Thursday, December 20, 2012

Farewell, Cruel World! 12/21/12!

So.

This is just a bit of a stream-of-consciousness.  I'd heard about this Mayan prophecy schtick when I was a kid.  I remember specifically hearing that inanimate objects and animals would join forces to kill us.  Images of our pets going mad and of our toasters self-destructing around us filled the airwaves on that particular "Doomsday Prophecy" show.

My next interaction with the subject matter was actually through the game Shadowrun, which I've just done a Dystopian Review of so that you can get a taste of it!  Anyway, Shadowrun portrays "The end of the world" in a more "...As we know it" sense, because life ticks on - it's just radically different!

The truth of the matter is that the Long Count does come to an end, and there's at least some scholarship I've read over the decades that indicates the Mayans were very good at astronomy, and so synced their calendar up with our little blue dot's travels.  Fine.  That doesn't make them fucking psychic.  It sure as hell didn't help them against the Conquistadors!  Okay, bad example; irrelevant, actually, and meant for a joke!  But does that mean the world is doomed?  No way.  It just means the next Long Count starts!

Now, as a bit of a news nut, among other things, I've learned what "Threat Maps" are.  There's your standard variety (in this case, the Quakes segment of the Global Incident Map), but my preferred map is the RSOE Emergency and Disaster Information Service.  It isn't always spot-on accurate or detailed, but when it comes to earthquakes, tsunami warnings, and near-earth objects (asteroids, friend!), it's pretty frikkin' accurate and quick to update.  But it looks pretty clean to me, save for a thingie or two.

Naturally then, I started to wonder - when will the world end?  If it ends on the 21st, does it end as soon as we hit 12:00 AM?:  Do I set my alarm-clock for 11:58 and say my prayers?  Chances are it'd be in a more west-coast or central time, as the Mayans were a Mexican tribe living on the Yucatan Penninsula, so there's that to consider!  And what if we have the 21st to say goodbye, but it actually ends just before the 22nd?

I don't know.  I have my doubts.  It'd be cool if something happened, but instead of it being destructive it was beautiful.  One person I know (who I'd argue is something of an extremist) reminded us of the Biblical line about knowing the hour - and that nobody will.  It's from Revelations, but I only look up Bible quotes on special occasions, and I'm stream-of-consciousnessing.

I liken this whole situation to the Mayans holding the bag...That we put in their hands all on our own.  If something - anything - happens, it can be considered as a disaster in keeping with the prophecy.  Check out this thread at one of my favorite sites; it's based on seriously spurious information with only the loosest possible connection to 12/21/12, but believers find ways to argue for anything.  That's a double entendre, get it?!

LOL!

In all seriousness, though, be safe.  The greatest danger isn't that the whole world ends, but that one's own world ends - you party too hard in anticipation of the end, get in the car unwisely, and crash.  You die - your world ends - and it's for nothing!  Nothing worse than a prophecy fulfilled by itself.  And on that note, sweet dreams, all!  I'll consider an alarm clock.  Maybe a prayer.  It can't hurt, can it?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Attacking Automated Job Application System Annoyances

Dear reader,

Today, I applied for a job.  We've all been there, and many of us are pretty familiar with the process.  First, we re-vamp the resume...

Wanna hire me?  I take consulting/promotional work!

Then we write up a cover-letter that tries to make us seem skilled without sounding self-centered.  Then we just hit ctrl+p, grab an envelope and a stamp, and...

No, wait, that's not how most companies handle resumes anymore.  And why should they?  There are trees to protect!  And not to mention that there are, like, tons of people applying for each job.  Let's start by looking at the education field:  I've competed against 800 people for a single, one-year-long job as a teacher.  Assuming one can even keep one's resume down to one page (is that one too many ones?), that's two sheets for each person.  Forget a "stack" of resumes, we're talking about an entire crate, easy.  So, naturally, my area devised an automated resume-handling system called "On-Line Application System," or OLAS.  If you think this article is going to complain about OLAS, you're wrong.


The essence of an application system.

OLAS is actually a pretty well set up service, and corporations like Best Buy, Petco, and even the infamous McDonalds sport similar systems.  I'm familiar with one of the three I've just mentioned, as well as plenty of others representing smaller and more specialized entities, but they all have some key things in mind....

 - They allow applicants to create individual log-in names.
 - Under their log-in name, an applicant can upload, store, and edit their resumes.  Cover letters are standard fare.
 - Search functions allow a job browser to look in their area for jobs they are qualified for.  With new jobs being added all the time, employment seekers can check in every month or so to see if something has opened up!  Eventually, that 97 year old janitor has to retire, right?
 - Once an appropriate job posting is found, all the user has to do is check a box and hit "apply!"  Any necessary questions can be asked of the applicant at that time, and the resume/cover letter are automatically attached.  Confirmation is sent directly to the applicant's e-mail address, so you know it wasn't "lost in the mail," and any future correspondence is handled privately.

For obvious reasons, this is a tremendous advantage to the job-seeker.  I can't tell you how many publication packets, job applications, and other documents I've sent to an employer, only to have no idea whether it all made it to it's destination, or if they ended up taking a vacation in Aruba, instead.  Having knowledge that your application was received is relieving.  That doesn't mean it'll be seen, and it doesn't give you a clue of how many people are applying for the same position, but at least you know it's there.  The point isn't to make your odds better, it's to make your life - and the employer's life - a little easier.

With all of these advantages, and with all of the features that a relatively old model like OLAS has built into it, how can an application system be built wrong?  And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean to the applicant?


How to mess up simple things.

Let's start with resume storage.  OLAS is going to serve as my "go to" example of a well-designed service.  On OLAS, you've got a resume and a profile all your own.  It's practically part of the signing up process, and all you need to do to update your resume is to upload a new .doc (or other acceptable format) document.  From there, any job you select and hit the "apply" button to?  Your resume is instantly sent.  This is pretty self-explanatory.  Yet today, as I was trying to upload my resume, the system I was working with worked on the premise of making you create a profile without an attached resume.  Each job you apply for? You upload your resume again and again.

Okay, so that's annoying, but what about cover letters themselves?  Well, with the business I applied to work at today, cover letters had to be attached to the same document you were attaching your resume to.  This means that you need to create a unique file just for that job.  If six positions exist, each one just a bit different than the other, you need to make six files.  Is it any different than the old days?  Maybe not, but it's frustrating.  It's easy to forget to include your resume, or to send the wrong file.  OLAS, on the other hand, allows you to attach "Job-specific cover letters," as well as a "generic" model.  You can do this independently of uploading your resume.

Let's move on to the actual job search interface.  What I was working with today might as well have never heard of Google.  It instantly spit out 190+ jobs, with no easily-found way to narrow the search down.  When you're looking to work at a specific location, it's pretty ludicrous to have to flip through ten-job-per-page listings which aren't even in alphabetical order.  OLAS?  It organizes by region, and once you select the region you need it goes to alphabetical order.  Simple, if not perfect.

Now for something that's a personal pet peeve of any interface design, be it job applications, shopping, or whatever.  Even when you narrow your listing down to the eight jobs you might be interested in, you're only getting the name of the job title, right?  So you want to investigate each one individually, just like you were reading each article in a newspaper.  The standard way to do this is to right-click on the link to the full description, then select "Open in new tab."  Ordinarily, this works just fine, and you get a brand new browser tab with a full description of the job you're planning to apply to.  With the system I worked on today?  It just opened a blank, broken tab.  So the only way to view the job is to effectively close your search out.

That's annoying, but here's where it gets downright frustrating.  Here's where any reasonably intelligent person will get irked that "they" can't get it "right."  Let's say, as happened to me, that you look at the first job and it's not what you were expecting.  Maybe you clicked it by accident, and you really wanted to check out the second one in the list.  Naturally, the site has a "Back" button that takes you back to your search, right?  I mean, that's just basic, right?  But, no, it completely re-sets your search.

So to review:  Somehow, more than ten years into the twenty-first century, these folks have made signing up to the system unnecessarily difficult; they've made searching for a job a frustrating exercise in repeatedly re-executing searches; and they've even managed to make the actual process of applying complicated.  All of this after it's been well proven that you can design a system to handle each of these things with one or two button clicks.  And they aren't alone.


If you aren't hiring, don't solicit.  If you are, do it right.

Now, I'm an honest guy.  In a way, I'm just complaining about simple little nuisances.  Life is about getting through these simple little nuisances.  Certainly a job is about getting through the rough patches in order to enjoy the good ones!  And when you're only looking to apply to one or two jobs, these kind of nuisances really don't seem like a big deal.

But here's why it's just not right.  Let's use our imagination.

You're a job applicant.  You're looking for a new career, and you're serious.  So you are searching high and low, applying wherever you can.  You've spent a couple hours fixing things up on your resume and practicing your cover letter writing.  Now it's time for you to search.  It takes you ten minutes to find a suitable job.  You need another ten minutes to initiate the process of applying.  That's twenty minutes.  You attempt to return to the previous search, but it's cancelled out; you need another ten minutes to find another job to apply to.  Then, because of poor design, you need to repeat the laundry list of application requirements; another ten minutes.

Instead of applying to two jobs in twenty minutes, your pace is now cut to one in twenty; or, two in forty.  Now you want to apply to a third.  Let's assume you're better prepared to face the technical nightmare, so you cut the application and search processes in half.  You've now taken fifty minutes to apply to three jobs.  To apply to a fourth requires another ten - that's 4 jobs in one hour.  That's a lot of time, time you could be spending on your family or a hobby or on taking care of chores.

"So what?  Deal with it!" is the usual response.  "Everyone else has to put up with it, too, so just do it" is the other one.  Here's why that's a bad mindset, both from the applicant's perspective, as well as the businesses'.

As the applicant, you're sitting here dealing with this annoying process that's soaking up your time, right?  Well, you could easily just go...Apply to a different business!  Yes!  After all, if your initial impression of your potential employer is that they are so inept they can't even design a system that's convenient (or pay someone else to do it), how are you going to take them seriously as a place to build a career?  Time Magazine addresses these kinds of issues in an article about "top employees," and is it any wonder that one of the reasons a super-star might not be happy with their employer is "under-utilization?"  Or that another one is "condoning mediocrity?"  If you're a business looking to hire skilled workers, shouldn't your application system demonstrate some skill?


The business of business is good business.

Let's get back to the business' perspective.  You want the best candidates, right?  So you want to make it as convenient and painless as possible for applicants to apply, just like you'd make shopping at your store as simple as you can to make your clients happy!  Yes, you might get eight hundred applications, and you might even get eight hundred well qualified candidates, but isn't that better than getting zero?  Oh, and here's another thing; chances are that if your application system scares off an applicant, they're still looking for a job in the field that you do business in, right?  What happens when your competition starts getting the best recruits?

Imagine if Amazon made it tough to hire visionary designers, and they chose to work at Barnes and Noble instead.  I know, crazy, right?  I mean, given how the website Deadline reports B&N's fiscal results, clearly it's already lost that war, yeah?  But only because Amazon had those designers in the first place.  That edge is not guaranteed.  If Amazon treated its employees like crap, and - as a company reputed to be tech-savvy - made it's employment system look like it was slapped together by a drunk ape, chances are it would stop getting good recruits.

Instead, they'd start getting good competition.  And not in the "friendly chess game" kind of competition.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ruminations On Hurricane Sandy Coverage! Physics Incarnate Promotion! More!

Howdy, readers!

I haven't posted in Ramble about Writing for a while, mainly because I was covering Hurricane Sandy for The Weekly Freeporter.  So, first things first, I want to talk about what I did, there!



Hurricane Sandy

On the day after this disaster, I worked alongside my colleague Jason Bass.  We went through Freeport (our home-town) and Long Beach (another nearby hamlet), surveying the devastation.  We interviewed some residents.  You can see all of the coverage at The Weekly Freeporter's webpage.  But, probably, this is my favorite example of this work, though you'll have to forgive the wind...






Covering the hurricane was exhausting, but kind of rewarding in a very sad way.  We provided a service that wasn't provided by any other entity, public or private.  From the comments and feedback we received, we honestly were the best information source in our town - vastly superior to what has been criticized as an inept attempt by the Village government to get facts to its residents.  In fact, on this medium I am rather free to say that "inept" is a gentle way to put it; "fucking failure" is more accurate.

Actually visiting these devastated places really made the difference, for me, between a picture on Facebook and reality.  Seeing the damage done, like to the house in the above clip?  I mean, you can tell by my expression just how overwhelming it really was.  But to try to tell you what it was like?  Words really don't convey it.  The wind was still really strong; rain still fell; it was really cold; water was still in the road.  Oh, and probably most of all, there were burned and otherwise brutalized houses all around us.  There were people struggling to figure out where to begin to put their lives back together - or, at least, to figure out what to try to throw out, first.

Fortunately, I only lost my basement.  Sure, we're still without hot water.  We still have to rely on electric heating.  No washer/dryer, yet.  But our living quarters are unharmed, and our overall health hasn't suffered.  For many, they have no place left to go to.  The people in the above clip?  They have no home.  I have family members whose homes have been condemned; never mind my next-door neighbors and the folks across the street, or the childhood friend whose parents are "Red Tagged."

In a way I'm glad I got in to see the damage first-hand, right after the fact.  I know I said that, on the grand scale, this storm wasn't as bad as Hurricane Katrina.  It wasn't.  That storm inundated an entire region, some parts of it irreversibly.  The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that for so many of my friends and family, it might as well have been.  Look at this:

Long Beach, NY:  Jesse Pohlman/Jason Bass/The Weekly Freeporter

So, on the outside these buildings don't look that badly damaged.  That car just looks like it's stuck in a puddle.  But that puddle?  That used to be in the ocean.  It came in over waves that hit at least ten feet in height at times.  That car was submerged - or, perhaps, floating!  Speaking of floating, y'know those pipes that run underground and carry nasty stuff away from our homes?  Sewage was floating, too!  Even the sand was probably not the healthiest stuff to walk on.  Any damage to building foundations can cause gas leaks; I know of at least one explosion in Freeport, though surprisingly the home may be saved.

It's easy to say that burning to death is worse than being shot in the head, but the end result is the same:  You're dead.  For so many, it doesn't matter if the losses came at the hands of 15 foot waves or 30 foot waves.  They are losses all the same.

So let's move on to something a little less depressing:  Thanksgiving!


Physics Incarnate Promotion!

Thursday is Thanksgiving, Friday is "Black Friday," and Saturday is Small Business Day, right?  Well, I've decided to run a promotion for my latest novel, Physics Incarnate, under which it will be free on Amazon's Kindle!  There's an obvious self-serving motive, here, in that it'll boost my sales numbers and make it seem like I'm doing really great when in reality sales are merely good.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I'm doing this to give something, however small, to those families suffering from Sandy and other tragedies.  On Thanksgiving, it's a matter of being thankful.  On Black Friday, it's a matter of...Well, hell, I guess you could say it's supporting those who are striking against Walmart?  Or maybe it's just blatant consumerism on my behalf, trying to hock my wares on a day when so many people will be shopping the world over.  And how about Saturday?  Technically, my publishing efforts are a small and independent business.

So Physics Incarnate for all with a Kindle!


Future Projects For Jesse Pohlman

Protostar

First of all, I have to eventually finish editing and post the last chapter of Protostar.  For those who don't remember (or just aren't aware!), Protostar is a novel I wrote for National Novel Writing Month last year, and I have serialized it for free on it's very own blog-spot!  However, due to a number of factors (Mostly that Blogger is kind of a buggy service), I have yet to actually finish serializing the book!  It's all finished, and while it needs a nice bit of editing I would like to get it posted.

Once it's been out for about a week, I will probably edit it once again and perhaps add a scene or two.  It's original design was to have very short clips posted, so I constantly re-used character names and descriptions when I could have introduced new ideas.  This helped me hit that 50,000 word NaNoWriMo goal, but I don't feel like it helped the work as a whole.  Once that edit is finished, I will probably release it as a Kindle exclusive.


Physics Incarnate Projects

So...A while ago I commissioned a couple test sketches for a Physics Incarnate comic book.  I don't have the art skill to draw it, and the person who I commissioned the work from actually lost his home in the storm, so it's unlikely that any comic project will be manifesting itself any time soon.

Perhaps with that in mind, I'd like to create a "book trailer."  I'm not sure if it's possible or not, but it would function like any trailer to a movie, video game, or - yes - novel.  It'd have actors, and I'd post it on youtube.  However, again, feasibility is a question.  Speaking of questions, here's one I get a lot...

"Will you write a sequel?"

I originally wrote Physics Incarnate as a single novel.  Straight to the end it was meant to leave the reader with an impression that there was a larger world out there, but that Emmett's story was complete.  Whatever specific events might happen in the future, his general path is clear.  However, I got to thinking about James Lowery, the Irishman who loves "his" ladies.  I realized that Jim has a really amusing way about himself, never mind the fact that he has a story to tell all his own.

It's a story that would have to include the way James and the others were swept into their conspiracy.  It'd have to involve Emmett heavily, since James' story would be far from a prequel.  Therefore, even if the focus isn't on Emmett and even if he has few surprises left to share, there are other folders in the maximum-security safe at Lowery Security Services which might or might not need to be addressed.  So, yes...

I am about halfway through with "Physics Reincarnate."  Spoilers:  James' accent is really hard to understand, sometimes.


Besides Physics and Protostar?

I'm honestly not sure.  I'm always coming up with new ideas.  Many of them fizzle out.  Some of them are great, but unfeasible or not my style.  I'd like to eventually finish the Pillars of the Kingdom trilogy, and I owe a little explanation about this one.  Put simply?

Volumes One and Two are published via Lulu, which is an inferior and less direct means of distribution than Amazon.  This leaves me at a crossroads as to how to progress with it as a feasible project.  Writing-wise, I already am about 80% done with the novel, with only 2-3 major scenes to go.  The problem there is that Pillars of the Kingdom is a completely different type of art than Physics Incarnate was.  PI includes conspiracies, mysteries, red herrings; it's about questioning the ethics of what the characters do.  At what point do Emmett and his colleagues become evil, and at what point are they good?

Pillars is really, quite simply about Jacin, Branden, Clarice, and the rest just punching the shit out of rather unambiguously evil demigods, and saving the Kingdom of Emor from monsters (and men who might as well be monsters).

Writing a story about fisticuffs is great, alright, but is it going to satisfy me?  I dunno.  I've also always wanted to go back and re-engineer Memoirs of a Miscreant, but I'd be starting from square one.  Then there's another project I came up with; then there's political writing; then, perhaps, there's the chance of me writing a novel based on the roleplaying community I've been affiliated with for years.

We shall see.  All I can promise is that I'll keep creating things!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

My Five Favorite Super-Villains

Super-Villains.  Some are iconic, others forgotten, and others never-known-of.  Yet one and all they are threats to the whole, wide world!  What makes a bad guy transcend the ordinary status of "bank robbing prick?"  What pushes them into the category of an arch-villain?  Is it their flair?  Their supernatural powers?  Their corresponding heroes who struggle to stop them?  It can be any of those things!  And there are literally thousands to choose from, so where do we begin?  What are the criteria I'm using?  Here's the bullet-point list!

 - Character depth and development.
 - Powers.
 - How well the character succeeds at his/her/its ambitions.
 - Notable pawns.
 - One character per franchise (this one hurts).
 - Oh, and no characters from any of my novels, especially Physics Incarnate, are allowed.


So here's my personal top-5; enjoy it with the reminder that, frankly, there will be spoilers.


#5:  Magneto (X-Men/Marvel Universe)

Powers:  Control over magnetism, obtained via mutation; Genius-level intellect; Strategic mastermind skills.

Who doesn't know this guy?

Magneto; image sourced from Marvel.com

Magneto is a mutant; and one of the most powerful of them all, at that!  As with all too many of the legendary comic book characters (see:  Superman), "power creep" has set in on old Magneto.  His ability to control magnetism, at least in the first comics he appeared in, extended largely to control over magnetic objects.  As physics evolved, well, so did his powers.  Flight?  Check, but understandable - magnetism and gravity have theoretical ties, at least!  Leadership skills?  Eh, he's a survivor, so check!  Genius-level intellect?  Pushing it, but check!

The thing that makes Magneto such an attractive character is his history and how it plays out.  Magneto experienced the Holocaust first-hand, suffering greatly under Hitler's genocidal, racist regime.  After the war, and after Mutant-kind began to experience the oppressive fear of Human-kind, he vowed (for lack of a better term) to never again be on the side of the oppressed.  Oh, and guess who just happens to be one of the mightiest mutants on the planet?  Right.  So it was a quick psychological step that if mankind wanted a war, he was going to end mankind.

Depending on the era or universe, Magneto is anything from an amnesiac X-Man (I'm lookin' at you, Onslaught storyline!) to a genocidal madman.  And that's what makes Magneto both amazing and not-so-amazing:  Those long-term comic cycles get confusing, and reboots/reimaginings become difficult to keep up with.


#4:  Deus (Xenogears)

Powers:  Access to Zohar Modifier; Nano-mechanical regeneration; Interaction with computer networks; Genesis.

I'm biased, because I loved Xenogears.  But wait!  This guy was the main villain?  Those are just words on a screen!

Deus?  Via Giantbomb.com


So what is that?  Well, that is a screen-shot of Deus half-taunting, half-welcoming the human crew of the Eldridge, a space vessel of dubious origin.  Deus is the name of a truly nightmarish weapon:  A part-machine, part-organic entity which feeds off of the Zohar Modifier.  Zohar is the de-facto name of the "wave existence," a fourth-dimensional entity of such monstrous power that it makes magic, powers most of the giant war-making robots, and has been in existence for over ten thousand years.

Deus itself is artificially intelligent and was apparently designed for making wars.  It did this a little bit too well, so it wound up dismantled and shoved on the Eldridge in the interest of, y'know, not going extinct.  Of course, nothing goes according to plan.  Deus "wakes up," to minimize spoilers, and takes over the ship.  The Captain blows it up, and the whole thing crash-lands on a nearby uninhabited planet.  Ten thousand years later, Krelian (a nano-technological genius) rebuilds it, merges his body with it, and basically annihilates a world.

Deus is generally passive.  Sure, he basically created all of humankind in this universe, intending to create biomass to replace its destroyed parts.  And, sure, without the intervention of other entities Deus might never have succeeded in its goals.  But it sure manipulated one character into manipulating another into...Yeah.  The entire plot is because Deus exists.  Go figure.


#3:  The Joker (The Dark Knight)

Powers:  Resistance to pain; Criminal mastermind; Really damn scary.

Wait.  No way is this guy only #3?!  Really?  Really?!

Heath Ledger as The Joker; image via IGN.com


I have to admit, this guy is one of the scariest bad guys you'll see.  Any Joker incarnation - even Cesar Romero's - is good.  Heath Ledgers' is...Scary.  I mean, when you get right down to it, his capacity for direct and brutal evil is only matched by his planning skills.  In retrospect, in my humble opinion he beats - hands-down - both his predecessors and successors sent by the League of Shadows to destroy Gotham.  In so many ways, he doesn't just do damage to his enemies - he beats them.  He chases them out of Gotham, he takes the most heroic people in the city and corrupts them, and he kills a whole bunch of people in the process.  How isn't he #1?  Or at least #2?

Besides the strength of the next two characters, part of it is this incarnation's length-of-service.  Yes, Heath Ledger's passing was horrific and a tragic loss.  And, yes, it could be strongly argued that replacing Ledger for The Dark Knight Rises would have been a slap in the face.  On the other hand, The Joker is hardly worth a mention in the sequel; not mentioned once, if I recall my viewing, while even The Scarecrow gets more recognition.

Additionally, while The Joker has no actual powers in this incarnation, and while there are many others just like him, his ultimate level of success depends on a lot on the suspension of disbelief.  We're meant to feel like he truly turned Two-Face evil, like it was part of some great plan to prove how easily the good in the world can fall.  Absolutely, positively not the case - if Dent had been uninjured or died, it wouldn't have mattered.  Oh, we know the story is going to take us there!  But we also can accept that, yes, the Joker got a lot of lucky breaks.


#2:  Doctor Girlfriend (The Venture Brothers)

Powers:  Doctorate in Evil, Martial Arts; Extraordinary Wealth, Deep Voice

That "One Character Per Franchise" limit really kills me, here.  I mean, really.  For starters, look at her...

Image via http://drgirlfriendcostumesandcouture.blogspot.com/


So what's her deal?  Doctor Girlfriend (Now, Dr.  Mrs.  The Monarch) is married (AKA within a Duoship) with The Monarch.  Her skills are simple - she is a genius with a doctorate in evil.  Let's count her accomplishments...

 - Designing the functioning wings on The Monarch's armor.
 - She analyzes the dead skin cells from The Monarch's sunburns to trace the superhero Captain Sunshine's lair.
 - Her manipulative abilities are so precise that she convinces #21 (a top-ranking henchman) to "go on strike" in order to break The Monarch out of one of his many loony escapades.
 - She kills about five Blackguards in hand-to-hand combat.  With ease.
 - Finally, she seduces and poisons Doctor Venture, only sparing him out of mercy.

Now, The Monarch is the "main" bad guy in his organization, at least until the official Duoship between the two begins in Season Three.  There's also Phantom Limb, who is seriously worthy of mention.  Then there's Dragoon/Red Mantle, who deserve some attention.  But Dr.  Girlfriend wins out - she has to, because unlike all of those others she has a certain level of composure and confidence that the others don't.


#1:  Crake (Oryx and Crake/Maddaddam Trilogy)

Powers:  Genius intellect in the fields of genetic splicing, computer hacking, philosophy.

"Who the hell is Crake?" you ask.
I answer, "The most awesome villain ever."

Oryx and Crake is a novel by Margaret Atwood.  It was originally written as a stand-alone novel, but is now part of the Maddaddam Trilogy (the final novel, Maddaddam, is due out in 2013), with The Year Of The Flood serving as the middle book.  Crake is a real beast for one simple reason:

He extinguishes 99% of the human population, and only extraordinary circumstances thwart him.

Crake isn't perfect.  By the end of the first novel, we learn that Snowman is not the only one left alive. I feel okay spoiling that because Oryx and Crake is nearly ten years old, now, and because The Year Of The Flood adds so much more to Crake's backstory than the first novel provides.  Nevertheless, allow me to play at exposition:

Crake began life as Glenn, whose parents worked for a major corporation called HelthWyzer.  His father "commits suicide" when, as we later learn, he discovers HelthWyzer and other companies like it have been curing diseases...Only to create new ones to cure.  As Glenn is capable of hacking his dad's e-mails, he loses faith in the corporate system.  Even though he embraces a true friendship with the novel's protagonist, their unusual pursuits (watching live executions, among others) in a rather nightmarish near-future world leaves Glenn without much hope for humanity.

The two visit the website "Extinctathon," where each player takes the name of a now-extinct animal.  Glenn chooses the Rednecked Crake, and begins to worm his way in with "Maddaddam."  Very early on in the novel, we learn Crake is responsible for an apocalypse.  He applies his genius at genetic rearrangement to create the BlyssPlus pill.  It cures all STDs, it enhances sexual performance, and more!  Like, say, spreading a super-infectious disease which annihilates the bulk of the population!  That qualifies him for a spot on this post, but what makes him #1?

That'd be the second phase of his plan, the Children of Crake - or the Crakers.  Genetically re-built humans, almost a species unto themselves, threaten to be all that remains of mankind. Oh, the protagonist is there, too - Crake intentionally spares his old friend, for reasons which are left unclear.  Was he just sentimental to his dear friend?  Did he view him as the only human worth allowing to live?  Did he just want our hero to take care of his creation after he died?  Or - being a genius - did he anticipate that others would probably find some way to survive, and his friend (being a wise man) would possibly serve to help govern the rebuilding of mankind?

Crake ain't alive to tell us, but his message is simple:  He's a good guy, like so many others on this list believe they are, who tries to make the world a better place through ways that are, of course, completely insane.

Seriously, go buy this book.


HONORABLE MENTION:  Darth Vader
 - If I went based on the original trilogy, Vader might squeak into #5.  He's iconic, he's got goals.  Since I've seen the prequels, I just can't do it.  Also, even in the original trilogy, he really is just a lackey for the Emperor; everyone on this list is either #1 in their organization, a pseudo-deity manipulating others in extraordinarily subtle ways, or at the very least an equal partner in their organization's leadership.  Vader isn't equal, he's not even close.


Final note:  This list could always change.  If Maddaddam comes out and makes Crake a pussy (I realllllly don't think that'll happen, I'm aching for that book), or if a new character emerges to take control of this list by force, then it is what it is.  Hell, in five years I might have a completely different top five!  But for now, for where I sit, this is it.

I hope you've enjoyed!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cancelled Before Prime Time: Xenogears/Xenosaga

In my last article, five projects I wish I could have worked on, I placed Xenogears at #1.  Xenogears was a video-game, not a book or a TV show or magazine.  I suppose I could have placed it at #2 and put The Economist, a British newspaper, as #1; but that weekly publication is ongoing and going strong, and maybe some day I will be worthy of such an honor.  The point of the list was to mention series or shows that were no longer being produced, or were probably going to be full-up on staff for a long time.

It's only fitting that I make Xenogears, a Playstation One game by Squaresoft released in America in 1998, and it's "spiritual successor" trilogy Xenosaga, the next subject of my own little series, the one you're reading now!

Xenogears; Image via Wikipedia, copyright Squaresoft



Xenogears:  Stand Tall And Shake The Heavens

As I said in my previous article, Xenogears is a very complicated game.  Spoiler alert - it involves reincarnation, psychological melodrama, and the reinterpretation of the Bible in order to create a new mythology.  Giant robots called Gears fight one another, always a pleasure.  The primary character, Fei Fong Wong, is an amnesiac who has lived in a peaceful little village for three years; a village which so far has been spared the fall-out from a war between two nearby nations.

Since this is a Squaresoft game from the PS1 era, you probably already know the village is doomed.

The long and short of it is that Fei is a destined figure, existing more or less at the whim of some supernatural fourth-dimensional power called Zohar, which has been shackled by ancient peoples to power a super-weapon, Deus.  I wouldn't spoil the nature of those ancient peoples, but the game'll do that within the first anime sequence, so I'll make it simple - it's aliens, humans from another world.  Deus is evil and it's keeping Zohar imprisoned - not to mention messing with humankind as a whole.  So, Fei's job is to kill that super-weapon, this world's version of "God," thus freeing this "wave existence," and generally liberating the world from it's heritage.

It sounds like your standard cliche set-up of destroying the bad guy to save everyone, but what made Xenogears awesome was the way it was written.  Ten thousand years of history are brought up in this world's final battle against Deus.  Multiple lifetimes culminate in this one final show-down.  The second half of the game plays in some ways similar to a novel, with exposition (occasionally too heavy to bear, but we'll get to why) replacing the usual monotony of "Buy gear, explore dungeon, find better gear, fight boss, dialogue, buy more gear" that roleplaying-games take.

The biggest problem with Xenogears, also as I mentioned, was that it's final production was rushed - especially with regards to its conversion into English.  People have surfed through the data and found plenty of incomplete scenes, and a follow-up book called Xenogears:  Perfect Works has a full explanation of what exactly Xenogears is about.  As a result, the later half of the game is a bit awkward, with some confusing changes-of-scenery that can be irksome primarily because they aren't well executed.

One final issue of curiosity is that, as expansive as Xenogears itself is, it is described in a very Star Wars manner as "episode five", of six.  That's right - a 40+ hour game is only one part of a six part story, and interestingly enough it's the second-to-last one.

And that brings us to...


Xenosaga:  Follow-Up To A Cult Classic

Before any follow-up plans could be executed, the creator of Xenogears (who'd worked on a number of Final Fantasy games, to boot), Tetsuya Takahashi, left Squaresoft and found his way to Namco's doorstep.  He got authorization, under his own sub-company called Monolith Soft, to create Xenosaga, a Playstation Two game series which served as a "spiritual successor" to Xenogears.  Episode One was set well after the discovery of the Zohar on Earth, which by the way has long since been ditched.  Mankind has built an interstellar empire.  Nanotechnology, giant robots (similar to the Gears from Xenogears), android and starships abound.  Rebels fight federal forces - it sounds a little cliche, to start!  If that sounds familiar, it's because Xenogears starts off that way, too!

At the onset of Episode One, however, humanity faces a crisis. Aliens called Gnosis are invading, and they are not to be trifled with.  They're ethereal, for lack of a better term, and it takes special technology to even be able to interact with them.  As the plot progresses, all sorts of conspiracies are unearthed.  The Zohar is fought over by some, while it's destiny is explored by others.  Three episodes were made, and unlike Xenogears the three games were chronologically condensed - characters from the first are alive during the third.  The series was planned to run for six episodes, but halfway through it got the axe.

I have to admit, I'm part of the problem here; I played Xenosaga:  Episode One, and I believe I've played a bit of Episode Two as well.  I've never played Episode Three, and as we know, low sales can lead to series cancellations.  Others chalk this collapse up to internal collapse; Takahashi and others either changed their level of involvement, or left the project before its completion.  With the old links to Xenogears drying up, Namco called it quits; eventually it sold its stake in Monolith Soft to Nintendo.

However, I feel like Xenosaga ran into a second problem, one that I don't think any amount of sales were going to solve:  Xenosaga was Episodes 1, 2, and 3.  Xenogears is Episode 5.  What would Episode 4 and Episode 6 be?  As it was only a "spiritual successor," would Xenogears be essentially re-made and re-written?  Most importantly, how quickly would Squaresoft sue?  After all, it held the rights to Episode 5, or at least what we figured Episode Five to be.  So what would happen?


The Fate of the Xeno-Games

I love playing little fantasies out.

Well, Episode Three apparently leaves off with the characters searching for Earth.  I can imagine Episode Four as a relatively simple sketch; Zohar is harnessed, and ultimately the characters attempt to stop Deus from being constructed.  They fail, because they have to, and they fight to save their world by shipping Deus off.

Episode Five is Xenogears.  It isn't changed, although if it were possible it'd be awesome for it to be cleaned up and re-released.

Xenosaga Six, however, is what's interesting.  I'd like to give a little shine to one person's project; Bobbincranbud created "Xenogears:  After The Fall," a serialized "after-the-end" that really helped shape my early writing career.  It's fascinating, but it doesn't serve as much of a conclusion for what Xenosaga ultimately became - an interplanetary, interdimensional conflict.  Xenogears, after all, comes off as more of an explanation of what happened to Zohar and how it finally sought to achieve liberation.

What about the rest of the universe, the one that Deus bailed on ten thousand years ago?  Was the liberated Zohar the only one of it's kind?  Well, we know there are "emulators" that are tied into it - was Deus' just one of those, or was it the real deal?

I suppose I envision a sixth game wherein the humans who survived Xenogears have rebuilt their world and, eventually, make contact with the humans that originally sent Deus away.  The Gnosis still exist, after all, and while Deus was clearly designed to fight against a superior foe (say, aliens that are very hard to injure without special powers?), it ultimately was only one project.

Will we ever find out what Takahashi and the series' creators wanted?  Probably not.  Despite the title, Takahashi's latest work, "Xenoblade Chronicles," isn't tied into the Xenogears/Saga world.  Namco no longer owns the rights to Xenosaga, and Squaresoft only has the rights to Xenogears.  Nintendo is far from the boat-shaker that is required to produce such cerebral works.  They make great Mario games, but they're the last people I'd imagine raising Biblical allegories and committing what some might consider to be sacrilege.

Whatever the case, it's a truly tragic loss that neither one of the original visions (Xenogears Episode 1-4, 6; or Xenosaga 4-6) were completed.  And there's always hope - after all, Xenoblade Chronicles required a lot of effort to be ported over to America, and Operation:  Rainfall succeeded, so you never know...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Five Projects I Wish I'd Worked On

As a writer, there's plenty of opportunity in the world.  Sometimes, however, you don't get to work on the very best creative projects you will ever see.  Others, you just aren't old enough; other times, you aren't known enough.  Finally, a lot of times those projects come to an end at some point before they even get started - they had potential, but they just drifted away.

Here are five projects, heavy-in-writing, that I wish I had been able to work on.



#5:  Undergrads

Sitcomsonline.com


I've talked about Undergrads before, so fully detailing that series would be a grievous misuse of my powers. Which are writing, and writing.  Now, I've mentioned how the show was forced to be non-edgy out of the fear of censorship and all that, whereas real college life is nothing but that edge.  How would I have changed things?  No idea.  I would definitely have been a force for it's edginess, to keep recycling a word, and I would have thought about taking the Arrested Development approach of cleverness and double/triple meanings - though that would be risky, as the target audience for the show was too young to really get such jokes.

Nevertheless, not only was the series a very small project (without a large need for external writers), but it was too short lived and before my time.

Speaking of...


#4:  Arrested Development

Another series I've talked about!  What are the odds?

geektyrant.com


Here's the thing that made Arrested Development so awesome:  Its humor was character driven, but also driven by the writers' distinct ability to talk about absolutely and totally forbidden topics on a major prime-time network...And get away with it.  They did this through both blunt-but-not-over reaching jokes, like how Tobias is an Analyst + Therapist.  Making him an Analrapist.  Then there's more subtle times, like when Tobias believes his children are heavily into leather clothing, so he goes to a store and asks if there's anything that would make him a "Leather Daddy."

Insert every "Tobias Is Gay" joke out there.

Working on Arrested would have been awesome.  Considering it's coming back, well, there -is- a very minor chance I'll get on it!  Unfortunately, they're already filming, so it'd have to involve a time machine.


#3:  Moral Orel

AOLtv


Moral Orel is just one of those shows waiting to have a "Cancelled Before Prime Time" article.  It's the first of two Adult Swim shows on this list, surprise surprise, and why is Orel on here?

Because Orel is about as gritty a drama as you can get in the world of Claymation, with dark humor and serious social commentary all wrapped into one.  Robot Chicken, similar in visual style, is much more light-hearted, and considering the number of gruesome deaths on that show?  That's saying something.  Moral Orel doesn't need death to be bleak.

The upshot is that there is apparently a made-for-TV movie in the works for Moral Orel, but its cancellation after three seasons (with the absolutely depressing trimming of the final season, to boot) just served as an honestly crushing blow.  So, chances are, I'm not workin' on this, either.  But let me tell you - if you haven't, you need to watch Season 3.  Shortened as it is, it's one of the finest seasons of TV I've ever seen in any medium, ever.


#2:  The Venture Brothers

Okay.  This one...Is probably the only one I'd ever have any shot of getting in, mainly because it's the only one still being actively, aggressively produced.  Unfortunately, it's also way too high profile for a TV newbie like me!

Sharetv.org


Where do I really begin?  Well, with it's beginning.  Venture Brothers really started as sort of a spoof show, a parody of the old Johnny Quest TV show.  As it grew into its own production halfway through the first season, however, character complexity took center stage.  No longer was it just about whatever random adventure Rusty happened to be on; it became about the state of The Monarch's relationship with Dr.  Girlfriend.  It became about Hank and Dean growing up and, in time, becoming more than just tag-along nuisances.

It became its own show.

With this Adult Swim show having suffered from production troubles due to a company going under, the stage is quickly being set for a fifth series.  It will be awesome, because it's production is in the hands of people who truly care about it.


#1:  Xenogears

Oh yes, I said it.  A video game.  Not a TV show, not a comic book, not a novel project; a Playstation One game.  And I'm going to show the very first scene which will explain why...

Joystiq.com

In case you're wondering, yes; this game very nearly got banned from the United States for scenes like that one.  It's plot is somewhere between a scathing Biblical launch-point, an episode of Mobile Suit Gundam, a Final Fantasy game (It's made by Square), and an awesome psychology lesson.  I don't want to spoil things because, frankly, the game'll do that in due time if you can pick up a copy, but here are some highlights...

 - Umpteen years ago, a space-craft crashed on Earth.
 - Your protagonist pilots a giant robot of destruction.
 - Battles between sand-submarines.
 - UFOs.
 - Religious iconography that's powerful and creative.

The biggest weakness Xenogears had was that it didn't get perfectly translated when it came to the U.S..  That, and sometimes dungeons can get a bit long-in-the-tooth, with old-school random encounters that today seem to only get in the way of a story...Except that typical RPGs of today are nothing but story broken up by bits of tutorial mode.

I would have loved to work on this project, if for no other reason than to provide an extra degree of precision on the final product.  Any translation runs some risks, but Xenogears - with its dialogue-heavy plot - ended up very well, despite not attaining perfection.

Oh well.  That's what Perfect Works is for.

Friday, September 28, 2012

How To Use Verbs; Verbing; Verbosity

This is a problem that comes often when someone is writing:  There's an action going on in whatever it is that's on paper, and you (the author) have no idea how to explain it.  For example, your protagonist is going out to Mc'Donalds, but you've already used that phrase twice.  Repetition can be a serious problem in a story, so you need a better way for them to explain their plan to their friends, other than "Going out to McDonalds."

"I'm on a McRun," the hero says, dashing off to get his fries.

A second character responds, "Wait!  What's McRunning?!"

And you, the author, are left saying, "Huh."

Verbs, as we should know through reading my old Parts of Speech Infographic, are "action words."  They describe what people, characters, what-have-you are doing.  "Drive" is a popular example.  "Describe" could be another.  These are things that we do.  But using them in an appropriate, effective manner is another story entirely.

Sometimes, a verb can stand alone.  "Running" can serve as a classification of a hobby; people like "running," and regularly use it as a Google search.  Sometimes you just need to use good adverbs.  Adverbs are words used to better describe a verb.  Let's take, as a simple example, "He drove expertly."

"He" is a noun; "drove" is the past-tense of "drive," so it's our verb in this short sentence; "expertly" describes how this random guy drives.  A reader will know, therefore, that "he" is an expert driver.  Of course, you could nit-pick something this isolated-in-the-void (void-dwelling, perhaps?) down - "He drove expertly" implies that in at least one incident, said "he" happened to indeed seem like an amazing wheelman, but that this past incident might well have been a lucky shot and...

...Wait, what just happened?  I just found another way to explain "he drove expertly," while simultaneously mocking that very phrase!  Words are like that; they have connotations as well as denotations - they have interpreted meanings which can differ from their literal ones.  A "Wheel Man" sounds like a beast from a video game; a "wheelman" is an ace driver.  Of course, the term "wheelman" is also often used in crime stories, to refer to the guy who drives the vehicle and must, therefore, drive expertly.  And in-so-far as being something can be being that verb, being a "wheelman" is something you always are; "wheelmanning," or "manning the wheel" is what you sometimes do...

Maybe we need another example.


Let's look at "Blogger."

A "Blogger" is someone who "Blogs."  A "Blog" is...Well, this is a blog, but that doesn't explain much!  This is more like a place for some crazy word-ninja to write down random ideas at 11:00 PM!  In all seriousness, though, a "blog" is basically a journal where an author writes up and distributes articles.  With me so far?  And I have no idea how the word "blog" got started - I'm sure there's a good reason, I just don't know it off-hand and I don't feel like researching it.  Call me lazy.

What I do know is that the authors of a "Blog" were immediately "verbed," with their writing suddenly referred to as "Blogging."  "Bloggers" was a natural evolution; it's simply someone who "Blogs," which is the act of "Blogging."  But if you look wayyyy up at the top of your address bar, you'll notice that this website is a .blogspot website - a spot for blogs, right?  Yes - and no!  For "Blogspot" is actually a Google-owned sub-company called "Blogger."

I am, now, a blogger.  I write blog posts.  I write entire blogs!  Yet I am not Blogger, the service.

You will notice, by now, that I seem to be going off on tangents a lot.  You might even have noticed that this blog entry's title begins with "How To Use Verbs."  It does not say the following...


How to Use Verbs Effectively

The reason why I've waited until now to "get serious" is that, frankly, writing is about timing.  The first thing this rule implies is that everyone has their own timing; when timing differs between writer and reader, there can be a dissonance which can make the writer's work hard to read - if not render it altogether intolerable!

More importantly, however, is the fact that timing means knowing which verb to use, when, and how.  A lot of times this is simply technical; to write, as a sentence, "Next, the computer activated" is entirely mysterious. Does the computer activate on its own?  How?  Is it artificially intelligent?  It's just a lot of questions, and if there aren't any immediate answers, readers will start to sense that aforementioned dissonance.  They will get lost.  Instead...

"Next, Bob activated the computer."  Now we know that Bob is involved in this picture, and that he activated the computer.  Suddenly a reader has an idea of what's going on.  But how did Bob activate it?  Did he just tap an on switch?  Or, like a movie hero, did he turn it on with his mind?  Maybe that sentence needs a little more work.  Let's step up our game!

"Next, Bob knelt down and plugged in the old computer tower; it roared to life, courtesy of its creaky fans which discourteously spat dust back into Bob's face."

Wow.  So now we have a real clear picture of this Bob Plus Computer shindig.  His motivations are unclear, and while one might make inferences (he's searching for an ancient file!), that's for another sentence to explain.  From what's written in this example, you can see that by sprucing up the diction (word-choice) and adding a hint of complexity, we've actually taken a lot of the guess-work out of what's going on.  We know that Bob plugged in the computer.  We know its old.  We know Bob physically had to do things, and we know Bob isn't gonna be happy about all that dust in his face.

All in all, I only wrote this article because I was curious what my take on an article about verbs would be.  I've never really written one before, and here we have it!  It's not scholarly, it's hardly serious, but it has a point it's trying to get across.  Hopefully you'll agree that a point was made.

Shameless self-promotion

And, hey, if you like my style, buy my book!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cancelled Before Prime Time: Firefly

Welcome to our third installment of the "Cancelled Before Prime Time" series!  As I mentioned previously, Summer Glau has an unfortunate lot in life; she's talented, but when she pops up in a show it tends to go the way of the dodo.  I felt it only fitting to explore the first of many such series - Firefly!


Image from Enchantedlearning.com

No!  Not that firefly!  This firefly!

Image from Amazon.com


Firefly debuted on Fox on September 20th.  It lasted until December 20th.  That's right, folks - Firefly only had a grand total of fourteen episodes produced.  Not all of them aired.  But enough spouting on about the Wikipedia article's bottom-of-the-barrel facts, lets...Yammer on about more facts, actually.

Joss Whedon.  There, I've said it.  This man has serious hit-or-miss potential.  In the late nineties he created a tiny little movie-and-TV-show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Y'might have heard of it.  It had a spinoff series as well as an "expanded universe," I.E. comics and the like.  No big deal, right?  Well, here's the trick: Whedon's huge hits have always been betrayed by his, ahhh, smaller ones.  Firefly?  Smaller one.  Oh, it's a really good series!  But it's not Buffy.  Dollhouse is one of his most recent TV productions, and it didn't do so great (it also had some Summer Glau in it), but what came right after that?  The Avengers, that's what.

So Whedon goes from up to down faster than a manic depressive switching off between methamphetamines and booze.  And that'll be our offensive joke quota for this section of this article.  Let's look at character development.


The Souls Aboard the Serenity

In a startling departure from the ordinary "Name your series after a character or object in it" policy, Firefly is not the name of the starship carrying our protagonists around.  It's just the model; the actual vessel is called Serenity, and it's named (of course!) after a battle that our hero, Malcolm Reynolds (played by the Nathan Fillion) fought in and lost.

Serenity isn't a warship like the Death Star or a peaceful-but-deadly vessel like the Enterprise.  It's a small but resilient little transport ship.  That'd be fine enough, but it's inhabitants take Serenity on all sorts of crazy adventures.  There's an overarching space empire called The Alliance, which Mal's side fought against and lost to, and their grasp on their frontier territory is, well, exactly as great as a historian would imagine it to be.  There's also weird, half-legendary half-people called Reavers, who are crazy and barbaric and so therefore terrorize the fringes of Alliance space.  See:  The Native Americans (not the real ones, of course, but the mythical version).  So the Serenity's staff zips across the galaxy and transports priests as well as illegal contraband.

Malcolm himself is the heart-and-soul of his ship.  He's incredibly loyal to his friends, an unusual trait among outlaws but one that keeps Serenity's crew from dying, like, every episode.  There's Kaylee, a nice girl who is cute, quirky, and in charge of keeping the ship's engines running.  You've got your stoic second-in-command Zoe, a soldier who fought under Mal's command; she's married to Wash, your kooky pilot who fears the relationship the two old friends have...Waiiiitttt!  Why am I starting to sense stereotyped characters, here?  It's almost as if this is a spaghetti western!  Next you'll be telling me there's a priest who happens to have awesome skills with a gun and...

Image courtesy of Animecrazy.net


...No!  Not him!    There is, however, Shepard Book; one of my favorite characters, he's a man who clearly has a history with the Alliance but has renounced his old life in favor of peace...Save that he's trapped in Serenity's hi-jinx and, furthermore, that we never get a really good explanation of what that past is.

See, this is the problem Firefly might have come across.  Many of its characters were reincarnations of old western themes with a space-faring twist on them, and that's great!  Hell, I genuinely loved many of the characters who fit those very stereotypes!  But it might have led to some viewers tuning out, saying "I've already seen this flick, only with horses," and moving on.

Where Firefly really broke with tradition was with the Tams.  Simon is a mild-mannered medical-genius prototype, just innocuously impressive enough to have a nasty little backstory all to himself.  It's revealed in episode one, when he's found to be carrying around a rather naked Summer Glau - his sister, River.  She's your "crazy, broken girl psychic" character, which I don't really remember being anywhere in the old westerns.  Anyway, she's a secret Alliance weapon of dubious nature, and her presence is a constant thorn in Mal's side.

There's also Jayne, the mercenary; Inara, the companion; "Saffron," a con artist who marries her marks, and other characters who are all awesome in their own rights, but not exactly the most original characters on the block.


Where Firefly Fell, Serenity Soared

As I mentioned earlier, maybe it was just that it felt like a rehash of a western to some people, but Firefly wasn't all that successful.  For a major network like Fox (who, you'll see, is a recurring villain in my series on cancelled projects), an average of 4.7 million viewers per episode just wasn't enough.  It got the 'ol axe. This didn't make those, y'know, millions of fans very happy - they launched all sorts of crusades.

In 2005, to shut up the aforementioned fans, a movie was slapped together, fittingly enough called "Serenity."  It's box office just about made back it's costs-of-production, while Node 3 of the International Space Station was almost named "Serenity," probably after this series.  Of course, the official poll was discarded and the name "Colbert" almost won it as well, so maybe that's not such a great sign to look toward...

...Anyway!  Serenity sold well enough to break even, but that doesn't get movie sequels.  On the other hand, there's a whole expanded universe - comics, novels, and even a roleplaying game!  For hardcore fans, some of these products might well be worth looking into, as might the fan-created sequel, Browncoats:  Redemption.

When it comes to an autopsy, however, there's really no reason at all why Firefly died; other than, perhaps, due to low ratings.  It's story was largely unexplored, but with eleven aired episodes (and fourteen produced, including one of it's best), the fact is that the series was never even given a chance.  4.7 million viewers really isn't that bad an average; but ten years ago "Reality TV" was starting to make it big, and perhaps that's the greatest lesson to be drawn from Firefly:

Great writing and development are little match for low-cost production.


Shameless Self-Promotion!

Wow.  That doesn't speak well for my chances as a writer; but, hey, you could always check out my latest novel and see if ya like it!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Cancelled Before Prime Time: City of Heroes

Y'know how sometimes you come up with plans to write about certain topics?  Like, how there's not one but two Summer Glau series which I could explore in this column?  Oh yeah.  There's an NBC series that relates to the subject that's now pre-empting the aforementioned Summer Glauness, however.

Because this weekend, much to my surprise, NCSoft announced it was ending the long-running MMORPG "City of Heroes."


City of Heroes Memories

I have to admit, I didn't play CoH for that long.  Why?  Well, I was between MMO's at the time (My first love was Asheron's Call).  Some friends recommended it and we loved it, but we ultimately never stuck it out.  What was the #1 feature in such a game?  This:


--Gameplay Image Courtesy of Gamespy.


As you might notice from the above credit link, this character design system is so expansive that actual comic book characters have been "knocked off," and lawsuits have resulted from how incredibly detailed it is.  Aside from the character's design, a player chooses the powers their avatar wields.

My character, "Luitennant Dan," (I was unable to come up with good names, nor spell them right) was what the game called a Scrapper.  In World of Warcraft terms, he'd be a melee DPS character, dealing close-quarters damage.  He used a katana.  I decked him out in army gear but made him about four feet high.  I loosely based him on the character Lieutenant Dan from the movie "Forrest Gump."  For a travel power (acquired when travelling long distance becomes a factor in the gameplay), Dan had the power of super jumping - leaping across continents.

I was pretty young and stupid, and I didn't expect to play the game as much as I did.  I enjoyed, but failed to complete, some of the Task Forces that marked end-game play.  I thought about, but ultimately couldn't find the dedication to play the expansion, City of Villains.


The Fall of City of Heroes

Less than a year ago, City of Heroes went to a Free to Play model, following games like Tribes:  Ascend and League of Legends, hoping that expanding it's player base would lead to more income.  By many accounts, City of Heroes has still a fair number of players dedicated to the game.  Unfortunately, the company which owns City of Heroes, NCSoft, has made the decision to sunset (end) the game.

"Private" servers, usually used to allow people to play subscription-based games for free, seem poised to rise up and allow true City of Heroes fans to play well after the game's death.  There's also Champions Online, a similar game.  But why did the game get so anemic in the first place?

For starters, World of Warcraft.  WoW sucked up all of the MMORPG market for years, and while it's hold might arguably be weakening in the face of games like Guild Wars Two (An NCSoft project, ironically), WoW'll be around for a decade to come, in all liklihood.  With WoW in the way of the generic MMORPG fan, and with Champions Online (and DC Universe, but they're a franchise) cropping up to siphon off the hardcore comic crew, City of Heroes was limited in it's potential player base.

When subscription-based gaming lost it's stranglehold over the market, well, the end of steady income and the rise of server load being dedicated to non-paying players limited profitability.

Still, it makes me wonder why the owners of NCSoft didn't even attempt to do a server trimming, and to cut their number of servers to reduce expenses and repopulate player worlds.  That would have brought the game more life, probably - and more reasons for players to spend money, to add even more life to the much beloved game.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cancelled Before Prime Time: UnderGRADS

Greetings, fellow fans of writing, art, and all other forms of creation!

First and foremost, this is my latest attempt at conjuring up a column of some sort.  Since one of my goals is to be more honest with myself, I have a habit of coming up with new "projects."  They might be promising, might be unique, but all too often them come under some sort of death sentence.  My Chronicles of Alleron Lego comic strip?  Let's call that death by "production difficulty," meaning that as easy as they seem to whip up, actually posing, editing, and posting the comic strips was a hassle.  My Weekly Roleplayer blog that I won't even bother linking you to?  Complete flop, a demise via "no tangible feedback or recognition whatsoever."  Oh, and let's not get into all the different books, stories, and games I've worked on and ultimately just grown bored with.  Perhaps that's best classified as "bashed with a writer's block."

So maybe it's a fitting irony that this particular article, and probably (hopefully) more, is dedicated to a TV show which I loved, many of my friends loved, and yet which for some reason or another ate some cancellation pie.  This episode of "Cancelled Before Prime Time" is dedicated to UnderGRADS, a cartoon produced by MTV that was axed almost a decade ago, still airs regularly up on Teletoon in Canada, and is undergoing a new renaissance in the push to get it picked up once more!


 - Image By Eliot Smith


What is UnderGRADS?

Perhaps the coolest bit of the story of this show's lifespan is the way it was conceived.  It wasn't generated in the think tanks of a major media corporation like, ohh, Viacom.  A pencil test was submitted by Pete Williams III, a young college student (if I'm not mistaken) out of New York.  That's right!  A young New Yorker entered into a contest and won, and just like that his TV show was on the air in 2001.

Okay, so it wasn't that easy.  He still had to produce a pilot, for example:


Nevertheless, Mr.  Williams got his tuccus in gear and swung a TV show at the age of 19.  That, my friends, is a young creator's wet dream.  And what's more, the guy clearly had talent.  You hear most of those voices?  Namely those of Nitz, Cal, Rocko, and Gimpy?  And you notice how, as the protagonists, they are going to be heard a lot, and therefore need to sound different?  Yeah.  Williams does the voices for all four of them.  So we have art, we have voice-work, and since the actual plot revolves around Williams' actual experiences in college, we have writing as well.  Basically, the dude [i]is[/i] the show, and that's just really cool.

There are two other things, at this point, that are worth my noting.  First of all, again, the show aired in 2001.  This is when I, myself, was just getting ready to go to college - I graduated in '02.  As one might imagine, any show about college had a solid shot of resonating with me and my buddies; especially as my buddies fit very well within the concept of a "click" (actually spelled clique, in the real world!) that the show revolves around. The series touches upon relevant (if sometimes cliched) experiences of a college freshman, like the college bookstore; the meal plan; the dorm life; and the dozens of clubs and organizations that lure newbies in and devour their souls - err, time.  Most importantly, however, is that it deals with how these four friends manage to stick together, despite their numbers being spread out over three different schools.

Second of all, you'll notice how the pilot is gritty.  I don't just mean the admittedly amateur (though still pretty decent) art style - pilots are usually quite below the polish of a professionally produced episode!  I'm referring to how the jokes come at a viewer harder, there are plenty of sexual innuendos, and there don't seem to be any practical limits on the character direction or topics of discussion.  Kimmy, for example, is being sketched out by Nitz in what we'll politely call a compromising position.

So with an edgy show to follow up to the legacy of Beavis and Butthead, as well as Daria, how could UnderGRADS - seizing upon my very Adult-Swim-Ready generation - possibly fail?


Intentionally Hobbling Your Product is Bad Business

There are plenty of reasons why television shows fail.  Sometimes the show itself is terrible, or not what is promised.  This was MTV's first blunder.  The show itself was thirteen half-hour-episodes long.  Most of them were strictly episodic:  The characters had clear-cut problems, solutions, and resolutions.  For many of them, you could have aired them out of order as the outcome of the first episode didn't dictate very much toward the second.  Continuity is, as pointed out by the character Brodie in the episode "New Friends," sort of important.  Of course, Brodie was also a jerk.

More importantly, however, MTV tried to present a sanitized, non-offensive version of the college experience in a medium which had already evolved to such a level that we fans were expecting - craving! - controversy.  For instance, take the character of Stoner Dave.  His name makes obvious what he does - he smokes bud.  And in the first episode, we see him and his friends surrounded by a cloud of smoke, playing Frisbee with feeble yet hilarious results, and craving cheese.  The man is a pot-head.  So why is this the only episode where he is obviously a pot-head?  Because MTV management had already suffered the wrath of irresponsible parents who let their children watch Beavis and Butthead and, subsequently, burn down their house.  My best guess is that they were afraid some kid would watch the show then pick up a joint.

I went to college.  I did stupid things.  Nothing [i]too[/i] crazy, and only one near-death experience, but I saw plenty of others do stupid shit as well.  And the fact is that there was another TV show displaying far, far edgier content than UnderGRADS ever did.  That show was called South Park.  They got away with being more controversial, simply enough, by airing at a later time slot.

Unfortunately, if recollection serves, MTV Executives put UnderGRADS (sanitized as it was) up against South Park.  South Park already had a following (it premiered in 1997), meaning that the new show in the time-slot had to out-punch South Park to gain viewers.  Even though South Park had yet to really coalesce into a series which took on and dominated serious issues, it was just too well established.  Once UnderGRADS was watered down, it had no chance.  It was up against one of the defining avenues of social commentary of our day.


The Fate of UnderGRADS

As I mentioned, there's still a fairly strong movement to see the show resurrected.  Oh, look, here's another one!  While Pete Williams, Josh Cagan, and other forces who were behind the show continue to work with production companies on acquiring the rights to the intellectual property (still held by MTV, if I'm not mistaken), there's been talk from the fans of coming up with Kickstarter or IndieGoGo Campaigns to raise money to buy it.  One fan in particular is accepting clips from UnderGRADS fans to form into a large montage of "We Want UnderGRADS Back!"

Will it be successful?  The show is ten years old, but the creators still have a passion for it.  That's a major key.  The fact that the voice and acting talent remains interested is essential - you won't get a Nitz who sounds like a bassoon, that's for sure!  There is still fan interest, and apparently at a recent convention in Calgary it was discovered exactly how potent that fan base was.

The biggest hook is in securing at the very least a framework for transferring the rights.  MTV owns them and it will not part with them for free.  On the other hand, chances are it's just a legal right that it is sitting on, making very little money from, and it might accept some form of down payment plus revenue sharing just to be rid of it.  That's more for the show's creators and their legal eagles to deal with.  Decode Entertainment, now DHX Media, still prominently features Undergrads as part of it's catalog.  Teletoon had, in the past at least, offered to put up funding for a second season provided a second major production company would be involved.  Once the property rights issue as secured, exploring such production becomes possible - even if the fans have to put in some money and try to convince Teletoon to go it alone.  Alternative forms of production have been suggested; comic books, flash animations, and even audio dramas.

For now, though, the most pressing task for us fans has to be trying to rebuild a fan-base somehow.  The show is old, and there's no guarantee there will ever be a season two.  The show was watered down, especially when compared to today's Adult Swim programming like the Aqua Teen Hunger Force.  For a show that's supposed to talk about real-life experiences of college students, it might be way too tame in its current form. That conjures up a catch-22:  It needs to be edgier to win the fans needed to compel the production of new episodes, but until new production starts we're left with relative weakness.  That's bad news bears.

On the other hand, the Season One DVD can be found for pretty cheap, or on Youtube.  Viewing parties, where a veteran fan invites his friends over for a drink (or more, if they're like Stoner Dave) and a few episodes of the show, could help ensure that at least some people are still talking about it.  The Facebook community I linked to is a strong one and is active.  The show is still aired regularly in Canada, and while that doesn't help any of us Yanks, hey; it means there -is- still growth taking place.

The real bottom line is that it's possible, and the creators and fans certainly haven't given up the fight.  So here's hoping for some success!  Both for them, and for this brand new column!


Jesse Pohlman is a fiction/current-events/promotional writer from Long Island, New York.  His latest novel is Physics Incarnate, is available in paperback or on Amazon's Kindle E-Reader.  It is about Emmett Eisenberg, a professor of physics at the fictitious (Undergrads Inside Joke!) Catskill Community College; Emmett has a dark history to say the least, and it's coming back to bite him!  Give it a shot today!

Monday, August 13, 2012

New Infographic! "Parts of Speech!"

I whipped this up, today.  Check it out and spread it around!  It's not super-fancy but hopefully it'll help some folks out.





Monday, July 30, 2012

Why I Love Arrested Development; as a Writer, and a Fan!

I'm gonna cut to the chase; I'm not much of a comedy writer.  Oh, I can throw out some funny characters from time to time, but situations which are funny are hard for me to figure out.  Even some of the best situation comedies (that's what "SITCOM" means; it isn't a U.S.  Military Command based around sitting!) seem droll to me at times.  My girlfriend, for instance, introduced me to "Friends."

It was good, don't get me wrong; but so many of the characters (Ross fucking Gellar) made me want to throw my TV set.

So that's why I'm so impressed with Arrested Development; and so stunned, happily, that the folks at Netflix are finally making a fourth season.




Making Every Character Count


The truth is that I didn't even watch Arrested Development until a year and change ago.  Now I've watched the three seasons of it about three times.  Not bad for a show that stopped running in 2006.  Also not bad; it won an award from IGN in 2011 for being the funniest show ever.  Yep; it beat out I Love Lucy, The Simpsons, and even one of my favorites, South Park.  And yet it was relatively short-lived?

See, here's the thing - Arrested Development works because each of its characters are funny, easy to relate to, and - most of all - has a place.  Even my least favorite characters (Tobias, I hate you so much!) have qualities which make the viewer know exactly how to feel about them.  You're supposed to hate Tobias.  You're supposed to hate Buster.  You're supposed to hate Lucille Bluth!  And, while the show clues you in on the fact that they aren't the ones you're supposed to relate to, they don't beat you upside the head with reasons to hate them as told by the characters to the viewer.

They simply are hate-worthy!


As it stands, the characters you are supposed to sympathize with are in fact sympathetic.  And as a result, you laugh at it all!  You laugh at their suffering because the show does a great job of blending the consequences of the real world with, well, the consequences of being able to get away with shenanigans.


Arrested Development from a Writer's Perspective


Comedy writing for a television program is all about knowing how to get piece A, piece B, and the set to interact in such a way as to make the viewer laugh.  If the viewer doesn't give a damn about the characters, then there's no reason to laugh.  If the viewer wants a character to suffer, chances are it's not that kind of laughter the writer is going for.  Most of all, if a viewer is too in love with a character to bear them suffering, it's not a frikking comedy.

Arrested Development relies a lot of referential humor, both to the goings-on of the world (such as the Iraqi plot), and to the characters' history (Barry Zuckercorn, for example; brilliantly played by Henry Winkler, AKA The Fonz).  When the viewer recognizes that something is going to go horribly wrong based on an obvious precedent - Lucille causing in-fighting between her children, for instance - it's funny because the characters don't realize until that split second when they can go, "oh, not again," and everyone watching can laugh.

In a show with no long-term consequences (being in jail is frequently just a laughable punishment in this world), where the police act in ludicrous manners (Richard Belzar's portrayal of "Professor Munch," a spoof on his Law And Order SVU Character), and where unemployment is more of an annoyance than a death sentence reminds me of a happier time when "get a job" was a joke, not an impossibility.

See, that was me trying to be both serious and funny.  And I probably failed!  Why wouldn't I; simply put, comedy writing isn't my thing, and it's an art which the folks at Arrested Development had damn near perfected.  They even knew enough to recognize that their show was suffering from serious weaknesses in its production.  A weekly show, the narrator (playing himself as a director) Ron Howard stated, just wasn't going to work - but a movie?

That was the plan!

And now, oh-so-happily, Netflix is going to produce a bunch of episodes in the true fashion of a resurrected TV show.  With Mitchell Hurwitz returning to write, and with Jason Bateman and Michael Cera returning to act, anything is possible as long as the plot is constructed in such a way as to make viewers completely buy into the show once more.


Season Four of Arrested Development - In Development!


The show did, in general, come to an end.  The plot, in effected, ended.  Moreover, it ended half a decade ago.  How are the writer's gonna catch the Bluths up to the modern day?  They were facing arrest and, moreover, wealthy folks living in the Pre-Great "Recession"-Era.  The marriage between Tobias and Lindsay was fucking doomed no matter how many times they puffed it up.  The hardest thing for me to believe is that they would still be together.  Without that dynamic, where would Tobias fit in?

What will the cinematography be like?  The handheld camera is a hard tool to film with, and Arrested Development did that perfectly.  The narration was amazing, but does Ron Howard still have it?  Well, I have faith!  If any show can come back and one-up Family Guy as the most successful "reborn" show out there, it's Arrested Development.  It's funnier, at any rate!

Then again, I've had faith in two other TV Shows getting renewed; underGRADS and Terminator:  The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  Both have rabid fan communities; the underGRADS one can be found here; the Sarah Connor Chronicles one here.  Will they be successful?  There are different issues with both shows.  But if Arrested Development is (finally) coming back, maybe they'll be successful, too!

Y'never know; I do have some openings in my schedule...