Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Political Desk: Statewide

So, I'm back from Disney World (and it was a lot of fun, good food, masks in abundance, thanks for asking), and I expect you've all filled out your ballots already and we can get on with book reviews.

Eh? You haven't touched the ballots since I left? Fine. No, no, that's fine. No worries.  Let's just get this over with.

I mean, I understand. This is in many ways not an important election, but also is an important election because all elections are. When the Washington State Election Voters' Pamphlet showed up a couple weeks back, and it was a bit ... anemic, in the words of a friend. All the major statewide offices were up last year, and the only candidate for judge on my ballot (Court of Appeals, Div 11, Dist 1) is running unopposed (This outlet does not endorse in situations where there is only one candidate, but merely offer our congratulations). 

In addition to a sparsity of statewide measures, the ballot leads off with is the lamest of the lame. We have is a trio of dreaded advisory votes, the lasting political legacy of anti-tax grifter and accused chair thief Tim Eyman. You've heard me whinge about advisory votes before - badly worded questions that scare people about tax measures that don't necessarily affect them. Close a loophole? That's a tax measure. Continue a tax? That's a tax measure. Fix a previous measure? Oh yeah, that's a tax measure. 

And it doesn't mean much, other than a push-poll to allow you to growl at Olympia for using your hard-earned dollars for the community good. It is electoral spam. It wants to know if you want to sell your house. It's been trying to get in touch with you about your car's warranty. It claims to be from the Social Security administration, and wants you to know that it will be dispatching officers to your house unless you buy it a gift card. At its most charitable, it is a way of taking the political body's temperature, but not a very good one.

It is so bad that both the Seattle Times and the Stranger agree that it is pretty miserable as a method of trying direct democracy. AND the local progressives have put a web site, stating a lot of what I've been saying for years - that this a waste of time and effort, is used badly, and you should vote Maintained anyway.  

OK, enough kvetching. Here is what they got. 

Advisory Vote No. 36 - Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1477 - A tax on telephone lines to help expand and fund behavioral crisis response and suicide prevention.  Yeah, Vote Maintained.

Advisory Vote No. 37 - Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5096 - A tax on Capital Gains over a quarter of a million bucks. You made over a quarter of a million bucks on Capital Gains? How nice. This is a pin-prick of a tax operating at that level, so naturally it must be stopped. Yeah, vote Maintained.

Advisory Vote No. 38 - Second Substitute Senate Bill 5315 - A tax on captive insurers. What is a captive insurer? It is when a company forms its own insurance company to offer insurance, effectively paying itself for health care without supervision and avoiding taxes that other insurance companies must pay. This closes a loophole in the existing laws, so, naturally, so it must be stopped. And of course, I say vote Maintained.

OK, That's it - more later


Friday, October 15, 2021

The Delayed Re-Opening of the Political Desk

 So, the ballots have shipped, the media recommendations are trickling in, and we are looking at another election. And you're going to have to wait a while for me to pontificate on it, because, well, I'm a little busy.

OK, fine, I'm going on vacation. But I will get back to it before election day, OK? If you want to go ahead, without me, here are a few resources:

The Seattle Times, which tends to promote centrist/conservative/pro-business candidates and policies (unless it doesn't), has been making recommendations here.

The Stranger, who in the years since they legalized pot have swung around to a more pro-density, anti-car agenda (but still snarky) can be found here.

Neither one of these reaches much further south than the main gate of T-Mobile Park, which is a pity. But for the hyper-localized news, the Kent Reporter has been doing an excellent series of interviews of the candidates, can be found here (with an apology that you're going to have to do some digging - the reporter responsible covers a lot of ground).

Seattle Transit Blog is here. I'll add others as they show up.

And here's the Voters' Guide for King County. Ballot measure here, and candidates here.

The great majority of positions are listed as non-partisan. The candidates, however, are not.  One of the things to look at when going through the guide is to check on endorsements. Who do your local pols support? Who gets the endorsement of the police, the unions, or the conservation groups? One regular red flag for me is usually candidates with the backing of the Chamber of Commerce, but after the drubbing they took last year trying to buy their way onto the city council, they've been quiet. But check out who is standing with the candidates. Also a good idea is to look at who is getting funding from whom.

This electionis one of those small but important one, particularly for your local offices. Nothing national, and the state-wide elections consist of those useless election-spam advisory votes and a judge running unopposed. And there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in various areas because I can't vote on. Seattle's got a strong mayoral race, but I'm not in Seattle. There are also some interesting races for King County Council, but I don't vote in all of those.

Be patient and do your research. I'll check back. 

More later,

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Book: Back in the Saddle

 Between Two Kings by Alexandre Dumas, Translated and Edited by Lawrence Ellsworth, Pegasus Books, 2021

Provenance: Amazon. Birthday present from the Lovely Bride. 

Review: Everyone knows The Three Musketeers. Most people know The Man in the Iron Mask. But between these two posts were a slew of other tales, first those within Twenty Years Later (talked about here and here) and now those within Ten Years After, also known as the Vicomte of Bragalonne. This particular volume is the first 50 chapters of the latter book, which culminated in aforementioned The Man in the Iron Mask.

So were this a simple trilogy, this would be the "saddle" book, the one between the declaration of the problem in the first book, and the resolution in the third. But these stories of the Three Musketeers were not built as such - they were written for publication in weekly journals starting in 1847, so they are a long as they need to be. The volumes of collected work are after-market sales. And it shows - it takes its time getting places, characters can be delayed or engage in chapter-long discussions, and the pacing rolls from action-packed to leisurely. It does pose a challenge for people collecting up the stories into something less than a single massive tome. Yet every chapter holds its own as a unit and encourages the reader to follow along. Translator Ellsworth captures the flavor, flair, and completeness of the original French manuscript.

This first volume concerns itself primarily with the Return of the King, in this case King Charles II of England. Yes, we're back in England, again. We presided over the death of Charles I in Blood Royal, as the heroes were unable to completely contravene history, and now Dumas plays a bit fast and loose with the facts, making his heroes key to restoration of the monarchy. D'Artagnan, still a lieutenant in the Musketeers, has had enough of the young French King, a particularly emo Louis XIV, and strikes out on his own with a scheme to restore Charles to the throne and make a tidy profit for himself. Athos, who was the recipient of Charles I's last words, encounters the son and pledges himself to help restore the young man to the throne, powered by the sense of noble duty. Porthos and Aramis are missing from this text, except for chapters where D'Artagnan goes looking for them and finds out they just left.  Even Athos' son, the Viscomte named in the original title, is mostly absent for the first fifty installments.

Athos, who was a bit of a wet mop in the previous volume, shines here through his own nobility, honesty, and generosity. The same attributes that worked against him in Blood Royal (trust, respect, duty) now prove to be indispensable. He is respected by his potential enemies and taken at his noble word continually. D'Artagnan is more comic than usual, still very much the farmer from Gascony after all these years, and talks himself into (and out of) various messes. Ultimately, each man has his own screwball plan, and together, the plans work. But this is really Athos' book,

The Royals in these tales are generally useless. Louis XIV is kept inert while his Prime Minister, Mazarin, backed up by Louis's mother, Queen Anne, pretty much run things. Charles of England is impoverished and depressed, lacking both cash and manpower to retake his throne. Anne herself, whose diamonds drove the plot of the first book, forgets old allies and servants with alarming precision. Henrietta of Stuart, Charles II's younger sister, was horribly impoverished in the previous book, but after restoration she becomes a coquettish tease. All the rest are pretty unsympathetic, courtiers just waiting for the chop a hundred years later. 

Of more interest to Dumas are the powers behind the throne - Cardinal Mazarin for Louis, and General Monck for Charles. They are the ones that our heroes mostly contend with. Mazarin is effective but venal and greedy. Monck is honorable, such that he takes Athos at his word, and throws in with Chalres when the young King impresses him. Throughout the books Dumas was a fan of Richleau and his ilk, not so much Louis XIII, and it reflects in his treatment of the true managers of state here.

What strikes me most as I move through this book is how in politics people switch sides with frightening regularity. Enemies from the Frondeur are now respected members of the court, and old alliances and services rendered are conveniently forgotten (yes, I'm looking at YOU, Queen Anne). It is very much a case that you need a scorecard to figure out who is currently plotting against who, which Ellsworth kindly provides in extensive footnotes and historical bios. 

This volume is just the first 50 chapters of a 268-chapter story, and while it tells a coherent story, it is all warm-up for the main acts to follow, wrapping up some of looser ends from the Twenty Years After and introducing some of the new cast going forward. It breaks at a correct moment, and sets us up for the what follows. And yeah, I'm here for the ride. 

More later,

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Recent Acquisitions

 

So, games continue to arrive. Some are the result of Kickstarters that have come due, but some are outright purchases off the shelf.  I have read parts of some of these, and have played absolutely none of them, so these are hardly reviews and more akin to first encounters. Be advised.

Traveller: Deepnight Revelation (Martin J. Dougherty, Mongoose Publishing) This was a Kickstarter that grew like kudzu. Originally a boxed set for Mongoose's incarnation of Traveller, the campaign went so well that they just kept adding supplements, so there are six (!) hardback books attached to it by the time it arrived. The idea is that you take an exploratory starship on a 20-year(!) mission to the edges of known space and beyond in search of a potentially cataclysmic opponent. This would be a year's worth of a small company's production and several years worth of gaming and in addition to everything else the boxed set has extensive rules on running a long-term exploratory mission. However, it wrong-foots me at the start, in the fact that I can't figure out exactly how I know where the cataclysmic opponent is. It seems to just be assumed your players will have that information at hand at the start, and even the intro adventure presents the threat but does not make a hard link to the distant system to you are going to. even so, it is so otherwise complete I would strongly consider it if I chose to return to Traveller, or adapt it for a d6 Star Wars game.

Scarlet Citadel: A Dungeon of Secrets (Steve Winter, Kobold Publishing). This 208 page hardbound is a nice Kickstarter dungeon that was offered with a fully laid out map folio. I didn't get the folio, and if you intend to run this adventure, yes, spring for the map pack. In addition to having full-size playing maps for miniatures, the pack has overlays for how the dungeon changes as the players explore it. The dungeon itself has an attractive history (Sorcerer's Fortress), a reason for the creatures to be there, and, what I like most of all, is a dynamic creation, so things you do in one area affect other encounters (None of this "you hit three rooms and the fourth room is still waiting for you to come in"). Steve Winter is my regular 5E DM and I see parts of what we've been running through peeking out here and there.

The Red Book of Magic (Jeff Richard, Greg Stafford, Steve Perrin, Sandy Peterson and more, Chaosium). Hardcover, 126 pages. Runequest is my personal tsundoko - having more books than you ever are going to read, or in this case, games you are never going to use. I find Glorantha fascinating, ever since White Bear/Red Moon, and have followed Runequest through its many incarnations (including the AH version and HeroWars), yet never played the RPG. This volume is primarily a spellbook on spirit magic, gathered from many previous sources and brought up to date, and, like all of the modern Runequest material, looks impressive.

The Well (Peter Schaefer, Shoeless Pete Games) 120 pages squarebound. This Kickstarter was recommended to me by a friend (OK, Steve Winter, see above) who worked with the designer at Wizards of the Coast. The concept is compact and neat - You live in a city that is moving slowly down a great well. Below you is mystery, above you are the remains of your past. You go raiding into these past remains in traditional dungeon style, but your enemies are reassembled dead and cleanup crew. New mechanics looks good.  Once upon a time TSR was hot on the idea of a "reverse dungeon" - here you go. Yes, I want to play this.

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium  (Nathan Dowdell, Design Lead, Modiphius Entertainment) Hardcover, 330 pages. I still think the original Dune was a fantastic work of SF, and re-read it every so often. Like Lord of the Rings, its prose has the ability to suck me back in almost immediately.  But I will be honest, the series for me peaked with Children of Dune, and then sort of trailed off from there, and I never engaged with the canonical books after Frank Herbert's passing. This one was in my Friendly Comic Book store, and I was stalking it for several weeks before I made the plunge. The book itself is textually dense, first-class production, though can't yet speak to what the mechanics (a 2d20 system) are like. Impressive.

Seance and Sensibility (Finn Cresswell) 60 pages, saddle-stitched, self-covered. This one came with an apology (it was more than a year late, dating back to the PREVIOUS Zinequest) and  the designer included a slip apologizing for its lateness. No apology necessary. I consumed this simply-crafted booklet in one sitting, and emerged for the first time how the Powered by the Apocalypse Engine should work. Other PbtAE volumes should take note. The theme is Jane Austin fights cultists. Worth tracking down.

Tales of the Glass Gnomes (Noet Cloudfoundre) 26 pages, saddle-stitched cover. This is an entry from this year's Zinequest on Kickstarter, and is pretty charming, reminding us of the ultimate roots of such personal projects. It has straightforward production values and art that could fit into the original D&D wood-grain box. It presents a new culture for you gaming enjoyment that is not your standard gnomes. Worth looking at.

The Children of Fear (Lynne Hardy and Friends)  This 414 pages hardbound is the latest Call of Cthulhu hardbound, set in Tibet, Northern India, and the interior of China in the 1920's and involving the conflict between the mythical realms/cities/factions/entities of Shambhala and Agartha. While I admire the updating and reissuing of classic CoC material (Masks of Nyarlathotep, Horror on the Orient Express), it is really, really good to see new original material of this quality.  Picked up both this volume and The Red Book of Magic At Olympic Card and Comics down in Lacey. OCC (also know as Gabi's) has a lot of deep stock in RPGs and carries a bunch of indies and small press that might not otherwise see the light of day. Every three-to-five months or so, Stan! and I make a road trip down there, get lunch somewhere in Tacoma, and make a day of it. Products like this make the trip worthwhile.

Flott's Miscellany Vol. 2 ((Andrew Devenney and others, Superhero Necromancer Press) 36 pages, saddle-stitched cover, This is more of the same amusing material I had in Flott's Miscellany Vol 1, which in turn was based on the Rainy City. It has a lot of bits and bobs that can be slotted into a campaign, with a rather wry, Dying Earth (Drying Earth?) sort of vibe. I like it.

Grey Seas Are Dreaming of My Death (Derek Sotak and others). 108 pages digest, squarebound. This one missed the class picture last time, so I thought I would show it off here, in case you find a copy at the Local Game Story, or elsewhere. If you do, pick it up.

More later, 


Sunday, August 29, 2021

Weekending in Seattle

View from the Balcony
I tend to celebrate my birthday by not being around. Often the Lovely Bride and I decamp for some hotel, like the Salish Lodge or Alderbrook, where we get massages and I can sit in a comfortable chair and read. I've spent previous birthdays kayaking on the Bellevue Slough and riding in a zeppelin over Everett. This year, the usual haunts were already sewn up before we could make reservations, and I did not want to travel far. 

And so we chose the Edgewater in downtown Seattle. The Edgewater is a luxury shoreline hotel built over the water before they stopped letting people do that, and the Beatles once stayed there once, which they don't let anyone forget. The interior has been redone a couple times, the most recent in 1990 or so, and has a PNW/Frank Lloyd Wright/Rock and Roll vibe to it. The rooms were large, comfortable, and most importantly for our case, had balconies overlooking the Sound which were perfect for reading books, drinking wine, and watching the sun go down.

The first night out we walked to Ohana, a favorite sushi spot in Belltown (an area north of downtown Seattle, which they are trying to rebrand as "Uptown"). Walking was the exercise of the weekend, even though it meant challenging a particularly steep hill on Wall Street. The food was great, the drinks were strong, and we ended up getting back to the hotel in time to watch the sun drop down in a cloudy sky.

Sudden neighbor
Then, in the early hours of next morning, the cruise ship arrived. The Edgewater is right next to the Port of Seattle pier, where the cruise ships dock, and in the morning our window had a nice view of the Celebrity Millenium, registered in Valletta, Malta, which had snuck in around 5 AM. Despite its sudden arrival, we breakfasted and headed for the aquarium, a short walk south.

The Seattle Aquarium is very nice, but always had a vibe of "work in progress" to me, set up within a renovated warehouse on the docks. It keeps that vibe, since it is currently working on a "ocean pavilion" across the street in the shadow of the Pike Place Market's parking structure. High points were moon jellies, a particularly cranky-looking octopus, harbor seals, and sea otters (the latter in the midst of second breakfast, dining on crabs). Everyone was masked, but there was an onslaught of children, which made me feel a little uncomfortable.

For lunch walked over to Place Pigalle, in the aforementioned Pike Place market. Place Pigelle is a small restaurant down a hallway right next to where they throw the fish. Light meal of mussels and soup (French onion in my case). Good view of the Sound, and we were serenaded by an accordion and violinist in the courtyard below. I went down to tip them and found that the musicians were wearing full cat-headed masks.So, yeah, Seattle.

View of the city, without cruise ship

Afternoon was the SAM - Seattle Art Museum, which was hosting an Monet exhibit of his work at Etretat.  Etretat is a fishing village on the English Channel that in Monet's time was becoming a tourist destination. Monet (pre-Lillies) was seeking to rekindle his vision, and went to the village to paint the landmark cliffs in ways different than all the other artists of the times were painting them.

As an exhibit I really liked this a lot, primarily because it got really down into the details with the process of painting of the "open air" school. This involved such things as where Monet got his canvases, and the importance of the recent invention of tubes of pigment from America that gave the Impressionists the ability to take their work on the road. The works themselves were small for the space they provided - usually such shows are jam-packed, but this one had a lot of bare walls and creative use of empty space. That's OK, because it gave them the chance to really get into the bits and pieces of the creation of art, how it fit into Monet's life at that moment, what other artists were doing, and his technique and technology. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The Lovely Bride
The SAM was also masked and generally less crowded. Many of the galleries were closed and empty at this stage, and the Monet was the major draw. Still, after surveying the area, the Lovely B and made the long trudge back to the hotel, and sat on the back porch as the huge cruise ship undocked and was gone before 5 PM. We had a very pricey, very good dinner at the hotel's restaraunt, repaired to our dockside porch to the finish the wine and watched the sun go down.

And the next morning there was a NEW cruise ship parked outside our window, but we breakfasted, stopped for the groceries at Pike Place (also seriously masked up, but crowded) for smoked salmon, crab, and bread.

And so we return. It was a good weekend, and I got a bit of reading done. And that's how I spent my 64th birthday.

More later,



Sunday, August 22, 2021

Book: Body of Evidence

Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers, Avon Books, 1923

Provenance: The volume has an embossed stamp "Library of Janice Kae Coulter" on the first two pages. Ms. Coulter is the spouse of fellow blogger Sacnoth. I do not know whether I plucked this volume from their collection before it went to the Page Turner, or purchased it there for two bucks and change (I suspect the latter). 

Review: This was one of the Books on a Plane, but I found I had too much to say about it to just stack it up against all the Rex Stouts, so it gets its own blog post. This post deals with meta fiction, introducing characters, why Raymond Chandler may have really hated Sayers' work, and anti-Semitism. Buckle up.

Here's the precis: London after the Great War. A wealthy Jewish financier goes missing. A dead body is found naked in a bathtub.The body is not the financier's, but there is a surface similarity between the two.The police assume initially assume the bathtub body IS the financier. Lord Peter, brought in by his mother because she knows the person whose tub the body was found in, knows better. 

This is the first appearance of Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, and he springs onto the stage (mostly) fully formed. He had solved a previous (unrecorded) case of missing emeralds, and so already had contacts with the police as a helpful meddler whose societal privilege gives him access denied to the hoi palloi. He also has a "kit" that Batman would approve of - his cane is a measuring stick and has a concealed blade and his monocle is really a magnifying lens/ He has a dutiful manservant who is a camera buff. Lord Peter saunters in fully prepared to get involved. 

While he does so, Lord Peter also talks about detective stories in a very meta way. "Were this a detective story..." the line starts, and then mentions and discards some trope from the fictions. Sayers denies some of them and plays with others - for example, witnesses never remember what really happened on a date two months ago, and the proceeds, with almost casual conversation, to show Lord Peer wheedling the information he needs out of a witness without the witness realizing it. Yet Sayers herself embraces a lot of other detective tropes - the incompetent police inspector, the blind alleys, and the dutiful details of inquest and exhumation.

But when Lord Peter solves the case, something happens. He finds the solution, but in the process suffers a nervous breakdown because the solution challenges a lot of his privilege. His recognition shakes him to the core and unleashes his PTSD from the Great War. In game terms, he blows his San check and has to go have a lie-down for a couple days. This is VERY not in keeping with traditional mysteries, in that the protagonist can get angry, vengeance, shot up, physically damaged, but never suffers a mental collapse (Stout has Wolfe occasionally go into a "Fugue state" when stymied, which feels like little more than writer's block).  This is so different from the muscular American detective stories, that I can see why Chandler didn't like Sayer's work much, though he chalks it up to being "boring".. We know beans about the personal history of his Continental Op - Lord Peter has wounds deeper than most of the other characters cans see. 

In doing the research for this review, I came across accusations of the author's antisemitism, and this book is used as evidence both for and against. On the "for" side we have the missing financier being Jewish, and one of the positive figures, Peter's mother, going into a "Very good people" sort of speech which hauls out a lot of differences between the Jewish community and God's Own Anglicans. On the other hand, the missing financier is practically lionized for his kindness and modest living (no Shylock, he), and one of Peter's archtypical upper class friends, practically fresh from the Drones club, talks about wanting to marry the victim's daughter and convert to the faith. And there a servant who is pretty deplorable in his statements, but he is held up as being a low character who is drinking Lord Peter's best brandy. The challenge is, does, in talking about an "othered" portion of the population, does that make you vulnerable to engaging in the same forms of prejudice? Is reporting prejudice the same as perpetuating it?

The meta research here on Sayers does me no good as well. Sayers' long-time companion was Jewish, she notes that the financier was one of the few good characters in the book, and in an early draft Lord Peter recognizes immediately that the body in the tub cannot be the financier because it was circumcised (which would be kinda obvious and make the police look EVEN dumber). On the other hand, Sayers developed into a Christian apologist of CS Lewis stripe, and the work she is proud of is a translation of Dante (which features heavily in the opening chapter of this volume).

Ultimately, I am going to render a Scottish verdict of "Not Proven" on this one, but there may be some reference of her endorsing the Elders of Zion out there without me realizing. it. I do remain committed to the idea that Sayers does not write detective novels so much as novels which feature a detective. And I will stand behind that one.

More later,

Monday, August 16, 2021

Books on a Plane

Three Witnesses by Rex Stout, Bantam, 1955

Not Quite Dead Enough by Rex Stout, Bantam,  1944

Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout, Bantam, 1959

And Be A Villain by Rex Stout Bantam, 1948

Provenance: Various. I pick up books from used bookstores - The Page Turner in Kent. The Tacoma Book Center near the Dome. Twice Sold Tales up on Capitol Hill. And I am always hunting down more of Rex Stout's stories of Nero Wolfe. The books were popular on first release, and there have been several waves of re-release since then (including reprints from the 80's marked "As Seen On TV").  Eventually I will run out of them. But not yet.

Reviews: When I travel, I tend to bring paperback mysteries to read. There are a couple reasons for this. They don't wear down batteries. They don't have to be turned off or stowed when taking off or landing. And if dropped or lost, they represent a lost investment of a couple dollars. About a month ago, I made two trips to Pittsburgh, and as a result took a fist-full of books with me.

So, warning, there are spoilers for books that have been in print for decades. 

Three Witnesses - Rex Stout mysteries come in two main formats - book length, and magazine length. When published in book form, the publisher tends to put three of short stories together, and, unfortunately, they use the word "three" and its synonyms in the titles repeatedly (Three at Wolfe's Door, Three Doors to Death, Death Times Three), so I'm never quite sure if I have read this before. Usually I can get ahead of the game with the short stories and figure out "whodunnit", while the novels tend to lose me sometimes. This is in part because in the shortened format, both memory and awareness of what sticks out as wrong is more obvious in the short versions.

And, one of the things that makes Nero Wolfe mysteries work is the background. Archie will crack wise, Nero will be pompous. Inspector Kramer will bluster. The household will eat well. It is comfortable.

The mysteries in Three Witnesses are pretty good, but "To Die Like a Dog" is probably the best. A dog follows Archie home from a murder scene. While Wolfe is usually a bundle of hostility, it turns out he likes dogs. The dog's presence makes perfect. sense, and at the end, the dog has settled into the household. But as far I can tell, the dog is never seen again in another story, which is a pity.

Not Quite Dead Enough consists of two war year stories. In the first, Archie cobbles together a mystery to help recruit Wolfe into the War Effort. In the second, linked with that, an experimental grenade goes off in an military office downtown. The first is actually something I would call "lesser Wolfe", since Archie gets foxed and his oftimes girlfriend, Lilly Rowan, gets unusually possessive. The second sees Wolfe returning to a form not seen since Fer-De-Lance, the first Wolfe novel, where he metes out his own justice outside the system. Interesting for a completest like me.

To Be A Villain and Plot It Yourself are interesting in that I got to the whodunnit, but not by normal course of events. Rather, the murderers act in a way that makes little sense if they are merely a suspect or potential victim, but makes sense if they are the murderer. 

Plot It Yourself involves the book industry, and the relationships between authors and publishers. Wolfe is hired by a group of publishers and authors who are being hit with a plagiarism scam. Not that other authors are stealing their work, but rather these other authors are coming forward claiming that the published authors stole their stuff. And they offer proof in the form of manuscripts and letters that show up in the published authors files from before publication. Its a good book in that it covers a variety of author types, and the perils of working for a committee.

And Be A Villain has a nice initial curve-ball - Nero Wolfe goes looking for a gig, in order to cover his tax bill (Wolfe has a long list of things he does not want to do, which the stories inevitably make him do). He  offers his services to a radio personality who has a guest poisoned on the air. Sudden death, relatively small number of suspects. Again, I got to my lead suspect not through evidence, but through character reactions to the crime. Further, the crime itself (and its followup) calls for a relatively thin window of opportunity, and can go horribly awry. I still like the writing in both cases, and the characters, but the mystery at the core feels a little weak.

This series has become my popcorn, my easy reading. The stuff I will take on a plane and not have any other greater purpose. There's one more, which I am still thinking about writing up. More later,

Friday, August 06, 2021

Political Desk Pop-Up: Results

 Short version? Meh. Extremely low turnout, even for an off-year election (under 24% for King County). Incumbents did well, generally. A veritable lack of pitchforks from any quarter on my ballot. There is still one local election that I don't vote for, and therefore normally don't cover (Seattle Prosecuting Attorney) which is still too close to call between three candidates, but things have shaken out without a lot of fuss. Boring, boring democracy.

As a rule of thumb, if you're an incumbent and have more than 50% of the vote you're doing OK. If you're a challenger (or there is no incumbent) and you get more than 30%, you're in a good place. Not everybody who votes in the General will vote in the Primary, so that's just a rule of thumb.

Oh, and for out-of-towners, it takes a few days (sometimes more) for Washington State to finalize ballots. We vote by mail out here, which is a pretty good system, and ballots that are postmarked by election day have to be counted. Older and more conservative voters (Venn diagrams show some overlap) tend to vote regularly, so they carry more weight in small elections. Younger and more liberal voters (again, not always the same group), tend to vote late and swing the numbers as the counting goes on. So final figures may tweak a few points. Just so you know what takes them so long and why the candidate you favor who was leading on election night suddenly changes position.

Here's how things turned out:

King County Proposition No. 1 Regular Property Tax Levy for Children, Youth, Families, and Communities.  Approved at 60%

King County Executive - Dow Constantine (53%) vs, Joe Nguyen (31%).

City of Kent Council Position No. 6 - Brenda Fincher (78%) vs Larry Hussey (13%)

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 4 Awale Farah (43%) vs.Bradley Kenning (31%)

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 5 Tim Clark (54%) vs Sarah Franklin (29%)

Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority Proposition No. 1 Continuation of Benefit Charge - Yes. (73%)

Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Position No. 5Logan K. Wallace (53%) vs Alice R Marshall (31%)

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 2 -  Jim Griggs (47%) vs.  Dustin Lambro (44%)

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 4 - Monique Taylor-Swan (36%) vs Katie Banchard (35%

And with that we dissemble the pop-up and move on to the general election. See you there. More later,

Monday, August 02, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus: Resurgence

Sailing, Edward Hopper, 1911, CMOA
 I thought it was over. I admit it. I was wrong.

We had the vaccines. We wore the masks. We washed our hands and did not congregate. We ordered out. We acted like grown-ups. We drove the numbers down. 

And now COVID is on the rise once more.

Part of it is biology - there's a new variant (Delta) which is swamping the original virus. And part of it is sociology as well - not enough of us took the damned thing serious. There are enough holes in the safety net that once hospitals are once more approaching overload, and all the work of the past year and a half is slipping down the drain.

My Facebook has been filled with stories in three acts: Act One is someone saying that they won't get vaccinated for some (usually stupid, often ephemeral) reason. Act Two reveals that they have been hospitalized for Covid. Act Three is a GoFundMe for their funeral. Skeptical me,  I've run more than a few of these stories to ground (because not everyone is THAT stupid, right?), and sadly they have panned out as true. Yet still people resist, or, just as bad, fail to act.

Some of it is political. There are a lot of folk that support the previous guy in the White House who also don't trust vaccines, but the Venn Diagram of the two groups is not a perfect circle. There are conservatives who have vacced up (including a lot of people who disparage vaccines publicly) and their are lefties who have passed on it. Sometimes it is distrust. Sometimes it is lack of opportunity. Sometimes it is a believe that they and theirs will somehow be spared.

And there is a problem even for the vaccinated. We speak now of breakthrough cases, where those who have been vaccinated get a does of the disease anyway. So far, the cases have been mild, and not requiring hospitalization in most cases, but they are still there, and virulent. The vaccines are damage resistance, not damage immunity.

And there is one study (not professionally reviewed as yet) which puts my brand of vaccine as being suitably less effective against Delta. No one else has moved forward on this, so I am a bit concerned. I have immunocompromised friend in the house, so I am staying masked up when outside the home and (still nearly empty) office. And yeah, if they say we need a booster, I'm doing it. I'll take a couple days of feeling "meh" to a trip to the hospital.

I've made two trips to Pittsburgh in the past month, and, outside the airport (where TSA rules still apply) and health care facilities, the masks are gone. It feels like we are just taunting the virus to pick us off (The Virus does not respond to taunts - it is not listening, but such is our need for narrative that we anthropomorphize it into a supervillain). The only masks I saw were with service personnel.

And we are as a people horribly resistant to returning to quarantine procedures, even as the hospitals fill up. Already propagandists have campaigned hard against existing limitations, and the slightest hint of reinstatement sends them to their microphones for another broadside. 

It feels like we declared victory too soon, and threw ourselves a parade while the enemy was still on the battlefield. And now we're paying the price.

Sorry to be a downer, but there will be more, later.


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).

Anyway, 

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 Hasberts.com). 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,