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

Feb 28, 2006

Blog Worth

This is an odd little gizmo I stumbled upon whilst wandering around, although I suspect this number is vastly inflated.

My blog is worth $3,387.24.
How much is your blog worth?


A friend recently asked me whether I was ever nostalgic about some of our long-ago activities and I found myself somewhat startled by the question. After a while, I concluded that I really wasn't nostalgic, and it hadn't even occured to me that I should be.

It got me wondering about the nature of nostalgia. When I was younger I would have occasionally fierce bouts of nostalgia for when I was a small child, but I don't have these any more. I don't understand the purpose of the nostalgia items people buy (old-fashioned soda machines, copies of old shop signs, etc.).

I realized, then, that nostalgia is actually a very destructive emotion. It comes about, not because the past was bright, but because the present is grim and the future seems bleak. It is not about fond remembrances, it is about avoiding either the real nature of the present or the effort of striving for a better future. It is even worse when you paint the past in a rosy glow that it never really possessed, because this can serve to prevent you from taking pleasure in what you have now by comparing it to an impossible standard.

I have no reason to be nostalgic. At no time in my life was I ever better off than I am now, at this very moment, and the future promises to be very bright because I am acting to make it so. If you find yourself feeling nostalgic, I would seriously examine what's so wrong with your present that you feel a need to retreat from it. The answers may be very illuminating indeed.

Feb 27, 2006

Fiction: Bleak Orders

As Told by Dakota Sue

I really did wander by Finn’s place, but he wasn’t there, and, well, with one thing and another I just forgot to bring it up again.

The next Tuesday I arrived at the training area to find it abandoned; with some looking I managed to locate Archer in the briefing room; he was messing with a stack of paperwork. Q was already there but he just shrugged at me, obviously not knowing what was going on any better than I did.

“Do we have a mission or something?” I asked as Finn and Nat appeared, followed shortly by Durance.

“Yes, you do. Everyone take a seat.”

We sat down; Durance took advantage of the pause to light a cigarette. I got the impression that he smoked, not because he liked it, but because it made him look dour and grim enough to deserve his name.

Archer cleared his throat. “You’ll notice Paul isn’t here; he’s with Agent Alpha transporting the terrorists you captured during your first mission. Your mission, however, will be to assassinate a difficult target, one which we expect will require all of you.”

I felt my breath freeze in my throat. “Say what?”

Archer acted as though he hadn’t heard me, passing folders around the room. I took mine and flipped through it, certain there had to be some kind of mistake. By the time I’d read a few pages my shock had turned into a slow, furious boil. “You’re sending us to kill the Patriot? What the heck for?”

Jack Simmons was a traditional costumed superhero, it was true, but he’d spent decades fighting the good fight and for all appearances had retired after a bout with cancer that had forced him into a full-body cybernetic replacement. I might not approve of his methods, but I couldn’t see any reason why anyone even halfway legitimate would want him terminated with extreme prejudice.

“Director Powers believes that he’s trying to join the Freedom League. Since he was formerly director of this Agency, this constitutes a threat to national security.”

I tried again. “You can’t possibly be serious.”

“Look, they aren’t my orders, Page, they come from the top.”

“Damn,” Durance murmured, exhaling a puff of smoke.

“Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the Freedom League is a bunch of kooks, but I did not sign up for this to kill people that know too much!”

“You follow orders like the rest of us, Page, whether you like it or not.”


Q interrupted, clearly trying to salvage the situation. His voice was tinged with desperation. “Is he still an active agent? Has he shown signs of going rogue?”

Archer turned to him. “He’s been in regular contact with established Freedom League members, and not just in a social capacity. Powers has had him under surveillance for more than a month.”

“Did he establish these communications or was he approached by the League?”

“Our intel is that he’s establishing the communication. Your job is to tail him, establish a pattern, and construct a plan to liquidate him.”

My desk creaked ominously as I clenched my hands into fists, leaving deep finger marks in the metal. Archer glanced over to see me glaring and sighed. “I’d like a word with you in private, Page.”

I stood slowly, restraining myself as best I could, each movement accented by warning pops and creaks from the desk I’d forced to conform to my shape a great deal more than its design was prepared to accommodate. When I finally made it upright, it collapsed. Archer walked to his office and opened the door, waiting for me to join him.

When I reached the doorway he sat down. “Close the door, Sue.”

I tapped it as lightly as I could manage and let it swing closed, then turned to look at him. “You are a freaking asshole!”

He winced slightly but didn’t look away. “I’ve been called worse. Anything else you want to say? Better let it out now.”

“You prick! I TRUSTED YOU!!!” I whirled around to glare at the wall, unable to continue. I don’t think I’d ever been angrier in my life.

“If you’re quite finished? Take a look at this.” He held a folder out into my field of view. “This is the intel Powers sent us. I had my own sources check it. It is, as you surmised, bullshit.”

I huffed a few breaths then snatched the folder out of his hand and began looking through it.

“All phony. Powers wants him dead for some other reason.”

“So why are you telling me this?”

“Because if I want you to fail this mission, I really have to tell one of you beforehand.”

The sudden relief was so severe it was almost like physical pain; I took a deep breath and blew it all out to hide that fact. “The others aren’t going to like this.”

“I know. That’s partly why I sent Paul away. I’d do the same with Q because of his relationship with Powers, but there wasn’t an opportunity.”

“What happens if Powers finds out that you told me to throw it?”

“Then I’ll take the responsibility; it won’t be the first time I’ve been in trouble for my principles. Powers may be prepared for this eventuality, though,” Archer handed me a second folder. “This man recently arrived in the area; he’s Japanese and makes a living out of killing meta-humans. If I’m right, he’s the backup plan.”

I groaned. “So what do I do? I’m assuming you want me to act like we’re sticking with the real plan?”

He shrugged, looking tired and dispirited; showing his age. “It’s up to you. I . . . honestly I don’t know who else to trust with this information. If you want to know about the professional assassin I’d suggest talking with his handler here on the East Coast; a Chris Lodoss. He runs a tech shop in Hanover.”

I tried to think, hard, and kept coming up blank. It wouldn’t do any good at all to sit here with Archer watching me, clearly hoping I would come up with something to salvage this god awful mess. “All right . . . I think I’m going to tell the others that the Japanese guy is involved with the Freedom League and he’s here to protect Simmons. Something like that.”

He looked relieved. “Sounds good. I’ll try to get a message through to Simmons so you can maneuver without having to fight him.”

“It’s a start, I guess, I’ll figure the rest out as I go.” I got up to leave, then turned around to look at him, frowning. He looked as much in need of something to hold onto as I was. “Boss?”


“I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

He grimaced. “If I’d actually expected you to carry out those orders, I would have deserved it. You know, you’re a lot like I was at your age. I knew you’d be furious.”

I reached over and patted his shoulder. He smiled faintly. “Good luck, Susan.”

I turned to regard the door and hyperventilated for a few seconds to get my face red, then I stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind me so hard that the frame cracked. I heard Archer murmur faintly, in protest, “Of course, I couldn’t bench-press a truck when I was your age . . .”

My crew looked up from their discussion, startled, and Finn spoke for all of them, “I’m guessing that went over really well.”

Nat chuckled. “Smashingly.”

“What the hell are you guys doing still sitting here?!” I yelled. “Get your gear!”

“Oh, my ears!” Nat complained.

“The Freedom League,” I snapped, has sent someone to keep tabs on Simmons until their negotiations go through. So, we now get to go looking for this new guy. He’s got a contact named Chris Lodoss. Archer has suggested we start there.” I stomped off dramatically in the direction of the motor pool.

Durance looked at the others. “So who goes to check on Mr. Lodoss, and who goes to scout?”

Why is it that people always wait until the worst possible moment to turn into original thinkers? It doesn’t help that I’m a really lousy liar.

“I’m not letting you guys out of my sight! We’re all going!” I yelled back down the hall. The crew began slowly moving in my direction, Durance especially reluctant.

“Who needs five metas to talk with someone?”

“We don’t know how many people may be at Lodoss’ shop,” I explained desperately. “When we split up, people get shot.”

“You’re making this up, Page. We’re doing recon. We shouldn’t even need our gear. You’re just going to draw attention and screw up the mission.”

“That may be the point,” Finn added. “Tip him off so he has time to run.”

“If you don’t like it, talk to Archer. I’m just a lackey. I do what I’m told to do.”

“Okay, I need to say something here,” Nat announced.

“Fire away, lady!”

“LOSE THE ‘TUDE!! We’re all in this together, we don’t have to like it, we just have to do it, so just shut up.”
“Mmrph.” I stood there and stared at their obstinate, angry faces for a few seconds, then threw up my hands. “I give up. I suck at this. Okay, fine, I’m going to risk trusting you guys, because we’re not going to get anywhere any other way. Archer wants us to throw the mission.”

Durance rolled his eyes. “Joy.”

“That’s about my response. The assassination order was so off the wall that Archer had his personal contacts check up on it . . . all the info Powers sent us is totally bogus.”

“So why did he order us to do it, then?” Nat asked, skeptical.

“Because Powers has people in place to watch Archer and make sure he sends us to do it.”

“But why does Powers want us to do this?” she pressed.

“I have no idea. Powers wants Simmons dead, but we don’t know why, and until we do, we can’t do much. Archer wants us to act like we tried and flubbed it, however, there’s a complication.”

“Complication?” Durance asked.

“The ‘Freedom League’ guy. Archer suspects he’s a Japanese killer sent to do the job if we fail. The way I see it, priority one is: keep Simmons alive. Priority two is: find out what the heck’s going on.”

Finn frowned. “It makes sense to have half the team flub the mission while the other half watches this Japanese guy and impedes his efforts without becoming directly involved.”

“Could do,” I conceded hesitantly. “With luck, we can use the other guy to find out why Powers actually wants this done. So who wants to do what? Volunteers?”

Durance thought a bit. “I could tackle the Japanese guy.”

“Yeah, you and . . . Q. Nat, Finn and I will go tackle Simmons.”

“Drop us off, then,” Durance said, and everyone loaded into the van. I drove us across town and left Durance and Q at a rather seedy mechanical shop.

Finn piped up after they left the van. “Aren’t we supposed to have crappy takeout food or something on a stakeout?”

“I’m hungry, come to think of it,” Nat added.

I shrugged. “If you’re really hungry I think we can find something.” Then I frowned, wondering, and asked idly. “Look, I have to ask, are you guys going out or what?”

“Going out?” Finn smirked. “What are we, twelve? Do you like Nat? Check yes or no.”

“Would you have preferred it if I’d asked you whether you were screwing?”

“That would be rude. Besides, when have we had time to do anything but jump when Archer says so?”

“I had enough time to acquire a kid. I’m only asking because I don’t want it to be a problem.”

“A problem?” he asked. “Are you worried we’ll have an argument and refuse to work together or something?”

“No, I’m worried someone might get killed.”

“When it comes down to it, I’m all business,” he snapped, and stared out the window with a grim expression.

“What gives you the right to ask all these questions? Our personal lives are not really your business.” I pulled into a parking lot and stopped the car. This wasn’t a great time for this conversation, but then, there rarely is any good time. You just have to take what you can get.

“Your personal lives are as much my business now as mine is yours. So spare me the wrath.”

“I don’t care what you do in your private time and I’d appreciate it if you kept your nose out of what I do with mine,” she declared and got out, slamming the door. I watched Finn, wondering what he would do.

“I can say this, and this only, okay? If someone poses a danger or steps over the line, you do not have to worry, not for a second. Because I will put them down. No questions. No second thoughts.”

“I know.” I’d read his background.

“We don’t need to lay everything on the table,” he continued. I could almost imagine there was a note of pleading in his voice. “We just need to know we can trust each other when it counts. Deal?”

“On one condition,” I told him. “Trust me enough to remember that it’s my job to decide when someone has crossed the line.” I held out my hand and waited.

“And what if you cross the line? Will you know?”

“I’ll know. I’m not like your old team, Finn.”

He chuckled mirthlessly. “You talk like you knew them. I didn’t even know them. I thought I did.”

“I know some things. Look, I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I do know where the line is.”

His cheek twitched. “I can’t trust anyone one hundred percent. It’s just a hard lesson I had to learn. It’s not that I don’t try; I just always have that in the back of my head. That friendly smile before they put a bullet in me and stuck a syringe in my arm.”

I reached over and ruffled his hair gently. “I’ll learn to live with it.”

He forced a smile, but it looked sick. “I’m going to check on Nat before she sets the van on fire.”

I sighed. Well, one down, four more to go. That, and we still had to do something about Simmons.

This was turning out to be a fine day.

Feb 26, 2006


I just finished reading this trilogy by World Fantasy Award Winner Patricia A. McKillip. It was an interesting experience.

I've never been a real fan of her work, but I have a book on fantasy writing that recommended her, so I thought I'd give this trilogy a try. I think the best part of her writing is the style, and the worst is her grip on the events of her plot.

The book is full of beautiful and fantastic imagery; I'll provide a quote so that you can see for yourself.

"Morgon, I have been thinking . . . I wanted to give you something that might help you; I racked my brains trying to think what, when it occured to me that there are times in your journey that you might simply want to disappear from enemies, from friends, from the world, to rest a while, to think . . . There's nothing less obvious than a tree in a forest."

"A tree." Something in his mind quickened. "Danan, can you teach me that?"

"You have the gift for shape-changing. Shaping a tree is much easier than shaping the vesta. You must simply learn to be still. you know what kind of stillness is in a stone, or a handful of earth."

"I knew once."

"You know, deep in you." Danan looked up at the sky, then glanced at the bustling, preocupied workers around him. "It's easy to be still on a day like this. Come. No one will miss us for a while."

Morgon followed him out of Harte, down the winding, quiet road, then into the forests high above Kyrth. Their footprints broke deep into the powdery snow; they brushed pine branches heavy with it, shook soft snow flurries loose that bared webs of wet, dark fir. They walked silently until, turning, they could not see the road, or Kyrth below it, or Harte, only the dark, motionless trees. They stood there listening. The clouds, softly shaped by the wind, rested on the silence; trees were molded to a stillness that formed the whorls of their bark, corve of branch, the heavy, downward sweep of their needles and the pinnacle of tip. A hawk floated in the silence, barely rippling it, dove deep into it and vanished. Morgon, after a long while, turned to Danan, feeling suddenly alone, and found beside him a great pine, still and dreaming above Isig.

However beautiful, though, the plot of the story moves in violent, shuddering jerks, wrenched out of sensible shape by the fact that nothing is ever explained.

Fantasy literature is full of things that don't actually exist. As such, the words used in it often have a thousand connotations, but they don't denote particular thing. If I say "wizard", do I mean Harry Potter or a world-destroying demi-god or a quack snake-oil salesman? Is a "unicorn" an enormous magical horse or a distant relative of goats? Terms like that always have to be explained, otherwise they remain floating abstractions, concepts detached from referents, a fog filled with vague half-grasped shapes.

Reading Paticia A. McKillip is like floundering through that fog. She takes for granted that you will rely on guesses and vauge memories to fill in the details, but it means that the motivations of her characters never become clear; what they do makes no sense. Instead of the story making the character's actions intelligible, it is the characters actions (and the emotions or erratic thoughts that motivate those actions) that make the story intelligible. The result is that, while you may eventually guess at what the Earth-Masters were or what it means to be a wizard, the characters become irreducable primaries. You can't ask, "why did they act in this way?" any more, because there is no why, meaning that the plot is no longer a logicial progression, but a series of random events that are somehow related.

I find the style extremely eerie and almost physically uncomfortable to read; it's like staggering through a world where any A can become non-A at whim. It's strange how murky waters often appear deep.

A Pair of New Additions

While searching around to find a replacement for Myrhaf, I noticed that two blogs were recurring as referrals on my SiteMeter report, so I went and checked them out. After reading a bit, I decided to add both of them to my blogroll, so here they are.

The first one (which is actually last on the list, go figure) is Alexander Mariott's Wit and Wisdom, which I find very enjoyable. It appears that he doesn't post every day, but what he does post is very well-written. Alexander actually showed up and commented on my Thomas Paine post, where I growled at him in a friendly fashion. I have a tendency to do that; I even (mildly) smarted off at Peter Schwartz in a forum before I realized who he was.

Anyway, the second blog, which contains more frequent posts, but shorter ones, is The Simplest Thing. The title comes from a Leonard Peikoff quote that I love; I'll give the full thing here:

"All things excellent," said Spinoza, "are as difficult as they are rare." Since human values are not automatic, his statement is undeniable.

In another respect, however--and this is Ayn Rand's unique perspective--the task ahead is not difficult.

To save the world is the simplest thing in the world.

All one has to do is think.

Feb 22, 2006

Fiction: Kangaroo

As Told by Dakota Sue

“I have some personal business to take care of,” Q informed me the moment we touched down at AEGIS again.  I shrugged.

“Mission’s over, so as far as I’m concerned your time is your own.”

“What about Archer?”

“What about him?” I asked.  

“Just making sure.”  He levitated down from the roof and flew into the City.  Finn took Nat’s elbow and ushered her away without a word; Durance lit a cigarette and followed them, preoccupied with his own thoughts.  Paul looked at me and raised his hands helplessly.

“Why don’t you go get the technicians to look at everything we brought back?” I suggested.

“What are you going to do?”

“Go find Archer and report in.”

“Heh.  Better you than me.  Seeya.”

I trudged down to the conference room where our purported commanding officer was doodling idly on a pad of paper.  He glanced up at me and did a double take.

“Where is everyone else?”

“I dismissed them,” I said, dropping into a chair.

“Well, un-dismiss them, they need to be debriefed.”

“What, all the sudden I’m not good enough for you?  Besides, I need to talk to you.”

“Oh?  What about?”

“Finn and Durance have raised what I consider to be some legitimate concerns about what happens to the people we pick up.”

“What sort of concerns?”

“Well, what happens to them?”

He scowled at my reticence for a moment, then shook his head, fluffing his white hair, and groped for his cane.  “This way.”

Mystified, I followed as he stumped his way along through the corridors until we came to what looked like a miniature courtroom; bench, seal, flag, desks for the prosecution and defense.  A few people in suits wearing security badges were sitting around chatting.

“I’d introduce you,” Archer said softly, “but they aren’t authorized to know you exist.  Some of the others here call this the kangaroo court, but we make an effort to be as just as possible given the circumstances.  The only essential difference between what we do here and legal proceedings in the outside world is that everyone here has to have clearance to view sensitive information.”

I looked around.  “But, why?”

He blinked.  “Why what?  Oh . . .” he sighed.  “The law in the rest of the country is such a mess that we’ve had to resort to this . . . expedient to limit the damage.  The only way we can get any sort of rational result from a trial is to do it ourselves.”

“What do you consider a rational result?”

He frowned, considering.  “One where the facts and the evidence are taken into account, not public opinion or wishful thinking.”

“And what about the accused?  Does he have rights that need to be protected?”

“I . . . suppose so.  I mean, there have been capital cases here before . . .”

“I’m not opposed to the death penalty,” I cut in.

He frowned.  “I’m not certain I understand what you’re asking, here.”

“Finn’s objections centered mostly on the fact that he considers any penalty short of death to be dangerously short-sighted.”

“Oh!” Archer’s face brightened.  Then he flushed slightly and looked down at his feet.  “I’m afraid”—he hesitated—“well, to put it bluntly, Finn is a little . . .unbalanced, mentally.”  He thought for a moment.  “So is Durance, actually.”

I sighed and leaned against the wall.  “I know.  I suppose I just needed reassurance that I did the right thing today in shouting them down; I can’t lead this group if they think I’m some kind of soft-headed, soft-hearted idiot, especially not if you’re expecting us to solve problems via the ‘shoot everyone and let God sort them out’ method.”

He shook his head gravely.  “No, and it’s very important that they don’t get the impression that it’s acceptable, either.  I don’t know what to tell you, Susan, your teammates are human like everyone else.  They have their weaknesses.  Some are obvious, some not.”


“What did happen?”

I chuckled.  “We arrived at the estate, broke in and fought with some of Lettam’s creations, then he showed up and we put him down.  He transferred his mind into a robot body.”

Archer nodded.  “Your teammates wanted to kill him?”

“Yeah.  I told them off.”

“Why?” he coughed slightly.  “I’m, ah, familiar with some of your recent history . . .”

“Do you mean the kid that attacked me?”

“The one you killed, yes.”

“He almost ripped my throat out.  Rose got him to loosen up a bit, I had a split second to act, so I did.  I could say that I didn’t mean to kill him, but that’d be stupid.  Sometimes you can’t put someone down without killing them, and killing them will always put them down.  So, when someone’s trying to kill me, I try to return the favor.  If I tried too hard not to kill them, I might hesitate, and in a fight that just makes you really dead really fast.  Now, if I don’t kill them, I’m not going to do it after they’re down.  Emergency’s over.  The rules come back into play.”

“The rules?”

“You know, the foundations of civilization?  As in, a fair trial and so forth.”

He chuckled.  “All right, I’ll grant you that.  What would you do with Lettam?  If it were your decision, I mean.”

“My decision?”  I thought for a while.  “That’s a tough one.”

“Why do you think so?”

“Well, I’m not exactly in possession of all the facts.  For instance, I don’t know if that pilot had permanent brain damage or not.  Plus, I think there’s a few mitigating circumstances.”

“Like what?”

“Why’d he have to attack AEGIS to get technology that’s been in circulation since the 1990’s?  Dr. Atom pulled that mind-transfer trick when I was like six years old, yet for some reason that’s special ‘metahuman’ technology, and is banned from sale on the open market.  However, I don’t know that he exhausted other opportunities.  That’s what these screwed-up laws do to people.  Things that ought to be black-and-white become a mess of gray area.”
“Yes, but you can’t rearrange the world to suit you. ”

I thought some more.  “He’s not likely to commit the same crime again, so we don’t really need to worry about recidivism on that score, however he does have a record of criminal activity in the past . . . what?”

Archer was laughing.

“What is your problem?”

“You are hilarious.  One second you sound like an uneducated boob, the next minute you’re using a word like ‘recidivism’ in a sentence.”

I rolled my eyes.  

“Apologies.  Go on.”

“He does have a criminal record, so there’s a good chance that he might do something again.  However, you can’t sentence people for crimes they might commit, otherwise you’d have to put everyone on the planet in jail.”

“So what’s your decision?”

“Prison.  Now, if it’s an option, he might benefit from occupational therapy.”

“How do you mean?”

“What does prison mean to a robot?  He can’t age, all he can do is be bored.  Set him to designing stuff.  Don’t give him materials, just let him draw schematics and work on theoretical projects.”  I shrugged.  “It might help him to find a place for himself in the world that doesn’t involve being a freak.  But I could be wrong; he could be crazier than I know, and have different motivations.”

“I’m glad I picked you to lead this group.”

“Say what?  I thought I volunteered.”

He grinned.  “Well, maybe you did, and maybe you didn’t.  Now shoo.  I have work to do that, amazingly, doesn’t involve you or your crew.”

“I should probably talk to Finn.  Later, boss.”

Feb 21, 2006

Myrhaf No More

Myrhaf has announced that he's exiting the Blogosphere. I can't believe it! He was one of the first people to start reading my blog!

I'm removing him from my blogroll, but rest assured, I shall return him to his place of honor the minute he returns!

*sniffle* I miss him already.


I grabbed this book largely because I love the cover art, which was painted by Michael Whelan. I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it when I saw that Mike Resnick was the author (see my review of another book by the same author), but I decided to give it a try anyway.

I'm so glad that I did.

It's been a long time since I read a book that was so utterly engrossing I couldn't put it down long enough to eat. I actually annoyed my friend by taking it to the restaurant when we had breakfast together and reading it instead of talking to him. Fortunately, he's known me long enough to take that sort of thing in stride.

Mr. Resnick has done a wonderful job of creating an entire frontier mythos populated with some of the most bizarre and original characters I've ever encountered. Some of them are not very pleasant; it's the frontier, after all, but the main character, Sebastian Nightingale Cain (you can call him Songbird . . . once) is a terrific hero. He reminds me of Clint Eastwood from some of his earlier Westerns, in fact.

The ending is a lovely twist, but it's too much fun to give away. Grab the paperback and enjoy being a kid with an adventure story again.

Crystal Rain

I've been taking the risk of buying first books by new authors lately, hoping I'll stumble across something interesting. It's happened before, when I picked up novels by Celia Dart-Thornton and J.K. Rowling.

Unfortunately, a lot of them also tend to be like Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell.

While the story is at least interesting enough to finish once you've started, it's also full of annoying flaws and rookie-author mistakes that make long sections of it a chore to read.

The general plot consists of a war between two cultures on a colony planet; the Azteca and the Nanagandans, who are essentially Carribean islanders. The reason why the author selected these particular cultures, which are essentially picked up whole and transplanted into foreign soil, never becomes clear. It was my impression that they were selected strictly to be exotic. I'm sorry to say that simply because something is exotic, that does not render it interesting. In fact, the broken English of the Carribean island culture was tiresome to sort through.

As for a theme--an abstract idea tying the novel together--there doesn't appear to be one. It's possible that there is a theme, however I was unable to identify it and I really harbor no desire to wade through the book a second time in an effort to ferret it out.

I must say, also, that this book contains what is possibly the worst similie I've ever seen in what was intended to be a serious work, and on the first page of the first chapter. You can't tell me that was an editing mistake.

Each man dressed in gray: heavy canvas trousers, long-sleeved shirts, and floppy wide-brimmed hats. All over this dull uniform sticks and leaves jutted out, glued on in random patterns.
Out of the jungle and on the rock they stood out like shaggy gray-and-green creatures.

Were I to offer some advice to Mr. Buckell regarding his future work, I would have to say the following:

"All right, you understand approximately how to put together a series of events, and you understand the forms of science fiction. However, you have a great deal to learn about writing, namely that it is not a matter of an exotic subject and a bunch of events."

It's much easier to critique than to write, but I expect it's a great deal more difficult to write again after a debut novel like Crystal Rain. We'll see what he writes next.

Feb 20, 2006

Fiction: Ken and Barbies

My comm. buzzed as Nat spoke.  “Hey, guys, we’ve located our hacker, he’s at a private estate about fifty miles North of the City.”

I wondered vaguely whether Archer would want us to take care of it immediately.  Oh, well, might as well expect the worst.  “Nat, do you think you could get us some information on that estate . . . who owns it and so forth?”

“Working on it. I just figured I’d give you a heads-up.”

Q landed nearby.  “Does anyone else think these helicopters were just a distraction to get us away from HQ?”  Seconds later Archer’s voice came over the comm.

“Let the police handle the cleanup and get back here.”

“What about these helicopters?” Q asked somewhat incredulously.   “You want us to leave them for the cops?”

“Yes.  We need you to go after this hacker.”

Nat hmmed a bit over the comm.  “Address belongs to a Desmond Lettam; fifty years old with a criminal record.”

“Right,” Q announced.  “Get in the helicopter, we can fly back to base much faster.  Traffic is all blocked up.”

“We’re stealing a helicopter?”  I asked.

Durance smirked.  “Isn’t it already stolen?”

I rubbed my forehead tiredly.  “Okayyy.”  Normally, I’d argue, but even I have to choose my fights.  After all, it wasn’t like the military couldn’t come get it from us if they decided they wanted it back.  I climbed in and secured myself for the ride as the blades spun up to speed.  Only a minute or two later we were landing on top of the AEGIS building, where Nat was posing nonchalantly.

“Now let’s see how fast this thing is,” Q announced.  I sighed and settled myself to endure while he attempted to shake us to pieces.

“Well, it looks like you’ll be going after your first Super Villian, here,” Archer remarked conversationally.  “Desmond Lettam used to be known as the Toy Boy.”

“That sounds perverted,” Q snorted.  He seemed to be enjoying himself, the jerk.

“He was born with a genetic defect that makes him look like a child.  As was normal for such people in the 1970’s he turned to crime with corny toy gimmicks.”

“So he’s a superbrain?” Durance asked.

“Something like that.  He’s been out of prison for a year; from what we’ve gathered he’s been selling advanced robot designs since then.”

“What was he arrested for?”  Durance pressed.

Archer coughed slightly.  “He had a pair of giant Rock’em Sock’em robots attack Liberty Park.”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I protested.  I had enough of the giant toys with Todd.

Finn looked around dramatically.  “Where’s the hidden camera?  We’re being Punk’d, right?”

“I wish,” Archer replied.  “I honestly thought the idiot had retired.”

“Does he have any personal powers or is it all just gadgets?”  I asked.

“Gadgets as far as we know.”

“So what’s the plan?” Q asked me.  “Shoot anything that moves?”

“No,” I snorted.

“Non-lethal force,” Durance said helpfully.

“Non-lethal force is the reason this guy is still around to perpetrate attacks like this,” Finn announced.  “Is there a specific reason we’re holding his hand instead of taking him out?”

“Because we want information?” Durance replied.

Q brought us around to the eastern side of Lettam’s complex; I jumped to the ground and spent some time stomping around through grass and weeds, looking for mines and not really wanting to find any.  Finally satisfied that I wasn’t going to succeed in blowing myself up, I waved for the others to land.

A three-foot brick wall marked the edge of the heavily wooded property.  I considered, wondering what the best strategy might be, here.  “Finn, you’re on point, Nat, follow him in case he needs your technical skills.  We’ll let you get thirty feet ahead, then follow.”

“Where you need me, boss-lady?” Paul asked, bouncing cheerfully.  

I shrugged, there didn’t seem to be any immediate call for his speed.  “Do a quick run around the perimeter, then come back and join up with me.  Q, if you and Durance can get up a bit and cover Finn from the air, I’d appreciate it.”

“Right, you want me to activate the defenses so you can save me again!” Paul announced.  “I’m on it!”  He vanished, tall grass rattling violently from his passage.

Finn bent and offered Nat a leg up over the wall, then scooted over himself, the pair of them disappearing into the trees.  Paul returned almost instantly.   I counted to five and then hopped over, following them.  It didn’t look like there were any nasty surprises waiting in the woods.

Durance’s voice murmured softly over the comm..  “Ahead of you is the pool, there’s someone there, working on something.”

“Want her gone, or should we circumvent?”  Finn asked.

“You might trigger the security system if you take her out, go around,” I replied.

They slipped out of the woods; after a few seconds I could see this person for myself, and then I was hard-put to avoid groaning.  Five foot ten, hourglass shaped, looked like there wasn’t room for anything in her head but hair.  Well, maybe some whirring electronic gizmos; she was clearly a robot.

I glanced at Paul, shrugged, and snuck past her into the house.  Finn and Nat were hiding on either side of the doorway ahead, peering into the dining room.  Seconds later a voice rang out; I jumped, but after a second I realized it must be coming from an intercom or speaker system built in to the house.

“Ladies, come up to the lab and bring the outfit in the downstairs closet.”

I peeked out into the dining room and jerked my head back as another overly female robot when whizzing past, stopping at the bottom of a staircase to open a closet.  Moving quietly, I crept out and was just about to duck behind the furniture when the robot swiveled abruptly and looked directly at me.

“Excuse me, do you have an appointment?”

Ah well, I’d give it a shot. “Yes.”

“Name and business?”

“Susan Page, Stronghold Securities.  I’m here to speak with Mr. Lettam about his security arrangements.”

“Searching . . .”  There was a brief pause.  “I’m afraid you do not appear in Mr. Lettam’s appointment book.  Please leave and confirm your appointment before returning.”

I shrugged and punched it in the face.  The robot rocked backwards on its servos, undamaged, while I tried to avoid cursing in pain; I’d almost broken my hand.  Slick, Sue, really slick.  Running footsteps began to sound all around us. Finn and Nat stared at me in consternation.

“Find Desmond, I’ll distract these idiots.”  They skirted around me as I pulled out my axe, heading upstairs.  Distantly, I heard Finn curse as he encountered a horde of fembots attempting to descend.  Q, Durance, and Paul ran in the door behind me and the battle began.

It ended just about as quickly; I had time to swing, miss, get punched hard in the face, and swing again while a hail of bullets and throwing stars fell around me, shredding the robots.  I shrugged at the one I’d managed to dispatch.  I was a little slow today, apparently.

Paul held up two doll heads.  “Yes!  Two heads are better than one!”

There was a hideous crash upstairs and a deep masculine voice boomed.  “You come into my home, interrupt my experiments, and destroy my servants.  Didn’t anyone ever teach you to respect others’ toys?”

I saw Finn turn at the top of the stairs to look down the hallway.  “What experiments?”

“Enough of this.”

Paul blurred into speed.  “Yeah, yeah,” his voice rang out, Doppler-ing weirdly.  “You’re the mad genius and we’re the crime fighters.”

Finn chambered a cartridge into his shotgun and fired a blast down the hall while Nat blew sparks off her fingers and followed his attack with a shower of flames.  The stench of burning plastic filled the air.  Finn staggered back as several lances of green light hit him in the chest.

I jumped the railing, bounced off the wall and catapulted myself down the hall, wrapping both arms around another robot, this one as artificially masculine as the others were feminine.  Straining, I managed to force him up against the wall; a loud bang echoed behind me and plastic shrapnel peppered my face.  The robot’s struggles immediately ceased.

I blinked and looked over my shoulder at Q, who was grinning.

Paul peeked out of a room down the hall.  “I found Toy Boy, er, the real one.  I think maybe he transferred his mind to the Ken doll.”

“If he did, can we stabilize him?” Q asked.

I got to my feet.  “Ask Nat.  In any case, we’re taking both forms of him and as much as we can get off his computer system back to AEGIS.”

Nat examined the robot.  “He’s still functional; the system rebooted.”  She skirted around me to check the computer system in the lab.

“Right,” I said.  “Q, get the chopper running.”  He took off.  I picked the robot up with a grunt, adjusted my grip a bit, and started carrying it outside.  “Paul, search the building, Finn, Durance, bring the body down on a stretcher or something.”

“Hey, do you think any of these Barbies could be reprogrammed to do other stuff?” Paul asked.

“Shut up, Paul,” Finn snarled.  I looked over at him when he arrived downstairs with Durance and the body.

“You okay, Finn?  You look a little grim.”

“I’m fine.  Just wondering why we don’t trash this toy instead of taking it home.”

“Because that’s not our job.  If we kill him now, that’s murder.  He’s a criminal, he should get a trial.”

“Oh, right.  So he can cop a plea and get out and do this again.  What a joke.”

“Finn’s right,” Durance added, lighting a cigarette.  “If we let him go, he’ll get free on some technicality.”

“We can only deal with one problem at a time, reforming the legal system is out of our hands for the moment.  That’s no excuse for us to undermine it. Actually, it’s even more reason for us to take him back.”

“Wow, that’s beautiful, I think I’m going to cry,” Finn sneered.

“Screw you too, asshole.”

“Hey, you can get as angry as you want, but wake the fuck up!  The Freedom League is here to play nice for the papers.  We’re here to solve problems.  Permanently.  You want to give them a hug and say don’t do it again, join the damn Peace Corps!”  He stormed over to the helicopter and climbed in, still muttering to himself.

Durance picked up the body and followed him.

“Tempers, tempers,” Nat murmured, exiting the building.  “Just take a vote.”

“We’re not going to vote.  This is not a democracy.”

The return flight was unpleasantly silent.

The New Hitlers

I haven't been paying a lot of attention to the recent free speech fiasco over the cartoons of Muhammed published in a Danish newspaper since other bloggers are covering it so well.

However, I'd like to take a moment to note that it's not just Islamists attacking free speech: apparently it's Jews (and other Holocaust victims) as well. I don't think I was aware of this law when it was passed, but the truth is that it's a really frightful piece of legislation.

I'm aware that the Holocaust took place, however NO ONE deserves prosecution, much less three years in prison for denying it. People with unsavory beliefs have just as much free speech as anyone else. Just as they aren't free to force you to listen to them, you aren't free to force them to say what you'd prefer them to say.

Rights work both ways, it make no difference who is supposed to benefit from the violation.

Feb 18, 2006

Thomas Paine

I didn’t post yesterday because I was not quite ready for the next thing I wanted to post: my interpretation of Thomas Paine.  I recently purchased a book of his works entitled Common Sense and other Writings, but Common Sense made up less than a quarter of the total of the book, so I didn’t really think I could just post a book review with that title and be done with it.  

My initial impression is that this man was the absolute nuclear generator of quotes; even more so than Ayn Rand, and she is eminently quotable.  The reason that both were very quotable is, in my mind, that both spent their time turning a vast complexity of information into simple, memorable principles.  They are different, though, in that when you quote Ayn Rand, you have to remember that you are summoning up a vast context for your quote and be careful not to oversimplify the case.  Thomas Paine’s quotes generally require little or no context, and he frequently manages to oversimplify the case without the interference of any outside agency.

His writings are fascinating because they outline, in exquisite detail, the essence of the American character with all its strengths and flaws.  He is adept on the attack, especially in revealing the inanity of other views, but he is not very good at defending his own ideas; his defense consists frequently of announcing that his idea is the only alternative to the ridiculous.  He rejects fanatical religion for a secular lifestyle but still maintains the air of theology.  He attempts to moderate freedom with progressive social programs.

I’ll discuss his writings individually and you will be able to see it for yourself.

African Slavery in America (1775)

This is the simplest and most straightforward of the articles I have, I think because it has one point: to demonstrate that slavery is vile and absurd and should be abolished.  Pain excels at demonstrating this point, bringing in moral, financial, and political data to support it.  This article is credited in the appendix with starting the Abolitionist movement in America, which led very rapidly to the end of slavery north of the Mason-Dixon line, and even, eventually, to the end of slavery in rest of the country.


“They show as little Reason as Conscience who put the matter by with saying—‘Men, in some cases, are lawfully made Slaves, and why may not these?’ So men, in some cases, are lawfully put to death, deprived of their goods, without their consent; may any man, therefore, be treated so, without any conviction of desert?”

Common Sense (1776)

Paine attacked the English hereditary monarchy (as he does again in later writings), and promotes the case of the Americans in wishing for separation.  It’s particularly interesting to me that, apparently, everyone thought a separation would have to happen sooner or later; no one was contesting that fact.  The impossibility of England ruling the increasingly populous and prosperous American colonies at a delay of six months was abundantly clear.  The difficulty was that popular sentiment wanted to wait for years or decades until they were forced into the situation; the common belief was that America could not yet withstand a war with England.

Thomas Paine insisted that the perfect time was, in fact, eight months before, when the country should have rallied in support of the Massachusetts Minutemen after the battle of Lexington.  The longer the delay, the worse the position of America would be to battle England.  He then proceeded to explain the real situation of the English military and navy, thought to be so overwhelming, and contrasted it with the excellent condition of America, which he felt could easily support this war.

Common Sense is generally attributed with finally convincing the peaceful Americans that only war would enable them to get back to their other pursuits.


“. . . a long Habit of not thinking a Thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence [sic] of Custom.  But the Tumult soon subsides.  Time makes more Converts than Reason.”

“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”

“Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.

“Men do not change from enemies to friends by the alteration of a name: And in order to show that reconciliation now is a dangerous doctrine, I affirm, that it would be policy in the King at this time to repeal the acts, for the sake of reinstating himself in the government of the provinces; In order that HE MAY ACCOMPLISH BY CRAFT AND SUBTLETY, IN THE LONG RUN, WHAT HE CANNOT DO BY FORCE AND VIOLENCE IN THE SHORT ONE.  Reconciliation and ruin are nearly related.”

The American Crisis Papers (1776-1783)

The Revolution going badly, Washington having been dealt defeat after defeat and forced to retreat, rescuing only a part of his supplies, Paine attempts to rally the Americans again in support of the war and largely succeeds.  He continues throughout the battles that follow until a settlement is realized, when he further gives advice to the struggling new nation.  Although these papers were largely propaganda, it is to Paine’s credit that they could not possibly be considered cheap propaganda.

Paine was very much in favor of the union of the states, in fact, he is credited with being the first to use the term “United States of America”.  Washington created this country with the sword; Paine gave it a shape and a name with his pen.


“These are the times that try men’s souls.  The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.  Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered . . .”

“America did not, nor does not want force; but she wanted a proper application of that force.  Wisdom is not the purchase of a day, and it is no wonder that we should err at the first setting off.”

“Of all the innocent passions which actuate the human mind there is none more universally prevalent than curiosity.”

[on England] “It is strange that a nation must run through such a labyrinth of trouble, and expend such a mass of wealth to gain the wisdom which an hour’s reflection might have taught.”

Rights of Man [1791-1792]

This is where Paine begins to falter.  From the title, it would seem that these books should be a treatise on, well, the Rights of Man, but Paine speaks largely about the rights of nations and refutes a pamphlet (if you can use that term to refer to something that was over 400 pages long) written by Edmund Burke to condemn the French Revolution.  It’s a symptom, I think, of the fact that individual rights were considered at the time to need no defense.  They were self-evident.  Anyone could see that.

Experience has demonstrated that this is not the case.

What Paine does, however, is somewhat interesting, and can be observed in the modern day: he equates democracy (and representative government) with individual rights.  It’s really quite startling to see how many modern attitudes the man originated.  He speaks a great deal about differences between governments while taking the ideology behind those governments entirely for granted, as if government produces ideology and not the other way around.  He succeeds, mournfully, in constructing a great castle on a foundation of sand.  A democracy may elect Hamas just as well as it might elect George Washington.  A useful thing to remember.


“Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her.  He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination.  He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

“Reason and Ignorance, the opposites of each other, influence the great bulk of mankind.  If either of these can be rendered sufficiently extensive in a country, the machinery of Government goes easily on.  Reason obeys itself; and Ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

The Age of Reason [1794]

This is Paine’s attack on organized religion, the Bible, revealed religion, and various other aspects of Christianity.  He declares that Deism is the closest approach to faith and that the Word of God is, well, all the Creations of God, which can be understood by means of Reason and Science.

He neglects, however, to ask himself one very important question.  What makes him certain that there is a God?  He admits that this question is possible, but he dismisses it as irrelevant: God, like rights, is self-evident.  Someone had to make all this and keep it running.  Anything else is absurd.

This approach begs the question; who, then, made God?  The Age of Reason is interesting to read largely because Paine makes so many truly humorous comments about the absurdity of religion, but it’s not really informative.  The book was, in fact, largely responsible for the destruction of Paine’s reputation, to the extent that Theodore Roosevelt once referred to him as “that filthy little atheist”.  Deism is not really a tenable position; like most middle-of-the-road approaches it succeeds in nothing but procuring universal condemnation.  The attempt to combine reason with religion in America is decaying, and ugly fanaticism is rearing its head once more.


“The story of the whale swallowing Jonah, though a whale is large enough to do it, borders greatly on the marvellous [sic]; but it would have approached nearer to the idea of a miracle, if Jonah had swallowed the whale.”

Agrarian Justice [1795]

And, here, we have the final decay of the man (and nation) who so defiantly promoted freedom: socialism.  Fortunately, Paine named the foundational principle for his version of socialism, so it can be easily discredited:

“It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.  In that state every man would have been born to property.  He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

“But the earth in its natural state, as before said, is capable of supporting but a small number of inhabitants compared with what it is capable of doing in a cultivated state.  And as it is impossible to separate the improvement made by cultivation from the earth itself, the lidea of landed property arose from that inseparable connection; but it is nevertheless true that it is the value of the improvement only, not the earth itself, that is individual property.”

He then continues to insist that the owners of improved land owe some sort of rent to the rest of mankind for the use of “their” property, the land itself, which they have improved.

One single fact knocks an enormous hole in this reasoning: the value of unimproved land is zero.  So the recipients of this rent would be receiving value in return for something that, at the start, has no value.  They are receiving something for nothing.  This is justice?


I have to say that I found reading these papers to be very interesting; it gave me a very accurate view of the ideological foundations of America straight from the pen of the man who wrote them.  It is both heartening and alarming, though, to know how little has changed.

Feb 16, 2006

Two Veterans

When I lived in downtown Dayton, I would frequently see a man sitting on the corner, panhandling, with a sign that read “Vietnam Veteran Needs Your Help”.  He was wearing old, battered, dirty fatigues and apparently hadn’t bathed or shaved in days.

What a hideous stomach-churning vision of an ex-soldier.

Then, today, as I was driving home, I noticed that the license plate on the car in front of me read “Veteran”.  On the side were the colored bars that represent Vietnam service.  Intrigued, I took a closer look at this man’s lovely dark blue Saab 900s.  I had plenty of opportunity to look at it, as I wound up inadvertently following this gentleman until he turned into his lovely home with its three-car garage.

Thank you, Mr. Blue Saab, for purging the vision of that horrible bum from my memory.  That’s an idea of a Vietnam vet that I can respect!

Feb 15, 2006

Serenity Quiz

Your results:
You are Malcolm Reynolds (Captain)

Zoe Washburne (Second-in-command)

Dr. Simon Tam (Ship Medic)

Kaylee Frye (Ship Mechanic)

Derrial Book (Shepherd)

Jayne Cobb (Mercenary)

Wash (Ship Pilot)

Inara Serra (Companion)

River (Stowaway)


A Reaver (Cannibal)


Honest and a defender of the innocent.
You sometimes make mistakes in judgment
but you are generally good and
would protect your crew from harm.

Click here to take the Serenity Firefly Personality Test

Another New Addition

It sounds sad to say it, but I only recently visited this blog that belongs to a friend of mine, after reading (and largely agreeing with) his posts on Objectivism Online for months!

Well, here he is, the Software Nerd. I think he wonders sometimes whether that's what he really is, though. It's certainly not an all-encompassing description!

In Other News

Grr. I stopped to look at one news story and ended up reading a bunch of them. I found this one particularly amusing, especially because it's probably true!

After all, technically, telling someone that you, or perhaps your big nasty crazy exploding Islamic Fundamentalist citizenry, are going to kill them counts as a "warning". It doesn't necessarily make you look any better, but, hey, at least you warned them!

"Why did I warn him? Oh, I was hoping he'd run away so I could get in a nice clean shot at his back."


Katrina Corruption

I spotted this article while searching for some other materials and I thought I'd stop to say two words about it.

Firstly, is anyone even remotely surprised by this? Has there ever been a case of a government handing out piles of money without corruption? Of course not. It is precisely this kind of government largesse that causes corruption in the first place. There is no incentive to be responsible with taxpayers' money. If it all gets frittered away uselessly, jack up taxes! There's plenty more where that came from!

If any government agency actually succeeds in solving the problem they were hired to solve, all that happens is that they put themselves out of a job. Successive years of evidence should demonstrate that many civil servants aren't in the business serving taxpayers; they're in the business of holding down a job. It's difficult enough to get people to admit that such thing as long-term self-interest exists (not to mention that many people believe that worrying enough about your self-interest to identifyit is wrong), there's no use in expecting someone that would work for FEMA or other similar agencies to intentionally put themselves out of work.

Secondly, you cannot prevent corruption by assigning people to watch and make sure no corruption takes place. Why? Because anyone with so ridiculously thankless a job as that is the first person to start accepting bribes and playing favorites all over the place.

The solution is voluntary charity, not throwing yet more billions of tax dollars into what amounts to a black hole. There is a strictly limited amount of charity, and when it's gone, it's gone. That at least provides some incentive to reign in costs or at least consider them in some fashion, and the donors are not being held up at gunpoint if the idea of some money getting to people they would by no means support doesn't appeal to them.

I'm getting mighty tired of this bread and circuses business. The bread is taken from me, and the circuses never were entertaining. Time to dig out the wooden stake and put the vampire to rest.

Feb 14, 2006

Quent Cordair Fine Art

If you aren't already aware of Quent Cordair's wonderful gallery, I invite you to visit it immediately; it's the site of some of the most lush and beautiful artworks I've encoutered in a long time.

A longtime fan of fantasy art by the likes of Michael Whelan and Keith Parkinson, I hardly needed an introduction to the merits of Romantic Realism in painting or sculpting human figures. It's always been my favorite school, and, well, if dragons aren't exactly realistic, at least they're very "realistic" dragons!

The real benefit I gained from visiting Quent Cordair was that I now truly understand how something as apparently prosaic as a still life can be romantic and inspirational.

A good still life, to me, produces a very distinct physical sensation. I cannot look at Alfredo Gomez's Still Life on a Rustic Table without my mouth watering for the juicy and succulent fruit, or wanting to run my fingers over the rough and patchy table. Just seeing this painting is like a lightning strike, jolting me into sharp and focussed perception when my mind might have been drifting.

There is nothing quite so wonderful as the sensation of absolute clarity brought on by a painting of this kind.

Feb 13, 2006

Fiction: Distractions

As Told by Dakota Sue

“Do you think you want to go back there tomorrow?” I asked Todd as we trooped up the stairs to my apartment.  He shrugged informatively and ran into my leg as I came to a sudden stop.

The door to my apartment was open.

With more fury than good sense I stormed up the remaining stairs and burst in to find Finn, Nat, and Q going through my belongings.  “What the”—I began, then swallowed a scathing curse and turned it into—“the heck is going on here?!”

Finn look absolutely mortified.  “Um . . . surprise . . .?”

Nat cocked her head to the side and looked at Todd, who inched backwards.  “Yes, Sue, what is going on here, hmm?”

“I had a personal situation come up and I needed some time to deal with it!  What the heck are you doing here?”  Okay, so it was repetitive, but I wasn’t exactly in the mood for witty repartee.  Q grinned at me helpfully.

“Looking for you,” Nat insisted.  “Who’s the kid?”

“This is Todd.”

“Hello, Todd.  Is he yours?” she asked sweetly.

I snorted.  “Not hardly.  I’m his legal guardian now.”  Paul came wandering out of the bedroom.  Were all of them in on this?

“Well, that explains that,” Finn announced desperately, scooting around me in a bid to get out the door.  I snagged his sleeve.  

“Wait a few minutes while I get him set up with the baby sitter, then I’ll join you, all right?”

“So why are you his guardian?” Paul interrupted.

“Long story.”

Finn shrugged.  “Hey, we were just worried.  We’ll be outside, come down when you’re ready.”

I was shocked; largely because I believed him, so I squelched my temper a bit.  “I’m not mad, just startled,” I said.

Nat and Q followed him down the stairs.  Paul paused and regarded Todd for a moment.  “High five, little dude!”

Todd gave me a questioning look.  I demonstrated by slapping Paul’s outstretched palm lightly.  “Like that.”  The three-year-old pulled his thumb out of his mouth and gave Paul a slimy pat.  Paul turned his palm over and stared at it in disgust.  I couldn’t help but laugh at him.

Natori bounced up the stairs at that point and I handed her Todd and my keys, returning to street level to rejoin the others.  As I exited the stairwell I heard Finn talking quietly.

“This is why I hate teams.  You never know what to expect from people.”

I coughed awkwardly.  “Sorry about that, guys.”

Finn shrugged again.  “You’re the boss.”

“So what else is new?”

“Someone stole our cyborg friend’s head.”


“No, the one we captured.  Someone broke into the prison last night and stole his head, there were no witnesses.”

Just his head?”

“And all the information stored inside.”

“That’s disgusting.  Do we have any idea who it was?”

“Not so far.”

“What were you doing last night, Sue?” Nat queried.  I blinked.  She couldn’t seriously be thinking that I was a suspect?

Well possibly she could.  “I was trying to get Todd situated.  I wasn’t exactly planning on suddenly acquiring a child.  So where is Durance?”

“Getting a new eye.”

Paul chuckled.  “Heh, that sounds funny but it’s true.”
“All right, all right, let’s go back to AEGIS so that Archer can yell at me and we can pick up Durance.”

The old man was thoroughly irate.  Nat seemed inclined to stick around and watch the fireworks, but Finn shooed everyone out the door and left us alone.  I straightened my spine and returned Archer’s glare with one of my own.

“I have seen some feckless irresponsibility in my day but this . . .”

“Whoa, whoa, excuse me?  Irresponsible?  Irresponsible?!  I called you.  I told you I’d be out.  It’s not like I vanished off the face of the earth.”

His face went red and then began to break out in blotches; his voice, on the other hand, went very calm and even.  “You turned off your cell phone.  We couldn’t reach you.”

“Yeah, and?!  All of the sudden you can’t handle things without me for one day?  Oh wait!  I leave for a few hours and the next thing I know my crew mates are breaking into my apartment!  Well if this is how you run things without me no wonder you’re so upset!”  I began to wonder, idly, whether I’d get to see someone have an apoplectic fit for the first time as Archer’s left eyelid started to twitch.  He abruptly slammed his fist into his desk, startling himself more than me, I think.

“You are a soldier!  You follow orders!  Which doesn’t include taking a day off whenever you happen to feel like it!”

I drew myself up to my full height and glared down at him.  “A soldier?  I don’t remember signing any paperwork or taking any oaths.  I didn’t volunteer for the military and as far as I’m concerned, that means I’m still a civilian.”

“Really?  Well this is a secure facility, so I’ll have you escorted out.”  He raised his hand to call security and I took a threatening step forward.  Archer jumped, startled, and took an involuntary step backwards; I snagged his chair with my foot so he ended up sitting down rather abruptly.

“Listen here, boyo, and I’ll explain some of the facts of life to you,” I snarled.  “We’re in a hideously unstable position with this ‘we don’t exist’ crap.  We have to rely on ourselves and be self-sufficient, which means we can’t be running around after orders like a flock of chickens.  You have to trust us to handle ourselves, which means sucking it up if you don’t know where we are every damn minute!  This is my team and I’m running things my way.”

Archer started laughing; he laughed so hard that he had to put his head down on his desk for a moment to regain his composure.  Finally, he sat back up and adjusted his tie.  “Did they really break into your apartment?”

Well, there went all of my aplomb.  “Yes,” I replied sullenly.  

“What esprit de corps you all have.  I think you are crazy.”

“So am I fired or what?”

“Don’t be absurd, we can’t fire you.”

I bristled.  “So you were just giving me a hard time?  Nice.  I’ll remember that on boss’s day.”

He chuckled some more.  “Oh, get out of here so I can get some work done.”  I stormed out.  I was beginning to get a sneaking suspicion that Archer was smarter than me and I didn’t like it one bit.

Our next call was almost a week later . . . at six in the morning.  I left Todd in bed and phoned Natori while I walked to headquarters, trying not to trip over something in the dark and kill myself.  Luckily traffic was light that early in the morning.

Archer looked pretty tired, himself.  “We’ve got two situations developing, here.  The AEGIS computer system is currently sustaining a massive network attack.  Also, several experimental assault helicopters have taken off from Lonely Point naval base and are making straight for downtown.”

“What sort of experimental?”  Durance asked.

“Remote flight network.  We believe that, although there are six helicopters, there is only one pilot.”

“So, what, we take over the helicopters individually?”  I asked.

“That sounds reasonable,” Archer nodded.  “Q’s the only one that can fly, though.”
“I’ve done one or two flight ops,” Durance offered.

“We need to get moving, they’re only getting closer while we sit here and debate this,” Finn urged.

“Paul, you head downtown and report on the situation,” I said.

“I’ll see you there!” he said and vanished in a blur of speed.

“I can try to stop the hacker, but I need to go now,” Nat announced.  

“Sounds good, unless you really want to come with us.”  She shook her head.  “Come on guys, let’s get moving.

Q, Finn, and Durance grabbed their gear and followed me out to the van, but Q paused just as we were about to load in.

“I can fly faster than that thing if you can hold on,” Q announced.

“Can you carry all three of us?” Finn asked.

“I think so.”  A few seconds later we were airborne and closing in on the helicopter formation.  I squinted, trying to determine which one held the pilot, and saw one of the big heavy monsters veer off slightly.  Bingo.  Q turned sharply as machine-gun fire erupted, aimed at the plaza below.

“Guys, this could get bad!” Paul yelled.  There was a flicker as high-velocity throwing stars impacted on the belly of one chopper, improbably tearing a hole and causing it to lose altitude.

“Q, that one!” I yelled, pointing.  He changed direction slightly and I jumped, landing easily on the door.  I heard gunfire behind me but shut it out, trying to concentrate on the task at hand.  I walked around the pitching gunship to the door and casually punched it in.

The pilot was wired into some kind of HUD, slumped over with drool seeping from the corner of his mouth.  I thought for a few seconds and then just pulled the helmet off.  Immediately the ship began to buck and rock erratically, spinning in air as though no one was at the controls, because, well, no one was.

“Hey, guys, I got our hacker.  I’m uploading a virus to him now,” Nat chirped.

“Nice work, Nat, we’ll try to cover our end out here,” Finn returned.

I considered the ground below, grabbed the pilot, and jumped.  I would just have to hope that the tumbling ship didn’t land on anyone.  Falling, I could see that the other ships were either descending or already on the ground.

The primary ship slewed in a breeze and plummeted like a rock, below, I saw Q holding out his hands and concentrating.  The air rippled with the strange energy he directed and the chopper came abruptly to a stop about ten feet off the ground.  Grimacing, Q shifted it to the side and dropped it safely.

“Whew,” I remarked.  “Everyone okay?”

Finn came jogging up, followed by Durance.  “It looks like everyone is still in one piece.  Where’s Paul?”

“Paul?”  I said into the comm..

“I’m okay, just getting some medical attention.”

“Sounds good.”

Feb 11, 2006

The Pink Panther

I went to see this movie largely because I remember the old Pink Panther cartoons and movies fondly, but I wound up finding it an absolutely delightful bit of slapstick.

No real attempt was made to turn the movie into anything other than a light and amusing romp; if it had a theme, it was that an honest buffoon is superior to a normal man that is dishonest, which is true. The former still retains his reference to reality and may come around to the truth eventually. There's no hope of that from the latter.

The truly noteworthy thing about this movie, and I say it with great sadness, is that it was devoid of the hideous toilet humor that has been plaguing comedies for sometime. I've been avoiding the genre lest I be bombarded with fecal matter and genetalia.

It is also funny without being truly cruel, although Clouseau does seem to have a bit of a vendetta against bike riders, as several are felled by car doors and a rogue globe. Perhaps it is a subtle message conveying distaste for the French bombardment of Lance Armstrong when he went back to compete in the Tour De France again. Or maybe the prop staff had a lot of bikes on hand. Who could say.

No, The Pink Panther is good, clean fun. Adults may find it a bit predictable, but it's an excellent movie to take your children to for a matinee.

Robinson Crusoe

This is a truly excellent book, and I wish I'd read it several years ago. I recommend it thoroughly.

My enjoyment, however, was somewhat diminished by the truly awful introduction,written by L. J. Swingle, in which that notable presumes to explain a thoroughly self-explanatory work to an audience that he supposes cannot grasp the idea of a self-sufficient man. He is most emphatic in asserting that no one in today's culture could find the book even remotely realistic. Defoe is guilty, somehow, of cheating, because Crusoe finds himself in circumstances that favor his survival and even allow him to flourish.

I hasten to disagree. Most men find themselves in circumstances well-suited to their survival; just look at how many of us there are! What is absolutely vital is for them to recognize this fact and apply themselves to making the best use of those circumstances that they can manage.

It is not any surprise, then, that Swingle fails to grasp the purpose and value of Crusoe's religious experiments and explorations, which accompany his physical efforts throughout the book. The religion (in the sense of a sort of philosophy) is in large part just as much a survival issue as food and shelter. Without grasping the idea that he was well-situated on his island and content with its simple pleasures, Crusoe would have doubtless engaged in many fruitless and dangerous escape attempts. He would not have planted his barley and rice or domesticated goats, not anticipating many future years on the island, and his situation would have become dire as soon as he ran short of powder and shot.

Swingle also dwells uselessly on Crusoe's supposed exploitation, both of his natural resources and of the savage he later acquires for his "slave", Friday. I have to say that on reading the book I recieved quite a different impression. Such exploitation consisted of: killing numerous wild animals to protect himself and his stores, and saving a man who was the captive of cannibals from certain death. I know I would be eager to enter into the service of someone that assisted me in that way, especially since he so obviously knew how to provide sustainence for us both. It's called having a job. In a world full of dangerous and untrustworthy men, I'd be in a hurry to cling to the honest ones that I'd found.

Swingle's failure to grasp that Defoe's work is as applicable to the modern day as to any other time is just another demonstration as to how detached modern intellectuals are from the business of living.

Feb 9, 2006


As Told by Dakota Sue

I was actually looking forward to relaxing that Sunday.  So much so that I was still in my pajamas at two in the afternoon when the doorbell rang.  I almost jumped out of my skin; I hadn’t realized I had one of those ridiculous chimes that played a tune.  I opened the door cautiously and there they were, looking like one of those figurines that old women love so much: elf and small child.  Wish I had a camera.

Rose essayed a grin but it came out looking kind of sick and desperate.  “I don’t suppose you would be inclined to do me a rather large favor?”

I looked down at Todd.  “Heya, short stuff.”

“Don’t call him that!  He’s average height for his age!”

I was a bit taken aback.  “He’s still shorter than me.  Why are you so huffy?”

Rose grimaced.  “It’s a long story.  May we come in?”

“Knock yourselves out,” I told him, stepping back to make room.  There was a long, awkward pause.

“Do you mean, we should come in?” Rose ventured tentatively.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen an elf put so badly off his stride in my life.  Given, I haven’t seen many elves, but still.

“I think that’s a fair assumption,” I replied gravely.

He edged around me into the condo, drawing Todd along by his grip on the three-year-old’s hand.  By the time I closed the door the boy had vanished somewhere.  There was a crash a few moments later as he upset the coffee table.

“Todd!”  Rose cried, scandalized.

“Oh, leave him alone, he can’t break anything valuable anyway.  What’s going on?”

“I, ah, need you to take care of him.”

“I’m on call, but I could probably watch him for a few hours.”

“No, I mean more, um, permanently.”

“You have lost your mind.”

“If I can’t find an established super to take him the state is going to send him to a containment facility.”

“And you aren’t good enough?”
He coughed slightly.  “My legal status is, ah, somewhat questionable.”

I sighed.  “You don’t know anyone else?”

“Not that I’d trust.  I’m willing to underwrite any childcare expenses he may incur.”

“Jeez.  A containment facility?  Those places are gruesome.  I’d hesitate to send a hardened criminal there.  Why is he in danger of that?”

“Wrecker suit.”

I winced.  “You’re killing me here.”

The Wrecker act was the bane of normal and super citizens country-wide.  Rammed through the legislature on the heels of the Grue invasion, its nominal purpose was to protect superheroes from endless lawsuits and prosecution by allowing them to maintain discrete legal identities for their various activities, assuming, of course, that they were acting “in good faith” to address a “legitimate” threat or perceived threat.  It was originally named after The Wrecker, a super that was driven into bankruptcy and viciously discredited because he used his rather dramatic abilities to assist some people, causing a great deal of property damage.  Since then, the name has taken on an unfortunate double meaning.

The real result was to turn any attempt at meting out justice into a perversion and a mockery.  There was no reliable definition for superhuman or what constituted a legitimate threat.  Never mind trying to figure out what might or might not be considered a perceived threat.  That was a tangle even a Solomon couldn’t unravel.

Some jurisdictions had flat-out abandoned any attempt to sort through it and left the supers to police themselves, a situation that suited many of them just fine.  Old established names could get away, literally sometimes, with murder, while people trying to stay quiet and lead private lives were relentlessly hounded with “Wrecker Suits” for minor infractions.  Suits that they didn’t dare to lose.

The containment facilities were a side effect of the Wrecker Act.  Since superhumans were given special status and favors by the government, it only made “sense” for them to face special penalties as well.  You have to at least pretend to police the monster you’ve created, after all.  So, for almost any illicit use of their powers, supers were sent to maximum-security prisons where their abilities were kept under control by drugs that rendered them, effectively, zombies.  That, and no one ever came back.  Supposedly, after a few months or years your brains turned to mush and they didn’t even have to give you the drugs any more.  Let the punishment fit the crime?  Don’t make me laugh.

Even with all that, there was never anything even approaching a popular movement to get the thing repealed.  Superheroes were major celebrities and they were the ones who’d touted the Act in the first place.  It’d become the modern-day version of Social Security.  Make even the most perfunctory noises about the most minor reforms and your political career was headed straight down the crapper.

Todd was not an established super.  He was a three-year-old child whose first eruption of power was violent and freakish.  If he was going to have any chance at a real life, he needed an established super to claim him and grant legal immunity.  He needed an Aegis.  He needed me.  

“Please, Susan.”

“Ah, hell.  I guess I could use the company.”

“You’ll do it?”


“Wonderful!  I have the paperwork right here . . .”

I signed things until my fingers went numb and my eyes blurred from trying to read the tortured multi-clause sentences.  Every so often I would shake off my stupor and ask a question, then try to pretend I understood the answer.

“Why am I signing paperwork for the Academy?”

“You have a job, and someone has to watch him during the day. It’s essentially a Montessori preschool for children with super powers.  The instructors are supers so they can handle any difficulties that might arise.”

“You’ve thought of everything, huh?  My last mission was at 8pm, who’s going to watch him then?

“Don’t you know anyone in the City?”

“No!”  I snapped.  “It’s not like you just run into them hanging out at truck stops . . . hang on . . .”


“I do know someone!  Well, if she decided to come back here, that is.  Heh.  She’s supposedly a student at Claremont Academy.”

Rose shook his head.  

The next morning I left Archer a voice mail informing him that I was taking a personal day and rode the bus with Todd to visit the Academy.  I toured the preschool in the morning, meeting the various instructors and trying to look interested while they showed me around.  Todd seemed to like it well enough (they had action figures), so I left him to eat lunch with the other children while I prowled around the campus.  Finally I hit pay dirt.

“Miss Susan!  Miss Susan!” a voice squealed, and Natori Taiko came bounding across the lawn towards me.  In her short blue jumper, without the appalling makeup, she was insanely cute.  I made a mental note to introduce her to Paul sometime.  Maybe after she’d taken her Valium.

“I thought I told you to go home,” I drawled.

“Yes but, I thought, Miss Susan would never do what she was told, so here I am!”

I snorted.  “What, now I’m your role model?” I couldn’t help but grin when she nodded enthusiastically.  “So what do you do with yourself on evenings and weekends?”

“Homework, and read, mostly.  I used to hang out with my friends, but we don’t get along very well any more!”

“Interested in a job?”

“Fighting crime?  Righting wrongs?”

“Watching my, um”—I stumbled, trying to think of a brief way to describe my new relationship with Todd, and finished lamely—“kid.”

“I didn’t know you had a family!”

“Well, I didn’t.  I don’t.  Technically, he’s sort of my extremely junior sidekick-in-training.”


I explained as best I could.

“Ohh the poor little boy!  I should be most honored to watch him when you are occupied!”

“Great!  Are you busy?  I’ll take you to meet him.”

“Not at all!”

We trotted back to the preschool wing, where the youngsters were now running around the playground.  I looked around for Todd, but didn’t see him.  Then I heard vicious laughter coming from around the side of the building.  Two older children, early teens I guess, had cornered him and were playing keep-away with his beloved zord.  Todd was quite red in the face and out of breath from chasing them, but I was pleased to note that it hadn’t occurred to him to get angry yet.  Mostly, he was perplexed and hurt.  I started to intervene but Natori beat me to it.

“Flying Dragon Attack!” she bellowed and slapped the primary tormenter on his wrist with her open hand.  I grimaced; that blow had probably numbed his entire arm.  Scooping up the zord with her other hand, she passed it off to Todd in one motion while turning to include the other boy in her glare.  “What shameful behavior!  What disgrace!  Be happy if I don’t report you!  Go!  Now!”  They ran for it; I would have, too.

Then she turned to address Todd.  “I am very sorry, young sir.  Those ruffians will trouble you no more!”

He stood there, staring at her.  After a moment his eyes slid sideways to me in a mute appeal for help.

“It’s okay, short stuff, this is Natori.  She’s going to take care of you sometimes when I have to work.  She only hits bad people.”  Natori bowed.

He considered this for a while.  “Okay.”

“And what should I call you, little boy?”  Natori asked him.  He grinned.

“Short stuff.”

I could see getting used to this arrangement.

Denver Conference on Law

Just a brief plug for Front Range Objectivism's upcoming conference on law in Denver, Colorado. Check out the site, as I live so far away and hate travelling so much that I won't be attending, so I don't exactly know many details.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Well, I said it this time. What a lovely personality I have.

Part and parcel of my occasional tendency to fly off the handle is my absolute hatred for ever admitting when I have made a mistake. Part of being an adult is that you sometimes have to do things that you hate because you know it's good for you.

It also means that you can't give some ridiculous, grudging, half-assed apology and expect it to fly. So: I confused Ed with someone else! I was soooo rude! I didn't bother to check and make sure that he was who I thought he was! Hence I am sorry for being a twit.

I, however, am not sorry for thinking that two absolutely contradictory ideas can't both be equally valid, true, and worthwhile. Or for thinking that ideas are important enough to have bearing on someone's personal worth. Or for thinking that words (which are labels denoting concepts, after all) have a specific meaning and use.

In any case, I stand by what I said, I just said it to the wrong person, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reason. If you want to debate with me, take it to Objectivism Online.

Five Factor Personality Test

I spotted this BlogThing over at Myrhaf, so I gave it a try. I almost always get truly bizarre results from personality tests.

Your Five Factor Personality Profile
You have medium extroversion.You're not the life of the party, but you do show up for the party.Sometimes you are full of energy and open to new social experiences.But you also need to hibernate and enjoy your "down time."
You have medium conscientiousness.You're generally good at balancing work and play.When you need to buckle down, you can usually get tasks done.But you've been known to goof off when you know you can get away with it.
You have high agreeableness.You are easy to get along with, and you value harmony highly.Helpful and generous, you are willing to compromise with almost anyone.You give people the benefit of the doubt and don't mind giving someone a second chance.
You have high neuroticism.It's easy for you to feel shaken, worried, or depressed.You often worry, and your worries prevent you from living life fully.You tend to be emotionally reactive and moody. Your either flying very high or feeling very low.
Openness to experience:
Your openness to new experiences is high.In life, you tend to be an early adopter of all new things and ideas.You'll try almost anything interesting, and you're constantly pushing your own limits.A great connoisseir of art and beauty, you can find the positive side of almost anything.

Feb 8, 2006

True Story

Ways in which truth continues to be stranger than fiction:

  • After inadvertantly sending a Sharpie marker out with an irradiation lot at work, I decided to crack wise about the marker needing a hazardous label. My Russian coworker informed me that if I wanted a real hazard, I should have lived with him, 30 miles from Chernobyl. "Oh," I said, "I'll bet you were glad you moved when it blew up." "That's where I was when it blew up. May 5th, it was a big holiday for the Russian people, and they had parades, they didn't cancel it even though they had dust all over and so on." "They had people marching through fallout?" "Yes, pretty much."
  • A crack dealer is arrested after he begins to give out business cards.
  • Paul Hsieh writes about things medical practitioners have learned from their patients.
  • My friend's parents have a dog that sorts Kibbles 'n' Bits and only eats the ones she likes. They stopped feeding it to her because they kept stepping on the piles she left and falling.

It takes real skill as an author to take a bizarre event like those above and make it not only plausible, but universal and meaningful as well.

Feb 7, 2006

Oliver Twist

I was not particularly enthused with this book by Charles Dickens, largely because the title character could have been replaced with a sack of potatoes and the outcome would have been the same. In fact, he spends a substantial portion of the story unconscious or sick in bed while numerous more active people arrange matters in the background.

By the end, even Dickens appears to have admitted that Oliver is not the protagonist of the story and that position is taken by Rose Maylie. In which case I should like to point out that it is somewhat of a literary faux pas not to introduce your protagonist until halfway through the book. Not to mention that SHE isn't particularly proactive, either. Taking Oliver Twist as a sort of morality play, the only possible conclusion would be that "good" is equivalent to "being quiet and not bothering anyone".

It makes sense, though, because Dickens' purpose is obviously not to project or even define the good, what he wanted to convey was a sense of the despair and degradation of the poor in England at the time he was writing. The good characters really only exist for contrast, and the lack of a real plot is most likely the result of the fact that the work was first published one piece at a time instead of as a complete novel.

As a historical window, it does provide an interesting look at what sort of story most appealed to readers in the eighteenth century, but for any other purpose I'd have to say it's not worth the effort.

Of course, that raises the question of why anyone reads classics in the first place. Perhaps I will consider that another time.