Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Election 2018: Do You Want To Win in 2020?

Frustration with the Trump presidency was rabid among my Democratic friends before yesterday's mid-term election.  Early last evening, they were hit with existential despair as it gradually became obvious there would be no “Blue Wave.”  The Democrats took control of the House of Representatives.  That was expected, though they may fall short of gaining 30+ seats some progressives hoped for.  The Senate remained Republican with the conservatives even taking a couple of seats away from the Dems.  Among high-profile races Ted Cruz defeated Beto O’Rourke in the Texas senate race.  A clear win for the Trump brand.  

It was better news for the Democrats at the level of governor races. Here is probably where they performed their best in 2018.  They managed to flip seven states from red to blue, and won a total of 15 states, surely the strongest showing for what I would call the Blue Ripple.  Still, the Neocons managed outpace them, winning 19 states, with usually liberal Massachusetts and the critical swing-state of Ohio among them.  No mandate there for either side.  Georgia is currently ‘too close to call’ but it is not seriously so in my opinion.  If the Democrats hope to beat Trump in 2020 they need to put Georgia in play.  Perhaps Stacey Abrams’ loss to Brian Kemp by less than a percentage point might mean a competitive race from Trump in the next election.  A faint reason for hope there.

Trump went out of his way to make this mid-term a referendum about him.  He realizes that his personality is greater than the overall Republican party itself.  To that extent, what we have is a muddled message and clearly not anything remotely close to a repudiation of President Trump.  The right-wing gravitational pull remains intact.  This country is nowhere close to being receptive to the “progressive” message. 

The fact that liberals (let's call a spade a spade) have had to rebrand themselves under another banner is indicative enough of how out of touch they are with the main stream.  Medicare for allFree college education.  These and several other left-wing pipe dreams are not only outside the mainstream (and therefore untenable on a national level for the 2020 election) they are BAD policy suggestions.

Simply put, to address a perceived social issue in a vacuum is juvenile politics.  We may have health access issues for some Americans.  Our college students may be swimming in debt. But giving these things away as entitlements is not the answer and the majority of the American people know it.  Neither approach addresses the core problem.  Healthcare and higher education cost too much in this country – for everybody.  THAT is the fundamental issue.  While the rise in healthcare costs has been somewhat addressed, no one is addressing the costs of college, or of much of anything else in this country.

The Republicans want to have their cake and eat it too.  They want lower taxes and a lower debt.  It ain’t going to happen.  Likewise, the Democrats want to give stuff away when the fact of the matter is, if nothing is done to address costs you are just throwing new sources of money into the void of bureaucracy, which will just gobble it all and beg for more.  And the cost to the American taxpayer, the size of the national debt, will continue to grow at a rate threatening future generations.  That is totally irresponsible on the part of both parties.

But the debt was not an issue this year.  For whatever fickle reason, it didn’t matter that this country is now over $21 trillion, over twice as much as when I blogged about it in 2009.  This will catch up to us one day in the not too distant future.

The time for giving shit away to every mediocre citizen of this nation is gone, if it were really ever here at all.  There is no new New Deal.  That is old history.  The problem Democrats face going forward is that their liberal wing is contributing at least as much to the polarization of American politics as the right-wingnuts out there.  Anyway, with Trump in control of the Senate he will continue to control the judiciary and it will continue to digress into a conservative cesspool of outmoded, backwards thinking legal and ethical standards.  A win for the Trump brand.  

Meanwhile, the Democrats can use their control of the House to pester the Trump administration with budgets and with investigations against our narcissistic demagogue of a president.  My fear is that if they push too hard against Trump without a mandate (there was no mandate for either side in this election) it will backfire on them just as all this liberal "give shit away" crap will backfire.  Press too hard on Trump’s alleged crimes and misdemeanors and you will end up creating broader voter sympathy for the asshole.

And so it goes.  This midterm was actually the beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign.  The results are mixed, just as they were in 2016.  The House rests on popular vote, which the Dems won.  But the Senate is more of a State/Electoral College institution – and it sides with Trump.  Apparently, nothing has changed but for the Dems meager control of the House which, at best, can create gridlock and minimize the damage Trump can do outside of judicial matters.

My liberal friends don’t like it when I say the ‘progressive’ message doesn’t fit in 2018.  Some of them proclaimed that they were not being "radical" at all, they were simply returning to their roots of the Roosevelt presidential era.  That doesn’t change my response at all.  Even if you are going back to your roots, you are still out of touch with what the message needs to be.  It is not a simple Left versus Right.  It is far more nuanced than that and requires and mix of liberal (on civil rights, for example) and conservative (on fiscal restraint) initiatives. 

To all you liberals out there, I have two pieces of advice.  Stop calling yourself ‘progressives.’  That rebranding makes you look even more stupid than some of your policy suggestions actually are.  Secondly, you can either be "idealistically right" or you can get elected.  You can’t be both.  Some soul-searching compromises are in order to be competitive nationally.  Do you want to win in 2020?  Then, quite obviously, carrying forward with your messaging in 2018 will only get Trump reelected.  That’s the fundamental takeaway from this midterm business.   

Do want to be right or do you want to win?

Note: I followed the election on and on this excellent live map offered by Axios.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Gaming the Battle of Rossbach

The finest army and cavalry in all of Europe.  Frederick the Great's Prussian infantry wing and cavalry wing are ready to attack at the start of the Battle of Rossbach.  This shows you how the interface looks for John Tiller's wargame, The Seven Years War.
Frederick the Great has fascinated me for decades.  I have several biographies about his life and pertaining to his legendary generalship during the Seven Years' War.  This was really world’s first global war.  The naval powers of England, France, Spain, and a few other nations fought for interests in India and North America as well as across continental Europe.  Prussia, the nation ruled by King Frederick, had no navy to speak of so it was confined to the European mainland.  Some of the most famous battles in military history were fought by Frederick during this war.

I have played John Tiller computer wargames as a hobby also for decades.  I reviewed one of his games on this blog back in 2009.  But that doesn’t reveal how many of his games I own and how much time I spend playing them.  Let’s just say it is an on-going part of my life; sometimes more, sometimes less.  I have probably bought and played a dozen or more games by Tiller since 2009 and I have been buying his games since the late 1980's.

Tiller’s most recent release is The Seven Years War, so I have spent a good bit of time lately tinkering with that game and playing through some of the battles it simulates.  As usual, Tiller is generous with all the content that comes with his games.  All the major battles of Frederick’s career are featured in this release; which is so cool from a sheer research perspective.  You can easily compare troop strength, quality, battlefield terrain and leadership between the many battles, giving you a nice bird's eye view of the war as Prussia and its adversaries knew it.

John Tiller’s The Seven Years War is a simple two-player game (with a few exceptions the sides are Prussia vs. Allied Austrian, French, Russian armies) with a lot of solitaire capability, which is how I play.  It is not only packed full of battles, it also offers a “campaign mode” to allow players to explore alternate strategies which will generate varying battles based upon decisions made by players.  Tiller delivers yet another game with far more replay-ability than I will ever take advantage of, but it is wonderful to have all this stuff to toy with now and then. 

Each Tiller design affords the player a glimpse into the mechanics of warfare (strength, speed, quality, morale, supply, etc.) for the time period in which it is set.  My Chancellorsville review reflects the mechanics of an American Civil War battle.  My Tiller games each capture the “feel” of warfare in their respective time rather accurately.  Games as diverse as 1776, Salerno, Kursk, Gettysburg, and Vietnam are all examples of game-able Tiller designs, each containing different scales and rules to represent the mechanics that commanders had to deal with at the time.

Tiller’s Napoleonic Battles Series has always been among my favorites.  These games can take a lot of time to play.  If you play, say the Battle of Leipzig, you have many dozens of decisions to make every turn and this slows play down to where it can take weeks (in mini-sessions while still living a normal work/family life) to complete a game.  For that reason I enjoy playing Auerstadt, a small but significant battle won by Napoleon’s chief lieutenant, Marshal Devout in 1806.  The smaller numbers of forces involved allow me to play a game of that battle in a leisurely day.

I mention this for two reasons.  First of all, it is useful to compare the “game system” between Tiller’s Napoleonic designs and The Seven Years War.  It teaches the player the subtle differences in warfare between the two eras.  More on that in a moment.  Secondly, there are battles of all sizes featured in Tiller’s latest design.   To list only a fraction of those contained in the game along with the respective army strengths:   Lobositz contains Austrian: 31,622 / Prussian: 28,866;  Prague - Austrian: 72,430 / Prussian: 65,424; Kolin (Frederick's first major defeat) - Austrian 52,487 / Prussian 33,288; Rossbach - French: 29,412 / Prussian: 20,782;  Leuthen (Frederick's greatest victory) -  Austrian: 65,242 / Prussian: 38,238; Zorndorf  - Russian: 46,530 / Prussian: 35,189; Torgau - Austrian: 56,228 / Prussian: 39,852; Freiberg - Allied: 36,398 / Prussian: 23,533.

For purposes of reviewing game play and the mechanics of warfare during this period I chose to play the Battle of Rossbach, which, due to its manageable size, can be played in the course of an afternoon, whereas the Battle of Prague would take much longer due to so many more troops/commands being involved. 

A zoomed out view of the first screen.  You can see the Prussians ready to pounce as the Reichsarmee cavalry prepares to attack.  At the bottom of the screen, the French infantry begins to form at the top of a hill.  Off to the left are smaller, separate French and Imperial contingents.  They are under restricted movement for this scenario.  They cannot move unless they are threatened with attack.  This overcautious strategy by the French allows Frederick to concentrate his attack despite his inferior numbers. 
The Seven Years War is the second installment of Tiller's Musket and Pike Series of games, which basically simulate early modern warfare before Napoleon.  Each game turn represents 15 minutes of "real" time, each hex is 100 meters across, and most units represent battalions of infantry and cavalry and batteries of artillery.  Each turn is broken down further into phases for game play.  Basically, the first side/player gets to move.  The second side/player conducts defensive fire.  Then the first side/player gets to conduct offensive fire followed by close combat known as melee.  This last phase includes cavalry charges.  Then the first player and second player switch and the phases are repeated.  Each side's turn ends with recovery of fatigued, disorganized, and/or routed units.

In the Rossbach scenario, as with most scenarios, the Prussian side moves first.  Frederick and his Prussian commanders always believed in controlling the initiative.  This might seem surprising given the troop numbers provided above.  In every case, the Prussians were outnumbered.  But by using initiative, speed, and higher quality soldiers, Frederick was able to strike at concentrations of his choosing, thereby mitigating his numerical inferiority in most cases.  Such was the case at Rossbach, a classic Prussian victory historically.  Though outnumbered, Frederick ordered an immediate attack before the Franco-Imperial army was fully deployed.  

Before we get into my replay of the scenario let's take a closer look at the mechanics which drive this game, comparing them specifically to the Napoleonic series as a means to measure how warfare differed in the 1750's from the early 1800's.

The largest change in The Seven Years War from, say, the Auerstadt game, can be found in the infantry.  In Frederick's day a line of muskets was considered the most effective means to deliver firepower against an opponent.  Infantry deployed in columns for shock melee attacks was not standard practice before the Napoleonic period and the column capabilities in Auerstadt do not exist in The Seven Years War.   The square, a defensive practice employed by infantry against cavalry in Napoleon's time, is also not available.  Infantry tactics were less evolved against charging cavalry.  Also, there are not as many light infantry troops so skirmish lines, routine in every Napoleonic battle, are almost nonexistent in The Seven Years War.

Cavalry is less effective charging than in the Napoleonic period.  When charges take place, everyone involved on both sides is still pretty much disorganized by the act of charging, but fewer actual casualties are incurred.  (Perhaps another reason no one had thought up the idea of infantry defending in squares.)  As for artillery, it is the least affected arm compared with warfare 50 years later.  There are a lot of smaller caliber cannons - like 3-pounders - in The Seven Years War but overall artillery works the same way in both Tiller series.

Before beginning the Battle of Rossbach scenario (or any game of the series for that matter) it is best to assess the quality of your troops and of your leaders.  These are the factors that control how much fatigue and casualties a unit can handle without becoming combat ineffective.  Once disorganized or routed, your leaders come into play as far as getting your units back into fighting condition again and recommitting them before the battle is over. 

Overall, the Franco-Imperial Army (French infantry augmented with “Imperial” forces from southern German states – what remained of the Holy Roman Empire known at this time as the Reichsarmee) has about 30% more troops than the Prussians.  But, the French are slow to maneuver and react.  

Prince de Soubise is in overall command of the French and he possesses rather pathetic ratings of “E” for command (which affects how well other leaders under him can move and attack with their troops) and “D” for leadership (which is used for assist morale checks of troops within his range).  These ratings work like grades in school.  “A” is best and “F” is worst.  Prince von Hildburghausen commands the majority of the cavalry, which is provided by the Reichsarmee.  His ratings are also an “E” for command and a “D” for leadership.  Long story made short, these two leaders are incompetent when it comes to handling and rallying their troops.

By sharp contrast, the Prussian leaders are highly rated and their troops of consistently higher quality.  Frederick II himself, being one of the greatest generals in military history, is rated an “A” for both command and leadership.  This ensures that his troops will always receive the highest bonuses when checking for morale and reorganization.  All leaders under Frederick’s direct supervision will likewise receive the best modifiers when checking to commit troops to battle or to rally them from disorganized states that inevitably occur once contact is made with the enemy.  The Prussian cavalry general is Marshal von Seydlitz who is also rated an “A” in both categories, allowing the Prussian cavalry to hit hard and still run rings around the Reichsarmee.   

In a nutshell, the Prussian army of 1757 was the best-led and best-trained army in Europe.    While the typical French-Imperial unit has a quality rating of “D”, the typical Prussian is a “B” with a few “A’s” scattered through the ranks.  These quality ratings reflect how much fatigued and casualties a given unit can take and remain combat effective.  Generally speaking, “D” units become disorganized when fired upon once or twice.  “B” units can take more punishment and can usually handle being fired upon unless, of course, they are taking canon fire.  In any case, “B” troops can stay in line longer and therefore produce more firepower overall through time than “D” troops.

Superior leadership and superior troop quality usually reflects the outstanding tactical capabilities of the Prussians compared with their adversaries.  It is the primary reason why, even though constantly outnumbered, the Prussians chose to attack.  They were simply better than whoever they were up against.  In some later battles, the quality of the Prussian soldiers falls to a “C” because new recruits brought in the replace casualties are not as well-trained as the soldiers filling the ranks at the beginning of the war.  Likewise, in later battles, the Austrian, French, and Russian armies improve in quality somewhat, with more training and experience.

But at the time of Rossbach this was not the case.  No nation could field a force of the overall caliber and quality of the Prussians.  This scenario is an excellent example of how an outnumbered army of quality can attack and defeat a larger army less competently led or trained.

The scenario begins with the Prussian army already pretty much aligned for attack.  Meanwhile, the Imperial cavalry, with some French support, is attempting to get around the Prussian left flank and attack it.  The French infantry is deploying along the high ground, initially defending in place until fully deployed.  Then, later in the game, they can attack the Prussian army, supposedly after the Imperial cavalry has put it in disarray.  That plan would never be implemented, however.

For his part, Frederick has two primary wings to his small army.  On his right, he has superb infantry already positioned to attack.  All of his cavalry are deployed on the left and are ready to charge under the superb leadership of Seydlitz.  The Prussians are able to attack the Imperial cavalry while it is still in column and not aligned for combat.  This quickly scatters large portions of it.  

The Prussian attack begins.  Advanced infantry strike the Reichsarmee cavalry while it is still in column, routing several battalions of cavalry.  Meanwhile, the Prussian cavalry is arrayed to charge. 

The Prussian cavalry quickly destroy the unprepared Reichsarmee, although some swirling, chaotic fighting still occurs.  The Prussian infantry have begun to plow through opposition as the main French infantry deploys in line.

It isn't quite a cakewalk for the Prussians, however.  This 'command report' indicates the number of units that are in various stages of disorder or reorganization.  Some Prussian battalions have routed and must be rallied by the excellent Prussian field commanders.
The rest of the Reichsarmee cavalry regroups as best it can and counterattacks but the Prussians are too good for them.  All this leaves both sides disorganized and this part of the battlefield slows down after a couple of game turns as the leaders now race to get their respective forces reorganized.  Meanwhile, the Prussian infantry have plowed through some of the scattered cavalry and are attacking uphill into the main body of French infantry.  

In the end, the Franco-Imperial army still held the high ground but its cavalry had disintegrated and it had lost about 20% of its infantry.  All objective hexes were taken by the Prussians which would further demoralize Prince de Soubise’s army.  In the span of 20 game turns (about 5 hours) the French suffered 4,719 infantry losses (killed and wounded) and 4,914 cavalry casualties, which together account for almost one-third of their entire army.  For their part, the Prussian infantry suffered 4,266 losses, no small sum.  But the cavalry performed spectacularly, only losing 989.  Still, altogether this constitutes about 25% of the smaller Prussian army, a high casualty rate even for a victory.  14 French leaders were killed or wounded (which leads the further disorganization) compared to 4 Prussian leaders.

The Prussian infantry press on uphill, driving the French before them.  The cavalry is mostly reorganizing itself.  A few stray French and Imperial units are behind Prussian lines.  They will most likely be captured.

The end of the battle.  The Prussians have secured every objective hex, destroyed the Imperial cavalry and bloodied the badly organized French.  Though at the cost of almost 25% of his force, Frederick has won a great victory.  The French will retreat.
It is a major Prussian victory.  Their army, though bloodied by their own attack, is still organized and ready for more offensive action.  The French have suffered grievously and have poor quality troops (mostly “E” ratings) forming the last line of defense.  At the end of the game, the scenario assumes that they will quit the field.  Frederick is smart enough not to pursue.  In the grander sense, he will not waste his army entirely, but build it back up for its next battle, which will be Leuthen, his greatest victory.  His twin victories at Rossbach and Leuthen, where he was outnumbered both times, are among the greatest military accomplishments of the eighteenth century and were an inspiration to future commanders, including Napoleon himself.

Zoomed out view of the battlefield situation and the end of the scenario.  Alternatively, the Prussians can advanced on the detached Franco-Imperial forces to the left if the player wishes to explore that historic possibility.  Tiller's games always have a lot of replay value.
Tiller’s games are a lot of fun and give the player multiple insights into the capabilities and nature of warfare in whatever time they represent.  The Seven Years War carries on Tiller’s fine reputation for offering a content-rich simulation experience that gives the player a glimpse into the historical period and nature of the art of war at the time depicted.  A great gaming value for the price that I will likely keep playing on and off for years.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Reading Gravity's Rainbow

Proof of purchase.  I bought my present copy of Gravity's Rainbow back in 1997.  It still has the receipt in it. 
Over the course of this blog, I've been cycling through some works of literature I have in my library that I wanted to touch once again.   I've revisited Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Magus, Ulysses, and Dahlgren, among others.  The first mention of my intention to reread Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow was back in 2012. Recently, I got around to tackling that complex novel.  I read it, puzzlingly, a couple of times back in my 20's but it really was low on my to-do list since then, although I fully intended to pick it up again someday.

That day came in late-summer and, while reading other things as well, I finished the novel about two weeks ago.  Though I still own many paperbacks dating from my youth, my original copy of Gravity's Rainbow didn't survive for some reason.  I now own a classic Penguin edition of the novel, which has sat neglected on my bookshelf since 1997.  I know this because the receipt of my purchase from Books-a-Million in Dothan, Alabama sat inside the yellowing pages of the paperback.  Seems strange to finally read a book I purchased 21 years ago, but that's the deal.  I guess I always knew I'd get back to it eventually.

Being much older with this reading now, I had forgotten much of the book since the last time I read it in the 1980's.  General impressions are that the prose is dense and complex but also beautiful and poetic at times.  The book is funnier than I remembered.  The amount of sex in the book was more than I recalled.  The themes and the characters seemed more pronounced and understandable this time around.  Overall, I am glad I made this effort, though I probably won't be reading it again.

Gravity's Rainbow begins in Europe near the end of World War II and follows an odd assortment of characters through a meandering narrative arc well into the aftermath of the war.  What the book is "about" is difficult to nail down.  There is no solid story line, rather, the work weaves in and out of multiple characters, interactions, perspectives, ideas, themes, and events to create an overall effect on the reader, one that is filled with ambiguity and little resolution.  The story is best thought of as a kaleidoscope that just sort of morphs  into ever-new considerations, most of it ultimately dissolving into quirkiness and even neglect. 

That sounds less satisfying than Gravity's Rainbow actually is.  At times, Pynchon's writing is as good as anything I've come across in western literature.  He is obviously a master of prose.  Like Ulysses, it is best not to take the work too seriously, even though Pynchon is wrestling with a lot of serious ideas about our postmodern condition. Moments of humor (slapstick, one-liners, satire, absurdity) abound throughout the work.   Gravity's Rainbow deals with diverse subjects and uses multiple writing techniques to explore: the impact of international corporations on individual free will, the relationship between business and warfare, the paranoia induced by modern life, the intermingling of sophisticated and crude culture, and even the supposed relevance of the Tarot, seances and other occult schemes within techno-corporate reality.  

But this mix of ideas and influences has vast implications.  Again like Ulysses, it is possible to delve deeply into Pynchon's prose.  He works in hundreds, if not thousands, of references to all sorts of cultural phenomena and historical events.  I don't pretend to grasp the book in anything other than an amateurish fashion, just appreciating it on its surface.  I am unconcerned to how deep the rabbit hole of this narrative goes, other than to appreciate the fact that it is densely packed prose.  My reading this time around was a much more casual one.  The novel is fully entertaining without understanding Pynchon's seemingly endless capacity for minutia.

As such, I will only discuss the most rudimentary aspects of the work in this review.  There are several "major" narratives woven together in Gravity's Rainbow but I will limit myself to how I experienced the book and the aspects of it I focused on the most.  This is nothing more than a basic representation of what the book is like.  The narrative has dozens of major characters (and hundreds of minor ones) but the central character, for lack of a better term, is Tyrone Slothrope, a US Army lieutenant stationed initially in London.  Because Slothrope went through a form of behavior modification and psychological conditioning when he was younger (and even during the course of the novel, perhaps throughout his life) he has an uncanny ability to predict where V2 rockets will strike based upon erections he has achieved during his many sexual exploits around the city.  When Slothrope gets laid, a V2 rocket strikes that location within a few days.  Every.  Time.

Slothrope goes through several thinly disguised identities during the course of the novel as he continues his quest across late-war and post-war Europe to uncover the secrets of a classified German rocket design.  He experiences many sexual encounters and, like several other characters, gets high on various drugs (from pot to hash to heroin) whenever possible.  Pynchon plays with the tension within Slothrope as he searches for the secret rocket and for a true understanding of his hazy, conditioned past.  Simultaneously with this, he remains an unfixed character in that he keeps hiding under disguises.  The interplay between his past and his unsettled present makes his character rather nebulous and dynamic.  He doesn't evolve so much as he simply morphs due to the changing circumstances of the narrative.  It is an interesting examination of what it means to be a 'person' in modern society. 

Slothrope's quest serves as a loose thread stitching together a myriad of other narrative elements, some one-off episodes, others parallel subplots that gradually wax and wane in importance as the story unfolds.   The novel is told in four parts, each with many "episodes" (short chapters).  The first part, 'Beyond the Zero,' introduces most of the major characters and explores themes of free will, Pavlovian behavior modification, the possibility reverse time flow (given the accuracy of Slothrope's erections syncing with future rocket attack locations), and the sexuality of the rocket itself.

In part two, 'Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering  (French for "A Furlough at the Hermann Göring Casino"),' Slothrope is 'assigned' to the French Rivera and learns of the secret German rocket produced, in part, by a couple of major international corporations.  Slothrope becomes increasingly paranoid that he is being monitored.  He escapes and, disguised, ventures across war-torn Europe.  In part three, 'In the Zone', Slothrope searches for more information regarding the secret rocket throughout the various military zones established by the allies in post-war Germany.  Slothrope adopts the disguise of 'Rocketman' and his life continues to be fueled by sex and drugs as it is gradually revealed he has been experimented upon since he was an infant. 

Finally, in part four, 'The Counterforce', the various narrative elements surrounding the principle characters are expressed in a variety of writing styles, certain characters are experienced and expressed as hallucinations and gradually Slothrope simply dissolves out of the narrative, fading, neither alive nor dead, he simply vanishes from the novel entirely. 

Gravity's Rainbow presents several challenges to the average reader.  Much like in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, there are a large number of characters with varying emphasis being placed upon them.  Sometimes the "major" characters shift into the background in favor of "minor" ones and the narrative seems to meander through material non-essential to the primary story line.  Even the main story itself keeps disappearing and reappearing over the course of the novel, hiding behind the entertaining but seemingly unnecessary details of subplots that come and go.  At any moment, Pynchon will shift perspective within a episode and it is often unclear that we are now seeing things through the eyes of a completely different character from a few paragraphs previously.  For this reason the narrative is not linear or concrete, rather it is plastic and flexible.  A lot of what happens is simply in a character's mind and isn't "real" at all.  This results in some potentially confusing passages.  For example, at one point the story becomes invested in a light bulb as if it were an actual character and we read a long section from the light bulb's perspective.

Then there is the challenge of the often shocking nature of what happens in the work.  There are episodes of brutal violence, along with various forms of fetish sex, torture, and even some pedophilia.  Many readers will find some sections objectionable due to the graphic content, but none of it is gratuitous.  Each time Pynchon pushes the limits of what is decent and what is obscene, it is to further the story in a manner that would not be possible without the details and happenings of these events.   It is worth noting that the novel was selected for Pulitzer Prize consideration in 1974 but led to such divisive debate within the Pulitzer Advisory Board (some felt it was the most brilliant novel of the century, others found it completely unreadable and obscene) that no book received the prize of literature that year. 

Then there is the "Broadway musical" aspect to the novel.  There are many episodes scattered throughout the work where the characters suddenly break into song and dance.  These are miniature stage-like performances that, while revealing further aspects of the characters and the narrative, are also purely silly and indicate the light, humorous undertone of the novel's otherwise grim and critical nature.  It is best to take Gravity's Rainbow as a largely absurd, humorous and entertaining book that just happens to reflect upon aspects of our post-World War II condition.  

One primary theme of the novel is the impact of major corporations on the perpetuation and conduct of the war itself.  Pynchon seems to be saying that, rather than politics (which is rarely mentioned in the novel), war is capitalism by other means.  Several fictitious corporations are mentioned in connection with the German V2 rocket program.  Slothrope's quest for a specially designed rocket involves knowledge of materials and technologies developed by corporations which drive the military pursuits of the war as well as threaten the individuality of a few of the characters, turning them into mere pawns of larger systems - a common postmodern literary theme.

As I already mentioned, as weird as all this sounds, Pynchon's prose is often incredible.  He employs a variety of writing techniques to great effect.  He frequently incorporates the styles of other writers and even from films.  In my reading I was most impressed with some of his transitions between episodes.  He sometimes ends an episode mid-sentence from the perspective of one character or event only to complete the rest of the sentence in the next episode from the perspective of a completely different character or event.  In this manner, among other means, he keeps the narrative loose and dynamic and, perhaps, he is indicating the simultaneous and similar aspects of life itself among otherwise unconnected personas.   

I have already mentioned his exquisite prose style, poetic, humorous, shifting from third-person to various first-person perspectives without warning the reader.  A great example is when the character of Pirate Pentrice, an intelligence officer known for his banana breakfasts in the novel, has  a shared fantasy about being condemned to hell with Katje Borgesius, a sadomasochistic woman who has several lovers throughout the course of the narrative.  Pynchon offers this brilliant passage when Prentice first realizes where he is – this is a great example of the author’s mastery of prose.

“Without expecting to, it seems Pirate has begun to cry.  Odd.  He has never cried in public like this before.  But he understands where he is, now.  It will be possible, after all, to die in obscurity, without having helped a soul: without love, despised, never trusted, never vindicated – to stay down among the Preterite, his poor honor lost, impossible to locate or redeem.

“He is crying for persons, places, and things left behind: for Scorpia Mossmoon, living in St. John’s Wood among sheet-music, new recipes, a small kennel of Weimaraners whose racial purity she will go to extravagant lengths to preserve, and husband Clive, who shows up now and then, Scorpia living only a few minutes away by Underground but lost to Pirate now for good, no chance for either of them to turn again…for people he had betrayed in the course of business for the Firm, Englishmen and foreigners, for Ion so naïve, for Gongkylakis, for the Monkey Girl and the pimps of Rome, for Bruce who got burned…for nights up in partisan mountains when he was one with the smell of living trees, in full love with the at last undeniable beauty of the night…for a girl back in the Midlands named Virginia, and for their child who never came to pass…for his dead mother, and his dying father, for the innocent and the fools who are going to trust him, poor faces doomed as dogs who have watched us so amiably from behind the wire fence sat the city pounds…cried for the future he can see, because it makes him feel desperate and cold.  He is to be taken from high moment to high moment, standing by at meetings of the Elect, witnessing a test of the new Cosmic Bomb – ‘Well,’ a wise old face, handing him the black-lensed glasses, ‘there is your Bomb…’ turning then to see its thick yellow exploding down the beach, across leagues of Pacific waves…touching famous assassins, yes actually touching their human hands and faces…finding out one day how long ago, how early in the game the contract on his own life was let.  No one knows exactly when the hit will come – every morning, before the markets open, out before the milkmen.  They make Their new update, and decide on what’s going to be sufficient unto the day.  Every morning Pirate’s name will be on a list, though it fills him with a terror so pure, so cold, he thinks for a minute he will pass out.  Later, having drawn back a bit, gathering heart for the next sortie, it seems he’s done with their shame, just as Sir Stephen said, yes past the old shame and sacred now, full of worry for nothing but his own ass, his precious, condemned, personal ass…” (page 544)

But, despite all this angst, Pirate and Katje become practitioners of Nietzsche (my interpretation) and decide to dance of the edge of the abyss.  “And they do dance though Pirate never could before, very well…they feel quite in touch with all the others as they move, and if they are never to be at full ease, still it’s not parade rest any longer…so they dissolve now, into the race and swarm of this dancing Preterition, and their faces, the dear, comical faces they have put on for this ball, fade, as innocence fades, grimly flirtatious, and striving to be kind.” (page 548)

Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, complex, yet absurd and whimsical story mixing multiple serious themes, an enormous cast of quirky characters, expressed in language play and a loose narrative that shifts and frequently simply dissolves.  Thomas Pynchon crafted a novel that is clearly distinctive and representative of the late-hippy 1960's-1970’s, when it was written.  It captures the zeitgeist of the time in a way as crazy as the Vietnam-war era itself.  While a challenge to read and pushing the limits of public acceptance in terms of sexuality and drug use, Gravity’s Rainbow is nevertheless rewarding to those with patience and persistence.  The narrative is more of an experience than a concrete story, often disorienting, much like the world at the time it was written, and perhaps even more so like the world today.  In that sense it is a rather prophetic work – a prophecy about how identity and meaning, calamity and ambiguity work in our world today.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Out with a Whimper (Again): The 2018 Atlanta Braves

The big story for the 2018 Atlanta Braves was that they won the NL East and advanced to the postseason "ahead of schedule."  Loaded with young unproven players, no one seriously predicted the Braves would win the division, or even contend for that matter, until 2019 or 2020.  So this season has been more than satisfying from that perspective.

But it still sucks that we went out with a whimper in 2018, being eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, just as we were back in 2013.  It is an all too familiar refrain for lifelong Braves fans such as myself.

I have watched the Braves' elimination in the first-round many times in my life.  It happened in 1969, 1982, 1993 (all before the present two-round play-offs), 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010, 2012 (wild-card), and 2013.  In fact, the last time the Braves won a postseason series was in 1999.  So, we have yet to advance in the play-offs in this century.  Frustrating.  

The beginning of the end in 2018 was the final road trip of this season.  Six games on the road against mediocre clubs yielded just two victories for a Braves team that played great on the road all season.  When the New York Mets behind sub-par pitcher (7-9, 5.77 ERA) Matt Vargas defeated us 4-1 it was obvious that our offense, the aspect of the team that took us so far in 2018, was running out of gas.  

Nick Markakis was at the beginning of a terrible end-of-season batting slump.  The whole team couldn't move runners over nor drive in those who were in scoring position.  Even though we had already won the division, it didn't look good and we had zero momentum going into LA for game one of the NLDS.  Johan Camargo, who was so important during the regular season, went hit-less against LA.

The whole team was in a batting slump.  Freddie Freeman hit just .250 for the NLDS and that was tops on the team.  Markakis hit .083.  All-Star Ozzie Albies batted a mere .200.  Charlie Culberson (playing for the injured Dansby Swanson) hit just .167.  And Ronald Acuna, Jr. only managed a .188 average.

But Acuna also was the single highlight for the Braves offensively in the series.  He became the youngest player in baseball history to hit a grand-slam in the postseason.  It was a critical blow in the Braves 6-5 win over LA in Game Three, otherwise the series would have been a sweep for the Dodgers.  In fact, before that game, the Braves had not scored a single run against LA.  There was talk of who was the last team to lose a postseason series without scoring a run.  We were on the path toward making the wrong kind of history, but Game Three saved us from that ignominious distinction.

On the pitching side of equation things were even worse.  Mike Foltynewicz was terrible in both his starts, finishing with a 7.50 ERA for the series.  The Braves bullpen, never our strong suit during the season, was not competitive.  Jonny Venters had an ERA of 9.00, Brad Brach was at 6.75 for the series, and Chad Sobotka ended up at 11.57.  Horrific.

So, just as in 2013, we were eliminated 3 games to 1 by LA.  The Dodgers will now advance against the Milwaukee Brewers, arguably the best team in the National League.  For the Braves, it was an unexpectedly good season but still it ended with on the sour note of missed opportunities.  

We can't blame manager Brian Snitker for any of this.  He managed the team brilliantly in 2018 and I recall questioning his moves only on rare occasions this season.  I think he should be Manager of the Year

While there is reason to be pleased with 2018 (the Braves are young and talented) it is frustrating whenever a contending team begins to play their worst right as the season ends.  That is the typical story of the Atlanta Braves in the 21st century.  We have most of the key position players in place.  Now, we just need to strengthen the depth of our bench and our bullpen in the off-season.  With some decent acquisitions, a strong farm system, and any luck at all to go with our skill, we should remain a contender for the next few seasons. 

All in all 2018 was a fun season.  Go Braves!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Listening to Eat A Peach

Proof of purchase.  I bought my Eat A Peach CD when it first became available in the 1980's.  It is an analog to digital recording, not a digital remaster.
Out of relative obscurity, The Allman Brothers Band got a taste of major rock success when their At Fillmore East album went gold (eventually platinum) in 1971.  After years struggling to find their voice and develop their following things seemed to be coming together at last.  At Fillmore East was their breakthrough album, possibly the greatest live album ever recorded, featuring a lengthy blistering version of "Whipping Post" and a superb performance of the jazzy "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed."  The band had truly arrived at a level of stardom.  As always with such unexpected success, they were wondering what to do next.

But things were not so good within the band itself.  Four of its members were addicted to heroin and entered rehabilitation.  Then on October 29, 1971, Duane Allman tragically died in a motorcycle accident.  He was a brilliant guitarist, well-known as a rising star within the industry.  Suddenly, the solid backbone of the band's epic live performances was gone.  

Well, he was almost gone.  The band had previously begun to roughly craft their next record, laying down a couple of tracks with Duane's guitar work was already recorded.  The question was how could the surviving members come up with enough material to fill out an album?  The answer, as it turned out, was they decided they just couldn't make a single album.  They created a double-album instead.

Eat A Peach was a staple of my youth, particularly my college days.  Most of my friends owned a copy of it.  I listened to it a lot at parties or just relaxing around my dorm room.  Its distinctive cover was oddly missing a title as it was developed before the band had settled on one.  Ultimately, and appropriately perhaps, that title was inspired by a reference to something Duane used to say: "Every time I'm in Georgia I eat a peach for peace" which was, interestingly enough, inspired by a T.S. Eliot poem

The album quickly went platinum and, although their next record, Brothers and Sisters, would surpass it in total sales, Eat A Peach remains a defining album for The Allman Brothers Band, the last glimpse of what they attained with Duane, even as they picked up the pieces and carried on to greater heights without him.  It is the thread stitching the original band with what it would evolve into post-Duane Allman.  Ultimate Classic Guitar ranks Eat A Peach a close second behind At Fillmore East among the band's discography.

For no conscious reason, I have listened to Eat A Peach a lot lately.  It has been awhile since I delved into the band.  It is a rewarding experience.  I had forgotten how great these guys were in general and on Eat A Peach in particular.  I sold almost all of my vinyl a couple of years ago.  So I don't have a copy of the double-album and its fine artwork.  But I still own the CD.  So this review will be based upon that and not the way the tracks were presented originally.  The only difference is that "Mountain Jam" is fused together and placed on track four.  The rest of the CD matches the album in terms of the order of the songs.

It should also be noted that Eat A Peach consists of nine songs, three each coming from three different sources arranged in specific groupings.  The album and the CD start off with three songs from a studio set put together after Duane's death.  Next come three tracks from the live 1971 Fillmore East recordings, carrying on with the fabulous performances featuring Duane and the first incarnation of the band at their finest.  Finally, there are three studio tracks that were recorded before Duane died which were to serve as the basis for the (at the time) undefined third studio album.  
The distinctive cover art for Eat A Peach is a classic.  The name of the album does not appear - the artwork was completed at a time when the record was as yet unnamed.
"Ain't Wasting Time No More" is a fine anthem written by Gregg Allman in memory of his brother.  Gregg started composing this before Duane's death.  But the song took on a new context with his brother's passing and, while acknowledging loss, it became a statement of re-commitment to living life as best we can despite whatever happens.

Dickey Betts, an excellent guitarist in his own right, helped fill the void created by the loss of Duane.  He wrote "Les Brers in A Minor" as a instrumental number.  I have always thought the first third of this 9-minute tune could have been edited out completely.  It is just a meandering warm-up to the actual song which finishes out the final two-thirds of the track.  But once it gets going it has tremendous drive and, at times, ecstatic energy; a close-knit, very tight performance by the group.  The band was (is) known for its dual lead guitar sound.  With one of the leads departed, Gregg stepped up with his organ playing to match Dickey on guitar. For me, this song proves the band would find its footing and continue on successfully despite their setback.

One of the most tragic aspects of Eat A Peach is that "Melissa" was Duane's favorite song that Gregg composed, but the older brother never got the chance to record it.  This tune takes the album up a notch.  Just a terrific, soulful number that fully captures the gentle side of the Allman Brothers distinctive sound.  One of the best tunes on the album.

"Mountain Jam" is just an absolute monster of a song, part of the Fillmore East threesome on the record.  At 33-minutes it is one of the longest rock songs ever recorded up to that time.  Limited by the availability of space on vinyl, it was split into two sections when the album was originally released.  On the CD we get to experience it in its uninterrupted glory.  There is so much to this jam session that it is difficult to articulate it all.  It features solid, unified playing by the entire band with magnificent solos by Duane and Dickey on guitar and by Gregg on organ.  But there is an extended bass solo too by Berry Oakley and, in perhaps a first in the great pantheon of rock music, a five-minute percussion duet by Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson.  This massive number requires attentive listening to fully appreciate and it totally validates the band's "chops" as one of the best live performing rock groups ever; a truly innovative recording that breaks out like this:

00:00 - 07:19  Intro, main theme – Duane Allman (left channel): first guitar solo (from 02:41) – Dickey Betts (right channel) – Gregg Allman: organ solo (from 04:40) 07:19 - 13:07  Dickey's main guitar solo (11:21 Duane joines in for a moment) 13:07 - 18:40  Butch Truck's & Jaimoe's drum solo's 18:40 - 22:06  Berry Oakley's bass solo 22:07 - 23:42  Duane & Dickey playing along 23:43 - 30:05  Duane's main guitar solos 25:40 - 25:55  Berry playing something nice notes 27:20 - 29:29  Duane's "Will the circle be unbroken" solo (28:51  Please rise!)   30:10 - 33:14  Outro, main theme (This synopsis was provided Gert Jan Kuiper on the youtube link.)
The credits on my CD.  Oddly, Dickey Betts' name is misspelled throughout.  It's not "Dicky."
"One Way Out" is also live from Fillmore East.  This is the classic Allman Brothers sound.  A very catchy tune, part rock, part blues, full of strength and expertise.  For years this became the finale of the band's concerts.  It is a strong contender for best track on the album.  This song totally rocks and features Gregg's haunting, soulful vocals, the essential part of the group's vibe.  Ultimately, the band survived the loss of Duane guitar.  I'm not sure it would have survived the loss of its primary vocalist.

"Trouble No More" and "Stand Back" might be considered filler material compared with everything else.  Nevertheless, they show the band grooving along smoothly with precision and tremendous energy.  Hard not to listen to these without tapping your foot or shaking your head.  These tunes grip you and immerse you just everything else on this album.  There's no filler here, many bands never record songs as good as either of these.

Dickey Betts, whose name is curiously misspelled as "Dicky" in the CD's liner notes, wrote "Blue Sky" and this is the classic rock song on the album.  It is a glorious piece of music.  I remember listening to this tune so many times during my life.  It is an especially nice tune to blast on the car stereo while driving some distance.  You might expect Eat A Peach to be somewhat somber given the circumstances surrounding the record.  But it's not.  Quite the contrary, it is an upbeat and optimistic album.  No tune is more that way than "Blue Sky", the song I consider the best on the album.  I'm so glad Duane was around to play dual lead and supporting acoustic guitar with Dickey on this one.

We end with "Little Martha", a simple, underdeveloped, acoustic song with Duane and Dickey together on acoustic guitar.  Under other circumstances this might be considered a demo track.  Duane and Dickey had toyed with the idea of introducing an acoustical set to the band's live performances but that never came to pass.  This song is the only one on the album written by Duane alone.   As such, it is a sweet glimpse into what an acoustical set might have sounded like and an honorable homage to close out the CD.
The inside album artwork is wonderful, especially if you have the large vinyl format.  It is much smaller on my CD, of course.  But you can still appreciate the magnificent detail of a time when album art was just part of what you got when you bought a record.
The full title of the record is Eat A Peach: Dedicated to a Brother, Duane Allman.  It is a great, fitting tribute to what the band was but also to what it would become.  Rolling Stone published a remarkable review of the album in April 1972.  It does a far better job of reviewing it than I have and I highly recommend you take a moment to read what rock journalism was like back in the early 70's.  I will close my review by quoting the end of that review:

"While Duane was with them, listening to the group was like getting laid by someone who loved you and knew how to love — not only getting you off, but getting you on as well. The new five-man group is like a new lover, with different passions, peaks and skills — and touches that may take a little getting used to at first, but satisfying just as surely.

"The Allman Brothers are still the best goddamned band in the land, and this record with three sides of “old” and one side of “new” is a simultaneous sorrowed ending and hopeful beginning. I hope the band keeps playing forever — how many groups can you think of who really make you believe they’re playing for the joy of it?"

There you have it.  Eat A Peach is not about the death at all.  (The old myth that the title came from a fruit produce truck that Duane Allman hit on his motorcycle is not factual.)  It is about living, joyfully even riskily, no matter the circumstances.  This album doesn't whine, nor does it stew in remorse, it gets out there and totally rocks.  What a inspiring message and a treat to have enjoyed it for so many years!