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Goals to complete before the end of the world

I used to do monthly goals blogs. It was an idea I got from someone else. Instead of making a year-long resolution, you make several month-long resolutions. At the first of every month, you review your goals and see how you did, then you make new ones. It worked really well, and I kept up the monthly goals posting for about a year or so. I eventually stopped posting the blogs, but I still made monthly goals offline (seriously, it really helps you get things done, you should try it).

I'm bringing back the goals post for January, because that's what people do in January. Some call them resolutions, but I don't like that term for the same reason I don't like diets. Going on a diet implies that you can be off one. It also sets this expectation in the back of your mind that you'll eventually be "done" with it, which means sooner or later you're going to go back to eating like crap. It's much more effective to just change the way you eat, permanently. Resolutions seem to always have the word "try" in them. I'll try to lose more weight, try to eat fewer donuts, try this, try that. Goals are about doing. So I set goals for the year.

I found my goals post from last year--it was one of my last monthly goals posts. Here's what I was hoping to accomplish in 2011:

Get an agent
-Didn't do this one, but not for lack of trying. I have 16 rejections in my inbox. Four of them are personal rejections, with great feedback. One of them requested and read the entire book, and the feedback from that rejection lead to some great revisions. Two of the rejections came with invitations to submit other work. They liked my writing, just weren't sure they could sell that particular story. I didn't hit this goal, but I learned a lot trying.

Sell my book
-Nope, for reasons above.

Run two half marathons and PR on them both
-I didn't run a half marathon in 2011, but I did do the Cooper River Bridge Run and the Warrior Dash. I didn't run any halfs because another goal got in the way.

Buy a house
-Yes! We became homeowners in May

Top secret resolution I can't put on my public blog...
-This one was to knock up my wife! Just a week after posting that blog last year I found out Brooke was pregnant.On September 29 we welcomed Parker Lightto the world.

Continue to develop and improve my art
-I think I accomplished this. I went to an SCBWI conference in February and attended some illustration panels. I read a bunch of art books, and learned a ton from mydoodle-a-dayproject in August.

I'm happy with my progress in 2011. Having a kid really shook things up, but in the best way possible. Being a dad is awesome.

So it's time to make some goals for 2012. Here's what I hope to have crossed off this time next year:

-Finish and revise my second book

-Get an agent (for real this time)

-Hit my illustration goals (this one is multifaceted, so I'm leaving it at that)

-Run at least one half marathon

-Get a new dog

-Get a new car

-Volunteer

I'm really feeling good about 2012. The process of working toward and achieving my 2011 goals set me up nicely for my goals this year. Smart budgeting, hard work and an open heart are all I need. As always, I'm optimistic. What about you? Did you set goals last year? How did you do? What are your goals for 2012?

My Top Ten Games of 2011

2011 was a fantastic year for video games. This year we saw a lot of sequels, which some would call stagnation. I call it maturation. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are nearing the end of their life cycles, and the franchises that started when those consoles were new came to a close. Many of the games we saw this year had numbers attached, in fact only two of the games on this list can be considered "new", but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think the games of 2011 did a lot for the industry and the medium. Through thoughtful iteration, the 2011 games showed us new ways to tell stories, new ways to make old mechanics fresh, and new designs that will bring in new players. Here are the top 10 games I played this year.

Happy Holidays from the Lights

Love, Austin, Brooke, Parker and Berkeley (in spirit)

I illustratedour Christmas card last year, and Brooke thought it would be fun if we made it a tradition. Having a baby and a sick dog slowed down my card production this year, so if you didn't get one in the mail, feel free to print this one off and stick it on your mantel. Have a great holiday weekend!

Droid Razr: A Regular Guy Review

About three weeks ago I bought a Droid Razr. I knew the Galaxy Nexus, an equally awesome phone, was just around the corner, but Verizon was dragging their feet on getting it out. I needed a new phone before I left on my trip to the Dominican, and so I picked the Razr for three reasons:

-4G LTE

-It's popular. I learned the last time that if you buy a phone that doesn't sell well (like the Droid Eris), than it doesn't get supported.

-The guts are top of the line, and very close to what's inside the Galaxy Nexus

Hardware
True to its heritage, the new Razr is shockingly thin. It took me several days to get used to the light weight and slim profile. It felt like I was holding a phone that was missing a back compartment or heavy battery. At 4.3 inches, the screen is much bigger than my old phone, but because the Razr is so thin, it sits comfortably in my pocket.

The gorilla glass front and Kevlar back give the Razr a sturdy, solid feel. I've already knocked it off my desk at work several times, and it's all good. However, the power button on the right side, above the volume rocker, feels a little mushy. I'm not in love with the angular bezel on the front, but it does make the phone look unique, so it's not just another rectangular brick.

The screen resolution and brightness is fine. I'd prefer a slightly higher pixel density—something I believe the Galaxy Nexus has—but that's just me being a phone nerd. The colors are crisp, the blacks are black, and the screen size makes navigating through apps a breeze.

The 8 megapixel camera is great, but I'm having trouble getting it to take non-blurry pictures (see some in the gallery of this post). I think I just need to mess around with the settings some more. The shutter speed is instant. No more of that terrible two second shutter lag on my old phone. The video camera shoots 1080p, and it looks great in well-lit situations. While I was in the Dominican, my wife and I used the front facing cameras to use Google Video Talk over wifi and the picture was excellent.

Software

The other big reason I wanted the Galaxy Nexus was for Ice Cream Sandwich, the newest update to Android. Eventually, I decided that I could wait for Motorola to update the Droid to ICS. Hopefully by then there are more ICS supported apps, and some of the early bugs have been worked out. Right now, the Razr is running Gingerbread with Motorola's custom skin, MotoBlur, on top. I was really worried about the skin on top, but I love it.

My Droid Eris was stuck on an old version of Android and it could barely handle that properly, so the snappy performance and slick animations used in MotoBlur are great. I guess you could argue that ANY phone would be great compared to my last poorly supported phone. I was using LauncherPro on my Eris, and downloaded it on my Razr, but eventually went back to MotoBlur. The folder and app hiding features of MotoBlur make missing out on the customization of LauncherPro worth it. Hiding those terrible crapware Verizon apps is super easy with MotoBlur.

MotoBlur also comes with Smart Actions. I can train my phone to adjust settings based on my behavior. Right now it knows that as soon as I get home it should turn up the volume and switch to my wifi network. At 10pm, the volume automatically goes down, and my alarm is set for the next morning. When I get to work, it switches to vibrate. There are an endless number of Smart Actions and they're really easy to set up.

My biggest complaint with my Eris was that it sucked as an actual phone. The simple act of dialing and calling a contact took way too long; the whole process was plagued with lag and the touch screen was unresponsive. The Razr is speedy. I can call people with just a tap, and actually hang up calls when I press the end button, not three seconds after. Call quality is excellent, as is the volume.

As far as apps, the Razr can run just about everything I throw at it. Google just got done with their 10 day, 10 apps for 10 cents each sale and I managed to pick up some solid apps and games. I prefer games that are fast to get in and out of, and that don't try to mimic console controls. I don't want fake dual joysticks, and I don't want to try to see through my fingers to play a game. So far some of my favorite games include Captain America, Cut the Rope, Reckless Getaway, Sleepy Jack, Shine Runner, and Stellar Escape.

4G LTE

It's fast. Really, stupidly, awesomely fast. Charlotte has a great LTE network, and when it's at its best, it matches my Time Warner Cable internet at home. One of the apps I used the most on my old phone was Google Reader. It was my favorite standing-in-line app. I could pop it open and read a story on a website I follow. Now I can read six stories, watch a YouTube video and download an app all at the same time. Because I've been with Verizon since they bought Alltel, I was grandfathered in to unlimited data. If you can get a 4G phone I highly recommend it. Battery drain isn't much of an issue. I charge it in the morning when I get to work, and it reaches 100 percent in a couple of hours. Then I'm usually good until the following day.

Overall I'm very satisfied with my purchase. Because I read a lot of tech blogs and listen to a few tech podcasts, it's easy to get wrapped up in the "next big phone" hype and start to worry about the specs. The specs don't really matter. Actually using this phone has been great—leaps and bounds better than my crappy buy-one-get-one-free Eris. And that's something I think nerds like me forget when reading reviews by tech blogs. The folks employed there see a new phone every week. The minute details that bother them likely only stick out because just two days before they were handling a phone that did something different or better. For me, a regular guy, someone who was stuck with a bad phone for two years, the Droid Razr is everything I wanted and more.

Batman and the B word

A week or so after Batman Arkaham City was released the Internet started buzzing about the use of b**** in the game. There was this piece on Kotaku, saying the game has a b**** fixation". And then there was this one by the always entertaining FilmCritHulk, which called the game "super duper sexist". The guys at Giant Bomb mentioned it in one of their podcasts, and if you google it, you'll find an absurd number of message board posts scattered across a variety of sites complaining about it.

Now that I've played a few hours of Batman, I can confirm that, yes, the word b**** pops up a lot. Would I have noticed it if it wasn't for the articles I read prior to playing? I'm not sure, but I think I probably would. So far every female character that has shown up has been called a b**** by someone--be it a villain like Two Face, or just some random thug on the street. It's off putting, but I'm not sure it's sexist. I think it's lazy.

Read more (uncensored) here

That was fun, now back to work

As some of you know, I work as a writer for a super awesome company. One of the many things that makes the company so super awesome is the annual meeting. This "meeting" is an all-expense-paid trip to a tropical paradise for four days of business and pleasure, mostly pleasure. This year the trip was to the Dominican Republic. The company chartered two Jet Blue jets and brought more the 300 corporate employees to Punta Cana.

I started here just a month after the last trip, so this was my first one. After I swallowed the guilt of leaving my wife home with our 10 week old baby, I had a great time! Seriously though, it was a ton of fun, and even after going and seeing it with my own eyes, I still can't believe I work for a place that sends everyone to a tropical paradise once a year, free of charge (and gives them each a $200 stipend to boot). Here are a few highlights from my weekend in the Dominican, including some pics of me and some (unsuspecting) friends:

See the gallery here

Course Correcting Assassin's Creed

I think most fans of Assassin's Creed were rightfully nervous when Ubisoft announced just months after the stellar second installment in 2009 that the series would become a yearly franchise. We waited two years between the first and second game, and the improvements were vast, how could they do the same in a year? 2010's AC: Brotherhood turned out to be a pleasant surprise. In just 12 months Ubisoft managed to flesh out the gameplay, refine some existing features, and add a unique, and genuinely fun multiplayer component.

After such a successful turnaround on Brotherhood, I was more than happy to purchase Revelations, the 2011 game, on day one. It's definitely a great game, and if you like Assassin's Creed, you'll enjoy it, but it doesn't move the series forward much. What it does do is offer further refinement of the core mechanics, and some glimpses at interesting gameplay and story possibilities for the franchise. Also if you liked the multiplayer, it's even better here.

With Revelations, the AC franchise has reached a fork in the road. One direction leads to further innovation and exciting new gameplay elements. The other direction leads to the death of the franchise through stagnation and over saturation. Here's what I think Ubisoft should do more of to stay on the right path, and what they should do less of to avoid the bargain bin.

More Customization

It's fun to buy different armor, weapons and clothing for Ezio, but I'd like to see them take the customization a step further. You start Revelations with an overwhelming number of moves. You've got access to every item from the previous games, plus a slew of new bombs and a handful of new hook blade abilities. Revelations does a poor job of introducing you to the old gadgets, instead focusing on the new stuff. But I didn't really need the new stuff. I didn't use bombs much because I still had knives, and a gun, and a crossbow, and poison darts and Assassin's to call. That's a lot of stuff! I would love to see my play styIe rewarded and the inventory simplified through a Deus Ex-like leveling system. Instead of giving me everything, let me choose what I want. Then let me level up the things I like. Instead of just buying a bigger pouch for knives, make it a perk on a knife skill tree. Revelations gives you a zillion different options, but when the stuff introduced in AC 2 still works so well, there's little incentive to branch out. I think a RPG-like leveling system, complete with perks and cool unlocks, would do just that.

More Linear Level Excursions

Brotherhood and Revelations featured some excellent one-off levels that had a clear linear path. The change of scenery and gameplay focus—you can't just free run any old way to your objective—is refreshing and fun. You can tell the designers enjoy these levels too, as the interior linear levels in Revelations feature some of the series' best technical and artistic design. I'd like to see more of these levels in future games. Maybe turn the main city into a hub, and have up to half of the missions take place elsewhere. That makes room for more environmental and platforming puzzles, which adds variety to the core gameplay loop.

More Consequential Platforming

The addition of the hook blade makes platforming in Revelations more participatory, and that's a good thing. Sure, it still looks cool to see Ezio parkour all over ancient buildings, but after four games of sitting and holding up, it was getting old. The hook blade requires a button press in most platforming situations. Now chase sequences actually require timing and skill. I'd love to see them take this a step further. Add a slide or roll maneuver, or just find more ways to use the hook blade while free running to build momentum. I'd like to see games as whole break away from the whole autopilot thing. I want to play my games. Revelations lets you play more than any Assassins' Creed game before it.

Less Tower Defense

You may have heard that Revelations features a tower defense minigame. It's not aggressively bad, but it's not fun either. Because it serves as a punishment for letting your notoriety get too high, it's not something you look forward to. Also, it totally breaks the fiction of the series. The past three games build the war between the assassins and templars as a secret war, happening in plain site. Huge armies of both factions battling in the middle of the street over a random tower is the opposite of secretive.

Less Convolution

I like the AC series because it fills that conspiracy theory hole that Lost left in my life. I like the mystery of the animus and first civilization, and the crazy secret war between two factions, but I think Ubisoft needs to reign it in a bit. I hope the next game contains some concrete answers that push the story and game world forward. This is a lucrative franchise for Ubisoft, so I doubt it will end with next year's game. If they want to stay relevant, they can't continue to rely on the same conflict. I suggest they start with a face to the Templar name. Each game has stretched the Templar name further, using it as a vague and generic term for bad guy. Give us a true villain, a bad guy leader, in the next game. Put Desmond up against something or someone other than "them".

Less Face Changes

Revelations opens with a quick recap from the first two games. In it you see Desmond, wearing his white hoody. Then the game starts and you see Desmond in a black hoody…but the changes don't stop at his clothing. For some reason, after three games, the developers decided to change Desmond's character model. It's immediately noticeable and off putting because they open with the old model in the recap. The new Desmond looks all puffy and swollen and dumb. They should change him back. The other character's faces have changed with age, and their changes look appropriate. There's no reason for Desmond looking like he got hit with an ugly stick. This one is nitpicky, I know, but it drove me crazy nonetheless. If it ain't broke, don't break it.

Revelations hints at some cool changes for the series, but it also hints at some potential missteps. The story in this new game offers little forward movement, choosing instead to focus on the back story of its main characters. It's kind of a bummer that the cliffhanger in Brotherhood isn't addressed, but at least the character development for Altair, Ezio and Desmond is top notch. The writing and gameplay works together to paint Ezio as a master assassin and mentor, and it's neat to see how much he's matured since the first game. I recommend watching AC: Embers, the cool animated short, when you finish Revelations if you want to check in on Ezio one last time. As for Altair and Desmond, we finally get to see why the former was so revered (because the first game certainly didn't make him out to be an amazing guy) and why the latter is so special.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Revelations, and I'm looking forward to jumping back in to get the rest of the single player achievements—which has become a bit of a tradition for me with AC games. The turnaround since the last game was fast, but as Stephen Totilo pointed out in his excellent review, no one has done a game like Assassin's Creed since the last Assassin's Creed. I don't know about you, but I'm happy to come back every season for more. Let's hope next year's is even better.

Five Things You Should Know About Early Parenthood

I've got a few friends getting ready to have babies, so I thought I'd offer some words of wisdom about the first few weeks of parenthood. Actually, these might not be words of wisdom, more like just words. Read them.

1. Babies are boring. Seriously, early on, babies don't do much. They don't really have personalities, and their only means of communication is crying. At this stage, you just need to make sure they're well-fed, they're comfortably dressed, and you don't drop them. You might not realize how boring they are until you have your first visitors. They'll walk in, give everyone hugs and then take the baby. After about five minutes of cooing at the baby in a ridiculous voice, you'll see them realize that the baby doesn't care, or more accurately, doesn't yet have the ability to care. Then he'll poop on your guest.

2. The first couple of weeks suck. You're not going to sleep much at all, and there's nothing you can do to prepare for that. You can't store up sleep and save it for later. You'll be tired, all the time. You'll feel like someone in the early stages of turning into a zombie—not quite dead, but getting closer to a shambling reanimated corpse every day. The good news is that a lot of really funny things happen when the delirium takes over. We've got some stories. They involve knives, balloons, peeing on chairs, and sleeping on the dryer. Most of those stories weren't all that funny until after the two week sleep deprivation period ended.

3. You won't want to do anything. I have a lot of hobbies. I like to read, draw, write, play video games and run. Except for some mindless games on my laptop, I didn't do any of those things for the first couple weeks. Whenever I got free time, I filled it with…just sitting there. Constant exhaustion really saps your motivation to get things done. My son is eight weeks old, and I just now replaced the broken headlights in my car. I've been sleepily driving around using my brights for two months. The D stands for Danger.

4. You'll eat like you're in high school. Only you won't have that amazing teenage metabolism. You'll judge food in your pantry by the speed at which it can get in your mouth. The first week back at work, my barely coherent body was propped up with constant coffee refills (free Keurig cups at work!) and 100 calorie snacks. Pro tip: eating three packs of 100 calorie snacks is not a lunch. Breaking free of the college student diet makes you feel like a well-adjusted adult again. It also keeps your clothes fitting. So don't eat like that too long, obesity is a serious problem in America.

5. The world is disgusting. Once you get into the habit of sanitizing everything, it's hard to not get a little germaphobic. People are gross; they pick their noses, scratch their privates, and touch hand rails. You'll know it's stupid to wash your hands forty times a day, but you'll do it anyway, even as your skin gets all dry and crusty from soap abuse. Then you won't think twice about petting your slobbery bulldog's lip flaps and then picking up your baby. Yep.