Saturday, March 7, 2020

Bret Devereaux's The Siege of Gondor

Bret Devereaux is a lecturer in history at UNC and specializes in ancient (Roman era) history, and I very much enjoyed his recent multi-part essay on the military history of the Siege of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings

The whole thing is marvelous. I am certain that, had I been lucky enough to have a history professor as entertaining as this, I should never have chosen mathematics (well, I'm sure I would have ended up in maths anyway, but I wouldn't have dreaded my history classes anywhere nearly as much).

  • Part I: Professionals Talk Logistics
    That may seem a touch early to start a review of the siege, but there are two points to this, both of which are historically illuminating. What we are watching at this stage is what is called operations – the coordinated movement of large bodies of troops to their objective. Operations is the level of analysis between tactics (how do I fight when I get there?) and strategy (why am I fighting at all?). And its worth asking, before proceeding any further: what is Sauron’s overall plan and does it make sense?
  • Part II: These Beacons are Liiiiiiit
    You may be waiting for me to now say that the Beacons of Gondor is a silly, a-historical thing that could never happen. Nope. Not only is this system plausible, it existed, on a similar scale, in the 9th century Byzantine (read: Eastern Roman) Empire. The system stretched more than 400 miles from the frontier to Constantinople, and consisted of fire signals set on high ground at intervals of 30 to 60 miles.

    This was particularly important because of the way the Byzantine Empire’s army was organized into themata or themes. Each theme was a combined military and civil administrative district, with its own small field army that could respond to local raids – however a theme’s army would be insufficient to respond to a major invasion. In the event of a large attack, the beacons rippling back to the capital would bring the tagmata, the main imperial field army, which tended to stay wherever the emperor was (to discourage rebellion in the themes). The tagmata could then roll out to confront the invasion, picking up theme forces as it moved (forces which – because of the beacons – would already be ready). It was an effective system and despite the Byzantine reputation for decline, the period from the 9th century to the 11th century was a period of Byzantine reconquest and consolidation (until the Battle of Manzikert in 1071).

  • Part III: Having Fun Storming the City
    The design of the orc catapults, on the other hand…oof. This is not a great design. On first viewing, I thought these were torsion catapults (like the Roman onager – a late Roman single-armed torsion siege engine), because in the wide shots where the catapult is presumably pure CGI, the firing arm snaps very quickly forward when fired. Counterweight catapults do not ‘snap’ like this, because the counterweight can only accelerate as fast as the constant acceleration due to gravity (9.76 m/s). Nevertheless, in the close shots, it is clear that these are counterweight catapults, with the large stone counterweights clearly visible on the far end of the arm. So what’s wrong?
  • Part IV: The Cavalry Arrives
    They are, however, in the wrong formation. For cavalry, this formation is very deep. The front block looks to be about 12-14 horses deep, and the rear block seems to be about as large, making the entire formation c. 24 x 250 (we were told they had 6,000 horses, you will recall). This is a very deep cavalry formation (presumably so it would neatly fill the screen), which is mostly a problem because of the size of the enemy force. Attacking with such a purposefully narrow front means that the Rohirrim will be enveloping themselves on contact. This is particularly dangerous for cavalry because the feint is so important for cavalry tactics.
  • Part V: Just Flailing About Flails
    Now we see one unfortunate Gondorian soldier tossed what looks like more than 20ft in the air (he is well over the heads of the trolls) – how much energy does it take to do that? In our own simplified high school physics sort of way, we can figure this out, very roughly. The energy required to lift a thing is equal to its potential energy after being lifted, which is equal to it’s mass, times the gravitational constant, times its height, in this case 6,576J (110kg * 9.8m/s^s * 6.1m); the hit must have imparted at least this much energy (more, in fact – we haven’t accounted for friction or air resistance). Since the club is still moving very fast, we might assume it retains something like half of the energy of impact (again, this is almost certainly a low-ball figure), so the initial kinetic energy of the club the moment before impact is c. 13,000J – the equivalent energy to a bit more than 3 grams of TNT.

    As noted above, we might expect a trollish warhammer to be around 13.5kg tops – so how fast does the troll have to get it moving to launch a man? Kinetic energy is equal to 1/2 mass times velocity squared, so (13,000J = 1/2 * (13.5kg) * (v^2)), solve for ‘v’ (velocity in meters per second). 43.9m/s (98mph). That is very fast – for comparison, professional golfers, using long and quite light-weight clubs cap out under 130mph for the highest speed of the head of the club in their swing – and golf clubs are made to maximize head speed. And we have made a lot of favorable assumptions for the troll (for instance, a lot of the energy of impact is going to be absorbed by the body as it crumples or recoil into the hand of the troll; we also assumed the entire mass of the hammer is up at the point, which it isn’t). I think it is fairly safe to say that a troll’s one-handed swing is probably not sufficient to get the impact surface of a club or hammer moving at 100mph.

  • Part VI: Black Sails and Gleaming Banners
    Tolkien’s vision of war is more nuanced, shaped by personal experience. War machines matter, but chiefly as a means of degrading the will of the enemy. The great contest is not between engines or weapons, but between the dread of Mordor and the courage of men. Catapults, towers and rams are merely the means that Mordor uses to deliver its terror. I have tried to flag instances of this in the book notes throughout this series, how close attention Tolkien pays to despair, dread and fear on both sides. The power of the Witch King’s catapults was that “the valour of the City was beaten down” (RotK, 108). But Jackson shows us not the despair of the soldiers but the shattering of buildings. When the Rohirrim arrive, the key thing we are told is that “the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them” (RotK, 124). By contrast, Jackson opts to show us not the wailing of orcs, but the impact of horses.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

What I'm listening to, Winter 2020

A little of this, a little of that.

  • Coldplay, Everyday Life

    This is a lovely album, and it made me realize that I had become shamefully out of touch with Coldplay and their recent body of work, something I'll have to address. We've listened to this album a LOT since we picked it up for driving music on our Arizona vacation in January. 9/10.

  • Chet Faker, Built On Glass

    This was a holiday gift to us from Emily and Carmen, and it has quickly become my wife's favorite album of the last year. The internet calls this "electro-soul", and he definitely channels something you might have heard from Al Wilson or Barry White 50 years ago. But with the production techniques of 2020, and the eclecticism of a Down Under lad. 9/10

  • Tame Impala, The Slow Rush

    Kevin Parker, whose stage name is Tame Impala, is a one-man band, I believe. In the studio, he performs everything himself, laying down multiple overlays using modern electronic wizardry. I don't have any idea what his live performances are like, but the studio albums that he produces are fascinating. I have Innerspeaker and Lonerism, and now I have The Slow Rush, which I like better than the other two. 8/10

  • Local Natives, Hummingbird

    Although Hummingbird is the second Local Natives album, it was the fourth one I arrived at. I started with the amazing Gorilla Manor, as everyone should, but then I went on to Violet Street and Sunlit

    For whatever reason (music is personal, after all), Sunlit is actually my favorite, with Gorilla Manor a close second. I'd say I like Hummingbird slightly more than I like Violet Street.

    Annoyingly, the 2020 Local Natives tour dates completely conflict with long-scheduled travel plans, so I'm going to miss their shows again. Grrr!! 8/10.

  • Nick Murphy, Run Fast Sleep Naked

    I think that Nick Murphy has permanently dropped the "Chet Faker" stage name; at any rate, Run Fast Sleep Naked is released under his own name.

    Having completely nailed a certain persona with Built On Glass, Murphy is now trying to extend and develop other aspects of his music.

    This is going to take time, but I'll stick around for the ride, as his talent is undeniable. 8/10

  • Best Coast, Fade Away

    Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bronze record as Best Coast, and I've long wanted to explore their music. Fade Away is high energy California pop, and I really enjoy it. I'll be returning for more of Best Coast. 7/10

  • James Blake, Overgrown

    Overgrown was another gift from Emily and Carmen. It's definitely growing on me, listen after listen. Blake has released four albums, Overgrown was the second one. I'll certainly be listening to more of his work. 7/10

  • Beatles, Abbey Road Anniversary Edition

    Wow, it's been 50 years since Abbey Road came out, with its famously enigmatic cover picture of the boys striding across the Abbey Road crosswalk.

    Abbey Road was late-form Beatles, just shortly before they broke up.

    We got the 2CD re-issue, with CD1 being the studio release, while CD2 is a selection of alternate mixes, studio experiments, etc.

    It's all lovely. It's the Beatles! 10/10

  • The Grateful Dead, Ready Or Not

    The last actual album that the Grateful Dead released as a group was 1989's Built to Last. But the group continued composing, recording, and playing live music up through Garcia's death in the summer of 1995, and much of that body of music has been released over time.

    Ready or Not is an interesting concept; it is a selection of nine songs composed and performed by the Dead during the years from 1989 to 1995.

    Many of these songs surely would have been released on studio albums, if it hadn't been that they were Done Doing That.

    This is deep, mature music from the Dead, and although the production quality is challenging (these are all live recordings), it still showcases all of their greatest talents: lyrical depth, musical complexity, and the warmth and emotion which was always part of their finest moments.

    During the years since, I've heard a few of these songs performed live by Dead offshoots such as Phil Lesh and Friends or Dead & Co, but it's a true treasure to hear these old and fascinating recordings.

    It's 10/10, but really only for personal reasons. This certainly isn't an approachable album, it's for True Fans only.

    Like me.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Game Day, redux

Oh, sad, sad news about the Queen of Katwe.

But please don't miss this wonderful essay by Jessica Hoffmann Davis: Unsung heroes: Reconceptualizing a video game as a work of art

Meanwhile, my son had announced to his fans that his 75 year old mother was attempting to play Red Dead Redemption 2 and they responded with wonderful comments of support. They were moved I’d taken such trouble to see what my son had done, moved that an “older” person would make the effort to experience “their art.” I was buoyed by their support; they called my efforts “wholesome.” They made me feel welcome and proud of my novice exploration of the world they knew so well. And what did others know of the magic I was discovering in an area the uninformed consider a “waste of time”?

Perusing the topics of some of the very many academic articles on the subject, I noted that while there is persistent concern for the effects of violence in games, scholars in the field recognize a variety of positive aspects. Of interest to me, they acknowledge what I felt first-hand: the experience of “presence” as in actually being there within the game as well as a sense of personal efficacy as I moved along (Vorderer, Bryant, 2006). So much to learn from historical content to usable skills such as manual dexterity, spatial awareness, and the attention to detail inherent to aesthetic education.

As I came to the end of the RDR2 story, final scenes brought me to tears. The characters found the ways they were meant to find but not always what I would have wished for them. Since my son is a veteran actor, I have seen him in many roles, but never as an animated version of himself—a version that visually walked his walk and audibly exploited the dark and playful regions of his wonderful voice. My journey had allowed this encounter with an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary role. And I had also had the extraordinary experience of playing a role; well, sharing a role with the character Roger Clark so marvelously brought to life. I became facile with a venue I had previously only seen from a distance—a grandson ignoring me, attending somehow to this mysterious arena for play. I entered that world, became absorbed, and didn’t hear when I was called for dinner.

Her son, you see, is Benjamin Byron Davis, who plays "Dutch van der Linde" in the game.

In other gaming news, I'm on the final stretches of the marvelous Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order; but more on that another day.

And I'm already dreaming of what comes next. What do you think about The Pedestrian? I think it looks perfect, but of course I haven't played it yet.

In fact, I'm spending rather too much time not playing games right now.

But when I'm not playing games, I certainly do enjoy reading about them. One of my favorite sites is Red Blob Games, which has just fabulously-beautiful articles on how video game engines actually work.

But have I raved to you about, which is generously hosting all 3 issues of the fascinating, if short-lived, Game AI Pro series of books from CRC Press.

Start reading one article at Game AI Pro, and you'll soon be reading them all.

And, to close things off, let's get back to the Great Game. May I encourage you to spend a few minutes with this beautiful video, and remember that our children are our future?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

I clearly haven't been paying very much attention ...

Who are:

  • Michael Bennet
  • Rocky de la Fuente III
  • Mark Stewart Greenstein
  • John K. Delaney
  • Mosie Boyd
  • Michael A. Ellinger
  • and Joe Sestak

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Ferry Service continues to expand

A large new terminal is being built to split the ferry system's busiest, most popular route into two separate routes: WETA To Expand Ferry Commute Service in Alameda and Oakland

The Seaplane Lagoon Ferry Terminal is currently under construction on the former Naval Air Station Alameda. It is on track to be completed in mid-2020. The WETA Board on Thursday approved an agreement with the City of Alameda to operate ferry service at the new terminal and endorsed staff’s recommendation to take this opportunity to revamp Alameda commute service for the benefit of commuters. The Alameda City Council approved the agreement at its Tuesday meeting. “Alameda ferry ridership has boomed in recent years. Reorienting our Alameda commute service to use the new Seaplane Lagoon terminal will help us meet that growing demand and improve the entire ferry experience for passengers,” said Nina Rannells, WETA’s executive director. “We’re also thrilled to expand our commute service in Oakland to help ease roadway congestion and continue to build out the Bay’s ferry system.”

The announcement is a bit confusing in its description of which routes will still visit the old terminal:

Under the plan, the existing Main Street Alameda Ferry Terminal will continue to be used for non-commute ferry service to San Francisco (including weekends and special service to Oracle Park and Chase Center) and for the South San Francisco service.

Meanwhile, much sooner, the newest ferry dock at the Ferry Building is opening over President's Day Weekend: Ferry Gate and Queue Changes in Downtown S.F. Coming Tuesday, Feb. 18

Beginning on Tuesday, February 18, Richmond ferry arrivals and departures will be reassigned to Gate E at the Downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal. Also, there will be access and queuing changes for Alameda/Oakland and Harbor Bay passengers in Downtown San Francisco.

During the afternoon commute runs, it's quite chaotic in this area of the waterfront. There are thousands of people out and about on the street who aren't even taking the ferries, just enjoying the beautiful waterfront access. Then, when you combine that with another thousand or so busy commuters who are Just Trying To Get Home, it can be a bit of a kerfluffle.

But it all seems to work out in the end.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: a very short review

For a long time, I've been thinking about reading some of David Foster Wallace's work. Wallace is frequently cited in the same paragraph as writers such as Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce, William S. Burroughs, etc.: "important" authors whom you "ought" to read.

But Infinite Jest just seems infinitely intimidating; each time I get near it I feel exhausted and have to go read something else.

For 6 months at least.

So I thought: maybe I can approach Wallace in easy steps, and picked up A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

It's definitely much more approachable, but I'm not sure it's much of a stepping stone.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is a collection of seven essays that Wallace wrote fairly early in his career, around the time that he was teaching at Illinois State and working on Infinite Jest.

The seven essays are all non-fiction, though, and are sort of all over the place.

There are two essays on Tennis. Wallace relates that he was an avid tennis player as a youth and played seriously and competitively for most of his life. They're fairly interesting, although personally I'm not really all that interested in tennis.

There are two essays on post-modernism: one is an investigation of the literary aspects of television, the other is about H. L. Hix's Morte d'Author: An Autopsy. These are simply dreadful essays. They are dense, arcane, opaque, but most of all they are dull, dull, dull.

There is an essay about David Lynch and the making of Lost Highway. Ugh. Perhaps if Wallace had chosen an appealing director and an appealing movie? But then, that wouldn't be Wallace, I guess.

The high spot of the book, for me, were the other two essays.

Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All is an essay about attending the 1993 Illinois State Fair. Somehow, this essay manages to be crude, raunchy, smug, elitist, laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, and kind, all at once.

Sometimes even in the same paragraph!

The horses are in their own individual stalls, with half-height doors and owners and grooms on stools by the doors, a lot of them dozing. The horses stand in hay. Billy Ray Cyrus plays loudly on some stableboy's boom box. The horses have tight hides and apple-sized eyes that are set on the sides of their heads, like fish. I've rarely been this close to fine livestock. The horses' faces are long and somehow suggestive of coffins. The racers are lanky, velvet over bone. The draft and show horses are mammoth and spotlessly groomed and more or less odorless -- the acrid smell in here is just the horses' pee. All their muscles are beautiful; the hides enhance them. Their tails whip around in sophisticated double-jointed ways, keeping the flies from mounting any kind of coordinated attack. (There really is such a thing as a horsefly.) The horses all make farty noises when they sigh, heads hanging over the short doors. They're not for petting, though. When you come close they flatten their ears and show big teeth. The grooms laugh to themselves as we jump back. These are special competitive horses, intricately bred, w/ high-strung artistic temperaments. I wish I'd brought carrots: animals can be bought, emotionally. Stall after stall of horses. Standard horse-type colors. They eat the same hay they stand in. Occasional feedbags look like gas masks. A sudden clattering spray-sound like somebody hosing down siding turns out to be a glossy chocolate stallion, peeing. He's at the back of his stall getting combed, and the door's wide open, and we watch him pee. The stream's an inch in diameter and throws up dust and hay and little chips of wood from the floor. We hunker down and have a look upward, and I suddenly for the first time understand a certain expression describing certain males, an expression I'd heard but never truly understood till just now, prone and gazing upward in some blend of horror and awe.

The title essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is similar in many ways; it is an essay about taking a seven day luxury cruise through the Caribbean. It's mellower, quieter, more reflective, almost melancholy, and all of these things lessen the overall result. Wallace is either having fun, or he's not, and the result certainly comes through in his writing. But this essay, though perhaps less hilarious (and certainly less raunchy) is also more insightful, and more kind; perhaps it is just a result of him getting older? (Though: the two essays were written only 3 years apart, the first when he was 31 years old, and the second when he was 34, so I don't think age had much to do with it.)

I'll still don't know if I'll ever try Infinite Jest, or The Pale King, or The Broom of the System. Maybe someday.

But at least I feel like I understand David Foster Wallace a bit better.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Conversations with Friends: a very short review

Sally Rooney's Normal People is on everybody's Top Books list nowadays, but before getting to that I decided to start with her first book, Conversations with Friends

I loved this odd little book!

I'm definitely not the target audience for Conversations with Friends; it's absolutely a Millenial's book, and that generation gap hit me like a hammer. Plus my gender is wrong, I'm on the wrong continent, the main characters of the book are wholly unlike me, etc.

Still, it's fresh, exciting, immediate, and thoroughly a joy to read.

I liked it so much that I was willing to overlook lots of Rooney's quirks, such as doing away with quotation marks for dialog, or telling significant parts of the story via text message, or having a character whose emails are sent in all lower case.

The harder quirk to overlook, in my reading at least, was the super-naturally self-aware nature of our narrator, Frances. I know I'm not the most introspective person, but there's just no way that a 21-year-old character could be so vividly in control of her own consciousness like this:

When we rang the bell, Melissa answered the door with her camera slung over her shoulder. She thanked us for coming. She had an expressive, conspiratorial smile, which I though she probably gave to all her subjects, as if to say: you're no ordinary subject to me, you're a special favorite. I knew I would enviously practice this smile later in a mirror.


Although I couldn't specify why exactly, I felt certain that Melissa was less interested in our writing process now that she knew I wrote the material alone. I knew the subtlety of this change would be enough for Bobbi to deny it later, which irritated me as if it had already happened. I was starting to feel adrift from the whole setup, like the dynamic that had eventually revealed itself didn't interest me, or even involve me. I could have tried harder to engage myself, but I probably resented having to make an effort to be noticed."

Rooney uses this technique throughout, to tell what is really an inter-mingled story of four very vivid but separate characters from one character's sole narration, allowing our heroine Frances to divine what is in every one else's mind and reveal it to us in passages such as these.

Do people really have such preternaturally accurate reading of each other, especially when they are barely 21?

I guess so; after all, Rooney herself was barely older when she wrote Conversations with Friends, and she clearly has tremendous insight into what makes people tick.

Anyway, why quibble!

Conversation with Friends is wonderful, Rooney is wonderful, that's all I have to say about that!