Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Another New Year is Coming

Tattered and bleeding the old year limps towards its inevitable doom.  As the last few gasping breaths rattle from the old year's throat and I start feeling about in my pockets for change for the ferryman the new year is getting ready.  It's trainers are rubbing down their charging, lacing up its gloves and whispering last minute words of advice and encouragement into its ear.
"You've got this kid," they rasp.  "You're young, you're hungry, you've got the skills.  When you're done no one will even remember 2014."

It's got to be admitted that 2014 was a rather forgettable year.  That is it was a year full of things we'd rather forget.  Airliners showed a remarkable inability to stay in the sky, Russia showed a remarkable inability to stay within its borders and the United States and its allies showed a remarkable inability to realise that you don't win wars with airpower alone.  On the positive side of things I wasn't personally involved in any of the above so I suppose from my perspective things could have been worse.

We celebrate the new year as a time of renewal.  At least I assume that's why we do it.  I can't think of any other reason to pick a particular date and say, "right, this is the reset button.  Now we start again.  We can put all of our worries behind us."  To my way of thinking putting your worries behind you simply means that you can't keep an eye on them any more which isn't likely to be particularly helpful in the long run.

The other thing that I don't quite understand is the idea of the new year as a form of renewal.  Granted, it is simply an arbitrary point that we can measure our calendar from but the whole point of measuring time is to help us work out how much of it we have left.  Essentially a new year is an age marker.  With each new year we are unconsciously acknowledging that everything; you, me, western civilisation and the universe in general is officially a little closer to death.  Each new year brings us closer the point when we won't have any left at all.  And for some reason this prompts us to set off fireworks.  Some might say it is a magnificent denial of mortality but I think it's more likely to be that people do not think particularly clearly.

But for all that there is no point raging against the dying of the light.  The light will die anyway and ultimately there will be no one left to care.  So why not have a party?  It isn't as though you're going to be able to do it after you're dead.  We could wait for a genuine reason to have a party rather than simply labelling a date as significant for no particular reason but if we wait for a genuine reason that might never come either.  So on balance I think I'm in favour of new years celebrations.  There are fireworks and people running around and generally having a good time.  Either that or its an airstrike.  With the exception of the good time part it would be a little difficult to tell the difference.

So, on that basis I wish everybody a happy new year.  Now, I'm going to bed.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Birthday Greetings #46

Happy birthday to Titus, Roman Emperor.  Titus was the elder son of the emperor Vespasian who emerged on top of the somewhat chaotic series of insurrections and revolts that became known as the Year of the Four Emperors.  Vespasian was the last of the four and the only one with shelf life.  It has been suggested that one of the reasons Vespasian was popular enough not to get killed was that he had a couple of adult sons who could take over after he was gone thus providing a certain level of stability to regime change in the empire.

There is a suggestion that Titus toyed with the idea of bringing on that regime change a little earlier than his father might have expected but in the end he was (or appeared to be) his father's loyal deputy.  Titus had been close to the centres of power for a while.  Titus was actually dining with Britannicus, the son of the emperor Claudius, when he (Britannicus) was poisoned.  Despite this brush with political reality he followed in his fathers footsteps with a civil and military career (the Romans didn't really distinguish between the two) and also practiced as a lawyer for a while. 

Vespasian was in Judea dealing with the Jewish revolt when Nero committed suicide and would be emperors started crawling out of the woodwork.  When Vespasian put his name forward for the top job Titus did a lot of the diplomatic work to persuade neighbouring governors to support him and when Vespasian travelled to Rome he left the Jewish revoltto be dealt with by Titus.

Titus crushed the Jewish revolt with spectacular brutality culminating in the destruction of the Jewish temple of Jerusalem and the hideous death of thousands of Jews (although to be fair the Jews also caused the hideous death of thousands of Jews in various fits of internal bickering).  After which Titus returned to Rome to join his father in a triumph pausing only to pick up a beautiful Jewish princess named Berenice along the way.  This caused him some difficulty as the last beautiful member of middle eastern royalty that the Romans had experience of was Cleopatra and they were definitely not going to go down that path again.  Eventually Titus had to get rid of her.

In Rome Vespasian placed the security of the city (and command of the Praetorian Guard) in Titus's hands.  Titus proved to be a ruthless commander not overly concerned with legal niceties before torturing or beating people to death.  He served essentially as Vespasian's hatchet man taking care of the dirty, messy parts of imperial rule while Vespasian managed to look magisterially above such things.

His role as imperial enforcer, combined with his dalliance with Berenice and his association with the least pleasant parts of his father's reign (taxes, policing, internal security) meant that when Vespasian died he was possibly one of the least popular people to rise to an imperial throne.  The senate was also annoyed as he'd killed a couple of them and nobody asked them if they minded if he took the job.

Once in charge he underwent what appears to be a complete personality transplant.  Most emperors started out popular and wound up hated.  Titus did it the other way round.  What's more he managed to do it in two short years and despite the fact that his reign was marked by disasters.

Vesuvius erupted during his reign burying Pompeii and Herculaneum (nobody ever seems to remember Herculaneum), a massive fire broke out in Rome and the region was also hit with a bout of plague.  Titus laboured tirelessly to bring aid to those affected by the disasters (although one suspects that after the first shock he didn't have to do much for the people of Pompeii or Herculaneum) and set standards for mild yet efficient rule.  He abolished treason trials, cut down on the number of informers and when a possible conspiracy was uncovered he took the unusual step of completely ignoring it.  In addition to this he completed the Flavian amphitheatre started by his father (we call it the Colosseum) which provided an immeasurable boost to modern Italy's tourism and post card industries.

By the time the new amphitheatre had been officially opened with a series of games it was obvious that Titus was ill.  He died at the family home after a little over two years as emperor.  Illness was the official excuse although there was a dark rumour that his younger brother Domitian poisoned him.  This could be just projecting Domitian's subsequent behaviour back in time to account for the death of a beloved emperor at the age of just forty one.  And despite his earlier reputation and behaviour Titus was loved and seems to have earned it by his behaviour as emperor.  Although I'm prepared to bet that no one was taking opinion polls in Judea.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dear God, Not Another Silly After Action Report

In June 1941 Nazi Germany dropped in on the Soviet Union for a surprise visit.  Being polite the Germans brought everything they thought they'd need; tanks, guns, stukas so that the Soviets wouldn't have to go to any trouble.  Despite these efforts the results were pretty much what you would expect when one murderous totalitarian regime visits another.  A couple of ill chosen comments about the parlour decorations and it was on.

A month later and the town of Shklov was front and centre for the onrushing Nazi juggernaut.  However Shklov proved to be a tough nut to crack.  It was defended by Red Army officer cadets colloquially known as "Stalin's Scholars" (because "future purge victims" doesn't roll off the tongue as easily in Russian).  After a couple of failed attempts the Germans told their regular infantry to take five and dialled in some crack troops from the Grossdeutschland regiment.  This is ASL Scenario T4; Shklovs Labors Lost which also gives you an impression of exactly what counts as a sense of humour amongst ASL players.

This was my first online game playing VASL and I've got to admit I'm a fan.  My opponent, Ivan Kent, took the defending Russians while I took command of the Grossdeutschland attackers.  My assault force consisted of a pair of early model StuG self propelled guns, nine elite squads of infantry, a pair of medium machine guns, four light machine guns and three highly skilled officers including a mighty 10-3.  To hold me off Ivan had seven elite squads of his own, a first line half squad for some reason, a heavy machine gun, medium machine gun, light machine gun and an antitank rifle.  Leadership was provided by a well indoctrinated 10-0 commissar and, to take the blame if it all went wrong, his own 10-3 officer.  That's a 10-3 leader each, surely such formidable figures would take a prominent part in the action (answer; "No!")

Our troops set up virtually on top of each other.  I had to capture five stone buildings, Ivan would win if he could keep a single one of them.  Ivan set his troops up with delaying forces in the forward buildings and flanks while keeping a reserve of squads plus both leaders and the hmg in what he obviously intended to be his last stand location.  My plan, such as it was, was to deal with the defence in bites.  Flanking units would try and sidle to the sides (ugly alliteration I know) while my main firepower hit his forward defences.  The StuGs would try and help things along by plastering likely locations with smoke.  Below is the map of our set up.

As  you can see I have a huge death stack (two squads, both mmgs, 10-3) preparing to punish whatever it can see (not much) while other forces lurk nearby to rush building N5 when its safe to do so.  Smaller forces of a couple of squads each with a few lmgs are assigned to the flanks.  The StuG to the north is positioned to make smoke immediately while the southern one is detailed to roll nervously forward to position itself to smoke out the rear buildings next turn.

The game started with a bang.  Specifically the bang of my northern StuG commander hitting his gunner over the head when the man admits that he's left his smoke rounds in his other tank.  So, no smoke in the north.  The StuG did its best with high explosive but solid stone walls prevented any harm.  Fortunately my kill stack wreaked great execution, smashing his lmg position and clearing the road (as long as I kept away from the mmg).  Making use of smoke grenades my assault forces inched out into the road in one of the most circumspect advances in history.  To the north my flankers edged carefully forward, nosing towards his flank guards.  In the south my guys simply charged forward.  Ivan's defending squad broke their commander and pinned a half squad but a squad survived to plunge into close combat.  Defensive fire in the north broke one of my assault squads but the remainder tiptoed into the building and tried to look like wainscoting.

With his forward defenses threatened Ivan tried to take out some of my guys in his turn without result but my return fire took down the other squad he had in the building.  Meanwhile the close combat in the south raged on.  Ivan had lost a half squad in my first attack but evened it up in his own close combat phase so two halfsquads were now locked in melee.  His mmg pinned one of my halfsquads but then broke which was a relief.

With the forward building in hand I spent a turn moving my erstwhile kill stack forward and rolling my northern StuG round to hit the north of his rear defence building.  For some reason known only to myself my southern StuG attempted to take out the mmg unit with high explosive rather than shrouding it in smoke or firing on the large (and obviously hmg heavy) stack right in front of it.  Ivan in his turn slaughtered my guys in close combat in the south leaving us with a half squad each in the building since my other half squad went off on an ill advised and, as it turned out, abortive flanking move on the mmg unit.  Trying to take out one of my flankers in the north merely exposed his own flank protection unit and I cheerfully smashed it.

Turn 3 started with another bang followed by a sharp crack.  Specifically it was the bang of my smokeless StuG trying another HE shot at defenders in a stone building, this time it worked with a roll of four and his concealment was stripped with ROF promising good things for my second shot.  The sharp crack was a reminder that four was Ivan's sniper number.  A single shot rang out and my 10-3 went down in a heap.  No decent little hole through the head for him, rather it was a dreadful sucking chest wound that left him to drown in his own blood.  The soldiers with him gave inexpressive Teutonic shrugs, muttered the German equivalent of c'est la guerre and moved on.  The southern StuG having regained sanity dropped a smoke shell (yes I got one) on his hmg position while the surviving bits in the southern building advanced once again into close combat with his atr toting halfsquad; who promptly ambushed them, withdrew from melee and positioned themselves perfectly to shoot my southern StuG in the rear with the atr the next turn.

This he achieved with a critical hit which had shreds of armour plate (and armour crew) flying in all directions.  He then moved the halfsquad under the wreck presumably in an attempt to reinforce his beleaguered comrades.  This was unwise as outside the protection of stone walls I finally managed to kill him.  Ivan repaired his mmg but spoiled the effect by breaking it again almost immediately.  Meanwhile I had taken advantage of my northern StuG's battering of his position to ease some squads into his rear building.  Suddenly Ivan was reduced to three units, a squad and commissar (hiding under a concealment counter), the 10-3 with a squad and hmg plus a squad manning a now broken mmg to the south.  The hmg squad seemed to be a little out of position so I focused on killing the commissar squad through the simple expedient of pouring so many bodies into close combat that it couldn't help but die although it didn't do it immediately causing me more than a little sweat.  Meanwhile other forces headed south towards the hmg squad, who promptly broke one of them to remind me that I should really check lines of sight before moving in front of an hmg squad commanded by a 10-3 leader.

Still, I could see the writing on the wall.  Taking a deep breath I plunged into the smoke.  With stone walls and the smoke I figured I stood at least a chance of surviving even pointblank shots and I would be well positioned to advance into close combat if I survived.  Ivan gave me a 20+2 shot as I came in, I survived.  The melee was still raging to the north but I had the endgame in sight now.  I poured pointblank fire into his hmg hex, breaking and wounding his leader and breaking the squad.  Sending my surviving StuG south to the mmg position I sleazed him in place and poured troops south.  Finally killing his forces in the north I got 2-1 odds against his mmg position in the south and wiped them out as well.  Which left Ivan with nothing but his broken, wounded 10-3 leader.  The 10-0 commissar had died in close combat like a man, entrenching tool in hand and a prayer to Stalin on his lips.  The army officer finished the game curled up weeping in a pool of his own urine begging not to be killed.  Obviously the Red Army needs a little more political instruction.

So victory to me and much thanks to Ivan for his guidance over the vagaries of VASL and his good natured patience as I misdirected stacks, dropped support weapons and continually forgot that he couldn't actually see the unit I was pointing at with my finger.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tumbleweeds, Lost Souls and a New Wall Unit

I am the proud owner of a new set of bookshelves.  Indeed, its actually an entire wall unit which I have acquired courtesy of the generosity of my family and the skill of my father who built it.  For the first time in living memory I have more bookshelf space than I have books.  I also have pretty solid evidence that I am never moving for the rest of my life as you would have to demolish my apartment to get the furniture out.

Yet as I gaze fondly at my new wall unit I find myself a trifle vexed.  Don't misunderstand me, I am delighted with my wall unit.  Words can't express how pleased I am with it. PLEASED PLEASED PLEASED!!!  But still I am vexed.   As I look around at the bookshelves which dot my apartment I see yawing gaps where books should be.  This offends my sense of order.  It will come as a great surprise to many (quite possibly to every) that I possess a sense of order.  Permit me to clarify; I have a highly specific sense of order.

Within the ocean of chaos that is my apartment small pockets of near maniacal order float like icebergs to doom the unwary.  The unsuspecting guest, having dropped their coat on the dining table and settled down on the floor with a coffee cup of red wine is rather stunned to be ordered to replace the book they have been browsing in exactly the place they got it from rather than the shelf below.  This is despite the fact that they had to move a battered teddy bear and a half melted candle in order to access the book in the first place.

The gaps in my bookcases vex me and there are only so many stuffed animals and melted candles I can use to cover them up.  Like missing teeth in a cheery smile they haunt me and remind me that something isn't right.  I must buy more books.  These dark patches must be filled and my apartment returned to a more pleasing equilibrium.  It will be difficult, has taken out a restraining order against me and, oh yes, I can't afford it.  Nevertheless it must be done.  Until I have filled up the space and restored balance to my universe I will not rest easy in my bed.  My eye will be forever drawn to those parts of the bookshelves that are unaccountably bare of books, I imagine small tumbleweeds blowing across the shelves (actually, that part is true.  Dusting is not part of my sense of order).  Like an abandoned city I can't help thinking of lost souls haunting the newly desolate shelves.

Worst of all I will feel obliged to apologise to every visitor who enters for the appearance of my bookshelves despite the fact that they are more likely to be disturbed by the sucking noise they hear when they try and walk on my carpet.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Birthday Greetings #45

Happy birthday to Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor.  Francis wasn't a Habsburg but he was Habsburg adjacent having married the daughter of the Habsburg emperor Charles VI.  Charles was a deeply mediocre emperor in many ways and perhaps his greatest error was his failure to produce sons.  In those male centric times the absence of an heir with a penis essentially ended your dynasty.  Fortunately for Charles his daughter Maria Theresia proved to be a highly capable ruler.  Fortunately for Maria Theresia her husband Francis didn't get in her way.

Francis was the heir to the Duchy of Lorraine which was technically part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Unfortunately for Francis it was specifically very close to France.  The ruling family of Lorraine had been loyal servants of the empire for years and Charles had long intended Francis to marry Maria Theresia but Francis had expected to come to the marriage with at least a duchy in hand.  Unfortunately Charles got into a quite ridiculous war over the succession to the Polish crown and as a result of this the Duchy of Lorraine was given to France (which still has it) and Francis was without a territory to rule.  Charles soothed him by making him Duke of Tuscany and making the marriage to Maria Theresia conditional on Francis signing away his rights to Lorraine.  With a start like that it surprising that the marriage was as successful as it was.

As husband to be to Charles' heir Francis was given a series of high ranking administrative and military jobs and managed to bungle all of them.  At this point Charles died and the absence of a male Habsburg made itself felt.  By ancient law the crown of the Holy Roman Empire could only go to a man and there were no male Habsburgs left.  Technically this shouldn't have mattered too much as the Habsburg's real power lay in the territories they ruled directly but without the lustre of the imperial crown about them and with a woman in charge (and possessed of a husband of proven incompetence) the great powers of Europe cheerfully invaded Habsburg territories looking to rip off bits for themselves.  The imperial crown itself fell to the Prince Elector of Bavaria (who was backed by France).

Maria Theresia proved herself equal to the challenge.  In a series of wars she managed to beat back the invaders (except Prussia who collared Silesia) and establish herself within her hereditary lands.  As for Francis?  Well he was there.  He had learned to let his wife do the heavy lifting and essentially acted as a kind of secretary for her, giving advice when needed (rarely) and support always.  With her position solidified, her prestige restored and the Bavarian emperor safely dead (nobody had really taken him seriously) Maria Theresia managed to strongarm the German electors into electing her husband as Holy Roman Emperor.  She didn't actually attend the coronation herself, aware that everyone looked on Francis as a mere cipher she stayed away so he could have one day in the sun by himself.

The cares of the empire sat pretty lightly on Francis' shoulders.  By this time the powers of the emperor were so truncated there wasn't that much for him to do.  He continued on acting as assistant and advisor to Maria Theresia.  They had sixteen children which is astonishing.  What is more astonishing is he was a serial adulterer as well.  It's a good thing he didn't have much to do as emperor because I doubt if he could have found the time.  It's also surprising he didn't die of dehydration.

When he did die it turned out that he had spent a lot of his spare time in business.  He left an absolute fortune to the Austrian treasury and people were a little startled to discover that through his discreet advice the empire was actually in the best financial position it had been in for centuries.  This is perhaps the greatest way he differed from his Habsburg in-laws.  None of them showed much skill with money except when it came to borrowing and spending it.  Whatever talent it was that he possessed it seemed highly specific as it doesn't seem to have been passed down to any of his heirs.

Technically after the death of Charles VI the Habsburg line was extinct and the dynasty that replaced it was that of Habsburg-Lorraine. Nobody really took that seriously even when Francis was alive.  Nowadays only pedantic genealogists even bother to try.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Therapeutic Chewing

I saw an ad the other day offering thirty three helpful tips to improve your mood.  One of these electronically delivered pearls of wisdom was the advice to chew gum.  Apparently the rhythmic action calms the nerves and promotes feelings of well being, as well as tooth decay and quite possibly cancer.  Everything gives you cancer nowadays, even the fermented unicorn semen I rub into my skin to preserve its youthful appearance comes with a discreet warning label.  Although I believe it is warning the unicorns.

Chewing gum as a therapeutic tool seems a little low tech but there is nothing like rotting teeth and a permanently aching jaw to take your mind off that pesky paranoid schizophrenia and let's face it, its probably better than lithium.  Never swallow something that explodes on contact with air.  Chewing gum is also something you can do on your own.  This is probably its most significant therapeutic value.  The principal problem with most forms of therapy is that they require the presence of a therapist.  There is nothing like having a total stranger avidly hanging on my every word to discourage me from opening up about my problems.

Another friendly piece of advice was to get some more sun.  There was some mention of vitamin D and its supposed benefits but it does seem that rotten teeth and melanomas are the price we will have to pay for a well balanced mental state.  I do have to admit that there does seem to be something in this.  Just the other day I was lying back, basking in the sun, manoeuvring chewing gum between my three remaining teeth and chatting idly to the voices in my head and I can't tell you when I've felt more relaxed.  At least until the police arrived and told me to get off the road, and put some clothes on.

So chewing gum and sunshine appear to be excellent therapeutic tools but for those of you who want something a little more permanent I have taken the liberty of compiling a brief collection of suggestions of my own which should help your overall well being without actually having to chew anything (except the carpets if you're so minded).

Firstly; talk to yourself, a lot, especially in public.  Despite my comment in the previous paragraph I don't actually hear voices.  This is because no matter how many voices I have in my head they can't get a word in edgeways.  Also if you talk to yourself you will find that people back away from you, avoid you in the street and generally leave you alone.  This is very important for your mental health because of all the things guaranteed to drive you insane, other people comes top of the list.

Secondly; be rich.  I can't stress how important this is.  There are very few instances of extremely wealthy people being insane.  Things that would be considered insane were the perpetrator poor become charming eccentricities if you have the capacity to buy a city with pocket change.  Perhaps the only genuine cases of rich people being mentally ill is when the alternative is being declared competent to stand trial.

Finally; if you are so genuinely, gobsmackingly insane that the simple act of walking out of your house is enough to cause people to scream and phone the authorities try and convey the impression that you're doing it deliberately.  Yes, people will be annoyed, even infuriated, but you will be amazed at how much people will put up with, albeit grudgingly, if they think you know what you're doing.  It helps if you get a job that allows you to get away with behaving like a loon.  Politics is good, religion is better but the best possible occupation to have is comedian.  Then your behaviour becomes an act and people will pay good money to watch your mental disintegration.  This incidentally is the only reason I can think of for why Russell Brand isn't locked up in a room with soft walls.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Aren't We Done With the Camping Yet? Part 3

It wouldn't be a proper camping trip without rain.  The rain arrived on cue the next morning after a hearty breakfast of berocca and fried things.  The sky was a wall of grey, the rain pelted down.  Glumly but with a sense of the intrinsic rightness of the situation we broke the camp in the pouring rain and packed away all of the tents to moulder damply in their bags.  We had a large number of umbrellas which did a sterling job of not keeping us dry as we pulled our makeshift settlement apart.

With everything packed away there was the option of standing in the rain or leaving, so we left.  We went back to reception for the worst cup of coffee I have ever drunk in my life.  The poor girl at the combined coffee, food, icecream, snack stand was besieged with customers so one of the other employees came to give her a hand.  Sadly this woman was obviously more at home dealing with horses and since she didn't know how to operate a coffee machine things slowed down even more as her overworked colleague attempted to give her a crash course in coffee making while also serving customers.  This worked out about as well as you might expect and I sat down to enjoy a cup of hot milk and water with coffee grounds floating in it.  For the only time in my life I took a two thirds full cup of coffee and threw it in the bin.

Now that we were wet, our things were wet, the children were irritated and we were committed to leaving the sky cleared up and it turned into a beautiful day.  Putting a brave face on things we posed for a group photograph which will probably become a crucial piece of evidence in any future trial.  Everyone looks happy except me.  I look slightly depraved and definitely untrustworthy.  They say the camera never lies but does it have to be quite so obvious?

This was the farewell as we were going our separate ways.  Natali was going to a retreat for her South East Asian studies group.  They were discussing coal seam gas although whether they were discussing how to find it, extract it or market it I didn't discover.  Idette took her children and a lot of soggy camping equipment back to her place which left Jason with the pleasant task of driving Tony, Jasmyn and me home.  Tony and Jasmyn were easy enough but driving me home turned out to be a little problematic as half the streets in Sydney seemed to be closed for some reason or other.  At some point during these proceedings I pointed out that there was a light rail stop two minutes walk from Tony's house that I could have used to get home.  Jason was very kind and didn't hurl me from a moving vehicle.

I arrived home to discover that in my haste to leave on Friday I had inadvertently left my freezer door open with the result of which that the contents were on the point of crawling out and making a valiant bid for freedom.  I rounded up the runaways, threw everything in the bin and went out for coffee.  Just to emphasise the point I bought a bag of coffee to take home with me.

I would like to stress to Natali that we did not stop at KFC (or any other similarly inappropriate fast food joint) for lunch on the way home but the very mention of it was sufficient to trigger something in my mind so I went there for dinner instead.  I had very little choice, all the food that was in my house was currently banging on the inside of a garbage bin demanding to be released.  I think we're going to Treachery for our next camping trip although whether they're mad enough to invite me again is very much open for debate.  If they do invite me I should at least try and remember that I own an air mattress.

Camping, Optimism, Experience Etc Etc Part 2

The next day dawned grey and cool with a promise of rain.  It is a measure of the previous days heat that this actually seemed delightful.  Morning also saw the arrival of the final member of our little crew.  Tony works for one of those large financial institutions that you tend to only hear about when they accidentally sodomise the world's economy to death or are slapped over the wrist by a regulator for facilitating the last twenty years of terrorist financing.  Suffice it to say if his employer was a human being it would be locked up in an institution for the criminally insane.  It is also quite demanding on its employees which is why Tony flew from Perth to Sydney the previous night so that he could drive to Glenworth Valley on Saturday morning.

We greeted him with scorn.  The reason is simple.  We had asked him to "bring a couple of bottle of wine".  Now you or I on being given that instruction would know to load the car up with as much alcohol as humanely possible and then fill the baby bottles with mouthwash.  Tony brought precisely two bottles of wine.  This was barely enough to persuade the children to go to bed at a reasonable hour (four o'clock in the afternoon) and certainly not enough to keep five adults from murdering each other around the camp fire.  Still in the traditional human way we dealt with this problem by ignoring it until it was almost too late and blaming the person who had after all followed his instructions to the letter.

With Tony now attached we made our way to the horse pestering area where Natali and Idette were engaged in standing next to a stationary horse on which sat one of the children.  The horse was a special one chosen particularly to be ridden by humans that only came up to its knee and had never been on a horse before.  That is not only did it not rear, toss or gallop it didn't move much at all without a great deal of persuasion.  On the occasions that it did move it seemed to move only so that we could heave a sigh of exasperation when it stopped moving again after three steps.  This is called "having fun with the children".  I suspect the horse was having fun with the adults.

Having given the children a brief introduction to the equestrian lifestyle we wandered up to the combined, reception, cafe, souvenir stand, horse centre to grab a snack.  It was at this point that I realised I had actually been to Glenworth Valley before.  Specifically I had come horse riding here some years ago back when I had a life. Yes, believe it or not I too know what it is like to have a large muscular beast between my thighs, our sweat mingling together as we strain silently towards a mutually satisfactory conclusion.  I'm sorry, I seem to have lost track a little, all I meant to say was that despite the fact that my "experimental years" are behind me I thoroughly understand why Natali and Idette wanted to go horse riding.

Essentially they wanted to go horse riding because it meant that Jason, Tony and myself would have to look after the children for a couple of hours.  This we agreed to do.  In the event it wasn't too difficult.  Tony went to sleep (jetlag was his excuse) and Jason stared innocently into the middle distance so I took the children off to play.  Entertaining the children turned out to be reasonably easy,  basically I stood back and let them entertain themselves.  There was a dust covered little hummock that they took great delight in climbing to the top of and then either jumping off or sliding down.  My supervision was limited to pointing out the large jagged rock at the bottom and advising that they do their best to avoid it.  This they successfully did.  I returned with as many children as I set out with which is the principal requirement and so covered in dust that Jason took them down to the creek for his share of the childminding.  When they returned the dust had been skilfully replaced with mud.  In my defence I would point out that Jason is an actual parent whereas I was making it up as I went along (dust; rookie mistake, it brushes straight off).

The rest of the afternoon passed with little but the clap of unsuccessful attempts to kill flies to break the silence.  I managed to finish most of the biography of Augustus I brought with me while Jason failed to drown the children in the creek.  Finally, after dinner came the moment we had been dreading.  How were we going to share two bottles of wine between five people.  At this point the neighbouring campers came to our aid.  They pointed out that there was a bottle shop no more than fifteen minutes drive, well twenty minutes drive or half an hour max, from our current location.  I don't drive, Jason, Tony and Natali had enjoyed such wine as we possessed.  All eyes turned to Idette.  Nobly she rose to the challenge.  She and Natali would fetch wine she proclaimed if we would clean the children's teeth and get them ready for bed.  By this stage we would have agreed to surgically extract their teeth and polish them individually then put the kids into a medically induced coma if somebody was going to deliver wine at the end of it.

At some point we had fetched wood and Tony made an awesome fire but he got little credit because we still hadn't forgiven him for screwing up the wine situation so badly in the first place.  We lit it rather early which meant that by the time it got dark we were discussing whether we should fetch more wood.  Unfortunately it was dark but the fire survived longer than us.  We sat around the fire, drank wine, some of us smoked cigars (Tony & me) and we talked about the sort of things that friends can talk about when they're sober but they feel slightly awkward about doing so.  After which we went to bed.  I have it on the authority of everyone else that I snored.

Camping - The Triumph of Optimism Over Experience Part 1

One of the traditional definitions of insanity is to do the same thing again and expect a different result.  With that as an introduction let me tell you about my latest camping trip.  I have friends who enjoy camping, or at least they do it quite a bit so I presume they enjoy it.  Despite the fact that the last camping we went on together turned into a brutal death match between us, maniacal stingrays and kleptomaniac wallabies I was invited to join them.  Presumably because humour is a little thin on the ground at camping sites.

My friends had kindly provided me with a tent and an air mattress.  When the subject of the air mattress was raised it was pointed out to me that they had given me an air mattress the last time we had gone camping.  This is true they had.  It had been sitting in my closet ever since and I had spent a fair bit of time wondering what on earth it was and how I acquired it.  For some reason it never occurred to me to take it out and look at it so it stayed in my closet when I went camping.

I packed a bag, acquired a sleeping bag and purchased every organic sausage in the supermarket.  Thus prepared I set off in the stinking heat.  My first stop was Newtown where I purchased the aforementioned sausages and the last drinkable cup of coffee I would enjoy until Sunday afternoon.  Fully equipped for a life under canvas (or polyurethane) I travelled to Chatswood, the Penrith of the lower north shore.  In both Newtown and Chatswood I was able to admire the way the public spaces had been designed so that all of the seating was placed to ensure the users were untroubled by either shade or shelter from the rain.  I huddled in a stairwell to avoid the sun.

Chatswood doesn't have a railway station, dear me no.  Chatswood has a transport interchange.  This is a multimodal transport hub where buses, trains and cars coincide to provide a seamless commuter experience.  This hub is then squeezed into an area about two thirds of the size it needs to be to actually be useful, the end result is that the contents of arriving trains are vomited into what looks suspiciously like an alley undergoing construction work.  I suspect it was an alley undergoing construction work.

Some time later I met up with my friends and we headed off for Glenworth Valley, our destination for the weekend.  Glenworth Valley is an hours drive north of Sydney.  On a Friday afternoon it is an hours drive north of Sydney plus another hour sitting in traffic trying to drive north of Sydney.

How can I describe Glenworth Valley?  Imagine charming bushland, spreading trees, overgrown trails wending through the bush, open ground for camping and childrens soccer matches, a sparkling stream trickling through.  Then bury the lot ankle deep in horse shit.  This is Glenworth Valley where one can kayak, fish, camp, quadbike or ride horses.  There are a large number of horses on standby should you get the urge to ride.  It is here that we would set up our tents for our brief sylvan idyll.

Arriving at reception we stepped forth, screamed in pain and fled back into the car sucking our burnt bits.  Did I mention it was stinking hot?  Getting out of the car was like jumping into a furnace but there was nothing for it.  Now psychologically prepared we slunk out of the car and made our way to reception.  The atmosphere of Glenworth Valley hit us immediately.  Specifically it was the atmosphere of a very large number of horses in close proximity on a day where the temperature hit 40 degrees.  The atmosphere hit us, stabbed us, pummelled us.  You could have picked up bits of that atmosphere and beaten people to death with it.  Fortunately the camping area was somewhat removed from the horse store.

Since the weather was scorching and the earth very dry I politely asked if there was a total fire ban.  I was met with a blank look.  I explained what a total fire ban was with the assistance of some impromptu sketches and a small role playing exercise with the seven year old son of two of my friends.  The girl at reception's expression cleared and she nodded understanding.  "I don't know," was her answer but in an effort to be helpful she tried to find out.  Some ten minutes of phoning and wandering back and forth later and she presented us with the news that there wasn't a total fire ban but in light of the weather we should probably be careful lighting a fire.  Bolstered with this helpful advice we made our way to the camping spot.

Carefully selecting the choicest (and only) available spot we disgorged camping equipment.  Some time later another car carrying more friends arrived and disgorged more camping equipment.  There were seven of us in total; Jason and Idette and their children Jake and Abigail.  Also Natali and her daughter Jasmyn.  Plus me.  Coming tomorrow would be the final piece in our camping jigsaw Tony, Natali's husband.  In the meantime we erected tents and commented to each other on how hot it was.

Child minding was taken care of by a nine month old girl in the neighbouring camp who exercised a fascination on Jasmyn and a bunch of soccer playing boys who entertained Jake.  This left us with Abigail but she was quiet for the most part to the point where I can't actually remember if we took her with us when we left.  Presumably one of her parents was paying a little more attention.

As the sun went down and the evening cooled we opened a bottle or two of wine (seriously, we only brought two bottles) and chatted idly until it was time to go to bed all the while mounting a desperate (and ultimately unsuccessful) campaign against the flies that turned up every time we ate, or moved or breathed.  I also chased off a bush turkey that was engaged in pilfering the neighbours camp and was in the process of making off with one of the nine month old's cuddly toys.  The next day would be a horse laden thrillfest but for now we crawled into our little portable homes and went to sleep.

Monday, November 10, 2014

I Would Like to be Able to Sing or at Least Write a Decent Haiku

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
One of the great things about having writing as a hobby is that there have been so many brilliant writers in the past that it is very easy to rip off some of their genius if your own scanty reserves of talent and creativity fail you.  I can't write poetry to save my life but I can copy Coleridge with the best of them.  Another handy thing is that many brilliant writers are dead and can't object to their work being hijacked for a rather silly little blog.
For a long time I didn't really "get" poetry.  My attitude tended somewhat towards "If you have something to say then just say it for God's sake".  There was some attempt to introduce me to poetry at school.  At least I can think of no other reason for the occasion shred of Keats and Larkin that bounces around inside my head without any point of reference.  I certainly didn't seek them out.  Poetry has never had the hold on me that it has on many others, I think it's because the structure of the poem is as important as the words themselves.
I rather suspect you have to be in some way musical to have an appreciation of poetry and musical is something I am not.  I can't carry a tune in a bucket and even rhythm frequently escapes my notice.  There is music and songs I like but even with my favourites I am utterly incapable of seeing the words written on a page and translating them into music in my head.  The same applies to poetry.  If the words are good enough I will enjoy it but the author could have achieved the same result with a finely crafted paragraph.  Rendering the idea in the form of a poem doesn't do anything extra for me.
And I think the intention is that there should be something extra.  The crafting of the poem itself should add to the actual content to produce something more than simply the sum of its words.  At least I think it should, otherwise why not just write a paragraph.  Whatever this something extra is escapes me.  The only two poets I know are Keats and Larkin.  Keats is the one who died of tuberculosis, Larkin is the one who didn't.  From the extract above you might think I know Coleridge but in actual fact Kubla Khan is the only poem of his I know and I have H. Rider Haggard to thank for that.  He referenced "Alph the sacred river" in one of his books (I think it was Allan Quartermain) that I read as a child and I was sufficiently struck by the term to mention it to my mother who responded by quoting the first stanza of the poem which is the only one most people can remember anyway.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
I actually love this poem but again its the language (and the subject material) that appeal to me rather than the fact of its being poetry.  I am quite fond of haikus or at least the English approximation of same.  Partially this is because they're short but mainly its because they have very specific rules.  I would never claim to be able to write a good (or even adequate) haiku but I can more or less follow the rules.  For example;
opium dreaming
nurturing beauty with love
warlord takes his ease
That fulfills most of the requirements for an English language haiku and it might not be good but unlike Kubla Khan it is my very own.
I've always wanted to be able to sing, and I remember a friend of my parents attempting to teach the youthful me the rudiments of the piano and staring in disbelief when I couldn't really recognise one note from another.  It was all very well for her, she was musical.  So is my mother but that talent seems to have skipped a generation (along with her literary skill, talent at painting and my father's practical ability to do pretty much anything that requires straight lines, coherent planning and attention to detail).  I don't necessarily want to be able to sing professionally but it would be nice to give voice to my favourite songs without birds falling from the trees and mothers hurrying their infants indoors.  Possibly if I could sing I would also appreciate poetry a little more.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Newtown Festival

I wandered along to the Newtown Festival today.  I really don't know why, I've gone for the last few years and each time I wonder why I go.  I'm sure there isn't anything particularly wrong with the festival but there is only so much you can do when there are only four different places to shop at.  There are heaps of stalls but pretty much without exception they will be;

1) henna tattooing
2) jewellery made from bits of odds and ends
3) "tribal" clothing which indicates that every tribe on the planet spent most of their time tie dying pastel colours onto lengths of cheesecloth
4) T-shirts

That's pretty much it.  There were also food stalls, live music and the inevitable Chinese massage people.  OK, I liked the Chinese massage.  Not so much for the massage itself as for the skillful way they upsold me from a twenty dollar head and shoulders job to a fifty dollar full back massage.  I went up to one of the food stalls but they were charging $9 for a hot dog so I went away again.

The live music might be a drawcard for some but I must admit I have got past the stage of being prepared to sit in the sun and listen to strange music for several hours on the offchance that some of it is good.  Some of it probably will be good, almost certainly some of it will be bad and I could be sitting in the shade drinking coffee.  I used to pop along to the festival looking for Christmas presents for my family however I think I've exhausted their patience with homemade jewellery and amusingly captioned t-shirts (and I'm not game to try the henna tattooing or tribal clothing on them).  This year they had a jumping castle for the kids which certainly didn't smell as bad as the pony rides they had last year.  Obviously the organisers are trying to make it a family friendly affair.

Families certainly responded, there were families everywhere and everywhere there weren't families there were other people.  Walking along was an extended exercise in jostling.  I think the most frequent words out of my mouth were "Excuse me" which I needn't have bothered with as the person I was saying it to was invariably being jostled by somebody else by the time I got the words out.  Still that's the whole point behind a festival.  Getting a large number of people into close proximity all of whom are enjoying themselves sufficiently so that they don't feel the need to respond with violence.  On that count it must be counted a success.

Although I must confess I'm getting a little creeped out by the preparations.  The first time I went to the festival I just walked into the park.  Now they have erected a fence around the entire park and have security personnel checking your bags as you go in.  Considering the population density inside the fencing its starting to get a slight concentration camp feel about it, albeit one that provides henna tattooing.

And this is the real reason that I keep coming to the festival.  I'm waiting for the inevitable year when they have erected guard towers and searchlights as well.

For When Cheap and Shabby is More Than Enough

The Byzantine emperor Nikephoros Phokas (charmingly nicknamed "the White Death of the Saracens") used to sleep on the floor of his palace wrapped in a panther skin.  What the unfortunate panther might have wrapped itself in to keep out the cold history has failed to record.  The panther skin actually saved his life at one point.  A group of conspirators entered the imperial bedchamber intent on murder and were dumbfounded to see the emperor's bed unslept in.  Unfortunately a convenient servant pointed out the panther skin with a suspiciously emperor shaped lump in it and the conspirators hacked and bludgeoned him to death.  So when I say the panther skin saved his life I really mean it saved his life for about two and a half minutes after which he suffered a rather horrible death.

Still, two and a half minutes isn't nothing.  You can do a lot in two and a half minutes or at least you can if you don't waste all the time sleeping.  So if you're concerned that you might be murdered in your bed obviously a panther skin is the way to go.  It will at least give you time to sit up, rub your eyes and say "Who the hell are you?"  Which isn't much in the way of last words but certainly beats an oblivious snore.

With this in mind I journeyed to my local purveyor of ridiculously cheap stuff (I think it was a K-Mart but I might be lying) to purchase a sleeping bag.  I looked for panther skins but apparently you just can't get them any more, even panthers aren't finding it as easy as they used to.  There were some second hand ones but the attendants couldn't guarantee that they hadn't been ground zero for a horrible regicide so I stuck to sleeping bags.

Rugged outdoors people buy sleeping bags so they can hike to Everest base camp (hi Amanda) or invade Afghanistan.  I bought a sleeping bag because I want to take a train ride.  Getting out of hand as these ambitions usually do the train ride has now snowballed into hotel stays, foreign travel and a safari to see those animals that have not yet been made into imperial duvets.  Hence the need for a sleeping bag.  Somewhat closer to home (in both the physical and temporal senses) I also need it to go camping next weekend.

I find it difficult to believe that my friends invited me to go camping again after last time.  I find it almost impossible to believe I said yes.  Still, camping I am going and therefore a sleeping bag is required.  Since I only need the sleeping bag twice and on both occasions in a reasonably pleasant (not to say hot) climate minor details like quality, durability and insulation were rather less important than they might be to someone who, for example, cared in the slightest.  Fortunately for cheap and shabby goods I had come to the right place.

Having come to the right place I then had to navigate my way around it which proved to be somewhat more difficult than I thought.  The signs in the store were an absolute education.  They weren't actually very helpful but they were just helpful enough so that you didn't look around for staff to guide you.  Which was good because there weren't any.  I believe the purpose of the signs was to provide a veneer of helpfulness so you don't stomp out of the store in disgust but simultaneously force you to wander amongst various aisles where you might find something else you would like to purchase as well.  Honestly, has anyone gone to K-Mart and left with only the item they intended to buy?  I bought some socks and a pair of what I'm going to call pyjama pants despite the fact that in my experience pyjamas usually come with tops as well.

I needed new pyjamas (technically I still do) but the pyjama selection was not what I expected.  Apparently nobody who is a size smaller than "bloated hippopotamus" wears pyjamas nowadays.  I must admit I very rarely wear them to bed.  Pyjamas are what I wear around the house to symbolise that I don't intend to go out again that evening, or afternoon or occasionally, morning.  The socks just happened to be hanging on a hook I had to pass on my search for a sleeping bag.  But who doesn't need socks, right?

I eventually found the sleeping bags near the sports section.  I had only been in the store for an hour by that stage so I felt quite pleased with myself.  There was a selection (a better selection than there was for pyjamas anyway) and I could choose between those that would keep me snug in glacial conditions to those that wouldn't.  All at the bargain basement price of $15.  My friend Amanda who is going to Everest base camp paid $180 for her sleeping bag and it was on sale.  Mine was full price but shall we say that if I wanted to go to Everest I might be better off with a panther skin.  Also I could wrap myself in it and do yeti impersonations in the middle of the night.  At this point Amanda is probably pleased I'm going to Africa.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Another Silly After Action Report

In September 1943 the Italian government had ditched Mussolini and was attempting to extricate itself from World War 2 without warning the Germans while simultaneously trying to extract as much advantage for themselves as possible from the Allies for changing sides.  They brought to this endeavour all of the efficiency and professionalism which had been a hallmark of their involvement in the conflict to date.  Eventually the Allies tired of their prevarication and simply announced the Italian surrender to the world.  At which point the Italian government gave a high pitched squeal and fled for the hills.  Naturally they didn't bother to leave any instructions for their administration or army on what to do should their erstwhile German allies ask them to explain themselves.

Somewhat typically the Germans were better prepared for the Italian surrender than the Italians were and as soon as the word was announced German units in Italy moved to disarm the Italian army and occupy important points throughout the country.  Utterly confused and without any direction the Italian army for the most part accepted German demands for surrender and a good number of them simply went home.  One major exception was the city of Rome itself where the Germans didn't have any troops conveniently to hand.  The 2nd Paratroop division was based south of Rome and was ordered north to seize the Eternal City.  Standing (or at least, slouching) in its way was the 21st Grenadiers of Sardinia division.  Which is why on the 8th of September elements of the grenadiers chemical mortar battalion (strangely bereft of both chemicals and mortars) who were notionally guarding a fuel depot in the town of Mezzocamino southwest of Rome watched with polite interest as a large group of heavily armed, battle hungry fallschirmjager deployed in front of them in the gathering twilight.  This is ASL Scenario AP26; Flea Circus.  I shall command the Italians and Ivan Kent the vengeful Germans.

Note: I lost this one.  I didn't just lose it, I was crushed without mercy.  Outwitted, out manoeuvred and outfought.  For those for whom this is enough you can stop reading now.  Anybody who wants the entire tale of woe can continue.

The victory conditions were simple.  At the end of the game the Italians had to have an unbroken MMC in the fuel depot in the north of the town.  Thus the Germans had to seize the depot completely and stop any Italians sneaking back in.  For the record the fuel depot is the large building towards the bottom of the map above.  The Germans set up at the top of the board and have to make their way through, hopefully heroic, Italian resistance to the depot.  The Italians are hampered by the fact that they cannot fire on the Germans without passing a special pin check until a German unit has fired, made smoke or moved next to an Italian one. 

To take the depot Ivan had eleven squads of elite German paratroopers with a pair of light machine guns, a panzerschreck and a dismantled medium machine gun (which I don't think he even bothered assembling).  These troops have good firepower, high morale and assault fire bonuses which would crush me in close fighting.  To hold off the Germans I had one elite Italian squad, five normal squads plus a pair of light machine guns, a heavy machine gun and a 20mm anti aircraft gun.  I also had eighteen factors of mines which would prove very useful.  Halfway through the game I would get reinforcements in the form of two more elite squads, three bersaglieri squads and a pair of L6/40 light tanks if I could survive until then.

My plan was to set up the bulk of my force forward to cover Ivan's approaches and force him to move next to me thus freeing me up to open fire.  I also set up to cover the village in the hopes of making Ivan move through the open ground you see on the right.  My plan worked brilliantly, this is exactly what happened.  Unfortunately there was a certain "stopping the Germans" component which was implied and that didn't go so well.

I had a squad with a light machine gun in each of the large stone buildings in the village.  The rest of my scanty force was scattered across the board so that Ivan would find it difficult to move without becoming adjacent.  There was a gap I couldn't cover amongst the brush and orchards on the right so I placed a minefield in the area in the hopes of doing some damage.  The other two minefields I placed in trees near the fuel depot.  The anti aircraft gun I placed on the road next to the depot which was silly as I should have put it on the hill across the river.  A half squad with the heavy machine gun was placed in the rear covering the left hand road but conveniently placed to scuttle across to the fuel depot at need.  I also had a stack of dummies trying to look menacingly.

The first turn went quite well.  Ivan set up exclusively on the right as I had hoped and barrelled his troops towards the open ground.  He encountered my troops on the first turn to I was free to shoot.  He also sent a probing half squad straight into my minefield.  The ensuing morale check caused him to battle harden into fanatics, not so good.  However getting cocky with his newly increased morale he moved out of the minefield and the subsequent morale check promptly broke the half squad.  Towards the centre he moved some troops to deal with the rest of my forward line.

From the (somewhat blurry) picture above you can see my problem.  Ivan's troops are poised to pour through on my right while my guys are rather poorly placed to stop them.  Ivan essentially encircled and destroyed the troops in the north while the bulk of his force charged across the open ground  towards the fuel depot.  I did get in some shots.  I broke a squad and his best officer at one point but the flood went on.  I couldn't muster enough firepower to inflict any serious damage and the speed of his advance made it difficult for me to pull my troops in the village back to defend the depot which was part of my original plan.  By difficult I mean, impossible.  The picture below shows Ivan tying down my village troops while others skirt the riverbank to approach the depot.

The minefields proved to be my best defence breaking another squad as it attempted to flank on my left and causing Ivan some nervousness as he probed for the remaining field.

By turn three when my reinforcements arrived Ivan was massing in the woods to the right of the depot and I gasped in relief as my little tanks trundled forwards.  Sadly one of them promptly broke its main armament trying to shoot.  Still now I had some protection.  The infantry hopped into the gully and made its way towards the depot.  Alas to no avail.  A combination of good morale and relentless pressing meant that Ivan could shrug off most of my small firepower attacks and on those occasions when I did muster some decent firepower the results were unimpressive to say the least.  Conversely my few successes came from ridiculously low odds attacks.  Having weathered three consecutive shots from my AA gun Ivan then moved some troops through a one residual firepower in the woods and lost a squad.  Deciding to sacrifice my broken tank I trundled it right next to the half squad with the panzerschreck (Ivan disdained to shoot at such a helpless target) and fired the machine gun for a 1+1 attack into the woods which broke everything in the hex.  Ivan then attempted to fire his panzerschreck at my other tank from inside a building and promptly broke his own squad which then died for failure to rout.

Such faint gleams of hope couldn't conceal the fact that by turn four Ivan had swamped the factory (my heavy machinegun proving useless at keeping them out) and wiped out my remaining defenders while my reinforcing infantry were still trudging up the gully.  I had one final chance as I saw it.  It had five fresh squads and a tank adjacent to the depot.  I would freeze Ivan's troops in the nearest depot hex with the tank in bypass and then assault in.  Perhaps with luck at the end of the game I would still have a toehold.  No sooner had the idea formed in my mind than Ivan moved one of his remaining squads across the road to reinforce the factory, I took a shot at it which resulted in the squad going berserk.  Charging towards my remaining tank they tore it apart with their bare hands.  Now I had a depot full of paratroops and nothing to cover and attack by a smaller number of less capable squads.  At that point I surrendered.  There were still two full turns to go but there was no way I was going to get in and if I did there was no way I was going to survive.

Ivan played with skill, I didn't.  Which pretty much tells you all you need to know.  Sigh, the cup of defeat is bitter indeed.  Much thanks to Ivan for a lesson in tactics, hopefully I will crush you like a bug next time we meet.  No offense.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Big for a Spider, Small for a Dog

I was sitting at home admiring my fresh pink nail polish and reading night fighting rules for my wargame on Saturday when I realised that I wasn't really paying attention.  All I could think about was a giant spider the size of a small dog.  You may have heard of this, it turned up on those sections of the media dedicated to absolutely freaking you out and giving the South American tourist industry a blow it may never recover from.

Apparently a naturalist found said spider and took pictures of it.  I saw some of them and it was pretty small for a dog but absolutely huge for a spider.  The good thing about it is that apparently it was so large the naturalist could hear it coming so there shouldn't be too much danger of the thing sneaking up on you unawares.  Actually there is absolutely no danger of this one sneaking up on at all because apparently the naturalist killed it.

This is the bit that stuck in my mind.  Giant spiders don't really rate a second thought.  In my imagination I would be disappointed if any spiders in the South American jungle were smaller than a pig.  It wasn't even the killing of it that affected me.  It was the fact that it was killed by a naturalist.  If the thing had been found by a hunter I would have expected the next sentence to be "and he killed it".  If it had been found by a corporation I wouldn't have been surprised if they had inadvertently built a carpark on top of it but it was a naturalist!  Somehow this doesn't quite fit with my view of the world.  It's like discovering that Sea Shepherd really only chases Japanese whalers away so they can harvest the minkes without competition.

Can you imagine if it was David Attenborough?  "I'm perfectly at home in this community of gorillas, which I have bludgeoned to death with a length of pipe."  This is not what naturalists do in my opinion.  Or at least if they do do it they have the good sense not to tell anyone.  David Attenborough may have left a trail of animal corpses across seven continents but he was careful not let any of it get on film.  One can't help wondering if there are a legion of traumatised camera crews hiding in caves in remote places living in fear that David will tap them on the shoulder for his next voyage of elegant exposition and hideous butchery.

Unsurprisingly there was a bit of an outcry when this news became known.  Well, I made a bit of an outcry when the news became known to me.  A colleague of mine at work proved to be remarkably insouciant about the pointless arachnid death.  She may even have said "good".  The naturalist went into full justification mode, pointing out that the spider had been euthanised so that a natural history museum in Guyana could study it.  Once the museum is finished with it the restaurant next door is prepared to perform an "autopsy".

I have to ask, how does one euthanise a spider the size of a small dog?  With a very large newspaper?  Euthanise brings to mind passing gently away by ones own request with one's loved ones by ones side and Dr Philip Nitschke discreetly gouging another notch in his belt in the background.  I find it difficult to relate any of that to a spider of any size.  I suspect the naturalist used the term "euthanised" because he thought the term "killed" might have negative connotations. 

I am glad that a museum gets to study what a dead spider looks like but if ever there was a time for tag and release surely this was it.  All over my home city of Sydney there are ibis.  These are the ugliest, grubbiest, most irritating birds imaginable.  David Attenborough is free to kill as many of them as he likes.  Yet almost all of them have some sort of tag on them.  At some point people (quite possibly naturalists) have grabbed these filthy creatures and attached labels to them.  I guess they're doing research but frankly the only thing they seem to be discovering is how many tags you can attach to an ibis (quite a few, they're not small birds).

If people are prepared to go to the effort of tagging ibis surely someone would be prepared to put a tracking collar on a dog sized spider.  Not me of course, I'm not going near the damn thing.  Apparently they're harmless to humans (although it might dangerous if they accidentally stepped on a child) but I for one am prepared to wait for David Attenborough's "Life of the Animals that Survived My Visit" to come out on the National Geographic Channel.  As you can see, I'm not actually prepared to act as a human shield to defend any giant spiders from rampaging naturalists but I will be quietly cheering them on from the sidelines.  The sidelines several thousand miles away from the jungles they live (and hopefully will stay) in.

Incidentally, if you google giant, spider, dog all you will get is multiple pages of some joker in Poland who dressed his dog up in a giant spider suit so realistic it frightened his neighbours into hysterics.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tell Us the Penguin News

It occurred to me recently that it has been a long time since penguins were honoured with a mention in my blog.  This is despite a stream of angry, indeed near hysterical, letters from various penguin awareness groups and, for some reason, the Burgess Meredith fanclub.  My reason is that there is only so much you can write about penguins; small, cold, sealion fodder.  That's pretty much it.

Nevertheless in an attempt to seem responsive to the needs of my readership (and because half of the hits on my blog seem to originate in Antarctica) I decided to see if there was anything of interest on the penguin front that I could write about.  With this in mind I googled the term "penguin news".  The result wasn't quite what I was expecting.

Did you know The Penguin News is the name of a newspaper.  Specifically it is the name of the local newspaper of the Falkland Islands.  Why?  I don't know.  I personally would have thought "The Sheep Worriers Gazette" would have been more appropriate but apparently the Penguin News got the nod.

For those who are unaware the Falkland Islands can best be described as "a couple of desolate, remote, sheep riddled islands in a southern ocean that aren't New Zealand".  Despite their isolation the Falklands are by no means cut off from civilisation with such modern conveniences as houses, fire and a local newspaper having recently made their appearance to the general approval of all.  The Penguin News tends to the islanders requirements in the last of these areas.  It also gained some international notoriety recently when it semi inadvertently referred to Argentina's president Christina Kirchner as a bitch.

Diplomatic incidents aside the Penguin News keeps a slightly jaundiced eye on the dealings of the local government and reports on matters of great interest to the community such as who's got a new boat (admittedly somewhat more relevant in an island community than would otherwise be the case).  There does not, however, appear to be sufficient penguin related news to justify the masthead.  It's just another media lie.

The Penguin News comes out once a week on Fridays which means if World War 3 started on a Saturday its entirely likely it would be over before the Falkland Islanders got to hear about it, although they might notice a rise in the number of mutant fish.  In the meantime the Penguin News busies itself with articles on fishing, tourism and unfortunately titled jpegs while waiting for the Argentine economy to get so bad that they launch another invasion.  Hopefully they won't do it on a Saturday.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Miley Cyrus and the Commuter Tide

Miley Cyrus is touring Australia this month generating immense amounts of excitement among the sort of people who are relatively easy to excite.  As you might have guessed I am not included in their number.  Not that I have anything particular against Miley Cyrus.  It's just that if I want to see a semi naked, drug addled twenty one year old dry humping a dwarf there are websites I can go to which won't charge me a hundred dollars for a ticket, and that's even accounting for the fact that my bank account will be cleaned out the by Belorussian cyber criminals who run these sites.

But in honour of Miley's presence on our shores I have produced a blog entry entitled "Miley Cyrus and the Commuter Tide".  Which, I have to admit, sounds rather like the title of a children's detective story.  How would that go I wonder?

"Late one night while twerking on a fire hydrant outside a homeless shelter Miley Cyrus witnesses a robbery.  Hurling herself from the fire hydrant she grapples with one of thieves, wrapping her arms and legs around him and wrestling him to the ground until the police arrive.  Later, after having posted bail on the aggravated sexual assault charges she decides to take up the case..."

OK, it has to be admitted that I'm possibly the most horrifying children's author since Chopper Reid.  Still the above teaser leaves several questions tantalisingly unanswered.  What were the robbers after?  Did Miley have to enjoy the cavity search at the police station quite so much?  And what is the menace of the Commuter Tide?

Well, children's author or no I can at least answer the last of these questions.  The commuter tide is a grim social phenomenon that can be witnessed around 6pm weekdays at most suburban railway stations.  A slow moving but grimly determined mob of commuters flow up the stairs of the railway station on the last leg of their daily migration back to their homes.  Pity the hapless individual standing at the top of those stairs hoping desperately to catch the train that has just pulled in.  He has no chance the poor fool for the tide will not be stopped.  Should our would-be traveller risk the stairs his fate is sealed.

There is no urgency in the commuter tide's attack, no quicksilver flash of tooth or claw, just a relentless, unstoppable engulfing.  For the victim it must be like being drowned in porridge.  Two, three perhaps as many as half a dozen steps down towards the platform can be achieved but the end is never in doubt.  The train will leave without the hopeful passenger of whom no trace can now be discerned.  The commuter tide flows onward, not even caring to rejoice in its victory, a slow upward moving mass purposeful, unstoppable.

Hmm, I think Miley is going to need reinforcements.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Yet Another Silly After Action Report

By March 1945 the Second World War was heading towards its inevitable close.  Over on the eastern front (not now very far from the western front) the German army was still fighting ferociously attempting evade the consequences of its actions.  In the west however a good proportion of the German military was focusing more on beginning their self exculpatory memoirs and auditioning for supporting roles in Kelly's Heroes.  Nevertheless the Allies still had to advance and the Germans still made increasingly perfunctory attempts to stop them.  Around the small town of Broich the advancing Americans met some semi organised resistance from a portion of the German army presumably untalented in literature or acting.  This is ASL Scenario A69; Broich Bash which sees me commanding scout elements of the US 4th Cavalry Group attacking the somewhat heterogeneous garrison of Broich.

Jeremy Dibben was my opponent for this game and to hold on to this little piece of the Reich he had seven and a half squads, divided between first and second line, three officers including a formidable 9-1, a heavy machine gun, a light machine gun, a small mortar, a panzerschreck plus a truck and a halftrack mounting a 37mm gun.  My forces were seven first line American squads (poor on morale but awesome in firepower) a bazooka, two medium machine guns and a mortar.  Providing mobility and firepower were a truck, two M3 halftracks and two Chaffee light tanks mounting 75mm guns.  My objective was simple; there were a number of stone buildings within the village, three single storey, one two storey and one three storey.  Each storey of stone building was worth a victory point so there were a total of eight on offer.  I had to capture five.  Jeremy got to set up in the village itself, I had to advance onto the board.  Jeremy got to set up first then I had to select an entry side (north, south or west) but once selected Jeremy moved first thus getting the opportunity to correct any errors in deployment.  The picture above shows the playing area more or less with the target buildings conveniently marked with sinister black acquisition counters.

Jeremy's original set up focused on defending the two large buildings (I needed one of them to win) and defending against an attack from the north although he had his truck, halftrack and an infantry stack covering the crossroads in the extreme southeast.  However I looked at the north approach and decided there was too much open ground, ditto the south so I decided to advance from the west which had some cover and the advantage of being quite close to my destination.  My plan was to send a small force of about two squads to try and seize the woods and wooden building in the northwest, mainly as a defensive position.  Slightly further south I would enter the two tanks and position them where they could conveniently plaster his two strongpoints with smoke and/or white phosphorous.  Four squads, the mortar, the bazooka and the 9-1 leader would try and sneak through trees to capture the target buildings in the southern part of the village while further to the south the truck and the M3s (one carrying an infantry squad) would enter largely as a flanking/diversion force to split his attention.

The rules stated that while Jeremy set up first I had to then position my troops where I wanted them to enter and then Jeremy moved first thus giving him the opportunity to correct any errors in deployment.  He swiftly loaded his southeast squad into his truck and moved it up to a patch of trees just south of the main group of buildings and also pulled some of his north facing troops back to increase the garrison of the large stone building (worth two points) in the middle of the village.  Below you can see the results of his hasty redeployment and my troops lurking offboard waiting for the stage managers call.

My turn started with a mild "success"  I ran an empty M3 past his halftrack.  Jeremy obliged by opening fire and killing it.  I then moved the squad carrying M3 past, covered by the newly created wreck and unloaded my squad next to the southmost of my objective buildings.  What's more the crew of the destroyed M3 survived the wreckage and trotted towards his halftrack.

Unfortunately that was it for good news for a couple of turns.  I advanced as cautiously as I could using trees, buildings and tanks as cover, it didn't matter.  Jeremy's dice were white hot and his strongpoints literally shot my force to pieces.  Seven sniper checks in the first two turns didn't help much either.  At the end of the second turn I had about two and a half squads out of seven still functional.  The only ray of light was one of my morale checks had generated a hero which was good as I was desperately short of infantry.  To make matters worse I had apparently left all my smoke shells at home.  The tanks had the capacity to fire both smoke and WP, they had neither.  The mortar could also fire WP, it didn't have any either.  At the end of turn two I was left with a bunch of shattered squads and absolutely no covering smoke to ease my way forward.

Nevertheless I did not despair dear reader.  Once Jeremy had coaxed me from my foetal position and persuaded me to come out from under the table I was ready to continue.  I had two priceless advantages, firstly my tanks were both intact and could prevent Jeremy from pressing his advantage against my infantry and secondly, American squads rally as easily as they break.  They were down now, they would be back soon.  In the meantime I let metal do the work.  No matter how much stone they hide behind no infantry is going to stand up forever against a pair of 75mm guns firing high explosive.  For the next couple of turns I simply pounded his two strongpoints with my tanks (conveniently just out of useful panzerfaust range) while I focussed on rallying my infantry and improving my position somewhat with the little I had left.

My freshly minted hero joined my southern flankers and were reinforced in time by a bazooka toting halfsquad.  I menaced with my hero, Jeremy took the bait and advanced a squad into close combat.  Neatly ambushing him I withdraw along his retreat path.  When my squad broke him he had nowhere to go and promptly surrendered.  He brought his halftrack up to threate my rear but I was too busy going forward to worry.  I tried to get cute with another intact squad dropping infantry smoke into street to try to advace on the large stone building but I had moved too early and smoke notwithstanding his hmg post broke me and drove me back but nemesis was coming.

Firstly a critical hit from a 75 shattered his hmg position in the rearmost building, then a perfectly normal hit broke his strongpoint in the larger building.  With some freshly rallied troops moving forward I attempted the infantry smoke trick again and with enemy firepower greatly reduce seized a foothold in the larger building.

The picture above shows the scene just prior to this joyous occurrence, his squad has just surrendered and my hero is already moving forward in search of new prey.  His forward strongpoint has been broken (the stack adjacent to my hero are all broken save a 7-0 leader) but his hmg still reigns supreme from the rear, for the moment.

Now it was Jeremy's turn to see a flood of broken units pouring to the rear.  To his credit he didn't flinch but started preparing a new defensive position based around the rearmost building.  He thought he had just enough points to deny me the win, consolidating my hold on the large forward building had left me with just one turn to seize at least one more points worth of buildings.  Even with his straightened forces I could expect any attempt to attack the rear building to meet with a bloody repulse but fortunately I had another option.  If you look closely at the picture above you will see a small stone building in the bottom right hand corner.  Now, remember the vehicle crew who survived the wreck of the halftrack?  Well while all the fighting and dying were going on they had been ambling up a treelined road conveniently covered from all fire to emerge just a few hexes away from that building which at the time was garrisoned only by a broken squad.  The squad fled and my unlikely heroes took the last building I needed to win.  At which point Jeremy conceded.  Now it was him who had to send reduced forces across an open street against American firepower.  The odds were not good and the hour was late.  I heaved a sigh of relief and made a mental note to execute the quartermaster who sent us to capture a village without any smoke.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Another Silly After Action Report

There is an unwritten rule in the behaviour of nation states.  If your country is small, weak and insignificant then you've got to be nice.  You have to impress the world with your civilised behaviour so that university students in stronger nations can bitch about the fact that their country isn't more like you.  This is one of the reasons why Denmark hasn't been invaded too often in the last century, it would be like kicking a puppy.  Conversely if a nation wants to be ruthless, brutal and acquisitive then its got to be efficient.  The worst thing in the world is to have a ruthless, brutal and acquisitive nation that is jaw droppingly incompetent at anything it attempts.  With that as a segue, step forward fascist Italy.

In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia.  Italian propaganda announced that they were bringing European civilisation to the Africans and there was a lot of truth in that.  Semi medieval African empires rarely develop mustard gas and the Italians dispensed this and similar civilised creations with a lavish hand.  Despite this the invasion wasn't a walkover, at least in the beginning.  The Italians invaded Tigre province and then stopped to reorganise.  With Mussolini sweating buckets and demanding action the Ethiopians decided on a counterattack.  Feeling a little isolated in his position as one of the foremost Italian outposts a Major Criniti called for armoured assistance and received it in the form of several L3 tanks.  Then he received several thousand Ethiopians intent on killing him.  Deciding that running was the better part of valour Criniti went into full retreat to discover a couple of thousand more Ethiopians between him and safety.  This is ASL Scenario SoN2; Criniti's Escape.  Here I shall command a vast horde of poorly equipped Ethiopians attempting to prevent Mark McGilchrist's Italians from fleeing the scene unscathed.

To stop the Italian retreat I have twenty four Ethiopian squads (each of which has about half the firepower of an ordinary one), a trio of light machine guns, four officers, a single horse and a sword wielding Ethiopian tank hunter hero.  This last is to simulate a historical event in the battle where a sword armed Ethiopian soldier leapt onto a moving Italian tank, hammered on the hatch shouting "Open up" in Italian.  The Italian crew did so whereupon he ran them through with his sword.  Facing my large but unruly legions are five L3 tanks, thirteen squads of Eritrean colonial infantry (three of them on horseback), three trucks, three light machine guns, a dismantled medium machine gun and four officers.  This mighty force enters on the west edge of the mapboard and has to make its way through the teeth of Ethiopian resistance to exit off the east board.

In order to win Mark had to exit 32 victory points worth of troops off the eastern edge.  Each tank was worth five, each squad two.  The officers and trucks made up a few more.  Somehow I had to dispatch enough of this force to prevent Mark achieving his goal.  Below is the battlefield, Mark's forces will enter from the top while my forces are lurking modestly behind hillocks and deirs.

As you can see there are hillocks in the centre and on the left and right.  I posted a force on each hillock the theory being that which ever one was hit could hold the attack while the two remaining groups rushed to reinforce.  Unfortunately I cocked it up.  I posted strong forces in the centre and on the left but the force I placed on the right was weaker.  Guess which one Mark chose to attack.  The tank hunter hero was hidden dead centre in the hopes a tank would trundle conveniently by.

Mark brought his forces on on the right and centre and promptly starting attacking my right position in the hopes of pushing through the gap between the centre and right hillocks.  My defenders did little to stop him, in fact the most danger Mark was in was from himself.  Like any dice based game there is always the possibility that a ridiculously lucky or unlucky roll will invalidate the best defence or well planned attack but the sheer volume of dice rolls means that usually this averages out over time.  This was certainly true in our game but instead of a lot of average rolls with the occasional very lucky or unlucky one each of us rolled either ridiculously successfully or with tragic incompetence.  It was like a war game for a manic depressive.  Pretty much every roll of the dice was greeting with hysterical cursing or unbelieving delight depending on which of us had beaten the odds this time.

Mark started as we both went on by breaking the main armament of three of his five tanks and two of his light machine guns in the first turn.  I reciprocated by having one of my few officers accidentally shoot himself while attempting to rally.  Mark left a squad with the medium machine gun on the left to stop my force there from assisting the comrades on the right.  Fearing the automatic fire I kept them silent for two turns.  When I finally decided to risk it Mark promptly broke the gun and then ruined it completely while trying to repair it.  Faced with half a dozen suddenly bold Ethiopian squads Mark pulled his guy back allowing mine through.

The real action was on the right, here despite various weapon issues Mark managed to crush a good number of the defenders under his tank tracks while my poorly armed troops could make little reply.  He captured one of my few machine guns and promptly broke it trying to use it.  Still his tanks bulled forward with infantry following, somewhat to the rear the truck and horse mounted troops moved forward slowly waiting for a path to be cleared to make a dash for the exit.

In the next picture you see the situation at the end of the second turn on the right flank.  Mark has overrun my forward position and is gearing up to sweep the right hillocks of troops.  My centre troops are edging rightwards in an attempt to bring succour to my doomed right garrison.  The purple counters indicate tanks with broken weapons.

In response to this triumphal advance I could offer little resistance (although my sniper did shoot one of his officers dead) but as he started to bring up his infantry my feebly armed troops put up a spattering of fire and with his tanks in range my tank hunter hero broke cover and charged for the nearest.  Sadly he was not to reproduce the heroic efforts of his real life counterpart.  Near the tanks I had taken a very unlikely shot at an infantry squad and officer.  My roll was ridiculously low and inflicted a morale check.  Mark's corresponding role was equally ridiculous and rather than breaking a tubby Italian corporal with less interest in the war than penguins in Antarctica suddenly went berserk.  What's more his Eritrean troops (who could have been forgiven for thinking they had picked poorly in the colonial oppressor stakes) were inspired by his example and went berserk as well.  The nearest of my soldiers was the lone tank hunter now sitting on top of a tank but any hopes of hurting the metal beast vanished when a pack of kill crazy Eritreans lead by an Italian who was positively foaming at the mouth overwhelmed him.  My secret weapon was gone.  On the other hand Mark hadn't really wanted his soldiers that close to my troops either and I would cheerfully shoot at them for much of the next turn.

With broken troops cringing behind the hillock and Mark sweeping the right I was in trouble.  I held the centre solidly (and my left hand troops were now moving up behind the Italians but with my poor firepower and the right nearly cleared Mark could start looking to the exits.  That's when the cavalry charge happened.  With only a single intact Ethiopian squad remaining on the right Mark decided to clean up the broken guys with a cavalry charge.  It worked well, broken Ethiopians died all over the place but he got a little eager and charged right next to the one remaining squad, which promptly killed the horsemen and his best officer.  Now too my meagre firepower which had been unable to harm anything finally managed to immobilise a truck and break another squad.

Five tanks, even if some of them had broken guns made an impressive victory point total and with one of my flanks gone Mark gunned them towards the exit relying on some of his infantry being able to follow.  Now finally I hurt a tank.  I didn't kill it of course but one of my machine guns stunned it and brought it to a shuddering halt.  The next turn I stunned it again, then one of my officers went berserk and promptly charged it.  Sadly the man died after noble attempts to destroy the vehicle with his teeth (apparently he didn't speak Italian).  Meanwhile with his armour having moved off the board suddenly the trivial little low odds shots that were all my troops could muster managed to break about five of his surviving squads in the space of one fire phase.  Now Mark was starting to sweat.  The likelihood of any of them rallying in largely open terrain was low which meant that he absolutely needed to get that final tank moving.  I absolutely needed to stop it.  With its platoon mates gone the tank failed its independent movement die roll and remained where it was for another turn while Ethiopian soldiers gathered in numbers.  I made one attempt to rush it but was sent reeling back in bloody rout.  The next turn I tried again, got a squad in there but couldn't harm the tank in close combat.  On the last turn Mark managed to start the tank and trundled towards the board edge and victory with my machinegun bullets plinking harmlessly off its armour.

So a defeat for the Ethiopians, sadly.  Both Mark and I were the recipient of outrageous luck both good and bad.  Not a turn went by without a shriek of disbelief or hysterical laughter from one or the other.  I guess it all worked out in the end though.  I didn't garrison the right strongly enough and Mark's strategy though greatly hampered by fate (and a rather silly cavalry charge) proved sufficient to get the bulk of his troops through.