Monday, May 27, 2013

Brownies and Byzantium

I order quite a few books from Amazon.  I pretty much have to because it's got to the point where if I stop they will probably report me as missing to the police.  They are continually sending me emails containing titles I might like based on my purchase history to date.  At least I hope that's what they base it on, the only other alternative is that they break into my apartment and scan my bookshelves while I'm asleep.

This is usually a way of bringing books I might like to my attention but occasionally something very weird happens.  Such as yesterday when Amazon suggested I might like to purchase the Baked Chicago's Simply Decadent Brownies Cookbook.  I like brownies, I've even been known to cook occasionally but the reason Amazon sent me this invitation was because they noticed I had purchased a biography of the Byzantine emperor Leo the Wise.

I have to confess I'm struggling to find a viable connection between a collection of brownie recipes and a ninth century Byzantine emperor.  Leo was many things; a philosopher, a law giver, a serial husband but if he had any predilection towards brownies it has been lost to history.  To be fair it has to be admitted that our records for the period are sketchy.  It is entirely possible that Leo spent his leisure time rolling in brownies and smearing them over his naked body.

I'll just pause for a moment to let that disturbing image sink in.

If Leo did indeed have such a brownie fetish it has been lost to history (although the church would probably have found it easier to swallow than his fourth marriage).  It is therefore difficult to understand why Amazon would have used my purchase of his biography to justify hawking me a book of brownie recipes.  Still, in the interests of fairness I thought it only right that I detail the points of connection between the two.

Firstly of course there is chocolate.  Chocolate is integral to brownies and everybody loves chocolate.  I'll bet Leo loved chocolate.  Or at least I'll bet he would have loved chocolate if chocolate had been known in ninth century Byzantium, which it wasn't.  However, based on the chocolate loving attitude of the bulk of the human race I think it is fair to extrapolate a connection between Leo and brownies based on chocolate.

Second there is the reference to Chicago in the brownie book's title.  Chicago is a vast, cosmopolitan port city with a rich history and a reputation for cultural diversity.  So is Constantinople which is where Leo spent the majority of his time.  Coincidence?  Possibly but the connections are starting to stack up.

As for decadent, well call me old fashioned but four wives and an undisclosed number of mistresses doesn't exactly strike me as the soul of old fashioned asceticism.  Leo seems to have been a guy who knew how to enjoy the sweet things of life such as (if they had been available) brownies.

So there we are then.  Amazon may have done a better matchmaking job than I first thought.  All in all though I'm not sure I'd trust them to run a dating website.

Just When You Thought My Life Couldn't Get Any More Pathetic

I have become addicted to those stupid little free games one can download for the iphone.  It shames me to have to admit this, me who once sneered at the very thought of owning an iphone.  My life has become a series of pathetic interludes glaring myopically at the tiny screen trying to complete pointless tasks in order to gain meaningless rewards that simply lead on to more pointless tasks.  It occurs to me that my leisure time has become a metaphor for my job.

Presently my intellectual firepower is focused on getting a small, indeterminate creature to throw bubbles at other bubbles in the hopes of releasing trapped babies which then fall to the ground.  The babies don't even splatter on impact.  They just crawl disappointingly away.  In my defence I'm not throwing bubbles at other bubbles because I get any enjoyment out of it but rather because playing this game gives me credits in another game I'm playing which I'm rather more fond of.  So as you can see I haven't completely lost my bubbles, I mean marbles.

The only good thing I can say about the entire business is that I'm not alone in my degradation.  Pretty much all my colleagues at work are doing the same thing.  It's amazing we get any work done.  Note to my supervisor "we are getting work done".  Our last team lunch consisted of four people sitting around a table pawing frantically at their iphones.  As a consequence my already scanty social skills are taking a battering as my conversation now consists alternately of swearing, weeping and occasionally praising a small electronic device.  When I do speak to another human being it is usually to say something like "Can you send me an earth wisp" a phrase which can have absolutely no other application if I tried for a million years.

I feel embarrassed and more than a little ashamed by my weakness.  I try and angle my phone on the train so nobody else can see what I'm doing.  Hopefully they think I'm checking my emails or doing something else important and work related (hopefully my supervisor thinks so too) but I don't honestly think I'm fooling anyone.  The saddest part is when I actually achieve one of the silly goals.  Then I'm delighted and look around for someone to boast to but remember just in time what I'm about to boast about and slide shamefacedly back in my seat.

Well no more!  I promise to change!  Going forward I shall no longer be a slave to these wretched little games.  I shall delete them all from my iphone and never again let them soil the purity of its screen.  My time will be my own again and my achievements shall be legendary.  Starting tomorrow I swear.  For right now will someone please send me a goddamn earth wisp.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

I Tawt I Taw an Antipope

Why aren't there more popes called Sylvester?  Seriously, what an awesome name for a pope.  Sylvester just oozes papocity (or do I mean papality?).  Sylvester is a name designed to wear a mitre.  I mean look at what we've got now; Francis.  Pope Frank??  People could be forgiven for assuming that Frank Sinatra had entered the church (although; catholic, arrogant, mafia connections?  He sounds pretty well qualified).  But surely Sylvester is a little better than Frank.  There were three popes called Sylvester but for a few reasons the name never really gained the papal popularity it deserved.

The first Sylvester was pope at the time that the Roman emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the number one religion in the empire (God had backed him in the battle that won him the imperial crown and this was Constantine's quid pro quo).  It was an exciting time to be pope, churches were being built all over the place, councils were being held and all the persecutions were happening to somebody else for a change.  How much more auspicious a beginning can you get for the name Sylvester?

Despite this amazing leg up it took six centuries before anybody else adopted the name Sylvester.  Sylvester 2.0 was also the first French pope and he took the name because he saw himself as adviser to the Holy Roman emperor Otto III as the first Sylvester had been to Constantine (which was stretching the relationship a bit but whatever).  The second Sylvester was a great admirer of Arabic learning (which he encountered in Spain) and reintroduced a lot of knowledge into Europe that had been lost with the collapse of the Roman empire.  He also took steps against corruption in the church which it must be admitted is still a work in progress over a thousand years later.  Being so close to the emperor had its disadvantages such as when the population of Rome rose in revolt against Otto and drove him from the city.  Poor Sylvester had to run too and he didn't get back until after Otto was dead whereupon he died himself.

After that it has to be admitted that things went into a bit of a decline for the name Sylvester.  There was a third who was pope for about a fortnight in 1045 but since his predecessor was still alive (and Sylvester was widely considered to have got the job through bribery) his tenure didn't last long.  His predecessor excommunicated him and took his job back (that guy's name was Benedict.  Coincidence?  Maybe but if I was Francis I'd be double locking the doors).  Strangely despite his dubious appointment and the manner of his removal Sylvester III is still considered an official pope of the Catholic church, possibly his only genuine achievement.

However what really put the kiss of death on Sylvester as a papal name was Sylvester IV.  "But there were only three popes called Sylvester" I hear you cry.  Or at least you should cry if you have been paying attention so far.  Very true; Sylvester IV was an antipope (cue dramatic music).  From time to time for various reasons (usually political but occasionally personal and, very rarely, moral) it is decided that God has made a bit of a mess of determining who should lead the Catholic church.  When this happens the person in question is declared an antipope and is generally considered to be a bad guy.

Sylvester IV was elected pope by the Roman nobility with the support of the German king Henry V despite the fact that the church had a fairly serviceable pope already in the form of Paschal II.  Paschal turned up in Rome the very next day breathing fire and Sylvester ran like a rat for safer pastures.  A few years later Henry cut a deal with Paschal which included cutting Sylvester adrift and he was forced to resign from his pretensions.

So as you can see the name Sylvester has a somewhat patchy track record within the church.  It's fair to say that early promise wasn't fulfilled.  Still its been over eight hundred years since that last bit of "unpleasantness".  Even with a corporate memory as long as the Vatican's surely its time to give the name Sylvester another chance.  At least the new pope Sylvester would be starting from a pretty low benchmark.

The Shipwrecking News

On matters nautical for a brief moment it would appear that another ship has collided with Italy.  This appears to be becoming a bit of a habit for seafarers in that part of the world.  I've heard Italy called a lot of things over the years but "hazard to navigation" is new one.  Let's face it Italy has been in roughly the same place for long enough to appear on most charts.  There shouldn't be too many people who set sail from Dubrovnik, say, en route to Marseilles suddenly yelling "What the hell's that?" when Italy appears over the horizon.

The latest incident involves a cargo ship backing into the Genoa Port Authority tower.  Andrea Doria must be spinning in his grave.  For context, colliding with the port authority tower is rather like commencing your driving test by rear ending the examiners car.  It's a little difficult to tiptoe away and pretend nothing happened.

Certainly Italy is in an inconvenient position, sticking out as it does into the Mediterranean but honestly there is a fair amount of open water on three sides of it.  Anybody attempting to sail to the fourth side should expect shallow water, and mountains.  Part of the problem I suspect is that for the most part collisions at sea are rather rare.  There is a hell of a lot of water out there and all the ships in the world don't make much of a dent in it (although they are putting a bit of a dent in Italy).  This holds true until you get to port.  It's analogous to driving down an empty road, the danger is in the parking.

In light of Italy's new found vulnerability to at sea collisions I think it is up to me to provide some helpful advice to ship captains attempting to navigate (apparently a more flexible term than I believed) the waters around it.

  • Firstly; equip yourself with a helpful phrasebook including lines like, "Excuse me, your fiat uno appears to be entangled in my propellor" and "I'm very sorry, I swear there was an ocean here yesterday".
  • Secondly; make sure your satnav is one of the more modern ones that includes Italy.  Any one manufactured after the birth of Christ should suffice.
  • Thirdly; I don't care how much time it will shave off your journey, don't listen to the guy who says he knows a shortcut via Milan.
  • Fourthly; if you do look out over the bridge and see the Colosseum gliding past, its probably time to hit the brakes and reverse.
The final thought for anybody plying the seas around Italy is this.  Italy may not be the largest or most impressive country on Earth but its still pretty solid.  If you hit it you may scrape some paint but the only things that will be sinking are your ship and your career.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Another Silly After Action Report

By December 1944 the tide of war had definitely turned on the Russian front.  This could be seen from the fact that Stalin had stopped even pretending to be nice to people and various German generals had stopped praising themselves and started work on their memoirs blaming everything on Hitler.  Further down the command chain German soldiers stopped dreaming of victory and started dreaming of survival while Soviet soldiers stopped dreaming of survival and started dreaming of victory.  Meanwhile behind the lines the SS started a vigorous campaign to murder those people that they had so far unaccountably left alive.

In the north a Soviet offensive had cut off a large pocket of German troops in Courland.  Showing the originality they are famous for military writers have dubbed it "the Courland Pocket".  Of course the Germans could have evacuated by sea and used those troops to defend somewhere more useful such as (to take an example completely at random) Berlin.  Naturally Hitler disagreed.  By keeping the troops there he was tying down Soviet troops that could otherwise he used elsewhere.  The fact that about two million Soviet troops were currently heading towards his location didn't manage to disabuse him.  Still there was a grain of truth to his assumption.  The pocket was too big to ignore so while their colleagues headed towards the "lair of the fascist beast" those who drew the short straw found themselves attacking the Courland Pocket.

This is Scenario J157; Rage Against the Machine which pits a charmingly eclectic group of Germans against onrushing Soviet hordes.  Dave Wilson and I played this one on Saturday and I got to take the Germans attempting to hang on to a largely worthless piece of ground for another five minutes while Dave's Soviets battered at the gates.  The Soviets have to take two of three objectives, a bridge in the south, a building in the centre and a crossroads in the north.  They have an awesome array of firepower to do the job.  Sixteen squads (including six elite), demolition charges, a heavy machine gun, a 9-1 leader plus a few light machine guns and a couple of lesser leaders to make up the numbers.  In close support they have eight terrifying AFVs.  Three T34/85 tanks (fast, well armoured, awesome gun) and five ISU self propelled guns carrying weaponry ranging from 122mm to 152mm in calibre (think of a heavily armoured barn set on tracks).  To defend I got eleven squads of various enthusiasm from elite (ready to die for folk, fuhrer and fatherland), through first line (weary and disillusioned but willing to do their best), second line (looking nervously for the exits) and conscripts (wishing they'd joined the Salvation Army instead).  To back up this all too scanty force was a medium machine gun, a couple of light machine guns, a single 75mm anti tank gun and a panzerschreck (basically a more difficult to pronounce bazooka).  In addition each of my three officers was toting a panzerfaust capable of reducing the most formidable piece of armour to scrap metal with a single shot (which is good because a single shot is all they get).  On turn three reinforcements in the form of a pair of jagdpanthers, a single StuG and a trio of elite squads with an lmg turn up to bolster what will by then no doubt be a frail defence.

So, to design my defence.  The problem was the Soviets had the firepower to smash through pretty much anywhere.  I designed my defence around the concept of delay rather than halt.  A road ran just north of the river to the desired bridge and another road in the north lead directly into the village and the crossroads.  Between these two roads was a mess of forest, orchards, brush, hedges, buildings and the occasional pond until one struck the village itself.  Two small hills, one in the north and the other in the south overlooked their respective roads.  I set up a front line of expendable units, dummy stacks and conscripts with the occasional second line or first line squad as a stiffener.  I trailed units back along the north road in convenient buildings and patches of forest.  Like an idiot I neglected to set anything up on the north hill itself and completely neglected the tiny (but completely open) passage between the north hill and the board edge.  My pseudo defence stretched across the middle of the board but ended temptingly short of the southern river bank.  Partly this was due to a lack of troops but mainly it was because it seemed obvious to me that a hidden schreck unit must be in the trees near the bridge and the AT gun was probably based in a handy patch of woods where it could cover the road approach.  In short I didn't really expect him to try to hard for this one and felt I could deal with him if he did (wrong).  Another squad with an officer was hidden in the small woods behind the northern hill hoping to take out a tank or two should they break through.

Dave's set up wrong footed a goodly portion of my defence as he place almost everything in the north leaving a modest diversionary force to attack through the centre.  All eight of his AFVs were as far away from my AT gun as it was possible to be and remain on the board.  While I was composing my concession speech Dave moved his forces forward.  The bulk of his infantry shuffled circumspectly forward, positioning themselves to crush my frail defences on turn two.  One of his T34s charged into the forest attempting to blaze a path for his comrades.  Instead he bogged.  In turn two he mired.  In turn three he immobilised.  The crew then hopped out and panted after the infantry now some way ahead, keep an eye on those bastards we'll meet them again.  In the centre he probed my defences and inched forward while I decided for the most part that concealment was the better part of valour

In the north another of his tanks dropped a smoke shell into building H6 effectively blinding the hapless conscripts within.  A couple of squads started exchanging fire with a couple of other defenders while the bulk of his force pushed toward the hill, armour lurking modestly behind.  At this point I realised with mounting horror that I had no defences on the hill and Dave could swarm over (and behind) it with impunity.  At the last moment I advanced a concealed squad onto the hilltop just before half the population of Moscow turned up.  I knew that guy was dead before I sent him in and so it proved but before he went down (with a 122mm round to the head I believe) he managed to break four squads and impose a small delay on Dave's main force.  Your iron crosses are in the mail guys.

Eventually Dave swarmed over and around the hill and drove a tank around to bolster his troops whereupon I promptly destroyed it with a panzerfaust from my officer hidden in the woods and committed a grievous rules violation in doing so (I am writing this mea culpa at Dave's insistence).  You remember that the officer was hidden with a squad.  I had revealed the squad earlier to fire at a juicy target moving in the open (and failed completely of course) but return fire had broken the squad.  Since the officer was in the same hex (albeit still hidden) it too should have suffered the attack but I completely forgot to check.  It was possible therefore that Dave's tank was destroyed by an officer who should already have been dead.  We discovered this a turn later when it was too late to do anything about it so we settled for removing the offending officer from play.

Meanwhile in the south Dave had sent a pair of ISUs to support his attack which was working its way through my defences.  With the route apparently clear the metal behemoths rumbled down the road straight into the line of sight of my AT gun.  My gun promptly killed one of them (they're so big its difficult not to hit them) and startled the other.  The rest of his diversionary force was engaged dealing with the remnants of my defence but at that point my idiotic gun crew broke their weapon and Dave felt free to move (they repaired the gun the next turn whereupon one of his squads promptly broke the crew instead).

Feeling unjustifiably confident about the ability of the southern flank to hold I brought my reinforcements on in the north.  The two jagdpanthers went into the village to bolster the defenders struggling with the Soviet attack while the StuG parked itself behind a wall and tried to look menacing (its armour could be penetrated with a can opener so I was trying to keep it out of harms way).  Two of the reinforcing squads went into the village and one with a lmg and leader moved into building 3aK3 which was one of two that had to be taken to command the crossroads.  As my StuG positioned itself one of his tanks (or SP guns I forget) took a low odds shot at it which missed and my StuG returned the favour with the same result but in the next turn it put a round straight through the frontal armour for another kill.  The tank crew from the immobilised vehicle had caught up with the main force now and started its own little flanking movement around the StuG to the north.  Disdaining to fire on such a weakling the StuG targeted a more worthwhile enemy and promptly broke its gun.

Time was now running out and to get things moving Dave drove one of his tanks straight into a building where a melee was raging, right next to a jagdpanther.  He failed to kill my squad (his squad succeeded in doing that all by themselves) but the next turn the jagdpanther reduced his tank to scrap.  Another ISU broke into the village only to be nailed by a panzerfaust from an officer hiding in a building (kids, do not fire a panzerfaust inside a building, the backblast will kill you).  Somehow my officer survived but the ISU didn't.  Despite the armour losses Dave was crawling ever closer to the crossroads.  Down in the south a squad, the crew from the mangled ISU and its surviving comrade rolled towards the bridge.  The hidden half squad with the schreck took out the ISU but the squad and crew waltzed past while it was doing so and suddenly Dave had the bridge and I had no troops that could get there in time to recapture it.

Feeling the centre building to be safe (correct for a change) I focused on trying to hold the crossroads.  I should have focused a little harder.  Dave bled and limped and I think he lost another tank (I'm pretty sure he ended the game with only one) but had managed to get a large force of infantry right next to the building occupied by my reinforcement squad with the machine gun.  I was left with a dilemma, drop concealment and hopefully shoot his best chance to pieces or stay concealed and make it that much harder for him to hit me.  I chose to shoot, completely botched it and watched my guys get reduced to red mist in the defensive fire.  Dave walked into the building on the last turn.

But wait,you cry, didn't you have to occupy two buildings to control the crossroads?  Well that damned tank crew sneaked right around behind my StuG and into the other one while I was looking at the huge masses of infantry to my front.  I realised the danger too late and missed my opportunity to eject them.  Victory to Dave on the last turn congratulations to him and thanks for not hitting me about the head with a dice cup for that panzerfaust cock up earlier on.