Friday, September 25, 2020

Plague Books: Operative

The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett, Selected Stories and Short Novels, edited and with an introduction by Lillian Hellman, Vintage Books, 1989, originally published by Random House, 1966

Provenance: The volume, shown right, is from the collection of John Rateliff, known to the 'net as Sacnoth. John has been cleaning out his library, and a lot of his mystery novels have found a space at Grubb Street. So while his shelves start to sort themselves out, mine groan with Hammett, Stout, Allingham, Sayers, and Peters. The copy I have is more grey than green, but that may just be from age.

Review: Our protagonist for all but one of these stories is only known as the Continental Op - an agent of the Continental Detective Agency. We don't know a lot about him. He's middle-aged, shorter than most and little wider, but we only know him by his actions - he will lie for a good cause, he will make deals with criminals if he must, he'll feel bad shooting a woman but will do so if he needs to. No one calls him by name that he records. He narrates in first person. He is a bit of a cipher, one of the first of the hard-boiled, noir detectives. 

The bulk of the stories in the volume are from the 20's, when Hammett dominated Black Mask magazine, and given my preference for that era, I enjoyed the tales a great deal. Due to the movies like The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man (also Hammett), I tend to mentally put Hammett's work in the Depression and the War Years as opposed to the Roaring Twenties, but it fits just as well here. 

One of the things that strikes me, going through stories, is the neatness of his language and the broadness of his scope. Hammett does not use five words where three will do. And when I don't quite get what the Op is up to, I just have to wait a few paragraphs before all becomes clear. By broadness of scope, we see a medley of situations and places - not just San Francisco in the second quarter of the century. The Op goes to a pocket kingdom in Europe. The Op goes to Arizona and hangs with cowpokes. The Op goes to Chinatown and Beacon Hill as well, but he carries his noir with him, and fits in equally well.

One story is from a later period, his unfinished book, "Tulip," exhumed and presented here. And it is a unfinished first draft and tough read. A former Army buddy looks up a friend and they tell stories. A lot of the stories sound like things Hammett experienced. Here the sparceness of his prose works against it, and the lack of the formula for a detective story leaves it without a central spine. Good words, though.

This volume takes its name from the final story, which is two stories, one story carrying that name, then a second tale added almost as a coda. A mastermind puts together an ultimate heist - calls in criminal talent from all over the country, and they hit two banks in the same morning, sealing off the streets and making a clear getaway. Then all the participants get bumped off by the lieutenants in the robbery, who are then bumped off by their higher ups. A very corporate chain of command. And all the wise guys and grifters have names like Bluepoint Vance and Red O'Leary and Happy Jack Hacker. Just the plot itself makes for a great Gangbusters adventure, or with a little more eldritch horror, a Call of Cthulhu evening. With Hammett's hands on the typewriter keys, it shines. I am surprised that this hasn't become a film over the years. Amazon Prime, take heed. 

Turns out I have a later edition of the book on my shelf, tucked between The Dain Curse and Red Harvest. The Big Knockover makes me want to revisit them and reminds me that this is the stuff that set American detective fiction up as a country in its own right, and made San Francisco its capital.

More later,

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Life in the Time of Virus - Under the Smoke

Railroad Sunset by Hopper

Month Six, in which the outdoors has been taken away from me.

You have seen the news about California being on fire and San Francisco looking like a set from Bladerunner. The fires in California and Oregon (mostly brush, not forests, mostly lightning-started, not gender reveal parties) have pumped a lot of smoke into the air, which has drifted north into our neck of the woods, leaving the land consumed by an acrid-tinged fog. My neighbor has a smoker, and I would often return at night to the smell of alderwood or hickory in the air. This is nothing like that. It is the entire Puget Sound area in a toxic smoker, with relief tantalizingly offered by the weather report, then denied.

As a result, I am approaching full shut-in status. No longer can I spend the after-hours on the back porch, sipping Cuba Libres and reading the New Yorker. Well, I can still do all that indoors, but its not the same. Even checking the mailbox leaves me a little wheezing. Winter, I can tell, will be difficult.

As seclusion continues, my bad habits are slowly re-instituting themselves. I am reading five books at a time again, as opposed to finishing one, writing about it, then moving onto a new volume. Currently reading a collection of Hammett's Continental Op stories, a slender volume from Michael Chabon, a book of pirate fantasy short stories, something by Frederick Brown, a Nisi Shawl, and the occasional chapter of Mary Beard's book on Rome. Books are scattered through the house. Should any of those conclude I will post about them. 

Part of this recidivism has been the result of my latest COVID project - reorging the hardback shelves. When we moved in 20+ years ago I had them organized, but twenty years of pulling stuff out, and putting things back in the approximate location has taken its toll. Have actually taken a Marie Kondo approach to this. Does this book bring me joy? Does it feel like something I will go back to, either for research or for enjoyment? Does it spark a pleasant memory? A lot of big thick SF novels are meeting their demise this way, along with some of the lesser books by Hunter Thompson and other authors I have accumulated by habit. Could not get rid of all the Garrison Keillors - my Lovely Bride would not let me, and I still have way too many Stephen J Goulds still stacked on the shelf. But there is actually blank spaces on my shelf (awaiting more books, of course).

Look, Honey! Tile!
As far as Kate is concerned,  HER big project has been putting tile behind the stovetop. When we lived in Lake Geneva, we re-did the bathroom in tile, and she saved the remains of the tile and shipped them out here to eventually do something with them. So she found something to do with them. She still has to grout them

Our largest cat, Keckovar, has been scratching his face open, and as such is now being medicated and wearing a pink "Cone of Shame". He is not amused, but has forgotten that his head is now three times as wide as before. Kia, the small ninja kitty, is amused by this turn of events.

Despite the smoke, we are continuing our Plague Pod of six people, almost all (except the Lovely Bride) who work from home. We usually gather at Sacnoth's backyard, but with the smoke and shrinking daylight have moved the festivities to our living room, where we push the sofas back against the wall for social distancing.

I realize how important the Internet has been during our seclusion We lost it briefly over the weekend because of laundry. OK, let me explain. The Lovely Bride was folding laundry while watching Tivo. Tivo is not updating. In the process of trying to reset the Tivo, we brought down the entire wifi system, and spent four hours resetting it (ultimately - unplugging everything and plugging it back in). During that time I kept picking up my iPad, intent on checking something online, and realizing I was totally isolated. Surprisingly frustrating. So, yeah, the Internet should be a utility.

In the outside world, we are aware that there are still shortages and reductions of the variety of items. The latest short supply has been in canning lids (A neighbor ran out and could not find them, but we ALSO had a supply, brought from Wisconsin over 20 years ago). Cleaning supplies are also a case of not getting your preferred brand. The good news is that whenever I get to the local store, masks are aplenty and worn correctly. 

The local newspaper, the Seattle Times, is hitting its own challenges. I am very aware of the fact that the (two) sections are smaller, and the margins are larger. With Sunday, the area of the headlines is carrying a lot more whitespace. The good news is, with the return of soccer and pro football (both without crowds, the noise pumped in), they have other things to write about. 

And so we row on. Working from home continues. The browning grass is revealing exactly were the septic system runs. Pedestrian passing our frontage are fewer. And the smoky fog is with us, yet to dissipate.

More later,

Monday, September 14, 2020

Recent Arrivals

[Blogger's Note: I had this entry all written up with all manner of individual photos of the games, but the most recent incarnation of Blogger is a pig as far as layout is concerned, and in the process of formatting the dratted thing, I ended up deleting the entire text, and the blank file was immediately saved to the cloud and lost entirely. Blogspot has made its platform less usable. Thanks, guys.]

For someone who hasn't been going anywhere lately, I continue to accumulate gaming material. Part of this is from Kickstarters resolving, part of it purchased from t my local comic shop, Fantasium, thatis back in business, and from the occasional field trip elsewhere. 

All of this that follows are not reviews per se - I believe you should actually play something before your review it. This is first-glance stuff, initial impressions, surface judgements, and I reserve the right to think otherwise after I dig into it. Your own mileage may vary. Here goes:

The Mythic Odysseys of Theros (WotC, purchased at the Fantasium) is a nice single-book world. Like the earlier Ravnica, Theros is based on a Magic The Gathering campaign, turning the MTG background world into the basis of an RPG campaign.The idea of combining MTG and D&D has been around since WotC bought TSR back in the 90s. and the campaign settings chosen have been relatively "small" worlds - Ravnica being an urban setting while Theros pulling heavily from Greek Myth, to the point of you recognizing the characters they are playing off of. I like the 5E approach of combining Players and DM info in a single book, though wonder if they are going to hit the same problem as 2E where we had way more campaigns than time to play them.

I actually warmed up to Spectacular Settlements (Nord Games, Kickstarter) as I dug into it. My first reaction was "Hey, there are a lot of tables here." as the heavy (450+ pages) book is filled with tables telling you how to fill out everything about settlements from trading posts to capitals. But where it excels is when it takes that data and creates playable baseline towns and cities for the DM to slot into their campaign.I liked it.

On the other hand, A Time for Sacrifice: (New Comet Games, Kickstarter) just ground my gears. A series of Call of Cthulhu adventures set in the Yucatan seems to be a perfect set-up - during the 1920s, the Mayan cities were the great lost civilizations, their statues enigmatic, their writing impenetrable. Sadly, the first adventure requires knowledge of written Mayan to solve some of its puzzles, and there is a pre-Columbian contact book in the local library, which can be read even through the Mayan written language was almost completely destroyed and only recently deciphered. That sort of thing just put me off a bit, and I don't know if I will get to the rest of it, or ever run it. Time for Sacrifice is not the only Cythulhu to get lost in the jungles of the Yucatan - Pagan's Mysteries of Mesoamerica has some similar pitfalls as well.

Absynthe in Carcossa (Pelegrane Press, purchased at Gabi's Olympic Cards and Comics down in Lacey) is an oddity. Created for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, and descended from the Gumshoe system, the book itself is missing any game text, but rather is one of those game-adjacent projects the Pelgrane does every so often. It is a scrapbook of clippings from other sources to describe La Belle Epoque in Paris. Like any good mythos tome, you have to really dig into it to figure out what it is all about. I believe this won and ENNIE this year, which is nice, but I need to really read it.

Zafir (Zafir Press, Kickstarter).I kickstarted this one, but picked up my copy personally from the designer - he's local Seattle. It is a magitech-flavored fantasy RPG, which gives us access to ballistic vests and zeppelins, but where it shines is the level of detail in its combat. It is definitely a descendant of old wargames, addresses three-dimensional movement and combat head-on, and has a lot of D&D Fourth Edition's DNA in its rules. Leafing through it reminded me a playing 4E with Bill Slavicsek on Thursday nights way too many years ago.

Lancer (Massif Press, Kickstarter) has that same crunchy-bit rules approach as Zafir, but its bloodline comes more from Battletech (which is to say, managing the heat of your battlemech). It is a strongly anime-influenced game where you are a mech pilot in the far future. The humans have spread throughout the Orion Arm, and there are great peacefu lhuman civilizations at the heart of it all. For a lot of humanity, it is a golden age. You aren't there - you and your squad are in the outlands, the border kingdoms, the scrapyards where previous human expansions have petered out. The art is beautiful, and the mech designs are frankly wild. I look forward to digging into this one.

Pan Am (Funko Games, a Target exclusive, so I masked up and braved an actual chain store for it). A friend of mine raved about this board game, which if from the designers of the Waterdeep board game and sharing a lot of its mechanics. The idea is that you are running small airlines in the Golden Age of Air Travel (20s to 60s). You're gaining rights to air routes around the world, and then Pan Am will roll in and pay you big bucks for your work (which you then use to buy Pan Am stock). It has a lot of fiddly mechanics to it, and while the Lovely Bride and I enjoyed ourselves with it, a later four-person game with members of our plague pod turned into a long, painful slog. Maybe three players are the sweet spot. 

A Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City (Superhero Necromancer, Kickstarter) is a gem. Part of a 'zine initiative in Kickstarter, it is a 60-page description of a half-sunken city at the end of the world. It is system agnostic, but the company's web site gives ideas of working it into the major game systems, include 5E and Blades in the Dark. Amusing in that it gives you a half-destroyed Hogwarts infested with pirates. Good world-building. Good stuff.

The Excellent Traveling Volume Issues 11 and 12 are simply great I am an avowed Petal-head, a fan of Tekumel and the Empire of the Petal Throne RPG. James Maliszewski has, after a long hiatus, returned to both these fanzines and his Grognardia blog to create wonderful stuff. If you are a fan, you should really take these books in. And his blog. Consider this one a review.

That's it. I made more comments on all of these originally, but they are lost to the ether. Let's see if I can keep this version alive long enough to publish. 

More later,

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Exchange of Views


You’re wrong.

Totally wrong.

He never said that.

He never did that.

That can’t be right.

You must be mistaken.

You must have heard it wrong.

It was a misinterpretation.

They're lying.

You’re lying.

I don’t want to hear it.

Fake news.

Who says that?

Who would even say that?

They must have an agenda.

Anonymous sources don’t count.

Only traitors say that.

Why don’t people come forward?

There has to be proof.

A report means nothing.

Witnesses mean nothing.

A video means nothing.

Confirmation means nothing.

He didn’t mean it the way you take it.

It was taken out of context.

You have to listen the full tape.

You have to admire him for admitting it.

We all do stupid things.

Why didn’t you say something before?

Why are you going on about it?

Why did you wait so long?

That was then. This is now.

What’s done is done.

It’s too late to do anything.

You should have said something at the time.

Why must you persecute him?

Why is it such a big deal?

Why is that a surprise?

Everyone knows about it.

Old news.

He's changed.

Must you fixate on it?

What more do you want?

More important things going on.

You're going over old ground.

Why stir things up?

Ancient history.

That was in another country.

And besides, the wench is dead.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Plague Book: Loom of Myth

Circe by Madeline Miller, Back Bay Books, trade paperback edition 2020

Provenance: Selected by my Science Fiction Book Club at work, to be finished by the end of July. Ordered from Amazon. Did not finish until the first week of August. Took this long to put a review together.

The argument of whether this is a "science fiction book" can be made, but really that does not matter. No, it is not SF in that there are no aliens, robots, or other futuristic trappings. And I could argue against fantasy as well, as it is well-grounded in mythology. But ultimately, genre terms like SF and Fantasy are marketing terms - "If you liked X, you will like Y". Like all those fantasy books in the 80s that were "In the tradition of Lord of the Rings", no matter how tenuous the connection was. Ultimately, genres are a mall map, telling you where in the bookstore you can find books that are science-fictionish (remember bookstores? I remember bookstores). Amazon, by the way, slots SF and Fantasy in a more generic "genre fiction" categories and trusts to its algorithms to send the consumer to related works.

But the nature of genre marketing reaches down into the physical presentation of the book itself. From initial contact with the dead-tree copy you can tell this is "Literary Fiction", or "Bestseller Fiction", or even "New York Times Bestseller Fiction". The book cover is dramatic and high-concept, it is embossed and foiled (this stuff ain't cheap, in book terms). Two-color endpapers, a map on the inside cover. Listing of praise and awards on glossy insert on page 1, five MORE pages of praise follow that one, concluding with one from Gwyneth Paltrow, actor and owner of Goop. Reading Group Guide in the back and recommendations for further reading. Everything about it says "This is literary! This is important!"

This is marketing.

But what about the words themselves, Jeff?

Actually, it's pretty good.

Review: Here is the short version: All gods are A-holes. Humans are only marginally better.

Circe is a goddess. A very minor one, but a general-terms a goddess nonetheless. And despite her goddess status she gets kicked around a lot. Her family are notable names in the mythos. She is the Daughter of Helios (pre-Olympian Titan of the Sun), sister to Aeetes (original owner of the Golden Fleece), and Pasiphae (Mom of the minotaur). There is not a thimbleful of empathy or self-reflection anywhere in the family, and that's what sets Circe apart from them. Circe has a sliver of concern for others, and worries about her own lot in life. She discovers real magic, she creates the monstrous Scylla out of petty jealousy, she is exiled to an island lest she upset the Olympian gods (shown here as another godly crime family), hooks up with Daedalus and later Odysseus, raises Odysseus' child, and ultimately comes to terms with what she wants in the world. 

 A lot of what I just said is already in the mythology. I knew Circe primarily from the Odyssey, and yeah, I get her confused with Calypso, with whom she shares some traits (has an island, has powers, slept with Odysseus). There is a lot of Circe threaded through Greek Mythology, and more got added over time. Miller weaves together all these connections to create a solid tale with Circe at the center.

 In writing this up, I went to the Emily Wilson translation of Homer's version for the traditional story of Odysseus. In that version, Odysseus' men are welcomed, fed, and transformed by Circe, with no idea why she acts that way. One sailor escapes to warn Odysseus, who is then given a cheat code (antidote) by Hermes, and when he does not fall to her spells, Circe throws herself at the hero's knees and begs his forgiveness. Mind you, the story doesn't make a lot of sense, but then it is Odysseus' retelling of the encounter. Miller's makes much more sense, grounding Circe's actions, and her heroine is taking the measure of clever man who will not walk blindly into a trap. Miller is much more sympathetic to Odysseus as well, and more grounded, portraying him both as hero and villain.

And through the bulk of the book, no act of kindness, sympathy, or honesty goes unpunished. Miller's Circe lives in an unjust world, and has to deal with that continual injustice. She gets her moments - her relationship will the brilliant human Daedalus, raising Odysseus' child, life with Penelope after Odysseus' death, and there is even a reference at the end of a wandering carpenter and his wise-woman wife which bespeaks of the new god that will replace the old (but perhaps I read too much into it). Having confronted a horrible world, Circe ultimately dreams of making a better one.

Miller's Circe its into the category of a lot of modern retelling - take a traditional villain and turn her (it is often a her) into a fully-rounded protagonist. Wicked. Hook. The latest Beowulf translation with more space allotted for Grendel's Mom. Challenges to a (usually male-dominated) traditional canon, adding nuance to the tale. Miller weaves like Circe at Daedalus' loom, pulling the scraps and threadbare references together, adding new work entirely, to end up creating a better portrait of what has been a traditionally wafer-thin antagonist. 

More later,

Friday, August 07, 2020

Life in the Time Of Virus: The New Normal

Rooms  by the Sea  -  Hopper
Rooms by the Sea - Edward Hopper

We conclude the fifth month of relative isolation. At what point does the new normal become just ... normal?

We are in August, now, and the grass is going dormant, which is to say, brown. Ours is less brown then most, both because of the shade of trees on the property lines and because we have a variety of hardier grasses, moss, clover, weeds, and dandelions filling it.

We have had a few hot days (as in hotter than ninety). Yes, America, we in the Puget Sound region are weather wimps. You look at the national weather map and it is a blotchy cascade of yellows, oranges, and reds, with a little splash of green in the upper left showing human-tolerable temperatures. That splash of green is us. The bad news is that most of us don't have air conditioning in our homes, so various lash-ups are needed to keep cool. My current work station is in the basement library, so I'm doing OK.

Still working from home, of course, and it looks like this will be the case until the new year. We have been revamping the game I've been working on, so I have been busy. The Lovely Bride, shorn of the surly shackles of the tax deadline extension, has been working hard in the ever-increasing gardens of our lawns. I am actually kinda dreading the oncoming fall with its cooler temperatures and shorter days. And then rains will come again.

A routine has set in. I get up with the sun, make myself a duck egg omelette for breakfast with some toast, then work and video meetings, usually ramen and a sandwich for lunch, more work and video meetings, a drink on the back patio, dinner, general collapse/reading/games, and then to bed. We gather with friends once a week on their back patio. I play D&D online one night a week, and have been running a Call of Cthulhu campaign every so often. My local comic store has reopened, so I get out there once a week. And every two weeks I head for the U-District on a Saturday to get more duck eggs. Occasional grocery shopping and prescriptions. And that is about it.

The new deck. With flumphs.
Meanwhile, the household's COVID-19 project, the new back deck, is wrapping up. The old deck off our bedroom was rotting away, and when replacing it we expanded it out by about four feet, creating both a larger upper porch and a covered patio beneath. Re-hung the temple bell. We have hanging chairs suspended from the rafters and the Lovely B has wrapped them with mosquito netting, which has made evening relaxation much easier but look like flumphs are nesting beneath the deck.

With the warm summer days, no commute and a comfortable porch twenty feet from where I write this, I been drinking more, usually wine or a cuba libre on that back patio. So that's been a downside to all this.
The beard has reached its climax growth, and may need a brushfire to clear out the understory.

And I find I've been doomscrolling. That's the term when you get on Facebook or Reddit and just keep on going. Why, yes, show me pictures of your cats. And remind me of meals that people actually had in resturants. It used to be called channel surfing, but it is the screens that have gotten small.

I'm also having sudden flashes of memories of being elsewhere. I normally travel under duress - business trips, family responsibilities, conventions where I am a guest. When I am a tourist, it is because the LB makes the plans and I just show up. But suddenly, I am struck with vivid memories of places I have visited - An evening on the rooftop patio of a Neapolitan hotel, Vesuvius on the horizon, drinking wine. Wandering the hushed and darkened halls of the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. A sushi restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, perched overlooking a creek on a warm day. Pressed duck in France. The Outer Banks after a near-miss hurricane. A cool breeze coming in over the Southern Ocean in Australia. The memories are sudden and vivid and generally positive. Perhaps this is my version of cabin fever - I still have no desire to go anywhere, but the memories of having gone remain. 

The outside world continues. The grocery store is heavily masked, which is very good, and people have gotten used to one-way aisles, for the most part. The local paper is slowly recovering now that it has sports to talk about, in a limited fashion. I see a lot of wide margins and "creative use of white space" in its reporting, though. We did venture out one Sunday with a friend to Verrazano's an Italian place down in Federal Way, which has a deck overlooking the Sound. Good food, great food, socially distanced.

That's about it. Stay safe, folks. More later,

Thursday, August 06, 2020

The Political Desk: Primary Results

I usually wait a couple days before posting the results, because of the nature of our mail-in system. Late ballots can turn the tide in close races. With the first vote count Tuesday evening, about 32% of registered voters have weighed in. Probably we will get to 40%, but that's still low for such an easy process. Yes, I'm going to nag.

Speaking of nagging have you done your census form yet? You can do it over the net. You can do it over the phone. You can do it with a friendly census person who comes to your door. Yes, it is even easier than voting.

Anyway, here's where we stand for the November Election. Candidate with the most votes first. Stuff recommended from this blog in bold. Percentages are provided, but do not add up to 100% because of other candidates. Your mileage may vary. Void where prohibited by laws which may have changed since I started this paragraph.

Spoilers: Incumbents and those who prefer the Democratic Party did well. Here are the numbers as of Tuesday Night:

US Representative District 9: Adam Smith (73%!) vs. Doug Basler (16%)

Governor: Jay Inslee (51%) versus Sheriff Loren Culp (17%). Note: One of the "Sensible Conservative" commentators declared that if Inslee got under 45%, he was vulnerable. Does not look like it at the moment.

Lt.Governor: Denny Heck (27%) vs. Marko Liias (17%)

Attorney General: Bob Ferguson (54%) vs. Matt Larkin (41%)

Secretary of State: Kim Wyman (51%) vs. Gael Tarleton (44%)

State Treasurer: Mike Pellicciotti (54%) vs. Duane A. Davidson (46%)

State Auditor: Pat (Patrice) McCarthy (48%) vs. Chris Leyba (41%)

Commissioner of Public Lands: Hilary Franz (51%) vs. Sue Kuehl Pederson (23%)

Superintendent of Public Instruction: Chris Reykdal (40%) vs. Maia Espinoza (24%)

Insurance Commissioner: Mike Kreider (60%) vs. Chirayu Avinash Patel (28%)

State Legislative District Number 11 Senator: Bob Hasegawa (94%)

State Legislative District Number 11 Representative District 1: David Hackney (42%) vs. Zack Hudgins (36%

State Legislative District Number 11 Representative District 2:  Steve Bergquist (70%) vs, Sean Atchison (29%)

And that is it for the Primary Round of the 2020 Elections, Washington State. We go into slumber now until October.

In the mean time, have you responded to the Census? 'Cause they got a late start and got a month chopped off their deadline.

More later,

Meanwhile, 75 years ago ...

More later,

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Political Desk: The Jeff Recommends

You got the ballots. You got the links to other recommendations. You aren't doing anything else around the house except re-orging the spice cabinet. Time to vote. Deadline to get them post-marked (or drop them off) is 4 August, next Tuesday.

It is a little odd when the Seattle Times and the Stranger both agree on a lot of recommendations. The Times tends towards the corporate, more centrist candidates, while the Stranger has a love of the more progressive agitators. Yet they agree here on a lot of candidates here, with the Times even endorsing Jay Inslee! (Go read it. They wrap him on the knuckles for stuff they don't like, then do a take-down on his competition).

Here's my summary:

US Representative District 9: Adam Smith

Governor: Jay Inslee. Can't bring yourself to do that? The sanest Republican of the lot is Raul Garcia. You're welcome.
Lt.Governor: Marko Liias
Attorney General: Bob Ferguson
Secretary of State: Gael Tarleton
State Treasurer: Dealer's Choice. Both are going through to November (OK, OK, I'd go with Mike Pellicciotti. Force me into a corner, why don't you).
State Auditor: Pat (Patrice) McCarthy
Commissioner of Public Lands: Hilary Franz
Superintendent of Public Instruction: Chris Reykdal
Insurance Commissioner: Mike Kreider

State Legislative District Number 11 Senator: Bob Hasegawa (only candidate, but a good one)
State Legislative District Number 11 Representative District 1: David Hackney (But yeah, Zack Hudgins has done a good job, too).
State Legislative District Number 11 Representative District 2: Pick 'em.  Both are going through to November. (Fine. Steve Berquist. Go ahead, spoil the surprise).

That's if for my ballot. Now go vote because our Impeached President doesn't want you to!

More later,

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Political Desk: The Fighting 11th

Last one, then we sum up.

The State Legislative District 11 is an oddly-shaped beast. It is kinda dragonish, its upturned head in SoDo, its neck stretching down I-5 past Boeing Field, his forequarters in Tukwilla, its body primarily in Renton, with a wing reaching up 405 to the Renton Highlands and its tale stretching along Maple Valley. My neighborhood, Panther Lake, is somewhere along the back leg.

The legislative districts have three elected officials to Olympia - one senator and two representatives.

For State Senator, 11th district, there is only one candidate. Bob Hasegawa will be re-elected.

For State Representative, Position 2, there are only two candidates, so both are going through. The Democratic incumbent is Steve Berquist.

For State Representative, Position 1, there are three candidates. One has no party preference, is a student of "Austrian Economics", and may or may not be misspelling "intentions" ironically. There are two "Prefers Democratic Party" dudes, and on paper they both look good. Zack Hudgins is the incumbent, has done a good job, and has a lot of endorsements . David Hackney is a strong challenger with great background (former Assistant US Attorney, UN war crimes prosecutor, Harvard Law School) and wants Olympia to do more. This one is a hard call, but I will push David Hackney for primary, at least.

That concludes the (seemingly interminable) slog through the primary ballot. One more, where I sum up, and then you need to go out and vote!

More later,

The Political Desk: Everyone Else

As I mentioned earlier, in Washington State the entire upper tier of the executive branch comes up for re-election every four years. Most of these are positions that do a lot of the executive-level grunt work in the state government, and we have a lot of them. Rather than devote an entire post to each one, I am doing them in one swell foop.

For all of these, I have an incumbent versus a challenger. That makes things pretty easy. Has the incumbent done their job? In doing that job, have they done things I agree with? Have they been swept up in some personal failing, Internet faux pas, or general scandal?.\ If so, let's look at the challenger, and see if they have enough to tip the scales in their favor. That's my system, and it has served me well. 

Let me hit the high points, here:

State Treasurer has two candidates for the office. They will both go onto the November ballot, and we'll talk about them then. In the meantime, vote your heart.

State Auditor has three candidates - two Dems and Rep. The incumbent is Pat (Patrice) McCarthy, and has most recently overseen two major independent audits regarding Unemployment Benefits in the wake of the COVID-19 - one regarding getting payments to those unemployed by shutdowns, and another investigating a fraud scheme that looted the unemployment benefits. She does not oversee unemployment benefits, so I can't go after her for that, but in the later case, fought to get the money back from the fraudsters.. So, OK, she does the job. Her opponents are a Republican who is a "real" CPA (as opposed to just running the state department), and a Democrat who want more "lean business practices," one of those phrases that raise eyebrows from me. Go with Pat (Patrice) McCarthy.

Commissioner of Public Lands  has eight varied candidates, but I really like what incumbent Hilary Franz has done, balancing both the protection of the environment with smart forest development. Her opponents include a guy who wants to rake the forests (and who lists as his community service; "I've never been to jail"), one who wants an investigation of 5G Cell towers, and one recommending organic hemp farming. So, yeah let's go with Hilary Franz.

Superintendent of Public Instruction has its hands full right now with the whole question of whether we open the schools this fall (Spoiler: Not unless things get a LOT better right now). The candidates do not have to declare even a preference of party, so we get a spectrum from a guy who tells you right off he is a conservative to one that thinks we need to reopen the schools because not enough death, to one who wants to scrap everything and  re-institute the Pythagorean academy. Again, let's let the incumbent with experience deal with this particular mess, in particular since Chris Reykdal has an agenda of what he's done and an agenda of what he wants to do. 

Insurance Commissioner :Incumbent Mike Kreider. Has he done the job? Yeah. Well, OK then.

That it? Well, there is ONE more category - the State Legislative District #11. We'll do that next, then wrap up. 

More later,

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Political Desk: Ship of State

Washington Secretary of State primarily oversees the voting, and in the present environment that's a pretty major task. As I mentioned, Washington State is vote-by-mail, so a lot of reponsibility comes down on these shoulders. It is also probably one of the wonkiest offices in the state.

Incumbent Kim Wyman has done a pretty good job, to be honest. There was a major screwup with online voter registration earlier in the year, but they got on top of it and resolved it. And, she has taken a stand by NOT voting in the primary, since to do so would be support the current occupant of the White House, who, by the way, HATES voting-by-mail. In a normal situation, I would expect her to make it through to November. But these are not normal situations. I am saying no Republicans this time out, so I, with the heaviest of hearts, I will pass on her.

Gentry Lange (Progressive) and Ed Minger (Independent) get down into the details in their candidate stations. Lange wants Open Source Software to count the votes, which is interesting. Minger is pushing the idea of approval voting, where you can vote for multiple candidates for the same office, and all those votes count. I think ranked voting is a better idea if you're going to monkey with the system, but that's even more wild than what Minger is proposing. 

The Democrat candidate is Gael Tarleton, who has shown up in various offices over the years. She's big on cyber-security, which is a really good thing in our cyberpunky world. She's actually written the law on some of these things. Moreover, one of her gigs was at the Port of Seattle, which has always been by go-to-spot for reporting on shenanigans. The fact she emerged from that operation relatively unbesmirched is pretty impressive. 

So, yeah, Gael Tarleton.

More later,

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Political Desk: Attorney At Law

Attorney General, the state's law firm. I'm surprised it isn't a mini-series on NetFlix. Let's get Aaron Sorkin on it, pronto!

The AG has been hopping for the past four years, as it (and those of other states) have been dealing the relentless malice and stupidity coming down from the federal level, and the malfeasance of local conmen and corporations (The current AG's office took on Comcast. Won). The current guy in charge, Bob Ferguson, has been active and advocative in his pursuit of the best interests of the people of the state. So, yeah, I'm going to go with him.

He is running against three Republicans (sorry, two "prefers Republican Party" and one "prefers GOP party, which reads as Grand Old Party Party, but nevermind). They are pretty much unified in the opinion that the AG should NOT be doing the AG's job, and that protecting Washingtonians is not as important as creating a climate friendlier to business. Because we don't have enough large, successful corporations in this state.

I'm going with Bob Ferguson, here. 

More later, 

The Political Desk: Second Louie!

Lieutenant Governor in the state of Washington is akin to that on a national level - Runs the State Senate. Steps in when the Governor is out of town. Often just do good works. For many years we had the same guy. He stepped down last election and what replaced with Cyrus Habib, who at the time conservatives declared would be a bomb-throwing lib who would bring the entire system down. Of course that didn't happen, and Mr. Habib proved to be a extremely diligent, detail-oriented, by-the-book parliamentarian . Sadly, he has decided to become a Jesuit priest and is stepping down. Yes, this is the sort of thing that happens in Olympia, our capital.

So the job is open, and there are 11 people running for position. There is a serious wink-wink-nudge-nudge going on here about the idea that, should Biden win, Inslee would go take a position in his administration and his second banana would step into the role. That is not only putting the cart before the horse, that's setting the cart out while the horse is still in the barn having his morning oats. 

On the Democrat side, the two candidates worth taking about are Denny Heck and Markos Liias. Heck has the resume - US Representative, State Legislator, founder of the state's public access channel, and has the money and the endorsements of the mainstream Dems. Lias is more progressive, the senate Democratic floor leader, and a millennial. He also has the endorsement of the guy who currently has the job, Cyrus Habib. 

On the Republican side, the two majors are Ann Davison Sattler and Marty McClendon. McClendon ran against Habib last time and lost, and is a radio talk-show host (his co-host is Doug Basler, who is running against Adam Smith for US Rep in District 9). Stattler is from the real-estate division of the GOP and wants to represent people not parties (which is good, since her party doesn't get the traction it needs).

But I have to say this, looking through the listings in the Voter's Guide - these candidates are at least taking the situation seriously. They are saying the right things, and their candidate statements do not read like fever dreams or reefer night at the Poet's Corner Coffee Shoppe. So good work everyone, even the Libertarians. 

For me, I like Habib's work, and expect the same thing from Markos Liias. And I am not voting for Governor with this vote. At least, not yet.

More later.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Political Desk: Yes, Guv'nor

There are 36 candidates on the ballot for Governor. Blame COVID-19.

I am serious. In usual times, you have to get so many signatures to get on the ballot. These are not usual times, and since there would be difficulties getting signatures when no one want to come to the door, the governor waved that requirement. As a result, anyone with the desire to run is in.

So, we have the incumbent Democrat, five relatively viable Republicans, and a host of fringe candidates, well-meaning souls and utter nutters. And while I like all of you, I am not going to go into ALL the details, even for comedic purposes - just go to the online Voters' Guide and browse until your eyes water.

And despite this plethora of candidates, it probably going to boil down to Jay Inslee versus one these Five Guys (not to be confused with burger chain of the same name).

Jay Inslee is the current governor, shocking his opposition not only by temporarily running for president, but by running for a third term. How dare he! He's done a very good in an extremely difficult situation with COVID-19, and has helped turn the state from an epicenter for the disease to merely struggling against it. Lot of tough decisions here, particularly, since it is in the state government's advantage to re-open faster, since the state gets its money through things like sales taxes. No stores, no sales tax, no revenue for the state. Still, he has deferred to experts and made the hard choices. So yeah, I am recommending Jay Inslee. What else we got?

"Gadfly" is a good word for Tim Eyman. Other good words include bankrupt, chair thief and under investigation by the state's Attorney General. Eyman has been milking the state's initiative process for decades, skimming off the top the donations he gets from the gullible. His initiatives are of the "magic pony" variety - reduce your car tabs! We don't need road repairs anyway! This is the first time he is actually running for something, and stands an good chance of getting onto the November ballot, because people know who he is. He doesn't stand a good chance of becoming governor because people know who he is.

So if Eyman is the gadfly, Joshua Freeman is the money. He's got the dollar lead on the others, but a good chunk of it comes out of his pocket. Former Mayor of Bothell, he represents the real estate development wing of the party, and has had some ethics investigations (cleared, by the way, but that's one reason he's not running for re-election in Bothell).

Phil Fortunato is the blast from the past, because he's the reason I got into this political blogging in the first place. Way back when I  moved to Washington in the 90's, he had this HUGE signs along the road paid for by the "Friends of Phil".  I seem to remember that he didn't have much of a good opinion of his job at the time, but now can claim to be the only major candidate with actual experience in the state legislature. He's got the best sound bites of the GOP side. So, golden oldie? Smart kid in the room? Snark-master? I dunno. He's Phil. I assume he still has friends.

Loren Culp is a small-town sheriff who got national attention by standing up to the Man and refusing to enforce laws he doesn't agree with. Things like gun safety and not spreading coronavirus. He's standing up to the Man! He's the cause celebre who has been on Fox News talking about freedom and getting a book published with a forward by Ted Nugent, He's also being sued for botching a sexual abuse investigation and intimidating the victim.  Just call him the Fox Candidate. 

And finally we have Raul Garcia, the hope of what is left of the moderate wing of the party. He's actually not insane, which means you can vote against him based on his political stands as opposed to the miasma of sideshow weirdness that surrounds his rivals. He supports masks! He's pro-choice! Says good things about marriage equality! Won't commit to supporting Trump! He has the support of the remaining chunks of "moderate Republicans"like former Secretary of State Sam Reed and former state Attorney General Robert McKenna. So in the present GOP, he's toast. (I really hope I'm wrong on this).

Those are the biggies. Feel free to wander through the Voter's Guide for the candidate who's statement consists of the same chant written twenty-five times and similar gems and the one that think abolishing the minimum wage is the solution to America's problems.. (Note, the state does not edit the candidates' statements, which both is revealing and also shows the need of an editor.)

More later. 

The Political Desk: Repping the Rep

Let's start at the Federal Level: in our case, United States Representative Congressional District Number 9.  My home district.

District 9 runs from Tacoma up to Lake Washington, splitting with one spur heading up I-405 to Bellevue on the eastern side of Lake Washington, the other stretching up I-5 almost to Lake Union. It is small, compared to the other federal districts, but consists of a densely packed corridor.  It has four candidates running for US Representative - a democratic incumbent with two republicans and a libertarian challengers.

Incumbent Adam Smith in a mostly moderate Democrat who is the chair of the House Armed Services committee, and has done a good job over the years. He is usually primaried from the left from someone pushing for more radical activity, but in the present environment has done a lot, including getting parental leave for all government employees. Doesn't move fast ENOUGH for my desires, but I have to be honest, he does move, and for the benefit of all.

His chief opponent is Doug Basler,conservative talk-show host who lost to him last time. A strong supporter of the president regardless of how stupid that sounds right now. More power to him for standing his ground. His hope is that people are so tired of the government trying to do something about Coronavirus that they will put people in charge that won't do anything. Because freedom.

Also on the ticket is Joshua Campbell, who has the single weirdest combination of sentences in his  candidate statement ; "It's time for everyone to pick a side. The quicker we unite under one party, the quicker we can overcome the suffering and rebuild.". So, we pick as side, then all abandon those positions? I am still working my way through this one, and I've been drinking heavily in the hopes of enlightenment.

Liberatarian candidate Jorge Besada tuses his space to try to teach us a bit, with mixed results. He quotes extensively "the great intellecutal slayer of socialism" Ludwig Von Mises, which is a pity because people keep casting Raise Dead Fully on Socialism so it isn't going away. Also, he wants to transform "billions of free people into a global super-computer". So, the Borg, pretty much. Believes that freed of governmental shackles, corporations will inadvertently (his word) work for the common good. Good luck with that.

So, yeah, Adam Smith this time out. Because he sounds like the grown-up.

More later, 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Political Desk: Washington Primary 2020

Whelp, here we are again.

For people that just stop by for the book reviews, I do local politics here. I got into it many, many years ago, and now fives if not tens of people look to this blog for well-reasoned, rational advice on upcoming elections. 

Hah! I kid. I get as snarky as any Twitter-er, but in a longer format and more links.

But for those who do not live in Washington State, here's how things work:

1) We're only talking about state and local offices here - we had a national primary a while back.The usual suspects won.

2) Washington State is a top-two, open primary state. That means that the top-two vote-getters go on to the main event. It is an open primary, which means you don't have to declare a particular party. While that potentially opens up the possibilities of mischief (Dems voting for a weak GOP candidate in order to have a weaker opponent in the general), I haven't seen it.

3) Washington State is a mail-in ballot state, which is suddenly controversial. Mail-in ballots are pretty good, leave a paper trail, gives the voters the luxury of actually looking up the candidates before they make a decision, and does not require them to deal with long lines at the polls. Downsides? I do miss the small-town feel of going to the local school where retired poll-workers validate my existence for voting. And, worst of all, we often don't get to find out who won at one minute after the polls close. For a lot of races, the results are obvious, but every election, there is one race that hangs fire - so close as that it cannot be called, or where an initiative that loses on the inital count wins as the late results come in. Just get it postmarked before August 4 (you don't event need a stamp). Worried about someone taking you ballot out of the mailbox or intercepting it at the post office? They have drop boxes all over the place to you can hand in your work from the comfort of your car.

4) We also don't have political parties per se on the ballot. No one runs officially as a Democrat or a Republican, but rather as "preferring" a particular party. And it is self-selecting, so you get hardened party operatives running as "Prefers Democratic Party", as if they chose it because it has a cute mascot.  You also end up with people running as "True American Party" or "No, Karen, Your Foxgloves are Overrunning my Tomato Beds Party".

5) For that reason, check out the endorsements. Look who the establishment orgs are pushing, and who gets the nod of interest groups you support/oppose. If someone has the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce, proceed carefully. If it is someone who wants to "run government like a business", head for the exits.

6)  And I am not recommending Republicans this time out. Sorry, "Prefers Republicans". This should not be a horrible surprise to anyone reading this blog. The fish rots from the head, and while the current occupant of the White House is a Dorian-Grey-level of sun-bleached salmon, the decay goes deep. Our state-wide GOP includes a state senator whose day job is as a lobbyist for a foreign government, a noted on-camera chair thief, and a guy who has been investigated as a supporter of domestic terrorist operations (he's not running for re-election, but is still "active in local politics" and most recently was fined for vandalism of the state capitol building).  So, the Republican brand is not a winner here, and the few moderate/centrist/sane GOP candidates are running on the platform that "ideas,  not parties, are important." Which means they are kinda embarrassed by their party. I understand. I am, too.

7) Washington elects its ENTIRE state executive branch every four years, lining up with the presidential elections. So everyone from Governor to Superintendent of Public Lands is up for re-election. That means that there will be a lot to vote for and lot of voters, since Presidential elections attract a lot of attention. So we have a lot to talk about. i am going to try to blitz through this.

8) That said, I am going to only talk in this round about those races where there are more than two candidates. In a two-person race, both are going through to the main election. Ditto with races that have no opposition (and yeah, that happens). There are no judgeships or initiatives on my ballot, so you a spared that as well.

9) I also tend to just talk about my ballot, which showed up in the mail about a week ago.. That means City of Kent, King County, District 9 for the House of Representatives and the 11th State Legislative district. I may go off on tangents, like recommending Pat Sullivan for the 47 district, since he USED to represent my district before they moved the lines around, but I will keep that to a minimum.

10) AND I will recommend other sources to check out. The Stranger has released their bunches, and the Seattle Times is dribbling their out in bits and pieces, summarizing at the end..  Progressive Voters Guide here. Washington Conservation Voters here. As others show up I will patch them in here.

And with that, stay tuned and I will run through these as painlessly as possible.

More later,

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Talking about RPGs

So, the Facebooks had one of those challenges 10 roleplaying games that have influenced my gaming. No explanations, no reviews.

Now you get my explanations.

I added the requirements for this list that these are games I have played, as a GM or a player, not games that I have only read, and not be games I designed (though they could be games I would later design for).

OK, Let's begin

Dungeons & Dragons, of course, is my first. wood-grain box plus the Greyhawk Supplement, purchased at Vons bookstore in West Lafayette, Indiana. Got into roleplaying my first year at Purdue (I has done wargames before that). I cannot remember who my first DM was, but I was running a game by my second semester (that would be Spring of '76). The game itself is not playable out of the box - it is barely comprehensible out of the box, and required a lot of "tribal knowledge" to play, and table variants abounded. But it was the first, and informed everything that followed.

This image (and all images) is off the 'net. My woodgrain box was long-ago crushed through use and travel, and the booklets worn and coverless. The Lovely Bride has one in better condition, but it is one of the later white boxes.

Traveller is roleplaying Innnn Spaaaaace. It follows the presentation format of D&D - small box, three booklets. No illos, though a lot of tables. It was the first complete RPGs I bought and played, and, given the knowledge of what an RPG was from D&D, COULD be played out of the box. Yes, the legends are true, you could die in character creations (And we LIKED it), but the idea of your character having a history as opposed to bursting forth like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully-grown, was pretty neat. Also, the planetary code (numbers above 9 were given letters), and the world-hexgrid maps.

I still have my original books, but sold most of the supplements at the GENCON auction and then repurchased them later in big softbound editions.

Gamma World was the first goofy game I bought and played. It can be played straight, but very much invokes post-holocaust silliness, in particular the hoops, which were bunnies that could turn metal to rubber. They would strike fear into the hearts of the dudes with power armor much like rust monsters would frighten warriors in plate mail. But the cool thing was the artifact table in the back, which was a decision tree that would end up in figuring what it was or blowing yourself up.

Now, I had a copy of Metamorphosis Alpha from earlier, but did not play it or run it (though I did loot it for D&D), so it does not get a note here, but them's the break. And yeah, I WROTE a later edition of GW, but this is one I played.

Empire of the Petal Throne was a wonder of its age. It was a complete RPG AND a incredibly detailed game world. The mechanics could be a bit of kludge sometimes, and it shares that :"Fallen World" nature of Gamma World, but its ornate back history, alien culture, and weird aliens in a unified setting we brilliant. A lot of what would become the Forgotten Realms grey box can find its roots here.  Plus,  percentile dice ability scores!

I played it in college, but did not own a copy (Because it cost, like 25 bucks, and who had that much money to toss around). Years later I got a reprint, and most recently, a version from The Tekumel Foundation, which I still read.

Call of Cthulhu came out after I left college, and my first experience was with fellow TSR Designer Dave "Zeb" Cook as the Keeper. Which meant there was a great admixture of humor and horror in his game. You can see the ancestry of D&D here in the roll three dice for most of your abilities, but the skill system was the first that I felt tailored to the world we were playing in (which was a good thing and a bad thing). And the sanity mechanic as an alternate mental hit point track.

This was the version I played way back when, and the basics stayed about the same for many, many editions. One version (5?)  had the best two-page spread to explain a player character sheet I ever saw. Later editions may have had some bloat, but I still play and enjoy it, and am running at team through some classic Masks of Nyarlthotep right now.

Cyberpunk is interesting, because I wanted to do it myself. TSR asked everyone for what they would do as a blue-sky project, and I suggested a dark dystopian cyberpunky universe, which was so toxic that it ate a hole through the bottom of the filing cabinet. The boss came back and said "What else you got"? I had this super-hero game I developed in college which became Marvel Super Heroes.

People compared Cyberpunk to Shadowrun, which was also of the time, but like Cyberpunk better. SR had its pluses, but you could create a character who was completely overpowered, but through the limitations ithad to take it cost could not leave the room for any missions..

I pulled out my box of Cyberpunk downstairs, only to discover that my original books were missing, and the box help only the 2020 edition. I remain struck with how stylish the early edition books were, right down to the Patrick Nagel-esque cover and clean page design. The 2020 version was a definite improvement, but this is the version I started with.

Ah, Paranoia. If Gamma World lent itself to be inadvertently silly in places, Paranoia worked for its laughs. Replaceable identical characters, mad computers, insane bureaucracy, and every debrief (and many briefings) ended up in a firefight. In addition, this early version had skill trees, which were a nice crunchy mechanic at the heart of all this bouncy-bubbly cola. I ran into Ken Ralston, the designer at convention, and told him I was running the game. His response was "Oh, YOU'RE the one!".

Here is a great place to shout out to the late James Holloway and his art. The regular sized box had three booklets, and each booklet had someone looking at screen showing a scene from the cover of one of the OTHER booklets. That captured the loony, authoritarian nature of the game right there.

Whispering Vault, run by game designer and poet Lester Smith. This was a tiny book he picked up at a convention, which set out to do one thing, and do it well. You are extra-dimensional entities charged with going into reality and cleaning up disruptions. You had a LOT of variance in what you could do (I was yellow sphere with a happy face and a mohawk, and my domain was San Francisco as drawn by Bob Crumb), but you faced the same ritual of challenges each time. That nature of ritual was part of the cool stuff for the game.

I picked up my own copy later in life at Wonder World, I think, in Burien. Others presented it in better formats, but the little ring-binder version was a treasure.

Mutant and Masterminds, because I can't talk about Marvel Super Heroes. I really liked this game for being the best example of Open Gaming License. Most OGL products fell really close to the D&D tree, but M&M worked hard to put itself apart. What it did, which I loved at the time, was to invert the level system. Instead of your character going up in levels, you set the level of your game and everyone designed heroes of that power level. Comic book heroes don't (usually) gain power like fighters in D&D, so this was a perfect solution that was true to the genre.

Pulled my old copy off the shelf, and found my character sheet still in there for the "Nihlist" (yes, it is typoed), an ethereal ghost-fighter with "Negato-Vision". Leafing through the rules, they have the complexity of the 3rd edition D&D era. If you want something simpler, look at Icons, but the same designer.

I was late to the gate on Pendragon, which is why this illo was of a later edition (yes, they have done two more since then). Loved the take on King Arthur. Like Whispering Vault it limited characters (you are playing a knight), and its field of view (Arthurian Britain). Played it with my current crew out here in Seattle and had a good time. One of the great mechanics was the seasonal progression of the years, rules-based sense of "down-time" during the winter months, running your own castles, and creating a genetic line to let you span a century of play.

And  one more, as a bonus; Blades in the Dark. This is a recent addition, run by a colleague at Relentless Studios. I really, really liked this, though I recognize that it is in the "new breed" of RPGs which give more authority to the players and as such reduce the amount of control the GM has. Its ability to retcon the past to to fit the caper nature of the game has been explored in other games, and forces both the GM and the players to pay attention all the time to what is going down. Want to run in it again, though I don't know if I can GM it - I am old dog set in my ways.

There are others, of course. Top Secret with its Fate Points, Metamorphosis Alpha with its contained world-is-a-dungeon, Dogs in the Vinyard, all the editions of D&D and AD&D and the various EPT reboots. Chivalry & Sorcery and Arduin. Villains & Vigilantes and Champions. Lace & Steel. Castle Falkenstein. Buck Rogers and Marvel Super Heroes. But these 11 are those that fit the requirements of being on the outside looking in, and finding good game design and interesting, playable worlds.

So, what are yours?

More later.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Plague Book: Kings of the Road

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, Ballantine/Del Rey, 2007, art by Gary Gianni

Provenance: Elliot Bay Books, time undetermined but probably after their move from Pioneer Square up into the wilds of Capitol Hill. There is a sticker on the back, with ANOTHER sticker on top of it, with a severely reduced price, which indicates it may have been remaindered or overstocked.

Review: I like Chabon's work. I read Kavalier and Clay, listened to Yiddish Policeman's Union in audio on my commute, and the semi-biographical Moonglow (also audio, but unfinished since the trip ended and the CD was borrowed from a local library, and my normal vehicle could not play CDs). Yet this one was started, put aside for something else, then ended up on my Shelf of Abandoned Books.

In picking it back up, though, I had to start all over again. With a lot of my abandoned books, I can pick up at the exact moment of departure, suddenly flooded with the memories of what happened and who these characters were and what I was expecting next. For this one, I had to go back to the very beginning to recover my memories.

And I can see how I abandoned it, as well as how I tended to enjoy the author's work in audio form. Chabon's writing is ornate, verbose, layered, and intertwined deeply with itself. Read aloud, it follows. On the page a single sentence can take half a paragraph, and a chapter can leave the reader exhausted. So I started again.

The story is about two con-men adventurers in Central Asia in the mid-9th century. I know, it practically sells itself. Our con-men are Jewish from different traditions - Zelikman from the urbanized doctors and rabbis of Regensberg, Amram descended from the followers of the Queen of Sheba, she being converted by Solomon himself. Zelikman is depressed, intellectual, and has a fondness for his hats. Amram is calm, powerful, and wields an axe named "Defiler of Mothers". After a partially-successful con, they are saddled with a heir to the Khazar throne they are supposed to deliver AWAY from Atil, the capital of Khazar, where the rest of the royal family has been killed in a rebellion. Naturally, things being what they are, they end up at Atil, with the youth leading an army, to overthrow of the overthrowers.

Khazar is no fantasy kingdom. I knew about it from my own own random reading - a kingdom that according to legend chose Judaism as opposed to Islam or Christianity, keeping all its neighbors equally pleased and/or frustrated. Yet it is a hidden part of history, one not normally known, which makes the land and its peoples as fantastic and alien as any chunk of the Realms. Ditto the appearance of the Vikings - yes, they got into Russia (and gave that region its current name), and all the way down the Volga and into the palace of the Emperor of Byzantium as bodyguards, but that is not a known thing as well. Pulling from history and expanding it is great.

The book itself was apparently written serially for The New York Times, and you can see it in the construction of the story. You don't see a journey, you see an arrival. You don't see a battle, you see an aftermath. As individual chapters, it works well, but pulled together, it feels a bit choppy, and the reader is always catching up. So this is a chapter-a-night sort of read as opposed to a barrel through the entire text sort of book.

The writing itself is superlative. I mention the long, ornate sentences, but they engage the readers and hold them in place until the final paragraph break. Gentlemen plays with genre tropes without fully embracing genre, rather presenting an adventure story in a different light, deeper in the character than the serialized adventure tales of old, but still hewing to the ideals of a historical tale, told from a non-standard viewpoint.

Though the book is dedicated to Michael Moorcock, the vibe of the character interaction is much more Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. Amram is more dour that Fafhrd, and has more of a dark history. Zelikman is very urbane and urbanized, close kin to Grey Mouser. Fritz Leiber and Micheal Moorcock occupied the more literate end of the adventure fantasy genre, and Chabon evokes both of their natures in his work without spells, genies, and other such fantastical features. He keeps it relatively real for its place and time.

The text is interspersed with art by Gary Gianni, who for several years drew Prince Valiant. The fine penmanship evoked the work on Valiant, though does not always line up with the text it illustrates (characters are present in the art that are not in the scene being portrayed). Yet it is an excellent addition and helps set the tone and sell the story as a whole.

Is it a genre book? Fantasy? Historical? Adventure? Genre is a marketing term, in that it tells you where in the bookstore you should find a book or its kindred spirits. Gentlemen of the Road straddles the divide between popular and "literate" wings of the bookstore, and may have paid a price for it in not finding a wider audience. It is a worthy read, particularly if you have a diet of swords-without-sorcery adventure tales.

More later,

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Life in the Time of Coronavirus, the Mini-Series

Cape Cod Morning by Hopper
Our fourth month of solitude has passed. The wisteria and the rhododendrons have faded, and the foxgloves and the salmon berries have bloomed and withered. The short thick dandelions in the yard have given way to taller, thinner variety that I find pretty but the Lovely Bride does not care for. We have moved from the overcast of "June-uary" (yes, it is a thing with a name out here) to the cool dampness of "July-bruary" be which is not a thing, but hey, I'm trying to start something, here.

The situation beyond the walls has gotten better in some places, much, much worse in others. Seattle, one of the original hot spots, has stabilized, and has improved marginally. We have pounded on the curve, but are still seeing the occasional spike. Lest we feel too proud of ourselves, other parts of the state and the country have tried to return to the previous age, only to discover that the corona virus has been waiting patiently outside the doors for them. As I write this, particular states in the south and west are seeing their hospitals overloaded with new patients, and other countries, who have been isolating and mask-wearing and have leveled off, look at the US with puzzlement - how could we blow this? We were supposed to be the smart kids.

It has been a failure at the highest levels, supported by ignorance at the lowest. Both have been afflicted by denialism and a feeling of personal exemption. The literal persecution of those with the knowledge of the virus has be nothing short of amazing - something that shows up in a heavy-handed Sci-Fi thriller where the scientist is dragged out of the room shouting "You fools! It's a cookbook!". The latest is the pitch that hospitals should not share their information with the CDC, which would, you know, just share it with anybody. Meanwhile, the Facebooks are full of stories about people who declare loudly they won't wear masks, followed by an announcement of them being admitted to the hospital or, worse yet, their obituaries. I take those stories with a grain of salt, since they fit way too neatly to a preferred narrative that such foolishness will be punished, but they are there. I never expected instant karma to be so ... instantaneous.

Similarly, I am surprised that the recent BLM protests have not moved the needle much. Again, it fits with a comforting narrative that people trying to do good are somehow spared the worst effects of this virus, but this seems to be the general case. I marched in Kent (most diverse city in Washington, so we had a good turnout), and the day was sunny, the marchers were suitably masked and moving, and the gatherings were socially distanced when we stopped. Still, this was the largest gathering of people I had been with in months, and was relieved when two weeks passed without any ill effects.

And my outside life is rebounding. We had a Fourth of July "All-Is-Forgiven"* tea party in the back yard with strawberry shortcake, salmon, and tea. We meet every Wednesday afternoon on a friend's back patio for a socially distanced meal. A friend celebrated her birthday with a gathering at a local park. And I took a PTO day to venture indoors into a game store with another friend. But most of my contacts have been outside the house since, well, forever.

No theatre yet, though there are things on the net, they are not quite the same as being in the room where it happens. Yes, I saw Hamilton streaming on the computer, and don't know what to add that has not been said a bijillion times already. It did have an interesting slow burn on me. After watching it, I felt the songs were good but not memorable. Within twenty-four hours I could quote most of them verbatim. Intriguing.

My beard has gone from "grizzled" to "Jeremiah Johnson"

I still work from home, and the larger of the two cats is very needy. When I am on conference calls he demands to be held, so most of the rest of the team knows him very well. while I look like a mildly-discomforted Blofield. I zoom writers groups and tai chi, and play RPGs over the discord. The Lovely Bride has been in tax hell as the three-month extension to taxes comes due this week, and she is still going into her office, which is slowly returning to a lite-version of normal.

Still reading, not writing enough. Health good, and even may be better because I don't commute two hours each day. Taking it a day at a time, and spending the warm(ish) summer afternoons on the patio beneath my unfinished porch, drinking. And for the moment, that's OK.

More later,

*The "All-Is-.Forgiven" Tea Party is the creation of Janice Coulter, who is also the person who originally described D&D as "twenty minutes of excitement packed into four hours".

Monday, June 15, 2020

Plague Books: Requiem for a Dying Earth

Song of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, by a LOT of people you've heard about, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois, with Art by Paul Kidd. TOR Books, 2009

Provenance: Christmas present, probably 2009 as well. I came to Jack Vance late in life, which is a bit of a surprise given that D&D is hip-deep in Vancian notions, tropes, and outright, um, borrowings. But once I struck his Dying Earth series, in the form of a massive compendium, I was delightfully hooked by his mannered approach to far-future fantasy, and of course, when a massive tome by a cluster of big-name authors came out in his honor, I had to get it and consume it.

And I did, eventually. I remember burrowing into it at full steam, enjoying the stories a great deal. But that steam dissipated over time, and the book became a denizen of my Shelf of Abandoned Books. And only with the recent seclusion, where I have suddenly two more hours in my day that I had when I had to commute, did I finally return to it.

Review: So let me tell you what all the shouting is about. Jack Vance was an author who wrote from the 80's up to his passing in 2013. As a writer, he wrote a LOT of stuff, but the stories that have kept his memory warm in SF&F fans' hearts were his Dying Earth Stories. These were set in the far, far future, where our world is not only reduced to dust but totally forgotten about. It is a world where magic rules, other supposedly vat-created creatures roam the land, and the sun is on its last legs. The stories are stylistically marvelous, and present a Wodehousian future of manners, where wizards are so powerful that they are effectively useless (because there is always a counter-spell and a counter-counter-spell, and so on), and conman get by with the skin of their teeth. Irony abounds and no good deed goes unpunished. If you haven't read Vance, or Dying Earth, go dig it up.

Songs of the Dying Earth is a collection by later-day fans who have made good in the SF bidness, gathered under one roof. A lot of those are names to conjure with - Howard Waldrop, Bob Silverberg, GRR Martin, Tanith Lee, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons. A veritable pantheon of SF literati gathered between two covers to sing the praises of a talent who, if not forgotten, does not get remembered as much as he should.

So how do they do, these later-day student of Vance? They did really well. Some writers take characters from Vance's stories and weave new tales about them. Some take the flavor of the world and give us new tales. Some are paeans that closely follow Vance's voice and tropes. Some tell their own stories that are factually part of Vance's world, but are told with their own voices.  Matt Hughes, who wrote the Vance-evoking Majestrum, acquits himself nicely in Vance's sandbox. The longest piece, from Dan Simmons, is pure Vancian. GRR Martin's contribution is very GRR Martin, in that it is sufficiently creepy, but still belongs in the house of Vance. And the Tannath Lee piece, which is where I abandoned the book years ago, is on re-reading has that sense of irony that makes Vance to worthwhile as a writer.

The art, by Paul Kidd, is also pretty cool, particularly considering that in his stories, Vance never gave a great description of what deodand or a pelgrane looked like.

So why did I bail? Well, to be honest, it is a much of muchness. There is so much stuff in this book (670-some pages) that even the sparkling nature and wry humor of the Dying Earth starts to run thin. This is one of those books which should not be read cover-to-cover, but rather in sprints. Read three stories, then take a breather. Cogitate on them, maybe bake some Kaiser rolls. Then come back. That way it doesn't feel like one long vista of writing. But you should really consider checking it out.

More later,

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Life in the Time of the Virus, Still Continued

I close out our third month of seclusion, and we are fine. A little tired of it all. A little worn out. A little grumpy. But fine.

In this period I helped ship a computer game. Call it my COVID project. Our entire team was working from home, and that in itself is amazing. But with shipping, even though there are about a bajillion things that still need to be done to support/evolve/fix the game, I feel that one of the great pressures on me has passed, and feel a little exhausted as a result.

Part of the recent tasks as we moved to release involved recording voices for future content. So I and my writers were all in our homes, my producer in HIS home in Southern California, our actors in THEIR homes, and our poor audio engineer in the studio in Burbank by himself pulling it all together. My audio guy says the result sounds pretty good. Yeah, I remain amazed that we managed it all.

In the larger medical world the curve is flattening, but our part of the state is not at Phase 2 yet (we are at a modified Phase 1.5, which is what happens when nerds do planning - we break things down into smaller and smaller components). We are getting there - new cases have dropped, death toll is down (but still with us). The whole point of flattening the curve has been not to avoid all risk of infection, but to not overload the medical system with everyone getting sick at once. We have succeeded, yet there remains more to do.

I hear reports that there is herd immunity. I'm not sure about that. COVID-19 is a corona virus, like the common cold. I haven't seen much in the way of herd immunity to that over the years. I am dubious.

I hear reports that the there are mutations that are making the disease weaker, primarily reports from Italy. While that appeals to me in a conclusion to The Andromeda Strain sort of way, I don't see enough movement to support the concept. I remain dubious.

And I have a nervousness that stems from the tendency to admit COVID-19 deaths only when they are absolutely sure that it was COVID-19. So a lot of deaths are now recorded as from pneumonia, with the result that we now have a PNEUMONIA epidemic as the yearly totals are now 3 and 4 times what they normally are. This echoes the AIDS epidemic of my youth, where a lot of deaths of young men were hidden under the guise of "pneumonia".

But we are finally getting the point of wide-spread testing, which is a good thing. We've been guessing for a while now, but of this I am not dubious about.

My plague beard has graduated from "scraggly" to "grizzled".

The robocalls are returning to their natural habitat. One woman keeps calling to tell me there is nothing wrong with my credit. That's nice.

The Lovely Bride and I have succumbed to baking. She has been trying to refine a Kaiser roll recipe that has been kinda of weird on her.  We are making pizza dough, the type that rises overnight, using a recipe from the newspaper. This recipe is clearly meant to just be read, but not implemented. The LB disagrees with about every step of the recipe, so discussion result. Fortunately, after it is all said and done, we get to eat the evidence (and, after all the prep, it really wasn't bad at all).

But people are tired of all this. I get it. I'm not particularly happy myself, and I've got it really easy. I still have my work and talk to my co-workers continually over the 'net. Shortages have been spotty (the latest - shower cleaner and mushroom soup). People have been distancing. Masks are more common than not, particularly at the farmers' markets that are slowly coming back. Less so at the Fred Meyers.

And yet I feel this low-level irritation and agitation. I have less patience on the road, going out for sundries, even though there is less traffic. I have less patience behind the inevitable person at the grocery store paying in loose change. And while I am sure no one has turned the traffic lights to red longer just to peeve me off, but peeve me off they do.

I feel a little bad feeling this way - as I say, I got it easy. No, I've got it REALLY easy. While I was in the basement recording voices long distance, workmen peeled off my back balcony and replaced it with a larger, wider, sturdier, non-rotting version (our other COVID project). Two weeks to get it to the present state, where a base coat is drying. We are delayed because the flooring guy disagrees with what the engineer had put down on his drawing for flashing, while the local municipality agrees but will only authorize doing it the contractor's way if the engineer buys off on it. So we are stalled for the moment. But seriously, this is the worst thing happening? We have it as dead easy.

We endure and we continue and we thrive.We row on.

More later,