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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sports Graphics Roundup Part I: ESPN

I've been anticipating a potential update of ESPN's game graphics to coincide with the debut of a new graphics package for SportsCenter - if not for that, at least in anticipation of picking up the BCS and in case they want to pick up March Madness. ESPN's graphics have started to feel almost painfully generic, and an update - perhaps one that would adopt the recently-popular convention of putting each team's name or abbreviation on a background with the team's respective color - was much needed.

The current package, which started getting phased in with MNF and the NBA in 2006, was desperately needed to keep ABC sports broadcasts from looking like cable games. It was very spiffy in its day, and until ESPN updated SportsCenter's graphics it was far spiffier than the studio show graphics that (except for GMC NBA Countdown on ABC) remained unchanged. Look at any ABC college football broadcast from 2006 to see how necessary it was. But it now looks behind the times.

Here's a mockup I did of what a new package might have looked like for March Madness. These aren't the exact fonts I envisioned - Arial Narrow and Calibri are the closest I have on my laptop - and I don't have anything more advanced than PowerPoint for spiffier effects, but you get the idea. It looks pretty close to what I had in mind, with perhaps some scaffolding on the sides and clearer borders between elements, popping in with a flash of light and color, and all looking very elegant.
What ESPN actually came up with, as debuting on NBA broadcasts this week,was somewhat similar to what I had in mind... but I sure as hell wasn't anticipating basically a straight rip of the MNF graphics, complete with "all information in the bottom space" gimmick. Especially given the new graphics ESPN had introduced for tennis, which was my main inspiration for the above.

There are two major differences with the MNF graphics that work to its detriment; while they may serve to mark MNF's version as the strip ESPN wants to make feel special (see the "orb" of 2006-07), they also serve to make it look like crap. First, rather than reserve the entire bottom of the screen for graphics, ESPN is throwing all graphics, including its score banner, into a simple rectangle, which merely changes its size as various elements pop in and out. It looks less elegant when it has to stand alone. But perhaps more importantly - and comprehensible for other sports but less so for the NBA, which lacks a BottomLine unless it's bumped to the Deuce - the bottom line, the part either reading "NBA Wednesday" or showing stats, does not utilize the space that would be used by the BottomLine. Those two elements combine to make it look like a two-line strip, which makes it look bulkier. The use of what appears to be Arial or Helvetica for the bottom line reading "NBA Wednesday" (a possible holdover from the old strip) doesn't help.

That mockup I did above? Comes from before the new SportsCenter package debuted. I'd have come up with something very different after I got a good look at the new SportsCenter graphics. Since 2006 ESPN's game graphics have looked spiffier than its studio show graphics. That relationship may now be reversing. Incidentially, across all its platforms, I wonder what ESPN's most watched shows are, games or studio shows?

It'll look relatively nice on ABC, and in some ways it's a throwback to the strip used in the last year of ABC Sports (remember those atrocious numbers? I think I blocked them out)...

...but I can't help but think they could have done a lot better. The single method for showing the score going to and coming back from break was needed, but it kinda makes ESPN look cheap. At any rate it's odd that they would choose the instant of the introduction of the new SportsCenter graphics for the new strip, especially with no other ESPN studio shows, including NBA ones, adopting the new graphics yet; the new NBA graphics not looking anything like the SportsCenter graphics; and the BottomLine's graphical update lasting all of a morning. Couldn't they have waited, say, two weeks for the playoffs like they did when they introduced the gold border to the NBA strip? (And counting that border, ABC's streak of never having the same graphics for the Finals in two consecutive years continues!)

(I may try to watch GMC NBA Countdown on Sunday to see the new graphics in a studio show context...)

While we're in ESPN-land, it appears Sports Media Watch has been horning in on my turf! SMW has been giving full coverage to the rollout of the new SportsCenter graphics, going so far as to get quotes from ESPN spokesmen. (Bloggers doing actual exclusive reporting, and not just one of the big blogs like Deadspin or Fanhouse either? Shock! Horror!) And SMW has just reported the official explanation for the new BottomLine disappearing: "technical complications". I guess I can buy that explanation. A few seconds into its existence, on ESPN, the new BottomLine started fritzing out and going into a short loop, then disappeared for a while. It made another disappearing act later as well, and I wouldn't be surprised if ESPN were fitting it out with new functionality, such as showing the time during ESPN2's morning shows, "SportsCenter on this other channel" in the same space (I saw "Baseball Tonight on ESPN2" on Monday in fact), various alerts moving into the space such as "BREAKING NEWS", "PROGRAM ALERT", or Baseball Tonight's "TODAY'S SCORES AND HOME RUNS", or appropriating it for ESPN's 18/58 updates.

But if all of those were already ready (or in the case of the first, discarded), the BottomLine seemed to be working pretty well aside from occasional glitches, and if they weren't ready that's pretty short-sighted. At any rate, why is it taking so long? And how much testing of the BottomLine did they do, anyway?

I'm going to be finding the timetable of rollout of the new graphics very interesting, at any rate. According to the more recent SMW post there's "no timetable" for rollout of the new game graphics, but based on past experiences I would be surprised if it didn't hew to the following timetable: baseball no later than the start of next season (both ESPN and FSN have been known to make midseason updates to graphics, ESPN for the c. 2004 update, but on the other hand in 2007 Fox didn't update its graphics to conform to the new NFL style by then adopted by NASCAR even for the postseason), golf possibly as soon as the US Open but maybe not until the British or even next year, NASCAR and the Indy 500... see Part II, horse racing either this year or next (mayyyybe for the Breeder's Cup), college sports are more likely to see a rollout sooner than last time given the time frame but the main determining factor may be whether ESPN is pressured to move the BCS to/keep it on ABC after next year (a boy can dream), most other sports next year, soccer maybe never.

It's getting late, so although I had something more comprehensive in mind, that'll wait for later.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Apparently the ball's in my court now. But I wonder if it ruined the original plan.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized bedtime story.)

If you're here for Sandsday's Global Warming series this post will make no sense.

So I finally got around to coming up with an idea for an OOTS post that didn't require me to constantly put out updates on the current state of the strip, especially important with how slow the strip has updated over the past month-plus. (About two strips a week by my calculations.) And I get completely distracted with research for the activities going on in Sandsday now, so I only get around to actually writing it when I'm more than a week behind schedule. I may lay off on the webcomic posts for the rest of the month and return only for OOTS towards the end.

So let's go back, back in time, before any of the events covered in the strip itself, before even the events (well, most of them; again, I don't actually have either of them) in the prequel books.

To the beginning of the OOTS-verse? Hardly. To the end of the group generally known (but in-strip only by a strip title) as the Order of the Scribble, when the gates were freshly sealed and all that was left was to decide how to protect them.

Each of the five surviving members of the group has their own ideas for how to protect the gates, and the disagreement becomes so acrimonious that it's a couple seconds away from bloodshed when Serini proposes a compromise. Each member retires to the site of one of the gates and protects that gate in their own way. Soon protects his gate with the honor of his paladins, Girard with his illusions, and so on. That's pretty much familiar to OOTS fans, and important for understanding the entire plot, including events still to come.

Serini also proposes a non-interference clause, that her soon-to-be-former teammates agree not to interfere in each other's gates. "We'll set up some kind of monitoring divination to tell if someone else's gate is broken, but that's it. No spying, no 'just checking in' visits, no nothing." The clear fear is that someone might visit someone else's gate and pick up with the fighting to impose their method of protection on the gate, or at least tell them how to run it.

Much as it tries, I don't think strip #277 does a good job dramatizing the conflict between the Scribblers at this point, devoting only two and a half panels to it; Shojo's narration almost seems to glide right past it, but it contains clues that the former teammates are almost downright enemies at this point, intending to impose their will on the others by any means necessary and burning with hatred, which is why I'd be shocked not to see one of the remaining prequels devoted to the Scribblers. So Serini's non-interference clause is an enforced cease-fire: each member gets their own domain. Any member entering the borders of that domain is effectively invading, possibly even declaring war. This is a protection against anyone destroying a gate's protection out of spite or at least interfering in how it's run. Because the members vow not even to contact each other, they have no way of knowing whether or not another member is coming in peace - repeated subsequent mutual violations of the oath by Dorukan and Lirian aside.

I explain all this because understanding it is especially important for understanding subsequent events - especially when it comes to judging Shojo, and whether the ends really did justify the means.

First, we have to ask the question: does Serini's non-interference clause hinder the effort to protect the gates against a threat that might attempt to unlock one gate, then another, then another? In theory, no. That's why Serini slipped in the "monitoring divination" to alert the others if one of the gates gets cracked: so that the remaining members could potentially buttress their own defenses, or possibly even send in their own protection.

The problem in hindsight is that the divination doesn't appear to provide details. Shojo had to send paladins to investigate the destruction of Lirian's Gate, and scried to take a look at the ruins of Dorukan's dungeon, and neither told him anything useful - certainly not as much as an unplanned visit from Eugene Greenhilt did. Shojo couldn't publicly use the information he picked up from Eugene, as it was basically hearsay, but he could bring the Order of the Stick in on trumped-up charges to talk things over, and establish the threat to the other gates more clearly.

What the Order of the Stick can do that the Sapphire Guard can't is check on the status of the other two gates, so the next question we need to ask to understand what's going on is: Why does Shojo feel the need to do that? What, exactly, does Shojo hope to gain from it?

Shojo tells Roy that "Without concrete evidence of a threat to all the gates, [the paladins] wouldn't consider checking on the other two." Because the first they hear of Xykon and Redcloak is from the OOTS themselves, and that only establishes that they were responsible for what happened at Dorukan's Gate (not necessarily Lirian's), and the only way Shojo knows that Xykon is still out there and still a threat is because Eugene told him, for all they know the destruction of the two gates were isolated incidents and have no bearing on the other three.

Presumably the other two gates, having their own divinations, are aware of what happened to those first two gates and made their own investigations - though given Girard's age and race it's unlikely he's still alive to stand guard at his Gate to respond to them, and therefore unclear whether anyone is - but it's impossible to know that for certain, or what they found out, or what preparations they might be making, or whether that's sufficient. So the first part of what Shojo wants the Order of the Stick to do upon reaching one of the gates is to find out if they can corroborate that there's still a standing threat out there, to tell them what Shojo and the OOTS already know but can't tell the paladins.

But Shojo wasn't around when the Order of the Scribble broke up. He doesn't see why the proprietors of each gate can't support each other. If for whatever reason, say, Girard's Gate isn't set up to defend itself from Xykon and his minions, why shouldn't Shojo send support? After all, the fate of the world is at stake, right? So the second, more implicit, part of sending the OOTS is to stall for time: make sure that Xykon doesn't achieve his goal before Shojo can learn a damned thing about him. (Besides, what better way to corroborate that Xykon's still a threat than a second round of first-hand evidence?) In fact, one gets the impression that - at least from Roy's perspective ("the week AFTER we finish off Xykon") - the real purpose of the investigation is not really "investigation" but nipping the problem in the bud. That's why Roy goes to the Oracle first to make sure the OOTS go to the right gate, not just pick one of the gates at random.
All that means that when Roy subsequently accidentially rules out Soon's Gate as a choice when asking the Oracle which gate Xykon will attack? It's not really his fault. If it's anyone's fault, it's Shojo's.

The Order of the Stick wasn't hired to defend Soon's Gate, yet - even if Shojo isn't confident in the ability of his paladins to handle the situation, he doesn't have enough concrete evidence to make any preparations for battle. Shojo hired them to go out to another gate, come back, inform Shojo of the situation, and then Shojo could use that evidence to make sure the Sapphire Guard was ready. Shojo doesn't really have a quicker path, so whether or not he'd considered the possibility that Xykon might attack his own gate while the OOTS were investigating another was kind of irrelevant, unless the kind of evidence he had in mind was the aforementioned first-hand evidence. In any case, he has an early-warning system, right?

In that sense, even before her attempt at redemption, Miko is really the savior of Azure City and perhaps the world, because she, not the OOTS, meets Xykon first-hand and warns of the coming invasion, even if it was in Xykon's plans all along. In fact, if Shojo was confident in his paladins' ability to handle the situation, it was well founded, because ultimately, the Order of the Stick has no impact on the operative part of the battle, for the gate, and if they have any it's negative, by giving Hinjo someone to talk to about the gate's location and be accidentially overheard by Xykon and Redcloak making their battle plans. Here's a summary of how that part goes down:

Yes, Xykon does get decloaked because of Haley's quick thinking, and slowed down by Roy, but Xykon just kills him and makes for the tower anyway. (Incidentially, re-reading the former strip for this post was the first time I ever really realized that "Team Evil" is in fact used in-strip.) I doubt the Sapphire Guard really needed Roy, or even Xykon's decloaking, to help them stall for time and get set up - they were likely ready before the battle started, and it doesn't do them much good anyway. So the gate is effectively saved by the ghosts of paladins past attacking Xykon, and Xykon struggling to hold them off until Redcloak shows up - and Redcloak, incidentially, shows up because a catapult shot, not one of the OOTS, killed a hobgoblin, and despite an attempt at a diversion from Haley, he runs basically unopposed into the castle.

Redcloak comes up with a plan that mostly succeeds in taking out the ghosts with the exception of Soon himself, who has Xykon and Redcloak on the ropes when Miko shows up and blows the gate - and how does Miko break out of prison? Tsukiko (who has zero interaction with any of the OOTS except irrelevant interaction with Belkar until the current book) causes enough damage to the prison for Nale to break the Linear Guild out and leave Miko alone, which also happens to be enough damage for Miko to make her own escape - again, zero OOTS involvement. Unless you want to count what Miko overheard that led her to lump Shojo in with the alleged OOTS-Xykon conspiracy and resulted in Shojo's death - again, making matters worse from the outset, but if Miko doesn't end up in prison, skip the first phase of the battle for the tower, and end up blowing the gate, and instead gets afflicted by the Symbol of Insanity or maybe joins O-Chul in the first attempt to blow the gate, then Soon's plan works, Xykon and Redcloak are destroyed, and the plot cuts short right then and there.

As for the rest of the battle, Team Evil wins pretty handily there, with the effect that the non-Roy OOTS contingent is pretty much lucky to be alive, so the OOTS weren't much help there either. The OOTS, effectively, were spectators for most of the battle. The OOTS take out the first-round elementals but not without them blowing a hole in the wall (so the goblinoids would have won the battle that much quicker), Roy slowed down Xykon, Vaarsuvius put up a defense at the breach (which kills hobgoblins but ultimately just plays into Team Evil's hands), Belkar saves Hinjo from an assassination attempt, Roy saves Vaarsuvius from one of the Xykon-decoys, Belkar takes out another decoy and uses it to take out more hobgoblins, V is helpless when everyone files into the breach (and V ultimately causes more deaths on the Azure side), Durkon saves Hinjo from another assassination attempt, and Elan saves their butts by convincing the hobgoblins they're all dead. So the OOTS cause more damage to Team Evil's side and save Hinjo's life multiple times, but ultimately have next to no real effect on Team Evil's plans until Haley starts resisting, and even then it's minimal until whatever point that the city is retaken. What effect they do have, as outlined above, is negative.

Shojo didn't need the OOTS to defend Soon's Gate (if anything he would have been better off with them elsewhere), and they weren't of any use in defending the city, except that the Sapphire Guard's situation would have been far worse if Hinjo had followed Shojo to the grave. Likely the city would have been left in the hands of someone like Kubota even after whatever point the city got retaken, but that assumes both Shojo and Hinjo were taken out in the middle of battle, hardly a sure thing especially with Shojo's deception and age requiring him to take a passive role.

There's one other thing we need to consider, and that's the fact the Sapphire Guard doesn't disseminate any information about how the other gates are defended to its paladins, something that makes no sense to Redcloak. That, it's made clear, is the non-interference clause rearing its ugly head again, because if each gate defense group knew the details of the other gate defenses they could exploit any weaknesses in them. Since they're not going to be contacting each other, they have no need to know each other's defenses anyway. And although it might appear from this post that the non-interference clause hindered the goal of protecting the gates from threat in the long run (ie, now), it's here that it provides one advantage: keeping important information from falling into the wrong hands. Redcloak attempts to interrogate O-Chul into learning the secrets of Girard's Gate, but it ain't gonna work.

(This also makes clear that although Redcloak has extensively read Serini's diary, it hasn't provided him with this end of the story, the exact reason why the Scribblers took one gate per member and defended them so differently, and why they haven't come out in force to crush him already. He's just been an unwilling beneficiary - and victim - of it.)

Serini's compromise is arguably one of the major driving forces of the entire plot of OOTS, at least following the destruction of Dorukan's Gate, and it's interesting that both Shojo and Redcloak have essentially discounted it out of a lack of knowledge and appreciation for the exact circumstances (or in Redcloak's case, knowledge of the compromise at all). That suggests that if and when we do get a prequel book on the Order of the Scribble, we should take it as a sign that someone that does have such an appreciation is coming soon. In any case, there's a pretty good chance we can expect it to rear its ugly head again at the remaining two gates and send the plot off in directions currently unexpected.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Short enough to be a tweet. Or not.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Global Warming Series Open Thread

I'm trying to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt where global warming stands scientifically, good or bad, ideally resulting in a case the most hardcore partisan couldn't ignore, and I don't want to leave any information on the table. So leave a comment here, or e-mail me at mwmailsea at yahoo dot com, if you have any counterarguments or new information in response to the arguments already presented (with an emphasis on today's strip, whatever strip that may be) that doesn't duplicate one of my existing sources, as listed below.

UPDATE 4/12/2009: I'm no longer specifically checking my e-mail for new global warming information; use this thread instead. See this post for details.

It's possible I may miss something that actually is in one of the sources, and one of the sources is so goldanged long there's no way I'd get through it all myself, so I'd also be up to being referred to any information already in the sources, and feel free to debate the other side's information and arguments as well instead of waiting for me.

Supporting the global warming theory:

Opposing the global warming theory:
This last source is so long and thorough I don't really have time to go through it all, so you can duplicate links from there.

Blog of Webcomics' Identity Crisis: The Future of Print

Excellent article on issues surrounding print comic books if forced to move to the web by some of the same market forces afflicting newspapers.

Odd, very odd.

Want to know why today's strip is so late?

I was preparing for various extraneous things related to the strip (including the basis for what I hope will be a long-term traffic influx) a little after 1 when I dozed off.

When I woke up, it was almost 4.

And that was only the beginning of the madness.

I don't know if it's the universe telling me not to launch into this project I'm about to launch into or not... either way, expect the strip to be posted at 9 or 10 AM PT the rest of the week.

Monday, April 6, 2009

One more sports note.

Versus has been getting rave reviews (when they've been getting reviews at all) for their IRL coverage.

Me? I can never make a judgment on how good a broadcast is unless it's egregiously bad.

So I can't get past Versus' ridiculous "Transformers" intro.

Miscellaneous Notes on ESPN's New Graphics

The death of ESPN2 continues. At least on the SD feed, even the BottomLine is marked as simply "ESPN". About the only indication that this channel is not ESPN is when programs are promoted as being on ESPN2.

A bit odd seeing the new BottomLine alongside the old graphics on Mike and Mike and First Take on ESPN2. Apparently the new graphics will be starting out on SportsCenter only, and ESPN will effectively have three graphics packages: one for SportsCenter, one for games, and one for other studio shows. (I haven't seen any studio shows since First Take, though.)

Funny story on the BottomLine. The old BottomLine was changed shortly after its introduction, at least in SD; apparently the first version wasn't legible enough. For that reason, whenever changing to a new topic, such as from "NFL" to "GOLF", the BottomLine would show a scroll of four sports - with each pair of sports separated by space enough for another sport.

The new BottomLine is actually designed for the font size it's using, which shouldn't be too much of a problem, if at all, compared to the old version - except they found space for a larger, less scrunched font for the sport identifier, and now the sport-switch graphic shows six or so sports. It's also less utilitarian and square, but it's not really obvious that it's a parallelogram.

Though I liked when the old BottomLine would shrink the size of the score in order to show stats, and it looks like that's not happening anymore...

Here's the funny part: I only saw the morning SportsCenter with its PTI-style rundown, but I suspect the new main graphics for SportsCenter will attract its own concerns of having too small a font size!