Kevin C. Wong

February 2022

Books - Designers & Dragons (2014) [+]

Shannon Appelcline's Designers & Dragons (2011) was originally a one-volume hardcover book published by Mongoose. This review is for Designers & Dragons (2014) second edition published by Evil Hat in four smaller hardcover volumes, though more total content.

Each volume covers a decade from 1970's to 2000's. In general it's a history of the tabletop RPG field organized by company though also focusing on the people in those companies. Each book has about a couple dozen companies describing their origins, history, and demise (or aliveness) and their contributions to the RPG field in terms of products and innovations. Since most companies start out as one or few people's endeavor the histories are often the histories of those people and how they got into RPGs and decided to start making products.

There are many sidebars. Many cover very small companies related to the current company. Some sidebars cover other topics such as what is GNS or a short history of some esoteric niche market. There are also many scanned product pictures, though the books are black and white which is a shame.

Each history ends with a related links section telling you where to go to continue on the history of related companies or a person discussed in the current history.

I like the format as the smaller sized books are easier to do a walk-and-read than with a big leather hardcover. I like the subject (history of the RPG field) and like the organization by companies because growing up it was the companies and their products that mattered. Doing it by people would be jumping around from company to company. Doing it by timeline you would lose all sense of company histories.

Appelcline is working on a third edition or a sequel and I'm looking forward to it.

Spot Reviews 02/25/22

Food - John Soules Foods Dino Nuggets [+] Chicken nuggets in dinosaur shapes. Light breading and meat inside was moist and it tasted pretty good. Better than I expected.

Foundation: The Official Podcast (2021) [+] This is a companion to Apple TV+ Foundation series. The nine half-hour episodes follow along with the series and have spoilers. Talking with show runner David S Goyer and various episode writers you get a bit more background that didn't make on air or that will come up later and also the usual behind the scenes production and origins stuff. Quite interesting though not required to enjoy the tv series.

Movie - Parker (2013) [/] Parker (Jason Statham) is a mercenary heist mastermind. After being betrayed by his crew and left for dead he recovers and plans on revenge by spoiling their next heist. He ends up partnering with real estate broker Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez) when the action shifts to a posh Miami island neighborhood... Typical Statham fare, not great not horrible.

TV Show - Foundation s1 (2021) [+]

Foundation is an Apple TV+ drama based on Isaac Asimov's Foundation books.

In the far future the Galactic Empire riles a good portion of the galaxy. It is ruled by Empire, a clone of the greatest emperor Cleon I and now the system is Dusk (Terrence Mann), the outgoing emperor, Day (Lee Pace), the current emperor, and Dawn (various people) the new emperor. Sort of a grandfather, father, son dynamic though the point is to have the exact same upbringing, habits, and thought patterns as Cleon I to make it seem like it's an eternal emperor even though there are inevitable differences.

Then Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) comes with his psychohistory research saying that the Galactic Empire is on the brink of downfall leading to a ten-thousand year age of darkness. Empire banishes Seldon and his followers, including newcomer and mathematical wiz Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), to Terminus, a bleak world in the Outer Reaches. It's all part of Seldon's plan to establish his Foundation, dedicated to making sure that the Dark Age lasts one thousand years instead of ten thousand.

The first season focuses on a few decades later, The First Crisis (of the Foundation). The Terminus colony is still rather rudimentary. Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) is the chief Warden (like a Sheriff or Ranger) and a bit of an outsider as she doesn't quite believe in Seldon's master plan. The crisis starts when Terminus is invaded by a warband of Anacreons, a race decimated by the Galactic Empire, and they're here to use Terminus and the Foundation as part of a revenge plan against Empire.

Meanwhile Empire has to deal with his own crisis. The head of the Luminist faith (the largest religion in the Galactic Empire, about 1/3rd of the people are Luminists) dies and of the two rival candidates one is old-book Luminist, one of the key principles being that cloned people are not actually people because they have no souls. Besides the Luminists it turns out the current teenage Dawn (Cassian Bilton) has a deep secret and if his brothers find out he'll definitely be recycled...

Anyway, it's a very high concept show. Not that much in terms of action though there is action but it's more about talking and machinations and maybe setting things up for future seasons. The plan is an 8-season show if Apple funds it all the way which hopefully they will. I like Foundation because it is high concept lots of thought, seems somewhat close to the books from what I remember, and different from other science fiction shows.

Book - On Basilisk Station (1993) [+]

I first read On Basilisk Station back in 2007, listened to the audio book in 2009, and read it in graphic novel format in 2016. I have a feeling I read the book again at some point and I read it again last month.

In the far future, Commander Honor Harrington is the new skipper of HMS Fearless, an old light cruiser in the Kingdom of Manticore. After showing her mettle in a series of war games she offends an admiral and her ship is assigned to Basilisk, the only extra-solar system controlled by Manticore. And yet Manticore only cares about the Manticoran warp point and has a very light presence on Manticore itself, which is inhabited by an indigenous alien species (in future Honorverse books aliens are rarely mentioned).

As a backwater Honor finds the system defenses in disrepair and the security protocols very lax. It quickly becomes her problem when the commanding officer leaves on his ship for emergency repairs, leaving Fearless the lone navy ship on station. Honor and crew have to restore order, stop a possible alien revolt and the machinations of a hostile star nation.

It's still a great story. One commander and crew with limited resources have to make do and perform their duties far away from help. Very Horatio Hornblower.

Spot Reviews 02/18/22

Food - Amy's Spinach & Ricotta Cheese Ravioli [+] As usual, good but light portion. Spinach and cheese in ravioli pasta with a red sauce. Microwave three minutes then one minute. Tasty. 390 calories so you know it's a small portion.

Podcast - Mentioned in Dispatches (2018) [/] I listened to one episode. Three guys talking about stuff and the episode was about modding tabletop war games. Each episode has a different topic but I'd rather listen to discussion about actual games than about war gaming life.

Movie - SWAT: Under Siege (2017) [/] Direct to video movie and second sequel to the theatrical SWAT (2003) with an all-star cast. After capturing a dangerous criminal (Michael Jai White) a SWAT team has to defend their HQ from mercenaries determined to break him out. With Adrianne Palicki... Very low budget but not bad.

TV Show - The Crew s1 (2021) [+]

The Crew is a Netflix 10-episode comedy that was cancelled after one season. The concept is a NASCAR racing team, Bobby Spencer Racing, and the goings on behind the scenes.

Kevin Gibson (Kevin James) - crew chief
Catherine Spencer (Jillian Mueller) - owner's daughter and new CEO of Bobby Spencer Racing

One of the main plots is Kevin vs Catherine. Catherine is a Stanford business school graduate and wants to introduce .com management techniques whilst Kevin is more Southern old school not wanting to change anything. BTW this is one of those shows that if you want to be offended as a Liberal you will be as the jokes can get sexist, right wing, anti-intellectual though it manages to be funny and not mean about it and they also poke fun at sexist conservative Southerners and I did find the show very funny.

The racing team is not doing well financially. Catherine comes in and stirs things up by replacing the main sponsor (from a local BBQ chain to a .com fake meat company) and trying to replace their driver (a good racer but makes dumb mistakes) with an up-and-coming female driver (played by Paris Berelc). Meanwhile Kevin keeps undermining Catherine which by the end of the season may lead to him having to leave the team (again, all done in a funny way, this is not a dark or serious show).

As I said I found the show hilarious. I like NASCAR and the behind the scenes is interesting even though I have no idea how accurate it is. Kevin James is very good and the supporting actors do their bits well. It is a sort of brainless sit-com at times but that's quite all right.

Book - In Our Own Worlds #2 (2020) [/]

In Our Own Worlds #2 is an LGBTQ+ anthology from Tom Doherty Associates. It contains four novellas:

Miranda in Milan (Katharine Duckett) - A sequel to Shakespeare's The Tempest. Miranda and her father Prospero have returned to Milan where she discovers she is shunned by the people and her father may be returning to the dark arts. With the help of Dorothea, an Arabian maid and also an outsider, Miranda must uncover the secret of what happened to her mother and foil Prospero's plans...

This is the best story mostly because of it's Shakespearean feel.

Every Heart a Doorway (Seanan McGuire) - Teenager Nancy is sent to an unusual home to be cured of her belief that she spent years in another world. Once there she discover's, much like Dr Xavier's School in X-Men, that the home is a place where Eleanor West has gathered children that passed through doors to spend time in other realms. And although a few children make their way back the other realms most don't and so the school is also a way for children to restructure their lives back to "normal" humanity. But murder happens and as the newest student Nancy is the prime suspect...

Not a bad teen murder mystery though the LGBTQ+ is very subtle. The concept brings to mind what might have happened to Dorothy when she came back from Oz.

Sisters of the Vast Black (Lina Rather) - In the far future mankind has somewhat spread amongst the stars and it's been decades since a war between Earth and her colonies ended with independence for the colonies. A group of nuns on an old space ship get wind of a plot by EarthGov to reconquer the colonies using an old viral weapon. Can they buck their new priest sent by a rejuvenated Catholic Church and save the first colony being used as a test bed for EarthGov's plan?

Another nice story. The previous two are told from the protagonist's perspective. This one has several viewpoints and the various nuns have their own secrets.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (Kai Ashante Wilson) - A very far future Earth back down to medieval tech levels except a few "sorcerers", people with advanced scientific knowledge and highly modified genes. One such sorcerer is Demane traveling as a caravan guard because of love for the guard captain who keeps his sorcery more hidden. The two are the only ones capable of saving the caravan when it's attacked by a panther sorcerer (a sorcerer shaped into a savage panther)...

I'm not a fan of this type of setting. Kind of like Gene Wolfe it can be hard to tell what the characters are talking about as their descriptions of items from modern day are quite different.

Overall it's an ok anthology. I'm not sure about the LGBTQ+ aspect as none of the stories made it into a key point.

Spot Reviews 02/11/22

Food - Trader Joe's Beef Tamales [+] Two beef tamales which you microwave for four minutes and they're ready to eat. I've had Mexican market tamales and restaurant tamales and these are about the same -- good not great but better than I'd expect from an American market. 480 calories for $3 or $4 I think.

Web Site - Nextdoor [/] Nextdoor is a neighborhood community site that wants to be a third place for communities. It groups people into communities and then people (and businesses) can post on various topics. I find that it tends to be more about bad news than good (and mind you even if it were say 25% bad news the world is far better than 75% good it's just that people are more likely to post bad/negative stuff, contented people don't tend to post). So I do find Nextdoor of mixed usefulness and mostly ignore it.

TV Show - Doctor Who s13 (2021) [-] This is Jodie Whittaker's third season as The Doctor. Series 13 is a six-episode arc, the Flux, about an event that's destroying the universe unless The Doctor and her companions can stop it. Since I haven't seen the two previous seasons it was a bit confusing though apparently most of the elements are new -- the current show runners don't do as many callbacks+development as previous ones. Also they were trying to do it more serially so you get a sort of mishmash of separate episodes cut up and assembled into each released episode. Overall a poor season which sucks as I don't want the blame to be female Doctor rather than poor show running.

Movie - Coda (2021) [+]

CODA is a coming of age story set in an East Coast fishing town. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her family and always has to interpret for her deaf parents (Tory Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and brother (Daniel Durant). While the family struggles making a living fishing with higher costs and reduced fish prices Ruby discovers she is a good singer and her music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) prepares her to audition for the Berklee College of Music. And there's the cute choir boy (Fredia Walsh-Peelo) she's crushing on...

This is a movie where deaf characters are prominent and they are important to the story but it's not about being deaf, which I appreciate. I like that there are scenes where the family is "talking" and it's like very quite and even Ruby is signing silently or sometimes signing and talking and the rest are occasionally saying a word.

Other than that a fairly typical story of a high school senior trying to decide what to do with her life. But you don't need everything being new and fresh to make a very good movie and this I feel is a very good movie.

Book - Artemis (2017) [+]

Artemis is Andy Weir's second novel and standalone from The Martian. It's a story set on the first Lunar city set a few decades from now. Jasmine "Jazz" Bashara grew up on Artemis and is very bright but she made a couple of life mistakes when she was 16 and has been living on her own since. Now a decade later she is a small time hustler smuggling goods from Earth and doing odd jobs for rich clients.

One such client is Trond Landvik, one of the wealthiest people on Artemis (and Earth for that matter). He has a plan to take over the only heavy industry on the Moon, Sanchez Aluminum, and to do that he needs Jazz to do a little creative sabotage. But when the job goes wrong Jazz is soon running for her life because Sanchez Aluminum is a mob operation and they are not happy with Jazz or Landvik...

Like The Martian this is a first-person narrative told in a breezy style. Also like The Martian there is a lot of digestible technical details about life on the Moon and lots of Science! and Engineering! And the story is also quite engrossing as there are mysteries within mysteries with lots of players and Jazz not knowing who to trust. Definitely recommend.

Spot Reviews 02/04/22

Movie - Dream Horse (2021) [/] Based-on-a-true-story movie about a woman (Toni Collette) in a small Welsh town who organizes a co-op to buy a race horse, train it, and race it in local events. With Damian Lewis. It's an ok family movie. Not terribly exciting though.

macOS App - IINA (2017) [/] IINA is a media player designed to take advantage of macOS frameworks and be a nice and proper macOS application. I used it for a bit and it's pretty nice though I'm very used to VLC's "only one video open at a time". Also it has problems playing some video formats (was choppy) which VLC handles fine. So IINA is not quite ready to replace VLC.

Food - Del Monte Peas & Carrots [-] I don't like peas so squishy canned peas was a bad idea. Unlike the picture there is a whole lot more peas than carrots and I think they are there to add color to the peas.

TV Show - Van Helsing s1 (2016) [/]

Van Helsing is a post-apocalyptic vampire series. A massive volcanic eruption darkens Earth's skies for three years allowing the hidden vampire population to emerge and decimate/enslave humanity.

We start three years after the event. Marine Sgt Axel Miller (Jonathan Scarfe) is the last in his detachment guarding a hospital where sleeping beauty, aka Vanessa (Kelly Overton), has been unconscious since he arrived three years ago with orders to protect her until relieved. Axel's other companion is Doc (Rukiya Bernard), a medical examiner working at the hospital who was bitten and is now a vampire locked up in the medicine storage area.

Things start happening. Survivors arrive. Vanessa wakes up. Turns out she has anti-vampire powers: she heals quickly, can't be turned and her blood turns vampires back to human. All she wants is to get out and look for her daughter clashing with Axel's desire to keep her alive. Meanwhile the new survivors destabilize the situation then another group of survivors arrive and there are betrayals and people on people violence.

Eventually they leave the hospital and start having adventures...

This is one of those series where anybody can die and everybody has their own motives, sometimes at cross-purposes. The concept is loosely based on Van Helsing comic book from Zenescope and that would have been a cooler series (more 4-color superhero like) but I guess this way is more Walking Dead style.

The first season is 13 episodes and it's mostly ok. I got kind of tired of everyone being evil or dying and Vanessa is not really a shining example of someone I can root for. In the end I think one season is all I can stand.