Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review - The Sense of an Ending

My first foray back into fiction in a while was Julian Barnes' 2011 Man Booker prize winner, The Sense of an Ending. This was a short little novel, more of a novella really, of 163 small format pages. I did with this what I try to avoid; I read the first half in a couple of days, and then put the book down for a week or ten days before picking it back up and finishing. Even for a book of this length, the lack of continuity can be noticeable.

In the case of this particular book, which has a significant twist at the end, I found myself confused. I wondered if I mis-remembered something in the short time I had put the book aside, as it struck me that there was something not quite right in what I was remembering. If I had it to do over again, I would make it a point to read this one straight through with no breaks. C'est la vie.

Regardless, I enjoyed this book very much. It was slow paced, a minimalist character study of an aging man looking back over some of the key events in his life, both as a high school and college aged boy and how those events came back to affect him in his 60's. This was my first experience with reading Barnes, and it was a very good one. I have a couple other books of his, and might dive into another one next (I just ordered Ron Rash's new novel The Cove from Amazon this evening and might as well read something else while I wait for it to arrive).

Barnes has an eminently readable style and I wish I had tagged more nice passages as I read; there were many. I must be out of practice or something...

"History isn't the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It's more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated." [p. 61]

And on looking back on a long life: "There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest." [p. 163] A fine closing passage.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy Easter

I do not consider myself a religious person by any means, but I do appreciate Easter as a time to gather with family and be thankful for all that we have. I know this is not the intended point of the holiday, but to me it has become a Spring Thanksgiving in a way. To all family and friends, I wish you a happy day, and hope that you are able to celebrate it in whatever way has meaning for you, surrounded by those you love.
My sous chef honing her knife skills

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Peninsula Battle, 1811, Part 2

After the brief but bloody light cavalry action on the near flank fizzled out, the infantry had moved close enough for the battle to enter its primary action - the infantry fight. Allied troops moved against the line from their left center all the way to their right flank. British against the left center, Portugese against the right center, and Spanish against the right.

The Spanish moved against the French of Gazan's brigade who were moving aggressively to oppose them. As mentioned earlier, there was some confusion as to the referee's background talk, and the French on this flank were behaving very aggressively. Gazan's troops moved through the wooded patch beyond the bridge and formed into line. Spanish came at them in attack columns.
Spanish infantry and grenadiers moving up

Meanwhile, the Portugese of Campbell's brigade would tie up the French on the hill to their front, assaulting them in line formation. The French would hold, inflicting substantial casualties on the valiant Portugese, but would be pinned in place by their attacks.
Portugese of Campbell's brigade in the assault

To the left of the Portugese, the British brigade came on in one big mass of attack columns and lines. In the area where they hit the French line, they were opposed by only a single battalion of line infantry and a battalion of converged grenadiers. The British took pretty heavy casualties in their assault, but were able to stagger the line battalion and destroy the grenadiers. With most of the French right-hand brigade tied down in square formation to protect themselves from the unopposed British light dragoons lurking on their flank, there was very little to support the French center, which was crumbling quickly.
Massed British battalions hit the French center

In order to stem the tide of the British wave approaching them, the reserve brigade of French dragoons was split up and sent in two directions; one regiment to the right to drive off the British lights and free up the infantry on that flank, the other launched itself in a charge against the British infantry in the center. The charge was successful in breaking a British battalion, but cavalry cannot hold ground, and with Brits swarming around them to blast them in subsequent turns, I am sure this will prove true here as well, although it did buy some time.
French dragoons charge to buy time

On the French left, seesaw assaults between the French and Spanish continue while the Portugese continue to chip away at the French. In the last turn we played on this night, the French battery on the hill in the center of the photo below would fall to an assault by the Portugese cacadores facing them. This success, coupled with the British advance against the center adjacent to this part of the line would cause huge concerns for the French, and seriously jeopardize their goal of holding their position solidly enough to be sure of a secure retreat across the stream to their rear.
The French left holds, but at what cost?
At the end of the night, the French position was holding firm on both flanks. The problem was that the center was crumbling badly and in danger of total collapse. To make matters worse, two more British brigades were moving up from the rear; one behind the Brits in the middle and one into the gap between the Spanish and the Portugese. All that would be served by playing a few more turns would be to see if the French could stabilize things well enough to be able to exit the table in decent order. Frankly, that looks kinda doubtful.

Conclusion - This was a very fun night, and it is great to have played some Napoleonics again. It is one of my favorite periods, and one that we have not played much of due to a lack of satisfactory rules. As for LaSalle, my conclusions this time around aren't much different from before. Some comments (all of which come with the disclaimer that we were fumbling through the rules as we went and may have been doing some things incorrectly - further reading of the rules is happening soon...):

  • There is a very substantial degree of abstraction here, but in general I like the feel of the game, so I don't consider that an issue.
  • Artillery is quirky. Due to the tremendously restrictive fire arcs (i.e. absolutely straight ahead only) and the turn sequence, it is possible for enemy units to sidestep the fire arc and avoid being shot at. In our game we had a number of instances of British march columns approaching over clear ground at long distance and repeatedly moving out of the arc. With a broad field of vision, no obstructions, and all the time in the world, it is ludicrous to think that the French batteries would not be firing on those approaching columns. But according to our reading of the rules at the time, they couldn't.
  • Size of artillery doesn't seem to affect anything but range. From a combat perspective, assaulting the front of a 3 lb horse battery would be no different than assaulting a 12 lb foot battery. This is silly.
  • The devastating effect of melee combats takes some getting used to. It is a common thing for a completely fresh unit to lose a melee decisively (most of our combats seemed to be decisive) and vaporize instantly. No degrading over time, no getting pushed back, just gone.
  • Lack of unit morale rules removes complexity but makes all units seem pretty similar. The best of the best and the worst of the worst don't play tremendously differently in this game.
  • There don't seem to be any formation restrictions. For example, in our game, British foot units repeatedly attacked the French in massed attack columns. This goes against drill, doctrine and history. Early war linear armies like the Prussians would have the same issue. House rules can easily fix this.

Despite a few quirks, and some house rules we are mulling over (not to mention the need to learn the rules much better so the game goes quicker), this is a fun game that we will be playing more. Now to get to those Austrians...

Peninsula Battle, 1811, part 1

Five of us got together for a game last night, including Leo, Dave, Ryan and Ryan's friend Tim. The last time we had discussed what to play next, Ryan expressed an interest in Napoleonics, which was fine with me, as it is one of my favorite historical periods but one which we haven't played much over the last few years. I used to play From Valmy to Waterloo often at conventions, and really enjoyed the rules, although it is a little too complicated to be played with a mixed group of casual players. I picked up LaSalle a couple years ago at Cold Wars when it came out, and we played it shortly after and liked it. After a long hiatus, and given that I have spent the time recently getting my armies based properly to be ready to use, we decided that the game would be a LaSalle game.

The game itself was a throw-together, as I had to clean off my gaming table, set up a game and re-learn the rules (at least well enough to be able to fumble through) all during the day on Friday. Since my 15mm collection at the moment consists of French and British with a few Spanish and Portugese thrown in for good measure, we are pretty much stuck with playing Peninsula battles for the time being. I do also have some Austrians, but not enough yet to really so anything with them. That will go on the long list of things to make progress on.

Setup - French at left, Allies at right
The game pitted three French infantry brigades with brigades of light cavalry and dragoons in support, defending against an attack by three British, one Portugese and one Spanish brigade. The Allies had one light cavalry brigade at their disposal. The French goal was to hold their position long enough for their straggling brigade to get onto the board, join its comrades, and be able to withdrawal in good order off their table edge should they need to. The Allied goal was basically to attack the French successfully enough to prevent an orderly withdrawal. Ryan and Dave played the French, with Ryan taking two infantry brigades on the left (farther) flank, while Dave took an infantry brigade and light cavalry brigade on the right (near) flank. Leo and Tim would be the Allies, with Tim taking Spanish and Portugese brigades on the right (farther) flank, and Leo taking a British brigade and the light cavalry on the left (near) flank. The other two British brigades would enter as reinforcements.

First contact - light cavalry clash
Initial moves would see Ryan swing his arriving French brigade left towards the approaching Spanish after crossing the bridge in the distance. Tim marched the Spanish down the far flank at that brigade. The British and Portugese infantry moved up the middle, while the British cavalry moved aggressively at their French counterparts on the near flank. Ryan's decision proved to have a big impact on how the game developed, and was a nice example of the "friction" of war. In the short briefings I gave each side before the game began, I thought I was pretty clear on what the French goal was. Ryan heard something a little bit different than what I intended. Which would explain my slight confusion at his choice of actions - I fully expected him, at a minimum, to march the newly arriving brigade further along the road and tie better into the existing French defensive line. If he chose to be more conservative, he could march that brigade all the way behind the French center and set up a much stronger central defense. He chose to do neither, effectively moving forward to attack the Spanish.

British and Portugese advance in the center
The first real action was the clash of the light cavalry brigades on the near flank. Dave had a distinct advantage in quality even though the numbers were even, and he had a tactically superior leader. That didn't stop him from doing the statistically improbable and losing. LaSalle is a "buckets of dice" game, and in a combat between French hussars and British light dragoons, Dave was rolling a bigger handful of dice looking for easier numbers to get, and lost badly anyway. Poof, the hussars were gone, and his brigade leader was wounded. This would be the first of a number of such "how did I lose that one?" moments in this game. As expected, we fumbled with the rules, but I think we did ok in most major areas. Some of the same things that struck me as odd last time, still struck me as odd this time. The two most readily noticeable being the very restrictive arc of fire as concerns artillery (resulting in the ability of potential target units at long range being easily able to move out of the way of enemy guns), and the other being the fact that most melee combats seem to result in one of the two sides vaporizing. It is very much an all-or-nothing combat system. As I noted the last time, it is strange to see large, good, unscathed units vaporize in one turn. But that happens a lot.

Cavalry massacre
Anyway, the Allies continued to advance in the center, taking some hits from French artillery as they did so. The French and Spanish continued to advance on each other on the far flank, and the British cavalry pressed their initial upper hand in the cavalry fight. The next group combat saw the French chasseurs a cheval

Once the British cavalry chased away their opponents, Dave's infantry brigade on that flank was forced to deploy into square, preventing them from doing much to deter the British brigade that was advancing toward the French center other than to keep shooting long range artillery at them. This did cause a few hits, but the British kept coming. The French light cavalry losses did also force the French to begin moving their reserve dragoon brigade toward that flank to keep the British horse from getting too frisky. In the picture below, the British foot of Abercromby's brigade are finally in position to hit the French lines.
British attack the center

Next..the infantry fight.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Journey Without a Destination

From a miniatures painting standpoint, or just a hobby standpoint in general, I have the attention span of a flea. Always have, and in my mid 40's, almost certainly always will. I have been aware of this for a long time, of course, but have fought it. I have always put pressure on myself to try to focus on working on one project at a time, making significant strides towards completing something before moving on to the next bit of "ooh shiny!". Generally I have failed, and felt that I should do a better job of focusing my energies. It is hard for a person of my nature not to look at the blogs of some of my hobby compatriots who have the ability to do precisely what I do not and not feel a degree of wistfulness. Wistfulness that I cannot be more like the guy who lays out his 1,000 figures of unpainted lead for XYZ army and states with conviction "I will do nothing else until I finish painting these, which must be by Spring of next year". And then accomplishes his goal. I will never be that guy.

So my painting goal, and hobby goal in general, for 2012 is to embrace my inner attention-deficit self and do whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like it, with absolutely no goal or deadline in mind. I will revel in my lack of focus.

Over the last few weeks, I have painted in small chunks of time with some regularity after the girls have gone to bed. I have worked on:
  • Ottoman medieval heavy infantry
  • Ottoman janissary archers
  • Warhammer 40k tyranids (sci fi "bugs" like in Alien)
  • Warhammer 40k Imperial Guard troops (for generic sci fi "bug" hunters)
  • Warhammer Empire knights (just because I like the figures)
  • Warhammer Undead army troops of various kinds (again just because I like the figures, and wouldn't mind doing some medieval-ish Night of the Living Dead skirmish game at some point)
  • Seven Years War artillery and crew
Many of these can be seen on my painting table above.

I've also spent a lot of time re-basing 15mm Napoleonics to prepare for a LaSalle game we are going to have tomorrow night.

I like my new approach. And given that this new approach is really no approach at all, I think I can actually stick to this one...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Adirondacks 2012

...or "Revenge on Marcy"
The trip is set, plans are well underway, and for me at least, the countdown has begun. Almost as soon as last year's trip ended, conversations began about what the 2012 trip would be. Since last year was a bigger trip, this year would be smaller; a driving trip of 5 or 6 days. A return to the Adirondacks (a trip the guys did a few years ago) was an early front runner, and at this point I'm not sure I even remember what other options were discussed. We settled on the Adirondacks quickly.

Having listened to stories from the prior trip in the years since then, and never having been there myself, the Adirondacks to me are synonymous with one thing - Mt Marcy, the highest peak in New York state. Or as Dave puts it, "the hardest day of hiking I have ever done". It what has become legend in our group's guy-lore, the hike to the summit of the mountain (generally a spectacular view), was a cold, rainy, exhausting slog at the top of which the intrepid hikers could see.... nothing. Seeing as how they characterize this as Marcy having cheated them of a full-fledged victory, the upcoming trip has earned the theme of Revenge on Marcy. Or as I like to think of it, "yikes, what have I gotten myself into?"

The plan, as I understand it at this point, is:
  • Five of us going - the 4 Dakota boys plus Phil.
  • Renting a minivan.
  • Leaving on a Wednesday, driving much of the 6 hours, provisioning along the way, and spending Wednesday night in a motel not too far from the campground.
  • Thursday morning drive the remaining distance and set up camp. 
  • Have Thursday midday through Sunday night to do whatever. One of the big "whatevers" will of course be a hike to the summit of Mt Marcy. Thinking of that as a 15 mile death march with a lot of vertical climb is probably not approaching it in the proper frame of mind, but the legend has taken hold...
  • Drive home Monday.
My only issue to this point is a scheduling snafu on my end. I was not at the get-together where the actual dates were determined. When told what had been picked I said "sounds great". Then a little while later it hit me that Grace's birthday is during the trip. She has not been happy at the prospect of me not being here on that day, which I completely understand. I wouldn't have chosen to have it work out that way, but there isn't anything I can do about it at this point other than to bail out on the trip entirely, which I am not going to do. I have been working on getting her more comfortable with the idea of me being here for her party the prior weekend but missing the actual day, and while she is still not thrilled, she seems to have reconciled herself to the idea. It looks like my Revenge on Marcy will be carrying the additional weight of a little fatherly guilt.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Outdoor Gear

Last year's camping trip with the guys, and my first, was to the Dakotas. This year's trip in June will be smaller in scope, a Wednesday to Monday excursion to the Adirondacks around Mount Marcy in New York. Dave posted a blog entry recently that got me to thinking about the same subject - what gear, if any, do I need to get between now and then?

Campsite camping near a parked minivan loaded with stuff is certainly a different thing than backpacking, and my first round of gear purchasing in 2010 was for the Pinchot Trail backpacking trip in upstate Pennsylvania. Last year I picked up a few more things for the Dakotas, but that exercise was really more about making sure I had the proper quantity of clothing for a 9 day trip with limited laundry options. For that trip, I relied on others for most of what I did not have. Some of that will be the case this time as well; I don't see the need to go out and purchase a 2-man tent as long as Dave has room for me in his again (and by virtue of being able to claim familial prerogative, I hope he will...).

Thinking about what I could potentially buy, it really comes down to a few odds and ends, but nothing of real substance, as the core pieces of my gear are perfectly adequate as is.
  • I could use a small camp lantern, the kind that is about the size of your fist and weighs next to nothing, runs on small batteries, and puts out an adequate amount of light for most general purposes.
  • A few extra pieces of base layer clothing, even for warmer weather. Hypothermia. Not good.
  • I don't think I have a pair of rain pants; I should.
And that paltry list is really about it.

The main thing that I want to do in the way of prep for this trip (other than lose a few pounds that have crept back and get my legs in better hiking shape) is to spend some time looking at cooking options (equipment and recipes) in order to be able to make some camp meals that are a step up from meal after meal of burgers and hot dogs. The idea of buying and taking cooking gear in limited space on a plane was not very practical, but this is a driving trip, so that opens up some possibilities that weren't there before. If nothing else, it gives me something fun to look into...