Ethereality News & Weblog

December 31, 2016

2016 review, and 2017’s resolutions

For many people, 2016 was a year full of chaos and sadness. We lost some of the greatest creative talents of our lifetime, went through an election that was more like a never-ending comedy skit than real-life, and dealt with some urgent issues in human rights. We all have our own takes on what happened to the world at large in 2016, and I’ve written plenty of Facebook posts about my thoughts on those topics, so I won’t get into them here. This post is just a review of my personal 2016, and then I’ll make resolutions for 2017.

First, let’s see what I wrote for 2016’s resolutions, and how I did:

Now the 2016 resolutions. It’s going to look very similar to what I wrote for 2015’s resolutions, because my life’s a pretty comfortable routine at this point and I relish this stability after all the chaos in the earlier periods of my life.

As predicted, my priorities and goals remained the same in 2016. My routine couldn’t be as consistent as I had hoped due to unforeseen circumstances (I’ll get to those later), but overall it was still a very productive year.

Writing – Not much to say except to continue writing for the love of it, and try not to get stressed out over anything that’s not directly related to my love for writing. I don’t want to think about business and productivity aspects at all as that does nothing but make writing less enjoyable. When I think back on my life, everything I tried to do because I was motivated by money did not turn out well, or I was never happy doing them for that main reason. I don’t ever want my love for writing to end up like that. There are much better and easier ways to make money than writing fiction, and I don’t really hold any hope that my writing will turn into a lucrative career at some point, so I’ll just write because I want to, not because I have to.

Despite often getting derailed by important matters in 2016, I actually had a pretty fruitful year in writing. While working on Darkness Falls, I solved so many critical problems in the thematic focus, character arcs, plot structure, world-building, etc., while outlining. I also continued to work on the query pitch and tested it on a few people whose opinion I value. It was a mixed bag because different people had different preferences. Some wanted more detailed information regarding the characters, plot, premise, and some preferred a more general top-down look at the overall world. I’m going to have to run it by more people when the time comes to actually sending out the query letter.

In terms of the manuscript, the word-count in 2016 was only about 46K for Darkness Falls, but I think I wrote some really compelling scenes. There were chapters that even when just listening to them with text-to-speech software, I was totally engrossed by how the scenes played out. This is always a good sign, because most writers are hypercritical of their own writings — including me — so when what I wrote can actually get past my inner-critic and get me excited as if I was a fan reading something thrilling, it tells me it’s very likely my readers will feel the same way. I’ve read most of the chapters I’ve written to Elena (translating them from English to Chinese on the fly) and her response was very positive. I kept pushing her to tell me anything she didn’t like or found to be problematic, but other than one minor consistency issue with a conversation between two characters, she said she loved every bit of it and can’t wait to hear more. I trust her opinion because we often discuss TV shows, movies, and books, and she’s good at constructive criticism.

One problem I noticed with the book, is that the length of it keeps snowballing. I’m a bit worried that book one might become a bit of a beast, and I might have to break it off earlier and continue in book two instead. I won’t know for sure until I’ve got the first draft done and started the rewriting/editing process. My current guess is that book one might end up being about 200K words, which is twice as long as I originally thought it might be. I suppose for an epic, the length is kind of par for the course. I definitely don’t want to limit its length simply due to commercial concerns. The story for book one will conclude at the point where I feel it’s the most satisfying, with a sense of closure, but also having built up plenty of excitement for the next book.

I didn’t do much work on Promise in 2016, but I did have a couple of very important breakthroughs in the plotting and creating a more satisfying sense of closure when the book ends.

The only writing-related blog post I wrote in 2016 was on how to make themes resonate:

Having themes in your story is not enough–they must resonate

I did have two articles published at CGSociety.org in 2016, but they were for artists and not related to storytelling or writing:

TOP 10 TIPS FOR BECOMING A BETTER ARTIST

WHY 3D ARTISTS WANT TO LEARN 2D

Teaching – I hope my students in 2016 will all be delightful, and there will be no belligerent troublemakers that ruin the experience for others. I’m got it all down to a science at this point, having taught the Becoming a Better Artist workshop for a few years, running it almost back-to-back with very few breaks. After having taught students of all ages from all around the world from different countries and cultures, my instinct for sensing what a student needs in his/her artistic development and personal growth is very sharp. Unfortunately, sometimes the stubborn ones refuse to listen because they aren’t willing to put in the hard-work and learn to become more disciplined, wanting only instant gratification instead of willing to pay their dues and push themselves. But those who do listen to me and take my advice to heart always see significant progress in their artistic development. Hopefully, in 2016 I can persuade as many students to follow my advice as possible.

In 2016, my workshop started running on CGMA’s platform (they merged with CGWorkshops). After a lot of back and forth, I managed to hammer out how to make my workshop run smoothly on CGMA’s platform. The folks over at CGMA have been very accommodating and helpful, and it’s been a good experience thus far. Compared to CGWorkshop’s Moodle system, CGMA’s platform has some advantages, but it’s got its own issues too, so it’s more like a trade-off than upgrade (according to the needs of my workshop, which is quite different from other workshops in general).

The students have all been great–both new students as well as the alumni students. One particular student stood out because he was so enthusiastic and entertaining (sort of like an excited puppy experiencing the world for the first time), reminding me of a few of the really passionate and hard-working students I’ve taught in the past. I hope he keeps that fire burning and continues to work hard to fulfill his aspirations.

Health – My health continued to improve in 2015, and if everything continues as planned, I should see more improvement in 2016. With the new rebounding plan that adds up to 90 minutes of cardio exercise a week and the pull-ups/chin-ups (I’ll probably add other calisthenics workouts), I should be in even better shape by the end of 2016.

I was doing really well during the first quarter, but then my damn foot and knee pains came back, so I couldn’t do any rebounding or use the elliptical machine. Then I cracked my ribs in an accident. Soon after, my damn shoulder and wrists started acting up too, so I couldn’t do pull-ups or any other upper-body calisthenics either. I tell ya, as you age, your joints just go to hell, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to prevent it. Towards the end of the year I was able to start up again (even though the wrists and my feet weren’t fully recovered), and it was hard to get a momentum going again, after getting derailed. Hopefully my joints won’t act up again in 2017 and I can get a full year’s worth of consistent exercise in.

My gallstone attacks in 2015 was half of what I had in 2014, and hopefully 2016 will be even better.

I ended up having ten very mild to minor attacks in 2016, which was two more than 2015, so it’s not bad at all. I’d like to get it down to just a handful a year, or even less, but it’s not really something I can control (I already don’t eat foods at night that will trigger an attack). All I can do is to try to be as healthy as I can be and see if that changes anything.

Feels a bit like déjà vu, right? I did say it’s going to be very similar to 2015’s resolutions.

So it looks like my quest to simplify my life continues, and it’s kind of gratifying to see the list of things on my new year’s resolutions get shorter and shorter every year. It means whatever it is I’ve been doing to simplify my life is actually working.

It’s going to be very similar again this year. Elena and I have got a comfortable and stable routine going and we’ll take it over any of the chaos we’ve had to live through in the past. Some people find routines boring, but it really depends on whether it’s a routine you actually enjoy, and what your personality is. We’ve done the adventurous youth thing when we were younger and it simply doesn’t interest us anymore. The first half of our lives were spent trying to figure out who we really are and what we really want out of life.

Young people with passions tend to think they already know, but what they don’t realize is that goal posts can shift with experience and age, and you cannot predict how the world will change in the future (which greatly impacts the things you’re passionate about in life). Values and priorities can change, and those changes will alter your personality and general outlook in life. In my youth, there were some things I was absolutely certain about, but with age and experience, some of those things changed, while some remained the same. In the second half of my life, I’m striving for the things that I have remained passionate about since my youth, as well as making sure I can live life on my own terms while pursuing said passions.

Other than the things listed in my resolutions, there were other things that were significant in 2016.

A major one was my step-father having a stroke. He’s one of the healthiest elderly folks I know (played tennis most of his life, had no unhealthy vices, and very fit), so it was a surprise to all us. Elena and I spent two weeks with him after the stroke, and I really treasured the time I spent with him. My step-father’s not a demonstrative man, so it’s never been easy to express emotions in front of him. But because of the circumstances, the whole family was able to be more mushy with him than he’d normally feel comfortable with, and it was nice to be able to show how much we love him through our efforts to help him recover and to reassure him that we’re perfectly happy taking care of him. I did a lot of research on stroke recovery apps that are available on the market and tried out the top recommendations with him to see which one was the most helpful. Elena and I also spent a lot of time just chatting with him, getting him to talk (very important for stroke recovery). We managed to unearth stories from his past he never told anyone before (we always loved hearing stories from his past). We’ve visited him a lot more often than usual since the stroke, and he’s recovered quite well thus far. He still can’t drive or play tennis (mobility/strength limitations with an arm), and he is still having difficulty with his speech, but he’s fine otherwise. He and his wife lives with my sister, and my step-brother lives close too, so they’re taking care of him really well.

Elena and I spent more time on our investments in 2016 than usual, since we’re at a critical juncture in our financial future. It’s common knowledge that vast majority of writers cannot make a living on writing alone, and the famous success stories are the rare outliers that often have more to do with luck than ability. I have learned to accept that reality, which means I cannot allow myself to fantasize about how my books might lead to success (financial or critical), and must write solely for the love of it. This also means I must have other ways of generating income, as well as guarantee we’ll have enough in our old age to live comfortably. The money I make from my teaching is not nearly enough, and I’m not willing to give up my writing time, so that means we have to be smart in our investments if we want to use them as our main source of income. Ideally, our investments will do very well and I can focus on writing full-time without commercial pressures.

As with every summer, the Kitty Cat Diary was bursting with new batches of photos in 2016. We even made an effort to find interesting locations to shoot in, because I got tired of hearing fellow photographers tell me that Elena’s beauty was wasted on the casual home-bound domestic shots, and I ought to push for more. We had a lot of fun looking for new locations, and we got lots of wonderful photos that I’m still slowly processing and posting a small batch at a time. Each year after she turned forty, we wondered if it’s last year we’ll continue the Kitty Cat Diary, and we’ll continue to wonder until we finally stop (when Elena no longer wants to continue). She’s now forty-six, and we’re still going strong.

I finally got a 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid in 2016. After doing lots of research and comparison, I settled on the Lenovo X1 Yoga (OLED version), instead of Surface Pro 4, Surface Book, HP Spectre 360, Samsung Ativ Book 9, and a few other similar competitors. The main reasons I chose the X1 Yoga were:

-It had a quality stylus for graphics professionals that embeds into the laptop’s body (instead of merely attaching to the outside, thus clunky and easy to lose).

-It had an OLED display with excellent image quality (wide color gamut, high contrast ratio).

-It was lighter than most 2-in-1 hybrids that had similar specs.

-It had a unique retractable frame for the keyboard when folded over in tablet mode.

-There’s no need to detach the keyboard, and it’s got one of the best keyboards in its class.

Although there are a few minor issues, I’m overall fairly happy with the X1 Yoga.

In terms of arts and entertainment, here are some of my favorites from 2016 (not necessarily released in 2016, but that I experienced them in 2016).

Movies

The best movies I watched in 2016 were:

Whiplash – As a musician, this movie affected me in such a powerful way — it was like a punch to the gut. It’s both a terrifying nightmare about abuse as well as a profoundly moving story about perseverance and passion. I wrote a short review of it in a Facebook post.

Sicario – This excellent movie about the war on drugs has one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever seen (the highway shootout), and the score accompanying the entire sequence was so effective, with its sinister and slow-burn progression that really amped up the dramatic tension.

The Revenant – A raw and unrelenting movie about survival and revenge in the wilderness. Probably Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance to date, and my favorite out of Iñárritu’s filmography thus far (although I haven’t seen Amores perros and Biutiful yet). The movie also marked Sakamoto Ryuichi‘s return to film scoring after his recovery from throat cancer (he’s one of my musical heroes).

Spotlight – An engrossing film about The Boston Globe‘s Pulitzer-winning investigative journalism that uncovered the Roman Catholic church’s cover-up of their priests’ rampant sexual abuse of children.

Green Room – This thriller was surprisingly good. It’s about a punk rock band that accidentally witnessed a murder in a white supremacist club they reluctantly performed at, and then try to get out alive as they are vastly outnumbered by vicious killers who don’t want to leave any witnesses alive. It’s one of the most intelligent and intense thrillers I’ve seen in a while.

Frailty – This obscure psychological thriller from 2001 was directed by Bill Paxton, and it’s one of those movies where the screenplay was so good but the directing was so lackluster that you can’t help but wonder how it could have turned out if a more capable director had helmed the project. What’s great about the movie is that it leaves you wondering what really happened.

TV Shows

Some of my favorite shows returned in 2016 and continues to be engrossing, and there were also new shows that really impressed me too.

Westworld (season 1) – This was one of the best shows in 2016. It’s intelligent, mysterious, thrilling, and has much more in common with Blade Runner thematically than the original Westworld movies franchise. Everything about it was top-notch and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for season two.

The Americans (season 4) – This “Russian spies living among us” series continues to be thrilling and emotionally engaging, with really significant plot and character developments in 2016.

Game of Thrones (season 6) – Do I even have to say anything? This show’s a cultural phenomenon at this point and you either love it, haven’t seen it, or don’t care for it. I have never been disappointed by any of the seasons thus far.

Black Mirror (season 3) – Fans rejoiced when this thought-provoking sci-fi anthology show returned. Elena and I loved espisodes #4 (“San Junipero”) and #6 (“Hated in the Nation”) the most. There other episodes were okay, and only one of them was disappointing (#5, “Men Against Fire”), but only because I guessed the plot twist right from the very beginning and the rest of it offered no additional surprises or social commentary.

Better Call Saul (season 2) – This show continues to be amazing, and one of the best character portraits on TV right now, exploring a morally conflicted character who you can’t help but love and root for. It’s every bit as good as Breaking Bad (the show it spun out of).

The Venture Bros. (season 6) – One of my favorite animated shows for adults (next to Rick and Morty). It’s still as hilarious and subversive as ever, and I hope they never stop making this show.

Atlanta (season 1) – This show was a big surprise. It’s the brainchild of Donald Glover (AKA Childish Gambino), and it’s a universally acclaimed drama about the lives of two young aspiring rappers living in Atlanta. It blends social commentary with Glover’s unique sense of humor and hip-hop culture, and if you liked Glover in Community or are fan of his music, or just want a really good drama, then you’ll probably enjoy this.

The Magicians (season 1) – When I first found out about this TV show, I was really nervous, because I was afraid it would be very similar to the book series I’ve been writing in the last few years. But after watching it, I was relieved that it’s nothing like what I’m writing. My story’s much more focused on the sociopolitical impact that magick has on our reality and how it can be utilized to change the world (and all the moral dilemmas that come with having that kind of power), while The Magicians is focused on personal issues and fantasy escapism. It’s a lot more commercialized than the book it’s based on, and there were a number of fairly significant differences from the book (the book has more literary elements that explores the main character’s struggle with depression and becoming a responsible adult, while the TV show is focused more on thrilling plot twists, betrayals, and escapism). If you like fantasy at all, you should give it a try.

The Walking Dead (season 7) – This show sometimes really tests my patience and I’m tempted to just give up on it (especially after what happened to Glenn), but I haven’t yet. At the very least, I want to see Negan go down and get what he deserves.

Books

I started several books in 2016, but only finished a couple, and they are:

Wild Seed, by Octavia E. Butler – I’ve always wanted to read one of her books, and I now understand why she’s such a celebrated writer. Her writing has the gravitas of literary fiction, but she also has the wild imagination of a great speculative fiction writer. If you like speculative fiction with intellectual and emotional substance, then definitely give her books a try. This particular book is about characters with supernatural powers such as shapeshifting, body-possession, and telekinesis during the era of American slavery, and it delves into the power struggle between the masculine and the feminine, the line between love and hate, race issues, and eugenics.

5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing – This is a great book that addresses the most common problems editors find in manuscripts submitted to them by writers. The editors that co-wrote the book show by example problematic writings and then demonstrate how they would correct those problems. The book is insightful and covers both basic and advanced problems in not just the mechanics of writing, but also storytelling as well.

Music

2016 was an amazing year for me when it comes to music, for both new releases and older music I discovered.

Meat Beat Manifesto – I’ve been a long-time fan of Jack Danger’s electronic/industrial music, and I had no idea he had a Youtube channel. There’s so much good stuff on there, including the stuff he’s done under the name The Forger. Here are a few favorites available from his YT channel:

(NOTE: If your speakers/headphones cannot output full-range sub-bass frequencies, you won’t be able to hear or enjoy most of this next track, since almost the entire track’s built on low sub-bass frequencies)

Front Line Assembly / AirMech – I hadn’t paid attention to what FLA had been up to in the last few years, and when I checked recently, I was delighted by the soundtrack they did for Airmech in 2012. I think it’s the best work they’ve done in a long time. It’s also one of the very few full-on industrial music soundtracks for a game in recent years that I know of (it used to be more common back during the Quake era).

Disparition – I’ve been a fan Welcome to Nightvale for a while now (a fictional community podcast for town where the supernatural is normal part of life, blending lighthearted humor with horror elements), and the soundtrack is by Disparition. Another supernatural/horror podcast by the same creator is Alice Isn’t Dead (much darker and serious than Nightvale, and much more plot-driven), and Disparition also does the music for it. If you like goth, industrial, shoegaze, ambient, electronic, then you should give Disparition a try.

Here are a few of my favorite tracks from Disparition:

Here Disparition’s bandcamp page: https://disparition.bandcamp.com

Got a Girl – I was surprised to find out that actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead had a band, and it’s got that moody French indie pop sound I really like.

Aphex Twin – Sometimes Richard is a bit too out there for me, opting for really off-the-wall experimentation detracts too much from the musicality. But when he reigns it in more, he produces stuff I really like. Here are a couple of Aphex Twin tracks I really enjoyed in 2016:

John Tejada / Signs Under Test – I’m a huge John Tejada fan, and his new full-length album, Signs Under Test, has some really nice tracks. Highly recommended for all you techno fans.

Paul Hartnoll – Paul has always been the more musical/creative half of Orbital (one of my favorite electronic groups), and this track from his most recent solo works demonstrates why:

Electronic music playlist – While discussing electronic music on head-fi.org, I was asked to put together a playlist of my favorite electronic music. Not all of my favorites can be found on Youtube, but I put together a playlist of the ones I could find. It includes not only electronic musical artists, but also cues from film and game soundtracks.

Devin Townsend / Transcendence – Every time Devin releases a new album, I get giddy. The latest one,  Transcendence, is as high quality and interesting as anything he’s ever released. The deluxe edition’s disc 2 is all demo songs, yet they are every bit as amazing as the songs on the actual album, and mixed/mastered better than most people’s official releases. If you like progressive metal with soul and melodic aesthetics but also epic and heavy at the same time, you’ll enjoy Devin’s music.

Hiromi The Trio Projet / Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Patinique 2 – I’ve been listening to Hiromi Uehara’s work for a while now, and although I highly respect her skills as a jazz pianist, she sometimes gets a bit too unhinged for my taste. In this performance, her tendency to get really out there is much more reigned in and controlled, and it’s really beautiful (thanks to my old friend Tomasi who posted this on Facebook).

The Faint – My friend Jason Sereno turned me onto this band when he posted about them on Facebook. They totally flew under my radar all these years, but better late than never, because these guys make delicious new wave/post-punk music.

FEMM – This is one of those totally unexpected discoveries. It’s a Japanese duo masquerading as androids, and it’s just really fun electronic pop.

David Raksin / Laura – This stunning orchestral cue from the 1944 movie, Laura, is the kind of soundtrack music we never hear anymore, since impressionism has long gone out of style. It’s a real shame because impressionism is one of the most compelling styles of music ever created by mankind, and this beautiful cue demonstrates it perfectly (thanks to my composer friend, Siddhartha Barnhoorn, for sharing it on Facebook):

Julian Winding / Demon Dance – This amazing electronic track from the movie, The Neon Demon, is one of the best pieces of electronic music I’ve heard in a while. It’s just dripping with sinister mood and dark intensity, matching the movie’s tone perfectly.

Whiplash Soundtrack – Whiplash is one of best movies I watched in 2016, and it is a must-see if you are a musician or loves music. And if you like jazz at all (especially big band jazz), you’ll enjoy the soundtrack too.

And now we get to the South Korean music scene, which some of you probably know, is ON FIRE and the flames keep burning higher as K-Pop’s global fan-base continues to grow. Unfortunately, K-Indie music doesn’t seem to benefit that much from K-Pop’s popularity, which is a shame, because South Korea’s indie music scene is really good. Here are a selection of Korean tracks I really enjoyed in 2016:

Inlayer / Mindjack – Awesome progressive metal band, which ironically, released their song through SM Entertainment’s SM Station (SM is the largest K-Pop label/agency in South Korea). It’s great that SM is promoting non-mainstream music, and I hope they continue to diversify the range of music styles of their releases.

OOHYO – Oohyo is one of the new darlings of the K-Indie scene. She’s bilingual, having lived in both the States and South Korea, and her songs are also often bilingual. Her music is a mixture of indie and electronic pop.

Akdong Musician (AKMU) – This is a band that consists of siblings (brother and sister), and although they are under YG Entertainment (which is mainly known for hip-hop), their style is mainly indie-folk/pop. They are both still in their teens, and having grown up in Mongolia, they have a different perspective and musical style.

The last single they released was probably the most pop-sounding song they’ve done to date:

Baek Yerin – Her song “Across the Universe” was my favorite song from last year, and this single from 2016 is also very good:

Younha / Run – Younha is a singer/songwriter who releases music in both Japanese and Korean, and this song actually has different arrangements for the two versions. It’s a few years old but I only discovered her in 2016. This is one of Elena’s favorite songs.

Juniel – Juniel is another singer/songwriter who has a music career in both Japan and South Korea. Although she’s released newer songs, I like this one from 2014 the most:

From here on, we get into the purely K-Pop idol territory. There were so many good K-Pop releases in 2016, and it’s hard to keep up unless you follow new releases daily and subscribe to at least a few sources of K-Pop news (such as websites, podcasts, Youtube channels, etc.).

BLACKPINK – You can’t really talk about K-Pop in 2016 without mentioning BLACKPINK, because they were one of the most anticipated rookie groups to debut, and when they did, they immediately exploded and took over the charts. These girls have incredible stage presence, and they filled the void left behind by 2NE1 and 4Minute when those two edgier girl groups disbanded.

Some 2NE1 fans criticize BLACKPINK for being too similar, but what they don’t understand is that 2NE1 was never autonomously responsible for their own musical style. The entire 2NE1 sound was created by Teddy/YG Entertainment, and they could easily just swap out the members of 2NE1 with another group of younger and cuter girls with equal levels of talent and skill (which is what BLACKPINK essentially is). Teddy is the real creator and  heart and soul of 2NE1’s sound, and he’s now bestowing his talents onto BLACKPINK instead–that’s all it is. There’s no 2NE1 without Teddy, just as there’s no BlackPink without Teddy.

I’m personally very happy about this handing over of the torch, because despite 2NE1’s empowering image and standing in the K-Pop Pantheon, their overall aesthetic can be grating to some. I hated the autotuned sound in some of their earlier songs (and no, it’s not just the trend of that time period, because plenty of other musical acts around that time didn’t use excessive Autotune as a sonic signature in their production), and the imagery/fashion choices were often really cheesy and ridiculous (even you blackjacks have to admit this. They tried to be edgy, but it often just comes off as looking outlandishly silly and unintentionally funny. But to be fair, that was the overall trend back then). BLACKPINK is basically an upgraded modern version that’s just as sassy and empowering, but with better songs (IMO. And remember, “sounding like 2NE1” can’t be a criticism because all the 2NE1 songs were written and produced by Teddy, so that would be like saying “Teddy’s songs sounds too similar to himself.”). They’re also much easier on the eyes to a lot of people (at the very least, the fashion sense for the group doesn’t look like the results of some fashion school flunky’s failed school assignments).

Ultimately, the thing to remember is this: Whether it’s 2NE1 or BLACKPINK, they’re both are just vessels to carry and portray Teddy and YG’s creative vision, and neither groups could have come up with the music or visuals by themselves. Everything you have seen or heard from them are from the creative minds of Teddy and YG.

Mamamoo – One of the most universally loved girl groups in K-Pop at the moment is Mamamoo, because not only are they great singers and always put on a good live show, they also have really adorkable personalities that are down-to-earth and goofy. This promo song they did for LG was so much fun. Just listen to that opening harmony–it’s pure aural bliss:

Cosmic Girls – Originally I was kind of meh about this girl group, because I thought, “12 members? Really? Overkill much?” And then they added one more member (Yeon-jung from I.O.I./Produce 101, who’s a formidable singer) and totally won me over with this finely crafted pop song:

Ga-In – The provocateur of K-Pop returned with this delightfully retro 1920’s big band song that contemplates the last moments in life in the face of death. Many K-Pop fans immediately criticized how similar it is to IU‘s “Red Shoes,” but they probably didn’t know that the song was produce by the same producer, and it’s only similar because they both have that retro 1920’s era big band sound.

Stellar – “Sting” is one of my favorite songs from 2016. I love the arrangement, the melodic contour, the mix/mastering, and the overall production. The music video is really nice too, with lots of meta references to the controversial past of the group and the public scrutiny they endured. I also like that they didn’t try so hard to be overtly risque as in their past music videos, and instead opted for more tasteful sexiness:

Twice – Another K-Pop girl group you can’t avoid mentioning in 2016 is Twice. They’ve been extremely popular ever since their debut, but they really blew up in 2016, topping all the charts and went viral with the “shy shy shy” meme during the promotion period for their previous single, “Cheer Up.” “TT” is their biggest hit to date, and it’s easy to see/hear why:

I.O.I – I really enjoyed Produce 101, the reality competition show where 101 K-Pop trainees from various talent agencies competed for the top 11 spots, and the winners became I.O.I, a girl-group that would only last one year and then disband (all the girls going back to their respective agencies).

I was really rooting for Kim Se-jeong, not only because of her sheer talent but also her kindness and generosity and optimism, and also Choi Yoo-Jung because she’s just adorable and such a charismatic performer (and her friendship with Kim Doyeon is just beautiful–Dodaeng forever!). I was annoyed by Kim Sohye’s ascendency to the top 11 because she had no ability in singing or dancing at all and wanted to be an actress instead. The viewers voted for her because the show tried so hard to edit together an underdog narrative, but the reality is, she took the spot away from those who actually spent their entire lives training with the aspiration to become a singer, and had far more talent and ability. I eventually warmed up to Sohye after she improved enough to not be a burden to the group, and her humble personality made it easier to accept her, but I really wanted Park Si-Yeon to have taken her place instead. Hell, I could name at least a dozen girls who should have taken her place (fortunately, some of them have gotten more exposure from the show and have made debuts).

The final lineup of I.O.I was a really good mix because they’re such a lovable goofy bunch that got along so well. The songs they releases were kind of hit or miss (even for the very supportive fans), but the good ones were some of the best K-Pop songs in 2016.

It’s kind of tragic that the group will have to disband once the year is up, because these girls have become such close friends. Towards the end of their one-year promotion, they were all crying uncontrollably during fan-meet events whenever the topic of disbandment comes up.

This cover they performed is a great example of how fun this group is:

Here’s Yoo-jung’s legendary moment on Produce 101 during a performance. It’s amazing because she’s normally really shy and timid, but as soon as she’s on stage she becomes this fiery little demon:

And here’s a great song from before the group was officially formed, during Produce 101:

Laboum – Laboum is a girl group that is so adorkably derpy that you can’t help but love them. Some might find the delirious giddy vibe grating, but once you embrace the campy aspect and just enjoy it for the sugar rush it’s meant to be, you’ll find yourself smiling from ear-to-ear:

Jun Hyo-Seong – Although fans of Secret are dying for them to make a comeback, I’m actually fairly content as long as Hyo-Seong continues to release solo stuff, since every single one of her solo releases have been so good:

You can listen to the entire EP in this playlist:

Dalshabet – Dalshabet never really did much for me, but this song is an instant classic because of Brave Brothers, whose productions are legendary in K-Pop and have produced some of the catchiest songs in recent memory:

GFriend – Their earlier releases often sounded a bit too much like early SNSD, and I didn’t care much for their songs except for “Me Gustas Tu,” but this latest album release is excellent, with some really good songs:

Oh My Girl – OMG continues to release some of the most interesting songs among the new female K-Pop groups. There’s a reason OMG is often cited as the group that other girl groups are big fans of.

Red Velvet – I was not a Red Velvet fan, and it’s only with this most recent release that I started to warm up to them. “Russian Roulette” is just such a fun and catchy song with an infectious melody:

Loona – This group has got a lot of people anticipating its debut, and we the fans have quite a while longer to wait, since the company behind Loona (Blockberry Creative) is using a very clever and innovative promotional strategy. They reveal a new member every month, with a new single and music video for that member, and starting from the second month, they also release another single and music video that features the revealed members so far. There will be twelve members total, which means by the time the group officially debuts later in 2017, they’d have already released 21 songs and music videos total. That is an insane amount of money to sink into the promotion of a rookie group, but it’s so intriguing and effectively in building up a fan-base that’s just giddy with anticipation, getting new surprises every month for an entire year leading up to the official debut. So far, three members have been revealed (which means five songs and music videos released as of now), and these two are the best ones IMO:

Yuri, Seohyun / Secret – These two members of Girls’ Generation released this song, and it just came out of nowhere and delighted all SNSD fans:

Vromance – I rarely ever pay attention to male K-Pop acts, because I’m just not a fan of the overall aesthetic of male K-Pop idols–both musically or visually. For male-vocal musical artists, I much prefer industrial, goth, metal, alternative, indie, progressive rock, acid jazz, new wave, synthpop, etc., and current male K-Pop acts just don’t really tap into those styles (they tend to focus on hip-hop, pop, R&B, EDM). In this case, Vromance (which is the brother group to Mamamoo) is a lot more appealing to me because they don’t try so hard peacocking for the screaming female fans, while the music video also doesn’t try so hard to be ridiculously flashy. It’s just a solid song that’s very pleasing to listen to:

Girl Spirit – This was a really fun singing competition reality show, where they have the main/lead vocalists from less popular K-Pop girl groups battle it out, and there were so many good performances. If you actually know the songs they covered, it’s even more entertaining because you hear how different their renditions of the songs are. I’m not really a fan of singing where there’s a lot of powerful belting; I’m more drawn to lighter, more girly singing styles, which is why Seung-hee (from Oh My Girl) was my favorite. She has a very expressive girly voice, but also has some oomph when she needs to hit some notes with power. This playlist contains my favorite performances from the show:

Podcasts

I listen to podcasts while taking a shower, exercising, and driving, and most of what I listen to are educational ones about writing/storytelling, music, scientific discoveries, economy, sociology, or just interesting facts. The few podcasts I got into and really enjoyed in 2016 were:

Alice Isn’t Dead – Brought to you by the same folks behind Nightvale. As much as I like Nightvale, it tends to be just frivolous fun and can be somewhat vacuous. Alice Isn’t Dead is very different in tone. It is much more plot-driven and quite serious, with a sense of sadness, longing, dread, and moments of paralyzing terror. I like it more than Nightvale and I’m looking forward to season two. If you like moody horror, definitely give this a try.

K-Pop Unmuted – This is a new podcast from the team behind Pop Unmuted, and it brings sorely needed professional criticism/review/discussions to the K-Pop community. I say that because the K-Pop community consists mainly of young fans who are completely ignorant about music in general–genres, history, songwriting, musicianship, production, marketing, etc. What we see online is overwhelmingly very shallow and uninformed rabid fan behavior that’s profoundly lacking in critical thinking, focusing on celebrity gossip and mindless adoration. Although K-Pop in general isn’t exactly a musical movement known for its intellectual or emotional substance, there are still a lot about its merits that’s worthy of critical commentary, and that’s what this podcast brings to the table.

The KPop Show – This is another newer K-Pop podcast that delves into serious music criticism where they discuss the lyrics, composition, arrangement, production, etc., but done it a casual and entertaining way. It’s sort of like two friends share the same love for K-Pop and get together to geek out about the songs from the perspective of musicians, while having a few beers.

Dead Robot Society – Compared to Writing Excuses (my favorite podcast for writers), this podcast is much more meandering than educational. It’s more like writers just shooting the breeze over beers, as opposed to focusing on educating the listener on writing and storytelling and marketing books. It’s a long-running podcast that’s been around for a while, and if you just want to listen to writers talking to each other casually, this is for you. It’s more fun than Mur Lafferty’s I Should be Writing or K.M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors, since there are multiple hosts, and they do not keep it PG-13 at all.

Games

I don’t really play games anymore, not only because they take up so much time, but also because the level of storytelling in the game industry in general is still lacking compared to other mediums (the exceptions are so few and far between). I only played one game in 2016 (although I often watch “let’s play” videos on Youtube of various games just to keep up with what’s out there).

Dreamfall: Chapters – This is the first game I’ve ever supported on Kickstarter. The first game in the series, The Longest Journey, is one of my favorite games of all-time, and the sequel, Dreamfall, while doesn’t have the same sense of wonder, was still engrossing. Unfortunately, I found the final entry in the series disappointing. Due to the tiny budget, the sense of scale and the overall scope of the story didn’t have the same epic feel of the previous games. Also, I think Ragnar Tornquist and Dag Scheve’s writing this time around didn’t live up to their past works (I loved Dag’s writing in The Secret World).

The only thing in gaming that’s got me really excited was the announcement of the sequel to The Last of Us. TLoU was the game that ruined gaming for me, because I loved its storytelling so much that all other games seemed juvenile and meaningless in comparison. It’s kind of fitting that the franchise that ruined gaming for me would be the one to also bring me back to gaming. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to be at least another couple of years before the game is released.

And now, finally, my resolutions for 2017.

I could actually just cut & paste what I wrote for 2016 and it would largely be the same, but there are a few differences that I think are important for 2017.

Writing – Although I prefer to write while unaffected by commercial concerns, I still do care about getting my work out there so I can share these stories with others who might find enjoyment or solace in them. Instead of just continuing to write at a leisurely pace, I’m at the point where I think I should be finishing at least one book in 2017. It could be book one of Darkness Falls or Promise, since both are far enough along that it’s realistic to finish either one before 2017 is over. If I were being strategic, it’d probably be better to finish book one of Darkness Falls first, so that while I’m rewriting/editing it, I could also be working on finishing Promise, if/when I feel the need to take a break and alternate with another book. Then while rewriting/editing Promise, I could be outlining book two of Darkness Falls.

Reading – For a writer, I don’t read nearly as many books as I should, and it’s mainly because I tend to favor film/television more when it comes to experiencing storytelling. But I think since I’m now focused on writing novels and not screenplays, I ought to swap out more of my film/television time for reading instead. I’d like to read one book a week, which means about 52 books a year. That’s a pretty good number. Although there are some people who read hundreds of books a year. I have to wonder if any of them are serious writers though, since that kind of reading will likely use up all the available writing time.

Teaching – I’ll continue to do my best in helping others fulfill their aspirations. I’ll keep teaching my workshop, Becoming a Better Artist, for as long as there’s a demand for it, or until my writing career gets to the point where I must focus all of my time and energy on it (assuming our investments are doing well and I no longer need another source of income). For those of you who have been eyeing my workshop over the years but never drummed up the courage to take it (many people are intimidated by how intense the workshop seems, despite the fact it’s designed to teach artists of all levels, regardless if you are a working professional artist or a total beginner), you probably have at least another year or two left. Past that, I can’t guarantee I’ll still be teaching it, so it would be wise to take the workshop sooner than later.

Health – If my aging joints don’t act up in 2017, I’ll be able to get a consistent exercise regime going. But this is out of my control, so all I can do is cross my fingers and hope for the best. I just got over the last round of inexplicable pains and I’ve started to get a routine going again. Let’s hope I can keep it going throughout 2017 without unexpected interruptions.

I’m going to try to be even more careful about my gallstones in 2017, even if it’s just for the sake of curiosity, to see how much better it could get if I don’t contribute to it in any way (such as eating something fatty or sweet at night).

So there it is. May 2017 be a better year than 2016.

January 6, 2015

2014 summary and 2015 resolutions

Another year flashed by in a blur, like the scenery that streams past the window of a speeding train. No year has ever turned out exactly as I had hoped in any of my resolutions, and 2014 was no exception.

Keeping with my tradition, here’s a look at my resolutions for 2014 and how the year actually turned out, and then I’ll end with 2015’s resolutions.

1) Try to write as much as possible. I’m not going to set goals like “finish a novel this year” anymore, because as long as I’m writing and feeling fulfilled, that’s all that matters. The truth is, most books you see in the bookstore don’t sell and the authors can’t even make a living with their writing and must hold down day jobs. Even if I have books out on the shelves, it really means very little in terms how my life would change (other than getting the stories out there to an audience), so it’s much more important that I continue to write for the love of it, and the rest will come naturally. Ideally, 1,000 words a day would be just perfect, but that’s unlikely, since I tend to write very slow and methodical, editing as I write, instead of typing up a storm while in a rapture of inspiration (though it does happen once a while). So for 2014, my motto is simply, “just write.”

I do think I’ll have a smoother writing experience in 2014 though, due to having worked out a lot of the difficult thematic, plot, and character issues in 2013 for the books I’m working on.

I did a lot of brainstorming for Darkness Falls (tentative title for the reboot of my Enchanted graphic novel series from the 90’s, but now as a series of novels) in 2014, with extensive outlines and notes for the world-building, character arcs, plot structure, factions, themes, etc, and wrote a few exciting scenes to establish the tone of the story. What I have now is far more mature, complex, and exciting than what my younger self came up with, and the new incarnation explores many themes that are close to my heart and relevant to my current development as a person.

I wrote a few scenes in Promise that I’m quite proud of, but I sort of hit a barrier with that book, and I had put it on the shelf while I worked on other books, so I can gain some distance from it and then reassess it later.

I wrote a couple of scenes for Silent Storm, but I’m still a bit unsure about what I really want to emphasize in that story, so I stopped working on it.

I had fun writing a couple of tent-pole scenes in Undead Souls, but I also experienced problems with the book, which was why I changed my focus to Darkness Falls for the rest of the year.

I think the most important achievement I’ve had in 2014 with writing, was finally figuring out how to imbue every single aspect of my storytelling with the essential thematic explorations that give the entire narrative substance and meaning.

In the past, even though I always placed meaningful thematic purpose high on my list of goals as a writer, I wasn’t always successful in how I intertwined all the elements in a story with thematic explorations. There were always some scenes, subplots, or characters that seemed to exist apart from the real focus of the thematic purpose. When I tried to force thematic purpose onto those elements, they start to feel overtly didactic and lose their fun qualities. Being excessively didactic is a tendency I’d like to eradicate in my fiction, even if it is a natural part of my personality (and the reason why my students think I’m a damn good teacher).

What I do now, is structure the conflicts and resolutions to build up the thematic focus at the root level of the plot and the characters arcs, as well as applying the approach I use for character arcs to the main factions in a story, treating the bigger story of each faction as if they are character arcs. I’ll probably write about this in a separate blog post in the future–it’s one of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve had as a writer in a while.

Another interesting thing that happened in 2014 was making an effort to meet local writers. I reached out online to local writer’s groups, and one of them, Steve R. Yeager responded to me privately. We have been corresponding ever since, and occasionally meet up in person to talk shop (he introduced me to Scott Richards, another fellow local writer). Although Steve’s writing is very different from mine (he’s a full-on pulp writer who loves that genre, and doesn’t make nearly as much of a fuss about thematic purpose/meaning as I do–it’s all about having fun for him), we still have fruitful discussion about storytelling, writing, publishing, etc. Steve’s the one that recommended John D. MacDonald‘s books to me, and although I’m only one book into MacDonald’s Travis McGee series (The Deep Blue Good-By), I’ve been extremely impressed by MacDonald’s prose and deep insights into human nature, and those qualities elevate his work beyond disposable pulpy entertainment.

Critiquing each other’s work with Steve also shined a spotlight on some of the problems with my own writing, and now that I’m much more aware of them, I can correct them. Giving Steve feedback on his writing also helped clarify what I prefer in my own writing goals, since I can see in his writing the aspects I like and don’t like.

Related to writing, was my quest to find an ideal virtual index card software for outlining. I don’t like the one in Scrivener, and the storyline tool in Writer’s Cafe is a bit clunky. After trying just about all the decent ones, I realized none had all the features I needed, and the missing features make none of them worth investing time and money into.

The features most important to me are:

-Able to customize the GUI’s color (can’t stand bright/white backgrounds).

-Able to customize the cards’ size, font size, background fill color, font color, etc, so I can color-code for the different characters or scene types.

-Able to do simple swapping action if I drag a card on top of another, instead of merely inserting a card before or after another card.

-Able to customize layout so I can have columns or rows, each dedicated to a separate subplot.

-A split view mode or expanded view so I can put more than just the title and a short description into the card, such as adding more details if needed.

I spent a lot of time testing Text Block Writer (very primitive), Super Notecard (pretty good), and Writer’s Blocks (advanced but ridiculously expensive), and although Writer’s Blocks came very close, it was missing a couple of key features that I couldn’t live without. I had long and interesting discussions with the developer of the software though, and he pointed me to one of the most interesting articles I’ve read a in while, on the subject of psychology behind software pricing (which is a lot more complex than just the basic “perception of value based on how expensive something is.”

Anyway, I still haven’t found the ideal virtual index cards software yet, and if any of you have suggestions, please let me know.

2) Keep healthy. I’m already doing very well in terms of a healthy diet, and am currently within the range of a healthy weight for my height (5’9, 168 lbs.). Now I just need to be more consistent in my exercising. Ideally, I’d like to do one hour of exercise everyday (elliptical machine or ping pong, but knowing myself, it’d be an accomplishment just to achieve every other day, and I’d be fine with that too.

I’m hoping I won’t have more than a couple of minor gallstone attacks in 2014, and my shoulder stays in good shape, while my ferritin level drops down to normal after a successful phlebotomy (if Red Cross fails to get enough blood out of me, I’d have to try something else), and my chronic foot problem will be successfully diagnosed and treated.

I’ve lost a little more weight since then, and am at roughly 164 lbs. I seem to be holding in the 164~168 range, as long as I don’t get crazy with junk food or eating late at night.

I didn’t get a regular exercise routine started in 2014, but I did get a much more important habit started and maintained throughout the year, which is fighting the detrimental effects of sitting uninterrupted. Mind you, this is not the same thing as the current trend of using standing desks or desk treadmills. That trend is actually a misunderstanding of why sitting uninterrupted kills us prematurely. If you read the article I linked above (interview with Dr. Joan Vernikos, who was hired by NASA specifically to study this subject), you’ll understand why it’s not the actual sitting that kills us.

My method (adapted from that article), is to have an interval alarm go off on my smartphone every twenty minutes, and I’ll get up and do five core-strengthening squats, side stretches, side twists, touch my toes, stretch my neck and shoulders, while resting my eyes. Doing this is far more important than any exercise I could possibly do, since no amount of exercising can reverse the deadly effects of uninterrupted sitting. Of course, adding regular exercise on top of that habit will make me even healthier, but at least I’m making progress, and hopefully 2015 is the year I finally build up enough of a habit for regular exercise.

Another thing I added to my routine was to do rebounding everyday (we bought a bellicon rebounder). I do four to five short sessions a day–once when I wake up, before each meal, in the middle of the afternoon, and before taking a shower at night.

My gallstone attacks added up to fifteen in 2014, and that’s a lot more than I wanted to deal with. They were fairly minor ones, and there weren’t always clear catalysts, since on days when I didn’t eat anything that would exacerbate it, I had an attack anyway, and on days when I had more fatty or sweet foods than I should, nothing happened. Sometimes the two do correlate, but not always, and that’s a little frustrating. My doctor said sometimes it’s simply that a stone has moved to the opening and blocked it, and not because I ate anything I shouldn’t, and that jumping around might dislodge it (to be fair, he did say that jokingly). When I do get attacks, juicing beets, apples, lemon, and with some apple cider vinegar usually takes care of the problem quickly (the doctor said it’s probably because they help relax the gallbladder).

My ferritin level did drop to almost normal in 2014, without having to do a phlebotomy, so *whew* on that. Now I just have to have it checked every six months or so to make sure it’s not going back up again.

Other than all that, it’s just the typical aches and pains of getting older and dealing with accumulated old injuries acting up. Nothing I can do about that–joints wear down, bones get brittle–just a fact of life.

3) Cut down on stress. I need to take it easy, or else I’ll go through life constantly feeling like I’m running out of time and falling behind in my goals. I’ve been feeling this way ever since puberty, and it’s the curse of being a workaholic and perfectionist. I have to try to take life as is and enjoy myself no matter what is happening, even when things aren’t going my way. Life is full of unexpected detours and distractions, and if I get stressed out every time something keeps me from my goals, it would be no surprise if one day the stress kills me. Everything that happens in life can be a lesson and becomes part of the life experience, so I need to embrace it all instead of only the things I care about the most, while treating everything else as annoying distractions.

I’ve been pretty good at keeping stress level low. There are things that happened in 2014 that would have caused my past-self a lot of anxiety and sleepless nights, but now, I try to keep it all under control and take the time to relax and enjoy life instead of dwelling on things I can’t control, or shouldn’t allow to affect me so much.

Every once a while I do get stressed out by my teaching, such as when I get the rare belligerent students who are being very difficult, or times when I can’t help certain students as much as I wish I could (such as those suffering from clinical depression or other mental/personality disorders that require medical professional’s help).

With the problem students, I try my best to give them multiple chances and it takes a lot for me to finally draw the line and give up on a person (someone who obviously isn’t willing to cooperate or change or make an effort), so I always end up putting up with the bad students far more than I should. Any other teacher would simply kick the student out of the workshop and that would be it. As for the ones who are suffering, I try to help them in any way I can, such as talking to them, listen to their problems, helping them regain objectivity, giving them support, suggesting actions they can take such as contacting mental health professionals, or sharing helpful articles or videos about latest advances in treating depression and other mental/personality disorders. Ultimately, they have to help themselves because I can’t force them to take action, and that’s what I focus on–to get them to help themselves.

Sometimes I have sleepless nights when I’m in the middle of trying to figure out the solution to problems in the novels I’m writing. I often end up taking down lots of notes in the middle of the night on my Galaxy Note 3, so I don’t forget ideas next morning.

Every once a while, another source keeps me up at night, such as when I get fully immersed in a subject I am researching (I call it “falling down a rabbit hole”). For example, when I was researching what small-form-factor camera to get to complement my Canon 5D Mark III (which is too heavy and bulky as a walk-around casual camera), or this current mechanical keyboard rabbit hole–they’re the kind of things that occupy my mind during sleep hours and I end up waking up in the middle of the night in bed, doing more research in the dark on my Galaxy Note 3. I don’t mind that kind of preoccupation since it’s actually kind of pleasant, instead of being in a state of agitation. I do need to keep these episodes of falling down rabbit holes to a minimum though, since they do take up a lot of time and energy while keeping me away from my writing and other creative passions.

4) Keep being the best teacher I can be and continue to mentor my students, helping them become the artists they aspire to be.

I have kept my promise to all my alumni students and continue to help them in the private alumni lounge. It is a wonderful place where the students can continue to learn and grow with my mentoring, while not have to deal with the negative aspects of public forum, where they might be ignored or treated harshly by belligerent jerks. I’m proud of the fact that it remains an amazing place that’s full of encouragement, mutual support, passionate and hard-working artists, and intelligent discussions. This type of private, small community is extremely rare nowadays, and all the students who participate in it recognize how special it is and are very appreciative of it.

The last workshop I taught in 2014 was quite grueling, due to one particular problem student who was a nightmare to deal with. I was really worn out by the end of that workshop, and as the result, have decided to take a break from teaching. I’ve been teaching nonstop since 2010, running the workshops pretty much back-to-back with very few exceptions, so it’s about time I got some well-deserved rest. I know I shouldn’t let one bad student sour the experience of teaching for me, but that’s just how things go sometimes–one specific catalyst that isn’t even close to being a majority influence, can have a profound effect on the whole experience.

So that was how I fared in 2014 in the context of the new year’s resolution I made at the end of 2013.

Now I’ll summarize the other stuff in 2014 but not directly related to the resolutions.

Moving to Android from iOS – I’ve always been a pro-technology person, because I think in general, the human race benefited far more from technology than being harmed by it. So it’s no surprise that I’m one of those people whose smartphone never leaves his side, because I use it in every facet of my life–from my writing, time management, task lists, appointments, GPS, keeping visual records, ebooks, podcasts, videos, the web–the list goes on. I was doing all that on an iPhone for a couple of years, and moving all of that to Android was a huge change that was a lot more difficult than I had predicted. I wrote a very comprehensive blog post about the experience of transitioning from iOS to Android (including lots of tips and app recommendations), so read it if you are interested in that topic. I also wrote equally in-depth blog posts about how to get the most out of the Galaxy Note 3’s camera, as well as artistic and technical tips for taking better photos (a sort of Photography 101 crash course).

E-M1 – I needed a light-weight and small-sized camera to be used as a walk-around casual shooter, because my Canon 5D Mark III is just too bulky and heavy for that purpose. After doing much research and testing, I ended up with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO and 45mm f/1.8). It’s my first Micro Four Thirds system, and I’m really enjoying shooting with it. I might write a review of it at some point, but for now, there’s the short version I wrote on amazon (I also wrote reviews for two other cameras I was also considering–the Sony RX100  III, and the Canon G1X Mark II).

Mechanical Keyboards – This is the rabbit hole I fell into recently, during my quest to find a better typing experience while writing my novels. It all started because of two catalysts: 1) Sometimes at the end of a busy day with lots of typing, my hands would feel weak and unresponsive, with lots of typos. I wanted to find a solution to that problem. 2) I needed a good keyboard that could be used with my Galaxy Note 3 while in bed, so when I want to do some in-bed writing before we turn out the lights (as I often do), I don’t have to suffer the indignation of typing with my thumbs on a touchscreen (which is something I’ve only grudgingly accepted due to lack of better alternatives).

My search for bed-time typing keyboard first led me to the usual suspects of bluetooth keyboards, and after trying a bunch of them at Fry’s, none felt as good as any cheap full-sized keyboards (The bluetooth ones were pretty much all “chiclet” styled keys, which isn’t particularly satisfying to type on). But I was willing to compromise since it’s still far better than typing with thumbs on a touchscreen. And then I walked over to the gaming keyboards section just for the hell of it and laid on my hands on a mechanical keyboard (with blue Cherry MX switches). Instantly, it was all over for me.

The feel of typing on a mechanical keyboard far surpassed any typing experience I’ve ever had in my life prior to that moment (including typewriters). The tactile sensation, the rhythmic clicking aural feedback, and the feeling that you’re typing on a finely tuned instrument meant to be used by a serious typist–it’s akin to what musicians feel when they pick up that amazing instrument and start playing it for the first time, or a painter picking up that perfectly crafted brush loaded with the most luxurious paint and stroking onto the canvas. Right then and there, I lost my footing and fell straight down the rabbit hole of mechanical keyboards.

From there, the rabbit hole gets deeper and deeper. There’s a whole community of keyboard enthusiasts who are tech-savvy and build their own customized keyboards from scratch, design their own layouts, machine their own parts, build and program their own electronics, make their own keycaps, and so on.

Anyway, I’m going to cut it short here, since it’s a topic that requires its own blog post–one that I’ll surely write in the future. Before I move on though, I just want to share a few photos of gorgeous customized mechanical keyboards from the various mechanical keyboard communities, for those of you who have never seen one before:

Yeah, I know. Right? If you have even just a little bit of geek in you, you’re probably breathing pretty heavily right now.

Okay, moving on.

Gaming – I barely played any games in 2014 due to being so busy with everything else (and also because The Last of Us kind of ruined video games for me for a long time, since every game compared to TLOU seemed meaningless and juvenile, or crude and boring). I did play one game though, and it’s a game I supported on Kickstarter, which is the highly anticipated continuation of The Longest Journey saga, now known to us as Dreamfall: Chapters. I’m a huge fan of the series and I had high expectations for this game, but it ended up being somewhat of a disappointment. It’s not a bad game–it’s simply not very exciting, lacking compelling pacing. But it’s only the first episode, and was meant to establish the premise for the really exciting stuff that’s to come later (or so we’re told). I really wanted to play Divinity: Origin Sin and Dragon Age: Inquisition, but just didn’t have the time.

Movies/Television –  There really weren’t any movies I watched in 2014 that really blew me away, but in television, I was totally engrossed by Boardwalk Empire (finished the series). It’s one of the best TV series I’ve watched to date, up there with shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc. True Detective was another series that I really liked (amazing acting from McConaughey and Harrelson). I also really enjoyed the first two episodes of the first season of Black Mirror (brilliant storytelling and biting social commentary/satire), but the rest wasn’t as good. It seems television has eclipsed movies as the better storytelling medium nowadays, due to the freedom and room the writers have in developing characters and building more complex and satisfying storylines.

Music – There were some very nice new additions to my music collection in 2014, such as the retro 80’s J-Pop/jazz fusion blend of Hitomitoi (and similar musical acts like Ryusenki  and their contemporaries like Paris Match, Kenmochi Hidefumi); South Korean indie bands and artists like CaskerKim Puer; highly anticipated first album, Loopified, from jazz fusion/pop group, Dirty Loops; the awesome reunion and new album, Hotel Valentine, from Cibo Matto; a handful of nice songs from the discography of Birthday Massacre; NIN‘s Hesitation Marks; Zircon‘s Augent and Identity Sequence; Daft Punk‘s Random Access Memory; some nice film scores like Henry Jackman‘s score for Captain American: The Winter Soldier and Kick-Ass 2, and Carter Burwell‘s score for The Fifth Estate; and a string of guilty pleasure K-Pop hits such as the new album from my K-Pop favorite, IU, and releases from Kara, AOA, Crayon Pop, Rainbow Blaxx, Sistar, SNSD, BESTie, Lovelyz, f(x), etc.

Podcasts – I listened to every single episode of Writing Excuses and loved every minute of it. Really informative and educational at the same time, and probably the best podcast for writers right now. I remain a faithful listener of Stuff You Should Know, and for wacky irreverent fun, The Comedy Button. My friend Jason Sereno turned me onto Lexicon Valley (along with a few other podcasts) and I’ve been enjoying it very much.

2014’s summer was another very fruitful one for the Kitty Cat Diary, especially that I was testing a few cameras and putting the E-M1 through its paces. Unfortunately, due to being extremely busy, I just didn’t have the time to process most of the photos I took, and I’ve now got over a year and half’s worth of photos I need to process (backed up all the way to summer of 2013). I promised myself I’ll not allow the backlog to stretch to two full years, so I better get a bunch of them done in 2015.

That was my 2014 more or less. Now it’s time for 2015’s resolutions.

In 2015, I’m continuing the previous quest to keep my life simpler and focus on fewer things so I can get more done. At this point in my life, I think I’m pretty much set in my ways and have a comfortable routine going, and I like how my life is now more than I ever did in the past. I just turned forty-two, and although I still feel that pressure to accomplish life’s goals (damn mid-life crisis), I’m trying to just enjoy myself more instead of feeling like a man on a mission who can’t afford to fail.

Writing – I know that statistically, the chances of anyone making a living as a novelist is very slim, and it’s really not healthy to obsess about it. I’ll just continue to write at a pace that is enjoyable to me, and whatever happens will just be a natural extension of my love for storytelling. I don’t ever want to turn into one of those writers who talks about nothing but word-count, how to writer more books more quickly, and just generally sound like some factory manager than a writer who’s doing it for the love of storytelling.

With the new revelations I had about how to handle thematic explorations, I think 2015 is going to be a very good year, where I overcome the problems I faced with Promise and Undead Souls. I really enjoyed the world-building I did for Darkness Falls in 2014, and I feel a bit torn about whether to focus on finishing the novels I’ve been writing, or set them aside and just keep working on Darkness Falls. I doubt I’ll figure out what to do with Silent Storm anytime soon–I probably should have more discussions with fellow writers to figure out what the problem is with that story before I do anything more with it.

So in short, just keep writing and enjoy the process, instead of obsessing over anything not directly related to storytelling.

Teaching – I’m taking a break for a bit in 2015, but I’ll continue to mentor my alumni students. I’m not sure when I’ll teach the next workshop, but I need to rest and give myself more time to write. Although my teaching doesn’t take up nearly as much time as a day-job, it can still be quite disruptive to my writing.

There are a few students who are going through a hard time in their artistic development, and I hope I can guide them well in 2015 so they can level up and overcome the obstacles that’s keeping them from moving forward as artists.

Health – I’ve been at healthy weight for over a year, and I’ve been very vigilant about breaking up my days with 20-minute intervals and getting up to move around, as well as rebounding everyday. I don’t eat nearly as much crap as I used to, and I don’t smoke, drink (including coffee), or have other habits negative to my health. The only thing I can now add is regular cardio exercise and weight training. I’d like to get into a routine with those in 2015, but I’ve failed so many times in the past with regular exercise that I wonder if it’s even possible. I’m just much more comfortable taxing my brain than my body–I guess it’s a personality thing. The problem is always that I feel like I already don’t have enough time in a day to get things done, but the general wisdom is if you don’t make time to exercise you’ll shorten your lifespan, and that means you are going to lose years of your life–years that could be spent on getting things done. So I guess “too busy” just isn’t enough of a good excuse.

I’m going to be more careful about exacerbating my gallstone attacks in 2015. Although sometimes it’s just beyond my control (didn’t eat anything that would trigger an attack), I think at least half of the attacks had something to do with what I ate. The frustrating thing is that there’s no real logic behind it most of the time, since the same food with the same quantity, at the same time of the day, may or may not trigger an attack. No matter what, I want to keep my gallbladder for as long as possible, so any efforts I can make to keep the attacks away will be important.

Kitty Cat Diary – Although I do it for fun, I still feel bad when I have a pile of backlogged photos I haven’t processed and posted to the Kitty Cat Diary (more than anything, it’s the feeling that it’s been a tradition for me since 2001, and I shouldn’t neglect it). I’ll try to get caught up as much as possible in 2015, but I can’t make it a priority since it’s not supposed to be that important–especially when I have my writing to keep my busy.

I think that’s a good list of resolutions for 2015. Keeping it simple is the way forward.

July 17, 2013

The Last of Us review

Filed under: Video Games,Writing — Rob Chang @ 2:11 am

(Don’t worry about spoilers if you haven’t finished playing The Last of Us yet. I will warn you before I get into anything that will spoil important parts of the game.)

I had very high expectations for The Last of Us, because I had been waiting anxiously for it ever since the first announcement years ago. I was immediately on board because everything about it aligned with my taste (heavily influenced by The Road, one of my favorite books of all time). It’s become quite rare for me to get very excited about games because most of them have abysmal storytelling, and as a gamer who’s also a writer, I care deeply about advancing the art of storytelling in the medium of video games. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about gameplay mechanics, because I can and do enjoy games that are purely about the fun of the gameplay, but deep down, games with great storytelling will always be more special to me, because they resonate with me emotionally and intellectually, adding a lot more substance to the experience of gaming. The Last of Us is the type of game that takes storytelling very seriously, and being an AAA title, it also had to get the gameplay right too, so it’s with such expectations that I began the journey through the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic America while with a teenage girl in my protection.

I was sure I would enjoy the game, but I had no idea that just ten minutes into the game, tears would be dripping down my face as I sat there with the controller in my hands, heartbroken. In all the years I’ve been a gamer, I have never once shed tears over anything that happened in a game–likely because storytelling in games are rarely done well enough to affect me the way movies or books can. The Last of Us is the first game to bring me to tears, and in the first ten minutes too.

A few hours later into the game, I was worried that the best part of the game was already behind me, and that Naughty Dog had blown their wad in the first ten minutes. The game was entertaining, but the emotional gravity of the opening still haunted me, and it was hard to stay focused when I was still reeling from what had happened in those first ten minutes. In hindsight, I wonder if this was intentional–that Naughty Dog wanted the player to feel emotionally spent and empty during the early parts of the game, reflecting the state of Joel’s emotional landscape.

As the game progressed and more things happened, it drew me deeper into the narrative, and I felt more present (again, reflecting the changes in Joel’s attitude). Towards the end, I was fully captivated, and when the story finally reached full circle, I believed that Naughty Dog had created a masterpiece–one of the very few in the medium of video games that I consider to be on par with accomplished storytelling in literature, film, and television.

As a writer, I loved the storytelling in the game. As a gamer, I really enjoyed myself, although I don’t think the gameplay was on par with the quality of the writing.

The gameplay mechanics in The Last of Us is fairly simple, although it does require strategy and patience. The stealth aspect of the game isn’t optional–it’s a necessity, and I generally dislike stealth in games because they are almost always executed badly, with illogical A.I. behavior and arbitrary rules of concealment and detection. The Last of Us does stealth better than a lot of games, but it’s still running on its own arbitrary logic and still not realistic enough or satisfying.

The crafting aspect gives the gameplay a bit more depth, but it felt too limiting. I’d have preferred a system that’s got more variety, as seen in games like Dead Island or even Dead Rising. It was just odd to see the same set of objects over and over and I could only make a few things with them.

The melee combat was brutal, but way too simple. I wanted something a bit deeper, such as having the basics of a fighting game, but maybe that would have been too much for the average mainstream gamer.

I really liked how the game started with Sarah as a playable character, because it really puts you into the state of mind of being alone, scared, and helpless. Later, playing as Ellie was really enjoyable too, because it’s like a validation of how much she’s learned from Joel and how capable she’s become.

As much as I loved the voice acting in the game, I really regretted watching the behind-the-scenes videos of the voice actors before playing the game. Ashley Johnson has both a distinct face and a distinct voice, and once you are familiar with them, you can’t help but see her in your head when you hear her speak as Ellie. Also, even though Ashely’s portrayal of Ellie’s personality was perfect, her actual voice sounds a bit too old for Ellie’s age (maybe Ellie would sound like that if she was a bit older).

The score for The Last of Us by Gustavo Santaolalla was beautiful. It was moody, haunting, and had a lyrical quality that fit the story perfectly. The sound effects were done very well too, although I think the sound effects during the stealth actions were way too loud to be inconspicuous. The silent kills were anything but, and the surrounding enemies would have to be almost deaf to not be able to hear those so-called silent struggles.

The graphics were breathtaking, and it was expected because of Naughty Dog’s track record with the Uncharted franchise. Sometimes when I play graphically impressive games of this current generation, I wonder to myself if we really need better graphics. In the previous generation, because graphics were still quite limited, there were a lot of things you couldn’t do to immerse the players emotionally, but now that’s no longer the case. I think we’ve crossed the threshold in this generation of consoles, where characters can emote at a level that is believable, and better graphics would only be icing on the cake and not really alter the emotional experience much. I guess we’ll see in a couple of years if I’m right.

Ultimately, storytelling was the main reason why I wanted to play the game, and why I loved it–especially the ending. The ending of The Last of Us is what elevates it to the level of a masterpiece. It took video game storytelling to a new level of sophistication and maturity that’s never seen before, and the fact that a AAA big budget game took the risk with such an unconventional ending, really says something about the artistic conviction of Naughty Dog.

Now, I’m going to get into major spoilers about the ending, so stop reading now if you haven’t finished the game yet, because from here on it’s all spoilers.

*****Spoilers Begin*****

For those of you who have finished the game, let’s talk about that scene in the operating room. I thought it was very badly designed in terms of game mechanics, and I wish they could have given it a bit more thought and made it play right. Many people have commented that they couldn’t get to Ellie and take her without killing the surgeon (this happened to me too), while some said it’s possible. This is a huge problem that really takes the player out of the game. They should have made it clear that the player can walk over next to Ellie and pick her up without shooting the surgeon (I remember trying but the surgeon blocked my way and I had to shoot him).

Aside from that blemish, the rest of the ending was beautiful. When Joel picked up Ellie and carried her while running for their lives, it mirrored how he had done the same with Sarah at the beginning of the game, and that full circle really drove home how Joel had allowed Ellie into his heart, despite trying to be indifferent for so long. When he called her “baby girl” like he used to call Sarah, you can just tell there’s no way this man was going to let the same thing happen all over again–he wouldn’t survive another heartbreak like that.

The lie that Joel told Ellie at the end, and Ellie choosing to accept his lie, showed us they both were fine with how things turned out, and their love for each other was enough. In a way, it’s the perfect ending, because it avoided all the possible conventional endings, and was still perfectly logical according to our understanding of Joel as a character.

Throughout the game, we met far more enemies than allies, and it gave us the impression that humanity really wasn’t worth saving anyway, except for the small minority. Joel wasn’t a good person in many ways, and it made sense he acted out of selfishness in the end, trying to protect what he couldn’t be without, instead of sacrificing what gave meaning to his life for the greater good of mankind. I think for most people, if they had lived Joel’s life, they’d turn into a selfish misanthrope that only cared about people closest to him too. Wait, strike that. I’d say that if people are being honest with themselves, even well-adjusted folks might make the same choice Joel did if it involved someone they loved dearly.

The way the Fireflies knocked Joel out instead of letting him save Ellie from Drowning was a nice foreshadowing and mirroring of what happened in the beginning of the game. Authority figures seemed to always mess with Joel and take from him what he loved the most, and it made Joel’s final massacre a bit easier to understand.

Some people might think what Joel had done was unforgivable, and that saving humanity should have been the only right course of action, but looking at it from Joel’s perspective, he’s not even sure if a cure is guaranteed, and Ellie would have died in vain if they had failed. Also, Joel having been on both sides of the fence that separated good from evil, knew too well that most of humanity wasn’t worth saving; one Ellie weighed far more in his eyes than the whole of humanity combined. But more than anything, he simply just couldn’t bear to lose a loved one all over again–not after he’s finally opened up his heart to Ellie and accepted her emotionally as a surrogate daughter. Although I’m not a parent, I’m pretty sure most parents would agree with Joel’s choice.

Some people might think the ending wasn’t “right,” but they forget that endings from sophisticated stories aren’t supposed to make you feel good or offer a conclusion tied up neatly with ribbons. Would The Last of Us be as good if it had ended differently? For example, let’s say Joel tries to save Ellie, and she tells him she’s ready to die for the sake of mankind, and that Joel should let her go. Joel then lets Ellie die and a cure is produced. Would that have been a better ending? It’s perhaps a more satisfying ending and one that fulfills our expectations of heroes, but it doesn’t have the moral ambiguity that’s as sophisticated and unexpected.

Conventional endings are more concerned with pleasing the audience or fulfilling some kind of heroic myth instead of conveying something that’s true to the often fallible nature of mankind. We already have plenty of endings out there that celebrate the nobility of heroes; we can afford the mercy of giving a broken man a chance to hold on to the last remaining meaning of his life.

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