Friday, May 29, 2009

Hard-Boiled Wonderland in Bad Decline

Whatever else might be said about it, "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" almost certainly has the best title of any Haruki Murakami novel.  The title also is unusually descriptive of what you'll find between the covers: a sort of detective story fused with a fantastic realm and imbued with a grand sense of danger.  Exciting and perplexing... though not yet the apogee of Murakami's skills, this book demonstrates someone well on his way toward creating masterpieces like Kafka on the Shore.


That "and" in the title proves to be crucial, as the novel is cleanly split into two alternating storylines.  You can actually detect this before reading the first page: just take a close look at the table of contents.  The chapter titles alone will give you a good indication of what you're in store for.  The odd-numbered chapters each list three things, usually nouns, like (an invented example) "Eggs, Tchaikovsky, and Subway Tickets."  The even-numbered chapters each have a single short subject, like "The Beasts."  Already you're picking up on the schizophrenic aspect of the novel.

The odd-numbered chapters are the detective story, and were generally my favorite part of the book.  The main character fulfills the "hard-boiled" promise of the title, with a dense and turgid interior monologue that comments on everything he encounters.  The setting is a bit unusual and fun.  The book was written in... like, 1990, maybe?... and is set slightly in the future.  Information is the most crucial resource for any company or government, and the narrator belongs to an elite group that is tasked with keeping that information secure.  The System is a believably Japanese institution, a quasi-private government-sponsored agency that deals with encryption, transportation, data security, and so on.

The narrator's role within the System, though, is much more that of a freelancer.  The book covers what is essentially a side job for him, as he uses the tools he has acquired as a System agent in what starts as a lucrative contract and transforms into something more personal.  Because of this he can complain about the System's policies and maintain that me-against-the-world attitude that is crucial to hard-boiled detective novels.

Opposing The System is an alliance between the Semiotics and the INKlings.  The Semiotics are sort of an information Mafia - they seek to steal information, decrypt it, and use it to sell, blackmail, or strengthen themselves.  Together the System and the Semiotics are the yin and yang of this future world, eternally opposing one another, yet oddly dependent on the other to justify their own existence.  The INKlings are pure Murakami.  For quite a while we don't learn exactly what they are, but the unusual name acquires more and more ominous overtones as the narrator acquires more warnings about these dangerous creatures who lurk in forgotten areas underground.  We eventually learn that INK stands for Intra-Nocturnal Kappa.  For those of you who aren't up on your Japanese mythology, the Kappa are a sort of mythological creature who carry a bowl on their head or something.  The INKlings are pure malice.  They are an ancient Lovecraftian race who for millennia burrowed underground.  Eventually, people building the Tokyo subway system accidentally opened up a passage into the INKling realm, and from that moment on they entered our world.  They operate in secret, grabbing maintenance workers at night and gobbling them up.  They are immensely ugly and have a sort of magical attraction; anyone who sees an INKling will never be able to move again.  They worship an evil prehistoric fishlike fanged creature that may or may not still be swimming around in dark underground pools.

What may be creepiest of all is that, while almost nobody has heard of INKlings, the government, media, and major corporations all know that they exist.  They don't want the public to panic, and they can't get rid of them, so they cover them up and excuse the occasional tourist who goes missing.  Needless to say, I find this intersection of the real world and the fantastic immensely satisfying.

Speaking of fantastic, the even-numbered chapters are explicitly fantasy.  They are told in a more relaxed, curious mode than the rest of the book, and are much less about plot than about the exploration of a town called the End of the World.  (Great name for a place to live, huh?)  It begins with that narrator being separated from his shadow, which is cut off by a man called The Gatekeeper and thrown in a holding cell to wait until winter.  The narrator here is hailed as the Dreamreader, and spends many days rubbing unicorn skulls in order to extract the dreams from them.  In the rest of his time he explores the land around him.  The copy of the book I read included a map of End of the World on the inside of the cover, and it was a lot of fun to occasionally refer to.  It reminds me of the sort of thing I drew all the time when I was young.

Back to the main story - probably the most persistent observation/criticism of Murakami is that he writes incredibly passive protagonists.  I think that there's a kernel of truth in this which has been blown out of proportion - "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles" features a young man who may be one of the most passive figures in literature, and that's a large part of the point of that book.  Most of his other protagonists have a certain detachment, but aren't anywhere near as passive - for example, Crow in "Kafka" is in some ways defined by running away from his life, but as written, it takes immense resourcefulness, skill, preparation and hard work for him to do so.  It may be a negative goal, but he is actively working towards it.  Anyways, all that to say, I think that the protagonist of "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" may be the best argument yet against this generalization of Murakami's characters.  It weakens a little in the closing chapters, but for the most part this is a guy who takes action, complains about it, thinks about things a little but not too much, and for the most part acts upon the world instead of waiting for the world to act upon him.


I was certain from about the third chapter on that we would eventually learn that the two narrators are the same person.  I had thought that we would learn that one turns into the other - perhaps at the end of the detective story he would arrive at the End of the World and start that storyline, for example.  The ultimate explanation was satisfying: the End of the World is the subconscious of the hard-boiled data security agent.  The way they get there is really interesting.  It's probably the most sci-fi of any Murakami I've read yet, and fairly convincing, although I still don't totally understand the circuit activation diagrams that are helpfully included in the Professor's explanation.

I'm sure that this book will infuriate anyone who likes their stories to end.  We know what's going to happen - there doesn't seem to be any way to fix the problem with his brain - but never see it actually take place.  I am curious about what relation, if any, exists between the Librarian in the "real world" and the one in the End of the World.  I like to think that the narrator has created her, basically making a companion for himself through the eternity that he will spend trapped inside his fantasy.  If that's the case, though, then what are we to make of their mutual discovery of her mind?  This strongly suggests that she has an independent existence outside of his imagination.  Who is she, and who is her mother?  Does this suggest, I dunno, some sort of Jungian collective unconscious?  If so, is there any chance that this is really the same librarian?  I sort of doubt it - if so, it doesn't seem like she would have lost her mind in the first place.  But I do like that kind of sweet idea that our fantasies are not merely solipsistic plays within our own heads, but can actually be shared spaces where we touch one another with our ideas.


Triumph!  Magnificent!  Deliciously frustrating!  This book only increases my esteem for Murakami, as it showcases an even broader range from this talented creator.  Well worth checking out for any fan or wannabe fan.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Wait, What?

I love Fall from Heaven 2, and need to be careful so that I do not spend what remains of my free time on it.  I hit upon what I thought would be a clever scheme to ensure my independence: "I'll only play FFH2 if I can get it to run in Linux!  Heh heh... Sucker!"  Joke's on me!  The latest version of Wine makes installation a snap.  A quick Google search turned up the few "wine-tricks" packages necessary to make the game run, and I was soon flying. 

It isn't PERFECT, but it's darn close.  The only problem I noticed was that the city production and food bars aren't drawing in the world map view.  That was it.  Sound is excellent, graphics are just as good as under Windows, and the game didn't crash once in my 13 hours (total!  not in one seating!) of play.  So that's great news.

As usual, I spent a good chunk of time at the pick-your-leader screen, trying to decide how I wanted to win and who I should pick.  After my previous game, I decided that I wanted to go for a religious Altar of Luonnotar victory.  After mulling over the traits, I decided that I wanted to pick a leader who was Spiritual and Philosophical.  Spiritual due to the cheaper cost of building Temples - in retrospect, this was a dumb move, since (as far as I can tell) the bonus only applies to the non-religion Pagan Temples, not the useful religious temples you can create later.  That said, the Disciple promotions were nice, and no anarchy is always nice (though I don't take as much advantage of this as I could).  Philosophical was a much more obviously useful trait to have.  I knew that to build the Altar I would need a lot of Great Prophets, so a doubled birth rate for Great People was a no-brainer. 

After clicking around and mulling about it for far too long, I finally decided on the Malakim.  They were Good, which I'm used to playing, were Spiritual, and had the nifty trait-exchange program that I could use to trade in for Philosophical.  Other than that, they seemed a little bare in the special-features department - camel archers, an early sentry-promoted "Lightbringer," a sun temple.  I knew from my Khazad game, though, that the leader selection screen didn't show everything there was to know about the civ features, so I rolled the dice to see what I would find.

I didn't like what I saw.  I mean that literally - the game started me off in the middle of a desert.  It had some flood plains, but was still an awful site, and even after some movement, I didn't see any promising locations.  I started a new game.  I was in a desert again, but this one looked a bit better.  After traveling for a few turns I was able to found my capital on a Plains square with several hills and fresh water nearby.  If I wanted to build the Altar, I'd need to build a great person factory, which I generally don't do but was comfortable pulling out.  It would mean eschewing my standard Cottages for Farms, and switching to the Agriculture civic as soon as I could.  Basically, you want to make each food time as productive as possible, so only a fraction of your people need to work for food, and the rest can remain in the city as specialists.  Plains aren't as good for this as grasslands are, but they're still decent, and I had some Pigs near the capital that could help out.

This was my second game playing on an Erebus map, and I need to qualify my earlier analysis.  Because my first game featured total isolation, I assumed that this was a property of the script, to put each civ in a walled-off enclosure.  Not so - the script does make very strong use of mountains and water, breaking up the map significantly, but doesn't guarantee early isolation.  On this map, I eventually ran into Capria of the Bannor.  We shared a continent, but were at opposite extremes, and to move between the two regions required going through a narrow one-square-wide passage squeezed between a mountain range and the ocean.  This is a pretty common situation on this map, and raises some excellent strategic options.  It becomes very feasible to build a Fortress in the right spot and create a choke-point to stave off the barbarians or hostile Civs coming from a land that you don't feel like conquering.

In addition to meeting another civ before the advent of Fishing, I was also playing on a continent that contained plenty of dark squares eager to spawn Barbarians.  I'd been spoiled in my previous Khazad game - there, I only had to build three cities, and then my line-of-sight kept the bad people away.  Now... well, for example, northeast of my capital was a barren wasteland.  And I mean barren.  It was a desert valley bordered by mountains on the west, north, and east.  It had hills and gold, but no plains or grassland, just a single Oasis.  It was about 12 squares tall by 8 squares wide.  Hill Giants appeared shockingly early, and before long hordes of Goblins were streaming down.  What to do?  I had no choice but to wipe them out, then leave some low-level units on permanent sentry detail up there.  They did nothing for 200 years, except ensure that no more barbarians would arise in that unsettleable land.

Oh, and I'm finally convinced that the Erebus script / FFH2 is smart enough to position civs correctly.  Well, "correctly."  My Malakim turned out to be a really boring civ.  Other than the handful of unique units, their one advantage is that new units are built with the "Nomad" promotion.  It's similar to the promotions that Elves and Dwarves get, only way less useful: extra combat bonuses in Desert terrain.  "Yay."  You know, Desert, that place that nobody wants to be because there's nothing good there?  But that said, it does make sense that I would have started off in a desert on both games.  It could have been much worse - hundreds of years later, I would find the Doviello on the opposite end of the map.  They had been helpfully settled in wintry tundra conditions, which is nice in as much as it gives them combat bonuses, but I still couldn't shake the feeling that they would have appreciated having, y'know, food.

Your single city - your capital - in the year 300 is size one?  OUCH.  OK, I'm no longer allowed to complain about anything.

(Huh!  Just noticed that this screenshot, which I took under Linux, is a bit messed up - it includes improvements and flags, but not cities and units.  Weird.  Anyways, the Doviello capital was located smack in the middle there, with a population of one, and as you can see, there's just ice and tundra everywhere.)

Back on my own continent, the raging barbarians encouraged me to step up my expansion plans.  Timberling was founded relatively soon after, a bit further away from my capital than I would have chosen if my goal had not been to spread culture as far as I could.  Timberling was a port city, and I decided that I would make it my commercial capital.  Later on came Braeburn (I'm typing these names from memory and probably mangling them; my apologies to Makalim), yet another port city, this one on the northwestern edge of the continent.  Expanding cultural borders allowed me to make contact with the Clan of Embers, who lived across the mountains bordering Death Valley.  They didn't much care for my Good ways, but with no route from Point A to Point B, I didn't much need to worry.  For some reason Capria was content to keep his single capital city in the isolated southwest of the continent.  Which meant more goblins for me, but also more room to expand.  I ultimately planted five cities in the main section of the continent, each widely dispersed, and as a result could take advantage of a huge range of resources within their spheres.  Each city's borders could expand out several levels without overlapping, so even the resources that I couldn't work directly were added to my collection.

I was focusing on religious tech.  I decided to go for Runes of Kilmorph again, due to the gold bonus and the Good theme.  I had already built two levels of the Altar of Luonnotar by the time Kilmorph was founded, in Timberling.  I spread the religion around, pumped up my Great Person rate even higher, and spent the next Great Prophet on the Tablets of Bambur.  Timberling would be the cash cow that would support me through the ages.  I occasionally deviated from the religious path to research techs that would fill specific needs - Calendar for Plantation for Spices, for example.  I held off on Fishing for a long time, but eventually got it, and then shortly was ready to start building Triremes.  I grabbed Message from the Deep while I was in there, simply to eliminate it as a rival religion. 

The boats allowed me to enter Clan land, and soon their three cities were following the Runes.  She promptly started worshipping Kilmorph, her alignment switched to Good, and from then on we were close.  Capria had seen the light years earlier.

Oh!  I almost forgot.  Another side effect of a large continent was the large number of ruins and lairs.  Exploring these things is still a lot of fun.  One gave me a map to hidden treasure.  This spawns a treasure chest, someplace far away; when you eventually bring a unit over there, you can open it to retrieve an artifact.  Cool stuff.  Twice I found teleportation portals that zapped me over to far-away lands.  This allowed me to make contact with the Elohim and the Sheaim, LONG before I had boats or the technology for trading goods or knowledge.  I did vaguely know where they lived, though ("West"), so once I had my puny vessels, I could finally bridge the gap between our realms.

I continued to spread the Runes, albeit in a haphazard fashion.  Basically, if there was nothing worthwhile to build, I would churn out a Thane or two, then send them abroad.  Besides the titans of good and evil on the western continent, I also ran into Cassiel of the Grigori, and converted four of his cities before I remembered that he was Agnostic.  Whoops!  Well, even if I couldn't get the disposition bonus from shared faith, every city I converted was still bringing in income, and it wasn't like he was going to resist me in favor of ANOTHER faith.  Cassiel and I always had a weird relationship.  He was the one civ that had an island of his own, and he had a pretty large empire population-wise.  He was at peace with everyone, but always seemed reluctant to trade.  Once, while I had Bambur and some Thanes over there for a (friendly) visit, he built the Pact of Nilhorn.  In the city right next to Bambur.  IMMEDIATELY he attacked with all three - the Hill Giants are technically Hidden Nationality, so you can attack people you're at peace with with them, even if it's really obvious who's doing it.  The assault was across a river.  It was not a success.  To be clear: Larry, Curly, AND Moe all died.  I shook my head, spread the Word, and went home.  Relations between myself and Cassiel grew frosty after that.

I didn't exactly set out to colonize the western continent, it just sort of happened.  While exploring it with my teleported units, I discovered that there were a lot of barbarian cities.  Which makes sense - the continent was about twice as big as my own, had some really gnarly mountain divisions, and (seemingly) only two civs on it to contest the lizardmen.  I had grown to HATE the forces of evil, and came to see these as free cities for the taking.  There was one channel between the two continents narrow enough for a trireme to cross over, so I sent my ships, my missionaries, my Axemen and Bambur there.

Argh, time for another tangent.  Throughout the entire game, the strongest non-disciple unit I ever built were Warriors.  No kidding.  I wasn't fighting true civs, and the warriors were strong enough to kill early animals and barbarians, and by the time the stronger monsters appeared I had created a sufficiently large cultural shield.  I DID, however, get an event while exploring a lair that I had seen before: you come across a group of dwarves and lizardmen fighting in the mines, and are asked which group to support.  I always pick the dwarves.  This gives you two Dwarven Axemen - a HUGE benefit early in the game.  The downside is that three hostile Lizardmen also spawn, but if you're lucky and careful, you can fend them off.  Anyways, these Axemen (never upgraded, except for metal weaponry) were my shock troops, along with Bambur, and were insanely promoted by the end of the game. 

But, you want to know who my real shock troops were in the western war?  Stonewardens.  Yup - not even Paramanders or Soldiers of Kilmorph.  See, by this time I had built up the Altar to, like, level IV or V.  The bonuses become amazing at this point - +2 hammers for Priests everywhere, +2 happiness in all your cities, and something like +12 XP to Discipline units built in this city.  No sooner were my Stonewardens ordained than they were eligible for huge combat promotions.  Plus they have a strength of 5 - even though they don't get weapons, that's great.  AND let's not forget the free Spiritual promotions available to them.  I didn't realize it before this game, but Disciple units are like Arcane units in that they automatically (albeit slowly) gain XP over time.  Potency makes it even faster.  It wasn't at all unusual to find a Stonewarden wandering around with 20-30 XP who had never been in a fight.  And let's not forget, Stonewardens start off with Medic II.  So cool!  I really like this system where the healing promotions are only available to Disciples - gives it a very D&D flavor.

Another thing I like: the Inquisition.  By now I had converted everyone in the world (except the poor Doviello) to the Runes of Kilmorph, but I was still a little nervous about what would happen if the Octopus Overlords broke out of their cages.  I had initially hoped that the Inquisition could remove the religion from their founding cities, but was disappointed (if not surprised) to learn that this would not work.  That said, it was still TREMENDOUSLY satisfying to use them.  After I founded the Empyrean, if spread to another one of my cities and two of Sheaim's.  After a friendly visit (NOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!) they repented of their ways and worshipped the Runes again.  Anyways.  I really like the Inquisition because it allows you to be proactive and protect your strategic interest, instead of (as in Civ IV) just worrying about what could happen if the "wrong" religion spreads.

I quickly took several Lizardmen cities along the eastern edge of the continent.  Cassiel promptly followed in my wake and settled along the shore.  Fine by me - I had all the resources (the lizards are surprisingly good at picking the right city locations), and I sent Kilmorph's blessings his way.  My eyes were hungrily fixed on the big prize: Acheron the Red Dragon and his Horde.  It stood between my eastern cities and the poor Elohim, quivering with fear behind the fire-stricken landscape.  Bambur was now near his 100-XP Hero-cap, and still no match for the Dragon, so I aborted my siege and went looking for trouble.  I eventually found a city on the far western edge of the map, as far as possible from my capital (which was only about 6 squares west of the far eastern edge of the map), and captured it with my overqualified fighters.  My economy promptly nosedived, but that was fine - I just had to tack research down from 90% to 70% for a while.

It turns out that I'd stumbled across what's actually a Beyond the Sword mechanic, the idea of "colonies".  Once you control a certain number of cities on a foreign continent, these cities become a colony, and require colonial upkeep in addition to the standard upkeep from number of cities and distance from the capital.  This can grow prohibitively expensive, so you may choose to grant a colony independence, at which point they form an independent civilization that is initially on your team and thus a great source of resources and support.  I had a better idea, though: for decades I had been working on the Winter Palace, and it was nearing completion.  Sure enough, once it was done, it counted as being a new capital, and colonial upkeep went away!  I jacked my research back up and continued on my way.

For most of the game, my Altar path had been limited by my great prophet production; whenever I popped one out, I could immediately construct the next level.  The last few stages are tougher, though.  I had to ignore some really tempting religious techs to focus on Religious Law (I think) to get the next level of the Altar.  At a time when most available techs would take about 9 turns to research, this one was 34 - ouch!  My Great Prophet twiddled his thumbs for about twenty years before we gave the all-clear and built the next stage.

I had one more level that required a Great Prophet, and then I would need to build the final level.  But what was the tech for those levels?  I was astonished to see that unlike all the other altars, which were ordered along the religious branch of the tech tree, the final stage was located at the end of an entirely different - some might even say contradictory - branch, the religious one.  I'd need to research Sorcery, Pass through the Ether, and then Omniscience to build the next stage.  In other words, it would take forever!  I groaned.

In the meantime, I had more fun tasks to attend to.  After going an entire game without ever building training yards, archery ranges, stables, or any other military-related building, I finally designated one city as being my military home.  They constructed the Heroic Epic and some other national buildings, then built a Siege Workshop.  I had a few roll off the lines, then moved them down to the straits and ferried them across.  (I could have built galleons ages ago, but never bothered researching the appropriate techs - Kilmorph does not require fancy sea-going vessels for approval.)  They pounded down Acheron the Red Dragon's defenses from 75% down to 0%.  At long last, my 100-XP Bambur stood a 59% chance of winning.  I gulped, saved, and struck.  Success!  I love winning this fight - watching the mighty dragon crash to the ground is immensely satisfying.  The puny goblins in the dragon's shadow fell quickly to my axemen, and I rewarded a faithful Stonewarden with the chance to spread the faith and found a new Temple there.  At last, all the barbarian cities on the continent were under my colors.

Hooray, now I could focus my attention on... wait, what?  I WON?!

All the time that I had been thinking of Altar of Luonnotar  as being the religious victory, I had forgotten that FFH2 has an ACTUAL religious victory.  I thought that I'd just been spreading the Runes to boost my treasury and diplomacy, but it turns out it was also bringing me closer to victory.  Specifically, I needed to convert 80% of Erebus's population to my faith.  That size-13 barbarian city put me handily over the top.

Well, then!

Still in a slight state of shock, I watched the victory video.  As with the conquest victory, it was short, but pleasant, and well in keeping with the mood of the victory.  So, you know... hooray!  I was initially disappointed that I had messed up my Altar plan, but the more I think about it, the happier I am.  It would have taken forever to research the right techs, and it would have been a grind all the way - I was clearly dominant in the world, and just going through the motions until I won.

So, that's all good.  All in all this was a very satisfying game.  Malakim was pretty boring as a civ, but the game did teach/remind me how to properly run a Great Person engine, and I enjoyed experiencing more of the FFH2 features, especially the nifty lair rewards. 

No idea yet on what my next game will be.  I'm a little tempted to return to my inaugural setup, now more than two years old, and try playing as the Kuriorates.  Going for a cultural victory would be the no-brainer, but it might be challenging and fun to try for Tower of Mastery.  Challenging because with just three cities (even with honking huge radii) it seems impossible to secure the necessary mana nodes.  But Kael seems confident that this can be done through diplomacy or other means, so I'll give it a shot.

One final note: if there's anyone reading this who actually ENJOYS hearing about FFH2 games, then by all means cease reading this immediately and check out Shatner's phenomenal posts on the CivFanatics boards.  Hat tip to Andrew for the referral - Shatner writes wonderful, hilarious, in-character descriptions of this FFH2 games.  They're especially fun if you're familiar with the civs and characters he includes.

Keep on civving!  This will never get old!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Duh duh dah duh!

"Night Watch" is one of the best Discworld books that I've read.  That should come as no surprise, since it is as you might guess a Watch book.  It also marks a major milestone in that it is the remaining "normal" Discworld book that's out there.  Yup - as best as I can tell, I have now read all of the Witches, all of the Industrial Revolution, all of Rincewind, all of the Watch, and what little Ancient Civilizations there are.  I still have not read the young adult/children's books (Hatful of Sky, Wee Free Men, etc.), nor some of the hard-to-find illustrated novels or short stories, nor the fabled "Science of Discworld" tomes.  But pretty much anything that you would expect to find in your library's Fantasy section, is done.  Hooray!  And boo!  This means that I'll now be dependent on Mr. Pratchett continuing to write more books if I want to read more.

Returning to the book itself - Night Watch is all about Sam Vimes, hands-down my favorite Discworld character.  In a welcome break from its predecessor, it is set entirely within Ankh-Morpork, hands-down my favorite Discworld location.  Goodness abounds.


What is a little unusual is the introduction of time travel.  The Time Monks, who have appeared elsewhere, make a reappearance here after Vimes is sent back in time thirty years.  He gets to experience as a mature adult the events that formed his character as a young man, and do it while standing beside that young man.  The story is therefore a little like a flashback, but one that is changing as it occurs.

I'm used to Discworld books having larger satirical themes - racism, faith, media.  This book has one as well, but it's a little hard to pin down.  The biggest events are concerned with a revolution/rebellion/uprising that took place in A-M.  This isn't the glorious sort of advancement of mankind that we read about in our history books, but instead the result of a bunch of scared, confused, oppressed people trying to make the pain go away.  The precise "message," if there is one, is hard to pin down.  Within the context of the revolution, the dominant phrase is "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" - the poor will remain poor, the powerful will remain in charge, only the names will change.  In the larger context, though, we know that Snapcase will eventually be replaced with Vetinari, who, while certainly not a nice man, is just as certainly not the same as the old boss.  I think that, ultimately, the book is a bit of a paen to the little people whose lives get chewed up in the course of major social upheaval.

A couple of things puzzled me about the book.  The biggest one is what Vetinari means when the Patrician asks, "Who are you?" and he replies, "Think of me as... your future self."  Does this mean, as it suggests, that even at this early age Vetinari was specifically angling to become the Patrician one day?  I didn't really get a sense of that ambition anywhere else in this book, although I suppose it does make sense.  One doesn't fall into the position of Patrician any more than one accidentally becomes the Archchancellor.

I was also expecting there to be more about Vimes' drinking.  Alcoholism is such a huge blight on his soul, and I was curious if his younger self would already be swimming in it, or if he would fall in to it during these events.  It really isn't clear.  Perhaps it came later, with rank?

The contrast between the old and new Ankh-Morpork was regularly fascinating, especially in regards to the races.  Knowing that one day the Watch will be transformed into a polyglot society makes the few references to race especially interesting.


I'm glad that I saved this book for so long - while not my favorite Discworld book ever, it's probably in the top five, and yes, that IS saying a lot.  It's good to head out on such a positive note.  I'm sad to be temporarily Discworld-less, but happy to have at least one prolific author available, unlike some I could mention.  How they rise up, rise up, rise up....

Sunday, May 24, 2009


My Neil Gaiman love affair continues with Stardust.  I'd had this pegged as one of his young adult books, and maybe it technically is - it's notably shorter and more linear than, say, American Gods - but the subject material is definitely adult.  And a fairy tale.  From Neil Gaiman - who would have thought it?

That said, while "Fairy tale for adults" could fairly be applied to the vast majority of Gaiman's creative work, the fact remains that his creations are really quite distinct.  Sandman sprawled, but regularly circled back around to classical mythology.  American Gods had a bit of everything, but mostly Norse and ancient religion.  Stardust is firmly rooted in English folklore generally, and its fascination with Faerie in particular.  I actually found myself thinking of "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" more than "Sandman" while reading this.


As with his other books, even the things Gaiman lifts from ancient tales feel wholly fresh.  The Western rules about unicorns - the maiden's lap and all that - are hoary by now, but you'll still get a lump in your throat by the end of this particular unicorn's arc.  Witches and their rules are a staple of fairy tales, but it's fair to give each witch their own personality, own motivations, and own personal rules, and Gaiman comes up with some really intriguing and clever ones here.  His plotting is wickedly tight, with no wasted subplots.

Gaiman pulls off another trick, even more impressive in a book this short, of alluding to more than he includes.  This is a skill mastered by Tokien, that master of reimagined Northern myths, and too rarely attempted now.  The Fellowship of the Castle manages to be an impressive idea without ever really satisfying explanation of what, exactly, they are, or what they do.  It's just the kind of thing that a reader could spend hours daydreaming about, and an ambitious young writer could grab on to for a short story or two for their own.

And, really, that's what Faerie is all about.  The endless branching paths, the unmapped territory, the constant change.  Gaiman can't claim to own this land any more than Spenser did, but he can make it sparkle once again.


This isn't the Gaiman you know, but it's a Gaiman worth knowing.  Great authors can show a consistent skill even in disparate modes, and Stardust is well worth checking out.

Friday, May 22, 2009


I've been meaning to return to Camus for a while.  In college I read and greatly enjoyed "The Stranger," a taut and oddly opaque novel about a senseless murder.  Camus wrote quite a few well-regarded novels and plays, but the other really well-known one is The Plague.  While reading it, I found myself happily slipping back into my university habits of looking for themes, short sections that could be quoted to illustrate a point, and comparisons with other major books.  And, like the best books of English Lit, it was also an interesting and rewarding read.


I no longer need to write five-page essays, so instead, here is my standard grab-bag of the things that most caught my attention.

Grand is possibly the saddest figure of the story.  He's kind of a would-be novelist, a civil servant who has lived a life of fiscal and emotional poverty.  He traces both issues to the problem of finding the right words: if he could only learn how to express himself, not just well, but perfectly, then everything would work out.  He could ask for a raise, he could win back his wife, he could find happiness.  The drama is played out in the act of Grand's writing.  He is working on a book, and has filled hundreds of pages, but these consist of a single opening sentence, infinitely reworked in endless search of the exact right words.

It's hard to read about Grand without thinking of Flaubert, the fellow French author who famously quested for le mot juste.  Grant is no Flaubert, and, discontent with merely writing good words, he chooses instead to write nothing.  I wondered if Camus saw himself as Grand, but this seems unlikely.  Instead, I suspect that he may see Grand as a warning, perhaps some personal tendency towards perfection in himself that he needed to avoid.

On a first reading, I'll hazard a guess that the biggest single theme of the book is that of abstraction.  This word keeps on popping up throughout the novel, starting early on when the doctor Rieux and the journalist Rambert argue over the importance of following quarantine orders (in support of the greatest good) or violating them (in support of personal love).  Rambert angrily denounces the doctor's arguments, and says that "the many" is merely an abstraction, and must of necessity be subservient to the needs of the individual, which is more "real."  The truth, of course, is that the "abstraction" is the accumulation of thousands of particulars.  Rambert feels his case most strongly because it is happening to him, but the cases which are farther away from him are no less real to their owners.  And Reiux knows this - he suffers a case almost identical to that of Rambert, but he is capable of elevation and subsuming his own needs.  Rambert eventually wins this same perspective.

It isn't that abstraction is good, though.  The counter-point comes in the sermons, which at first argue for an indefensible abstraction - the idea that the plague is a punishment for the people it strikes.  This is a generalized way of making sense of the plague, but it absolutely breaks down in the particulars.  The second sermon recognizes this, after the heartbreaking death of a child - who could still claim that this child had sinned against God?  Ultimately, as human beings, we can only respond emotionally to the personal and particular situations that confront us, but the best people can recognize their own limitations and try to act for the good of all.  There's a touching quote near the end of the book along the lines of "We cannot be saints, so we must try to be healers."  In other words, rather than cultivating a powerful and generalized goodness that can save everyone, the highest calling available to most of us is to try and help everyone we can.

The dark side of abstraction takes the form of bureaucracy.  This is almost a dark comic element in the book.  As it's set in the modern world in modern times (specifically 1940's French Algeria), the tragedy of the plague is dealt with with modern means: red tape, committees, media propaganda, public-private partnerships, and endless worrying about political implications.  Again, I can't necessarily say that Camus thinks that there should be no bureaucracy - without any rules, the plague would spread throughout the world - but the cold words of officialdom are so divorced from the reality of people living and dying that they don't seem to exist in the same world.  And yet, people cling to bureaucracy, believing that it gives their lives meaning.  The section of funerals is especially striking, and the narrator at one point states that red tape is precisely what separates man from the animals.  At the peak of the plague, men and women are dumped unceremoniously from a truck into a giant pit in the ground, and bodies are dug up and incinerated in the crematorium: and yet, because a piece of paper is stamped when this happens, their lives have meaning and dignity.  Very curious, and very French.

Oh, and fun fact: there's a casual reference to The Stranger early in the book.  I thought that was fun and classy, a bit like a Hitchcock cameo.


Good literature!  Relatively speaking, I don't read as much of the canon these days as I did at school - I have, and take, much more time for fantasy and well-written contemporary fare - but I think I enjoy those books at least as much as I did then.  It helps to be responsible for my own syllabus, and the more I read the more connections I find and the more rewarding such books become.  Heck, this could turn into a life-long habit.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009



While I talk a lot about myself here, I tend not to talk much about the blog proper.  That said, I did want to take the opportunity of my 400th post to thank all my occasional and regular readers out there.  Thanks!  When I first started this blog, it wasn't really with the expectation that anyone would read it or find it interesting - I basically took a habit of journaling, and started typing and uploading them instead of just writing them down.

It's been nearly four years since I started, and it's already been pretty remarkable to see what the blog has become.  I flip back to the very earliest posts and am instantly awash in nostalgia, remembering how excited I felt upon first arriving in California, how limitless the possibilities felt.  I read other posts and am surprised by how far away the memories seem, or how recent, and occasionally stumble across something that I wouldn't remember at all if not for the electronic evidence.

One of the weirdest and most interesting aspects of the blog is noticing its transformation from an explicitly private to an explicitly public medium.  I first announced the blog in my instant messenger profile, including the warning, "Shhh - don't tell anyone!"  I eventually released that restriction, and also opened up the blog to Google's crawler.  Since then, although my regular readers continue to be friends, family, and co-workers, I've received a steady trickle of visitors from Google who have stumbled across my blog looking for something.

I have to think that, in general, these people are disappointed.  Some are obviously searching for useful information - like "Why is Quicken so slow?" - that my blog can't help them with.  Occasionally, though, they might have some interest in, say, a three-page-long description of appropriate strategies to use when fighting the Nazis on the coast of North Africa.  Hey, it's possible!

In commemoration of this quasi-anniversary, I thought it would be fun to share my personal "#1 List".  These are all queries that, at one time or another, returned a Timmy's House of Sprinkles post as the #1 Google search result.  Most have since fallen off the first page, but a surprising quantity (and surprising diversity) remain.

human sucker
house of sprinkles
fraa suur
manhunter sierra remake
timmy house
paranoia deja vu out to get me song
anime themed sprinkles
adjectives for narrators orientation daniel orozco
anathem printing error
ender and bean's relationship
Firefly Bebop
is the use of earth in anathem a typo?
mammoth camp age of ice civ iv
giant icon sprinkles
three adjectives that describe the narrator of Daniel Orozco’s Orientation
how to rid of graggles
build house for sprinkles
chief thief in qfgV
"al fontina" revere
being gangster isn't cool
jules verne anathem breathe air
everybody coming to get me song
paranoia paranoia everyone's coming to get you song
anathem down the wick
grand sheep
LISTENING terrifying stories
anathem ala arbitrary
you'll laugh you'll cry you'll wonder what they were thinking
how does christopher kimball stay skinny
grab that cash with both hands and make a stash, new car, caviar, four star daydream
house divide by zero
i'm in the high-fidelity first class traveling set
kill vivec early in morrowind
can sprinkles kill?
power mines games cave convox
Where is seller take back on debt stack
epona mulcarn
jimmy peregrino
high fidelity first class
godfather " seizing a warehouse"
test cook
Divide by zero house
keep your hands off my stack new car caviar
qfg1 vga maximizing lockpick

Thank you again for your interest, and above all, your patience.  Here's to a fun future!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Bargain at Any Price

Who would have thought that the most pleasantly surprising book I've read recently would be titled "Bargaining for Advantage?"  Not to say that it's better than 2666 or more fun than Bartheleme, but what I'd expected to be something I "should" read turned out to be really interesting, useful, and thought-provoking.

I picked this book up as part of my self-education series for home acquisition.  As I've mentioned on my companion blog, I've identified negotiation as one personal aspect that I'll need to focus on improving.  It will be critically important as I look for a good value, but it is an activity that I very rarely practice.

The previous book I read, "Tips and Traps when Negotiating Real Estate," was very focused on this area.  It had a lot of personality, some very pointed ideas and arguments, and could be very specific about the sorts of arguments one should expect.  In contrast, "Bargaining" casts a broad net, talking about all of the various ways that we and others negotiate in our daily lives and in big events. 

One cool side-effect of this was that I gradually realized that I have more experience with negotiation than I had thought.  The single biggest example, which should have occurred to me before, is with a new job offer.  Thinking back over specific offers in the past, which did or didn't work out, gave me some really concrete personal experiences to reflect on, and allowed me to readily identify my own tendencies and style... and, as a bonus, anticipate ways that I can improve myself in the future.

Back to the book: Unlike "Tips and Traps," this book's style is less aggressive, more thoughtfully academic.  Richard Shell is a professor at the Wharton School of Business and knows his stuff.  He uses some great anecdotes, but relies more on authoritative studies than those anecdotes when arguing why certain approaches are more effective than others.  There's less personality in there, but I found myself liking the author more.  The subtitle for the book is "Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People," which is exactly what I wanted.  Not a glowing praise of Donald Trump-style brinkmanship, but concrete advice that ordinary people can follow while remaining true to themselves.

Like a true academic, he breaks the book down into several sections, each of which in turn is sub-divided into particular ideas.  I'll briefly recount them here, mainly to help myself remember them... this seems like really useful stuff.

First of all, there are the Four Foundations of effective bargaining.  Sort of a, "even if you don't learn anything else, by keeping these in mind, you'll drastically improve your outcome."  Again, these aren't things that he just made up, but are derived from various studies in Britain and America that measured negotiators' effectiveness and tracked what the successful ones did differently.

The first is a "willingness to prepare."  Needless to say, this delights me: preparation is what I'm great at.  It makes perfect sense, too.  You'll be a more effective negotiator the more you understand the situation, your position, the other position, your alternatives, and so on.  Beyond just gathering information, as he later mentions, you'll want to prepare your own strategy.  I can see myself, say, writing a script or flowchart before entering a really high-stakes negotiation.

Second comes "high expectations."  People who ask for more get more.  If one person wants to buy a radio for $50, and another wants to pay $100, the first person will almost invariably pay less than the second person.  It's extremely rare to come in with low expectations in a negotiation and have the other side exceed them.

Third is "patience to listen."  Again, I think I should do pretty well here.  You should try to hear more than you speak - gather information about the other side's wants, strategy, alternatives, and so on.  Not only does this inform you what you're up against, but even more importantly, it can lead the way to creative solutions that "expand the pie" and lead to a better deal for BOTH of you.

Finally comes "commitment to personal integrity."  Know what your standards are, and stick with them.  I do this regardless, but as he points out, it's also good business, as trust is critically important.

With those out of the way, next come... the Six Foundations!  These are things that roughly fall under the "prepare" category, and are ways to help ensure the best possible deal, even before negotiations start.

The first is to recognize the different personal bargaining styles.  He identifies five broad personality types here: avoiders (prefer to avoid bargaining or confrontation altogether, even when it means a worse personal situation), compromisers (people who instinctively want to "split the difference," and readily work to balance their own desires against the other party's), competitors (people who try as hard as they can to get the most advantage for themselves and the smallest advantage for the other side), accommodators (people who will do almost anything to please the other side, even when it means a worse deal for themselves), and problem-solvers (people who try to think "outside the box" and develop creative solutions). 

I'm a sucker for these sorts of personality-related things.... I've been a happy Abstract Sequential thinker since seventh grade, and an INTP since my freshman year in college, for example.  So I'm always happy to see another system that I can try and plug myself into.  In the particular example he gave to try and identify your type, I emerged as a "problem solver".  I think that's fairly accurate, although it does depend on the situation.  Specifically, I think I tend to be a problem-solver when I'm working with another problem-solver (a very creative feeling) or with a compromiser.  On the other hand, when faced with a competitor, I become an avoider.  This is one of those cases where I thought back to an employment situation and a light bulb went off in my head.  There have been a couple of times when I've gotten really great-sounding job offers - higher than positions I ended up taking - but got extremely turned off by the hardball style of the potential employer ("You have 24 hours to accept," "I want you to convince the CEO to hire you") that I not only turned down the offer, but cut out the other side altogether - not answering emails or phone calls after I made my decision.  This is really irrational behavior - if I cared most about maximizing my economic gain, I should have responded by asking for more, or at least listening to them if they increased their offer still further after I turned them down - but as this section helped me see, negotiations are not always about maximizing economic gain.  There's a huge difference between the various types of personalities, and it's critical that you identify your own style so you know in advance how you will respond to various situations and can develop a plan.

Anyways!  Back to the types... I think I rotate between the various styles in different situations, which isn't at all unusual - we often use one style when "negotiating" with our family, another with an employer, another with a salesman.  As the author points out, at various times, all of the five types are most appropriate in certain circumstances.  Even "problem solver", which at first sounds like the "right answer," isn't the best solution when you roll up to a stop sign at the same time as another driver.  That situation doesn't call for creative solutions: the best success is if you wave the other driver through (i.e., accommodate) so you can both be on your way.  While we switch between the various styles, we do have higher comfort levels with some than others.  A highly competitive person might actually try to run through the stop sign in that situation, not because it's logically the best solution, but because it feels more natural than "letting the other guy win."  In my case, I'd say that I feel most comfort with problem-solving, then avoidance, then compromise, then accommodation, and finally competition.  Again, it's highly situational.  I'm much more likely to accommodate family members - "Do you want the last piece of cake?" - than I am with co-workers - "Want to split this last piece of cake?"

In transactional situations, I guess I'm fundamentally an avoider.  I far prefer shopping online to shopping in stores.  I was shocked when reading this book to learn that many people actually do negotiate in upscale department stores - apparently, floor clerks are authorized to give 5%-15% discounts in order to keep customers satisfied. Personally, I'd rather hunt online for the best price than try my luck at the store.

That said, when I have the chance to problem-solve or compromise, I go for it.  Sometimes (again, generally online) I can figure out a way to save money by consolidating purchases, or following a certain timing, or doing something else interesting.  And when I go out to eat with a group, I'm happy to suggest splitting the check if that feels like a fair thing to do - though even there, if someone else suggests another strategy first, I'm likely to follow it.

The second foundation is applicable norms and standards.  These are sort of the understood baseline rules by which a certain type of negotiation operates and is judged on, and are highly situational.  If you're negotiating with a child over bedtime, you'll want to know what the normal bedtime is; under what circumstances in the past exemptions have been made; whether trade-offs are generally used as concessions; etc.  In real estate, it's important to know, for example, whether the buyer or the seller typically pays closing costs.  You still might end up doing something different, but you should know that the standard is so you can gain others' respect and not seem uneducated.

The third foundation is attending to your relationships.  Relationships are critical, and in some circumstances you may want to protect those relationships even when it means getting a worse deal.  The book contains a touching story of someone recruiting Albert Einstein to join a think tank in America, who asked Einstein what his salary requirements were.  Einstein named a modest figure, then hedged it by saying, "Unless you think I can live on less."  The man came back and offered Einstein THREE TIMES as much.  The important thing to note here is that the man "won:" his goal wasn't just to make Einstein come, but to invest in their relationship so he would be happy and stay with the think tank.  He passed with flying colors.

The big point here is to see how the type of relationship you have with the other side influences your strategy.  There's a handy grid included that displays the importance of the relationship on one side and the stakes on the other side.  Looking at it this way helps explain my behavior really well.  I have a strong relationship with my family, and want to keep those ties, and in the big scheme of things I don't REALLY need a piece of cake that badly.  Being nice to them costs almost nothing, and maintains the relationship.  Another illustrative example is employment.  I feel like I now have the key that unlocks the critical difference between various types of negotiation: whether I'm receiving an offer from the manager/CEO directly, or whether it's from HR or a recruiter.  In the former case, I'm negotiating with the person I'll be working for, and they're negotiating with a future employee.  Both of us are invested in the stakes - I want a high salary, they want to keep costs down - but both of us are also invested in the relationship.  I don't want to work for a tight-fisted jerk, and they don't want a greedy ingrate for an employee.  So even though there can be some give-and-take, I can generally expect that the employer will try to keep things as positive as they can.

On the flip side, if I'm working with an in-house recruiter, then there's virtually no expectation of future contact.  They get compensated based on certain criteria (getting me to say "yes" for the lowest amount), and so long as I end up taking the job, they don't really care how I feel about them.  A more competitive person than me would probably love this situation, seeing it as a game - "Let's see how high I can get them to go!  Will they go even higher if I threaten to go elsewhere?"  They're probably befuddled by what ends up happening - "Why won't this fool return my calls?  Doesn't he like money?"

Home purchasing will be much more like the second case than the first.  I'll never see the sellers, and almost certainly never see the seller's broker again.  Now that I understand that, I can prepare myself, and hopefully start flexing those competitive muscles so I can do well in the game, instead of just saying "Oh, the price is too high" and walking away.

The fourth (er, maybe it's the second?  I'm working from memory here and think I may be messing up the order...) is your goals and expectations.  That was alluded to before in the Four Principles, but for any specific negotiation, it's important to set high goals for yourself.  Often times, people will set a "bottom line," the worst deal that they will still accept.  Bottom lines are great for gambling in Vegas, but horrible for negotiations.  Psychologically, once we accept a bottom line, we shift our focus to hitting that target.  We would work much harder and get a better outcome if we set higher goals.

Now, you may not even know ahead of time exactly what your goals ARE... but you should have thought about them.  There's an interesting story here about the founder of Sony, who turned down a lucrative partnership deal because he realized during the course of the negotiation that it was more important for Sony to establish an independent brand than it was to make a lot of money.  Er, I should rephrase the first sentence in the paragraph: you SHOULD know what your goals are before going into the negotiation.  Realistically, you may not be able to achieve everything you strive for.  You shouldn't decide ahead of time "I'm going to give up on those goals and stick to these."  Decide what's important, write it down, and do the best you can.

The fifth foundation is recognizing the other party's interests.  You know what YOU want out of the deal - what do THEY want?  You may find a true win-win situation... maybe you only care about getting the best price, while they care mostly about their reputations.  This shows you how to position yourself: in this case, you can open high on price, make the public communications a part of the negotiation, and be prepared to give them the recognition they want in exchange for the price you want.

The sixth and final foundation is leverage.  Leverage is discovering how badly the other side needs the deal, and then using that to get better terms for yourself.  Perhaps you're buying a house, and the seller needs to move out in 10 days.  If you know this fact, and you personally don't have any timeline for moving, then you can threaten to pass on the deal - it (theoretically) doesn't hurt you since you can keep looking, but it does hurt them, and as a result they'll be motivated to make concessions so you close the deal.

On the flip side, perhaps they have leverage over you - suppose you're looking at a house in a great school district for your two kids, and that this is the only house in your price range for sale in that district.  If the other side learns this fact, then they can use it to stress how badly you need this particular house and argue for getting full price.  How to respond?  There are some more or less dishonest ways (concealing the importance of a good school district, claiming that you are looking at another house in the area, etc.), but the best solution is to actually have - or create - an alternative.  Maybe you can buy a cheaper house and use the savings to put your kids in a private school.  Now, you still might prefer this particular house, but by having an alternative you weaken their leverage and improve your own hand.

That was most of the book, and you'll note that it hasn't even covered the actual negotiation yet!  Again, that's part of the reason why I like it so much.  He focuses on the things that you can actually prepare for ahead of time, regardless of your personality or negotiating style.  Sooner or later, though, you'll sit down at a table, and the dance will begin.  He identifies four stages to a negotiation.

The first, almost a prelude, is establishing rapport.  This happens even with something as simple as ordering fast food: when you walk into McDonald's, the clerk is trained to look you in the eye, smile, and say "Welcome to McDonald's!  May I take your order?"  We don't even think about this because it's so common, but it's actually significant: they are opening the discussion by establishing rapport and making your comfortable.  In any significant negotiation, it can be extremely helpful to develop a non-business relationship with the other person.  It could be a shared favorite movie, the same college, religion, politics, whatever.  The actual content doesn't directly bear on the negotiation, but as human beings, we prefer to deal with people we like, and who are like us.  (I can't say that I took my current job BECAUSE the CEO is a Battlestar Galactica fan, but that show gave us a fun topic to talk about, and certainly it helped me think about how much fun it would be to work for him.)

At the same time, you should be on the watch-out for people who are faking rapport in order to take advantage of you.  ("I can't believe you would treat another Christian like this!  You should pay full price.")  And remember that people don't like phonies - don't fake enthusiasm for things you don't like, or otherwise be obvious about trying to establish a connection.  Sometimes it just isn't there, in which case you're far better off being just being pleasant than by faking it.

After the social niceties are out of the way comes the information gathering phase.  This is sort of a dance where both sides probe one another to learn more: What are they looking for?  Which issues are most important to them?  Do they have other alternatives?  What is their time frame like?

Sharing information is critical in negotiation, but there is a cost: the more one side learns about the other, the more power it gains.  And so information sharing can become a tit-for-tat, with both sides asking questions, and often being as forthcoming as the other party.

The advice here is simple: Listen.  Ask questions.  Respond to the other party, but remember that the more they talk, the better off you are.  As they speak, you should be gaining a clearer picture of what is motivating them, and adjusting your own position accordingly.  Respond to the other party, but most people enjoy having others pay attention to them, and so you often will not need to do anything tricky to listen more than you speak.

Only now, after you have prepared for the negotiation, established a connection with the other side, and exchanged information, do you enter into the phase that most of us think of as synonymous with negotiation: opening and concessions.  Eventually, one party or the other will put a concrete offer on the table: "I will pay you $x, with y% up front and the remainder in one year.  The offer is contingent upon approval from my shareholders.  I get to keep the corner office, and my name will be first on the masthead."  So, who should make the opening offer?  Usually it's better for the other party to do so - if they open higher than you were planning on doing, wonderful!  Your job is done.  Everyone knows this, though, and so in most situations with substantial stakes, there is yet another dance: "After you."  "No, after you, I insist."

If you do need to open, how should you do so?  Again, it all depends on the nature of the negotiation and the relationship you have (or hope to have) with the other side.  If you highly value the other side, and the stakes don't matter very much, you might make a very generous opening, signaling how much you value that relationship.  If you want to maintain good relationships, but the stakes are also very important, then you should make an opening that is at the highest edge of what you expect to receive.  On the other hand, if the stakes are important and you DON'T value the relationship, then you should bid with the highest (or lowest) amount that is supportable by fact.

Here's an example (my own and inferior to what's in the book): Suppose you're selling your personal PC.  The other person asks how much you want.

... if the other person is your brother-in-law, and you don't really need the money, then you might say "$300."  That's a cheaper price than he'd be able to get for a PC of that caliber, anywhere.  You aren't giving it away for free - this is still a transaction - but by letting him have it for that cheap, you're showing that you value your in-law more than money.  This assumes, of course, that he does know the value of the computer - if not, then he won't appreciate what you're doing.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with letting him know - you're educating AND rewarding him!  Saying something like, "I could probably get $600 for it on Craigslist, but you can have it for $300" is honest and generous.

... if the other person lives in your neighborhood, and you need the money to pay a bill, then you might say "$800."  You've been watching Craigslist and Ebay for a while, and computers of this general sort have been selling in the $500-$800 range.  You don't (necessarily) expect your neighbor to pay $800, and you'd probably sell it for as low as $600, but by bidding high you are giving you both room to negotiate.  If he argues you down to $700, he will be happy with the price and feel psychologically like he got a deal.  If you say $600 and he wants to pay less, then you look like more of a jerk because you don't have any room to negotiate.  By naming a high value, you can make concessions and reward the other party, actually enhancing the relationship.

... if the other person is a stranger from Craigslist, and you need the money and are willing to hold out for the best deal, you might say "$1500".  If the other person knows computers, he won't pay that much, but - and this is important - you can back up that price: it's how much the computer cost when you bought it brand new.  Now, he'll probably come back and argue that he should get it for less because of its age, but what's important is that you've now established the parameters for the negotiation: you are now arguing down from $1500 instead of, say, up from $300.  If you end up settling on a price of $1000, then he feels like he got a 33% discount, and you ended up with $200-$400 more than you expected.  And, even if you do end up settling in the $600-$800 range, you are no worse off for having started off high.  Sure, he may think that you're unreasonable, but who cares - you'll never see him again!

After the opening comes the meat and potatoes of bargaining: concessions.  You make your initial offer - "Give me $1500!"  The other party makes a counter-offer: "I could buy a much better, new computer for that much!  I'll give you $600."  You make a concession - "I've taken great care of this PC, it has excellent quality components, no problem with it at all - but if the age thing bothers you that much, I'll knock off $200."  Then comes a concession in the other direction: "I'm glad you're being reasonable, but that's still way too high.  If you do have good OEM parts, though, then I can go up to $700."  And so on, back and forth.

So how should you know what concessions to make?  You're not just arguing for an outcome here, you're also signaling what's important to you.  The most important issues should be things that you stick firm on.  Less important ones, you let slide a bit more.  For example, maybe the buyer insists that he pay you with a personal check.  You say that you want cash.  If, in the next round, he's still asking to use a check, then you know that this is an important issue for him.  If he wants to pay with a check, then he should make more concessions elsewhere by paying a higher price - or, if he pays cash, you should give him a lower price. 

As for the amounts to move, you're advised to make your biggest adjustments in the first round, and make them progressively smaller as negotiations continue.  This simulates your increasing reluctance and inability to move as you get closer to your "bottom line."  The secret in negotiation, though, is that your bottom line is really a bluff.  What you're actually arguing towards is your goal - the outcome you WANT - not the worst deal that you're willing to take.

Sooner or later, concessions end or reach a stalemate.  In either case, we move to the fourth and final stage, closing and commitment.  If the sides can't agree, then hardball tactics might be used to try and force a resolution.  The most common form here is a deadline - saying that the other party has a certain amount of time to accept your offer, or you'll leave.  If they accept the offer, great!  Otherwise, you have a choice to make: do you actually carry out your threat or not?  If you walk, then you might be giving up what would still be a very good (if not perfect) deal.  If you don't walk, though, then you lose face.  The other party now has leverage over you - they know that you need the deal.  You can still get the deal, but are expected to make more concessions, since you've shown that you're willing to accept a worse price.

Other forms of closing are less confrontational.  In some cases, if the two parties agree that they must make a deal but can't agree how, they may call for an independent, trusted arbitrator to mediate between them.  They agree that whatever the mediator decides, they'll honor.

Eventually, the deal will be done.  The point isn't "winning" and "losing" - any deal should make both parties better off than they would be otherwise, even if not as good as they could conceivably be.  The final aspect to attend to is commitment, which is just making sure that the other party follow through on the agreement.  In some situations, just shaking hands is considered binding enough that you don't need any more.  In other cases, you might sign a contract, make a public announcement, agree to pay penalties for backing out of the deal, etc.  You don't want all your hard work to go to waste, so don't let the final step slide.

And, that's how to negotiate!

As you can probably tell, I found myself seriously nerding out on this topic... who would have thought it?  Now, I'm not about to go down to Tijuana and start bargaining with rug merchants, but I do think that I've learned some extremely valuable tools from this book, and look forward to using them.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Borgen Again

Ask me who my favorite short-story authors are, and the name Borges will inevitably crop up.  This is stranger than it may seem.  My entire exposure to Borges consists for a handful of stories I read during a course on fiction writing.  He never came up during my proper literature classes (probably because, y'know, he ain't English), and for whatever reason I never pursued him on my own.  Until now.  His name has been at the back of my mind for a while when I'm trawling the library catalog, looking for more works by authors I've enjoyed before, and finally the time came to grab his Ficciones and have a look-see.

It's excellent stuff, of course.  Quite a few of them were repeats, most notably "The Garden of Forking Paths" and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote."  The latter is particularly interesting; my fiction writing instructor had a thing for stories that don't seem like stories, and enjoyed works of fiction that were presented as literary criticism, essays, recipes, news stories, etc.  There were more in that vein in this collection, along with some finely-crafted stories that follow a more conventional narrative structure.


Two of my favorite stories dealt with other worlds: one "real," the other imagined.  There's a fascinating tale of a library universe, one that contains every possible book that could ever be written.  It is shockingly rich in detail, and in just a few dozen pages becomes even more believable than many fantasy novels I've read.  Another story starts with the narrator stumbling across a seemingly fictitious article buried within a set of encyclopedias, and spins out to reveal a vast, entertaining, baffling conspiracy to use fiction to create an entire realized world.  This, of course, is what authors like Borges do, but presented in this way, it becomes even more striking.

There's also a thoroughly satisfying detective story, and a poignant vignette about a man thrust against his will into a duel.  Yet another story-that-doesn't-seem-like-a-story takes the form of a theological article, describing a rebellious theologian's determination to redeem Judas Iscariot's reputation through a shifting set of rationalizations.


I can heartily recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys a little touch of oddness in their literature.  Borges is largely responsible for the style of many of my favorite authors, like Pynchon and Saunders, and it's a treat to discover him again.  Each individual story is quite short and readable, allowing you to pace your progress however you like.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In Truth

My super-brief summary of Outliers: "Better than 'Blink.'  Possibly better than 'The Tipping Point.'"

My longer summary:

"Outliers" is Malcolm Gladwell's third book.  I was actually predisposed to be a little annoyed at it, since I assumed that writing this book was the reason why he has written relatively little for the New Yorker lately.  The Acknowledgments proved me right on this point, but I needn't have worried.  This is a top-notch book, and well worth the small sacrifice in sports-team-related insights into the human condition.

The first book of Gladwell's I read was actually his second, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."  It was an interesting and fun read.  I later went back and read "The Tipping Point," and was blown away by it.  When asked to describe the difference between the two, I typically say that The Tipping Point makes a compelling argument about a fascinating set of ideas, and offers hope that by understanding its content, you can actually make a difference in your life and in the world.  In contrast, "Blink" felt like a collection of amazing anecdotes in search of a thesis.  They all dealt with a similar set of ideas, but the overall thrust felt vague and contradictory.  It was thought-provoking, but didn't offer the tools that TTP did.

With those as my bookends, I'm inclined to say that Outliers is closer to TTP, but on a potentially grander scale.  Outliers is a book about success.  Gladwell's main purpose is to discredit the typical American/Western notion that success is primarily a factor of one's natural ability and luck.  We fetishize people like Bill Gates and Sam Walton, talking about how they are geniuses in their field who changed the world.  Gladwell convincingly shows that there are a LOT of geniuses in the world - plenty of people smarter than Bill Gates - and asks the question, what makes some people succeed?  It turns out that there are surprisingly simple and straightforward answers to these questions.

One of the most telling examples of Gladwell's excellent empiricism (drawing conclusions from hard data instead of just what sounds right or is appealing) comes early on when he mentions a peculiar fact about hockey players.  If you gathered the names of all the top Canadian hockey players, then sorted them by their birth date, you would find that they are overwhelmingly born early in the year.  January is the most common birth month, followed by February.  Together, these two months contain about 2/3 of the top hockey players.  By comparison, almost no players are born in November or December.

So, why is that?  It seems utterly bizarre that there would be such a strong correlation between such a seemingly meaningless statistic and skill at hockey.  I wondered to myself: was it because kids who were born in January were somehow toughened up by cold weather at an early age?  No; then December would be one of the most common months, not the least.  Could it have to do with the time they were conceived?  That didn't make sense either.

As you might imagine, all professional hockey players were previously players in minor leagues; those minor leagues recruited from school-aged players; and school-aged players all began at an early age.  Specifically, kid hockey teams are organized according to birth year.  All kids born in 1990 play at one level, all kids in 1991 in another level, and so on.  The idea behind this makes sense: you don't want an 8-year-old kid playing against a 10-year-old, because the 10-year old has a much bigger advantage in size and coordination.  However, if you think that through, you'll realize that someone born in December 1990 is almost a full year younger than someone born in January 1990.  The kid born in January will be larger and faster.  So, when he first begins practicing, his coach will recognize him as gifted.  The coach will spend more time training him, put him in the games more often, and his time on the ice will allow him to become a better player.  The next year, because he has the advantage of more practice, his advantage over the December kid has grown even larger.  This continues year after year.  By the time he's, say, 20 years old, there's no longer any real physical distinction between December and January, but the accumulated years of advantages means that he's in a much better shape because of where he started.  The end result?  A few kids born late in the year go on to become hockey stars, but because of the way the system works - a system set up by people, not nature - those born early in the year are much more likely to succeed in the sport.

The book is filled with fascinating examples like that, and I won't repeat them here.  You can probably intuit from that one case what Gladwell's thesis is.  While we praise natural ability, success is inextricable from our circumstances, and every successful person comes from a background that gave them opportunities to get there.  He particularly emphasizes the significance of:
  • Practice.  Bill Gates didn't emerge from the womb knowing how to program.  He had the rare opportunity to practice programming at a time when computers were extremely rare.  (As a Unix nerd, I was delighted to see Gladwell also include Bill Joy as an example.  Joy is a hero of mine, and probably the engineer who I most want to emulate.)
  • Timing.  Certain time periods are more beneficial than others to make your mark in a particular field.  Tycoons are much more likely to make fortunes during time of massive industrial change.  Lawyers were more likely to build world-famous practices during times of regulatory change.  If you're born too early, you inherit the previous mind-set and have a stake in the status quo.  If you're born too late, you miss the boom and the fortunes have already been made.
  • Personal attitude.  Geniuses who can't express their ideas or argue for advantage do not make a big impact on the world.  People who can do both have a far bigger effect, even if their raw IQ isn't as large.  And personal attitude isn't inborn - it's something we learn from our parents.
  • Cultural legacy.  This is one of the potentially discomforting areas of the book, but Gladwell's devotion to empirical data serves him well.  For years, Korean airplanes were dozens of times more likely to crash than American airplanes.  American Southerners are more likely to be killed by someone they know than a Northerner.  Asian students are consistently the best at math.  Gladwell shows these to be the case, then discounts the idea of a racial component, and explains how our cultural legacies (our language, stories, agriculture, etc.) impact who we are today.

That last section was particularly interesting for me.  Perhaps because I'm reading this on the heels of "Bargaining for Advantage," I kept thinking about how my personal style when dealing with other people has been shaped.  I give this book a lot of credit for providing me with further insight - when I focus on my heritage (where I come from) and not just who I am, it makes a lot more sense.  My parents are both extremely pleasant people who tend to avoid conflict; it's no surprise that I would do the same.  I spent my formative years growing up in Minnesota, which is famously taciturn.  Again, it's no surprise that I'm generally soft-spoken and self-effacing; any reader of "How to Talk Minnesotan" knows that one should not elevate oneself.  And, importantly, by identifying these legacies, I'm in a better position to think critically about them and, possibly, make changes.

This book also made me profoundly grateful yet again for the opportunities I've been given in my life.  I like to think that I'm a really good programmer, but it wasn't always that way.  I started that journey early on, when my parents (who aren't super-wealthy) brought home an Epson 8088 personal computer when I was still in elementary school.  That gift, combined with some old 3-2-1 Contact magazines with sample BASIC programs in the back, were the tools that allowed me to start practicing programming at an early age.  The end result: I was writing games in elementary school.  My parents noticed, encouraged, and nurtured this pleasure of mine long before I even considered it as a career, enrolling me in a course in programming C (more advanced than BASIC) and buying me a book on C programming.  How many kids got to do this?  Years later, I would take an independent-study course on C++ in my high school, a good school with programming classes and an instructor who was willing to take on an independent study student.

And so, when I entered college, I had already had close to a decade of programming experience under my belt.  I like to say that I didn't really understand how to program until after my "Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming" course, but the reality is that I had an enormous advantage going in.  I did well on my assignments, got a bit of a reputation for being a good engineer, which further encouraged me and drove me to learn more, study more, practice more, and get better.  Now, I'm living the dream life getting paid to do something I love.  It wasn't entirely due to circumstances, but circumstances were necessary to getting here.  It's hard to see how I could have ended up here if I hadn't gotten access to that 8088 so many years ago.

Outliers offers many fascinating opportunities for introspection like this, but I suspect its lasting impact will be forward-looking rather than inward-looking.  By recognizing the critical importance of opportunity and legacy, we have a shot at CHANGING those things to make a better future.  In the most simple case, why not divide kids into two hockey sections, one for January-June and the other for July-December?  Gladwell notes that Canada could probably double the number of top-notch hockey players within a generation by doing this, simply by giving kids at the end of the year an equal opportunity.  Likewise, he has a fascinating analysis of public schools towards the end of the book, and concludes that schools are actually doing a good job at educating the poor and disadvantaged students; middle- and upper-class students' advantage almost entirely comes from the extra learning that takes place during the summer.  By recognizing this, we have a chance at making changes to the education system that actually work: not obsessing over class sizes, teacher degrees, etc., but providing year-round opportunities for poor kids so they can have the same advantages as their wealthier peers.  Again, Gladwell focuses on hard data from actual programs that are doing this, and makes a convincing case for expanding it.

Outliers is a book that lends itself easily to caricature - I'm sure some people will call it racist, or socialist.  Gladwell talks about these things, but in a way that is uplifting and encouraging.  Race is important, and once we recognize HOW it is important, we can make better decisions.  By identifying social opportunities for equalizing opportunity, we don't just make life easier for people on the margins, but we ultimately make ourselves a better and stronger country.  If we can find more Bill Joys, more Albert Einsteins, more Beatles, more Malcolm Gladwells, then our kids will have a better world than what we have today.

Bike to Work!

A friendly reminder to anyone living in the San Francisco Bay Area: Tomorrow is Bike to Work Day!  If you're in San Francisco, check the map to find an energizer station (= free food, drinks, and goodies) for your morning and/or evening commute.  If you'd like to ride but feel intimidated, try a commuter convoy!  There's strength and confidence in numbers, and you can have a lot of fun riding with a group of various skill levels.  There's a similar program in Silicon Valley, with Energizer Stations from Morgan Hill to Pacifica.  There are also several bike-from-work after-parties floating around.  If you just ride one day this year, tomorrow would be a great day to try it!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

It Obtains Everything

Donald Barthelme is kind of one of the horsemen of the Postmodern Apocalypse, along with David Foster Wallace and a few other names that are much more widely known than read. I intellectually despise postmodernism while, in practice, I enjoy postmodern writers quite a bit.

What exactly is PoMo? It's a hard question to answer, especially since my excellent English Lit course "Modernity After the Millennium," where my excellent teacher (Marina MacKay, now a published author herself) did a great job at demonstrating that there really is no meaningful division between modernism and post-modernism. Modernism was born when literature became self-aware... once writers began consciously writing about writing, and started experimenting with using the mechanics and tropes of their craft in a way that called attention to them rather than merely using them as tools to further the plot or convey a message, they had embarked on the modern journey. PoMo is the same trend dialed up to 11, as it were, but modernism is just a more sedate version of the same thing.

Anyways! There was an interesting article on Donald Barthelme in the New Yorker a little while ago, which reminded me that I had never really dug into him. Honestly, I'm a bit intimidated by writers like him... much like modern art, modern literature can sometimes seem purposefully obtuse, designed more to make people feel like they're "in" or "out" than to create something meant to be enjoyable. That said, this is the perfect time in my life to start investigating such authors myself - I'm no longer in a classroom, and have nothing to prove. I'll take what I can, and not worry about the rest.

The book I picked up was called "60 Stories," and it collects... well, yes, 60 short stories written by Barthelme over his long career. A great chunk of them originally appeared in the New Yorker. Short stories and PoMo are a perfect match - the writer can try something new and interesting, make their point quickly, we all have a laugh or shake our fist, then wipe the slate clean and start over again.

I ended up enjoying the book immensely, much more than I had expected. Oh, sure, there are a few clunkers in there that I never quite got, but when he's on, man, he's ON. Barthelme has a wonderful, joyfully permissive attitude towards absurdity, and takes a palpable delight in stirring up nonsense speech and situations. Often these are extremely specific while also being crazy, like when he writes a story about Paraguay - no, not the one you're thinking of, the other Paraguay that doesn't actually exist.

Although each story is independent (with the notable exception of two, "On the Steps of the Conservatory" and its sequel), it is interesting to note how there are a few particular modes that Donal enjoys working in. One that appears towards the end of this collection (I'm not sure if it's sorted chronologically or not) and repeats often is the pure dialog. These actually read (to me) like Beckett plays. It's clearly a conversation between two people, usually with each line offset by an M-dash, and while the rhythms of the conversation are easily comprehended, their actual content can be impossible to follow. These were interesting, but for the most part were among my least favorite stories.

A couple of stories actually reminded me of my beloved Saunders. When he wants to, Barthelme can write pretty remarkable dialect, and sometimes he perfectly captures the stilted, repetitive speech that we use in real life, and brings it front and center in his story.

Sometimes, the writing is just hauntingly beautiful. As I got further through the collection I realized that Barthelme had written some of my favorite stories that we read in my college fiction-writing class, including the surreal and moving "A Manual for Sons." I think this is one of my favorite paragraphs, ever, from any story:
The best way to approach a father is from behind. Thus if he chooses to hurl his javelin at you, he will probably miss. For in the act of twisting his body around, and drawing back his hurling arm, and sighting along the shaft, he will give you time to run, to make reservations for a flight to another country. To Rukmani, there are no fathers there. In that country virgin corn gods huddle together under a blanket of ruby chips and flexible cement, through the long wet Rukmanian winter, and in some way not known to us produce offspring. The new citizens are greeted with dwarf palms and certificates of worth, are led (or drawn on runnerless sleds) out into the zocalo, the main square of the country, and their augensheinlich parentages recorded upon a great silver bowl. Look! In the walnut paneling of the dining hall, a javelin! The paneling is wounded in a hundred places.

I can't explain why, but I get chills at that final sentence. (Oh, and don't worry about the context - it makes no more sense if you read it as part of the whole story, though it does gain a certain resonance.)

Altogether, I'm really glad to have read this. Plenty of great stories, very few tedious ones. I can't lie and say that this collection is "easy" or "approachable," but if you're determined to dip into modern lit, grabbing a couple of stories from here is probably the best way to do so. Enjoy the ride!