Unique Critiques

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies and Companies

Math and Science Book Review

Scale is an impressive body of work authored by one of America’s top scientists, Geoffrey West.  Dr. West recently headed up the Santa Fe Institute which is a think tank in the true sense of the term.  This is a bunch of scientists with the goal of advancing science unencumbered by some partisan political stance.  They bring in a ton of different scientists from many different disciplines and try to tackle the tough problems of the age.  One of their big targets has always been complex systems and building on an overall complexity theory.  In his book Scale, West takes on the big question of what happens to things when they grow.  He draws parallels between biological systems, cities and companies using a scientific approach backed with a good amount of layman’s math and illustration.

This is a wonderful book but it does require a pretty high level of concentration to get through all of the concepts.  While you don’t need a mathematical background to enjoy it, having a bit of that background makes the first read through a little easier and I would guess a little more enjoyable.  I found that as he dove into scaling and power laws I was able to draw a bunch of parallels to other scientific adventures I had taken in school or independent study.

He does a craftsman’s job of explaining what nonlinear growth means – “nonlinear behavior can simply be thought of as meaning that measurable characteristics of a system generally do not simply double when its size is doubled.”  He gives some solid definitions for what sublinear and superlinear growth mean and then starts hitting you with examples.  One of the most important example to understand is what happens to a structure when it grows.  If you are building a rudimentary square shed that is 10′ X 10′ X10′ and you decide to increase the length of each side by a factor of 10, the area and strength to support that area increases by a factor of 100.  So your 100′ X100′ shed now has an area of 10,000 instead of the original 100.  The volume increase and the strength to support it is even worse, you go from a volume of 1,000 to a volume of 1,000,000 which is a massive increase required in the strength to support the structure.  Another example is the Richter scale for earthquakes which is a logarithmic (exponential) scale.  So an earthquake that registers as a 6 on the Richter is 10 times more powerful than one that registers as a 5 and 100 times more powerful than one that registers as a 4.

This concept of Scale and it’s nonlinear growth make up the central questions answered by the book.  His first exploration of scale is through biology where we learn why larger animals live longer than smaller animals on average.  “Because larger animals metabolize at higher rates following the 3/4 power scaling law, they suffer greater production of entropy and therefore greater overall damage, so you might have thought that this would imply that larger animals would have shorter life spans in obvious contradiction to observations.  However…on a cellular or per unit mass of tissues basis metabolic rate and therefore the rate which damage is occurring at the cellular an intracellular levels decreases systematically with increasing size of the animal-another expression of economy of scale.”  The main takeaway then being, “So at the critical cellular level cells suffer systematically less damage at a slower rate the larger the animal, and this results in a correspondingly longer life span.”

He dives deep into the scaling of cities and finally the scaling of companies but through all three of these systems he comes up with a universal theory of how we scale ‘allometrically’:  “the generic geometric and dynamical properties of biological networks that underlie quarter power allometric scaling are: (1) they are space filling (so every cell of an organism, for instance must be serviced by the network); (2) the terminal units, such as capillaries or cells, are invariant within a given design (so, for instance, our cells and capillaries are approximately the same as those of mice and whales); and (3) the networks have evolved to be approximately optimal (so, for instance, the energy our hearts have to use to circulate blood and support our cells is minimized in order to maximize the energy available for reproduction and the rearing of offspring).”

He then ties this directly to cities and companies.  In a city, our road and transportation networks must fill space to service every region as do all of the utilities that must service homes and buildings.  This is also true of social networks, we collectively fill the socioeconomic space available to us.  As far as the terminal units go, he uses the plug as a great example.  A plug is the same standard size regardless of what you plug into it.  Finally, we will always try to optimize these systems for both biological and economic reasons.

One other point that I found fascinating and is worth highlighting in this review is around what happens when we get too big.  “In this scenario demand gets progressively larger and larger, eventually becoming infinite within a finite period of time.  It is simply not possible to supply an infinite amount of energy, resources, and food in a finite time.  So if nothing else changes, this inextricably leads to stagnation and collapse,”  The key here is ‘so if nothing else changes’ because this is where innovation comes into play.  He addresses innovation with, “A major innovation effectively resets the clock by changing the conditions under which the system has been operating and growth occurring.  Thus, to avoid collapse a new innovation must be initiated that resets the clock, allowing growth to continue and the impending singularity to be avoided.”  Sounds good right?  If we just keep innovating we’ll be fine.  Not so fast.  “There’s yet another major catch, and it’s a big one.  The theory dictates that to sustain continuous growth the time between successive innovations has to get shorter and shorter.  Thus paradigm-shifting discoveries, adaptations, and innovations must occur at an increasingly accelerated pace.”  So, to keep growing we have to innovate faster and faster but it seems inevitable that we will eventually hit this limit and stagnate.  Scary stuff.

There are many more beautiful nuggets of wisdom within these 500+ pages but it does tend to get dry at times.  Stick with it because it is a brilliant, innovative way to look at what happens when things get bigger.

Rework

Business Book Review

Rework is one of those books that is very easy to cast aside as an anti-establishment rant.  Do so at your peril.  Fried and Heinemeier Hansson have some strong, experienced based wisdom to impart.  You may not agree with all of it and they freely acknowledge that that is OK.  The book is heavily opinionated based on what has worked for them.  Opinionated in this case is good because those opinions are laden with passion.  These guys live their philosophy and they are unapologetic about doing so.  That alone makes Rework a refreshing read.

The book is short but packed with impact.  The authors are very concise and don’t waste your time with flowery prose.  They exemplify the ‘never use 10 words when 1 will do’ rule.  Their delivery is much more fortune cookie than Dickens which makes using the book for reference a lot easier.

The authors of Rework started 37Signals who are the creators of Basecamp.  For those not familiar, Basecamp is SaaS based project management software.  They were one of the early companies to come out with this style of collaborative software project management.  I like their blog a lot more than I like their software.  I’ve used Basecamp in the past and it never really did it for me.  To be fair, I haven’t used the software in years and my experience is in creating products for the market and not for managing projects for specific customers.  Their software seems to be more tailored for the latter approach (or at least it was when I used it.)

So let’s dive into the wisdom they have to impart.  They start by trying to dispel common misconceptions about business.  They started off with one that actually pissed me off a little: ‘Learning from mistakes is overrated.’  Their point was that you learn a lot more from success and that failure is not a prerequisite for success.  However, by saying something like that they are not attributing any of their own success to luck of being in the right place at the right time.  There’s a reason that only 5% of startups survive even if you do follow these principles.  And luck plays a big part in that reason.  It’s almost like blaming a cancer patient for getting cancer.  In my opinion, you should learn from everything, both your successes and your failures.  I did agree with most of their other points though.  The next being that planning is guessing.  Their comment was that ‘writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can’t actually control.’  This has a lot of merit when coupled with their idea that it is ‘ok to wing it.’  I think there can be benefits to a plan when it makes you think through all possibilities before investing a ton of money in something.  But you can definitely wing it with smaller decisions especially if you are getting feedback from the market early and often.

I really did like their piece on workaholism.  I don’t know when workaholics became heroes in our society.  I agree with our authors that say, “Not only is this workaholism unnecessary, it’s stupid. Working more doesn’t mean you care more or get more done.  It just means you work more….Workaholics miss the point, too.  They try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them.  They try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force.  This results in inelegant solutions.  They even create crises.  They don’t look for ways to be more efficient because they actually like working overtime.  They enjoy feeling like heroes.  They create problems just so they can get off on working more.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  When a company needs heroics, you’re doing it wrong.  “Workaholics aren’t heroes.  They don’t save the day, they just use it up.  The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.”

I’ve already touched on this but the authors strongly advocate for strong opinions.  It’s ok to piss people off.  “If no one’s upset by what you’re saying, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.”  With strong opinions come passion.  With passion comes movement.  They also debunk the idea of starting a company with an exit strategy in mind.  “You need a commitment strategy, not an exit strategy.  You should be thinking about how to make your project grow and succeed not how you’re going to jump ship.  If your whole strategy is based on leaving, chances are you won’t get far in the first place.”

I really liked their thoughts on cutting stuff to it’s core.  This is the philosophy of the MVP.  In their words, “So sacrifice some of your darling for the greater good.  Cut your ambition in half.  You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.”  Cutting down to that level is tough.  They have some advice here too, “The stuff you have to do is where you should begin.  Start at the epicenter.  The way to find the epicenter is to ask yourself this question” ‘If I took this away, would what I’m selling still exist?” A hot dog stand isn’t a hot dog stand without the hot dogs.”

Another important part about being an entrepreneur is making decisions and keeping those decisions and your projects short and sweet.  “When you get in that flow of making decisions after decision, you build momentum and boost morale.  Decisions are progress.”  And, “long projects zap morale.  The longer it takes to develop, the less likely it is to launch.  Make the call, make progress, and get something out now”

They take a programmer’s approach to estimates and solving problems.  I really like this quote because it is something I have found to be true again and again.  “Your estimates suck.  We’re all terrible estimators.  We think we can guess how long something will take, when we really have no idea.  We see everything going according to a best-case scenario, without the delays that inevitably pop up.  Reality never sticks to best-case scenarios.”  This is also a truth I have found to be universal, “Whenever you can, divide problems into smaller and smaller pieces until you’re able to deal with them completely and quickly.  Simply rearranging your tasks this way can have an amazing impact on your productivity and motivation.”

They caution not to fear competition.  In my experience, having competition is far better than not having any.  When you don’t have a competitor you have to define your space which is incredibly difficult.  “Having an enemy gives you a great story to tell customers, too.  Taking a stand always stands out.  People get stoked by conflict.  They take sides.  Passions are ignited.  And that’s a good way to get people to take notice.”

They also dive into the power of No.  “Start getting into the habit of saying no-even to many of your best ideas.  Use the power of no to get your priorities straight.  You rarely regret saying no.  But you often wind up regretting saying yes.”  It’s hard to give up on good ideas but, “The enthusiasm you have for a new idea is not an accurate indicator of its true worth.  What seems like a sure-fire hit right now often gets downgraded to just a ‘nice to have’ by morning.  And ‘nice to have’ isn’t worth putting everything else on hold.”

They have some really good ideas on promotion.  They go deep into building an audience so that, “when you need to get the word out, the right people are already listening.”  Educating that audience is also a good way to get out there, “Instead of trying to outspend, outsell, or outsponsor competitors, try to out-teach them.  Teaching probably isn’t something your competitors are even thinking about.  Most businesses focus on selling or servicing, but teaching never even occurs to them.”  They are also big proponents of transparency.  Share your experiences with your customers.  “Letting people behind the curtain changes your relationship with them.  They’ll feel a bond with you and see you as a human beings instead of a faceless company.”

Their thoughts on hiring are very entrepreneurial and I don’t know if I agree with all of them.  They claim to “never hire anyone to do a job until you’ve tried to do it yourself first.  That way, you’ll understand the nature of the work.  You’ll know what a job well done looks like.”  My caveat to this would be, don’t do those jobs for long especially if you don’t like them and aren’t very good at them.  I know I’m not a great marketer because it pains me to do it and I know a lot of really good marketers that can do the job better than me.  But their point is valid because I didn’t know that until I tried it first.  I also liked their comments on how to narrow it down between several finalists.  “If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer.  It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever, their writing skills will pay off.  That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing.  Clear writing is a sing of clear thinking.  Great writers know how to communicate.”

They also have some interesting thoughts on damage control and culture but I don’t think there was anything new there.  Overall, it is worth the read.  It’s quick and it hits a cord.

Meta Series

Fantasy Book Review

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This is a review of the series that Tom Reynolds has written so far.  I thought there was a chance he would be tying it off after three books and making it a trilogy.  After finishing the third book, that’s clearly not the case.  You can see why though: the books are selling.  There’s still a lot of interesting situations that he can throw his characters into and, if anything, he seems to be just finding his stride.

I’ve tried to understand why these books are interesting when the whole superhero thing has become so overplayed.  Marvel has something like three movies a year coming out and most of them are surprisingly good.  Superheroes have evolved dramatically from the black and white Superman character to these deeply flawed, incredibly interesting everyman characters that each have their own twist.

Each superhero story has become this Freudian battle between the hero’s super charged id and their super-ego.  This battle was phrased most clearly by Uncle Ben in Spiderman with his, “With great power comes great responsibility” quote.  Spiderman was still pretty clean cut however.  Luckily, these internal demon battles have become far more nuanced and a lot more interesting.  Netflix is doing some of the most groundbreaking stuff with their superheroes in NYC.  Talk about your superhero screw ups just trying to make their way in the world.

The ego, which tries to be based in some level of reality, plays the role of secret identity or ‘alter ego’ if you will.  The stories that get it right make the ego identity just as interesting as the superhero one.  When done well, you find yourself wanting to find out how each side of the identity coin is going to weather the inevitable shit storm they are thrown into.

The villains are getting a lot more attention too.  In the good stories, the villains go one of two ways.  The first is a villain that is so loathsome that you love to hate them.  Their debauchery and maliciousness is both creative and innovative.  When the author spends the time truly making you hate these characters, their comeuppance becomes cathartic.  The second approach is the misunderstood villain.  These villains are the byproducts of bad choices.  These are bad choices that you or I could have easily made.  Now they find themselves in situations where every choice is filled with regret.  These are the villains we feel sorry for because we can relate.  We also feel thankful that we aren’t them in much the same way that we derive pleasure from these poor idiots that make asses out of themselves on reality TV.

So where does Reynold’s Meta fit in?  It’s been pretty fun to watch the evolution of this character.  It is definitely YA fare but Reynolds has the gift of building an interesting plot.  Our hero starts off whiter than Wonder Bread fighting one dimensional villains.  By the third book the character is decidedly more interesting.  He gets put into situations where there aren’t the build your own adventure good and evil choices but instead choices that make him question his own morality.  It has almost become a coming of age story and I think that’s why it’s interesting.

Our main character is Conner Connoly whose super powers literally drop from the heavens in the form of meta bands.  These meta bands are the source of all of his powers and are what transform mild mannered Conner into Ultra.  Ultra is very similar to Superman but is heavily reliant upon the charge of his meta bands.  So basically Superman with a battery. iSuperman.

These meta bands aren’t new to the world.  Conner, aka Ultra, is the first of a second generation of metas.  The world saw a stew of these superheroes about 10 years ago.  The first generation of metas died out when the top superhero dragged villain numero uno into the sun.  Once that happened, all the other heroes saw their meta bands go defunct and the first generation of heroes vanished.

Having your super powers drop from the sky is not much of an origin story.  I saw this as a huge weakness in the first book because the origin story is typically the best part of any superhero drama.  However, Reynolds reveals that there is quite a bit more to this genesis in the third book.  This was refreshing background information that drew me back in.

The fact that the story has gotten more interesting as it has progressed brings a lot of hope for the series as most of these YA series seem to lose steam after the first book.  I will definitely continue to read the series and I recommend giving it a shot.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

If you haven’t read this one already, read it now.  This is as insightful a look at why humans do the dumb shit that we do as anything Kahneman has put out there and I loved his book: Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Ariely takes us through, step by step, all of the major irrationalities that we buy into every day.  The beauty of this book is that we know that we are irrational but this book will show that this irrationality is actually predictable.  Or as Ariely puts it, “our irrationality happens the same way, again and again.”

All of the theories in the book are backed up by empirical experimentation.  While sample size always needs to be considered, having real numbers trumps gut feel every day of the week.  The way he runs each experiment is telling.  He always sets out to answer a question that bothers him then comes up with a data driven answer.  Curiosity coupled with experiment makes for great reading.

There are so many lessons to pull from this book that it would be a shame not to list them all here for a Cliff Notes review at the very least.  That is the purpose of a lot of these business book reviews, to make sure that the lessons are extracted for future reference.  They also help me distill what I took as the most important nuggets from a particular author’s teaching.  So without further ado, let’s dive in.

The first lesson is about the cycle of relativity.  This starts with our author’s fundamental observation: “most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context.”  You didn’t know that you wanted that Tesla until you saw it next to your crappy 1994 Toyota Carola.  This makes sense, right?  The discovery that the author puts in front of us is that every marketer in the world knows this and uses it to their advantage.  My favorite example of this, “…people generally won’t buy the most expensive dish on the menu, they will order the second most expensive dish.  Thus, by creating an expensive dish, a restaurateur can lure customers in to ordering the second most expensive choice.”  He calls this the decoy effect.  The opposite of offering the most expensive item is by offering a clearly inferior option, either at the same price or at a negligibly cheaper price, to make the more expensive option look far more appealing.  This decoy effect “is the secret agent in more decisions than we could imagine.”

He next dives into the fallacies of supply and demand and how easily these forces can be manipulated.  There were two big lessons I pulled from this, price anchoring and creating demand.  Price anchoring comes about by something called arbitrary coherence.  “Initial prices are largely ‘arbitrary’ and can be influenced by responses to random questions; but once those prices are established in our minds, they shape not only what we are willing to pay for an item, but also how much we are willing to pay for related products (this makes them coherent).”  The message here is be very careful with your pricing strategies, especially if you are defining a market.  The other side of this is that if prices in your model are already anchored, then you have to change the experience to change the pricing.  This is what Starbucks did with coffee.  They turned buying coffee into a new, exotic experience then were able to charge a lot more for it.  In creation of demand he quotes Mark Twain, “Tom had discovered a great law of human action, namely, that in order to make a man covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”  This can be seen everywhere but I believe my brother describes it best when he says that ‘people love to wait in line.’  The reason for this is what Ariely calls behavior herding.  “It happens when we assume that something is good (or bad) on the basis of other people’s previous behavior, and our own actions follow suit.”

His next experiment dives into why we find “FREE!” so exciting.  His theory is that something free gives us such a charge because, “…humans are intrinsically afraid of loss.  The real allure of FREE! is tied to this fear.  There’s no visible possibility of loss when we choose a FREE! Item (it’s free). But suppose we choose the item that’s not free.  Uh-oh, now there’s a risk of having made a poor decision – the possibility of loss.  And so, given the choice, we go for what is free.”  Removing this risk of a ‘poor decision’ drives us to make all sorts of poor decisions like buying two for one deals of items that you never would have bought one of in the first place.  I have an uncle that is famous for this, he once bought a case of Italian salad dressing, even though he doesn’t like Italian salad dressing, just because it was ‘such a good deal’.

He then dives into the dichotomy of social norms vs. market norms.  “The social norms include the friendly requests that people make of one another.  Could you help me move this couch? … Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community.  They are usually warm and fuzzy.  Instant paybacks are not required.  …market norms, is very different.  There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about it.  The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits.”  He uses two great examples here, imagine offering to pay grandma for the cost of the Thanksgiving dinner she put out for everyone or explaining to a date the amount you are shelling out for the last three dates you took her out on.  Both of these cases, even if well meant, are a serious violation of the social contract!  Sadly, “when a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time.  In other words, social relationships are not easy to reestablish.”

He also goes in to how valuable social norms can be in the business world.  Take open source software for example.  Who would have ever thought Linux or Wikipedia would have been so popular?  He gives another example of a group of lawyers that were approached to help out a retirement community.  The community asked if they could help and offered to pay them well below their normal fee.  The firm said absolutely not.  They asked again but this time if they would consider doing it for free.  The firm readily agreed.  They had gone from a market norm to a social norm.  He also examines the social contract in modern day business.  Businesses used to take care of their employees with pensions and, at the very least, solid benefits.  Nowadays, these things have been cut and businesses bemoan that they can’t find loyal employees anywhere anymore.  You can’t have it both ways.  Loyalty comes from social norms not market norms.

One more example worth mentioning is why, when you are dining out, taking the last hors d’oeuvre is such a big deal.  The answer, “the communal plate transforms the food into a shared resource, and once something is port of the social good, it leads us into the realm of social norms, and with that the rules for sharing with others.”

He devotes a whole chapter to the fact that we are incredibly stupid when we are sexually aroused.  Well duh.

He dives into procrastination and self-control.  The best example here was with how we are all addicted to our devices especially e-mail.  “I think e-mail addiction has something to do with what the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner called ‘schedules of reinforcement’. … “On the face of it, one might expect that the fixed schedules of reinforcement would be more motivating and rewarding because the rat can learn to predict the outcome of his work.  Instead, Skinner found that the variable schedules were actually more motivating.  The most telling result was that when the rewards ceased, the rats ho were under the fixed schedules stopped working almost immediately, but those under the variable schedules kept working for a very long time.”  This is why gambling is so popular.  “If you think about it, e-mail is very much like gambling.  Most of it is junk and equivalent to pulling the lever of a slot machine and losing, but every so often we receive a message that we really want.”

I loved his study on the high price of ownership and the “Ikea effect.”  He has a great line in there, “In fact, I can with a fair amount of certainty say that pride of ownership is inversely proportional to the ease with which ones assembles the furniture.”  You spend time on something, you add a value of ownership to it.  This ownership effect is another cause for irrationality.   This can be summed up in the maxim, “‘One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. ‘ Well when you’re the owner, you’re at the ceiling; and when you’re the buyer, you’re at the floor.”  According to Ariely, this irrationality is propelled by three quirks: 1) we fall in love with what we already have 2) we focus on what we may lose, rather than what we may gain and 3) we assume other people will see the transaction from the same perspective as we do.

It’s stunning to see his experiments around the effect of expectations.  The general idea here is that if we expect that something is going to be good or bad, that expectation greatly impacts the experience.  He has a great quote on this, “As it turns out, positive expectations allow us to enjoy things more and improve our perception of the world around us.  The danger of expecting nothing is that, in the end, it might be all we’ll get.”

He’s fascinated by the study of the placebo effect and rightfully so.  The placebo effect is an amazing way that our mind controls our body.  What was most fascinating about his study though was how big of an impact price has on the placebo effect.  When study participants were given placebo drugs, they did far better in their treatment when they found out that the placebo drug was very expensive.

This leads into a nice segue on the cycle of distrust.  When marketers abuse things like the placebo effect or any other of irrationalities we believe them, but only for a time.  He presents two morals, “The first is that people are willing to forgive a bit of lying.  But the second, more important moral-one that we are just beginning to understand-is that trust, once eroded, is very hard to restore.”

He then dives into all of the experiments he ran on cheating.  This stuff was fascinating.  “when given the opportunity, many honest people will cheat.  In fact, rather than finding that a few bad apples weighted the averages, we discovered that the majority of people cheated, and that they cheated just a little.  The second, and more counter-intuitive, result was even more impressive: once tempted to cheat, the participants didn’t seem to be as influenced by the risk of being caught as one might think…This means that even when we have no chance of getting caught, we still don’t become wildly dishonest.”  He then primed the pump in his experiments by having folks recall the Ten Commandments before the experiment and, “the students who had been asked to recall the Ten Commandments had not cheated at all.”  So there is definitely something to these honor code things.

Finally, what he found out is that “cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money.”  Any time they ran their experiments on tokens that were worth a certain amount of money, cheating went up dramatically.  This means cheating on things like airline miles is far easier to do because it’s not linked directly to money.  He cautions banks not to get to far away from real money because of this effect.

As a closer, he offers a plan of action.  “although irrationally is commonplace, it does not necessarily mean that we are helpless.  Once we understand when and where we may make erroneous decisions, we can try to be more vigilant, force ourselves to think differently about these decisions, or use technology to overcome our inherent shortcomings.”  Very cool stuff and a ton of lessons to take away from this book.

The subtle art of not giving a f*ck: a counter intuitive approach to living a good life

Business book review

This book is a fun blend between self help and philosophy.  The good news is that the philosophy elements are well thought out and meaningful.  This is not a business guide with a plan to follow but neither is it all flowery fluff.  The concepts are worth your time with a fair amount of fun stories from the author’s life to keep you interested.  I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece but it’s worth the read.

Manson starts the book with a call out to Bukowski, the poet beloved by drunks and misfits.  He calls him out in an appropriate way though by referencing Bukowski’s authenticity.  “…his success stemmed not from some determination to be a winner, but from the fact that he knew he was a loser, accepted it, and then wrote honestly about it.  He never tried to be anything other than what he was.”  Authenticity is always a good quality but finding it is incredibly difficult.  Manson seems to suggest that one of the ways to finding authenticity and the good life is, “…not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important.”

So how do we get there?  Manson’s philosophy is that we are all doing everything we can to avoid negative experiences and filling them with false positive experiences.  His statement that, “the desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience.  And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience,” rings really true.  Most of this comes down to acceptance of who you are rather than trying to do everything you can to become something else.  That is not a bad definition of authenticity. Another quote that really resonated was, “Being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charismatic around others.  The pain of honest confrontation is what generates the greatest trust and respect in your relationships.  Suffering through your fears and anxieties is what allows you to build courage and perseverance.”  And, “Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience.”  In other words, embrace the pain, don’t be shamed by it.  I have personally found this to be very true.  The more vulnerable you are with others, the more powerful the relationships you build.

He takes this a step further to define happiness as solving problems. “True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.”  This is tightly linked to accomplishment which has always been one of my primary measures for happiness.  When I’m getting stuff done, I’m happy.  I like Manson’s definition better because rather than just accomplishment he is linking happiness to solving, not just finishing.  He mentions the two big things that get in the way and hits this nail right on the head.  “Denial.  Some people deny that their problems exist in the first place….Victim Mentality.  Some choose to believe that there is nothing they can do the solve their problems, even when they in fact could.”  I think denial is very common with the older generation, those that like to sweep stuff under the rug.  The victim mentality is much more common in the younger generation, especially with the entitled.  Victim mentality and entitlement are closely linked.

Manson doesn’t let entitlement off the hook.  He describes it in one of two ways, “1. I’m awesome and the rest of you all suck, so I deserve special treatment. 2. I suck and rest of you are all awesome, so I deserve special treatment.”  Both of these approaches get you nowhere, except maybe with enabling parents.  Manson believe that we need to accept that we are not special and deal with it.  “Often, it’s this realization – that you and your problems are actually not privileged in their severity or pain – that is the first and most important step toward solving them.”

He then takes on values and how values define well lived life if those values are based on the right things.  In his definition, “Good values are 1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive, and 3) immediate and controllable.  Bad values are 1) superstitious, 2) socially destructive , and 3) not immediate and controllable.”  Understanding this requires responsibility of your own well-being.  Responsibility is the biggest part of growing up and becoming authentic.  As Manson puts it, “This is the realization that we, individually, are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the external circumstances.”  You made your choices and they got you here.  Time to accept that and be an adult.  And in those cases of, “We don’t always control what happens to us.  But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond.”  You’re still making choices, so stop playing the victim.

Manson takes us through a cool exercise of questioning ourselves or trying to be a little less certain about who we think we are.  He gives us three questions to ponder.  #1: What if I’m wrong?  #2: What would it mean if I’m wrong?  #3: Would being wrong create a better or a worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others?  This is a good litmus test for any sentient being.  Introspection is a good thing.  Challenge yourself on a regular basis.

Manson also spends some time on relationships.  He goes deep into building trust and how that is the keystone for something real.  The part I liked the most about this was his concept that commitment spawns freedom.  This concept is very counter intuitive.  “Commitment gives you freedom because you’re no longer distracted by the unimportant and frivolous.  Commitment gives you freedom because it hones your attention and focus, directing them toward what is most efficient at making you healthy and happy.”  I like this way of looking at commitment.  You’re not settling, you’re focusing.

He finishing up the book with a call to action that balances on something light: death.  “Confronting the reality of our own mortality is important because it obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life.  While most people whittle their days chasing another buck, or a little bit more fame and attention, or a little bit more assurance that they’re right or loved, death confronts all of us with a far more painful and important question: what is your legacy?  How will the world be different and better when you’re gone?  What mark will you have made?”

Get out there and get it done by only giving a fuck about the stuff that matters.

 

 

 

 

Dak’arai

Another original

Dak’arai

I have been a member of the dak’arai for as long as I can remember.  We are a sacred order sworn to protect members of the royal family since the dawn of time.  I have slowed down over the passage of years; eyesight dimming; ears not what they once were, but I still do my duty and will do my duty until the time of my death.  This is my story.

My childhood was happy but tough.  I was darker than the rest of my siblings and my hair grew a bit wilder and longer even when I was very young.  My brothers and sisters would often tease me about these differences and I would have to prove my worth by wrestling; sometimes even fighting them tooth and nail.  At times, it would get too rough and one of us would be bloodied after a fight.  At these times my mother would bark recriminations at the lot of us as we hurried away to separate corners to escape her wrath and lick our wounds.  I was involved in almost every one of these tussles and because of it my mother would complain to my sire about what a troublemaker I was. My father would always come to my defense, reminding her of the great destiny I had in front of me.

My father believed I was a reincarnation of the great F’illaster.  F’illaster was the first of the dak’arai.  He was the first of the great Wa’holf warriors to propose a peace with the royal family thus ending eons of war between the clans and the royals.  To cement his belief in peace he offered to act as a protector to the ancient empress of Ma’han.  Many of the Wa’holfs of the time saw his actions as traitorous and vowed to never respect the alliance.  But as the years passed it became clear that F’illaster’s actions saved many lives of Wa’holf and royal alike.  All but a very few came to see the wisdom of F’illaster’s decision.  Some say that there are still wild Wa’holf warriors roaming the lands today but that is myth.  Those that accepted the peace found their way into the society of the royal family in one form or another but very few follow the ancient way of the dak’arai.  I am one of the last.

I was separated from my mother and sire at a very early age to begin my training.  Maybe it was because I looked so different from the others that I was chosen, or maybe my father’s beliefs were true, maybe I really was the reincarnation of F’illaster.  Whatever the reason, none were surprised when the Empress herself came to pick me up.  My siblings and even my mother and father cowered from that divine gaze, but I held my ground.  I did not even whine when she picked me up and examined me.  I was not afraid; I knew I was destined for great things.  I was sad to leave my brothers and sisters and my parents—for I knew I would never see them again—but such is the way of the dak’arai.  When she placed me in her carriage I did not look back except to scan for threats to my new mistress.

My training was rigorous but fun.  I learned the rudiments of protocol with other dak’arais in training.  We learned how to sit, lie down, and even offer a leg in front of the eyes of royalty.  We also learned the way of the La’heash.  The La’heash was a sacred connection between a dak’arai and his royal.  It was our sacred duty to protect our charges especially when they were away from their castle and most vulnerable.  This is where the La’heash came in.  We used the La’heash to direct our charges away from anything that might be deemed dangerous.  In turn, the Empress could use the La’heash to let us know if we were breaking foreign protocol of some other royal.  I eagerly looked forward to every training session and to no one’s surprise I took the prize as top student.  I was the Empress’s personal dak’arai after all.

My first two official years as dak’arai were my toughest.  The Empress was traveling often in the attempt to build strong political relationships.  I protested mightily when she did not allow me to accompany her to these events.  She explained that the other royals she met did not understand the way of the dak’arai and that my accompaniment would be a serious breach in protocol.  But how could I protect her if I was not present?  In my frustration and immaturity I often took out my rage on inanimate objects.  I possessed nothing myself so I chose those items least valuable to the Empress, like her footwear.  If she trod upon these pieces of leather, how valuable could they be?

I was rightly punished for this behavior.

I immediately distrusted the Emperor the first time we met.  Well, he was not the Emperor yet but he was the most constant of the suitors.  Despite my suspicions, he treated me well and as a male he was an okay sort.  He often tested my fighting and training skills and was much less gentle than the Empress in doing so.  I always won these tests of martial skill but in his defense he never went through the rigorous dak’arai training that I did.  One evening when he got in a shouting match with the Empress, I grew very distraught.  I knew that the Empress would object to harming the Emperor but I had to take some action against the raising of his voice to my royal charge.  I took the subtle approach of defecating in a piece of his footwear.   The Empress thought this was highly comical but the Emperor did not approve.  He smacked me hard once on the nose.  I bared my teeth but did not retaliate.

I remembered my training.

Time heals all wounds and after enough had passed, the Emperor and I reconciled our differences.  We grew to respect each other and even enjoy each other’s company.  It was the Emperor that introduced me to the game of Fra’hisbee.  It was very popular in the royal court at the time.  The royals would throw a colorful disc through the air to each other.  Once one royal caught the disc he would then throw it to the next.  Naturally, with my superior speed and leaping ability, I excelled at this game.  The royals loved testing my limits by throwing the disc as far as they could and seeing if I could still catch it.

I never failed.

Over time I had grown to understand that more and more royals did not approve of the old dak’arai ways.  This meant that when the Empress was out, and I could not accompany her, I was placed in charge of protecting the household.   It was in one of these periods, shortly after the Emperor and Empress moved into their permanent castle, that I met my most sinister enemy.  This enemy would approach the castle when both the Emperor and the Empress were away performing their royal duties.  He would nonchalantly stand outside of the castle doors looking for ways to break in.  When I discovered his probing attacks I would loudly make my presence known.  At this point he would flee, but not before shoving pieces of paper through a sentry slot in our castle door.  I recognized these pieces of paper as the weapons they were, so naturally I did everything in my power to destroy them.  I was wary of poison, hidden blades, and even political propaganda, but it was my duty to protect, so I was fearless in my dedication to destroy these threats.

The Empress was amused by my dedication to this cause but the Emperor did not understand.  He asked me not to destroy these weapons of the enemy.  He tried to explain to me that in carefully examining his weapons we could better understand the enemy.  This is something that the Emperor and I don’t see eye to eye on.  Luckily for the Empress, I am in charge of security and not the Emperor.

The Emperor could be petty about such matters and he often held a grudge.  He would never dare to openly dispute a final decision by the Empress but he had other ways of getting back at me.  Shortly after one such disagreement—after a particularly harrying day where I fought off not only a skirmish with my devious enemy but two full frontal assaults of hired mercenaries that dropped their weapons well before the castle gates in sheer terror of my furious defense—the Emperor struck hard at my pride.

He arrived home with a dak’arai warrior of his own.  This warrior was young and largely untrained.  I was stung by this obvious assault on my personal integrity.  Wicked thoughts went through my head.  If he believed that I could not protect the both of them maybe I should retire my service and leave them to their foolishness.  A warrior of lesser stature may have given into these baser thoughts and shamed himself, but I am dak’arai.  Instead, I took this young warrior under my wing and tried to teach him the ancient ways.

Unfortunately, the new warrior was of a lesser caste.  No matter how hard I tried to instill a sense of decency and a respect for the ancient ways, he failed at his training.  In the first battle with our most serious enemy, who after years of facing my stolid defenses still continued his daily probing of my lady’s demesne, my new partner quailed under the attack.  He fled at the sight of the three small pieces of paper that my enemy had managed to fit through the sentry slot before I repelled his attack.  It was a small attack and this new ‘dak’arai warrior’ had run like a sissy Pa’hoodle.  He then had the nerve to greet the Emperor as if he were some victorious warrior when the Emperor returned home.  And the Emperor, and even the Empress, greeted him with open arms!

I was sickened.

I knew I would have to raise the level of my vigilance.  The Emperor and the Empress believed that they had two dak’arai warriors protecting them now, so I knew they would let down their guard under this increased security.  I now had to do the work of two.  I reprimanded the young one for fleeing in the face of battle but my snarls of discontent seemed to matter little to this young fool.

He redeemed himself slightly in our first and only face-to-face confrontation with the devious enemy outside the gate.  It was a beautiful summer day and both the Empress and Emperor were home from their many political journeys.  They were taking pleasure reclining in the front grounds outside the castle.  Naturally we were out guarding them; well, I was guarding them anyway.  The enemy approached.  My young companion saw him before I did and to my absolute surprise, he charged.  I followed sharply on his heels but he took the brunt of our enemy’s counterattack.  The devious one pulled a cylinder out of his pocket and launched a stinging spray squarely into the face of my companion.  I only received a glancing blow from this spray but it was enough to burn my nose and eyes for several hours.  I could only imagine the pain my young friend went through that day.

The Emperor was glorious that day.  He expelled our enemy from the grounds with a severe tongue-lashing.  I was proud of the power exhibited by the Emperor but ashamed at my own weakness.  I had been incapacitated by the enemy’s first simple attack.  I hung my head in shame.

I offered my dinner in sympathy to the young warrior that stood by my side that fateful day.  He did not understand.  It was then that he told me that he was merely greeting the enemy as if he were a foreign dignitary.  I was shocked.  I could not believe the stupidity of this young warrior.  I explained to him that that was the enemy that had been plaguing us for years as the young warrior stared at me with ever widening eyes.  I took pity on the pup.  His innocent bravery in the face of danger was endearing.

We got along better after that.  I accepted that he would never be a true dak’arai warrior and he continued to give me the respect that I was due.  He let me take care of the security and I allowed him the simple pleasures of wrestling with the Emperor and even the Empress.  The Empress was fond of the young warrior but she would never entrust him with her safety.  That job was for me alone.

Over the last couple of years as I’ve aged, I have started to slip a little.  We have a new enemy that grows awfully bold in the spring and summer months.  Using siege engines they have broken through the rear wall on several occasions.  Luckily, I have been able to drive them off before they breach the inner keep.  Their siege weapons have been unable to do any damage to any of the permanent fortifications and the cowards flee before doing any more than minimal damage to the grasses and shrubs in the rear grounds.  They must be from the south because they are not hardy enough to show their faces during the winter months.

I fear for the future security of the Emperor and Empress.  My hearing is no longer what it once was and, as I said before, my vision is starting to fade too.  This new enemy worries me and we still have the daily approaches of my arch nemesis.  There is no indication that my royal charges will replace me until my tenure ends.  I fear for this new breed of protectors however.  There are so few true dak’arai left.

After all these years, the Emperor and I have come to a final peace.  He respects me and I him.  I believe that the respect even borders on love these days.  I catch another look from the Empress.  More and more often she has been looking at me with sad eyes.  She recognizes that my tenure is nearly up but she loves me and respects me too much to say so, bless her heart.  I would die if anything ever happened to her.  I will leave this world with the dignity befitting my station.

I am dak’arai.

The Wolf of the North: Wolf of the North Book 1

Fantasy Book Review

I am familiar with Hamilton’s work from his Society of the Sword series.  That series was really good but I’m happy to say that he has gotten better.  These books feel darker, almost like he added a dash of Abercrombie to his previous mix.  The darkness together with the wonderful plot building makes the Wolf of the North well worth the read.

He’s not breaking any new ground within the Northman genre.  This has all of the usual Viking tropes but the tropes are what make the Vikings interesting in the first place so you find yourself forgiving them.  He does his best to show the limitations of the Warrior driven, patriarchal society but it comes across a little light, especially in how the women are treated.  I’m not for misogyny in any universe but the way in which the women are humored seems a tad bit out of place considering that there aren’t any women Warriors.  You know Loki wouldn’t have put up with that shit.  It’s his world though and since he is not pretending any level of historical fiction, it works.

The story starts with our hero Wolfric as a chubby little pud that is constantly getting the crap kicked out of him.  He is the son of the First Warrior though, so his extreme level of sissitude is unacceptable in the family dynamic.  With a little mystical help, he finally stands up for himself and in a berserker rage, goes apeshit on one of the bullies that has made his life hell.  Their fortunes immediately switch.  The bully becomes a despised cripple that is kicked out of the Warrior caste and Wolfric is elevated into it.  In standing up for himself he did make an enemy for life and that enemy comes back to haunt him later.

Wolfric then enters his training and spends several of his formative years working on the multiple badges of bad-assery inherent to the Warrior society.  Things are looking good until an old evil slithers into their lives and war breaks out between their village and their closest neighbors.  As chaos ensues and the ranks of the Warriors are thinned, the village is forced into making one devil’s bargain after another until their society is forever changed.  Wolfric and the Warrior caste quickly find themselves pariahs in a new age of softer values.  This book does a wonderful job of bringing these struggles to life and captures the emotions of each stage with a poignant grace.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a master storyteller, much in the same way as Rothfuss tells his stories in the King Killer Chronicles.  This lends a misty uncertainty to the tale and it gives the author a ton of artistic freedom because the story can fall prey to the memory of the storyteller.  This allows for artistic embellishment and a sense of literary tension around what is true and what isn’t.

The culture shift that the Warriors go through is a major component of the novel.  It drives the majority of the pain of the characters as change is wont to do and you find yourself super invested in how these clash of cultures is ultimately going to work out.  There is romance in the book as well but it is somewhat secondary to the more visceral elements of survival in the harsh climate.  At the end of the first novel, the change of cultures is nearly complete and Wolfric and his brethren are not handling it well.  When his romantic interest is dealt a rotten hand Wolfric takes off to do something about it and what that is will probably make up the second book.  I look forward to it!

Shards of Vice

This is an original piece of fiction.  Would love to hear any of your feedback in the comments.  Thanks for reading!

Original Fiction

 

He stared at the small crumbs bouncing down the front of his F link.   They moved without purpose or reason, without maximizing motion.   They succumbed to gravity’s pull with a carelessness he envied as they bumped and tumbled their way over the pegboard of jacks and feeds only to have their freedom taken away by the vacs in his PAD.

He took another bite from the slice of apple pie savoring the sensation as he chewed.  He relished the subtle hints of cinnamon as it mixed with the warm, soft, almost slimy gentleness of apple tickling his tongue.  The moist but firm crust provided an essential backdrop to the portrait of taste.  It did not draw attention to itself—as molars weak from lack of use broke it down to be processed by the tongue before allowing passage to the stomach—but it was crucial to the overall product.  It was the crust that countered the potential of over-sweetening and kept the whole thing together.  Kind of like me.  I hope to be remembered as Grant047, crust of the geode.  He chuckled at the thought.

This was his favorite time of day.  He still had several minutes of blessed silence before the frenzy of the day came crashing down on him like the great tsunamis of ’82.  He could see the blinking lights already surrounding his PAD signifying urgent messages.  He ignored them and took another bite of pie.  He looked at the emptying plate wistfully; only a couple of bites left.  The lights on the PAD grew more insistent and he had to shift his head as he chewed in an attempt to ignore them.

He looked upon his four hundred square foot palace with fondness.  He knew the extra space was a luxury only afforded to the ultra rich, but he earned it.  Most had no extra space outside of their PADs, renting plug-ins attached to one of the millions of com-trees that surrounded the globe.  For those that couldn’t afford their own PAD to jack into the community trees there was always the option of low-income coffin jacks.  The coffins didn’t have the comfort level of the PAD—instead of the dynamic air flow environment they used an oxygenized gel favored by the military in the early stages of neural jacking.  It was a hellish environment when the user was offline but most stayed jacked in every waking moment these days anyway.

Grant047 owned furniture, one of the many peculiarities that placed him in the ‘eccentric’ class of trillionaire.  He looked at the small divan facing an ancient wall screen that took up a large part of the south wall of his gargantuan apartment.  He had also purchased an original, not synthesized, 20th century canopied bed that rested against the opposite wall from his PAD.  When he first bought the bed he tried sleeping in it several times but could never get comfortable.  It was hard to sleep on a mattress after years of sleeping on the perfect ergonomic jets of a PAD.  The mattress just didn’t have the intelligence to determine every subtle shift of the muscles nor did it compensate to keep perfect comfort while in stasis.  He gave it up after a week but he loved the historic look of the piece so he kept it.

Grant047 had a fondness for history.  He took his name after the great American general of the civil war, the 047 commemorating the date of his bloodiest victory over the southern rebels at Shiloh.  Some called it no victory at all.  But Grant, the general, did what he had to do to hold his small piece of land on the banks of the Tennessee.  He had already scored the first victories of the war several months earlier by laying siege to Forts Henry and Donelson.  After those victories he could have easily led the retreat from the Tennessee saving many of his men’s lives.  He still would have returned to Washington a hero.  But no.  Grant was a warrior with a cause he knew was just; they had to hold those banks no matter the cost.  Victory was the only option.

Grant047 felt a kinship with the general’s determination but also shared Grant’s affections for vice.  The general was a notorious drunkard before, during, and after the war and could often be seen smoking a cigar in the midst of battle.  Some saw this as a weakness of the general’s but Grant047 saw it as the general’s greatest strength.  General Grant could see every side of a conflict between opposing armies because the battles between men on the field were miniscule in complexity when compared to the battles that raged inside of him.  Determination overrode inner conflict but it was the inner conflict that gave the general his edge.

He reflected on his own inner conflict.  In a world that had run out of space, love for the physical had become a vice.  His slice of fresh apple pie every morning cost him nearly 100,000 creds a week, what most folks would be happy to earn in a year, he spent on pie weekly.  The apple pie was synthesized of course, but it was done right.  He had the synthesizers only create the base ingredients.  They would synthesize the apples, the cinnamon, the sugar, and the grains that would make the bread of the crust.  He had special machines built whose only purpose was to turn these synthesized ingredients into his morning pie.

He took another bite.  The result?  Delicious.

His PAD was equipped with the latest feeding technologies but the pasty white fluid—a mix of sorghum, soy, and nutritional additives—had none of the beauty of the confection rapidly diminishing before him.  When he was jacked in, he could program the mix to be whatever dish he pleased: dry-aged steak, Cornish hen if the mood took him, or even apple pie.  But he couldn’t get over the knowledge that the enjoyment of the foods while jacked in was simulated and therefore lost some of its allure.  There was something special about chewing with real teeth and tasting with a real tongue that the most sophisticated neural programs missed.  Or perhaps it was the introduction of contaminates that made it into the pie to lend a hint of imperfection to his food that made it so good.  Whatever the reason, he mused as he took his last bite, he was sorry it was gone.

He sighed and looked at the hemorrhaging red lights on the sides of his PAD flashing out a pattern of silent rebuke.  It was time to get on with his day.  He reached for a switch and jacked in.

 

He sat within his general’s tent.  The folding chair behind his command desk was slightly uncomfortable but Grant047 programmed it that way.  The burden of command was supposed to be uncomfortable.  His dispatches lay on the desk before him.  He flipped lazily through the papers as early morning sun shone through the opening of a rolled-up flap.  The cry of a goldfinch soared over the dull murmur of the men rousing to start the cook fires for their early morning breakfast.

His first meeting of the day was with T&A69, Mod of the porn crystal.  The man was disgusting, but the porn crystal was home to more shards than any other crystal but defense.  The subscribers T&A pulled in gave him the power to demand an audience with Grant047 any time he pleased.  He knew he would have the same requests as last time: more power, more space.  The same thing all his crystal Mods demanded.  He just hoped to avoid a meeting like the last with the disgusting creature.  The over-exaggerated subservience laced with thinly veiled threats was enough to turn his stomach.  When you threw in T&A69’s constant interruptions for his many orgasms throughout the meeting, Grant047 wanted to bang his head against his desk.  He hoped it would be quick.

Next, he had his status reports.  His techies would brief him on power and space readouts across the geode as his stat-men broke down the subscriber numbers and talked about the trends pulled in from the insta-polls.  Insta-polling was Grant047’s ace in the hole; it was the technology that gave him and his geode a decisive edge over the other geodes.  An insta-poll would shoot a question down the pipe and would obtain answers from his subscribers by tapping into their subconscious.  It was a controversial technology to be sure, but you couldn’t argue with the results.  Grant047’s scribers were the happiest of any geode and all they had to sacrifice was a tiny bit of privacy.  The other geodes could not pass the technology through their scriber base so the Trans-Terra geode, Grant047’s geode, looked to keep its dominance for quite some time.

He looked through the rest of his packed meeting schedule and cringed.  How the hell was he going to get any work done?  He had lunch with 1Swazi, head of the Sub-Terra geode and an afternoon Mod meeting which could easily run into the night.

He shuffled through the papers when his eye caught the edge of a personalized envelope hidden by the voluminous dispatches.  He picked it up and smiled.  She had perfumed the envelope with an intoxicating scent that sent shudders through his body; she must have included some arousal code because sniffing the letter had the intended effect.

(:Smiles:) was an intriguing woman.  She was well educated, held fiery political views, and made love like a cat in heat.  He had been dating her under the pseudonym Red#Beard and was pretty sure she did not know who he really was.  He had long tired of the gold miners that invariably went after a man of his position.  Conversation with these types was as dry as the sex.  He began to associate their vacuous stares with their perfect tits.  In a world where anyone could look like they wanted, perfection was boring.

(:Smiles:) was anything but.  She used the same avatar every time they met, a distinguished handsome woman affecting the look of a business professional common to the late 20th century.  She had cherry wood hair commonly pulled back in a bun; she favored skirts to the knee and a utilitarian white blouse translucent enough to hint at a lace bra underneath but not enough to draw the eye from her face.  Piercing green eyes were set in a pale face dominated by freckles.  When she smiled her teeth pulled inward as if luring you to explore what lay beneath.  The only thing out of place from the business persona was the stiletto heels she never went without, the point of each heel as sharp as her wit.

He found her fascinating.  They often talked late into the night, each conversation a duel over a broad set of topics that pushed both to their intellectual limits.  The sex was as spectacular as the conversation, a dance of respect rather than domination.  He remembered the first time she loosed those Madeira locks from their restraining bun to flow over her shoulders and down over her voluptuous body.  She was an uncensored Botticelli.  That was the first time he wished to touch her for real, not jacked in, but her real body.  He was terrified to tell her that of course, but in their conversations they often touched on the vices of the physical.  She was the first person he ever told of his apple pie fetish and she only seemed to find it—what were her words? Ah yes: ‘as salubrious as masturbation as long as there’s no guilt associated with it’.  GOD, he loved it when she talked that way.  He was falling for her.  He hoped she checked out.

As if the thought summoned the man, the sniffer appeared in his tent wearing that ridiculous costume again.  The trench coat, the clove cigarette stuck to his lower lip, the slicked back hair; the man was a walking stereotype of a B-detective sim.  But he knew his work.  P0ir0t had been doing odd jobs for him for years and he never failed to deliver.

“What do you have for me?” asked Grant047

“She checks out so far boss,” P0ir0t pulled a match from a pocket in his trench coat and with a flick against the top of his hand the match blazed to life.  He lit the cigarette, took a long drag, and rested intense eyes on his employer.  “The dame has more aliases than you.  She used (:Smiles:) when she was dating and now uses it exclusively with you. I have connected her to at least three other aliases: BourgeoisGloria—uses this to interact with a close circle of well-to-do friends,  Slummin3Mary—only experiments with this alias, uses it when traveling through the risqué sims, and LawyerGirl—this is her professional alias.”

“A lawyer eh?  It could have been worse.”

“Not much,” mumbled P0ir0t.  When he saw Grant had heard him, he tried to hide a smile with a fit of coughing.  He took another drag on his cigarette before facing Grant again.  “There was another thing.  There seemed to be one other alias associated with this dame of yours.  This one was hidden deeper than modesty in a hooker and it’s crypted something fierce.”  He ran a hand over his greased back hair.  “I’m not even sure that it is attached to her or if it’s an alias at all.  I never would have found it if I didn’t trip against it.”

“Trip against what?”

“Well boss, I was poking through her account files and I kept running into gaps.  It could just be an anomaly in the system…”

“But…”

“I don’t think so.  Something weird is going on.  She has time unaccounted for in her accounts.  The time is transferred to other aliases but when I check them during these times they lie idle.  When I try to probe deeper I run against security that I have never encountered before.  So your dame is either narcoleptic, takes a ton of naps or something else is going on.”

“Could she be working for another geode?”

“That’s my guess.”

“Damn it!”  The political manipulations between geodes were legendary.  It was a constant battle to expose each other’s secrets, each other’s technologies, all in the name of more subscribers.  Rules were put in place after the last Shard Wars, too many had died during those eighteen bitter years of power and land grabs, but the rules were loosely enforced—hell, Grant047 had twenty five agents minimum per rival geode.  All the geodes used agents.  The geode Mods agreed that rules were necessary, killing subscribers helped no one, but they also agreed to overlook minor infractions.

Grant047 was a boy during the Shard Wars but even then he knew his history.  He remembered reading about the fossil fuels drying up and the world adopting renewable energy.  Then the first neural jacks appeared and within ten years people had stopped traveling unless faced with extreme emergencies.  Everything was provided through the jack by the conglomerates.  Since people no longer left the comfort of their homes, the benefits of central government became obsolete.  Who needed roads, police, health care, and politicians, when all of these things were provided by the jack?  The central governments were too slow to adapt and the W-2 incident became inevitable.  With the urging of the conglomerates, people burned income tax forms and disavowed world governments.  The responses of the governments were predictable: they declared military rule and rallied conventional forces against the conglomerates.  By then, it was too late.  The conglomerates built the government’s technology and had plenty of defenses in place.  Thus started, and ended, the Bandwidth War.  The conglomerates sent surges down the pipe to immobilize the armies of the world governments and the war was over in months.

The conglomerates took over in a period of corporate anarchy. Each corporation had niche shards that provided simulations for their subscribers.  The term shard was coined by an old video game that designated each instance of its fantasy world a shard.  The definition grew to include all instanced simulations.  There were healthcare shards, sports shards, fantasy shards, debate shards, porn shards, drug shards, dining shards, any simulation imaginable and a corporation would fill the niche.  The conglomerates tried to regulate themselves but it was hopeless.  Corruption ran rampant and the subscribers paid the price.  The sims rarely delivered what they promised and price gouging became common practice.  Class warfare raged as the poor got poorer and the robber barons sat and laughed like fat spiders.

Until the Shard Wars.  Anton#54TheGreat wrote the worm that infected every shard while shutting down the billing servers of the conglomerates.  Destruction was only half of the worm’s purpose; it also carried a message of a new form of self government.  It showed the people how they could run the shards without the conglomerates, how they could install a new form of near democracy in their jacked-in lifestyle.  The Geode Manifesto showed a world where shards set their own guidelines for leadership: sports shards putting their greatest athletes as leaders or moderators, healthcare shards placing the most effective doctors as their moderators.  When similar shards shared the same values they could form a crystal, a community with more power than a single shard.  When enough crystals saw eye to eye, they could form a geode.  It was Xanadu.

The conglomerates resisted with everything they had.  Anton#54TheGreat responded by opening the source behind the shards.  With the source in the public domain the conglomerates grew desperate and took the only recourse they saw available to them, they executed the subscribers that joined the revolution.  To any that followed history, this was an obvious mistake.  The dead became martyrs and the revolution grew.  Once Anton#54TheGreat had his net defenses in place the conglomerates quickly went the way of the dodo.

The only strife today, excluding the shards that promoted strife, was between geodes.  Number of subscribers in a geode was directly proportional to the power of that geode.  Grant047’s life was consumed with gaining subscribers from his rival geodes just as the crystal Mods beneath him strove to gain subscribers from their rival crystals and so on down the hierarchy.  That’s why the thought of (:Smiles:) being an agent tore at him.  He thought he loved the woman but she could destroy everything.

“Boss?” ventured P0ir0t.  “Boss!  You still with me?”

Grant scowled at him.  “You know damn well I’m with you.”

“This dame really has her hooks in you, doesn’t she?”

Grant047 took a deep breath to still his mind.  “I suppose she does,” he said quietly.  “Are you a hundred percent sure?”

“Of course not four-seven, it’s only a hunch.”  He didn’t break eye contact.  “But, as you know, I’ve learned to trust these hunches.”  He cocked his head.  “We could insta-probe her,” the greasy man coughed again , “excuse me, insta-poll her to find out.”

“No!”  Grant047 slapped a hand on his desk.  “We don’t do that anymore!  As a matter of fact, we never did!”

“Whatever you say boss, whatever you say.  What do you propose then?”

“I could ask her.”

“Oh-ho, that’s certain to work.”  P0ir0t squirmed at the fire in Grant047’s eyes but he continued anyway.  “I can just imagine the conversation: ‘Smiles, are you an agent?  No?  Are you sure you’re not an agent for another geode?  Yes.  Oh ok, let’s screw.’”

“Watch yourself sniffer,” said Grant047 in a voice dripping with menace.

“Then let me do my job four-seven!”

“I won’t violate her like that, can’t you understand?”

“Then you gotta drop her boss.”  P0ir0t shook his head sadly.  “You know you don’t have any other choice.  We will find ourselves in a world of shit if word gets out.”

Grant047 sat still for a long moment.  “Fine.  Run the insta-poll, but make sure it is not connected to me.  Make it appear like it is coming from T&A69.”

“You got it boss, anything else?”

“Not for now.”

P0ir0t vanished.

One of his lieutenants walked in through the tent flap and gave him a stiff salute.  “Sir, you have visitors.”

Speak of the devil, must be T&A now.  “Invite them in lieutenant.”

“Right away sir.”  The lieutenant walked out the tent and walked back in a moment later trailed by two people.  One, a gorilla of a man that seemed to squeeze himself into the dark blue jumpsuit he was wearing, glanced around the tent with a critical eye.  The hair on his chest and arms was pressed flat by the jumpsuit giving the man’s body a swirling effect that made Grant047 slightly nauseous.  The other was a severe woman with hair pulled back in a bun wearing an identical jumpsuit that fit her curvaceous body like a second skin.  They wore a symbol that Grant did not recognize on the chest of their jumpsuits: an ancient scale of balance with the two plates each holding what appeared to be half a geode, the real geological kind.

“Grant047?” asked the woman.

Grant noticed her stiletto heels.  “Smiles, is that you?”

The woman did not acknowledge his question.  “Grant047 you are placed under arrest on the charges of willful violation of the Ocea-Terra convention.  You are charged with abuse of power; you have violated the trust of your subscribers by invading the privacy of people’s minds without their consent.”

He gave her an iron stare. “Under whose authority?” he asked sweetly.

“Under the authority of the Intra-Geode Justice Department.”

“Intra-Geode Justice Department?  That initiative got shot down years ago.”

“Only by your geode, Grant.  The other eleven supported it.”

“So what?  As you know, my geode has more subscribers than the next six combined!”  Spittle flecked the corners of his mouth.  “I refuse to recognize the pitiful authority you work under.  Even if I did recognize it, my subscribers sign consent forms that allow insta-polling.  It is all legal.”

She put her fists on her hips, standing like a hero right out of the old superman vids.  “I don’t remember signing a consent form and, strangely enough, I was violated by one of your insta-probes no more than two minutes ago.”

Grant047 laughed.  “Let me get this straight, you did not sign one of my consent forms and yet you were traveling the pipes of my geode?  Do you realize how illegal that is BourgeoisGloria?  Or should I call you SlumminMary?”

(:Smiles:) looked uncertain for the first time.  “I am well within my rights under the IGJD codes of justice.”

“Which I do not recognize!”  Grant047 snapped his fingers and the tent filled with civil war soldiers.  “Place these two spies under arrest,” he said quietly.  “If they struggle, execute them.”

“Wait!” shouted Smiles.  “I knew you were hard but I didn’t know how hard.”  Her eyes pierced his as the soldiers roughly bound her hands behind her back.  “The other geodes know all about your illicit use of the insta-polling technology, it is only a matter of time before the whole rotten story oozes out.  I offer you another alternative.”

“You offer me another alternative?  You don’t have a leg to stand on princess.  But go ahead anyway, I find your gall intriguing.”

“Exile.  The IGJD will finance your trip to the moon as long as you release all the files of the Trans-Terra geode of the last thirty years.”

Grant047 laughed again.  “And why would I do that?”

(:Smiles:) face hardened, if rock can harden further.  “If you don’t, I will unleash your dirty little secret to the world.”

Grant047 stopped laughing.  “And if I had you killed?”

“It would get released anyway.  I have all of our conversations on tape and I have had your apartment under vid-scan for the last three years.  It shows your disgusting habit with the apple pie, your physical masturbation, your sleeping outside of a PAD.  It shows everything Grant.”

The blood drained from his face.  “It will be easy to call the allegations fabricated.”

“It will still ruin you; people will sense that you are lying.  You know it, I know it.”  (:Smiles:) smiled.  “Just think, on the small base on the moon you will have everything you ever wanted.  There are no jacks up there and I hear that the women prefer physical intercourse.”

She shrugged free of the men holding her.  Most of the men look sickened by her words and were doing their best not to stare at him, a problem she did not share.  “Now what do you say, you sick bastard?”

 

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastards, Book 1)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

I’m very surprised I haven’t found Lynch’s work until now.  It’s odd to have such a strong series be completed without any of the Amazonian algorithms pushing a book of this quality my way.

One of the first things you’ll discover with this book is that you have sailed right off the map of young adult fiction.  Maybe it’s the line, “I told you they were shit-flinging little monkeys when we made the deal…” which happens in paragraph four that instantly gave me the sense that this was going to be a book written for adults by and adult.  Refreshing.

That being said, I have to say that I struggled a little getting into the novel.  There was a little too much Dickensian aspiration for describing a scene.  In several sections you simply can’t wait for him to just get to the fucking point.  When I discovered this was Lynch’s first novel, it made a little more sense.  Describing the scene at this level of detail is akin to literary masturbation, it’s important and gratifying to the author but not something you need to share with your friends.  Lynch is more than talented enough with his prose that he will get past this.

Other than that, the writing and the character building is spot on.  He runs a tidy past and present three card monte on you that introduces you to each character through flashback side stories.  This is nice because there is always something new and surprising to learn about each of these new and surprising characters.

This is the story of Locke Lamora, an incredibly successful thief who seems to be lacking direction.  We are not talking about a moral compass here, he has no illusions that he is the good guy, but he and his band of Gentleman Bastards have amassed a fortune that they don’t really know what to do with.  They work within an organized crime syndicate, kind of like the Sopranos move to Westeros.  Locke is the lieutenant of the smallest crime family that reports to the Capa.  He and his team have done a masterful job of hiding their wealth, not only from other thieves but also from the Capa.  They always pay their weekly tithe on time and on budget but they never draw attention to themselves.

What nobody knows is that Locke is also the Thorn of Camorr.  The Thorn is talked about in hushed tones and only in myth and rumor. He has become this mystical figure that runs the biggest, most audacious scams in the city.  He preys only on the nobles of Camorr so fancies himself a bit of a Robin Hood character without the whole inconvenience of giving back to the poor.  His schemes are clever and seem to be a rich source of entertainment to the Gentleman Bastards.

His two concerns are: one, getting found out by the Capa, which would mean a quick and toothy death at the fins of some particularly graphic sharks which seem to be a large part of the culture of Camorr.  And two, at the hands of the Spider, the mysterious spy master that pulls all the strings in the duchy.  That is until a new player comes on the scene, the Gray King.

The Gray King is over the top nefarious.  He employs an even nastier free lance sorcerer with a hybrid scorpion hawk for a familiar.  The Gray King doesn’t fuck around.  Without giving away any important plot points, he puts Locke in a world of hurt while at the same time turning the crime syndicate and the entire city of Camorr upside down.  Locke has to figure out how to counter this shady figure and do his best to keep him and his gang breathing while doing so.

Once you get into this book, it is almost impossible to put down.  It has an unexpected yet satisfying conclusion that reminds me a bit of the Ocean’s Eleven style hi-jinks.  Don’t miss this one, it is well worth your time.  I have already started the second book.

Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

Rocket Fuel is a Wickman follow up to Get a Grip, albeit with a different co-author (or perhaps integrator).  Where Get a Grip was broad and inclusive to the entrepreneurial organization as a whole, Rocket Fuel is narrow and focused on one thing, the relationship between the Visionary and the Integrator.  We will spend more time defining those two terms in a moment but these are basically the top two spots at a company and when these top spots are in sync, you get magic.  When they’re not, you get garbage.  This book teaches how to get these two players playing the same game.

Our authors start by defining the players.  The first is our Visionary.  The Visionary is typically, but not always, the founder of the company but they play the role of idea guy.  They have twenty ideas a day if not more.  Most of these ideas stink but one or two are brilliant.  They have the passion and the drive.  Or as our authors put it, they are most commonly the, “Entrepreneurial spark plug, Inspirer, Passion Provider, Developer of new/big ideas/breakthroughs, Big problem solver, Engager and maintainer of big external relationships, Closer of big deals, Learner, researcher and discoverer, Company vision creator and champion.”  These are fun people to be around because they pick you up when you’re feeling down and make you see things their way.  What they are typically NOT so good at are the details.  They don’t pride themselves on the day to day nor do they do a great job of following up.  They are not finishers, they are starters.

One of the primary reasons the book was written is that the dynamos known as Visionaries quickly become disillusioned and frustrated once their business starts becoming successful because they run into what our authors call the “Five Frustrations: 1. Lack of Control.  You started this business so you could have more control over your time, money and freedom-your future.  Once you reach a certain point of growth, however, you realize that somehow you actually have less control over these things than you’ve ever had before…2. Lack of Profit.  Quite simply you don’t have enough…3. Nobody (employees, partners, vendors) seems to understand you or do things your way.  You’re just not on the same page.  4. Hitting the Ceiling.  Growth has stopped.  The business is more complex, and you can’t figure out exactly why it isn’t working.  5. Nothing is working.  You’ve tried several remedies, consulted books, and instituted quick fixes….you have no traction.”  At some point of growth this seems to be the fate of almost every Visionary.

Enter the Integrator, stage right.  The Integrator is the yin to the Visionary’s yang.  The Integrator “harmoniously integrates the major functions of the business, runs the organization, and manages the day-to-day issues that arise.  The Integrator is the glue that holds the people, processes, systems, priorities, and strategy of the company together.”  One obvious trait of the Integrator is communication but more importantly they play the role of filter to the “Visionary’s ideas, which helps to eliminate hurdles, stumbling blocks, and barriers for the leadership team.”  This is not the easiest pill to swallow because it also means that the Integrator has to challenge these ideas and put the grit of reality into the purity of the Visionary’s dream.  This means having to say no. A lot.  To your boss.  This means a ton of work with very little of the glory.  It means being the man behind the Man (or woman in either case).  So, who the hell would sign up for that job?  Turns out, you don’t have much of a choice.  You’re either wired this way or you’re not.  If you are, you loooove to see stuff done right.  And you’re the one making sure it’s happening.  Glory means less than success to the Integrator.  Discipline and accountability trump all.

How you get these two very different people together and working effectively is the content of the rest of the book.  It all starts with the accountability chart.  If you read Get a Grip, this is a bit of a review but still a salient point because of how important it is to get the accountability breakdown correct.  An accountability chart is an org chart on steroids.  It is done on a role based methodology, where you diagram all of the roles that a team needs to succeed and only then put your people in those roles.  In most cases people play multiple roles but even then it becomes clear for what each person is held accountable.  Most organizations do this backwards where they will build the org chart around the people they have instead of the roles and create a broken, convoluted reporting structure.  They reemphasize the point that more than one person can’t be accountable for something because then nobody is accountable.  I love that maxim. The focus in this book is more on the accountability trade off between our top two and how important it is to define who is going to handle what.  They also make the point that the rest of the leadership team reports to the Integrator but that the Integrator reports to the Visionary.  This has the caveat though that if the visionary is wearing multiple hats, like VP of sales and marketing, when playing that role, they do in fact report to the Integrator.

Accountability brings us to the five rules that Wickman and Winters lay out for this relationship: “1. Stay on the same page 2. No End Runs 3. The Integrator is the Tie Breaker 4. You Are an Employee When Working “in” the Business 5. Maintain Mutual Respect.”  These are great rules of thumb because it starts to assist the Visionary in giving up some of the control and hassles of the business.  This is an underlying theme throughout the book that all of this will fail unless the Visionary is truly ready to give up some of the responsibilities of running the business.  According to our authors this is one of the main reasons the relationship fails, Visionary readiness.

One of the last interesting stats they throw at us before closing the book is that about 22% of people out there have the capacity to become a Visionary where only about 5% are wired to be an Integrator.  This creates a 4:1 gap making strong Integrators very much in demand.  If the Visionary can find a good one and put these elements in place, add a dash of productive tension, that’s when you go from gasoline to rocket fuel.  Only then is the business ready for lift off.

 

 

 

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