Monday, October 31, 2016

My Last Melbourne Cup Blog

Melbourne Cup Day is upon us again.  It is a time of joyous celebration where women dress up in expensive but not particularly concealing clothing and then drink until they throw up over their expensive but not particularly concealing clothing.  It is a time when men dress in smart suits and drink until they are prepared to hit on women whose principal fashion accessory is their own vomit.  In the middle of this jollity a group of midgets in carnival clothes are doing unpleasant things to horses.  Because for some reason it was determined that we needed an excuse to get insanely drunk and indulge in reckless sexual behaviour.  I never have.

This is my last Melbourne Cup blog because I have to admit I'm over it.  I've always been a little ambivalent about horse racing and the Cup a year or so back when a couple of the horses died has pretty much settled it for me.  I'm not really an animal rights activist.  In fact I'm not an animal rights activist at all.  I have no problem killing animals for food, clothing, shelter or simply if they're inconvenient.  Any animal, for example, that blocks my driveway will find itself on the wrong end of an extinction level event.

I do have an issue with killing animals for fun.  Obviously I disapprove of recreational hunting for that reason but I've decided that flogging horses round and round in circles until they drop dead probably comes under the same category.  So; no more betting on the Melbourne Cup, no more watching it on television and no more going to horse races (which I didn't do anyway) not even for the opportunity to hit on babbling drunk girls who have already proved they don't mind bad decision making.

I don't accede to the belief that the people involved in the racing industry are intrinsically cruel.  Most people aren't actually.  The occasional malevolent sadist aside I'm certain most of those in the industry are decent folk who genuinely love horses.  It would be difficult to work in such a horse intensive industry if you didn't like them.  However the industry tests horses to, and sometimes past, breaking point and in order to continue working in it such people must be able to rationalise it so that they don't appear to be animal hating monsters to themselves. 

This is the only time I'll mention it since I don't think there is any benefit to be gained from telling a bunch of fundamentally nice people that they're actually soulless monsters but I'm over horse racing.  I won't support it with my time, presence or cash.  For my colleagues who do, you've got somebody who can watch the phones while you watch the race and believe me I think no less of you for liking the Melbourne Cup than I did yesterday.  Feel free to take the previous sentence any way you like. 

I will hang around at my desk while everybody else goes to watch the race (which our employers kindly broadcast on a big screen in the conference room).  Since everybody else will be watching the race as well I don't anticipate a massive increase in workload or other inconvenience as a result of this sacrifice.  And if you have to make a sacrifice that's the kind to make.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Silly After Action Report - Back to Domestic Defeats

It wasn't all howling stukas and death spitting tanks.  While these may have grabbed the headlines the German invasion of Poland involved a lot of foot slogging soldiers trudging wearily forward sustained by nothing but the unshakeable belief that they had an absolute right to walk into a neighbours country and trash the joint while a bunch of inconsiderate Poles shot at them a lot. 

BFP Scenario PiF111, Before the Blunder has me commanding a bunch of Poles with no sense of historical inevitability while Ivan Kent leads his Germans on their uncivilising mission to the East.

I didn't really like the look of this one.  Yes I had trenches, pillboxes and a bunch of machine guns but Ivan had loads of troops and very little territory to cross.  I set up the bulk of my troops in the centre while my pillboxes and trenches (replete with automatic weapons) defended the flanks.

Ivan came on strong on the eastern flank with lesser forces in the centre and west.  He was obviously trying to loop around behind my eastern defenders

Image result for battles in woods pictures
At this stage in the war German tactics were still a little clumsy but the Poles were poorly equipped.

The first turn went past without any shooting as Ivan's troops pushed through trees and fields in an attempt to spot any Polish defenders.  For my part I simply relished a turn that went by without a disaster for my troops.  There would be few enough of them.

By the second turn the storm was starting to gather.  My defensive line had remained intact by the simple expedient of hiding under question marks but now Ivan was ready to go.  With sacrificial half squads in the lead his forces crossed the road that let to my defences.  In defence of my defences I should point out that it wasn't easy.  My pillbox in the east staved off early attempts at capture and his progress in the centre was slow.  Over in the west he managed to slip a couple of half squads past a guarding hmg as I disdained to shoot at them.  When he moved a decent sized force out in their wake I was ready and let loose with the hmg guided by a 7-1 officer.  I mean it didn't achieve anything but I was certainly ready.

A turn or two in,  Ivan is starting to sneak through in the west (bottom).

Despite a couple of units getting through in the west I wasn't particularly worried.  He was never going to win with just those guys, the real action was in the centre and east where my defenses managed to hold him off for a couple of turns.  Unfortunately I needed some kills and these weren't forthcoming although at one point there were five broken German halfsquads piled up on a leader in the woods awaiting rallying.  Still Ivan had the leaders and the troop numbers to deal with such minor concerns.  Finally he managed to break an mmg team I had in the centre and with that gone he swept forward out positioning my remaining squad there while those who could ran for the rear.

Suddenly brave the Germans pour forward.  It looks like I've built up a decent defensive position around the village; wrong.

Ivan managed to overwhelm me in the centre, although a squad or so successfully pulled out to continue the fight.  One squad with nowhere to run decided to plunge into improbable close combat with a German stack.  I didn't expect to win but hoped to hold him up for a turn.  To my surprise they did so although the gallant squad died the next turn.  Over in the east Ivan ground cautiously forward getting half squads broken but inching a little further.  Once he got around the pillbox he could safely ignore it while my medium machine gun in the trench solved his problem by breaking at the crucial moment.  Something that took up a bit of Ivan's time was his persistence in trying to get a demo charge onto my pillbox, I broke every halfsquad that tried and actually killed one of them.  Eventually he realised that if he just walked around the pillbox it was largely impotent.

I repaired the medium machine gun the very next turn and with a wealth of targets to shoot at opened fire eagerly, and broke the damned thing again.  Ivan was pouring troops through the centre just east of the lake and positioned himself for a last turn assault on my surviving squads holding the necessary buildings.  In the end I saved him the effort by breaking each one of them in my own turn thus leaving Ivan with little more to do than walk in.  At that point I conceded, I had two unbroken squads and both of them were further from the victory hexes than Ivan's troops who were swarming all over the place.

If you're wondering where my troops are they're under the DM counters.

In retrospect I placed my fortifications poorly.  Setting a pillbox up on the hill slightly out of harms way would have been a bright idea and as Ivan pointed out the western pillbox while set up for one good shot (which of course I failed) it wasn't optimally placed to cover anything that got through.  So defeat for Neil, on the plus side its nice to see I've settled back into my usual routine after the excitement of ASLOK.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Gentlemen Start Your Crustaceans

While visiting Sydney for her brothers wedding my sister in law Kei very kindly made some time to spend an evening with me.  So where should I take a stylish, sophisticated young woman in Sydney for a brief time?  Crab racing!  Yep,  crab racing where fortunes are won and lost, where dreams are shattered and nightmares become real and hermit crabs become gods!  Small, edible gods but gods nonetheless.

Honesty compels me to admit that the crab racing wasn't my idea.  It wasn't even Kei's idea.  It was the suggestion of a friend of hers who then bowed out at the last moment.  Like all great ideas this one outlasted it's owner and in deference to historical inevitability Kei & I made our way to the Friend in Hand pub in Glebe for the crab racing.

The Friend in Hand is a traditional, old style pub that appears to have been decorated when a tornado struck a life line bin.  It also has a model train running around the lintel which disposed me in its favour.  The place was sparsely occupied when we arrived allowing us to snare a table close to the racing board.  We were a little confused when balloons were distributed and perhaps a little concerned when they started handing out umbrellas as well.  The umbrellas immediately proved their utility when the bar staff started spraying the crowd with water.

And there was a crowd!  As C-Hour approached a collection of students, tourists and the occasional bikie filled up the bar and clustered around the board.  Bang on time, half an hour late a blare of racing music announced the arrival of a man dressed as a crab who would be our emcee for the evening.  The crabs were champing at the bit and the jockeys were getting positively feral but there were formalities before the barrier could be lifted.  There was a balloon bursting competition and a hula hoop dancing competition on the bar while the bar staff continued their periodic attempts to drown their clientele.  Some of said clientele hit on the bright idea of hiding under the bar itself.  This worked very well right up until the point where it didn't at which point it didn't work very badly indeed.

Crab racing works like this; you get a circular board and dump a bowl of crabs in the middle.  At the appropriate moment the bowl is removed and the crabs race hell for leather towards the edge of the board.  Or at least some of them do, some wander in circles doing a little sightseeing and some withdraw into their shells and pretend to be snails until it's all over.  Three dollars buys you a crab which you name and cheer on as it makes its run.

My crab was named Tasty and it came in second.  I was delighted and was already contemplating putting him out to stud when I was informed that to claim my prize I would have to face off against the other place getters in a race to eat some chocolate salty balls.  The challenge was to get the plate absolutely clean afterwards.  I lost that because I wasn't prepared to do what the winner did which was wipe the plate on her hair.  I know, I'm a princess.

After a second round of crab racing the emcee capped the evening by inviting guys to do a striptease on the bar.  I decided to leave that to others.  For one of the guys who got up it definitely was not his first rodeo.  An attractive young woman also got up glad of an opportunity to demonstrate how pleased she was with her plastic surgeons handiwork.  In her defence there does seem to be little point in paying for them if you're not going to flaunt them.

With proceedings drawing to a close Kei and I made our way back to the transport hub which would funnel us towards our respective accommodation pausing only to eat some McDonalds on the way.  Do I know how to show a girl a good time or what?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Another Holiday Another Corpse

Every time I go on leave my co-workers kill something of mine.  Last time it was my guppy, this time it was my orchid.  I went off on my holiday leaving behind a shiny green leaved orchid.  I returned to a withered husk that could only be described as a plant because it was obviously not an animal.  On balance its probably a good thing I don't have any children to leave in my colleagues care.

Of course if you wanted to be really picky you could point out that I conveniently take my holidays just when the various plants and animals I've neglected or mistreated finally decide to give up the ghost.  Then I waltz off out the door leaving these various drain circlers in the hands of my co-workers who are faced with the unenviable task of keeping them alive.  It will come as no surprise to learn I don't agree with this at all.

Possibly the most difficult part of leaving my loved ones in the hands of others is returning to find their bodies.  Neither the guppy nor the orchid was disposed of before my return meaning that my first task on returning to my desk was to remove the remains of yet another failure to keep something alive until my return.  I'm actually starting to think they do it deliberately.  Not only do my colleagues kill the things I leave in their care but they then leave the bodies scattered around like a low budget remake of The Godfather.

I'm starting to think the killings might be deliberate although I'm not certain whether the message is that I should never leave my desk again or if I should simply not return the next time I do.  I find myself glancing sideways at my colleagues wondering whether they're just waiting for me to let my guard down.

They're trying to get me I know it.  They want me nervous and jumpy and paranoid so I can't think straight so they can make their move.  It isn't going to work, I've got every one of them marked.  There are electrical wires under my desk to fry them if they try anything.  I've got a drawer full of hidden weapons and I'm sure I've worked out the secret code they're using.  Who's a paranoid nutcase now guys?  Hey!  Hey!  You've all got orchids too, don't think they're going to survive any war.  Whatever you bring I'll return double!

I've never been more alert, the fear is making me sharp.  I know I can take them, malicious plotters all.  You'll see, one day soon I'll just be sitting here on top of a pile of mangled orchids while my colleagues weep in despair.  Note this, the day of Neil is coming!  Fear me for I am a living god and none shall escape my wrath.  Yip yip ahooooo! 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

ASLOK XXXI - Brief Tales of Woe from Cleveland

I played sixteen games at ASLOK which probably to explain why I needed a week off work to recover after I got back from the US.  I played sixteen games and won four, or to put it another way, I played sixteen games and lost eleven but I choose not to put it that way.  Normally I write long rambling AARs replete with poor jokes and highly dubious historical backgrounds but (no doubt to your relief) I will eschew that and just do a brief wrap up of each one.

Tiger's Roar

I got off the train from Chicago and made my way to the hotel.  My intention was to pop upstairs, register and then grab a shower and a little sleep.  I bumped into Aaron Cleavin while registering and by the time I'd finished he'd teed up a game for me with Scott Holtz.  In this scenario my Soviets had to defend a small village from Scott's Germans.  I set up what I thought was a good defence against flank attack.  It might have been but Scott simply charged straight up the middle.  It took a couple of turns but he drove me out of the victory locations despite breaking the MA on his flamethrower tank.  I got some T-34s as reinforcements but by that time things were so bad that I had to do silly things with them.  I killed another German tank but by the time Scott's tigers turned up all they had to do was witness the surrender ceremony.  0-1

Brigade Hill

Going against national proclivities I took the defending Japanese against Stan Jackson's Australians.  I had hold two hills of four.  I wound up holding one.  I defended the forward hill successfully for so long that I got a little obsessed with it.  Even after I had been driven off the victory location it seemed like I might be able to get it back with a little effort.  I killed plenty of Australians but took heavy losses in return and had very few units to defend the rearmost hills.  A little hesitation on my part on the deployment of my reserves didn't help either.  0-2.

Morire in Belleza

I satisfied my Italian cravings with this one against Kevin Killeen as the defending Yugoslavs.  Again I think I was a little slow.  I had laid enough smoke to help my troops forward but I don't think I put enough urgency into the push with the result that my troops got hung up on the forward hill for most of the game rather than the rearmost hill that was my objective.  A small flanking manoeuvre was ill conceived and got nowhere fast.  I did eventually clear the first hill but by that time I had run out of time.  I was staring at the victory locations but couldn't reach them despite managing to obliterate one of Kevin's 75mm guns with my mortar. 0-3

Galician Persuasion

The Hungarians were the next nationality to be saddled with me as a commander as my force of infantry and Zrinyi assault guns had to capture some wooden buildings from Randy Rossi's Soviets who were supported by T-34s.  Each of us also got a honking big mortar that neither of us could figure out what to do with.  I put mine on a hill that overwatched virtually nothing while Randy placed his in a forest hex.  I found it when my troops literally walked into it.  Despite the presence of the Zrinyis it was a largely infantry game as my Hungarian troopers tried to push the Soviets out of the buildings needed for the win.  I got a few of them but ultimately came up short at the end.  I lost about three Zrinyis on the way.  Randy's only tank loss came when he felt that one of the victory buildings could be better defended with a wrecked tank in the cellar. 0-4

Fangs of Transylvania

In a small scenario its easier to look competitive or at least blame your dice for the loss.  In a big scenario ones shortcomings tend be exposed.  Thus it was when my large gaggle of Romanian troops backed by an impressive if somewhat eclectic collection of armour attempted to seize a village from Ken Mioduski's Hungarians.  My assault was poorly managed and my Romanian troops suffered accordingly.  I did push into the village but couldn't drive Ken out of it and my badly placed armour was torn apart by his reinforcing tanks.  The occasional kill I got in return couldn't compensate and with a ridiculous number of victory points still required and more than half my tank force down I conceded to stop Ken getting bored. 0-5

Tea at Three

Tea at Three was a small scenario pitting a group of demo charge toting British (plus one US half squad for an almost OCD level of historical realism) trying to capture a building from a not particularly impressive or enthusiastic group of Germans (commanded by me which could explain a lot).  Dave Reenstra had the bomb happy British.  Not really a lot to report here except that history repeated itself.  The British blew their way in and blasted my troops out in double quick time.  I staggered away from the board in an advanced state of shock. 0-6

Lenin's Sons

Did Lenin have sons?  I'm not sure and if he did I'm damned sure he wouldn't have wanted me commanding them.  Nevertheless I had the Soviet defenders in my first mini against Andrea Pagani's Germans.  Sadly I botched the initial set up, not defending the woods adequately and allowing Andrea to sweep forward through the trees towards the village I was notionally protecting.  A grim tussle for this building or that followed but the end wasn't in doubt.  I lost the game on turn four but a sudden rate tear with my hmg regained me a victory building in turn five.  Unfazed Andrea simply retook it again in turn six by which time I had virtually no troops left.  Oh yes and my 10-0 commisar got sniped in the first turn, I suppose I should be grateful my entire force didn't just give up then. 0-7

Piano Lupo

Having crashed out of my first mini I played Piano Lupo against Paul Washington.  I had the German/Italian defenders while Paul had the American paratroops.  Paul's first mortar shot was a critical hit which obliterated the entire German contingent thus leaving a purely Italian defence.  Despite this with the assistance of some lucky dice my Italians managed to hang tough (or tough enough) to deny absolute victory.  There was still a broken Italian squad cowering in the victory building at game end which was enough to (just) give me the win. 1-7

De Veer's Counterattack

Feeling terribly cockahoop after my first win I agreed to play a third game on the same day which was probably one too many.  I had the defending Dutch in this scenario against Ray Vincent's Japanese attackers.  Suffice it to say my cock got well and truly hooped.  Poor set up (particularly of my gun) permitted Ray to secure the heights before my reinforcements arrived allowing him to rain damnation down on them from above.  Not even my Dutch 10-2 could really turn the tide.  His troops were safely ensconced and I had to run a gauntlet of mortar fire to reach them.  This combined with an apparent inability on the part of my troops to actually hurt the Japanese doomed my defence.  My brief winning streak was obviously over. 1-8

Initial Skirmish

My next mini was against Ray Woloszyn a well mannered, soft spoken American gentleman who would take the defending French against my marauding early war Germans.  I would dearly like to have given Ray a good game but on this occasion I will blame my dice as much as my incompetence.  I had five tanks none of which managed to produce any smoke to protect my infantry going forward.  Ray helped a little by getting a critical hit with his antitank rifle and burning one of my PzIIs.  Of the remaining four tanks three of them broke their main armament in the first two turns while my troops were left to cross open ground without any sort of cover and paid the price.  I knew it was a risk but I needed some firepower so I tried repairing the MA on my tanks and promptly sent two of them trundling back to their home base.  At that point I conceded.  Possibly a better player could have come back from that but it was beyond my abilities. 1-9

Bridge to Nowhere

The mortars, the mortars, oh dear god the mortars!!!  Yep, I played this one as the Italians trying to seize a bridge from its Soviet defenders in the person of Chet Cummings.  Chet skilfully held the bridge for a couple of turns against me with a conscript unit and a dummy stack but eventually the grey tide poured across.  Driving him away from the bridge was a different matter however.  The only cover was trees but Chet's mortars continually frustrated my attempts to build up any sort of a firebase.  There were no dramatic rate tears just a continual series of MCs and 1MCs that my troops couldn't stand up to.  Just to prove the mortar issues weren't one way I managed to shake Chet when one of my dinky little 45mm toys managed a critical hit on his mmg position which cleared part of my way.  Ultimately though I simply couldn't generate enough firepower to worry his main defensive position. 1-10

The Five Pound Prize

OK, I'm a moron.  That is the explanation for what happened in this scenario against Hennie van der Salm.  My British had to defend a collection of buildings within three hexes of a stream which flowed across the board.  For some reason (see previous moron comments) I got absolutely fixated on the stream to the exclusion of the buildings.  I set up what I thought was a solid defence to protect the stream and when Hennie's troops came on realised that I had effectively conceded half the victory buildings he needed with barely a shot fired.  Because I had bulked up in the remaining ones the next couple of buildings he needed came at a higher price but he had the time and the leisure to accomplish it.  My six pounder guns managed to kill a couple of his tanks and I even recaptured a building or two at the end but I couldn't compensate for my original idiotic set up.  1-11


I desperately wanted to convince myself that my earlier win wasn't just a fluke and I hit on a cunning plan.  First I would return to Sicily, scene of my sole triumph, and second I chose an opponent who seemed a little sleep deprived to put it mildly.  I would command the attacking Americans trying to drive Steve Tinsley's defending Germans off some hills overlooking a Sicilian village.  Steve actually nodded off while doing his set up.  Even so I nearly botched it.  I credited the two German 50mm atgs with more killing power than they possessed (a quick glance at the chart would have set me right) and advanced very cautiously.  So cautiously in fact that I was quite pressed for time at the end.  I did lose one tank to an atg but Steve helped enormously by breaking both while trying to intensive fire them.  With the guns out of the equation I was able to pound his infantry more or less with impunity and a combination of heavy fire (including a convenient critical hit on a unit in a trench) and loads of overruns managed to not so much drive the Germans off the hills and crush them into the hills.  A measure of my earlier delay is that it took until the very last turn before I had broken the remaining Germans for a win that was a lot closer than it should have been.  2-11

Triumphant Return

This saw me as the defending Japanese pitted against the Americans recapturing the Philippines.  Chip Wertemberger commanded the Americans.  The Japanese gain victory points each turn by holding certain positions but also by exiting troops off the board.  So the Japanese have the option to decide between fight and flight while the Americans have to plan for both eventualities.  I decided on a little of each.  I set up what I hoped was an effective defensive position (it wasn't) while other troops were positioned for a dash to the exit.  The exiting troops met no resistance as Chip went hard for the victory locations.  A combination of luck and the distance he had to travel held Chip off from the victory locations for a couple of turns but then he started to break into my position which wasn't as mutually supportive as it should be.  Chip overran the positions in the next couple of turns which left me a couple of victory points short of what I needed but I still had some troops and I raced them for the board edge in the hopes of gaining a couple more exit points.  A couple didn't make it (Chip had some troops held back against this possibility) but one squad waltzed through all his defensive fire to make it off at the last and give me a not particularly deserved victory. 3-11

Pressure to Withdraw

So close, so very close.  I played the defending Germans in this scenario to Randy Gleeson's attacking Soviets.  Very high quality Soviets they were too.  To win the Germans had to exit more points off the board than the Soviets.  Since the Soviets had more troops this meant the halftracks.  Two unarmed halftracks enter on the German side.  If the Germans can load them up with their appropriate armament and then get them off each is worth 10VP and, short of an absolute whitewash by the Soviets, should be the difference between success and failure.  The halftracks don't turn up until turn four which means the Germans have to keep the Soviets far enough away from their entry points to allow for the loading and retiring.  I didn't quite.  I set up a reasonably solid defence in the centre and left to protect what I had designated as my entry point with a scattering of speed bumps on the right to slow Randy down.  In retrospect I should have committed a little more to the right.  My centre and left hung tough but the bulk of Randy's force swept away my right hand troops and came in on my flank.  I got one halftrack off but by the time the other was ready to go there was a Soviet squad with an atr breathing down its neck.  Some desperate fire of mine managed to pin it but this wasn't enough because as the halftrack started up pin or no pin Randy managed to kill it.  I got a couple of other squads off but it wasn't enough.  Still I was quite pleased with my defence in this one.

What Doesn't Kill You

I realised I had got through the entire of ASLOK without playing the Nationalist Chinese so for my final game I faced off against David Perham to play what doesn't kill you which pits a group of elite GMD Chinese backed by British tanks and guns trying to clear the Japanese off a road in Burma.  I had three Stuart tanks with a mess of machine guns (Japanese, for the killing of) but somewhere David had a 75mm gun which could reduce them to scrap.  I won this scenario partially with some lucky rolls but basically by burning the village down.  David helped a little when his 75mm burnt a Stuart as well but by the end of the game there was almost nowhere for his surviving defenders to be where they wouldn't get fried.  My Chinese (and the one tank that survived) charged through a sea of flames to clear the last Japanese away from the victory road.  Ultimately it came down to the last CC roll.  If David rolled a four or less he would kill my troops for the win.  He didn't roll a four or less and I came away choking on smoke with the win. 4-12.

Well that was it, hardly a glorious showing but it was an amazing experience and good to put some faces to names I've heard of but not seen.  Many thanks to Bret and Bill for the organisation and to everyone I met and played against all of whom were patient with someone who should know the rules a lot better than he does. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - At Last an Ending of Sorts

If you're in New York City and find yourself with approximately eighteen months to spare then I strongly recommend visiting the Museum of Natural History which is staggering in its scale and scope.  The museum is a monstrously impressive pile built at a time when museums were supposed to look good rather than depressing and it occupies what must be an insanely expensive piece of real estate on the west side of Central Park.  Having walked through the park to get there I went in through the west entrance which is a monument to Theodore Roosevelt, easily my favourite American president.  The entrance hall would suit a palace and the walls are covered with extracts from his various writings my personal favourite being "A great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be great or a democracy".  I can't help thinking political discourse in America might be improved if we introduced both presidential candidates to a collection of Roosevelt's writings and then beat each of them to death with it.

Not having eighteen months to wander around at my leisure I found myself desperately strapped for time and barely scratched the surface of what the museum has to offer.  I was a little disappointed that the butterfly collection was closed for the season which confused me a little as I'm pretty sure the butterflies were already dead.  I wandered around in slack jawed amazement both at the sheer size of the place and the sheer number of people trying to get in.  Once we were past the entrance hall however it was amazing how quickly everyone got lost in the building, nowhere seemed crowded.

I could have taken the subway to the museum but instead chose to walk from the Empire State Building, strolling up Fifth Avenue and through Central Park.  There was no real reason to do this except for the sheer excitement of being in New York, it just goes on for miles.  I was aware that Central Park was large in a general sense but I had no idea how big it is.  From the centre you can't actually see the city which is quite a trick as "inconspicuous" is not a word people usually use to describe New York.  Supposedly its dangerous at night but then a lot of places are dangerous at night which is why I tend to visit them in the day.  Also you can get a hotdog during the day.

I was only in New York for one full day so my chance to go sightseeing was strictly limited but I did manage to visit the Empire State Building which has been on my personal must see list for years.  From the viewing gallery I could see all of Manhattan spread out before me (although I had to walk around the platform to see it all).  But in my opinion a more impressive sight can be had from the street outside because then you can see the building itself.  Particularly at night that alone is worth a visit to New York.  It just goes to show what greed can do when it retains a little bit of its soul.  Too many office buildings, most of those in Sydney for example, are wretched boxes very obviously designed to extract the maximum amount of rental income in return for the minimum investment of materials, labour and design.  Vomit inducingly ugly, the very sight of them scars the eyes.  Nothing more spiritually bankrupt can be imagined.  Then you have something like the Empire State Building, a 104 storey monument to human avarice; and it is beautiful.

This seems like a good moment to end my travel journal.  I enjoyed America, or at least the bits I saw.  I'm well aware that a large chunk of the country has escaped my eagle eye but that means I just have to come back.  A wrap up of my kaleidoscope of epic failure at ASLOK will follow for those who enjoy reading about such things.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - Through Upstate New York

Leaving Niagara Falls at ghastly o'clock in the morning allowed me to renew my acquaintance with Amtrak.  The reunion didn't get off to a good start when I discovered that the waiting room at Niagara Falls was closed.  It's quite chilly at 6.30am in Niagara Falls.  At least my train was actually there waiting to be let of the leash like some mythical beast of legend (or legendary beast of myth if you prefer).  Eventually one of the staff wandering around deigned to notice me and I was escorted on board or at least pointed towards a door in the side of the train that I was supposed to use.

Since this was to be an eight hour trip I had splashed out of a business class ticket which got me a comfy seat, free wifi and all the unpalatable coffee I could drink.  In the bathroom (really an ambitious toilet) was hand soap in a container which proclaimed to the world that it had been provided especially for Amtrak.  Presumably they announce this to scotch otherwise reasonable suspicions that Amtrak replenishes its stores by raiding Motel 6s along its route.  Business class was rather quiet as evidenced by the conductors announcements which were audible without being comprehensible.  Fortunately the guy in charge of the snack bar would pop back and bellow whatever had been announced just in case it was important.

We left Niagara Falls on time which was a pleasant surprise.  The hour long delay we experienced because some idiot had got a truck stuck under a low bridge was, by this time, neither pleasant nor a surprise.  Still I got to see something of upstate New York which I believe is the technical term for that part of New York which isn't actually New York City.  There were quite a lot of trees and there's definitely an English feel to some of the small towns we passed through along the way.  Not surprising I suppose when you consider that the banks of the Hudson must be some of the earliest colonised parts of the country.  Admittedly I believe New York was first colonised by the Dutch but perhaps they had visited England and decided that they had a good model to follow for small towns.

Late but only mildly so by comparison with my other Amtrak experiences the train slid into Penn station in New York City.  I'd like to give an impression of my view of New York as we approached but I didn't see it.  We went into a tunnel and twenty odd minutes later we were there.  My last visions through the window had been of trees, when I got out of the station I was surrounded by buildings.  And people, lots and lots of people.  Through a careful selection process known as blind luck I had managed to select accommodation that was ten minutes walk from Penn station and five minutes from the Empire State Building which was pretty much the only thing on my agenda to see in New York.

The apartment was quite nice (it had a doorman and everything) but the bed was some sort of large inflatable thing which made quite a loud popping noise as it reasserted its original shape.  The first time this happened was when I was lying in the dark trying to get some sleep and I honestly thought something had jumped onto the bed.  I spent five minutes looking for non existent cats before I figured out what it was (it was late and I was tired)  I even briefly considered that the apartment might be haunted before deciding a dodgy mattress might be slightly more plausible.  Despite having something resembling a mind of its own the mattress was quite comfortable and I slept on it extra hard to get back at it for scaring me.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - Millions of Gallons of Water

The town of Niagara Falls, NY is best approached at night.  That way you can avoid seeing it.  There is a casino in town which doesn't dominate the skyline, rather it is the skyline.  Nothing else is so tall, so new or so possessed of electric light.  Despite the presence of a world class tourist attraction literally on its doorstep Niagara Falls is another decayed old industrial town like Cleveland.  However while Cleveland is coming back fighting Niagara Falls seems to have thrown in the towel several decades ago.

About a third of the buildings, commercial and residential, are abandoned and seem to have been simply left to rot.  The sidewalks are so uneven that walking along them made me seasick and the town appears to be populated largely by squirrels and stray cats.  Which is odd as you might expect one or the other but not both.  Such life and activity as does exist sits cheek by jowl with the decay.  I exhibited a little concern at being out on the streets at night but my host reassured me that I was reasonably safe.  Even so the subtext seemed to be that the inhabitants of Niagara Falls are simply not proactive enough to indulge in violent crime.  According to my host the city doesn't actually gain a lot of revenue from the falls.  Since it's a state park I presume the money goes to the state of New York instead.  If I were the mayor of Niagara Falls getting my town a slice of that revenue would be my first priority.  Judging by the signage however the first priority of most of the mayors of Niagara Falls is to get a street named after them.

My hosts live in a lovely mid nineteenth century house which they bought in a near derelict condition for pocket change and are slowly doing up.  My room was one of the done up bits as was the bathroom which was accessed by means of a latch on a wall unit which swung the whole thing away giving access to an otherwise hidden room.  For somebody who read an unhealthy number of Enid Blyton books when he was a child this was just too good to be true.  Even better the house was within walking distance of the only open restaurant that didn't serve its food in takeaway bags.  There was a Korean restaurant but it had a big sign on the wall saying "Beware of the dog!"  I wasn't sure whether this was a security warning or an indication that the dish of the day was off but either way I decided not to risk it.

So after that cheerful hatchet job on the town of Niagara Falls what about the falls themselves?  They are as advertised, one of the natural wonders of the world and well worth travelling to much worse places than this in order to see them.  They are magnificent.  I took the Maid of the Mists boat ride which takes you right up to the base of the falls past some very concussed looking seagulls.  This enables you to get a look at a semi circle of water essentially pouring right off a cliff in front of you.  It also enables you to get very wet.  For further near drowning experiences you can do the Cave of Mists walking tour.  It's very atmospheric as long as you don't mind an atmosphere so full of water that it's difficult to breathe.  Essentially you stand at the base of the American Falls while Mother Nature throws a river at you.  Rain ponchos are provided for both trips with the result that I spent a lot of the day struggling into and out of luridly coloured sheets of plastic.  The colours are to help them find your body if you fall in.  With a current running at 50km/h you're unlikely to be able to swim for it.

Wait a minute!  Did I say seagulls?  Indeed I did.  Anywhere there is water and people you will find seagulls.  If you spat in the desert you would be surrounded by seagulls demanding chips.  The seagulls at Niagara Falls seem a little stunned.  It's one thing to fly over or float on water.  It's quite another to be hit in the head by several million litres of the stuff travelling at 9.8 metres per second squared.  Most of the seagulls were bobbing dazedly about on the surface of the river wondering what the hell just hit them.  They were barely capable of lumbering out of the way of the Maid of the Mists as it approached (and believe me we weren't travelling that fast) as it approached.  For seagulls at least visiting Niagara Falls must be a bruising experience.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Travelling Hopefully but Expensively

Cleveland Airport is quite a nice little place.  Cutesy sized little planes take off from a modest and restrained runway.  Even the TSA officials sound like they mean it when they say "Have a nice day" after they've finished probing your body cavities with a pair of latex covered fingers.  Unfortunately my appreciation of this hidden gem of airportdom was soured by the fact that I was there at all.  Sadly Cleveland's amenities don't appear to extend to a particularly responsive taxi service.  Having taken forty minutes to arrive the taxi driver then took a wrong turn trying to find the station.  Since Amtrak chose that morning to deliver what can only be termed a spiteful level of efficiency I missed my train and was stuck with finding another way of getting to Niagara Falls.

Cleveland Airport came to my rescue.  In return for nothing more than virtually all the cash I had on me I was provided with a ticket to Chicago O'Hare with the promise that another plane would then take me to Buffalo, New York.  From Buffalo the latest in a long line of suffering Airbnb hosts would collect me and take me to their home.

By contrast with Cleveland Chicago O'Hare is so big I'm surprised they've got space for the city as well.  I think I've been in smaller countries.  I didn't like it as much as Cleveland, everything was quite impersonal and the cavity searches were perfunctory to say the least.  Nevertheless they did manage to herd me on to the right plane and by looking out the window I was able to see something of Lake Erie (or possibly Michigan) which I'd been hoping to see from the train.

At Buffalo I was told to look out for a white Kia which would be my steed to Niagara Falls.  Not knowing what a Kia was meant to look like I simply threw myself in front of every white vehicle that approached with a hopeful smile.  Eventually one of the drivers stopped issuing death threats long enough to ask if I was Neil.  Indeed I was and indeed still am.  With that out of the way he drove me to one of the habitable portions of Niagara Falls.

Travelling Hopefully - Rachel's Special Cleveland Edition

Before I left on my travels my dear friend Rachel set me a task.  Find something interesting about Cleveland.  At the time I thought it a difficult, nay, impossible task.  However it's turned out to be quite easy.  Rachel my dear, the interesting thing about Cleveland is that it still exists.  Cleveland is one those old steel/manufacturing cities that pretty much lost their reason for existence when the major employers in town realised there were third world countries out there that had never heard of work safety regulations and didn't care whether you paid your employees a living wage.

It's fair to say that Cleveland was smashed.  Industry had collapsed.  Poverty, unemployment and the social problems that go with them were rampant.  The city's population dropped from close to a million to less than four hundred thousand and the river was on fire.  To hammer in the final nail the owner of the Cleveland Browns planned to move the franchise to Baltimore.  Cleveland was your stereotypical rust belt hell hole.

I can't say they've completely turned it around but Cleveland is off the mat and fighting hard.  There are still parts of the city you don't want to go to and the population drop has given the whole place a hollowed out slightly deserted feel (unless you're downtown when the Browns are playing).  On the other hand there are deer (and squirrels) in the suburbs, downtown looks great, the lake is beautiful and public transport is pretty good.  They have one of the best hospitals in the United States, a world renowned symphony orchestra and a pretty decent dining and entertainment area.  All this plus a science centre that's open whenever the Browns aren't playing at home.  Speaking of which, the Browns may be struggling but the Cleveland Cavaliers brought the NBA Championship home this year.

I don't know if Cleveland will survive, times are tough for cities like this but I do know Cleveland will not go quietly into the night.

So there you go my dear, all sorts of interesting stuff about Cleveland and there's plenty more that I can't remember or was too lazy to write about.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - The Mistake by the Lake

I arrived in Cleveland at 5.30 in the morning in the pouring rain.  It was dark, wet and apparently devoid of life.  To be fair it was 5.30 on a Sunday morning.  I should have been grateful that the Amtrak station was open.  A little over an hour later it wasn't, apparently Cleveland Amtrak station is run by vampires because it's only open at night.  Cast into the outer darkness I trudged wearily towards the local public transport centre guided only by the incredibly helpful tourist maps that decorate pretty much every corner of Downtown.  So good were they that I found it impossible to get lost and turned up at the hotel without a hitch. The hitch came when I got to the hotel, it looked abandoned.  Fortunately it was just under renovation although services were a bit limited and by limited I mean close to non existent.  Still the bed was comfy which was the main thing.  I wandered up to the conference room where the gaming was taking place and essentially forgot about Cleveland for the next seven days.

When the gaming was done though I took advantage of a sunny day to catch the train into the heart of the city.  Accompanied by fellow Australian Aaron Cleavin (Aaron is actually from New Zealand but I was on holiday and minded to be generous to the colonies) I headed lakeside to check out the Great Lakes Science Center.  The Science Center is a museum dedicated to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) and provides an educational tour for visiting school kids.  It also houses NASA's Glenn Visitors Center and is the entry point for visiting the steamship William G Mather which is moored outside.  The William G Mather is known as "The Ship That Built Cleveland" due to its frequent trips carting ore for the Cleveland steel mills.

I got all the above information from Wikipedia incidentally because it turned out there was a minor issue with visiting the centre itself.  Just across the road from the centre is FirstEnergy Stadium also known as "The Factory of Sadness" which is the home ground of the Cleveland Browns NFL team.  A sign on the door of the Science Center announced that the Browns were playing a home game that day (they lost) and as such the centre was closed.  I mean science, technology, engineering and math are important in their own way but the Browns are playing goddammit.

Why the Science Center needed to be closed for a football match wasn't fully explained by the sign.  Perhaps all of the staff were at the game or maybe the city fathers felt Cleveland could handle the excitement of a football match or the Science Center but not both.  Possibly the police (as represented by several overweight officers testing the load bearing capacity of some slightly desperate looking horses) were afraid that the combination of disappointed Browns fans (their natural state) and rampaging science nerds was more than they could handle without support from the National Guard.

Whatever the reason the centre was closed and we had to make do with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame which apparently wasn't considered exciting enough to close during a Browns game.  The hall of fame must be absolutely fascinating to people who are fascinated by such things.  It turns out I'm not one of them.  The most interesting parts detailed the history of and influences on rock and roll from the very early days to the fifties.  Plus of course recordings of various artists including film of Elvis in his prime doing what he did best (bingeing on tranquillisers and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the truckload).  For the rest it looked like every rockstar in history had had a combined garage sale and kerbside trash pickup and the results had been placed behind glass in Cleveland.

After exhausting the possibilities for rock and roll based fun (I looked for the drugs and groupies exhibit but couldn't find it) we made our way through a sea of disappointed Browns fans and some suicidally cheerful Patriots supporters to an Irish pub where I ordered Irish antipasta partly because it was the only thing on the menu not made with Guinness and partly out of sheer curiosity.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - Leather & Stained Glass

I am a shambling imbecile!  I actually consider myself quite intelligent but even my best friends would agree (in fact, especially my best friends would agree) that when it comes to the task of being a functional human being I swing somewhere between "barely competent" and "alien from another planet".  My long suffering host in Chicago is the latest to discover this fact.  First I told her I was going to be late then I wasn't (not really my fault, Amtrak had a sudden burst of competence). Then I went to the wrong door and sent my host an increasingly hysterical series of messages because my key didn't open the wrong door.  Finally I managed to lock myself out of my own room.  More hysterical messages to my host later and she must be about ready to give up on Airbnb and convert her room into  a pumpkin patch to make some money.

Despite all of the above I've managed to achieve everything I planned for Chicago.  My secret?  Set the bar low.  Since my stay in Chicago was a short one I had identified precisely two sights that I was determined to see; the Leather Archive & Museum and a stained glass exhibition at Navy Pier.  Thanks largely to an excellent public transport system and guidance from helpful (and surprisingly knowledgeable) derelicts I was able to achieve both goals.

The Leather Archive & Museum is a facility dedicated to preserving papers and memorabilia from the leather and BDSM community.  The train dropped me in Loyola in northish Chicago a mere five minutes walk from the museum, or ten minutes if you get off the train and start walking the wrong way.  Still I found the place without too many problems (Squirrels!  Bunnies!  Bunnies & Squirrels!). Sorry, where was I?  Oh yes, the Leather Archive.

After I was buzzed in I was able to wander around and take in large murals of well muscled men with not a great deal of clothing.  The murals are the work of an artist called Etienne whose partner founded the museum after Etienne died in part to preserve the murals.

There is a generous collection of toys or "tools" as I was informed they used to be called.  Apparently in the 1950s code for a leather man was "working man".  So a leather man could approach a likely looking stranger and simply say, "working man, you?".  As such the collection of cuffs, restraints, dildos, chains etc were the working man's tools.  Centrepiece was a bright red spanking bench that looked so nice that I personally would have been afraid to touch it.

Also interesting was the memorabilia together with short biographies of various members of the community past & present.  For a brief sit down there was a video room showing interviews and clips from fetish movies.  The attendant seemed terribly chuffed that I had selected the museum as one of my sights to see in Chicago.

The next day it was grey and rainy so I went to look at stained glass at Navy Pier.  Lonely Planet which had guided me to the Leather Archive also directed my here but it would appear that the major display I was expecting had been removed.  However there was a modest display of work by Louis Tiffany so it wasn't a wasted trip.  There were only perhaps twenty pieces but they were exquisite and delicately beautiful.  Brightly lit on a pure black background the work seemed to glow as if it were alive.

I stood there wondering if photos were allowed when a wedding party arrived and turned the place into a photo shoot.  The bride and groom were photographed in front of a couple of the more spectacular pieces but I'm not sure if they actually looked at them.  Still with my photo question answered I waited until they made themselves scarce then went back and took a few snaps myself.

With Chicago thoroughly conquered (squirrels, squirrels, squirrels) there was nothing left to do but board a train to Cleveland.  Enough of this wandering around America like a slightly confused tornado.  Now it was time for ASLOK.