Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Summary of United States of Secrets

Frontline is my favorite news documentary television program.  I do not watch every Frontline but I pay attention to its schedule.  Its in-depth coverage of the origins of the 2008 financial crisis was outstanding reporting and my review of its coverage is my most popular blog post ever. Last week, Frontline once again demonstrated its profound relevance and investigative integrity with a two-part documentary entitled "United States of Secrets."

This three-hours of television journalism blew my mind. "United States of Secrets" is better than any fictional political thriller any author could come up with.  It is a story of vast overreach of governmental authority, unconstitutional acts, and political lying by both the Bush and the Obama administrations. This is the story of how we as a society lost all semblance of privacy and due process of law.

The National Security Agency (NSA) reads every email, every tweet, looks at every photo you upload to "the cloud", analyzes every phone call you make, tracks your movements, all with virtually no judicial oversight and no accountability. This is not even a matter of opinion.  It is a substantiated fact. Here's how that came to be.

The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 stunned our nation like no other singular event since the 1942 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Very rapidly, the Federal Government's intelligence community mobilized to meet this threat and prevent future incidents. The entire NSA was as surprised by the attacks as anyone.  Their primary purpose was to detect and prevent major attacks upon the United States. They had failed.  It was a catastrophic failure.

Vice-president Dick Chaney sought advice from White House counsel to make certain that President George W. Bush was given all the powers entitled to the Office of the President during times on national calamity.  Chaney's policy was to push the limits of power and keeping pushing until some other political force stopped them. Simultaneously, the NSA developed the internal perspective that they had failed because they had not been aggressive enough with their intelligence gathering operations.  This was largely due to spying operations conducted back during the Nixon administration.  The NSA had its powers curtailed as part of the backlash from the Watergate scandal. NSA spying on Americans was severely limited for the next 30 years.

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales describes the basic motivation post-9/11: "We have to remember we had terrorists living in this country for a number of months and we didn't know about it. What else didn't we know? We not only could not connect the dots, we could not collect the dots." Vice-President Chaney directed Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet to make a "shopping list" of things national intelligence was not allowed to do that they would like to do in order to proceed with an aggressive intelligence response to the situation.

On October 4, 2001, President Bush secretly signed the executive order for "The Program."  At this point the NSA was empowered to monitor all Internet traffic, foreign and domestic, within the United States and all telephone calls being placed within the US.  The stated goal was to detect terrorists before they were known and monitor their activities more thoroughly.  The order was written by Chaney's attorney, not Bush's attorney. Key NSA attorneys, in separate opinions, agreed that the presidential authorization for The Program was constitutional under Article Two.

Emails, texting, Skype activities, everything started to be collected and analyzed.  But there was an urgent need for a data system and protocol sophisticated enough to handle all this data. It so happened that one already existed but had never been fully implemented.  The program was called ThinThread.  This massive computer system featured built-in encryption safeguards to protect privacy.  It had the staggering ability to monitor communications of everyone in the world, anonymously, unless there was a court order which then allowed necessary identities to be known.

The Program was so secret almost no one inside the NSA even knew about it.  So it came as a surprise to some NSA officials when ThinThread was not selected for use by The Program. They were told another program had been chosen to handle the collection process.  That was about the time that massive amounts of servers and related hardware started to arrive at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade.

Before long word of The Program was being leaked within the NSA itself.  Directing servers that were all heretofore pointing outward, beyond the United States, suddenly inward toward the network infrastructure of the US population itself, was causing grave concerns.  Some NSA employees did not feel comfortable with what was happening.

Among the leaking information was the fact that ThinThread was, in fact, being brought into operation - only with all the encryption removed. Everything and everyone was totally visible and collectible and analyzable.  This was boundless surveillance with no judicial or political oversight at all.  It was all top secret.

In late October 2001, three NSA officials in charge of ThinThread took early retirement on their on volition.  All were opposed to how their massive data collection system was being used by The Program.  A fourth member, NSA senior executive Thomas Drake, stayed on despite voicing grave concerns. He finally took these concerns before the NSA General Counsel who confirmed that the operation was completely legal, citing numerous documents signed by numerous lawyers.  What's more, the employee was told "these are extraordinary times, they require extraordinary measures.  Please don't ask anymore questions."

Next, the NSA began secretly working with all major US telephone companies to get access to their data. An NSA official decided to go to congress with what was happening. He approached Diana Roark, a key Republican intelligence staffer, and informed her that there was a massive program enacted "for the collection of domestic communications. A collection in dragnet fashion. A collection on everybody." The Republican staffer was "aghast because this constituted a compete reversal of NSA policy."

Roak immediately went to key congressional Republicans. She found no sympathy.  These congressional leaders had already been briefed secretly at the White House weeks before. Everyone felt it was best for the country.  By summer 2002 The Program was in full stride. Roark states: "I argued very strongly that they needed to have the protections restored.  I told them that if the administration did not do this, they should insist that the system be killed, stopped.  I said it was unethical, immoral, politically stupid, illegal and unconstitutional. And stop.  And when this comes out all hell is going to break loose."

She was summoned directly to meet with General Michael Hayden, the head of NSA.  Roark questioned Hayden on why the encryption was not being used.  Hayden only answered that "what we are doing is lawful and what we are doing is effective." Hayden stated he felt The Program fell within the powers of the President as outlined in Article Two of the Constitution.  Hayden then asked Roark to stop lobbying against The Program and keep her knowledge of it to herself. Though concerned, she agreed to remain silent.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Agency (FISA) was setup in the aftermath of Watergate to ensure that all government wiretaps were authorized by a court order and to issue warrants for such activity if the evidence justified it.  In 2003, key players at FISA were becoming aware that the government was obtaining information on certain people inside the US without any warrants at all.  Thomas Tamm first tried to speak to his superiors at the Department of Justice about what was going on.  He got nowhere.  Then he spoke with a powerful senate staffer who advised him to keep quiet.

Jack Goldsmith was selected by Chaney to head the President's Office of Legal Counsel, charged with reviewing the legality of top secret operations. When it came time to learn about The Program, Goldsmith thought it was odd that he was summoned to the Vice-President's (not the President's) counsel's office.  But the original authorization for the The Program was stored in a safe under Chaney's supervision. Goldsmith did not react the way Chaney thought he would. "The Program was an example of the administration going it alone, in secret, based on inadequate legal reasoning and flawed legal opinions."

Relations between Justice Department and the White House became contentious.   Goldsmith felt that what was happening was a massive felony against tens of millions of Americans. Chaney and his key advisers vehemently disagreed and reintegrated that The Program was absolutely necessary to prevent further terrorist attacks.  The Program had to be reauthorized every 45 days by the Attorney General.  At this point the Attorney General refused to sign the re-authorization due to the amount of dissent within his office.

Chaney had his own counsel draw up a new order only this time there was a place for the White House counsel to sign, rather than the Attorney General.  At this same time, over 190 people were killed in 10 separate al Qaeda attacks in Madrid, Spain.  It was obvious that the terrorist organization was still alive and thriving.  General Hayden agreed to accept the re-authorization signed by White House counsel instead of by the Attorney General.  The Program continued.

Over at the Justice Department, Goldsmith prepared his resignation.  Dozens of department officials were prepared to join him, they were so sure that both the authorization and the activities of the government were illegal.  Even the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation expressed his intent to resign over the aggressive actions of Chaney and his counsel, Alberto Gonzales.

With two dozen Bush political appointees threatening to resign, the President had no choice to address them directly. This was 2004, an election year, and Bush's chances for reelection would be threatened by such a mass high-profile resignation within his own political appointees. Bush met privately with the FBI director.  It was suddenly clear that Chaney had not informed Bush about all of this in-fighting. Bush instructed the FBI director to "fix this."  The unauthorized collection of warrantless data within The Program was shut down.  The crisis was averted.

But Chaney and Hayden immediately began an aggressive campaign to obtain legal authorization through FISA. Eventually, FISA agreed with their arguments and The Program was up and running again about six months later. On the campaign trail, Bush repeatedly stated that the NSA operations were only directed at individuals where a court order had been issued.  Indeed this was partly true. Orders were being issued and activities were more heavily directed in these areas.  But, simultaneously, Bush did not reveal that, in fact, there was a wiretap and internet data collection on every single person in the United States.

Meanwhile, Tamm, who knew nothing of the threat by the higher echelon of the Justice Department to resign, decided to leak information to The New York Times.  But the Times was already investigating the story from previous reporting efforts. Tamm's revelations added fuel to the fire. The Times contacted Hayden for comment on the possibility that The Program might exist.  Hayden sounded the alarm.  The White House met with the Times.  This was still 2004.  It was still an election year.  Once again, pressure from The White House defused the situation. The matter was simply too sensitive to be made public and there was, apparently, substantial legal basis for the constitutionality of the activity. Exposing The Program would jeopardize national security. Ultimately, the editors at the Times decided to back off.

But not for long.  In December 2005 the Times decided to run the story and reveal the existence of The Program.  What changed their mind was the fact that one of their own reporters was threatening to publish a book with the information in it.  The editors debated among themselves. They were summoned to the White House.  Bush made a personal plea, stating that they would endanger lives of Americans if they printed the story.  But this time the story ran and it shocked the world.

Bush went on the attack.  In a nationally televised address he admitted that The Program existed. Bush admitted that he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on known terrorists and to monitor their activity.  What he did not mention was that The Program was doing much more than that.  It was collecting data on everyone in the United States. The trillions of telephone calls and trillions of emails that The Program was analyzing was not a part of his address.  What Bush stated seemed reasonable.  The wider dragnet aspects of The Program remained secret and were not mentioned in the Times report.  And The Program continued without serious opposition.

General Hayden held his own press conference.  He told everyone: "This is targeted.  This is focused. This is about al-Qaeda.  One end of any call targeted is always directed outside the United States."  This was blatantly untrue but it sounded reassuring to the American public.  Frustrated key NSA and Justice Department personnel, hearing the political spin, now started leaking details to the Baltimore Sun and The New York Times about the expansive nature of The Program. Chaney went ballistic about the leaks and ordered Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to track down the leakers.

After months of investigation with nothing to show for their efforts, the FBI finally raided all the homes of the key suspects including Diane Roark.  All these individuals had their hard drives and other technical equipment confiscated from their homes. Some were found to contain classified information. The government decided to prosecute.  By now it was 2008, another election year. And Barack Obama was promising to create the most transparent administration in history. Obama promised no more illegal wiretaps, no more ignoring the law "when it is inconvenient." Those raided by the FBI were now hoping that an Obama election would keep them out of prison.

In the waning days of the the Bush administration, there was a final push to make The Program permanent with an attempt to pass The FISA Amendments Act of 2008. President Bush stated: "Without this law our ability to prevent new attacks will be weakened. And it will become harder to uncover terrorist plots." Candidate Barack Obama faced a choice as to whether or not to vote for this bill.  Obama needed to look strong against terrorism, he needed to look presidential.  Over widespread criticism from his own party, Obama voted in favor of the bill.

Obama won the election.  Only after he began his security briefings as President did Obama learn the full extent of The Program.  The President's intelligence advisers strongly favored The Program. Upon hearing all the information, Obama became convinced The Program was necessary and he would own it.  The NSA was now spending more than $10 billion a year capturing communications of people in the United States and around the world.

The technological skills necessary to run The Program and keep it effective required a large number of private contractors to do the work, to obtain the data and store it in ways that could be massively analyzed with sophisticated tools.  One such contractor was Edward Snowden, who had special clearance to work on many parts of The Program simultaneously.  When Snowden learned that Obama had decided to keep all of The Program with all of the millions of warrantless searches in place, without any change from the Bush-Chaney intentions, he began to consider the possibility, like so many before him, of leaking information.  Only this time he had more direct information about The Program and far greater access to data stored within The Program than any of the previously mentioned whistler blowers.

Obama did nothing to stop the prosecutions of the alleged leakers that began late in the Bush administration. Ultimately, however, none of those under investigation were ever charged. The matter was slowly allowed to die quietly with a few receiving minimal fines and orders for community service. Meanwhile, Snowden learned from the other whistle blowers. Snowden knew he had to have a lot of genuine data, not hearsay.  He capture 1.7 million classified documents and began to reach out to a different set of journalists.

This is where Part One of the two-part Frontline report ends. In Part Two, "Privacy Lost", the Snowden leak, the largest intelligence leak in US history, is detailed.  It covers the development and expansion of the PRISM Program.  Also, the second part of this outstanding documentary discusses how corporate America, like Google and AT&T, began to collect data on internet usage in order to drive specific advertising revenue. Within these corporations, privacy was thought to be protected by various encryption routines.  But the US government, under the Obama administration, brought most major internet services providers into The Program. When some of these corporations attempted to keep the government out, the NSA simply hacked into these corporations, hacked into the very infrastructure of the Internet hubs in the US and all over the world, greatly amplifying the data collected. The Program today is more at massive than every before.

General Hayden understands the controversy about The Program.  He does not come across as some power-crazed individual.  He seems highly reasonable and even empathetic as long as you understand he has a job to do and he intends to do that job.  "You want to draw the box differently? You want to have the NSA work in a smaller box?  I got it.  But before you do that you have to understand what the cost might be. We live inside a democracy and public will matters in a democracy. I just hope that it is informed public will and, frankly, when the decisions are made you understand the cost."

But Barton Gellman frames the discussion in differently.  "So where we are now is that we are in a place where we live behind one way mirrors. Corporate America and law enforcement and the national security state know so much about us. And we know so little about them. We know little about what they are doing, how they are doing it. And we can't actually hold our government accountable because we truly don't know what it is doing."

I can not recommend this Frontline program enough.  It is three hours of television every American should watch.

Personal notes:  General Hayden wants us to have informed public opinion about a massive surveillance program that is completely secret and completely beyond the law in its operations.  How is that even possible?  What is it exactly we are being informed about General? Moreover, and this is, in my opinion, perhaps the most terrifying single fact about all this, Obama was highly public and rhetorical in his opposition to NSA activities prior to his election, but he decided to keep everything and change nothing regarding The Program when he became President - given that, doesn't this mean that what Obama was told in his initial national security briefings made it clear how effective The Program actually is at fighting terrorism?  Which begs the question, how prevalent is the terrorist threat that all of us have to monitored in order to prevent further attacks?

I think The Program is likely very effective.  And I also think that it is a direct violation of our individual liberties.  This sort of mass cataloging of an entire population is exactly what the Gestapo did in Germany in the 1930's.  Only The Program is far more powerful.  I know of no greater and more fundamental quandary we face as a people in America. A government that knows almost everything about you - from your emails to your telephone calls to your health records - can be a benevolent caretaker and protector.

But personal liberty is a myth, a whim of our government, and one day that government might decide, for whatever reason, to cash in on all the other data, the non-terrorist data that it has been cataloging on you and me for the past dozen years. What is to prevent this data from being used to get that person for porn on their PC and get that person for emailing a friend about the great marijuana at the party last week? Is this not, at the very least, a violation of the principle of checks and balances our government was founded upon?  Is it not, more importantly, a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights? Right now they can bust just about anybody for anything, just as the Gestapo did under Nazi Rule or the KGB did under Soviet communism.  They have all the cards.  We are living in a surveillance state.  It is not much more of a step from there to become a full-fledged police state.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Coldplay's Ghost Stories: Intimate and Ethereal

My admiration for Coldplay has been stated before. If you like, you can checkout my other Coldplay entries. I was excited to learn a few months back that they were coming out with a new CD entitled Ghost Stories.  I managed to pick up my copy at the local Walmart May 19, the date of initial release.

I tried to stay away from what music critics had to say about Ghost Stories until after I listened to the CD several times. Usually with new music it takes multiple listenings before I form a final opinion. Sometimes the material is really great, like Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill, and I know instantly I love it. Sometimes the material is a disappointment, like Neil's Fork in the Road, and further listening is usually painful.

There is no such thing as a "bad" Coldplay album. Their first five studio records, dating back to 2000 (with so few records over such a period of time, no one can exactly accuse them of being prolific or whoring their sound for the sake of new albums) were various degrees of greatness.  Some, like A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) or Viva la Vida (2008), were greater than others, like X&Y (2005).  But even "average" Coldplay is a delightful experience for me.

I have now listened to the record over a dozen times so it is safe to consider what the professional press has to say about Ghost Stories.  Largely the reviews are mixed.  It is being referred to as “the most forgettable Coldplay album ever”, 
“should be applauded for scaling back the gaudy excesses of their previous albums”, “veering between cliché and uncomfortable detail never quite hits the mark”, and “there are a few moments where the band rests a little too heavily on easy listening or pop music clichés.”

Coldplay's critics grow larger as the band becomes evermore popular, that's just the way two-faced music criticism works. Generally speaking, the more popular something is the more reason there is to find something inadequate in the material. I don't buy this "kitsch argument" with quite that much high-browed simpleton enthusiasm. Nevertheless, there are qualified music critics who find Ghost Stories "tired", "ill-conceived", "mediocre", "aimlessly lethargic", etc.  You get the idea.

Indeed, Ghost Stories seems lightweight to me even now after so many listenings.  I mean, is there a tune on this album as great (though some find them “pretentious” or “over-blown”, I don’t) as "Paradise" or "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall" from Milo Xyloto (2011)?  No.  But is there a genuinely "bad" tune on the CD?  Is Ghost Stories unworthy of release?  Far from it.  Get ready to experience a relaxed Coldplay, a subdued Coldplay, even a melancholy Coldplay (more than usual anyway), that still manages to sound interesting, to entertain and, yeah, to make me feel younger and more vibrant.

The record is inspired by the “conscious uncoupling” of Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow. For me, The Washington Post hits the nail on the head when it writes: “Ghost Stories is a retrenchment, a conscious return to the relative simplicity of the band’s debut, Parachutes.”  I recall when Parachutes (2000) first came out.  I thought “wow, this band has a great sound, a diverse and distinctive and relevant sonic range.” I was a Coldplay fan from then on. That album was very favorably received by music critics at the time. Coldplay would go on to become a super-band.  So has familiarity lead to complacency on the part of the band (as some critics infer) or on the part of the listener (needing for the bar to be constantly pushed higher)?  Perhaps.

My initial reaction was that of complacency when I listened to the CD.  But, as so often happens, I hear much more in the album today.  Somewhat appropriately, the most noticeable thing about Ghost Stories is an absence - the minimal use of guitarist Jonny Buckland.  The rocking riffs are almost nonexistent here as bassist Guy Berryman and percussionist Will Champion carry more of the load along with Martin, who has always been the central driving force of the band.

"Always in My Head" starts interestingly ethereal before sounding like “normal” slow-groove Coldplay, but ends up seeming too brief.  The first “hit” track, "Magic", does not do much for me.  It seems more like elevator music than something I really want to listen to.  “Ink” continues on with the same feel.  The lyrical and poignant “True Love” is a very smooth tune that raises the bar a bit and is more memorable with a simple Buckland riff featured within another ethereal (ie. heavily synthesized) sonic experience that continues without pause into “Midnight” which features some really nice harmonic vocals by Martin and Champion.  A wonderfully dreamy piece.  

I am overusing the word “ethereal” but I cannot think of a better one to describe “Another’s Arms” where Martin (again with Champion’s backing vocals) sings the tune probably most directly related to the break-up of his marriage.  The soft, easy sound misleads.  These lyrics are biting and distressing. This one may be the most interesting song on the record, and is certainly one of its best tracks.  This is followed by a nice acoustic ballad, “Oceans”, which is a good example of how Buckland’s guitar is marginalized as Martin croons in a melancholy fashion.  

A Sky Full of Stars” is my favorite song on the record.  It is also the CD's most “traditional" Coldplay tune. Finally, we get a really rocking Buckland riff and a driving, energetic sonic force. It seems kind of disjointed really from the rest of the record since it offers a positive and upbeat conclusion, transcending the delicate, glum-tinged textures of everything else presented.  Martin is powerful on piano with vocals that dwell on praise instead of remorse.  The song slowly builds and builds until you get the wonderful total Coldplay explosion that makes them such an incredible band to experience live. This song will play very well to concert audiences.  It is the only tune on the record that I want to crank-up on my stereo and dance to instead of lay back and reflect.  

But laying back and reflection is precisely appropriate for the album's finale, a song called "O".  This one is almost all Martin with his great vocals and a beautiful meandering piano.  It brings the record full circle.  Through angst and sadness, through loss and joy, there is, in the end, peace. 

Ghost Stories is obviously an intimate set of songs inspired by an intimate and painful experience. This is quite a startling (for some) contrast to more recent Coldplay.  Nothing better reflects this than to compare how the band performed at the time of this CD's release with how they performed live when Mylo Xyloto came out.  Back in 2011, the band streamed a live performance worldwide from Madrid before a large audience. For the release of Ghost Stories the band performed for a small audience of 800.  A more intimate gathering for much more intimate material.

Whatever anyone thinks of it, Ghost Stories has become the fastest selling album of 2014.  That is probably more a tribute to the band’s massive popularity rather than any specific material on the record.  Nevertheless, CD’s don’t sell like this if music lovers find them unpalatable.  For me, Ghost Stories is one of the Coldplay’s most distinctive moments.  This is Coldplay in ¾ time, perhaps a return to their roots.  It is relaxing rather than exhilarating.  I prefer Coldplay exhilaration. But, more than anything, I prefer that this great band explore its sonic boundaries. In that context, Ghost Stories is an easy exploration.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Free Range Strawberries

Our modest strawberry patch is prolific this year with the sweetest, juiciest, most flavorful strawberries I can remember. We started enjoying them a little over a week ago but these past few days they have really been putting on a show.  We gather a "mess" of fresh berries almost every evening.  We can not possibly eat them all and we have given some away. Usually the deer get ours before we have a chance to enjoy them but not this year for some unknown reason.  Jennifer says we have had strawberries this good once before back when we first built our house.  But that is beyond my ability to recall.  Regardless, it is a wonderful treat to have something so delicious and good for you and so fresh awaiting every day when you get home. Another simple wonder of country life.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Dad's ECG

Recently my dad experienced what is referred to in the medical realm as a TIA.  A slight stroke.  It affected his sense of balance, his control over his right leg, it made him experience dizziness, and his speech became thick and slurred.  At the time this occurred we were unclear as to whether he had a stroke.  By the time I learned about his symptoms and paid him a visit (about three hours later) his speech had improved, he was able to walk again, though unsteadily.

In questioning him I discovered that his physician had put him on some new blood pressure medication which he started taking two days ago. I also learned that he had taken a diuretic AND an allegra generic for some allergy symptoms he was having - all at the same time that morning.  He then proceeded to go out into what was a hot sunny day without drinking any water.  Since he had obviously done a foolish thing with all those meds and had basically dehydrated himself I treated him to a lecture on how he was going to have to be more careful.

I made him get up and walk around to prove to me that he was functional.  He did so.  I decided it was likely that he had overdone it with the deluxe med combo platter and his body was adjusting to his blood pressure medication more than anything else.  He still had his sense of humor and was mentally sharp.  My mom had an appointment in two days with their physician, he stated he would go in with her and see the doctor about his symptoms.  I told him to take is easy, rest, inform me if things got any worse.

Everything was OK.  Upon seeing my dad the doctor scheduled some tests were for two days after that.  I went into the hospital with my folks at 7AM that day and made sure that the orders were ready and that they had all the necessary information filled out and available.  Then I went to work and awaited the results, which I didn't expect until the next day.  A few hours later my sister called my desk and was livid.  They had scheduled dad to see a neurologist the next morning.  The MRI had shown that he had had a stroke.  My sister was pissed that the doctor had not ordered the tests immediately. She was afraid that since they were rushing to get him into a neurologist there was a chance of an impending major stroke, which actually happens in about 20% of the cases with initial TIA situations.

I tried to calm my sister and said we had done the best we could given all the circumstances and what we knew at the time.  Dad was seeing the best person for his situation the next day.  As long as he took it easy he should be fine. Unfortunately, my dad is an independent and active man.  So he didn't take it easy.  He did some light jobs in the warm weather and got out on his tractor.  He fell coming into the house.  I was out mowing my property at the time and Jennifer came running out into the field waving her arms. My brother had called and said that he thought my dad had had another stroke.

I phoned my brother.  He said dad was slurring his speech worse than ever.  I told my brother to immediately take dad to the emergency room. Both my brother and Jennifer did not believe my dad would go voluntarily.  I called my dad and gave him a very stern talking to, telling him that he could have a massive stroke and end up in a nursing home pissing all over himself for the rest of his life. Now was he going to go with my brother or did I have stop what I was doing and come over there and make him go myself?

A humorous sidebar (there is a lot of humor in my family) is that by the time I got dad on the phone he was sitting in his living room chair eating a barbecue sandwich for supper.  In firmly talking to him I heard that his speech was indeed much more slurred.  I chastised him for getting out and doing this to himself and mentioned that his speech was much worse now. "Well," he slurred, "that's because I'm eating my supper and my mouth's full of food."  Funny in hindsight but not at the time. At the time I wanted some direct action. Things had moved too slowly for too long and we could not allow any sort of new episode to pass without being dealt with immediately. My brother took my dad in. My dad complied willingly.  I finished my chores and changed clothes, racing to the ER without bathing and with only a protein shake for my supper.

My sister was on her way up for the weekend anyway (she lives about two hours away).  She arrived at the ER about a half hour after I did. Various family members showed up at various times.  Things don't really move very fast in the ER, unless you are having a heart attack I suppose.  The situation was this. The MRI of his brain from earlier that morning revealed that dad indeed had had a minor stroke earlier in the week. The pattern of the stroke was widely scattered so the embolism was not concentrated in any part of the brain to cause specific major damage.  It was dispersed and, as things stood at that time, it would ultimately be absorbed by the brain.  It would dissipate and so would his symptoms as long as he did not have another stroke.  The ultra sound on his carotid arteries showed no blockages or clots at all. So the best guess was that the clot that caused the stroke came from dad's heart, which now needed to be examined.

After about three hours only my sister and myself were with dad as a lady wheeled a rather large contraption (for the size of the room) to perform an Echocardiogram. The procedure took about 45 minutes.  My sister and I got to observe dad's heart as it was pumping.  Mostly it was just observing a lot of ultra sound images.  You could see chambers and walls and valves all beating in rather mechanical rhythm.  At one point the technician injected a saline solution through an artery in the back of my dad's hand while simultaneously asking my dad to "strain" with his buttocks to create force on the heart.  I watched as the solution entered one chamber of the heart (it appeared as white bubbles on the US) but did not seep through into the other chamber.  This was a good sign.  No unusual seepage.  The technologist proclaimed that there was nothing wrong with my dad's heart other than normal wear and tear.

The technologist continued explaining things to me and my dad while my sister went back to her car to fetch a bag for the night.  She would stay with dad so I could be set to go to work the next day.  The technologist explained that before we are born our heart does not pump blood to the lungs.  That would only drown the fetus inside the liquid womb. Instead the chamber wall hinges open and the heart circulates blood within itself, round and round and out into the fetal body. Upon birth, literally around a baby's first breath, the hinge slams shut, the heart stops recycling into itself and starts pulling oxygen in from the lungs.  An amazing evolutionary and biological fact.

Dad's heart was strong.  But by now everybody needed to be certain of where that clot might have come from.  So they wanted to look at a fourth chamber of the heart that could not be seen with the first echocardiogram.  This required transfer by ambulance to a larger nearby hospital.  It also required dad's sedation as they put a tube down his esophagus.  The only way to get an ultra sound of the fourth chamber is from inside the body.  It was fine.  The cardiologist there told dad he had the heart of a man twenty years younger.  I actually think that might be high point out of this whole ordeal.  Having a healthy heart of a 60 year old sounds pretty damn encouraging to a 78 year old man.  I'd that that kind of report.  I think it motivated my dad despite his temporary stroke. Maybe he will take better care of himself now. Although obviously I have to pay closer attention to these matters at least in the near future.

A physical therapist is coming into the house two times a week to work with Dad on his right leg and knee.  He has a walker to get up and down and walk around for now.  He walks well in it. I think his arms are strong enough to keep him up until his right knee gets situated.  Hopefully he won't do more unwise things with his meds.  But he is now on blood thinner medication for the rest of his life. He will soon be wearing a heart monitor for 30 days as a precaution. His ability to farm is completely gone for the moment.  All he is allowed to do is use his walker, dress and bathe himself, and he is allowed to drive short trips in the car. He can, in fact, drive himself to his battery of medical appointments in the coming weeks, although I will be sitting in on specific consultations to monitor what is said and explained by the various specialists.

It will also mean that I am going to have to get more personally involved in the maintenance of my parents' home.  I will have to help check on the small number of cattle.  My brother can keep their yard mowed but their swimming pool, used by all the grand kids in the summer, still has to be opened and purified and cleaned.  I will get the ball rolling on that soon. My daughter's  boyfriend cleaned pools last winter during Christmas break. He has the knowledge.  So hopefully he will work out as my dad is specifically forbidden by his physical therapist from cleaning the pool.  The most he can do is advise.  I hope he is ready to change his life dramatically, and my own to some degree.  The same man who four weeks earlier was dealing with a bull problem pretty much by himself in the middle of the night is, as of this post, not allowed to walk without a walker or a good cane.  How much things can change in the course of a single month.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

COA Fontenoy: The Aesthetics of a War Game

My wargame table set up for the historic scenario of the Battle of Fontenoy. One of the many things I like about my table design is that the table itself can be rotated 360 degrees so you can view the situation from any perspective. This often helps spot weaknesses or strengths that would go unnoticed as you play any given game. It is always good to look at the game from the other side's point of view, especially when playing solitaire, as I generally do.
Long-time readers know that wargaming holds a special place among my many hobbies and interests. As to why this is so see my posts here, here, and here for examples.  Most of my wargaming is played out digitally, either through actual computer wargames or, more often, digital renderings of printed board wargames that I own.  Games I could set up on my wargaming table but choose to play on my PC in VASSAL or Cyberboard or ADC2.

Time was when I would purchase many wargames every year.  Probably on the order on one per month back two or three decades ago, sort of my wargame peak.  Now I purchase maybe a couple a year, going long stretches without buying anything at all.  This is because other interests take precedence these days, my spending is much more focused and disciplined and I simply do not have the leisure time to devote to war gaming as I once did.  Also, once I own a wargame that satisfactorily covers a particular topic or military era I see no need to hoard more games on that subject.  Time to move on to other things.


Occasionally, board wargames are produced that have specific visual merit and appeal.  Printing techniques over the past couple of decades have made it possible to produce games of exquisite color, quality of presentation, and polished design.  One such game is Fontenoy by Clash of Arms (COA), a 2012 release that I acquired earlier this year not because the Battle of Fontenoy is of specific importance to me.  It is not.  But this game offers state-of-the-art publishing and I added to my collection for aesthetic purposes more than anything else.


Fontenoy is the most recent release of COA's Battles of the Age of Reason (BAR) series.  (A game on the Battle of Prague is in the final stages of development.)  Leuthen is the only other game I own of this series.  I bought it back in 1997 and have tinkered with that game off and on through the years. The series itself has evolved.  Fontenoy is the first game to feature the Third Edition of the game system rules.  More on the system itself in a future post.


As far as appearance goes, COA Fontenoy is a masterpiece, a thing of published beauty.  Over the years, board wargame artwork has become more impressive in certain designs due to improvements (at lower cost) in printing and graphic capabilities.  Playing pieces (known as “counters”) can be (if the designer is competent and imaginative enough) printed with a precision and more generous use of color than they typically were in, say, the 1980's.  Maps are, for the most part, routinely works of printed art. The accompanying components of the game, various player aids, tables, charts, and rule books, really are not any better than before but there's only so much you can do with such functional things. You can make them more legible and easier to use but that’s about it.

A close-up of the Duke of Cumberland's main position before Fontenoy.  Armies of the day often wore non-standard uniforms representative of their local (rather than national) nature.  All of these counters accurately represent some the many uniforms worn by the Allied side on that day of battle.  The Duke of Cumberland is located alone (the counter represents both his aides and himself) toward the lower left of the pic.  His counter is adorned with a silver sash and a medal just to the right of his breast coat from this perspective. 
In BAR, the counters have always been rich, vivid, and exact. They were marvelous to behold in my Leuthen game.  In Fontenoy, they are simply exquisite, which is the main reason I wanted to own the game.  It is more a work of art in my mind than an actual game, even though the system is a fine tactical representation of the art of war in the 18th century. Fontenoy accurately depicts the various uniform colors of the armies as they were one the day of battle.  Though beautiful to behold, this can create potential issues for the player.  In the 18th century there was only a meager standardization of uniform colors compared with armies today.  In many cases, especially for cavalry units, battalions and squadrons wore coats, leggings, and breeches that followed some sort of local tradition dating back to the Renaissance period, many of them of impractical colors like bright green and yellow.

This meant that leaders had to pay close attention to flags of regiments marching around on the field of battle.  The uniforms themselves often looked so similar to their own troops or allies that they could accidentally attack their own side if close attention is not paid.  Likewise, for a player to look down upon my gaming table at the set up historic battlefield at Fontenoy, you will see certain units that are, in fact, adversarial with almost the exact same counter design. This makes BAR part of a small class of board wargames that does not follow the modern design of two conflicting sides represented in two contrasting colors. Sometimes uniforms, particularly of the infantry, are almost identical on both sides.

A sample of four counters as depicted in the VASSAL module for the game.  These are all accurately rendered in terms of their uniform colors, with red coats and blue breeches.  The two units on the left are from the French army.  The two on the right are from the Allied army.  Only the nationality designation located between the numbers and a slight difference in breast coat coloration is different.  The left and the right are enemies on the field at Fontenoy.
But it is all good.  What BAR manages to recreate, both aesthetically in the artwork and mechanically in the rules, the look and feel of 18th century warfare.  It is a great way for the player to become immersed in the dawn of modern warfare both in fashionable spirit and in historical simulation.  Like most of these tactical type pre-Napoleonic games the foundation is in the command system.  Leaders have specific range in hexes in order to cause specific results - march, form line, fire, assault, withdraw, regroup - the better leaders offer positive bonuses on units attempting any of the above.  In BAR, leaders have always featured on colorful counters.  So it is in COA Fontenoy.
The French have several wing commanders in and around Fontenoy concentrated against the Allied army.  Lord Biron's commander counter features a pink sash turned toward the right in this pic.  Most troops in this position are behind fortifications and backed up with plenty of artillery.
My favorite might be Lord Biron, a small wing commander on the French side, as it happens commander of the defensive works around the town of Fontenoy.  You can a see his dark blue coat, accented by white frills, black trousers, and a pink slash.  Very fashionable for the age.  All commanders on both sides are colorful.  Somewhat contrastingly, Marshal de Saxe, leader of the French army and the finest commander in terms of ratings in the game, is dressed in a red coat and breeches that closely resemble the British contingent of his enemy.  Many other leaders and units are splendidly resplendent as indicated in the photos accompanying this post. 
Marshal de Saxe (red counter in the upper right, two medals accompany his silver sash adornment) is located behind the French forces with his guard cavalry units and subordinate commanders close at hand.  The few white counters represent the "standard" French national army units.
The Duke of Cumberland, commanding the Allied army, is actually some what more understated than many of his subordinates.  Most of the leaders on the Allied side, though decorative, comparatively lack the color and pageantry of the French Army.  In the historical battle set up the Duke keeps much of his cavalry in the rear to guard against various contingencies by the French. These units feature the most interesting uniforms on the Allied side.  By the era of linear muskets, cavalry had lost much of its power compared with, say, the Middle Ages, before gunpowder.  But was still potentially a potent force in charging the line at any points of breakthrough that might be achieved by the infantry on either side.  Cavalry could still crush infantry breaking through friendly lines or it could transform enemy infantry withdraw into a headlong rout.

Now that I have the historic Battle of Fontenoy set up on my table and can admire the beauty of the units and the maps, I will devote the next several weeks to playing out the game. The historic scenario probably takes up to about 10-12 hours of actual playing time to complete.  So in theory, I could finish it in a long weekend.  But, I rarely spend more than an hour or two playing at any given time.  I am in no hurry.  To immerse myself in the pageantry and complexity of the dawn of modern warfare is what I am after here.  So there is no race on my part to finish the game.  For me the process of play is the enjoyment.


The Battle of Fontenoy was fought on May 11, 1745, exactly 269 years ago today.