Monday, September 25, 2017

Book: Office Space

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers. HarperPaperbacks 1993, Originally Published 1933
This was the edition I read. Can't say I
like the cover, but it is difficult to
portray someone falling down an
iron spiral staircase. 

Provenance (Why THIS book): This is a re-read, a return to a book previously enjoyed. I always liked Murder Must Advertise, and declared it at one time to be one of my favorite Sayers books, but for the life of me I could not remember exactly why. So with a long vacation in Pittsburgh, it and a handful of Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe mysteries became my traveling volumes.

[And yes, I had my iPad, loaded with all types of books, but you can't read an iPad on takeoffs and landings. Well, you shouldn't. Also, battery life.]

The Review: Murder Must Advertise is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, set in the interwar era that creates nostalgic grist for the Masterpiece Mystery Theater mill. A copywriter takes a tumble head-first down an iron spiral staircase at Pym's Publicity, an advertising firm. His replacement shows a keen interest in the situation, and we the readers quickly discover that this new bloke, Death Bredon, is Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, traveling in mufti, passing himself off as a common scribbler when he is really an investigator with connections (through marriage) with the police. And his interest is not just murder, but a potential scandal for Pym's itself that involves a dope smuggling scheme.

And as a mystery, it's OK. The howdoneit gets answered fairly early, while the whodunnit and whydunnit take a leisurely stroll towards completion, and the book takes some side trips to scenes without Lord Peter to fill in bits and pieces of the plot. Yet what attracted me (and continues to attract me) is the portrayal of life within a corporate entity. Sayers herself worked in advertising, and her understanding shows off here, not only with the procedures of creating copy for ads but also in the little things - the petty gossip and the office pools and who is kicking in for lunch. There is even an off-site event for the collected employees as a morale raiser. Add to that the respect (or lack thereof) among colleagues and all manner of internal social strata and departmental rivalries. Yeah, it feels feels familiar. If Gaudy Night shows Sayers' knowledge of academia, Murder Must does it with business, with often a wry twist and an unjaundiced eye. This is the heart of the story - the mystery is just the frame of it all.

Something else that applies on re-reading is that, as far as the mystery, Sayers plays fair with the reader. There are places where she presents what is happening as Wimsey and the dope smugglers square off (often without realizing it), often resulting in odd shifts of POV. But here she shows the results but do not call them out as such. Only when you hit the reveal and the connections are made do you realize what has gone on, and then it is more of a slight "ah" of comprehension than an "ah-hah" of sudden enlightenment.

The big thing that struck me on this revisiting is that Wimsey himself, while being on stage for most of the book, is not really here. He is hiding behind his Death Bredon character within Pym's, and as his own ne-er-do-well cousin among a clutch of high-living dope peddlers. He's sort of Batman pretending to be the unassuming Bruce Wayne and the criminal Matches Malone. Indeed, Wimsey is Sayers superhero, who indulges in playing himself to be weaker and less effective as copywriter Death Bredon and as more flamboyant among the Harlequin infiltrating his way into the dope circle.

Much like superheroes, his cover is "almost blown" a half-dozen times, and he's expected to cover for himself about how much he looks like Lord Peter. Maybe this is one reason I tend to like this book - the real Wimsey only surfaces occasionally. And up to a final exposure (when he is struck by a ball at the company cricket match and, irritated at the insult, suddenly transforms himself back into Peter Wimsey, champion batsman) he manages to deflect the suspicions, which makes me fell like his challenges (both major and minor) are diminished,.

The nature of the dope smuggler's ultimate plot is a little wobbly as well, with a few holes in the plan that are not revealed because, well, Wimsey wouldn't know them. And Wimsey's ultimate nemesis seems both extremely effective (people connected with start dropping like flies when things get going), and extremely amateur, Yet, that's not what the book is ultimately about.It is about office-workers infiltrated by a man who could be from Mars for all the difference it made.

Lastly, of course, I see the novel as part of "Appendix N" for the 1920s/30s games, in particular Call of Cthulhu. I found myself slowing regularly to examine how someone makes a phone call, or drives a car, or picks up a newspaper. The process of how mail is delivered bears interest. It is a purely personal interest, but someday we will look upon smart phones as curiosities as well, and wonder how people survived without subdermal implants.

It was good visiting an old friend, and remembering why they were a friend in the first place. No, it won't get me back to Busman's Honeymoon any time soon (and besides, I just saw the play version), but maybe The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Maybe next long vacation.

More later,

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Play: Community Theatre

The Odyssey; By Homer (unaccredited in the program book) Adaptation/Music/New Lyrics by Todd Almond, Original Concept and Direction by Lear DeBessonet, Directer by Marya Sea Kaminiski. Seattle Rep, Sept. 8-10 (Yep, it's over).

When last we left the the Seattle Rep, they had ripped out most of their seats to turn the venerable Bagley Wright into a disco for David Byrne's Here Lies Love, an opus about Imelda Marcos. Now they return for a one-weekend-only event (sorry folks), a rendition of Homer's Odyssey. And in doing so it pushed the borders of modern theatre back in different ways.

One of the challenges of modern theater is manpower. You've seen it - plays that are four to five actors, tops, dealing with tight little stories or people in multiple roles. This version of the Odyessy, done through Public Works Seattle, is one huge crowd scene. The cast lists 80+ characters, not counting a host of cameo artists (more on them later). Four of the cast are Equity actors, the rest volunteers of various stripes. The result is you can have huge vibrant mobs moving across the stage and a variety of voices being heard. This is pretty darn impressive.

Oh, and did I mention this was a musical? Yeah, musical. One part Hamilton, two parts Disney rhyming schemes. And it all worked.

The plot you should already know. Odysseus is en route back from the Trojan War and gets delayed for a decade. Wife Penelope is cooling her heels back in Ithaca fending off a bunch of suitors and raising her son Telemachus. Odysseus is fighting to get back home to her. Cyclops, Circe, sirens, whirlpool, monster. You know the drill, right?

And all of this is here, but what makes it work is that the focus is placed on community, both in Ithaca and for the crew of Odysseys' ship. The massive tide of people are not a mere Greek chorus, but have their own voices and their own moments. I was amazed time and again by the strength of the voices in song and acting. Yeah, a lot of it was punching over their weight class, but it was impressive.

And there are the cameos. Circe is played by a drag queen that tempts man with burgers from Dick's and Pagliacci pizza. She's backed up by a pair of flamenco dancers. Small children are ghosts from Hades. A symphonic orchestra sets up for the voyage home to Ithaca. And the Seahawks Blue Thunder drum corps helps wrap up the entire deal with the suitors. They appear as guest stars for a number or a scene, then move on. But they are part of the community as well.

And the Equity Actors? Terrence Achie is an amazing Odysseus - strong-voiced and sympathetic, both crafty hero and doubting human. Justin Hertas last showed up in his original musical Lizard Boy and serves as narrator/master of ceremonies, and creates the glue between the present and past. Alexandra Tavres (last seen in Constellations) is Penelope, holding the stage and Odyesseus' equal and keeping the motorcycle-jacketed suitors at bay. Sarah Russell is the leader of a tripartite Calliope (with Rheanna Atendido and Jala Harper) who are our musical Greek Chorus. What is missing here is the direct presence of the gods, though they send in messages and help from time to time. And that's OK, because there's not a lot of room left on the stage for them.

This is an amazingly audacious production, born out of the idea of community coming together in the theatre. This is theatre of and for the people. Yes, it has a happy ending, and everyone gets a curtain call in a celebration that spills off the stage and into the audience. This is a theater taking big risks, and even should the rest of season settle into more traditional fare, it is an excellent start.

And keep your eyes peeled should they try something like this again.

More later.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Model of Major Middle Manager

The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas, Translated by Lawrence Ellsworth, Pegasus Books, 2017

Provenance (Or how I came to read this book): I asked for this book as a gift from my Lovely Bride for our anniversary back in February, and she delivered, noting only in passing how massive (800 pages plus) the tome was. I had found out about it on Facebook, where I follow Lawrence Ellsworth. Actually, I follow Lawrence in his identity that gamers may recognize, Lawrence Schick. That would be Lawrence Schick the designer of White Plume Mountain and the current lead loremaster on Elder Scrolls Online. I don't know Lawrence all that well (his tenure and mine at old TSR did not overlap, and we have met maybe a handful of times), but I always liked his work and found the idea that he had translated a "lost" Dumas book was intriguing.

Review (Or what I thought about the entire thing): The book is an unfinished, partially published, manuscript from Dumas. Back in the day, Dumas serialized his stories in Parisian magazines. As a result, his completed books tend to be a bit... long and perhaps even ... rambling. This one in particular was titled The Comte De Moret, and was a bout a figure from the swashbuckling age who was the recognized bastard son of King Henri IV, and therefore half-brother to Louis XIII. Count De Moret was a historical figure, and was involved in one of the other royal brother's rebellions against the crown, and was supposedly killed in a battle against the Louis's forces. He has his own mythos that has grown up over the years, as the "good, loyal son" of Henri.

But in the book, as presented, De Moret is more of a supporting character, and Ellworth is completely within his rights to rename his translation after the true protagonist - Cardinal Richelieu. Yes, those who have seen numerous adaptations of The Three Musketeers think of Richelieu as the bad guy, the scheming spider in clerical red. But Dumas admires him, and presents him, not only sympathetically, but as the hero, the only man who cares about France, even if its king is a fool and his family are greedy intriguers.

Richelieu is, within this book, the perfect middle manager. His boss is a fool, but the Cardinal has gathered together a team of loyal, devoted, and talented individuals to make the entire country work. This is most dramatically shown in a section where, having lost a crucial argument with the Crown, Richelieu lays down his tools and retires to a private life, and the King attempts to do his job. In quick succession, every agent of the Cardinal lays out how dire the situation truly is, how everyone thinks the King is an idiot, and then resigns themselves. Less than a week after his resignation, the King implores Richelieu to return to govern the kingdom correctly. Richelieu is free with his favors, loyal to his workers, and has no fear about getting directly involved to get to the truth of the matter. The Cardinal could write his own business advice book and do a decent TED talk about management.

This is a 21st Cent translation of an 19th Cent book set in the 17th Century. And, though it has not seen much print in English, it feels very much like the shared-world adventure fiction I've read and written, and it makes the case that Dumas is very much an antecedent of popular fantasy as Tolkien or Howard.

To spoil just a bit, the book opens on a professional duelist (dueling is banned in France) who is approached by a hunchback to duel and kill the Count De Moret. De Moret has apparently stolen the affection of woman away from the hunchback. The professional refuses, because he knows the Count as a good man (though not above sleeping around) and the hunchback and his colleagues set upon the duelist with their swords and leave him for dead ( spoilers - he does not die). The hunchback and his colleagues then leave, but one of the colleagues reveals that HE is the one sleeping with object of the hunchback's affections, which results ANOTHER swordfight, in which the hunchback is badly wounded and feared to die (spoilers - he does not die, either). Both duelist and hunchback survive, only to have YET ANOTHER duel while they are both wounded and seated in sedan chairs on a street in Paris.

This entire exchange feels very Realmsian, and could have transpired on the streets of Suzail or Waterdeep. And the adventure fiction of the age can show strong connections with the shared worlds that TSR launched in the 80s and 90s. In this case, instead of a lore bible, the cornerstone of these tales come from the history and legend of France itself. If you are a fan of Ed Greenwood's work, yes, you should check out Dumas in a good translation.

The translation helps in all this. As opposed to a bowdlerized and simplified translation, Ellsworth embraces the passion of Dumas' language and subject, and creates a readable text. This reader freely will admit that there are sections where Dumas deals with history (from a Francophile view of course) that I put the book aside, but quickly returned as the action and plotting picking up again.

So the manuscript is unfinished - the magazine Dumas was serializing it in went under and he never got back to it. Ellsworth puts forth that he had an ending in mind from a short story he had written decades earlier about the count and Isabel, who he is in love with (despite dallying with others) in the earlier section. Set after the battle in which the Count had supposedly perished (Dumas played fast and loose with the truth), the two lovers are reunited by a carrier dove, and have numerous near misses before their relationship resolves.

I'm not so sure. I think Dumas was aimed at this as an eventual ending, but the two texts are dramatically different. The short story is completely epistolary (consisting of letters and diary entries), and the characters more passionate than shown at the start of their relationship/the end of the manuscript. The Cardinal is here in passing, wise and willingly fooled to help reunite the two. Dumas may have been aiming at the facts of the short story as his endpoint, but would have been involved in much revision should he have ever reached it.

In general, this is worth hunkering down and reading, particularly if you are a fan of the old Realms or DL novels. Swordplay, battles, plots, treachery, and the most effective middle manager that France has ever seen. Go read it.

More later,


DOW Breaks 22,000!

And it is not so much of a "break" as it is a slow oozing over the line. Usually such news gets a lot more excitement, but most of the stock market news has been "three steps forward, two steps back:, while there hasn't been colossal collapses, but by the same time no fantastic rallies. It has been a slow progress. Even the news articles have been filled with "meh" and a warning eye towards its sluggish pace.

Part of that probably comes from the uncertainty in the rulerleadership of the States, but even there Wall Street has pretty much decided that what damage will be done can be limited to particular industries and short time frames. Business as an organism indicates that they adapt to situations if they are going to survive and thrive. And this does come under the current administration's watch, even if their primary contribution has been to not screw things up too quickly or two much.

In the meantime, we'll cast baleful eye upon the housing prices in this neighborhood, the challenges of abandoned trade agreements, and the ongoing retail apocalypse, and coast this pleasant trend upwards as far as it goes.

[UPDATE: Annnnnd the President is talking about nuking North Korea and the stock market drops 200 points. Ah, well.]

More later,

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Political Desk - Results (The Late Edition)

OK, it's been a week or so, and most of the results are pretty much settled (stuff still comes in, sometimes things are close, but pretty much the dust has settled). Here's what we got for Fall:

King County Proposition No. 1 Sales Tax for Cultural Access Program: Rejected

King County Executive: Dow Constantine versus Bill Hirt

Port of Seattle Commissioner Position No. 1: John Creighton versus Ryan Calkins

Port of Seattle Commissioner Position No. 3: Stephanie Bowman versus Ahmed Abdi

Port of Seattle Commissioner Position No. 4:Peter Steinbruek versus Preeti Shridhar

City of Kent Mayor: Jim Berrios versus Dana Ralph

City of Kent Council Position No. 2: Satwinder Kaur versus Paul Addis

City of Kent Council Position No. 4: Toni Troutner versus Tye Whitfield

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 4: Bryon Madsen versus Denise Daniels

Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Commissioner Position No. 2: Alan Eades versus Merle Reeder

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 1: Aaron Aboudara versus Pete DeLeyser

You'll note that I'm not highlighting the ones I recommended because a) it is not about my batting average, it is about getting good people into office, and b) I'm pretty bad at picking horses right now. Moving forward, I'm going to revisit all this when we get closer to the election day, but here are some guiding principles:

If you're an incumbent, what has happened on your watch to part of the discussion.
If you're say you hate politics, I am less inclined to make you a politician.
If you want to run government as a business, remember that that trick never works.
If you're a Republican, I'm giving you a particularly hard look. All these positions are non-political, so it is inevitable that I will recommend a Republican, either not knowing any better, or the fact that we actually have some competent Republicans out here. But you're starting at a disadvantage.

And that is it until the next ballot shows up. More later,

More later,

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Political Desk - In Which We Summarize.

So,

Primary Day is August 1st, which is a really stupid day for a primary. Part of it is because we're looking at the height of summer, when people's minds are miles away from the political scene. It is also the first day of the month, which means most people won't think about it because it's next month.

The end result is that is that fewer people are likely to vote than normal, even given things like the over-stuffed race for Mayor of Seattle (which I can't vote on, but I will mention Bob Hasegawa and Mike McGinn in passing).So your vote counts more than usual.

You've heard the drill - in these elections, old people tend to carry the day, because we've (and yep, I am officially an old duffer these days) have been trained through years of voting and seeing our candidate or the other candidate winning, and having to deal with the consequences of an election. So ultimately, I want youse mugs to vote.

And don't just listen to me. When I started this tour through my own ballot, I laid out a list of resources that are available, including other people's endorsements. Go read them. Weigh the options. Cast your votes.

So, here's my two cents worth:

King County Proposition No. 1 Sales Tax for Cultural Access Program: Approved

King County Executive: Dow Constantine

Port of Seattle Commissioner Position No. 1: Claudia Kauffmann

Port of Seattle Commissioner Position No. 3: Ahmed Abdi

Port of Seattle Commissioner Position No. 4: John Persak

City of Kent Mayor: Elizabeth Albertson

City of Kent Council Position No. 2: Satwinder Kaur

City of Kent Council Position No. 4: Tye Whitfield

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 4: Denise Daniels

Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Commissioner Position No. 2: Merle Reeder

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 1: Pete DeLeyser

And with that the Political Desk takes break, until the results come in next week.

More later,

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Political Desk: And the Rest

Now we are clearly far from the lands that we know and love. School, Water and Sewer, and Public Hospital. Here is where the foundation of a well-informed voting populace breaks down entirely. Even the local papers are bit lax on coverage, the municipal league knows not, and we are left with only their desires expressed through the voter guide write-ups. I feel the need to hire a private detective, a slouching, chain-smoking type, to use his contacts to find out who has the rap sheet, who has the business in trouble, or who has been getting free pizza from the local chain store.

But anyway ....

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 4. I tend to like people who know the territory, who have been in the building, and know the job (and who have not be indicted, to the best of my knowledge). I'd go with Denise Daniels, an administrator in the school district, for this one.

Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Commissioner Position No. 2 has an incumbent in Merle Reeder, who replaces Larry West, who passed on earlier this year. This is for the remainder of Mr. West's term. Sure.

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 1 has been surprisingly quiet for the past year or so. The District, which includes Valley Medical right down the hill, has been a swirl of controversy for many elections involving the pay for its CEO, and culminating in the merger of Valley into the UW Medical system, which still leaves some folk uncomfortable. The merger leaves the elected officials outnumbered on the board by the appointed officials, which really reduces the effectiveness of the voters in all this. I've got two candidates who, in their Voter's Guide descriptions, are calling out the current situation - And of the two I would with Peter DeLeyser, who has some volunteer experience with the hospital itself.

And that's a wrap. One more entry, with a summary, and then Dobie is free (until November).

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Political Desk: A Taste of Kent

And here we start getting deeper into the weeds once we reach the borders of Kent, my home town. The big newspapers to the north think the world ends at the southern edge of Georgetown, and we are left with candidate statements and what forums the Kent Reporter covers. I would almost recommend grabbing some dice.

But that would be wrong, because the mayor and the council are facing some pretty dire challenges in the next few years. They did OK with the dangers of the Green  River flooding, but their budget is going to come under some strain soon. And part of it is my fault.

And by my fault, I mean my neighborhood up near Panther Lake. Almost a decade ago, we were unincorporated King County, but the county pressured the localities to adopt these ungoverned municipal islands, and offered Kent a tidy sum to annex us. This is the political equivalent of hanging a pork chop around our necks to get the dog to play with us, but it has in general been a good thing, and I am positively disposed to the local organization as a result. However, we're getting to the end of the ten year agreement, and that money is going to disappear from the budget. So they have to deal with that.

Furthermore, there's been a change on how state sales tax is collected, which reduces the share that communities with warehouses and factories get. And the valley floor is thick with warehouses and light industry. So the budget will take another hit, which means fewer services or higher taxes. And since they are grown-ups, they are talking about it now as opposed to after the election.

Now, by the same token, they've had great success with instituting a B&O tax, to the point that they are bringing in twice of what they anticipated? Good news? Not quite. When they sold that tax in, it was with the idea that it would be used to repair the local road systems (warehouse means a lot of trucks which means a lot of wear and tear). So while the money is there, there's some question about whether we can/should/be allowed to tap it. Business interests, which weren't too happy with it in the first place, say no now that they have it.

And then there's the idea of selling of city property. Last year, the city sold the land of Pine Tree Park to a developer. Problem was, the park was part of another annexation packet, and part of the agreement to annex was that if the city sold the park, they would have to provide land of equivalent value. That and the fact that the sale was a bit of a surprise to people in the neighborhood left the city to break the deal, at a cost of $800,000+.

And then there was the fate of the par3 golf course. Here the deal goes through (so far), but the developer is getting a major tax break to come play ball. As a result the larger golf club is still in the red.

All of the above sends me more in the direction of newcomers as opposed to old hands in facing the various challenges to the city. Elizabeth Albertson is running for mayor, and while a former council member, hasn't been part of the shenanigans of the past five years. So let's go for her.

Looking at the council itself, I'm going with Satwinder Kaur (who is packing a buncha endorsements plus has experience with previous budgets) for position 2,. And Tye Whitfield (who is also heavily endorsed, but also had the most earnest robo-call I ever received) for position 4.

But to be honest, check out your own research on this one.

More later,