08 April 2014

All Men Must Die

Listening to: Kanye Asada, "Boys & Girls: March 2014." We went out this past weekend to see another DJ but ended up falling in love with this guy’s set. It was wonderfully dancey, while not falling into any genre. Technically it’s maybe a little housey with R&B hooks, but it was so much better than that. Anyone who mixes in "Escapade" is all good in my book. Also, that name "carne asada" is amazing. Here's his setlists and try out this Aaliyah track for a quick taste of what I fell in love with. See you on the dance floor.

Most of the rest of my weekend was spent in a much more prone position, lying on my side while grinding/frolicking through hours of Battleheart. Battleheart is an iOS action RPG game that came out a few years ago and I don’t know how I missed it. Suffice to say, the package of wonderfully responsive controls, streamlined design, lots of lineup combinations, plus super cute characters had me obsessed. I mean, take a look at the little barbarian, witch, pirate, and even a monk! I think I literally played Battleheart for ten hours straight, stopping only when my phone died.

Also, the week was all about Game of Thrones right? While waiting for Sunday’s premiere, and making backup plans in case HBO Go collapsed (again), I saw that Fantasizr was running a GoT fantasy game. Of course I assembled a league because fantasy anything makes life better. And then I started a blog for the league because, well, that’s what I do. Anyway, our draft was super fun and now I’m heavily invested in my team’s aptitude for killing, maiming, sexing, insulting, and drinking. My team name is "Blonde Ambition," named after Madonna's tour, and my first few picks were right on theme with Daenerys, Brienne, and Joffrey. And then somehow I ended up with almost all of the Tyrells, more than fulfilling the "ambition" part of the name. Fantasy Game of Thrones and the new season of MTV Challenge will keep me occupied now that basketball is over. Can someone just make fantasy real life friends already?
And hello, the new Captain America is so good! If you've seen it already, check out this spoiler filled "The Winter Soldier Secrets You (Probably) Didn't Notice." As an avid Marvel fan but not enough apparently, I didn't notice most of these tidbits. I mean, when I used to read comics, Captain America was not cool. But now he's got super muscles and looks like Chris Evans so he's finally got a proper fandom.

Someone asked me this weekend if I thought an issue of "Amazing Fantasy #15,” Spider-Man’s debut, would be a good investment. There seem to be quite a few available for sale on eBay, priced from a few hundred dollars to a mere thirty-five grand. I’m trying to convince my friend that buying “Giant-Size X-Men #1” would have so much more cachet. Right? And it’s cheaper! If I ever make mega money, all my rooms will be filled with comic books and statues. Take a look at this blog, X-Men: Statues of Future Past, which is basically my dream home. I won't need any other rooms, just this one. And in case you some wallpaper for your digital home, I painstakingly stitched together this 50th anniversary Avengers poster. And here's the X-Men one. Warning: Both are hugely, and probably life changing.

I still haven’t had a chance to read Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding that came out a couple of years ago, and now he’s got an anthology out titled MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. It sounds like a must read for writers. Back in 2012 I read Keith Gessen’s How a Book is Born, which focused on Harbach’s debut and was really interesting, plus I want to re-recommend this n+1 podcast episode with Gessen.

03 April 2014

Remember the Time

Listening to: All the mixes from 143's Soundcloud page. "143 is a monthly party of slow jams, love songs, and bed squeaking future R&B." Basically, I need to get to L.A. soon to attend one of these parties. But for now, these streams will have to do.

Digging the crates, looking up my important “firsts.” First Tweet, first Gmail, etc. These are really the important moments in my life. I read this article, "How Gmail Happened: The Inside Story of Its Launch 10 Years Ago” and they said that Gmail launched on April 1st, 2004. I started using it exactly a month later -- here's how to see your oldest message -- and haven’t stopped advocating for it since. I remember AMR and I got early invites because we were loyal Blogger users. Those extra two invites we had apiece were literal gold! We eBayed those suckers for like $80 each. It was a glorious time.

Now I’m taking a spin in my Gmail archives and reliving my life a decade ago. That basically involves Google stalking old co-workers and friends I’ve lost touch with. You know, the usual. Back in 2004 I was working at a generic pharmaceutical company. Filing, emailing, doing important stuff. I forgot what my title was. Quality assurance peon? This was my first foray into regular office culture and oh man, what a thrill! Sure hope I can get into that kind of job again. Not.

Oddly, my very first email was to myself, as I forwarded along a copy of my PDF resume as an attachment. Clearly I was very career focused as my first instinct was to preserve my resume for eternity on Google’s servers. Lot of good that did me over the past decade, right? Also, it’s unfortunate but my email address through most of my twenties was paradigmpimp@whatever. I had to start many subject headings with "This is not spam, I swear." I wish someone had intervened and told me to change my email address to something less faux ironic and dumb. And easier to spell.

For posterity, my first tweet sent into the world a little after midnight on May 24, 2007 was: "In new york, still up, blogging.” Ain’t shit changed....

While we’re at it, I was doing some more digging and came upon this 2006 review of my blog book from John Scalzi. Totally forgot about that! Sometimes I forget I wrote a book on blogging and that’s how I got my start.  I look at how I’ve only got five entries up so far this year and that just makes me sad sad sad. The move then is to recapture the blogging fire and toward that end I’m gonna blog every day till the end of the month. “No, don’t do it,” you cry. Too late, I already committed. And I always, always, follow through on my commitments.

Really, the first thing I should do is go through this Top 250 Blogs list from Rough Guide to Blogging and write up a “Where Are They Now” feature. Well, maybe not for all it. Perhaps just the “personal blogs” section. I mean, where is Bazima, Maganda, Minjung Kim now? Well, at least we know where Evhead went. The Blogger cofounder went on to start Twitter! Actually, let’s be real, the best part of writing Rough Guides was sneaking in friends like Boygirlparty, Eidolon, and Transcended. Plus I crammed in as many screenshots as I could of friends' blogs. Oh the power I wielded.

I think Rough Guides stopped printing the blogging book awhile ago and shockingly I only have like two copies in my closet. Perhaps I better start wandering into used bookstores to start collecting copies. Some day my children will want to hold my first book in their hands. Or maybe they won’t, since everything will be digitized by then and nobody will care about physical artifacts.

I sent these to my friend the other day, a collection of links to articles about writing and money, starting with a Scalzi classic. Also check out Scalzi's book on writing as a career, You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop.

15 March 2014

Stars, They’re Just Like Us

Some weeks just align themselves into themes don’t they? On Sunday I watched Rust Cohle stare into a space abyss and then a few days later I stayed up all night zipping from star to star myself, feeling just as empty. Out There is a new iOS game that casts you as a lonely engineer lost in the universe, freshly woken from cryogenic sleep and desperate to return home. The only way to get back to Earth is to visit nearby galaxies and then pillage the stars and planets for fuel, oxygen, and iron for your ship’s delicate hull. The challenge is that you’re always short on everything because your ship can only carry so many supplies. Also, Out There is a roguelike, meaning once you die, it’s over and you have to start from the beginning. “Roguelike” is basically the geek term for “infinitely frustrating."

I haven’t felt like crying in awhile but when my ship randomly teleported into a double black hole system with no way out, my insides collapsed as I faced an inescapable fate. Even with my wormhole generator equipped, there was no escape. This craptastic moment happened just a few minutes after I discovered the Faberge egg of spaceships, one that housed an Avatar-like tree inside constantly pumping out sweet breathable air. I was so so so happy when I found that abandoned ship too. (I even Memorexed the moment.) Needless to say, I hit restart and dove right back in there for another incredible journey.

Out There is getting rave reviews, it’s got beautiful art, and while a bit of the magic has worn off after multiple dead ends and some challenging/unfair turns of luck, I don’t hesitate to recommend it. Also, the cycle of dead ends and constant losing -- I haven't made it to any of the story endings yet [Update: Finally, got one!] -- put me into a contemplative mood and I starting seeing Out There as analagous to real life, and thought that maybe the point was to teach players some lessons about true grit. But maybe that's getting caught up a little too deeply into it.
I was fully onboard for the run of True Detective, and in typically annoying fashion, pushed it on everyone around me. The ending was disappointing but the experience was totally worth it. (Hey, just like life!) I needed more Matthew McConaughey in my life after the finale and queued up Killer Joe, one of the first movies in the McConaissance. That film is definitely not for everybody but McConaughey is very good as a charming cop turned assassin. It occurred to me that I’d never seen Dazed and Confused, so I should rectify that soon, if only to be a Linklater completist. Plus, it’s a classic or whatever.

Also, Cary Fukunaga! I don’t know how any human doesn’t have a crush on this guy. Aside from being an extremely talented director, he looks like half-Asian Clark Kent / Johnny Depp, plus he used to be a pro snowboarder. Hearts, hearts, everywhere. Forget Googling True Detective theories and wrap ups, go watch his Jane Eyre starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender.
And then there’s the new Cosmos television thing, exec produced by the detestable Seth MacFarlane. I’ve only seen a few episodes of the original but I don’t think anyone can top Carl Sagan, even Neil deGrasse Tyson. My plug is to go straight to the 1980 Cosmos book, which apparently spent fifty weeks on the best sellers list when it came out. During my first foray living in New York, Cosmos was my go-to subway read. Dense enough to be worth carrying around, captivatingly written, perfect for stopping and starting. All that stuff about white dwarves and quasars just makes travel time fly by.

And if Cosmos has too many words for you, try out Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ space opera graphic novel, Saga Vol.1. I’d been reading fawning reviews of Saga forever before finally picked it up recently. It's described as Romeo and Juliet plus Star Wars with Game of Thrones and that's just about right. Note: For story writers out there, Saga is like a master class in cliffhangers. Vaughan does some incredible things with his last pages. Volume three of Saga drops in a few weeks and I've already got it in pre-order even as I mourn how fast I'll blow through it.

Also, playing Out There made me remember how much time I used to spend on Spaceward Ho! It’s a similarly themed game from the early Nineties, and apparently out now for iPad. Is it too late for me to become an astronaut?

27 February 2014

Leaders of the New School

Listening to: Taylor Dayne, "Heart of Stone." Yeah I just found out about Taylor last week. Yeah, last week. As per usual, my Eighties music butler struck again. Lilly was jamming out while we were working and I'm like "Who is this, Belinda?" She proceeded to educate me and now I can't stop going through Dayne's greatest hits. Technically I know "Love Will Lead You Back" and "Tell It To My Heart" and all that stuff but when you don't know the artist, it's not the same, right?

The other big shocker is that Dayne is white. This rocked my world like when I found out that Billy Ocean was black. Related newsflash: Donna Summer is black. This is just getting embarrassing right? Bill Simmons has the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars, a "list of sports figures whose names would seem to indicate that they are of a different race or ethnicity than they actually are." Should the "sings like they're a different race/ethnicity club" be dubbed the Taylor Dayne All-Stars? Anyway, up next from my personal Eighties music butler is Jody Watley and Stacey Q. (I wouldn't know anything worth knowing without Lilly.) Also, read this: "Tig Notaro Meets Taylor Dayne Again and Again (2012)," plus accompanying video.

There’s a me-sized hole on our couch from the last few weekends of sitting around and burning through movies. I found myself watching stuff in marathon sessions, like six hours at a stretch. At least they were thematic so I could declare them as fiftyfifty.me minors. For example, I started off with J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call one night and then, intrigued by more stuff on the sub-prime lending fiascos, went through The Flaw and then The Pit, a movie about Wall Street commodities trading.

A couple of days later I started at Patriot Games and then with more political thrillers needed in my system, I called up Jack Ryan again in The Hunt for Red October and then The Sum of All Fears. If Clear and Present Danger was streaming I probably would have sat through that too. (Now I feel all but obligated to watch Shadow Recruit.) Were the films actually good? Eh, mostly average, but when you need that CIA fix you need that CIA fix.

And then I discovered that HBO Go had all their old series on tap and shot through Band of Brothers in about a week. Ten hours, one week. That's a lot of binge watching but nothing compared to what was about to come. I discovered Deadwood on a Friday night and finished the whole thing by Tuesday. Feining for a Western, I queued up Clint and Sergio's Fistful of Dollars but couldn’t get into it. So I dove into Deadwood instead and twelve hours later, emerged with the entirety of Season 1 under my belt. I seriously only got up to go to the bathroom.

Deadwood was on from 2004-2006 and is set in the 1870s during a South Dakota gold rush. Timothy Olyphant plays the white hat sheriff while Ian McShane is perfectly cast as a morally ambiguous saloon owner who Godfathers the town. The series is semi-historically accurate, with cameos from a series of Western folk heroes such as Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Earp. Each episode ends on such a compelling note that I had to press on.

By the time I’d finished all three seasons -- the show was cruelly cancelled early -- I was thinking in writer/showrunner David Milch’s Shakespearean tinged lines, and wanting to call everyone “cocksucker.” The show has a ton of viciously fun profanity, wanton murders, and all sorts of bad things, plus the ingenious machinations and changing alliances hold your attention in both awe and disgust. I could go on forever, but I’m too busy trying to figure out where Deadwood falls in my personal pantheon of TV series. I’m almost afraid to admit it but it might rank above Mad Men right now. And I fucking love me some Mad Men.
For most of 2007, I worked at a home mortgage place up in the Bay. I had the 7am - 4pm shift and it was horrible. The job was mostly mindless and after getting the hang of it and doing great for a few months, I lost interest and soon quit. I did learn a lot though, as we credit checked people for approvals, set them up for loans, and participated in all the stuff that are now red alarm terms: subprime lending, interest-only mortgages, , adjustable-rate mortgages, etc. Basically, I too had a small hand in the coming financial meltdown.

Out of curiosity, I Googled my old company to see what had happened to it. Apparently, a few months after I quit, the company fired five hundred employees as part of its restructuring, and there’s no doubt I would have been let go too. Looks like I got out of Dodge just in time!

11 February 2014

The Greatest Club of All

Listening to: Lady, "Money."

I’ve done a lot of great things in my time, but this could be one of the very best. For the past year, Ameer and I have been tracking our expenses using a very special Google Doc. 2013 was our first year of Budget Club and it was a tremendous success. There’s a wild thrill to tracking every penny and dime you spend. Trust me, there is.

When I was younger, aka two years ago, when someone asked me “where does your money go?” I wouldn’t have been able to tell them. Now, after a full year in Budget Club, I know exactly where my money went. Unfortunately it’s all mundane stuff. Food, shelter, travel, karaoke, and bubble tea. No luxury boats or Wolf of Wall Street stuff on the list. But no matter, part of being in Budget Club is learning to be fiscally responsible. Extravagance is eschewed, it’s all about saving money! I know, it sounds very un-American of me, but I still participate in consumerism on a regular basis, don’t worry. Plus I take photos of things I want but can’t have, which is almost the same buying stuff.
Anyway, without further ado, we invite you to join Budget Club. All it takes is a commitment to tracking your expenses. That’s it. You can use Mint, you can use a piece of paper, whatever. However, we highly recommend our Google Doc, which is full of magical formulas. Somehow when you adjust the budget tab on the document the other tabs get changed. I don’t know how this works, it just does. Grab a copy of the template and try it out for yourself. Below is the how-to and some spreadsheet explanations. Plus a podcast episode we made, just for you.

Remember, it takes a lot of diligence (and anal-ness) to do Budget Club but the rewards are many. Give it a few months and as my accountant sister loves to say, "Better log it!"

Budget Club spreadsheet | Budget Club podcast

Getting Started:
  1. Go to the “budget” tab and input your income. Then fill out your fixed expenses, variable expenses, and annual expenses. Finally, throw in some tags you know you’ll likely use. Get that “money left to budget” box to zero (show in red at H4).
  2. Enter your variable monthly expenses as you go, categorizing and tagging each item. You can edit these at any time so don't spend too much time on this.
  3. At the end of each month, you need to lock down rows F, H, K, and L because those could change in the future if the master budget columns change. The locking down process prevents those individual columns from being affected by future edits. Instructions for locking down are included in light blue on the January tab.
Sometimes we get asked why we bother with a spreadsheet when there are clearly lots of options for personal finance out there. Well, I tried a lot of things but I kept returning to a Google Doc because it was customizable and easily shareable. Also, I use Spendee because it's pretty and an easier way of tracking each expenditure versus just using Evernote or Notes. I find that the attractiveness of the interface encourages me to input numbers. So yeah, Spendee.

Budgeting vs Reporting
Last year we simply had a huge list of categories for everything. This year’s innovation is to separate out the categories according to what’s useful. According to AMR’s financial planner, budgeting should be broad, used for all inclusive categories. Who cares if you flew, drove, biked, subwayed, it’s all just “transportation.” So, for budgeting purposes, the fewer categories the better.

However, when reporting, you want details. Under “food” I want to know if I was eating out, buying groceries, or just getting lots of snacks. The list of tags should be numerous because you can only analyze your spending when you have a clear idea about what's being purchased. In short, it's good to aim for five or less categories, but populate your sheet with as many tags as necessary. Go crazy.

The “Ann” tab
This is the tab for annual expenditures. Last year we used to have individual months where big amounts of money came in or out, wrecking our carefully balanced budget. No more! Instead of getting slammed because you just bought a new computer in February, you can now balance that out over twelve months. It offsets the big purchases and allows you to plan more responsibly. You can use the Ann tab however you like but we recommend throwing in vacations, holiday gifts, tax returns, and various one-off items in there. Note: This will change your variable expense, as the Ann tab is basically a mini-budget within the overall budget.

The last thing I’d recommend is to do this with some friends. We have a Budget Club of four people and it’s super fun to compare notes and be in competition to see who “won” the month. Basically the winner is whoever overspent the most, and they must be shamed until the next month. The social aspect of Budget Club is one of the best parts. Well, that and warm fuzzies you get from tracking all your expenses.

Feel free to ask Ameer or I if you have any questions. Or suggestions. We love suggestions!