When we left our heroes they were leaving the dubious safety of the village’s largest house, on a reckless mission to close the hell hole. The villagers watched them fade into the darkness beyond the dim glow from the shuttered windows, and the demons circled cautiously in the darkness, grunting and hissing but temporarily cowed enough to restrain themselves from attacking. The party carried lanterns, and a small marsh light sauntered ahead of them under Thyvalt’s control, the pool of light soon lost from view in the deep blackness of this demon-infested night.

As they moved away from the village, the group drew together, their lanterns seeming to dim in the inky darkness, strange sounds disturbing the usual bucolic peace of farms and forests. No frogs croaked; no foxes bayed; no fireflies drew up from the pools and streams of the rice paddies to their left as they walked. Where once Thyvalt had known to expect an ageing, wizened toad to croak resonant grunts at his passing there was only silence. The nightingale in the hedges beyond Linus’s bean fields was obstinately silent, and the owls beyond the carp pool dared not stir. They had entered a liminal space, somewhere between two worlds, and soon they were lost in it, all sight of the village obscured in the mist and the impenetrable shadows. The only sound in this cloistered emptiness was the grunt and hiss of the demons circling beyond the light of their brave lanterns; the only movement the gentle swishing and sighing of the trees, and occasional shapes stirring in the mist – shapes that were darker than night, except where flaming red eyes pierced the gloom. The only reminder of the gentle farming community they had left behind them were the post-markers by the road, which loomed slowly on their left side as they walked, even the comforting fenceposts rendered eery and unnatural in the glow of the witch light and mist.

Cog soon noticed a lull in the hissing and groaning of the lurking demons, and guessed an ambush was coming. He directed the little cluster of mortals off the trail, gesturing for silence and care, and brought them straight on top of a nest of imps lurking near the road. Battle was joined before anyone had a chance to draw breath, and soon over. Lithvard threw a lantern amongst the imps, blinding them in a flare of burning oil and splintered glass, while Cog 11 disappeared into the shadows and Thyvalt drew a useless curse screaming from the netherworld. The imps spread out to attack or spit, and six lumbering dretches dragged themselves out of the shadows to their death. These dretches did not come by choice, but were driven by a giant red flame demon, whipping them with a spiked chain. Ayn called forth the Spirits of the Righteous, and four pillars of fire greeted her entreaties, consuming a dretch and terrifying the others, while Cog 11 appeared from the shadows to gut four of the imps in a sliding, diving whirlwind of wicked knives and mist. Where Ayn’s pillars of fire guttered out they left a huge gap in the mist, and into this gap charged a red-skinned, dog-haired demon, that barked and whumfed its way to its own doom. Lithvard hurled a fire spear at the big demon and Thyvalt yelled imprecations of pain and terror in a desperate voice, hoping to scare away the beasts before they could be surrounded; but to no avail, for these creatures were devoid of fear or mercy. It was then that Syrion hurled himself into the line, singing battle songs in a brave and clear voice, sword singing, drawing all the drenches to him to tear uselessly at his armour. Ayn and Lithvard joined back to back, hurling contrasting bolts of magical energy – one brilliant white and apocalyptic, the other burning with wrathful fire – until all five dretches were thoroughly consumed, their corpses steaming and wreathes of foul-smelling demon-wrack drifting through the mist. Syrion and Thyvalt entered close combat with the giant red demon, but seeing all its minions scattered it turned to flee, taking the dog demon with it. Seeing it injured and terrified the party decided discretion might be the better part of valour, and quickly halted pursuit. They stood on the edge of the road, panting and gasping in the lantern light, Syrion cursing a myriad cuts and small burns and Cog 11 leaning against a fence post, staring into the mist with wide dark eyes.

They moved on. The hell-hole beckoned, a green glow in the mist ahead.

Closer to the hell hole the mist was burnt away, revealing the creek bed limned in green light from the hell hole, over which loomed a scraggly willow tree. The willow tree and nearby bushes were cast into stark relief against the distant fog by the green light of the hole, which scintillated and purred in the shadows of the far creek bank, ominous and impure. As they approached a demon slunk out of the hole and into the mist, reality shimmering disturbingly as it hauled itself through the dimensions and into reality.

Syrion grunted and charged forward, his sword leaving a trail of sparks on the stones of the creek bed as he rushed in to guard the hole. Everyone else followed, trying to hold their fear at bay as they realised that the creek bed was now swarming with demons, materialising out of that hideous gap in space and time as the characters attacked. The two demons they had fought before came crashing through the brush of the far side of the creek to join the battle, as a hell hound and a green-skinned, spiky human-like thing popped out of the whole, stinking of sulphur and rot and snarling with anger. The green thing, the red winged monster and its dog-haired friend all attacked Syrion, determined this time to snuff him out; the hellhound struck at Thyvalt. Syrion, laying about him with his sword, yelled to Thyvalt and Ayn to begin the ritual, but they refused to leave him, and joined battle. Ayn called on her gods, who were apparently more terrified of demons than she, for they abandoned her and her flame pillars fizzled uselessly in the demonic mist. The great red thing took a vicious swipe at Lithvard, a blow so ferocious it would surely have killed the little druid, but Syrion stepped in at the last moment and took the brunt of it on one armoured shoulder, grunting as something important gave way inside his enormous chest. Somewhere a demon cast a spell, and Thyvalt began attacking Lithvard, useless in his confusion but a confusing threat nonetheless. While Lithvard struggled with Thyvalt to try and bring him back from darkness, the dog-haired demon turned on Syrion, halberd striking at shield and armour. Ayn continued to aid him, striking with her sword at any demon that came close enough, while Cog tried to ambush the big red thing and Syrion desperately fended off a cascade of monstrous blows. The demons were grinding them down, but somehow they fought them off. Syrion smashed the halberd-wielding dog-haired demon and Cog disembowelled the green-skinned thing, appearing out of the mist at its feet and gutting it from hip to hip. Thyvalt recovered from his confusion and he and Lithvard dispatched the others – just as a new beast, made entirely of mist and shadows, appeared from the deeps. Gasping with exhaustion, everyone turned on it and cut it to ribbons before it could even fully draw itself from the hole, and for a moment the creek bed was suffused with calm, a calm broken only by the gentle hissing, popping, groaning sound of dying demons dissolving and rotting and returning to their foul brood nests.

Time being suddenly on their side, Thyvalt and Ayn began the ritual. Thyvalt plunged his sword into the ground, and Ayn began chanting, clutching the sword and swaying from side to side, looking for all the world like a singing shade in her uniform of flowing black robes, dimly illuminated in the sickly green light of the hell-hole and swathed in mist. Lithvard noticed something about the tree and began to investigate it. While this was happening more demons started dragging themselves from the hole, and Syrion, Thyvalt and Cog set about the unpleasant business of slaughtering them as they came.

A grim and desperate battle followed, as new demons emerged from the hole only to be cut down by the three defenders, who began to suffer increasing damage from the claws and teeth of the fiends. Clouds gathered and mist began to swirl around the fixed point where the sword was embedded in the ground. The sword itself had begun to glow red hot, and Ayn was trembling and shaking in fear. Glowing glyphs appeared and hung in the air, shimmering in the mist, forming a tenuous pattern in the air around the sword. The ground began to rumble and the hell-hole grew gradually brighter, becoming so bright that the branches of the willow tree cast shadows on the overhanging clouds. As Syrion, Cog and Thyvalt fought on, Lithvard talked to the tree and Ayn chanted, and the glyphs began to pulse in unison. Ayn’s voice grew in strength, and she hurled an imprecation at the sky:

Thou shalt not envy the light, thou shalt not spread thy demonic blight.
Thou shalt not defile what is right
Thou shalt perish in the night

More demons began clambering from the hole, but now the mist and the overhanging clouds were beginning to be sucked into the hell-hole, stray tendrils at first and then larger, thicker strands of mist as the hell-hole began to swirl and groan. Syrion slew the last extant demon, and the demons crawling out of the whole began to waver, fighting now against some powerful force from below that gripped them and began to stretch them. They screamed and struggled, but to no avail – Ayn’s wrath had them now, and the sword was flaring up with purpose. The tree began to move under Lithvard’s guidance, its roots reaching out to curl around the whole and choke it off, entangling the emerging demons and drawing them back in, choking and breaking as it did so. Its branches grabbed arms and spines, tearing them off and beginning to seal up the hole. Demons screamed and the hole began to narrow, glowing brighter and roaring like the wind through doorway in winter. The tree roots tightened their grip, and horrible crunching sounds and screams resounded through the creek as the demons met their horrible end. Moments later, with an anti-climactic sigh and a blink, the whole was gone. Our heroes stood in an empty, darkened creek bed, blinking at the darkness and tripping over the roots of an old, hoary willow tree. The battle was over. They had prevailed!

Exhausted, they lowered their weapons. Syrion, covered in bruises and scratches, shoulder broken, battered beyond mortal endurance, sank down onto his shield and then, with a shudder, fell sideways, to lie on the dusty ground moaning and gasping. Ayn fell to her knees, shaking in terror at things only she had seen. Lithvard leaned against the tree, panting and muttering his thanks, while Thyvalt looked around in exhausted wonder. Cog 11 emerged from the mist, flicking demon ichor from his face and panting, though unhurt.

They had closed a hell-hole.

Somewhere far away, the hooded servant of a giant dragon approaches it, bows and speaks. “My lord, shall we execute the plan? All arrangements are in place.” The dragon moves its huge eye slowly, alien iris narrowing so that only the narrowest slit of black cut through the gold of the iris. “No,” it hissed, the very ground trembling at the restrained power of its mighty voice. “It is too late. The scent is gone.”

The characters knew nothing of these icons. They rested on the creek bed until some of them had  regained a little strength, and then carried Syrion back to the village. They emerged into the village square with the first light of dawn, Syrion still unconscious on a makeshift litter, groaning in pain and exhaustion.

They had closed a hell-hole. They had prevailed against all the forces of hell. What next for them? They could feel it moving now – some fate had them in its grip. Where would it take them, and what would become of them? Only time, and many adventures, would tell…

[I'm splitting the session report for Eroding Empire session 2 into two parts, because one was a large battle deserving of its own post]

At the end of the first session of the Eroding Empire, our heroes had just killed a brace of demons, but had suddenly realized that in the heat of battle they forgot to guard Thyvalt’s father. They dashed to his home, fearing the worst, but found him unharmed in his bed, trying to drag himself a little more upright. Once they had assured themselves of his safety, he declared “More will come!” and then whispered in aggrieved tones,

“They didn’t keep their word!”

Everyone stopped their fussing to look at him. Seeing he had an audience, he sagged back into his mattresses and said in a low voice, “Let me tell you a tale of treachery and hard choices, son.”

Many years ago, before Thyvalt was born, the village and its area experienced a terrible drought. For several seasons there was almost no rain, and in the second year the bad weather brought plagues of insects and rats. At first they thought the village could weather it; then they thought they could buy food from other towns like Tameron, but those towns began to sell food at too high a price. In the third year some of them left looking for work to support them until the drought broke, but they returned broken with tales of hardship and failure. After this they began to think that the town was doomed, and Thyvalt’s parents were considering leaving the village to find somewhere new to live when a strange woman came to the town, promising to restore the balance to the weather and replenish their fields. Her price was steep but they were desperate, so they agreed to pay it.

The woman invoked a ritual of fertility that was shocking and horrific, and so disturbing that though Thyvalt’s father remembers it as if it had just happened yesterday, he refused to speak of it to his son. Suffice to say it was a thing of horror. But it worked, and the villagers woke a day later to find the town’s fields and farms restored, a gentle and refreshing rain drifting over fertile land eager to be tilled. The woman left that same morning, and the villager’s counted their blessings … until they realized that she had opened a hellhole in the willowgrove down by the old creek. It was then that the monsters started to come …

Again, Thyvalt’s father groaned and whispered accusingly, “They didn’t keep their word!” But they had no time now to ask him more – out in the shadows they heard more demons howling. Another wave had come! Our heroes rushed to the door and looked out into the mist-shrouded night, to see more beasts gathering on the edge of the square. Realizing they couldn’t hope to make a stand all night against these creatures with an elderly man to protect, Syrion charged boldly across the open square to a large house on the far side, where the villagers had gathered together in false hope of safety in numbers. He banged on the door and raged until one of the bolder villagers slid a window open a tiny distance and, poking his nose out behind a knife, whispered a query. Syrion demanded that they let the old man in, and threatened to tear the building down around them if they did not comply. This doughty villager immediately agreed to Syrion’s request, and quickly slid the window shut. Gesturing madly to his fellows, Syrion moved into the middle of the open square to take a defensive position.

The others rolled Thyvalt’s father in a sheet and began shuffling across the square towards the house. As they reached Syrion a new horde of demons burst from the shadows to attack: 5 imps, a minotaur-like red-skinned demon, and a grey-skinned, winged thing that looked as if it had stepped straight from a picture book by that new-fangled Axis artist Dante. The imps spat some kind of gore that hit Cog 11 and made him retch, but before they could press the advantage Syrion was at the throat of the grey winged devil, slashing and hacking. Cog 11, hoping to make some distance towards the red-skinned bull demon, tried to slide under the old man in his sheet, which Thyvalt and Ayn were still carrying, but somehow tangled in the sheet and pulled the old man free. Thyvalt and Ayn, relieved of their burden, were now free to join the fight … was this a blunder of Cog 11′s, or some cunning plan to sacrifice the old man so as to guarantee the support of his allies …? Thyvalt, Ayn and Lithvard now began throwing spells at the demons, and Cog 11 slid into the mist to prepare an ambush. All of this frenzied activity happened under the continued barrage of toxic vomit from the little imp creatures, but their aim was poor in the darkness and mist and confusion, and they were forced to scatter under Thyvalt and Lithvard’s magical attacks. Ayn left Thyvalt’s supine father to fend for himself and made battle with the red bull-demon, which Cog-11 had ambushed to some effect, slicing it from hoof to groin.

After a few more moments of desperate struggle the tide turned. The final imp was scorched to death by a fire spear, icy hands appeared from the darkness to tear the red demon apart, and Syrion was able to kick the grey winged thing to the ground and decapitate it. The PCs’ battle cries, grunts and gasps fell still, and they stood in the mist panting and shaking, as the demon bodies suppurated and fumed into nothingness around them. But this time they had no time for congratulations or reflection – demons continued to gather, and they had an old man to protect. They gathered him up and carried him gently across the rest of the square, their ferocious victory having briefly quelled the demons’ appetite for blood. After only a minimum of banging and threats, the courageous villager opened the door to the house and ushered them in. They rushed in, depositing Thyvalt’s father by the fire, and stood to find the village’s full but tiny complement staring at them, as if they were the demons. Cog 11, looking around at them all, whispered to Syrion in a perhaps-too-audible voice, “Beat the elderly until they tell you what you need to know. I check defenses,” and disappeared to inspect the house. Thyvalt and Lithvard set about making Thyvalt’s father comfortable, while Ayn took guard at the door.

Cog 11 returned shortly to announce that the house was indefensible and vulnerable to fire. He may also have suggested forcing the villagers outside as a distraction so that the group could escape, though no one seemed to pay him any heed. Instead, they decided they would have to find and destroy the source of the demons – the hellhole. Thyvalt’s father told them the next instalment of his sad but predictable story of a contract gone bad.

After the woman left, the monsters came. Just a single little slimy thing at first, we killed it and thought it a strange beast. But then there were more, and soon we realized they were demons. What had we done? We paid this woman all our savings in good faith, and she gave us what we wanted at a price she knew we would pay with our lives!? At first the demons just terrorized our livestock, which we had saved at such cost … but soon they took the first of us, and our lives became a hell of furtive farming, occasional deaths, and night terrors.

Until the Crusader’s Knights came. They clattered into the village one evening just as we were returning, weary and wary, to our homes to begin the long, hard watch of the night. They rode huge black horses with fiery red eyes, their hooves striking sparks on our only cobbled road, the riders inscrutable in glyph-adorned armour of shining black. They rode into our square and cantered about it in a rough circle, whooping and hollering, and we were all sure that our time had come. We cowered in our houses, terrified at the form our death would come in. Would they torture us? Feed us to their fell horses? Or worse? But then their captain, a towering giant of a man, dismounted from his gigantic demon horse and strode up to my door. He banged on the door, declaring himself to be a captain of the Crusader’s Knights Eternal, and ordering me to open the door. Of course I did not, so he smashed it in with a word, and strode into my kitchen where I cowered against the bench.

And it was there, in that kitchen, that the deal was made. I don’t know if he chose me through chance or some evil purpose – perhaps someone needs some innate seed of evil that he can nurture, or perhaps I was just the closest door to his evil horse. No matter. He told me he would close the hellhole and destroy all the demons roaming our fields, but in exchange I would have to give up my first born son to the Crusader. Is this how that fell Icon recruits his servants? I confess I did not ask many questions – it was an offer I felt I could not refuse. I should have asked him to find and kill the woman, but I didn’t. Instead I just gave him you, my Thyvalt, though you were not yet born. He laughed, a booming, chilling sound with no humour in it, spat on his great palm and clasped my hand, promised me a long life and a good one, and strode out the door without looking back. And by morning the hellhole was closed and there were rotting piles of demon flesh scattered around our demesne. We never again saw the demons, and once we had summoned up the courage to go down to the willowgrove we saw it free of the hole that had been summoned there. We were saved. The following year you, my son, Thyvalt, were born, and lost to me the moment I saw you were a boy.

But I don’t regret having a child, even should you turn to evil. What I do regret is that I never bargained that blackhearted bastard into promising to close the hellhole permanently. He cheated me, and if you do enter the Crusader’s service I hope you can find him and extract payment!

So, our heroes have to do the job of 20 of the Crusader’s priests, by dawn. Fortunately, they were prepared. Thyvalt possessed a strange sword that he had received many years ago from his master but which he had always felt had some malevolent power contained in it. He also had a long history of fighting demons away in his sleep. Ayn was in close accord with the gods of War, Pestilence, Famine and Death – surely ready allies when a hellhole needs to be closed – and she was well versed in the mysteries of conjuring and abjuration, for her cult were steeped in ancient learning. If they could embed the sword in the hole, and fend off the demons while Ayn invoked the proper prayer, they might be able to close it. No one liked the thought of what would happen if they failed, out there on their own in the dark, but what choice did they have? They had to close it, so close it they would.

Between them, Ayn and Thyvalt put a magic circle around the building that would last until dawn. The group armed themselves, looked back on the terrified villagers, and stepped out into the darkness…

Over the past 15 years, Australia’s immigration debate has focused on whether “illegal” boat arrivals can be prevented by policies in the home country, or whether they are determined primarily by refugee flows in the countries of origin. This is broadly referred to as the debate about “push” versus “pull” factors in immigration. On the one hand, commentators (generally “conservative”) suggest that Australia’s “lax” immigration policies, and generous policies towards refugees, encourage people to try to come here. These “lax” policies seem to be primarily represented by the visa system, and so the Howard (“conservative”) government introduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which offer no guarantee of a long-term home – theoretically the holder of a TPV will be required to return home when their national situation stabilizes. This seems hardly likely to be a deterrent given that the national situation in nations like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka doesn’t stabilize over periods of less than a decade, but a deterrent it is believed to be. Other policies are often seen as part of this process of reducing “pull” factors – offshore processing, reduction of benefits (a big issue in the UK, where asylum seekers cannot get any benefits or access the NHS), restrictions on family reunions, etc. Of course, all of these policies are predicated on the idea that in amongst this flood of refugees is a certain non-trivial proportion of people who are not “genuine” refugees, and that for some reason these people need to be weeded out and prevented from “taking advantage” of our “generous” systems.

On the other hand, some commentators (generally “left wing”) suggest that immigration flows are primarily driven by the situation in the countries where people come from, and desperate people are largely unconcerned about the policies of the countries they are fleeing to. Under this “push” philosophy, people flood out of their home country when everything goes to shit, and the policies of the countries they’re heading to don’t amount to more than a temporary impediment. Basically under this model a bunch of people from Syria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar have been heading away, and some of them have got trapped in Malaysia and Indonesia. From there they dribble out on boats to Australia, and Australia’s specific processing and visa policies aren’t relevant because people will do remarkable things when the alternative is either dying in their homeland or rotting in a transit camp in intermediary countries.

Unfortunately, the truth of this battle – which to Australians is important, because we’re the 8th richest country in the world, so it would be a disaster to us if a couple of thousand people took advantage of our hospitality – is difficult to resolve in the Australian context. National visa and asylum seeker management policy has changed frequently, but drivers of refugee flow have changed separately in a complex way: the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq has ebbed and flowed, wars have sprung up in Syria and Libya, the war in Sri Lanka flared up and came to an end, and the situation in Myanmar and Pakistan is complex and unknowable. Furthermore, at various times the Australian government’s policies of direct intervention against boats – turning them back, or leaving them to drift against international maritime law, or sending the SAS to raid boats that rescued refugees – has changed. Currently the government refuses to report numbers of arrivals or boats turned back, so it’s impossible to assess the success of the current policy. So the debate in Australia – and let’s face it, knowing whether these people are trying to take advantage is far more important than helping them – has been difficult to resolve.

This week the Guardian had an article describing how refugee flows have changed in Europe, and this article – if true – gives some further information about the relative importance of push vs. pull factors. The situation in Europe is dire, and dwarfs Australia’s refugee “problem”, and the level of human catastrophe also dwarfs the situation that the Australian Prime Minister was crying crocodile tears about while in opposition – hundreds of people drown at a time on a regular basis in the Mediterranean. From the clinical standpoint of trying to answer the oh-so-important question of whether they’re all grafters, Europe is a much more useful experimental setting, because it involves multiple countries with multiple different policies on asylum and refugee management. The refugees are targeting France, Italy and Greece, and they have been coming overland and by sea. Since Greece built a wall more have been coming by sea, and the numbers have exploded since the war in Syria – 350 in 2012 compared to 7000 in 2013 – and these refugees are targeting several countries that, as far as I can tell, haven’t changed their migration and asylum-seeker handling policies at all. It’s also worth noting that the mediterranean doesn’t have any interim processing centres – people flee straight to the reception countries – whereas Australia is the target of people spilling over from processing centres in Indonesia and Malaysia. So presumably Europe’s experience measures actual changes in flow, rather than changes in interim processing centres. The UN is proposing processing centres to handle the huge numbers and reduce the appalling fatalities at sea, but no one appears to be proposing changes in European policy that would “discourage” asylum seekers – neither is anyone proposing resettling them all on a malaria-ridden remote island where they can riot at their leisure without being filmed. Uncivilized brutes, those Europeans. But this lack of “deterrent” measures is not new, yet the flow has changed – at just the time that the west is also receiving reports of new brutalities in Syria, and the collapse of the rebel efforts there.

I take the events in Europe as strong evidence for the “push” theory of refugee flows. That isn’t to say that changing “pull” factors wouldn’t affect these flows, but given there is literally nowhere else for these people to go (except Australia?) it seems unlikely they’d make a difference. The European experience confirms my suspicion that refugee flows are primarily determined by what is happening in the origin country, not by the policies of the destination countries. Which, unless we can find a way to stop the chaos happening in the middle east[1], is going to mean accepting that we need to start accepting more refugees, and preparing for bigger flows in the future. An unlikely political outcome, at best …

 

fn1: I wonder if not supporting insurgencies might be a good start?

Never stood a chance ...

Never stood a chance …

Today while looking up a picture of a Tarrasque  I found this entertaining and excellent post on how to kill a Tarrasque (hat tip to the blogger at cataloguing shadows). This Tarrasque-slaying thought experiment has some really excellent ideas about how to do it – my favourite is the plan to create simulacra of the Tarrasque and have it be killed by itself, but the scheme of equipping 50 first level fighters with +5 longbows, polymorphing them into Annis Hags (wtf?!) and then relying on natural 20s to kill the Tarrasque is pretty funny, as are the convoluted tricks required to get the Tarrasque to drown by swallowing 100 tons of iron and falling into a massive pool of water (created by the PC, of course).

This excursion into creative use of magic reminded me of my past discussions of post-scarcity fantasy, and how strange it is that the D&D universe is predicated on a mediaeval style of living, because such a style just would not exist in a world where magic was available. In the linked post, a single wizard can build a huge pool of water, move a river, and create 100 tons of iron; or he or she can give 50 men the power to fly and slay a monster that can eat villages; but somehow all this occurs in a world that hasn’t solved the challenge of disease, manual labour or rapid transportation. This just doesn’t make sense, does it? If the same effort of creative spell use were put to work on solving the world’s problems, they would be fixed almost overnight.

Consider the simulacrum trick in the Tarrasque-slaying guide. Very cunning. Now suppose that a single 28th-level mage exists in the world, and that mage wants to do good. That mage can cast simulacrum twice per day, so she does so – on herself. The two resulting simulacrum are 14th level, and can also cast simulacrum twice per day. They do so – on her, producing four more 14th level mages. These mages produce eight, and so on. Within a couple of weeks there will be a horde of 14th level wizards – all capable of casting, amongst other things, Permanency, Soften Earth, Move Earth and other major spells that can be used to significantly reshape environments. Enough of them working together could power a major power plant with Wall of Fire and Wall of Ice spells; there’s almost nothing they can’t achieve working together in this way. And these are permanent – so as soon as a single wizard reaches 28th level, anywhere in the world, your society can produce an almost infinite supply of 14th level wizards to solve any problem magic can be thrown at. Note how this also applies to reproducing high-level clerics: Heal is a 6th level spell, so as soon as a single Cleric reaches 22nd level, anywhere in the kingdom, all those 14th level wizards who have been created by simluacrum can be sent a lock of his hair or a nail clipping, and every town can be supplied with a simulacrum Cleric capable of healing any affliction affecting anyone in town. Even the XP problem is not hard to overcome: creating a single 14th level Simulacrum of the 28th level Wizard plus a single 11th level Simulacrum of the Cleric will cost each wizard a total of 4600 experience points, not enough to cause them to lose enough levels to lose the Simulacrum spell (for this they need to lose two levels); so each wizard can produce a new simulacrum before they lose their 13th level, and thus produces more wizards than the xp loss will penalize them for.

To give a sense of how powerful this effect is, there are currently 1,200,000 babies born in Japan (in a population of 120 million) every year. At pre-industrial levels of infant mortality, perhaps 10% of these will die. That’s 400 a day. It would take much less than one year to produce enough simulacrum clerics to prevent every baby in Japan from dying, i.e. after one year of generating simulacrum clerics, Japan’s infant mortality rate would be reduced to zero. In the process the world would have generated about 400 14th level wizards, capable of huge works of infrastructure construction. Each of those clerics can also heal disease, and any baby they failed to save can be brought back from the dead the next day using Raise Dead (in essence meaning that those 400 clerics can handle three fatal births every day, so are able to support a population of 360 million at Japanese birth rates).

This also means that as soon as any wizard anywhere on the planet reached 28th level, they would be able to create an army of 14th level wizards. Within a year, probably they could produce a couple of thousand without exceeding food supplies. Of course food supplies could be solved by creating simulacra of an 8th level Cleric at a rate of one per three wizards (and the cleric doesn’t have to be willing!). The 28th level Wizard would then be able to set up two teleportation circles and send the entire army anywhere in the world. Imagine that – you’re sitting on your throne, looking over your army of 10,000 soldiers, and then an army of 1000 wizards and 300 clerics pops out of thin air, dominates the first 1000 soldiers and sets them to slaughtering the next 1,000, then drops 1000 fireballs on the rest of your army. Then the wizard leader comes through, dominates you and takes over your kingdom. The wizards that die get replaced in a few days by the living ones, who simply cast simulacrum on the wizard leader. Rinse and repeat!

Of course, these kinds of silly scenarios are a consequence of the impossibility of magic, which essentially breaches the laws of conservation of energy. But it’s a sign of the paucity of thought in the fantasy world that these powers are seen in isolation from the society in which they’re embedded, and very little thought goes into the moral and social consequences of living in a world where basic problems of human existence can be solved with a word. There’s a strange contradiction here: as gamers we want to play characters in a world of high magic, of lightning bolts and fire balls and healing; but we want this setting to be somehow mediaeval, despite the fact that almost every problem of mediaeval life would have been eradicated. It’s as if the setting is fundamentally contradictory to the mechanism of that setting. Perhaps this is why so many fantasy settings are predicated on huge inequality, out of touch elites and ignorant, cowering peasants: not just because this is the environment we envisage magic developing in, but because the only way magic can be prevented from turning our gaming world into a conflict-free utopia is if the general population are prevented from ever experiencing its benefits by heirarchies of oppression.

And I think it’s a sign of the conservative and stunted nature of the genre that after 40 years of D&D, this contradiction hasn’t been resolved. I wonder if it ever will?

Be careful going outside in London, there’s foreigners everywhere

There are millions of undocumented asylum seekers in this country

Maybe you didn’t feel welcome in London because they don’t want more foreigners there?

Once David Cameron’s elected, them blacks’ll get what’s comin’ to ‘em

Your new girlfriend’s not aboriginal is she?

You’re not English, you’re British

What race is your friend?

Enoch Powell was right you know!

These are the kinds of things my family and friends have been saying about immigration and race in the UK for as long as I can remember. By “family” I mean not just my immediate family, but also the extended family – uncles, Aunts, grandparents and cousins – and all of the family friends I have ever met. Most of my family and their friends now vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), but they used to be classic Tory working class. They’re indicative of the political groundswell that is lifting UKIP up in the polls, and are the reason this new and toxic party came first in the European elections a week ago. If ever it occurs to you to naively wonder why it is that so many UKIP candidates get caught out posting terrible things on social media, just have a look at what my family and their friends – almost all UKIP voters – think of race and immigration. Is it any wonder their representatives have some hairy ideas?

My family are pretty much entirely lower working-class or lumpen proles. My father left school at 15, my mother at 13 (I think); my Grandfather was a Spanish refugee (oh the irony!) who left home at 15 to fight fascism; I was the first person in my entire extended family to get a university education, and probably also the first person in my entire extended family to complete a higher school certificate (my brother got O levels rather than A levels, and only just scraped them in). My father was a tradesman, until he lost his job and spent the remaining 10 years of his working age collecting benefits (and fraudulently using them to pay for a mortgage on a trailer park home, against the housing benefit rules, while complaining about foreigners cheating welfare). Most of the rest of my family are unskilled labourers or tradespeople. They should therefore be the natural constituency of Labour, but their unpleasant views on race make them natural victims of parties like UKIP. My father believes everything he reads in the Daily Mail (he lives in terror of gypsies paving his yard in the night and then presenting him with the bill in the morning), and basically my entire extended family have been slowly seduced into voting against their economic interests by appeals to their racial biases. As an example of how they vote against their interests, my father has a lifelong disability brought about by polio, but he sneers at people with disabilities campaigning for their “human rights” (his quote marks, not mine) even though these people are the reason he has special disability benefits and parking rights. He has always refused to join a union because “they don’t do anything for me” but then he was sacked and blackballed by his employer, so he couldn’t work anywhere in the city where he lived – and then he asked the union if they could help him with legal action (they said no, somewhat unsurprisingly). This is the quality of my extended family – always wanting certain socialised benefits, but refusing to share in the responsibilities and costs of those socialised benefits, and as people like them slowly undermine the strength of the shared social systems they rely on, blaming foreigners for the resulting degradation in public services and benefits.

It is my opinion that the modern leaders of both major British political parties are too shallow and too caught in their own little bubble to understand how people like my parents think. As a result they cannot understand why these people are drifting away from the major parties to the lunacy that is UKIP. I think Margaret Thatcher understood these people – it was her understanding of this class of people that enabled her to construct what is now referred to as the “Tory working class vote” in the first place – and her political opponents from before Blair also saw how these people think, but failed to stop the drift away from class-based solidarity to race-based solidarity. The modern Conservative party is dominated by young Bullingdon club economic radicals, who have absolutely no conception of what it is like to even be a grocer’s daughter, let alone to be an unemployed typesetter living in a trailer park. The modern Labour party is dominated by political lifers, who may mean well (a difficult proposition to support when one looks at the 10-year-long mistake that was Tony Blair) but have no idea how the working class they are supposed to support really think. The few remnants of old labour still left in the party – people like John Prescott – are far out of touch with the modern working class after years of snorting cocaine off of babies’ bottoms in Blair’s cabinet, and their response to UKIP’s rise has been to fall back on 50-year-old concepts of economic protectionism.

In the face of this choice – between obviously out of touch Bullingdon toffs and a clique of political apparatchiks to a vampire – is it any wonder that UKIP have been able to make such gains with the Tory working class? With a complete lack of trust in the political system, having been levered away from an class consciousness during Thatcher’s era, but left rudderless with only their racial consciousness to guide them, the class of British people my family are drawn from are natural targets for UKIP. Labour had 10 years to get these people back into the fold, through restoration of the industrial economy, improvements in benefits and efforts to reduce inequality – practical solutions to the living cost and economic challenges consuming this class of people – but instead they focused on being “intensely comfortable about people being incredibly rich” and were too busy sucking up to the banking industry to bother looking at the little people.

So now both political parties are waking up to realise that a sizeable proportion of the votes they thought they could rely on are drifting away, following the lure of Farage’s racist anger. Both parties have lost the knowledge of how these drifting voters think and what they are worried about, and both parties are unwilling to face a central fact: that these voters they are losing are deeply, unpleasantly racist. This is the party whose leader referred to non-white voters as “Nig-nogs” and whose representatives have a disturbing habit of being caught out saying genuinely horrible things on Facebook – but no one in the leadership of either of the mainstream parties seems to have considered that this might be related to the success of the party. Until they do, they aren’t going to be able to craft a strategy to deal with UKIP’s central anti-immigration theme. How can they? So long as they keep fooling themselves into thinking that the average UKIP voter is a non-racist person with genuine but misguided concerns about European workers taking his job, they aren’t going to get anywhere. Because these people are deeply racist, and race is what is driving their vote. They don’t like foreigners, they don’t want them in the UK, and if foreigners are to come here they want clear assurances that their stay will be temporary, they will be treated badly and paid worse and they will never be given the same rights as the “indigenous” population. If David Cameron doubts that, I recommend he spend 10 minutes trying to discuss labour market reform with my Grandmother.

This also means that the debate about whether to call Farage a racist is irrelevant. UKIP voters aren’t offended by being called racist – they revel in it. My father doesn’t start a conversation with “I’m not racist but …” – he is deeply past that kind of self-equivocation. He refers to black people as “niggers” and starts conversations with proud declarations of his own racism. The inferiority of non-whites is a simple and accepted fact in my extended family. Worrying about whether these people will be offended by being called something they proudly claim for themselves is really angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff. The mainstream parties are going to have to do better than that.

And the truth is, I don’t think they can. A large minority of British people don’t want to be part of Europe, and another large portion don’t care either way. A lot of British people want foreigners out. They were willing to vote Tory or Labour despite the incongruence of their aims and the parties’ aims, because they still trusted those parties, and UKIP was not yet a national force. But now that UKIP has begun to be taken seriously, making consistent electoral gains, an in the wash-up of the financial crisis (which destroyed Labour’s credibility) and the expenses scandal (which tainted both parties irrevocably), the stranglehold of the major parties on the neck of the average British racist prole has been broken. I don’t think they’re going to get those people back, and they should be counting their blessings that it’s only UKIP, not BNP that is benefiting from 20 years of mainstream parties’ stupidity.

In the short term I think Labour will be the major beneficiaries of this trend to vote 1 on race. Labour has a natural constituency based on unionism and class issues that the Tories lack, and the Tory vote has been declining for years. Tory success at the polls has relied on some crafty dog-whistling to ensure that some proportion of the working class vote is prized away from Labour, and they have done this through race (see e.g. their broken promise to keep immigration at 100000 a year). These voters they pry loose from Labour on that basis are fair-weather friends, and will easily be drawn away by a credible racist alternative – and now that alternative is here. Even if UKIP don’t win a single seat at the next general election, they’re going to completely screw up the Tories’ electoral strategy, and I don7t think a more openly racist Tory campaign will save them – nobody believes them on European issues anymore, and since they have consistently failed to meet their pledge to reduce immigration, nobody thinks they’re going to do what they say they will. This is going to make Labour’s task much easier at the next election, but if UKIP don’t implode after that then I suspect Labour will face increasing difficulties in the future. The tide has turned. The racist genie is out of its box, and now there isn’t much either of the main parties can do. Unless Labour can find a way to return the political conversation to a genuine, strong position on inequality and complete reform of the British economy to benefit the poorest and the working class – regardless of what happens in Europe – then both mainstream parties are going to be left desperately hoping that UKIP implodes. If it doesn’t, the tories are toast, and unless they can find a visionary to lead them through this challenging new landscape, my guess is that Labour will have to return to 1950s-style anti-European protectionism.

It’s possible that UKIP may win everything they want without ever winning a seat in parliament … simply by dominating the conversation. This is what happens when the working class vote for their racial interests over their class interests. Let’s hope that this madness remains confined to the UK, because it isn’t pretty to watch and let me assure you, you do not want my extended family’s racist imaginings  being treated as a serious policy framework …

I have previously written about the difficulty of accurately understanding the issue of sex trafficking, and attempted to point out the conflicted political goals and deceptive tactics of some of the key activists and organizations in the movement against sex trafficking. I wrote these posts in connection with my argument that radical feminist critiques of sex work are fundamentally anti-woman, and observed that they often employ the power of a fundamentally patriarchal state apparatus to enforce their “radical” goals. Recently, a scandal has exploded around one of the US poster-boys for the anti-trafficking movement, Nic Kristoff, author of the anti-sex work screed Half the Sky and pro-sweatshop campaigner.

It turns out that one of the main anti-trafficking activists upon whom Kristoff’s campaign depended, Somaly Mam, turns out to be a fraud: Newsweek has a long and detailed expose of her false claims to have been abused, along with tales about how she trained the children in her care to lie about their experiences for western media, in order to secure funds and political support. Salon has an article suggesting Kristoff knew about these lies, and played a key role in boosting the tall stories being told in order to support the fund-raising efforts of various NGOs (and of course, to boost his own credentials as a rescuer of poor women from developing nations). This article points out that many women “rescued” by NGOs like Mam’s end up working in the garment industry, and are not allowed to talk about their pay and conditions with visiting journalists. Sounds like trafficking, no? The Newsweek article quotes researching pointing out that the number of children trafficked into sex work in Cambodia is likely tiny, and that most adult women working in the industry also are there voluntarily. Of course, these women are “choosing” sex work in the context of a poor nation with few employment alternatives for uneducated women – and one of the main alternatives is the hard, exhausting and sometimes dangerous option of working in the garment industry – an industry, we should remember, that Kristoff writes articles in support of, and that “rescue” NGOs supply “rescued” sex workers to.

Kristoff is, of course, famous for this sick and disturbing tale of having “bought” two sex workers from their “owner” in Cambodia. Consider the final paragraph of this tale, which shows both a callous disregard for the actual economic and social prospects of women from developing nations, and a cynical contempt for their personal choices:

So now I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We’ll see.

 Do you think that many slaves would “slink back to slavery” after they were freed by the underground railway in pre-civil war America? No, probably not. What kind of language is being deployed here, that a commentator would honestly think people liberated from slavery would “slink” back to it? This is disgusting language, and it shows the way in which Kristoff instrumentalizes women and girls in his quest to prove himself morally superior – even as he defends an industry that is renowned for its labour abuses.
Following up on these revelations, the New York Times (Kristoff’s employer) has an excellent article about the difficulties of activism in this field. This article quotes one activist from Cambodia criticizing journalistic endeavours in these nations:
You show the face of the mother, who is so poor that she has to sell her daughter for money? How does this help the daughter or mother? It doesn’t. It helps the NGO to make money.
This is what people like Somaly Mam were doing. It’s worth also reading the comments of the Salon and NY Times articles, which contain detailed and thoughtful comments by activists working in the field who have been waiting for Kristoff’s bubble to burst. They are highly critical of efforts to outlaw sex work, and of the role of the US State Department in encouraging violent crackdowns on “traffickers” that inevitably end up harming sex workers, and these activists instead encourage the development of labour unions and sex worker organizations similar to those operating in Thailand. Of course, a campaigner for sweatshops has zero interest in supporting unionization, which history shows us is the only way workers in the garment industry have ever been able to protect themselves from terrible abuse. A person who supports sweatshops and campaigns against sex work must have seen enough of both industries to know that one pays considerably more than the other – is it any wonder that his response to the industry that pays more is to try and break it up on moral grounds, and to oppose any political response based on labour organization, which is the historical enemy of the industry he supports? No, it is not.
This is what lies behind the anti-trafficking movement, and all too often those who work to criminalize the broader sex industry use the “sex trafficking problem” as their entry-level argument against the entire industry. As these articles show, the effects of this activism on ordinary women voluntarily involved in sex work can be ferocious, not to mention the damage done to women “rescued” from trafficking by these unscrupulous organizations. When contemplating what “should be done” about sex work, the best option is first and foremost to ask the women who work in the industry – not rich white journalists or NGOs who claim to have a simple solution to a moral problem. Because where sex work is concerned, those people will turn out to be liars, and they do not have the interests of poor women and girls at heart.
We should have seen this coming...

We should have seen this coming…

Today I stumbled on a discussion of a cute little modeling paper, that opened my eyes to a whole world of modeling I didn’t know was happening. The discussion was at the blog Resource Crisis, and it concerned a paper which uses a relatively simple predator-prey model (a Lotka-Volterra model, in other words) to model civilization collapse. The paper can be read here. Apparently it caused a bit of a stir, attracting a write-up in the Guardian and subsequent controversy for having been called a NASA-funded study. The model in the paper has been derided by some as just another piece of Malthusian silliness, but the really interesting aspects of the model arise from the model processes where it does not predict Malthusian outcomes: instead, under some conditions, this model predicts civilization collapse without exhaustion of natural resources, i.e. the social structures in this model bring about collapse without necessarily exhausting resources. This arises from social inequality in the model, in which a small class of elites live parasitically off  of a large population of labourers. Some commentators have related the model to global warming (see e.g. the picture in the Guardian article) but I don’t think the model is intended to talk about this. It appears from discussion within and outside the paper that the main interest is in modelling civilization collapses of the past which came about despite abundant wealth and resources: especially, Rome and the Mayan empire.

The model is a fairly simple one and the paper relatively easy to read, along with a very large number of references to similar work in the field. The basic idea is to set out two resource stocks, one natural and the other accrued as time passes. Nature regenerates at a fixed rate, and the human population is assumed to have a carrying capacity above which it is no longer sustainable, but unlike in classic predator prey models with a carrying capacity, humans can live off their accrued wealth when they pass the carrying capacity. Wealth is built by one class of humans (called “commoners” in the model paper) but the wealth is controlled by another, smaller class, called “elites.” These elites give the commoners a subsistence level of wealth, and retain the remainder. Mortality among humans is set by a base rate that modifies according to whether the population is above the carrying capacity threshold, and by access to wealth. Mortality reaches its maximum once wealth is exhausted, but the thresholds for mortality to begin increasing are different for commoners and elites, and they have different consumption rates. Basically the model assumes a fairly nasty imperial society, in which elites control wealth and ensure that once past the carrying capacity it is the poor who suffer first.

The authors then divide societies into three types: Egalitarian, in which there are no elites; Equitable, in which there are elites but equal consumption rates; and Inequitable, in which the elites have different consumption rates. The first two societies suffer collapse, but generally only through resource depletion. The interesting situation is what the authors call “Type-L collapse,” wherein the population of commoners dies out, wealth stops being produced, and then the elite population collapses, even though natural resources have not been depleted. This is visible in Figure 6a of the paper, and leads to an interesting scenario in which natural resources recover but neither population does. This, the authors argue, is a replication of the Mayan collapse. The authors also point out that this collapse happens when the society is at the peak of its wealth and power, and the elites are still growing in size. There is a period of plateauing total wealth, in which the amount of wealth created and consumed are equal. The charts in the paper show net wealth, but of course from the perspective of the people within the society wealth would appear to be growing, since an increasing population of elites consuming wealth at 100x the rate of the commoners must mean that gross wealth (before consumption effects) is growing rapidly. So from within society it looks like a period of unparalleled success and wealth, but it is actually the beginning of the end.

I was struck by the thought that this may already be happening in some countries not through death but through emigration. Thinking of the state of emigration from Nepal and Mexico, for example, it seems that these are countries with high inequality and large population outflows – perhaps they are on the cusp of such a disaster. The obvious example is North Korea, where the elites are sucking the common population dry without any regard for restoring natural resources. Of course in a connected world it is difficult for a single nation to collapse, since they can trade their way out of disaster (though perhaps, over time, this trade forces them into poverty and acts as a natural brake on further exploitation of the natural world). The bigger example is the earth as a whole, but I don’t think that this is a realistic model for the earth as a whole. The only global environmental problem so serious that it could lead to a major extinction event is, in my opinion, global warming, and this is not a resource depletion problem, nor is it necessarily related to inequality. It’s perfectly possible to wipe ourselves out through global warming without much affecting the overall stock of natural resources at all. In fact, the conditions given in the paper for achieving equilibrium are being partially achieved, with the likelihood of population stabilizing at around 9 billion. The second condition – of reducing inequality below some threshold level – may also be achieved once the low-income nations are lifted out of poverty, which Bill Gates seems to think will happen in a generation. So I think this model is more apt for societies of bygone eras, when people were less connected and more vulnerable to resource depletion, due to having access to a smaller range of resources, and less knowledge with which to change technologies as their component resources exhausted, and when in additional to relative inequality, the absolute poverty of the commoners was so great as to make them fatally vulnerable to any sudden reduction in wealth. Although these models are obviously analogous to what could happen to the whole of earth, I think it’s difficult to claim that they apply given the huge range of possibilities for resource consumption and adaptation on the planet as a whole. Still, as cautionary tales they’re interesting, and I think it’s safe to say that we’re at a point in our ecological history where careful custodianship of natural resources will always be a good idea.

As an interesting aside, one of the blog posts connected with this discussion led me to a blog post criticizing the story of Easter Island as portrayed in Jared Diamond’s Collapse. In Diamond’s version of the Easter Island story – which was apparently the mainstream scientific view until just about 10 years ago – the Islanders brought on their own destruction through poor ecological management, but it seems that the opposite is true: they were good custodians of their land, despite deforestation brought on by rats they accidentally brought with them, and their population collapse was actually the fault of western visitors bringing disease. The soil erosion the island is famous for was the fault of 100 years of sheep-farming by Chilean colonists who also brutalized the local population. Jared Diamond responds to the criticisms on the same blog, but his response is frankly a little mean-spirited and unreasonable. This response is in turn met with a blistering critique by his two most trenchant critics, and although I know nothing about archaeology and anthropology, I was certainly impressed by the thoroughness of their response. The truth of this story is heartening on many levels: it indicates that humans can live sustainably with much less knowledge than we currently possess, in very fragile environments, without major conflict. This debate also shows how pernicious and far-reaching the early racist colonial interpretations of history and anthropology could be, with sensationalist and incorrect fables about the Easter Islanders still being carried through academia 100 years later. Anyone who has read Jared Diamond’s books knows that this particular debate – about the relationship between ecology and human social collapse – is not merely academic, with some recent events such as the massacres in Rwanda being slated home to ecological problems, and the obvious bigger environmental issue of how to live together on this earth without destroying it. It’s sad to see someone of Diamond’s calibre and reputation being misled by racist and colonialist stories from 100 years ago, and drawing wrong conclusions about our environmental vulnerabilities as a result.

Anyway, I was fascinated to see simple predator-prey models being used to model civilization collapse, and collapse due to inequality rather than resource depletion, at that. It’s also interesting to note that a lot of the major collapses in history seem to have been driven by inequality rather than simple resource depletion. And interesting that these models should spark debate just at a time when an influential new book is putting forward the idea that modern capitalism is structurally designed to increase inequality (here I am referring to Piketty of course). It doesn’t bode well for the future, does it? These models are fundamentally too simple and limited to describe the risks facing the planet as a whole (which I do not believe are first and foremost resource depletion issues), but the finding that collapse can happen without resource depletion in the presence of inequality is fascinating, and food for thought for those people who think that inequality is only a social justice issue. It’s for the species, Rico!

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