Some Favorite Current Audio Dramas

A few years ago I wrote about a number of audio drama podcasts I was listening to, as I’d just gotten into the medium as a vehicle for fiction. Today I listen to even more audio dramas than I did then – and I wanted to write about several I’m really enjoying. All of these are currently releasing episodes or will resume doing so soon, so this is a good time to jump in and catch up on any that sound appealing to you.

Badlands Cola

You’ll find that I enjoy a lot of weird mystery stories, and Badlands Cola might be the weirdest mysteriest of all of them (including its name!). Private detective Sunny is hired to go out to the Canadian badlands where cult leader Jasper Moon grew up. Moon was arrested just recently following the deaths of several of his followers. The town is known mainly for its dinosaur fossils, and its large dinosaur replicas around town. Sunny meets local radio host Strathcona (what a name! Apparently named for several places around Canada) who has some connection to Moon and his sister Melinda, as well as the closed paleontology center. Sunny pokes around trying to find out what Moon was up to, but there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye.

Renee Taylor Klint’s show is built around Liz Morey’s performance as Sunny – who seems increasingly out of her depth as a not-so-hard-boiled but determined detective – and the ubiquitous Briggon Snow as Strathcona – a traumatized yet strong-willed man caught between his past and the present. The show has an atmosphere of bleakness, of Sunny being stuck out there on her own with only this one weird guy who doesn’t even like her to have her back. It’s nearing the end of its first season and looks like it’s building to something big and ominous, and the fact that it’s building to anything at all – as opposed to Sunny just getting the perpetual runaround from the locals – is only revealed a bit at a time.

Boston Harbor Horror

This is flat-out Lovecraftian horror based in and around New England. It focuses mainly on Coast Guard Petty Officer Alex Devereaux, who finds a mysterious artifact and gets caught up in the machinations of a cult. While he finds allies in Professor Matthew Alvarez and Special Agent Kerri Stone, Alex doesn’t quite make it through the first season unscathed – but he does make it through. In season two he investigates a particularly brutal murder, while season three (in progress) has been split between Agent Stone investigating strange events in Antarctica, and a group of sailors trying to rescue a drifting ship in the Atlantic.

Creator Mike Gagne voices Alex – one of three shows here where the creator also voices the lad character. I have very little insight into what goes into making audio dramas, but it’s pretty impressive that all three creators do fine jobs in both roles.

Fans of The White Vault ought to enjoy Boston Harbor Horror, though it’s more overtly horrific than TWV but it has some of that slow-burn feel at times. It steadily improves season-over-season, and I’m looking forward to the rest of this season playing out, although it’s been slowed down a bit because of Gagne’s work situation (internet at his current posting is not great). If cults and ancient artifacts crossed with the realistic (as far as I can tell, anyway!) modern maritime procedures are your jam, then this one is for you.

How I Died

Dr. Jon Spacer is a forensic pathologist with a unique talent: He can see and talk to the dead. This is pretty useful in his job – working for the police department of the town of Springfield – except that his boss, Sheriff Fran Crowley wants him to stick to examining the bodies and not solving cases, and of course no one knows what Jon can do. On top of this, the now-defunct Springfield Corp research lab experienced a weird event back in 1989 whose effects are still being felt – but only Jon perceives them. And on top of that there’s a serial killer.

Creator Vince Dajani voices Jon and does a lot to carry the show, as Jon is often caught between doing the right thing, keeping his secret, and investigating the deeper mysteries of the town. Shaina Waring is an effective counterweight as Crowley, who goes from finding Jon annoying, to suspicious, to… well, any more would be spoilers.

Now in its third season, How I Died reminds me of Babylon 5 in structure, in that each season has a significant change to the status quo (and a new arrangement of the theme music, too!). Overall it works really well as both a mystery and a character drama. I might quibble that sometimes Jon’s actions seem a little too reckless, and sometimes other characters are too conveniently willing to overlook his weird behavior, but it’s easier to just go with the flow of what the show is doing than try to poke holes. It has some things to say about death and being a good person. It can be a very intense show at times, and doesn’t shy away from some gruesome crime scenes, so be aware.

90 Degrees South

Part police procedural, part eccentric character drama, with dashes of weird fantasy mixed in, 90 Degrees South had me looking forward to it every week of its first season. After a scientist is murdered at Amundsen Research Station in Antarctica over the winter, U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Marlowe is sent to investigate. Under immense political pressure, Marlowe finds allies and friends on the station to balance out the suspicion and wariness he inspires in others. He also finds a smattering of supernatural occurrences which might be relevant – or maybe not.

The show has a surprisingly small cast despite a large number of characters: Marlowe and most of the male roles are played by Trent Shumway, which I had no idea about until I saw the cast list on the show’s web site, because many of them are extremely different from one another. While the few – the two IT geeks and the janitor, for instance – are obviously played as very broad caricatures, others are straight dramatic figures. It’s an impressive set of performances.

90 Degrees South revels in its eccentric characters, even as Marlowe is engaged in a very serious and potentially deadly hunt. But there are also some very touching moments as characters learn or confess things about themselves. And then there are the moments of outright weird, starting with the man who claims to be a demon lawyer.

The first season brings its main story to a close, but also ends on a cliffhanger, and leaves several threads unresolved. I’m hoping that some of the smaller weirdnesses will be explored and/or explained and not just be transitory color. In any event I’m very much looking forward to season two.

Palimpsest

Palimpsest has two characteristics that I’m not usually into: It’s an anthology series – each season is a new story – and it’s a single-narrator fiction series – Hayley Heninger narrates Jamieson Ridenhour’s stories. But in fact it all comes together nicely: Full-season stories get into enough depth to satisfy me, and Heninger gets into each of the main roles convincingly, while adding some color when other characters speak up. The stories are all written as diaries or reminiscences of the main characters, which further sells the approach.

The show’s tag line is “embrace what haunts you”, and “haunt” is the right word: There’s some horror here, but the stories are more creepy and haunting, rich with atmosphere and setting. I think my favorite season is the third, about a woman who worked for the British code breakers during World War II, but all four are excellent. The show is currently running a set of single-episode vignettes between the fourth and fifth seasons.

Spectre

This one reminds me of Becky Chambers’ novel A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet: Both are found-family stories that take place on starships with small but diverse crews. A key difference is that while the main character in the novel joins the ship voluntarily, in Spectre the lead character of Rho (voiced by creator Stef Howerton) has escaped from a facility and ended up on the ship because it was one she was able to get on. Fortunately, the Spectre is a crew of good people – even if they do take jobs as mercenaries, albeit ones trying to work for the right people.

Rho has also lost her memory and has no idea why she was in the facility, though it turns out she had been augmented with fantastic abilities – which might be great if she could just control them (just what you want when you’re on a tin can in space). Not that the crew of the Spectre doesn’t have secrets of its own, starting with its mysterious captain.

Nearing the end of its first season, Spectre has been focusing mainly on Rho, so the large cast of characters feel a bit thin, as does the backdrop. Hopefully these details will be filled out in future seasons.

Unwell

Lily Harper moves to the small town of Mount Absalom, Ohio to help take care of her mother Dot, who runs a historic boarding house, is recovering from an injury, and has the early stages of dementia. Which all sounds like a bummer of a show, except that Unwell actually has some of the liveliest and funniest dialogue of any audio drama, with off-the-wall characters and secrets and mysteries galore. Lily befriends the long-term lodgers in Fenwood House as well as some of the locals, and starts to peel back the curtains hiding what’s been going on in Mount Absalom for centuries.

Unwell feels to me like it takes place in perpetual autumn. It’s not horror per se, but is genuinely creepy at times, and the creepiness is sometimes played for comedic effect and sometimes not. You never really know what direction an element of the show is going to go in. All the characters have their flaws and their own motivations, making them all – even the more sinister ones – pretty complex.

The show just wrapped up its fourth season, and it sounds like the fifth will finish the story. Much like How I Died, it feels like Unwell has changed so much since the first few episodes, but in its case it’s been a gradual evolution, where characters end up in places that make perfect sense, and it’s only on reflection that you realize that a couple of seasons ago they wouldn’t have been in those places at all.

Within the Wires

My favorite audio drama from the Night Vale Presents network, Within the Wires features a different story each season in its alternate universe where things went in a very different direction in the early 20th century, where the First World War didn’t end until the Great Reckoning in the 1930s, resulting in the formation of the New Society, a global government with radically different approaches to families and raising children, and many apparently hallmarks of autocratic states.

But the series is told obliquely, through found footage audio relics dating from the 1950s to the 2000s, with a different narrator for each one. The first season started slowly – to be honest I didn’t warm to it at first, only going back to finish it when I got into the second season – as a series of relaxation tapes, which we eventually learn are being used in a center run by the New Society. The second season are a series of museum audio tapes from the 60s through 80s about an artist named Claudia Atieno. But I think the series really hits its stride in seasons 3 (dictaphone notes from a doctor involved in setting up the New Society in the 1950s), 4 (audiocassettes by a woman involved in resisting the family planning of the New Society in the 1990s), and 5 (a series of voice mails told backwards from 2008 to 1997 by an artist at the fringes of the New Society in England). The sixth season is about a young nurse who arrives to care for an elderly woman in rural Ireland in the 1970s and is a sort of ghost story, which I felt didn’t entirely deliver on the promise of the strange things it chronicled. Season 7 is coming out shortly, and there’s also a novel, You Feel It Just Below The Ribs, which is a quite good chronicle of the Great Reckoning and early days of the New Society by a woman with a unique insight into those events.

The series often feels claustrophobic and dark, its characters trapped by their circumstances even if they’re not physically confined. You’ll find a little bit of multiple genres as you progress through the series, and the nature of the New Society is gradually revealed. But as I said we see most of this only obliquely, as few of these people are involved in shaping or running the New Society, and some of them stand in opposition to it. You can take it as a commentary on how ordinary people try to live their lives within such a framework, or a commentary on our own society – or just take it for what it is, a series of stories about people. However you take it, it’s very good.

Bonus Recommendation: An Episode of Archive 81

Archive 81 was a horror podcast that ran for three seasons from 2o16 to 2019, and whose first season was adapted into a single season of television on Netflix. Each season was radically different from the previous one – and it goes steadily better, as well.

While not a “current” series like the ones above – although apparently they hope to produce another season sometime – I only caught up on it earlier this year, and I was blown away by one episode in the third season. The third season features a pair of half-siblings, Nick (Peter Musante) and Christine (Kristen DiMercurio), trying to complete a mystical ritual left to them by their late father. The season plays around with various tropes of the genre – for example, Nick is initially portrayed as weak and somewhat subservient, while Christine is outspoken and strong, but both have more depth than that.

In episode 28, “Exist in the Place You Are Currently Occupying”, Christine goes on a dream-quest to acquire an ingredient to complete the ritual, and ends up falling in with a crew on a sailing ship who help her pursue her quest. The episode shows Christine living an alternate life as an adventurer, as told in a series of smart, self-aware vignettes as she and the crew make their way across their world and become friends and trusted companions. It’s a tour-de-force piece of drama, and I think would stand well on its own even outside the context of the larger story. (It’s also an adventure story and not a horror one – which the rest of the season very much is, so be warned if you decide to listen beyond this episode.)

Wikis

Fandom.com hosts wikis for many different interests, including many audio dramas. The better ones can be useful for refreshing your memory of previous episodes, clarifying plot points, or connecting pieces that you might not have connected while listening to episodes across many weeks. Here are a few wikis for audio dramas above:

Sweltering

A couple of weeks ago I decided to take the two days after Labor Day off to have some extra downtime and get a few things done around the house.

Little did I know that I’d be doing so during an historic heat wave.

We had some advance warning that it would be hot, but not how hot it world be. So we kicked off the weekend on Saturday by taking the doggo over to our friends’ house so he could play with their dogs and we could play in their pool. We got there on late morning and spent all day hanging out with them and their kids, having both lunch and dinner. It was great. I’d also been over there with the doggo the previous Monday to help teach their son Magic the Gathering. Domino had a great time, and he’s also learned that he comes home with us afterwards, as our friends fostered him several times before we adopted him. So I guess he knows we’re his humans now!

Sunday it got hotter, but we nonetheless hosted an outdoor gathering of a few neighbors, including a couple of new ones we hadn’t really met yet. (Their daughter got to come in to meet the cats.) It was planned to be a short event, and it was, because after a couple of hours we were all starting to melt. But it was a fun time despite this.

On Monday – Labor Day – the heat arrived in earnest, in time for us to have nothing planned. So we spent most of the day lazing around inside with Domino. Occasionally he wanted to go out, to almost immediately turn around and look inside with an expression that said “WTF is this?” Safe inside the air conditioning I did a bunch of small inside chores which made me feel accomplished. And around 9 pm I went out for my daily walk because it was down to 80°F/30°C and wasn’t going to get any cooler soon. It was okay, but still: Ugh.

It got up to 110°F/43°C on Monday and a little warmer on Tuesday, but maybe the most brutal thing was that it only got down to about 70/21 overnight, which meant things just never really cooled off. It also made me decided to take the week off from running, though I did walk in the morning instead. We also slept with the A/C on, which is no fun either.

Tuesday we both took the day off and drove over to Half Moon Bay, where we experienced what I’d read about the “heat dome” over the western U.S. which was (partly?) causing this heat wave: The high pressure zone has been compressing the marine air layer and keeping it from blowing over the hills to cool off the area, but the coast was still being cooled by the layer. And sure enough, it was 103°F/40°C as we went over the hills a little before 11 am, but had cooled to 70/21 by the time we got to the coast – only about 6 miles away. Pretty impressive!

We went to lunch at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, with a nice outdoor table, although we were disappointed that they didn’t have their roasted artichokes, which we found last time to be absolutely yummy. But as with last time this place has good food for good prices, a better value than your average brew pub. I also recommend their fries and Buffalo wings.

By the time we were done it was gotten up into the 80s even on the coast, so we had a short walk along the coast before driving back. (And noticed on the way that the Dunkin’ in HMB is closed – “temporarily” says Apple Maps, but all the signage is gone.) We treated ourselves to milkshakes at Rick’s on the way before getting home to release the doggo from his when-we’re-away room (also known as our guest room). It was brutally hot so that was about all we did.

The Pacific Ocean seen from the Half Moon Bay coastal trail.

Debbi went back to work today, while I did some chores around the house and then went and ran some errands in the Valley, including lunch at Falafel Stop. Took care of a couple things which had been on my list for quite a while, too, such as disposing of some medicines that have been bagged since we got the kittens in 2020. It was pretty ugly out, but the temps peaked at 100°F/38°C which did feel a little better than the last two days/

There was more I wanted to do this weekend, but between policing the dog (who is getting better but still lunges at the cats, and had an encounter with Jackson where Jackson gave him a good scratch on his nose) and recovering from the heat, I’ve just felt like sitting on the couch a lot.

The next two days are going to be a lot like today, and then it should finally cool off. Indeed, next week we should have highs in the 70s/20s, which is cooler than it was for most of August. Not quite fall weather, but then, it won’t be fall for another two weeks.

I am definitely ready for some fall weather, though.

Debbi and Michael in Half Moon Bay

Newspapers

I’ve been thinking about newspapers recently. My generation might be the last one to read newspapers in large numbers, and in fact I still get the newspaper delivered every day, which is probably rare even among my generation today.

I don’t think even my generation has a true understanding of how important and influential newspapers once were in the United States. They were effectively the only form of mass media in the 19th and early 20th century, and major newspaper publishers could be major figures in public life. But their influence waned as new mass media technologies were developed – radio, television, and of course the Internet.

When I was a kid, my parents subscribed to the Boston Globe daily, and the New York Times on Sunday. We’d walk up to the local newsstand to buy the latter. I, of course, bought comic books instead, and that’s where I started with newspapers: The comics page. I was a big fan of Garfield, and I also remember cutting out episodes of The Amazing Spider-Man and taping or pasting them to paper to gather whole stories to read. Later on I discovered Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and others, though honestly the quality of strips dropped off pretty quickly after those two. (The heyday of newspaper strips was long before I started reading them.)

For three years in high school I had a history teacher – Dr. Paul Gottlieb – who every year said we should read the newspaper and that we could supersede the regular syllabus to discuss current events, so long as we actually talked about it. I never took him up on it, but a few other students would half-heartedly try, mainly to try to defer talking about the class materials, but it never worked. Obviously Dr. Gottlieb had been around this block a few times.

(Aside: While I was pretty much a C+ student in his class, Dr. Gottlieb was one of my favorite teachers in high school. He died – from a heart attack, I heard – a few years after I graduated. So I never got to hear his recitation of the history of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringens. I think I’m now older than he was when he died.)

I also was a delivery boy for the (now defunct) Newton Graphic in high school, one of two weekly papers in my home town. I picked up the route from a friend of mine. It involved the papers being delivered to my house in a stack, and I’d have to fold and rubber-band them and then walk or bike around the route delivering them. And I’d get paid, thus supporting my comic book habit. I wasn’t very good at it, mostly in that I wasn’t able to carry a bag full of papers without really hurting my shoulder. So I’d wrap the bag around the handle of my bike and ride around, which worked great until the day I was booking back home with the empty bag flapping off the handle, and it flew right into the spokes of the front wheel, throwing me off the bike and leaving me with badly skinned hands and knees. But no permanent damage, fortunately.

I had to deliver in the rain, which led to a couple of complaints that I was being lazy and throwing the papers on the steps where they got wet. So I had to go up to each door and put the paper somewhere dry. I’m sure I saw it as an annoying inconvenience rather than learning a lesson from it. (Aside: Not that I don’t take responsibility for my, well, irresponsibility, it’s just that after over 35 years it feels like it was done by someone else, and that I’d do a better job and better react to the experience than I did then. Of course, maybe I’m fooling myself!)

I had a couple of routes during the years I delivered, for reasons I don’t remember. And I’m sure I got less out of it than I should have, but “I got less out of it then I should have” could be the tag line for my whole teenage years.

And now, a discontinuity: When I went off to college at Tulane, I started reading the paper every day. I don’t know why, I just did. The New Orleans paper of record was the Times-Picayune, which has since merged with another paper. I’d walk down from my sixth-floor dorm room and across the street to buy a paper from the vending machine. I imagine it cost about 50¢ an issue, but I don’t remember. But I don’t really remember clearly reading this paper. Maybe I read it all through college, maybe not. I suspect not, because I don’t think I was reading a paper when I went to grad school at Wisconsin in Madison.

That changed in the spring of 1993 when I started playing fantasy baseball. This was at the very leading edge of being able to compute the weekly results by computer, which our league commissioner handled, but it was really before the World Wide Web, so if you wanted to follow your team you had to buy a newspaper, read the box scores, and tally up the scores yourself. (Before this, league owners would compute their scores by hand from the box scores in the newspaper. I’m sure it was delightful.)

Madison had – and I think still has – two daily newspapers, the Wisconsin State Journal, published in the morning, and the Capital Times, published in the afternoon. (This was a weird holdover from the days when many papers would publish two – or more – editions per day, a practice which ended well before my time.) Since I wanted to see the box scores every morning, I subscribed to the State Journal. I think the Cap Times was a slightly more left-wing paper, but the State Journal had really good sports coverage, in particular they would publish every box score of every baseball game, even if a game ran late and they had to run it a day later. I learned how important this was to me when I became immersed in fantasy baseball when I went back to visit my parents that summer and found that the Boston Globe definitely did not do this, which was immensely frustrating.

To further feed my fantasy baseball habit, I bought USA Today once or twice a week, as it had detailed baseball transactions. I also bought USA Today’s Baseball Weekly, which featured in-depth coverage of the ongoing season combined with fun historical articles. It was a competitor of The Sporting News, which had been the preferred paper for fantasy baseball owners for years, but for whatever reason I picked and stuck with BW. I even cut out a stack of articles from it over the years, which I still have sitting in my office upstairs. While these papers are both still going, I suspect they lost much of their readership to fantasy web sites in the early 2000s. Both of these papers I picked up from the newsstand rather than subscribing – these were the days when convenience stores would have racks of papers, so it was easy to find them.

Madison had at least two other newspapers while I lived there, one being the weekly free local paper Isthmus, and the other being The Onion. Yes, that paper. I kind of regret not saving some of my copies of The Onion from when it was a local humor weekly, as keepsakes. Especially the one with my all-time favorite headline, “Chick Corea Falls to Communists”. Anyway, I think Madison may have had another local weekly – probably entertainment-focused, and maybe others I no longer remember, but those are the four I recall.

Another thing which was in vogue in the 90s were weekly newspapers which would collect political and other cartoons, as national syndication could be spotty for some artists. It was a great way to follow, for example, Tom Toles, or other favorite political cartoonists at the time. Once newspapers started going online, these papers largely went away.

I think initially I was buying the Wisconsin State Journal at a nearby convenience store, and only during baseball season, but once I finished school and got a real job I subscribed. This was a little exciting as I lived in a fancy (for Madison) apartment building with a locked front door, so everyone in the building who subscribed got their papers dumped in the atrium outside that door. The delivery person did write the apartment unit on each paper, though, so everyone knew if they’d gotten theirs or not.

In 1999 I moved to the Bay Area, and again I chose my paper based on its baseball coverage, going with the San Jose Mercury News, which like the Wisconsin State Journal had excellent daily baseball boxscores. What it also had was a muckraking sensibility which regularly exposed scandals in local and state politics. As the newspaper industry has contracted, the Merc has changed ownership a couple of times, but the paper is still pretty solid, with national, local, and sports/finance sections – plus comics pages, games pages, weather, and a pretty hefty Sunday edition. Between my recent visit to Boston where I bought a Globe exactly once, and accidentally receiving a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle last week, I have a new appreciation for the Merc‘s standing among daily newspapers.

My current home town of Mountain View also had a weekly local paper, the Voice, part of a network of local papers in the area. The Voice discontinued its print edition at the beginning of COVID in 2020, but continues to publish online. It’s not quite the same, and I miss picking up the Voice every weekend when we’d go downtown for dinner, but I still pitch 10 bucks per month to support them. They do good work.

The Merc is pretty expensive to subscribe to these days, but I still get it. One good thing – for me – about the decline of newspapers is that my paper hardly ever gets stolen out of my driveway anymore. Sure, I could read all this stuff online, but I enjoy reading it on paper. For now it’s worth it to me.

I don’t feel nostalgic for the eras of newspapers of the past, though I do think they served a valuable role in investigatory news which has been seriously degraded over the last 20 years. It would be nice if we could have that and what we get from the Internet, but it seems it isn’t to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if all but a few big national papers and some niche local papers like the Voice fold completely in my lifetime.

It’s strange to think that my life has been witness to the end stages of the newspaper as a business and social phenomenon.

Back to Boston

I’ve spent most of the last two weeks in the Boston area, my first airplane trip since COVID started. I’m not going to say “my first post-COVID trip”, because COVID is still with us and probably will be for the rest of my life. Nonetheless, this trip did feel like a landmark.

It wasn’t a vacation, as I had to head back to take care of some personal business, which I’m not going to go into here. Originally I’d planned to be there for two weeks – July 19 to August 2 – but some of that business got truncated, so I ended up moving my flight earlier, coming home on July 28.

I flew JetBlue, which I’ve been flying for over a decade as they consistently have direct flights between the Bay Area and Boston, and they’re usually on time. My flight out left at 8 am, and the day before a friend posted on Facebook that the line at security at SFO had been insane, so we got up at 4:30 am and Debbi drove me up early. It turns out whatever had been the problem the day before was fine for me, and I got to the gate two hours early, the flight took off on time, and landed half an hour early.

I had massive anxiety about the plane flight ahead of time, even though as far as I can tell there have been negligible COVID outbreaks traced to airplanes. Staying masked for a 5-1/2 hour flight (even longer on the return trip) seemed implausible at best to me, if for no other reason than because I’d need to drink water regularly on the flight. I wore an N95 mask, but less than half the people on my flight were wearing any mask at all (and that was probably a pretty good rate, since I bet San Francisco and Boston have higher mask-wearing rates than most cities). Most people took off their masks to eat or drink, and, well, it’s really, really hard not to follow the examples of others, even when you know it’s not the smartest thing to do, and especially since the mask was starting to drive me crazy after a couple of hours (cloth masks are fairly comfortable, N95s are definitely not). So I took off my mask to eat and drink as well.

So I have a lot of sympathy for people who have to wear masks all day, and a fair amount of understanding for people who object to having to do so, as well as a fair amount of annoyance at people who blithely say or imply (usually through their tone) that that level of mask wearing is easy or should be globally expected.

Anyway.

My sister Katy took the opportunity to drive up to visit as well, bringing my nephew Ivan along, and they picked me up at the airport. We all crammed into my Dad’s townhouse. Fortunately said house has excellent air conditioning, because the first week of my visit had highs in the 90s and awful humidity every day.

It was good to visit with them and my Dad. I haven’t seen Dad since he visited me the fall of 2019, and it had been even longer since I’d seen Katy and Ivan.

I might have mentioned that we’ve been doing some work on the beach house we own on the south shore. “Some work” undersells it considerably, as in a sense we’re making up for several decades of deferred maintenance. On the bright side we have an excellent general contractor managing the project, and I finally got to meet him and see the progress firsthand. The really large chunk of work has been finished and now we’re on to the large-but-smaller pieces. As big an effort as it’s been, it’s going to be awesome when it’s done.

One of my tasks was to help my Dad buy an iPhone, because his flip phone uses the 3G network which Verizon is discontinuing at the end of the year. That went reasonably smoothly, and he seems to be picking up the essentials of using it pretty quickly (though he might not entirely agree). But then, he’s been using an iPad off and on for a few years, so he had some familiarity with it.

Originally, Katy, Ivan and I had planned to go to the Red Sox game on Friday, but we all bailed because of the heat. We’d eaten dinner outside several times and I’d wilted after about an hour, and couldn’t see myself making it through a 3-hour game. It turns out we missed an historic game, as the Blue Jays won 28-5, which is tied for the 4th-largest run differential in the modern era (since 1900). How often does one get to see something like that? Oh well! Hopefully whoever bought our tickets we either a Jays fan, or really wanted to drink a lot of beer.

Over the weekend I drove down to visit my in-laws, whom I also haven’t seen since the Before Times. I got to see all three of my niephews, and all four of the dogs – three of whom are new since our last visit. It was a nice quiet weekend other than chasing the dogs around.

Katy and Ivan had left by the time I got back – and of course while I took a bunch of pictures with the in-laws, we completely spaced taking photos with the three of us. Oh well!

I had some more tasks to do during the week, and also hung out with my Dad a bunch. I was happy to see it rain Monday evening, which finally cleared out the humidity and took a bunch of the heat with it. I also drove back Tuesday night to meet our contractor for dinner, which we both enjoyed. I ate out a lot on this trip, but was able to eat outside almost all the time.

I took a late afternoon flight home on Thursday, because I just didn’t trust dealing with getting up early, catching the T, and getting through security in time for one of the morning flights. Fortunately everything went smoothly, except that the plane took off almost an hour late due to general weather issues across the country, and didn’t land until about 1:30 am east coast time, so I was basically dead by the time Debbi picked me up and we got home.

We took the next day off and went out for breakfast, and then had a pretty quiet day otherwise. Domino-the-labradork is slowly adjusting to living with us: His personality is coming out as he gets more comfortable, and he is slowly getting less aggressive or excited around the cats. Progress!

I took COVID tests on both Friday and Monday, and both were negative. I decided to just work from home all week out of an abundance of caution, and will take another test at the end of the week. Maybe I got away with it.

It was a good trip, although holy cow Boston you can keep your summer humidity. Hopefully next time I can go back for a proper vacation, and Debbi can come with me.

Knotwords

Today I’m going to sing the praises of a very clever and fun word puzzle app I’ve been playing on iOS: Knotwords, by Zach Gage and Jack Schlesinger.

Knotwords is like a second cousin to crossword puzzles. You’re given a grid of rows and columns, which is broken up into sections, and for each section you’re given the letters which go into the squares in that section. So there might be a section of 5 squares, which includes pieces of 2 or 3 rows or columns, and you need to figure out which letters go where. The trick is that each row or column is a complete English word, often consisting of 2 or more sections.

Here’s a recent simple puzzle and its solution (it briefly explodes the grid when you solve it, which is what I captured for this image):

What makes Knotwords enjoyable for me is that it exploits the human mind’s ability to pattern-match, but it also allows the player to break down the puzzle into smaller pieces, building up words out of multiple sections as you go. My approach – especially with larger puzzles – is to identify the sections which appear most tractable to figure out the word, and then build out from there.

Sometimes the sections allow you to reason about the letters through knowledge of English words. For example, if there’s a section of 5 squares, with two 3-letter words which overlap, you can sometimes figure out that there are a limited number of ways to combine the letter to make valid words. Vowel placement is often key. Sometimes you can eliminate combinations, for example knowing that there’s no English word which begins with the letters ‘BK’. Knowing the 2-letter words is also helpful. The app also tells you when you’ve entered an invalid word, so you’re not just guessing. And you can ask for a hint which gives you the dictionary definition of a word you choose on the grid, but it’s rewarding to solve puzzles with a few hints as possible.

Knotwords does reward having a good vocabulary, but the words are not usually rare. I’m more likely to spell a valid word and go “What the heck is that?” and then look at it differently and realize it’s a perfectly ordinary word. I’ve solved a couple hundred puzzles so far and maybe only encountered a couple of words I didn’t know.

The system is self-correcting in a way. Sometimes you build up a valid word, but it leads to other words being invalid, and then rearranging letters to fix things up untangles the other words. You quickly develop an instinct for which words are almost certainly correct (spoiler: longer words usually have only one solution).

If that sounds good to you, then you’ll be happy to learn that there’s even more to discover. In addition to the basic puzzles, there are “twist” puzzles, where each row and column has a number indicating how many vowels are in that line. For example:

Knotwords twist puzzle

And the solution. Whenever you solve a puzzle you get a happy little bunny person in the bottom right cheering you on:

Knotwords twist puzzle solved

Usually additional constraints in puzzles like these make things easier for the player (for example the “Sudoku X” variant of Sudoku), but that also means the twist puzzles can be harder because you have more information to work with.

Every day you get a new simple puzzle, a classic puzzle which gets larger and harder each day from Monday through Sunday, and a twist puzzle which also gets harder through the week.

Each month there are two puzzlebooks, one classic and one twist, each with thirty puzzles. The later puzzles in these have additional twists, such as word themes. At first I was intimidated by the puzzlebooks as I got to the midpoint, but while they get pretty large, it’s not too hard to work through them. While it takes me upwards of 25 minutes to get through the largest ones, you can always pause and come back to it later.

Knotwords has built-in gamification, such as tracking your stats on the daily puzzles, achievements, and of course tracking your streaks – which you can recover if you happen to break one!

One thing to know is that the app does not yet support syncing your progress across devices; as a result, I play it only on a single iPad. (Apparently syncing is in the works, though!)

I’ve never really made the leap to doing traditional puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku on computer, but Knotwords fills that space nicely, and in a way that wouldn’t be nearly as good on paper. It’s free to try, with an in-app purchase to unlock the full range of puzzles. I didn’t hesitate to buy it once I finished the trial, and I hope this post helps it find a few more fans.

The End of an Essential Freedom

I’m not sure there’s much I can say about the overturning of Roe v Wade which hasn’t been said better – and many, many times – by other people in the last few days.

I’ve long felt that the right to abortion is a litmus test for a free society. The United States now fails that litmus test, and over a dozen states fail it with extreme prejudice. It’s a national tragedy.

Everyone tries to prognosticate where things are going in the future, but I think it’s clear that the Republican Party – who are quite simply the American Nazi Party at this point – are willing to do anything to bring about their state of white protestant Christian nationalism. Will they succeed? I don’t know, but I do know that they will do anything and everything they’re not prevented from doing.

(Remember when John Roberts was the swing vote on the court, supposedly concerned with its reputation and legitimacy? Yeah, with a 6-3 majority he’s shown his true colors. With its reputation in tatters, how much longer will it still be regarded as legitimate?)

I was especially enraged by this NPR interview with law professor Helen Alvare, in which she says:

[T]here will be efforts to ensure that, you know, corporations in particular, but also government and other institutions, value caregiving (laughter).

[…]

I can’t emphasize enough how much they would like pro-choice groups to step in instead of just focusing on providing abortion, to step in and provide assistance…

I say to Alvare: Fuck you, all of you forced birth fascists. This is all on you. Pro-choice groups – individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments – have a job to continue to provide access to safe abortions. You fascists own every single death, health condition, and child living in poverty as a result of your forced birther actions, and it’s on you to care for them. The caregiving is your job, because you made it necessary. Grow up and for once in your life take some personal responsibility for your actions.

(Spoiler: They won’t.)

We must resist fascists like Alvare. And anyone who believes people like her when they say the Supreme Court isn’t coming for gay marriage, contraceptives and interracial marriage in the next few years is deluding themselves.

Introducing Domino

So this happened:

Domino sitting in the kitchen

Domino is a black lab mix, about a year and a half old, maybe 50 pounds? (My guess is he’s 55-60.) (ETA: The vet says he’s 45 pounds!) He had a rough early life: He was abused as a puppy, was rescued and had at least one surgery (one rear leg is stunted and we think has a pin in it so he can’t bend the knee), then was sent to California where he was adopted and returned three times. Our friends Chad and Camille fostered him in between, so they got to see him grow up, and he became friends with their two dogs.

After he was returned the last time, Debbi decided to pursue us adopting him. He’s going to be more her dog than mine, because while I like dogs, I’ve never really wanted to responsibility of a dog (which is rather different from the responsibility for cats). I’m going to help, of course, but she’s primary.

He arrived with the name “Dominoes”, but we decided to drop the plural.

We brought him home a week ago, having picked up a couple of crates, beds, food, toys, bowls, and a leash. Understandably he was tentative at first, but he seemed to trust us, and he got more comfortable over the next few days. We even took him with us to pick up dinner!

Domino in the car

Integration with the cats has been… bumpy. Maybe because he doesn’t have much experience with cats, we’re not sure. He barks at them and sometimes lunges at them if they get too close. But sometimes he does the “I want to play” crouch. He’s slowly getting better but there’s a ways to go. We’ve been keeping him on a leash inside to control his lunges.

The cats’ reactions have been varied. Jackson pretty quickly decided the dog doesn’t impress him, and he quickly returned to his normal habits. He’s had a couple of close encounters with Domino, but no one’s gotten hurt yet. Simon by contrast has mostly kept his distance, and spent the first couple of days mostly under the bed. Edison is somewhere in between. All of them have been figuring out Domino’s habits (he sleeps in a covered crate, he spends most of the work day in the dining room with Debbi, etc.), which I think has helped them be more comfortable.

Domino gorked out on the couch

I think Domino has accepted us as his humans. Debbi has been taking him for a walk in the morning, though he is a low-endurance pupper and I doubt I’ll be taking him on my runs any time soon. He is enjoying the back yard, though, and his favorite game seems to be tug-of-war. Sometimes he just gleefully runs around the yard with a kong in his mouth.

So it’s an ongoing adjustment. I’m hoping he’ll eventually chill out enough that the cats will lie with him, or at least play a bit with him, but I’ll settle for him not going after them, even if there’s some barking. We’re doing some training with him on Saturday, and there will be more in the future.

In any event, we now have this big ol’ labradork in our family.

Domino lying on the lawn
(Just ignore the drought-browned grass)

Backyard Multiverse

Writing this at the end of a long weekend, one which was both productive and quite lazy.

We had a warm Saturday which prompted Debbi to take the covers off our patio furniture at last. It’s pretty durable stuff, but we were happy with the waterproof protection of the covers during the winter rainy season (such as it was – California is in another bad drought), and we didn’t get any critters nesting in the furniture when we removed it.

Consequently it was so warm that we spent most of Saturday afternoon sitting on the sofa outdoors under the umbrella and reading (in between wasting time on our iPads, of course). We left the doors to the family room open (with the retractable screen in place), so the cats got to have the full outdoor-smells experience. I don’t think the kittens are quite used to us being around but not indoors, but neither of them tries to go out (Simon definitely does not want to go out), so it’s fine.

In the evening we played Jackbox Games with friends and family – which we’ve been doing regularly throughout the pandemic – followed by me going out for a walk.

Sunday we also spent a bunch of time outside, but I also did some yard work since it cooled off to reasonable levels. I finally replaced the transformer for our low-power accent lights outside, which went really well, and I honestly probably spent more time practicing stripping the wires than anything else. I also re-staked a couple of the lights and replaced some bulbs, and it made me feel like a real homeowner.

Then I assembled my new extension pruner (the old one having seized up last summer) and filled up our yard waste bin with trimmings from the plum tree. Our yard is maybe 20% larger than I have the energy to take care of, and so it’s been slowly getting away from me over the 11 years we’ve lived here. I expect we’ll re-landscape sometime in the next couple of years.

I took today off and Debbi took the afternoon off. After lunch at nearby sandwich joint Specialty’s, we went to see our first movie in the cinemas in over 2 years – for which we were joined by exactly three other people, who all sat behind us. We saw Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. I’m not going to write a full review, but I enjoyed it overall. People who enjoyed Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) character development in WandaVision will probably enjoy it here as well – I personally did not, though since it wasn’t her film, I can live with it. I enjoyed seeing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Strange as a more experienced sorcerer, yet I thought he had some good character development. They didn’t quite stick the landing on that character development, instead taking things in a suddenly-different direction, so that was disappointing. Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez and Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer were both great. There was a bunch of fan service nonsense in the middle which was fine as far as moving the story along and setting up a big set-piece, but honestly since I thought the Illuminati in the comics were stupid, I’m glad they didn’t make more of it than they did. The film’s sense of humor works sometimes but feels awkwardly bolted-on at other times. I sort of agree with Kurt Busiek’s take in this Twitter thread, though I think I liked it more than he did. But the script probably needed a couple more rewrites to completely work.

Anyway, it’s a dark and sometimes very grim film, and I think they really missed an opportunity for closure and optimism at the end by not having Strange more directly talk to the one person he really owed some emotional honesty to. A solid mid-range MCU film, sort of the dark version of Guardians of the Galaxy. If they’d clung more firmly to the theme of “learning to love yourself” (the flip side of Guardians’ found-family theme) and followed it through then I think it’d have worked better.

Hey, I guess I did write a review.

Anyway, I’m sitting on the back porch again writing this while Debbi plays (different) games with friends, and I think we’re going to QBB for drinks and barbecue afterwards. So it’s been a good weekend.

Star Trek: Picard Season 2

The first season of Star Trek: Picard was maybe the best season of Star Trek ever. I adored it so much that I wrote six reviews covering its ten episodes! (If you’re interested, you can start here.) It wobbled a little bit on the landing, but overall it was character-rich, exciting, and thoughtful – all the things that The Next Generation muffed on a regular basis.

I was certainly disappointed to hear that Michael Chabon stepped away from being the showrunner of season 2, but was happy to give it a chance. Unfortunately my disappointment was warranted, as season 2 was a big step down from season 1.

Season 2 featured a lot of Trek fan service, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. It set the early tone for the series as the first episode was packed with views into Picard’s life, his current role in Starfleet, what the other main characters were doing in and around Starfleet, the return of an old friend, and the return of the Borg. But things get turned on their ear when Q shows up and most of the principals from season 1 find themselves in an alternate timeline, and have to return to the 21st century to set things right.

The problem is that the writing was all over the place. As in season 1, each character has their own story arc, but they’re embedded in a tired framework (going back to “the present day” to fix history) with extremely awkward pacing (a lot of running around to set up later payoffs, but the running around gets tedious quickly). Finally, it absolutely does not stick the landing, although the final episode has a few nice bits.

Spoiler-rich commentary after the break:

Continue reading “Star Trek: Picard Season 2”

Steven Brust: Jhereg

Jhereg, by Steven Brust, MMPB, Ace, © 1983, ISBN 0-441-38551-6

Jhereg, by Steven Brust

Earlier this year I read Jo Walton’s collection of essays What Makes This Book So Great, which is a collection of essays from over a decade ago mostly about books she re-read and discussed on the Tor blog. In it she covers all of the books published up to that time in two series. One of them I’ve read before, Lois McMaster Bujold‘s Miles Vorkosigan stories. The other was Steven Brust’s Draegarian novels, which I haven’t. I enjoyed her writing about them that I decided to start reading them myself. (I bought a used mass market paperback on eBay because I dislike the trade paperback format, but that’s another story.)

I’ve never been a big fantasy fan. I could have jumped onto this series fairly early, as I blasted my way through most of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy in 1986, but these were pre-Internet days, and it was unlikely I was going to get into a series through other than word-of-mouth. Brust was a fixture in midwest conventions when I lived there and attended them, and I remember seeing Five Hundred Years After on dealer’s room tables at the time, but I didn’t start reading them then. These days I still gravitate mostly to science fiction, but I read the occasional fantasy novel, and after reading Jhereg, the first book in the series, I’m looking forward to continuing, as one of its prominent features is something I really enjoy, and which I want to discuss here: The world building.

I hope to keep this spoiler free, as there are some nice twists in the story for those who haven’t read it.

At 239 pages, Jhereg is comically short by the standards of today’s fantasy series. Even in the early 80s it was on the short side, but not ridiculously so. However, it packs a huge amount of world building into that span, while still having space for an engaging story with a couple of nice twists. It’s quite an accomplishment for a first novel, especially the first of a series which has been running for nearly 40 years. I understand the series moves backwards and forwards in time from here, and I’ll be interesting to see how much consistency the series exhibits.

The lead character is Vlad Taltos, a human on the world of Draegara, who hails from the East, but lives in an empire of Draegarans, who are humanoids who live for centuries or even millennia. There are seventeen houses in the empire, each associated with an animal on the world, and the book makes clear that membership in a house strongly governs the lives and behavior and alliances of its individual members. Vlad is a member of House Jhereg, who are assassins, and by some considered the lowest of the houses. Vlad is in business as an assassin, and apparently a good one.

Draegara has magic, of at least two forms: Sorcery, which appears to be an exertion of will, and witchcraft, which are more ritualistic and time consuming. Vlad has some familiarity with both, the the book opens with him performing a ritual to obtain a Jhereg dragon egg, which grows to become his familiar, Loiosh. The world also features telepathy and teleportation, as well as resurrection from death, and methods to thwart such resurrection. The clever, powerful, and resourceful all take measures to deal with these various powers, and while one could not argue that Brust builds an airtight balance of forces, he does a good enough job in the scope and length of this novel that it’s not needed.

(Thanks to Clarke’s Third Law, one could imagine that this series is science fiction with a fantasy skin, but I prefer to take stories like this at face value unless given reason not to.)

Vlad is essentially a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. He’s constantly surrounded by people who are better than him at any one sill, but his edge is in fitting all of the pieces together. He also has an extensive backstory, having inherited his membership in the Jhereg from his father. He is married to another Jhereg, and is head of security for Morrolan, a powerful member of House Dragon. He’s friends with several other powerful people associated with Morrolan, and he runs his own business with his own staff and contacts. It’s unclear how old he is, but probably late 20s or 30s in this story.

Draegara itself has an extensive backstory, with periods of war, an interregnum, and characters who have lived through it all. And I’m sure there’s plenty we don’t see, since there are whole novels later in the series which take place centuries in the past.

Weaving all of these pieces together without seeming like two hundred pages of exposition is no mean feat. To be sure, Vlad spends a lot of time talking, gathering information, and even learning a few things he didn’t already know. But it all works. I think because Brust is careful not to go in too many directions at once. For example, only three houses – Jhereg, Dragon, and Dzur – figure significantly in the story, and mainly because of the characters’ connections to them.

Oh yes, the story: Vlad is hired by a high member of the Jhereg named The Demon to find a man named Mellar who has stolen a large amount of money from the House. This is embarrassing for the House, but moreover it could signal the others could and should try the same thing if it gets out. So The Demon wants to kill Mellar quickly and permanently, and recover the money, so that even if it does get out, the risks will be clear. Unfortunately, once Vlad finds Mellar, actually killing him proves to have huge and unexpected challenges.

So the story is partly a mystery about Mellar, and partly a puzzle as to how to kill him – or, more precisely, how Vlad can fulfill his contract, do right by his house, and overcome the challenge that killing Mellar presents. (I was pretty happy to figure out the mystery about ten pages before Vlad did. I sort of figured out the puzzle, but my solution probably wouldn’t have worked – or at least, it just would have shifted the steep cost to other parties.) The story is also pretty clearly a set-up of Vlad’s relationships and loyalties, as well as laying the ground rules for how some of the characters and structures in Draegara work. I expect these will be developed and play out in later novels.

All in all, Jhereg is a remarkable piece of work. It even doesn’t feel very dated – for example, several of the major characters are women, including one of the most powerful ones, even though it’s a book with a male protagonist written by a male author. In some ways it’s what I’d wanted George R. R. Martin’s A Song if Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) to be, with more action, more character, less wordiness, and more of a sense of wonder. Definitely recommended if any of these elements appeal to you, and I hope the series only gets better from here.