Unique Critiques

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.

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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.

 

 

 

Traveler’s Rest

Fantasy Book Review

I’d like to start by saying that Morris is a beautiful writer.  The way he can capture a theme or a feeling will make you feel like you are riding shotgun in each character’s tormented lizard brain.  That being said, the story felt very derivative.  Not that derivative is always bad, it was just a little too on the nose.  It felt almost like a mix between Stephen King’s The Shining and Sartre’s No Exit.  It’s one of those novels that you start reading and immediately think you know how it is going to end.  The good news is he surprises you with the ending, the bad is that he takes a little too long to get you there.

Morris can do creepy and do it extremely well.  There was all sorts of creepy in the novel, especially in the beginning when the table is being set for the main course.  It’s been a long time since a book actually got my heart beating fast while reading it.  I distinctly remember at one point putting the book down at around 2 AM, taking a leak then literally running back to the safety of my bed, Morris’ phantoms giving chase an inch behind. It’s the kind of creepy that gets under your skin and stays there like a spider bite.  One of the reasons the creepiness is so effective is that he captures the essence of dreams so fluidly that it feels like a dream that you might have had and somehow shared with the author.  The novel is a little disjointed, certainly incomplete but it hits the primal high notes of fear and confusion in a relentless avalanche of icy chill that leaves you deliciously wanting.

The book kicks off with our small family of a mom, dad, son and fucked up druggy brother to dad that end up pulling off the highway and into a small town due to a raging blizzard. They end up at the Traveler’s Rest, a gorgeous old hotel that is clearly out of place in a town that had its hey day many decades before.  The hotel belongs to the past, or the past belongs to it but either way it is a place out of time.  They check in as the storm continues to rage and that’s when the mayhem begins.  All four characters end up getting separated and quickly tossed into some level of existential frustration that makes up the rest of the book.

The mom and the dad get it the worst.  They get put on the dream treadmill and neither seem able or willing to get off.  Their disappointments with how their lives ended up become fodder to the dream factory that ultimately traps them in a constant rerun.  What appear to be strengths of each character are quickly turned to weaknesses and what these characters believed to be important can’t make it past the snow imposed malaise that continues to pile on the consciousness of these tormented few.

It’s a study of the human condition but not a happy one.  Morris gives you the data and seems unconcerned with how you will take it.  My only real criticism is that the middle of the book drags a bit as our author seems to get a little too impressed with the dream land he has created and selfishly wants to extend it long after making his point.  Other than that though, it is a quality read that kept me thinking about it long after I finished the book.  It’s worth your while.

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

I first heard about Achor’s work through his brilliant Ted Talk.  The thing that struck me about the Ted Talk was how funny  it was and how obviously delighted the speaker was about the work he was doing.  He clearly practices what he preached because Shawn Achor looks and sounds like a very happy man.  This, more than anything, sold me on the book.  Just like choosing a personal trainer who looks fit him or herself over some overweight alternative, you want your happiness expert to be a happy guy.  Not only is Achor happy, as a Harvard researcher he also has the credentials.  In this book he is presenting a fair amount of his own research as opposed to just taking you through one man’s personal experience.  The book is written with a fun, anecdotal and playful tone but backed by some hard data, as Mark Watney would say, ‘he scienced the shit out of this thing.”

Achor’s primary thesis is that due to the data gathered from the cutting edge science of positive psychology, “we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result.  And that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement – giving us the competitive edge that I call the Happiness Advantage.”  He starts by getting into the sad reality that most of us are very unhappy with our jobs and the work we do.  In fact, “A Conference Board survey release in January of 2010 found that only 45% of workers surveyed were happy with their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling.  Depression rates today are ten times higher than they were in 1960.”  This is an unhappiness epidemic.  The good news is that we can do something about it.  As he and other researchers have discovered, “Once our brains were discovered to have such built-in plasticity, our potential for intellectual and personal growth suddenly became equally malleable. … studies have found numerous ways we can rewire our brains to be more positive, creative, resilient, and productive – to see more possibility where we look.”

Before he takes us into the detail of how we get closer to happiness, he does us the favor of defining it first: “Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future.  Martin Seligman, pioneer in positive psychology, has broken it down to three, measurable components: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.”  After that definition he pounds home the point again that, “based on the wealth of data they compiled, they found that happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.”  In short, if you want to be successful work on being happy first.

What I loved about the book is that he didn’t stop there.  He then takes us into some real life, helpful tips about how to get us to our happy place.  Here are the biggies:

  • Meditate.  Meditation takes practice, but it’s one of the most powerful happiness interventions.  I highly recommend Buddhify if you haven’t tried it.
  • Find something to look forward to.  One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27%.
  • Commit conscious acts of kindness.  The important note here is that they need to be conscious, you need to make the intention to commit these acts.
  • Infuse positivity into your surroundings.  Look at the desks of your co-workers that have tons of pictures and memes, those folks are normally the happiest of the group.
  • Exercise.  If you’re not doing this already, it’s time to start.  Not only does exercise pump up the endorphins, it also boosts mood and enhances work performance in many other ways.
  • Spend money (but not on stuff).  “Contrary to the popular saying, money can buy happiness, but only if used to do things as opposed to simply have things.”
  • Exercise a signature strength.  Do the things you are good at every once in a while to boost positivity.

This is a wonderful  DIY road map to getting on the happy train.  I’ve done some of these in the past but have since added several more of these arrows into my quiver and it is definitely making an impact.

He also covers the concept of the fulcrum and the lever and why that physical principle has an impact on our brains.  Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”  Achor takes this into psychology, “What I realized is that our brains work in precisely the same way.  Our power to minimize our potential is based on two important things: (1) the length of our lever – how much potential power and possibility we believe we have, and (2) the position of our fulcrum – the mindset with which we generate the power to change.”  This is another way of saying that if you look at every task you do with the mindset that you can pull something positive from it, you probably will.  One of the things I liked the most about this approach was when he brought it to our jobs.  “We view our work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling.”  Guess which one will make you the happiest?  In his consulting work, he encourages employees to “rewrite their ‘job descriptions’ into what Tal Ben-Shahar calls a ‘calling description’.”  This highlights the meaning of the work that we do.  I started with myself and I have asked my employees to do the same.  It is incredibly illuminating about what people find important.  The other side of the coin of happiness is bringing it to others.  He dives into the “Pygmalion Effect: when our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life.” Another way of saying, pass it on.  He challenges all managers to ask these three questions: “Do I believe that the intelligence and skills of my employees are not fixed, but can be improved by effort?  Do I believe they want to make that effort, just as they want to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs?  How am I conveying these beliefs in my daily words and actions?”  The world is not fixed, it is relative and we can have a serious impact upon it.

He then dives into what he calls the Tetris effect.  The Tetris effect comes about when people spend tons of time playing the game to the point that everything looks like a block to be arranged somewhere.  Most of us fall into the negative Tetris effect where all we see are problems.  If everything looks like a problem it is very difficult to find happiness.  However Achor encourages us to rewire this into the “Positive Tetris Effect: Instead of creating a cognitive pattern that looks for negatives and blocks success, it trains our brains to scan the world for opportunities and ideas that allow our success rate to grow.”  If you are constantly scanning and focusing on the positive, you end up with a lot more happiness, gratitude and optimism.”  The road map here is: “start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career and your life.”  At the very least, start by covering the three good things that happened today.

His next section was about Falling Up instead of Falling Down.  “Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth…the people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what happened to them, but by what they can make out of what has happened.”  I have found this personally true after getting hit with cancer and thankfully beating it.  I have found that many years after the event, I am grateful for the disease because it helped mold me into who I am today.

The next principle he covers is what he calls the Zorro Circle or as Covey has called it your circle of influence.  “Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance. …these kinds of gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have.”  Back to the lever and the fulcrum, we have a lot of power by using our mindset of how we look at control in our own lives.  The only way to find this control is to start small.  Recognize the little things that you have absolute control over, own it, then start to expand upon it.  Don’t play the victim, take responsibility.  One way to do this is to make two lists, the first of the things that you do that are within your control, the second is those things that you don’t control.  It is always surprising how many things fall in the first list.

Principle #6 is the 20 second rule.  In countless studies we have found that we have a finite bucket of willpower and that “our willpower weakens the more we use it.”  I loved this quote, “Inactivity is simply the easiest option.  Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy it nearly as much as we think we do.  In general, Americans actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work.  If that sounds ridiculous, consider this: for the most part, our jobs require us to use our skills, engage our minds, and pursue our goals – all things that have been shown to contribute to happiness.”  He also goes on to show that we are drawn to what is easy even when we know that active leisure is much more enjoyable than sitting on your ass.  The problem is that it takes action to be active, where sitting on the couch doesn’t.  His advice is, “Lower the activation energy for the habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid.”  His example is that he pulled the batteries out of his remote and instead put books in his living room.  When he did this, it became much easier to read a book then getting up, grabbing the batteries to the remote and turning on the TV.

The final principle he covers is social investment.  He starts off with a very powerful piece of data, “researchers have found that social support has as much effect on life expectancy as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and regular physical activity.”  These relationship, especially at work, are your lifeline to being happy or not.  “When over a thousand highly successful professional men and women interviewed as they approached retirement and asked what had motivated them the most, overwhelmingly they placed work friendships above both financial gain and individual status.”  One of the most important relationships at work is the boss to employee relationship and it is critical to get this right.  One of the ways to get this right is to share positive news and react with authentic positivity to those that share positive news with you.  If you are a boss, get this right because it seriously impacts the happiness of your employees.  Finally, gratitude and sharing that gratitude with your employees is also critical to their success.  Do it often and do it publicly.

This is a great book that provides an atlas to find your happiness.  Read it.  Now.

Planetfall

Science Fiction Book Review

This was my first read of anything by Emma Newman and it won’t be my last.  She is an expert at capturing ambiance and the overall feeling of a scene.  The plot was almost an afterthought to the character development and putting the reader in the back seat of this new world that felt like it was pulled from a Madeline L’Engle acid trip.

Our main character is a futuristic biological engineer by the name of Ren.  She is part of a community/cult of early space travelers that are chasing the dream of her messianic ex-girlfriend.  They end up on a world that contains what is known as God’s city.  Our messiah led them here across the stars to seek the age old answers that Douglas Adams so neatly summed up with the number 42.  Newman doesn’t sweat the details of the trip or the science that got them there.  The book’s focus remains on the world they ended up on and the mystery of several plot holes that she grudgingly fills in through a series of flashbacks.

The mystery drives the plot and the character development.  As each tidbit is revealed over the course of the novel, you gain more and more insight as to why the characters are so deliciously broken.  Not surprisingly, the fractures come from deceptions so big that they can and do create fissures of characters that sets up our main character as the star of her own personal Hoarders episode.  This flaw seems somewhat irrelevant to the overall plot of the book until the next reveal when it all makes sense.  Newman captures the essence of this mental split in a series of gut wrenching experiences that makes you want to crawl into a corner with Ren and slowly rock yourself to sleep.

The science Newman does feed us is a fascinating prediction of what biotech could evolve into.  Ren has the ability to build living structures.  Each structure regulates itself by biological rules.  Instead of carpet, you get moss, instead of chairs, I imagined some elaborate looking mushrooms.  Newman doesn’t take you that deep into the details allowing you to imagine it on your own which is better anyway.  Whatever Ren comes up with in her biotech architecture, she ends up printing somewhere and integrating the new print into an existing ecological system.  Very cool stuff.

One of the most interesting elements of the world was God’s city.  The city is one enormous biological entity.  Travel from room to room within this gigantic entity is done, sickeningly, through valves and sphincters.  Needless to say, mucus seems to be the primary wall decoration as she swims through rivers of snot to try to discover what it all means.  I did struggle a little with the imagery of God’s city.  I often found myself re-reading passages several times to relate a little better until I finally decided that the vagaries were Newman’s recipe to let the reader try to work it out for ourselves.

The ending was excellent and I found myself thinking about the book long after I finished.  Read it, it sticks with you.

Dragonvein

Fantasy Book Review

After an absurd amount of travel, I’m finally getting the chance to get back to some of the fun things in life namely, writing about books.  Over the holidays I did get the chance to read Brian Anderson’s Dragonvein.  Unfortunately, it was just meh.  This is pretty vanilla epic fantasy that can make your list if you’re planning an 18 hour plane flight to Dubai where you pre-downloaded it and ended up on an aircraft without wireless but otherwise, I’d skip it.

When I say vanilla, I’m talking Lora Doone fantasy wafers.  They don’t taste bad but after you consume, you kind of wish you skipped the empty calories and decided on something a bit meatier.

The book begins with promise, with our hero Ethan, entrenched over enemy lines in the midst of World War II.  He and his BFF find themselves in a shit storm of Aryan proportions when they discover an old stranger who doesn’t speak the language, English or German, in the middle of what is about to become a major skirmish.  Ethan, a best friend proclaimed boy scout, decides that now would be a good time to take on nursemaid duties and helps the old man.  Turns out he’s from another world and the trio narrowly escapes the Krauts by opening up a portal to that world.

This is where the formula kicks in.  Ethan slowly discovers that this world is under the iron fist of a Hitler-esque, Sauron-esque, Darth Vader-esque, Emperor.  Furthermore, there happens to be a prophecy of some Dragonvein character that is supposed to have the utility belt with the full on kung fu grip that can take down our bad guy.  Any guesses who that is?  Ethan finds himself on the run with the old man, Jonas, our wise adviser, picks up a roguish warrior and a healer and creates a merry band.  Oh yeah, and the world has elves and dwarves in it.

The character building is not bad.  He creates some believable tension between the leads but the plot is just too played.  You also get the sense that Anderson is far too in love with the main characters that there is no chance that any of them will expire of anything other than old age.  This eliminates the chance for any believable fear that these guys might not succeed.

All in all, not worth the price of admission.

David and Goliath

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

Gladwell is masterful at taking a concept and making his point by wrapping it in a series of compelling stories that makes that point very sticky.  I wouldn’t call David and Goliath his best but it is still a wonderful read and has plenty to teach.  The central concept is that you should never take on the Goliath where he is strongest.  If you take the battle to the giant, don’t let the giant dictate the terms and certainly don’t try to beat the giant at their own game.  Instead, change the game and turn their greatest strength into a weakness.  Yes, very Sun Tzu.  What is most fascinating about Gladwell’s approach is he spends time showing you how the underdog beats the super power and it’s very rarely for the reasons that you may think.

Gladwell kicks us off by diving into war.  He asks the question: “What happens in wars between the strong and the weak when the weak side does as David did and refuses to fight the way the bigger side wants to fight, using unconventional or guerrilla tactics?  The answer: in those cases, the weaker party’s winning percentage climbs from 28.5% to 63.6%.”  This makes it very obvious that the underdog can have the advantage as long as they are willing to change the rules.  Most of the time, they don’t change those rules.  Why?  Gladwell goes on to state that: “to play by David’s rules, you have to be desperate.”  And if you are desperate enough you might be willing to put in the hard work to change the rules.  The fact is, desperate, underdog strategies that have any chance of success come from a hell of a lot of hard work.  Underdogs rarely win because of luck.

He next takes us into the concept of the inverted-U curve.  “Inverted-U curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic.  There’s the left side, where doing more or having more makes things better.  There’s the middle, where more doesn’t make much of a difference.  And there’s the right side, where doing more or having more makes things worse.”  This curve in many ways is the central tenant behind the book.  It can be applied to almost any discipline in life.  Gladwell discusses it in the context of parenting and class sizes but this is easily extended into all walks of life.  A quick search on the internet shows tons of examples but the central concept brings us back to a saying that many have used but few have explained so thoroughly than Gladwell and that is: in many cases, less is more.

The next topic he takes us into is desirable difficulties.  Gladwell uses dyslexia as an example of one of these desirable difficulties.  One of his interviewees makes the statement, “The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we get out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed.  And so we look at most situations and see much more of the upside than the downside.  Because we are so accustomed to the downside.”  Because of these desirable difficulties, it gives those folks that get put through the ringer the ability to be a little more disagreeable.  Being disagreeable is one of the pre-requisites to challenging the status quo and the first step in changing the rules.

He then dives into the trickster mythologies.  He uses some good fables to explain the relevance but ultimately, “The lesson of the trickster tales is the third desirable difficulty: the unexpected freedom that comes from having nothing to lose.  The trickster gets to break the rules.”

The concept of the inverted-U curve comes up again in his explanation of the principle of legitimacy in the context of power imposed on the people.  The principle of legitimacy is based on three things, “First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice – that if they speak up, they will be heard.  Second, the law has to be predictable.  There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.  And third, the authority has to be fair.  It can’t treat one group differently from another.”  Some of our most turbulent periods in history were when the law is applied in the absence of legitimacy.  This doesn’t produce obedience, this produces backlash.  Gladwell nicely sums this up in the context of prison and Ireland’s times of trouble.

He summarizes with the Vietnam war.  One of his quotes here nicely ties the theory behind the book up with a bow, “It was not that the Viet Cong thought they were going to lose.  It was that they did not think in terms of winning and losing at all – which was a profoundly different proposition.  An enemy who is indifferent to the outcome of a battle is the most dangerous enemy of all.”  This is what underdogs do, they change the rules.  They disrupt.  And when they do, they often win.  Read it, it’s worth your while.

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