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Never apologize

A rather harsh title some might think. Of course I think you should apologize if you’ve done something demonstrably wrong or misguided.

“Oh, seems you’ve set my house on fire.”

“Yeah, sorry about that but there was a sale on kerosene at the hardware store…”

“Well, as long as you’re sorry….”

Now that situation is a time when you should apologize. Lord knows I learned that the hard way.

No what I’m talking about is something I’m starting to see more and more as I try to focus my efforts away from boozing and snoozing to creative creation. This is the idea that “the artist” shouldn’t apologize for his or her work. That’s not to say that should the work be crap it’s OK to accept that and not want to improve. You should apologize only to yourself, the audience doesn’t want to hear that junk.

It’s like dogs and fear. The audience can smell fear in the artist. Apologizing is like kicking the chum bucket over the side of the boat then diving in after it. You’ve just got to push forward. I’ve picked this idea up from spending a lot of time with musicians lately. In music you can’t stop when there’s a live audience staring at you looking for a good time. I’m sort of a writer and I’m lucky in that I have things like spell checker that keep my outrageous mistakes to a hopeful minimum.

The average person is more skilled at picking out spelling mistakes, however, than out of key notes. At least, I can’t, but that has more to do with my complete lack of musical talent and taste. Though if you stop the show to apologize for the wrong key on the downbeat (I’m just making shit up here) then I think you’ll have bigger problems on your hands. Like refund hungry drunk people with glass bottles in ready supply.

It’s good to hate your mistakes and want to improve. Heck I think everything I make is garbage but that’s because I have self-esteem issues stemming from my lack of reptilian pets in my younger days.

Still reading? Good. Strive to improve in all you do but as long as you’re creating, never apologize.

I went for a walk and took some pictures! Camera deets: Nikon d5100, 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G lens (yes it’s a kit but it’s the good kit). Coloring and effects done in Lightroom 3 & Photoshop CS5.5 (Legal copies to boot! Shocker!)

Sorry about the watermark but you can’t trust the internet these days.

*looks at the post title*

Shit….

It ain’t easy being creative.

This is a difficult subject. For one it is going to be hard to keep from sounding like a hipster that thinks his farts count as “performance art”. The perpetual coffee shop space taker with computer turned to the wall so no one can see that the “script” he’s writing is actually just dicking around on a series of ineffectual social media outlets.

That being said, it’s hard to be creative.

Now at first glance it would seem to be a golden age for the creative type. The internet allows the “artist” to run free and open with her soul stripped bare, spilling its rainbow sparkles of creativity all over the place. This marvel of modern technology is a vast garden where the seed of beauty can be nurtured into a full grown tree of magnificence. Sounds great doesn’t it?

The problem I see is at the same time the worst part. In the current age of human development we are collectively as rich as we’ve ever been. This is where I’m going to start sounding horrible but it’s true. If you are reading this right now chances are pretty good that you’ve managed to surpass the worry of daily survival. Your life expectancy is probably on the far end of the scale so you can afford, like me, to think on matters pertaining to the creative.

That’s a good thing. It should be commended. However, it changes the idea of what it means to be a creative person trying to earn a living through what could be called art.

Is it a good change? Perhaps. In the past only the true masters of their form survived into today. People that were so extraordinary that their names entered into history. That’s a tough act to follow. In Shakespeare’s time there were certainly plenty of other people writing plays, some memorable, some not. Though the average person would be hard pressed to remember anyone other than the immortal bard himself.

Today, by contrast, fame can be thrust upon anyone at anytime for any reason. These flare ups can be brief or they can lead into a substantial career. The problem, I think, is that while in the past it was certainly hard to make it through life as some manner of artisan there was a certain level of skill required to even make a go of it. Today with the internet more often than not fame and success are awarded despite quality of product.

However, (this is going to sound really pretentious I bet) the people that think themselves to be artists tend to hold back their work because they have convinced themselves that in order to be successful their craft needs to be on the level of the old masters from history. On some level this is true simply because the art consuming populace has the same requirements for greatness engrained in their minds. Also, thanks to the internet, the market for creative work has been flooded with low quality material that can swamp and fatigue the average consumer.

Then your typical starving artist has to deal with the internal pain of witnessing some of that mediocre swill succeed through some combination of luck and lowest common denominator. To add more misery to the pile the nature of the internet is progressing towards a market where the artist will have to compete against free. Anything that can be digitized can be traded for a monetary price of zero. This is hard to fight against and more and more it’s becoming a trend in some areas that are legitimate businesses as opposed to pirates.

SOPA/PIPA Disclaimer: I did not support these bills because they overreached to violate civil liberties. I don’t think pirating is healthy for the creative content production industry, however. 

So what can some jerk like me do about it? No seriously, I need some ideas….

One option is expansion of the skill set. This is easier said than done since “art” of any sort requires a great deal of practice. To take writing for example, it’s been said that every writer has about a million words of crap that they need to get out before they can produce quality work.

A million words. For reference, at this point in this post it is only just over 700 words and it’s already feeling over long. I haven’t keep track of my own personal count but I doubt I’m very close to that number if I want to be honest. So I’ve taken to branching out.

This is what brought me to write about this subject tonight. I’ve recently thrown quite a lot of money at shiny things that are marketed as being useful for the creation of artistic products in this crazy share space we call The Internet. I’m lucky to be able to have this money though it did cost me a family member and was only given to me due to failures of a paternal nature. I hope that it will not be wasted money. That is what gnaws at me now. If I fail at this venture then will I tarnish the memory attached to this money? Should I have given it to charity? Again it is hard to talk about these issues without sounding as shallow as a mud puddle on a hot summer’s day but that doesn’t stop them from bouncing around my head.

There’s a quote going around the internet recently from the NPR radio host Ira Glass. I’ll just add it here because it’s pretty good but long.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” -Ira Glass

This is pretty good advice that I haven’t really been following recently. I’ve always been drawn to the Jack-of-all-trades formula even though the cautionary addition to that phrase is “master-of-none”. I’ve been trying to branch out and its hard going. I feel overwhelmed at times. My biggest worry though is that my taste is no good.

Thanks for sticking around this long. Feel free to post a comment. It makes me feel like I’m running through a golden field wearing a cape of rainbow sprinkles riding on a magic unicorn.

Photo shoot Shinjuku

So I bought a camera recently. A very nice camera. It takes pretty pictures. Well sometimes that is.

I’m learning quickly that the key to taking photos is volume. Thankfully that’s much easier nowadays what with the digital realm. I used to have a film camera much in the same vein as my new one, but they’re two very different things. With film you have to be more careful with your shots and then hope it turns out OK. Very difficult to learn on. With the digital cameras I’ve taken plenty of shots that are just tests of different aspects of the camera.

I’m still learning how to adjust everything manually. But it keeps me sane having something creative to focus on. Sort of.

Though today I found out that the store I bought said camera from lowered it’s price by about $200 US two weeks after I bought it. So….fuck you store.

It’s not so bad really, I got a nice desk chair and a tripod off the loyalty points they gave me so not quite as much a rip.

Also today in the bad news department, I got my first actual rejection (in writing as opposed to no response) of my fiction for publication! Allow me to tack it to the wall here as a trophy in all it’s bloody glory.

Thanks for you submission for the [name withheld]. Yours was one of dozens of submissions and we were impressed by the high quality of your work.
However, I’m afraid that at this time it is not a good fit for our purposes.
We will be looking for more new content for the October-November period, and welcome your submissions at that time.
The story I submitted was about a mechanic from The South that moonlights as a corpse burier for the local KKK. So, maybe not the best choice but in my defense that was all subtext.
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 Anyway, interesting day. Back to my point about volume when it comes to photos. I took about 85 shots around Shinjuku. After deleting the ones that were worthless I was down to around 35 that I allowed on to my computer. After editing I am down to 9 which I will share with you, my loyal readers.
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Of which, I like maybe 2 or 3.

Chinese New Year 2012, Year of the Dragon

Well it’s that time of year again. The beginning of the new Lunar calendar and the only time of the year that I take a interest passing interest in horoscopy (horoscopoppy?). Yep, I love following the new Chinese Astrology/Zodiac readings. Hopefully if I say Chinese Horoscope Zodiac enough times it’ll drag some of those delicious hits off of the googles into the space here instead of one of those “well designed” sites that are chock full of astro-magical goodness.

Anyway to bring it back on track, I guess I like the Chinese zodiac better than the boring Western style (I’m a Virgo by the way) for a few reasons.

1: The horoscopes are only given once a year, at the start. I guess this gives the people coming up with these things more time to make up some more interesting assumptions. The old western style horoscopes need to be cranked out every week or month or day in some cases. Seems needy to me. Nope, once a year is good enough for me. Month to month? Week to week? Don’t have time for that much bullshit in my life thank you kindly.

2: The actual Zodiac is much cooler. For example in the western Zodiac I’m a Virgo, the virgin. Lame. In the Chinese zodiac I’m a Dog. A Water Dog in fact. So the best damn kind of dog in all of the Dog Space-Time Continuum. (Golden Retriever is on that list. Thesis proved.) And don’t get me started on other combinations.

Fire Monkey. Boom! Metal Dragon. Double Boom! Need I go on?

3: Because it’s based on year and not month it’s a good way to figure out someone’s age. I’ve actually seen bouncers use it at clubs as a test when people try to pull the “I left my ID card at home” excuse. Really sneaky and would never work with the other zodiac.

So I’m a Dog and apparently Dogs and Dragons don’t get along very well. Too much awesome I guess. But fortunately the more you look around eventually you’ll come across a prediction for the year that isn’t so bad. The majority seems to think that it’s a bad year for my money and my health, but a decent year for my job and my social relationships. So….cool? Money I can see, been spending a lot. Hopefully my health will get better though, I’ve stuck to working out and gave up the other bad things in life so should be ok. We’ll see. Going to try and expand the job thing as well. So bring it on Dragon. Bitch.

Well the other thing about Chinese New Year is it’s kind of a big party. I went down on Monday to Yokohama’s Chinatown to catch some of the festivities. I’ve been to the area before but didn’t really explore very much. The weather was pretty bad for enjoying time outside and taking pictures but I think I managed to come away with a few decent shots. Also I stitched together a pretty crude first video from my new camera. HD capability but it sucks down battery power like a Roppongi bar fly does drinks.

Here’s to the new lunar year. Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Fitocracy: Turning Fitness into an RPG, A Noob’s Perspective

I used to be a pretty unhealthy guy, looking back on things honestly. Still am for a large part. I wish I still had my old registration card that had my post college/pre Japan picture on it. I was a skinny bastard.

Some people lose weight over here but not me. Back home I had access to decent racquetball courts and a five day a week aikido habit. In Japan, however, racquetball is as elusive as a unicorn and aikido schedules did not match well with my work late, party hard life style that I adopted until fairly recently. I drank, I smoked a pack a day and the most exercise I got was a vigorous session of xbox. I’m pretty amazed I managed to increase my average weight by only 10kg. (Sounds much nicer than 22lbs)

Jump cut to August 2011, I quit smoking and have managed to stay quit ever since. This year I also made the decision to quit alcohol. It’s only been about 19 days but it’s not in the counting at this point. So logically trying to get in shape is the next step.

This is where Fitocracy comes in. It’s a concept that is becoming rather popular nowadays, Gamification.

In case you didn’t have time to check the video in the link (Why not? It’s good!) I’ll explain. Gamification is when in order to provide incentive and entertainment value to activities, elements of video games such as points and levels are added where there typically are none. In general that is. It’s an interesting concept that I think could have some great effects in areas like education, but I’m not going to open that debate up here right now.

So how does Fitocracy use this idea to make fitness fun? Simple really, points and levels!! The site has a database of common exercise techniques and allows you to add as many or as few as you want to do and adjust things like weight (if using dumbbells for example) and reps. Fitocracy does the smart thing and doesn’t really try to track your weight beyond using your body weight for certain exercises.

What I mean is the only thing you get for doing an exercise is an amount of points based on  some calculation that they’ve come up with. With points come levels and with levels come…well I don’t know actually. I’m only level 5 right now. I’ve seen people with badges for certain achievements though.

Another thing they do to make it game like is adding quests. I like these because some are designed around building a balanced exercise regimen. Just for example, there is an early quest humorously titled “No Chicken Legs Here!” which rewards the player for completing focused exercises that each hit a different muscle group in the legs. There are other little touches that I’ve learned are included to encourage proper fitness development, like limiting reps on weight exercises to encourage players to move up to heavier weights.

All in all it’s a pretty fun little website though you really only get out of it what you put in. There are no substantial rewards for levels or points and it works on the honor system. You input your workouts yourself so it’s easy to cheat, but then you’re really only cheating yourself. It’s also still in beta so bugs are a bit rampant still and the interface can be clunky and confusing at times.

I’ve still got about 8 invites left so if you want in send me a message over facebook and I’ll try to remember to get around to it. (Actually I just want to build my point lead some more, muahahahahaha!!!)

Good:

  • Helpful for people that don’t know what they’re doing.
  • Provides great incentive to work out.
  • Fairly robust social network scene already with people giving tips and help. (If that’s your thing)
  • Allows you to create and save regular routines.
  • They’re against SOPA/PIPA

Bad:

  • Beta mode so still some bugs and design flaws
  • Only get out what you put in. It won’t exercise for you.
  • No rewards other than better health and self confidence. (Not that bad when you think about it)

Wherein the future is discussed.

So it’s been a few days since I quit drinking. I haven’t really had much trouble staying away from it though. Everyone’s been pretty supportive and that’s really helpful. Most are still in the “eggshell” phase I think, which is when friends of the alcoholic try to act very carefully around the recovering addict lest he shatter into a million pieces at the slightest gust of wind or whiff of booze. It’s sweet but unnecessary.

I have been staying up much later than I would normally, however. It’s not such as bad thing though as I’ve been trying to focus on where I want to go in the future. I’ve only got about two months on my current visa at the moment and a less than solid footing on my renewal chances. So things are a little nervous which is the best time to quit drinking, of course.

I’ve been trying to focus that energy that was usually suppressed by the warm fuzzy blanket of spiritous liquors on something productive. To whit I’ve got it into my head to try and learn from scratch how to use the various products that Adobe has to offer in the realm of creative computer wizardry. This is an expensive proposition, however, as even the most basic package they offer can cost over $1000 if you want to buy it outright. I think it would be a good investment in skills for the future despite requiring a level of investment higher than most developing nation’s average income several times over.

I mean I have the money, but it’s hard to complain about spending it without coming off as callous. I digress.

I’ve been dabbling with iMovie for a little while now. Nothing special but I’ve learned the system well enough that the actual creation of the movie takes very little time. It is a little limited in its ability to correct problem footage which is a shame because my camera is pretty crap. So you can see what I’m talking about, this is a movie I shot last month of a band I’ve talked about before briefly. Kazumi Struts:

Now the video quality was pretty junk, though a lot of that is my camera, but it looked pretty bad until I added the filter to make everything kind of dark. That seemed to help the focus for some reason. Also it is easier to make a smoother video. I guess that’s key, simple is best when it comes to iMovie.

This one I made in Adobe Premiere Elements. A much more robust, though still hamstrung program. It’s not exactly the full version which is probably well beyond my scope at the moment. Keep that in mind. I am in no way good at this stuff. But it gives me something to do instead of drink so I’ll take it.

This clip is a bit longer as I could make a few more clips look good enough to leave in. Some were so bad that I had to cut them. Given the video quality on display here you know that’s pretty bad.

Premiere felt like it could do more but was harder to wrap my head around. A lot of the adjustments to quality had to be left to the program itself. It could be that I just haven’t figured out how to do manual control of things like color saturation and sharpness but there was at least some option for it made obvious in iMovie. Also Premiere is a beast of a performance hog even in the limited form. It would lag on occasion, crashed once, and took over two hours to process and upload to youtube.

It’s obvious that Adobe has more room to grow I’m just worried my little macbook air won’t be able to handle anything more intense than a grainy iphone movie from the bottom of a well at midnight. So yes, expensive hobby I’ve decided to pick up.

I want to try out the polling feature of this blog space so I’ll pose this question:

I’ve also been on a bit of a workout kick with Fitocracy. Which is kind of fun.

How “Calvin and Hobbes” affected my life

Well it’s Christmas in Japan. So I’m feeling a little nostalgic. As you can tell from the title I’d like to talk about what is one of my favorite pieces of creative property, let alone favorite comic strip. It’s a little known fact that I can not be friends with any American male of around the same age as myself if they do not agree that Calvin & Hobbes is the best newspaper comic strip ever created.

Rather specific requirements but it’s that serious. Well, if they never heard of it for some reason I suppose to can’t blame them for such a deprivation. For the uninitiated, and those of you that didn’t bother to click the link to Wikipedia up there, Calvin & Hobbes was a newspaper comic strip about a young boy and his stuffed tiger/best friend. Both characters were named after medieval aged thinkers so already the bar is set rather high. I’ll be including some visual examples because that makes for a more entertaining piece. However, I want to be clear, I am not taking credit in any way, shape, or form.

Calvin & Hobbes is the sole property of Bill Watterson and perhaps his newspaper syndicate. I don’t know the rules. What I know is they certainly aren’t mine and that statement is a whole lot more than some of the sites I pulled these images from will acknowledge. So with all of that out of the way on to why I love this comic.

Calvin Imagines

Let me show you a strip that doesn’t have much story but I think speaks very well to the heart of the strip. A little boy with an overabundance of imagination.

KaZam!

Bill Watterson left behind a legacy about how popularity and quality can defeat entrenched rules and traditions in a creative medium. The strip above is a color Sunday strip. What I didn’t know at the time (being a young child of course) but Calvin & Hobbes broke from the standard format on Sunday allowing Watterson to create strips the way he wanted on Sunday’s. Without delving too much into the details (because it’s kind of boring)  Sunday comics were a big deal and newspapers liked to cram in as many as they could and so there needed to be a certain standard. Watterson got an exception for C&H which allowed him to do some really magnificent things with the format.

This taught me that if your work is better than good you can get away with a lot. (I didn’t say they’d be absolutely wonderful lessons, just ones that I learned for better or worse)

Calvin’s humor

Hats....

I love the subtlety of the interactions between Calvin and Hobbes here. I always imagined that Hobbes really came to life in the world of these strips. It’s never explicitly stated but that’s the charm. This strip kicked off a long arc about the terrible haircut, hiding it from his parents, and trying to cover it up (with a yellow marker of all things!). I like the comedic timing that Hobbes displays in the last frame and have included it in a lot of jokes I make with friends. Still makes me laugh to this day.

Maximum subtlety, minimum effort

The answer is yes...

A simple night camping. Ah the wonders of youth.

What was that?!

There is so much story between the third and fourth panel there. This is something I try to put into my own work. Usually there’s always something lying there underneath the surface that I’ll absolutely refuse to point out directly. I think it comes from a desire to be as good at it as this.

Calvin’s Vocabulary

Too smart for his own good

Another of the things I loved about the strip is how smart Calvin can sound when he’s talking to Hobbes and yet he fails constantly at school and does things that are borderline mentally-handicapped like drive a wagon off a giant cliff. (Sled in the wintertime).

This duality really made me feel better about the fact that I really didn’t enjoy school. Like ever, at all. Plus it developed a love of language in me just trying to figure out what the hell he was saying.

Skewed  Views of Parents

This one I’m maybe not so proud of. Calvin’s view of his parents (whom are never named in the comic other than Mom & Dad) is fairly detached and aloof at times. This says a lot about the late 80s and 90s and about my own situation which was objectively fucked up, though, not the worst thing ever that’s for sure. But I liked Calvin’s parents. They always seemed like a couple that had been trapped into their relationship by their (unplanned?) child but stuck it out in a dysfunctional yet loving way. Guess I gravitated to that dynamic.

I'm so doing this to my kid someday

Yup, pretty much me at that age

Calvin was a writer

Yep. Calvin wrote stories. I wonder if that had any effect on me as a child?

Nah.

Calvin could make me cry (in a good way)

This still chokes me up a bit when I read it. If you’re a fan then you know there can only be one thing that’s coming. If not, I apologize in advance but hopefully you’ll thank me later.

I present to you: The Raccoon Story

Oh fuck…I’ve got something in my eye…..Excuse me *sniff*

Calvin was me

That’s a strange thing to say perhaps. I think C&H was about a certain demographic to be sure. Suburban white kids that liked to play outside. That was me and everyone I knew growing up. That’s just how it was. However, my best friend’s father would cut out the strips and hang them on the refrigerator. I owned every single book that they put out but almost never read it in the newspaper. Later you would see crazy things like car stickers of Calvin pissing on various things. Those were not officially sanctioned by the way.

And that is one of the reasons why I think C&H didn’t dominate the popular culture and also why it stayed so good. Bill Watterson wouldn’t let it. I can tell you, if you bought anything Calvin & Hobbes related that wasn’t just a book of the strips then you were paying a grifter. Calvin and Hobbes was never licensed for merchandise because the creator didn’t believe in it.

Today we would call something like that hipsterish but back then it was golden. Would Calvin and Hobbes have become crap and derivative if it hadn’t ended when it did? I’m torn of course. On the one hand I remember how sad I was to learn there would never be any more C&H and how much trouble I put my mother through to find the last book on offer. Which was just a collection of old strips with commentary from Watterson, like a DVD commentary before that was even a thing. I admit I was disappointed. I didn’t want it to ever end.

It was honestly, my favorite thing ever at the time. How could I not want more?

Looking back, perhaps it’s for the best that Calvin and Hobbes remained pure. All I know for certain is that I can not read a single strip without grinning like an idiot from ear to ear. I remember the first time a saw a collection was in the dorm room of my Big Sister. She let me keep it and started my love of the comic. The first time I can remember throwing up in the car on a family vacation was while I was reading Calvin and Hobbes. I kept that book despite the vomit stains crinkling the bottom half. Pretty much there is nothing else so integral to my childhood.

Someday I can see this as being the proverbial “back in my day” story that all adults seem to collect somewhere along the way. Though, for what it’s worth, I hope that someday I can have children that I can introduce to Calvin and his best friend Hobbes. And then to my grandchildren.

Merry Christmas everyone.