but also gave them a chance to introduce our family which my parents think is very important. They are paying me, which means I will have money for both tuition and some fancy new toys to do the work with. I was able to knock out the basic design pretty quickly since the CMS I decided to go with (Drupal) has a really good way of defining templates. I decided to go with Drupal rather than something like WordPress for a couple reasons. First, Drupal is something I haven’t worked with before, and I figure I need some experience working with different systems to broaden my skill set. Second, WordPress is for more dynamic content, like blogging, and not for something which will be mostly static. Sure, I could have done it with WordPress and it would have looked nice, but it wouldn’t have been as easy to work with. You can take a look at the results so far here: Colorado Crocks.

As well as doing some web design for the page, I did a little graphic design and knocked out a logo and the header since I try to generate as much of a site’s images myself rather than recycling them. The header is a tracing of a picture my sister took of the Rocky Mountains when we were at the condo one time. The logo I originally thought was going to be a placeholder, or something which would drastically change, but it turns out everyone really likes it. It is a stylization of the view from our property, and I thought it would give a good feel and contribute to the overall look of the site.

For their site I also did some Flash development which can be seen on the Properties page. I built an XML customizable slideshow in Flash after many hours of battling with ActionScript. Everything is scripted, nothing is based on predefined animations, which makes it much easier to customize. Basically, you provide it with an XML document which breaks down into pictures which contains fields for the title, the description, and the URL of the image. It pulls this data, downloads the images and fills in the template I have defined. I haven’t worked with Flash in a really long time, and this reminds me why. ActionScript is the worst language I have ever used with the exception of Scheme (a LISP derivative used in WPI intro CS classes). On mroe than one occasion, Flash decided it didn’t know what some of the predefined libraries were and refused to import them. I eventually (read 20+ hours) was able to get everything working to a point, but I still have quite a bit of work to do as far as customization goes.

The toys I mentioned earlier are in fact the Adobe Creative Suite 5 Master Collection and associated services. CS5 Master Collection is really nice, and a huge step up from what I had been working with, which is CS3 Web Premium. Really all I needed was everything in Web Premium plus InDesign and Premire. The only package all of these come in was Master Collection, and I decided I needed them badly enough to fork over the cash for it. I was able to get a price reduction since I do own CS3 Web Premium, so I didn’t have to pay the full $2,500 price tag for it. I am looking forward to doing more tutorials with the new Illustrator tools and learning them myself. It is really nice to be able to do elliptical and transparency gradients at last.

I am also working full time at the WPI Helpdesk and am classified as a full time student since I am taking two classes, so between those and my extra projects I have been keeping busy, hence not updating this at all. I am trying to update more frequently, but every so often I forget that I actually have a blog. Is there anything you would like me to write about? If you think of something, feel free to comment!

Recent Developments

Last Edited – May 17, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Graphic Design, Personal, Technology

For this summer, instead of spending it working at summer camp and thoroughly enjoying my summer shooting archery and hanging out with awesome people, I am working for the Helpdesk at WPI and taking classes. Don’t get me wrong, working at the Helpdesk is a sweet gig, and I am enjoying it very much, but it doesn’t have the same feel as working at camp. 8 hours of work a day seems getting off light, so I am filling my time with other things. For my first week, I was modifying my computer to have water cooling to make sure that as I do more hardcore processing with my computer, I don’t fry anything vital. My CPU and GPU load temperatures have dropped 10C or more, and the system is working great.

At the moment, I am doing some web design for my parents, and it is far less frustrating than building my own site, since I already have a good system for working. It took me a couple tries on my site to get a workflow that I can use, and it is working great for me. I am also using a content management system which is new to me, Drupal, and it is fairly intuitive to work with. It has similar features to WordPress, but is more suited to static content rather than a blog-style site. Which is perfect.

Anyway, just felt I should update you on my doings, and tell you that more Vector Hammer is in the works, and should be out in the next couple weeks.

Vector Hammer – Illustrator Introduction

Last Edited – May 3, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Vector Hammer

As you may or may not know, I will be doing video tutorials on a variety of different applications, starting with Adobe Illustrator. The first installment (embedded below) is an introduction to Illustrator and how to set it up to work more efficiently. Topics I cover include new document types, a few of the different panels, and how to setup and manage your workspace. Please leave any feedback you have here or on the YouTube page.

Site Redesign

Last Edited – April 30, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Graphic Design, Personal

If you have been following my blog, thank you, and you may notice something different. I just did a big redesign of the site, so I hope you like it. I am going to talk about how I go about doing a site design for those who are interested, and I hope you enjoy!

For the past couple days, I have been overhauling the site design. I liked the original two column setup, but I wasn’t super happy with the way it actually turned out. I figured I would just do some small modifications to the theme, which then turned into a major set of changes. Most of the base code is still intact, but I almost completely rewrote the style sheet to reflect what I wanted. I got the base layout working really quickly in my primary browser (Chrome), and like every web developer, I now had to turn to the other browsers for testing, and Internet Explorer became the bane of my existence.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and I happen to like starting with the top. The header is made up of 3 divs which get aligned with CSS, and they cooperated quite well with Chrome. I then rendered my page with Adobe Browserlab, which is awesome, to see the differences between how my page would render in the different browsers. It turns out, that every browser, including Chrome, wasn’t doing what I wanted. Turns out I am using the Version 5 developer build of Chrome, which has a bunch of changes to how it displays HTML. After a bit of tweaking with padding and margins, I had it all working in Chrome, Safari, and Firefox, but IE 7 still wouldn’t cooperate. I spent so much time trying to work out the problem that I was getting very frustrated, and decided to move on.

I then started tweaking the way the columns were set up. I wanted to keep the two column layout, but combine them into the same box. Like the header, the main body is composed of three div elements which get aligned with CSS. This was much easier since the divs weren’t stacked, but side by side, making it easier to figure out what was wrong. I kept having problems with the background not rendering at the correct height, then discovered the many options of the display CSS element. After that, it was a piece of cake to get right.

After getting the main body working properly, I moved on to small tweaks in the way posts and pages get formatted. I changed the post headings to display datestamps, categories, and a divider between the heading and the post. I also added a divider between posts, and tweaked the way that links display. At this point I also did a redesign of the tabs, which I wanted to keep but update, so now instead of all CSS elements, I decided to go the classic way of images.

At this point, I was basically done with modifications, but had to go back and fix the way that IE7 was rendering the header. I tried everything I could in the CSS to get it to work right, but it refused to constrain two of the elements (the navigation bar and title) within the third. I tried changing margins and padding, the display type, every CSS trick I could think of. Eventually I went to check the XHTML for the page, and discovered that I was using <span> tags instead of <div> tags. I changed them, and presto, it worked.

If you read this whole post, congratulations, and please leave me some feedback on what you think of the site. I like to get as many opinions as I can and incorporate some of the elements people point out.

Assassin’s Creed II – Review

Last Edited – April 12, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Gaming, Review

And we’re back. Classes have picked up recently, and I haven’t really had time to think about writing blog posts. Anyway, my review of Assassin’s Creed II:

The box art for Assassin’s Creed 2

Assassin’s Creed II is the sequel to Ubisoft’s hit Assassin’s Creed (obviously). We pick up where AC1 left off, with Desmond still under the control of Abstergo, and having some crazy visions around his room and the office. We start off breaking out of Abstergo and fleeing to a group of other Assassins and settling in to training. This game follows Ezio Auditore, the son of an Italian assassin, and his growth and development as an Assassin. The main plot follows the betrayal of the Auditore family, and Ezio’s quest for revenge. Back in the real world, this exercise is to teach Desmond the ways of the Assassins by having him learn while watching his ancestor learn the same things.

People had quite a few problems with the first game, most of which have been fixed in the second with the addition of a few new gameplay elements and an extension of old ones. There is still quite a bit of repetition in the “do X task Y times, then you can kill the guy you came for” area, but there are more tasks to complete. There are a lot more smaller assassination missions to accomplish and they keep the races from the first game, which I enjoyed immensely. They also added in a letter delivery task, which seems a little contrived but they are fun nonetheless. I am a little dissapointed that they got rid of the “save citizen” tasks, but to be fair there were too many of them in AC1.

The new menu system for AC2

Ubisoft has also added in an economic system, where completing missions, tasks, and other objectives earn you money which you can use to upgrade your weapons and armor. They have also added many more weapons to the system, and allow you to choose your loadout and even to steal weapons from people you fight. You can also hire groups of people to fight or distract guards to allow you to get into places, or to escape. They also integrate the three groups you can hire: cortesans, thieves, and mercenaries, into the story and Ezio’s development as an Assassin.

They also include a collection and improvement system for your country villa which you can use to earn even more money. You collect things like art, weapons, armor, and can upgrade and improve pieces of your city which allow for even more unlockable content. As you complete more of the missions and sidequests, your villa make more and more money for you, allowing you to purchsae some of th emost expensive items in the game. This is an intersting feature, especially if you like RPGs, but is also a little unneccessary. By the end of the game I had so much money I had no idea what to do with it, and I just kept getting more from my villa.

A smith’s shop, one of the new markets
available in AC2

Now on the the meaty part, the actual assassinations. Like in the first game, in AC2 you travel from city to city finding your enemies and eliminating them. You travel to locations like Venice, Rome, Florence, and a couple other Italian regions to take your revenge. The envrionments are absolutely amazing, keeping the awesome views from the first game, and expanding what they do with the city’s layout and organization. To complete your assassination, you again must complete a couple side missions, but you can move on to the actual target more quickly. With AC2 you are also forced to plan your route more, and be more patient since it is harder to outrun guards and escape.

They have added three new types of guards to mix up combat and escape. They have added Seekers, who prod and look in hide spots to find you. Ubisoft also added fast guards, who are much better at chasing you across rooftops, as well as heavy guards who are slow, but do massive damage. The hiding system and crowd system has been updated as well, and now allows you to blend with any group of people just by staying near them. The blend system is really intuitive, and makes getting away easier in some cases. Ezio can also swim, and use water as a way of breaking line of sight to guards.

The new blend system allows you to blend
with any group of people.

I really enjoyed this game, but I also didn’t have as many problems with the first one as some people. The missions can still get a little repetitive, especially if you go for a 100% playthough like I did. The market system could have been improved, as well as the balance of weapons you can choose. It would have been nice to see war hammers do more damage to armored guards than a sword.

Overall ACII was awesome and I am looking forward to the next installment (there was some more really blatant foreshadowing again) with as much rabid fervor as I was for this one. My biggest complaint is probably the DRM that came with the PC version, but that can be excused since it is not as bad as it could be.

Mass Effect 2 – Review

Last Edited – March 19, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Gaming, Review

Finally, I get to review a (relatively) new game! As I mentioned in my review of Mass Effect, I got it because I needed something to play, and it was relatively cheap. I also mentioned that I really liked Mass Effect, and several friends recommended that I get Mass Effect 2 since major improvements had been made. I must say, I did like Mass Effect 2 better than the first overall, and that there were many improvements, but like any game it isn’t perfect.

The Mass Effect 2 Splash Screen

As I said, I liked Mass Effect 2, and joins Assassin’s Creed II and Half-Life 2 in my top 3 games. The graphics are stunning, the story intricate and immersive, and the gameplay solid and fun. I will start with the graphics upgrade. The first game looked alright for a 2007 game designed for the console market. I wasn’t super impressed, but they certainly weren’t detrimental to the game. When I first started ME2, I was astounded by how much more realistic everything was. All of the textures had been increased in resolution, everything was bump and normal mapped, and reflections and shadows were abound. My fairly high-end rig was struggling to get 40 FPS in areas with lots of shadows until I turned off dynamic shadows which increased the framerate to 60 (but no higher for some reason even though VSync was off) without really dropping the quality.

A comparison of the graphics and squad
screens for Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2
Click to enlarge

For me as a really technical person, the graphics really add something to the game, whether they are super realistic or cartoony, so long as whatever you are using works well, and it works fantastically for ME2. Places like the tech lab and armory felt real, even if they vomit bloom into your face. That is one thing I don’t understand about many games. Why must everything be surrounded in bloom? You made all these awesome models and textures just cover them with flat white light so we can’t see them? I understand your quest for realism, and there is some bloom in the real world, but not that much.

Anyway, on to the story. Picking up where Mass Effect left off, you take on the role of _______ Shepard, continuing the fight against the giant evil. Some events occur, which I won’t describe due to spoilers, but it ends up being two years after the events of the first game, and you are now working for a radical pro-Human group. You are now tracking down missing human colonies which have been disappearing at an alarming rate, and no one seems to be doing anything about it. This leads to the largest part of the game which is assembling your team of 10-11 (one character is part of some DLC) and gaining their loyalty. You don’t need to get their loyalty, but it really helps during the final battle.

All of the loyalty missions involve some personal history for the individual, from revenge to criminal defense, and you must carefully navigate the situation to gain the team member’s trust. This can be quite difficult, and I thought I had messed up on one, but got the loyalty anyway and was very confused as to how. Some people have said it is really hard to gain everyone’s loyalty, but if you are careful in your decision making, and are heavily leaned toward Paragon or Renegade, it isn’t very difficult, but you can mess up if you don’t start early.

The squad info screen from Mass Effect 2. Click to enlarge

Finally, to the gameplay. ME2 continues the third person action view of the first game, and makes many improvements to the system as a whole. There is now no longer the micromanagement of your weapons and ammo, nor is leveling as challenging to make decisions as to where points go. As you can see in the comparison above, the number of skills has been reduced drastically, and is easier to understand what each skill does. The leveling system has also changed, with experience only really being given when a mission is completed, but with more regular missions to do. While this reduction in complexity makes the game more accessible, I liked the old system to a certain extent. I did like the skills division, but not as much the weapon management. An achievements system has been added, and is liked to your gamerscore for the Xbox version, but it is only an in-game system for the PC.

Again, I thought ME2 was a fantastic game overall, and it is well within my top 3 games. I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the first game, as well as an intro for people into the RPG space.

Look for a review of Assassin’s Creed II soon! I finished it the same week as ME2, but want to take some more time to write the review.

3D Animation Final

Last Edited – March 16, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Animation, Personal

I have posted my final animation on YouTube, and have an embedded below and a version on my 3d animation page here. Leave any comments you may have on the YouTube page, and thanks for viewing!