If It Keeps on Rainin’ Levee’s Goin’ to Break

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The films that Brad Pitt produces are, insofar as I’ve watched them, universally interesting.

These include a number of top-tier releases (The Departed, Kick-Ass 1/2, Moneyball, World War Z, 12 Years a Slave, Fury) as well as some “indie” type productions (Killing Them Softly, The OA).  One gets the impression that he is personally backing the type of films that he believes (and it seems that I believe) that Hollywood should be making, but generally doesn’t. Of course, his production list includes many I haven’t watched, and probably more than a few I wouldn’t care to watch. That said, Pitt’s involvement is starting to feel like, if not an instant mark of approval, at least a mark of “this could be interesting.”

In this case, however, I had no idea until the opening credits started in that I was watching one of the above. The movie The Big Short was slated to come off of Netflix just after the first of the year, so I jumped on it before it disappeared.

Likewise, Pitt as an actor continues to surprise, also in a good way. I had dismissed him as a pretty boy without any real acting skills until I saw him in 12 Monkeys. Much like Depp and DiCaprio (of whom I had the same opinion back then), he has grown on me as the years have gone by. As one measure of acting ability, if I am unable to recognize the actor from movie to movie (Frances McDormand was my classic example of this), I assume I’m looking at a job well done. In this case, despite the fact that Brad Pitt’s face is actually on the “box cover,” I actually did not place him until several scenes in for him. Pitt plays Ben Rickert (based on real life ex-trader Ben Hockett) and does so convincingly enough for me that I just didn’t make the connection.

In fact all the actors (except maybe Christian Bale, who has blown me away more than once) are delivering performances beyond anything I expected from them. They are mostly light and/or comedic actors in a fairly serious movie. Furthermore, with the script jumping between characters whose lives only casually intersect, it would seem that the ability of the multiple lead actors would be critical to a successful film. The professional film critics seemed to agree; praise for the actors is a common theme in reviews of the film.

I believe I saw a review somewhere that suggested the film would have been a dud except for the excellent acting. With that I cannot agree. I actually have praise all around for this picture. Other reviews concentrated on how the film, like the book it was based upon, was written to help explain to regular folks how the mortgage crisis happened. Some praised or critiqued it on that account. Myself, I’ve read quite a bit on the subject already, so the level addressed by this movie wasn’t really over my head. Some have said that, despite efforts to make it easily digestible, many viewers still didn’t understand the “what” of the crisis and were only left with the sense that what happened was a system gone terribly wrong. That in itself might also be a measure of success.

The film uses a number of devices to help serve up the technical subject. In another context they could be considered cheap tricks, but I think they added to the real-life-as-black-comedy feel that made the movie. Frequent breaking of the fourth wall seems to be common these days, almost to the point of being overused. Yet it is some of my favorites that do it (I’m thinking House of Cards and Mr. Robot, right this second). The Big Short adds a flourish where the character turns to the movie audience and says, “it really didn’t happen that way.” By explicitly drawing attention to the artistic license used to make a real life event into an on-screen drama, I felt it enhanced both. Another trick is to use real celebrities, as themselves, to explain the technical details of Wall Street’s financial products. I don’t know how many finally understand mortgage backed securities having had it explained by a hot babe in a bubble bath, but to me, that’s entertainment.

I saw in an interview promoting the movie where Pitt expressed some admiration for Hockett in his willingness to prepare for difficult times. The admiration seems genuine, although Pitt says he is “too lazy” to actually put in the effort to (for example) be self-sufficiently growing food. Contrast that with the description of the character on Wikipedia as ” a paranoid and germaphobic retired former trader.” Maybe it says more about me than about Rickert/Hockett, but his level of paranoia and germaphobia seemed reasonable and prudent to me.

I seem to have a take on this movie perhaps a little different than the average Neflix watcher. One Netflix review begins “You’re not supposed to like the protagonists…” Another describes the characters as “An assortment of despicable people…” Is it simply that, as the villains of this tale are bankers, and the lead characters themselves are all bankers, most assume that the they are all bad to some degree? Or maybe it is a societal prejudice for those on the Asperger’s Spectrum?

Yes. Both. But I think there is another factor at play here. Imagine with me a situation.

We have a neighbor who is always talking about how this place where we live is long overdue for a huge storm; a hurricane of epic proportions. He has all kinds of stories about shifting ocean currents and how the powers-that-be-are ignoring the obvious, and how we’re all fools not to prepare for what is bound to happen. He’s mostly ignored – dismissed as a crank. He is not on the top of most lists for neighborhood party invite lists.

Imagine also, though, that as he describes what is going to happen when the storm hits, and the levee breaks, and we’re cut off from electricity for weeks on end – it is not fear and trepidation in his voice. No. He actually seems to be looking forward to this mini-apocalypse that he is predicting. In your mind, that probably adds to his unpleasant qualities.

Summer rolls into fall, and a Cat. 5 hurricane rolls right over our city, just as our unpleasant neighbor said it was going to do. All of his predictions (and presumably much of his advice) turn out to be dead on.

Think of it… do you know say “Boy, that guy was right all along. I probably should give him more respect than I have in the past?” Or do you hate him even more. Be honest.

Now imagine that you come to find out he was actually hoping, praying for his prediction to come true. As the hurricanes track seemed to shift from a harmless pass out to sea to smacking you right in the gut with its full force, he was watching the news saying “Please, please, please, please… YES!” Don’t you really hate him now? Do you even blame him for your own suffering? Just a bit?

Now, you know full well that no amount of sitting in front of your T.V. saying “please” is going to impact the track of a storm. Even if you do believe in the power of prayer, do you really believe that one man’s quest for schadenfreude drew God’s attention over the 10s if not 100s of 1000s of those praying for God to spare them? The rational part of your mind knows that full well, but the emotional part says, “It’s this guy’s fault. He WANTED this to happen.”

Now, imagine, in addition to stocking up on extra water and canned food, he bought some financial instruments the netted him a massive profit when the storm hit. He not only seemed to want the storm to come, he saw to it that he would profit from that storm. What do you think of him now? Do you hate him more than ever? Do you, perhaps, feel entitled to some of what he has… either the water and food he saved for his family, or the many, many millions he’s got from cashing in his Cat Bonds? If the power is out, and the police have fled, and nobody else is around, how far would you go to take your due from him?

After all, he is profiting from your misery. Right?

When I watched the movie, I have nothing but admiration for Dr. Burry as a visionary who saw what nobody else would see. The data right in front of everyone said that a collapse was inevitable, but he was one of the first to see it. Furthermore, he put himself on the line to prove he was right. I say this even though I, like most, personally suffered from the the crash from which he profited.

Part of why I respect this film’s characters is that, in a properly functioning financial markets, money is information. “Betting” on truth is itself a way to correct market failures, and perhaps a more effective one than just trying to warn people. Recall that the players in this tale did both – they not only invested against the mortgage market, but they explained why they were doing it. What is truly scary about the movie is to the extent it demonstrates that the markets were not, and almost certainly still are not, properly functioning. If being smart, or good, or right are all irrelevant, what is left that is relevant and what does that say about the next time we’re all about to get screwed over by the system?

Nothing good. That’s all I know.

Oh yeah. I still have yet to watch Fight Club. Sue me.

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No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

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I am playing out a game in Pax Renaissance, trying to analyze the end moves. Having just put some thought into the time surrounding the conquest of the Emirate of Granada, it leads me to consider how the various options for fit into a historical narrative (either similar to or departing from actual history.)

For this turn, we are considering the options of the Fuggers. In the late 1480s the Fugger family, while established in Augsburg, were not yet players on the world stage. They had only begun their financial relationship with the Habsburgs, a relationship that would soon see them financing Charles V’s election as emperor. Indeed, the card layout fairly represents the Fugger’s interests at the time, with some market concessions in Germany and some heavy investment in Hungary. The Fuggers actually did, within this same time frame, control copper mining operations in Hungary and mines elsewhere in Silesia and Tirol. Perhaps not enough to actually “control” the throne of Hungary, as in this game, but – well – close enough.

Fugger Tableau

The only empire under control is Hungary. On the other hand, look at all that law prestige accompanied by “vote” operations in both tableaux. No money, though.

By contrast, my rivals (the Medici bank) dominate the Silk and Spice trade from the East with control of the trade routes through the Mediterranean. Despite heavy influence in the courts of the Ottomans and Byzantium (which quite ahistorically has not fallen to the Muslims), they are unable to substantialyl profit from the Silk Road trade, which is no longer fully reaching Europe. The Medici also have their fingers in the court of Portugal, but despite some exploration of the African coast, there is no alternate sea route to the east. The Medici do control the more accessible trade through the Black Sea port of Tana, although it is more difficult to profit from those investments.

paxmap

Medici (yellow cubes) dominate the trade routes. They also have substantial influence in the Muslim controlled east. But the future is in Republicanism.

In building this powerful position, the Medici let one opportunity slip by.

Medici Tableau and map

The Medici have control over Portugal, the Ottoman Empire, and Byzantium, in addition to their trade dominance.

Recall that the victory conditions in Pax Renaissance are determined dynamically by the players.  Within the theme of the game, a comet appeared in 1472. Rather than superstitiously dwelling on the portents, astronomer Regiomontanus of Nürnburg (Johannes Müller) used geometry and astronomy to estimate the size and distance of the comet from the earth. He failed by orders of magnitude, but at least he tried.  Gamewise, the Fuggers were able to declare a “Renaissance Victory” which measures the advancement from the Medieval Age to the Early Modern Age by the ascendancy of Republican-ruled nations and city-states. It was largely a defensive move, as the Medici’s have two types of victory within their grasp. Their control of the Ottoman empire gives them a “Holy Victory” (for Islam) and their additional control of Portugal and Byzantium gives them an “Imperial Victory.” Fugger really didn’t have a Renaissance Victory in sight when choosing it, but there is now an opportunity for them in the West.

market

While the real money is in the spice and silk trade with the Far East, that wealth is largely inaccessible to the merchants of Western Europe.

What Fugger does have some influence over is the clergy on the Iberian peninsula, particularly the zealots of the Office of the Inquisition in Castile and an anti-monarchy faction in Aragon. This can be deployed strategically to substantial advantage. By critiquing the pace and enthusiasm of Castile’s commitment to the reconquista I will provoke a new crusade to be declared charged with wiping out the Muslim occupation once and for all. In doing so, I can force a upheaval in the ruling powers of that nation (and, of course, replacing the Medici people with those loyal to myself). As an added bonus, a crusade will draw in knights from France and Aragon, potentially weakening those powers and making them vulnerable to the inquisitors of Castile and Portugal. Having gained control of Castile, Portugal, and perhaps France or Aragon, I can now go after the monarchs themselves. Shifting the power from those nations’ kings to republics will win me the game.

paxport

The Emirate of Grenada is a black mark on the heart of Christendom. It is here I will make my move.

Given the choice between France and Aragon, it is France that presents a weakness. At first glance, they are the strongest of the three empires bordering Castile. However, in additional to co-opting their knights into my crusade, I have another card up my sleeve (almost literally, as we are talking about a card game here). In the north-west corner of the area of French influence, there are several provinces that have eschewed feudalism for centuries. It will be easy enough to provoke conflict between the republican sentiment in Friesland and Groningen and the nobility who see an opportunity to be granted hereditary control over those territories. Such a conflict would also draw in the forces of the French king and, combined with the crusade, leave France open to invading armies.

The Turn of a Friendly Card

That’s quite a tale and I’d like to walk through it again in gameplay terms. Cast in those terms, the Renaissance Victory is active and I already have 3 cards with “Law” prestige. That means to qualify for victory, I simply need to have more republics than my opponent. In this case, neither myself nor enemy control any Republics thus far. So as it stands right now, converting one of my monarchies to a republic will be sufficient to win.

There is one caveat in this. Claiming victory in itself is a move. Each player turn consists of two actions, so in a way one player takes two turns and then the other player takes two turns. If you are able to achieve conditions for victory in one move, you then use your second action of the turn to declare victory. If, on the other hand, it takes two actions to put you into a winning position, you then must allow two turns from your opponent. In a way, it disadvantages the “offensive” player in that “defender” always gets one extra move to stave off defeat. It also means that a victory is often a multi-turn plan that can go wrong any number of ways in the interim.

inquis

The Spanish Inquisition card can launch a Crusade.

Considering this, although I only need to convert one empire to a republic, I’m going to target two to give my plan some redundancy. Target number one is Portugal, given that the card in my hand has the ability to capture that empire via a Crusade. Target number two, as I discussed above, is France. If you look at my tableau (the first picture in this article), I have a card for France with the “Siege” operation. With that, I have the ability to weaken the defenses in France to a point where I can invade and capture it. Assuming, of course, that I control an empire from which to invade. Like Portugal.

The Grand Inquisitor card is playable immediately and would transfer Portugal from the Medici tableau to my own. But there is a problem. I don’t need to just control the Portuguese government (and remember, back in the narrative, Portugal and Castile are both represented by the Portugal designation within the game), I need to further be able to unseat the monarchy. I have the means to do so in the form of two “Vote” operations in my tableau, but I can’t win that vote. To be successful with a vote, I need to have a plurality of the concessions bordering the empire where the vote is taking place. Right now, the Medici have the one and only concession. The black pirate blocks a second concession from being place. So while I am entitled to place one concession upon taking control of Portugal, that would require repressing the existing Medici merchant first. Repression costs money and, again looking at that top picture, I don’t have any money.

Therefore, before I consider playing that card I’m going to need to generate some cash. The Trade Fair is out because the Western market doesn’t have money and the Eastern market is completely under the Medici’s control. What I do have is a “Commerce” operation in my Tableau, courtesy of a secret organization of guilds based in Aragon which is anti-monarchist, anti-feudal, and anti-Islamic. The “Revolt of the Brotherhoods,” the event in “The Hidden” one-shot, will never take place in this game (and is anyway some decades in the future), but were they around already it might make sense that these folks would support my own play. If I play that Commerce operation before launching the Crusade, I’ll be able to fund the it properly.

As an action, executing operations is special. Rather than launching a single operation the player, using a single action, can play any or all of their operations within a single tableau (East or West). This obviously opens up the possibility of some complex moves, particularly in the end game when there are a lot of cards on the table. It also means for some complex interactions you have to not only carefully choose which operations to execute, but also the order.

My plan for the turn is to use three operations to pave the way for my use of the Grand Inquisitor for the crusade. First, I get some advantage from the existing Medici influence in Portugal/Castile. With the tax operation, I warn the Grenadians of the impending assault upon them and cause them to tax the Medici merchants to build up their defenses. It costs the Medici all of their remaining money and will make the impending crusade all the more bloody, which I think will be to my advantage. Next, as I suggested, I draw on the Brotherhoods to raise funding for my own army. Finally, the Frisian Freedom card is used to eliminate the rook from Lyon.

That opens up the play for the seizure of Portugal. With this setup, the ensuing battle will see the loss of the two defenders (the rook in Granada and the black pirates), and I will sacrifice the crusading knights from Paris and Valencia, thus preserving the Catholic army in Toledo. The Portugal empire card is transferred from the Medici tableau to my own, eliminating their influence via Elżbieta of Bohemia in the process.  In order to facilitate the republican surge that I intend for the next turn, I will place my concession from the regime change on the border with England, repressing their existing merchant, and set up ready to support a vote.

That repressed merchant may cause problems going forward, as the residual influence of the Medici would try to block my disassembly of the Castile monarchy. Fortunately, I have the Spanish Inquisition and two operational cards to facilitate it. Upon placing the Grand Inquisitor in my tableau, I will deploy the bishop on that card. In the following turn, I can move the bishop to Portugal and pacify the Medici serf. With two inquisitor operations, which I have, I can also move the bishop back, freeing up the Kingdom of Portugal and its armies to pressure France into my camp.

These move are enough for me to set up a win for next turn, but the Medici has a turn to foil my plan. Indeed, they have a path to do so, even though it may not by obvious at first glance. (Actually, it is not obvious at all to you, because my screenshots don’t show my opponents hand, which holds two “one-shot” cards). The secret to saving himself relies, not on countering my moves and blocking my conversion of France and/or Portugal to be a republic. One of those two is enough for me to win and, anyway, there is no means for the Medici to influence either. Instead, he needs to control a Republic of his own, insuring that I need, not one, but at least two republics to claim victory.

But that drama is going to have to wait for another article.

I’m Feeling Lucky

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Why are word clouds so fascinating?

If I look at my own most-used tags and categories, it left me wondering what are the top articles in the WordPress universe that use those same tags?

review

wargames

History of Games

Cold War

Fascinating.

Number 5 on my own list is Netflix, which is largely me griping about my own experience with their service. Part of me really thought that I’d find similar content associated with the Netflix tag elsewhere. Of course that is silly. It’s pretty much reviews of Netflix’s in-house content.

I’m Not Saying It Was Aliens But…

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I was talked into watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull by my kids, who wanted to round out their watching of the series of Indiana Jones films. It’s not a terrible movie. In fact, it is roughly all the stuff that made up the originals, but now with 2008 CGI.

Possibly because of that CGI, the story went from classic-movie suspension of disbelieve to crazy-cartoon-superhero suspension of disbelief. Yes the original was filled with crazy stunts and frequent sure-to-be-deadly situations for the heroes, but there seemed to be some limits. Spielberg was deliberately trying to reproduce the feel of the serials of the 1930s and 40s, where each episode would end with the hero in ineluctable mortal danger. Of course, if you paid your dime and came out to the theater for the next episode, you would get to watch how the hero was able to defy his doom. Compared to the original, a line seems to have been crossed. There is a difference between surviving being sealed into a tomb versus being tossed a half mile into the air by a nuclear blast while riding in a kitchen appliance. And yet for both, Indy merely has to dust himself off a little.

I’m not angry I watched it, but I don’t regret waiting almost a decade to do so.

For what its worth, I’ll give an extra quarter star for working “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” into Harrison’s dialog.

Wolves of the First Reich

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The main reason I bought Field of Glory when I did was because Slitherine was preparing an additional module called Wolves from the Sea. That module is focused on the Viking Age armies and battles, expanding from the late-Roman Empire offered in earlier modules. At that time, I was indulging in the History Channel’s Vikings series, and was seeking wargaming tie-ins with that period. Outside of Medieval: Total War and some Viking oriented mods, I could not find a serious treatment of this at a tactical level.

Field of Glory, at that time, was going through some difficulties. The game was originally released in 2009, which isn’t all that long ago by the standards of many of the games I’ve been playing. Nevertheless, a couple of years after its initial release, there were issues. The original developer was no longer supporting the game, but it it remained popular enough and Slitherine was continuing to release new modules. I have this vague memory that there was a hard-core user who had taken on the original source code, but that would require searching back through the forums, which I won’t do. Whether a false start was abandoned, or never really took off in the first place, Slitherine ultimately decided that the source code (in Real Basic) was not maintainable.

By around 2012 another group of developers came up with a plan to port the system to the Unity gaming engine. The release of the Wolves from the Sea became tied to that project – that is, the new module would be released to run on the updated base game. Then the years began to go by and neither the new version nor the new module were available to the paying public.

I had been eyeing the product since it’s original release. I was deterred by lackluster reviews (particularly as a single-player experience) and one design flaw. I was persuaded by a particular criticism concerning the use of hexes versus squares – for the linear battles of the Roman era, the use of hexes for the map just seemed to throw things off.

Then a couple of years ago, I was (as I said) searching for a serious, tactical Viking game. That imminent Wolves of the Sea release popped up again. The situation at the time was that the Unity project was well under way and was trying to reproduce faithfully the original Field of Glory experience. That Unity version (Fog(U)) was available for download for FoG players in a beta form. I read that the beta included a (beta) Wolves of the Sea module. I decided that the combination was enough to put me over the edge and I bought the original FoG, discounted as part of that year’s Christmas sale.

By the time I got everything installed and working and was able to try out the combinations, the availability of the free Wolves of the Sea was no longer part of the package. The Unity version was available, but only to play modules that were duly purchased for the original game. Furthermore, the state of Fog(U) at the time was buggy enough that the best experience was to play in the original engine. And so I stuck with the old engine. Any experience up to this point focuses on that version.

The long delay in release bled much of the steam out of FoG(U)‘s engine. The delay certainly halted the momentum of frequent expansion modules, which of course will blunt enthusiasm for a game. Furthermore, as the development remained focused on getting a non-buggy reproduction of the original Field of Glory, but in the new engine, that meant work was not going into the improvements to the engine – the whole raison d’être for upgrading the engine in the first place. Finally, by the time FoG was released and moving forward again, Field of Glory II was in development. At least for me, FoGII looks to deliver much of the promise that FoG doesn’t fulfill.

Once again, however, it is time for the Slitherine/Matrix Games Christmas sale, and this time it finds me again dwelling on medieval fighting. As before, I am looking at the period leading up to the ascendancy of Charles V to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. This time, however, I decided to go way, way back to the chronological predecessor of Europa Univeralis. That is, Crusader Kings 2 ($10 in the Steam Christmas sale, I might add).

Crusader Kings was a follow-on to Europa Universalis, but its predecessor in terms of historical chronology. CK2 can start as early as the beginning of Charlemagne’s rule and lasts until where Europa Universalis takes over. There are several start dates scattered throughout that period. I was actually a little surprised that there aren’t mods out there to capture other snapshots of history. Maybe the sheer amount of work to research the name of every count, duke, king and emperor for a given date dissuades anyone who might decide to try.

I was hoping to target the ascendancy of the House of Hapsburg from mere control of a county to the control of the empire. Roughly, the mid 1270s. Within CK2, their main scenarios taking place around this time start at 1220 (titled Age of the Mongols) and at 1337 (focusing on the Hundred Years War). I went this time with the 1220 date. Further, I decided the emperor himself was a shaky play. The game warns that the Holy Roman Emperor is a “difficult” faction to play. Historically, the Hohenstaufens were a decade or so from being eliminated as a political power. Instead, I searched for a lesser title in the Empire that the game ranked as a little easier. I ended up settling on Ulrich III, Count of Neuenburg (or Neuchâtel from the French side of the border), who in CK2 is given a ducal title.

It is another lesson in the illusion of detail within the Paradox engine. So much is modeled within the engine, it is sometimes a shock when things are not. From 1152, the house of Zähringen had been granted a duke-level title (Rector) over the former Kingdom of Arles or Kingdom of Burgundy. That dynasty ended with the death of Berthold V, and the duchy was divided rather than assumed. At the start of the game, Ulrich III held county titles to Neuchâtel, Fenis, Aarberg, and Strassberg, as well as lower level titles. Bern, by contrast, become a Reichsfrei, a free imperial city beholden only to the Emperor himself. CK2 penalizes flat hierarchies and, for example, an Emperor directly controlling a city would cause problems for the algorithms that are their to penalize the unwillingness to delegate. Although technically Ulrich was not a duke, within the game it probably makes sense to set it up as such.

Besides being ranked as “average” difficulty, this duchy for the Kingdom of Burgundy has some other appeal. Historically, the lands became part of the Hapsburg holdings, and so fit in with the theme I’m trying to follow. Also, I can perhaps aspire to uniting the French and German Burgundian holdings into a single, perhaps independent, Kingdom and elevating my faction to the global stage.

Unlike EU, CK2 does not have the driving set of historical events behind it. While the first decade or so of game play has a chance of resembling history, the game is most likely to rapidly veer off from the historical path. So it was in my game. Initially, the game begins with an active call for the Fifth Crusade and I so sent off some of my soldiers. My armies were soon overwhelmed vast Muslim armies and I was forced to disband my crusading force before the end, leaving them to return from Jerusalem on their own. And that end was not a successful one for Christianity, either, with the crusade ending in failure. Shortly thereafter, Ulrich’s death resulted in a lot of bellyaching from the other counts in his domain and several small wars were required to keep them all in line. By the time another (the Sixth) Crusade was called, I was in debt and suffering from depleted manpower as a result of my own succession struggles and so I did not participate.

As to the Emperor Frederick II, despite his German titles he considered himself to be a Roman Emperor in the historical sense. His focus was on uniting Sicily and Italy to Europe so as to recreate the reach of ancient Rome. Indeed, in the game, Frederick finds himself fighting wars in Naples as he deals with Italian rulers reluctant to conform to his plans.

The departure comes in the mid-1230s. Historically, Frederick was friendly with France, helping them to quell a succession war over Champagne (although the intervention probably had more to do with the succession fights in Germany than the actual politics in France). In the game, however, Frederick challenges France over territory in the low countries. Sensing an opportunity to further ingratiate myself to the emperor, I sent my soldiers to help in his fight.

daggerm5

It’s hard to read, but a French army of just over 20,000 is attempting to lift the Imperial siege with its roughly 23,000 soldiers. The timely arrival of my own Burgundians tilted the numbers to Germany.

In the above screenshot, the king of France has fielded an army of over 20,000 men and is leading it to lift the siege of the contested province. My own army, of some 4,000, has just arrived from the south putting the besiegers at a slight advantage.

Give Me Unity or Give Me Death

This battle is close enough to make it interesting as a tactical fight. So back to Field of Glory – Unity and my new Christmas purchases (namely the Oath of Fealty module). First order of business is creating the above army in Field of Glory‘s Digital Army Generator.

As I began building the armies, I see that one of the criticisms I had of Field of Glory has been corrected in this version. Specifically, I complained that the only choice in the random skirmish mode was to create two evenly-matched armies. The FoG(U) interface now matches up two entirely pre-built armies, one for each side. So I can construct exactly the match-up that I desire. The downside to that is, unlike Pike and Shot (and, indeed, the original FoG), you cannot leave the computer opponent to generate their own army given the number of points. It became an easy shortcut in the other games to a) not have to build an enemy army in addition to building your own and b) give some random variation – you couldn’t know exactly what you’ll face. However, in using the engine to match up specific armies (either historic or generated by a strategic engine), you are probably given the makeup in advance, so it really isn’t that much of a loss.

In this case, I did not dwell on the detail. While CK2 breaks down the armies into different troop types, I did not try to match what was in CK2 with what I created in FoG(U). In fact, an army of 23,000+ men is about double the size of the armies that come with the modules, and so the choices when filling out the large army become limited (without some off-line modification of the army data.) In most cases, I’m not sure the detail is all that important, but I’ll put some more effort into it another time. In this case, I was able to narrow in on a suitable match-up very quickly. The experience was much more like the positive Pike and Shot games than my previous FoG games.

daggerm1

We move forward to battle across an open field. On the third turn, our skirmishers meet. I’m not sure why the setup forced me to have only a single unit of skirmishers ahead of my army, but I make do with what I have.

The interface for FoG(U) largely reproduces that of FoG. You can see some upgraded look-and-feel in the main menu and some of the quirkiness of the original unit interaction has been improved. In other cases, though, it seems to have regressed. In the above screenshot, note the brown box in the lower left. It’s title is a “=>”. I don’t know what that means here but, in fact, there is some ample use of animated ASCII graphics to convey information, particular combat details. Some of the screens look more like a error log dump than a circa-2015 user interface. For some features that seemed better the old way, I do wonder if that’s just because I got used to the old way.

I ran into a couple of bugs, but nothing too significant. The worst of them were when I tried to run the game in full screen mode. In full screen certain UI functions were just not working. Those problems seemed to go away when I windowed the game. However, for the window size that I’m using, the design doesn’t seem to account for the Windows tool bar. This means that the last line of the unit reports (brown boxes, again) is obscured and unreadable. While slightly sloppy looking, it isn’t show stopping. Between this an other minor issues I’ve come across, there is nothing that says I should prefer to use FoG when both are available – with one exception. As far as I can tell (and I haven’t tried very hard yet), the user-made scenarios for FoG don’t automatically carry forward to Fog(U).  I am assuming that to play the scenarios which I’ve downloaded, I’ve got to load them in the version for which they are made.

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The lines are becoming fully engaged. We’ve run off each others skirmishers, which is a big advantage to me as I only had the one unit.

Having created French and German armies of approximately the right size, I loaded them on to a battlefield. The field of battle is picked randomly from pre-built choices. I honestly don’t know if FoG did it differently, but clearly there is no such thing as a randomly-generated terrain in this version. Once begun, the battle should not be in doubt. Unless the AI has made huge progress since the earlier version, I’ll always have an advantage over the computer in an even fight. And this fight isn’t even. The Empire is starting with a sizable 15% force advantage.

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I’ve broken the enemy’s left and center. I would probably lose my own left in the process, but the enemy army is about to collapse before that can happen.

The enemy is fairly aggressive, perhaps more so than I remember from FoG. Having run off my lone skirmisher, they hit my main lines and hard. In many cases, though, I have heavy foot defending against assaults from lighter units and skirmishers. My little men aren’t about to be chased off and give more than they take. On top of that, of course, I just have more men on the field. The early momentum continues to build inevitably towards…

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A substantial victory. Probably a forgone conclusion given my initial advantage in numbers.

… victory.

The fact that the Germans were victorious, as well as the size of the victory, is consistent with the results back in Crusader Kings. But I’m not sure if that says anything useful given the circumstance.

In contrast to earlier versions of the Paradox engines, and even EU4, the Crusader Kings 2 engine works to simulate the battle at a higher fidelity. I’ll dwell on this more in a future post, but it does question the desirability of fighting a battle off-line in a “tactical” engine when the battle tactics are portrayed for you right on-screen. Furthermore, the CK2 detailed battle is generating the results needed for the operational layer of the game. As units break away from the fight, distinctions are made between casualties, desertions, and just broken morale such that when the losing army retires from the field, it has some substantial portion of its force ready to reform and perhaps fight again. Can a table-top style simulation of that battle add anything that would justify changing these results?

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The Battle of Cambrai. This is going to cause 680 years from now when historians want to talk about the First World War battle.

In the end, either way you look at it, the Holy Roman Empire was victorious in battle and picked up a county from France. History is off an running down an alternate path.

¿Ferdinand y Isadore?

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What a difference a chromosome makes.

Reading a history book, it is often remarkable how unlikely the historical outcome seems to have been, given the odd sequence of events that got us here. So it is with the unification of Spain under, first, Ferdinand and Isabella, and then, under Emperor Charles.

There is a note in the documentation for Pax Renaissance, explaining some of the “wrong” geography on the map cards. One of the explanations is justifying the cities of Toledo and Granada being located in Portugal, which takes up the better part of the Iberian peninsula. The designer explains that it was by no means forgone that Spain would form from a union between Castile and Aragon. Castile and Portugal could have easily been the basis for that empire.

I pondered this as I played another early-Renaissance scenario from Europa Universalis IV.

I EU/EU II, this historical timeline was heavily event driven. Events would triggered by a combination of the current situation and the date, roughly imposing a backdrop of history over your player-driven narrative. In some cases, those events would give the player a choice – do you support the Lancasters or the Yorkists?, for example. But particularly if you were striving for historical fidelity, you could probably follow right along with the history books.

In the latest version of EU, it has become a little more complicated. Yes, there are still the events and triggers, with the appropriate historical choices. But there are also a lot more little choices, and small randomly assigned variations, which potentially could have some real impact. In all, it feels a lot easier to wander away from the history books into an alternate reality.

Again, I thought I’d give EU IV another spin trying to reproduce the conditions that lead to the Charles V -led Holy Roman Empire, this time starting the game in 1444. EU IV has recently updated, obsoleting the Charles V mod that I was looking forward to, so I already started thinking maybe I should just concentrate on the 15th century rather than the 16th.

As soon as I could do so without blatantly violating various treaties, I relaunched the Reconquista for to take Granada from the ruling Moslem Emirate. The war went smoothly, but I only managed to grab about 2/3rds of the territory in the final treaty.

Then came a family squabble. The Trastámaras have their hands in the running of Castile, Aragon, and Navarre, but getting along with the cousins doesn’t seem to be a family trait. I had hoped to bring Navarre closer in to the Castile branch with some strategic marriages and even had some hope of a direct inheritance of the Navarrian crown. Unfortunately, Aragon’s King John (II) had similar ideas (along with, admittedly, a better historical basis for them) and, after a brief civil war within Navarre, he attacked the tiny country with the combined forces of Aragon and its puppet in Naples.

I felt compelled to defend my political and marital alliances in Navarre and was vaguely peeved by the lack of respect from my cousins. A rather destructive but ultimately fruitless war ensued, depleting the manpower of the Iberian peninsula without producing a clear winner.

All of this is to set the stage for what happens next in this alternate reality.

King Henry IV was a terrible king. This was both true in reality and true within the various numbers of the game. His own attack on Granada suffered from a lack of initiative and, rather achieving my own albeit partial victory, the real king fought several wars consisting mostly of cross-border raiding.

Despite rumors of impotence, homosexuality, or possibly both simultaneously, Henry finally managed  to produce a daughter with his second wife, himself at the advanced age of 37. When Henry proclaimed his new daughter to be his heir, it split the Castilian nobles. Or more accurately, the Castilian nobles, who were already split, found a cause to focus upon. A League of Nobles formed out of concern for Portuguese influence (through the personage of Juan Pacheco) in Henry’s court and who were backed by the newly ascendant John II of Aragorn, and they began questioning the legitimacy of Henry’s issue. Being either gay, impotent, or both, it seemed, to them, likely that the child was the offspring of Henry’s best friend Beltrán de la Cueva. She was also (with certainty) a girl. A better heir to the throne would be Henry’s half-brother Alfonso, with whom the League of Nobles happened to hold more influence. Henry initially agreed to this arrangement with the condition that Alfonso marry his own daughter (also Alfonso’s niece, assuming the rumors were not actually true). When Henry reneged on that commitment, Castile descended into civil war with 12-year-old Alfonso being declared ruler of Castile. In addition to being gay and impotent (possibly both), Henry stood accused of abiding Muslims and being something of a peacenik.

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In this world, the League of Gentlemen are proposing Lope I of Nebrija as the legitimate heir to Castile. This cannot stand.

Within the game, some very minor variations changed the story in a big way.

I don’t know if the Henry of this world is gay, impotent, or both, but despite being an awful ruler, he has managed to produce a son and heir and named him Felipe. We’ve made arrangements with the cousins in Navarre as well as the Portuguese royal family to solidify our alliances with marriage. Aragon being left out of this arrangement, they propose advancing one Lope of Nebrija to the throne. The game does not supply a backstory, just a name.

The capitol and much of the southern coast joined the League of Nobles in supporting Lope. As the player, I could chose which version of history to champion, but the subtle changes meant I could not follow the historical narrative and back Lope. First, Lope doesn’t sound very regal to me. Sorry, Lope. Second, I had begun investing both practically and emotionally in Felipe in ways that became difficult to turn my back upon. I even had a fantasy that maybe Felipe could, though the marriage arrangements, gain claim to the throne of Navarre as well as Castile. It didn’t seem wise to give that up and back Aragon, with whom I had just been in a nasty war.

The forces of the League outnumbered the royal armies, but were not well coordinated. I was able to maintain a slight edge, locally, in numbers and defeat each rebel army in detail. Towards the end, I had to rely heavily on foreign banks and a large mercenary force, but I was able to prevail. The screenshot (several paragraphs above) shows the rebel armies making their final, pitiful stand as I lay siege to the fortresses in Granada with my main force.

With the rebellion soundly defeated, the nobility never again questioned the legitimacy of Felipe to inherit the crown of Castile.

Tactics

Recall that one of my goals with EU IV is to integrate with a tactical engine to create what-if battles from the time period. You might also remember that I’ve had some luck with medieval period battles in Field of Glory. This War of the Castilian Succession perhaps could present another opportunity to indulge that impulse, but for a few problems. First, the supporting mods have not kept up with the releases of the EU IV engine, meaning that the integration I was attempting to use earlier is not available. Second, the operational nature of this fight – where I am first achieving local superiority before engaging – means that the battles are never matched. This is a particular problem for Field of Glory.

I speculated that perhaps Field of Glory might lend itself to the same sort of manipulating that I’ve used in Pike and Shot. That is, by editing the army definitions I might cause the randomly-generated battles to conform closer to the battle I wish to model. For example, I might force a cavalry heavy army onto a nation that, historically, wouldn’t have fielded such. I fiddled around with the data files a little bit, but I wasn’t able to get it working. In doing so, however, I found some other files that probably need to be modified as well, so I won’t give up just yet.

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Brother against brother, the different noble factions within the Castilian kingdom line up against each other for battle.

The result of my battle was much in line with past experience. As expected, an even matchup (again, it seems to be the only choice in FoG) is going to favor the player. The unit mix, terrain, and other randomly generated components lack the personality that would make it a memorable fight. The AI isn’t terrible but, then again, I never really felt in fear of losing the battle. It wasn’t horrible, but also wasn’t quite worth the effort – doubly so because (at the moment) the results are not actually fed back to the strategic layer. I will say that the results were similar in both games, with solid victories in support of Felipe’s inheritance.

Marriage

Back in the real world, the result was considerably more complicated. After Alfonso was crowned King of Aragon what was called the Farce of Ávila, war continued for four years with neither side gaining a clear victory. Then, at age 14, Alfonso died (circumstance unknown today). His backers intended his crown, such as it was, to pass to his sister (Henry’s half-sister) Isabella, under whose name the civil war could continue. Instead, Isabella agreed to cease hostilities in exchange for being named the rightful heir of Henry.

So it remained until Henry himself died, at the age of 49, in 1474.

With the world preferring to have male monarchs, Alfonso had a decent claim to the throne over Joanna simply by being a boy. That advantage was not shared by Isabella. Upon Henry’s death, those nobles who would be disadvantaged by Isabella’s succession (via her now marriage to her cousin Ferdinand of Aragon) joined with the King of Portugal in supporting the daughter of Henry over his half-sister, perhaps a reasonable succession claim. Assuming, that is, that Henry was not gay, impotent, or both.

Evidence to this day strongly supports the accusations that Joanna (known accordingly as la Beltraneja) was in fact illegitimate. Remember, however, that history is written by the victors – in this case Isabella, whose side ultimately prevailed in the war. It is interesting to cast doubt on the evidence in that the alliance between Isabella and Ferdinand and their subsequent uniting of Spain, the Netherlands, and Austria under Charles V, is one of the defining moments in European history.

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Even still, EU4 is driven by events. Despite the fact that Portuguese interests prevailed in the Castilian civil war, the option to bind the Castilian and Aragonese branches of House Trastámara was still presented.

Back in the game, despite my shunning of Lope, the Trastámaras nevertheless arrange a union (screenshot above). As the game went on, it turned out to be a badly managed union. Aragon frequently felt slighted in our arrangement and, each time I fumbled in may kingdom management, England would egg them on to revolt against me. As unpleasant as it was, it gave me a chance to make one more comparison.

More Tactics

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Carlos de Toledo leads the Guardia Real against the Aragonese invaders. We expect an easy victory.

One such rebellion occurred in December of 1533. By that time, Spain had adopted combined pike and shot formations and was transitioning to a firearm-based army. This allowed a fairly similar comparison to the match-up played out in Field of Glory, but this time using Pike and Shot solidly within its own period.

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My Castilians deploy against the Aragonese, watched over by a ghost of Christmas-that-never-was, Charles V. My horse is deployed on my right, and I’m advancing it to hit the enemy flank.

Right away one can see that the graphics make a big difference. I used randomly generated “hilly” terrain, but the variety and the style gives it much more character than a Field of Glory generated battlefield. Likewise the units. Similar to FoG, the two armies are both minor variations of the same setup, but the style of the units in Pike and Shot just add a little bit more gusto to the whole affair.

I’ve mentioned it before, but the interface for Pike and Shot allows easy tailoring of the army size. I was able to match, with fair precision, the army sizes presented in the EU4 game with only a small amount of fiddling. Of course, outnumbering the enemy by some 3,000 men meant the outcome of the battle was never in question. Even still, the beginning of the fight was a little tense, as I was a little worried that my flanks would start to break before the enemy’s center. Again, while the AI isn’t exactly brilliant in the random match-ups, it seems to be a bit more talented than the Field of Glory AI.

One little hitch I ran across – it is the selection of armies that determines the flags, the names, and the portraits in use. So when I create a Spanish-on-Spanish skirmish, they both use the same Spanish flags. The mini-map (as you can see) shows the two sides in red and white, but the main map it can be difficult to determine which units are on which side. As far as I can tell, this is not configurable in the skirmish interface and would have to be edited in the army file ahead of time.

Something for next time.

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Another Song About A Drunk

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This battle with the bottle is nothing so novel.

There are a handful of songs that, to me, really capture the essence of being an alcoholic. I mean this in a good way, but use the term to differentiate from songs about going out and having some drinks.

Number 10. Wastin’ Away Again

For many, this might be the song about drunkenness. It rates so low on my list because familiarity breeds contempt. Growing up, I’d heard it so many times on the radio that I never really bothered to listen to it. “Lost shaker of salt?” I guess I knew that salt makes Margaritas, blah blah blah, but so what.

Once I actually listened, really listened, to the whole thing, though, I realized it has many features of the songs further down on this list – all rolled into one. The epiphany came too late in life to earn this any better than #10.

Number 9. If You’re Hurtin’, So Am I

It’s a song about co-dependence, not dependence. That has to drop it a few notches.

This song forms a vivid image of the destruction that spreads outward from a destructive habit. It is the sorrowful expression of someone who has cared too much and has finally decided to draw a line.

By the way, I finally saw the official video a year or so ago, and it really ruins it for me. My image of Joey was a 20-something in a leather jacket, not a guy in a suit. At the same time, stay away from the YouTube videos that don’t use the studio recording of the song. Johnette needs a little post-processing to help out on this one.

Number 8: No Long Term Potentiation

Somehow, I’ve got this one all the way up to number eight, despite not even being a real song.

The pseudo-Irish folk, semi-scientific description of drinking is profound for a number of reasons. First, a good buzz always enhances humor in something that you just know would be funny if you actually understood it. Who cares, just laugh and have another beer. The rhymes are amazingly descriptive “Diuretic activation, urination, urination, urination, dehydration, give me a beer.” It also helps that, at least for those of the right ethnic background, nothing goes together like drunkenness and Irish folk songs.

Finally, it’s his expressions. The slight slur of speech, the redness of face, and the goofily earnest expressions (especially as he reaches for the beer at the end) all emit a genuine aura of liquid-induced courage. I can’t say whether it’s good acting or he’s had a few to help with the filming, but he’s got so much of it just right.

I’ve linked to the “original” version of the song, where he falsely describes fermentation as a form of anaerobic oxidation because it rhymed so well. He’s corrected his mistake, but a) the added vocals detract from, not add to, the charm and b) the original rhyme really did work.

Number 7: Oh Danny Boy, Danny Boy, Danny Boy

Speaking of the songs that go with drinking, Tubthumping managed to take the ridiculous singing that accompanies a drunken night and combine those lyrics with no more than a dozen other words, creating an almost four minute hit song.

The catchy tunes and rhythms, along with an actual prescription for getting ripped (Whiskey + Vodka + Lager +Cider) made this, itself, a good song to actually accompany a night of drinking. It’s not what I was going for, at all, in this list. But combined with the fact that it does, if in a bit too much of try-hard manner, capture the chaos of a drunken night, that puts this at number seven.

Number 6: Turn the Lights Up Over Every Boy and Every Girl

Semisonic’s Closing Time makes the list because of, perhaps, when it came out and my own fuzzy memories of the lights coming in the bar. At 11:30 PM, 4AM seems a lifetime away. As the night goes on and the BAC rises, the potential of the night seems like it must, eventually, fulfill itself. All of that hope comes crashing down 3:50 or so when the lights come up, and you realize you’ve wasted yet another Saturday night.

The song is said to be written about birth and fatherhood. I’ve never heard it that way. To me, it was a musical framing of those godawful words when the liquor laws of the State of New York have once again shined a light upon what a loser you are.

Number 5: I’m a Drunk and a Sentimental Man

The high-functional drunk is always workin’ for the weekend, at which point a week’s worth of every emotion imaginable is released in a cloud of “mustard gas and roses (Vonnegut)”.

Irish Whiskey juxtaposes the souless existence that surely drives a man to drink along with the relief (or perhaps focused anger) that might come some over-indulgence with one’s fellow travelers.

The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies made their name by capitalizing on the Big Band craze of the late 90s, but it is their ska-core works that really stand out.

Number 4: The Four Right Chords Can Make Me Cry

Once you pay attention to the lyrics, it is obvious this song is about drug use (specifically Chrystal Meth). However, the intent of the song is to reproduce the seductiveness of the chemically-altered life while, all the while, you know that what you are doing is no good for you. No good at all.

Semi-Charmed Life reflects, darkly, the overwhelming of the senses during the big, outdoor festival concerts of the 1990s. Before Lollapalooza and its ilk became annual summer tours, Southern California had any number of small-time festivals filled with skate-punks, too much sun, illegal margaritas, and those California girls. In the end not much came of it besides the hangovers but, back then, I did believe in the sand beneath my toes.

Number 3: All Drunk and Sad at 4AM

As much as I hate to include a single band twice in this list, the song Hi and Lo is special to me. It captures, in all of about 3 minutes, a lifetime of drinking, falling down, aging, and, perhaps, moving beyond?

This song’s special place in my heart, and on this list, is enhanced by vague memories of a night out in Boston with the CPDs on stage and very, very dry martinis in hand. The darkest hour turned brighter than a rose.

By the way – Cherry Poppin’ Daddies? Can you even say that anymore?

Number 2: The Disappearing Dreams of Yesterday

Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.

Line’s like “No way to hold my head that didn’t hurt,” and “The beer I had for breakfast” would put this at the top of a lot of people’s songs-o’-drinking list. But for me, what gets it to the number two position is the description of the “sleeping city sidewalk.”

If the only effect of drinking were the times that we were drunk, it would be all rainbows and happiness (plus a bunch of bar fights). What really characterizes the hardcore drinker is the emptiness of the morning after. The physical effects of a hangover are bad enough. But the emotions; of loss, of loneliness, of time wasted; these can be far more burdening than a headache that you know will pass. Those feelings also respond much quicker to that “hair of the dog,” inviting the risk of true physical damage to help salve the emotional damage.

Johnny Cash’s version is the one that gets it just right (although I’m partial to the Me First version as well.) The Man in Black knew substance abuse.

In any case, a song that has you drinking on a Sunday morning is one that knows the alcoholic. “There ain’t nothin’ short of dyin’…”

Honorable Mentions:

Johnny Cash’s problems with drugs and the drink may have been significant, but they didn’t define him. Jim Morrison on the other hand… I really felt this list should have had a Doors song. “Woke up this morning and I got myself a beer…” fits the theme, but the song overall doesn’t quite make it. Their cover of Moon of Alabama is another also-ran. Many of us amateurs may also “believe in a long, prolonged, derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown.” Or whatever. It sounded better when I was drunk.

Late December, 1933. Prohibition had just ended and the alcohol was flowing again. Seems like just subject for a song. In fact, The Four Season‘s Oh What a Night was originally written about the end of prohibition, but was changed to be “late December 1963” before release. Even still, lines like “didn’t even know her name” can ring true.

This is probably another case of a song being out at just the right time in my life, but I’ll give Oasis an honorable mention. Of course, if you’ve ever actually had a Sunday-morning Champagne Supernova, the mere title of this one might speak to you.

The Dead Kennedys, I suppose, were a little bit before my time and so Too Drunk to Fuck didn’t really sing to me like it may have to some others. I do know at last one fella whose experience, as documented, caused him to give up the drink.

Speaking of which, I figured Rancid would probably get a number on here, but once again the songs have bits and pieces of the theme without having that one song that does it. In Nihilism, he was “So full of scotch [he] could not stand up” (BTDT), and the line “I started thinkin’ you know I started drinkin’. You know I don’t remember too much of that day” describes many a start and “the music execution and the talk of revolution” many of finish, back in the day (Roots Radicals). Somehow, I couldn’t find a place for Rancid on my list.

Anyhow, can we have a drum roll please?

Number 1: There was Whiskey on Sunday and Tears on Our Cheeks

The Pogues were going to make this list one way or another. They may have even had a shot at multiple entries, but I certainly don’t want to do that multiple times.

There is one Pogues song that captures some of the best features of the other nine songs on list. Drunk on a Sunday afternoon. Drinking with the old group of friends. Drunk as the sun comes up. Getting all weepy about a rusty tin can.  Besides all that, it is a beautiful song.

When Shane MacGowan wrote The Broad Majestic Shannon, he envisioned it for the Clancy Brothers. He said he hoped that they would hear it and record their own version. Many years later, Liam Clancy joked that he would have recorded it, but he couldn’t understand what Shane was saying. Or maybe he wasn’t joking.

Take my hand and dry your tears, babe.
Take my hand, forget your fears, babe.
There’s no pain. There’s no more sorrow.
They’re all gone.  Gone in the years, babe.

Kollektivschuld

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Just before it came off of Netflix, I caught the 2015 German-language film Phoenix.

When I watch a move or read a book, I try to avoid reading the cover blurb or its online equivalent. First, the blurbs tend to give away plot points that are intended to be discovered through the consumption of the media. Spoilers, as we all call them. Secondly, those blurbs often seem to be written by someone who never actually watched the entire film. They are superficial conclusions drawn from, perhaps, bits and pieces of the work. Mystifyingly, many of the blurbs indulge in both sins simultaneously.

Such is the case with Pheonix. The blurb summarizes the plot by, basically, revealing the film’s ending. It left me waiting for a “reveal” that the film was trying to slowly illuminate over its course. Thus my experience was that it plodded towards an inevitable conclusion, which probably shouldn’t have seemed all that inevitable. Furthermore, by identifying the “reveal” as the narrative throughout the movie, it completely mischaracterizes the motivation of the main character.

But what can I do? When a movie is being pulled off of Netflix streaming, I often have no idea whether it is something I’d like to watch or not. I try to use the viewer rankings (still available for DVD rentals, although removed from the streamed offerings) and reviews, which tend to be a little more careful about spoilers. But just because the film is considered good doesn’t mean I’ll be in the mood for the subject matter, so the Netflix synopsis becomes a necessary part of the decision in whether or not to let a film drift away unviewed.

This may be one I would have just as well off forgoing. My opinion of the film, of course, irreversibly tainted by the bad blurb. Would it have still felt so slow to move forward without the plot having been spoiled? I can’t say for sure, but I except it would. The film got some great professional reviews, but I felt it was trying to be artistic for artistry’s sake and profound because, you know, Holocaust. Maybe I’m being a bit to critical, but I feel like it is getting a good chunk of its credit via its pretentiousness.

One Netflix reviewer suggested that this is a (poor) remake of the 1965 film Return from the Ashes, a film I’ve never seen or even heard about before. However, the synopsis of that film does seem to bear out the suggestion. Indeed, there seems to be more there, there. Specifically, the older film ends with the story completely resolved, with the villains having been arrested or worse. In Phoenix, we’re left to imagine the ending. Perhaps even the beginning – the motivations of the characters are heavily implied but never confirmed.

It’s a strange way to structure a film and, while not a terrible experience, not a great one either.