Monday, December 16, 2013

My Thesis is Based on a Floating Log

From time to time I get interested in the origins of food.  Not my food specifically you understand but food in general.  I know there are those out there who do wonder about the origins of their food specifically.  Is it ethically sourced?  Is it free range?  Does it come from a country with a history of using ground glass as a thickening agent?  Does it in fact bear even the slightest resemblance to what appears on the ingredients list?
I don't worry about any of that stuff.  I've pretty much subcontracted those concerns out to the relevant government and industry regulatory bodies partly because I'm lazy but mainly because it seems silly to have this government and not make use of it.  It isn't a perfect system by any means as those folk in Britain who wound up eating Romanian horsemeat will tell you but on the plus side I've so far gone forty four years without fatal food poisoning.

No when I say "origin of food" I mean in the more general "how the hell did we wind up eating this stuff in the first place" context.  What caveman walking along the beach spotted a lump of rotting fish hurled up by the tide and thought "you know, if that were wetter and slimier I'll bet it would be delicious".  Did the caveman make the connection between the dead fish on the beach and the possibility of fresher versions in the nearby water immediately?  Or was there a long hungry period of hunting for fish herds in the nearby forest before the penny finally dropped?

As our enlightened (and by now, no doubt, starving) caveman shoved a convenient log into the water and paddled eagerly to where the fish herds grazed did he realise the momentous step he was taking?  Could he, in some way, grasp that he was commencing a journey that would culminate in ocean liners and endless reruns of Deadliest Catch?  Well of course he didn't.  He was focusing his attention on hitting fish with a club and trying to avoid being the person to discover drowning.

The concept of human development as a seamless, ongoing process is largely rubbish.  Mostly it has been a cobbling together of bits of accidentally acquired insights with some adhoc guessing and the occasional bright idea.  Human development only gains coherence in hindsight when we're trying to explain it to our kids in some way that doesn't make our ancestors look completely like highly fortunate idiots.  Its only in the last century or so that we've reached the point where extrapolating where scientific discoveries are likely to take us has become the province of people other than science fiction writers (who haven't been around much longer themselves).  Up until that point we were just making things up as we went along.  This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, most of human effort even today falls into the same category.  The fact that a small group of highly intelligent people can now start to make some (moderately) educated guesses as to what the future may hold is entirely due to the messy patchwork of achievements we've attained so far without their help.  In order to see the future you need something a little more reliable than a floating log to stand on.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Another Silly After Action Report

On the 10th of July 1943 the Allied armies launched their invasion of Sicily.  This came as quite a surprise to the Germans who were expecting them to attack Sardinia instead.  Fortunately for the Axis the Italians were somewhat less gullible than their German counterparts.  Italian high command had tagged Sicily as the next target from the moment the fighting in North Africa was over and had laid their plans well.  The moment word of the invasion came in General Alfredo Guzzoni commander of the Italian 6th army in Sicily hit the button and the Italian military leapt into action.  In relentless streams they poured forward utterly, almost fanatically, determined to surrender en masse.

The invaders were almost overwhelmed by the surging tide of Italian soldiers desperately trying to give themselves up to anyone who looked as though they might accept them.  If you think advancing against an army trying to kill you is difficult try advancing when most of your logistical tail is tied up attempting to feed and house that same army.  Here and there however isolated Italian units didn't get the memo.  The village of Modica was headquarters of the 206th Coastal Defence division, a wretched collection of overage, overweight, undertrained easybeats led by men that even the Italian high command wouldn't risk sending to either Russia or North Africa.

As the 1st Canadian division approached Modica however the men of the 206th laid mines, strung wire, dug foxholes and fortified buildings.  Seeing that their men were apparently going to resist their officers dialled in some armoured and anti tank support from a couple of nearby units that hadn't got around to surrendering yet.

This is Scenario FrF29; Sting of the Italian Hornet.  My opponent Jeremy Dibben took command of a force of high quality Canadian infantry with armoured and artillery support.  For my part I gathered under my wing some of the most dubious troops in the Italian army.  To win Jeremy's Canadians had to take at least nine stone buildings within the village including two small factories.  To achieve this goal he had a dozen elite infantry squads, a pair of 51mm mortars, four officers (including a 9-1) and armoured support in the form of three Sherman tanks and a pair of Stuart recce tanks with high speed but only machine gun armament.  A radio gave the promise of artillery support in the form of an 80mm battery capable of firing HE and smoke.

My stalwart defenders were a mixed bunch; I had four elite squads (which would rate as average in any other army) and seven first line squads.  Two officers (including another 9-1) commanded and numbers were bolstered by that rarest of birds the Italian hero.  This force was equipped with a small mortar, an anti tank rifle, a demolition charge and a few machine guns.  The real teeth of the Italian defences were to be found in the fortifications (12 factors of land mines, a pair of fortified building locations, a couple of wire counters and a trio of foxholes) and their guns.  Two 75 mm artillery pieces, a pair of self propelled guns mounting a 47mm piece already proved to be inadequate in North Africa and, gleaming like a jewel amongst the rusting hulks, one of the more impressive products of Italy's highly dubious military industrial complex; the Semovente M41M 90/53 which mounted Italy's superb 90mm anti aircraft gun on a tank chassis and pressed it into service as self propelled artillery and adhoc tank killer.  Three more squads and an old ex French Hotchkiss tank would make their appearance in turn four as reinforcements.

My plan revolved around two solidly defended zones with a fair amount of delaying material in between.  The first of the factories Jeremy had to take was practically on the front line and couldn't be expected to hold on for long.  I placed a squad and a half of expendables in there with an lmg just so Jeremy did have to actually attack it.  The rear factory I fortified and put one of the 75s in there covering the road.  The forest to the south of the factory was guarded by a dummy stack a minefield and one of the SMV 47s.  I stretched wire across the road leading to the factory.  A squad with the atr held an outlying building just before the factory and a squad, a leader and a lmg went into the factory to support the gun.

The other 75mm went into the brush just north west of the forward factory hoping to back a tank or two on a flanking mission.  The gun was covered by a squad in a stone building just behind it.  Behind that was the second of my two defence zones; a cluster of three buildings with a decent amount of open or nearly open ground around them.  Three elite squads, the 9-1 and mmg went into these while the SMV 90 (with the other 47 designated as ammo carrier) lurked among orchard hexes nearby.  The only wooded approach to the buildings I strung with wire and placed another six factors of minefields in an adjacent open hex.  The reinforcements would move up and secure the rear buildings.

Jeremy lined his troops up across the width of the board and struck strongly in two directions.  An all infantry force headed north, obviously eyeing the first factory while the remainder of the infantry with the bulk of his armour moved south.  As I saw that force approach I nervously realised that the only thing in a place to stop it was my single SMV 47 and I trembled for my flank.  Fortunately things turned out differently.  Jeremy's artillery could not be called on until the Italians had opened fire but as he moved troops into the open I couldn't maintain fire discipline and took what should have been a couple of good shots.  Sadly they only resulted in pins and Jeremy's artillery was in the game.

With part of my forward factory force (forgive the alliteration) revealed Jeremy swung his northern troops towards it and eased a tank in that direction as well.  My throwaway troops fought like heroes and it was three whole turns (in a six and a half turn game) before Jeremy could call the factory his own.  Along the way my sniper put a bullet in the head of his best officer and two and a half squads were broken assaulting the factory.  A good start but better was coming, aggressively pushing his tanks forward Jeremy ran one of his Stuarts into the line of site of the 75 in the second factory.  The opportunity was there and my gunners didn't miss.  Then a Sherman working its way around the forward factory presented itself two hexes away from the other 75.  The odds were low, Sherman frontal armour can pretty much laugh at an Italian 75 but a HEAT round and a ridiculously low to kill roll and suddenly a Sherman was destroyed as well.  Immediately afterwards the same gun broke while attempting an intensive fire shot on the infantry accompanying the tank.

The two tank kills took some of the steam out of Jeremy's attack and dreadful luck with his artillery didn't help either.  A red chit was followed by a loss of battery access and it wasn't until turn four that he managed to get a functioning fire mission.  I had broken my antitank rifle in an ill advised attempt to shoot infantry and his southern force moved slowly towards the other factory.  Most attention was in the north and with the factory in his hands I revealed my SMV 90 to take a shot at a gathering of troops.  If it wasn't for the ammo vehicle I would have broken the thing and suffered low ammo.  As it was it attracted just enough attention for Jeremy to place his first artillery concentration around it.  He was actually aiming for the ammo vehicle but fortunately the concentration drifted just far enough to avoid it.  The artillery had no effect but I wasn't crazy about hanging around in that neighbourhood.

To the south my SMV 47 had been trading mutually ineffective shots with one of his mortars, something that suited both of them as it kept them out of the game.  He moved a squad through the woods and into my landmines for a satisfying bang but little in the way of casualties.  My slow moving renault lumbered forward and took up a position next to the northern building structure as either extra support or an expendable target (depending on your viewpoint).

Now past the factory and with time starting to get short Jeremy advanced into CC with a couple of my stay behind squads losing a squad and a half to my half squad which seemed a good trade off to me.  After their early casualties his tanks were being very discreet indeed.

This was the scene at the beginning of turn five when we decided to call it a day (the cleaners were threatening to throw us out with the rest of the rubbish).  With both my main positions intact and time running out I decided that I had won, something Jeremy took with patience, humour and barely a raised eyebrow.  In actual fact it was too early to tell but I was feeling reasonably confident despite the fact that Jeremy's artillery had finally put in an appearance.  We might have got further through the game if I hadn't insisted on a scenario which seemed to demand that we spend about twenty minutes looking up esoteric rules for every move we made.