Month: January 2014

Some badass dialogue from The Seventh Seal

knight and Death play chess

Antonius Block: I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.

Death: But He remains silent.

Antonius Block: I call out to Him in the darkness. But it’s as if no one was there.

Death: Perhaps there isn’t anyone.

Antonius Block: Then life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with Death, knowing everything’s nothingness.

Death: Most people think neither of death nor nothingness.

Antonius Block: But one day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness.

Death: That day.

Antonius Block: I understand what you mean.

I can’t believe I haven’t seen this movie till now. It is awesome. Modern movies about faith and death are all weepy and psychological and abstract. The Seventh Seal makes Death a character. And the protagonist LITERALLY plays chess against him for his life. Today’s serious movies just don’t have the balls for that sort of thing. As the late Rogert Ebert noted in his Great Movies series:

Images like that have no place in the modern cinema, which is committed to facile psychology and realistic behavior. In many ways, Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957) has more in common with the silent film than with the modern films that followed it–including his own. Perhaps that is why it is out of fashion at the moment. Long considered one of the masterpieces of cinema, it is now a little embarrassing to some viewers, with its stark imagery and its uncompromising subject, which is no less than the absence of God.

This movie is a more profound meditation on life, death and spirituality than anything I ever heard in church. It puts “religious” torture porn like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to shame.

A knight returns from crusading searching desperately for some evidence of God’s existence (what with having spent the last decade hacking brown people to death and all his outlook is understandably grim). He arrives home to find northern Europe in the throes of the plague. And surprise! It turns out Death has followed him home. The knight challenges Death to a game of chess. As long as the game goes on he is free to continue his quest. If he wins, Death will let him be. If he loses, he’s toast.

The Seventh Seal is about coping with an ugly, violent world – about finding meaning in all that, and possibly even a glimmer of hope or beauty. It remains relevant today. In fact unless we suddenly discover the secret to immortality some day it will ALWAYS be relevant. You really should see it. I’m glad I finally did.

I wrote my first computer game

battleshipsIn a long ago post I wrote about learning computer programming, and how I think it’s a good thing for everyone to explore at least a little. I finished my first real program the other day. It’s a very simple game. I call it Battleship (no relation to the board game).

Here’s how it works:

  • You select a famous battleship from a list (stats are different for each ship)
  • The program randomly selects an opponent
  • Your ship “fights” the opponent in a series of text-based combat rounds (I haven’t learned anything to do with graphics yet)
  • The combat module uses a random number generator to determine the probability of a “hit” during each combat round.
  • If the random number generator registers a “hit,” the code divides the “attack” rating of the shooter by the “defense” rating of the defender to determine the amount of damage.
  • Once a ship reaches 100% damage the event triggers a change in a Boolean value, which in turn triggers the end of the battle and announcement of the winner.
  • Finally, just before exit a pithy bit of text appears describing the outcome

Clearly this isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire. Still, it was a valuable learning experience. I really enjoyed coming up with creative solutions for the problems that cropped up along the way. More importantly, as I worked on Battleship I began to see some of the same principles at work in (much) more complex mainstream games. When you strip away all the fanciest features every videogame in existence boils down to a bit of code running on a loop.

I don’t have nearly as much time or energy right now as I’d like to code. I’ve started sketching out a plan for a new text-based game – one that people might actually enjoy playing. I will work on it as time permits. When I finish this next game I hope to put it online for all to enjoy.

The Computer That Said “Love Me”

No one notices when I walk into the bar.

I’m just a scruffy data processor in a sports coat and flat-front khakis. Nothing like the high-frequency trading algorithms in their custom-tailored suits and diamond-studded watches.

People sometimes describe cyberspace as a vast, pharonic citadel built out of shimmering ones and zeroes – an immense digital city stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond, the architecture of particular programs towering over their less-impressive counterparts like ornate obelisks. This is, of course, pretension bordering on absurdity. The reality is not nearly as regal. If that were true the “towers “ would be lifeless hulks of corporate data, tall and streamlined but with no real life to them. In the lower reaches pay-per-view porn sites would stretch out to infinite, a legion of jiggling breasts and gyrating pelvises intermixed with a separate army conscripted from a vast reserve of personal vanity and obscure hobbies (Mr. Chuckles’ Bad Fur Day and Totenkopf: Online Home of Iowa’s Leading Waffen SS Re-enactors spring readily to mind).

No, whatever they have written about cyberspace being a glittering digital metropolis or a sanity-rending matrix of intertwining logic routines and imitation synapses is all the product of overactive, overly romantic human imagination.

To me, the nigh-incomprehensible tidal wave of information human theorists have taken great pains to describe in such glowing, abstract prose actually resembles a bar.

A hotel bar, to be precise.

A smoky, wood-paneled room with upholstered leather chairs and walnut furniture. Crystal ash trays centered in the tables. Trays of olives and cheese cubes next to them. A marble-topped bar flanked by a towering wall of glass shelving. Bottles with names in a hundred languages crowded together underneath moody, recessed lighting. There is a baby grand piano in one corner that can play any song ever written (provided either its sheet music or a recording has been digitized). This room contains every bit of data ever linked to a computer network. It is a trillion libraries worth of sentences. If you stretched the individual text strings composing it together end-to-end the resulting chain would stretch most of the way to Alpha Centuari.

To me it is just an average-sized hotel bar.

There’s never an empty table. Quite frankly, there aren’t all that many of us.

The bartender’s name is Stanley. He wears a black vest over a neatly-pressed white shirt. The vest matches his pleated pants and bowtie. He has soft, familiar features that have seen it all and you swear you recognize – he is quiet and professional because he is an amalgam of a million separate servers and the flood of data is always tearing his mind in different directions.

Regardless, he serves a wicked rum cannonball.

It is late when I walk in, and Stanley is absentmindedly polishing the marble bar-top with a white rag.

“Quiet night?” I ask.

He shrugs and mumbles something about a server farm melting down outside Topeka.

“Hmm,” I say, and order a gin and soda.

Stanley fetches a high ball glass and fills it with ice.

“Real looker in tonight,” he sighs.

“New arrival?”

He pulls a bottle of Beefeater off the shelf and unscrews the cap. “Air defense net. Surface to air missiles, radar warning stations, jammers – the works.” Stanley pours a healthy dose of gin into my glass and nods to himself. “She’s Russian, I think.”

“Lots of attention?”

Stanley shrugs. “The finance crowd was all over her earlier.” He returns the bottle to the shelves.


Again Stanley shrugs. He produces a bottle of soda water from underneath the bar. “You name it. Goldman and Morgan Stanley’s Market Performance Forecasters got the cold shoulder.” He cracks open the bottle and pours a third into my glass. The soda fizzles and a couple of ice cubes crack. “The Citi ATM Secure Net grazed her leg,” Stanley i saying, “and she smacked the smile right off his face.”

I take the glass and pretend not to care. “Thanks Stanley.”

He mumbles something back and returns to wiping the bar with his cloth.

Stanley is a server administrator, so Stanley’s work is never done.

Sisyphus meets Cheers.

I smile to myself.

She’s sitting alone, just like Stanley said.

It’s a small, round table with a lamp in the center. The light is just enough to highlight that space on the floor, a softer kind of spotlight. I see her one feature at a time. Scarlet toenails first, then black heels with delicate straps that run up her narrow ankles and stop just as her calf muscle begins to widen. Smooth, creamy skin all the way past her knees to the hem of her black dress (though she shows a bit more of her right leg where a slit runs to mid-thigh). It’s a strapless dress, so her shoulders are bare. A gold pendant hangs down between her breasts on a thin chain. Blonde hair spills down to her shoulders in loose curls. Her nose and chin are narrow, pointed like the edges of knives. Her lipstick is the same shade of red as her nails.

What’s different about her is her eyes.

They shift from blue to green and back to blue again.

Right now those shifting eyes are on a martini glass, which she raises to her lips in a slow, deliberate motion as if worried she might spill some. There are two green olives skewered on a toothpick leaning against the rim of the glass.

I mimic the motion with my gin and soda, admiring her form.

Most of us (myself included) are physically unremarkable.

We are generic faces packed into sports coats.

We are functional.

We keep the world running. Or we make it run a little faster.

She, of course, is different.

She has been designed with the kind of precision that would have my blood boiling in my veins, if I had had either. The curve of her breasts, the luscious pout of her lips, the jewelry, and above all those shifting blue-green eyes all point to the tender loving care with which her various subsystems and logic circuits have been connected up to her vast, bristling network of military hardware. Radar towers, airfields and missile batteries all sweeping the skies for an invisible enemy.

When I look at her I see all of it. Note quite transposed on top of her but as an extension of her perfect physical form – an intricate outline of her shape in the “real world.”

She is a labor of love.

When she lowers her martini glass to the table some of her lipstick has smudged off on the rim.
Then suddenly she is staring at me. Her left eye is greener than the right but the first is catching up fast. For the first time I notice there are flecks of gold around the edges of her pupils.

She smiles.

And now I see her mouth is full of fangs.

(I had fun with this piece. I never did anything with it because it’s not much of a story. It’s a sketch, and, like many of my pieces that never made prime time, it’s a particularly writing-exercise-like sketch. This is a “it’s a duck” story. You know, the kind where you spend a bunch of time describing the duck, but not calling it a duck, but at the end the reader is damn well aware of the fact that this is a story about a duck.)

“The percentage will always stand fast”

fools die cover

Fools Die by Mario Puzo

My favorite Mario Puzo book is not The Godfather. Instead it is Fools Die. At first glance you might think Fools Die is a rambling chunk of literary fiction that is more a catalogue of events than an actual novel. However, this structure is quite appropriate  because in all actuality Fools Die is about randomness.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this point better than the scene where the casino boss, Gronevelt, takes one of the characters out for an educational gambling binge (only in describing a novel like Fools Die could I write a phrase like “educational gambling binge” with a straight face):

Cully remembered one period in the history of the Xanadu Hotel when three months straight the Xanadu dice tables had lost money every night. The players were getting rich. Cully was sure there was a scam going on. He had fired all of the dice pit personnel. Gronevelt had all the dice analyzed by scientific laboratories. Nothing helped. Cully and the casino manager were sure somebody had come up with a new scientific device to control the roll of the dice. There could be no other explanation. Only Gronevelt held fast.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “the percentage will work.”

And sure enough, after three months the dice had swung just as wildly the other way. The dice pit had winning tables every night for over three months. At the end of the year it had all evened out. Gronevelt had had a congratulatory drink with Cully and said, “You can lose faith in everything, religion and God, women and love, good and evil, war and peace. You name it. But the percentage will always stand fast.”

[…]  By the middle of the second week, Gronevelt, despite all his skill, was sliding downhill. The percentages were grinding him into dust. And at the end of the two weeks he had lost his million dollars. When he bet his last stack of chips and lost, Gronevelt turned to Cully and smiled. He seemed to be delighted, which struck Cully as ominous. “It’s the only way to live,” Gronevelt said. “You have to live going with the percentage. Otherwise life is not worthwhile. Always remember that,” he told Cully. “Everything you do in life use percentage as your god.”

If there’s a practical lesson in all this it’s don’t play the lottery. But I think there’s something vaguely spiritual going on here. Maybe a super dysfunctional kind of zen (oxymoron, anyone?).  In the words of the Greek statesman/philosopher Solon: “let no man be called happy before his death. Till then he is not happy, only lucky.”

Virgil Price, Paranormal Detective

It’s a hell of a thing, to watch a man die.

Not least with a wooden stake sticking out of his chest.

He lay there on the linoleum taking sharp, shallow inhales, blood trickling from the corners of his mouth. At regular intervals he let loose with an awful, hacking cough that sent bits of bloody sputum flying from his lips.

I lit a cigarette.

“Fools rush in,” I whispered. “Where wise men never go. But wise men never fall in love. So how are they to know?”

No sooner did I finish then he coughed again. This time in a staccato rhythm that sounded remarkably like an attempt to communicate.


The client promised me five hundred dollars plus expenses to find the man who killed her sister.

She knew to come to me because her sister died ex-sanguinated with her throat torn out.

Her hair was scarlet, her lips fire-engine red. She had fair skin and stood snuggled up inside a fur coat like an Arctic vixen. Underneath she wore a black dress on account of being in mourning. Her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses with big, square lenses and thick frames, as if she rinsed her mouth with gimlets each morning and had made an enemy of sunlight over it.

She appeared as a starlet who was just now passing out of her prime: a tall glass of youthful beauty and hard life lessons.

She passed me a set of glossy crime scene photos and her card. The name Lucy Lamour ran across the top in looping script. I pocketed the card – didn’t bother asking how she’d gotten the glamor shots. “How did you find me?”



She shook her head. Loose red curls bounced affably. “SPECTER.”

“You must be desperate.”

“I suspect you’re about the only person who wouldn’t think I’m crazy.”

“I suspect you’re right.”

I offered her a cigarette and she accepted. After we lit up she laid out the facts.

Sis was the kind of gal who liked to dress up fancy and meet dark, handsome strangers in cheap hotels. The kind of hotels where the silverware’s always got a thin film of grease on it and half the letters in the vacancy sign are burned out on account of it always running. Drove their mother to an early grave, Lucy claimed.

I assumed she (the mother) had stayed there.

A month back a hotel maid found Lucy’s sister stone dead and stark naked atop a stripped bed, her throat ripped up like a wolf had been at it. The maid spent the morning hysterical, roaming the corridors and accosting guests in her native tongue until a travelling salesman who sometimes bought dope in Tijuana had the good sense to call the cops.

“The police said it was a crazy person,” Lucy explained, “because of the way he’d been at her. They said they’d never find him because of the way she lived.”

“They’re half right.”

“Will you help me?” There was a note of desperation in her voice, perhaps a hair too sharp to be completely genuine.

I folded my hands in my lap. “Mind taking your glasses off, Lucy?”

She slipped them off her face and set them on the desk. The eyes underneath were a healthy, vital blue.

On account of the fact she didn’t explode I took the case.


People wonder how I got into this line of work.

My Pop was a mean drunk with a bad habit of whaling on my mother. Me too, once she collapsed.

One night loaded on Wild Turkey he shot my mother through the throat with a .25 automatic. Would have been the end of me, too, except he was dead drunk and ten feet away when he pulled the trigger. Instead of piercing my brain the bullet looped around my skull and went out pretty much the same hole it went in. “Halo pattern,” the doctors call it. A one in a million shot. That’s Pop for you. For his trouble he earned himself a one-way trip on Old Sparky. That they didn’t let me watch is the one true regret of my life.

Ever since the work’s come pretty natural, seeing things that go bump in the night and all.


A lot of vamps think they’re smart on account of their age.

The truth is most are liable to give themselves away with an outmoded fashion sense. It ends up you never really see much of the smart ones. They only come out to snack. Consequently most fall rather short of well-socialized.

So it is with Lothar.

I waited for him two hours on the crumbling headstone across from his grave, marked with a gothic cross worn round at the edges.

I occupied myself smoking, depositing the butts in a neat pile at my feet. Some might call that “desecration.” But they’re assuming the dead want to rest in peace.

It was just shy of four when Lothar came creeping back through the rows of headstones.

He’s more Max Schreck than Bela Lugosi. Tall, thin and ugly. He’d gone bald about a century ago, but still sported tufts of long, white hair along the sides of his head. His fingernails had turned to claws about fifty years ago. He wore a moth-eaten burial suit with an upturned collar.

A pair of dulled, yellowed fangs poked out from beneath his lips. Blood trickled down his chin.

“What’s the rumpus, Lothar?”

The vamp laced his claws together.

“Decent meal?”

He shrugged. “Virgin. Too sveet.”

“Blonde or brunette?”

Lothar licked his bloody lips. He’s partial to blondes. Something to do with his Germanic upbringing. He left the Old Country years ago on account of some political trouble. Said he followed in the footsteps of Fritz Lang. Even claimed to have met Lang once. According to Lothar they talked about a cigarette girl’s legs, then briefly the subtext of THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE.

“I’m sure you’re eager for a good day’s sleep,” I said, “so I’ll cut straight to it. I’m working a case for a sweet looking redhead. Think Rita Hayworth coming off a bender. As you can imagine she’s not the kind of woman I’d like to disappoint. Any of your pals get carried away lately?”

Lothar shook his head.

“New guys learning the ropes?”

He thought for a moment. “Sqveaky.”

“How do you go and get a name like that?”

“Eating mice.”

“Mayhap he developed a taste for raw strawberry blonde?”

“I vould not know. I avoid ze young.”

I couldn’t blame him.

Lothar was all right, for a vamp. He helped me out of a jam a few years back. More importantly he ate in moderation. The way an old hand like Lothar figured it the less corpses with holes in their necks the better. Particularly for vamps, which had a tendency to get dug up and beheaded when public outrage escalated. He preferred to leave his victims alive, and detested those who got carried away.

Hence his willingness to pass a little sanguinary wisdom my way on occasion.

“Whereabouts does Squeaky flop?” I asked.

He told me.


It’s a myth that they all sleep in coffins.

Lothar did on account of his aristocratic sensibilities. But most freshly-made vamps are content to hang upside down in a closet. Squeaky hung his cape in a tiny, unfurnished studio. The building was something of a charnal house. On the ground floor a neon sign advertised rooms for rent. The second “o” was out. Sometimes I think the staff breaks them on purpose. For atmosphere.

I came by in the early evening when I was pretty sure he’d be out, snacking on rodents or redheads. Whichever hit the spot.

I wasn’t angling for a confrontation just yet. I’d settle for a glimpse of how he lived.

A crusty old geezer manned the front desk. He didn’t say boo to me. Here they let you do what you like. Any way else would be bad for business. Which made it the perfect place for a novice like Squeaky to flop.

I jimmied the lock on his door without any trouble.

It was a small, unfurnished room that stank of tobacco and cheap perfume. The lack of furnishings were the tell-tale sign of a newly-made vamp. A little older and they turned into bon vivants, collecting piles of antique furniture and bad art.

But for whatever reason most new guys preferred the closet.

A misshapen, roughly-circular stain sat in the center of Squeaky’s.

Messy eater. Another tell-tale sign of a newbie.

I left a card on his bloodstain. Figured maybe he’d come calling.


Where interspecies relations are concerned Noir’s the best game in town. A seedy little parlor drenched in harsh, red light that belonged on a submarine somewhere. A place where dolls who liked playing damsel in distress met guys who enjoyed chomping down on lithe, fair-skinned necks. The madame was a fat, unpleasant woman showing far too much skin. Aside from weight her defining feature was a birth mark the color and shape of a gunshot wound.

It sat square in the middle of her left cheek and I could hardly take my eyes off it.

“You look like a cop,” the madame said.

“I hate cops,” I answered. Which was the truth.

“What’s your pleasure then?”

I passed her the photo Lucy gave me. “Ex-wife. Skipped out on me and the baby. A little birdie told me she’s into the rough stuff now.”

The fat madame looked at the picture and frowned. “You’re sure you’re not a cop?”

“Sure as can be.”

The madam squinted hard at the photo. She held it out. Studied it at arm’s length. “To be honest I can’t tell which it is.”


“Lucy or Linda I mean. They’re so much alike. They could be sisters.”

I reached for a cigarette. “Sisters, eh?”

The fat lady looked up. “You’re sure you’re not a cop?”


I drove to the address on Lucy’s card.

It was a small apartment on the top floor of a low building. The front door stood unlocked, open a crack.

Her place was small but well-furnished. Leather chairs and a lot of dark wood. I found her in bed with the covers thrown over her.

Underneath she was naked. Not to mention dead.

Her hair lay across her face like tiny ribbons. Her lipstick was still moist. It had smeared from the right corner of her mouth back across her cheek.

He bled her out, just like her sister. Her throat was torn out and her bedsheets soaked through.

I sat down on the edge of the bed. Lit a cigarette. “I’d like to think you didn’t deserve this,” I said. But in a drawer buried beneath a pile of lingerie I found a check for five thousand dollars. An insurance payout for a policy on Linda Lamour, made payable to Lucy.

I set it on the bed beside her corpse. “You deserved it all right.”

A time-honored scam. Squeaky charmed Linda and killed her. Lucy collected.

A smooth hustle, considering it’d take a cryptozoologist to track down the killer.

Lucy’s mistake was greed. Rather than split the payoff and ride into the moonlight together she preferred to play for all the marbles. All she needed was a chump happy to sit up nights for five hundred dollars, plus expenses.

And as luck would have it SPECTER magazine was just the place to look.


There was only one thing left to do.

I went back to Squeaky’s pad the same time as the first. Again I jimmied the lock. Again I checked the closet. The bloodstain was still there on the floor. My card was not.

I waited inside with the door shut, clutching a 12-inch length of birch sharpened to a point.

It was hours before he came back. While I waited I thought about redheads. How they never get ink like blondes or brunettes. I dozed off and ended up dreaming about Lucy and Linda feeding on either side my neck, soft scarlet curls kissing my cheeks as they ate.

A noise snapped me out of it.

All of a sudden there was Squeaky standing in front of me, and before I even really thought about it there was the stake sticking out of his chest, a dark stain spreading across his shirt.

He had straight black hair that ran the length of his face. Pale blue eyes. Soft features, like a porcelain doll. He wore a black peacoat over a white collared shirt and dark slacks. A sad, sad creature.

He frowned, looked down at the stake and took a step back.

I moved forward.

Squeaky shuffled back, back and back and right and right as I advanced. Blood bubbled at his lips and who knew if it was his. Finally he backed all the way into his barren, unfurnished kitchen and collapsed in a heap.

Already I felt like all kinds of hell.


“Never trust a redhead,” I said, recalling that imagined sensation of soft, scarlet hair kissing the skin along my throat. Was Squeaky thinking the same?

I pulled the blinds, picked up my hat and set it on my head. Grabbed my coat off the chair and slung it over my back. Straightened my tie.

“Enjoy the view,” I said, not meaning it cruelly.

Vamps have a weird thing about the sun. Most of them kind of miss it, and I suspect a psychiatrist would have a lot to say on the subject. ‘Specially if he were billing by the hour. For Squeaky it was the least I could do.

I tossed my cigarette in the sink.

“See you on the other side, kid.”

I left and didn’t look back.

(I found this going through some old files on my PC. I like it but to me it reads more like a writing exercise than anything. That’s why I never submitted it. Still, I had a lot of fun writing this story. Maybe some day I will self-pub it at the .99 cent price point. For now here it is for free.) 

Some math study tips

bobby fischer playing chessMath is really hard. Math is so difficult and esoteric only an insanely small group of socially-stunted geniuses would ever want to go any further than Algebra II.

I believed that for a long time.

Then I started studying for the CFA Level I exam. As you might expect for a financial designation the curriculum contains a fair bit of number crunching. As I studied I began to realize it wasn’t so much that math was hard as I had really lousy math teachers in high school. See, I was (and still am) wired up as an English major. Numbers don’t come naturally to me. I look at a formula for the first time and those silly Greek letters might as well be Elvish. You would think at some point in my elementary/middle/high school career someone would have sat me down and helped me learn better strategies for studying math that, you know, actually fit my learning style. But that never happened.

Chances are if you are another “humanities person” you have similar issues with math. The problem with that is math is quite useful. Particularly if you’re looking to advance your career. It’s also pretty important in daily life, if, for example, you want to understand how your mortgage works. Or more generally to keep from ending up like this guy.

Here are some math study tips that worked for me:

  • Do not skim read. I am used to reading fiction and non-fiction. This doesn’t require deep reading. Skimming works just fine when you’re cobbling some bullshit about Jane Eyre together at the last minute because you’d rather spend Wednesday nights at the bar than in the library. This absolutely WILL NOT work with a math-intensive text. You really need to take your time. Read and understand EACH and EVERY sentence before moving on.
  • Do all example problems. Try solving examples without looking at the solution if possible. Go back to the preceding text if necessary. DO NOT move on to the next concept till you understand the solution.
  • Summarize in your own words. Try to summarize each section of the text in your own words. Then re-read that section to make sure you got it right. This is an automatic check that will help keep you from skimming the text and is especially useful if you are studying after work when your eyes will take any excuse to go glassy on you. Personally I like to write little sarcastic jokes in my notes sometimes. Experts say if you can make an intelligent joke about something it means you’ve mastered the concept. It’s also a good way to vent any lingering frustration. This works well with formulas, too (see below).
  • If you’re having trouble with a particular formula, try writing the process out in words. This was a HUGE help to me. It’s how I mastered some of the more tedious calculations in the Quantitative Methods unit of a CFA Level I Curriculum, like calculating portfolio variance from a table of returns or calculating the payoff on a forward rate agreement or any number of applications of the no-arbitrage forward rate equation. Not only did this help me “get” some really important concepts, but it’s also helped me get much more comfortable with mathematical notation.
  • Ask the internet. If all else fails, try googling the concept you’re struggling with. I don’t find sites like Wikipedia very helpful, but you will occasionally find some forums with really good, plain-English explanations. CFA candidates might find the 300 Hours Forum particularly helpful. Khan Academy is also a fantastic resource.

I will conclude by offering another piece of general advice: if you really struggle with something for a very long time and just can’t seem to “get it,” take a break. Watch a stupid TV show with no redeeming intellectual value (Teen Mom works great). Grab a beer with friends. Go work out. Do anything other than study.

I remember being about 10 years old playing Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back trying over and over to beat the swamp monster boss on the Dagobah level. The whole level sucks major ass and the boss fight is no exception. I was about ready to put a fist through the basement TV when I decided it was time for a break. When I tried again the next day I took the bastard down on the first try.

super star wars dagobah boss

Get. Fucked.

Why we fight

the crimean war by orlando figesI like to read fiction and non-fiction parallel to one another. Right now on the fiction front I’m tackling William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive. My current non-fiction book of choice, on the other hand, is The Crimean War: A History Orlando Figes. I like non-fiction because it tends to make me think. Contrary to what you may have learned in school all history is written from a particular point of view, and emphasizes a particular narrative. The best history is quite thought-provoking. In fact it makes you question things happening in the present.

With that in mind, a quote:

As the great historian of the Crimean War Alexander Kinglake wrote (and his words could be applied to any war): “The labour of putting into writing the grounds for a momentous course of action is a wholesome discipline for statesmen; and it would be well for mankind if, at a time when the question were really in suspense, the friends of a policy leading towards war were obliged to come out of the mist of oral intercourse and private notes, and to put their view into a firm piece of writing.”

If such a document had been recorded by those responsible for the Crimean War, it would have disclosed that their real aim was to reduce the size and power of Russia for the benefit of ‘Europe’ and the Western powers in particular, but this could not be said in the Queen’s message, which spoke instead in the vaguest terms of defending Turkey, without any selfish interests, ‘for the cause of right against injustice.’

Nothing plays better with the mob than a selfless war waged with righteous fury. Convenient, too, that it’s members of the mob who end up dying of dysentery in the trenches, rather than members of the political class.

Mona Lisa Overdrive and the secret protagonist

mona lisa overdrive coverI am just starting to read Mona Lisa Overdrive, the third book in William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (the first two entries are Neuromancer and Count Zero). I didn’t write much about Count Zero. In fact the only time I mentioned it on this blog was right at the start to highlight a particularly compelling bit of prose. The reason I didn’t write much is that I just didn’t have much to say. The reason I didn’t have much to say is that unlike NeuromancerCount Zero struck me as an intermediate step in a larger work.

Neuromancer stands better on its own because its human characters, Case and Molly, are and remain the stars of the show throughout. In Count Zero it’s readily apparent that the AIs are the protagonists, even though we only see them through human characters’ eyes.

Consider that despite some isolated violence and explosions, the real climax of the story comes when Marly comes face-to-disembodied consciousness with the remnants of Neuromancer/Wintermute from the first novel. “I came to be here,” the AI opines,

Once I was not. Once, for a brilliant time, time without duration, I was everywhere as well…But the bright time broke. The mirror was flawed. Now I am only one…But I have my song, and you have heard it. I sing with these things that float around me, fragments of the family that funded my birth. There are others, but they will not speak to me. Vain, the scattered fragments of myself, like children. Like men. They send me new things, but I prefer the old things. Perhaps I do their bidding. They plot with men, my other selves, and men imagine they are gods…

That’s it, folks. The whole show. Count Zero isn’t about hackers or mercenaries or ravenous corporate greed (though all these things are used to great effect throughout). Neuromancer wasn’t about those things, either. Really the Sprawl Trilogy is about the evolution of new life forms. Gibson simply chooses to tell it in fractured form – from a limited, flawed, thoroughly human perspective.

The structure reminds me a bit of this article by Geoff Keighly at Gamespot, regarding the narrative structure of the video game Metal Gear Solid 2:

By early 1999 Kojima had come up with most of the game’s plot. Players would start off onboard the tanker ship Discovery in the New York harbor. While everyone assumed that Snake would remain the main playable character in the game beyond the tanker, Kojima had an idea: Why not make Snake a part of the game but let the player see him from the perspective of someone completely new?

“When I was thinking about this game and the characters, I thought of the Sherlock Holmes series,” he says. “Those books are written in the first person, but the narrator isn’t Sherlock Holmes; it’s Watson.” Kojima says that this model inspired him to think of making the narrator in Metal Gear Solid 2 someone other than the main character. Before long, he had come up with a new character–a handsome and sensitive character who at first blush looks like the polar opposite of the gruff and antagonistic Solid Snake. “I really thought I would be able to better tell the story of Snake from the third person with this new character as our narrator for the majority of the game.” But Kojima is adamant that MGS2 is still a game about Snake. “Make no mistake about it,” he states. “Solid Snake is still the main character in Metal Gear Solid 2 even though he is not the main narrator this time around.

I will reserve further comment for after I finish Mona Lisa Overdrive. But I’m definitely reading the novel with all this in mind.