Sunday, July 25, 2021

Political Desk Pop-Up: Primary

Yeah, we've got a strong sense of voting exhaustion. It seems like we just HAD a major election, and people are still whinging about THAT one. And it is an off-off-year election, so it is little surprise that the leading candidate for mayor of Seattle is I Dunno. Problem is, that this is the moment in the election process when the voters have more of a choice, and because we are not paying attention, we often end up with "What, These Two Clowns?" in the general.

Even the local media is kinda tapped out. The Seattle Times gives us a list of fairly safe, fairly corporate, centrist-to-not-insane-but-still-conservative endorsement. The Stranger clucks its tongue that no one ticks ALL the boxes on their agenda, but is more progressive. Both of course don't get this far south in a lot of their coverage. The Kent Reporter did a pretty solid article for our neck of the woods, summarizing their voter pamphlet statements, which is nice. The Urbanist has stepped up with their endorsements. The City Chamber of Commerce, after getting its collective faces blown off in the last election, is making no endorsements this time around. No Judges this time around. And I admit I miss the Municipal League.

And for those tuning in from out of state, Washington is currently a Top-Two Primary state. Which means we only are voting on races with more than two candidates and the top two vote-getters go to the general election. Almost all of the positions are "non-partisan", which means that there are still political parties, but they are hidden from you. Always, check out the endorsements - usually they are slanted one way or the other, with a token representative for "bi-partisanship". Candidate statements, which range from vague/positive to fever swamp of a twisted mind, can be found here. The King County Elections board is forbidden from editing them.

Here on Grubb Street? We have some usual suspects and some challenges. Here's what my ballot looks like:

King County Proposition No. 1 Regular Property Tax Levy for Children, Youth, Families, and Communities. This is a renewal of a existing tax, and yes, it for a good cause, so I go with Approved, with the note that we the people get to vote directly on things to support our communities, while stuff like, say, government pay or hand-outs to large corporations are never voted on.

King County Executive - Dow Constantine. Incumbents always get an advantage in that they have name recognition and their races are treated as job reviews as opposed to new hires. Constantine has done a good job in his long tenure, and has risen to meet the challenges of these pandemic times. However, with the notable exception of a continual candidate, the others have pretty good resumes as well. I'll revisit this after the dust settles, but you're not happy with long-term incumbents, you should take a look at Joe Nguyen as well. 

City of Kent Council Position No. 6 - Brenda Fincher. She's done a good job. Her opponents are someone would lists his job as magician, and someone who wants to protect you from marijuana and 5G. I hope the magician makes it to the general. 

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 4 - This one has juice in a way that only small local elections can have them. The school board is responsible for selecting the School Superintendent, among other duties. Bryon Madsen felt the superintendent overreached his position, and when the board reupped his contract, he launched recall efforts against four members who voted to keep the superintendent. Two of the members chose not to run again, and he withdrew the other recalls. He's running for a position on the board again, making the case that the school board should not be involved in education. (And the superintendent? He's taking another job elsewhere). SO. Looking at the others, I will go with Awale Farah, but let's see how this one plays. out. 

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 5 - When we get down in the weeds here, it gets tough. Everyone is concerned about quality education. Everybody has strong ties to the community. Everybody is thinking of the children. But I have a lean towards people with relevant experience. Tim Clark is a former board member and retired teacher. So that gives him the edge. 

Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority Proposition No. 1 Continuation of Benefit Charge - Again, we are asked to OK something beneficial to the community. See the above note on the King County Tax Levy and vote Yes.

Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Position No. 5 - Three good candidates, I lean towards the civil engineer in the group - Logan K. Wallace. 

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 2 - The big friction the Hospital Disctrict is that, after a merger of Valley Medical with the UW system, the elected officials are in a minority compared to the UW Trustees. So the candidates break down into those that want to overhaul the entire system and those who want to keep it and continue to fight from a minority position. I am leaning with endorsements here, in particular the nurses - Dustin Lambro. 

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 4 - The incumbent gave me nothing to work with here. I'm going with Monique Taylor-Swan.

There are other things going in the Seattle area  - Mayor of Seattle, various council positions at the state and county level, a potential recall that the target of the recall has signed on to make happen, and a potential move to a ranked choice ballot (which would negate the need for primaries at this level).  Which I may or may not talk about. 

So therefore, more later,

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Recent Acquisitions

So I've been picking up more game product of late. Part of it is from the Page Turner down in Kent, part of it is from a once-every-three-months trip to Olympic Cards and Comics down in Lacey, with the mighty Stan!, and part of it is from a "Zinequest" promotion on Kickstarter, where I may have gone a ... little .... overboard. 

Now, I have not read most of there beyond leafing through them, and I usually only review game material that I have played (reviewing a game product from its text is a little like reviewing a movie solely from its script - it's nice but doesn't really talk about the final product). So these are some first impressions:

Through Ultan's Door (Ben Laurence) This is a beautifully produced 'zine along the ideas of what a 'zine should be. Issue 1 has a separate cover with a dungeon map on the inside, along with a heavy paper encounter sheet and 32 page saddle-stitched self-cover book. Beautiful, detailed art for the map and inside by Huargo and others. It is a single dungeon within floating city in the Dreamland. I have three issues, the last one being split into two booklets. Good stuff.

Flott's Miscellany Volume One (Andrew Devenney and others, Superhero Necromancer) 48 pages, saddle-stitched cover. This is an expansion of the A Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City. The Visitor's Guide was a pretty cool overview of a sinking city that could be plunked into a deserted stretch of water in your campaign, and could make a good Ravenloft domain as well. This Miscellany has a lot of stuff to add to it. Arrived a little damaged, but it is the content that counts.

Thirsty Sword Lesbians (April Kit Walsh, Evil Hat and Gay Spaceship)  A high quality 222-page hardbound, full color, High graphics. This is "Powered By the Apocalypse Engine" project, and is my first time looking at that particular game engine. What I find noticeable on the first blush is the lack of stress on combat (no big tables with every butterknife and bohemian ear spoon available), and with it lack of detailed combat mechanics. Yet I can see running a Julie d'Aubigny-style campaign with it.

The Merovingian Hack (Justin Bengston) is a much more utilitarian 'zine - 32 pages self-cover on ordinary paper stock. Uses a simplified roleplaying system known as a "hack" - there are Cthulhu hacks, Cyberhacks, and even a Empire of the Petal Throne Hack. This one is for playing in 8th century France. Pretty basic stuff, but could be a foundation of a campaign

Swordpoint (Alan Bahr, Gallant Knight Games) 65 pages, saddle-stitched, cover. "A Swashbuckling Roleplaying Zine".  Interesting landscape (length-wise) presentation as opposed to portrait (tall, in the manner of regular books). Even though it carries an OGL statement, it seems far removed from D&D, which as a system has always been challenged in capturing the style of cinematic swordplay which embodies this particular subgenre.

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft (F. Wesley Schneider, Product Lead, and a host of writers, developers and editors, Wizards of the Coast). 256 pages, hardbound. A descendant of the Domains of Dread, in that it talks about a LOT of the demiplanes of Ravenloft, as well as tuning your horror-based D&D campaign to the style you prefer. Lots of lore in bite-sized bits. There's even a mention of Markovia, from Neither Man Nor Beast, and that's cool.

The Dee Sanction (Paul Baldowski). 68 pages, hardbound. Black cover with a big golden magical emblem. The elevator pitch is Queen Elizabeth's Occultic Suicide Squad. Sorcery is outlawed. You have been caught using sorcery. Your life is spared as long as you work for court magician John Dee to fight occult threats to England. Very nice presentation, but an overuse of boldface to indicate game terms.

Glorantha Sourcebook (Greg Stafford and Jeff Richard, Chaosium Inc.), 220 pages, hardbound. I have always had a soft spot for Glorantha, ever since playing the original White Bear and Red Moon. But its lore has always been a heavy lift, since there it is deep, involved, and often counters itself in telling the tales.This book from 2018 is making a great stab as separating it all out in a relatively linear fashion (for a cosmology where a lot of stuff happens, and THEN time begins). I'm reading this one in the evenings because, of course, I have a soft spot for Glorantha.

City of Cthulhu (Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Pelegrane Press), 220 pages, hardbound.Trail of Cthulhu is a variant/descendant/alternative to Call of Cthulhu, the core rules addressing some challenges in the original (like the very real chance of players not getting a vital piece of info because of a bad die roll). Trail's support material can be used as a supplement for standard material, and tends to hew towards the more existential dread end of the spectrum as opposed to the pulp world-shattering menaces. In this case, we have a city book for Greater Arkham, which has made its deal with dark forces and swollen in size, like a cancerous corruption. May be a good setting for the players should the stars suddenly prove right.

City of Flesh (Elizabeth Chaipraditkul and Steffie de Vaan) 52 pages, squarebound. "A tarot-based femmecore roleplay zine set in the rotting womb of a dying colossus". That's the back cover copy.  It is one of those art project, graphically intense, oddly-laid out efforts, like Ennie-winners Mork Borg or Mothership. Probably will require a bit more attention than your standard quick read.

Maximum HP (Loyd Metcalf and others, 48+ pages) Five issues, variable length, saddle-stitched or squarebound. This D&D 'zine almost slips into quasi-magazine state, in that it has ads in the back for various gaming stores and services. It looks and feels like a pieces from a local campaign, and is nicely put together. Every issue has a theme, the first one being Dwarves, with a lot of interesting bits, including the use of dwarven elephants (woollyphonts). I will admit that I did not see that coming.

Grey Seas are Dreaming of My Death (Derek Sotak and others). 108 pages digest, squarebound. This one missed picture day (because I forgot to include it). This is a William Hope Hodges RPG. William Hope Hodges is one of those "lost horror writers" from the Pre-Lovecraftian era, best remembered for The House of the Borderland.  He also did a lot of nautical horror, much of it set in the Sargasso Sea (which abuts the Bermuda Triangle as a spooky chunk of naval property), and this book sets up to partake in the horrors. Really want to play this one.

That's it for the moment. I have a bit of reading material

More later,

Friday, June 11, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus: Finale

Dawn in Pennsylvania, Edward Hopper, 1942
 This is the last entry of this type. Not because COVID is defeated, but because we are moving into a (yet another) new phase. A new normal, with all the abnormalities we have seen in the previous new normals.

I am vaccinated. The Lovely Bride is as well (no side effects from the second Moderna, other than she took the day off anyway). Our housemates are vaccinated, as are the other members of our Pandemic Pod. We have resumed in-person gatherings of the Pod in the backyard as the weather has improved. We even held an in-person gaming afternoon over Memorial Day weekend and a dinner at a local restaurant (patio, but still). We have made plans to visit our families in Pittsburgh. And to make a trip to Disneyworld in the fall. 

So to claim that we are in quarantine, fighting the virus with distance and time, is no longer applicable. We will still be cautious, wearing masks for safety and courtesy. But things are changing. Like cicadas, we are now emerging from our long sleeps into a changed world. And like cicadas, there will be screaming.

At the time of writing, there are about 500 deaths/day in the US. For comparison purposes we are looking at approx 100 car deaths and a similar number of firearm deaths/day (all numbers per the CDC). So, good news by comparison, but still dangerous. The overwhelming amount of new cases are among the unvaccinated, and now we are vaxing teenagers, which makes sense. This past week, the Washington State Government has inaugurated a Vaccine Lottery that you are entered into when you get your shots. Vaccination sites are overrun again with those who have put it off. Man, I hate it when marketing works.

We are still talking about coming back to the office in the fall, and decisions are being made to what degree. I've been thinking about what I enjoy about working at home, and the list has been extensive:

  • No commute.
  • More flexible time to work, and I get to work earlier.
  • No driving in the dark in the winter.
  • I am available to run errands, go shopping, and do heavy lifting for the Lovely Bride.
  • I am reading more.
  • I am exercising more.
  • I've been amazingly healthy. I've had a runny nose or a clogged head a few days, and I was exceedingly Meh after my shot, but I have not been taking sick days. 
  • The cats like me to be around the house.
  • Hummingbirds outside my window.
  • Able to enjoy the rhododendrons and wisteria this spring more.
  • Able to mow my lawn over lunch.
  • End of the day alcohol on my back deck in summer.
  • I can get comics at noon on Wednesday.
  • No surprise snowstorms in winter.
  • I've taken to singing show tunes while I work.
  • I've walked more, but have not had to use a cane for about a year.
  • I've lost a little weight over the past year. Yeah, be jealous. 

On the other hand coming back to office gives me .... um, hang on, give me a moment, I'll come up with something. Oh, here we go:

  • It's good to talk with others.
  • Closer to IT when your computer goes down.
  • Someone might bring their dogs in.
  • Odds of me pouring an entire bag of cat food out on the kitchen floor severely reduced.

So what this means in no more entries titled "Life in the Time of Virus" (I hope). Plague books go back to just being books. Life does not return to the way is was, but then again, it never does.

More later

Monday, June 07, 2021

Plague Books: Grey Britain

The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 -  Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, W. W. Norton & Company, 1940.

Provenance: Purchased on Amazon. Found out about it while searching the net for other things.

Review: I'm a fan of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and as a result have done a lot of reading on the period Lovecraft set his tales, in the 20s and 30s. These are called the "Interwar Years" in some references since they are neatly book-ended by WWI on one side and WWII on the other. In America the period is broken up to the Roaring Twenties, and (a phrase that I've heard more often lately) The Dirty Thirties. In Britain, the authors separate them into the Careless Twenties and the Threadbare Thirties. I any event, I am always paying attentions to histories of the era, in particular ones written close the events they describe.

One of the best of these histories was Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's by Frederick Lewis Allen. Published in 1931, it was a great reference to the previous decade, published close enough to it to be spared a lot of hindsight, plus it reveals what people thought was important at the time. So I had high hopes, in the this book as it was sent to press just as the Germans were pushing the British army back to Dunkirk. And when this version of the book was re-released in 1963, the original lead printing plates had already been melted down for bullets, so they had to reprint it verbatim without the benefit of historical revision. Further, the book was co-written by Robert Graves, who entertained with I, Claudius and Claudius the God (two books I have perennially re-read). So I had high expectations.

So how is it? Not nearly as good as I had hoped. 

Part of it, admittedly, is the fact we're dealing with England (and chiefly London) for the period, so we are separated in space as well as time. There are be references to Chartists and King Zog and the T.U.C. that sent me scrambling to the Wikipedia for clarification, and assumptions that the primary audience (British) would know all this material already, particularly in that time frame. But part of my frustration is that the authors wander about within a single chapter, throwing up a lot of chaff but very little in the way of a through-line. In the course of a single chapter we move from architectural styles to department stores to women's fashion to motorcars to agricultural policy to vitamins. All interesting, but I had to stop a few places to figure out where I lost the lost the thread, and to speculate on where this way all going.

The authors also come off as scolds, particularly for populist movements and "lowbrow" entertainments. Short stories, dance crazes, women's dresses and in particular American jazz were looked down upon. More modern gender roles and alternate lifestyles were to be castigated. Graves and Hodge come off as judgmental against anything that post-dated the Great War. Looking through their wiki biographies, this is a bit of a surprise, as both authors lived lives that could only as being lived by sensitive poets in the 1920's. Here they come off as being so deeply in the closet that their mail is postmarked Narnia.

Particularly to be shellacked for their modern barbarities were ... the Americans. The United States had "enriched themselves at the expense of Europe" during the war, and was held in contempt for its toleration of gangsters and no-enforcement of prohibition. Everything bad came out of America - Jazz, crossword puzzles, advertising, media consolidation, and the Depression (well, they aren't totally wrong, but the US was hardly as the author quotes "A new home of tyranny.") The Germans, who at the time of publication were right across the channel (with guns), were given a lot more leeway - after all, the authors said, they did get the rough end of the stick at Versailles, and details how appeasement was hailed as a victory (until it wasn't). And besides, Edward VIII should be forgiven for meeting with Hitler - the abdicated King was living in Austria at the time, after all.

Politically, within these pages, the Left was usually wrong, and when it wasn't wrong, it was beastly unpleasant about being right. The Conservatives were more thoughtful, but relatively inert through this period. Everyone was more afraid of Communistic Workers' Rebellions than Nazi Authoritarianism. Any mention of British Fascism needs to be balanced by a dig or three at the Communists. The feeling you get towards the end is the authors would hope that this would all just blow over, and things would go back to way they were before the Depression. With less of the American dance styles, of course.

The book had a lot of good leads and concepts for running a campaign in London of the age. England did not have Prohibition, but it did have the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA), which gave the government wide sweeping powers to protect the Kingdom. While it finally wore out its welcome in 1921, and lot of its regulations, including licensing to control pubs and nightclubs, wore on throughout the period (some of these restrictions would continue up to the 1980s), and the government kept a fairly tight lead on the media.

The book gives you the feeling deja vu, as the authors whinge about things that are still whinged about today. On Media, the authors state at the outset: "The more newspapers people read, the shorter grows their historical memory ... And news heard on the radio is forgotten even sooner." Sounds a lot about complaints about people getting their information of Facebook. History never repeats, as Twain is quoted, but it often rhymes. 

Ultimately, The Long Week-End is that long weekend visiting your Tory great-uncle, who is always talking about how things were (better) before the war. It has a lot of good insights, partial histories, and catty commentary. But if you are looking for a good book on the 20s in America, check out Only Yesterday.

More later, 

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Plague Books: Comfortable Robot

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells,Tordotcom Books,2021

Provenance: Well of course I'm going to read the new Murderbot book. I've come onboard for this snappy series, and have stayed with it. Apparently, the book itself has branched, so now we have Murderbot novels, as well as shorter Murderbot novellas, which are the Diaries. In any event, when this one showed up I ordered it from Amazon in hardback along with two Shakespeare DVDs (King Lear with James Earl Jones and Much Ado About Nothing with Sam Waterston) to present to the Lovely Bride after tax season ended on 15 April. Then they pushed back the deadline a month (which, and this may surprise you, did not endear the IRS to all the tax preparers), so it was mid-May before I gave them to her. And she promptly devoured this one. Then I got to read it.

Review: Over in the Mystery genre they have what they call a "cozy". There are number of related definitions of it, but is usually involves an amateur detective, usually female, usually grudgingly accepted by the professional force, who accidentally discovers murder most foul, but in general has a low threat level and well-known surroundings and a supporting cast. Miss Marples and Jessica Fletcher are the best-known embodiments of the "cozy." Hardboiled writers like Chandler and Hammett HATED the cozy branch of their genre. But in the genre, a cozy is a comfortable read.

Fugitive Telemetry verges on the cozy. It stars our sarcastic friend, the Murderbot, and we are treated to their inner thoughts, which normally involving thinking about how stupid the humans are around them, and if they just spent five minutes not trying to get themselves killed, they could get back to watching pirated space adventure soap operas on their feeds. We are five books in (six counting a novel), and Murderbot (SecBot to everyone else, because, you know, identifying yourself as a Murderbot make fragile, squishy humans a little panicked), is no longer quite as bitingly sardonic, but comes off as cranky, verging on grumpy.

They also digress within their digression, and their personal asides have asides. Which as a writing style is rather contagious. Fortunately, I am resist to such influences (mostly).


Fugitive Telemetry is a mystery novel at its heart, in which the talented amateur gets involved, despite their better judgement. A body is found in a hallway of Preservation Station, the entry port for Murderbot's new home planet. Who it is, who dunnit, and how it got there are all unknown. Murderbot is asked by their friend/sponsor to check it out, because it might be connected with the evil corporation that wants their friend/sponsor and all of her poly/research family dead. 

And grumbling, Murderbot agrees, having to deal with the head of security, who in no way is going to let Murderbot get access to all their mainframes, which would make the job a lot easier. Murderbot brings a lot to the table both with their hacking abilities and their basic assumption that humans at not the brightest tools in orbit. Murderbot's status as an artificial construct makes certain avenues of investigation (like talking to other constructs) blazingly obvious and overlooked by the more organic investigators.

Mysteries in SF (and in Fantasy as well) are difficult in that the author and the reader do not share the same baseline knowledge, and you have to explain the world without tipping your hand that this is why you explaining it. Or why this particular clue is a clue and not part of the world as people know it. In the Mystery genre, people have a basic assumption of how things work - the role of the police, the nature of evidence, how cars and guns work, general history, that sort of thing. In SF, you have to do a lot of groundwork to deal with the fact you are on a space station spinning in a vacuum with a number of different classes of man-made sentients running around (robots, AIs ships, SecBots, and the like), and and how that ultimately affects the story.

And it all works. Murderbot gets stuff wrong, makes bad assumptions, and goes down some blind allies before understanding what is really going on. And it feels ... comfortable. There a no dark bits of their past revealed, no major conspiracies, no serious revelations for the character. It almost feels like the pilot for a series on Netflix, where the Outsider installs themselves as the specialist that Station Security brings in for big cases. So Murderbot doesn't have to deal with the paperwork, just with the cool stuff.

And it makes for a comfortable read. Not quite a cozy, but you can see it from there.

More later,

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Plague Books: Sharpe's Image

Sharp's Rifles by Bernard Cornwell, Penguin Books, 1988

Provenance: Purchased at the Page Turner in downtown Kent. During my sojourn of selling off my comics collection, I swore that I would make no purchases until I had sent all the comics off. However, with the last group I took some store credit, and splurged on a number of volumes, including some Ellison, Derleth, Forester, Fraser, and some of the Sharpe's series. 

Review: I really liked Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin sea novels, which dealt with the age of fighting sail during the Napoleonic Wars. So I was looking for something of the similar era and had heard about the BBC production of this series. No, I didn't watch the series, but I picked up a volume or three. This is purportedly the first, from the number on the spine, but really is the ninth published and the sixth chronologically in the series (The protagonist had before we meet him here had been in India and at Trafalgar). 

So, not really the first book in the series, or the first book written, but the first book of the Spanish campaigns. So a lot of this is backstory setting up the character. Anyway, how is Richard Sharpe?

Not that good. A solider-of-the-line rifleman who was promoted to Captain for heroism (from previous/later books) and squirreled away as Quartermaster for his unit on the Iberian Peninsula to resist the invading forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. Other officers don't like him because he is not a "real" officer - from the Upper Classes. Those he commands don't like him for the same reason - they believe officers are born, not made. So he's pretty miserable. Then the superior officers are wiped out, and it is up to Sharpe to lead his recalcitrant men to something resembling safety. In the middle of this, he gets involved with a Spanish Nobleman who is carrying a mysterious treasure, who is being pursued by his own posse of enemies. 

Sharpe is not great at his job. He knows more than most of his superiors about tactical combat, but is out-thought and out-maneuvered by his enemies and his supposed allies alike. His main asset is a bulldog determination and battlefield cunning that makes him grit his teeth and get the bloody job done. 

What Cornwell does well is both setting up his battle plans and showing how they quickly disintegrate upon contact with the enemy. His battles are described in sand-table accuracy, and the results of combat in grande guigol goriness. He captured the smoke from the pans of the rifles and the screams of the horses.

By the same token, his writing tends to tell as opposed to show (you want to know what they mean by this, take a look here), particularly with internal characterization. We are taken into Sharpe's head with long reflections and recriminations. And sometimes we are bounced out into another characters' head to share something that is not fully revealed from other characters, which is a bit frustrating as well. In combat, Cornwell pulls it all together.

There is also an element of fantasy here that would almost fit in Greyhawk or the Realms.  Sharpe's supposed Spanish ally, Blas Vivar, is on a quest to take a holy relic to a city held by the French, to raise it in a church with a ceremony to rally the people of Spain against Napoleon. This entire plot pitches the gritty reality of the Peninsular campaign towards high fantasy, and while Sharpe doubts, he goes along with it. As a result, he gets played by Blas Vivar multiple times. 

What can you say about Sharpe at this point? Well, he's got room to grow, though the multitude of books before and after this indicates that it may be a low learning curve. The writing is solid, and I have a couple more volumes on the shelf. But I think I will try a few other things first.

More later, 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Plague Books: TED Talks in Text

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, Revised and Expanded Edition, Basic Books, 2013

Provenance: I was part of a online seminar a while back, and one of the other participants, Brannon Boren, recommended this book strongly. Picked it up via Amazon, and soon discovered that it was a bit of a Bible among those engaging in games design, in particular UX (User eXperience) and UI (User Interface).

Review: Even before this book, I was sensitized to UX/UI, due to my job. In part, an Amazon goal is to make processes (ordering stuff, playing games, watching a video) as frictionless as possible, and I am as a result aware of every bump, hiccup, and obstacle on the net and in real life that gets in my way. Just as an example, I am calling out those self-checkout kiosks at the grocery store, which are so bunged up they require live employees to stand by to help out us troglodytes who flail away at them.

But trogs we are not, says Norman - it is primarily the fault of bad design, that does not take into account how people actually use the things they use,communicate with them easily, and can handle when the user does not do the expected thing. And this book is filled with examples of bad design, good design, and evolving design, and the challenges that one faces when trying to create utility for objects that will be used by people who are not in the same room as you, and whom you cannot yell at ("No, turn the knob to the right. Clockwise! No, the OTHER clockwise!").

And this is familiar territory. You've hit things that don't work the way they should - doors that look like they push when they pull. Knobs that don't map directly to the burners on the stoves. Light switches that are not even in the same room as the lights they control (I have a LOT of these in our house, much to the frustration to guests who walk into a darkened bathroom and don't realize the light switch is Back Out in the Hall). The book has a lot of examples, and Norman returns to them several times to push various points through the text.

The book itself is written in bite-sized, readable bits, and is better for reading over a section, considering it for a while, then moving on to the next. IDeal  if, say, you're commuting on a public transport. Or between meetings. Or, well, in the bathroom. This is (I have to admit) where the bulk of my consumption of the book took place. It is like a bunch of short videos distilled down into a readable bite-sized form.

And it has a lot of organizational buckets for its ideas - The Seven Stages of Action. The Five Whys. The Three Levels of Processing. Yes, they sound like competing Martial Arts Schools, but Norman makes they all explainable and how they all fit in together. Indeed, he has the bits that look they evolved neatly into the "Flywheel" process that Amazon and other companies have adopting for product development and adequately using feedback loops.

And he lays out Norman's Law, which summarized, says "As soon as a project starts, it is behind schedule and over budget". Because I've been there, too.

Does he get everything right? Not completely. He uses his own book's organization as an example of text that can be read in any order, because non-fiction is different in fiction in that it is not yoked to a narrative through-line. However even nonfiction has a narrative flow in that it is making an argument and building its conclusions on previously presented material. You go immediately to the back of the book for answers, and you miss out on the logic that gets you there.

The Picturephone - 1970.
Yes, I was alive at that time.
Also, amusingly, he sites as a example the continuing failure of the videophone, which showed up at the end of the 18th Century as a concept for long-distance communication, and continued to never take hold up through the 21st Century (There was an ad for the videophone that was shot in Pittsburgh, and they wheeled it out whenever they were pushing the idea). Of course, in the past year, that entire concept has blown up not by a dedicated device, but by the fact that everyone HAD to teleconference, and with it, the rules changed and suddenly people were zooming/chiming/discording/tiktokking and what have you, even though this expanded volume came out less than a decade ago.

However, in general I am looking at a great little book that is easily consumable, and packs a punch on design issues, and I will strongly recommend it for everyone in "da bizniss", as it was recommended to me. Go forth and be sensitized on the issues.

More later, 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Plague Books: Kafka-esque

The Book Tour by Andi Watson, Top Shelf Productions

Provenance: Lent to my by Stan!

Review: Fretwell is an author on that most burdensome of writer's tasks, the Book Tour. He goes from store to store on a fruitless quest to make personal appearances (that no one cares about), meet his public (who don't show up), and sell his books (which do not sell). The suitcase containing his books have been stolen, his publisher is ghosting him, and his wife is nothing more than a distant voice on the telephone.

Oh, and he's a suspected serial killer. 

The Book Tour is a graphic novel by Andi Watson which moves leisurely through its absurd urban landscape. Watson's style is quiet, and his dialogue short and filled with assumptions on both parties' parts. Fretwell wanders through an ornate, deeply illustrated city filled with self-involved, minimalist characters, most of whom are so wrapped up with their own lives to the point that Fretwell does not register, much less matter. And Fretwell himself takes it all without losing his cool or pressing his own advantage.

Fretwell's hell is Kafkaesque. I got that feeling from the very name of his doomed book - "Without K", as K was the last name of victim in Kafka's "The Trial". And like The Trial, Fretwell comes under suspicion of a crime he did not commit, and confronts a universe that is not maliciously uncaring in a Lovecraftian sense, but uncaring in its own right.

Stan! tells me he took his time with the book, and I can see why - in addition to being an author, Stan! is a cartoonist, and the pacing of the story as Fretwell moves from encounter to encounter is excellent, his characters frustratingly obtuse, and his city is both malignant and detailed. I on the other hand, moved through it slowly because it raised a lot of my dark ghosts of my own previous book appearances, ranging from the ones where no one showed up, to those where we violated some local idiosyncrasy, to those when we were literally in the shadow of better-known authors (as in, right beneath a banner that says "Meet Tom Clancy!". Every writer has those experiences - buy me a beer and I'll bend your ear, but this book unearthed them in all their undead glory.

But back to the book. Watson's universe is uncaring, but not in a malicious way, but rather just self-absorbed. Fretwell is a irritant to the inhabitants of that world, and his relentless desire to push on through his adversities (which quickly pile up) forms the hub of the story. I think I know who the serial killer is, or at least, who I want the serial killer to be.

In the end, this a post-war British black comedy, something produced by Ealing Studios with Alec Guiness as Fretwell, directed by that young Hitchcock fellow who had already left for Hollywood. And that's a movie I would be glad to see.

More later,

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus: Signs of Life

Morning Sun by Edward Hopper - 1952
 It's not over. Not yet. But it feels like there is a long, group, exhalation from holding your breath for too long a time.

The good news is that fatalities are down in the Seattle area, and cases and hospitalizations have leveled off. A recent map of the region put the vacc rate at 70% for at least one shot, the vaccine is plentiful, and a lot of sites are taking walk-ins. But we are still seeing new cases, particularly among younger people. I haven't seen a precise reason yet, but I wonder if it is connected in any way with the re-start of in-person schools. Of course, this was a thought that occurred to me as I was driving over to Covington Labs for a blood draw, and found myself behind multiple school buses. 

The rest of the world continues to pitch and yaw with the disease. India at one time was so untouched that people strained to come up with reasons why. Now it is being hit hard. Russia was under reporting its damage, which is of little surprise. Brazil remains a dumpster fire, and Sweden, who banked on herd immunity, has suffered worse than its Scandinavian neighbors. Island nations keep a tight watch on their borders. And our own official national count may be low as well, and the "real" number of deaths may be up to twice of what we reported.

On a more regional level, the governors are taking it on the chin, red or blue, for a) doing too much, b) not doing enough, or c) doing both at the same time. And even though I am wary of returning to "business as previous", I have to admit we have seen improvements. But improvements are not eradication. 

But the CDC has gone on record in the past week on  pulling off the masks, and though they bunker it in cautious, adult terms (IF you are vaccinated and IF you are outside), it seems like the reaction is as if Landru suddenly shouted "Festival!" (Original Star Trek reference, for the younger kids).  Will we see a bigger fourth wave moving forward, or are enough folk vacced to give us a fighting chance?

At the personal level, the local groceries are still masked up, and I'm good with that, and I will continue to wear masks when indoors in public, and likely when I am outdoors in among strangers as well. My personal favorite mask has a purple octopus on it, and people assume that I am supporting Seattle's nascent hockey team. Our Pandemic Pod has resumed outdoor meetings when the weather is good, all of us grabbing various forms of takeout and camping in the backyard. The Lovely Bride has gotten a brazier for fires, and Housemate Anne has a mosquito-repeller she says will keep the Washington State Bird at bay. The pair have been renovating the garden with surprising speed as the LB emerges from tax hell.

And my company has been putting things together to return people to the office in some form. A lot of my former project-comrades have moved on to other things, but I still have my desk in the office (though last time I was there I had forgotten what floor we were on). And much of Queen Anne Hill and Lake Union are blocked by newer buildings that have gone up in the interim. I did manage to save an overstuffed chair that I call "The Story Chair", where people would come by and our team would talk about story with them. A lot about his (and many other things) is still unknown and unrevealed, but we are moving forward to some semblance of the before-times. 

But for me, I have adapted to working at home well. I've done it before, in the land of freelance, and the ever-available online calls mitigates some of the communication challenge. I have a tidy desk in the corner of my home office dedicated to "the day job", and from here I can see the hummingbirds at the feeder and the crows at the pond fountain. The wisteria and rhododendrons are in bloom. We're holding up OK, and looking forward to the next stage. 

More later, 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Comics: End of the Collection

Those who know me may be in for a bit of a shock: I have gotten rid of my comic book collection.

To call it a collection would be rounding up. It is more of an accumulation, forty-plus years of paper and staples that had been acquired, read and deposited in long white coffins, to rest in state in various locations. Most recently that location was a small room billed optimistically by the realtor as a Mother-In-Law apartment (When my Mom-In-Law stayed with us, she got the guest room - much nicer).  When we first moved to Seattle, the Lovely Bride built a storage rack for the collection, four bins wide and two bins high, each bin holding 9 "long-boxes" of comics, each long-box about 30" long and holding about 300 comics easily (or 350 the way I would jam them in). So that is, what, 72 long boxes with a total of about 2.5k comics. 

I read comics as a kid. Harvey comics like Sad Sack and Hot Stuff the Little Devil. I read DC comics, which were better than Marvels because you could never guarantee you would get the "next issue" at the drug store, never mind that a sizable chunk of the DCs were reprints from the early fifties. Original works included Dial H for Heroes and Legion of Superheroes and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. I think I had the first issue of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire

Then I stopped, showing a preference for MAD magazine as my drug store read. The old comics, disposable culture, were disposed.

In college I got back into comics. I blame the Star Wars comic and Howard the Duck. The guy in the next room over at the dorm read super-hero comics (Hi, Joe!) and I started reading the Fantastic Four and Iron Man. The story about creating a superhero RPG from alL this can be found here. I stored the comics in the bottom drawer of my dresser in the dorm, and brought them home in grocery bags.

Out of college, I started picking up books regularly, and started storing them in "real" long-boxes. In Pittsburgh, the only direct-sale shop was on the North Side, Eide's, in the an area where urban renewal had not gotten around to renewing yet. There I found the Small Press Indies - Elfquest, Cerebus, and the like. The boxes started to pile up. When I had gotten them to about 3 by 3, I put a sheet of plywood over them and made them into a desk. The boxes were not bleached white yet, and while I was bagging I was not boarding them (and never would). 

The story of how Marvel Super Heroes came about at TSR is here (again) But the upshot was not only was I using my collection as a resource, Marvel was now sending me comics on a weekly basis. I got on their mailing list and got two copies of everything. One copy went into manila folders and was circulated around the office (for "research" purposes) while my own copy went home. We were now storing the comics in an attic crawlspace over the kitchen. The LB and I would drive up to Milwaukee to the Turning Page every other week on a Friday (then comic-book day), then go to Chi-Chi's at the mall for Mexican food  (table for two, good light source, please).  Eventually I went for weekly runs to Rockhead's in Kenosha, and finally a pair of fans started carrying comics at their video store/gas station in Lake Geneva.

About that time I was writing comics for DC (Story here) and got on THEIR mailing list, so I got a lot of comics coming in. And in the process of all this I got a lot of comics that I would never buy, like Barbie, and movie adaptations like Richie Rich and comics for Kiss, Alice Cooper, and Prince. And I got a lot of exposure to their full lines - Vertigo and Epic and Milestone. Some was very good, some was forgettable. I made a culling and got rid of four boxes at a shop up in Madison.

I no longer am on those mailing lists, but the accumulation continued. The brown boxes became large white boxes. I stopped bagging, and eventually I stopped sorting, instead just stacking. The boxes became time capsules, layered like strata of popular culture. I brought the collection to Seattle, and the LB built the storage bins. I filled up about half of them, but over the years they filled up, and there were a couple extra white coffins on the floor as well. The boxes got wider (to accommodate the backing boards I don't use), and the paper stock for comics has gotten heavier and glossier. A box of old newsprint was about 50 pounds, one stuffed with recent books was more like 70. Soon, I would not be able to move them again. They became a wall of paper, and I considered that, in case of a nuclear attack, I could build a fallout shelter with them. Viking funeral also came to mind.

And so it was time to get rid of them. Needed the space, and the necessity of keeping them for research had diminished - not only was I not designing RPGs, but a lot of the material was available through trade paperback reprints and online. And the fictional universes have rebooted multiple times, with a surge of destructive fury replaced by a flurry of number ones, so their usefulness as historical records was diminished. 

And I went through them all in the process of cleaning them out. Some we kept - Kate had some we wanted to keep - Starstruck from Epic and Jonny Quest from Comico and Power Pack from Marvel and the underappreciated Baker Street from Caliber (punk Sherlock Holmes). I kept Astro City (Various publishers), Planetary, Groo the Wanderer, and the various Handbooks, Who's Whos, and Secret Files. And multiple  all the stuff I worked on over the years, with the exception of a backup story for a TSR comic that set up the story and then was cancelled that issue.Going through them was like an archaeological dig. Newsprint gave way to glossy stock throughout. There were flurries of relaunched and renumbered Number Ones. There were stunts like  chrome covers and embossed covers and wordless issues and sideways printing, and even a couple three-D's. There were books that I don't even remember reading - Xombi and Ravage 2099 and Hokum & Hex and Leonard Nimoy's PriMortals. Sublines like Razorwire and Heavy Hitters. And most recently mega-epics that swallowed entire company lines with huge epic storylines.

And I'm done. Those we did not keep I took down, four and five boxes at a time, to the Page Turner, a thriving used bookstore in Kent, Washington (Online it can be found as The store has an excellent collection of comics, genre fiction, histories, and pop culture. I pulled out the black and white indies (which the store owner said didn't sell well for him) for a friend (and stored them in brown paper grocery bags). The last load went down this weekend, in celebration of Seattle's Independent Bookstore Day/Week. So far I haven't had a shred of seller's regret. Now the bins are stacked with plastic containers filled with sewing projects and old paperwork belonging to my late mother-in-law. 

I still read comics, but I doubt I will be hoarding them. Maybe it is time to look at electronic formats (which, oddly enough, may make the print comics of today more valuable in that there will be fewer of them, much like the paper drives of WWII boosted the disposal of old golden age books). It does feel like I have jettisoned almost two tons of albatross from my life. 

Now I just need to figure out what to do with all these National Geographics.

More later,

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Plague Books: Clap for the Wolfe, Man

Too Many Cooks/ Champagne for One by Rex Stout. Bantam Books, 2009 reprint of novels from 1938 and 1958.

Provenance: Purchased at the Strand, New York City, in the before times. I had gone to the Strand to look for the new Will Gibson book, but they had sold out. But I did find this one.

Recently, I bogged down with three rather involved tomes, so when I went in for my shot, I took this book along. Didn't really need it, but once started, I spent several pleasant spring afternoons on the back deck reading it.

Review: This is a reprint compilation - two books, twenty years apart, shoved together under a single set of covers. No additional editing, and it shows. The first book runs its course, and the second begins with new page numbering. The fonts and leading are different in both halves. There's a big globby typo on page 104 of the first story that is still there. So the effort on the 2009 reprint consists of new covers and printing.

What it does do is that it allows us to compare two books, same author, same characters, same general setup, twenty years apart and eighty years back in time. Yes, there is some creakiness involved, but in general, they hold up.

(OK, for those who haven't heard me talk about this before, here's the overview of the series: Nero Wolfe is a brilliant, overweight, cantankerous private detective with a superiority complex and preference for fine food, orchids, and not working. Archie Goodwin is his legman. employee, and friend, the wisecracking Watson in this pair, but more social and more street savvy. He pushes, goads, and otherwise manipulates Wolfe into doing the right thing as part of his job. Together they're detectives.)

So, Too Many Cooks. Here Wolfe is out of his element. He is going to a gathering of professional chefs in West Virginia to give an after-dinner speech and enjoy the food, and maybe get a secret recipe from one of the chefs. One of the chefs present is one of those guys who everyone says deserves to be stabbed. Yeah, he is stabbed. So, large crowd of suspects, Wolfe having to do things he does not want to do, Archie is being charming and flirtatious, but with a heart of gold. Even at this early date, a lot of the components of a Nero Wolfe story are pretty much set in stone. 

An interesting exception deals with race. Up to this point, I hadn't considered how white Wolfe's world is, but in this case a major set of witnesses at the resort in W Va are black men. Despite being set in New York, a lot of the people who Wolfe is dealing with are Caucasian. Some of that is dealing with the Upper Class, his clients, but also most of the day-to-day that Archie runs around with - cabbies and doormen and receptionists. There is a variety of European heritages - Italians and Irish and Polish and French, and Wolfe himself is Serbian. But these would fall under the ancient rubric of "White Ethnic", a phrase I don't think I've heard since 1978 (Its flipside would be WASP - equally extinct in the modern age, even with a recent failed attempt to resurrect it as simply "Anglo-Saxon")).

But we are in West Virginia for this tale, and black men are the resort staff. They cook and serve the food. They hold the doors. The help. They are made semi-invisible by the shade of their flesh. How does Stout handle it? Casual N-bombs are thrown in the text, but not by Archie or Nero, though Archie does use a few archaic epithets that I had to look up. When confronting the staff as potential witnesses to the crime, Wolfe delivers a "Brotherhood of Man" speech that borders on cringe-worthy to modern ears, but Wolfe pulls it off in part because of his own insufferable superiority to everyone regardless of race or creed. And Stout's characterizations of the African-American staff are better than most films of the era, and he makes clear why the staff would be unwilling to cooperate with the white establishment, regardless of where in Europe those ancestors came from.

Champagne for One also involves a hot topic of its time - in this case unwed mothers. Up to the mid-70s, there were "schools" that would take pregnant unwed mothers in, see them to term, provide varying levels of support and putting the children up for adoption. The lessening of stigma about teenage pregnancy did a lot to reduce their popularity and the rise of birth control, but they are at the heart of this part of the mystery.

The setup for this one is a bit stilted, but bear with me. Widow of the founder of one of these homes continues her late husband's tradition of inviting three of the women from the school (post-birth) and three young men (of upper middle class) to a dinner at her mansion. At this particular one, Archie is leaned upon to fill in as one of the young men. One of the women, who had told people she kept poison in her purse in case she decides to do herself in, is poisoned. Everyone assumes it is suicide, but Archie goes on record as saying it is murder. And that eventually brings Wolfe in.

And here, twenty years later, the formula is firing on all cylinders. We have the brownstone on West 35th street. We have the supporting cast, both household and professional. We have the cigar-chomping chief of detectives, who lives in the pantheon with Piroit's Inspector Japp and Holmes Lestrade as foils and frenemies. We have the big cast of upper-class suspects, who pack their own secrets and agendas. That last is definitely a Stout trademark - the murder is not frozen in amber, but rather the players continue to conspire and plot as Wolfe closes in. But the setting and action is comfortable, right down to the red chair in Wolfe's office. Are these "cozy mysteries", a term used for rural sleuths like Miss Marples? Yeah, I can see it. Comfort food with a little murder on the side.

I guessed the murderer in the first book, but not the exact method. Was surprised by the murderer in the second even though I caught the fatal statement that led to the reveal. Not that I claim to be up to Wolfe or Goodwin's level.

More later,

Monday, April 19, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus - Not Throwing Away My ... Shot.

Doctors Looking At Art
from John Hopkins Magazine
 And so I am vaccinated. The Johnson & Johnson "one and done" vaccine.

It happened a couple weeks back, on a Wednesday. It turns out that the process of making appointments was tougher than the process of getting the stab itself. Being JUST under 65 in Washington State meant I missed out on the initial round, but when we finally cleared at the end of the month April, both the Lovely Bride and I when to the vaccine finder online and, finding out that shots would be given out at the local hospital, Valley Med. Great. Except to sign up, you went to the UWMed site, and once you signed up to be put on the waiting list, there was no confirmation one way or another. 

So after a week I went back to the vaccine finder, and signed up for a bunch of locations. I found they were giving the vaccine at the local sports complex (the ShoWare center, a local venue noted for never turning a profit every year). But by the time I filled out all the forms, they were out of appointments. So I ended up signing up down for a vaccination site down in Auburn, at the Outlet Center (formerly known as the Supermall). And filled out the online forms pretty fast to keep from losing THAT one. 

Now, because of what I do (designing computer games), I am extremely sensitized to UX (user experience) - how people navigate the complex web of their online experience. Every site had their own format, their own questions, and their own process. and for anyone who was not computer-savvy, it was a frustrating experience (The Lovely B, by the way, got on her iPad during a Zoom dinner party, and struck a win very quickly with a local Rite-Aide, which did not have any openings when I went looking four days before - BUT since then the J&J vaccine was halted as a result of potential blood clotting, so she's been moved further back in the line).

So, the Supermall. A friend had had a horrible experience locating the vaccination site, so I went down early for the first appointment of the day. The web site gave the location of the site by the Suite number of the store, but the maps of the mall itself did not identify anything by Suite number. And there was not a lot of signage in the mall parking lot (Supermall - big parking lot on all four sides). parked near by best guess, and found that the mall ITSELF was closed at that hour. I drove to where I had seen a number of cars parked thinking it was another entrance. And indeed, THAT was the site where the vaccine was being distributed. Spoilers: It was on the north side of the building, with a HUGE white tent for people to queue up in.

It might have been the hour, or the fact I was there early (9:30, even after going to the wrong entrance), or the fact that the web sites had confused so many people, but the huge white tent was empty, and I walked in. The place (an abandoned Sports Authority with an external main door) was swarming with helpful volunteers in orange jackets (far outnumbering the patients). One asked me if I had brought along my ID and QRCode from the confirmation message. I had not brought the QRCode, and she sent me to Guest Services, which was a long set of tables with more volunteers. I was the first of the day, so the young woman that was helping me had an older volunteer at her side, and four more volunteers hanging over her shoulder to understand what needed to be done. It turned out the first volunteer at the door was wrong - you did not NEED to bring along your QRCode, it just makes it easier. I was confirmed and sent on my way to the long, empty queue area leading to the shots itself. It was sort of like arriving for your flight early, and No One was ahead of you at security.

And here's the thing - everyone was extremely friendly and upbeat, something I rarely see in malls these days, so I was actually taken aback. The friendly volunteer at the empty queue directed me to a table with two more friendly volunteers (trainee and trainer) who took my information, and when I confirmed I had an allergy (sulfa drugs), called over a friendly firefighter who said there should be no problem but I should wait 15 minutes after the shot to be sure, and another friendly firefighter administered the shot. Now, I have an INTENSE dislike of needles, but this was probably the easiest shot I've ever gotten. I was sent to another friendly volunteer who was stationed near a widely spaced set of chair, and when I did not fall out said chair in 15 minutes, I was released into the (closed) mall itself, where a string of friendly volunteers in orange jackets showed me to the exit. 

I had taken the rest of the day off (because I was topping out my vacation time in any event), so I ran some more errands and went home, and napped. Felt a little "meh" the next day, but avoided any serious reaction.

So, it's over? No, it is not. First off two weeks to have the vaccine run its course. Plus, in D&D terms, the vaccine is Damage Resistance, not Damage Immunity. I am not immune to fire, but I will take less damage from the fire, hopefully to the point where, if I suddenly find myself in a fireball, I would not be hospitalized.(I will refrain from torturing this analogy any further in the name of the Geneva Convention). The end result is that I will continue to use a mask when I go out, and work from home until the situation changes further.

In the outside world things are trying to lurch back to normal, with a rise in number of cases in several counties out here, but a decline in fatalities (A separation of the sick and the dead). King County is verging on slipping back to Stage 2 from Stage 3. Traffic is starting to suck again, more people are being shot in public places, and I'm getting a lot more spam calls. So, I guess America is slowly becoming America again. The local grocery has pulled up the one-way arrows for the aisles that everyone was ignoring anyway. The local newspaper did a long piece on Sunday on museums that were slowly and cautiously reopening.  There was an article as well about how, despite expectations, there was a decline in suicides in the past year, as people did not deal with each other as much. And there remains much concern about new variants that are spreading and replacing earlier waves. 

So we have hit a milestone (instead of a millstone), and there is some glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. On the 15th the floodgates open, and everyone else will be allowed to get the vaccine (which, to continue the airport analogy, feels like when they have boarded the first class, business, gold, platinum, jade, and radioactive metals classes, along with people with children, those who are serving/have served in the military, and Seahawk fans, and now are ready to board "All Other Rows".

And that is where a lot of my younger colleagues are: All Other Rows. This too, I want to say, will pass.

More later, 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Life in the Time of Virus - The New Year

City Roofs by Hopper, 1932
 A year ago, my company sent everyone home. It was thought at the time it might be a few weeks, then a few months, then by Fall at the latest.

And now it may be by early Fall of this year, and even then it may be only for a few days a week just to keep touch in the flesh.

I've been back in the office a few times since then, and it still looked a bit like the Mary Celeste. Our department were in the process of reshuffling our desks around when the word came down, so some desks are empty, some have boxes, and some still have everything on them as if the occupant had just stepped away. Looking out the windows, I can see new skyscrapers that been erected while we've been gone, further blocking the view of Lake Union.

I haven't gotten my vaccine yet, though not through a lack of desire. Each state has its own schedule and rules, and, alas, I am neither old enough or nor sick enough or nor vital enough to get priority. And, to be honest, I don't want to jump the queue to get a shot when there are people who ARE old enough, sick enough, or vital enough still waiting for the situation.

However, every report I get from family and friends says that when it DOES become available, and one figures out how to get it, the entire process is well-run and fairly painless (painless compared to coming down with the coronavirus). So I have something to look forward to.

The numbers continue to climb, though a lower rate than the winter highs. But also climbing has been the number of doses administered. At the time of this writing, there have been 29 million cases in the US, and 538,000 deaths. But 113 million doses of vaccine have been administered and that number is climbing rapidly. 

In the meantime, the dawn has begun to claw its way back from utter darkness. Seattle is the northernmost major city on the continental US, further north than the bulk of the population of Canada. So the winter darkness hits us hard. Back in the beforetimes I was used to watching the dawn from an upper floor of a Seattle skyscraper. So working at home has had that advantage, but I follow the sun - the earlier it rises, the earlier I will be at work. 

There is the other social distancing going on right now up here - this one involving birds. Due to wildfires, we have an "irruption" of pine siskins. Now while "pine siskins" sounds like a snack food, it a small, mostly-Canadian bird that is now is hanging about in large numbers in the Puget Sound region. This sudden overpopulation is called an irruption, and would not be a big deal, except that they are currently carrying a deadly form of salmonellosis . So birds need to socially distance. Which means that we can't use the bird feeder in the back yard until the beginning of April. Maybe longer. Yeah, I know how the birds feel.

And we have housemates up here on Grubb Street. Some friends were having housing issues, a situation made more serious by one of them having to undergo chemotherapy up in Seattle. So they have joined us, and we have been doing a lot of cleaning and moving things about, as well as adjusting to other peoples' rhythms in the house. Part of this has been to encourage the Lovely Bride and I to do some projects we have been meaning to do for some time, like strip out the carpeting in the guest room or (slowly) dispense with a lot of my comic collection in the basement. (OK, it is no longer a collection, it is an mere accumulation - if you're looking for something in particular, I am sending it all to Page Turner Books down in Kent - good store, check it out).

But as a result of all this, my time usually spent screwing around has been diminished, and there are things that still need to be done all around me. Sort of a spring cleaning on overdrive.

It will still be a couple months before I can spend the evenings on the back deck with a good book and a strong drink, but I am working towards it. In the meantime, I remain confined to quarters, wearing a mask on the rare times when I do go out, and generally bearing up.

More later,

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Plague Book: In the Blood

Blood Royal, or, The Son of Milady by Alexandre Dumas, Edited and Translated by Lawrence Ellsworth, Pegasus Books, 2020

Provenance: Christmas book, 2020

Review: These books have quickly become mental comfort food. I had read an excellent translation of the Three Musketeers long ago and far away, but fell into the Ellsworth translations with the Red Sphinx and kept coming back. Ellsworth is better known in gaming circles as Lawrence Schick (D&D module S2 - White Plume Mountain, among other things), and his spirit of adventure carries through here in his translation.

This volume is the back half of the original publication of Twenty Years After, which originally appeared as a serialized novel. In it, Dumas deals with two different civil wars - one in France called the Fronde, and the English Civil War. In the first half, the four inseparables are separated through loyalties and responsibilities, Mordaunt, the son of Milady plots his revenge, and two of the group (Aramis and Athos) debark for England to help King Charles, on the ropes from Cromwell's revolution.

We pick up this volume with D'Artagnan and Porthos also heading for England, with instructions to help Cromwell and assigned to aid  Mordaunt, who plots all of their demises. They soon switch sides and work to save King Charles (noble but doomed), who had been betrayed to Cromwell's forces. 

And here's the thing: they have to fail (spoilers). Historically, Charles was beheaded (real spoilers), and while Dumas will be kinda fast and loose with the facts and timelines to suit his fiction, he cannot keep the King of England alive. So we have a long section where the crafty Gascon (D'Artagnan is given that sobriquet a number of time) comes up with a plan that just ALMOST works, before time or fate or the presence of the Son of Milady foils it at the last moment. Mordaunt pops in a number of times,and the crew also fails to dispatch him, and ultimately the group has to flee England in a boat rigged with explosives.

Back in France, the four split up, and D'Artagnan and Porthos are imprisoned by the current evil cardinal (Mazarin, not the ruthless but effective Richelieu) for trying to save the English King. Athos and Aramis witness the machinations to overturn the revolutionary Frondeurs by splitting off its various factions, but rescue D'Artagnan and Porthos, and get enough leverage to get what they themselves ultimately want (which is not what the revolutionaries were after). It all ends in a riot, much as it began in the previous volume.

D'Artagnan is no longer an innocent, but is crafty and the man with the plan throughout this book. Porthos lusts after his peerage and respect, and is the most broadly-fashioned of the group. Aramis is the Sexy Priest, only moreso. Athos has in my brain changed over the passing of 20 years - the fact that he has a son (who will be more important later) has made him more of a worrier and fretter, both on behalf of his son and in general. That son in turn sort of vanishes in this volume, after a good start in the previous volume.

The swashbuckling is hard and heavy, ranging from battlefield maneuvers to very D&Dish duels, and in one section, a dungeon exploration. Dumas reserves his sharpest tongue for the politicians of all shapes and factions. Queen Anne of France is sleeping with Cardinal Maturan, who is more comic and less capable than his predecessor Richleau. The upper class leaders of the Frondeur are easily bought off by the Monarchy. The former valets of the Musketeers have established themselves with the greater society, to a variety of effects. All have their moments, but the center of the action are on the four musketeers.

Yeah, I'm bought in on that. There are three more volumes to come, which make up the Vicomte of Braelonne series, which ends in The Man in the Iron Mask. Yeah, I'm going to be there for them.

More later,


Monday, March 08, 2021

Plague Book: Mansions of the Mind

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Bloombury, 2020

Provenance: A Christmas book. I listened to the audio version of Clarke's previous novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and knew I wanted to read this one. So when it turned up among the usual suspects (NPR, The Seattle Times book page, the New Yorker), I asked the Lovely Bride for it as a Christmas present.

Review:  Piranesi (not his real name, but what he is called), is a simple soul living in a mazework House, which is flooded by the sea. He lives on fish and seaweed. He maps the rooms and tends to the dead bodies he has found there. He does errands for the only other living person there, who he knows as the Other, who is acerbic and looking for the Secret Knowledge hidden in the maze. The House is made of white marble, its halls populated by titanic statues, and it floods on a semi-regular basis from swelling tides.

Is the House real? Or are we trapped inside Piranesi's brain? Are we looking at a demiplane, or at dementia? Mansion or madness? The story unfolds effortlessly and captures a completely likeable and totally unreliable narrator. This is one of those books where you figure things out long in advance of the protagonist, and you are still surprised. You like Piranesi so much that any possible resolution to his situation feels like it will be heartbreaking, but Clarke manages to navigate the shoals of emotion neatly and gives you a satisfying conclusion his tale.

Prisons of the Imagination
I wiki'd up Piranesi, since the name itself meant nothing to me and there was no obvious reason for it presented in the text (there is a reason in-text, but you have to think about it). Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an archeologist, architect and artist who is best remembered for his black and white etchings of ancient ruins and wild, phantasmal vaults and prisons. Knowing this gave me another, but exact view, of what was going on Piranesi's world. Ultimately exactly what is going on in this fantastic landsacpe is theorized but not entirely defined, and that leaves it magical in its own right.

But let me talk briefly about the book as artifact.. There seems to be a new trope in book packaging regarding "serious" fantasy books - matte black covers with metallic ink. We saw it over on Circe and here it is again - Embossed lettering, copper ink, singular image, and a lot of empty black space. And hey, there's a blurb on the back cover from Circe's author. Though it is from a different publisher, it does feel like it is same design house. And it sends its own messages about the contents (This is "serious" fantasy). Authors do not always select their covers (and often do not have a say it such matters), but yes, if I were to deliver some "serious" fantasy, I would go for black and copper as well. 

More later,

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Plague Book: Money for Nothing

 Money in the Bank by P. G.Wodehouse, Penguin Books, 1942

Provenance: This is from the collection of John Rateliff, purchased from Skoob Books (Secondhand Books for Students), 66 The Brunswick off Marchmont Street in London (near the Russel Square Tube), on the 9th of December, 2012. I know this because John used not only the receipt as a bookmark, but also a coupon from the store (20% off for students, expired 31 October) and a tag from a Twining's tea bag as well. About the most British set of bookmarks I could imagine, short of the Queen herself holding a finger in the page where you've left off.

For my part, I was reading SPQR in early November, and the stories of mobs throwing rocks down on the Senators sort of convinced me I should read something else for a while. I am a Wodehouse fan, though my participation has a lot of glaring gaps in it (Code of the Woosters remains the best). So, I pulled this one out for something, well, lighter.

The Review: I have seen the quote in several places, attributed to a number of individuals, that Wodehouse wrote just one story for 75 years. That is a bit unfair, in that it his plots are always convoluted pieces of machinery, and his prose is spritely and engaging. But even I will admit that his component parts are often the same - vapid young men, headstrong ingenues, dotty relatives, English manor houses, class discrepancies, hare-brained schemes, and ultimate comeuppances. 

Here's the scoop on this one: Jeff Miller is a very inept novice solicitor who is engaged to a headstrong young woman, and longs to escape both situations. Through a series of daffy and unlikely events, he is hired as a detective at an English manor house that is being rented by a famous female African Explorer, hired to investigate the manor's butler. Said butler is actually the owner of the manor house who has hid a treasure .... somewhere on the grounds - he forgets were, and his daughter (also headstrong, but one of the sane ones in the book) is currently working as the female African Explorer's personal secretary, and is the one who engaged Jeff Miller to follow her father around and find out what he is up to. Which she really doesn't want him to do. Add the real detective and two petty crooks and, yeah, it a Wodehouse romp with all the bells and whistles. 

Wodehouse has his troupe of types and character actors, like the old commedia del'arte. His male lead is hapless (Jeff Miller's superpower is to make small talk, which he uses to get himself out of numerous jams). His women are made of sterner stuff, ranging the dangerously overbearing (the female African Explorer) to the dynamically resourceful (the daughter whose family owns the manor). His male figures tend to be made of much milder stuff, ranging from the forgetful father/butler, to the original detective, (who has a tendency to hide in closets when threatened) to the female African Explorer's milquetoast and doting admirer. There is much in the way of confrontations and conversations in various rooms in the manor as the characters bump into each other and then pinball their way into other confrontations and conversations in other rooms. Wodehouse's style is perfect in this, much like his protagonist, his superpower is chat, bringing the reader along with involved, perfect sentences that you would hate to interrupt.

The interesting thing about this book is that it was written when Wodehouse was the guest of the Wehrmacht, as an internee during the war. Wodehouse and his wife had decamped for the South of France for tax reasons, and while they made a few half-hearted attempts to get out of town before the Germans arrived, they ultimately were interned as foreign nationals, and Wodehouse imprisoned is various locations. The idea that Wodehouse could write a book, and get it published in America in the middle of all this is a bit amazing. There is not a hint within the pages of the war, or of much of anything else outside the characters' immediate surroundings. His characters are self-absorbed to the point of immunity.

Wodehouse himself during this period did some radio broadcasts for the Germans. While they seem to have been very much the "Stiff Upper Lip British We Are All Making Do In These Difficult Times", appearing on behalf of the Germans was not the wisest course of action. It was labeled propaganda, he was pilloried as a traitor, and Wodehouse got, for lack of a better term, JaneFonda-ed, where any mention of his name in England for the next thirty years would cause Someone to trot out the charges. Finally, in 1974 all was forgiven and he was given the KBE, though Wodehouse passed on before the knighthood ceremony.

Wodehouse never returned to the England he left in 1930. His fantasy world remains timeless in part because of it - trapped like a fly in apsic between the wars. His manor houses have evaporated over the years, but his prose keeps them shining bright in memory.

More later, 

Monday, March 01, 2021

Plague Books: Rome on the Range

 SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, Livewright Publishing, A division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

Provenance: This has been my doorstop book for several years now. Bought it at Half-Price up in Redmond on a whim because the author had been publicly quoted somewhere as expert on the subject (she is). I started it, stopped it, started it again, let it occupy my shelf of abandoned books, read it along with ANOTHER book on Rome, finished the other book, abandoned this book again, actually WENT to Italy, picked up this book again, and finished it a year after that. So it has been a long journey. So I have thoughts.

Review: Hey, let's summarize a thousand years of history in a single volume. Yeah, that will be easy! We're talking about the history of Rome from about 753 BC to 212 AD, a point where citizenship is extended to all free inhabitants of the Empire.

What is SPQR? It stands for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus - the Senate and People of Rome. Which is interesting because one of the things about Rome's expansion is that it continued to expand the definition of "People of Rome" throughout its history. As it conquered and absorbed its neighbors, it incorporated them within their political systems. Historically, this was not always the way. The Vikings in Ireland and Russia ruled but didn't have a significant cultural impact on the ruled. The European Powers in America or the ancient Greek colonies in the Med were very much about moving large amounts of their own population in. The Romans swallowed other nations and peoples whole, and eventually elevated them to powers within their own spheres. Not quite equality - the folk in charge were an oligarchy, but even that oligarchy expanded over time. And the people who were already citizens were often against further enfranchisement. But it is an interesting version of colonialism.

Rome's Republic in part fell apart, in part, because of their own success. The Roman plan of absorbing other peoples into their nation "Hey, you're now Roman! And your gods? They're just different versions of our gods! Expansion brought in huge groups, who then had to be mostly managed, both at home and abroad. The advancing legions had to be paid, often with retirement land in the new territories (which was not always appreciated by the original inhabitants). And keeping the mobs happy in Rome? Yeah, that put grain-producing Egypt as the equivalent of Middle-Eastern oil in the geopolitical consideration.  

The distance of time gives us difficulty with original sources when talking about the Roman Republic. Beard opens with Cicero, once a staple in "Western Education", about halfway through the Roman Millennium (63 BCE). Why is Cicero still important to us moderns? Because he was a first-person account (though obviously biased) of the life and times towards the end of the Republic. And we have a lot of his words because he published his speeches, so that copies of the copies of his words have survived down to this day. Other than writers like him, we are pretty much confined to stone as information source - carvings, inscriptions, and the occasional graffiti. Sort of like trying to sort out the American Civil War only through gravestones - doable, but you know it is not the full story.

Even by Cicero's time, Rome has a bunch of conflicting origin stories. The mythical approach stars Romulus and Remus, a Cain and Abel story with a wolf-mother. But there is also Aeneas,who tied the Roman people to the Trojans at a time when they loomed large over the Greeks. There is a semi-historical record of the "Twelve Kings", the bad-old-times before the Republic took hold. And there's the archaeological record, who indicates that the area was originally dominated by the Etruscans,a once-successful and now-mostly-forgotten predecessor nation.

The Romans had an empire before they had a emperor. They did most of their expansion before they hit Julius Caesar and his lot. What Beard makes clear is that while the Romans professed a hatred of monarchs, its Republic was a rough affair, with powerful individuals commanding mobs (and later armies) to influence governance. One particular incident in 133 BCE involved a mob led by a faction of the Roman Priests which attacked a group delivering the votes for the tribunes and killed reformer Tiberius Gracchus with a table leg (not that we moderns would do anything that barbaric). 

The fall of the Republic was a relatively slow, bumpy process. Powerful oligarchs sought more individual power. Power came to reside within different factions of the army, which were then turned against each other. Attempts to consolidate power in the hands of a few trinities collapsed, and out of the continual conflict, a single strong figure emerged who would bring stability. Julius never claimed to be emperor, but quietly sucked up positions of power such that his successor Augustus moved in easily.

But even during the emperors our history is slanted. "Good" emperors were often simply followed by those with personal connections that wanted to declare their predecessors good, while "Bad" emperors were followed by rulers wanting to put some distance between themselves and previous administrations. But when looking at the health of the Empire as a whole, things ran on fairly well regardless of who was in charge. Until it didn't.

Large, engaging, accessible, and readable, SPQR sent me down some passageways and thought processes that I had not considered previously, some obvious and some more refined. SPQR is a great overview of a Rome that neither was built or was destroyed in a day, but rather evolved from one state to another, often as a result of its own growing power, until at last the ability to hold that power crumbled.

More later,