Saturday, May 16, 2015

Song long, and thanks for all the fish

So after five years of blogging at It's All Huttese to Me, this journey has ended. I've found some new companions for my party and our adventures will continue at Central Nerdvous System. Central Nerdvous System will maintain the commitment to original editorial content of It's All Huttese to Me, with a more frequent and regular posting schedule, more viewpoints, and more academic focus. What can you expect at Central Nerdvous System? Look forward to increased coverage of indie games and comics and an interview with Hugo Award-winning author Joe Haldeman!

It's All Huttese to Me will remain hosted here on Blogspot. All published entries here will remain viewable.

Thank you to everyone who's accompanied us on the journey. Just as the story of Arthur Dent in The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy moved from the earth to the stars, we're dreaming of something bigger and better, and I hope you'll join us at Central Nerdvous System!

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

- Sophie Ding

It's All Huttese to Me, 2010 - 2015

Monday, April 20, 2015

Internal competition in orchestras, sports, and professional kitchens

For a while now, I have wished for a manga about being in an orchestra. This is not because of an obsession for classical music, but because of my belief, through years of first-hand experience, that a student orchestra with at least 20% skilled players is the most competitive group environment in the world.

Sports would seem an obvious choice for a competitive atmosphere. However, orchestra is even more intense and stressful. When you are a member of a sports team, you are above all trying to ensure the victory for the team as a whole. A standard situation: In basketball or soccer, a player might be X feet away from the basket/goal. If he shoots from where he is, he'll have a 80% chance of scoring and taking individual glory. If he passes to his teammate, the chance of scoring is 95. He is expected to pass and probably will.

However, this concept of sharing so the group is the best does not exist in orchestra. In an orchestra, the way to get the group to be better is to simply try as hard as you can to make yourself better. And when every musician is striving to improve their individual abilities, the music played by the whole group is more beautiful.

Why would an individual try so hard? This is because of the system used by almost every serious orchestra in the world: the chair/seating system. Generally speaking, in this seating system the better of a musician you are, the more to the front and closer to the audience you will be. The first chair is best, then second, then third, then fourth...this numbered ranking continues until the very least visible (and skilled) musician. (Of course, this system assumes the conductor or sectional leader is assigning seats based solely on ability and not personal or political bias; that's a whole other swamp of drama.) If I went to an orchestra using the seating system, and you gave me a sheet of paper with the faces and names of every musician, I could accurately rank every player in terms of ability in relation to the rest of the group, without hearing anyone play. "He is the seventh chair cellist." In sports, there are cuts to determine Varsity, Junior Varsity, and the C Team; in orchestra, the feared seating audition makes every individual, every seat, into it's own category, with as many differentiated categories as there are members in a section.

Everyone on a sports team also wants to be the best, but this is up to players personally, not instituted upon them. Classification of sports player abilities ends at the organizational level - he's a point guard because he's better at passing than aggressive drives needed by power forwards; X is the starting shooting guard because he's better at that than Y who also plays that position. But is Y better than fellow bench shooting guard Z? Sometimes the answer may be clear, but sometimes it may not. When the two are quite close in ability, there is no absolute way to rank and compare the two. In orchestra, no matter the pair, one musician will always have the lower number. The formal organization of a sports team is based mainly in what position you play; an orchestra organizes itself into first instruments played and then individual prestige within that section. This ranking system is often very stressful and important to musicians because of how clear and codified it is. Moving down a seat is a horrible feeling to someone who has practiced hard. I find that orchestras do not have the same cameraderie sports teams have, even though both are groups that meet on regular schedules together for hours. This is because in orchestra, the group's success is the result of every man being out for himself. If my friend aims for my chair in orchestra, and she gets it, the orchestra as a whole will have benefited from her working hard to reach me and me working hard to stay better than her. Nobody cares that I have moved down a seat.

Whatever drama not already present comes in full force when the conductor or other authority figure assigning chairs is suspected of making unfair decisions.
My friend Maeve, a highly skilled violinist, wrote "Orchestra in a sense is a highly cooperative setting where your entire focus is on other individuals and the precise mirroring of each other's expression, articulation, etc. It is, however, also incredibly cutthroat, and probably the only thing that keeps [the orchestra] together (especially young orchestras) is the unifying presence of the conductor - which is why having an effective conductor is so important.

"I would also contend that the ranking system, though highly stressful, is important because it allows you to know where you stand. It can be a huge motivator that helps maintain the necessary individual excellence. I believe that it also fosters a sense of respect for those who have done better than you, allowing each player to feel like they earned their seat and to be able to defer to the authority of section leaders at the same time. Of course, this doesn't always play out perfectly, and it often breeds resentment and distrust amongst players. Which is where the drama you mentioned comes into play. " This drama and tension and constant drive existing in this structured system based on respect is what made me want to read a manga about orchestra; I think the emotional impact could be very interesting.

The orchestra environment's drama and competition is so intensely charged, much more than sports because of the non-focus on internal unity. While I know this intensity would be interesting in a manga, I realize that the visuals would be so boring, because an orchestra is stationary. I thought that it was impossible to capture the competitive pressure of orchestra for people who haven't been in one.
Then, I stumbled upon this manga called Bambino!, which I marathoned in a day, transfixed by the familiarity of a world that wasn't mine. Bambino! is about the day-to-day operations of a fine Italian restaurant. While reading, I suddenly realized that the environment of the kitchen is similar to the environment of the orchestra, in terms of how people exert themselves and how they treat the people around them. In basketball you may skip exerting yourself to the best of your ability because letting someone else work will be better for the team; in a kitchen, as in orchestra, only by every individual performing at their personal peak level can the kitchen or orchestra as a whole improve. Food and cooking have a lot more visual options than orchestra rehearsal too, so a cooking manga will not fall short visually. Thinking about it, the movie Ratatouille does a pretty nice drama; because Bambino! is a manga with a long serialization, of course it is even more intense.

Who knew I would find the orchestra feeling in a cooking manga! And by the way, Bambino! Secondo is also an excellent choice for people who love action and food.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Geek of the Week: Guy Davis

Guy Davis is a prolific artist. You've probably seen his work designing Kaiju in Pacific Rim, but he's got many other skills and styles that are equally worth checking out. Davis embodies versatility and dedication!

How did you become a concept artist and why?
The how for me was a bit of a round about way into concept. Early on after I graduated in 1984, concept was something I really wanted to pursue but I had no clue how to go about it and instead fell into doing comic work. I enjoyed the storytelling, but the world building and character creation for the books I worked on was what I had the most fun with.

Years later I eventually got burnt out with a lot of the headaches that went along with the actual comics business and had the opportunity to cross into more concept work when Guillermo del Toro brought me onto his core concept team.

How did you become good at art?
Thanks, but I guess the trick is to never feel good at it. After I finish a piece I usually wish I did something differently in hindsight which keeps me wanting to do better the next time. So it’s just years of practicing that routine.

How did you break into the industry?
I worked in comics for around 27 years, doing a lot of work-for-hire books for publishers and some creator-owned series. I did a few concept jobs during that time too (including ParaNorman and The Amazing Screw-On Head pilot), but my big break was when Guillermo del Toro brought me onto
his concept team forMountains of Madness and I’ve had an amazing time working with him on concept/storyboards for a lot of his other projects since.

How does art go from concept to the screen?
Lots of steps, concept is the early part of the job just working out the ideas and designs with the director/ art director. From there it will still go through different departments and hands (sculptors, pre-vis, VFX, props, etc) before it’s brought to life on screen.

What is your favorite part about being a creative person?
Aside from just getting to make a living by doing something I enjoy, I guess it’s the process of working up ideas and stories through art and hoping that in the end it will resonate with an audience. It’s always a huge thrill seeing something you designed come to life on the screen, but I also love it when I see fan art or cosplay of a creature or character I helped create. Getting to design something that inspires other artists and see their interpretations is hugely flattering and I always get a kick out of it!

What's the hardest part?
I guess just staying busy and making ends meet in the down time before the next project begins.

Do you work with anyone (director, other artists, crew, etc) when coming up with art?
All the time; it’s a very collaborative process. Sometimes you hit the mark with the first concept pass, but it will still go through different departments before ending up on screen. With my collaborations with Guillermo, he has a hand in every step of the process and will work with each concept artist directly to formulate the final concept.

Sometimes the approved concept will then go to a different artist to work up, adding to the idea or taking it into another direction. Or I’ll get something that has already been started and asked to rework it into a new direction or build on the basic idea. But that collaboration and seeing an idea come to life is amazing fun.

When you're not doing art, what is your life like?
Outside of work I still sketch for fun, something I hadn’t done for years but enjoyed getting back into. Other than that it’s usually reading, going to museums and spending time with my partner and friends - getting out to wander as much as possible or staying in and gaming or watching old movies.

Are you a geek? You've worked a lot of stuff popular with geeks, but a voice actress once told me she didn't watch many cartoons when she wasn't working because it was like working in a pizza shop all day, coming home, and not wanting to eat pizza. If you do enjoy geeky pursuits, what are they?
Oh sure, a proud geek but you know, comics would probably be my pizza. I never read many comics when I worked on them, but I still love old film and horror/sci-fi movies and books along with playing video games in some spare time.

What are you working on now? Upcoming projects?
After the STRAIN, I finished concept awhile back on Guillermo’s upcoming CRIMSON PEAK and did a few months' stint on a video game project and some other concept work that I can’t name yet.

What was your favorite project to work on?
That’s a hard pick - there’s always the bias of getting to do your own thing, personal projects like my creator-owned book The Marquis. Pacific Rim was an incredible experience and the longest project I worked on (11 months), Crimson Peak was another incredible time throughout but usually after every job I feel like that was my favorite until the next one starts.

Where do you get your inspiration?
Mostly from letting my imagination wander or seeing shapes in nature while hiking. Lots of times things totally unrelated will help form the idea for a design. If something sparks an idea, I try to take it to the base form and rebuild it into something new. Otherwise it becomes too obvious that say this creature is just based on a certain fish/bird or what not.

How do you make a character interesting and original, especially when it's for a new franchise (like *Pacific Rim*) without established aesthetics (like with* Batman*)?
I guess it boils down to trying to bring a different sort of language to the design in the hopes that it will click and become iconic in a silhouette. In the case of the kaiju I designed for Pacific Rim, I wanted them to have a personality and character that showed through the design instead of feeling like an object.

What is your favorite artist, movie, game, and book?
Wow, hard to narrow those down to just one, so I’ll cheat on a couple. But let’s say my favorite artist is Zdzislaw Beksinski, favorite film is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, my favorite horror film is Bride of Frankenstein. For favorite game I’d say the Diablo series, one of the few games I always revisit while playing others. Books I’d have to still say the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series, with Chessmen of Mars my favorite of the lot.

Any advice you'd give to artists hoping to develop creatively and professionally?
Draw all the time, finished pieces or sketches, just keep those ideas coming. Try to have a unique voice and vision to your work and think outside of the box and your comfort zone as much as possible to push yourself in new directions.

What's it like inside your brain?
Haha - crowded and a bit wet.

If you weren't an artist, what would you be doing?
I don’t know, I’ve been doing art professionally for over half my life. So if it wasn’t something in the visual art field, I guess I’d try my hand at writing more.

What tools do you create your art with?
I usually start sketching out the rough ideas traditionally with pen and paper, or the the initial drawing in pencil and then work it up digitally through Photoshop so it’s quicker to make any revisions.

You do a variety of creative work, like realistic stuff for Guillermo del Toro, simplistic cartoony stuff for Steven Universe and The Simpsons, and more traditional, classically-styled comic stuff for Dark Horse, Marvel, and DC. What's it like working in different ways (sequential
art, storyboarding, concept, etc) for these different industries?
You know, I love all the variety and working in the different styles; it’s never really a problem to shift between any of them since it’s more about the art style fitting the feel of the specific project.


Which one is your favorite and why?
I’m really enjoying the concept work the most, as far as which style to work in as a favorite. I don’t know if I could pick, so it probably boils down to the individual project. Usually after I finish a project it’s my favorite till the next one starts!

We're looking forward to whatever "the next one" he "can't name yet" is! Thanks Guy! All images from and 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Wholesale Changing it up: the team behind Eugene Goostman

Earlier this year, tech history was made when chat bot Eugene Goostman became the first machine ever to pass the Turing Test. Geek of the Week John Denning (right) of Wholesale Change and the team behind Eugene Goostman gave us a glimpse into the workings of this innovation-driven group and his Burning Man/problem-solving/possibility-chasing mind.

Why did you become interested in making chatbots?
I’ve always been interested in solving thorny problems using computers. When I met Vladimir Veselov and Misha Gershokovich in 2000, their enthusiasm for creating programs that allow people to communicate with computers was totally infectious. So we started working to create a way to do so. And with the great team that was pulled together over the years, it really wasn’t a chore…more like working on your favorite thing with people you adore. It’s also worth mentioning up front that our team includes a lot of people who need to be acknowledged. Here’s the list:
Vladimir Veselov

Andrey Adashchik
Laurent Alquier
Igor Bykovskih
Eugene Demchenko
John Denning
Michael Gershkovich
Selena Semoushkina
Sergey Ulasen
Vladimir Veselov

All of these people are total rock stars and I’m delighted to be able to collaborate with them. And really, the awesome work done by Eugene Demchenko in creating the persona and personality for Eugene Goostman is pure genius.
The chatbot himself

Why are chatbots the next big thing?
I’m not totally convinced that people want to just “chat” with their computers. I think that people want computers to help them get stuff done. So making helpful applications that use chat as a mechanism to interact with a computer, in a way that is meaning, is more in the future than just a profusion of chatbots.

Were you interested in these kinds of things growing up?
Absolutely. Lots of kids have imaginary friends. Working with my awesome colleagues, we were able to make one collectively and share him with others.  How cool is that?

The team has been working on this project for many years. What is the development process like at Wholesale Change, and how did you keep your interest? How could you maintain this for so long not for a job, but as a thing to occupy your free time?
There’s a lot of overlap in people who worked on Eugene Goostman and are now working on Wholesale Change. Our development process is pretty straightforward. We only work with people who are fun, smart, trustworthy, and get stuff done. We do as much as we can in parallel, everything is iterative, and we defer to experts.

The work to pass the Turing Test competition has been a sideline, a hobby of sorts, for our team.  And when you’re working with people you adore, it’s easy to maintain the interest.

What is your favorite part of your work? The most frustrating/unpleasant?
The best part of my work is solving crazy-complex problems with computers.

Probably the most frustrating stuff is either dealing with people who are afraid of trying a novel approach or hearing naysayers.

When you're not developing, what do you like to do?
I’m huge into Burning Man. Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s a big subculture full of fun creative people. These folks are always coming up with interesting projects, throwing parties, and cooking up pranks to get involved with.

What inspires you?
I like being told that something is impossible.  That’s truly inspiring.

What advice would you give to techies who want to develop something but are stuck and might give up?
Keep in mind that we did this outside of a big corporation. One of my friends is an executive at Intel.  She laughed hard when I told her that Eugene had passed the Turing Test. I said, “How cool is it that this didn’t happen at Google or IBM?” She said “Add Intel to that list of companies that didn’t do it either”.

And if you’re really stuck (or just want to have fun) then go to Burning Man.  It’s a sure way to get you “unstuck” fast.

Besides chatbots, what else do you see in the future of artificial intelligence?
There’s a small number of really interesting projects and products in AI happening today. I think the most interesting stuff is going to come from the small teams who are working outside of a big corporate structure. A lot of energy and enthusiasm are going into something called “Quantified Self” which is really the best hackers and product designers working on ways to measure and improve their health status. These are the same types of folks who produced the really cool stuff during the dotcom era.

Our team is focused on using AI to improve tough decisions around healthcare.

In addition, I expect we’ll start seeing smart appliances and AI-assisted learning to become ubiquitous.

Wackiest Eugene story?
Oftentimes Eugene produces ridiculously awesome responses that we never expected.  There’s a certain amount of randomness to how he interacts and the results are far from pre-determined.

What's next for the Wholesale Change team?
We’ve been operating in stealth mode for the past few years. By this, I mean we needed to figure out the structural problems in healthcare, get our business model right, do market testing, perfect our algorithms, and fully automate our processes.

Right now we’re spending a lot of time on Sand Hill Road, meeting with awesome investors, and ensuring that when we launch, that we have the resources to launch really big and to totally change the marketplace.

We didn’t name our company Wholesale Change to make a small difference. It’s our intent to make massive positive changes happen.

Anything else?
If people are interested in seeing what is possible in healthcare, they ought to take a minute and watch a animation we made that explains what we’re working on now. I think that after passing the Turing Test, this video will make it clear that the interaction doesn’t necessarily have to be a boring one.

And if someone reading this is interested in working on fixing healthcare with us, they should let us know.  For reals.

Contact Wholesale Change at

Check out our interview with Eugene Goostman!

Monday, September 22, 2014

We interviewed Eugene Goostman. "I am a scholar. I'm too young to make money."

Eugene Goostman is a chatbot, posing as a teenage Ukrainian boy. Eugene is the first computer to pass the Turing test, by deceiving more than 30% of human judges (33%, to be exact) into thinking that he was a real boy.

33% still isn't a lot, and Eugene's conversation capabilities have been called controversial. Still, chatting with him was a fascinating experience. (I was able to chat with him thanks to Eugene Goostman team member John Denning of Princeton AI.) Yes, Eugene can hide some awkwardness behind his pretense that he's not a native English speaker. Below is a screenshot of a conversation I had with him.

This summer, I taught English to teenagers in China. Through this brief exchange, I was struck by how similar our conversation was to the ones I had been having all summer. In-person conversations already realistically went like this, but the deja vu got even stronger when I considered how my email conversations with Chinese teenagers went.

I would have been fooled. Eugene only fell apart as we kept talking.

The above chat is a direct continuation of the first one. Eugene's answers don't make sense now. I ask about Vova and Zhenya, and he talks about Vova and Eugene, using his own name instead of his friend's. His last answer doesn't follow my question about Beephoven at all.

Well, he asked if I wanted to ask something more, so I did. This was just for fun.
But I already answered that...

And now, the otaku's eternal question:
Inteviewing Eugene was fascinating because of how it seemed so real. What's even more fascinating is the behind-the-scenes work that went into Eugene's development. Stay tuned for our interview with John Denning.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Summer update

Concept art for Crimson Typhoon by Hugo Martin
Summer's almost here, and with it, exclusive interviews with 2013 mecha blockbuster Pacific Rim concept artists Guy Davis and Hugo Martin. Also coming up: interviews with artist Nick Pugh (Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class) and John Denning from the team that created Eugene Goostman, the chatbot which just passed the Turing Test!
Speed Racer concept art by Hugo Martin
Want to write for us? Drop us a line at Positions are unpaid, but have perks like free entry to conventions and access to interesting people (actors! artists! academics!). No journalism experience required, but genuine interest and punctuality is.
Slattern concept art by Guy Davis

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Great Dane: an interview with DaneMen creator David Daneman

DaneMen is a webcomic hosted by new-kid-on-the-online-comics-reader-block, the open publishing platform Tapastic. It's one of the best webcomics on Tapastic, and probably the most brilliant.

That's it. That's a typical shot of DaneMen - concise and with a well-executed pun that ties everything together in a rush of endorphic humor from a perplexing start. This particular episode of DaneMen can be found here, but we recommend that you read all the episodes; it won't take long and it won't ever drag.

DaneMen creator David Daneman (yeah, he has a healthy amount of self-esteem) gave us an interview in his with his trademark fast humor.

What is DaneMen even about? How can it be so irrational and rational at the same time?
If you knew me, you'd know that I am very funny. I enjoy making my friends laugh and in order to do so, I had to learn many different styles of humor.

Personally, I enjoy sharp humor. I am often described as "sarcastic" but this sounds like a bad thing to me.

I am equally happy with incredibly absurd humor. All humor has its place.

A strip...has to "make sense." Otherwise, the audience will feel like they didn't get something, and this makes them unhappy.

Where did you get the inspiration to make DaneMen and where do you get the inspiration to continue?
I got started making comics at the end of college. I read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and really loved it.

One day, I picked up the university newspaper, which I usually got just for the crossword puzzle.

The comics in it were terrible.

So I wrote an email to the editor and told him that if he wanted, I could make better comics for him. He said yes.

My first few comics were not successful comedically. Then I made a strip called Thought Crime which I knew was good. I showed it to some comics people, one of whom said, "Oooh, a silent comic. Those are hard to do."

I hadn't realized that I had made a silent comic. From then on, I have strived to use dialogue as sparingly as possible.

The puns are great.
My puns, however, do not translate [into Korean. Tapastic hosts a number of notable Korean webcomics called webtoons, translated into English. DaneMen is not hosted by major Korean webtoon sites Daum or Naver]. Sometimes, I am genuinely proud of a pun. For example, I have a strip where a guy hangs himself after waiting for a phone call for a long time. The name is Hung Up. I love this title because 1) you hang up a phone 2) "to be hung up" is a synonym for obsession and 3) in the end, he himself is hung up.

Pretty grim strip.

I appreciate gallows humor as well.

Why are the characters all you? Why do you like yourself so much?
The characters only look like me. They are sophisticated stick figures. Also, I never wear a shirt and tie.

On an unrelated note, I like myself because the alternative would be too painful.

A crack at the clones
What were you doing in Korea?
Life was easy in Korea. I lived there for over 6 years as an English teacher. The pay was good.

How did you learn art?
I am a self-taught artist. This should explain any perceived deficits in my talents. No one told me. I use Adobe Photoshop CS2.

Now that you've left Korea, what are your plans?
I will be wed this August in Vancouver, Canada. I don't know what I am going to do here. I do know that I will teach English in the meantime. Maybe I'll work in film. I'd like to write a screenplay.

How did you get involved with Tapastic?
Tapastic contacted me about two years ago - it was called Comic Panda then. They needed some merchandise on the shelves for opening day, and I put some of my stuff up. Later, they asked if I could commit to a regular schedule (something I've always struggled with) and I said I couldn't for no money. They cut me a check for maybe $1,800. Last year, during the Primetime Publishing Program [which pays artists based on the number of pageviews they generate], I made maybe another 600 bucks. Nowadays, I make $15 a month from them.

Nobody else was interested in my comics. And certainly nobody was willing to pay me for them. I'm happy with Tapastic.

What webtoons/manga/comics do you read?
Comics are not the major media that I consume. I like sitcoms like 30 Rock and The Office. I read novels. A lot of Vonnegut. Right now, I'm reading Robopocalypse.

I listen to NPR podcasts a lot as I work. It is fair to say that it has an effect on me.

Movie-wise, I like heavily-designed, yet still coherently-storied films. My favorite director is Terry Gilliam, but Spielberg was my childhood hero. I can still watch pre-1995 (Ed Wood) Tim Burton films, but he has lost himself. He has become a brand.

Any advice for aspiring artists? It's so hard to make it as a traditional canvas-and-oil artist now; how would one take advantage of online media like you have to get art out there using the web?
I have yet to succeed at art, and therefore cannot give any advice as to how to do so.

I feel that the best strategy, if you want to succeed, is to look at the best, most popular example of whatever genre you want to work in is, and copy it.

But I guess it all depends on your definition of success.

What do you do when you're not drawing?
Mostly, I do the things that keep my life going. Working, cooking, eating, cleaning, bathing, exercise. When I have free time, I like to play guitar. I have very good taste in movies.

Anything else?
Yes. How do you get people to click "share"?

Daneman is, fortunately, a very approachable artist (unlike some people...I'm looking at you, Shonen Jump mangakas). His email address is located in one of the chapters of DaneMen. You'll just have to read it to find out what it is. Hopefully you'll click "share" too.

Not only does he respond to comments, his comments are entertaining and make references to things we love to hate.