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

Jan 31, 2006

Good Poems for Hard Times

I love poetry, so I snagged this book off the clearance shelf at Barnes & Nobles. The poems are certainly enjoyable to read, but I don't sit down and read a book of poetry the way I would read a novel. I like to open it to a page, sample a thought or two that strike me, and then put it away until some other time when I'll pick it up and open it to a new page.

Garrison Keillor's introduction, though, is definitely worth reading, I'll quote some of it here:

Poetry is free speech. It is ever on the side of the irrepressible spirit and in opposition to the censor, to Management, to the protocols of the company psychologist, to the roomful of men in blue suits who casually cheat schoolchildren. It is on the side of exhilaration and the stupendous vision, the sight of the stars through the barred window, the perfection of small birds, the democracy of their chittering language and of our own yakfest and hullabaloo. Poetry is made of the grandeur that is available to a man with no fortune but with somewhere to walk to and ears to hear and a mind to transport him. He may be defeated in love and finance and yet the night belongs to him, he feels entrusted with the stunning sky, the guardian of the houses on the street and all the people in them. So are poets, the angels and shepherds of the sleeping world.

The poems in the book are not ones that I would have chosen, but I don't often enjoy modern poetry that neither rhymes nor scans, and there is a lot of that in this book. But, I thought I'd take this opportunity to mention a poet that I adore: Badger Clark.

Ayn Rand quoted, briefly, his poem "The Westerner", in The Romantic Manifesto, so being curious I looked it up to read the whole thing. Mr. Clark captures the essence of the cowboy, the solitary man facing the wide-open world alone and unafraid so perfectly that you can almost smell the fresh air.

If you know of more poets like this, please, recommend them. Hard times come when you least expect them and you need some grandeur close at hand when that happens.

Jan 30, 2006

Fiction: Home

As Told by Dakota Sue

Mr. Archer hauled himself out of the sedan with some effort, leaning heavily on his cane, and looked over what I supposed was now my crew as we also extricated ourselves from the vehicles.  He pursed his lips faintly and then glanced over at an aide, who promptly held out several plain manila envelopes.

“Now orientation begins,” he said.  “I believe . . . most of you have no residence in the City proper, so we have taken the liberty of assigning housing.”

I took the envelope he handed me and tore at the flap, succeeding in giving myself a paper cut as it opened.  There were what looked like several sets of papers, folded, and some heavier things that clanked together at the bottom as I shook it.  Remembering old television programs, I muttered, “This message will self-destruct in ten seconds . . .”

Archer continued speaking.  “This is all your relevant housing information, along with keys and debit cards that will enable you to access your pay.  In addition, we’ve provided you with documentation for a cover ‘job’; advisors for Stronghold Security.”

I pulled out one sheaf of papers and examined it.

“You are to report here for duty weekdays at 0800 hours, however you are also on call during your off-duty hours if it so happens that we require your services.”  His tone managed to convey that he thought it unlikely at best.  “You will not receive any field assignments until you’ve completed your training to my satisfaction.”

“All right, then, I guess I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” I said.  Then I thought about my new position and decided I’d better demonstrate some initiative.  “Wait, hang on.  Everyone show me your packets.”  Q showed me his name on the outside of the envelope and grinned.  “Very funny.  Come on, I just want to write down addresses and phone numbers, since theoretically I’m supposed to keep you yahoos in line.”

Everyone looked, briefly, mutinous, but then Finn offered me his papers with a shake of his head.  I occupied myself writing for several moments.  “As for me, I’m at . . . um . . . 2147 Brower Street, Riverside.”

Finn looked over at Nat.  “Where did you end up?  I got stuck over in Southside.”

“Me too.  Want to share a cab?”

I looked at Archer.  “Anything else for us?”  I hesitated.  “Sir?”

“Not until tomorrow.  Good evening.”  He turned and limped away.

Nat spoke up again, playing with her hair idly.  “You know, I could use a pizza.  Anyone interested in pizza before we head to our respective condos?”

“If anyone wants to save on cab fare, I’ve got my ride parked in the ramp,” Finn added.

I winced.  I wanted a bed so badly it almost hurt to even think about going anywhere else, but I fought the urge and said, “I could probably stay awake for a few more hours.”  Within minutes I was sitting in the back of Finn’s SUV, grimly wondering how much longer this day was going to drag on.  By the time he pulled up to the pizza place, I was nearly asleep; I opened the door and headed inside.

“Hi, welcome to . . .”

“Five,” I announced.

The hostess blinked but was not put off.  “Five it is!”

I contemplated the menu solemnly, trying to decide whether I was too hungry to sleep or too tired to eat.  Q nudged me after a moment and I looked up at the server, who was apparently waiting on me.  “I’ll just have some spaghetti.”  She smiled and disappeared.

My mind focused slightly as Finn began speaking seriously, “Anyone else pondering the ramifications of this new ‘assignment’?”

Q shrugged.  “At this point, it’s nice to have a job at least.  Helps me get back into the swing of things.  You?”

“It’s better than a detention facility.”

“Or working in a lab for the rest of your life,” Nat added.  “Oh, that’s right, I burned down the lab.  Whoops.”

“Accidentally or . . .?” Q said with a querulous expression.

“Yes accidentally.  I didn’t have a grasp on my”--Nat waggled her fingers suggestively-- “capabilities.”

“Detention facility?” I asked Finn.

“I was only there for a debriefing.  Don’t worry, I’m relatively sane.”

“Only relatively,” remarked Durance.

“Hm, well, I apologize for today,” Nat continued.  “I was off my game.  I didn’t really do anything to help.  I told Archer I’d rather be let go than be the weak link or something like that.”

“Weak link?  You jumped in, just like everyone else, and didn’t quit until it was over.  Life’s like that sometimes.”

Q nodded.  “Exactly.  Better to shoot badly than run away and leave your wingman alone.  At least then you can say it was suppressing fire.”

Our drinks finally put in an appearance and I sucked down half a glass of Coke in one long draught, hoping the caffeine would help keep me alert.  It burned all the way down my throat and in my stomach.  “So, if I understand this right, you are all from other agencies and got assigned here?”

“I suppose,” Durance offered.

“No one is really here because they want to be here?”

“Someone has to pay the maintenance fees,” Durance replied again.

I looked at him.  “Was all this a voluntary, um, transformation?”

He made a noise.  “No.”

I shook my head and played with my straw, thinking hard.  This was starting to look like a really tough gig.

“And you, Sue?  Why are you here?” Q asked.

“I got talked into it because the country is going to hell in a handbasket.”

“So you decided to join Uncle Sam and?”

“I’m still not sure whether it was a good idea, but I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines any more.  I’m looking to find out what’s gone wrong and deliver unto it a mighty ass-kicking, I guess.”

Finn snorted.  “Kind of a lofty goal, isn’t it?  ‘Changing the world’ and all that?”

“I don’t have middle gears.  It’s everything or nothing.”  

Thankfully, the food arrived and I spent some time picking at my spaghetti and pondering my predicament.  It’s bad enough being a truck driver and an idealist, the worst that will happen to you is that people will laugh when you spout off some particularly half-baked theory.  But being an idealist in an undercover military organization, surrounded by pragmatists, that’s another story.  Being the leader of said pragmatists . . . my stomach began to churn unpleasantly; the longer I thought the worse it got.  I realized I just had to get out of there for a while.

Immediately on the heels of that realization my body took over and I shot to my feet, banging one knee inelegantly on the table as I pulled out some cash, I didn’t check to see how much, and dropped it on the table.  “Sorry, folks, I’ve had a long day and I think I need some sleep,” came out as one long rush as I turned and walked out of the restaurant.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t entirely certain where I was, much less where I was going, so I pulled out my new cell phone (courtesy of AEGIS, of course) and beeped for a while.  Then I gave up and asked someone for directions.

Riverside turned out to be a fairly nice part of town, just off the (surprise) river.  I stopped in a park to reorient and contemplated a massive bronze statue for a while.  It occurred to me that I’d see this gentleman somewhere before, so I read the plaque and found myself grimacing anew.  “Centurion.  Well, I suppose it was nice of them to build you a memorial after you went and got yourself killed on their behalf.  If you could have seen how things turned out, I wonder whether you would have bothered.”  Susan, I thought, you’re talking to a statue.  “Well, um, good night to you.”  

My condo was small but fairly nice, the living room window overlooking the park and the ocean beyond.  I threw off my clothes, unable to stand them any longer, and stood in the shower for a long time, hoping I might melt in the water.  No such luck, so I cleaned myself up and threw on some pajamas.  Then I made a command decision and called Eb.

“What do you want?!”

“For crying out loud, it’s not even eight yet.  I just wanted to tell you I’ve got an address so that you can forward my mail.”

“The only people that ever call me are trying to sell me things I don’t want.”

“Have you gotten on Herthagon about reimbursing me for the semi yet?  My jeep got squished by a giant action figure.  I could use the money.”

“I’m working on it, but the place nearly burned down after my last experiment so I haven’t had much time.”

I sighed.  “You can run background checks, right?”


“In that case, I have some names for you.”  I dug out my envelope and told him what I knew about the rest of the crew.  “Oh, and here’s my address and phone before I forget . . .” I said, reading him them as well.

“All right, I’ll get on it.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”  I set the alarm and fell into bed.

The next day, training would begin.

Jan 29, 2006


I am most fond of literature that illustrates some kind of transformation or change in its subject. It doesn't need to be a tremendous, dramatic, or obvious change, but I have a hard time really enjoying a story that doesn't have any effect on it's participants. I don't enjoy it very much, either, if I find the change to be forced or illogical.

I think the primary reason for this is that I still view myself pretty much as a caterpillar. I'm not the same person I used to be, but I'm still not content with what I am, so I still want to keep changing in the future.

The idea of transformation is an ancient and frequent one, so I rarely have much difficulty finding things to read. From Ovid's Metamorphoses to fairy tales to modern rags-to-riches tales, the thread is always there. Change is what humans are all about.

In fairy tales, though, the transformation is always at the impetus of some outside source, some spell or fruit or fairy godmother that rewards the deserving or forces the wicked into some serious soul-searching. In modern stories it is more often the case that the change comes from within; a poor man decides to go out into the world and become rich, and does. Often the author attempts to describe what it is that some people possess that enables them to transform without the assistance of any outside agent.

Me, I'm still working on acquiring those traits; passion, determination, focus, drive. However, one of the really important things I've learned is that those traits are not the result of some external force, they are not acquired through genetics, luck, or upbringing. You can cultivate them. As Ayn Rand indicated in The Romantic Manifesto, it's pointless to sit and wonder whether you have the necessary mystic ingredient to become any particular thing. You will never know. You have to discover what is required to do it, and then take those steps.

When you do, you'll find at the end that, surprisingly, you did have that ingredient after all. You conjured it up out of thin air. You are your own fairy godmother.

Listening Skills

I have not, quite, decided whether I'm a really poor listener or just a really enthusiastic (and misguided) one. From what I understand, the best way to show that you're listening to someone is to acknowledge what they're saying in some meaningful way; to demonstrate that you actually understood them. In other words, non-committal grunts and head-nodding do not mean that you're listening. In my case, they mean that I'm reading a book or playing a computer game and I'm only vaguely aware that you're talking.

When I'm actually paying attention I tend to go over to the opposite extreme; I'm so determined to demonstrate that I understood that I can dominate a conversation with approving chatter. Not to mention the fact that I'm rather insistent on giving "advice". You don't have to take the advice, mind you, but I'm going to give it anyway. I also insist that people do reciprocal listening; they understood the fact that I understood and so forth. My conversations tend to be highly animated and go on at some length.

Yet, for all my efforts, I don't seem to really get what people are saying most of the time. Part of this could be simply that I have a completely different basis for looking at the world. I understood the end result of what you're saying, which is technically what you "meant", whether you knew it or not, but it's not necessarily what you intended to say. It can be very frustrating for everyone. Not to mention that I don't like it very much when someone misunderstands me. Not at all, in fact. This is not much helped by the fact that I like to play with words (I like words), so I will frequently use speech conventions that are extremely unfamiliar.

The first step in communicating clearly really seems to be practice in thinking clearly; once you know what you think, it's not as hard to communicate it to other people.

Jan 28, 2006

Anansi Boys

In the beginning, all stories belonged to Tiger, and they were full of blood and fear and the ferocity of the hunt. Then Anansi, Spider, talked Mawu, he who created all things, into giving the stories to Anansi, and the stories changed. They were full of mischief and cleverness and joy for living. The world was a different place.

Until, that is, the two sons of Anansi almost gave the stories back to Tiger.

This novel by Neil Gaiman is definitely a fun ride, full of magic and intriguing characters and the impossibility of getting along with your relations. It's not his best book by far, but still worth reading. I think he didn't do a very good job with the foreshadowing, it was a little heavy-handed, and I don't think he handled Britishness quite as well as actual Brits like Terry Pratchett (Gaiman is American, I believe).

The Americans, however, are all very authentic and amusing, and Spider's relationship with Fat Charlie (the two sons of Anansi) was terrific. Once he gets going, Gaiman is a poet in prose.

Jan 27, 2006

Game Without a Name

Well, here's a blog "game" I picked up from Myrhaf. I find them amusing, okay? I don't propagate chain letters. I didn't do the blonde joke (I'd link to it, but then I'd be doing the joke, and I'm not that mean.)

So, here it is:

Four Jobs I Have Had in My Life:
Administrative Assistant
Data Entry Clerk
Tissue Processing Technician

Four Movies I Could Watch Over and Over, and Have:
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The Matrix
The Lord of the Rings
Saving Private Ryan

(I don't watch movies more than once any more, so those were hard to pick.)

Four Places I Have Lived
Dayton, Ohio
Fulda, Germany
Blacksburg, Virginia
Aurora, Illinois

Four TV Shows I Love to Watch
King of the Hill
(I will sit down and watch if any of these shows are on, but I don't watch them on a regular basis.)

Four Places I Have Been on Vacation
Koln (Cologne)

Four Websites I Visit Daily
Objectivism Online
Gus Van Horn

Four Favorite Foods
Swedish cured barbequed pork loin
Cashew Chicken
Lamb Korma
cherry cordials

Four Places I Would Rather Be Right Now
Watching a good movie in a theater
cuddling with someone special
in my own house

A Miracle of Rare Design

Mike Resnick's novella doesn't really have a plot; it is more an illustration of two ideas, one bad, one good.

The main character, William Xavier Lennox, is a sensationalist writer who spends his time visiting alien cultures and ferreting out their secrets, usually at great personal risk. In the course of one of these adventures he has a severe mishap and is mutilated.

His fame and peculiar personality draw Nora Roberts to him, and she offers him a deal: he can be surgically altered to truly become a member of another species so that he can observe them without as much risk. After some thought, he jumps at the chance.

The first idea is that technologically gaining superior physical function is good, but this seems an aside, not really the intent of the author. The author's idea is that being human, with limited senses and physical capabilities, is not very satisfactory at all.

Better to have the night vision and reflexes of a Firefly, the enormous strength and empathic sensing of a Hawkhorn, the decorative web-building ability of a Wheeler, and the wings and voice of a Singer than to be stuck in the kludgy unformed body of a human.

My response to this? Foolishness. There is nothing that any of those races can do that humans can't do by using their minds. The other races are limited to what their existing sensory equipment has provided them automatically: none have moved much beyond the stage of perceptual thinking.

It is only a desire for automatic functioning that could lead someone to prefer the state of a well-adapted animal to a thinking human being. Sensory input and acute reflexes are a wonderful thing, but without rigorous analysis they are meaningless.

Poison Study

This fantasy novel by new author Maria J. Snyder is a thoroughly enjoyable romance. It follows the travails of a young woman, Yelena, who murdered her benefactor's son and was scheduled to be executed. Then she was offered the position of food-taster for the nation's ruler, a position that might very well lead to her death.

To ensure her loyalty, she is given a dose of a mythical poison, Butterfly Dust, that will lead to her death almost instantly if she is not daily given the antidote.

Personally, I would recommend this book, but I'm a sucker for a good romance, so let me add a caveat to that statement: read it if you don't have anything serious or important on your reading list ahead of it. It's a great book to curl up on the couch and eat chocolates with, for it's a pure pleasure, but it's also utterly forgettable.

I decided to review it because it exemplifies two errors that I've noticed recently coming from what I understand are "Writer's Workshop" authors. Namely, they have no original style and almost no substance. Oh, all the parts of a novel are there, but the book has no life to it. The plot moves along methodically, but you get the feeling that anyone could have written it.

When you read a book by Robert Heinlein or Neal Stephenson or Ayn Rand, you know you are reading a book by one of those authors. You could not mistake them for anyone else. Poison Study has no real marks to betray the provenance of the author, except one.

There is a tendency I've noticed among female authors especially to believe that suffering is identical with conflict. While conflict often causes suffering, pain does not necessarily mean that there is an interesting conflict going on. I think the books suffer for it; there are numerous descriptions of dastardly deeds, pain, and wretchedness that give you a little shiver of horror to read, but in the end you have to wonder why the hero (or heroine) got so worked up over it. The guy hurt you, you killed him, end of story. Pure melodrama.

The real dramatic conflicts in the story are resolved not by a focused action on the part of the hero/heroine, but by the accidental discovery of some piece of information that was earlier missing. It turns out that the apparent villian is a really nice guy. Your new position just happens to put you in place to overhear an important conversation. You have a prior relationship with the real villian of the piece that makes him devote attention to you and accidentally ruin his own plans.

On a positive note, the book appears to be part of a future series but it is also pretty much self-contained. Ending a novel on a cliffhanger is just about one of the worst offenses I've ever encountered. Okay, I get it, you want me to buy your next book. But I'm ticked off at you now, so I will probably not enjoy it as much as I might have. I will give you a poor review and my hordes of loyal fans will obediently ignore you forevermore.

Hah. What an ego I have.

Jan 26, 2006

The Diamond Age

This book is difficult to summarize because the plot spirals around itself like the shell of an ammonite. It is an exploration of Stephenson's ideas about culture, and since his ideas are strange, the book is also strange. It takes place on the fringe of a modern China, where various Western barbarians have set up their own mini-societies protected and supported by fantastical nanotechnology that seems both impossible and plausible at the same time.

The story follows the progress of a young girl named Nell, born into an irrational society focused on short-term self gratification, who acquires an extremely unusual book: The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Designed by nanotechnical engineer John Percival Hackworth, the pseudo-intelligent book awakens Nell to the many possibilities to be found outside the stifling world where she is growing up and leads her through many adventures, some real, some imaginary. Gradually, she grows up into a truly competent and extremely rational individual. At least, in the Western tradition.

While this is going on the mysterious Dr. X lurks in the background, seeking a technology that he believes will solve the problems of Chinese culture by giving it access to the best of Western technology without having to adopt Western ideas and practices (individualism, freedom, rights). This nanotechnological Seed is being developed by a network of people who have connected themselves using nanosite transmitters and developed a sort of "collective" consciousness. Or, to be more specific, a collective unconsciousness, as these Drummers lose all higher mental function and become cogs in a data-processing machine.

He finds, however, that while they can process data at a tremendous rate, the Drummers need more than that to complete this Seed: they need a creative spark. They need an engineer. They need John Percival Hackworth. So, the Doctor sets about acquiring him.

Throughout, the Western society of Hackworth and Nell is contrasted with both the existing Chinese society and the theoretical ideal one that will be brought about by the seed. Many theories explaining their differences are posited, as well as theories of how to propogate the essentially stagnant Western society, which relies almost exclusively on imports for its progress. Stephenson stumbles around the answer but never really pinpoints it.

The answer is ideology. The Westerners are successful in passing on the trappings of their ideology, but not its substance. From their own youth, who are inculcated from an early age with stiff mannerisms and good posture yet shielded from the real world to such an extent that they never understand the purpose of anything they do, to the underclass "thetes" and even Dr. X, who believe that they can (and deserve to) share in the results without understanding or enacting the cause, no one quite comprehends just what it is that makes these Westerners what they are.

The result is a very 20th-century sort of battle of riots and screaming slogans, only a tiny minority able to put forth any principled resistance. The conclusion of the book comes as somewhat of a surprise, as the reader is never quite certain who they are supposed to be rooting for.

It's a very interesting book, and Stephenson is a very adept writer so it's very enjoyable to read, but I'd have to say that I don't really consider it a good book.

Jan 25, 2006


My recent experience with cracking my radius (ever so slightly) has gotten me to thinking about the odd disparities I've noticed in how different people react to pain. I'm not talking about strictly physical pain, either.

Some of the pain-management strategies I've noticed:

1. Medication. Personally, I am not too thrilled with this strategy because painkillers are generally not very good for you. Medications for emotional pain are often even worse, plus they don't work. Self-medication is a BIG no-no.

2. Stoicism. Popular with men. Seems to work best in conjunction with:

3. Displacement activity. This tends to be my strategy, and my favorite displacement activity is a lengthy conversation about all the things that are currently causing me pain. I can understand why people find me obnoxious when I'm not feeling so hot. If it gets really bad I revert to number 2, in which case I don't want to have anything to do with anyone under any circumstances. They distract me.

4. Hysterics and/or freaking out. Small children do this. If you're 40 and you do this, you need to snap out of it.

5. Fainting. Only works in emergencies. Since I've never fainted in my life, I can't attest as to its effectiveness.

Almost everything I've read contributes to the same idea: toughness is mostly a thing of the mind. Meaning, ultimately, you can gain control over your reactions and not panic. It's an important skill to cultivate, believe it or not. Pain happens when something in your life is going wrong. The only effective tool you have for correcting the problem is your mind, and it doesn't function if you've fainted, gone into hysterics, or medicated it out of reality.

Jan 24, 2006

Fiction: Alpha

As Told by Dakota Sue

The helicopter rocked violently as the purple beam impacted somewhere in the back. I clung to my seat as Q seized the controls from our erstwhile pilot and somehow managed to level us out, although the old whirly-bird registered her feelings about this situation via a great deal of choking and stuttering.

Durance started to fiddle around with one of the machine-gun mounts while muttering under his breath. I considered the wisdom of remaining in the chopper during the forthcoming gunfight and decided the ground below, studded with pine trees, was a far more promising option.

I hesitated just before jumping and glanced at the other members of the crew. “Any volunteers to hit the dirt and see what’s up?”

The blond guy, whose name was so unfortunate that he actually allowed people to call him Finn, hooked an arm around my shoulder. I grabbed Paul before he could protest and the pretty lady, Nat, joined us as we launched from the stricken helicopter with all the grace and panache of an overweight rhinoceros. We hit a pine tree and it bent, creaking, under the weight, my legs absorbing most of the impact, so we wound up on the ground more or less intact, albeit thoroughly covered with sap, pine needles, and bits of bark.

The machine gun stuttered a few times and was quiet; shortly afterward Q piloted the helicopter to a fairly neat landing on the concrete just a few miles distant. Show-off. The rest of us, save Paul, who disappeared almost immediately, were forced to trudge through the woods to meet up with the others again.

So jumping wasn’t really necessary. I maintain that it was the best idea I had at the time. Never mind anyone else’s ideas. I’m not a mind-reader, you know.

By the time we arrived Paul had opened every single one of the crates stacked around the edge of the helipad and scattered what appeared to be a decent amount of equipment around. I noticed a familiar-looking blue handle and retrieved my fire axe from the pile. “So that’s what they did with all of my stuff. I was beginning to wonder.”

“They’ll have seen the helicopter land,” Q remarked. “We need to move.”

“Let’s go. Paul, scout us a path to the building we saw, if you would. Finn can take point, Durance and Q on the flanks, Nat in the center.”

“I’m on it!” the speedster announced and vanished yet again. Finn shrugged his shoulders and began leading the way up the trail, faint metallic noises following him as people checked their gear.

I poked at the little communicator-thing I’d found and nearly dropped it when Paul’s voice came through, loud enough to startle nearby birds into flight.


“Oh for crying out loud. Where is the volume control on this thing?”

Durance took it from me, adjusted it, and stuck it in my ear all in one smooth, practiced motion.

“Let me see . . . alpha, bravo, coca, delta . . .” Finn stopped and gave me a dirty look so I shut up.

“Ah, team, I got trouble,” announced Paul. “Some kind of plant thing tripped me up and now I’m stuck.”

“Figures,” I growled.

“I’m about 2 km ahead of you, I got a woman in a red cloak here . . . ARGH!” There was a brief pause. “I’m taking damage here!”

“So get out of there. I’m moving to intercept, someone else take point,” Finn spat out and began to run. I sprinted after him, catching up after only a few strides.

“Macguire, I don’t think you’re going to get there in time,” I explained as I hurtled past. I wasn’t sure I would, but I could at least try. I poked the communicator until it shut off; when I could hear Paul squawking I jumped up into a tree to survey the situation. I could see two feet and one hand waving furiously from under a mass of vines not far ahead. Nothing else looked immediately threatening, so I jumped down to try and cut him loose. Hack. Hack. Nothing.

“I thought you were stronger than this!”

I was going to make a cutting remark when I noticed a blur detach itself from the rest of the forest; I jumped just as it resolved into a man with long, bladed fingers, who promptly tried to take a chunk out of me. Luckily my bits all seem to like staying attached for now, because they got me out of the way before I really knew what was happening.

I thumbed the comm. switch while pulling my axe out with the other hand. Two other figures had come into view on either side, one a woman wearing a long red cloak, the other a man in a blue outfit who was playing with sparks of brilliant purple energy.

“I’ve got three people here that I can see, one red lady in the trees ahead, a guy in a blue shirt, and this guy”—I swung the axe mightily—“who I’m attempting to hamstring.”

He didn’t quite manage to dodge and went down in a heap, almost on top of Paul. Seconds later I also went down, throwing myself flat to avoid a ball of sparkling white light from the red lady.

“Durance here, I’m leaving Mr. Black to you, since you’re in a friendly-rich environment. Bye-bye, Mr. Blue.”

There was a loud crack but no visible effect on the two inches of dirt that I could see. Shortly thereafter there was a loud scuffling noise from about where I judged the red lady to be; I peeped up cautiously and saw Finn jump to his feet beside her unconscious body. Score one for the good guys. Nat vaulted over me, red streaks of fire flaring from her skin, and assaulted my blade-fingered friend, but he lunged out of her way. Purple energy arced overhead.

I grabbed the wannabe ninja. “Give it up! You’re beat!” He went limp, not resisting, just as Finn fired his shotgun at something in the trees. Nat pointed a finger and there was an explosion of flames. Something fled, yowling, as the man in blue fell to a crackle of automatic gunfire. For a moment there was silence.

“Will someone PLEASE get these things OFF me?!” Paul demanded. “I think our ‘hostage’ situation turned into an ambush.”

“Yeah,” Finn remarked. “You make excellent bait.” Nat made fire and helped Paul out of his confinement while I slapped handcuffs on our prisoner.

Q and Durance joined us, the metal warrior cleaning his rifle while the pilot tapped away at a laptop he must have had in his gear. “We have two targets left, QuickDraw and Agent Alpha, according to this.”

I gaped at him.

“Agent Alpha is a hand-to-hand expert, and QuickDraw is an excellent shot,” Q continued.

“You tell us this now?!”

“Like there was time before?!

I grimaced. “You have a point.”

“They are probably in the building ahead, waiting for us,” Durance remarked.

“Standing around here only gives them time to regroup,” Finn added.

I shrugged and started marching, taking point myself this time.

“I’ll go to the roof?” Paul asked.

“Might as well.” I said, “be careful this time, though. We’ll join you shortly.”

We hurried, favoring speed over stealth, but I still heard a muffled conversation going on behind me. “I’m feeling inadequate here,” Nat complained.

“You did fine,” came the reply. Sounded like Finn.

“I’m off my game. Can’t be off my game.”

My comm. went off again. “Hey, I found another bad guy. Agent Alpha, I believe.”

I groaned. “Any bets as to whether he’ll actually run away this time?” No one answered, but the entire group began sprinting through the trees. We fetched up on the side of the building.

“Shooters on me!” Q announced. I frowned, then saw the sense of what he was doing as he lifted off the ground carrying Durance with him.

“Melee on me, then, I guess.” Even carrying Finn and Nat I went up the wall like a gecko. We arrived just in time to see Paul get flattened by a man in a black outfit. The three of us barreled into Agent Alpha while Durance and Q traded shots with another guy, presumably QuickDraw. Paul sat up, woozy, obviously trying to decide what to do.

“Go check on the hostages!” I yelled.

“Roger!” He vanished through a trapdoor in the floor.

“I’ve never lost one of these exercises . . . “ Alpha gritted out. “Quickdraw!”

I glanced over just as that notable pulled out a remote and dramatically pushed the button. A blast rocked the building, showering us with junk, but it came from several meters over to the side.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” Q quipped. “You lose, give up.”

He snarled soundlessly for several seconds, then went limp. Gradually we untangled ourselves and climbed to our feet.

“Paul, are you okay? The hostages okay?” I asked the comm. There was a lengthy pause, then I heard an unusual sound; the speedser, breathing hard.

“Yeah, I think we’re okay.”

“Good job, everyone,” I said, nodding. I had to admit I was impressed. Nat echoed my sentiments.

Q pulled out a flare gun and fired it into the air. Very shortly afterwards a few jeeps and sedans pulled up alongside the building. Archer got out and walked towards us. I jumped down and stalked towards him.

“Do we pass or what?” I demanded as soon as I was within speaking distance.

“You succeeded, but I don’t see how you could have managed to be any more sloppy.”

“What do you want? We have no command structure, so we have no idea who’s calling the shots.”

“I thought you were in charge,” Paul commented from right behind me. I turned to look at him while Nat had a brief but intense whispered conversation with Archer.

“And I was, but only so long as you continued to think so.”

Archer cleared his throat loudly. “Now, as I was saying, you lack discipline, teamwork, and some of you seem to have a death wish. However, the other team never made it to their base camp, and Agent Alpha used lethal force against orders. But you still managed to succeed. So, you get the job. Congratulations, Project 615.”

“So who is in charge, then?” I continued, refusing to let the issue die.

“Are you volunteering, Page? Or will you change your name and run off if faced with a little responsibility?”

I glared. I hate government types. Always they try to do research to impress you. And always they get it dead wrong. “Yes, I’m volunteering.”

“Good, because if no one volunteered Powers was going to assign Agent Alpha to this squad.”

Durance shook his head. “I’m going with the lesser evil.”

“Cool!” Paul announced. “Team leader buys!”

Jan 23, 2006

Finally Hit The Jackpot

No, I don't mean I won the lottery. My clumsiness finally caught up with me and I fractured my arm. My right arm. I'm right-handed. I can't even type properly.

Dang it.

Jan 21, 2006

Book Meme . . . I mean Game . . . Whatever

Well, Gus van Horn did it, then Myrhaf did it, so as a slavish imitator (ha ha, that's a joke, laugh already) I must also do it.

Last Book Bought: The Millionaire Mind, by Dr. Thomas J. Stanley

Five Books that Mean a Lot to You:

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
My favorite author and, in some respects, the standard by which I judge all others. I occasionally find myself wishing she had written more novels, but there's so much to think about in the ones that she did write that I'm glad enough to just have the four.

Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Another favorite author, this particular novel gave me a real idea of what it could and should mean to be a military man. It is an occupation for which I have a deep respect.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
A more modern and naturalistic writer, Stephenson presents a view of the near future that is both entrancing and cautionary. You have to love a book where the main character is named Hiro Protagonist.

Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimen
I always cry when I read the last few lines of this book, which is supposed to be a satire, but you'd have to read it (and know me) to understand why.

The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
This novel about humanity and dignity was the basis for the movie "Bicentennial Man" . . . I prefer the book, though.

Last Book Read: The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
I may blog about this later.

A New Addition

While wandering about, I happened upon the relatively new blog Acid-Free Paper, which is surprisingly quite similar to my own blog. Some might imagine that I would be irritated at this, since technically it makes him my competition, but I think that other writers can only be a good thing.

It takes much much longer to write something than it does to read it, and I consider the written word to be much like Pringles: when you eat one, you want to have another one. Good writing only makes you want to see more of it.

This can result on tremendous pressure on a writer to produce, especially if that writer is unusual, good, and original. So, if there's more people around to take up the slack, I can only be better off. They're not taking readers (and potentially, in the future, money) away from me; there's plenty to go around and the demand for more and better writing can never be filled.

So, by way of introduction: Toiler is another up-and-coming Objectivist fiction writer. I was fairly impressed by what I saw there, so I'm adding him to my 'roll. Big round of applause for him, ladies and gents.

Jan 20, 2006

March Upcountry

I just finished reading this lovely space opera/military science novel by David Weber and John Ringo. It's the first in a series that contains three other books: March to the Sea, March to the Stars, and We Few. In general the theme behind the books is the defense of civilization from those who would destroy and loot it.

The story is highly engaging and extremely enjoyable. It revolves around the coming-of-age of the third and most unimportant son of the Empress of Man in a future age of spacegoing humans. Lost on a distant planet inhabited by savage natives and dangerous beasts with only his extremely professional company of bodyguards, the Prince must cross the planet on land so that he can return home. It is desperately important that he survive, not only because he's the Prince, but because someone must bring word of the sabotage that stranded him to his mother.

The military details are fascinating, the panoramic view of battle horrifying, and the societies and fauna of the planet interestingly diverse. It could be a truly great novel (and series) except that I think the authors fail somewhat at really characterizing people. The interactions between characters are not really unrealistic, but they are very superficial. I can respect the characters, but not really idolize or identify with any of them.

It's also difficult to pick up on characterization from the way people speak, so the authors sneak in clues to, say, explain that so-and-so is whining at this point. I think this derives from the not-really-individualist ideas of the authors, which clash with my own. I don't consider it whining to request explanations and to assert authority that you do actually have, even though you might not be doing so intelligently.

If you enjoyed Starship Troopers, (which was superior, in my eyes) you will probably enjoy this series, but if you're not a military buff I'd give it a pass.

Jan 19, 2006

Home Alone

In general, I am not a very social person, and I've found this tendency increasing as I get older. Sometimes, though, I get lonely, followed by bitterness at my inability to meet people I like that return the favor.

I think the main reason behind this is that I am simply aggressively weird in almost every way, so I've compiled this List of Ways I am Abnormal (socially):

1. No makeup
2. No jewelry
3. Don't drink
4. Don't party
5. Don't dance
6. Unusual hobbies
7. Frightfully honest
8. Fiercely independant
9. Naturally reticent
10. Don't care to abide by anyone else's standards

It's not an inclusive list, but you start to get the picture. I embrace my oddities, but it does mean that I spend a lot of time by myself.

Well, that's what books are for.

Jan 18, 2006

Serenity Soundtrack

I have peculiar tastes where it comes to music, which frequently makes it difficult for me to buy CD's. Coupled with my inability to remember musician names and song titles I have a terrible time getting copies of anything that I actually like, and even if I do manage to get a CD by an artist I like, usually I'll only enjoy two or three of the songs on it. (Why don't I buy songs online? Because I can't remember the name of the song or the name of the musician, that's why!)

My solution to this problem has been to get movie soundtracks. Unlike musicians, I can remember the name of the movie, and the musical pieces on the CD tend to all be related, so I like a higher percentage of them.

I enjoyed watching Serenity quite a bit, so I picked up the soundtrack the last time I was in the store. The music is quite good, but unfortunately the upbeat "Wild West"-style tracks tend to be short, whereas the grim or scary mood tracks tend to be a bit longer. It is excellent music to listen to while gaming or reading, though, as the deep mellow sounds fill the background without overpowering or startling you.

Added an Index

I'm trying this experiment of adding an index, that being a secondary blog (named, surprisingly, Literatrix: Index) where I can keep listings of my related posts together and make my readers' lives easier. I've posted a link to the index over on the left there. It's not completely updated yet, and I would like to figure out a way to get rid of the sidebar and headers on that blog, but I just don't feel like picking at it tonight. I'll get to it later.

Jan 17, 2006

Body Art

I have never really seen any esthetic value in tattoos, body piercings, and the various other strange things people will do to themselves for decoration. It's not because of the discomfort involved, but because such adornments are almost universally ugly. In my mind, decoration exists for the purpose of making something pleasing to the eye, not disturbing. Two completely different sets of esthetic rules apply depending on which of these ideas you adopt.

A pleasant, attractive decoration should appear as a part of the person it decorates, such as an elegant pair of earrings that just finish your ensemble, or a tattoo that accentuates the natural play of shadow and light across your back.

Piercings that make you look like the victim of an unfortunate industrial accident are not attractive. They are so distracting that I don't even recognize the people I know that have piercings when they happen not to be wearing them. A friend of mine once mentioned that he has an almost uncontrollable urge to grab hold of them and pull them off. I can certainly sympathize. If you must pierce, stick with one pair of holes in your ears or something simple like that. Personally, I haven't even bothered with that much after stories of vicious infections and having earrings catch on things.

Tattoos are another story. Many I've seen are works of art in their own right . . . on a completely inappropriate canvas. Works of art are meant for display; you put them somewhere and they stay there so that the entire piece can be contemplated as a whole. With tattoos, you can't do this, because your body is in constant motion; the tattoo shifts angles, deforms, is covered up or otherwise only partially visible a lot of the time. It's decoration. A good test of a tattoo is, do you have to refocus your eyes to take it in? If so, I consider it an unattractive tattoo.

Words and meaningful symbols are right out; if you want to show off your ideas, wear it on a t-shirt. At least then you can take it off when you don't feel like telling everyone that they can go *#@& themselves anymore.

My personal advice would be to pick a warm brown ink (if there is such a thing) and do a nice abstract pattern; you'll look more like a human being and less like an alien or a member of the Blue Man Group. You might even manage to look like a tasteful human being, which is actually no mean feat.

Jan 16, 2006

Fiction: Paul

As told by Dakota Sue

I sat on the secretary’s desk in the crowded waiting room where Mr. Rose had dumped me and contemplated the twitchy young guy producing a truly horrendous array of clicking noises.  It took some time for my brain to pick up that he was working on an extremely tiny computer.  He looked at me, apparently feeling my bemused stare.  His eyes widened slightly.

“What happened to you?”

I touched one of the scabs on my face.  “Those job interviews are killer.”

“Maybe you need to find some easier work.”

“I’d be happy to hear suggestions.  I’m not entirely certain what I’m here waiting for in any case.”

“This is the government; we wait.”

“Why are you here then?”

“I’m avoiding my desk and finishing this report.  I’m Paul.”

“I’m Susan, I got shoved in here on extremely short notice, so I really don’t know what’s going on.”

Just as I got the words out of my mouth the doors in the back opened and two old guys tromped in, looking like they’d seen some abuse in their time.  One leaned on a cane, and the other had some ugly scars down the side of his face.  

“Greetings, you may all refer to me as Mr. Archer,” announced the man with the cane pleasantly.  He had long white hair and reminded me of Rose, but Elves don’t really get old.  “You will now please take the door to my left and get in the elevators.”

I put down what was left of my paper cup of coffee (now sodden and beginning to leak), and heaved myself to my feet, making my way down the hallway to the elevators.  There were four of them, open and waiting, but without buttons, controls, or even floor markers anywhere.  The crowd sorted themselves out as I wondered whether there was some deep significance to your elevator selection and then said screw it and took whichever one was emptiest.  

The next room was done up in some dreadful neo-Industrial style; everything was made out of metal, and not well-made either.  I almost cut myself on the rough back of my contoured-for-your-discomfort chair until I learned not to touch anything that wasn’t polished down.

Paul joined me at the table, or maybe I joined him.  All I saw was a faint flicker out of the corner of my eye and there he was, looking rather pleased with himself.  I opened my mouth to question him about this phenomenon when the old guys made their second appearance.  This time the scarred guy, tall and black and imposing, did the talking.

“I am Horatio Powers, director of AEGIS.   You are here because we are forming a new anti-terrorism squad specifically targeting metahumans.  The code for this project is 615.  Only six of you will be selected for positions in Mr. Archer’s squad, which means you will also report to me as your superior officer.”

Archer spoke up again, his words following Powers’ so closely I wondered whether they’d been rehearsing in front of a mirror.  “The first examination will be a psychological questionnaire.”  He turned to the side slightly and I noticed the pile of papers and pencils behind him.  “Answer the questions and when you have finished remain in your seat.”  

Paul raised his hand.  “I’m done.”   Sure enough, he was.  The two old guys ignored him and stalked out.  In step.  I could just tell that I was going to fit in here.  Paul appeared perplexed.  “No, really, I’m done.”

No one else seemed in a hurry to move, so I grabbed the pile of exams and started throwing them to people, inaccurately, but I was pretty sure they could all survive having a test smack them in the forehead or knee. Then I sat down and started trying to fill out my own.

Question 1: Are you a patriot?
A.  Yes
B.  No
C.  Die American Capitalist pigs
D.  All of the above  

No really, I’m serious.  The essay questions were even worse.

Free Response 3:  In three paragraphs or less, describe the events leading up to your twelfth birthday without using the letter N.  

I took a stab at it to show willing, but I was pretty sure I was going to wash out at that point.   I got fed up and tossed the exam into the center of the table.  I fidgeted for a while and then peeked over my neighbor’s shoulder to see what he was doing.  Across the table Paul was harassing a guy that could be a pilot; he was wearing a flight suit in any case.

“So, what’s your name?  What kind of powers you got?  You think you’ll make the cut?”

The (possible) pilot grinned.  “Q.  Stuff.  Probably.”

“Q?  Really?  Your parents not like you or something?”

“It’s a code name.  You might want to think of your own if you don’t have one.  It helps in this type of business.”

I grimaced.  “Code names are for pansies in spandex suits.  Stick with your real name, it confuses people.”  The guy next to me finally looked up, probably because I’d almost put my nose in his ear turning around.  I glanced at him, wondering whether he’d get upset.  His eyes didn’t quite match; one was larger than the other and appeared to be made out of metal.

I supposed I could try being polite, since I’d put my nose in his business more than one way at that point, so I offered him my hand.  “I’m Susan.  And either you have a really bad case of glaucoma or one of your eyes is artificial.  Either way, not much fun.”

“My code name is Ranger,” announced Paul, “and I’m your basic speedster.”

“What’s an advanced speedster, then?” demanded Q.

“The advanced ones can run on water . . . I can’t do that yet but I’m studying.  It turns out Jesus just ran real fast.”

I shook my head.  “I’m a truck driver.  Or I was, anyway, I’m just a bit minus a truck at the moment.”

My neighbor chuckled finally and shook my hand.  There was no flesh under his glove, only metal.  “Durance.”

“Pleased to meet you.”


“Crowe!  Davis!  Fredrichson!  Keller!  Monroe!  Smith!  You’re dismissed, exit through the elevator.”  Archer had returned while I was distracted.  I looked across the table.  My exam was still there, just where I’d left it.  What a bunch of work for nothing.  Now I wished I hadn’t bothered to make up that stuff about the neighbor’s cat.  “The rest of you leave through the doors on the other side and change in the locker rooms for a free exercise period.”

Dressed in the workout clothes I resembled a domestic violence refugee, as all the scrapes and bruises were visible.  Well, almost all of them.  I sighed, resigned, and wandered out into the gym, where I began stretching in a desultory fashion.  Paul emerged a few moments later and joined me at stretching.

“So you can sprint like the devil, what else can you do?”  I asked.

He grinned and began counting on his fingers, “I can throw almost any object fast enough to put it through a half inch of steel.  Not always useful but a neat party trick.”

“Sure.  Can you run up walls and so forth?”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t joking about that water thing.  It’s tougher than it looks.  And what is your specialty?”

“Me?  I don’t like to show off.”  I grimaced as my truthful bone pained me.  “Okay, I tell a lie, but I’m trying to resist the urge.  It would probably be pointless here, anyway.”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly why we’re here.”

I frowned, but, well, what the hey.  “Okay, let’s try this.”  I flexed my knees and jumped thirty feet straight up, gripping the ceiling with my fingertips like a large misshapen gecko.  Predictably my short hair whacked me in the face and I was forced to spit to get it out of my mouth.  I chuckled at myself and back flipped to the wall then back down to the floor.

Almost magically Mr. Archer reappeared in the room.  “Bauer, Cochran, Jackson, Logan, Palmer, and Washington, you are all dismissed.  There are twelve of you left.  We will have a forty-five-minute recess so that you can all relax in the mess hall, and then the final examination will begin.”

Within seconds I was sprawled across a table, endeavoring not to drool while I napped.  Food?  They could keep their gray cafeteria glop.  I was taking my forty-five minutes and running with them.

“Ahem,” Archer announced and I jerked upright, blinking and rubbing my eyes.  “Your final test is a race of sorts.  You will be divided into two teams and dropped at a training site, where your mission will be to rescue the ‘hostages’ being held by a group of meta-human trainers.”

I was given a uniform.  It had my name on it.

“MacGuire, Patterson, Page, Stewart, Williams, Young, you’re Team A.”

“I am not doing any Mr. T jokes,” remarked Q.  He was apparently on Team A.  With me: I’m Page if I never mentioned it.  Don’t get much use out of the last name.  Paul helpfully began humming the theme music from the A-Team.  He was on my team, too, along with Durance the cyborg, a very attractive brunette named Nat, and a scruffy-looking blond.  As for which name matched up to which person, your guess is as good as mine.

I hate code names.

Then came the helicopter and a bunch of useless chit-chat and attempts to foretell the future and guess what was coming.  When the purple energy ray came out of nowhere and almost hit us, it was a relief.

Until it turned around and started coming back, that is.

I growled under my breath.  “Right.”

Jan 14, 2006

King Kong

I was not certain what to expect from this movie before I saw it. On the one hand, it was directed by Peter Jackson, who of all movie directors captures my sense of life most perfectly. On the other hand, though, it is a remake of an old movie I still haven't seen, and I've learned that you can't expect consistently good movies from any source. I hung back, waiting to hear from people I knew whether it was worth seeing or not.

Then I read the discussion on about the movie and I was still more hesitant. No one really gave a distinctly positive review.

Jackson proved them wrong.

I'm sorry to say that the discussors missed the theme of this movie by about a mile. Maybe even more. What is the theme of King Kong? Masculinity.

There is only one female character in the movie, Ann Darrow, and the plot revolves around her completely, but her only purpose is to provide a contrast so that you can understand the workings of masculinity in its proper context. Without anything to compare it against, namely, femininity, the idea of masculinity is meaningless. Femininity is not explored, but simply presented as a generalization in the person of Naomi Watts' character.

Each of the different male characters embodies some aspect of masculinity; all failed or succeeded to the extent that they approached the ideal. Jack Black's character Carl Denham was the perfect archetype of drive and ambition, but his confused priorities and misunderstanding of what was really important were the ruin of everything he tried to accomplish.

Adrien Brody's Jack Driskell was the true and proper hero except for one failing: his inability to demonstrate his worth. Some quality kept him too reserved and withdrawn from the object of his desire (Ann), so she turned away from him and accepted an imperfect substitute that was more straightforward.

Captain Engleham (Thomas Kretschmann) represented a certain bloody-minded narrowly- focused competence that is generally encountered in professional career men. In his area of expertise, he was the best. The outside world took no notice of him nor him of it; he was almost a self-contained universe and thus a marginal character for all his ability.

Preston (Colin Hanks) was simply the symbol of a kind of confused innocence and honesty, but his unworldliness made him unable to even blunt the worst excesses of other characters. Jimmy (Jamie Bell) was the exemplar of reckless youth, with Evan Parke's character Hayes providing a fatherly foil.

Kyle Chandler as Bruce Banner demonstrated one of the worst and ugliest aspects of masculinity I've ever seen: narcissism. All the worse, in my opinion, because in his enchantment with himself he'd managed to convince many people that there was something under that pretty exterior. Faced with a real difficulty, however, he was forced to rely on others. And yet they continued to give him credit.

All the events of the story tie back into the idea of masculinity. I was especially pleased at how the crew of Engleham's ship moved instantly to rescue Miss Darrow when she was captured by the Skull Island savages. They didn't even question the necessity or ponder leaving her behind.

So what, exactly, did King Kong represent? He was an aspect of masculinity that goes by the simple name of The Brute, an appropriate term I picked up reading Ann Bishop's Black Jewels Trilogy. It is something about men that I have come to appreciate, if not fully understand; the deep and unstoppable passion that good men have that makes them capable of terrible and wonderful things. It is savage and can be frightening, but in general I think it's a good thing. Without that "fire in the gut", it is all too easy to lay down and die or let what is precious slip away.

All of his behavior emphasized this, from playing with Ann a bit cruelly, as though she were a toy instead of a human being (something I've seen most men do with women, so I was especially struck by it), to his pride and offended dignity after being hit in the head with a rock. Kong was so human and genuinely cute that the ending was very hard to watch indeed.

So why did Kong die? What factor conquered the magnificent brute so in love with life and with the beauty he had found? Ignorance. In his dumb incomprehension of the new and terrifying world that confronted him, he was not capable of directing his actions constructively. He could not accomplish his ends. He could only destroy them. Such was his magnificence, love, and dignity that he chose to be destroyed himself rather than allow that to happen.

I definitely recommend the movie. And, gentlemen, when you go see it, ask yourself when you return to the outside world: what sort of man am I?

Jan 10, 2006

A Workout, a History Lesson, a Social Activity, and a New Blog

I've been learning the basics of German Longsword over the past couple of weeks. I wish I could say that I'm a quick study, but really I'm just awkward. It is fun, though, and swinging my waster (a wooden practice sword) around is great exercise. It's still too heavy for me as yet, but that means I can grow into it. A real sword would be lighter, but also just a teensy bit more dangerous. Although, as random as my attacks are, probably not that much more dangerous.

On hearing that I was picking up Longsword, my mother came up with one of the many fascinating anecdotes she's discovered by researching our family geneology. She'd discovered that we are, among other things, descended from some Scots that were imported to Ireland, that being the McCabe (McCaba) family. (From what I understand, McCaba means something like "helmet wearer"). This particular group of belligerant Celts was famous for being taller than everyone else, wearing iron helmets, and wielding (surprise) their claymores in battle.

Then she mentioned they were also reknowned for something called a "gallowglass", which I had never heard of before. So I said, "what's that?"

Well, Mom didn't know either, but I wasn't sure how to spell the word so I didn't look for it online. However, when I went to the sword club practice on Sunday, one of the gentlemen involved with ARMA showed up, so I asked him what it was.

He didn't know either. So, I went digging and I found another cool defence group in Illinois named The Gallowglass Academy, which has a blog here with Blogger. So, that is interesting, and I figured I'd give Allen a plug as another new blogger. Hello, Allen!

However, I still remained unenlightened as to the provenance of the term "gallowglass". Fortunately Wikipedia knows more than I, as evidenced by this fascinating and informative article.

Notice the McCabe family is mentioned at the bottom.

I'm famous! Okay, okay, I'm not. My ancestors are famous! Bet those Celtic warriors never thought their legacy to their far-flung many-generations-gone descendants would be a Wiki article.

Personally, I would have preferred a sword, those things are expensive.

Jan 9, 2006

Reduced Posting

I've been trying to keep up with the blog, but unfortunately I'm on information overload at the moment, which is making it almost impossible for me to write anything. Between working overtime on a major project (which requires, among other things, a lot of low-level expression building in Access and Crystal Reports 11.0), practicing longsword, and training for my new position, my brain is hardly functioning.

The solution would be to write about work, but I think it'd be best to hold off on that until after my situation has stabilized somewhat. I remember reading that a lot of companies don't want their employees to blog; they worry about their workers airing "dirty laundry" in public. I don't particularly feel like losing my job so I that can gripe about my boss, who is equally overworked and probably not at his best in any case.

Jan 5, 2006

Glory Road

I pulled this Heinlein novel off my shelf because the first time I tried to read it I didn't finish, a rarity for me. It's a decent book, but I think I was suffering from a surfeit of Heinlein at the time and halfway was as far as I got.

For anyone familiar with Heinlein's writing the characters are completely expected, almost featureless, a trait exacerbated by the fact that they don't seem to have any permanent names of their own, but an endless string of somewhat-related nicknames. I think this is Heinlein's way of indicating that they have no permanent ties to anything, not even their own identity, which they pick up and put away whenever it suits them.

I, personally, am rather attached to my name, so much so that I even use it publicly online, which is supposedly a big no-no. I respect people who feel a need to have several discrete identities for different purposes, but it's not for me.

The cheerfully self-interested, practical, matter-of-fact tale about the Hero Quest for the Great Woojum to prevent the Disaster Terrible Beyond Naming is fun to read, and like all Heinlein contains frequent snippets of real-life wisdom such as:

"It is the incidence of Heroes that counts, not the pattern of zeros."

"Men are shy, whereas females simply have customs."

The really interesting thing about this book is Heinlein's version of an appropriate happy ending: the princess, the universe, wealth, prestige, power . . . not enough. Excitement, danger, your mind and your skills pitted against the whole of the universe . . . that's a happy ending. It's not the having that makes you happy . . . it's the getting.

Jan 4, 2006

The Millionaire Mind

Do you have the Millionaire Mind?

This is the question on the back cover of Dr. Thomas J. Stanley's book, sequel to The Millionaire Next Door. The really funny thing is that the answer turns out to be: well, of course you do. The really major factors in determining whether a particular person will become truly affluent, according to his research, are:

1. Hard work, integrity, focus

2. Don't worry too much about your academic scores; they reveal less than you think and most people expect. Using the mind you have is far more important than being some kind of innate analytical genius.

3. Courage

4. Vocation. If you love your work, your work will love you.

5. A good spouse. Most non-economically successful men indicate that "attractiveness" is the most important quality they seek in a potential mate. But the qualties that really make a good long-term partner have nothing to do with physical attractiveness. Oh, that's not to say that you should seek for an unattractive wife, but find a pretty lady that has numerous other good qualities as well.

For women: it doesn't matter if your husband is wealthy or has a high income (the two factors rated as most important by non-successful women). One of the best indicators of future value to you (among more ordinary things like affection, supportiveness, steadyness), is that he is ambitious.

*cough* Pardon my digression, there, I get tired of beating people over the head about that. Anyway, back to the list . . .

6. Frugality! Live below your means! Invest, and not just in the stock market, invest in your life.

7. Take great care in purchasing a home: it's probably the most expensive thing you'll ever buy, and real estate can make or break your fortune.

8. Balance. Not only do you not have to work 80 hours a week and get up at 4am (unless you really like it, that is), you don't have to keep up with the Jones's by getting a $2.5 million house with eight bedrooms and four Jacuzzi's.

Definitely a book worth reading, although I took mild exception to his bizarre ideas that integrity is genetic(?) and God helps people run businesses. While belief in God might have psychological benefits, I really doubt that the Lord made Chick-fil-a more successful because it observes the Sabbath.

Oh well. Just ignore those bits.

Jan 3, 2006

Prince of Persia

These are some of my all-time favorite games. I just finished playing The Two Thrones, and I thought I'd list just a few of the things I loved about them.
  • Easy to play. If you're a veteran computer gamer you've probably experienced picking up a game that had a truly horrendous interface (Daggerfall comes to mind) where you felt like you needed two hands for the keyboard and one for the mouse. None of the PoP games have that problem, in fact, they are so easy to play that you don't have to even think about it. Which is good because:
  • Action, action, action! These games are non-stop, in the way that a good book is. You want to keep playing to see what happens next. Some areas have a time limit, so you have to get a move on. Unusually for many action games, however, they have:
  • A great plot. Swords! Mystic Empresses! Time travel! Strange sand monsters! Romance! Seriously, I could see Errol Flynn in this game, no problem. And when you are not contemplating the overall plot, there are plenty of:
  • Ingenious puzzles. Most of them are not too difficult, putting them right on the edge of "fun but not so frustrating you feel like screaming". Most of the puzzles are worked into the game so smoothly that it doesn't really come across as a puzzle, you are just trying to figure out how to get to the other side of the room by climbing along the walls. In fact, you may experience some vertigo because of the:
  • Fantastic scenery, which is both incredibly real and exquisitely stylized. Oh, and the music is great.

Many praises to UbiSoft!

Finish the Slogan III

I'm starting to get the feeling that these contentless slogans are a product of the non-philosophical "centrist" ideology. Here's another:

I'm voting for Kids!

. . . because they pay more than dead people!

or, if you want to be mean(er):

. . . they can run the government better than THESE yahoos!

Jan 2, 2006

More Stats

Natori Taiko

PL 7

STATISTICS: STR 10 DEX 18 [28] +9 CON 12 [16] (+3) INT 14 (+2) WIS 12 (+1) CHA 18 (+4)

COMBAT: Attack +2 Defense +2 Init +17

SAVES: Toughness +4, Fort +1, Reflex +9, Will +6

SKILLS: Acrobatics 8 (+17), Disguise 4 (+8), Escape Artist 8 (+17), Gather Information 4 (+8), Handle Animal 4 (+8), Notice 4 (+8), Ride 8 (+17), Sleight of Hand 4 (+13)

FEATS: Acrobatic Bluff, Ambidexterity, Attack Focus: Melee (8), Defensive Roll (1), Dodge Focus 8, Elusive Target, Evasion (2), Improved Initiative (2), Uncanny Dodge (hearing)

POWERS: Ancient Swords (Device 2, Strike +4, mighty, 2nd weapon, improved critical, accurate attack, quick draw), Enhanced Dexterity 10, Enhanced Constitution 4, Speed 2, Leaping 3, Super-movement 4 (sure footed 2, trackless, water walking)

Statistics 24 + Combat 8 + Saves 5 + Skills 11 + Feats 25 + Powers 32 = 105 pp

Eberhard Brome

PL 8

STATISTICS: STR 12 (+1) DEX 14 (+2) CON 12 (+1) INT 22 (+6) WIS 12 (+1) CHA 14 (+2)

COMBAT: Attack +3 Defense +5 Init +2

SAVES: Toughness +1, Fortitude +6, Reflex +6, Will +6

SKILLS: Bluff 8 (+10), Computers 8 (+14), Craft: Electronics 10 (+16) Craft: Mechanical 10 (+16), Diplomacy 8 (+10), Disable Device 6 (+12), Drive 2 (+4), Gather Information 6 (+8), Investigate 8 (+14), Knowledge: Civics 10 (+16), Knowledge: Physical Sciences 10 (+16), Knowledge: Technology 10 (+16), Profession: Lawyer 10 (+11), Sense Motive 10 (+11)

FEATS: Equipment (15) Improvised Tools, Inventor, Luck (4), Second Chance: Equipment Failure, Ultimate Save (3): Toughness, Fortitude, Reflex

POWERS: Luck Control 3 (Extras: Area, Selective)

EQUIPMENT: Headquarters [Toughness 10, Size 6 (Medium), Computer, Fire Prevention System, Garage, Isolated, Laboratory, Library, Living Space, Power System, Workshop], Camera, Computer: Laptop, PDA, Digital Audio Recorder (3), Video Camera, Concealable Microphone (4), Camo Clothing, Flashlight, GPS Receiver, Shotgun, Tactical Vest, Heavy Pistol (laser sight, suppressor), dynamite, small truck (alarm)

Stats 26 + Combat 16 + Saves 14 + Skills 29 + Feats 25 + Powers 15 = 125 pp

Herthagon, aka Antony Barbaropoulos

PL 8

STATISTICS: STR 18 [20] (+5) DEX 18 [20] (+5) CON 18 [20] (+5) INT 10 WIS 10 CHA 20 [24] (+7)

COMBAT: Attack +6, Defense +6 (+9), Init +5

SAVES: Toughness +5 (+7), Fort +5, Ref +5, Will +3

SKILLS: Acrobatics 8 (+13), Bluff 5 (+12), Climb 5 (+10), Diplomacy 10 (+17), Drive 8 (+13), Escape Artist 8 (+10), Gather Information 8 (+15), Perform: Acting 10 (+17), Profession: Actor 10 (+10), Ride 8 (+13), Swim 6 (+11)

FEATS: Accurate Attack, All-out Attack, Attractive, Benefit: Status (Celebrity), Benefit: Wealth (2), Connected, Defensive Attack, Fascinate: Perform, Improved Block, Improved Disarm (1), Improved Sunder, Power Attack, Weapon Bind, Weapon Break

POWERS: Device “Hoplite’s Armor” (Protection 2: Impervious, Shield 3, Regeneration 3 (recovery rate)) Device “Aphrodite’s Javelin” (Strike 3, Mighty, Thrown), Device “Ares’ Sword” (Strike 3, Mighty, Improved Critical), Enhanced Str 2, Enhanced Dex 2, Enhanced Con 2, Enhanced Cha 4

Stats 34 + Combat 24 + Saves 3 + Feats 15 + Skills 23 + Powers 26 = 125 pp

Mr. Rose

PL 10

STATISTICS: STR 10 [20] (+5) DEX 10 [20] (+5) CON 10 [20] (+5) INT 18 (+4) WIS 14 (+2) CHA 18 [22] (+6)

COMBAT: Attack +12, Defense +12, Init +5

SAVES: Toughness +8, Fortitude +5, Reflex +5, Will +12

SKILLS: Acrobatics 10 (+15), Bluff 10 (+15), Concentration 10 (+12), Diplomacy 10 (+16), Disguise 10 (+16), Escape Artist 10 (+15), Gather Information 15 (+21), Handle Animal 5 (+11), Knowledge: Arcane Lore 10 (+14), Knowledge: Art 5 (+9), Knowledge: History 5 (+9), Language: English (Elvish native), Draconian, French, Spanish, Notice 5 (+7), Ride 5 (+10), Sense Motive 5 (+7), Stealth 5 (+10), Survival 5 (+7)

POWERS: Device: “Tam Lin’s Sword” (+3 Penetrating Strike, Improved Critical, Detect Illusions, Detect Fey, Detect Cold Iron), Enhanced Str 10, Enhanced Dex 10, Enhanced Con 10, Enhanced Cha 2, Immunity: Aging

DRAWBACKS: Power loss (Enhanced Stats) when in the presence of Cold Iron

Stats 20 + Combat 48 + Saves 9 + Skills 31 + Feats 5 + Powers 39 + Drawbacks –2 = 150 pp

Jan 1, 2006

New Year's Resolutions

About a month ago I posted my New Year's Resolutions on, so here they are at a more appropriate time:

The Jennifer Makeover (Lose 100 pounds)
  • get up in the mornings to row before work
  • diet
  • diet pills (I take a few of these, far under the recommended dosage, to help me get over severe energy slumps, so far it's working okay)
  • swordmanship club on Sundays
  • lift weights 1-2 times a week
  • In bed every night by 10pm unless the house is on fire
  • do something fun for me every weekend that doesn't involve food

Monetary Investments

  • save up 6 months' of expenses, $4800, and put it in a money-market account
  • keep up 401K contributions (that's pretty easy)
  • Pay off all credit cards (which should only take me a couple months, as I don't have much on them)

Writing Improvement

  • write one blog entry for every day
  • read at least one new book a week, preferably non-fiction
  • write fiction at least once a week


  • learn everything there is to know about being a Processing Technician
  • (iffy because it's not fully under my control) get promoted to Team Leader, or at least do everything within my power to deserve said promotion
  • (also iffy) get promoted to Processing Supervisor, or as above

Educational Improvement

Increase my working knowledge of:

  • Access/SQL
  • web-based publishing (in order to make the switch to a website from the blog)
  • European martial arts

Someone commented that it seems like a lot, but I don't think so. The hardest part is the diet, which is not easy for me. I've already started and lost a few pounds, though, but I need to intensify my efforts if I'm going to get any further.

First step: oatmeal for breakfast.

So, what are your resolutions?

Finish the Slogan II

While driving around, I saw this bumper sticker:

STAND UP for America's working families . . .

The only thing I could come up with was:

. . . they are tired and would like to SIT DOWN.

I find this slogan particularly bothersome because it is completely contentless; literally, it could mean anything. I've noticed a rash of this lately, especially with the local ongoing "radio should be free" campaign on WMMX 107.7.

A proper slogan should be a brief call for a specific action, but if it doesn't specify the action the slogan is meaningless. What does it mean to stand up for working families? Are we talking about voting to lower taxes? More unions? More religious education? Cheaper gas? What? You could never figure it out just from the slogan.

I have a hunch that the "radio should be free" slogan is speaking out against satellite radio, but I could be completely incorrect. In any case, radio is NOT free and never HAS been. Either you pay money for satellite, or you pay with time by listening to commercials. The only difference is that you pay directly for one, and indirectly for the other when you spend more money with the advertisers.

I'm not certain whether the contentless slogan or the one that is patently untrue is worse.