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Abridging the Freedom of Speech

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The hackneyed phrase in circulation among anti-speech liberals is “freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences”, which like most hackneyed phrases is a lie in service to an injustice.  As a matter of fact, freedom of speech means nothing if it does not come with freedom from consequences.  The only acceptable response to argument is counter-argument.  It is never violence, it is never expulsion from society, it is never imprisonment or fines, it is never economic punishment–for if any of these things is allowed, then open debate is infringed.  And if open debate is infringed, then our democracy itself is controlled by those with the power to sanction speech.  Because men benefit from sanctioning criticism of their misdeeds, this inevitably means the ruin of democracy itself.

[…S]omeone a thousand miles away, whom you have never met, and to whom you have no meaningful social relationship, can attack you for your speech.  Here I am drawing a distinction between arguing against you, which is permissible, and attacking your speech rights themselves, either by direct or indirect suppression.  In this we have a one-way exercise of power and its only point is to prevent your speech rights from being exercised.  This is as much in violation of the right to free speech as is a government agent fining or jailing you for criticism.

Important in this distinction is the element of balance.  If two people wish to disassociate from each other over a difference of views, that is permissible and natural.  If a group hears the speech of one person and chooses to ignore him, that is permissible and natural.  But when groups of people choose to punish a speaker, or large corporations choose to take away his voice in public venues, then there is an imbalance that is plainly evil.  The right not to hear speech is easily exercised, but it cannot extend to the right to force others not to hear it, or it becomes tyrannical.

Full post is here.

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Your Family Pushed You into Banking

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Netflix continues to pile on to feed the appetite for period drama with their latest in Renaissance intrigue, Medici: Masters of Florence.

I admittedly don’t have my finger on the pulse of the media-consuming public, but I am assuming this is largely Game of Thrones fan-out.

I, myself, jumped on the Song of Ice and Fire bandwagon a couple of years before the HBO series. At the time, I thought it was an older series (having heard about it “around” for some time), and was really shocked when I realized the books weren’t all written yet. It took took me a few chapters to acclimatize myself to the the slightly-altered language, but once I got past that, I took to the series with a vengeance. I recall thinking from about 3/4s into the first book, A Game of Thrones, that what the book got right was a detailed portrayal of everyday life, assuming that your life is that of the nobility.

The TV series of course boosted the popularity of the novel to an audience by at least an order of magnitude. Sales of the books themselves roughly quadrupled after the series was released, and the number of TV viewers is more than double that again. Add in rentals and DVD buyers, and you’ve got quite an audience. Certainly the words “the next Game of Thrones” within a pitch would ring nicely in the ears of studio executives.

My first impressions of the TV series were very good. Viewing, here seemed to be an extremely high fidelity of the script relative to the book. Although, I must say, going back and re-reading the book after watching the series showed me where the cuts were made for the video treatment. Again, and this impressed me as well, many of the cuts focused on downsizing the scale to make it doable on TV. Scenes that should have dozens of guards facing off would have a dozen or so total. Notably, Tyrion was knocked out early on in his first battle, avoiding the difficulty of portraying a massive battle scene on screen. I also thought the casting was dead-on, with one exception. Everyone in the TV show is just too damn old.

The success of the series would seem to expose an appetite for fantasy, particularly in the adult markets. But the hunt for similar material also can exploit the historical themes to which A Song of Fire and Ice alludes. The story is clearly inspired by history, with the kingdoms of Westeros and beyond clearly having historic counterparts. Any effort to map, one-to-one, the events of the stories to, say, the War of the Roses will surely fail. Author Martin clearly mixed and matched and made up as needed. But clearly (for example), similarities between Game of Thrones and the actual succession of Henry VIII are going to help sell a series dramatizing the latter.

The connection to A Game of Thrones also aided by the selection of Robb Stark to be Cosimo de’ Medici (although, watching, I didn’t pick up the connection – I had to look up the actor afterwards). In stark (heh heh) contrast to the casting in Game of Thrones, the actor playing the lead role is more than 10 years younger than the character he plays. Of course, part of the issue here is the story is told through a series of flashbacks, and Madden (that’s Robb’s real name – who knew?) must be, on the same viewing night, both a dozen years older as well as some 8-10 years younger.

The story starts with the death of patriarch Giovanni de’ Medici, and we follow forward with his sons’ reactions and struggles after their father’s death.

Oddly enough, the actor playing Cosimo’s brother looks considerably older than Madden. So much so, I was confused through the first several episodes – wondering why father Giovanni seemed to be grooming his younger son to take over the family business. As I write this, actor Stuart Martin (a Red Shirt from Game of Thrones – he played a nameless Lanister soldier) does not have his birth date recorded on line, so I can’t really comment on the relative actors’ ages.

Anyway, as the son’s struggle with their father’s death which, in a bit of highly speculative fiction, is something of a murder mystery, the groundwork is laid showing formative events between a young Cosimo at the time when his father when his father was actively building the family’s wealth. A bit of gray-colored hair and a dose of gravitas are there to remind us that the actors have aged 20 years from one scene to the next.

To make matters even more difficult, both the 59 year old Giovanni and the 79 year old Giovanni are played by the same 80 year old Dustin Hoffman, and no amount of makeup can really help him bridge the gap to the former. Hoffman doesn’t really even try. Basically, if he is alive and talking, he must be closer to 60 than he is to 80.

While I’m on a roll, I’ll also say that I failed to recognize actor Anthony Howell (playing condottieri Francesco Sforza) whom I watched in the supporting role throughout the series Foyle’s War. I also failed to make the connection that Cosimo’s father-in-law was portrayed by GoT‘s Walter Frey. These oversights are considerably more understandable than missing Robb Stark/Cosimo, who on screen are essentially the same character.

The brooding young son has the weight of the world thrust upon his shoulders when his father dies, leaving him the keys to the kingdom. Despite all the brooding, he seems to make a success of himself in his new leadership role, although whatever greatness he displays is largely done off-screen. On screen he broods. Until he meets a woman, who while able to lift his spirits somewhat, can never fit into the grand scheme of things as King of the North(ern Italy’s Banking Empire). So, while he broods for a little less, he still must brood.

Then everyone dies.

OK. So it is not really that bad. In fact, my suspicion is that it is the popularity of The Borgias that was the immediate inspiration for this series. Take the same time period. Put a towering icon of the big screen in as the patriarch and fill in the family with younger, non-American actors. Success.

Medici doesn’t have quite the ambition of The Borgias, and therefore a few of the things I really enjoyed about the latter, I’m not going to find in the former. The lavish weddings, the (relatively) large scale battles; these things fit less into a tale of bankers than they do of popes and kings. I note that, even in The Borgias, the scenes where deals are negotiated with Florence aren’t particularly lavish. Of course, a big part of it is likely due the big difference in production costs between the two shows.

Beyond that, Medici, seems to go considerably further afield when it comes to creating fictional narrative to fill in the blanks of what is sometimes a rather sparse historical narrative. This is not, by any means, an analysis. It’s more of an impression. Neither show is meant to be a documentary, and both take opportunities to spice up the series for their viewing audiences. The Borgias just give me the impression that the spirit of the historical tale is adhered to more than Medici.

In the end, Medici is decently* entertaining as a television series. However, they seem to have left much potential on the table. Cosimo de’ Medici, assuming you do subscribe to this interpretation, reshaped the history of the world. While much of that influence was based upon his ability to spend money, whether on political influence or great works, there should be a more interesting side of the story when portraying the actual people. The ability to spend money depends on the ability to make even more money, and the scale to which Cosimo was able to profit from European trade suggests a man of great charisma, intelligence, and capabilities. In Medici‘s portrayals, we see virtually none of this, either from Madden’s Cosimo or Hoffman’s Giovanni. The occasional political intrigue aside, the wealth just seems to roll in on its own. The series can stand without it, but I think it missed an opportunity to put real personalities behind the historical figures.

*Like The Borgias, Medici seems to be spicing up the show with some gratuitous rock-n-roll per the HBO formula. Granted the sexual politics are part of the story – the arranged marriage of Cosimo and his illegitimate son from his relationship with a slave. But once again, the show goes beyond mere speculation into fantasy. Cosimo’s younger brother Lorenzo is portrayed as a perpetual bachelor, with titillating affairs spicing up the narrative and lending a little on-screen nooky. And yet, this is the Lorenzo who was married somewhere in the flashback portion of the show, inspiring the treatise on the importance of marriage to the health of the nation, De Re Uxoria.

On Your Marky-Mark, Get Set, Go

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The day is fast arriving when we will all prefer to get our understanding of current events through realistic re-enactments on video rather than through the written word.

I’ll not try to make a list of recent films that fit the bill. I know I’ve watched a few of them lately, and probably avoided quite a few more.

Patriot’s Day, the recreation and dramatization of the events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt for the perpetrators of that attack, was one of the films that I probably intended to avoid. It nevertheless got good reviews, both in the press and on-line, and I decided to bite the bullet. Or swallow the Quinoa.

On one the level, the film was a very straight retelling of the news events. The footage we’ve all seen was recreated and enhanced using CGI to give a hyper-realistic view of the terror attack and the manhunt. There were a number of times watching the movie I was sure I was seeing actual footage from the attack. But was it? Who can tell?

Yet, for all of that, the film managed to breath suspense into a story that I’ve read dozens of times. I know all the key events of that week. The marathon bombs, the random attack on the MIT security officer, and the shootouts that followed. I was still engaged by the way the story was told.

I was also concerned that I was going to see a “they’re all heroes” version of the telling, and was pleased to see some more nuanced narrative. I’ll not dwell on the details, but there was a bit of tarnish on the standard heroics.

The most questionable decision, at the end of it all, was creation of Mark Walhberg’s character. Many of the characters in the movie are portrayals of the actual figures in the tragedy. Walhberg’s Tommy Saunders represents a number of other figures, as well as a proxy for the viewer. The writers chose to make him a relatively senior officer currently in the doghouse. For what, one wonders? Some drinking problems are alluded to, but specifics are left out. It’s almost like they started to develop this angle on his character, and then cut it.

A reason for such a character is to give the viewer an anchor while moving through time and place. To see everything through Saunders’ lenses, Saunders himself must see everything. So he is senior enough to hobnob with Police senior brass, but must also perform the lowest level job (dog house). So he, simultaneously, has experience as a murder investigator as a plainclothes detective, but also walks the beat on Boylston St. and can, from memory, recite all the CCTV camera angles that capture the bombing suspects.

Also, no matter where things go down, he’s out there driving his car. MIT officer shot in Cambridge – Boston Detective/Sergent/Patrolman Saunders bangs a U-ey and heads to the sound of the guns. Suspicious activity in Watertown? Somehow, BPD Saunders is first on the scene.

His escapades are, I think, made all the more absurd by the fact that the rest of the movie is trying to be a docudrama.

In any case, back to the original question. Is this the way you prefer to get your “news?”

 

Dynasty

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Hillary: the Movie got added to my to-rent list during the 2016 presidential primary. A friend had posted on line asking what was wrong. For those who subsist purely on streaming video, the Citizens United film that made “Citizens United” everyone’s favorite epithet, the offering was no where to be found. Said friend speculated whether the controlling media entities, Netflix and Amazon, were doing it out of political bias. Myself, I suspect more mundane money issues involved. Nevertheless, I can’t stand being told what I can and cannot do, so I promptly queued up the DVD for rental.

It is now a good year-and-a-half beyond that most recent primary and almost a decade beyond when the film was originally made. So I’m a little late to the game. Hopefully, Hillary won’t be mounting another presidential run in 2020, but one never knows. As for the scandals  which are presented in the movie, I’ve read about several of them but several others were new to me. Of course, there was no time in the last 10 years when I considered myself a Hillary supporter. At the time, in the 2008 primary, I had stated I preferred Barack Obama as the Democrat’s nominee.

The movie itself is fairly well put together. There seems to be an effort to use documented information and to present opinions from the liberal side when possible. The more conspiratorial accusations against the Clintons are avoided in favor of incidents with public testimony or written evidence. A couple of the bits draw over heavily on emotions (e.g the focus on a dead soldier and his parents, where the point in question was Hillary’s inconsistent commitment to the War on Terror), but at least half the movie has a solid factual grounding.

Like I said, viewing the movie in a timely manner would never have swayed my vote (I now think Hillary would have made perhaps the worst possible president in U.S. history). As far a documentaries go, it was OK but not great. It was worth watching, however, to get some perspective on what the Citizen’s United v. FEC ruling was really all about.

It also makes me want to watch The Path to 9/11 (and ABC miniseries), but I can’t do that either. The Clintons had the DVD release blocked.

OK, We’ll Go with the Banker Story

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That failure to become a banker was eating at you. Eating-eating-eating at you inside… It was your family that pushed you into banking , it was their dream for you.

Another university humanities class I took was a literature offering called “Humor, Comedy, and Satire.” One of the things that impressed me about this particular course was that the professor organized it around a thesis. Briefly, his thesis for the course was that, through the ages, societies have something he referred to as “Grand Operating Myths” or GOMs (he liked to say that). These were concepts that were accepted as universal and absolute truths, and were generally foundational for the culture and philosophy of the society. However, these concepts don’t necessarily persist from age to age.

A simple example is that our society sees time as linear, progressing from the past into the future. We see that as intuitively obvious – certainly not up for analysis or debate. Medieval society, on the other hand, saw time as cyclical. All things would come, pass, and then come again. This was also so obvious that it wouldn’t have been open to debate or even consideration. Yet despite the obviousness of our times’ respective positions, those positions changed.

For the purpose of the class, the GOM was about the relation between technology and society and how the advance of technology necessarily has a positive impact on mankind. The Literary exploration started roughly with the foundation of the Royal Society (1660) and the persistence of some of their ideas to our own time.

The details are not really as important is the organization. Each book in the course was selected for its contribution to that specific discussion. So while we were analyzing (and enjoying) a variety of great writing from different time periods, there was this very narrow focus to tie it all together.

La Capitale

The next game I’m looking at, somewhat concurrent with the Here I Stand scope, is Pax Renaissance. In addition to what it has going for it as a game (which is plenty), it also is built around a thesis. The designers assert that the positive societal changes of the Renaissance were a direct result of the rise of capitalism and banking. These institutions are credited with breaking the hold that feudal lords held over the people, and paved the way for the massive advances that have happened since. They make their case in the footnotes of their manual, where the annotate the rules with historic color to support their thesis.

The game itself is another study in abstraction and simplification. It has relatively simple components – cards, coins and some “chess pieces.” For a board game, visual and tactile appeal is critical. There is no map board, no dice, and even a decidedly limited impact of the beginning card shuffle. But with those simple components, the game constructs what almost can be thought of as a three-dimensional board. Movement between “adjacent” locations can be either from country to country on a map of Europe, between adjacent cards on a players “tableau” (the cards that have been played, and are thus owned, by each player) and within countries, even if that means moving from player to player. Well, sort of. In some cases. It really depends.

And therein lies the biggest negative of this game. The rules are complicated. The basic rules are a series of special cases that, often are similar yet different than the rest of the rules. Add to that that the cards may, themselves, contain exceptions to the rule book which are explained no where else but in the text of the cards. Even if you’re one who is eager to sit down with the rulebook and the card decks, the rulebook has a rather unique organization. It initially presents a the rules in play order (probably pretty typical), but then adds on whatever rules didn’t make it into this narrative in the glossary. Not only does the glossary contain rules that aren’t contained in the regular instructions, but there are key words not in the glossary, meaning one needs to go to the regular instructions for the explanation of that concept. It doesn’t help that the terminology used is a bit quirky.

It’s a tough haul, and one I’m still working on.

The consensus on line is that, once you learn the rules, the logic of them seems to tumble into place, and it all becomes second nature. At that point, says the consensus of players, the mechanics disappear and the strategy elements come to the front. Another constant comment I’ve read online is how much it leans towards a “historical simulation played with cards,” rather than a “card game with historical chrome.” This is particularly impressive given the simplicity of the components and the relatively short play time of the game. Of course, it takes some imagination and thus may be in the eye of the beholder. Is the “Trade Fair” mechanic a brilliant concept to simulate the synergy between business and government? Or is it just an abstract, Eurogame-style piece of the game to redistribute money?

Another aspect of the online debate on this games merits is its depth as a strategy game. Does it have strategic depth, or do you play more for the color. Those who love the game seem to get about 10 games in and decide that the strategy is fantastic. Other, say the strategic aspect is weak. One recurring thread in the latter argument is the rule in the game where not all cards are used (and the number is dependent on the number of players). What that means is not every path to victory is open in every game, but the players don’t know that from the start. The box cover may imply that you, the player, charts the future course of Europe. But if, for example, I decide to do just that, by gaining a “Globalization Victory” and secretly set up such a win – I might find out that the cards to facilitate that just aren’t in play in the game. It means that you’ve got to react and re-plan in real time, as more cards are brought into play. The critics think it makes the game too random and short term. Proponents probably see this as one more challenge.

paxottoman

The opening moves of the game have a surprising historical fidelity. After marrying Sittişah Hatun, Mehmed II The Conqueror subdues and absorbs the last vestige of the Eastern Roman Empire.

I played a little bit, taking both sides of a two player game, to try to get a grip on the rules. For several games, I realized I’d made terrible mistakes in the accounting. The first game I think I came pretty close to following all the rules, I captured with a snapshot. I was amused by the matching of the opening moves to the history of the Ottoman Empire. So much so, that I decided to subjugate Byzantium, because that was the first empire to be conquered by the Ottoman Turks. It did make me wonder, does empire card Byzantium and the corresponding empire of Trebizond (see light blue card in picture) have game purpose except to be conquered by the Ottomans? Will it substitute as the Persians or even the Russians with certain additional card play? Part of this “historical fidelity” may well come from struggling with the possibilities in the game and the events of history to try to imagine how they might line up.

Provinciale

Continuing with the earlier design discussion, this is a game that most definitely has some novel game mechanics. It also, as I said above, simplifies a grand strategy scope to an extreme, to make it a quick-playing and manageable experience.

One feature hinted at above is the multiple paths to victory. Here it is a little different than the asymmetric victory conditions of Here I Stand. In the case of Pax Renaissance, there are four victory conditions that have to be triggered, individually, by a player. Once triggered, all four players can win using that path. Of course, one imagines that a player doesn’t trigger a victory condition unless they have a particular advantage. It is a twist on the asymmetric victory where nobody knows ahead of time what each player’s advantages are going to be.

Also like Here I Stand, the innovative use of cards and tokens as playing pieces, bookkeeping components, and a streamlined UI add much to this game’s appeal. Just one example: Their are four cards, one for each of the victory conditions. To “activate” a victory condition, the card is flipped over. On the non-active side, the card describes the state of that technology which precedes the advance made during this period. It reminds me of the “Age” advancements in games like Age of Empires, all with just a card.

Probably the most significant departure is the fact that most of the pieces you play aren’t actually “your” pieces. While I may concentrate my efforts building up the “black” (Islamic) power across the East, that doesn’t mean they’ll be my friends. I may very easily find myself using Catholic armies to wipe out the very Islamic power that I had just created. One of the victory conditions actually depends on a particular faith becoming “dominant”, but even then the distinction remains. You might be thinking of the Reformist (red pieces, in the game) as “yours” as you try to make them the dominant religion, but anyone can use them against you, and you can use any religion for your own purposes.

Instead (and back to that thesis again), the player takes on the identity of one of four Renaissance banking families. You make investments that will earn you income or allow you some level of influence over the actions of the government (the remnants of the feudal system). This resulting “indirect” nature of the gameplay is not something I’ve encountered before, and is especially different when compared to computer gaming.

The modeling of the economy is also very different. The normal model is that a player buys things, which then return money during some sort of counting phase. Typically, the investment is large, but returns over the length of the game make up for it. In Pax Renaissance, the “return on investment” is often up-front. Any card which costs 1 florin (the basic unit of accounting in the game) can be sold for 2 florins on the same turn. In some cases, purchasing a card might be a net positive back to the player. Card purchasing aside, it is typically aggressive actions that cost money – military campaigns and some targeting of enemy units. It’s both simplification and abstraction – real investments will never instantly double your money, but then again, no one has said* how long a “turn” represents in the game.

Similarly, the building of “infrastructure,” usually the key to any economic game, is mostly off-board and outside of the game. If an empire (let’s assume one under our control) begins gobbling up their neighbors, one might assume that it amasses infrastructure that leads to higher tax bases and, thus, more government treasury to advance its cause. But that assumption is neither here nor there. For the player, they interact with empires by tapping into the trade routes (concessions in the game’s language) or by controlling particular interests with the territory (abstractly represented by cards, which in some cases allow money to be recovered). And none of this is permanent. While defensive play is possible and part of the game, there is no power or scope of control you can amass that can’t be wiped out with a single play from an opponent.

Again, it’s a deeply woven interaction between the simplicity of the game model and the simulation of the period. The “merchant princes” generated vast wealth which they parleyed into political power, both direct and indirect. However, it did not make them the equivalent of the nobility. While they may used finances to bend the policies of empires, they still did business at the pleasure of their own governments. Anything that capitalism could build could be wiped out by decree.

Automazione

So I wonder how this game would translate to a computer version.

Board games, more often than not, don’t port well to the computer. There are many reasons for this. The most frequently cited is that a computer player’s intelligence, artificial as it is, can’t compete with human players. A bigger hurdle is when it is the free-form interaction and communication between players that makes a game. Computer games like Diplomacy or Here I Stand would always be a pale shadow of the face-to-face experience. But another factor is that sometimes, when automating all the actions of the players, what remains is so much simpler than the board game version that it seems to take the challenge out of it.

Pax Renaissance potentially could suffer from all three. In particular, I do note that part of the challenge is keeping on top of the interactions between the parts. For example, when deploying a bishop in the game, you can simply bring in the bishop on the card as you play it. Or you might be able to place it on one of your other cards. It also might be playable on any of your opponents cards. Part of playing the game is accessing that with each move. The computer, presumably, would remove that need and automatically show you all the options (whether you’d thought of them on your own or not).

Another example is the “Trade Fair” action within the game. This is one of the grand, game changing moves. The player marches through Europe, empire by empire, distributing the profits from previous investments as well as generating tax income to allow those empires to build up their military power. It tends to be a very deliberate affair, managing one empire card at a time and shifting money around the table. On a computer, with a single click everything would be update (a few choices aside, such as when an empire has more than one city to reinforce). Does that leave all the strategy, but just make the game play faster? Or does some of the “depth” of the game go away, when you are not actively managing the pieces during the action?

The counterpoint is that there is a level of strategy that takes place beyond making sure the rules are all followed. Each time you take a card, it makes it easier for the next play to acquire some other card. So you need to be constantly assessing the short term versus longer term effects of every move.

One last example, I found myself in my practice game forgoing earning large amounts of money to settle for smaller amounts. The reason is that the larger amount would also earn money for my opponent. In this case, it seemed prudent to not “waste” one of my own actions to get my opponent money when he, himself, might do it for me. Running up against the libertarian theme, the commerce that benefits everyone does not seem preferable to poverty than encompasses everyone.

I’d like to explore, a little, the logic that one would use to play this game, including solving conundrums like the above. But I will save that until another article.

*OK. So the manual does say that that the game “takes place” between 1460 to 1530, and that turns represent approximately 2 years. I think, though, the operative word is approximately.

Malakh Ha-Mavet

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Also coming off of Netflix this week, Above and Beyond, a documentary about the foreign pilots (mostly the Americans) who aided the Israelis in their 1948 War of Independence.

Technically, the movie is well done. It was produced by Nancy Spielberg, the youngest sister of Steven Spielberg, and benefits from access to Spielberg’s Industrial Light & Magic. Historical footage (and an impressive array thereof) is combined with computer generated combat footage and live re-enactments to tell the various stories. Interviews with a number of still-living pilots and relatives rounds out the narrative. This includes commentary from Pee Wee Herman, whose father flew for Israel in the war.

The depth of the story fills in a lot of blanks from when I was reading about the war earlier this year. In particular, when I played with the Arab Israeli Wars solitaire rules, I was always struck by the huge superiority of the Palivar card relative to the Egyptian air force, knowing as I did equipment procurement problems that the Israeli’s faced. The Egyptians had British-supplied aircraft totaling dozens of planes. The Israelis scrounged together what they could.

The core of their air power, shortly after the declaration of Independence, were what one of the pilots in the documentary describe as Messer-shits. The planes mostly came through Czechoslovakia, which was just about the only country desperate enough for dollars to defy the American arms embargo. Even what planes were smuggled out of the United States* often wound up in Czechoslovakia as a staging point. Czechoslovakia had, as a result of the Nazi occupation, a Messerschmidt manufacturing facility, where they continued to produce Me-109s post war. The problem was, they didn’t have all the pieces of the supply chain, and the fighters produced were of low quality overall and were cobbled together from what parts were available.

Despite the disparity, Israel with (if I’m following the narrative correctly) halted both the Egyptian invasion and the Iraqi invasion using four Me-109s. The effect was primarily psychological. It was known by all the Egypt’s air force would be unopposed, so when Israeli began flying actual fighter aircraft, it had to be assumed that there were any number more where they came from. Thus, the Israeli air force, such as it was, had a decisive impact on the outcome of the war whereas the Egyptian Air Force simply did not.

The fact that American World War II veterans were flying those planes seemed to more than make up for the deficiency in equipment.

In probably goes without saying, but the movie tells the story of the war from the Israeli perspective. Whether this provides an accurate picture or not would surely be a subject for hot debate, within the right crowd. What is clear from the movie is that those involved – both the Israeli’s themselves and the Americans fighting with them – genuinely believed that failure in that war could mean another Holocaust. Nearly seven decades down the road, we might dismiss much of the Arab rhetoric as bluster. At the time, particularly to those who had just survived the German death camps, it would have been prudent to take such threats at face value.

This, again, was a movie that had been in my queue for some time. I guess I have to thank Netflix for yanking it (mitigating factor: it remains free on Amazon Prime) as it was worth the time to watch.

*Apparently, to reduce the post-World War II surplus, war veterans were given the opportunity to purchase aircraft for mere thousands of dollars – far below there actual cost. A good chunk of the Israeli Air Force was acquired this way. Although legal to buy, the planes were illegal to export.

What’s In A Name?

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Coming off of Netflix this week is a film I’ve had in my queue for quite some time. Flammen & Citronen is the story of Danish resistance fighters during the German occupation during the latter part of the Second World War.

It got in there back before the ratings were eliminated because it has been highly regarded by critics and viewers. But I really had no idea what it is about*. Like many of the foreign-language films I’ve watched before, there were two big deterrents.

First, the cover art. On the Netflix menu (which I also hate with a passion, I might add), it uses the box art from the DVD version. But, because the pictures are in landscape rather than letter format, the picture is much more focused in. Online, it is just two rather unique looking characters, young and well dressed. What is missing is the background of that picture from the box cover, where they are in front of an image of German troops marching through Copenhagen. Without that background image, the picture tells nothing about the film.

Which brings me to the translation of the title. In Danish, the code names of the two main characters may well be known to the potential viewers. They received posthumous awards for their wartime activity, and are part of the national identity. Thus the title may actually tell many that they are going to see a film about a story that they already know. For American, the title is translate to Flame & Citron, which really threw me.

To me, Citron is a Swedish word. I learned if from the Absolute ads. I also had a Venezuelan acquaintance who opened a nightclub of that name in Caracas, naming it after the Vodka. (As a result, I assumed that Citron was also “lemon” in Spanish, but that’s neither here nor there). In English (and Spanish for that matter), Citron is the fruit from Southeast Asia.

The use of Flame and what I assumed was a foreign world, combined with the cover art, made me assume this was some kind of gay thing. Like I said, I don’t read the blurbs.

Without that misdirection, the code name Flammen was in fact fairly obvious. Flammen, whose real name was Bent Faurschou-Hviid, had bright orange hair, and is portrayed as such by the actor and on the cover art. This feature was well known to the Germans, even though they didn’t know his true identity.

Citronen (real name Jørgen Schmith) did not look like a lemon.

Helpfully, the Wikipedia article linked above warns us that Citron is “not to be confused with Citroën.” Indeed, it is this play on words that gave Schmith his code name. He firebombed of a Citroën garage destroying six German military cars and a tank. The name of “lemon” (he does seem somewhat sour in the movie’s portrayal) is a reference to that incident.

Flame and Lemon would have been better, although not as catchy. Flammen and Citronen would have worked, as it is just as obvious to English speakers (at least those that go to see subtitled movies) what that means. Flame and Citron just sucks lemons.

To the film itself, it is a pretty decent watch. It does an excellent job of showing the chaos of a society in civil war.

“Civil war?” you say. But this is about the Second World War, the largest of international conflicts?

Yes, but Denmark was never a front in that war. Denmark was captured with little resistance, with barely two dozen killed on each side. The Danish government negotiated terms of the occupation to leave much control in the hands of Danish civilians.

Thus, many (if not most) citizens were willing to cooperate with the Germans with the hope of being left alone. Even decidedly anti-Nazi government officials were actively cooperating in the hope to preserve some part of Danish democracy in what had the potential to become a German-controlled Europe. It is likely that there were others who were pro-Nazi who were enthusiastic supporters of the new reality.

Resistance took many forms. The film takes place in the months leading up to, and immediately following, the allied invasion of Normandy. The communist resistance is shown as a significant force, motivated by Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. After the institution of martial law in August of 1943, factions within the Danish government itself began to organize resistance. The film follows the group Holger Danske (named after a Danish hero of the time of Charlemagne), a group formed by veterans of the Winter War in Finland.

It is with this background that the film focuses on issues of trust and betrayal. One never knows if a fellow countryman is a collaborator, working for the official government, working for the British, or driven by ideological or even personal reasons (a major plot point involves using the resistors to assassinate so as to cover up financial indiscretions). When one doesn’t know who will ultimately “come out on top,” the issues of trust become more complex. Fighting side-by-side with communists will only last until the Red Army enters Denmark from the east, at which point the resistors become the collaborators, and vise-versa.

The film uses the speculation that the Faurschou-Hviid was turned in by a girlfriend, and fellow resistor, for the Nazi reward. And while Faurschou-Hviid killed himself to avoid capture, said girlfriend survived the war and lived to old age. It is speculative, but when survival depends on trust, ultimately (it seems so often) that trust winds up broken.

One final thought on the film. Having recently watched a Norwegian film, I was surprised with the comparison between spoken language. In The Heavy Water War I often picked up on short phrases here and there, where I could understand the Norwegian speakers. With Danish, it was rare I could pick up on a single word. “Thanks.” Also “Flammen,” and that’s almost it. Giving the similarity between the two languages, I found that odd.

*I try to avoid reading any of the summary blurbs, either online or on Netflix dust jackets, because they are apt to either give away plot points or completely misrepresent the content of a film. In fact, doing both simultaneously is pretty common. In many cases, it seems unlikely that the person who writes the summary even watched any of the movie itself.

Casus Belli

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As a university student, I signed up for a course called something like “War and Society.” I did not realize that this was PC-speak for an anti-war twist on the study of military history. The professor was one of several recently hired from the local State school, and was pushing a more “current” curriculum within the school of Liberal Arts. I wound up dropping the class pretty quickly, but I held on to both of the assigned texts for the class. They have collected dust on my shelf until now.

Both books were published in the late 70s/ early 80s, and they came at the peak of a post-Vietnam shift towards an anti-war interpretation of history. The instructor hoped to push the culture of an Engineering school – one heavily influenced by military contract research money and direct military interaction in the form of a large ROTC program.

Upon opening the first book, War and Society in Renaissance Europe, 1450-1620, the editorial note seems perfectly aligned with the goal of the course. I was a little nervous about proceeding further, but the attitude of the editor does not quite reflect the attitude of the author. First, the author does not deliberately avoid anything “pro-military” as the lead-in might have suggested. The narrative seems well balanced. Secondly, in an era where the righteousness of one’s cause was all but given, even while wars were apt to bankrupt the perpetrator for little gain, it would seem all the more important and informative to look at the “bigger picture” of fitting the impacts of war into society as a whole.

On the back cover of the book, the review explains “This book … is full of epigrams and bon mots” and indeed it is. The author seems to delight in pushing the envelope with the prowess of his vocabulary and his ability to relate an obscure literary reference to the topic at hand. Relevant works of literature a described only by title and author, and the reader is expected either to know the work already, or perhaps to go off and read it before continuing on with the paragraph, to understand the authors point. In other cases, it is merely the matter of going to a dictionary and looking up a $100 word. When those words and phrases are foreign language puns, and the translation (much less the double meaning) are left to the reader, I begin to wonder what the author is about.

Perhaps the book was never meant to be read casually, as I am now. I bought it for college classroom work, and one might well expect that the college student reads his textbooks with frequent referrals to dictionaries, related literature, and the language of the primary sources. It also seems to be literary style of the 60s and 70s, where even works of entertainment delight in going over the heads of as many of their potential audience as possible, perhaps for the edification of the few remaining who get it. I don’t know. I’m thinking of, for example, the use in films from that time of foreign language conversation without subtitles or translation assuming that the moviegoer knows Italian. I’ll also add that the author is from England, so some of his “epigrams and bon mots” may be a little bit more familiar to readers from his own country.

To the substance of the book, one item that particularly interested in me is the discussion about the recruitment of the lowest soldiers. The pay was actually quite low. By the end of the period, the pay scale for a soldier was a factor of three or more over workers in building construction. This is something that continues to this day. Starting pay for soldiers is at the low end of what is earnable, even by the standard of high-school graduates. It is made up to some extent by the possibility of pension and other benefits. In the Renaissance, rulers also realized the wisdom of caring for ex-soldiers, but often failed to provide the funding to do so. Unlike today, soldiers were expected to provide for pretty much all of their expenses except housing. They had to purchase meals, clothing, and even provide their own weapons and armor (paying for them with payroll deduction if they didn’t already have it). For most of the 16th century, gunners even had to pay for their own gunpowder. This provided a perverse incentive in that arquebusiers were essentially docked in pay each time they fired their weapons in battle. By 1600 this practice, at least, was modified.

Oddly enough, this was also true for mercenary forces. Local forces were traditionally raised by the lords as a duty to King and Country. The Renaissance saw societal change that, for a variety of reasons, made that more and more difficult. The wars of this time period were often fought with mercenaries. One would expect that said mercenaries would require compensation to make up for the lack of King and Country connection, and yet the pay differential was small. Certainly not enough to raise a soldiers pay above subsistence.

Another aspect that sounds familiar today, the manpower for armies came predominantly from the rural parts of nations. Now, at the end of the Medieval period, the world was still predominantly agricultural, so naturally any source of manpower would be predominately rural. However, the books suggests that, even so, the filling of armies was disproportionately from outside of cities and towns. The reasons for it ring true today. The culture of the cities, and the new “desk job” avocations, created a different mindset that didn’t mesh with military service. Armies also require physically fit and competent soldiers. Working in the fields, using tools, and being able to hunt and fight with weapons were considerably less likely to be a part of city life.

The book also delves into the social conflict between the urbanites and the country folk. Those in rural areas (fairly justifiably) felt they were bearing the brunt of the cost of wars, a resentment that could occasionally turn violent. For their part, the urbanites were thriving under the expansion of the economy and looked down upon the peasants as a lesser species. Sometime, this was quite literally – those who were more developed considered the rural poor to be subhuman, and were apt to treat them accordingly.

Shades of today’s politics.

Beyond those particulars, the general theme of the book (as alluded to by the title) is the intersection of soldiering and society. The life of soldiers and how that is distinct from civilian life, the interaction between civilians and soldiers, etc. Chapters are organized around themes, but the information is presented as a narrative, rather than a highly structure form (which might counter my “textbook” thought, above). A critical factor in all of this are that the details are not well documented. In order to get a picture of life at ground level, one must piece together official records with letters and with fictional accounts (plays and books). None present or complete (or necessarily reliable) on their own, but when themes support each other across different sources, it may be safe to extrapolate. In some cases, the author actually walks the user through his lack of data. Paraphrasing, “I made these tables. The numbers probably aren’t very accurate, due to lack of good records, but the trends they paint are.”

This is the style of the book. The chapters are divided up into themes, but the narrative walks through the data as opposed to proceeding either chronologically or geographically, as one might expect. This again returns to the style of the book where it seems the author expects from the reader some fairly deep knowledge about the history of the period. One comes away with some interesting insights into the period, but not necessarily with any better overview of the period. The subtitle talks about a span of 170 years of which the book is about. It is about all of these years, and in some ways, none of them. Largely the themes are those which span the course of those nearly two centuries. Occasionally, the progress of time and technology appears if necessary to describe a trend (e.g. X first appeared in France, and then 40 years later was a major factor in Venice), but its the exception rather than the rule.

Ultimately, the theme throughout and his conclusion at the end is that wars had a lot less impact on Renaissance society that you might think. Victory in war rarely (if ever) produced a return on its cost. The impact on society, both culturally and economically, was probably minor compared to the cultural and economic changes caused by the Renaissance itself. Yet for all the rise of the individual and the empowerment of the middles classes, the right of Kings to wage war as they saw fit was generally not challenged. As the author says, with the obvious exception of civil wars, the political impact of Renaissance warfare was minor.

I Can Do No Other

For the game accompanying this book, I chose Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation 1517-1555. Obviously, it is a considerably shorter time focus that the above book, covering the span of the Renaissance. Similar to the larger era, the much shorter 33 year period is remarkable for just how much happened within that fairly brief time. The European conquest of the New World, the founding of a major new branch of Judeo-Christianity, and the struggle between Christendom and Islam probably top the list.  Unlike the book, the game focuses on capturing that big picture.

The game is, as the box cover advertises, a Card Driven Strategy Game in the lineage of games like We the People and Twilight Struggle. It is designed for and plays best with six players, although it can be played with as few as two. The game and its genre (and I’m not knowledgeable enough to tell the difference) bring a number of novelties to players used to hex-and-counter wargames. In fact, despite spending time in the game moving stacks of generals and armies, in many ways this isn’t really a wargame. I read in one review that, although the rules and interactions in the game are very complex, once one learns it all the game on the board merely becomes a background for the real game – the Diplomacy phase and the potentially infinite negotiations between players.

I’ve never played this game – not even once. I may never play it. I’m fascinated with the period it portrays and extraordinarily impressed by the way it has made the game simple enough to be playable. However, I simply don’t foresee finding a couple of days where with five other like-minded game players, allowing us to play through a game. In fact, we’d probably need to commit to several such sessions as, others’ experience shows, it probably takes a game or two to get the rules down enough so that a successfully completed game is possible. The target for this type of game are players in tabletop-gaming clubs who meet regularly, and can plan to tackle something of this magnitude systematically. And there are plenty of those types – but I’ll never be one of them.

My interest in the game is in its intersection with game design and the implications (or lack thereof) for solo play and/or computer play. Right off, the simple fact that the meta-layer for this game is a version of Diplomacy should probably disqualify Here I Stand from ever becoming a successful computer game. The endless struggle to create a (much simpler) Diplomacy is a story I may come back to, but not a path to go down today. Instead, let us consider what this game could teach us about wargame design. Because, although it is in many ways not a wargame, it also (in many ways) is – but a wargame unlike almost anything we would see on the computer.

I recall an on-line discussion about the need for computer game designers and programmers to learn from the boardgaming world. This game, as a recent highly-rated and popular boardgame, I think offers some lessons in that regard. What could be learned from this design, and what doesn’t apply?

hereicyber

A CyberBoard game of Here I Stand. While the HRE and France are knocking each other around in Metz, England seizes that chance to conquer Scotland.

Any game needs to be abstracted. Even the most realistic of simulations needs abstractions. But boardgames, in particular, require abstraction to avoid forcing the players to crunch through simulation calculations when they’d rather be playing a game. Furthermore, boardgames need to be clever about their abstractions in that they also mesh well into a “UI.” Here I Stand does very well in both respects. Indeed, its popularity and innovativeness might owe more to the latter.

Another similar example is a innovation that Here I Stand introduced to me (whether the innovation was particular to this game, I don’t know). The game uses player cards, which contain control markers. As a player captures key cities/regions, the marker is placed on the board. In doing so, a space on the player card is uncovered, indicating the current victory point level as well as indicating the number of cards drawn at the start of each turn – the latter is a stand-in for economic power in the game. It is a brilliantly simple game mechanic that replaces several different categories of bookkeeping with an intuitive placement of a marker, perhaps serving double or triple duty, on the board.

Very impressive but entirely useless when moving to a computer translation.

Digitally, a programmer probably wants the various states tracked separately from any UI component – so the different information has to be stored more directly anyway. Also, the bookkeeping and calculation that the board game saves the player is of no benefit to the computer. The computer has no complaints about, for example, counting up the number of controlled “keys” before distributing cards at the beginning of each turn. In fact, were I programming it, I would want to recalculate rather than store the information “conveniently,” as the latter opens up the possibility that (due to a bug) the two or three different places where the information is tracked – key control + victory points + cards – may get out of sync. Better just to spend a few cycles to computer from a single storage place.

From the UI angle, the display needs to be simple to look at, but it can be as complicated as necessary behind the curtain. So, for example, my computer might only display the total score for each side and then, when I mouse-hover over a score, it shows the component calculations (in the case the number of key locations controlled) for the score. Similarly the current card allotment. And even though these two are both calculated from the same source, linking them via the UI is entirely unnecessary.

Similarly, the card driven aspect of this game strikes a balance between the historical narrative and playability. In a historical game, presumably one wants the events of the period to surround you as you play. Of course, if all those event simply occur on cue per the calendar, play gets boring in its predictability. One can “randomize” events, but that leaves potentially game changing card draws outside the players control – driving you towards a game too dependent on luck. So the cards in Here I Stand, while forcing some historical context (the mandatory cards), also allow players some control over order, priorities, etc. In fact, in contrast with Twilight Struggle, the “friendly” event cards generally seem desirable to play (they give you more of an advantage than just playing the points). In the earlier game, it seems that events are generally to be avoided, unless specifically part of a multi-card gambit. In any case, the card mechanic puts the game just outside the players ability to fully understand and control, which I would argue is a major factor in what makes players like a game. The perfect game design (at least in some genres) involves balancing the mechanics of that game right in that gray area in a players ability to grasp the mechanics and their interactions. A supremely balanced Card Driven Strategy game is doing just that.

But go to the computer, and complexity starts to disappear. Fanout from an event can all be made more explicit to the player, making it easier to understand more complex interactions. Similarly, large and gamebreaking events can be replaced with smaller ones. 100 cards could easily become 1000s of events, integrated with things like “tech trees,” all in a way that (given some good UI) is easier, not harder, for a player to navigate (see Europa Universalis IV). Point being that the Card Driven mechanic, despite all its positives, is probably not a great choice for computer gaming.

For other features, its clear they simply become irrelevant when translated to the computer. For example, the point-to-point movement system that often seems to go hand-in-hand with the Card Driven Game genre is, when translated to the computer, likely identical to any “area movement” or other representation of a map with regions/countries etc. Internally, a programmer would probably use some version of the node and connection anyway, so that the computer can understand what locations are adjacent, even if the UI shows a more traditional map.

Moving on, there are innovations in Here I Stand that are very meaningful in terms of the board game, but still don’t “translate” well. Take, for instance, the mechanic whereby a nations armies is limited by the number of counters supplied with the game. As described in the manual:

The counters provided with the game for each power are purposely limited to reflect the total manpower of these powers during the period. Units may never be constructed in excess of the counters available.

In the board game context, this is a very innovative way to provide an additional, historical restriction on army size. One might imagine it can get rather complicated, but for a simple illustration, take a look at Hungary, a non-player nation. At the beginning of the game (1517), Hungary is at war with Ottoman Empire. There is an event card that, if played before the Hapsburgs joint the war, beefs up the Hungarian army in Buda by four factors – but only if the remaining counters allow it.

If nothing has happened yet, the Hungarian army is 3-points below their limit. However, because of the counter set, only one of those can be deployed to Buda. If it is played slightly later, and Belgrade has fallen to the Turks, the Hungarians will have lost the one point, meaning they could theoretically accept all 4 new points, accept again, the counter mix only allows three to go to Buda. Reading in between the lines, the Hungarians can (for example) deploy one large army and several smaller ones, but not field three equally-powerful forces. As I said, the permutations can get complicated and one has to trust the designers in creating certain specifics. Assuming they got it right, it is an easy way to apply restrictions with a minimum of off-line accounting.

But would you do that for a computer game? Certain rules aside, the counters in Here I Stand are meant to be “changeable.” That is, there is no difference between a level 6 regular infantry and 6 level 1 infantries, despite the difference in the pictures on the counter. Thus, as a programmer, if I wanted to represent a location having six infantry points, I doubt I’d want to also track the counter sizes (again, certain rules aside). I have some options, of course, but I can’t imagine that my first choice would be managing exactly which counter mix is used to represent the total. If nothing else, it would require more computer opponent logic to decide when to, for example add another level 1 counter versus upgrading an existing level 1 counter to a level 2 versus trading in that existing level 1 counter along with an existing level 2 for a level 4. To much work for a function where the result, most of the time, is exactly the same.

So what if, as a programmer, I’m counting my units in whatever way I’m counting them, and now I want to impose some historical restrictions on total (global and local) army sizes. Again, the “only use the counters supplied in the box” method is probably more complicated than the alternatives. Given the computer’s computation ability, I could be much more explicit about those limits to achieve my historical goal. A common computer game limitation is to have each node where recruitment takes place have it’s own (renewable) limit.

So much for negativity. Indeed I think there are abstractions that suggest a better way of doing things.

One in particular is the exploration and conquest mechanics of the game. This is obviously an improvement over the moving a piece around on a board, with each move having a possibility of revealing a discovery. For this, I’m imagining a boardgame equivalent to something like Civilization and its fog of war, where one moves units every turn, revealing new world information. While I’m sure we could find some good “exploration” mechanics for the board, the fact is in Here I Stand the player does not want to take on the role of Magellan, he is Charles V! Thus we toss our expeditions out into the Atlantic. Maybe they get lost, maybe they pay dividends, but details are beyond our control.

The other mechanic that just plain excites me is the Spring Phase/Winter Phase. Most games ignore the change of seasons.  If the game is more tactical, or even operational, seasonal effects are modifiers – to movement, to combat, to attrition, or whatever. For a strategic level game, it is rare to see a game that handles the annual cycle. Yes, a Europa Univeralis will penalize the player for operating during the wrong season, but ultimately that becomes a choice – do I pay X extra resources to launch my attack now, or wait until mid-March? In reality, particularly in this time period and earlier, the military calendar was driven by the seasonal calendar. It wasn’t a matter of calculating the cost/benefit of a winter campaign – in many cases, it just wasn’t an option. The effects of weather was only part of it. Forcing your agricultural workers to fight during harvest season would have been a good recipe for winning the battle but losing the war (to famine).

While Pike and Shot Campaigns, I very recently discovered, actually does include wintering rules, the only previous example that springs (heh – no pun intended) to mind is Hammer of the Scots. Here I Stand may have drawn from that system. The game does more than just apply restrictions based on season. Armies must withdraw (and be capable of withdrawing) to fortified areas able to support them. The forced withdrawal is balanced by a Spring deployment step. It nicely (by which I mean simply) models the seasonal raising and dismissing of citizen soldiers, necessary to a campaign of foreign conquest.

Naturally, is simple and thus abstracted. In particular, the game’s turns last more than a single year. In fact, the game’s turns are not even a constant over the course of the game ranging (looking quickly) from 3 to 6 year turns. Each turn only has a single Spring/Winter cycle. As an abstraction, that could mean one (or more) of several things. Perhaps the idea is that a major offensive wouldn’t be launched every year, year after year. While the turn takes place over, let’s say, 3 years, all the military campaigning takes place within one of those years. Or perhaps its an abstract acknowledgment that some sieges lasted over a winter or, at least, caused a campaign to extend over multiple years. Or maybe it is just a way to keep the game from getting too busy.

So a big shot of realism mitigated by a dose of abstraction. In many ways that describes much about my feelings for Here I Stand.

But I Won’t Do That

I made another try at trying to get Europa Universalis IV to take on the reign of Charles V and the uniting of vast expanses of the world under the Hapsburg name. Once again, I couldn’t get there.

This time I played as Austria and began with Frederick III in control. In the 1492 setup, Austria is in control both of roughly-modern-day Austria as well as the Netherlands. I tried to quickly establish marriage ties with Castile, hoping to come by Spain (this time) through the Netherlands.

Alas, like before, Isabella held on to the throne for decades beyond her real counterpart’s life. Also like before, Isabella married her daughter Juana into the Naples royal family so that, rather than having a future Emperor as a grandson, she had closer ties to Naples. Moving through the 1520s, there is no sign of some of the major historical factors of the time – neither the unions of Castile, Aragon, the Netherlands and Austria, nor the fighting over Italy that served as a proxy war between France and Spain.

Fortunately, a little search magic (that had eluded me before) turns up someone who posted a mod to handle Charles V on Steam. I’m going to have to give that one a go.

Mania and Mayhem

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Related to the topic of my last political post, Dilbert artist Scott Adams posted an analysis, of sorts, suggesting that something like half the body politic is experiencing “Mass Hysteria” (and isn’t dat sexist right there?)

Earlier this year I called it “fantasy to the point of derangement,” which accounts for it on a case-by-case basis, but begs the question of why it is so widespread. Mr. Adams suggests a cultural phenomenon as a way to explain its breadth.

I guess it goes without saying that I’m one of the ones he describes as being “outside the bubble.” I also find it interesting that, for the purposes of his argument, the actual truth is irrelevant. In other words, even if Trump is proven to be a Hitler-loving, racist, National Socialist who is under direct control of the Russian government, it still doesn’t change the fact that those who assumed the truth have been suffering from a mass hysteria.

Cue the Orchestra

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Clocking in at 3 hours and 44 minutes (for the 1962 edit), the original Ben Hur is more than a movie – it’s a commitment. But I decided to make that commitment when I saw that they were releasing a remake (2016). At first glance, remaking the spectacle of galley fights and chariot races

One of the on-line review I read complained about the painting of historical Israel with the brush on 1950s American. To be sure, there is plenty of that in the movie. The film’s score, in particular, is a jarring cacophony if the modern classical style. Combined with the lengthy “Overture” and pretentiously-named “Entr’Acte“, the orchestra becomes a character all its own.

But part of me wonders if the American culture that this film reflects is of the antebellum as the post-Korean War America.

The novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was published in 1880. It took and held the record for best-selling American novel of all time until 1936 and Gone with the Wind. Even that book fell again in 1960 when the release of the movie spurred a new wave of interest in the book. The book was written by Lew Wallace, billed as “General Lew Wallace” in the film, who achieved notoriety in the battle at Shiloh due to his conflict with U.S. Grant.

While the 1950s saw a far more religious America than today’s, the second half of the nineteenth century was far beyond even that. In a biography, it is described the Wallace began the novel as a reaction to a train ride he took with Colonel Robert Ingersoll, a fellow Shiloh veteran who was known, post war, as “The Great Agnostic.” Wallace was not a religious person, but he felt shamed that he hadn’t the background to form convictions on the subject, whether pro or con. This lead him to study the biblical stories and, ultimately, lead him to write the book.

In  the rivalry between main character Ben Hur and his nemesis Messala biographers have seen a reflection of Wallace’s own struggle with Grant. They go so far as to refer to a story, printed shortly after Wallace’s death, of a horse race between himself and Grant  – a race won by Wallace.

The book was also notable for the meticulous research that Wallace put into his portrayal of the Holy Land. For many American readers, this was the first time they connected a description of the environs in contemporary tongue with the stories of the Gospel which they had grown up with. This was a major factor in the popularity of the book and its effectiveness – it allowed people to see Jesus as a historical figure rather than part of a Sunday sermon (using the language of the King James bible).

Like a joke from another culture, this movie is worth viewing as an artifact from another America. Such jokes can be perplexing and perhaps understood with some explanation and, while one might acknowledge that the joke is funny, rarely will it prompt spontaneous laughter. Likewise this movie, for me, has to be watched with a certain detachment.

Watching it has it’s pain. That orchestra, of course, seeming to fill far to many dreadfully long pauses. But there is also plenty of over-acting, I assume from an era when “serious” film was supposed to reflect the stage. The conversion from page to screen, as always, leaves holes. A scene in the movie where Messala is goaded into betting massively on his own chariot is left without the second half, where Judah Ben Hur reaps a fortune from his victory. I may need, now, to actually read the novel to see just how far Hollywood took the film away from the story. And how much of what’s wrong is 1950s America versus 1870s America.

But it does have it’s pluses. For its time, this was the pinnacle of big-budget blockbusters. The sets are vast – made more impressive knowing that they would be done with CGI today. Naturally, a wary eye can pick out painted sets, or discern when an outdoor scene is being filmed on an indoor stage. Nonetheless, the film is huge. The chariot race and the galley battle are spectacularly done. The size of the crowds are massive, particularly when one considers that those are all extras, not computer-rendered copies.

When I first saw that a remake was in the works, I thought it a brilliant idea. Using a combination of modern technology and, perhaps, better research, I figured such a film could be done properly for today. But at the time, I’d never seen the original. Now that I have, I no longer have much of an interest in the new version. What could be done great with modern effects was already done great, in its own way, in 1959. Improving on the story itself would likely involve deviating further from the original story.

I think I may have painted myself into a corner here, buying a read of the original novel and then a viewing of the 2016 film.