Rules for the Effective Hero

While reading the Evil Overlord List, I was inspired to create its counterpart- a list of rules for any aspiring hero to avoid the most common, cliche’ mistakes. My resolve to write this list was strengthened while watching a certain terrible anime.

This list is dedicated to anyone who is the hero in their dreams- may you make your dreams real. Please read, and if you think of any rules- add them in the comments!

 

  1. Do not play a game the villain has stacked against you, even if he calls you a chicken or uses a mean voice.

2.If the key that you’re protecting will destroy the world if it falls in the wrong hands, just go ahead and throw it in the nearest volcano.

3. Don’t turn down rewards to appear noble. Saving the world is a worthy cause that needs funding.

4. Give weapons and combat training to the beautiful damsel as soon as possible. Give the same training to the cute kid.

5. Don’t leave the ailing king in his obvious, poorly-guarded palace. Don’t wait until the palace is under attack to spirit him away through a hidden passage.

6. Don’t pin all of your hopes on the power of love. Superior technology, strength, and political power are pretty cool, too.

7. Don’t leave your friends in a misguided attempt to protect them.

8. If a villager mentions a legendary item, you will have to find it. If all of the villagers warn you not to go into the mysterious forest or cave, you will have to go.

9. The old adage is true- never split the party.

10. Don’t trust the beautiful, mysterious princess that you just happened to rescue from the dungeon.

11. Give alms to every old woman you come across. If you sneer at her appearance, don’t be surprised if she curses you.

12. Listen to the mysterious old hermit- especially if he sounds crazy.

13. When everything seems to be going well, you are unwittingly working for the bad guy. When everything goes wrong, assume the same.

14. When you face the bad guy, don’t just sit and listen as he gloats about his evil scheme. Use the distraction to attack or escape.

15. Don’t waste your time with the bumbling minions. They mostly exist to give the boss a chance to escape.

16. Don’t assume the villain is gone for good. Double tap.

17.When you enter the villain’s lair, look for the quickest escape route first. Look for the self-destruct button second.

18. If you find yourself spending an unexpectedly happy, peaceful day with your long-lost loved ones, you are really in a dungeon under a spell.

19. Work out a reliable code with your true love ahead of time, so you can shoot the real doppelganger.

20. Collateral damage is bad PR.

21.Don’t throw away the guard’s uniforms as soon as you infiltrate the castle. Keep your mask on.

22. Asking the villain, “why did you do it?” is usually pointless.

23. Maybe, deep down, you and the villain aren’t so different, but least you aren’t trying to destroy the world. That still counts for something.

24. If there is a very good reason to disregard any of these rules, do so- especially this one.

Captain Quasar Saves Christmas

 

It was an ordinary night at the Corrosive Mold Inn.

Captain Quasar sat in his usual stool, the one furthest from the stench that emanated from the kitchen, nursing a glass of Alterran whiskey. An onlooker would have called his posture relaxed- Captain Quasar seemed unaffected by the chaos in the bar around him- but an especially observant onlooker would notice that Captain Quasar’s right hand never strayed too far from the laser pistol that rested in his hip holster.

Captain Quasar downed his whiskey, and was about to call for another when the bar fell silent. Quasar sighed. There were two things that would cause the patrons of the rowdy bar to stop and take notice of anything other than their gambling, petty squabbles, and chatting up the barmaids. Those two things were named Elmer and Ray Eris.

Sure enough, in the next moment the bartender shouted, “it’s the Eris brothers!” and dove under the bar.

“Now settle down, Tobias,” Elmer Eris sat to Captain Quasar’s left and slapped his hand on the bar. “I’m a paying customer. We don’t want any trouble.”

Captain Quasar shifted uneasily in his seat, remembering the last time Elmer Eris had said the words, “we don’t want any trouble.” Two people had been taken out of the bar in body bags, and another two had ended up in traction.

After a few moments the bartender cautiously emerged from behind the bar.

Elmer smiled, baring his mouthful of sharp, green teeth “Just give me the usual, Tobias.”

The bartender, Tobias, sat staring at Elmer. A single drop of sweat trickled down his forehead.

“What’s the matter?” Ray Eris asked, sitting down on Captain Quasar’s right. “Don’t you remember Elmer’s favorite drink?”

Captain Quasar’s head shook almost imperceptibly. Elmer ordered a different drink every time he entered the Inn.

“Of- of course I remember,” Tobias stammered, grabbing a bottle of beer from behind the bar.

Elmer grabbed the bottle from Tobias’s hand, smashed it on the floor, and looked back at Tobias, still grinning.

“So- ah,” Tobias stammered, trying another bottle, “will you boys be in town long?”

“Just long enough to get what we need,” Elmer said, smashing the second bottle.

Tobias turned around and quickly grabbed several bottles at once. Elmer smiled, grabbed the bottle of Alterran whiskey, and swept the rest of the bottles onto the floor.

“After all of these spills, I guess this drink is on the house.”

Tobias nodded, grabbed a mop, and shuffled over to the broken bottles piled on the floor.

“Hey Elmer- there’s the old man,” Ray said abruptly, and the two men stood and strode toward the far corner of the room.

“Here, Tobias. I’ve got this round.” Captain Quasar slapped 50 credits on the bar- more than enough to pay for the wasted booze. Then Captain Quasar stood and walked slowly toward the crowd in the back, which was beginning to form around the Eris brothers.

“Hey, old man,” Elmer Eris was saying to an old man who sat in the back corner, “you owe me 80 credits for the power converters.”

Elmer  and Ray had flanked the old man, each grinning their reptilian grins, but the old man seemed nonplussed. He leaned back in his chair, twirling the end of his long, white beard.

“Now Elmer- we settled on 50 credits, and I paid you fair and square.”

“Price just went up, old man. Your ship is old, and those parts are hard to come by. Let’s call it opportunity costs.”

The old man sighed. “I’ve taken a look at the power converters- the serial numbers were filed off, as though they were stolen.”

“You calling us thieves, old man?” Ray growled.

The old man stood slowly, and looked Ray right in his yellow eyes. “All I’m saying, Ray, is that it seems like you and your brother are both on the ‘naughty’ list this year.”

Elmer’s left hand reached for his ray gun. “You a bounty hunter, old man?”

At those words, Ray reached for his ray gun as well, but before either brother could draw, two shots rang out. A stunner hit Elmer square in the back, and as Ray turned to face the attacker, another blast hit him in the hand, knocking his ray gun to the floor.

Ray growled- a low, menacing rumble that emanated from an air sac under his chin. “You don’t seem to know who you’re dealing with, stranger. Why don’t you run along and mind your own business.”

“I know who you are,” Captain Quasar said. “I’ve been tracking you two across the galaxy. Thing is, tonight is my night off, and I came here to mind my own business and have a drink in peace. But you two made a mess of the joint, cost me 50 credits, and drank the last of the Alterran whiskey.”

“So?” Ray said.

“So tonight, I rid the galaxy of two more scumbags.”

Captain Quasar raised his ray gun and readied another shot.

“Now go easy on the boys,” the old man interrupted. “After all, it is Christmas eve.”

“It’s Christmas- what?” Captain Quasar said, turning to the old man.

Ray chose that moment to dive for his ray gun, but Captain Quasar  spun back toward him and hit him with a blast square in the back of the neck.

“Don’t worry- it was a stunner,” Captain Quazar said. He holstered his ray gun and grabbed the unconscious brothers by the napes of their necks. “I only get the bounty if I bring them in alive.”

The old man smiled a wide, toothless grin.

 

#

 

“What a night,” Captain Quazar groaned after he’d deposited the Eris brothers in his ship’s brig. He threw himself into the cracked and torn pilot seat, leaned back, and closed his eyes.

Then he opened an eye just a crack, noticing a red envelope on the dash. With a groan, Captain Quasar sat up, grabbed the envelope, and leaned back in his seat again.

Dear Captain Quasar,

I had my doubts about you, but tonight you proved yourself to be one of the good guys. You helped Tobias, saved my neck, and brought the Eris brothers in, unharmed. For the first Christmas ever, you’ve made the “good” list. In this spirit, I’ve outfitted your ship with the new railgun you wanted.

Merry Christmas,

Santa Claus

 

Captain Quasar jumped up, ran to the window, and there, at the front of the ship, was a brand new railgun topped with a bright red bow.

Captain Quasar really wished he’d been able to finish his Alterran whiskey. He sat back down, took the controls, and started his ship’s engines.

 

Merry Christmas

 

They are Going to Burn me as a Witch

Day 1

 

The stone steps were rough and frigid against my bare feet as I climbed down into the dungeon. The damp, stagnant air clung to my naked skin.

I’d been stripped, doused in cold water, and pricked with needles. The worst part, however, hadn’t been the cold or the pain, or even the humiliation as my naked skin had been examined, inch by inch, for any marks. No- the worst part had been the night before, when they’d found me, dragged me from my home, and torn my child from my arms.

My baby’s cries seemed to echo, ghostlike, in the silent dungeon around me.

They hadn’t bothered to give me any clothes after my examination. They’d merely clapped an iron around my neck and handed the chain to an old woman. She didn’t speak- she’d only pulled on the chain and led me to my cell.

By the time we reached the bottom step, all light had faded. The old woman didn’t stop to light a torch or a candle. She continued to lead me, sure footed and steady, into the darkness.

Soon we stopped, and I heard the clinking of iron, followed by the creak of a door. The old woman thrust me into the room.

There was just a little light now- a candle’s light was flickering in an adjacent cell, and it shone through the bars on the narrow window. There was no candle in my cell, however, and nowhere to put it. There was only a small bed of straw on the floor, and some strange markings on the wall before me.

I stared at the wall as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and soon I could make out a small spot, within a circle, within a larger oval- a drawing of a huge eye was staring at me.

The old woman coughed and then spoke- her voice was the same pitch as the creaky cell door.

“Tell me, girl; do you wish to die?”

“Of course not,” I said hotly.

The old woman only laughed in reply, and then she shuffled away, slamming the cell door behind her.

Day 2

 

I didn’t sleep at all the night before. Instead, I’d sat in my cell, cold and numb, staring at the eye on the wall, which stared at me in return.

Soon after the sun rose the old woman returned for me, and took me back up the stairs. There I met the inquisitor, who introduced himself by branding my skin with a hot iron. It had already been determined that I am a witch- the inquisitor just wanted names, and he seemed ready to supply some if I couldn’t think of any. I didn’t speak. All I could do was think of my child, and weep.

That night, the old woman took me back to my cell. Before she left me, she turned to me and said, “do you wish to die?”

This time, I couldn’t say anything.

The old woman laughed again, and shut the door to the cell, leaving me alone with the eye.

Day 3

The next day, no one came for me.

I sat in my cell, staring at the eye until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I turned away from it and tried to sleep, but I could feel the eye staring at me. As I grew drowsier, the sensation grew stronger- the eye seemed to burn into my bare skin, like the eye of the inquisitor searching for any mark or stain on my soul.

The closer it looked, the more it burned.

I was wakened at sunset, when the old woman came and opened my cell. She put a bowl of gruel on the floor for me, and watched as I drank it down.

There was so little gruel, and it was so thin, that it only moistened my dry throat a little.

“Do you wish to die?” she repeated.

“No, I don’t. I wish to go home. I wish to see my child,” I said roughly.

The old woman just stared at me, and then left.

 

Day 10

 

They haven’t brought me any food since the day the thumb screws were applied, and I couldn’t use my hands to eat. The inquisitor put the bowl of gruel on the floor, and he and the guard laughed at me while I drank from the bowl like a dog.

Ever since, I’ve been left alone in my cell.

Today the old woman took me up into the courtyard and there I could see the pyre they’ve built for me. Then she led me back into my cell, where the eye waited- ever watchful. The old woman waited while I collapsed onto my straw mat, and then she spoke.

“Do you wish to die?”

For a time I couldn’t speak, and then I managed to croak, “I just want this to be over.”

“What would you give to get your wish?”

“Anything.”

Then the old woman pressed a wooden bowl into my hands.

I drank. The bowl was filled with putrid water, but I didn’t care. I drank long and deep, until there was no drop left. Then I let the bowl drop from my aching hands.

I could hear the old woman’s laugh echoing in the cell- echoing in my head. I looked up at the watchful eye even as my vision blurred.

And then, everything went black.

The Reading Nook- Book 1

I’ve had so much fun reading this summer, that I’ve decided to post a few recommendations. I also have a few standalone posts I’ve been working on, as well. I will continue to post regular serial updates, but every once in a while, it’s good to break up the monotony.

Surely you're joking

Surely You’re Joking, Mr, Feynman

 

The title Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman comes from a story of Richard Feynman’s days at Princeton. When he first arrived, any social faux pas he made would be met with this phrase and some nervous laughter. Feynman, whose brash nonconformist attitude is written in every page of this book, must have heard this phrase repeated often.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman isn’t a comprehensive biography, but rather, a series of stories that give glimpses into his unique genius and experiences.

Most of my favorite stories in this book take place in Los Alamos, where Feynman worked with some of the most brilliant minds of the day on the Manhattan Project. He was barely out of school when he worked on the project, and indeed, began work before he’d even finished his dissertation. Feynman describes himself as being fairly low on the hierarchy when he began in Los Alamos, and this perspective seems to have allowed him to view a lot of the nitty-gritty. When I think of the Manhattan Project,I always get a very lofty mental image of a tightly-run, top-secret facility filled with the best and brightest.  Feynman, however, describes a very rushed project plagued with construction issues, security that was full of holes, and one barely averted major disaster. Feynman’s antics at the facility were amazingly irreverent and entertaining to read.

Another chapter focused on Feynman’s time in Brazil, and the fun he had performing in a samba band. This section of the book featured a prescient address that he gave at the end of his stay- a scathing assessment on the state of science education in Brazil. His words described the current state of science education in the US with chilling accuracy. When Feynman later recounts the time he spent on a US school board curriculum committee, his criticism is equally scathing, but ends on a much more hopeless note. The school where he spoke in Brazil seemed to heed his words, but the US curriculum committee did not.

There was a great deal of levity in this book, but there was one chapter in particular that made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Feynman described lessons he was given in how to pick up girls in bars, and even though this must have taken place before the modern “pick up artist” movement began, his technique would best be described as “negging.” Even though, at the end of the chapter, Feynman mentions that he didn’t like using this technique, he states later on that he “had learned in New Mexico many years before not to be a gentleman.”

Feynman also expresses disdain toward the humanities and those who study them. However, he would often reach out to artists, and in doing so to created a dialogue with people who have different points of view. In fact, in trying to understand art, he became an accomplished artist in his own right.

Despite its negative aspects, I greatly enjoyed this book. Feynman’s approach to problems, and his way of breaking them down and understanding them in a concrete way- even though he was a theoretical physicist- was brilliant. He had a way of cutting through sophistry that so many brilliant people get caught up in, and approaching things in a practical way. Feynman’s passion for empiricism, coupled with his sense of fun, made up his unique genius.

How We Vote

Please note that I’m doing my best to write this from a politically neutral viewpoint. If at some point, my deconstruction fails and it seems like I’m endorsing a certain party, this is unintentional. Assume I’m an alien from another planet.

I was inspired on this post on the Bayesian Conspiracy podcast- as well as by recent election shenanigans- to think about how people vote, and more importantly, why.

We’re all familiar, I think, with the old idea of the rational agent- that people will vote in a way to benefit their self-interests. On the surface, this idea seems like it would work. The ill-informed rational agent would vote in an almost random fashion, based on the gaps in their knowledge, leaving the well informed to pick up the slack, so things may go well even when it’s difficult to wade through the complexities of the proposed policies. We would, if people really vote in their own interests, end up with policies that benefit the majority of citizens. Of course, this would only work in a perfect democracy, where one person equals one vote and everyone is able to vote.

In a system of rational agents, when confronted with an issue that only affects a small minority, the majority wouldn’t have enough incentive to vote contrary to the minority’s interests. The major problems with a system like this is that if a specific class of people were better informed, they would vote in their own interest, and the interest of the ill-informed would be less-well represented. Also, policy that benefits a simple majority isn’t the same as policy that is optimized- that is, that benefits the greatest number of people possible.

The old idea of people acting as rational agents is quickly disappearing, however. Caplan, in his Myth of the Rational Voter argues, among other things, that people don’t vote in a way that will benefit them, because the effect of their vote is so small that there is little cost to voting in a way that makes them feel good. In other words, people vote how they feel they should, which is more prone to bias.

The real question, then, is how to build a system of democracy that benefits the greatest number of people possible, and also has safeguards against systemic bias. One system I’ve seen proposed is futarchy, in which people would bet on beliefs. It seems to me that futarchy would be weighted toward those who are able to invest more. A technocracy based on a computerized model runs into a similar problem: who programs the computer?

For now, I suppose we should continue to rely on our constitutional democracy, as much as the system seems to be malfunctioning. A constitution serves as some control against the more egregious forms of bias, and voters can do their best to educate themselves and update their beliefs based on the available data. In other words, until we’re able to truly optimize the system based on everything we’ve learned, we’ll muddle through.

Adventures in Amateur Astronomy-Part I

I had many reasons not to get a telescope, from lack of storage space, to the lack of a safe, dimly-lit place to stargaze. So, naturally, when asked what I wanted for my birthday this year, I’d already chosen the model of telescope I wanted.

I chose the Orion 4.5 starblast based on several recommendations;  the telescope has a reputation of being good for beginners. I ordered a model with an equatorial mount because it was not recommended for beginners. If I’m going to learn astronomy, I figured, I should learn astronomy. Once I get used to finding and tracking objects on my own, I’ll look into computerized object locators and motorized tracking.

I felt giddy with anticipation as my birthday drew near, but I managed to wait until midnight on my birthday to open it. I wasn’t able to do a very thorough examination of the box’s contents, due to an unexpected illness in the family, and I spent the next day in the doctor’s office.

The day after my birthday, however, I was able to begin setting up my telescope.

tripod

 

I was halfway through the assembly before I realized that one of the mounting rings, which is necessary to attach the telescope to the mount, was missing. I called the Orion company’s customer service line, and they told me that, since the telescope had been purchased through amazon, I would need to e-mail them a copy of the invoice.

I sent Orion an e-mail with a note stating that the second mounting ring was missing, and I attached the invoice. Orion sent an e-mail in reply stating that they would soon send me another e-mail. Finally- progress!

When I received the second e-mail, the representative expressed confusion regarding which item I was missing. I’d told them, twice now, that a tube mounting ring was missing, but the representative thought that perhaps I didn’t mean the entire mounting ring, but rather a small black washer that screwed into the top.

 

In order to avoid any further confusion, I called the customer service line directly, armed with my case number. When I was finally transferred to the right person, I explained that yes- in fact- the whole tube mounting ring was missing, and yes, I had checked all of the boxes.

“That’s weird- the telescope should have come with two tube mounting rings.”

“I know, right?”

After confirming that I’d really ordered the telescope, I was really missing a mounting ring, and I wasn’t some random person trying to scam them so I could run a black market for telescope mounting rings, Orion was nice enough to send me the missing part, and I was able to assemble the telescope.

telescope

If you’ll notice, the black washer was missing from the top of my new mounting ring, but at this point, I really didn’t care.

In all honesty, the representatives from Orion were friendly and helpful, and so far, I really enjoy my telescope.

 

Next time- collimating the mirror, using the finder “scope,” and being an astronomer who is afraid of the dark.

Discoveries

 

Tick…tock…

The avocado clock on the wall seemed to tick louder and slower as the seconds passed, echoing through the empty classroom.

A few hours earlier, the room had been alive with the noise and chatter of adolescents who had been rounded up, forced into plastic chairs, and branded with the title “middle school students.” Now, however, the creatures had been freed, and the only living being left in the room was a middle-aged man with thinning hair and thick, coke bottle lenses.

The man sat hunched at a desk, where moved in an almost robotic fashion, taking a paper from the stack on his left, scratching at it with a red pencil, and then placing it in the stack on his right before repeating the whole process. His movements soon fell into syncopation with the ticking of the avocado clock, and the sounds echoed off of the scuffed linoleum floors and bare, yellow walls.

Tick…shuffle…tick…scratch…scratch…tick…shuffle…

After a few more rounds, the man seemed to deflate. He groaned, yawned, and took off his glasses, throwing them onto the desk where they landed with a heavy thunk among the crumpled papers and Styrofoam cups.

The man rubbed his eyes, yawned once more, and then slowly reached for the next paper on the desk.

He froze, staring at the paper while his face flushed. He reached for his glasses, put them on, and squinted at the paper again, mouth agape in astonishment.

Just then, the classroom door swung open, and the man jumped. Standing in the doorway was a tall, thin woman in a rumpled blouse.

“Hey, Gary. I’m going to go grab some takeout from the new Chinese place. Would you like anything?”

Karen,” the man hissed. “Come in and shut the door. I have something to show you.”

The woman shrugged and shut the door, coming to stand by the desk. “You okay, Gary?”

“Okay? I’ve never been better. How astonishing this is!” He thrust the paper at Karen, along with a heavy book. “I’ve just been grading labs, you see, and I’ve stumbled across an amazing result.”

He pointed at the book. “This is the result the children are supposed to get, and this is the result that Bobby Richards got.”

Karen frowned. “Doesn’t that just mean he got the wrong-“

“- it means that Bobby Richards has made the most important discovery in the history of science.”

Gary looked up at Karen again, his watery eyes gleaming behind his glasses.

“Think about it, Karen. This completely undoes everything we thought we knew about chemistry and physics. Who would have known that the greatest scientific genius of all time was sitting in my third period science class?”

“I certainly wouldn’t,” Karen said. “He usually just sleeps through my class.”

“He’s beyond anything we can teach him here, of course,” Gary said, waving this aside. “We need to get his work published in a journal right away.”

Karen took the paper from Gary again, and smirked. “Maybe we should erase the dirty pictures he’s doodled on the margins, before we submit it.”

“Those aren’t dirty pictures,” Gary said. “He’s had to invent an entirely new scientific notation to express his radical ideas.”

Karen shook her head. “Sure. Of course he has.” She turned and walked to the door.

“Hey, where are you going?”

“I should get back to grading my own papers. One of my students has written a poem- half of the words are misspelled, the grammar is atrocious, and the meter is completely off. Obviously, it’s a brilliantly existential deconstructionist critique of the human condition,” Karen said acidly.

Karen turned back, and saw that Gary had stood up. A broad grin stretched across his face, baring a mouthful of even, white teeth. He stretched his hand out.

“Congratulations,” he said, “on your discovery.”

Karen sighed, and turned back to the door. “I’ll bring you some lo mein.”