South Park: The Fractured But Whole (Minor Spoilers)

General / 01 December 2017

I beat South Park: The Fractured But Whole last night (on my 31st birthday!) I really enjoyed my time with the game. I am a huge South Park fan and the type of fan service that both Stick of Truth and Fractured But Whole give to fans like me can’t be explained very well. Being able to be a kid in the town and have an adventure with the boys is truly a great experience and I’m so happy that Matt and Trey are interested in giving us more and more experiences that make South Park alive in 2017.

While I enjoyed Fractured, I couldn’t help but feel that Stick of Truth was just…more South Park.

South Park, to me, is one part crass humor, one part social commentary, and one part excellent narrative structure. Stick of Truth was a bit weaker in social commentary due to it’s extended development time. What it lacked in social commentary, it made up for in crass humor and over the top fan service. Randy getting anally drilled by aliens was one of the funniest scenes in gaming to date, and the finale featuring Morgan Freeman had me laughing the entire time. It was a bit rough in spots, but that roughness made it feel more like the 2004-2010 or so era South Park. It was crass while delivering some social commentary, and it had excellent plot lines and threads that all delivered.

Fractured But Whole is a bit of a different story. The game is a bit more contained (you’re not going to Canada) and focused on the kids and their superhero personas. That works very well, even if the super hero story lines aren’t your favorite thing (they aren’t mine). Much like the Stick of Truth, the finale is hilarious. It was less laughing my ass off and more “what the hell is this!!” kind of funny, and in the context of the story, characters, and South Park universe, it worked brilliantly. At the same time, the path the story takes to get to the climax lags in spots, especially early on. Some of this is for gameplay reasons, some is explained in the story at the end, and some of it is just poor pacing. Stick of Truth suffered from this a bit as well, but I think it had shock value that Fractured But Whole lacked. That shock value made the slow story sections feel significantly better.

When it comes to social commentary, Fractured But Whole is dripping with it, far more than than Stick of Truth did. In fact, parts of Fracture But Whole’s gameplay are bits of commentary themselves. When gameplay can also be commentary, you’re doing something right (see Spec Ops: The Line). Fractured was made in about 3 years, while Stick of Truth was done in 4 and change. Snow Drop, the engine used for Fractured But Whole, was able to use show assets directly. This meant that it was easy for rewrites and additions to be done to the script. I’m pretty sure this is why Fractured is so topical. With Stick of Truth, the lack of being as topical and eventual need to lock that script earlier than in Fractured But Whole might have been why there was more toilet humor and shock moments. It’s up to the player to decide what they liked more, but when you get to go into Mr. Slave’s ass…it’s hard to top.

When it comes to being a game, Fractured But Whole is easily the superior title. The gameplay is more strategic thanks to the tactics elements of movement that have been added to the battlefield. Fire, while still useful, isn’t 100% over powered. You might not be exploring as much, but you do get to explore a more dense and gentrified South Park thanks to season 19. Social Media serves as collectible, social commentary, and necessary part of gameplay. Farting also is expanded greatly here as well. It sounds like it wouldn’t be important, but in addition to all of the time mechanics it has, I beat Morgan Freeman because of farts (and some sort of gameplay logic bug I found with the lineup of Kyle, Kenny, and Stan. Seriously, use it and let Kenny be dead most of the time. It wigs out by the 3rd phase.)

In the end, Fractured But Whole is a great and hilarious game. I just wish it had a bit more of the classic crass, shock humor of old South Park. I might be getting older, but my sense of humor hasn’t aged a bit.

I’m all in on their DLC too. I think it’s going to be rad.

-Dan

Tax Reform: Part 2

General / 28 November 2017

A little while ago (October 3rd to be exact), I wrote about the hypothetical Tax Reform plan the House GOP Leadership, in conjunction with the Trump White House, was working on. At the time very little other than the super basic framework was put forth. I had some fun crunching a few numbers and looking at what good could come out of whatever the Republicans were cooking in the kitchen. It was an optimistic blog to be frank, but I always try to look on the bright side of things.

Today, we have a tax plan sitting in front of us. Two of them really, one from the House of Representatives and one from the Senate. Both plans have a few similarities, both have a ton of differences, and both plans have garnered strong reactions from all sides.

I am both unqualified and uninterested (for the purposes of this blog) in going over the entirety of both tax plans. That’s FAR too much for me to read. I previously took the perspective I am quite familiar with; that of the Sole Proprietor. I will be doing the same for this post as well. I will be examining the broad strokes that affect a Sole Proprietor and at the end, draw a conclusion that I think works best for this incredibly narrow segment of the tax paying population.

More than likely, I’ll have a few notes about the overall plans at the end as well. I have other feelings too!

What’s in this thing for a Sole Proprietor (House)

There’s quite a lot to digest, but in general there are a few big issues that a Sole Proprietor will want to focus in on:

  • Any Pass-Through Corporation has its maximum tax liability capped at 25%, unless you are a service company or a lawyer. In addition, the final bill has a 9% rate on the first $75,000 in income if your total income is below $150,000. So, in essence, a Sole Proprietor like myself would be taxed at a rate of 9% instead of my current rate of 25%. Needless to say, assuming this is accurate, it’s HUGE for many freelancers.
  • Taxes are set to go up in 2023 for many Americans. This is tied into the expectation of the Family Flexibility Credit expiring as well as the measure of inflation shifting around that time.
  • Tax Brackets are reduced from 7 (10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39%) to 4 (12%, 25%, 35%, and 39.6%). The top rate really only applies to those who make a million dollars a year for married couples or $500K for single filers.
  • The Standard Deduction is doubled to $12000 for individuals and $24000 for married couples. This comes with a few caveats. First, most individual deductions are going away. Mortgage Interest can still be deducted but it’s capped at $500k. Also, State and Local Taxes, or SALT, will be removed.
  • Regarding college, you would no longer be able to deduct student loan interest. In addition, grad students with tuition waivers would have to pay income tax on the waiver, which is a huge deal when you consider that it’s not “real income”. There’s a story/meme going around where a current grad student would have to basically give up her income from teaching to pay for the waiver. This isn’t necessarily a Sole Proprietor issue, but it’s a big issue non the less.
  • My understanding is that the majority of business deductions that Sole Proprietors can utilize remain.

What’s in this thing for a Sole Proprietor (Senate)

While the House and Senate bills have some similarities, they are really two significantly different bills.

  • Pass-through companies continue to get good benefits out of the Senate Bill, but in a different way. Instead of capping it at 25%, most pass-through income earners can deduct 17.4% of their income. This lowers the top rate paid. In essence, this plus the ability to write off half of your self employment tax means that you’re going to be paying roughly no self employment tax when it’s all said and done.
    • The Vox article I’m sourcing this from mentions that the rich could ‘incorporate’ as sole proprietorship and ‘contract’ with their employers so income is pass-through. While technically true, this will likely only affects someone who runs the business they work with. Plus, there are a lot of legal laws in place that define who is and isn’t an employee and what benefits employees can receive. Some of this is easy to work aound and ignore, but bigger things (insurance and having taxes withheld, direct control over the worker at work) can’t be ignored. That brings in a bunch of questions that would span a brand new article. So in short, this Vox article gives me good bill details but absolutely editorializes a bit more than I would prefer.
  • The tax rates are tweaked, but the overall number of brackets remains at 7. The breakdown is as follows: 10%, 12%, 22.5%, 25%, 32.5%, 35%, 38.5%. You can look at the source article for more, but the basic breakdown follows somewhat closely with the current tax bracket breakdown.
    • It’s worth noting that the brackets are adjusted by a Chained Consumer Price Index. This more or less factors in that if apple prices rise too high, people will switch to bananas. Most economists consider this a somewhat more realistic approach to calculating CPI-but it does show less inflation. This is important when you consider the increase in rents across the country, but again that’s a different article.
  •  The Standard Deduction doubles just like the House Bill.
  • Mortgage interest remains unchanged unless you own a second home. Can’t deduct that second home anymore.
  • SALT deductions, much like in the house bill, are gone.
  • Student Loan Interest, Medical Expense Deduction, and the Adoption Tax Credit all remain. This is different than the House bill, where all of these deductions are gone.

Which do I like Better?

Like I said, there is WAY MORE to both bills. Looking at it strictly from the perspective of a Sole Proprietor and nothing else, I prefer the House Bill. While there are a few more deductions that are removed on the individual side, I like the idea of only having 4 total tax brackets. I also really like what they have opted to do with Pass Through Taxation. By having the secondary small rate on income earned under $150,000, small outfits and individuals (like yours truly) will have their tax burden significantly reduced-even more so than the Senate Bill.

You can argue that Pass-Through companies already receive generous tax treatment, and in some cases I would agree with you. Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t understand how a lot of contract and other 1099 workers are classified by the federal government. These changes will help tons of people.

Other quick thoughts on these bills in general

In short, I want to see more work done to the House Bill. There’s a few things that are getting glossed over because the honorable King Lord Donald J. Trump is the President. By focusing so much on what he personally stands to gain, the focus on the good AND the bad is getting washed out.

Lets start with the fact that both bills will explode the budget deficit by roughly $1.5 trillion. I can’t stand for that. A bit of deficit is fine. That is not. The thing is, the money can be found without having to phase out certain cuts on the middle class. For starters, close corporate loopholes and end most corporate deductions. Large companies are getting a 15% cut across the board and are getting to keep most of their deductions. Normal people are not. Imagine how much just doing that would help fix some of the budget issues these bills will cause. Along those same lines, throw an extra 2.5% on the corporate rate. 22.5% won’t kill anyone. It’s not like they are going to invest this money in people and production anyway. It’s all going right into stock buybacks. It’s all about the stock market.

If you make those changes, I think you can add back in some of the smaller deductions that were removed for middle class Americans. I also think you can remove the stupid change to grad school waivers. Frankly that needs to be removed immidately.

I know a lot of people will want to have the SALT deductions added back to the bill, and considering I live in Philadelphia, it’d be good for me too (Philly taxes you hard). However, I think that outside of New York, New Jersey, California, and Chicago, removing SALT isn’t the worst idea. Only around 30% of individuals itemize and the huge increase in the standard deduction is going to make the removal of SALT a wash in the majority of cases.

Conclusion

That pretty much sums up what’s in these tax bills and what I think from the perspective of a Sole Proprietor. Keep an eye on the federal government for the next few weeks. If either bill makes it to the President’s desk, I’d be prepared to dump in a TON of cash into the market. The gains won’t last forever, but large corporations will be ready to buy back so much stock you can earn a few bucks quickly.

As for me? I’ll be investing in myself.

-Dan

Sources:

https://www.vox.com/2017/11/9/16620290/senate-republican-tax-plan-orrin-hatch-mitch-mcconnell

https://www.vox.com/cards/entitlement-reform/whats-chained-cpi

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/11/16/the-house-is-voting-on-its-tax-bill-thursday-heres-what-is-in-it/?utm_term=.8a875a8a5f0c

https://www.legalzoom.com/knowledge/limited-liability-company/glossary/llc-pass-through-entity

The Park Bench: WIP

General / 20 October 2017

The Park Bench 

When I was in Austin earlier this year, I was introduced to Stranger Things by my roommate and art director, Mark. I immediately loved the series. Taking place in the 80’s, in a small town in Indiana no less, it had many elements that I personally identified with. I was a bullied kid who loved games and technology-much like the kids in Hawkins. Sure, I had an N64 and later a PlayStation 2 and GameCube instead of an NES, but it was an experience I identified with.

A photo I took while in Austin that serves as a reference for my scene.

Plus, and this cannot be stressed enough…I really should have grown up in the 80’s.

The Sony DD-100 Boodoo Khan Walkman. Clearly beat up from the world ending and all.

Stranger Things acted as the catalyst for me to start my current personal project which I have been calling The Park Bench.

The Park Bench is significantly more than just a piece of Stranger Things fan fiction. In fact, it’s not fan fiction at all. Park Bench is a small little diorama of sorts that combines some elements of the 1980’s with the dystopian return of nature inspired by The Last of Us. My goal is to tell the story of a bench and the people who used it to spread messages to others (along with any items that might have been left). I’m pretty excited about this project!

As it can be with all working artists though, time can be an issue. I got this started in February this year with reference photos and some initial modeling. By the time I was ready to hit it hard, I ended up needing to put in some extra time at Bluepoint. After that, the project sort of stalled for a bit. I went back here and there to work on it, but it never really picked up again. I knew I’d be back in Philly for the fall so I planned to really get at it hard once I got back.

So I did. In between contract hunting and school prep, I got my scene going again. I didn’t get a crazy amount of work done unfortunately, but I was able to work on fixing up my bench bakes and start working on the Substances for it.

Teaching inched ever closer and I knew I’d be very behind on everything if I didn’t approach this project with a more iterative mindset.

Two birds, one stone

I am an Unreal Engine specialist and evangelist. I think it’s one of the best tools out there for making a game, and I am not shy about making that known. The final version of The Park Bench will be in Unreal, of that there is no doubt.

Drexel is locked, at least for now, in with Unity. I’m teaching an ‘Advanced Game Art Production’ class this quarter using Unity. I’ve used Unity a number of times in my life as a freelancer, but it’s never been at a deeper level than “make sure my assets work…and I’m done here you go”. That won’t work for my students. While there is a degree of cross engine information that I can share, the nitty gritty of Unity is something I need to experience to teach appropriately.

A WIP screen from Unity. It’s come along way since the days of Unity 4 and 5.

I decided to cross pollinate my personal work and my teaching materials for Drexel. I am using my assets and basic setup for The Park Bench as my primary teaching tool for my Unity class. That’s why I’ve been using Unity as my engine of choice for the early version of this project.

It’s been working well enough. I’ve been learning quite a lot about how Unity functions and I’m actually fairly happy with it’s current state at the technical level. Long gone are the days of Unity 4’s poor material system, and the earlier versions of Unity 5’s Normalized Phong BRDF for light distribution and reflections. Unity 2017, while not perfect and not the engine I’d probably use for most of my projects, is a HUGE step up from even Unity 5.x.

The cross pollination between personal and Drexel work has worked well before (Playstation Vita was used as a demo multiple times for my 3D Modeling Classes) and I feel it’s working well again.

The Park Bench moving Forward

Marmoset screenshot of my bench. I’m using Gametextures materials here, I plan to make my own towards the end of development that will enhance the carved messages in the bench. Right now they aren’t as prominent as I’d like and get lost.

I started this scene without my usual write up of goals I wanted to achieve. That is ok. Not having that write up has been helpful quite honestly, as I haven’t felt too pressured to worry about anything other than “make great art”.

There is one stated goal I have known from day 1. I want to put this project into VR.

I have a Daydream Headset for my Pixel, and I recently set up my Oculus Rift. I’ve worked with VR before, but not in a truly interactive way. One of my biggest goals with this project is to allow for the player to walk around, just a little bit, in VR. Scope out my scene. This will do the following:

  • Familiarize me with VR development in a game like scenario
  • Work with different rendering technologies (Forward Renderer)
  • Work on maintaining consistent quality from Non-VR to PC VR and Android VR

Outside of making my own materials for my assets as needed in Substance Designer, the only real focus I have is making my scene work in VR at the highest quality possible.

I expect this scene to take a while, at least until December. Between school, contracts, and Thanksgiving, I’m going to be a busy bee. I’ll be leveraging the quality of Gametextures materials (it’s what is currently used on my bench) to help me speed up my scene construction and set a quality bar for my Substances. I plan to replace them all with custom built Substances so I can get a better understanding of the program (it’s been a while since I used Designer). That, and any additional assets outside of what’s key for the scene, will have to be saved for a final polish pass later on. Until then, it’s time to build it out.

-Dan

 

My point of view: Tax Reform 2018 for Sole Proprietors

General / 03 October 2017

This past week, President Donald Trump (still sounds weird) unveiled the White House Tax Reform plan and there’s quite a bit to it. I am a pretty big fan of tax reform. I believe the current tax code is complicated, expensive, and hard on low and middle income Americans. I also think it’s rough on business owners, independent contractors, and even large corporations. Needless to say, I was rather interested in what the current administration was going to put forward.

It does some good things, it does some dumb things, and it does a few mixed things for someone in my line of work. Those of us who are sole proprietors and make most of our money off of 1099 work continue to have a chance at seeing some relief from this tax policy, but more could be done.

I decided it would be a fun exercise to go through what has been currently released by the White House and detail how it helps, hurts, or does nothing to those of us who are 1099 workers. I’ll then put forward my ideas on how to balance out the plan so that we aren’t forgotten.

Because this is an inherently political post, I would like to mention that I’m a moderate. I have no political party affiliation and owe no loyalty to anyone.

Source for the Tax Plan: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/27/us/politics/document-Read-President-Trump-s-Tax-Proposal.html

Additional Information: https://www.thebalance.com/trump-s-tax-plan-how-it-affects-you-4113968

Here’s what’s being proposed for Individuals in general outline form.

  • “Zero Tax Bracket”: Near doubling of the standard deduction from $6300 to $12,000 for single filers and from $12,700 to $24,000 for joint filing. These deductions basically work to create a larger ‘Zero Bracket’ by eliminating income tax on those who make under the new deductions (or by eliminating tax on the first $12k/$24K on income)
  • Tax Rates: The current tax rate structure is an additive 10%, 15,%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39.6%. This means you are taxed at 10% for the first $13,350, then 15% on any income between 13,351 and $50,800, and then any income above $50,801 to $131,200 is taxed at 25%, and so on. It’s complicated. The proposed brackets shrink to 3 brackets at 12%, 25%, and 35%. I do not know if they remain additive, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they do. There is mention of an additional top rate to the highest income tax payers (we’re talking high end 1%’ers here) but it isn’t mentioned what that rate would be and at what income level it would kick in. The breakdown of the brackets is also not mentioned.
    • If the current brackets are applied to the Trump Plan, it looks like this:
      • 12%: $0-37,000 Single (0-$75,000 Married)
      • 25%: $37,501-112,500 Single ($75,001-$225,000 Married)
      • 35%: $112,501+ Single ($225,000 Married)
  •  Enhanced Child Tax Credit and Middle Class Relief: This is pretty bare bones in the plan. In short, the Child Tax Credit will be expanded while exemptions for dependents will be removed.  Congress will have to come up with additional Middle Class Relief options. I don’t know much about deductions relating to having kids or dependents so I have little else to add here.
  • The Alternative Minimum Tax will be removed, as will most itemized deductions for individuals. Home Mortgage Interest and Charitable Contributions will remain.
  • It doesn’t sound like any retirement deductions or credits will change, but you can never be sure with this administration.
  • Death/Estate Tax will be removed. This benefits those inhering large estates (over 5 Million in net worth).
  • State and Local Deductions are removed. This affects states with high income taxes more than low (or no) income taxes.
  • Elimination of the Marriage Penalty as it relates to Child Tax Credits.

Here’s the business proposals in outline form:

  • The maximum rate of taxation on Sole Proprietorship, Partnerships, LLC’s, and S Corporations will be 25%. They also suggest that Congress find ways to make sure that personal income cannot be re-characterized as business income so that wealthy individuals can’t skip out on the top 35% individual tax rate.
  • Corporate rate is cut to 20% and corporate AMT is removed.
  • Capital Investments can immediately be written off for 5 years (except for structures).
  • Deduction for net interest expense incurred by C Corporations will be limited. I don’t really know what this means.
  • Foreign Profits brought back to the US receive a 100% exemption. I think.

If you want the specifics, click the links above.

So, all in all I actually don’t think this is a super bad framework. Corporate taxes are rather high in the US and dropping them to 20% would encourage business growth. I also like the idea of doubling the standard deduction in favor of itemizing as an individual. It’s pretty rare that an individual who itemizes would beat the current deduction of $6300. Doubling that to $12,000 will drop a surprising amount of people into the 12% tax bracket, assuming the breakdown remains the same. (Keep in mind that you are taxed on your income after your deductions, so you could make around $49,000 a year and be taxed at 12% assuming the breakdown I list above).

What I do want to know is where the 25% and 35% rates on personal income kick in. Is it where they currently are? Do they move down the income ladder? To they move up? It’s a question that needs to be answered. I also don’t like the repeal of the Estate Tax and Alternative Minimum Taxes, although I could see an argument for re-working or removing the Alternative Minimum Taxes in favor of code simplification and removal of many deductions that the wealthy take.

How Current Sole Proprietor Taxes Work

https://www.thebalance.com/how-much-tax-do-small-businesses-pay-3974568

Current Sole Proprietor taxes are rather interesting. As a 1099 worker, you are the business. You are also the individual. Most small businesses or Sole Proprietors are taxed in a ‘pass through’ fashion. This means that the tax liability is at the feet of the individual. Since most businesses are not C-Corporations, this means that most small business receive this pass though taxation (Sole Proprietors, LLC, S-Corps, Partnerships).

If you are a Sole Proprietor who has an excellent year, this means you could be subject to the 28%, 33%, or even 35% tax brackets. If you were a C-Corp, you would be subject to a lesser tax burden. Is it realistic to be a C-Corp when you have revenue under a half million dollars? No, there is far too much work involved. But I have an example below for fun. (taken from https://www.thebalance.com/corporate-tax-rates-and-tax-calculation-397647)

Oh and also, I’m not a Tax Professional so I apologize for any numbers and assumptions I screw up here.

  • Lets say my tax liability after all is said and done is $250,000 as a Sole Proprietor. I would owe $46,643 plus $19,255. $46,643 is the base amount I owe, followed by 33% of my income above $191,650. We also can’t forget Self Employment Tax which is an additional 15.3%, or $38,250. Factor in the Self Employment deduction (-$6311) and the total tax liability is about $97,837 or about 39%.
    • The Actual Self Employment Tax above would be a bit less as Social Security has a cap of about $118,000 at which no additional tax is collected. Consider this a simplified example.
  • Let’s take the same assumptions and apply a business rate to it (assuming this is a C-Corp). The business would owe $22,250 plus $58,500 for a total of $80,750. The $58,500 is 39% of the amount over $100,000 in this case. Besides being simpler in raw math, this leaves $169,000 dollars left in the business which if I was a single member C-Corp (which again, highly unlikely), I’d be able to pay out to myself in a salary that would keep my personal tax liability low. This is when Payroll Taxes would be accounted for (about 8.05% total for the business entity and a separate 8.05% total for myself as an individual). This amount is also dependent on the W-2 paycheck I give myself, so it would benefit me to pay myself a fairly small salary in this scenario (between $35,000 and $50,000 more than likely). In short, not including Payroll taxes, the effective rate on the business is 32%.

As you can see from above, the Self Employment Tax is a pretty hefty burden. Like workers who are salaried at a company, Sole Proprietors need to pay into Social Security and Medicare. It’s our duty as Americans. Unlike salaried workers, Sole Proprietors have to cover the full cost. Payroll taxes, which fund Medicare and Social Security, are split between the company and the salaried worker. Each is responsible for half of the cost. Sole Proprietors bear the full brunt of that burden. The Self Employment Tax is 15.3% (combination of 12.4% for Social Security and 2.9% for Medicare). Social Security has a ceiling at which nothing is taxed above it (I want to say it’s around $118,000) while Medicare is always taxed at 2.9% no matter how much you make.

You do get to deduct half of the cost of this tax as a Sole Proprietor.

Once that’s figured out, you go through the rest of your business deductions (home office, expenses, meals, etc) to come to what the business of you made in a given tax year. That final income is then transferred over to your individual return, where you then claim any individual deductions if you itemize your taxes (or take the Standard Deduction and be done with it). This is an example of Pass Through Taxation.

How This works against Sole Proprietors

The biggest problem I think Sole Proprietors deal with tax wise is the Self Employment Tax. You immediately can lop off 15.3% of your income for the year. “But you can claim half of that as a deduction” you may say. Deductions are nice, but they aren’t enough. Deductions lower your taxable income, but they are calculated using the percentage of your marginal tax bracket. Lets say you end up with a $1000 dollar deduction because your Self Employment Tax was $2000. Your tax bracket is 25%. This means you save $250 in tax. (.25 x 1000 = 250). In a sense, you only save a quarter of your taxes. This is different from an employee, because their employer has paid HALF of the Social Security and Medicare Taxes for them.

This puts you immediately behind the 8-Ball when compared to other salaried Americans. Once you wrap up your individual taxes, you may find that you owe way more money than you thought you did.

This is one of the primary reasons people stop working for themselves. I’m sure a few of the contractors I worked with this past year will see their tax burdens and freak out in April. I try to plan the best I can for taxes by paying my quarterlies and saving money for April. I usually make it but it’s always by the skin of my teeth.

I would much rather take some of my Self Employment Tax and put it away in my IRA or in another retirement account. This is doubly true when you stop to think that my Social Security Benefits, even at 75, will more than likely be on the low side due to the system crumbling under the weight of our expanding life spans and the large generation that is starting to retire (BABY BOOMERS).

What needs to be Done?

I actually think the White House is off to a decent start for Sole Proprietors and other small businesses, if I understand correctly. For a Sole Proprietor, the maximum they could be taxed is 25%. So if you are an Sole Proprietor who has an excellent year and makes that $250,000 I mentioned earlier, you’ll still only be taxed at the 25% income bracket even if the individual rate is 35% at that income level.

I still think more needs to be done, specifically with the Self Employment Tax. If the small business is indeed the backbone of the economy, then the Self Employment Tax on Pass Through Businesses needs to be re-worked.

  • I would suggest changing the deduction to a 66% credit for anyone who reports an income under $150,000. This provides more money than a deduction but still means SP’s are paying more than their employed counter parts into entitlement programs. I do think SP’s should pay a bit more since they are a business too.
  • Another option I’m equally OK with is to cut the Self Employment Tax rate by 30% to 10.35% and to maintain the current split proportionally to Medicare and Social Security. This would remove the need for any Self Employment Deduction.
  • I’m not ‘married’ to those numbers, they are just ideas. A 20% cut would be nice and helpful, or a 43% credit. I’m more than happy to compromise!

I also think the deduction available for Health Insurance needs to be expanded (perhaps another credit), or the cap for subsidies needs to rise for people operating a small business. Health Insurance is expensive, and with premiums rising (and let’s be real, they’re never going down) more and more Sole Proprietors will need help covering the cost. I’m a fan of increasing the caps on subsidy limits by another 10% of the poverty level, or re-writing the poverty level entirely.

All of this would help keep some extra money in the hands of Sole Proprietors to reinvest into themselves, which may I remind you is also their business. Eventually, this cash can help them grow into larger entities and pay more in taxes! This is often the argument used in favor of large corporate cuts, and while I am in favor of corporate cuts as well, they have less to gain from tax cuts than a small business owner.

How to keep this all Revenue Neutral 

One of the big issues with tax reform is to keep everything revenue neutral. That usually means cuts or reforms. I could go on about cutting the military or reforming social security, but I will save it for another day.

The White House Plan relies on hitting magical growth rates (between 3-6% sustained GDP) for their tax plan to work. I don’t like leaping to assumptions that are relying on the best GDP growth that has ever been recorded in the history of the US. I am not going to try to fix the White House’s plan. I am going to try to address the lost revenue that my ideas for Pass Through Taxation bring with them.

First, I would suggest the top income earners pay an additional .25%-.5% (roughly) on top of whatever the special bracket for the highest income earners is mentioned in the White House Plan. That’s it. These would be the rich of the rich.

If that isn’t enough, I would add caps to the cuts to the Self Employment Tax. After you hit a high enough income limit, lets say $300,000, the Self Employment Tax flips back to 15.3%. No special math, it’s either either 10.35% or 15.3%, not a mix of the two.

This is Forward Thinking

A friend was contacted by a recruiter for a contract position in North Carolina a few months ago for a finance company. It would have paid very well if he took it.

I just rolled off of a contract with Bluepoint Games. I was a 1099 worker. All the work I do for clients is 1099 work.

Anyone who drives an Uber or Lyft is self employed, using a tool to do their work. They are 1099 workers.

The gig economy is growing, and more and more large business are taking advantage of shorter term labor. Contract workers are cheaper for business because they don’t have to cover health insurance, payroll taxes, sick days, and more. In the land of rising corporate profits, short term jobs, and more people striking it out on their own, 1099 work will eventually become the norm. It might be years away, but soon 1099 workers will be a norm in the economy.

That means more and more people will be their own businesses.

If done right, Sole Proprietors can make a lot of money and reinvest in themselves, growing themselves into a larger business they can control. These bigger business can thus pay more in taxes, funding the government. SPs need help to make that happen. The current tax code is centered around the old notion of salaried workers. That model of work is slowly dying. The entire internet makes working as an Sole Proprietor even more appealing than before by spreading out or eliminating costs of doing business. However, once that tax bill comes, people may decide they’d rather work for large corporations and play it safe potentially squashing an awesome idea or special skill. If the government wants to help Sole Proprietors and grow the speed at which small business can succeed, they need to work on reforming more than just personal income brackets. They need to change how SPs are taxed and plan for a future when Sole Proprietors transitioning to larger business entities are the norm in the economy.

Dan

Additional Sources Used:

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

General / 25 September 2017

I was looking forward to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice for a little while before it came out last month. For the past few years, it’s been featured prominently on many of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine promotional materials. There is a great reason for that; Hellblade looks like a AAA game. Moreover, Hellblade pioneered some additional technology that has slowly worked it’s way into the Unreal Engine over the past few years. For example, take a look at this outstanding real time performance capture from GDC 2016 below (skip to 5:21):

They also pioneered the ability to capture Stereo Panoramic 360 video from the engine. They helped come up with the Stereo Panoramic Capture plugin that lets you capture stereo right out of the engine (with some work involved). This was huge for me last year as I worked with two companies in New York who needed 360 video out of Unreal.

As you can tell, Ninja Theory and Epic Games have been working closely to make Hellblade a show piece for the engine to developers of small teams. As an enthusiast of the engine and a lover of unique games, I couldn’t wait to play this.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is out, I’ve played it, and I have some very mixed feelings about it.

I will try to keep this Spoiler Free but no promises. Consider yourself warned. 

What I think it does well

The biggest thing Hellblade nails is the main character, Senua. Senua is a conflicted warrior from an old tribe of northern England who’s come in contact with the Vikings at some point in her journey. Her quest throughout the game is to confront Hel, the queen of Helheim, to revive the lost soul of her loved one.

As you play the game, Senua becomes a very interesting character. Her internal struggle becomes the focus of the game as you play, and you witness it becoming a bigger and bigger mountain to overcome as the journey continues. This struggle highlights Senua’s rather…significant flaws. This serves to make her an extremely likable character as she’s, in a way, Rocky Balboa. Who doesn’t root for Rocky?

Attached to Senua is the actress who played her. I think she did a fantastic job, which is pretty incredible as according to the ‘making of’ vid that comes with the game, Senua is played by Ninja Theory’s own Video Editor Melina Juergens. I think she did an excellent job. Perhaps acting is in her future.

Hellblade also does a good job of creating a sense of place. The graveyard of ships, Helheim, the flowery fields, the sense of being in the land of the Celts and Vikings thousands of years ago really sticks out. What’s more successful than any of the other areas in the game as an environment is a segment were you are wading and fighting enemies in a land of blood, bodies, and hands grasping at you from the walls. It’s a crazy scene and one that I definitely enjoyed running through.

What it does poorly

The biggest issue I had with Hellblade is how it functions as a game. Most notably, that it’s not very fun.

Combat is a simple affair against 4 or so enemy types, not counting bosses. These enemies all have specific patters that you are to recognize and plan for. So far so good right? Unfortunately it stops there. Senua has a strong and weak swing, dodging, block (which I literally NEVER used) and the ability to run in her fighting toolkit. You chain combos together with a mix of button timing and order. It sounds a bit deeper than it really is as I found myself using the same two or three combos over and over again, and constantly dodging.

I get that Hellblade is not really focused on the player executing a God of War style button combo chain on some crazy boss with 8 heads, but Ninja Theory should have tried to add a bit more variety in enemy types and a bit more variety in Senua’s arsenal. After an hour or two, combat was a fairly repetitive task for me that got worse as the game went on due to being padded with what felt like an endless swarm of the same enemies over and over again.

During boss fights, I felt the combat improved. I think this has more to do with the relatively few bosses in the game, and that each boss had individual styles of combat. That variety is what was missing from the majority of the other combat encounters.

Adding to the lack of overall fun were the puzzles. This is certainly more of a “Dan thing” and is very subjective, but I fund the puzzles to lack variety and go on way too long. I had more fun with the ‘portal to alternate realities’ puzzle set because it was a maze with out being a maze, but the Fire God’s set of puzzles was a bit of a bore. You spend time looking for symbols to unlock doors in the environment. It’s simple enough, but there isn’t much complexity given to them until they re-appear towards the end of the game.

The puzzles in Hellblade follow the design philosophy of teaching the player a mechanic, have them use the mechanic, then add a twist to the mechanic later on. That process would have worked great if not for the nagging issue of pace. Once you learn the mechanic for the symbols, it’s stretched out too long, which bored me. The twist on those mechanics didn’t re-appear until much later in the game (though it should be said that you may choose the order in which you tackle the gods guarding the door to Helheim).

Those are my biggest gripes. The puzzles were boring and drawn out for the majority of the game and the combat was serviceable but lacked depth and a hook to keep me playing. The only hook that kept me involved in the game was Senua. For me, a great character or a great story will trump poor mechanics (Mass Effect is not what I would call a fantastically designed game. Mass Effect 2 and however…).

I had some other issues as well that very few people will notice. I’m an artist in the industry and art issues usually stick out to me. Rather than a full paragraph, I’ll present this in outline form as each point is pretty self explanatory.

  • Senua looks exceptional, but the environment assets don’t. They aren’t bad by any means, they just don’t match the quality of the character (even when considered as a whole scene). I believe it was a technical choice to cut corners with environment assets to make Senua as believable as possible.
  • The terrain has a number of hard edges, which really doesn’t matter. What does is the relative lack of change from a greybox level design to the final art for the level. Some spots are worse than others. What bugged me the most was the super obvious ramps that still exist in the final game. Natural terrain never looks like that.
  • I would have liked to see some decals used to add variation and wetness around some parts of the world. This is more of a polish choice and perhaps the performance would’t have been there if it was done.
  • The real life actor portrayal of a few of the people Senua has memories of instead of modeled characters stood out to me. It’s perfectly understandable and brings me back to the days of FMV’s in games. It just wasn’t 100% successful to me.
  • Don’t look down when walking up and down stairs. Senua floats really bad. Stairs are tricky in most games but unless there isn’t any IK in her legs, I think some more accurate collision would have helped.

I also need to mention the final scene of the game. I think I get it, but it was ambiguous and confusing. That rarely rubs me the right way in any media and it left me a bit frustrated here as well.

Conclusion

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice isn’t a bad game. It has a great central character, an interesting premise, and some excellent technology behind it. While there are some polish issues I have minor gripes with, the biggest thing I kept thinking as I played was that I wanted to skip over a lot of the puzzles and half of the combat because I was bored and not enjoying myself very much. It felt as if the focus of this game was Senua and bringing her and her struggles to life. This came at the expense of the gameplay itself.

Would I recommend Hellblade? Probably. I’m glad the game exists, I am glad I played it, and I’m thankful for the work Ninja Theory and Epic Games did to take techniques and plugins that were used in Hellblade and make them available to all. It is also a showpiece of what small experienced teams can do with Unreal. I had high expectations, and perhaps that is what let me down a bit.

I consider Hellblade a flawed experimental game that needed a bit more time in the oven.

Dan

2017 Report Part One: January to September

General / 14 September 2017

I’m Back Home

I never planned to wait so long to do my quarterly reports this year. I planned to continue them on my usual 3 month basis. But Bluepoint kept me busy. Then they extended me a month. Throw in a few bits of crunch and my general mental exhaustion from the work day and you have what happened to my blog this year. A handful of posts when I had a long weekend and that’s it. It’s unfortunate too. When I was in New York Last year, I had the energy to pump out a few posts, including an E3 blog. I’m disappointed that I didn’t write more this past year.

Part of me wonders if the lack of movement added to my exhausted mental state. I move more here on the east coast naturally than I did in Austin. East coast cities have feeling of moving faster in general than the south and the mid-west and I feed off of a part of that. As Elliott Hulse likes to say, the body is the mind and the mind is the body. I absolutely agree.

This blog is structured a bit differently. I’m going to do my usual Quarterly Report information below, but I’ll modify it to match the time frame that I am writing about (January to September). The second part will cover some broad strokes about the Contractor Business Lessons I learned while working away from home for so long. I have a post or two which will cover my psyche in a deeper way planned for later.

I will be teaching and working remotely (for the most part) for the foreseeable future, so expect a fairly steady (but still somewhat irregular) stream of content from me. I hope to be better with my writing schedule next time I’m working away from home.

Quarterly Report

Task Tracking

I mentioned it in late May during my Memorial Day blog, but I chose to track my tasks using Bluepoint’s choice of software. I did this to keep my workday a bit simpler in the office. Because of this, I don’t have specific numbers for billable hours or my efficiency. Tasks were tracked as simply as possible to keep the artists and programmers focused on their tasks and not on the specifics of producing. At Bluepoint, I got to go back to being a simple artist.

It was fun, but I like metrics.

I do have a few numbers I can extrapolate rather easily using my income and my hourly rate.

  • Hours worked (total time spent at the office): 1,508.5
  • Estimated Billable Hours using 80% efficiency:  1206.0
  • Hours worked from January to September 2016: 1219.6
  • Billable Hours from January to September 2016: 1051.6
  • Estimated Efficiency from January to September 2016: 86%
  • Year over year increase in hours worked: 19%
  • Year over year increase in estimated billable hours: 12%

I used 80% as my efficiency for Bluepoint because the majority of SCRUM planning uses 80% efficiency for the average work a person can do on a given workday. In essence it builds in a 20% buffer for deadlines when planning and producers can add more time in from there to budget for things like power outages, data loss, or ‘acts of God’. Secondly, I billed for my total hours worked, or time spent at the office. Much like Vayner Media or Psyop, I get paid for being on-site and in the office versus strictly for the work I perform on the project from home. Third, I never billed for any lunch over an hour long (or a half hour lunch and a half hour walking session later in the day). I took the hour the majority of the time and thus stayed at the office long enough to make sure I had at least an 8 hour day in the books.

What do the numbers say exactly? The first note I see is the difference in hours worked versus my billable hours. A 19% increase in raw working hours resulted in an estimated 12% increase in what I could bill, in theory. I am very efficient when I’m at home and that shows a bit here in the numbers. I will have to dig into this more, but my trend for 2016 was to work roughly 7 hours a day here at home with roughly an hour of that time ‘wasted’. Some days are great (90% efficiency) and some days don’t go well (65% on my worst days). I will have to do the math to prove this idea out, but I believe that if I can work an additional half hour a day at full efficiency I can come close to increasing my billable hour percentage. It can come close to matching my estimated billable hours for this year without the large increase in total hours.

The other note is the clear 19% increase in raw working hours. I work more raw hours when in an office setting where other people are a part of the team. That’s just a fact that’s clearly laid out here. I believe this is a mix of deadlines (crunch was needed from time to time) and human nature.

Income

This is going to be pretty simple. This year blew last year completely out of the water. There was a cost to it though.

  • Year over year Income for January to September (2016 vs 2017): 155%

That’s right. 155%. But there’s a catch. My expenses skyrocketed as well.

Excluding leisure and daily life, my business expenses significantly increased. I rented an apartment from a co-worker. I rented a car for the duration of the contract. I ate out occasionally and went downtown to make connections for meet ups. I also took advantage of my income growth to purchase equipment like my Oculus Rift and my new Wacom Intous Pro. Those expenses need to be factored in to show a more realistic income gain.

  • Realized Income Gain for January to September (2016 vs 2017):  92%
  • Amount of Income Gain that went to Business Expenses: 63%

Everything has a cost, and working with Bluepoint Games was no different. I made more money per an hour at Bluepoint than I have my entire career. With it came the cost of maintaining a life in Philadelphia (mortgage and gym membership) and in Austin (apartment, car, gym membership, etc). The price I paid was not being able to save nearly as much as I would have been able to if I was local. At least these gains were put to good use.

I don’t have student debt anymore!

Looking Ahead 

I don’t expect the remainder of 2017 to be nearly as lucrative as it has been thus far. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I return to teaching at Drexel at the end of September and I’m looking forward to it. I have new experiences and wisdom to bring to my classes with the same classic “I’m basically a kid too” charm that helps me identify with my students. In addition to teaching, I’ll be working with Tanner to bring the GameTextures blog back to the long form articles and interesting topics and interviews that it’s had in the past. Naturally, some game game reviews will appear but there’s a lot to cover these days and the thirst for knowledge is there.

Contract wise, I am looking. I’ve reached out to a few of my old clients as well as sent out some emails to some of the bigger contract jobs this week. I can’t say for sure they will allow remote work but it’s always worth it to check. I’m also on the lookout for smaller jobs as well with indie studios or other non gaming work.

Ideally, the next few months will be a bit on the slow but steady side.

Some Business Lessons

  • If I end up with a contract in a similar situation to Bluepoint (or work with Bluepoint again!), where I need to rely on a car and live elsewhere for an extended period of time, I’ll focus on finding the cheapest monthly AirBnB I can as close to the office as I can. Splitting rent wasn’t overly expensive, but I knew of a few AirBnB’s in the Austin area that would have saved me a few hundred a month. Car rental wise it’ll be difficult to avoid renting, so it might be worth purchasing a temporary beater of a car and driving it if the contract is longer than a few months.
  • I will not be doing any more cross country moves for contract work. The next cross country move I do will be if Kelsey and I pick up and move to Seattle. I made the mistake of thinking I’d be picking up some freelance on the side, so I packed my desktop. I didn’t. I barely did any personal art and I could have done that art in the studio if I needed to. I’ll pack a large suitcase, a small carry on, and a backpack. I can learn to do without a PS4 for a while.
    • Instead of my desktop, I’ll run out and buy a Surface Pro or Surface Book for the next contract. They have enough power to be functional for personal work and are super easy to travel with. They can also double as a tablet, so that’s one less item I need to bring with me. They can game OK too on low settings as long as it’s nothing demanding. Rocket League and hopefully Paragon should function.
  • While I like Trello and Toggl for my personal tracking, Shotgun by Autodesk is pretty cool. I don’t think our implementation at Bluepoint was ideal (Trello frankly would have worked better in some regards) but I can see it being absolutely invaluable to larger teams with dedicated producers and SCRUM Masters.
  • I haven’t use JIRA before working at Bluepoint. It can be annoying, but I found it pretty easy to use after asking a few questions.
  • I cannot stress enough how well Bluepoint treats contractors. They make sure you have what you need tools wise. They treat you like you’re a part of the team. You’re also contracted directly with them and not through a third party like Randstad or Work Force Logic. This means you are absolutely a 1099 worker and not an employee of a firm who then contracts you out to the studio you work for. I’m going to push for this whenever I do contract work for big studios.

Memorial Day Reflections

General / 30 May 2017

Past and Present Collide

I’ve been away from the blog for a little while now. I published two posts just a day ago, but they were written at the end of January. That was a pretty rough time and publishing them got lost in the shuffle. Writing is important to me, and doing my best to keep current with my Quarterly Report posts at the very least is the best way to keep on a consistent schedule. However, 2017 hasn’t been the normal I’ve become accustomed to for the past few years. I’m not teaching. I am contracting, but it’s on-site and away from my home. It’s a past version of my life meeting with my current realities and creating a rather unusual melding of my life to this point.

  • I’m working a 100% independent contract directly with Bluepoint. This is exactly how my contracts with smaller studios go, and how they’ve been with most of my New York work.
  • I’m working on-site on a large scale video game project (more than a 10 person team). I haven’t done this since 2013. All my game work post Turbine has been off-site.
  • I own a home in a large city on the east coast with my lovely girlfriend. This is part of my ‘present life’ as it were.
  • I’m currently living in a two bedroom apartment in Austin, TX for my job with a roommate who I also work with. This is like Bend all over, or my past life.
  • Austin has a lot of breweries and hip bars to check out. Like Bend.
  • It’s also a big city, though not as big as Philadelphia.

This isn’t to say I’m not enjoying my time at Bluepoint. I don’t think I’ve been treated this well by any studio before. I’m really enjoying the project I’m working on, and Austin is a pretty great city I’m slowly seeing more of. This experience is also giving me a general sense of how I want to move forward from Bluepoint when my contract is up. It’s just fascinating to me to see how my past and my present have collided in my experience here.

Dreams

I never thought I’d get the opportunity to work in-house in a game studio again. Philadelphia hosts a very small community of indie devs. It’s a community I need to get involved in. Unfortunately, that community isn’t going to foster a lot of employment potential unless some of the developers hit on something huge, like ARK: Survival Evolved. Frankly, the teams I’ve kept track of in Philadelphia don’t have the manpower or cash to pull that off anytime soon. ARK is a huge game with lots of server side technology required. Plus, even that team is finding ways to get their community to create content for them. I knew that I’d have to adjust to my reality and dreams after a few months in Philadelphia.

What’s great about dreams however is that you can change them. You can realign them with your reality. That doesn’t mean give up, it means find a way to make it happen within reality’s terms. You can also discover old dreams that you had forgotten. That is what happened after my move to Philly. After a time of adjusting to life, starting teaching, and taking contracts, I reached out to someone who I’d consider a friend now on Twitter about a gig in New York. That is what lead me to working with Psyop, and crashing in New York for a few weeks. Psyop lead me to VaynerMedia, and a temporary two month assignment there. I never did the math fully until I was here in Austin for a few weeks, but that was a dream of mine too.

At Tri-Central, my high school, every senior class would take a week long trip to Washington DC and then to New York City. I went on mine and had a good time in DC. But when we got up to New York and I could see the skyscrapers from the bus while No Leaf Clover was playing, I was astounded by the beauty of this man-made living organism that stretched to the sky. Indianapolis is a city, New York is a living being. Once we got into the city and were able to roam semi-freely, I was blown away by the variety of people there were. Not just based on race or what not, but also the way they dressed and acted! I even saw a real life cartoon pimp in Chinatown. The feeling of awe in New York couldn’t be beat.

Fast Forwarding 12 years to now, I realized that I accomplished a dream of mine last year. I just didn’t know it. I lived and worked in New York City. I got to experience walking around Brooklyn, checking out a few great breweries, seeing some exclusive bars in the East Village, Working on Madison Ave, and walking by the Empire State Building on a daily basis. When you’re in the moment and doing the work it’s easy to loose sight of what you’re living. If you take a second, breathe deep, and open your eyes, you might just realize you’re living one of your dreams.

And yes, I’m living another dream right now. In a few more months, I’ll be living a different one too.

Business Quick Hits

I will be saving most of my business thoughts for a First Half report that I’ll write at the end of July. While June is the half way mark for the year, my 2017 will be defined by the time I was working in Texas, and the time I wasn’t. It’s just easier that way. I do have some things I’d like to share since I missed my Q1 Quarterly Blog.

  • I’m shelling out $1600 a month for rent and my rental car. It’s not cheap and has hit my profits a little bit. However, I’m still profitable.
  • An additional hit to my profits has been a mix of paying all my taxes (I paid what I was suppose to for my quarterlies for once) and my travel expenses (some were unexpected) roughly every month or so.
    • I actually think the cost of a bachelor party I went to exceeded what I expected. Oops.
  • I’m not using my normal tracking tools. Instead I’m sticking with what Bluepoint uses to track their tasks and what not, as well as their invoice template. I’m pretty happy with all of it, but I am looking forward to getting back on the Trello bandwagon.
  • I’m working on making more connections for future remote work in the fall. Still too early to really do more than meet people and show my face multiple times at events. Everyone I’ve met though happens to be super awesome.

What’s next after this?

When I finish up at Bluepoint, I’ll be making a trek to Indiana for a few days to visit my family and pick up some junk from my house. I have a painting from my grandfather to get as well as some old game systems and other trinkets. Then it’ll be a long 12 hour trek to Philly.

I hope to be teaching three classes in the fall and getting back to regular contributions on the GameTextures blog page. I will be accepting contracts, but the load of contracts will be key. I’ll be looking for a balance between the value of the contract and my time commitment. Why? I’m looking to build something.

I’ve had some big ideas before that have fizzled out (Project NONA, Kitchen Asset Kit). I’m tired of that being the case. When I leave Austin, I’ll have some lightly beefed up savings and no debt. I also feel my brain is working better than before. I should be in a stable place overall.

I’m still slowly working out the kinks and writing down ideas. A lot of my work won’t be starting until I’m back home and able to talk with accountants, indie devs, and people from the larger start up community. Philadelphia has talent, I have experience, and I really like making games and creating experiences. It’s starting to be time for me to do something that’s got the potential to be bigger than just me.

Charles D. Berardo

My grandfather, Charles D. Berardo, was born on May 8th, 1929 and passed away on Febauary 1st, 2017 at the age of 87. His Obituary follows:

Charles passed away Wednesday, February 1, 2017. Born in Meridian, Mississippi, he was a son of the late Charles Bednie and Alice Elizabeth Beasley Dick. Charles served his country faithfully in the U.S. Army for 30 years as a musician. He retired as the Bandleader of the 282nd Army Band. He was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, and Good Conduct Medal. He served overseas in Korea and Germany. Following his military service, he obtained his degree from Midlands Technical College in computer science. He retired from Policy Management Systems after 12 years of service. Family was central to his life, and his military service was key in maintaining his focus on his family, despite the sacrifices he made. Charles was a loving husband, father, grandfather and brother who will be dearly missed.

He is survived by his children; son, John Charles Berardo (Anne Keats); daughter, Elisa Berardo Rose (Kenneth); son, Carlo Anthony Berardo (Linda Smith); 5 grandchildren; sister, Maryjean Breedlove (Wesley “Butch”) and extended family. In addition to his parents, Charles was predeceased by his loving wife of 58 years, Gilda Ventresca Berardo. 

My Grandfather was a big part of my life. It wasn’t until we moved to Indiana and I was well into high school that we didn’t see my grandparents at least once a year. I loved going down to South Carolina for Christmas. We always got better presents when we visited.

It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I really appreciated Grandpa for what he stood for. My memories of he and Nona together were almost always those of a loving marriage. They would bicker of course, but it almost always ended with the two of them laughing in one way or another. He would laugh because he couldn’t hear her and she would laugh because us grand kids would make jokes and tease the two of them. We’re a family of teasers. When she got sick, he did his best to take care of her.

Grandpa was also very smart. How many 87 year old men are working to keep their PC’s updated? He had Windows 10! He also had something like 800 passwords. He went to school to learn programming COBOL after he was out of the Army and used that knowledge in the 80’s and early 90’s at his job at an insurance company, or it might have been a company that did data management for insurance, I’m not positive. In the early 2000’s, he helped my Uncle Carlo run his own Trucking Company. I think at one time they had 2 or 3 additional drivers. Not half bad for a retired Sargent Major.

When I think about Grandpa, I think about a man who succeeded at just about everything he did because he worked hard and worked smart. I also think about how I wish I could ask him more questions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t mature enough to really dig deep into asking him real questions and getting into his past until I was in my late 20’s. That’s being human however. We lead short lives.

I miss you Grandpa. I hope you and Nona are having fun in whatever comes after this.

-Daniel Rose

 

Hardwired…To Self Destruct

General / 28 May 2017

Hardwired…To Self Destruct

I don’t typically music reviews. I’m not an audiophile, at least not yet. I’m also rather out of the loop of popular music. I can often make my girlfriend’s eyes roll when I ask a question about a performer on SNL. I do try to listen to new stuff from time to time, and Spotify really makes that easy with their Discover Weekly playlist. But I’m stubborn and thusly I always return to Metallica.

I didn’t discover Metallica until I was in my early teens, probably around 1999 or so. I’m sure I heard Enter Sandman on the radio or some of their Load and Re-Load tracks occasionally as a kid. While I was in band and liked music, I never sat and listened to the radio growing up. My mom wasn’t a fan of me listening to anything that rocked harder than 70’s rock or 80’s pop which, coicendientally, is all that Z 92.5 would play in Kokomo, Indiana. So my first true exposure to the band came from a downloaded Dragonball Z music video set to No Leaf Clover. My buddy Caleb turned me on to it. He liked the song too, but to me that song was something I could listen to over and over again. It came from their S&M album, but I wouldn’t find that out until later thanks to X 103.3.

X 103.3 was Indianapolis’ rock station for years. These days it’s…I don’t know. Last time I was home it was a soft rock/alternative station that bared no resemblance to what I grew up with. At the time, The X played Load, Re-Load, and Black Album (the name for the self-titled Metallica album) material all the time. I started passively listening around 16 and I grew to really love the music the station played. When I started getting into fitness, I would go running at 10 at night. The X had a “Mandatory Metallica” block that started at 10 pm. They would play 3 songs and I’d go and run around the town for 15-20 minutes a night. Mandatory Metallica introduced me to their older back catalogue. In the morning, the more recent stuff had to be played because it’s what was more modern and hip. At night, it was anything goes. Sometimes, you’d have a crazy playlist with the likes of Bleeding Me, Stone Cold Crazy, and Trapped Under Ice all in the same rotation. It was thanks to some chatter from the night DJ that I eventually bought The Black Album and listened to it constantly. It was as if James Hetfield, the lead vocalist, rhythm guitar player, and songwriter was speaking about everything I felt like I had gone through. I couldn’t get enough.

Metallica’s been with me for all of the good and bad of my life. From the pains of high school to the difficulty of adjusting to college to my move to Oregon to meeting my girlfriend to my move to Philadelphia. From my highs at Sony Bend to my intermittent lows freelancing. James Hetfield has lyrics for every emotion and Kirk Hammet has a solo for every occasion. And Lars drums I guess.

It’s impossible for me to review Hardwired to Self Destruct completely objectively. Metallica is basically a life partner for me at this point. But I feel like trying. I want to give some thoughts on this album and share where a mega fan thinks it ranks along their albums.

Songs

  1. Hardwired to Self Destruct
    1. The song is a short, to the point thrasher. It’s not the best thrash song they’ve done but it’s pretty damn solid. I also enjoy the lyrics. I think it sums up the human race (or even individuals) very well.
  2. Atlas, Rise!
    1. When I first heard it I was unsure how I felt. It has a bunch of pacing and rhythm changes over the course of the song. But after a few listens it clicked and I found it to be one of the best songs they’ve done in a long time.
  3. Now That We’re Dead
    1. A mid-tempo poppy rock tune. I dig it. Nice change up from the first two songs. Lyrics are open to interpretation.
  4. Moth to Flame
    1. Fantastic song. It’s poppy, it’s fast, the lyrics about fame or social media (aren’t they the same thing these days?) are spot on…it’s great to run to. Only have praise for this one.
  5. Dream No More
    1. This feels like a song you’d hear on Load. It’s heavy but on the slower side tempo wise. Lyrics are open to interpretation, and Cthulhu makes a fun reappearance.
  6. Halo on Fire
    1. I seem to find myself in love with this song. It’s not fast. Lyrically I seem to love it, if feels like it’s about the duality of a man during the nights. It’s a cool mash up of big anthems like “Sad but True” and slower, bluesy tunes like “Until it Sleeps”.
  7. Confusion
    1. Song feels a tad unfocused. It’s a bit faster at points, but the rhythm and thus lyrics go off tempo more than my tastes prefer.
  8. ManUNKind
    1. Weird one. It’s not a bad song, it’s totally a blues styled song. Lots of odd time signature change ups. Nothing else quite like it on the record, the other blues songs past this point don’t work as well.
  9. Here Comes Revenge
    1. Not a fan of the lyrics and the music is kind of bland.
  10. Am I Savage?
    1. The lyrics and story it tells is very fascinating. It fits in well with some of their slower tunes like The Thing That Should not Be. Unfortunately, I personally don’t dig it too much musically.
  11. Murder One
    1. I know this a tribute to Lemmy…and thus Motorhead…but I just don’t like it. Turned me off on my first listen and has continued to be that way.
  12. Spit Out The Bone
    1. FUCK YES. This song is also fantastic. Pure thrash, awesome lyrics. This song is almost a throwback to old school Metallica in every way.

Album as a whole

If you listen to the album as a whole, it actually works very well. Minus Murder One, everything is placed in a great way. Disc one is stronger for sure, but the pacing of the entire album wouldn’t have worked as well if it was spread out differently.

Split out into individual songs, it’s a different story. Everything on disc one is pretty solid, but Spit Out The Bone is the only standout on disc two.

Final Thoughts:

Spit Out the Bone, Moth to Flame, and Atlas Rise! Are, objectively, easily some of the best Metallica songs around. They probably won’t be revered as much as they should due to coming out in 2016 and not 1989. Ranking individual songs would be far too difficult, but I think these three are some of the best tunes since both The Black Album and …And Justice For All.

The Album itself is great. Expecting a band to create a masterpiece every time they are up to bat is unrealistic and unfair. Unfortunately, that’s the trap Metallica has fallen into since the mid 80’s. Hardwired to Self Destruct isn’t consistently great, but its high points are fucking high and its low points, other than Murder One, aren’t very low. This album feels like Ride The Lightning, The Black Album, and Load all got mushed into a single record, and as a fan of most of Metallica’s work (even St. Anger has some redeeming qualities) I have to say I love this record.

Here’s how I’d slot the studio albums as of today. I’m not including Lulu or S&M, these are Metallica solo albums only.

  • Master of Puppets
  • Ride The Lightning
  • The Black Album (Metallica)
  • Kill’em All
  • Hardwired
  • And Justice for All
    • I love Justice, but as an album it’s a bit rough. The mixing is terrible and a number of the songs are just…just way too long.
  • Load
  • Death Magnetic
    • Hard to rank vs Load, mostly because they are completely different albums. Decided to slot here because Load has a few songs I personally identify very much with.
  • Garage Inc.
  • Re-Load
  • Anger

Metallica is a versatile band that’s more than Thrash Metal these days, and that’s exactly what Hardwired to Self Destruct showcases.

-Dan

Quarterly Report :Q4 2016…And a few other things

General / 28 May 2017

*Note-I wrote this and planned to publish it in January after I set up shop in Austin for my contract with Bluepoint Games. Apparently it go lost in the shuffle. I have decided to publish it as is with only normal spelling and grammatical edits.*

Certainly a few days late isn’t a big deal at this point.

Quarter 4 is a very difficult quarter to break down. From later November on my personal life played a larger role than my professional life. It had to for a number of reasons.

  1. I bought a house with my girlfriend. We moved into it in the middle of December and I spent numerous days doing odd fix up jobs during Christmas.
  2. My siblings came to visit me at the end of November for Thanksgiving. It was a blast and I needed to see them.
  3. I was completely and utterly burnt out after 2016. I knew that 2017 was going to start off with a bang, so I took advantage of having a bit of spare cash and a huge job lined up and relaxed.
    1. Sort of-because House Buying is really stressful and a long process.

Because of what I just outlined above, my Fourth Quarter results are very out of the ordinary.

Task Tracking

I’m going to not include goal hours this quarter due to December being such a departure from the norm.

  • Hours Worked: 306.5
  • Billable Hours: 261.5
  • Average Efficiency: 83%

October and early November closed out VaynerMedia, and the same caveats from my last quarterly applied. I immediately rolled off of VaynerMedia into two projects; a visualization for a future gallery space in New York City, and an unpaid art test (as they usually are) for Bluepoint Games in Austin Texas. At early points, all three projects (VaynerMedia, visualization, and the art test) were going at the same time. This further fed the feeling of being burnt out.

Finally, I wrote four blogs for Gametextures to be published slowly from December to the start of February. This was to allow the site to continue to have content while I moved into my new home and then made preparations for my assignment in January.

Income

October and November with both quite good to me. VaynerMedia carried me through October and I still had a light workload from them in November. My visualization project paid well, as most work from New York does.

December was lighter than the previous months, with most of my incoming being from GameTextures. However, I worked a few hours on a project for one of my former regular clients, Motion Logic Studios. John is always fun to work with, and it’s been a while since I was able to work with him. A lot has changed with Motion Logic, but he has not.

Even with a December in which I only wrote and didn’t work many hours, I still managed a pretty impressive 41% increase in my year over year income for the quarter. My fourth quarter last year wasn’t half bad either.

Looking Ahead

I will be pretty busy for the next two weekends, so if I find time to write my year in review it’ll be during the week. I have a family matter to attend to this weekend, and the weekend after that I will be in Philadelphia.

Much like I did with VaynerMedia, I’m currently not tracking hours at my current assignment. I’ll be working some fairly long hours from time to time, and I’ll be keeping them tracked in my invoices to the company I’m working with so I’ll be able to use them to keep an eye on how many hours I work per a quarter. I’ll continue to assume 80% or so efficiency, so the focus on my upcoming quarterly reports will be a little bit different for the next two quarters or so.

Oh yes, the result of the art test I took in the fourth quarter I mentioned. That is my current client. I’m working on-site in Austin Texas at Bluepoint Games as a Contract Senior Environment Artist. 2017 has started with a bang indeed.