Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Jane Austen: a Life

Listening to:

Elgar, Falstaff. Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. (This CD.)

Just read:

Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: a Life.

Having already enjoyed Tomalin’s biography of Pepys, I looked forward to reading her on Austen. I wasn’t disappointed either. Of course, it’s easy to enjoy reading about a sympathetic celebrity, particularly if there’s that undercurrent of sadness brought on by the knowledge that Austen probably would have liked her life to be quite different. She couldn’t marry her first young love for lack of money, and subsequently turned into a spinster dependent on her parents, and then her brothers.

In many important ways, it does seem as if she was never really in control of her own life. Being a woman in this period can’t have helped, but financial circumstances also shunted her around. After her father’s death in 1805, she, her mother and sister were dependent on her brothers to provide for them. They certainly didn’t have a house of their own to live in, and they had precious little income, at least compared to what they had been receiving through Austen’s father’s church position. Being a dependent cannot be a pleasant situation, however much familial love there might be.

Having said that, she did get some time to write her novels, some of her family were sympathetic and enthusiastic, and the novels were well-received. She did also keep up with all that family, even if visiting the big house in Kent may have made her feel like a poor relation. And then she died young (at 42), no doubt of something that wouldn’t trouble us in the modern world (though it may have been cancer too).

Austen’s world is much closer to ours than Pepys’, and her domesticated life is also probably more similar to most modern lives than Pepys’ involvement in high politics. Tomalin’s picture of Austen’s world is very well done; it feels real and convincing. Even better, I think, is her depiction of the people in Austen’s life: her parents, all those brothers, her sister Cassandra and the relatives of her parents’ generation as well. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Board Games IId

Listening to:

Toumani, by Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra, from the album Boulevard de l’Indépendance

Four more capsule board game reviews

I’m starting to run out of space in my board-game bookcase. And I’ve just ordered a new game to boot. I think I’ll have to bite the bullet and get rid of the ones that aren’t getting any play, and aren’t going to get any in the future either…

This week, a bunch of games that come in small boxes and all by the famous Reiner Knizia:


A filler that sees players manipulate hands of merchant and pirate ships. The pirate ships can be deployed to attack merchants that others may have played. If one’s attacking ships can last a full round in top position against a ship, they win the merchant ship (each is worth a different amount). There are two incentives to play merchants out of one’s hand: if everyone else is distracted by other battles and the merchant is not attacked for a round, it makes it back, and is points for the player who started it out. Additionally, unplayed merchants count against you at the end of the game. This is a fantastic mechanic, and the game plays well, particularly in the teams variant.

Lost Cities

A two player “competitive solitaire”, where play consists of discards and or playing cards to attending sequences of five different suits. Again, a great mechanic, and one with some real heft to it. Chris Farrell discussed it nicely in his Illuminating Games blog.

Medici vs. Strozzi

This is another two-player game. I’ve only played it once, and had to agree with my counter-party that it was very dry. It’s probably a candidate for the “making space” project. The game requires constant valuation of loads of goods that have to be put onto ships, and the setup which ensures that different loads will be worth different amounts to different players is clever. If you want a calculation-heavy game, and have an opponent who wants the same, this is probably the game for you both.

Modern Art

I suppose this is the heaviest of the four games this week. I think it’s fair to say that it’s widely acknowledged as a classic. The theme is appealing: each player is attempting to convince the others that particular artists (and thus their paintings) are a great investment, and then selling them off in auctions. Sometimes, it will even be the case that the paintings will be worth good money. And so, there are two routes to wealth (and thus victory): by buying paintings that do turn out to be valuable, or simply by selling paintings at the right moment.

This is not economic like Container, but it’s definitely about accurate valuation. The thing that lifts it so definitely above Medici vs Strozzi is that there are more people involved, the values are not so certain, and there’s an obvious development to the game across its three phases. This is definitely a great game.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Perfect Rigour

Listening to:

Brahms, symphony no. 2 in D, op. 73. The Royal Concertgebouw conducted by Mariss Jansons.

Just read:

Perfect Rigour: a genius and the mathematical breakthrough of the century, by Masha Gessen.

This is a very interesting biography of the Russian mathematician, Grigory Perelman. Perelman’s claim to fame is that he proved the Poincaré Conjecture. This entitled him to a $1 million prize from the Clay Institute for solving one of its ”Millenium Problems” (see their page about it). However, Perelman did not accept the prize money, and did not attend the award ceremony. Indeed he has apparently completely withdrawn himself from the world of mathematics and refuses to talk to most people.

This biography is thus “unauthorised”. On the other hand, Gessen had good access to many of the influential people in Perelman’s life, and has written a compelling account of his story to date. Along the way, she paints a vivid picture of how a mathematically gifted child might grow up in the Soviet Union. One of the depressing facets of Perelman’s story is the extra obstacles he had to deal with because he is Jewish. Soviet anti-semitism clearly outlived Stalin. It makes one wonder just what Enlightenment ideals the Soviets managed to live up to at all.

Gessen concludes with a pretty plausible theory: Perelman has Asperger’s Syndrome, and so sees and interacts with the rest of the world in a pretty unusual way. This runs the risk of seeming a little reductionist (Oh yes, everything P. has ever done is fully explained by this diagnosis). But my feeling is that the picture of the world contained in the biography up to this point is sufficiently rich and nuanced that the Asperger theory adds to what has gone before rather than collapsing it all into irrelevance.

The picture of modern academic mathematics contained in the last third of the biography is also an interesting read. It seemed slightly foreign (quite a different area from mine, and a rather more exalted level of course), but also quite familiar at a broader level.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Board Games IIe

Listening to:

Fontessa by the Modern Jazz Quartet, from their CD of the same name. V. cool.

Two More Board Games

A couple of games that I haven’t got to play very much.

Ex Libris

This is a “performance” game, meaning that it requires participants to repeatedly perform a certain class of task, and to then be judged on that task. The classic Charades is probably the best known performance game. More recently, Dixit, another game in similar vein, won prizes and fame. In Dixit players compete to best play a card which sums up the phrasing of the round’s current player. Then, everyone compares the selected cards (including that of the player), and tries to figure out which was the original. Of course, if someone mistakenly votes for yours (when you are not the current player), you get points for having managed such a good “impersonation”.

Ex Libris is similar in basic feel, but puts more performance pressure on the players. Everyone is given a description of a moderately famous book (a synopsis like: Set in the 1860s, this is the powerful story of two orphaned sisters growing up on a Boer farm in the South African veld. Em is round, sweet and contented. Lyndall is clever, beautiful and unhappy. She separates Em from her lover, has a child by a man whom she refuses to marry and soon afterwards dies.), and is then told to write either a first or final sentence for that book. The person in the know writes out the real one (provided on the card), collects everyone else’s, and then reads them all out. Everyone has to vote on which they think is the genuine article. I’ve had great fun with it on a couple of occasions, and it has also fallen terribly flat once too, because the group just wasn’t feeling terribly creative.

Mr. Jack.

This is an extremely cool deduction game for two players. One is the villain (Mr. Jack) trying to escape detection for the eight turns of the game, possibly by escaping the map entirely. The board has eight characters on it, each with a unique identity giving that character special moves and abilities. For example, the lamp-lighter character can toggle the state of one of the lamps on the board (who is or is not “in the light” makes an important difference). Each pair of turns, the players get to choose which of the characters they will play. For example, on the first turn, four of the characters are nominated as movable. (On the second turn, the remaining four will be.) The detective players chooses one to move and does so, the Mr. Jack character chooses and moves two of the remaining three, and then the detective gets to move the fourth. On the even-numbered turns, the picking order flips.

The key thing is that one of the eight characters is secretly Mr. Jack, and this character is the one that the Mr. Jack player has to manoeuvre so that he escapes or, at least, avoids arrest. (A false accusation loses the game for the detective.) The beauty of the mechanic in the previous paragraph is that the Mr. Jack player may not get to actually move the character who is secretly the bad guy when he’d most like to.. Indeed, it’s conceivable that he may never get to do so. But this doesn’t really matter. This is a fantastic game: very deep, with lots of theme and quick to play. Unfortunately, I don’t play it so often because it’s for two only, and my regular group usually features more people.