Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Dec 29, 2005

Fiction: Mr. Rose

As told by Dakota Sue

Eb found me a used Jeep for a song and I spent the better part of three days giving it a much-needed overhaul and nervously watching Eb tinker.  Still miraculously unexploded, I hit out on the Road, headed for Freedom City.

By lunchtime I was missing my CB; I hit a big slowdown on I-70 just past Indianapolis and by the time I got to the City rush hour had set in.  I should have pulled off and gotten some dinner but by that time I was so road-dazed that I didn’t think about it until I saw the brake lights ahead flaring to life and staying that way.  I groaned and pressed my forehead against the wheel just as something heavy came down on the Jeep and everything went dark.

I don’t have any clear recollection of what happened; my next conscious memory is of showing Rose’s card to a passerby and trying to get directions.  I’d grabbed most of the useful stuff, including my fire-axe, out of the demolished Jeep and I had a few minor scrapes and bruises, but that gesture of frustration had saved me from serious injury.

I put on the speed and less than fifteen minutes later I was shouting at an overly-made-up secretary who was trying to feed me a line about an appointment.  

“Look, Barbie doll,” I snapped, “I was just stepped on by a 200-foot action figure; I don’t care who’s in there, you get him out here right now!”

“Ah, Susan, what seems to be the trouble?”

I blew out a lungful of air and shook myself before turning to look at him.  It was different, meeting him here where he was in his element and I was the fish-out-of-water.  The office was neat, elegant, and small, not at all suited for a big woman that looked like she belonged on a construction site.  It didn’t help that I was filthy.

“Excuse me,” I muttered.  “There’s a giant Tonka toy out there busting up the City.  It stepped on me,” I added somewhat sullenly.

“Show me.”
We took the elevator up to the roof where the red-and-gold robot was clearly visible, stomping its mindless mechanical way through the streets.  “Mecha,” Rose commented mildly.

“It’s plastic.  In fact, it kind of looks like those Power Rangers toys my cousins were always leaving around.  Those things were lethal.  If they weren’t going whizzz! out from under your foot they’d break and drive sharp edges into your soles.  Stuffed animals, that’s the ticket.”

He chuckled.  A few flashes lit up the sky briefly.  “It looks as though someone’s already on it,” Rose offered.

I squinted; the superheroes were tiny, barely visible.  “It doesn’t look like they’re making much headway.”

“Shall we go and see if we can assist?”

“Sounds good to me.”  Rose jumped off the building; after rolling my eyes I followed, landing inelegantly but safely on the pavement below.  He started up the street, but I grabbed his shoulder.  “Where do you think you’re going?”

He blinked at me.  “To help?”

“By following it?  I don’t know or care where it’s going, and from the looks of things neither does it.  I want to know where it came from, which means we need to go where it’s been.”

“Oh.”
I felt better after that.  For a while there I’d been shocked and uncertain, not at all my usual state.  If I was telling confused people what they ought to do the universe was back to operating smoothly again.

We backtracked along the path of destruction, hurrying as best we could through the rubble and mobs of frightened people, who I cheerfully assisted with yells of “Go home!” and “If you’re going to stand around, make yourself useful and dig out this mess!”  The signs of damage rapidly diminished.

“It’s getting smaller?” Rose asked.

“Or, it got bigger in a hurry.  We must be close now.”  Abruptly we came to the end of the trail in a section of apartment buildings.  It looked very much like a dead end, too, until I heard a desultory clicking noise.  A very small child wearing only his pajamas was sitting by an overflowing dumpster and playing with a plastic gun, the kind that fires a little plastic missile with a spring.  Scattered around him were some broken bits of action figures, and it appeared that he’d been crying.  I walked over and looked down at him.  He shot me in the knee.

“What are you doing?” I asked.  He shrugged and picked up his missile again, so I gently but firmly took the gun away from him. “I said, what are you doing?”

“’m not s’posed to talk to grown-ups.”

“All right, then where are your parents?”  He pointed up at the apartment building.  “How old are you?”  He thought for a moment, then held up three fingers.  “Do they know you’re out here all by yourself?”  He shrugged.

“Rose, you stay here with this kid while I go check on his parents, okay?”  The Elf was watching me with a weirdly fascinated expression on his face.  “What?”

“Do you like children?”

“Not especially.”  The building had a security door with a lock, but I was in a hurry so I just ripped it off its hinges.  A thorough search was not required; I almost gagged on the putrescent stench rising up the basement stairwell.  No one with a choice would go down there, so I headed upstairs.  The smell of a fresh breeze led me down the hallway to a half-open door, where two kids jumped me from behind.  I nailed one in the gut with an elbow, a girl about twelve, as she fired a smoking beam over my shoulder, but the boy sank claws and teeth into me and hung on.  

He was punishingly strong and mad with fury in the way that only children and the criminally insane can manage; I yelled for Rose while trying to keep him from taking out my eyes or throat, no easy task.

The Elf came sprinting up the stairs and put a neat hole through the little monster’s kidney.  I grabbed my axe and finished him off before he could recover.  Rose stared at me, horrified and disgusted.  “You killed him!”

“Yeah, and he’d have had me if you’d been a little slower.  Your point?”

“He was only a child!”  Nearby the girl was making sick bubbling noises; an elbow from a mature super can do a lot of damage, and you can kill someone easiest by hitting them hard in the gut.  The old liver and spleen can’t take much abuse before they burst.  I didn’t expect she’d make it until the EMT’s arrived.

“Call the cops, Rose.”

He woodenly pulled out his cell phone and dialed, staring at me reproachfully all the while.  After a moment his glare transferred to the phone.  “I can’t get through.  Too many calls about the giant robot, most likely.  I still can’t believe you did that.”

I sighed.  “Notice anything wrong with this apartment building?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“There’s no adults, Rose, and I’d be willing to bet that it’s because they’re all down in the basement, dead as posts.  So don’t try to convince me that I’m the villain here.  See if you can do anything for the girl so we can at least say we tried.”

He hitched up his slacks and knelt over her, searching.  “I fail to comprehend what this has to do with the giant robot.”

“Well, I think we’re about to find out,” I replied.  The three-year-old had made his way up the stairs and was now ambling down the hall, peering past me at Rose and the two bodies.  He stopped just out of my reach and stared up at me.

“What’s going on?” he asked.  Rose started to speak but I stared him down.

“I killed the two older children.”

He appeared to consider this for a while, playing with a button on his pajamas.  “Like on TV?”  I had the feeling he wasn’t referring to some sanitized cartoon.

“Just like on TV.”  He sat down on the floor and poked at the wall.  I sat down next to him and pulled my knees up.  “I’m sorry.” I offered.

He patted my leg.  “It is okay.  They were-ent very nice.  They made my zord go away.”

“They did?”

“Rick tried to break him.  So he went away.”

“Well, he can come back now.”  He nodded, the motion hugely exaggerated and going on for several seconds.

“I’m hungry.”

“Let’s go get you a sandwich or something.”

I sat on the front stoop with Todd (that was his name) while he smushed peanut butter and jelly over his face.  I think at least some of it went in his mouth, because after he was done masticating he put his head on my leg and went to sleep.  I tore off a hanging tatter of my sleeve and did my best to clean off the stickiest parts.  Eventually Rose must have gotten through to the dispatcher, because some cops showed up and started doing cop things.  After a lengthy discussion they gingerly approached me and took Todd away.  I didn’t protest.

Rose came out of the building and sat down next to me.  He was still a little white in the face, but he seemed to have recovered his aplomb.

“That was hideous,” he remarked.

“No kidding.  This hero business is for the birds.”

“Heh.  So why are you still here?”
I fluttered my hands next to my shoulders.  “Chirp chirp.”

He started to laugh: high, thin, hysterical, which was scary because it wasn’t that funny.  I was afraid for a moment that I was going to lose him, but he managed to get it under control.  I’d forgotten temporarily that Elves are crazy for kids.  It’s not uncommon for a powerful Fairy-lord to adopt random street children and spoil them rotten.  It’s also part of the reason they dislike humans so much; not that we mistreat our young (which we do), but that the children they adopt are so ungrateful about everything.

He sighed.  “The EMT’s said that all three children show signs of long-term physical abuse.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“Would you still have killed them, if you’d known that beforehand?”

“How should I know?  Are you going to turn back time so I can have another try?  I was irritated that I let them sneak up on me, but I don’t think I could have talked them down.  In a straight-up fight the result would probably have been the same.”

He sighed.

“Can I ask you something?”

“If you must.”

“What are you doing here?  I was under the impression that most Elves stay in the Old Country.”

He fluttered one hand dismissively.  “I made an ill-advised suggestion to Her Majesty about adopting a parliamentary system, since it worked so well for the humans.  She didn’t take it very well.  So I came here for asylum.”

“I’ll bet.  So do you have a job for me or not?”

“Excuse me?”

“A job.  You know, like you were talking about when you gave me your card?”

“I cannot believe you would bring that up at a time like this!” he sniffed, putting his fists on his hips.  Sitting down, he looked less than imposing.

“Hey, I could starve to death waiting for the right time.  I need to know the answer pretty quickly, here!”

“Um, well, the truth is that I don’t, precisely, have a job for you, per se.”

“I figured as much, but without all the modifiers.”

“AEGIS, though, is recruiting, there’s a field exercise tomorrow at . . .” he glanced at his watch.  “Make that today . . .”

“A test?  Do I look like a square peg to you?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Never mind, just tell me when it is.”

“Um . . . three hours.”

I just groaned.

Dec 27, 2005

Fiction: Eberhard Brome

As Told by Dakota Sue

I was still a little iffy about changing my career path so dramatically, so I decided to go for some legal advice.  I’m not entirely sure why people do this.  I think the idea is that your lawyer is supposed to assure you that you’re going to end up naked, bankrupt, incarcerated and publicly humiliated, and if this doesn’t kill your enthusiasm he’s supposed to have you committed.  In any case, I was pretty sure I could rely on him to talk me out of it.

My lawyer isn’t bad, although he’d be better if he knocked off the theoretical physics. He won’t hear a word against it; he refuses to stop until he figures out how to get back to his own universe.  Eberhard Brome got shunted here from an alternate timeline a couple of years ago.  He was a lawyer there, too, and got involved in some godawful debacle of a case that seemed likely to ruin his career, so he decided to appeal to a higher power, namely this fellow called (really) Notorious Maxwell, who’d invented a Theoretical Future Generator, aka Wish Machine.

Eb paid him to swing the case and the machine worked perfectly, apart from that teensy little side effect of transporting him into an entirely different universe.  He appeared, with his client, in the middle of The Jerry Springer Show.  Jerry made them tell their story and hammed it up big to the crowd.  Somewhere there is a video of Eb with a truly appalled expression on his face as he’s being hugged and cried-on by an enormous lady wearing nothing but a bikini.  So, he won the case in the court of public opinion.  I don’t think I need to add any further instructive commentary about being careful what you wish for.

Eb hates it here, he cannot stand all the Americans.  I didn’t understand his complaint at first, so I asked him, “Eb, aren’t you an American?”

“I’m British!” he yelled, mortally offended.  I always thought that if you were born in America, you were an American.  It turned out that in Eb’s original universe there never was any Revolutionary War.  If you call someone “American” there, what you really mean is that they’re an Indian.  No, not from India!  I meant like someone whose ancestors came from America.  No, not me!  Okay, look, I knew what I meant, so if you’ll just be quiet maybe I can finish this story before next week.

Anyway, I then asked Eb why he didn’t just move to Britain.  He said he tried it but the football was worse than the Americans.  Hey, don’t look at me, I don’t claim to understand it, I’m just telling you what he said.  So instead he does experiments with theoretical physics and pays for it by giving legal advice.  

In order to avoid too much contact with Americans he lives in this little cabin out in the middle of nowhere and does his consulting over the internet.  There was an amusing incident last year when he got arrested as a suspected terrorist after a failed experiment exploded.  (I warned him about those sunglasses and hooded sweatshirts.)  He got off because technically he’s a super, although the only power I’d ever seen him exhibit was an amazing ability to narrowly escape being blown up every week or so.

There’s no road to Eb’s place that will handle my rig, so I parked it down at the old Boy Scout campground and hiked instead.  It’s only about three miles and sometimes it’s nice to stretch your legs a bit, so I didn’t mind.

The cabin was dark when I arrived and the door was locked, but there was usually a key under the porch unless it’d been stolen by raccoons again, so after grubbing around in the leaves for a while I climbed up the stairs to let myself in.  I grabbed a Coke out of his fridge and went into the living room to sit down, where I encountered the naked man.

Ever see Michelangelo’s David?  This was that guy.  He looks better in real life.  He was lying sprawled on a divan covered with leopard skins, a piece of furniture I was pretty sure Eb had never even thought about owning, and tossing what looked like a shot-put idly from hand to hand.

“So who are you?” I asked.  “New roommate?”

He snatched the round stone out of the air and lazily raised himself on his elbows to look at me.  “Heed, Human, you hail Herthagon, Games-Hero, anointed by Hera, speak thus immoderately and lose thy head.”

I scowled, but sometimes you just have to be diplomatic however much you might prefer otherwise.  “As we are both guests in this house of Brome, if Herthagon finds my speech offensive, he might convey me to our mutual host so I might conclude my business and remove myself from his presence.”

“Well, I don’t know, what’s the magic word?”

I blinked.  “Please?”

He chuckled.  “You are acquainted with Mr. Brome, I take it?”

“He’s my lawyer.”

Herthagon shook his head sadly.  “I fear you may wish to obtain another; he has offended lovely Aphrodite and must face me tomorrow upon the field of battle.”

“Really?  What did he do?”

“I know not, I was in California until called here to act as Champion.  Knowing Aphrodite, he may simply have sneezed at the wrong time.”

“Sheesh.”
He shrugged elegantly.  “He could have apologized.  If you wish you may act as his champion, but you must first pass several trials.”

“Like what?”

“I am not permitted to say.”

Ah, hell.  Eb’s not really a great friend, but you can’t just leave people to get killed because some pagan goddess is ticked at them without at least making an effort.

“All right, all right.  Bring on the trials.”

Herthagon sprang lightly to his feet and led me through the house to the back door.  When I followed him through I stepped out into the middle of a wide, dusty field under a blazing sun.  Not far away stood another naked man.  I was beginning to detect a theme here.  This particular gentleman was shorter and older than Herthagon with a permanently dissatisfied expression.  He took one look at me and snorted, then pointed to a nearby set of benches and armor stands.  “Get dressed!”

I sighed and peeled out of my clothes, picked up a pot of olive oil and coated myself with it, and then grabbed a couple of handfuls of dust to get the oil off my hands.  The older fellow snorted again and Herthagon nodded, so apparently my guess was correct.

The three of us trooped over to a wide track where a skinny young guy was warming up.  He started to smirk when he saw me and announced, “You’re paler than a dead fish!” I stuck my tongue out at him and he laughed.  “I am Hermes, piscine one.  Are you ready to race?”

“Sure, although you’ll beat me hands down.  I’ve heard of you.”

“We will see.”

“Line!” bellowed the old guy.  I barely had enough time to step up next to Hermes before he howled “race!” and we were off.

I dug my toes in and sprinted, making it maybe a quarter of the way down the track before I realized Hermes was tagging along right behind my left shoulder and grinning at me.  I slowed down, hoping he’d go past, but he slowed down, too, his unnerving grin widening slightly.  Finally I came to a dead stop and glared at him.

“After you,” I announced, gesturing down the track.

“No, after you.

I opened my mouth, closed it again, shrugged, and started running with the mad grinning godling a half-step behind me.  At least, until about five feet before the finish line, when he abruptly darted around me and finished first.  Twit.

I frowned at Herthagon.  “What was the point of that?”  He handed me his shot-put solemnly.

“Throw!” the old guy howled, and before I could react a Titan picked me up and chucked me over the field.  I got the breath knocked out of me when I landed, but otherwise I wasn’t much hurt.  After lying in the dust for a while and wheezing, I got to my feet and looked up at the Titan, who was bent over laughing.  So I threw the shot-put at him and, not surprisingly, missed.  Still laughing, the Titan disappeared over the horizon.

I trotted back to Herthagon and the old man, to be handed a javelin and pointed at some targets further down the field.  I groaned inwardly; my aim is terrible, if you couldn’t figure that out after I failed to hit a fifty-foot-tall Titan even when he was holding still.  There was no point in making a fuss about it, so I hurled the javelin as best I could.

Amazingly, it hit one of the targets, although not, of course, the one I was aiming for.  The roughly man-shaped wooden block opened its eyes, glared at the offending weapon, and charged me.  I booked it; that golem or whatever-it-was chased me across the field for almost half an hour before it gave up.

Finally Herthagon and the old guy came and found me where I was hiding behind a bench.  The old man grunted something and left.  I glanced at Herthagon.

“He says you passed.”

Some time later, as he was leading me to see Eb after I’d had a bath and been given a clean tunic and sandals, I asked him, “So what was the point of all that, anyway?  To see if I’d lose my temper?”

“I couldn’t say,” was the only response.

“Do you think you could be any less helpful?”

He paused, then turned around to look at me.  “Do you think I like this any more than you do?  I was enjoying my career in Hollywood when I was yanked here by a goddess in a snit, possibly so that I can fight and die for her pleasure.”  He sighed. “Entering Aphrodite’s service seemed appealing when I was young and trying to break into show business.  It gives you a real edge in the looks department.  Unfortunately it winds up costing you more than it’s worth.”

“Hey, you signed up for this of your own free will, something that can’t be said for either Eb or myself.”

“I know, I know.”

Eb peeked out of his cell further down the hallway.  I was hoping he’d look sort of happy to see me, but he just gave me a reproachful look.  “Well if that doesn’t beat everything.  What are you doing here?”  Although he claims to be British, Eb doesn’t have much of an accent.  He sounds like he’s from Ohio.

“Nice to see you, too, Eb.”

“Answer the question!”

“I thought I might stand as your champion during tomorrow’s festivities.”

Instantly the furious glare dissolved as his face lit up.  “Really?”

“I figured I was marginally better suited for it than you.”

He looked suspicious.  “So what’s in it for you?”

“Two words.  Ree fund.”

“A refund?  What sort of refund?”

“The sort where I get back all the money I’ve paid you.”

“What, all of it?”

“Yep.”

“Really all of it?!” he was starting to sound a bit panicky.  “That’s a lot of money!”

“Hey, I could leave and let Herthagon cut your head off.”  That notable flexed his muscles helpfully.

“This is base extortion!”

“Take it or leave it.”

“Fine!” Eb shouted and threw himself down on his cot.

Herthagon shook his head.  “Later.”  I took a seat on my own pallet and leaned back against the wall.

“So what happened, exactly?” I asked Eb.  There was no response, so I picked up a pebble and pelted him with it.  “Hey, bean-brain, what happened?!”

“Ow!  Hmph.  Aphrodite and Hephaestus were having an argument and I walked in on it.”

“I need details!”

He sighed.  “I accidentally created a spatial vortex during one of my experiments, and the next thing I know this necklace falls out of it and hits me on the head.  Five seconds later this woman appears and offers me love, wealth, happiness, you name it, if I’ll just give it to her.  Then a big guy shows up and says that it already belongs to him.  Then the argument started.”

“Oh, let me guess, you offered to consult?”

“Exactly.  Come on, I’m a lawyer, what do you expect?  Aphrodite yelled ‘mortal hubris!’ and here I am.  I hate gods.”

“Heh.  What were they arguing about, anyway?”

“Oh, Aphrodite commissioned this necklace from Hephaestus, but when it was finished he changed his mind about the payment.  Aphrodite refuses to pay on the new terms, so Hephaestus refuses to give her the necklace.”

“Lord, sounds like something from Judge Judy.”

He snorted.  “I will never understand your fascination with daytime television.  So why are you here?”

“I wanted you to help me sell my rig.  I figured, since you arranged the purchase for me, you could help me out.”

“Getting out of the trucking business?”

I shrugged.  “Something like that.  I’m going to get some sleep.”

The fight wasn’t much to talk about, since I went into it with no intention of ever fighting fair.  I nailed Herthagon in the elbow first thing, robbing him of his sword, and after that it was a bunch of undignified rolling around and pummeling, which ended, predictably, with me sitting on him and twisting his arm until he gave in.  Aphrodite was irked.

“What a useless servant you are!  I’m of half a mind to give you to Hades for a while!”

Hephaestus rumbled, “Give me the necklace, lawyer-man, and let us be done with this, although I would rather have an engine in any case,” he continued, glaring at Aphrodite.  She snarled.

Eb started doing some sort of pantomime in my direction, but I was way ahead of him.  “Miss Aphrodite, could I trade you for your servant?”

She blinked at me, nonplussed.  “Trade?  What?”

“Well, I have this semi I’m looking to get rid of, I figured you might have a use for it.”

She glared.  “What possible use could I have for some dirty . . .”

“Well, for the engine at least.” I interrupted.  There was a long pause.  Gods are slow on the uptake.  Then she sniffed, although there was a greedy gleam in her eye.

“It’s probably worth more than he is, however dirty.  Take your men and go!”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Thanks,” Herthagon managed as we limped back to Eb’s house.  “I owe you.”  He smirked.  “Do you have any particular sort of payment in mind?”

I glared at him.  “Cash please.  Those rigs are expensive.”  He pouted a bit, but didn’t say anything.

Eb chuckled lewdly.  “And here Miss Trash-Talker turns out to be a prude.”

“I’ll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself.”

“You’ll thank me?”

“Yeah, because I know you’re going to do it.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because only an American would be so crude as to make intimations about the personal life of one of his lady friends.”

Eb shut up.

Dec 22, 2005

The Lunar Men

This book about the Lunar Society by Jenny Uglow is a wonderful exposition of the Britain of the 1700's and the marvellous individuals it produced; individuals who broke free of the old traditions and explored the realms of science, politics, art, and industry.

The Lunar Society was a club of friends that met every full moon to discuss their discoveries and develop their theories by discussion and debate. The principal members followed in the book are:

John Whitehurst
Matthew Boulton
Josiah Wedgewood
Erasmus Darwin
Joseph Priestley
William Small
James Keir
James Watt
William Withering
Richard Lovell Edgeworth
Thomas Day
Samuel Galton

Many of these names have significant fame attached to them, like Joseph Priestley, an experimental chemist who corresponded with Lavosier and founded the Unitarian church.

The overall tone of the book is one of reason, industry, efficacy, and delight in all things; well worth reading.

Holiday Success Story

The video isn't the greatest, but it's still worth checking out.

A local man in Dayton went all-out in his efforts to produce a fantastic lights display, and as a result he was featured in a Budweiser commercial.

I love this lights display, not simply for its display of technical savvy, but because it was constructed purely for enjoyment and has reaped impressive rewards for that.

Dec 20, 2005

Dakota Sue's Stats

PL 8

STATISTICS: STR 12 [22] (+6) DEX 16 [26] (+8) CON 16 [26] (+8) INT 12 (+1) WIS 16 (+3) CHA 12 (+1)

COMBAT: Attack +2 [+8] Defense +2 [+8]

SAVES: Tough +8, Fort +8, Ref +8, Will +8

SKILLS: Acrobatics 7 (+15), Climb 4 (+10), Craft: Mechanical 5 (+6), Drive 7 (+15), Intimidate 13 (+14), Knowledge: Current Events 10 (+11), Knowledge: History 7 (+8), Knowledge: Tactics 7 (+8) Notice 12 (+15), Profession: Truck Driver 6 (+9), Sense Motive 10 (+13)

FEATS: All-out Attack, Ambidexterity, Attack Focus: Melee [6], Chokehold, Diehard, Dodge Focus [6], Elusive Target, Evasion [2], Equipment [2], Fascinate: Intimidate, Grappling Finesse, Improved Grapple, Improved Pin, Improved Throw, Improved Trip, Luck, Uncanny Dodge

POWERS: Enhanced Strength 10, Enhanced Dexterity 10, Enhanced Constitution 10, Leaping 3, Super-Movement 3 (x2 Wall-crawling, Slow Fall), Super-Strength 2, Super-Senses 2 (low-light vision, scent), Speed +2

Stats 24 + Combat 8 + Saves 5 + Skills 22+ Feats 29 + Powers 47 = 135 pp

EQUIPMENT: Fire Axe (+2 damage, mighty), commlink, camera, binoculars, flashlight, handcuffs, digital audio recorder, cell phone

DESCRIPTION: 6’1”, 172 lbs, light brown hair, gray eyes, pale skin
Here are Dakota Sue's current statistics, if anyone is curious.

Where's my Chocolate?!

My aunt sent me this marvellous bar of Lindt chocolate truffles for Christmas, a flavor that I've never seen or tasted before, and I cannot find another one. It's this wonderful Weihnachts-Chocolade, in other words, milk chocolate with a hazelnut filling, flavored with cinnamon and coriander.

I was going to post a link so everyone could run out and buy it, but I can't find it.

Not fair.

Update: *smacks forehead* okay, now I'm embarrassed. After trying unsuccessfully for half an hour with Yahoo!, I switched to Google (which I should have used in the first place, silly me) and, lo, I found a link. Click on the title to see.

Stupid Yahoo!

Dec 19, 2005

Fiction Feature

A question: do you like the fiction I've been adding? Do you find it annoying and distracting, or would you like to see more of it?

New Additions

You may have noticed there are some new links over on the left there.  Apart from ‘rolling the previously mentioned Gus Van Horn, I’ve also added Diana Mertz Hsieh’s Noodlefood, one of my favorite blogs, since she updates every day at least and usually has some fascinating observations on things I hadn’t noticed.  Then there’s Cox and Forkum, political cartoonists, and well worth a check in to see what they’re up to lately.  

Lastly, there’s Myrhaf, a relatively new blogger that discusses all sorts of cultural tidbits.  I really like his blog.

Fiction: Natori Taiko

As Told by Dakota Sue

So, I told you about how I met Mr. Rose, right? (I know Fairy is an Elvish honorific, but I’m human and there is no way I’m calling him that.) Well, after we parted ways I delivered those gaskets to Blackstone Manufacturing in Texas.

The Teamsters’ Local was making some sort of stink about rates at the time, so I decided not to try and pick up any jobs in Texas. The Union and I aren’t especially fond of each other, largely since I’m not a member and I charge lower rates than they do. Yeah, so it’s illegal. Sure, I would have been in trouble, if, that is, they’d ever managed to prove my existence to the government. A bit of a sticky proposition when you’re entitled to a Secret Identity. Yeah, yeah, I have one. I try not to take advantage of it too much. The Union finally stopped bothering me when more direct methods proved even less fruitful. That doesn’t mean that I want to get in their way when they decide to bulldoze a couple of manufacturers. I got back out on the Road again as soon as I could.

Texas is an utterly unreasonably big state, though, and I was still a long ways from the border when lunchtime came around. I tried to put it off, but when you’re hungry, you’re hungry, so I parked at the most deserted truck stop I could find. I mean, this place was a dive, it looked like it was built during the Van Buren administration and not painted one single time since then.

I knew two things instantly when I walked in the door; that I was in trouble, and that it was too late. The inside looked like what you might get if you merged a diner with a cruise ship and exploded a piñata all over everything. That, and it was full of Mexicans: smoking Mexicans, drinking Mexicans, eating Mexicans, Mexicans talking and lounging and playing pool.

There was no backing out, so I put on my best amiable idiot face, stumped over to the counter and plopped myself onto a stool. I stared at the menu blankly and then pointed to one of the other diners. “I’ll have what he’s having, and a cup of coffee.”

The counter guy flicked his gaze over my head at the back corner of the place, then nodded slightly and poured me some coffee. To this day I don’t know what it was that I ate. I was just polishing it off when the door burst open and this porcelain doll leaped into the room.

“Surrender, evildoers!” she shouted.

Now, I have to describe this girl to you, otherwise you won’t understand just how ridiculous she looked at that moment. Her long, glossy black hair was contorted through a fantastic headdress that very much resembled a set of bagpipes without the bag part. Bits of ornate jewelry dangled off the ends of the pipes, making a sad tinkling noise whenever she moved her head. Her face, neck, arms, and legs were painted white, with bright red on her cheeks, lips, finger and toe nails, while her eyes and eyebrows were outlined by great lines of oily black. In addition, she was wearing an Oriental-style tunic in glaring neon green brocade and high-heeled sandals that made my ankles ache in sympathy. In her left hand was a sword, and in the right was another sword, both with enormous red tassels dangling off the end of the handle.

I seriously considered just putting my head down on the counter and laughing, but before I had the chance the counter guy burst out, “Hey! You’re not supposed to be here yet! We haven’t even started work on a new plan!”

Did I say before that the heroes were worse than the villains? I take it back. I forgot the tendency that the villains have to act like they’re involved in some sort of enormous game with the heroes. If people get killed, it’s not a game. It’s not a sport, either, because the ones getting killed aren’t the participants, who presumably signed up for this idiocy, but the bystanders. It’s considered bad form to kill one of the participants, but bystanders are just collateral damage.

China-doll’s eyes were slowly widening as she took in the extent of the crowd. Several dangerous metallic noises made it clear that these gentlemen were quite well-armed and not at all amused.

“Ahem,” I said. “Do you fellows mind if I take this young lady outside and explain some things to her?”

Everyone stared at me blankly for several seconds. From the darkest, smokiest corner came a deep, rumbling voice, a voice that sounded as though it could not have come from anything human.

“Why would we let you do that?”

I reached out and casually crushed my coffee mug in one hand, throwing the shards over the counter. The voice chuckled like an earthquake.

“By all means, take her.”

I got up and dug out some money to pay for the food, then sauntered across the floor. The girl seemed likely to protest, so I grabbed her shoulder and pushed; she sagged abruptly and I hauled her outside before she could recover. Several lookouts were lying on the ground groaning. Well, maybe she wasn’t totally incompetent.

I pointed to the cab of my truck. “Get in.”

“I don’t have to take orders from you!”

“No, you don’t. You can stay here with the Mexicans if you prefer.” I climbed up myself and started the engine up. After a bit the girl knocked on the door and I let her in.

“My friends left without me,” she said.

“I’m not surprised. What’s your name, kid?”

“Natori Taiko.”

“Nice. You been in the hero business long?”

“Well, um, not exactly.”

“Not exactly?”

“No . . . I’m still at the Academy. My friends told me they’d heard about this den of smugglers here, and they thought it would look good on our transcripts if we took them out. They were supposed to go in the back but, well, they left.”

Never mind villains, teenagers are definitely the worst. I revved the engine a bit, shifted it into gear, and pulled back onto the Road. “This would be Claremont Academy?”

“Yes.”

“Kind of a long ways from here.”

“I was visiting my family for vacation. Um . . . what are you going to do with me?”

“Right this minute? I thought I’d drive you to Little Rock, where you can catch a bus to wherever you decide to go. I’d recommend back home, personally.”

“I should go back to the Academy.”

“Why?”

“Because . . . I’m a super! That’s where I belong!”

I shook my head. “Belong? That and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee. Or maybe you think it’s normal that friends try to get one another killed?”

She shrank into herself a bit.

“This was a great country once, when there was still a Law and it applied to everyone. If you weren’t a super, well, you could work hard and build your own defenses, or buy them, or the regular old police had them . . . enough at least to keep the villains in check if no super was convenient. Vigilantism was actually frowned upon instead of worshipped. Then they started to get the idea that super-powerful weapons and armor were too powerful for anyone but supers . . . they decommissioned the special police and military units, they made manufacturing and research almost impossible or banned it outright in some cases. Now no one can fight a super except another super. They get to have Secret Identities and act outside the bounds of any law. Then we get this Academy that churns out equal numbers of villains and heroes, all without principles other than wearing a stupid suit and fighting the other group. It’s pathetic.”

“Well, what about you?”

“What about me?”

“If all that is true, why don’t you do something about it?”

“I am doing something about it. I’m minding my own business.”

“Driving a truck?” One of the ludicrous black eyebrows rose dramatically.

“At least it’s an honest way to make a living.”

“Yes, but for how much longer?”

“Pardon?”

“For how much longer? If things keep getting worse, as you say, then how much longer do you think you can keep making a living this way? One thing I did learn at the Academy is that, if you can see a problem then you have to do something, because there is no one else.”

“What can I do, fight? They’ve got plenty of idiots for that already, and you see how it’s turned out. I thought about it, I did, it’d be a real challenge, but that’s not enough.”

“Not fight. Talk. It seems to be your strong point.”

“Oh, sure, who will listen to me?”

“Well, I did.”

After I dropped her off I dug out that card Rose gave me. Maybe I would go see him. It’s not like I’d be committing myself or anything.

Dec 18, 2005

Food Service

All right, this has got to stop; ditzy servers are ruining my meals out, which are supposed to be fun. So, here's my general advice for serving:

1. Drinks should be brought promptly and kept full. If they aren't, fill 'em. And don't make me talk to you in order to get my drink refilled. If I want it, I'll drink it, if not, I won't, either way it doesn't make a hoot of difference to you. Oh, and don't steal my glass in order to fill it up; bring me a new one. I like to enjoy the illusion that my drinks are poured only into clean containers.

2. Get my order correct. Writing it down might help. And for the love of money know what's on the menu and whether or not I get bread, salad, french fries, what have you with what I ordered. Don't play 20 questions with me, either; assume I want exactly what's on the menu unless I tell you differently. (On the flip side, if it comes with a bunch of options, know what those are, too, and do ask me about them.)

3. Don't make me chase you down to ask for silverware after my food has already arrived. Yes, I know it's the host's job to put it on the table, but the host is an idiot. You should have figured THAT out when he sat you that party of 15 and the two old couples that don't tip within about 5 minutes of each other.

4. Don't imagine that, when I come to the restaurant alone with a book, I need to be entertained and this is your cue to strike up a conversation with me. I'm trying to read, here. I don't need to know that the new short-order cook is cute, and I don't care, either.

5. Don't ask me 15 times while I'm eating (always coming up when I've just taken a bite and forcing me to choke it down so I don't spray food all over my companion or book) whether I want something else and then forget to ask whether I want dessert before you bring the check. I don't know whether I want dessert until after I'm done eating.

6. Your job is to serve customers. I know the store manager thinks it's your job to chop vegetables, roll silverware, bus tables, mop floors, etc. The store manager is also an idiot. Serve the customers first and smile at the manager when he starts to get testy, telling him that you'll get "right on it" just as soon as you can. The manager pays you peanuts, your tipping customers pay you in cash.

7. And PLEASE ask if I want the check split when I'm eating with someone else, even if it's a guy.

I've worked in food service, and I know it can be incredibly hard, but practicing good service actually makes your job easier: you get into the habit of always doing these things and you have fewer problems.

Dec 16, 2005

Fiction: Dakota Sue

**Note: this is not quite a story, having no real plot, it's a character I'm planning on playing in an upcoming Mutants and Masterminds game. Oh, and it's a bit long. I had so much fun writing it I decided to post it anyway.**

It could get pretty weird out there at night. When I was on the Road, pushing 75 with five tons running behind, I was a god, invulnerable, nothing can touch me. But even gods have their weaknesses; even I couldn’t drive all the time. I tried to stick with the big rest stops, the cities, places where there were a lot of people, but some nights even that failed and I found myself rolling it off the Road onto some tiny patch of concrete with two pumps and a little shed with a worn-out sign. Under the bluish glare of the security lamp it was an island in a vast emptiness, without another light to be seen anywhere, all the way to the horizon. Sights like that can make you doubt whether the sun will ever come up again.

On this particular night I missed some turn I ought to have taken and wound up coasting down a ragged two-lane highway in a forgotten corner of New Mexico. I saw a sign and decided to pull off for directions and a cup of coffee, but when I climbed out of the cab I realized there was no clerk in the shed. I waited a while in case he was on a bathroom break, but I lost patience and started to leave.

Well, that’s when the scorpion flipped over my truck. Fifteen-foot-tall arachnid and it snuck up on me. When it’s been a long night you get careless.

I ran for it. I’ve got a pretty good turn of speed on me when I put my mind to it and I didn’t seem to remember anything about scorpions winning any foot races, so I figured it was the best idea I had at the time. I suppose it was more interested in the truck because it didn’t chase me. I got a fair distance before I started to feel guilty for abandoning my rig in such a hurry.

See, I owned my truck and worked for myself; there was no dispatcher, no mega-conglomo-whatsit trucking company to stand between me and the loss of my good reputation. I read once where in the old days the post had some slogan--“Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night”, I think it went—that explains pretty well how I felt about my reputation. They didn’t have the troubles we have now in those days, but, see, I don’t like excuses. I don’t see much difference between the vast dark prairie full of Indians, with you on your pony, and a giant scorpion when you’re driving a big rig. Dakota Sue got it through . . . no matter what.

I really did just want to keep going, though, but I had a responsibility to figure some way to get rid of that scorpion. Well, that and get my truck back up on its suspension, but that could wait. One problem at a time.

I had just completed this train of thought and started to turn around when I fell in the pit. Some idiot had decided to dig a great big hole out in the middle of nowhere. Well, that and I seemed likely to win the all-state Oblivious Woman championship that night. Too much on my mind. It’s sad, because I see in the dark pretty well, too.

I hadn’t even gotten enough breath back to start cursing when this head poked over the edge of the hole. “You’re not the scorpion,” this joker informed me, like I couldn’t figure it out for myself. I was so annoyed I threw a rock at him—missed of course—and anyway he didn’t seem too perturbed by it. He jumped in to help me climb out. I didn’t really need the help but I didn’t feel like arguing. After I was back on the level he made what must have been a seventeen foot standing jump to get back out himself.

He turned out to be a little fellow, about as tall as my shoulder and skinny, with shoulder-length white hair. He was wearing a black suit with a frilly white shirt; it looked tailored, expensive, and completely inappropriate. He was also carrying a sword, although I thought the term was a little grandiose for that effeminate dueler’s foil. I’d have called it a knitting needle but that’s so cliché.

“Oh, great!” I yelled. “You’re a super, aren’t you?!”

He just dusted himself off—I don’t know why, he wasn’t dirty--and raised an eyebrow at me. “Yes? Is there some problem?”

I shrugged. “I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, what with the giant scorpion and all.”

He cheered right up at that. “So you’ve seen it? Is it chasing you?”

“No.”

He came over all disappointed. “Drat. We were hoping to trap it, but thus far it remains elusive.”
I turned around and looked at the pit. “In that dinky thing? Are you out of your mind?”

“What? Granted we didn’t have a lot of time, but this trap should be more than sufficient to enclose the scorpion for the time we require to deal with it.”

I shook my head. “It’s way too big for that. And who’s this ‘we’ you keep talking about?”

He managed somehow to produce this expression that communicated, all at once, that it wasn’t important, but he was going to humor me from politeness, and that he was only using the expression figuratively in any case. “The gas station clerk has been . . . assisting me.” A pale teenager peeked out from around a rock and waved.

“Or trying to, at least,” I said dryly.

“Quite. Now then, am I to understand that the scorpion has increased in size since my last opportunity to view it?”

Just as an aside, I hate it when people talk to me like that, it brings out this horrible obstinate urge for me to be as back-country hick as I can, which I’m not, but there you go. I think it’s because some people seem to think that plain language means you’re an idiot. They’re almost as bad as the people who think inappropriate bluntness is some kind of virtue. “Well shucks, I think that there might be downright a fair analysis, sonny.” He glared. “Hey, you started it,” I informed him. “You tone down the highfalutin’s and I, well, stop saying things like ‘highfalutin’. That looking-down-the-nose business works both ways.”

“Fine. The scorpion is still growing?”

“How big was it when you saw it?”

He frowned, thinking. “Taller than I am, but just barely.”

“Whoo. It’s at least fifteen feet tall now, it flipped over my semi!”

“Whoo indeed.”

“Hmm. Well, tell me how it got here and I’ll see if I can think of anything.”

He opened his mouth to protest and then shrugged and began explaining. “There’s a nuclear power plant not far from here . . .”

“Caldwell?”

“Yes. Anyway, there was a number 37 disturbance there earlier today . . . err . . . that’s a ‘research scientist going mad and trying to take over the world with a radiation-based device’, in case you didn’t know . . .”

“Happens that often?”

“You’d be surprised. In any case, he managed to use his device on some of the local wildlife before they got him stopped, and during the . . . ah . . . confusion some of them escaped. They sent me to deal with this particular giant insect as part of my training.”

“Arachnid,” I corrected him idly.

“Whatever.”

“Well, it does make a difference,” I countered.

“Fine, fine.” He made a limp little flapping gesture with his hand. “Hmm. Well, if it is at the filling station the best solution is probably some kind of incendiary.”

“No way.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, firstly, you’re not torching my semi. Secondly, if this is your standard giant radioactive arachnid, blowing it up won’t work.”

“How do you know that?”

“Everyone knows that.” Well, this was a bit of an equivocation on my part, but it wasn’t his business. “Anyway, what you need to do is to get at the thing’s underbelly. That’s where the armor’s the weakest. A few good hits will usually roll it up nicely.” In a perfect world, anyway, I doubt it would be that easy in reality. The night was looking more and more interesting.

“You’re a super yourself, aren’t you?”

Took him long enough. “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

“What’s your name?”

“Susan.” He winced. Supers hate it when you insist on using your actual name. It’s like they’re hardwired to think of supers and regular people in completely different categories and they can’t handle any overlap. For a super, it’s considered perfectly normal to be called “Cyberthug” and wear a spandex bodysuit, instead of what it actually represents, which is dangerous mental instability.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I don’t exactly have a high opinion of supers. Never mind that technically I am one. I never let the fact that I can bench three tons and pick bullets out of the air make me imagine that I’m entitled to tell other people their business. Or, worse, that I’m entitled to respect, money, fame, or power regardless of what I’ve actually done. If it comes down to it, I think the heroes are worse than the villains. At least the villains don’t pretend they’re doing you a favor.

“What about you?” I demanded.

With an utterly straight face he replied, “Fairy Tea Rose.”

Oh, did I ever have to fight not to laugh, but if that was the score I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. “Oh, an Elf, huh? No wonder you’re so gay.”

Not even a twitch. After a second, though, he let his eyes focus on my short hair and slowly travel down over my flannel shirt, blue jeans, and sensible boots. Then one sculptured white eyebrow rose a fraction of an inch.

I just gave him my blankest stare. “What?”

“So I need to take my sword to its underbelly?”

I snorted. “You’re not going to get anywhere with that cocktail skewer.” Score one for Susan who successfully navigated around the cliché!

The kid finally decides to say something. “I brought a fire axe.”

“You did?” I said, turning to give him my full attention. Always take young people seriously; they deserve it considering the amount of crap they have to put up with from adults. “Can I see it?”

“Sure.” He hands it over. It turns out to be a serious tool, with a high quality synthetic handle instead of a cheap wooden one.

“Nice. Mind if I borrow it?”

“You can keep it if you want.”

“All right, chucklehead,” I said to the Elf, “let’s go.”

So, the long and the short of it is, we killed the . . . oh, I see you over there with your little pouty expression. You were expecting some kind of play-by-play? Whatever. Like I said, I’m no hero to sit here detailing out every punch and dodge like it’s some kind of command performance at the ballet, instead of what it really is, which is scary and gross. Although, I should give him the credit, if Rose hadn’t poked the thing right in the eye with his sword at an opportune moment it could have been troublesome. He’s stronger than he looks, too, with his help I was able to get the truck right-side-up again.

I was relaxing in the glow of a job well done and trying not to think too much about the long drive ahead when Rose starts talking again. “You should come to Freedom City and put some of your skills to use.”

I was amused. “I should? Why’s that?”

“I mean, why are you delivering . . . um, what is this stuff . . .”

“Gaskets.”

“Yes, gaskets, when you could be delivering Justice.” He said it just like that, with the capital letter.

“I don’t think Justice would fit in my truck.”

“You could help people!”

“Let them help themselves.”

“Well, the pay is better.”

“I’ve got all the money I need.”

He stared at me for a while, then, very slowly, “You’d enjoy upsetting everyone and turning the whole place upside-down?”

I laughed. “Please. Too easy.”

Realization dawned. “You’d enjoy the challenge.”

“Now you’re talking my language. If you’ve got one, well, I’ll think about it.”

He gave me his card.

Dec 15, 2005

Finish the Slogan

This is a game I've taken to playing with myself whenever I see political advertising. I saw one the other day:

NO sprawl!
Save our Downtown!

. . . punish people that want a home!

Chipmunks and Hippopotamuses

I am rapidly nearing critical mass on Christmas song repitition, but while I'm still enjoying them I have to say my two favorite songs (songs, not instrumental pieces) are "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" and "Please, Christmas, Don't Be Late"--yes, the one performed by the Chipmunks.

The reason I like those songs, although they don't possess a lot of artistic merit, is that they are lively, upbeat, clever, and selfishly benevolent.

Unlike travesties such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman", the former of which contains the saddest bunch of fashion-driven hypocritical reindeer imaginable ("Frosty" is just STUPID), the songs I like are about children engaged in activities I can actually admire.

Youngsters discovering values and pursuing them, even if those values are a bit absurd, like a pet hippo, or trivial, like Alvin's hula hoop, are always going to be unequivocally adorable in my book.

And, anyway, why not a hippopotamus? When I was a small child, I had an elephant.

Given, it was stuffed.

Dec 13, 2005

Policy vs. Law

David Veksler, the owner of Objectivism Online, recently made me an administrator, which requires that I get more involved in policy decisions. As a result I’ve had occasion to do some thinking about management in general. I remarked in one ongoing discussion that I’ve found it’s best for institutions to avoid creating rules in an effort to solve problems, and that de facto situations should be made into rules if you want to keep them in place.

The reason for this is that organizations like the forum evolve. They start out as the owner and a few people that all know each other. Gradually, as the number of participants grows, there are increasing difficulties maintaining the organization, conflicts over what the “real” purpose of the organization is, disagreements, and sometimes even outright fights.

The management’s response is frequently to make ever-more-draconian rules and regulations in an effort to control the situation. It works, sometimes, but it engenders so much hostility that something important is lost: the benevolent atmosphere. I’ve seen it so many times that I’m beginning to despair. Cliché’d old people are often seen complaining that it’s “just not like it used to be around here”. Or that “people were friendlier in the old days.” Well, this is why. The really sad fact is that it’s usually all the result of one jerk, and everything snowballing from there.

So how do you solve this problem? Good policy. And the first step to making good policy is the recognition that it has to be flexible. Policy depends on particular personalities, on particular methods, on particular situations; it is immensely context-dependant. This distinguishes it from rules (or laws, when you start talking about government), which are general principles that admit no context, because they are supposed to apply in any context.

The answer to a policy question is and should be “ask the boss”. There are two corollaries to this answer: if the boss isn’t around to make the decision, he has to understand that something he might not necessarily sanction might be done as a stopgap, and the non-boss needs to understand that the boss reserves the right to reverse stopgap decisions.

Even the government has policy; that’s the primary difference between administrations, for instance. I have noticed, however, that people (a LOT of people, many in positions of power!) make the mistake of failing to distinguish between the two. If you ever want to see policies that became a disaster because they were made into law, look at anti-trust legislation, or anti-obscenity legislation. It is perfectly legitimate for, say, the president to use the prestige of his position to encourage businesses to “play fair”, or radio jockeys to refrain from cursing. Those are all matters of policy, and individuals remain free to dissent; no one’s rights are being violated. Conversely, it is not legitimate to denounce the president for holding a policy with which you personally disagree. The fact that you voted for him (or didn’t) doesn’t mean that you can dictate his ideas, either.

Drawing the distinction between policy and law helps clear the way to better management of almost any interpersonal relationships.

Crossposted to the Objectivism Metablog.

Dec 11, 2005

Journalistic Style

I'm aware that it's not proper style to refer to myself in the first person or to use the accusatory (you) to refer to my readers, but I do it anyway for what I think are good reasons. For one, I think anyone that persistently refers to themselves in the third person is dangerously close to being a pretentious twit. In fact, I only do it when I'm amusing myself by pretending to be pretentious.

For two, this isn't exactly a serious journalistic work, here. These are my thoughts, which I'm expressing to you, and I think they deserve a more conversational style. I write as I would speak to you face-to-face.

That, and I'm not exactly shy about accusations.

Winter Sets In

Daytonians have a strange relationship with the weather: a particularly bizarre sort of voodoo religious approach to it. This is especially evident when they're waiting for the first snow of the year.

Personally, I love snow, and not just because it allows me a little narcisstic smirk every time someone talks about it.

I love the way, when the snow is falling, that it shrinks the world down to your immediate surroundings, everything else dissolving into a grayish haze. It makes the immediate world so much more distinct. I love how it it falls silently and muffles all sounds, turning even the most crowded venue into an island of solitude. I love how falling snow, at night, catches the glow of the streetlights and gives visible shape to the shifting of the air.

I love the look of it, covering everything, for creating, simultaneously, sharp distinctions and hazy bluish shadows. The ground vanishes in smooth white curves, but anything ambitious enough to strike upwards--trees, lampposts, buildings--gains the vividness of extreme contrast.

I love it even when I'm cleaning it off my car, the feel of the heavy mass of light flakes. I think this aspect of snow is best enjoyed when I'm wearing gloves, however.

Dec 10, 2005

The Mammoth Book of New Comic Fantasy

(Note: I am going to try and include links to the books I review from now on.)

I only have one quibble with this anthology, and that's the fact that the title is misleading. None of the stories in it are "new"; all are reprints from another source. Some are more than a hundred years old!

It's one of the few short-story anthologies that I've managed to read all the way through. The stories themselves cover numerous sub-genres in numerous styles, from Neil Gaiman's "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire", which pokes fun at Gothic literature (like that's difficult . . . the title was, in my opinion, funnier than the story), to Everard Jack Appleton's "The Sea Serpent Syndicate". When I read this story, first published in 1905, I kept flipping back to check the author's name and exclaiming something along the lines of "are you sure Mark Twain didn't write this?"

If I were an actual reviewer, at this point I'd announce something like "it's a tour de force of the comic fantasy genre". Well, that's essentially what I am saying, albeit without the "de force" part, which I think is WAY overused. I will present my critique of literary criticism and book blurbs at some other time, though.

Dec 8, 2005

Farewell Salute

My great-grandmother, the last of my great-grandparents, died Friday. She outlived her daughter, my grandmother, by just over a month. Well, physically at least; my mother told me that her mind had gone. It is doubtful she ever understood that her daughter had passed. I can’t be at the funeral to express my respects, so I thought I would blog them instead.

I didn’t know her very well; she was old when I was adopted into her family and already somewhat shut up in her own mind. Shortly afterward my immediate family moved to Germany, so my father’s relatives became simply some mysterious strangers that I was obliged to visit on occasion. When we finally moved to Virginia we were within driving distance and we visited her more often. She was beginning her long, slow decline but her formidable character clung to her tenaciously. Into her eighties she continued running her own house and working in her garden.

I learned one thing from her that has served me well over the past few years: there’s no sense in shrinking from things that happen to be, well, gross. I distinctly remember her pulling earthworms in half with her bare hands on one of our fishing trips. They were too big to go on the hook, and it was too much trouble to dig out a knife and cut them. I don’t think I often admitted to being squeamish after that, although I remain thankful that I haven’t been confronted with an earthworm in need of trimming since then. I do work in a tissue bank where I am surrounded by any number of stomach-turning things all day long. In a way, I owe my success at my job to her.

Working where I do, it’s almost impossible to avoid thinking about death fairly often. I think I’ve benefited from it; most atheists I know—including Objectivists—have a difficult time deciding what they think about death. Your own death is a strange enough thing to contemplate. What on earth do you think about the deaths of others?

I think it’s very important to remember the dead, not because they died, but because they lived. Is there anything to say more solemnly awesome than that simple fact? Is there anything more deserving of ceremony and respect? I think not. The question is, though, why do you wait until someone dies to feel, much less express, such an emotion?

The reason is that during their life it would be an intrusion. While you live, your life belongs only to you and everyone must respect that. When you die the memory of it belongs to everyone you touched. I write of my great-grandmother because the silent depth of my reverence for my own life demands that I treat the pieces of hers I now hold with the same respect. It is entirely possible that I am the only one who remembers them.

I offer them to you in electronic words so that you might pause and remember what a wondrous life this is.

Crossposted to the Egosphere.

Dec 7, 2005

Whose Kids are these, Again?

I think I've heard this "debate" before, and just like the first time I heard it I evaluated it instantly as a regular truckload of hooey.

For starters, a full-grown adult can control a two-year-old child, if only by the expedient of picking them up bodily and carrying them out the door. I personally find it difficult to imagine an adult having significant difficulties controlling a fifteen-year-old child. If you refrain from doing this when necessary you are going to receive complaints and dirty looks and guess what, you're going to deserve them, too. No one complains because your children start screaming in a public place. They complain because you don't do anything about it.

Paying attention to your child for approximately three seconds and then going back to whatever it was you were doing while they continue to misbehave is not good enough. If force majeure is all that will fix the situation, then that's what you have to do.

Anyway, it's entirely up to the owner of an establishment whether they want to serve you under any terms. If you don't like it, go elsewhere. If no one else will serve you, well no one is stopping you from going home and having your coffee there.

Brainstorming

Creativity is something that a lot of people have great difficulty learning. Almost everyone in a creative profession hears at some point in their career a question along the lines of "how do you do it?"

A lot of them offer some kind of bizarre mystical explanation for it, or words that don't add up to any particular explanation at all. The truth is that it's a skill like any other; it's something you work on and cultivate. I've read two authors that I thought were particularly helpful in pointing out how to develop creativity: Ayn Rand and, oddly enough, Scott Adams.

Brainstorming is one technique, unfortunately it's been my observation that no one uses it properly. Most of the brainstorming advice I've read was pretty awful. So, here's my tips on brainstorming technique:

Well, um . . . actually it boils down to one tip with a lot of explanation. That tip is: learn how to brainstorm by yourself.

The general theory of brainstorming appears to be that you get together with a bunch of people and somehow the company is supposed to make you more creative. It doesn't work. The only reason I can think of that people keep doing it is that it's hard to brainstorm by yourself. This is because the first thing everyone does when they're asked to think up something new is to choke. I've seen it a million times; the blank stare, followed by an expression of sheer horror and then, of course, the excuse. "I don't know. I'm not creative." Apparently when there are a lot of people in the room someone will be inspired to get past their choke point by the awkward silence.

You can, however, learn to overcome the choke point by yourself. Different methods work for different people. My own is comical to observe; I whine and complain about how I can't think of anything why do people always ask me my only idea is stupid . . . and then I come up with something, usually several somethings. It works because creativity requires enthusiasm, which, for me, is close enough to being irritated that the one sparks the other.

So, what should you do when you choke?

1. Remind yourself of your goal, or at least be sure that you have one. Ideas don't happen in a vacuum. If necessary, set some arbitrary constraints on yourself. You can always ignore them later once you've got your brain functioning.
2. Do some research. Often you have an approximation that doesn't quite suit you, in which case hauling out the thesaurus (or whatever) and looking at some options can help you get started.
3. Start writing things down. I find that looking at a few truly appalling ideas helps me come up with some better ones. It also helps you focus your mind on what you're doing instead of, say, thinking about your laundry or phone messages.

When you do come up with something, write it down, otherwise you'll forget it almost immediately.

Strange Fellowship

There are two churches in the Dayton area that have lately taken to aggressive radio advertisements. One is a Baptist congregation and the other some kind of non-denominational church. I’m sure this isn’t particularly unusual.

The thing that I find noteworthy is that both of these advertisements are based around the idea that church should be a good time. On the surface this bears close resemblance to a contradiction. How exactly do you square, “O Lord, forgive us our sins” with free coffee and bagels?

On further consideration, though, I realized that these two ideas share a peculiar consistency of message. It doesn’t matter what you think or feel or what motivations you have, all that matters is that you go to church. There you will presumably catch some salvation, almost as though it’s a fungus.

In other words, if the ends are good, it doesn’t matter what you have to do to get there. Intrinsicism on the hoof.

Dec 6, 2005

It's Not the Holidays, it's Just the Blues

Major events in my life seem to happen all at once instead of neatly spaced. I've heard that this is a common problem. By way of demonstration I present this list of things that have happened since my birthday in October:

  • Training seminar, which is a nightmare because I go to the wrong location the first day, get rear-ended the second day, and on the third day:
  • My Grandmother died
  • I flew to Seattle and back
  • I refinanced my existing debts
  • I started a short-lived Mutants and Masterminds game
  • I started a blog, hopefully not short-lived
  • I moved
  • I drove to Chicago (six hours each way, oh what fun)
  • I went through all sorts of testing, interviews, etc. and got a promotion
  • I struggle to get my department ready for me to leave
  • I got invited to interview for another job at a different company
  • I went on a diet (well, still am)
  • I started work on a novel

No wonder I'm stressed out. Bleh. I'm hoping to get away with ignoring the holidays this year because I've got too many other things to work on.

Dec 2, 2005

The Lord of the Rings

Yesterday and today I’ve been watching the extended version of The Return of the King on DvD and I was reminded of what wonderful movies the trilogy contains. Tolkein’s books were good, but the movies are excellent, the extended version is, if anything, better than the theater version.

Whenever I’ve seen the movies or books discussed the people involved always focus on the plot, characters, style, or supposed symbolism, but I’ve never seen anyone articulate the theme of the story, so I decided to take a stab at it: the theme of The Lord of the Rings is “Fortune favors the Brave”.

All right, so it’s a bromide, but it is the theme. Although the characters are purposeful and driven, most of the events in the story are largely the result of chance encounters, almost coincidences. In fact, the story is only possible because of the enormous coincidence of Bilbo Baggins finding the One Ring.

Tolkein’s genius, however, lies in the fact that the coincidences are themselves a product of his characters convictions. While they may not have ultimate control over the situation, had they not followed their convictions and stood for their beliefs unto the very last they would not have been in a position to take advantage of any good fortune. His novels are the benevolent universe premise in action.

It seems likely that Tolkein himself believed in some sort of consciousness or benevolent force at work undermining the evil, but this does not, in my mind, detract from the value of his books or the movies that are based on them. Reality is always undermining and working against the evil, but because they have set themselves against its requirements. It is simply a matter of the automatic workings of the universe, it is not directed by any consciousness.

All things that are definitely worth remembering.

No Advertisements

You may have noticed that I have no advertisements on my blog and very few links; this is intentional. I don’t like clutter and I particularly dislike online ads. I don’t think anyone has come up with a truly clever or tasteful way of using the medium, and although I might be able to make some money by using them I consider not being offended by my own blog more important.

Rollover ads are so awful that I will actually cease patronizing a site that contains them. Much like telemarketing phone calls, they force me to fight with the ad in order to continue what I was already doing.

I think the reason they bother me so much is that I do not surf. Web surf, channel surf, you name it, I don’t do it. I don’t even drive without knowing exactly where I am going. The idea of permitting myself to be carried hither and yon by events is abhorrent to me.

I thought about waiting until I’ve acquired a reasonable number of readers and then introducing some ads, but I think it would be just a teensy bit rude to punish said readers because there are a lot of them. So, I’m committed to keeping this blog ad-free, excepting only useful doohickies like the Site Meter at the bottom of the page.

Dec 1, 2005

Guns, Germs, and Steel

My mother recommended this book by Jared Diamond to me emphatically and repeatedly, so on my Thanksgiving trip to visit my grandmother I swiped it from her. Well, no, I just noticed it on the endtable by the couch where I slept and I was unable to resist opening it and having a look. (Never mind that I didn't try to resist, heh.) My grandmother is a lovely lady who, upon seeing you admire something, insists on giving it to you. I am not yet certain whether I am borrowing this book or if it's just mine now.

My initial impression was not very good; the introduction is, I think, the worst part of the book, but once he gets into the facts he is presenting Mr. Diamond proposes some interesting theories.

The general idea of the book is that different societies have been variably successful not because of the apparent proximate causes, i.e. Guns, Germs, and Steel, but because of the ultimate causes that make the acquisition of those proximate causes possible. The major, underlying one is success in getting enough surplus food.

That success, however, is dependant upon a number of factors that Mr. Diamond details in his book, but most of them appear to be environmental in nature, such as, say, the existence of local large mammals that can be domesticated.

Overall, I'd say that the book is good and certainly worth reading, but I offer a few caveats about it. Mr. Diamond is not a fantastic writer; he repeats himself too much (as though he were explaining to a particularly slow and forgetful child), he uses too many personal anecdotes for a scholarly work, and he lets his personal biases show too much.

My favorite example of that last is his frequent use of what appears to be his favorite sneer: the "so-called" something. He uses the term to disparage several ideas, from Western "civilization" to "empires", but the general trend is clear; he thinks Westerners (and only Westerners, other "civilizations" seem exempt from this approbation) drew the lucky number.

Well, speaking of pre-history and looking at his book, it certainly seems that we did, but I don't think we need to apologize for it or that we owe anything to anyone who wasn't lucky. Apart from respecting their rights, of course, which until recently no one on the planet was any great shakes at doing, so I don't think Western civilization deserves a lot of complaints for being very good at doing what everyone was doing. It's the only civilization that's been any good at putting a stop to the practice even briefly and incompletely.

Mr. Diamond makes several other irritating claims, such as the fact that all political systems other than that of the pre-tribal band can be classified as a "kleptocracy" (a term he fails to define), and that all differences between cultures or individuals are simply "idiosyncracies".

Oh well. The book definitely delivers some interesting things to ponder, and you can dismiss the errors. Just do yourself a service and don't ignore them.