Friday, 29 March 2019

I'll thcream and thcream until I'm thick; I can you know.

Many of you will be familiar with William Brown, the perennial eleven year old. Richmal Crompton wrote once of his attitude to school: 

"He disliked facts, and he disliked being tied down to detail, and he disliked answering questions. As a politician a great future would have lain before him." 

She wrote that in 1922; some things never change.

Thursday, 28 March 2019


The Seven Years War campaign has moved forwards in fits and starts over the last week or so, but the core mechanics seem to be holding up, and in one or two peripheral areas where they didn't we have quickly reached consensus about what to do. Wargames campaigns have to serve two purposes: they have to be entertaining in their own right and, even more importantly, they have to generate table top battles. These two elements aren't always compatible because, as in real life, one basically doesn't want to fight a battle unless one has a pretty good chance of winning, and that doesn't always result in much of a game. Indeed during the last campaign we had to develop pretty strict rules about how quickly one was allowed to voluntarily withdraw from the table and at what cost. It was a pleasant surprise therefore that the first battle of the campaign turned out to involve two reasonably matched forces. The slightly smaller Prussian army was attacking the Austrians. This isn't as odd as it sounds because the Prussians are somewhat better in terms of what their deck (remember Piquet is a card driven game) allows them to do. So, how did it turn out?

Piquet has a system for rating units that is flexible within certain parameters. On the night the Prussian turned out to be fairly average for them, whereas the Austrians turned out to be pretty damned good, which was slightly worrying for the Prussians. These had six turns to drive the Austrians from the field or lose shedloads of National Will points. Initiative you will remember is determined by each side drawing a domino from a bag, with turns ending when either side finishes their deck of cards or when both sides draw the same domino, a one in twenty eight chance. On the first turn the Austrians got all the initiative, whizzed through their deck and the Prussians suffered minor damage from artillery fire and hardly moved. The second turn wasn't so one sided, but the Prussian attack still didn't really get into gear before the Austrians had once again run through their deck. The start of the third turn was better for the attackers who got a unit across each of the two bridges, but then they were both routed by musket fire and retreated to whence they had come. The only hope for them at this point was that they had drawn a 'ford' stratagem card (meant to be a secret, but rather given away by the way they had moved up to a supposedly impassable river). Would they turn their card again in time?

In a word, no. The third turn ended abruptly when identical dominoes were drawn. Then the first dominoes of the fourth turn were also the same. As were those for the fifth. And the sixth. Four draws in a row were identical (odds of 614,656 to 1) and the game was over after an hour or so, with a few casualties to the Prussians and absolutely none to the Austrians. If it had been a one off game we would have played on, but in the context of a campaign we couldn't. It certainly wasn't the fault of the way the campaign is designed, just one of those quirks of Piquet. As the Austrian commander I ended the night perhaps somewhat the better off as I am in control of the battlefield and the enemy has had to withdraw. However, I'm not sure such a good opportunity to cause damage to Frederick's forces will come round again very quickly and perhaps in the long run the sudden end to the evening will prove to have been to my detriment.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

I informed you thusly

Your bloggist is not normally one to point out that he told you so. But can I refer you to my post of 19th November 2018, when I drew your attention to the fact that Kenneth Arrow had won a Nobel prize for proving mathematically that it was impossible to design a voting system to obtain a majority decision when faced with multiple alternatives.

What I didn't mention was that there is one exception to that rule - dictatorship.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019


Forget this rotten world, and unto thee 
Let thine own times as an old story be. 
Be not concern'd; study not why, nor when; 
Do not so much as not believe a man. 
For though to err, be worst, to try truths forth 
Is far more business than this world is worth. 

                     - from 'The Progress of the Soul' by John Donne

Friday, 22 March 2019


I had rather promised myself that I wouldn't cover this subject again, but I wanted to share something I read elsewhere, which seemed to pithily sum up where we currently stand: "The course of Britain’s politics for many years to come is going to be determined by a group of below-average politicians acting collectively in a blind panic at high speed.  That should produce good governance."

In happier news I have had a game with my recently purchased copy of "Quartermaster General: Cold War". I bought it because I felt it would be a handy standby for when the usual suspects were all available, but there was no game ready to play. 

"The lemonade tastes funny this week."

Unexpectedly this situation arose immediately, when we ran out of steam on the Great War before the new Seven Years War campaign was good to go. So the box was opened, cards were sleeved and we gave it a try. I think it went down well and it certainly served its purpose in bridging the gap. I have now played the Soviet Bloc in all three of my games of this and despite winning - by a solitary point - an definitely going to try one of the other factions next time. 

Map moves for the campaign have now started and after the first turn the Prussian public have been set all aflutter by rumours of an Austrian (or is it Russian) show of strength on the border; but are those rumours true...? In the finest traditions of wargaming in Lower Wharfedale the umpire's interpretation of things hasn't thus far been what I was expecting. Ironically, and without wishing to give too much away to my opponent, the relevant bit in the rules literally starts "to prevent any doubt". Perhaps James has missed his true calling and he should be drafting the timetable for leaving the EU.

I must also mention that I have once again been lucky enough to have seen the wonderful Wille and the Bandits (previously reviewed here), so let's end end with some music:

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

A nine bob note

"This is the devilish thing about foreign affairs: they are foreign and will not always conform to our whim." - James Reston

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Amiens - the tanks advance

We played out the Amiens scenario and the tanks did indeed advance, but quite slowly. They found hills difficult - entirely consistent with the original battle - and as the defenders kept scoring high on the countdown roll the game finished one turn before they would undoubtedly have secured victory for the British.

Neither Peter nor James seem to find it intuitive that one could lose the battle but win the game. I must admit that I don't really understand what their problem is; apart from a lot of spurious precision in the totting up of victory points there isn't anything involved that we haven't done before many times with other sets of rules. Anyway, flooding permitting, we are now going back to the legendary wargames room and the Seven Years War for a campaign of James' devising - more details at James' blog; I am commanding the Austro-Russian force - so it may be time to sum up my feelings about Square Bashing so far.

Firstly, the mechanics are straightforward enough and we got a few good games out of it. There seems to be consensus about which bits we would change. In particular ranged fire seems to involve an awful lot of dice rolls for basically no effect. That would seem to imply two alternatives so, based on a natural reluctance not to have any shooting at all, I think we will beef it up a bit. Also up for some tinkering are the pre-game asset rolls, the higher command stuff and aircraft.

More pertinently there is the question as to what it is trying to represent. It is pretty explicit that the forces are a division a side, but - in my opinion at least - divisions didn't fight like that on the Western Front; certainly not in attack. Now believe me I am firmly in the 'game' camp (as opposed to the 'simulation 'camp), but even so one of the reasons for historical wargaming in the first place is to try to reflect the realities and constraints of the time. In addition to that, the more I read I feel more strongly than ever that the best level for gaming the last year or so of the Great War is brigade. You may recall that's what I attempted when messing about with my own 'Blue Guitar' rules at the end of 2017. So, there you go, pick the bones out of that.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Punctuated Equilibrium

"There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen." - Lenin

I don't know what Lenin thought about evolution. Stalin in the other hand was very opposed to the idea of genetics on ideological grounds. Indeed in the Soviet Union of the 1930s it was said that for a child to look like its father was bad, because it showed the importance of family background, whereas to look like the man who lived next door was good, because it showed the importance of the environment in which one grew up. Lamarckism (a) - essentially the hypothesis that parents can pass on learned or acquired attributes to their offspring - was not just believed, but put into practice, adding to the country's agricultural woes.

The current most widely accepted view of evolution is Punctuated Equilibrium, which posits that evolution is not a steady, gradual process, but rather long periods of nothing changing and then periods of very rapid change following some sudden external stimulus such as meteor strikes, volcano eruptions etc. We might agree with Lenin (b) that there is some read across from biology to politics. My own working experience leads me to believe the same is true of business. 

The problem with the social sciences is that it is often very difficult to test hypotheses by experiment. The rest of the world can therefore be grateful to the UK for arranging - courtesy of the ignorance and prejudice of much of its population and the fecklessness and timidity of its political class - to shortly run an experiment in seeing how a country's economy reacts to taking a sledgehammer to its trading relationships. Will the dodo learn to fly? I have my own opinion, but we won't have long to wait to find out.

(a) For those desperately seeking some wargaming content, Lamarck served in the French army in the Seven Years War and was commissioned as a result of bravery on the battlefield,
(b) For the record, I know perfectly well that Lenin certainly didn't write that quote and almost certainly never said it either.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

"We have a scourge upon our land. Tis a woman with a crown." - John Knox

That quote obviously comes from the film 'Mary Queen of Scots' (spoken by David Tennant  unrecognisable behind a hugely impressive beard) rather than being historical fact; indeed any relationship between the film and what actually happened would appear to be accidental. The geography wasn't any better either: the scene labelled 'The Border' was clearly nowhere of the kind and they rather traduced Carlisle, which is a perfectly pleasant place, but was made to look like an outpost of Mordor. In fact visually the whole film was reminiscent of 'Lord of the Rings', although I would of course be the last person to draw any parallels between Orcs and Scotsmen. It was all enjoyable enough though and contained some fine acting as did all the films I'm going to mention.

"Looks like deep fried Mars bars are back on the menu boys."

Despite her own end being not exactly what she would have wished for, it was Mary's descendants rather than Elizabeth's who went on to reign over both England and Scotland. Queen Anne was, I think, her great-granddaughter and 'The Favourite' addresses aspects of the life of the last of the Stuart dynasty with what appears to be a similarly cavalier attitude to accuracy. It is a much better film though, despite the strange ending. Any film whose credits include 'Nude Pomegranate Tory' and 'Fastest Duck in the City' is going to be OK with me.

Boris Johnson

'All is True', which takes us back to the reign of Mary's son, is rather downbeat, melancholy even. Judi Dench is far too old to play Anne Hathaway opposite Kenneth Branagh, and whole chunks of it make no sense at all, with entire subplots disappearing left right and centre. It is however rescued by the acting especially Sir Ian McKellen. To hear him and Branagh each recite Sonnet 29 in very different ways is worth your time and money on its own.

"Fly you fools!"

I have also seen 'Colette' which, being set in 19th century France, has nothing to do with the Stuarts, but does feature a strong female character who has to put up with a lot of crap from the man in her life. She takes a leaf out of Queen Anne's book (specifically the version of it as portrayed in the film), replaces him with a woman or two and seems to be all the happier for it. And, last but not least, the film that I have seen this year which I would recommend the most is 'Stan & Ollie', a lovely paean to friendship. If the pair's final show together doesn't bring a tear to your eye then you have no soul.

"That's another fine mess you've gotten us into."

Monday, 11 March 2019

Antisemitism in the Labour Party

"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken." - Jane Austen

If overseas readers will excuse the omphaloskepsis, I intend to return to the carryings on within the UK Labour Party. One of the ironies in my recent post on the splits within the Labour Party was that the quote at the beginning was of course from one of a (fictional) band of Jewish zealots, and those same overseas readers referenced above may be excused for believing from the title of this post that the starting point relates to prejudice against Jewish people, zealots or otherwise. Instead it all actually stems from that old hobby horse of mine: democracy with the party. Antisemitism, to the extent it exists at all, is merely tangential.

I think it was Woody Guthrie who said that one can only write what one can see, and the reason that I haven't before covered this subject is that I have never witnessed any antisemitism within the party. As it happens my own MP, Alex Sobel, is both Labour and Jewish and when asked a few weeks ago he said that he had never experienced any antisemitic abuse, contrasting that with that he received from extreme right-wingers following speeches he made in parliament about the holocaust and the new Polish anti-defamation law. In mathematics there is a concept known as reductio ad absurdam, which basically means that something is disproved if in order for it to be true something patently ridiculous would also have be true. For me we reached that point a fortnight or so when a Labour councillor defected to the Tories citing antisemitic abuse she had received as the cause despite not actually being Jewish in the first place. It turned out that what had actually happened is that she hadn't been re-selected to stand in the forthcoming elections and, her enjoyment of being on the council being stronger than her political principles she had transferred to the opposition on the promise that she would be allowed to stand for them. All that seems to suggest to me is that the comrades made the right call at the selection meeting.

I see four drivers behind all the current furore:

Firstly, and notwithstanding what I have written above, there clearly is abuse going on. I am not going to rehash arguments that you all know about the pernicious effect social media has on discourse of all sorts not just political. And I have myself on previous occasions lamented the lack of historical perspective and intellectual hinterland of our leading politicians; it is obviously not going to be any better amongst their acolytes. The world is full of ignorant bastards and some of them are inevitably going to be found in the Labour Party; when they are identified as such they should be thrown out.

Secondly, there are people who are actively seeking to widen the definition of antisemitism to include any criticism of Israel. Many of the complaints actually relate to such criticism, and if we value free speech these must be rejected. This is an important point of principle which should be defended, Voltaire like, even by supporters of that state.

Thirdly, it is a convenient stick with which to beat Jeremy Corbyn. In this case I think that he, and those who support him will just have to suck it up. If it wasn't antisemitism it would be something else; it it wasn't Jeremy Corbyn it would be someone else. Cast your mind back to the vitriol thrown at the previous leader of the party by the Tories and the right-wing press: he couldn't eat a bacon sandwich properly (if the overseas readers are still with me, as bizarre as it sounds that is absolutely true), he somehow stabbed his brother in the back by standing against him (whilst mysteriously the opposite wasn't the case), and he couldn't be trusted with national security because his father was a foreign (i.e. Jewish, which you have to admit is quite funny in the circumstances) refugee.

Fourthly, it is a lever to try to remove democratic control from the hands of party members who have only recently seized it. Margaret Hodge wants to close down branches that dare to comment on the situation, whilst her and her friends appear daily in the press with their sob stories and crocodile tears. Tom Watson has called for the deselection process for MPs to be 'suspended', thereby rather giving the game away about his real concern. These people see politics as a nice little game for a select coterie - of whom they are of course members for life - while the rest of us are foot soldiers and cannon fodder. This affair is one further (possibly the last?) attempt to turn back the tide; Canute without the self-knowledge. But, as on that occasion, it won't work.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Oh, cruel time!

  Nature, that washed her hands in milk, 
  And had forgot to dry them, 
  Instead of earth took snow and silk, 
  At love’s request to try them, 
  If she a mistress could compose 
  To please love’s fancy out of those. 

  Her eyes he would should be of light, 
  A violet breath, and lips of jelly; 
  Her hair not black, nor overbright, 
  And of the softest down her belly; 
  As for her inside he’d have it 
  Only of wantonness and wit. 

  At love’s entreaty such a one 
  Nature made, but with her beauty 
  She hath framed a heart of stone; 
  So as love, by ill destiny, 
  Must die for her whom nature gave him, 
  Because her darling would not save him. 

  But time (which nature doth despise, 
  And rudely gives her love the lie, 
  Makes hope a fool, and sorrow wise) 
  His hands do neither wash nor dry; 
  But being made of steel and rust, 
  Turns snow and silk and milk to dust. 

  The light, the belly, lips, and breath, 
  He dims, discolours, and destroys; 
  With those he feeds but fills not death, 
  Which sometimes were the food of joys. 
  Yea, time doth dull each lively wit, 
  And dries all wantonness with it. 

  Oh, cruel time! which takes in trust 
  Our youth, our joys, and all we have, 
  And pays us but with age and dust; 
  Who in the dark and silent grave 
  When we have wandered all our ways 
Shuts up the story of our days. 

                  - Sir Walter Ralegh

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Sacre du Printemps

"I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it." - Igor Stravinsky

And so to the opera. I have been to see 'The Magic Flute', where thankfully the Queen of the Night's famous aria was sung beautifully. This was a new production by Opera North, which I enjoyed somewhat more than I had their previous one. All the performances were exceptional - I don't know whether it was deliberate or serendipity to cast an Irishman as Papageno, but I shall never now be able to think of him as anything else - and yet I still don't really like the opera. I have previous form in telling Mozart that he has got it all wrong and I'm going to do so again. None of it makes any sense. The masonic chaps are obviously meant to be the good guys, but they go round kidnapping and sexually molesting women and inflicting corporal punishment on each other. The Queen of the Night is meant to be the baddie, but doesn't do anything except sing and worry about her daughter, while her acolytes rescue the hero from the clutches of a monster that is about to kill him. It's most peculiar.

The plot of 'Katya Kabanova' at least makes sense, but is completely implausible whilst paradoxically at the same time being a bit too close to home for comfort. It also has an out of the ordinary operatic villain in the mother-in-law from hell, who was roundly booed at the curtain call. Unpleasant family members feature prominently as well in 'Gianni Scicchi'. I had seen two other productions of this in the last twelve months or so and perhaps that was why this particular one fell a bit flat. In addition there were some strange directorial decisions including the deceased - whose will is the cause of all the trouble - wandering about the stage, and climbing both walls and ropes from time to time despite being dead. 

Almost as confusing was an otherwise excellent concert staging of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's rarely performed Baroque work 'David et Jonathas'. That it wasn't acted out, together with the lack of surtitles and the fact that I have no French made it a bit of a struggle to follow what was happening. According to the programme the piece would originally have been intertwined act by act with a prose play in Latin that developed the characters and moved the plot along; maybe that would have helped, or maybe it wouldn't. What certainly wasn't of any assistance was my preconception that the Philistines were in the wrong. It seems that for this particular biblical story it's the Israelites who were being unreasonable; plus ça changeplus c'est la même chose. The role of Jonathan, presumably originally written for a castrato, was played by a soprano and so opera's fine tradition of the leading lady not making it to the end alive was maintained. 

Then there was the one that got away. Whilst there is nothing to compare with a fully staged opera supported by a large orchestra I also rather like watching works being performed in a more intimate environment. I therefore travelled across Leeds in the rush hour to see Opera UpClose perform 'La bohème' at the Theatre Royal Wakefield. I got there in plenty of time, bought myself coffee and cake in the pleasant little cafe and was just thinking to myself how civilised it all was when the lights went out. The power never came back on, the show was cancelled and I had to turn round and come home again. The cake was nice though.

Last, but not least, I have been to see 'The Rite of Spring'. Despite my carefully moulded image as a man of culture I have to confess that I had never previously seen a ballet; I therefore have absolutely nothing to compare this with. I can, however, report that I enjoyed it immensely. The music was loud and powerful (if one is to contrast it with his contemporaries it was less melodic than Puccini, less dissonant than Schoenberg; I was reminded of prog rock, but I'll bet that I was the only one) and there was lots of vigorous and entertaining leaping about on the stage. I had always wondered how the narrative was explained in ballet if there weren't any words. In this case that was rendered moot because there is no story: it is simply a series of pagan mating and fertility rites. It made me wistful for this blog's erstwhile female reader, who always rather liked that sort of thing.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Quartermaster General: Cold War

Three or four months ago I posted about a highly unsatisfactory six player game of Quartermaster General: Cold War. I also hazarded a guess that it would probably make a very good three player game. I have now had a chance to try it and can confirm that it does indeed. I thoroughly recommend it as I do the (five player) first world war and (six player) second world war versions. I am rather keen to try the (four player) Peloponnesian war version, but sadly don't know anyone who owns it. I could of course buy a copy myself, but I think we all know that won't happen. I am however genuinely considering getting a copy of the cold war game, as there is a definite niche in my hobby life for a three player game that can be played to a conclusion in a couple of hours or so. It's my birthday soon, so perhaps I shall treat myself.

A rogues gallery

One of those with whom I was playing has expressed an interest in having a game in the annexe. He is apparently an aficionado of C&C Napoleonics in its boardgame version and is keen to try the aesthetically more pleasing experience with toy soldiers, and so I have invited him round. I have been down this route before, and it may come to nothing, but I do think that gridded wargames provide the easiest way for people to try gaming with miniatures for the first time. It will also be an excuse to replace the Great War stuff with something more colourful - after we have tried out the tanks of course.

Monday, 4 March 2019

The cavalry are coming

I can't believe that I haven't used that title for a post before; maybe I have. Anyway, illness - not mine on this occasion - has caused Amiens to be postponed. In the meantime I have acquired a unit of British cavalry from IT Miniatures in both mounted and dismounted form. I'm not entirely sure what size of formation they are meant to represent, but the rules give them the same number of figures as infantry units so I will as well. Painting will commence forthwith. 

Mention of modelling inevitably begs the question as to what happened to the 20mm 6" howitzer that I planned to use as the basis of a 1/72 4.5" howitzer on the postulation that the trail and barrel were the right shape and a more suitable size that the smaller gun. Well, the plan depended on my scratch building a shield, which I thought at the time would be a simple enough task. The relevant Osprey doesn't have a direct frontal view of the 4.5", but it certainly has enough illustrations to understand what they looked like, and after all it is a small enough scale to allow bodging it a bit. Or so you would think. I have so far had three attempts and have given up; they all come out looking too tall and narrow. I am still considering it, but probably I shall just make it up as the 6" and the British can occasionally field a heavy gun that has found itself in the wrong place.