Saturday, 25 March 2017

Vernally yours

"If people did not love one another, I really don't see what use there would be in having any spring." 
- Victor Hugo

As someone once said, there is a world of difference between the first day of spring and the first spring day. I gleaned from somewhere (quite possibly by watching QI) that in these latitudes spring advances north at walking pace; whatever form of transport it used, it has now arrived in the Wharfe Valley. I have also been advancing at walking pace, though in my case it was  over Blubberhouses Moor along the Roman road that ran between Ilkley and Boroughbridge and then across Denton Moor and back down into the Washburn Valley. Anyway, be that as it may, the sun has been shining, buds are on the trees, they are playing bowls in Wharfemeadows Park and lawn mowers are on special offer in Argos. I would have included the appearance of lycra clad cyclists on the roads in that list of the harbingers of spring, but round here they never go away. Indeed the first item for discussion when Peter and I arrive at James' for a game is often just how difficult it has been to see them in the road while driving there, given their inexplicable preference for dark clothing on dark winter nights.

So it was again this week, but I suspect that in the absence of an accident you're not actually that bothered so let's take a look at the game instead. It was fun, as pushing toy soldiers round a table always is. I would normally start with the result, but it's slightly unclear what that was. I conceded defeat after a couple of hours - you will recall from the previous post that I was rather pessimistic going in to the second evening - but was persuaded to play out the next couple of turns by James. Naturally, I then had an exceptional run of dice rolling and my reinforcements from 21st Panzer swept right up on to the escarpment in a manner guaranteed to irritate not just the opposing commander, but also anyone who might have based an earlier decision to give up based on mathematical probabilities. I calculate that the chances of me making those particular command rolls was about 5 in 10,000 which means I think we can all agree that capitulating was the right thing to do even though it was subsequently proved to be the wrong thing to do.

As for the rules, it's too early to pronounce judgement. Apart from anything else we're all playing to different understandings of what's printed in them let alone what they actually mean, although obviously debate does lead to a consensus; that consensus being whatever James says. On top of which even my scanty knowledge of military hardware capabilities in North Africa during the Second World War has necessarily improved after a couple of games. It is therefore time to put it all to one side and do something else.







Wednesday, 22 March 2017

There is method in 't

"Madness in great ones must not unwatched go." - Claudius

And so to the theatre. I have been to see Hamlet, a rather bashed about and - thankfully - very much shortened version of Hamlet, but Hamlet nonetheless. The questions you are immediately going to ask are which male characters were played by women - Horatio and Rosencrantz - and whether it was in modern dress - no. Several characters and many scenes disappeared; the absence of Fortinbras meant that Horatio was literally the only person standing at the end, and she seemed to be looking longingly at the cup with poison in it.

Icarus Theatre Collective, for it was they, claim to "relish what others shy away from, show what others daren't", but in terms of staging it was pretty much like every other version of the play that I've seen: ghosts, madness, death and famous quotes by the bucketful. In this version the lines you recognise weren't always in the mouths of the characters that you expect (i.e. the ones that Shakespeare wrote them for) or indeed of any characters at all; the versatile cast, when not playing a particular role, often stood around acting as a sort of chorus, chiming in either instead of or as well as the actors whose scene it was. I must admit that I didn't really get the point of the speaking in unison. It just seemed to make it harder to make out the words. On the other hand in case one didn't fully appreciate the most famous bit - "To be, or not to be" obviously - they stuck it in three times in different places. 

None of the above should be taken as indication that I didn't like it; I found it very entertaining with plenty of energy. The sword fights were excellent. I realise that this is fast becoming one of the standards by which I judge plays; forget the poetry, what about the fencing?

Going back to me not getting the point of things on the stage, at the weekend I bumped into my friend the theatre critic of the Morning Star for the first time in ages. I asked her about Pygmalion, which she had reviewed more favourably than I thought it warranted. It seems that where I saw much of the action taking place in fish tanks for no discernible reason beyond the director's wish for a gimmick, she saw a symbolic representation of the social constraints under which women of a certain class had to live their lives. 

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." - Hamlet

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Johnny Cool

It's the first day of spring and it's alternating here between snow and hail. Let's have another Chuck Berry cover to take our mind off things; I really don't know how I forgot this one last time:


Back in the seventies, as much as I loved the Steve Gibbons Band I always saw them as a pub band who got lucky. Forty years on I think I was right. They did Dylan as well:


Sunday, 19 March 2017

Brown eyed handsome man

There's only one subject worth writing about today. He might not have been a nice man - indeed I heard Bill Wyman use pretty much those exact words once - but...





















That's Albert Lee in the Emmylou Harris video, proving once again that everything is connected to everything else; and yes, that is Elkie Brooks singing backing vocals behind Marc Bolan, Dave Edmunds and, er, Alvin Stardust.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

How far?

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." - T.S. Eliot

It's been a while since this blog interested itself in the higher mathematics. Those who recall the offset square line-of-sight debacle will know why. However, having done some, with hindsight, bogus calculations the other day regarding likely movement distances in Blitzkrieg Commander I have developed a bit of a taste for it and have had a short (actually very short) play with the numbers again, this time on a spreadsheet rather than in my head. This is a bit of a 'spherical chicken in a vacuum' exercise because what I calculated has nothing to do with reality, but then again we're wargamers so we should be used to that. And before I start let me apologise for sloppily referring in the previous post to averages when I really meant expected values.

So, if we assume that the Germans are trying to move an armoured formation as far as they can in a straight line across open terrain without firing or being fired at, without encountering anything in their way, without the units changing their relative position to each other, and making the assumption that only the first command roll each turn doesn't suffer a distance penalty, then the expected value of the distance they would move before failing their command roll is 21", or at least it would be if the commanders were not restricted to moving 24". Rather counter intuitively, the fact that they are so restricted means that the expected value averaged across several turns would be reduced somewhat further even though they can actually move more than the expected movement of the units under their command. However, to calculate the effect of that with greater precision is more complicated than even I can be bothered to do. On the same basis the British can expect to move 16", which would be similarly reduced by the command unit move restriction. The difference is entirely due to the Germans having a CV of 9 and the British 8. Possibly the most interesting point of all of this is just how much of a difference that lower CV makes.

Clearly we use inches rather than the centimetres of the original rules - embarrassing but true - and (mostly) convert them by multiplying by 60%, meaning tank units move at 12" per segment. The fact that neither expected value is a multiple of 12" gives a good indication of the abstract nature of all this. Anyway, apart from providing a tangible example of the importance of not unnecessarily reducing the target one is making a command roll against if one can avoid it, there were actually some concrete results from my self-indulgence. On re-reading the rules I think I've found two that we are playing wrongly:
  • Distance from commanders does not affect command rolls in respect of infantry guns (page 12, note 2)
  • The German flexible tactical doctrine means that HQ command units can issue orders without any penalty on their command roll (page 43)
So, not a complete waste of time then.

 "In mathematics the art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it." 
- Georg Cantor

Friday, 17 March 2017

'tis enough, 'twill serve

And so to the theatre. In the film "What's New Pussycat", mostly remembered now for its theme song, Peter Sellers plays a psychoanalyst (inevitably Austrian thereby allowing him to do it in an 'amusing' accent) and Peter O'Toole a patient seeking a cure for compulsive womanising (a). Arriving at a strip club O'Toole is surprised to meet Sellers already in the place and asks him why he is there, resulting in the following exchange:

Dr. Fritz Fassbender: I, uh, decided to follow you here.
Michael James: If you followed me here, how did you contrive to be here before me?
Dr. Fritz Fassbender: I followed you... very fast.


Firstly, don't blame me, it was Woody Allen who wrote the jokes. And secondly, I acknowledge that this isn't all that relevant, even the bit about compulsive womanising. I was reminded of it however because a few days ago I wrote that I had seen a second production of Romeo and Juliet since visiting Verona, and now I can report that I have seen the first.

The West Yorkshire Playhouse (another connection: O'Toole - who was born and raised in Leeds despite claiming to be Irish - addressed the first meeting of the body which campaigned for the WYP's predecessor theatre) have put on a production of the play strangely similar in outlook to the one I saw last weekend, though on a much grander scale and taking a bigger axe to the text and characters. It was set in the present in a Northern city that could be Leeds, full of feral young people behaving badly, albeit wearing more clothes than the average Leeds city centre reveller. I thought it worked well, with once again the Capulet party being a highlight. This time it was sci-fi themed fancy dress with Capulet himself appearing as Darth Vader, and the music being the extended remix version of "I Feel Love".


The musical interludes probably account for it being rather long, despite having fewer characters and less dialogue than usual. Gender swapping is the big Shakespearean trope of the moment and here they went for the Friar and Mercutio. Having been pleasantly surprised by seeing the latter very successfully played last year by near octogenarian Derek Jacobi, I had a similar reaction to now see the character played by a young, black woman. Indeed Elexi Walker's outgoing performance - you wouldn't believe where she put the torch while telling Romeo that he must dance - was the highlight of the play for me and things fell off quite noticeably after her death. Mention must also be made of Lawrence Walker as Benvolio (lots of actors sharing surnames here, including, rather disturbingly, the two leads) who gained more prominence than he otherwise might, partly by taking over Balthasar's lines as well as his own, partly by going to the ball dressed as Buzz Lightyear, but also by being relentlessly jolly in a Brummy accent; I put it down to him having twigged that he's the only one who is going to come out of it alive.

"To infinity, and beyond"

Despite the fact that I didn't like the cuts they had made, nor the rather strange attempt at a feelgood ending - which funnily enough didn't work - overall this was a return to some sort of form at the Playhouse following recent disappointments.


(a) The film was apparently originally intended to star Warren Beatty and Groucho Marx; I think I'd have paid to see that.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

An escarpment too far

Last night I dreamed I went to Sidi Rezegh again (a). I believe the details of the scenario are over at James' blog, but I haven't read it because it includes the British secret briefing. It was, as ever, an enjoyable evening although the Germans are in for the usual defeat; usual when being commanded by me that is. There are several reasons for this:
  • I don't know anything about the period. It was a time of rapid technological change and unless you know the difference between a III and a IV and an E and a G then you're on a hiding to nothing. I don't and, let's be frank, I'm never going to. It just doesn't speak to me. At one level this strikes me as odd because in my life I have known and spoken to several people who fought in the Libyan desert - indeed I was related to one - but then again perhaps it's not so odd after all.
  • I very much underestimated the firepower of the British infantry along the escarpment at the start of the battle or how impervious they were to artillery fire. (For the record I still don't understand that last bit). This is obviously related to my lack of feel for the period mentioned above.
  • I based my opening moves on the average distance that a tank command should move per turn before failing their command roll if moving is all they are doing (28" for Germans, 21" for British) under the Blitzkrieg Commander rules and as calculated by me making certain broad brush assumptions (mainly related to the placement of the commander) (b). In the event I didn't move as far, Peter moved further. Averages don't really mean anything over a couple of turns, but you've got to start somewhere when making a plan.
  • The scenario doesn't, in my opinion anyway, work. I quite like not knowing what is going to happen regarding possible reinforcements for the other side, but the ones that have already turned up mean that the Germans can't win. Given the move distances above there is no realistic way that the Germans could ever cross the escarpment via the wadi in the centre in the time allowed (averages do mean something over a greater number of turns); their only option was always to cross the gentler slopes to the east. The British now have that lined with hull down tanks. Given the way the rules work - in particular the need to concentrate fire in order to eliminate units - there are simply not enough moves left to dislodge them. In short, the game is too short to give the German commander a choice of options.
The rules themselves give an entertaining enough game. I am very much at ease with the uncertainty caused by the command roll mechanism. I don't really like the 'ganging up' element of the way that fire works, but it's not a big deal. The aircraft rules seem to involve rolling a lot of dice the importance of which is only understood by the umpire, but other than that are fairly simple. I thought that my use of the smoke and close assault from behind it went reasonably well and would have been a lot better if my tanks had dealt with the armoured cars like they were supposed to and if every man in the British army wasn't apparently equipped with a heavy machine gun of his own. I also don't understand why bren carriers are as invulnerable as a nuclear bunker despite - as far as I am aware - not having a roof, but like I keep saying, it's not my period.

(a ) Hat tip to Mr and Mrs Du Maurier
(b) For the record these are the numbers as I now calculate them. Originally I had misinterpreted the way that commanders themselves move and my plan was based on 8th Panzer moving more quickly.