Spare the lash and victory can be yours ...

Spare the lash and victory can be yours …

Having scouted the immediate vicinity of their landing point, our heroes needed to prepare to storm the ziggurat, which would mean taking on guards in two distant towers, and whatever soldiers were huddled in the main part of the compound.

The safest approach appeared to be splitting the party, and this is what they decided to do. Dean sneaked into the powerplant, while Ryan slipped away to the opposite end of the ziggurat to approach its guard tower, and Thorne ran around the base of the ziggurat for no apparent purpose except the joy of the miasmic air.

Dean’s stealthy incursion was successful; he was able to sneak into the base of the powerplant, climb some stairs to a high room that was clearly the control room, and confirm that it was a nuclear plant. From there he found a gantry that led joined the control room to one of the two watchtowers. He slipped into the watchtower when the two occupants weren’t looking and crept through a doorway that led inside the ramparts of the ziggurat. Here a narrow corridor led right through the ramparts to an observatory that overlooked the outer slope of the ziggurat, and the grim cloud of the miasma. On the left side of this narrow corridor was a door, through which Dean could hear a group of people arguing about a plan…

Voice 1: I say we use the negotiating tactic. There are too many to fight. We can send our last captive back with a message, then meet them and tell them to give us what we want. They’ll do it, they always do.

Voice 2: This community is big though, Marionetta, too big … they likely have warships, they might be able to hit us harder than we can handle if they know we’re here.

Voice 1: Not if they can’t see us, they can’t do –

Voice 3 [interrupting]: What if they have radar or satellite? They might work it out. A couple of lucky shells from a big warship and we lose the plant. Plus we only have the one captive, we’re running out and we need to drain that one or we’re going to be naked.

Voice 2: I agree. We roll the swarm over them and hit them quietly while they’re fighting it. They have a big ecosystem, they’ll throw everyone and everything at defending it. While they’re trying to protect themselves we slip in, grab everything we can and get out. They won’t even guess where we came from, and we’ll be safe.

Voice 1: But they’re big, we can get them to give over more than we can take … more food, more women, more than we need … it’s a big chance …

Voice 4: Okay folks, I got some draining to do, I’m out. We can figure this out over dinner. Keep tight …

[Various voices indicating assent and farewell]

Dean, realizing he might be caught at the door, slipped away into the observatory. No one emerged from the door, but he decided discretion was the better part of valour and ducked out of one of the observatory windows, creeping around the outside of the ziggurat to return to his colleagues.

Ryan had not been so successful, however. He drew close enough to the watchtower to see that it held two guards, but as he was assessing their position one saw him and opened fire with a sniper rifle; the other began ringing a bell. Ryan was forced to slip away fast into the mist, keeping low to avoid bullets that would carve him open through his weak sharkskin armour, and returned hastily to where Crimson waited. Realizing that the alarm had been raised, they peered over the ramparts and saw a gang of 6 men running out of the aircraft sections towards the watchtower where Ryan had been seen. It was time to act …

As this scouting had been happening, Thorne had run halfway around the base of the ziggurat, youthful exuberance carrying him forward faster than commonsense could catch up. He passed a trio of boat ramps, with three boats hitched up high on the ramps and connected by winches to the top of the rampart. Passing through this he ran on until he came to another boat ramp, upon which a huge dead jellyfish was beached. Three men stood on the far side of the jellyfish, near a cart of some kind that was full of jellyfish parts and waiting to be winched up the ramp. Thorne seized the moment of surprise, sneaking up behind them and grabbing a long, thick jellyfish stinger from inside the cart. Appearing around the edge of the cart, he whipped this at the nearest man, whose back was turned. It slapped all across the man’s back and over his shoulder, but he simply flicked it off irritably, and turned around to see where it had come from. Somehow these men were immune to jellyfish! Instead of falling paralyzed and screaming to the ground Thorne’s target charged forward to attack. One grabbed a boathook while the other two charged in with knives, but they were no match for Thorne’s savagery, and soon he had beaten all three to death. From there he crept up the boat ramp toward the ramparts. Here he found a small building that contained a biodiesel fermenter of some kind – clearly these people had found a way to convert dead and rotting jellyfish into biodiesel. Thorne was investigating when he heard the bell ringing, and wandered off to see what the fuss was about. However, he emerged from the mist at the wrong point, and the men in the watchtower opened fire on him. The 6 guards that Crimson and Ryan had seen charging up the ramparts now turned and chased after Thorne, who decided now might be a good time to return to his colleagues. He turned and fled back the way he had come.

The watchtower battle

Ryan, Leviathan and Crimson waited for Dean to return to them and then all four slipped down the ramparts and into the powerplant. They passed through the control room with the intention of reentering the watchtower unobserved, but as Crimson opened the door to the gantry someone above fired at him – they had been seen by the guards in the watchtower. They had to charge across to the watchtower under fire, but once inside they fixed the problem quickly with a well-thrown grenade. Dean climbed up into the watchtower itself, taking possession of a sniper’s rifle and using it to fire across at the sniper on the other watchtower. The mist and distance confounded him though, and he and the sniper in the far tower exchanged pointless shots.

Down below in the tower Leviathan, Crimson and Ryan were attacked by three of the leaders that Dean had heard in the inner room. These three were a huge, heavily-armoured man carrying an old-fashioned glaive; a small and fast-moving man with a knife; and a lean, vicious-looking woman with no weapons at all. The battle was short and brutal, with Crimson delaying the armoured man while Dean fired crossbow bolts at the other two, Leviathan tried to kill the smaller man and Ryan tried to avoid being killed. They were starting to win, the armoured man badly hurt and the little man dying, when the woman dropped a grenade at her feet, obviously intending to kill everyone in the room. Everyone managed to dive out of doorways and avoid the worst of the blast, but were still hurt. Fortunately the explosion ended the battle, and they were able to pick over the woman’s splattered remains for a key. With this key they opened a door to an armoury just inside the doorway, and found a heavy machine gun with 30 rounds of ammunition. Dean and Leviathan took this up to the watchtower and returned to a futile engagement with the sniper in the far tower, while down below Crimson and Ryan explored the complex of rooms inside the ramparts.

Desperate science

The first room opened into a kind of conference chamber, where Dean had previously heard the leaders conferring. At one end of the room was a large screen, that showed a static view of a laboratory. As they watched, a man appeared on the screen and saw them! For a moment they stared at each other, and then the man uttered a stream of profanities and dashed out of the room he was in. The screen must have been linked to some remote part of the complex, and the remaining leader was now aware that the game was up. They rushed inside the ramparts to find a way to get to him, but couldn’t find anything, and soon returned to the watchtower. At this point Thorne rejoined them, having given his six pursuers the slip through a tunnel in the ramparts. In fact, his pursuers had been forced to retreat by Dean’s heavy machine gun – they had fallen into Dean’s field of fire as they ran along the ramparts looking for Thorne, and after the first two were heavily injured they retreated towards the other watchtower.

The battle with this watchtower remained futile, although Leviathan and Dean were nearly killed when the distant guards unleashed a torrent of anti-drone rockets on their tower. These rockets fell short but Dean and Leviathan had to take cover from the onslaught. Dean managed to recover from this and finally reeled off a lucky shot, blowing the distant rocketeer’s brains out, but during all this time they had been ignoring their surroundings. Finally Leviathan noticed a bank of cctv screens on one side of the watchtower, one of which showed a man in the control room of the nuclear plant, madly fiddling with controls.

The implications were obvious. They charged out of the watchtower to the control room, but were trapped on the gantry because the man had locked the control room door. Inside the control room red lights were flashing and a klaxon was screaming. Leviathan hurriedly placed some explosive on the door handle and blew his way into the room, the explosion so perfectly set that it blew the inner doorknob out perfectly, preserving the door and driving the doorknob deep into the man’s chest[1]. The door swung slowly open, to reveal a room bathed in emergency light and a calm electronic woman’s voice saying, “Three minutes to initial containment failure. Please evacuate.”

Three minutes!! Leviathan began working madly to understand the controls of the plant. He soon identified that the plant was a liquid salt-cooled thorium plant, so meltdown would release a huge quantity of molten salt into the plastic innards of the ziggurat, undoubtedly sinking it very rapidly. This would release the miasma, which probably would drift away from the Hulks, but it would definitely kill the entire group, and they would lose the ziggurat. Everyone watched in horror as Leviathan struggled to reverse the shutdown, scrabbling at controls and desperately running from panel to panel. Finally, with just seconds to spare, he managed to cancel the reactor core failure, and reverse the meltdown. They all fell back onto the panels in relief, and watched as the system returned to normal.

Aftermath

The remainder of the guards were easily dispatched, being mostly injured and trying to flee. The last two had to be shot down as they tried to escape in a boat, with one choosing to dive amongst the jellyfish and take his chances on the ocean rather than face the party. They found the scientist cowering in his lab underneath the second watchtower, and here they found a horrible scene of torture and cannibalism: two fishermen from the Hulks, held captive in cells near the lab, hideously deformed with thousands of jellyfish stings, and near to death. Exploring the ziggurat, they found a captive slave woman, one arm disfigured with jellyfish stings, who told them the tale of the stings. Captives would be tested for their reaction to jellyfish stings, and if they reacted a certain way they would be taken out to sea in small boats and submerged in the miasma, held in the water until they were insane with the pain. They would then be treated in some way, and their blood drained and drunk by the pirates on the ziggurat. This blood would grant the pirates temporary immunity to jellyfish stings, though the immunity required regular boosting with fresh blood. The slave woman had failed the initial reaction to the sting, so she was not drained but kept alive and used. The pirates, it appeared, were also slavers and cannibals.

Common custom in the Flood holds that cannibals are to be destroyed, down to the last man and child: anyone old enough to walk who has tasted human flesh or blood is to be exterminated. It is grim work, but it is a strong custom that stems from the last years of the era before the flood, when desperate communities turned to cannibalism as their societies fell apart, and cannibalism is viewed as a throwback to the worst horrors of the collapse of landborne society. It is known that some floating communities maintained the tradition, and they are seen as horrid abominations to be destroyed at any cost. It was necessary for the characters to hunt down everyone on the ziggurat and destroy them, saving only the maid and the scientist. The scientist would, of course, die horribly, but first he would be taken back to the Hulks and forced to teach them all he knew about the jellyfish.

The characters returned triumphant to the Hulks, to announce to Captain Dilver their successful acquisition of a nuclear-powered ziggurat and the extermination of a cannibal jellyfish pirate cult. Soon they were ferrying soldiers and scientists back to the ziggurat, guiding them around it, and helping to secure it. Though they had nearly all died, their mission had been a resounding success, and position of trust with Captain Dilver assured. The Gyre had become incalculably richer through their efforts, and even Dilver had to concede that they had done well. He fated them personally, inviting them to a private party on the war sloop the Gunfather, so that they had alcohol and fine foods and a grand view as the scientist was flayed and hoisted high on the Eiffel tower, for the birds to pick to death.

A successful adventure indeed …

fn1: Leviathan’s player rolled an incredible 48 with three criticals on the demolitions check!

This week 700 asylum seekers drowned when their boat capsized somewhere in the Mediterranean sea; reports suggest that a large number of these poor souls were locked in the hold of the ship and had no chance of escape. A year ago the people on this ship might have been found rescued earlier by the European Union’s large, integrated emergency response program Mare Nostrum, but unfortunately it was defunded and replaced with a much weaker local Italian response under the explicit rhetoric of “deterrent,” pioneered so effectively by Australia. Countries with significant anti-immigrant political parties and communities, most notably the UK and Germany, refused to fund the continuation of a coordinated Mediterranean-wide rescue program on the basis that rescuing asylum seekers at sea encourages people smugglers to simply send more, and the best way to save lives is to refuse to help, so that the people smugglers’ business collapses when their customers realize the risks.

The events of the last week – 400 drowned last week, 700 this week, and it’s only Monday – show how effective that tactic has been. So does the record so far this year, with 30 times the deaths recorded in the equivalent period last year under Mare Nostrum. Record numbers are crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing persecution in Libya and chaos in Syria and Iraq. These people appear not to have got the Home Office memo, and apparently think that any risk is better than staying where they are. The ideology of “pull factors,” based on the assumption that these asylum seekers aren’t really that desperate and are just looking for the best country to settle rather than a place of safety, has been shown to be completely wrong.

Last year, before the end of Mare Nostrum, I wrote that Europe has been presenting evidence against the Australian ideology of reducing “pull” factors. Since I wrote that blog post Mare Nostrum has ended and the flow of refugees has exploded. Either there is no relationship between the border control policies in place at sea, or the defenders of this ideology – if they are being honest – will have to accept that the evidence shows that the only “pull” factor at work here is going in the opposite direction of their claims, and that rescuing asylum seekers at sea is a more effective deterrent than letting them drown. Of course they won’t accept such a conclusion, and will continue to argue that we “encourage” these desperate people by saving them, when all the evidence now shows that their plight is so desperate that they don’t care about our search and rescue plans, they just want to get out. But our political masters don’t care about these people, and indeed why should they when popular columnists refer to them as vermin and cockroaches? So instead mealy-mouthed politicians in Europe try to maintain their ideology of deterrence through callousness, and maintain that they will end the flow of refugees by targeting the people smugglers – rhetoric they have used for years to no effect, probably because they aren’t even bothering to do that. And how can they affect migration policy in North Africa? Libya is a chaotic mess that the last Italians fled from months ago, leaving the people of Libya and especially its most vulnerable stateless displaced to their bloody fate. How do you target people smuggling when you don’t even have an embassy? Europe is powerless to affect events on the ground in Syria, and refugee flows through that part of the world are now so huge that it would be impossible to identify the people smugglers, let alone stop them.

Japan is another example of the emptiness of “pull factor” rhetoric. Even though Japan has only approved a handful of asylum applications in the last decade, numbers of people claiming asylum have increased ten-fold over that time. How can it be that a country which offers zero chance of resettlement is seeing unprecedented application numbers, if asylum policy at the destination is a major determinant of asylum seekers’ choices?

Abandoning people to drown is cheap and politically easy in modern Europe, but it will not deter these people, because they are desperate. It’s time for Europe to recognize that its neighbourhood has gone to hell, and Europe won’t be able to keep ignoring this problem forever, or pretending that it can stand by and let people drown out of simple callousness. If Europe is not willing to invest the time, money and lives in stabilizing Syria and Libya, then it needs to recognize that it has at least a moral responsibility to save the lives of the desperate and stateless when they put to sea. Maybe then Australian politicians will also rethink their cruel and vicious policies towards the stateless. This problem is not going to end anytime soon, but if we keep lurching towards the moral event horizon, our humanity will …

The swarm

The journey to the swarm was uneventful, though after a day at sea they entered squalls of acidic rain that hurt their eyes and tasted foul. On the second day they reached a point close enough to the swarm to see it and understand its magnitude – it stretched across the whole sea before them like a fog bank, fading into hazy obscurity to left and right and giving off a vile stench. Dilver had been right, they could not penetrate the haze above the swarm, and deeper into the swarm this haze stretched high into the sky. A vile, warm breeze rolled off the thing whenever the wind changed, as if it were exhaling charnel breath, and from their vantage point they could see a pilot whale decaying in the hazy edges of the swarm.

They dove, heading down to the submarine’s safe depth of 40m and making fast progress to the swarm. As they passed under it their sonar screen lit up, and looking at it they felt as if they had begun sailing under a cloud of some kind. The submarine slowed down to more closely measure the swarm, and the tension mounted. In the front of the sub Ryan had begun donning his scuba gear, but everyone could not help but notice his nervousness and unusual reluctance to prepare for a dive. Everyone thought the same thing: they were floating under a cloud of death, with no clue about what to do when they got to its centre, and their whole fate resting on an 18 year old boy and his sea lion, who would be swimming up to scout at the edge of that noxious web of death.

After perhaps an hour of careful movement Leviathan noticed something new on his sonar screen: a huge object lying beneath the water, so big that its edges extended beyond the submarine’s weak sonar range, and hanging perhaps 60m or more below the surface. The submarine could go beneath it, but this was obviously what they were looking for. It was time for Ryan to dive…

Under the miasma

Under the miasma

Ryan entered the chamber at the bow of the submarine where Arashi waited, and when he was sure that he was ready the chamber flooded, Arashi taking his dive breath on command. The lights went out, the front doors of the submarine opened, and Arashi dragged Ryan out into a cathedral of neon. With the sun hidden behind clouds and sinking and the sea covered in a thick carpet of jellyfish, the ocean at 40m depth was almost black, and Ryan and Arashi found themselves hanging in a twilit limnal zone, looking down at rapidly fading grey light, and up at the carpet of jellyfish. Jellyfish, of course, are phosphorescent, and the ocean surface was crowded with countless blinking lights, a neon constellation stretching as far as Ryan could see in every direction. For a moment Ryan forgot his work and hung in the twilit depths, gazing up at this pelagic universe in fascination. Blues, reds, greens, all flickered above him, so rich and varied that he felt as if he was looking up at a new sky.

A deadly sky, of course. Ryan remembered his task and set off to explore the sonar shadow. As he approached the shape he turned on his torch, and found himself staring at a mysterious object from another world. A huge stepped structure hung in the water in front of him, stretching from the surface to perhaps 30 metres below where Arashi and Ryan floated, staring in awe. It was some kind of huge stepped structure, incomprehensible in design to innocent Ryan but obviously a relic of the pre-flood era. It stretched beyond his torchlight in both directions laterally, and from the way the waves slapped against it at the surface he guess it rose above the surface of the water. It sloped away from him as it rose, and he and Arashi could glide along its barnacle-encrusted surface upward towards the neon-flickering swarm, noticing how it was carved in step shapes, each layer of the steps slightly recessed from the one before. It seemed to Ryan that a century ago when the world flooded, a nation of toiling slaves must have built some kind of pyramid and set it afloat on the high seas. How could that be?

At the steps of the temple

At the steps of the temple

After a few minutes drifting across the subsea structure, Ryan decided he needed to check what was happening above the water. How big was this thing? Where did it go? He had noticed that near the face of the structure the swarm was so deep that only the biggest jellyfish, and the dying jellyfish, gathered. The jellyfish here were the size of small boats, with thick rope-like tentacles that would probably be powerful enough to entangle him if they touched him, but these jellyfish were far enough apart that he thought he and Arashi could find a way through. Ignoring the tension in his belly he drove Arashi up towards the surface, picking a spot where two huge jellyfish lay dead and rotting to make space for himself. As he approached, Ryan noticed an amazing thing: all the jellyfish were pulsing with movement, but all their movements were in the same direction. The jellyfish themselves were not laid out in any regular order, but their movements were all in one direction: towards the Hulks.

He managed to pass between jellyfish relatively easy but as he pushed for the surface he began to feel strange: tingly and vague. He noticed that Arashi became listless and then began to twitch, losing forward momentum. Something was affecting them in the zone where the jellyfish swam, but he couldn’t guess what. It was too late to go back now and he needed a view, so he drove his mount forward, and although Arashi was barely responsive he managed to break the surface after a few more moments’ struggle. They floated there for the moment Ryan needed, Arashi chan hanging limp in the water and Ryan fighting a strange feeling of nausea and confusion. Above the water the miasma stretched out into misty obscurity, but immediately in front of Ryan the strange pyramid rose up into the distant fog, silent and most importantly free of human interlopers. Ryan pushed Arashi down and they dived, Arashi now swimming on the dimmest of reflexes, his body twitching and jerking as if poisoned. They passed back through the zone of dead jellyfish and almost immediately Arashi recovered, looking back at Ryan and releasing a thin stream of panicked bubbles. With time running out and Arashi agitated and confused, Ryan directed them back to the submarine. They reached it in time, the doors to the chamber closed without incident, and after what seemed like an eternity Ryan and Arashi chan were back into air and light. Ryan staggered through the doors of the exit chamber and began stripping off his wetsuit, shaking and clamorous with reaction. Behind him Crimson tossed fish to a listless and uncaring sea lion, returned temporarily to its feral self. For good measure, he closed the doors to the exit chamber, because no one wants one ton of panicked beast rampaging through their one room submersible, and they sat down to hear Ryan’s story.

Voltaire’s Temple

Ryan of course knows nothing of the ancient world; he is barely a man, and he has never been educated in anything except diving and how to communicate with dumb beasts. He has never learned about the ancient world, so he doesn’t know about the strange stepped temple he saw. But Dean has studied the ancient world, and identifies it immediately from the description as a Ziggurat. As the world flooded, communities desperately tried to build floating structures that were cheap and reliable. Some people gathered together fallen trees and old boats and bound them together; others used purpose-built structures such as the Arc; but as time began to press, innovative design became impossible. Instead, people needed to find ways to build floating structures rapidly, cheaply and en masse from existing systems. One of the most popular methods was to adapt plastic modular dock systems to build huge structures that were guaranteed to be buoyant. These plastic dock systems were designed to float and to lock together; it was just natural that they should be converted into huge immobile structures that would float when the ocean reached them. By loading the bottom-most layers of these plastic blocks with concrete or water, or building them around steel super-structures, huge floating structures could be mass produced, laid out on land and prepared. When the flood reached them they would rise gently with the water, and people could float safely on the ocean. Most of these structures were build with an outer pyramid structure surrounding an inner bowl, in which people lived and food was grown. The bottom-most blocks were built to be heavier than water, and buoyancy carefully balanced so that a large portion of the structure would be underwater. A 100m-high structure might have 40m above water, with the inner area close to sea level but protected from the ocean by 40m of plastic wall. The whole structure would float, and being made of 1000s of blocks built in many layers it was highly unlikely to ever sink. The huge underwater structure provided strong substrate on which to build an ocean environment, and the whole thing was so large as to be proof against even the strongest of storms. Unfortunately these structures had one major problem: they were too large and too cumbersome to move, and eventually they would encounter a current that was heading either north or south, and drift into polar regions where all their occupants would die.

This Ziggurat had clearly not drifted into polar regions, but had instead found itself caught in a swarm, and in a current heading into the gyre. But how had it come out of that current? Leviathan provided the answer to this question[1]. Ryan’s strange feelings, and Arashi’s strange behavior, when they were surfacing must have been caused by some kind of electrical field in the water. This field must be the reason for the strange, coordinated behavior of the jellyfish. By sending an electric field through the water someone must be controlling the direction of movement of all the jellyfish in the miasma, and the field of jellyfish was so large that the ziggurat moved with it. Someone inside the ziggurat was driving it, and to do so they must be in control of a very powerful source of energy. Everyone immediately settled on the same single possible explanation: nuclear power. Captain Dilver had told them to find out what was driving the swarm and destroy it or bring it back if it was useful: here they had a relic from the start of the flood, an almost indestructible floating monument that would make an invaluable addition to the Gyre; and inside it a functioning nuclear power plant. All they had to do was take it.

Galvanized by this decision, they set course for the ziggurat. The submarine would not be impeded by jellyfish in surfacing at the edge of the temple, since only the largest of the swarm floated here and the submarine’s vents would not be clogged when they were venting water, only drawing it in. They could surface, but they might not be able to submerge again. As they rose Leviathan turned off all the submarine’s electronic systems and its batteries, setting the vents to full open and surging to the surface in a barely-controlled rush. They swept up the sloping sides of the ziggurat and splashed to the surface just a short distance from the ziggurat, drifting to a rough stop against its plastic sides. After a moment’s debate they gave the Ocean Whisperer a cell phone and told her to stay put, strapped on filter masks, and emerged from the conning tower hatch.

The ziggurat was as deserted on this side as Ryan had described. The air was still and calm, thick with the haze of the miasma, and the only sound was the gentle wash of waves against its sides. The plastic face of the ziggurat was devoid of life, and stretched above them into the mist, silent and dead. In the short distance they could see there was no evidence that anyone had ever used this monolith, but they knew someone must be here. They jumped from the submarine to the ziggurat’s steps, carefully avoiding the foul water, and gathered themselves at the base of the steps. A decision was quickly taken, and Dean stole carefully up the steps towards the top of the ziggurat, to see if he could find any sign of life. Moving stealthily from step to step, he ascended perhaps 100 metres before he reached the ziggurat’s crown. Here the air was clearer and he could see perhaps 500 metres in either direction, which gave him a full view of the whole top of the ziggurat. The ziggurat was roughly rectangular, perhaps 1km long and half a kilometre wide, with a bowl cut into its centre that was perhaps 400m long and 200m wide. From the rampart where Dean lay carefully watching the steps cut steeply down into this bowl, which lay perhaps 40m below the ramparts – about 60m above the water surface. The ramparts stretched around this bowl in a perfect rectangle 10m wide. At the furthest, narrower ends of the rectangle the ramparts were surmounted by a single watchtower, rising perhaps another 30m above the ramparts. On the far side of the bowl from Dean a huge crane rose into the sky, built into the superstructure of the ziggurat itself. This rusting monolith must have been used to load the original ziggurat with its current contents: on the floor of the bowl several sections of aircraft fuselage had been placed, and were obviously being used as accomodation. Opposite them, at one end of the bowl near one of the watchtowers, was a small cooling stack and the obvious structure of some kind of modular nuclear power plant, steam rising gently from its tower and into the soupy air. The rest of the bowl was covered in soil, on which grew scraggly grass and a few stunted, weak-looking lemon trees. A large section had been set aside for farming, and here amidst ragged cabbages, tomato vines and strawberry bushes Dean could see a single person working, weeding and tilling. The only other signs of life were distant figures in each of the watchtowers; otherwise the whole thing was silent and empty. But judging from the aircraft fuselage and the scale of the farm, there could not be many people here – perhaps 20 or 30.

Dean slunk back down to the group, and together they moved up to his position on the rampart, stopping just below the rim. They could take this place, if they moved quietly and quickly. They made a rough plan, and prepared to take their greatest conquest …

[This report has been split into parts for brevity. The final part will describe the somewhat chaotic and confused battle for control of the ziggurat].

fn1: this situation gave a great example of the benefit of skill checks. Leviathan is a ship’s captain and engineer, the kind of person who should understand such things. Crimson’s player is an engineer, the kind of player who knows about such things. When I described Arashi’s condition Crimson’s player immediately realized an electric field was being used to control the jellyfish. But Crimson would never understand such a thing, and Leviathan – the PC that actually should know this stuff – was being played by someone with no engineering knowledge. So I required a simple engineering skillcheck by Leviathan to intuit what Crimson’s player had guessed. Understanding this information was not crucial to the adventure, but not getting it would lead to problems with the submarine when it surfaced. It’s unfair to penalize a group because the player who understands the history of electrical impulses is playing an idiot.

Photo credit! The photo of the Steller sea lion was taken by Emerald diving company at Neah bay.

This is the second adventure in the Flood series. It is half a year since the near-catastrophe with the old man on the raft community, and our heroes have been split up, working in different parts of the Hulks on security jobs. They were surprised then to receive a text message from Captain Dilver in the middle of the night:

[received 2:04 AM. Sender: Captain Dilver. Marked: Emergency] Go to the Flats immediately and bring in the woman called the Ocean Whisperer for questioning over distribution of fake medicines. Gather with your team at the Octopus Seller on the Flats’ leeward side, a short distance from the Whisperer. Be discreet and bring her without trouble. If anyone sees you tell them the reason but keep everyone calm. Bring her to me at Pier 17 and DO NOT keep me waiting. D.

They responded immediately of course, and were soon gathered together under the dim sodium light at the corner of the Octopus Seller’s shop. There were five, but they were not familiar with each other from previous adventures[1]:

  • Ryan the rider, whose sea lion mount saved the party repeatedly when they were on the rafts in their last adventure
  • Crimson the old soldier, whose tenacious unwillingness to die stood between the party and complete extermination in their last adventure
  • Dean, a middle-aged archer and scout with a penchant for heavy weapons
  • Leviathan, the new captain of the submarine that the characters captured in the last adventure
  • Thorne, an unhinged young martial artist with an invisible “friend” of very dubious morality

After brief introductions and confirmations, they headed to the Ocean Whisperer’s address. Here they found a flat, open raft, perhaps once a river barge, with the skeletal structure of what might be a simple pavilion over one end, and a small home made out of the cabin of an old boat at the other. Above the door of the cabin was a painted logo of an octopus, and three cats sat patiently outside the door. The sea this night was calm but active, with perhaps 2m waves out on the open sea; here within the border of the Hulks there was perhaps 10-20m of plastic, tires, old chains and wood beneath the water, and the sea was rendered sluggish by this debris, so that the barge only rocked a little with the swell; occasional splashes of water rolled over the edge of the barge, but it was the kind of still, grimly dark night that often rolls over the Hulks at the end of spring. This evening the sky was obscured in a thick veil of cloud, and the Hulks lay in complete darkness outside the occasional glow of solar-powered lamps, four of which illuminated the decks of the Ocean Whisperer’s barge, and their approach. The cats meowed, but scattered when Leviathan shattered the stillness with a loud hammering on the door and a yell of “Open up bitch, it’s the wind guardians!” Discreet, indeed … After a moment and a few more bangs the door opened, revealing an old woman, perhaps in her 60s, wearing a semi-transparent night gown and looking blearily out at them, long grey and brown hair tied back in an austere ponytail. “Yes?” she asked in trepidation when she saw their wind guard armour and uniforms. They soon had her out of the house, and dragged her off to Pier 17 without further trouble.

Pier 17 is located in one of the Hulks’ two inner docks, docks set within a broader sweep of the structure of the Hulks and intended to be partially protected from storms. Pier 17 is one of the least secluded, facing open water in the middle of the dock area. On this night the open sea was hidden in darkness, but the pier itself was lit with brilliant white light from two large portable spotlights, that shone onto a focused point in the middle of the pier. Behind this stood Captain Dilver, wearing a strange and old-fashioned uniform that looked about 20 years old and had only the single wave insignia of a corporal on its shoulder and chest. To one side on the far side of one lamp stood two ranks of five storm guards, also in completely outdated and strange uniforms; between them lay a coil of plastic cable, with plastic cuffs attached every metre or so. As the PCs approached this scene, Thorne and Dean both realized what it meant, though they understood for very different reasons: Dilver was recreating the scene from 20 years ago when he threw rebel children overboard, and laughed as their shackled parents tried to save them, and drowned. This was the atrocity that made Dilver famous, and gained him his power in the wave guards. The Ocean Whisperer obviously knew this scene very well, for as soon as she saw it she shrieked and tried to run away. Leviathan and Thorne grabbed her though, and dragged her forward to stand in the lights. With barely a nod of recognition to them, Dilver stepped forward and addressed her.

Dilver: A pleasure to see you again Agnes, do you remember me?

Agnes: Yes …

Dilver [gesturing behind him]: I think you remember what all this means. How could either of us forget? Just a little reminder of what I am willing to do for the safety of our little world.

Agnes: …

Dilver: Now, Agnes, I have a simple question for you, a very easy one for you to answer. Try to be honest with me this time, yes? Tell me: can you really speak with the giant beasts of the deep? Do they really whisper to you in your dreams, or is it all a fraud?

Agnes [after a brief pause to think]: It’s all a lie, Dilver. They don’t speak to me, it’s just a story I tell to make ends meet.

Dilver [stepping back to give a slow golf clap]: Well, Agnes, I’m happy to hear that. Now I’m going to make you a very simple offer, that I know you won’t want to refuse. You go back to your cabin and sleep off this little interruption, then in the morning you convene a special meeting of your silly little church, and you tell them that it was all a fraud. You tell them that there is no way anyone can speak to the beasts of the deep, that they’re just dumb animals and we are just tiny, frail people clinging to life on the surface of a great dark ocean. You tell them your church is over, because there is nothing anyone can do to control the beasts of the deep and anyone who tells them otherwise is a liar. Then you go into your cabin and wait. In the afternoon some wind guards will be around to arrest you for dealing fake medicines, and you’ll never need to worry about seeing the disappointment on your congregations’ faces. [Pauses] If you don’t do this, I’ll murder you and lock you in your cabin with your cats, and I’ll make sure you aren’t discovered until your cats have eaten a good part of your corpse. Then I’ll drown them. Is that clear?

Agnes [eyes only widening a little bit]: Okay Dilver, okay. Please just don’t hurt anyone.

Dilver [snapping fingers at two of the guards, who drag Agnes away]: I will hurt everyone I need to, Agnes. Don’t ever forget that.

With that Agnes faded into the darkness, her pale face frozen in disgust as she was dragged away. Moments later Dilver gestured to the group peremptorily, leading them around a pile of crates to pier 18, where the slim and deadly shape of his favourite gunship the Gunfather loomed over them in the first shadows of dawn. They boarded and walked silently down gantries and corridors to the captain’s cabin, a bare room with a single bench a set of screens, and a narrow bed. Dilver himself poured them seaweed tea, and handing it around to them said

“I don’t believe any of that stuff. But you hear stories about what’s out their in the ocean, and it’s my job to rule out every possible threat, no matter how unlikely. Because we have an unlikely problem, gentlemen, and it is a once-in-a-lifetime threat that calls for all our efforts.” He stabbed his finger at a point on one of the screens and the darkened room lit up with the pale blue of an ocean map, a jagged red slash carved into it to show the path of some interloper approaching the Hulks.

“A miasma is coming, gentlemen. We have to stop it. But it is not drifting with the current. A fishing boat found it a few days ago and tracked it, sending us warning of its movements, but then the boat disappeared. We sent a drone, but that too disappeared. The problem is that the miasma is not moving with the currents. It has departed the stream of the current and is moving purposefully for us. It will be here in a week. We need to find out what is making it move, and destroy it. That is your job. You are to take the submarine, head to the miasma, and find out what is driving it. Then you are to destroy that thing, or bring it back if it is useful. The submarine has been configured to hold the rider’s beast – what’s its name, Ryan? – so you will be able to investigate with your own eyes under the miasma. This miasma is huge, so big that we cannot see into its centre, and I dare not risk something as valuable as a seaplane until I know more, so I am sending you instead. Questions?”

Leviathan said tentatively, “We should take the Ocean Whisperer with us sir. If she knows nothing it’s no trouble, but if she does know something we can use her. Like you say, it’s best to cover all bases.”

Dilver agreed to this. He also told them more about the mission: two days to get to the miasma in the submarine, the first to be accompanied by a battery ship to keep the sub charged. They would be given a special GPS beacon which, when activated, would act as a homing beacon for missiles and artillery, so that they could call down a huge storm of artillery on themselves. Ryan was to be given a set of scuba gear and a special watertight diving suit that would protect him for a short time from jellyfish stings. Arashi, Ryan’s sea lion, was already largely immune to stings due to his thick watertight fur, and could likely survive for a short time in even a thick cloud of the things. Because the submarine had no windows or external cameras and lacked manoeuvrability, Ryan and Arashi would be key to finding out what was driving the swarm.

They took their leave and headed to the submarine, which was waiting at pier 16, rocking gently in the swell. Arashi lay lazily on its bow, and let out a happy “whoof!” when he saw Ryan – the exact same “whoof!” that Crimson remembered with a shudder from the dark waters where Arashi slew the pirates who owned this very submarine. Agnes was brought to them, cuffed, and they set off for the swarm.

[Note: I have split this report into parts due to length. You can get a lot done in a few hours with Cyberpunk rules! The next part, Voltaire’s Temple, will be uploaded in a few days]

fn1: This time I had my full complement of normal players bar one, so three new PCs had to be made: Dean, Leviathan and Thorne.

 

Those bastards!!

Those bastards!!

I ran into more problems trying to run OpenBUGS on a Bayesian spatial regression model today. The problems are laid out pretty simply in the picture above: I ran into an illegal memory write. I know this is not the fault of my model, as it runs smoothly for 50, 500 or 1000 iterations. This illegal memory write happens somewhere between 6000 and 6100 iterations.

This model is a simple version of a larger model I’m building. It has data on about 1800 small areas collected over four time points, with age and sex covariates, with a Poisson distribution for the outcome and an adjacency matrix for the 1800 areas. The data are laid out with the time points and age- and sex-values as separate records, so for one municipality I have 4*6*2=24 observations. I can’t use other packages for this because they assume one observation per municipality (i.e a very simple relationship between data structure and adjacency matrix). So I’m using OpenBUGS or WinBUGS. The ultimate goal is to extend to 30 time points and 18 age categories, with a more complex time and age structure, but I want to get this simple model running first because I’m running into major computational issues.

Today I identified that these computational issues can’t be solved. The reason for the illegal memory write is that OpenBUGS has a 1.6Gb RAM limit. People say this but it’s hard to confirm; however, in digging through critiques of BUGS I discovered it is written in Component Pascal and compiled in BlackBox, and a bit more digging reveals BlackBox has a 1.6Gb RAM limit.

This is frankly ridiculous. It’s understandable that there would be a RAM limit in a 32-bit system, but OpenBUGS has been around for about 9 years now and no one has upgraded it to handle either multi-core computers or 64 bit architecture. Given that OpenBUGS is designed to handle complex, processor-demanding simulation-heavy Bayesian models, the decision to write it in such a restrictive framework is ridiculous. I’m a strong critic of open source systems but if it had been written for R it would at least be able to use the 64-bit architecture, even though R has been late to the multi-core party. I bought a PC with 128 Gb of RAM specifically for this big project, and I might as well have bought a laptop with the minimum RAM. For the model I ultimately aim to build I expect I will need about 100,000 iterations to get stability, which means that OpenBUGS will never get there. The only way to run this model without a workaround is to either 1) write the full adjacency matrix by hand and implement it directly [something I am considering] or 2) recompile the source code (which I think might not be available) in a different Pascal compiler. I have no idea how to even start with that.

I have considered two workarounds, however, though I don’t know whether either of them might work.

  1. Save and rerun: the reason that OpenBUGS hits its RAM limit is that it saves all iterations in RAM, but I think this is possibly bad design. So one option could be to run the model to 5000 iterations, then save the results, shut down OpenBUGS, reopen OpenBUGS, load the model file, and then use the update functions to run another 5000 iterations on what has already been run. I think this can be done (running additional updates on a past model) but I’m not sure. If this works I just need to run one set of runs a night for about 3 weeks, and I’ll get my model.
  2. Rerun with sequential initial values: If method 1 doesn’t work, another option that I am very sure will work is to run the model for 5000 iterations, extract all estimated values from the model, then start a new model of 5000 runs with the past estimated values as the initial values for the next model. I’m pretty sure it will start off where it left off, assuming I correctly specify them all, although there might be small jumps in the trace, but ultimately it’ll get where it needs to go. But restarting the model is going to take a lot of time unless I can find a way to loop through and extract values automatically (I think I can’t). So probably a month to run the model.

Ridiculous! And even if I had a supercomputer I couldn’t speed it up …

Today Stata 14 was released, and it finally has built in functionality for a wide range of Bayesian statistical tasks. I’m hoping that they’ll introduce conditional autoregression and the BYM model in version 15. Really, if you have a grant that can afford a single Stata license, it’s really worth getting. You just can’t rely on open source statistical packages. Only use them when you must!

Today I’m trying to do some simple prediction in R. I have a simple linear model with a single missing data point, and I need to get the predicted values and standard errors for 14 data points including this one missing point. Because I find R’s data handling in linear prediction really hard to use, I decided to use a brutal, simple loop approach to get the job done. And in doing so I have uncovered a really weird piece of behavior.

My linear model predicts a proportion as a function of year, with year valued from 0 to 13 and 2 missing. My outputs are a matrix with the year and the predicted value (con.pred) and a matrix with the year and standard error (con.se). My input is the data (dataValues) and the resulting model (con.lm). So my model runs like this:

con.lm<-lm(y~year,data=dataValues)

for (j in 1:14){
year<-j-1
temp.pred<-predict(con.lm,newdata=year,se.fit=TRUE)
con.pred[j,2]<-temp.pred$fit
con.se[j,2]<-temp.pred$se
}

Now the weird thing here is that this breaks down and delivers the following error:

Error in eval(predvars, data, env) : not that many frames on the stack

However, it didn’t stop working immediately. The first 5 elements of the output con.pred have values – the process failed at j=6. Even weirder, when I ran it two hours ago it failed at j=10. However, it works fine if I make this tiny change:

  for (j in 1:14){
year<-j-1
temp.pred<-predict(con.lm,newdata=data.frame(year),se.fit=TRUE)
con.pred[j,2]<-temp.pred$fit
con.se[j,2]<-temp.pred$se
}

How can it be that the prediction process works for the value year=5, but doesn’t work when year=6? But it works for all values if I redefine the scalar year to be a data frame? Does this mean that R treats scalars with a value below 6 as data frames, but not above 6?

Also, if I type the following commands directly into the command line I get different predicted values:

temp.pred<-predict(con.lm,newdata=(year=1),se.fit=TRUE)

temp.pred<-predict(con.lm,newdata=1,se.fit=TRUE)

However, the latter command doesn’t produce any warnings and does not do the default prediction (which would return 69 fitted values; it returns one value, that appears to correspond with a value of year of about 9. Furthermore, while the first of these two commands works, this command does not, and brings up the same not enough frames error:

temp.pred<-predict(con.lm,newdata=(year=10),se.fit=TRUE)

So I have confirmed in the command line that the commands I have given in script break at some value of year>1.

I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s completely counter-intuitive. The only error returned is also completely meaningless. R really needs to improve its linear prediction and data handling, because there is something deeply wrong with the way it handles input data.

Must hear and obey!!

Must hear and obey!!

This week I stumbled upon another one of many articles in the Guardian complaining about fat-shaming, which is apparently something society does unsuccessfully to try and force everyone to be skinny. In an interesting parallel, this week Rabbett Run has an article digging through the role of Big Tobacco in funding libertarians to talk up smoker-shaming. This “assault on smokers” is a common complaint of the Clarksons and Telegraph-letter-writers of the world: sure, smoking is bad for your health but the anti-tobacco movement has “gone too far” and now it shames and ostracizes smokers and treats them like second-class citizens (in the words of Rabbett Run’s libertarian scholar, they are parallel to the treatment of Jews in Germany!)

An interesting similarity of language exists between the anti-fat shamers and the anti- anti smokers. There is a lot of public debate about how to handle obesity, and a lot of it is denialism of varying forms:

  • Straight-up denialism, such as this book from one of the Lawyers, Guns and Money bloggers, which claims obesity is not harmful for health, the scientific research is wrong and there is nothing to fear. This crosses the political spectrum, but is usually also associated with suspicions about the diet and weight-loss industry and/or an ideology of personal health choices
  • Politically-motivated rejectionism, often feminist, which associates obesity concerns with body-normative biases and society’s obsession with controlling women’s appearance. An example of this is Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, which associates campaigns against overweight with historical attempts to control women’s appearance. These campaigners may deny the role of obesity in poor health (such as the Healthy at Every Size movement) or they may accept the increased risks and fall back on a logic of personal choice, but in either case these rejectionists are politically-motivated: their first concern is the ideological impact of scientific research on and public health campaigns against overweight, and this motivates their stance
  • Adaptationists, who think that it is too late to reverse trends to obesity, and/or that they are built into our society now, and so we are better off learning to adapt to these trends than try to undo them. In the medical field this manifests in a belief that we should find pharmaceutical solutions to the health challenges of obesity, rather than behavioral campaigns. This stream of thought is also common amongst anti-fat shamers and the Healthy at Every Size movement
  • First world shamers, who believe it is shameful of rich westerners to worry about eating too much when so many people in the world are starving. These deniers want us to accept that fatness is a sign of a stable and functioning society and something the world should (implicitly, usually) aspire to – similar to how some AGW denialists think that burning fossil fuels is an inevitable and necessary part of economic growth and something we should encourage the world to do, rather than trying to find alternative development paths. These first world shamers also usually ignore the fact that overweight and obesity is a heavily class-biased phenomenon in rich countries, and increasingly a problem of the poor only
  • Free choicers, who think that we should all be able to take any health risks we want if they don’t affect others, and who see obesity purely as a personal decision (i.e. fat people eat too much). Some of the adaptationists also take this view of fat as an entirely personal decision, and sadly so do a lot of public health policy-makers who want to fix the problem. Seeing obesity as a consequence of personal behavior inevitably means that public efforts to reduce prevalence of overweight will be seen as intrusive and restrictive of civil liberties, and enables these free-choicers to reframe the debate in terms of personal choices and freedom rather than the structural and social changes that are actually needed to reduce overweight. This argument is more potent when deployed in the obesity debate because it is much easier to claim that obesity doesn’t harm others
  • Skinny-shamers, the kind of hippy punchers of the anti-fat shaming movement, who see thinness as disgusting or at least present themselves in opposition to it. This fat and proud movement is distinctly political, though not necessarily associated with any party, and it is embedded in a broader cultural movement in the anglosphere towards rejecting any form of attention to appearance at all. This movement sometimes has an influence on the fashion world, especially in its attempts to redefine very thin and small models as wrong – it sometimes engages in its own form of shaming, attacking the skinny and small as wrong or ill
  • Anorexia bait-and-switchers, perhaps a subset of the fat-proud and feminist denialists, who associate campaigns against overweight with anorexia, and suggest that body-normative ideas drive young women to anorexia. In fact anorexia is a serious mental health problem not caused by social pressure or women’s magazines, and this link is spurious but it has a strong hold in popular culture, and is a powerful rhetorical device. Note that it also often relies on its own form of body-shaming, treating anorexic bodies as disgusting and accepting that they are deeply unhealthy, and often the spectrum of this body-shaming extends to women who are not unhealthy, just thin

Many of these types of obesity denialism seem to be similar in ideological composition to anti-vaccination or anti-AGW thinking. In AGW denial circles it’s common to read conspiracy theories about how the whole scare has been made up to transfer money and power to a clique; how it is cheaper and more effective to adapt than prevent; how attempts to mitigate AGW will lead to (and/or be driven by) restrictions on personal freedom. AGW denialists also often see AGW mitigation in terms of direct attacks on their personal choices rather than structural and cultural changes, for example in which they will lose individual direct choice over light bulbs and car makes, rather than seeing it in terms of industrial and community-level decisions such as changes in power generation or land use practices that no one individual can control. Arguments based on intervention in personal decision-making rather than group practices are much more amenable to conspiracy theories and assignment of nasty political motivations, and the obesity denial movement does have a fair share of such thinking.

In reality the battle against overweight and obesity cannot be won with individual changes: overweight and obesity arises only partially from personal choices, and a lot of it is driven by structural and social factors that individuals cannot change. You can’t make a decision to walk to work if your work is far away and there is no public transport; you can’t make a decision to eat healthily if there are no decent sources of fresh fruit and vegetables near your house, or if almost all the food you buy is poorly labelled and full of sugar. It’s also much much harder to stay thin if your job involves sitting for 8 hours a day, and personal decisions to do something personal to offset a structural factor are much harder to make than personal decisions that go along with that structural factor. Furthermore, cultural practices are insidious and hard to change: ideas about wasting food that come from a poorer time, types of food and eating practices are not easy to change by the time one is an adult steeped in a certain food culture. But because public health policy-makers cannot change broad structural factors outside of their discipline, like public transport and town planning, they have to focus on the things they can touch: personal behavior. This is easily construed as preaching or trying to restrict freedoms.

Of course fat shaming does happen in our societies but it’s not driven by health concerns: it’s another manifestation of a long-lasting and deeply-entrenched sexism in our society. It’s also a reflection of the fact that traditionally aesthetic values were of great importance, and people who deviated from certain aesthetic norms have been shamed for that. Compared to the way people with tattoos or men with long hair used to be treated, for example, fat shaming is nothing: no one obese ever got refused entry to Disneyland for being fat, for example. Public health campaigns do not, generally, utilize fat shaming as part of their repertoire, and the association of fat shaming with public health concerns about obesity is another example of denialism at work – and a very effective way to dampen the debate about what to do about this growing problem.

And make no mistake, it is a big problem. The continuing growth of overweight and obesity is going to have huge costs for health systems, and people who are proud to be fat now are not going to be so pleased with their personal health decisions when the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular problems start to bite in later life (when reversing the process is hardest). With the decline of smoking in the developed world, obesity is becoming the next big risk factor that will bring a wave of disease with it. Worse still, in many low- and middle-income countries overweight and obesity rates are also skyrocketing, but these countries have fragile health systems with weak financing that are not ready to manage a huge growth of chronic illness. This is a global problem, and denying it will delay the necessary steps to resolve it, leaving many countries facing an unexpected cost and health problems they aren’t prepared to deal with. Sound familiar?

I don’t think that obesity denialism is a product of Big Tobacco or Big Sugar, as was the anti-anti smoking lobby or AGW denialism. It also lacks a dimension of harm that the anti-vaccination movement carries with it (since fat kids can’t accidentally infect and kill other fat kids the way unvaccinated children can). But it has similarities with both, in terms of its scientific ignorance, the rhetorical tactics it deploys, and its blithe ignorance – or even celebration – of the problems it causes. The linked Guardian article is suggesting a need to add fat-shaming to the list of discriminatory activities that should be outlawed in Britain, which makes me think of the inclusion of “political” objections to vaccination in vaccination laws. Perhaps it’s time to start treating obesity denialism a little more seriously, before it gets a serious grip on our legislative and public health processes, making it harder for our societies to move out of a path that is ultimately not going to be good for us …

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