May 2008 Archives

mac modbook 06

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This thing is perfect for grab and go sketching. On a Saturday morning if I decided to run out to Barnes and Noble for coffee and some quick on paper sketching, I'd need to grab my sketch book, some tools: either pens, pencils, brushes, or, to be ready for anything, a complete bag of tools. I'd be concerned about the space my set up would take as well as the mess the dust, ink or water might make. With the modbook, I grabbed one article; and to be fair, it needed to be charged, but there was no other rooting around and packing. Once I sat to sketch, I was compact and mobile. If I wanted to change my point of view I could do so easily, without packing up pencils, pens, inks, or what ever. Could students use it to sketch plants in the field? or fossils on location? or the position and location of artifacts at an archaeology dig? All without carrying and fretting over the complete drawing set.

Bookstore line up. In my last modbook post I mentioned needing more rapid, plein aire practice. This session was just that; practice. I hit quite a few clunkers, but I'm moving forward. My pencil skills in this type of work are greatly lacking, so I don't think any of the clunkers were caused by the instrument. This first sketch took just a couple of minutes- visual notes, actually. I'm okay with it and think that this much information could be built into something useful. It was easy, and my impact on my surroundings was minimal.

Coffee patron.I noticed another old guy who seemed to be sketching, and thought it would be interesting to spend a little bit more time on a drawing of him. Again, I'm happy with the modbook's performance. I've noticed that I have to use more pressure than I should to start a stroke, and faint, soft strokes aren't getting picked up. There are settings for "Tip softness" in the tablet control panel that I thought I'd set correctly. I need to see what I'm doing wrong. The modbook only (only?) has 500 or so levels of pressure whereas my regular desktop tool has 1000. Maybe the pressure setting is a result of that difference? Not a big deal- just something to learn about and adapt to if necessary.

Oddly, one benefit of this rig that I haven't really taken a big advantage of is the varied capabilities of Photoshop. As I'm drawing, there's a purist of some sort in me that says I have to treat these tools like their analog equivalents. That means no opacity controls, no filling, no pasting, nothing that I couldn't do with paper. What an idiot I am. I guess the equivalent for others might be picking up and repositioning the pen at document edges as if it was a mouse. Even though I want to be cavalier and insist that my experience with wacom tablets makes me immune to vestigial input behaviors- I'm not. I need practice and pushing as much as anyone. Using a font on the sign was a complete afterthought. It didn't even occur to me when I sketched at the TLT Talk.

Incidentally, I mentioned making sure I had a full battery. My other experiments with a Titanium and external Wacom tablet would end after ten to fifteen minutes when I ran out of juice. After this session, I was still at 58% power, and I haven't had any issues with insufficient power.

Apple Camp tweeked.

Please bear with me on this one. It seemed like an interesting observation, and a good example of something- though I'm not exactly sure what. I'm reviewing the Apple Camp pages at the Apple web site. When the page opened, I was surprised to see a page that looked distinctly non-Apple. The logo was there, but I felt like it was lying. Since the page is for a camp aimed at kids from 8 to 12, I would assume a slightly different approach from Apple. Add the reality that the page really has to appeal to parents, and I get another another twinge of disbelief.

Realize, too, that my disbelief and discomfort happened almost instantaneously when the page opened. That's the power of very simple, very subtle design decisions and execution. Here's the kicker. The page as it appears above is my version after I corrected a few glaring errors that I couldn't take my eyes off of. The real page is the one below. Can you see the difference? Slight, really.

Apple Camp.

Perhaps you'll like the second, "real" Apple version best. That's fine- there's certainly no right or wrong, unless you can agree with my design dialect and speak with the same accent. The over all design seemed different for Apple, but I couldn't get my eyes off of the off-center logo and "Camp" text on the sign. Then I noticed the grain of the "wood" runs across the sky between the sign and the post. And by the time the page had been up for a second or two, the dullness -the depressing quality- of the colors started to have a negative impact. In the upper image I corrected things to my own satisfaction, pretty much just so I could understand what was going on.

Was it just too early in the day?

mac modbook 05

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The TLT Talk. I wondered how the modbook would work "under pressure"- like as a court reporting tool or as a visual note taker. I took the modbook to the TLT Talk hoping to generate a few images on the fly- moments captured that could illustrate a post or stand alone as editorial drawings. The modbook was okay; I didn't use it very well, though. I've already seen that lighting can have an impact on the ease and effectiveness of drawing; lighting conditions at an event are a pretty big gamble. The lights were a bit bright in 141 Computer Building, leaving my screen dark with lots of image hiding glare. I think that if I needed to rely on it, though, I could get enough information in similar situations to produce something usable. Especially if I had time for touchups after returning to my office.

Even though I would call the drawing an embarrassing failure, the experience was a good one. I don't draw in front of people, don't like being watched, and am painfully out of practice drawing from life. With a bit more personal effort improving my performance in each of these, I think I may be able to show the modbook to be a useful, portable, and powerful tool.

I'll work on the drawing from life thing. This is too embarrassing.

mac modbook 04

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Some disconnected notes:

• Some users may be put off by drawing on a slick surface. The screen is a slightly frosted piece of glass- frosted enough to diminish the spread of fingerprints and goo but not enough to soften the image or provide much real "tooth." The work-around some use with a standard tablet is to place a piece of paper on it. Obviously, the same thing wouldn't work here. I'd suggest diving in and getting used to it. Won't take very long.

• I'm growing more accustomed to the miniature on-screen keyboard provided by the Modbook software. I'm getting faster, and I've discovered that quite a few of the two-key shortcuts that I thought were off-limits are actually usable: the command and option keys both stay down when first clicked and allow a second key to be clicked. That means when I usually hit command-j to float a selection to a new layer, I can hit the command key then the j key for the same effect. Sweet epiphany!

• Currently there's a small but growing on-line community in the Axiotron Forum. There are 41 posts under "Arts", 38 under "Healthcare" and none under "Architecture and Design."

• There are a number of Psychologists interested in modbook notetaking. Some have mentioned iDictate. Though still imperfect, they claim it's much better than iListen, ViaVoice and MacSpeech. I believe iDictate is a PC app, and they may be referring to Dictate. Obviously there's some name ambiguity that needs to be sorted out later. These aspects of the tablet's use are not really something my background would lend any insight to.

• Architecture and design may be somewhat confounded by the difficulty of making straight, precise strokes. I've tried a padded ruler and the cursor offset makes it very difficult to get good results.

• The pen buttons can be programmed to a limited degree. I've added the side button's upper end as a "modifier" then chose the "Shift" key. When I start a stroke then click the button, it's like holding the shift key down and strokes are constrained to horizontal or vertical. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to use the shift functionality of connecting click points with straight strokes. There's a problem invoking the shift key with the side button before the pen makes a click.

• Programming the pen, like building surfaces and brushes in a graphics app are important points of exploration. Neither are limited to just the modbook, but are important to standard tablet users as well.

mac modbook 03

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Pastel of apricots.Talking about drawing has always been difficult for me; I have trouble describing the process, the thoughts and sensations, what I see. With this computer image, when I had almost reached this stage in the drawing, I stepped back a bit to look. I had made a "brush" in Photoshop that let me render a stroke that looked close to my own pastel stroke. That brush was represented by a small black spot that was still sitting on one of the rendered apricots. I bent over and tried to blow it off the surface. It was easy to become lost in this process.

For this image, I took the time to create a brush and to build a background that was more satisfying than a square of light- it looks a bit like the Canson paper that I usually use. I worked at about 67 percent, which appeared to me about the same size as the linked larger version of this thumbnail. It felt very familiar. When I work in pastel, I don't really know what I look at. Mostly I look at the subject. When I look at the image, I don't focus so much on the point where my pastel is hitting the paper but at a point, well, on some imaginary plain in my minds eye. Using the computer and steering a cursor directly on screen let me do that. And satisfyingly so.

So I'm thinking, if you draw, you'll be able to do this. If you don't draw, it has immediacy and the direct access to the computer drawing tools, but the true worth (at least as I'm seeing it) may not be realized. I'd be interested in hearing other reactions. Sketch of me in a mirror. Certainly, a designer could use a modbook for layout. The size, though, is very limiting: I think the screen is 1280X800. Designers may benefit more from the Cintiq- a combination tablet-monitor from Wacom that comes in larger sizes. It also comes in a twelve inch- so conceivably you could use the twelve with a laptop and have access to a real keyboard. I have to add that a missing keyboard, in the heat of working, was easy enough to adapt to.

I also tried a pencil sketch while looking in the mirror. Sorry, I know it's scary; I see it every day. Like the apricots, this drawing completely absorbed me. I didn't even realize how heavy the modbook was becoming until I sat the thing down and tried to straighten my arm. Maybe by tomorrow.

mac modbook 02

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Campus tree.My first use of color was a mess. I mentioned the difficulty I had seeing the screen while sketching outside- for grayscale sketching, seeing the cursor and judging values is difficult. For judging colors, though, it's nearly impossible. I had to rely heavily on my memory of past uses of the color picker. This was done at 50% in the screen window- the size it will appear if you load the larger version. Not very satisfying, and far less so once I see the thing on my regular machine. I did manage to get a general sense of what I wanted, and for the first time separated elements with layers. I did this standing, and hurried- but that's no excuse. Just remember what I said about this stuff being a technical benchmark.

To be a valid benchmark, though, I need to try to set up otherwise ideal circumstances and see how effective my work can be relying on this Modbook. I'll go do that now...

And some unrelated observations...

• The screen is far too small. When I installed Creative Suite 3, I was given a warning dialog that said my monitor resolution was far below recommended sizes and I should upgrade before continuing with the CS3 install. I have ample real estate on my regular machine- two 19" cinemas- and I use it all. The smallness of the Modbook makes me think in terms of notecards and vest pocket sketchpads. That leads to pigeon holing the thing as a preliminary sketch tool rather than something for finished work. I'll have to experiment with the scale that I work at. Possibly zooming in and panning will be a better work flow, though I normally do that with the keyboard while drawing..

• A number of times I've found myself unable to hit the menu bar with the cursor while in Photoshop. It's possible to expand the "throw" of the cursor in the Tablet control panel available in the System Preference pane. To calibrate, imagine that the cross hair is where the cursor will be in relation to the pen tip's position when you click it: at the upper left corner, click five or so pixels below the cross hair. At the bottom right, five or so pixels above.

mac modbook 01

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I've managed to get Photoshop installed, and have a good bit of experimenting ahead of me. At a quieter moment I'll spend some time building the more complex brushes that I'd like to use, but for now, I want to start building my eye-hand coordination. Calculus notes. Most people that hear about computers with tablets get psyched to find out about note taking and math notation. To them, I have to say yes; you can do that with the Modbook. But just like a paper tablet- this tablet has no idea what the notes mean or what the notation represents. This image is my first use of the tablet with Photoshop. It looks pretty much just like my high school calculus notes. Mostly doodling in the margins.

Even though the image is juvenile and was intended to be a goof, I have a few quick observations from the session. The modbook doesn't seem to have the horse power to keep the cursor right under a fast moving pen. There's just enough delay in the stroke that it feels like using a ball point pen that has the ball attached on a short rubberband. This note page was generated using the brush tool in Photoshop with a few random, complex brush settings applied that may make the cursor a bit slower to respond. The computer needs to do quite a bit of processing to determine what my complex stroke will look like as the pen moves and pressure changes. The pen and tablet respond to pressure; something a TabletPC is incapable of. Also, I really miss the keyboard. Undo, select all, deselect, swap colors- all are instinctive and exist as short muscle impulses in my left hand. As I mentioned before, the modbook is a solid one piece unit, with the "monitor" sitting where the keyboard once was.

This morning was so nice that I thought that it would be a good time to try sketching outside. I headed over to Stone Valley and made a short stop on the ridge top for a sketch. Calculus notes. Even though the tablet feels heavy when standing in the office, out in the field it didn't seem different than the box of pastels or board that I normally hold. My biggest shock came from something regular laptop users are probably used to: direct sunlight makes the drawing surface almost unreadable. Like drawing with two pairs of sunglasses on. I opened the power settings and made sure the battery was set for performance rather than longevity. It was great to see that after twenty minutes, I still had enough power to try something in the shade over in Stone Valley.

With the ridgetop sketch and then this quick one, I noticed that my strokes are fairly coarse. And I haven't yet really taken advantage of the fact that I'm on a computer and in Photoshop. This has so far been a matter of just replicating Calculus notes. a normal, charcoal sketching experience without the smearing. I have to add that it's as enjoyable being out sketching on the Modbook as it always has been sketching with a sketchpad and pencil.

The drawings that I'm posting would never go public as "drawings" but as investigative benchmarks they'll serve nicely. I'll continue with updates like this. At the end of June I'll try to piece together a usable report. Keep in mind that there's a lot going on- I'm not just trying a gadget. I'd like to become effective with the tool, and not only make use of its rendering capabilities but push some of the digital aspects, too; whatever that means. I've always been interested in what computer art looks like. We know what a pastel looks like and a water color- pastels are particularly effective at looking like pastels, but can also look like water colors. What are the characteristics of immediate tablet-artist interactions? What nature of illustration would lead me to grab the Modbook over silverpoint, or pastel, or collage? What scale is best? Should I attach a keyboard or let the no-keyboard status effect the way I work?

Possibly ten years using a Wacom tablet will give me a unique perspective on this thing's use. So far, the problems seem minor, and the potential unlimited.

mac modbook, preface

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Over the next month I'd like to report on the use of a "Modbook". The Mac Modbook is a third party mashup of a Wacom tablet and a small 13 inch MacBook. It's a single unit that lets you draw directly on screen. I'm interested primarily in the Modbook as a field tool for any discipline that requires field sketching: drawing and design, of course, but architecture and botany, too. Unfortunately, I still don't have software that responds to pressure sensitive pen strokes (ie, Photoshop, Flash); I do have Ink, though; so while I wait for something useful, I can get some unpleasantries out of the way.

I'm thrilled
there's no duct tape to be seen on this third party product.
First, if using a pressure sensitive pen to input naturalistic, antialiased brushstrokes into a drawing application doesn't excite the heck out of you, you may prefer a Tablet PC for mathematics written, and even recorded, on a Connect whiteboard. Or, you might just need a visual demonstration of what naturalistic antialiased brushstrokes are, and a little practice time to familiarize yourself with the tool. I'm up for the latter, but need to get software first.

Second, the Modbook doesn't have a keyboard. There's a little screen utility that comes with it that lets you "type" on a screen keyboard using the pen. For many purposes, that's probably good enough. For most drawing uses, though, designers use the pen in one hand and hit keyboard shortcuts with the other. They might hold the shift key while drawing to constrain the angle and "straightness" of a line; or hit "x" to toggle between colors, "B" for a brush, or "Command-z" to un-do. Having to pause and pull down a menu really breaks your rhythm and the toggle on the pen doesn't allow the wealth of programmable strokes that's needed.

Macs ship with Ink, software that recognizes hand printed input and converts it to machine readable text. It's a clever idea. My experience so far using it on the Modbook is that no one should rely on it except in extreme circumstances. I'm good at hand printing, do it regularly, and have experience with a Wacom pen. I found the input to be tedious at best, intrusive and annoying in the long run. If you have a Mac, chances are you can launch the application and try it with your mouse- you'll get a sense of the software's capabilities and its worth. Open the Ink control panel from your system preferences.

Finally, there's also a bit of a problem with "offset". By that I mean where the cursor is in relation to where you see the tip of the pen. I don't experience any offset at all with my standard tablet; but with my regular tool, I never see the pen tip- only the cursor it's piloting. With the Modbook, the cursor is about an eighth of an inch below the pen tip. That's "below" as in deeper into the picture plain. And with a brisk stroke, somewhat behind the pen, too. When you start using the Modbook, you "calibrate" the pen; meaning, you use the pen utility to tell the computer where you see the tip in relation to where you see the cursor. The Modbook software has you click the center of a cross in the upper left corner, then the center of a cross in the lower right and it figures out just where your eyeball is. I would prefer the cursor always be directly underneath my pen with no "computer enhanced" sense of parallax; my own sensibilities take care of that, regardless of my viewing angle. Much better than the computer, I might add.

Bottom line- I'm thrilled there's no duct tape to be seen on this third party product. Any and all problems may be inconsequential after a bit of using this thing for what it was designed for. More on that as software allows...

whine list

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• Wouldn't it be great if, when we cut back to save our limited resources we weren't in danger of loosing our next year's budgetary allotment due to under spending? How about a line item that's accepted as a legitimate expenditure, that allows us to give year end saved budgetary dollars to a scholarship fund without penalizing our next year's budget? We have about enough new office chairs...

• Speaking of donations, since we can donate vacation time to needy colleagues and if we quit, we're paid for excess vacation time, why can't we donate a vacation day to the foodbank instead? Or cyclone relief. Or another scholarship fund. Penn State sends them the money they'd pay us. Without the benefits, of course.

• Instead of "Take our Daughters and Sons to Work Day" how about Send Your Kids to Work Week over the summer? Local high school kids shadow different employees for a week over the summer, getting a sense of the work, the university, and they build connections.

• Have you ever seen a corporation that advertises they hire women? How about a restaurant that says they serve blacks? It's embarrassing even writing those things. Stop talking about diversity. Stop acting out of guilt and just get on with doing what's right. "See? I didn't eat any cookies!" Indeed.

• In ten years I've never talked with anyone on any level who valued SRDPs. Penn State doesn't mandate their use and they live for a year in a drawer serving no purpose. You can give IBIS what IBIS needs without them. Or use our resources to create a valid and valued process...and get rid of SRDPs in the mean time.

• Is there a reason that we can't offer cell service instead of VOIP? I'm sure there must be, otherwise I wouldn't have this dinosaur on my desk.

• I think we should pay for coffee. I'd gladly pay more if the coffee was drinkable. Rich Coast has several types and grades of coffee. If we ask, they'll probably let us try samples so that we can pick a coffee we all like. Set up an account that we pay for directly from staff contributions.

• Volunteers are great; I love their spirit. Sometimes, however, to get things done, the best people need to be assigned. And making the assignations. Don't ask for volunteers unless the task has no stakes. This isn't summer camp.

I like this format. I'll have to do it again when the menu changes.

Recently I've been shown several instances of images that were made web-ready by Course Genie. There were some problems, and I think at least some of the difficulty comes from a misunderstanding of image resolution. Let me start by saying that setting an image's resolution in a graphics application does not in any way alter the way the image appears in a browser. I'm not talking about changing image dimensions with resampling- of course that would change the display- I'm talking about changing one number, the image resolution. That number is for print only; screen resolution is set in your display/monitor preference panel. Little lion cartoon figure. Don't believe me? This image is 100 pixels by 100 pixels, with the resolution set at 72dpi. When I look at it, I see it the same size in my browser as it is in Photoshop: about an inch square.

Now in the second image I'll adjust the resolution and raise it to 600dpi, still keeping the 100px by 100px dimensions. When I save it for the web, Little lion cartoon figure. I won't use the Save for Web dialog because that assumes all web images are 72 dpi; this JPEG image is saved with the 600 dpi resolution intact. Notice a difference? Right; it looks exactly the same.

Little lion cartoon figure. For this third image, let me really turn up the resolution, a really high res 1200dpi. Surprise! Same exact thing, right?

Remember I said that setting image resolution is for print. What that means is that if I take a 300 pixel wide image and set the resolution to 300dpi, that image will still be 300 pixels wide (about three inches) at 100% in Photoshop or on the web, but if I place the image in a print application like InDesign, Pagemaker, Quark or Illustrator, that image will appear to be one inch wide and will print exactly one inch wide. The application tries to make the image look like it will look when it's printed so that you can build a layout.

Word functions very much like a print application. Three images in a Word doc. If I place the three images, each with a different resolution, into Word, Word thinks I'm doing a print layout and uses the image resolution to display what I'll see when I print the page.

Here's where a problem with Course Genie shows up. If I took the 1200dpi image and placed it in my Word document, Word would scale it to it's print dimensions. So my high res photo looks like its just about the right size- about 6 pixels square. When the Genie creates a course though, it isn't creating a print course and it isn't a graphics application. The resolution mix up is easy to understand. Photoshop Save for Web assumes 72. When I made my initial Mac screen capture, my Mac set the image resolution at 72. When is the last time a Mac monitor had only 72 pixels in an inch? Was that an Apple III? Come on, no body bought those. My current monitor is set to 1920 X 1200. If I take out a ruler and measure the live area, it's 19.5 inches wide. Simple math tells me my screen resolution: 1920÷19.5 comes to 98.46 ppi. My Mac should know that. How hard would it be to tell users that they can control the size of stuff on their monitors by adjusting monitor resolution? The W3C even has it figured out. But, no matter... It takes the screen dimensions from your Word application, 6px by 6px, and uses that in the HTML image tag. The image in the image folder is still the same, though: it's 100 pixels wide and forces users to download far more than they can use or see. Imagine if the course contained lots of high resolution photos.

So the best advice here is to use a graphics application to scale all of your images to the proper viewing size and screen resolution before inserting them in your Word document if the Word doc will be used with Course Genie. Don't scale images in Word. And as an interesting note, Word assumes that if you use a GIF file, it will be for screen use. Regardless of the GIF's set print resolution, Word places GIF images at standard screen resolution. They own the format, they can do what they want.

alertbox

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Alert? Yeah right, Alert! another email from a crotchity old man... While I was writing the last post, Nielsen's Alertbox landed. People read 28% of web pages. Gee; how much of the Sears Catalog do they read? Whether folks read all of your page or not has so little to do with the web.

Nothing new here. Sometimes you write for people who read, sometimes you write for people who don't. Only the crafty can write for both.

CSYNY

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I've posted about Photosynth before. It's a technology that compiles multiple images from multiple points of view and generates one large interactive, navigable image of the entire space. Or something like that. When you have a moment, check the video at TED. They describe it as "jaw dropping". It is.

Why
weren't these kids home mashing up video?
But this isn't about photosynth really. It's about a TV program- CSY NY . It's not one I watch, though any show that uses Baba O'reilly as its theme music is at least worth a view for the first five minutes... Last year, the detective show featured Second Life in an episode. One of the detectives (the paraplegic from Forrest Gump) created an avatar and with the guidance of his faithful geek sidekick, chased a murder suspect in world. The use of the technology in a standard show was disorienting to me, but fascinating. Like breaking the fourth wall or something. But anyway, the show was popular and a second episode was done.

I just learned that the same program recently used Photosynth to compile crime solving images from cell phone photos taken at the crime scene. According to Microsoft press releases, the software "did its own stunts." There was no retouching and effects shots- the actors used and interacted with the software live.

I haven't watched the program yet. The episode, Admissions is available online- which seems fitting and much less jarring to my personal sense of order.

liquidResize

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Students on campus, original shot. There's a wealth of amazing work being done with imaging technologies. Right here on our campus there are folks working with image recognition technologies that are teaching computers what stuff looks like. Some of the amazing technologies are finding there way to market; which means non-technical people like me get to use relatively non-technical versions. Yay.

Liquid dialog. Lately I've spotted newbie questions on design forums that want to know, simply put, how to change the proportions of an image when resizing without distorting the image. It seems to be fairly common, so when I saw an opportunity to try new software that claims to do just that- I grabbed it. Liquid Resize has received great press, has demonstrated amazing capabilities, and offers a free, 90-day fully functional trial.

I grabbed the campus photo shown at the top and opened it in Liquid Resize as my first experiment. The software only seemed to be able to open jpegs and couldn't open the first TIFF version. In my first attempt I used the brush tool to mask out what I wanted to keep. Then I set the needed end size as something completely different- a vertical instead of a horizontal with one dimension larger and one smaller.

The application chugged for a bit with my steam-powered processor, then turned out results not nearly as nice as the demos that I've seem. Still, just doing this with the computer doing the looking and judging is pretty amazing, I think. A human newbie, at this stage of product development, could probably beat it using Photoshop. And maybe another hour or so.

Liquid dialog. With my second attempt, I used the Liquid Resize brush to mask out what I didn't need. For my target dimensions, I left the height unchanged, but entered a narrower width. Again, a less than stellar image resulted, but this seemed a bit better than a few amateur Photoshop attempts that I've seen. I'm impressed. I understand this sort of tool needs crafting and the crafting will come with more use. Best of luck and best wishes to the folks at onOne Software.

I have to admit, too, that I started using this thing right out of the box. I didn't read directions or even think too hard about what the machine may need to produce optimal results. Maybe I'll spend a small amount of time on it- after all, my skills are crafted by use, too. Just right now, there's no way I'd use the thing for professional work. Maybe in a few years when machines have gotten better and I've gotten worse.

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April 18, Symposium 2009; reimagine.
New content. Symposium 2008.Digital Commons at Penn State. Improve the workplace; hire for variety.

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