Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Month in Review: July 2012

With the largest redesign in the blog's history, the smallest number of posts since the first month we were blogging, and the longest amount of time we've ever gone without hearing from one of the two gentlemen responsible for this blog, July is undoubtedly one of the most notable months in Exfanding history--and that's even before we get to the actual content. With a reduced posting schedule giving us more time to write, and big things going on in our lives and the rest of the world, we had plenty to say...and we finally had all the time we needed to say it.

- My excuses for failing to post a Sunday Spotlight--and hopefully the last filler post for a very long time

- Exfanding's very first comic strip, featuring a little bit of social commentary

- A look at the financial hurdles of bringing an independently produced children's book to print

- The story of my second chance to see James Taylor in concert

- Thoughts about self-publishing and the shortcomings of the publishing industry following the near-completion of Alex's aforementioned indie book

- A recap of my contributions to videogame humor website GameCola.net in June and July

- Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 4, Issue 54, which serves as a preface to Alex's extended absence from the blog as he discusses where things stand and the risks he's about to take

- A report on Comic-Con International 2012 from someone who's not attending the convention

- Sunday Spotlight on toasters, the sci-fi video game Scurge: Hive, and the ridiculous, action-packed anime series Gurren Lagann

- The announcement of our major overhaul of the blog, complete with vintage Exfanding logo and our old layout preserved for posterity.

- A link to a new home for "Let's Play" videos

- A lengthy and, I hope, thought-provoking exploration of regressive progress and the crisis of communication

Monday, July 30, 2012

GameCola Recap: July 2012

Podcast, podcast, podcast, and another chance to complain about Mega Man 10. That's all you'll get from me on videogame humor website GameCola.net this time. Assuming that "this time" means "in July," which it does.

- Q&AmeCola: Games That Exceed/Fell Short Of Your Expectations

 - GC Podcast #51: Just Another Podcast

- GC Podcast #34 on YouTube: The Thirty-Fourth Podcast

- GC Podcast #35 on YouTube: It's Pronounced "Episodic"

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Gurren Lagann

I've seen a number of anime series that build and build toward a satisfying climax, only to go totally weird in the last two episodes and ruin everything. I've seen shows that hold my attention for a while before steadily becoming less interesting as time goes on. Gurren Lagann introduced to me a new category of anime that falls short somewhere: shows that are totally rad except for a string of episodes in the middle that make you very, very angry.

Gurren Lagann is the first anime series I've seen that plays out like an ongoing D&D campaign: characters of humble origin are driven together by chance and circumstance; they embark on a grand adventure against increasingly impossible odds, becoming stronger and more heroic along the way; and no matter whether they achieve victory or taste bitter defeat, the story continues and new adventures arise as a direct result of what the heroes have been through. It's almost like four different series starring most of the same characters, fit neatly into the span of 27 episodes.
You've got Kamina, the irrepressibly and even foolishly gung-ho leader of the group. There's Simon, the cowardly digger who unearths the Gunmen (note the intentional pun on Gundam) called Lagann that sets their adventure into motion. You meet Yoko, the sharpshooter with a heart so warm that she barely needs any clothing to keep out the cold (that clothing restricts her movement is the completely reasonable rationalization given for her skimpy attire).
Along the way, the group meets up with a host of other characters, who range from a fabulous technology wizard, to a quartet of black-clad siblings, to a crewman whose only function is to excitedly press buttons, to a heroically comedic pig mole. They pick up team members from a sheltered, impoverished village just as easily as from the enemy palace. The team is even able to capture enemy Gunmen, changing their situation from being oppressed humans living underground to being powerful humans who roam freely across Earth's surface in their giant mechs.
Gurren Lagann is just as much a show about the characters as it is a show about big robots smashing up other big robots. At times it's a tongue-in-cheek parody, and at other times it's a serious and heartfelt tale of these characters fighting against fate, but more than anything else it's just plain fun. Gonzo action sequences, creative character designs, larger-than-life friends and foes, and smile-inducing dialogue make for a show that is just plain entertaining. The fact the characters are real characters who grow and change through their experiences, and whose actions directly impact the direction of the story, gives the show depth and a meaningful weight that's often absent in action-heavy anime.
That's why I got angry at Gurren Lagann: Following the conclusion of the major story arc that comprises more than half the series, we fast-forward to a point in the story that destroys both the fun and the meaning by having a few key characters shut off their brains to manufacture the conflict of the next story arc.

My wife and I have been watching the first season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and we've been noticing an unfortunate trend: everything is going well until one character shuts off his or her brain, triggering an unnecessary conflict that gives the characters involved a reason to fight, get captured, and/or die pointlessly. Conflict is not flowing naturally from the circumstances--it's more like the writers want to have a big battle between some clone troopers and the local aliens, so they introduce a character supposedly on the side of the good guys whose only goal in life is to kill all the local aliens. The writers have him shut off his brain when people try to reason with him, and have everyone else shut off their brains when he orders them to stop talking and kill the local aliens. This results in the viewer hating the character driving the conflict and calling everyone else an idiot, effectively severing any real investment he or she had in the episode. At least, if this viewer is like me.
My anger toward Gurren Lagann--like my distaste for the last several episodes of The Clone Wars--is not directed so much at the conflicts themselves as it is toward the presentation of those conflicts. Don't allow the viewer to get so angry at the avoidable situations and boneheaded characters that they begin to hate the show itself--temper the viewer's temper with a reason to pity or sympathize with the boneheaded characters, or forgo the emotional investment in people and places that'll make it hurt more when bad things happen to them.

There's a string of five consecutive episodes in Gurren Lagann where several of the heroes are turned into villains, either in the eyes of the viewer or in the eyes of their comrades. After fifteen episodes of natural story progression and logical character interactions, bad things just happen. Characters go off the deep end in pursuit of their beliefs, people stop thinking rationally about the actions and motives of other characters, and the writers--in true Dungeon Master fashion--develop the romantic relationships between characters just enough to be used against them.
If you ask my wife, she'll tell you that everything terrible that happens here is because of how the characters' histories and personalities are shaping their interactions with others and affecting their ability to adapt to their new situation. I don't entirely disagree. The problem is that the writers fail to show the viewer any of the humanizing factors that put these characters' actions into context until too late in the story.

It's one gut punch after another as the characters you once cared for are villanized and their world falls apart...but there's no glimmer of hope that things will get better; no feel-good successes in the face of disaster; no flickers of remorse from the offending parties; nothing to suggest that the good guys who think they're doing the right thing really are doing the right thing. I simply stopped caring at one point--let their world fall apart, because I'd rather see it burn than suffer through another half-dozen episodes of unchecked angst and despair.
By the end of the series, most of the events that had made me angry had been softened with further explanation and perspective, but that doesn't change my drastically unfavorable reaction to the episodes where all I could see were manufactured conflicts and emotionally manipulative situations. Did Gurren Lagann redeem itself? Yes. Once they finally started acting like heroes again, the show quickly went from bearable to downright fun once more. The sour taste in my mouth persists only because of how much I like everything surrounding that string of infuriating and disheartening episodes--Clone Wars is disappointing when it resorts to artificial conflict, but the show so far hasn't done enough to invest me in the characters and raise my expectations of the writing to make it feel like all that much of a letdown.
Overall, Gurren Lagann is one of the most entertaining anime series I've seen in a while, with at least one or two of the best action sequences I've ever had the pleasure of watching in an anime. There are great, memorable characters and a dynamic story that becomes almost absurd in its scope, though delightfully so. Even with my complaints against the way the second major story arc was handled (and your feelings on the matter certainly may vary, as my wife can attest to), I respect the show for its ability to continually build on itself without overstaying its welcome or losing track of its roots. It's a good series that comes recommended to any anime fan, and first-timers with no prior exposure to anime are all but guaranteed to find something they like, whether it's comedy or plot continuity or big robots punching each other with drills.
As a side note, viewers in search of fan service a more complete Gurren Lagann experience should be advised that the English dub of Episode 6, the infamous hot springs episode, is considerably different from the original Japanese cut. It's a near-mandatory anime tradition to have an episode (frequently the sixth one, for some reason) take place at a hot spring, opening the door for scantily clad shenanigans in even the most serious and conservative series. Gurren Lagann is no exception, but the censors obscured some of the racier content with fog clouds, and excised the rest of it altogether, replacing it instead with a clever-but-obtrusive recap of the first five episodes.
As a result, the story feels somewhat disjointed, and most of the humor of the episode is lost, along with some worthwhile character development and even a little foreshadowing. The uncut and subtitled Japanese version is out there for free on the Internet if you poke around a bit, and there are plenty of synopses that go over the version differences if you'd prefer to pass on watching/rewatching the episode with its questionable content intact.

Anypigmole, that's Gurren Lagann for you.

[Images from gurrenlagann.wikia.com and Wookieepedia.]

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Regressive Progress and the Crisis of Communication

I've been observing two trends recently that are causing me to become more of a curmudgeonly hermit than I already am. The first trend is one that's been going on for years, but I feel has really snowballed in the last two or so: a shift to a culture driven--not aided--by technology. The second trend is one I've only started to feel in the past few months: a shift toward a culture of mass outrage and mass hysteria over any kind of news--good, bad, or otherwise--frequently spearheaded by informed citizens.

I had an idea for a short story the other day where a grandfather is explaining to his grandson why everyone from the older generation is so hunched over: they had all been enslaved, and their backs have become permanently bent from the positions their bodies had been in for decades. At the end of the story, the grand twist was to be that the grandfather hands the kid an ancient iPhone or BlackBerry, telling him something like, "This is what slavery looked like to us." We have become a culture not aided by our devices, but ruled by them.

It was, what, the 1950s or so when dishwashers and vacuum cleaners first arrived? I'm no historian, but everything I've read and seen about technology from the postwar years was that the United States, at least, enjoyed a few decades of increased domestic prosperity and happiness thanks to machines that made work easier, or did all the work for us. More time for leisure; less time wasted on chores. The American dream, some might say. A dream that, from my perspective, is twisting more and more into a nightmare.

I followed a link from Facebook recently to a news article about this grand invention that detects when the milk in your refrigerator is about to spoil, notifying you with a light-up display and via text message. Thank goodness for that; I've always found the expiration date on the bottle to be so hard to read. I realize we've had inventions like this for decades, but something about this one in particular caused me to pause and sigh at the state of technology in our world, or at least this country. We are creating devices that improve the quality of life by consuming more time and money than we can save without these devices.

Time and money are two things I have been especially aware of in the year and a half since I proposed to the woman who is now my wife. Weddings cost money. Planning takes time. Maintaining a home costs money. Working the job to support it takes time. Spending an evening or weekend with friends and a now-expanded family involves both time and money, whether it's gas money or snacks for your D&D session. Making YouTube videos and writing posts and articles is free, but the equipment costs money, as do the forms of entertainment that inspire the content, and the time investment to see a project through to completion can be considerable.

As the administrator of GameCola.net's official YouTube channel, and as a staff writer and editor for the main site, I feel it's my responsibility (and joy) to keep up with everything my comrades post. I've been finding time to catch up on a video playthrough of Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations, and was stunned to discover that the last episode in a five-episode video series contains over eight hours of video footage.

In the time it takes me to watch that one episode, I could finish off an entire anime series. And when I start thinking that way about something that only takes a handful of hours, I begin to see entire months of my life disappear when I think about following through on my crazy plan to watch through the 35 years of Saturday Night Live that are available on Netflix. This is something I'm doing both for my own enjoyment and--as with any of the crazy plans I undertake anymore--so that I can share and discuss the experience with others...but it's staggering to think of how many 15-minute YouTube videos I could make in that same amount of time. (At the current rate of recording, about three.)

Even though the dilemma of what to do with my free time is shaped in no small part by the technology available to me, Netflix in particular simply makes it easier and cheaper to view the content I want than buying everything on DVD. In my mind, this is what technology is for: that 1950s vision of a more leisurely, more efficient way to live. Virtually everything I see around me today utilizes technology to make things different, and the increasing pace of technological developments--which require money to buy and time to learn--is driving a wedge between me and the rest of the tech-savvy world.

Where lifestyle-changing technology is involved, I don't do different. I do better. I'm more than content to stay on the sidelines while I observe the impact of new technology on the world before I consider jumping on the bandwagon. I did this with online shopping. I did this with texting. I did this with Blu-ray. I did this with Facebook.

I can no longer afford to be a few years behind everyone else and still expect to fit in with the culture of this generation. If I'm more than a few months behind, I'm archaic and out of touch. Things are changing too quickly, and I don't have the time, money, or interest to discover what's truly better until something is forced on me. Unsurprisingly, I'm discovering more and more that better is whatever I had before the forced change. I am a creature of habit, but more than that, I'm only seeing technological solutions to things that were never problems for me. Telephones shortened the distance between people in ways the postal service never could. E-mail opened up an additional means of communication that has many benefits over telephones. Now we've got technology that allows us to share everything we're looking at the press of a button, effectively eliminating the need to communicate at all.

That brings me to the second trend I've noticed: In a world where opinions are expressed with a Like button, we're veering away from meaningful discussions and unleashing our thoughts and feelings on polarizing issues in 140 characters or less. As my wife pointed out, everything good we post about is the best thing ever, and everything bad is the worst thing ever. Whether we're excitedly slapping up a link to this hilarious cat video or heralding the downfall of western civilization with whatever [pick one: Obama, Romney, Chick fil-A] did today, it's increasingly rare to see well-articulated opinions that take the extremist edge off of our concise gut reactions. We blow things out of proportion, or we present our completely rational and justified responses in such a inarticulate or reactionary way that we lose friends who would have at least tolerated us if we'd taken the time to explain ourselves over a cup of tea.

The trouble isn't just on an individual level, though: news travels fast through our social media-oriented culture, and our enthusiasm or outrage over something we post prompts someone else to retweet or repost the same content, adding their own enthusiasm or outrage. Repeat, ad nauseum. Now, instead of one person who's ecstatic or upset, everyone you know is ecstatic or upset. We are now statistics: X number of people think this way about animal testing, while X number of people think that way about it. There may be actual conversations that stem from the initial posts, but a quick skim through your feed tells you who you real friends are. In our solidarity, we have lost our individuality, along with our relative objectivity.

It has been unbearable to be around social media in the wake of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado that left 12 dead and 58 wounded. Unbearable to think about the loss of life, the suffering of the victims and their families, and how something so terrible could happen at all. Unbearable to think about it every hour of every day as new details emerge that encroach upon the personal privacy of the victims. Unbearable to have a flicker of concern about seeing The Dark Knight Rises on opening weekend because "midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises" was almost more prominent in the media's first news reports than the shooting itself. Unbearable because, from the perspective of someone who was not following the news and only seeing the headlines and snippets of coverage, the entire tragedy had spiraled into a nationwide Kickstarter campaign for actor Christian Bale to pay a visit to the victims in the hospital.

It seemed to me a surreal cause where the American people could demand the involvement of a celebrity whose only connection to the tragedy--as far as I knew from headlines and the one or two articles I'd read--was that he starred in the movie that was playing at the time. I know there's more to it than that. But my gut reaction to such a horrific event has given way to media fatigue and a sort of irrational indignation over how the whole country seems to be rallying behind a community that lost twelve people, while we remain silent on how, say, suicide is claiming almost eight times that many people a day in the U.S. Without understanding the full story, I'm just looking at the headlines and the numbers and the secondhand information, and forming opinions that make me sound like a bad person if you don't agree, and a worse person if you don't have the context of the rest of this post behind you.

So you can understand why I don't post things like this on Facebook. I couldn't even condense my feelings into a punchy blurb if I tried--but, as my wife points out, a punchy blurb is all we have to catch anyone's attention anymore. By the time you've written a thoughtful response, the Next Big Thing is here, and people have already forgotten what you're talking about. Yet writing brings clarity, and spilling my thoughts out on paper (or the electronic equivalent) allows me to sort through those gut reactions and come to a conclusion about why I feel as I do. Sometimes I need to say the wrong thing before I can get to the heart of why I said it. Sometimes I'm right, and "the wrong thing" is merely an unpopular, but valid, opinion. Sometimes I truly am wrong, which is why the door is always open for a civilized rebuttal.

My heart goes out to the victims in Aurora, and their friends and families. That there has been such a compassionate and supportive response speaks volumes about our culture. That I have mixed feelings about that response has me concerned. My willful ignorance of the full story, and my perception that social media and news media have inadvertently engineered such a massive response by skewing the story to keep Batman in the spotlight, make me worry that I'm becoming cynical in the face of something that clearly demands my sympathy. There's no question that we should care, but I worry that the media has needlessly emphasized the wrong information to draw out our genuine compassion for the right cause.

If someone on the sidelines can feel so conflicted about something so universally clear-cut, it's no wonder the people in the thick of debates about unclear issues such as politics and ethics can be so vitriolic toward those who disagree--they're probably all cynical, because people like me sound like idiots when they're firing off their gut reaction to an issue they're only partially informed about on their way to the hilarious cat video someone posted below you.

I think we'd all be happier if we started having real conversations again with each other, and started using modern technology the way it was meant to be used:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Let's Play Game Videos

Here's a neat idea: Take the popularity of "Let's Play" videos on YouTube and give a dedicated home to the idea on a website devoted to video game playthroughs. Organize the videos by game name, system, player, and populartiy; throw in a forum; post some news updates. Instant community for gamers, and for those who game vicariously.

LPG is only just getting started, but what's there so far looks very promising. Thanks to TheSlumberjack for the heads-up!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Scurge: Hive

If you're familiar with Metroid Fusion, then you know how the story goes: Terrible alien parasite breaks out of containment at the science lab and takes over the whole facility. Tough female bounty hunter gets dragged into the conflict and has to set things straight, both for her own sake and for the sake of the galaxy. Over the course of her adventure, she'll collect different upgrades that allow her to interact with her environment in new ways, deal more damage to enemies, and grant her access to new areas of the facility, all the while guided by an intelligent computer.

That's the story. The story of Metroid Fusion. And the story of Scurge: Hive. Aside from the difference in perspective--Fusion is a sidescrolling platformer, and Scurge: Hive is a top-down platformer--the games are all but identical, save for the part where Scurge: Hive is repetitive almost to the point of boredom.
Now, Scurge: Hive isn't a bad game. The graphics are detailed, the character designs are interesting, the controls are responsive, the challenges are fair, the dialogue is well-written, the music is appropriately atmospheric, the sound effects are distinctive, the gameplay and story progression are well-paced, and the weapon mechanics are well-executed (utilizing a rapid switching system to select between a half-dozen weapons that affect enemies and your environment in different ways). There's very little that's actually wrong with the game, but there's also very little that's holding my attention some five hours into the game.

For one thing, there's no surprise in what's going to happen next, both in the story and in each new room you explore. Read a transmission saying this entire region has been overrun by parasites. Locate enough keycards (usually 3 or 6) to unlock the door to the next area. Read a transmission saying some ill-fated scientist has prepared a weapon or item that will help fight the bad guys. Complete a time challenge to collect said weapon or item, which will also open the way into more parts of the region. Find the six power nodes scattered across the region to activate the teleporter to the next area. Repeat.
For another thing, each room is essentially the same, consisting of [pick one or more:] tunnels, raised platforms, moving platforms, water, and hazardous swamplike ground, plus [pick one or more:] a platform to activate by charging a machine with your electrical weapon, a door to open by charging a machine with your energy weapon, a door to open with keycards, a platform to raise by holding down two switches, a tangled mass of plants that can be burned away to reveal a new exit, and a floating grapple sphere you can grab onto to fling yourself to the next platform (which, admittedly, is pretty fun). Throw in swarms of any of the dozen or so enemies in the game, and you've got pretty much every room in the game that isn't a save chamber, teleporter, or boss fight.
Granted, breaking down a platformer the way I just did diminishes the individual creativity of the level design in each room--greater games have been assembled with fewer elements; it's all about how things are arranged and the interplay of the challenges. What Scurge: Hive boils down to is "solve the same few puzzles in every room, while blasting random clusters of the same few enemies." This might not be so bad if the scenery weren't so similar throughout each area--assuming you can see much of the scenery at all.

Using Muramasa: The Demon Blade as an example, the freshness of repetitive games can be preserved in part by offering a variety of lush visuals. The graphics of Scurge: Hive, as I mentioned, are certainly detailed, but there are two factors that seriously detract from my appreciation of them: the monotony of one terrain type in each area, and the excessive use of ambient fog.
Metroid: Fusion takes place entirely on a space station with six distinctly themed habitation areas (such as a tropical jungle and a flame-seared wasteland), yet even within each area there are rooms and sections that employ notable variations on the main theme (going from scorched desert sands to red-hot molten metal in the pyroclastic area, for example). That alone keeps each region from stagnating, but there's the added bonus of exploring only parts of each area before you're called to another part of the space station entirely.
In Scurge: Hive, each major area has the same cargo boxes or rocky cliffs in every. single. room. and you're unable to proceed to the next major area until you've cleared out every. single. room. Yes, there are technically exceptions, but they're not prominent enough to counteract that oppressive feeling of deja vu--which makes figuring out where you're supposed to go next a bit of a chore at times.
If it were just a matter of reused scenery in every room, that'd be one thing. It's also that every. single. room. throughout entire sections of the game are covered in a dense fog that lightly obscures your view of the action. It's a nice atmospheric touch when used sparingly, Scurge: Hive takes it to an eyestrain-inducing extreme. The in-game map only serves to worsen the eyestrain--there's no zoom feature to examine areas more closely, so you are left squinting at the teensy red pixels that indicate a door or passageway to a room you haven't visited yet. If there is enough detail lovingly included in each room to set it apart from the next, it's lost beneath all the fog, and lost to the weary eyes aimed at the relatively small screen of the Game Boy Advance (I can't speak for the DS version). I haven't tried playing this on a Game Boy Player yet, but I suspect this might greatly improve the experience.
Another major factor that works against any feeling of novelty each room might attempt to exude: You are on a constant timer. The heroine, Jenosa Arma, is equipped with a protective suit that is constantly fighting a losing struggle against the omnipresent parasitic infection that has thrown these areas into chaos. There's a contamination meter at the top of the screen that increases by 1% every few seconds--even faster than that if you're standing on one of the aforementioned patches of swamplike ground--and your health begins to decay rapidly once you reach 100%. Finding a save point will restore your health and bring your infection level back down to 1%, but this mechanic changes the very nature game.
Without the constant threat of creeping doom, Scurge: Hive is an exploration-driven shoot-'em-up, sort of like a majorly sci-fi cousin of Crystalis (which I love). With the player being penalized for even standing around to think for a few seconds, the game becomes a mad rush to clear each room as quickly as possible, trading that joy of exploration for an increase in challenge and tension that keeps the player tethered to save points. Nothing's inherently wrong with extra challenge and tension, but the tradeoff here is not an entirely favorable one for a gamer with my preferences. I'd like to see an improved suit that slows the rate of infection even further, or an item that allows me to reduce my contamination percentage in the field.
So far--and I emphasize that I haven't finished the game yet--Scurge: Hive is a generally fun game that has only a few real problems...but the problem is, those problems are real. (What a useless sentence, right?) Good ideas are recycled and stretched to the point of dullness; the ever-present fog and itty-bitty map cause unnecessary strain on the eyes; and the perpetual threat of the contamination meter reaching maximum imposes a necessary element of haste on the player, forcing him or her to speed run the entire game before having a chance to appreciate and familiarize himself/herself with each foggy location...which increases the player's reliance on the miniscule in-game map to get through every. single. room. At least, the way I play.
If you're willing or able to overlook these issues, and don't mind the suspicious similarities to Metroid Fusion (including the fact that you actually fight Metroids in Scurge: Hive) you'll find a solid and predictably enjoyable game. As for me, my weariness meter is slowly creeping toward 100%, and I'm gonna need something stronger than another save point if I'm going to make it to the end without that weariness turning into pain.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Time for an overhaul.

Anybody remember that banner?

We're coming up on four years of Exfanding Your Horizons, and if you remember that banner, there's a good chance you remember what the blog looked like while that banner was up--almost exactly how it looks nearly four years later. Aside from some minor tweaks and updates here and there, Exfanding has retained the same basic look and feel since August 2008--which is both a comfort and a curse.

As you may know from posts like this, this, and this, I am of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought. Exfanding, like many other blogs and websites, functions perfectly well the way it is. Exfanding, unlike many other blogs and websites, has fallen behind on everything from search engine optimization to the width of the reading pane. Without making any exact measurements, I can tell you we offer 20-40% less horizontal space for viewing images and reading text than anything currently on our blogroll.

I taught myself just enough HTML to get Exfanding to look the way Alex and I wanted it--sort of a comic book panel layout, adapted from one of Old Blogger's preloaded templates ("Rounders," if you're curious). Over time I've tinkered with the sidebar, requested updated banners from my Photoshop-inclined wife, and fiddled with that box at the very bottom of the page that nobody knows is there. Alex has been amenable to all of my changes because (a) he's a laid-back kind of guy, and (b) he has no idea how to undo the changes he doesn't like.

To be fair, I have no idea, either--aside from adding and removing the traditional holiday snow widget, I've jury-rigged things so hard under the hood that I can't change anything but the sidebar and banner and forgotten bottom box without completely retracing my steps to figure out what the heck I did in the first place.

After some discussion and consideration, this seems like the right time to give in to the trend of everyone completely overhauling their websites. The difference is that we'll respond to your feedback when you tell us the new layout is terrible, instead of hiding your comment even deeper behind more mouse clicks.

So, please pardon our appearance for the next few hours, or days, or weeks, or...however long it takes us to get this right. More streamlined and professional on the surface, and easier to manipulate below the surface--that's all we're going for. We're open to suggestions here, so please don't hesitate to let us know exactly what you think (constructive criticism preferable, but we'll take what we can get)!

For the benefit of readers catching this post after-the-fact, and for the sake of posterity, here's what the blog looks like right now (assuming you're not catching this post after-the-fact)--click to enlarge:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Toasters

Apparently, I think toasters are very funny. I've been looking back through the GameCola archives, and so far I've found two articles and one podcast in which I make a reference to a toaster/toasters in a humorous manner. Make that three articles if you count toaster ovens. On top of two posts here on Exfanding referencing toasters.

Apparently, I think toasters are very funny.

This one, however, has to be the funniest toaster of all:

That is all.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Comic-Con International 2012

Holy LouFerrigno! It's Comic-Con time again, Exfanders, and, as usual, neither Nathaniel nor myself are in San Diego to bring you all the exciting news and announcements!

What can I say? It's expensive to fly out there, get a hotel (if you can), and, oh yeah, there's that whole thing about there being 250,000 other folks roaming the streets and convention centers that tend to scare me off.

I do have a few buddies and coworkers who are out there, and I have been covering the event from the safety of the East Coast, though, so I know a few things that are going on. Such as the absolute madness of the show this year. Which, somehow, has managed to multiply since last year.

The madness, I mean.

Apparently there are more people, and they got there earlier than ever, and they grabbed all the exclusive toys and comics and whatever before the actual show even started on Thursday. Yep, that's right. Swag was sold out on Preview Night Wednesday, a trend that I saw firsthand last year at the New York Comic Con.

The good news? People love conventions. The bad news? They don't care as much about the comics as they do about the movies, the swag, and the experience of being at such a pop culture event.

Not to be Chicken Little or anything, but them's just the facts, man.

Still, as I always say around this time of year, it is nice to see and hear so much about geek culture permeating the mainstream. For one week, at least, we are the coolest kids on the block.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 4, Issue 54: Even More Amazing Adventures in Self Publishing!

[Continued from Part Seven.]

I'm starting to scare myself with the amount of time that I spend not sleeping these days (um, or nights, I suppose). I'm at a point where there just aren't enough hours in the day to get to everything I have going on.

For the first time in a long time, my creative energies are hitting on all cylinders, and I just can't bring myself to unplugging. Heck, I'm even finding time to blog again, which, if you'd have asked me a couple of weeks ago, I would have told you was not going to happen for a good, long while.

But here I am, up after midnight after a long day at the office, typing away and sending off countless emails to the artist on my next project. At the same time, I'm emailing and communicating with a number of people about my current project, the children's book I can't seem to shut up about.

I have no idea where any of this is going to take me. And, tonight (or, more accurately, this morning) as I start contemplating the cost of doing these things that I want to do, I have some butterflies in the stomach and a bit of worry, but it's a good, anxious, let's get this done already kind of worry.

I know full well that there's a pretty large possibility that none of the projects I'm currently hammering away on will make one single penny, and that the money I'm about to throw into them may not ever find its way back to me.

But I'm at a point where I can't afford to NOT do this. It's time to take that stupid risk that I have always been telling myself I'd take. It's time to suck it up and let the sacrifices of the past few years mean something. I've saved money and I've made decisions in my personal life that have always been rooted in getting my work out there, in the best-looking form humanly possible.

Nothing is cheap these days, especially within the publishing industry, so the money I'm about to spend is not going to be peanuts.

But I've been smart about saving it, and instead of using the money for other things that will assuredly help me down the road in life, I am going to use the money to try to get this dream off the ground. Because, frankly, I've had my feet planted for far too long.

Saying you're going to do something is nothing. Telling yourself you're going to do something is nothing. Convincing yourself that you're going to do something someday is nothing. It's all meaningless unless you actually go out and do it.

I'm at the point where "someday" is now. Right this moment. We're past the dreaming stage. We're past the let's-find-a-way-to-put-this-into-practice stage. We're miles beyond the, "Gee, I hope people will like this" stage.

We're at the Do It Now, or Do It Never stage.

Time to toughen up, Exfanders, because this is it. Right now is the moment the decision is made. This night (morning) is the one I look back on years from now and say one of two things about. And, even if this all amounts to absolutely zero, I promise you this: When I look back on this moment, I will not say, "I wish I'd just done it."

Because it's being done.

I have no idea what happens next. I have no idea if it's a financially stupid move on the part of a naive wanna-be writer.

The only thing I know is that, moving forward, there are no regrets.

Because I'm doing it.

I'm doing it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

GameCola Recap: June 2012

Wow, I really do not remember writing anything in June for videogame humor website GameCola.net, but apparently I'm upholding my reputation of not being a complete slacker. A promising news blip, a collaboration, a...you know what? It'll be easier to just let you read the titles for yourself:


- Q&AmeCola: What Character Would You Be?


- Wreck-It Ralph Is Gonna...Wreck It


- Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge


- Bad Dudes & Predator

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Return of Amazing Adventures in Self Publishing

[Continued from Part Six.]

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day about being creative and just getting out there and doing the things you've always wanted to do. Luckily for me, those things do not include base-jumping or hiking Mt. Everest or skydiving, so achieving the things I want to someday achieve is theoretically within reach.

As I mentioned on Saturday, I'm awaiting pricing information about the printing of a children's book that I've written and had illustrated. The book, from my end, is basically done. It needs another couple pairs of eyes to act as objective observers and proofreaders. (That's what we call in the biz a "cold read," kids.)

So far, though, I've shown the book to a pretty good number of folks who have given me lots and lots of positive feedback. The same buddy I mentioned up at the top of this post also said about the book--about the art, specifically--that "It's somewhere I'd want to live in."

That's a wonderful compliment for the artist, and one that I was very happy to hear as the aesthetic of the book is not exactly your standard children's book fare.

Which is, of course, exactly what I wanted when I set out to find the perfect artist for the project.

As I've said countless times on the blog, I have quite a bit of built-up resentment for the publishing industry as it currently stands. I'm not too in love with the fact that, when The Walking Dead hit big, all the big publishers jumped aboard the zombie bandwagon.

Or, when Twilight first took over the world, you couldn't throw a bookmark in a Borders without hitting a tween vampire thing.

I'm also quite tired of the notion that one must already be published in order to get published. That, as I like to say, is the stupidest thing ever. And, despite the fact that people in the books industry will tell you that's not the case at all...let me break some news for you: That's absolutely the case.

Sure, there are first-time authors who break in--of course there are. But they're so few and far between that the actual numbers might well drive a would-be writer to, well, maybe try something crazy.

Like self publishing.

I've read countless pieces online (by people who are published, by the way) about how self publishing has so diluted to market because, as they like the decry, "Now anyone can write a book."

Yes. Yes, they can. And that's the point.

Listen, I know from being looked down upon. Nobody in publishing considers what Nathaniel and I do here on the blog "being published." But guess what? We are published, and our work--for better or for worse--is out there for the entire Internet to see.

I have no delusions of grandeur, though. I get that our blog isn't Neil Gaiman's blog. I get that. I really do. But for "professionals" to dismiss blogs as being amateurish and somehow unworthy of recognition? Short-sighted, plain and simple.

But, that's the publishing industry in a nutshell. I mean, so far they've done such a good job with transitioning to digital, right?

Oh, there's a meteor coming? I'm sure it'll just blow right over us.

Yep, that was a low blow on my part. Sorry. And, yep, I get that digital sales are actually doing quite well. But, if the publishers figured out WHAT THE REST OF THE PLANET FIGURED OUT 5 YEARS AGO, maybe there would not have been so many layoffs of so many talented people.

Think about this for a second.

In publishing, the writer (the would-be money-maker) has to go out and, basically, woo an agent. How backwards is that? Can you imagine if that's the way professional sports teams operated?

Nah, we haven't seen Bryce Harper. Why not? Well, because he never sent us a query letter. Oh, wait. Perhaps it's on this slush pile behind me. I'll have my assistant look through them in the morning. But this Harper kid--is he any good?

Insanity. It's insanity that publishing works the way that it does, and it's amazing that there are still people out there screaming that self-publishing has "lowered the bar."

Ya know what, though?

While they push through yet another vampire love story with zombies invading a high school, I'll happily continue lowering the bar.

[Continued in Part Eight.]

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: James Taylor

My goodness, what a year for music. My wife and I got to see Colin Hay in concert, my favorite newly discovered artist of the past few years. We recently discovered a treasure trove of bargain-priced music at a store relatively close to where we live, and bolstered our music library with more CDs from Talking Heads, The Police, and James Taylor, to name a few. All of them were artists I wanted to hear more of, but I had a particular interest in exposing myself to more of James Taylor's music--we were getting ready to see him in concert, you see.

As my high school graduation gift, I got to see him in concert. That was it, I'd thought--a one-time-only deal. Not only was it a truly uncommon event for us to brave the traffic and massive crowds that such a big artist draws to an arena, but that concert was--and I do not throw terms around like this lightly--one of the highlights of my life. How could we possibly go back?

I'd find out awfully soon. I'd been gifted with six tickets to see James Taylor in concert for my birthday.

I will admit, my initial reaction was a mixed one of awe, excitement, and caution. I'm still as big a fan as I ever  was--there's no way I'd turn down another chance to see him in concert. And to have six tickets--one for me, one for my mother (which was part of the agreement, and I wouldn't have had it any other way), and four for whomever I liked--gave me the opportunity to share the event with four people who weren't able to go the first time around: my father, my sister, a family friend, and my wife (who was a total stranger at the time and would have raised some interesting issues with my then-girlfriend. But I digress).

Still, I was a little cautious. I've liked or loved every one of his albums I've heard, but the last decade or so had me worried a little bit--James Taylor at Christmas, One Man Band, Live at the Troubador, Covers, and Other Covers were nice enough (or what I'd heard from them, at least), but the trend I was seeing suggested to me that JT was slowing down and phasing himself out.

James Taylor is no stranger to covering other people's songs, but he's usually good for all-new material at least once per decade; two rounds of covers, a Christmas album with familiar favorites, and two live albums seem to indicate that you're at a point in your career where you've given up on songwriting for yourself altogether. In video game terms, this would roughly be the equivalent of porting and re-releasing all the same games for ten years without making any new ones, and that's when your fans assume your series has already come to an end.

The kicker here was that, in the songs I'd heard, I had noticed JT suddenly sounded older. This is a man who usually sounds like his voice hasn't aged a day since 1968, but I kept hearing mushy enunciation in his newer recordings that only served to solidify the idea in my head that the years had finally caught up with my favorite artist, and that it wouldn't be long before he'd hang up his guitar and retire from the music scene entirely.

Clearly, I am a fool. The James Taylor I heard in concert had even more energy than when I saw him the first time. This sixty-something-year-old man was literally hopping around the stage with outstretched leg and guitar in hand, sounding exactly like he did in 1968. If artists such as Pete Seeger and B.B. King can continue performing well into their 70's and 80's and 90's, then you really are only as old as you feel--to heck with the legal retirement age. James Taylor was up on stage with his band, having the time of his life.

If my blogging buddy Alex comes back this week with a post bemoaning the fact that he was unable to attend the concert with me, do have sympathy on him--the concert was fantastic--but do bear in mind that he saw Paul McCartney without me before you rule out rubbing it in a little.

Like before, we were seated on the hilly lawn of an outdoor arena. A little too far to throw your undies onstage, but close enough to still see all the action. Big screens were present to watch the live camera feed. I divided my attention about evenly between the screen and the stage; even if I had been in the front row, I would've looked up at the screen from time to time to catch the angles and closeups I'd've otherwise missed. Heck, we even looked away for a few moments to watch the technician walking around on the roof of the enclosed part of the arena--"Looks like he can't find a seat," we joked.

Other folks were walking around down where we were sitting--if you've never been to an arena with lawn seating, the performance (at least in my experience) is really more like an outdoor party with live music than a true concert. The sea of humanity around us was damp with booze, and there's no doubt that helps explain why people were occasionally standing in the way and TALKING TOO LOUDLY. We didn't pay to see James Taylor and Band Plus Noisy People Up Front, but at the same time, Noisy People Up Front probably didn't pay to attend a lawn party with us Crotchety People Who Want to Sit Quietly.

A little more common courtesy and situational awareness on the part of some other folks wouldn't have hurt, but what helped more was keeping in mind that this wasn't just about seeing and hearing this performance; it was about setting up camp on the lawn and lying down in the September (well, June) grass with a loved one and sharing the experience. Seeing James Taylor was great. Seeing him with friends and family was better, no matter who that complete stranger was who stood in front of us for half a minute with no other apparent intent than standing in front of us.

What was striking about the concert was that JT wasn't just doing all the hits, or all the songs from his latest album. It was as though he and the band looked through his entire catalog, picked out one song from each album that they felt like performing, and put together a setlist. At one point, some of the audience members up front were shouting out the names of songs they wanted to hear, and JT paused to pick up the big slate at his feet, saying, "Yep, that's on the list." Another name was shouted. "Yep, that one's on the list, too. We've got you covered," he said with a smirk.

Lo and behold, there were "Mexico" and "Fire and Rain" and "Shower the People," along with "Country Road" and, most important of all, "Sweet Baby James." Yet, there was no real buildup of anticipation for the songs everyone knows and expects, and there were even a few songs such as "Walking Man" that are on every Greatest Hits collection that never made an appearance. But, the concert was stronger for it. JT wasn't resting on his laurels and only giving the fans the songs they expected to hear; he had total ownership of the concert and played whatever the heck he darn well pleased, which frequently included the songs fans expected to hear.

It became clear to me that all these live albums and cover songs of the last decade aren't an indication that James Taylor is on his way out--they're an indication that the man already has plenty of material to perform, and he's simply enjoying performing it. As the story goes, ex-wife Carly Simon gave James the choice to save their marriage by cutting back his focus on music and performing, and his response to her ultimatum was the album Dad Loves His Work. If there was one thing that was abundantly clear during this concert, it was that Dad, without a doubt, loves his work.

On stage with JT were backup singers and instrumentalists who were apparently famous but whom I did not recognize (including saxophonist "Blue Lou" Marini, Jr.). James' introductions of the band members throughout the show were entertaining, because virtually everyone was a "legend," or at least a "maven." I don't recall much storytelling between songs the first time I saw him in concert, but this time around he was taking his time with the pace of the concert, slowing down to elaborate on the backstory of some songs and crack jokes about others.

He spoke about how "Sweet Baby James" was a cowboy lullaby to a little buckaroo, sweetly conveying the message, "goodnight, ya little varmint." When explaining the National Geographic inspiration for "The Frozen Man" (another one of my all-time favorites of his), he challenged himself to see how many times he could use the word "permafrost," being sure to interject it as often as possible. When closing out the first set with the whimsical "Sun on the Moon" (with lines like, "Me and my flea we were down by the water / Fell in a hole with Superman's daughter") he advised the audience not to think too hard about what the lyrics meant--he'd given up trying to figure them out a long time ago.

One of the greatest surprises in the concert was at the beginning of the second set. The band was reassembling onstage, and JT recounted how he was on the phone earlier with his brother Livingston, found they were both in town that evening...and invited him onstage for a duet, right there in front of us. For a few minutes, there was a fascinating interplay of two voices so tonally similar yet so distinctive--Livingston a little lower and a little more rugged; James a little higher and a little warmer. I don't even know if they'd had a chance to rehearse together, but it didn't matter--these two grew up singing together, and it was like flipping a switch to put them in duet mode. Truly something.

Livingston joined up with the backup singers for the end of the concert, which capped off the evening with a few unexpected tunes, including a cover of "The Twist" (which had us all standing up and twisting away on the lawn) and an oft-overlooked song from an oft-overlooked album by the same name, "That's Why I'm Here."
Oh, fortune and fame's such a curious game
Perfect strangers can call you by name
Pay good money to hear fire and rain
Again and again and again

Some are like summer coming back every year
Got your baby got your blanket got your bucket of beer
I break into a grin from ear to ear
And suddenly it's perfectly clear

That's why I'm here
Singin tonight, tomorrow, everyday
That's why I'm standing here
That's why I'm here

"The Twist" and "That's Why I'm Here." A letdown, perhaps, if you came to hear all the classics and expected something like "Steamroller" to finish the show. A fitting conclusion if you're having a blast watching your favorite artist have fun. I have no other explanation for his enthusiasm in jump-stomping with one last energetic strum of the guitar to end so many songs.

Yet...the concert didn't quite end there. One more encore. He'd played "Sweet Baby James" already in the first set, and I was glad to have a second chance to share that mother/son moment that perfectly ended that first concert. There wasn't anything specific I was hoping he'd play--I was just glad to have one more song.

His wife Caroline ("Kim"), who had been singing backup, came up alongside him to perform the only other song that could come close to being as meaningful a finale as "Sweet Baby James" was the first time around: "You Can Close Your Eyes."

It's the song that perfectly describes how I want to go out of this world, when the time comes: with memories of the good times we've had, and with something left behind for you to remember me by. The song that never fails to move me to tears with its beauty and hopeful, haunting reminder of how precious life is. The song I've sung countless times on car trips and at home, squeezing my wife's hand in the reassurance that despite everything we've been through, we are still here, and a part of us will always still be here no matter what happens.

There with my wife, beneath the stars, music echoing across the hill, time stood still again.

I wonder if someday we'll be able to see him in concert again, bringing along our hypothetical future children, and whether I'll have one more perfect memory of JT playing our song--whatever that song may be--just for us, at the finale.

Once more, for the chance to see my favorite artist in concert, and to share in that experience with my friends and family, I am exceedingly grateful.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Waiting for ... Well, Whenever

Yep. Sorry. Kinda missed Wednesday this week. Instead of harping on the negative, though, I want to talk about printers. Though that, too, may delve into the negative. Still, I really want to express my frustrations about the publishing industry ... again.

So. Here we go ...

My little independently created children's book is chugging along, and I've finally chosen a printer. Now all I have to do is wait for the quote I get about printing in quantities of both 100 and 500 copies.

And that, as I was told by the nice man at the printer who apparently doesn't like talking to small press publishers over the phone, will be "very expensive."

Excellent. That's precisely what I was going for. "Very expensive."

I'll hold off until I get the actual numbers before I launch into my missive about why the current publishing landscape is so incredibly, stupidly wrong, but I will say that, if the price per unit (what each printed book will cost me to produce) is higher than, say, oh, thirty dollars, I will flip my switch, man.

I know it's a really small print run (though that's not entirely true, as 500 is the average in the industry--the numbers are just thrown off by the Big Boys and Girls who actually make their livings after selling one mega-hit), but think about it for a second.

Let's say my cost per book is $30. What, then, do I have to sell each book for to make a profit on the project?

Factoring in artist costs? A lot more than $30. Which I absolutely will not do. Heck, I want to give the thing away for free to get my name and my company's name out there. (Please don't tell the printer that, though.)

In order to break even, using that $30 price point, I'd need to charge around $45 per book.

Yeah, because that's what thirty-page children's books go for. (Also, that was sarcasm.)

I know this whole diatribe today is like trying to swing at ghosts since I do not yet have the actual quote. But, as you all know by now, I am not what one would call an optimist. I'm braced for the Worst Case Scenario. I'm ready to spend an entirely unfair and unreasonable amount on this project.

I'm going to get it out there, no matter what.

The only question is--how much will I complain about it come Monday?

You'll have to wait and see.

: )

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Month in Review: June 2012

For perhaps the first time in this blog's history, I am at a loss to categorize the posts we wrote last month. I'm inclined to say it was mostly filler...but that's not entirely true. Perhaps better stated, June was a month of personal journaling that was, on occasion, specifically intended for other people to read. June was also the month when we finally realized our policy of posting every day by 1 PM was no longer sustainable, introducing a new, loose, reduced posting model that will undoubtedly shape the content and feel of our posts in the months to come.

There'll be less to write about here for the indefinite future, so get your fill of a beefy, post-packed Month in Review while you still can:

- Shameless Saturday sharing of Santino's Foreign Exchange, a sketch comedy video series co-written by Alex

- Sunday Spotlight on being angry at everything, The Two Guys from Andromeda, Blogger bluffing, and our new posting model

- A sort of status update explaining why Alex is a bad blogger, and a follow-up explaining I'm a worse blogger, and a follow-up follow-up explaining things in more detail

- Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 4, Issues 23-26, covering Earth 2, Daredevil, being on a golf course, and a year of changes

- Looking for Jack (and finding he's preposterously expensive)

- A review of the classic crime show Hawaii Five-O

- An endorsement to go have some pie

- Musings on the joys of coffee

- A much-needed reminder of having fun with recording videos

- A screenshot gallery for Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge

Hands-down, the worst filler post we have ever had

- Thoughts about gory movies, Part 1 and Part 2

- A video of Stan Lee as Spider-Man

- The joys of a productive evening

- A look at how someone beat Alex to his ultimate business dream

Monday, July 2, 2012

Monday Spotlight: Why Was There No Sunday Spotlight?

- I got halfway through writing the post and never returned to it after leaving the house to run errands

- I was trying to finish recording that video of Space Quest 0 I've been talking about so I could write about it, but ran out of time and energy

- I ended up spending more time responding to e-mails and YouTube comments than expected

- I started nodding off while watching anime and took an impromptu 1.5-hour nap that completely threw off the flow of my evening

- I miscalculated the amount of time I'd have to write, and would prefer to go to bed at a normal hour than stay up late rushing to finish a post I'd rather take my time on

- Ninjas kidnapped the President, and I was a bad enough dude to dedicate my day to saving him instead