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

Aug 23, 2006

Night Watch

I'm aware that I've already reviewed a book with this same title: just so that there is no confusion, this is not the same book. It is, instead, an oddity that came to my attention because of a thread on a fiction novel out of Russia. Not only that, a bestselling fiction novel out of Russia. I don't exactly keep tabs on everything that moves through the bookstore, but I haven't seen such a thing before.

Night Watch follows the career of a mystical secret agent working for the "good guys". In basic essence it is very similar to the TV shows Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The main character, Anton, is not entirely happy with his work or with the nature of the world and the working"arrangement" between the light side and the dark side. His difficulties develop through several separate but connected story arcs as he learns that there isn't much difference between the "good" ends divorced from means and the "evil" means divorced from ends. Both sides are engaged in all manner of deviousness that adds up, eventually, to nothing.

I found the agonizing a bit dense and over-done, but Anton's realization at the end of the book made me smile. It was only a small piece of a large puzzle and did not alleviate the gray doubt of his surroundings very much, but I have to say that the novel is worth reading.

Rating: 3.0

Aug 21, 2006

Ramalama (Bang Bang)

I heard Ramalama (Bang Bang) on "So You Think You Can Dance?" some weeks ago and, after some digging, managed to find both the song title and the name of the artist. It's such a genuinely weird piece of music that I liked it immediately (especially the dull, gong-like beat overlaying the entire song). Check out Ms. Murphy for yourself.

Aug 14, 2006

Cool Video Clip

If you're at all curious about what I do for a living, click on the link above and watch the video from Fox News 19; about halfway through the clip there will be some footage from a "Lab in Dayton" . . . the girl sitting on the window in the blue scrubs is Jackie, she works in my room. (The lady in the back in the green scrubs and white jacket is my team leader, Nan, but she's only visible for a second or two.) I wasn't in the video because I was at lunch. We had a package left to do that day and the video crew showing up delayed us. Still, it's kind of nifty.

Personally, I'm in favor of offering money for tissue and organ (and blood) donations, but since that's currently illegal and not likely to change any time soon, I'm registered as an organ and tissue donor. When there's really no rational reason to go one way or another on an issue (and I don't consider refusing to donate on principle because you're not allowed to get paid for it a rational reason) I figure generosity can't hurt. After all, I'll be dead, so what do I care about what they do with my, well, meat? Heck, I spend my working hours taking apart other people's earthy remains, it's sort of like poetic justice if I insist that they get a crack at me as well.

Okay, so it's kind of a tasteless joke, but there just aren't any other kind in this business, and you have to laugh about it at least a little, otherwise you'll go mad.

Aug 12, 2006

Raising the Roof

I spent this morning at work, however my housemate invited his buddies over and spent the day crawling all over the roof, ripping off shingles and plywood and applying more shingles and plywood. The roof turned out to be a mess: mis-applied shingles, rotting wood, poorly-attached joists. It's about typical for this house, which appears to have been the abode of do-it-yourselfers whose aggressiveness in the face of home projects was matched only by their incompetence in the face of the selfsame projects. (Don't ask me about wiring.)

I share the incompetence trait, but my response in the face of a lack of knowledge is: get someone else to do it. I mean, that's the whole point of dividing up labor, right? I get on with the writing and cutting up bodies, and other people shingle roofs, wire houses, and fix my car, right? Well, assuming I can pay them for it, that is.

So, why is it that you find so many jobs that were done by people that clearly didn't know what the heck they were doing? You don't save money or time in the long run by doing a crappy job on your own. I know how it happens--I work, after all--but I still don't understand why, and I never have. Why, when I know my professor is spouting absolute B.S., do I have to sit through the inane lecture, biting my tongue? Why, when I know my supervisor has no plan and is just randomly firing off things in the hope that one of them will work, do I have to be patient?

It's the elitist's credo: why do I have to live with the mistakes of people that are stupider than I am? I don't even have patience with my own stupid mistakes, so where do they get off expecting me to have patience with theirs?! Sometimes I think that if I'd spent more time telling people where to get off and less apologizing to them for their own mistakes, my life would have been better. So why don't I? I've always been afraid of what might happen, which is probably the worst stupid mistake I've ever made. I was afraid of having to stand alone.

Well, I have to do that, anyway. At least, if you stand up, you can be proud of being brave. It's not worth it to be "nice", especially since you never get anything out of it.

Aug 5, 2006


Before I began this blog, I reviewed Brandon Sanderson's first book, Elantris, on Frankly, it was campy; a 2.0 at best. When I spotted Mistborn on the shelf at the bookstore, I didn't know what to think. It sounded interesting, but Sanderson's first book was such a let-down. Still, some of my favorite authors write bad books occasionally, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'm glad I did, because Mistborn, by contrast, is good.

The story follows the work of Kelsier, a legend of the underworld, as he undertakes his greatest heist ever: stealing the government. In the dreary, ash-smothered Final Empire, he assembles a crew and uses his magical abilities to further his cause, adopting a young protege to go where he cannot.

As a caveat, though, there are a great many traditional fantasy staples in this book, the first of a projected trilogy. The "magic system", dubbed Allomancy for its reliance on ingested metals, which is explained in great detail. The strangely distorted landscape. The hideous and frightening monsters. The made-up slang. I've reached the point where I find the development of an imaginative and detailed setting to be of very little importance in a novel, and that is a point that Sanderson seems to enjoy dwelling upon. I think my changed preference reflects the fact that there's nothing to think or draw conclusions about in such flights of world-building; you can only passively absorb because it bears no connection to reality, kind of like mathematicians trying to imagine a four-dimensional "cube". I don't find much of value in absorbing things in order to say "that's neat" and move on.

It's still very much Sanderson's writing style, which is fine because style wasn't the problem with the original so much as tone and some awkwardness with the plot. In Mistborn, the goofy, bouncy characters are completely fitting--it's a gang of thieves, after all! The awkward politics make perfect sense as well, since the involved parties are supposed to be politically naive in the first place. There's excellent foreshadowing of future books, but the important points are wrapped up neatly in the climax.

I look forward to the next book eagerly.

Rating: 3.5

Sixth Day

I did it.

For seven months I've been slaving away at my new job, struggling to force my ever-more-sluggish and reluctant body to accomplish my job functions. For seven months I've been told every day, multiple times a day, that I just wasn't quite getting it, that maybe I was coming along but I just had to be patient, that everything they trained me to do yesterday wasn't correct today, that if I was sitting still I should be moving, and if I was moving, I should be sitting still. That when I was proud of my progress, I was never good enough, and when I was mad, that I had no right to be.

Well, I've claimed my reward, and no one can take it away from me. What is it? Now I can work on Saturdays.

Sounds like a weird sort of "reward", more work, doesn't it? But the thing is, if you volunteer to come in and work on Saturdays, the company pays you, for four hours, almost as much as you make in thirteen during a normal week. So, more work IS a reward, because at the end of the month you take home half again as much as you would have otherwise.

The thing is, in order to work Saturdays you have to be ready. You have to be competent, and the supervisor has to vouch for you. Frankly, I think he was dubious about the idea, he was just tired of my whining. If so, he was wrong.

I am so doing this again next Saturday.

Aug 3, 2006

Six Plays by Henrik Ibsen

Have you ever been browsing at a bookstore when a book just leapt off the shelf, tackled you to the ground, and dragged you over to the checkout counter, all the while shouting: "Buy me! Buy me! Buy me!"?

Yeah, me neither. Anyway, when I go browse for books, I normally head straight for the Science Fiction/Fantasy section. Occasionally I will make brief, furtive sorties into other parts of the store, and sometimes I will even try something I find there. Well, last week I got a little turned around carrying my fantasy novel to the checkout line and ended up in the Drama section. I didn't even know there was a Drama section. I'm not your Intrepid Bookstore Explorer, here.

Just as I was about to bolt, I espied the name "Ibsen" on this collection of plays, and I thought, "Wasn't he in The Fountainhead?" Until that moment, I truly didn't know that there was an actual playwright named Ibsen. I had never encountered one of his plays before. Some cultural education I have!

If you, like me, have never encountered Ibsen's plays in your own cultural explorations, then read them immediately! They are fantastic. I usually find even good plays to be dull reading at best; they aren't really meant for the format, after all. Even reading Ibsen, however, I gained a sharp sense of his keen observational powers and dazzling ability to put together a complex, many-layered plot. I understand why he is given credit for revolutionizing the drama and reinventing the tragedy.

The six plays in this particular collection spanned his career: "Peer Gynt", "A Doll's House", "Ghosts", "The Wild Duck", "Hedda Gabler", and "The Master Builder".

Edvard Grieg created a musical accompanyment (now very famous) for "Peer Gynt" that I have listened to many times and enjoyed, but this was the first time I'd ever heard of the play that inspired it. The story follows the adventures of the title character through his long life, travels, and existential conflicts as he looks everywhere to find himself and never succeeds. All this is told in excellent epic verse, a pleasure to read.

"A Doll's House", "Ghosts", and "The Wild Duck", are all family dramas of apparently small scope that probe deep issues underlying the artificial constructs the families build out of their lives. The book is annotated by Martin Puchner, who describes these constructs as the "bourgeoise lies" that Ibsen always seeks to expose--it made his plays shocking and controversial in the 1890's, and also renders them enduring works of art despite the narrowness of their events.

"Hedda Gabler" is another play, like Peer Gynt, about a single woman who, finding her life to be empty, shallow, and without meaning, seeks always to inject some sort of conflict or excitement into her surroundings; she reminds me of Dominique Francon from The Fountainhead, to be honest.

"The Master Builder" is yet another tragedy, this one about the demands of conscience on a man whose ultimate success stems from a terrible disaster. In seeking to rationalize and hide from the disaster, he only seeks in wrecking his wife's happiness, which in its turn only adds to the burden of unearned guilt he visits upon himself. The two forces lead him unerringly to final destruction.

Puchner describes Ibsen as both a realist and a naturalist; I don't know enough about drama to really categorize him, but he doesn't seem like much of a naturalist to me; he illustrates only too sharply the consequences of poorly-considered choices upon his characters, even as they blame their fates on powers outside their control.

Rating: 4.5

Fishing Rights: A Challenge to All

In the above post on, I came up with what I think is an elegant solution to the "problem" of fishing rights, so now I'm looking for input on my solution. Basically, it is:

Would-be commercial fishermen bid yearly for a license to sell a specific type of fish (in a specified country, since governments can't exactly guarantee anything about other countries). This license is known as the "primary" license. The holder of the primary license can also issue "secondary" licenses whereby others can acquire the right to sell fish of the specified type. Each type of fish will be bid individually.
Note: The government is not the default "owner" of this license; in the absence of anyone that wishes to bid for a license (such as on fish that have little or no commercial value) then the license remains "open", and no one can contest anyone else's use of that type of fish.

I invite everyone and anyone to try and poke holes in my solution or demonstrate how it would not work. You may need to read the entire thread to understand the question under debate, however, and it's a bit long.

If you're not an Objectivist and/or you don't understand or care to understand how Capitalism actually works, I will inform you that your ideas are "not even wrong". This doesn't mean that I hate you, it just means that I don't want to write a ten-page paper explaining the foundation of the discussion before I get around to the actual discussion. So, this is actually a fairly narrow question.

You won't get anything out of this other than (possibly) bragging rights. I'll go ahead and offer a few scenarios that occured to me and my rebuttals as a starting point:

Q: Jennifer, wouldn't this constitute at least the potential establishment of a coercive monopoly?
A: In a word, no. A coercive monopoly depends not only on the non-existence of competitors, but the impossibility of competitors, and all anyone has to do in order to defeat your monopoly would be to out-bid you for the license next year. The government would only be ensuring that you had the right that you'd paid for, just like registering a patent.

Q: What's preventing the highest bidder from issuing more licenses than the market or fish population can support?
A: What prevents a manufacturer from making more shoes than he can sell? The fact that he'll lose money if he does. If there are already a great many entrants into a specific field, the wise capitalist invests elsewhere. If he doesn't, he loses his shirt and the problem quickly vanishes.

Q: What happens if some political group raises a bunch of money and buys all the fish licenses so that no one can fish?
Hey, if that's how they want to spend their money, so be it. It's no different from someone buying a strip mall and turning it back into wilderness.

Q: What's preventing everyone from refraining from bidding and getting "free" licenses?
Self-interest. The problem of fishing rights really only arises in the case of industrial-scale fishing, at which point it becomes profitable to acquire this sort of license so that you can exclude or (somewhat) manage your competitors from a specific field. Besides, could you ever be completely certain that you'd managed to secure the agreement of every potential competitor? Trying to enact a deal of this kind would leave the door open for a very small venture-capital firm to acquire the primary license at a very low price, then charge everyone for secondary licenses!

Q: What happens with foreign countries that don't have fish licenses?
Nothing. In any situation other than anarchy, the government will have to do something about fishing rights. Currently, the tendency is towards telling you where you can fish, and when, and how much, and how, and so on and so forth. Entry into a market where all you have to do is buy a license would be much more profitable.

Anyone else have good ideas? I realize that this scenario is terribly concrete, but I think it's beneficial to your overall thought processes if you occasionally attack concretes from an abstract standpoint. In addition, by showing that the same principle can be applied to even this concrete makes your entire case all that more sound.