Horror


This weekend I read the Turner Diaries, a famous and influential right-wing apocalyptic insurrection fantasy written in 1978. I picked up this nasty little piece of racist literature because of the recent events in the US, thinking to get a bit of background on the white nationalist terror threat in the USA, but I was amazed reading it by the similarities in ideology, vision and practice between US white nationalists terrorists and “Islamic State” (ISIS). In this post I want to review the book and explore some of these similarities.

Background: Don’t try this at home

The Turner Diaries were written in 1978 by William Luther Pierce, founder of a white nationalist organization called the National Alliance, and quickly became an inspiration for many white nationalist terrorists. The most striking influence was on Timothy McVeigh, whose truck bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma City in 1995 almost exactly mirrors the first major action described in the book, but the Diaries also inspired many other people: the Anti-Defamation League has a page on the Diaries that charts their widespread influence in the white nationalist movement. I first discovered them in my early twenties, when I had a lover who grew up amongst Australia’s neo-Nazis, and although too young at the time to understand their politics was familiar with much of their iconography and inspirations. For many years the book was on sale at a famous alternative bookstore in Melbourne, Polyester, though I imagine it’s unavailable now if the warning on the internet archive version is any guide:

Ownership of this book might be illegal in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. You must be at least 21 years or older in order to read this book because of the sexual and violent content. Parental Discretion is Advised!

Fortunately it’s not illegal in Japan as far as I know, and really easy to read on a smartphone, so a few hours later here I am better educated and definitely more disgusted. I read this book so you don’t have to, kids.

The book is the literary equivalent of found footage, purporting to be diaries from a revolutionary war in the USA that were found about 100 years later, and cast light on central events of the time through the eyes of an activist who rose to legendary status in the movement through his sacrifice. It is short, and has that property of narrative coherence and good pace that makes it a page turner (or, I guess, in the modern era, swiper) even though its characterization is shallow and its story devices occasionally ridiculous. No one in this story is likable – and trust me, until you read what these people think and are willing to do, you really haven’t plumbed the depths of what unlikable means – but the plot will keep you involved in their horrid schemes and potential successes even while you are mentally urgently in need of serious disinfection. I guess this is why it was popular with the kind of “visionaries” who blow up kindergartens

The diaries describe the actions of members of a racist insurrectionist movement called “the Organization” that starts off small and ultimately takes over the US and then the world, using a mixture of terrorism and then nuclear warfare. To give an idea of the vision that this book describes:

  • Once they win the USA they solve “the Chinese problem” by nuking everything between the Urals and the Pacific Ocean, creating what they call the “Eastern Wasteland”
  • They don’t have a racial model based on heirarchies and slavery, as the Nazis did: anyone not white is killed across the whole planet. There are no untermenschen here, just white people and dead people
  • They “win” their battle with the US government by starting a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, leading to the destruction of most major cities in the USA and the death of upwards of 60 million people, but they consider to be a worthwhile sacrifice

Being found footage, this book has parenthetical notes describing the “past” depicted in the book: this includes a note telling the reader what “negroes” are, since this race has been exterminated from the entire planet. The book also has a couple of chilling asides in which the diarist describes Nazi Germany as good and decries the fact that they were stopped in their project. It also has a vicious scene where every mixed-race, non-black and non-white person in California – i.e. every Asian, every American of southern European descent, every native American and anyone of dubious heritage is marched into a canyon and murdered. This is racial purity of the most extreme form, and make no mistake: this was the visionary novel that America’s white nationalist terrorists were inspired by.

It also has some ridiculous plot devices, such as the silly idea that the white nationalist Californian enclave is able to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union but doesn’t itself get nuked back to the stone age.  But for analytical purposes, I’m willing to overlook these slips in the interests of understanding exterminationist ideology.

The Diaries’ Similarities with ISIS

The Diaries have certainly stood the test of time, in that some of the scenes described in them have been enacted by various terrorist groups over time. Obviously they have a striking similarity with the Oklahoma bombing, since they inspired it, but that is just the start of their inventiveness. Other similarities include:

  • The Organization detonates a huge bomb on September 11th that kills 4000 people and leaves a part of a city burning for several days
  • They attack a newspaper they dislike, culminating in killing its editorial writer [at his house, not the offices, but I think the similarities should be clear]
  • They deploy a dirty bomb to render a major power station inoperable
  • Beheading is one of their favourite tactics once they become operational in the field

The tactics described in the Diaries also have specific commonalities with ISIS tactics. In addition to the beheadings, they are very fond of filming executions and broadcasting them:

That’s where we were taking the big-shots to be hanged: the well-known politicians, a number of prominent Hollywood actors and actresses, and several TV personalities. If we had strung them up in front of their homes like everyone else, only a few people would have seen them, and we wanted their example to be instructive to a much wider audience. For the same reason many of the priests on our lists were taken to one of three large churches where we had TV crews set up to broadcast their executions.

This is a new, very modern phenomenon in mass murder, which we see from ISIS a lot. Government regimes like to hide their massacres, but terrorists need to broadcast them. Note also the choice of targets: not agents, technical staff and those who are implacably ideologically opposed to the force, but people whose actions and lifestyles represent a moral transgression. States kill people who threaten them materially, or fit into a category of useless people conveniently-scapegoated; modern terrorists murder people who have symbolic value, but who might otherwise be valuable. Their ideology doesn’t care whether you could be converted to the cause and used, because it is far more interested in making a spectacle out of punishing you for your transgressions.

These transgressions, note, are racial, or derive from crimes against race that the “criminals” didn’t even know were illegal until the new order swept over them – just as many of ISIS’s victims didn’t know they were doing anything wrong until ISIS arrived. On Monday you’re a tobacco salesperson, on Tuesday you’re a criminal about to be executed. This is ideological purity at its craziest.

Descriptions of cities “liberated” from racial miscegenation by the Organization also seem eerily similar to what we have heard of ISIS territory. They are depopulated, full of dead bodies, and struggling to find food and basic supplies, often for weeks, as the Organization is tiny, rules by terror and doesn’t have the manpower to maintain security and distribute food. It has also made clear that it isn’t interested in capitalism or markets, and its activities are completely disruptive of any kind of economic activity. At one point – having nuked much of America – the Organization’s enclaves are so desperate for food that they cannot take in even white survivors. Here is their solution:

In Detroit the practice was first established (and it was later adopted elsewhere) of providing any able-bodied White male who sought admittance to the Organization’s enclave with one hot meal and a bayonet or other edged weapon. His forehead was then marked with an indelible dye, and he was turned out and could be readmitted permanently only by bringing back the head of a freshly killed Black or other non-White. This practice assured that precious food would not be wasted on those who would not or could not add to the Organization’s fighting strength, but it took a terrible toll of the weaker and more decadent White elements.

Welcome to your racially-pure wonderland, honky… The similarities between this desperation and the desperation we are told is common in ISIS-held areas is noticeable. These people think they hold the key to the promised land but their millenial rage has so destroyed the world around them that they cannot help their own.

The “terrible toll of the weaker” alluded to in the above passage is another common element of ISIS and Organization tactics, though it points more to a moral than an organizational failing. Both organizations have an ideology of purity so extreme and powerful that they have developed a position of harsh judgment on almost everyone they are supposed to be helping. It is very clear in the Turner Diaries that the Organization considers the majority of white people to be stupid chumps who have brought about their own decay, and they are responsible for their own bad position through a lack of racial awareness. Although salvation of the white race is their aim, they don’t have any sympathy or compassion for individuals. The Diaries’ putative writer and his girlfriend at one point manage to ambush four black men and two “white sluts” with them, and kill all six, even though two are white, because those two have degenerated – no effort is made to explain to them how they have transgressed against a code they didn’t even know existed. This is early in the book; later this scales to the complete destruction of New York, the white population of which is dismissed because it allowed itself to be miscegenated. There are several passages in the book that justify this in terms of both racial survival and moral laxity: only those white people who can show they are able to “wake up” to the sick and insane racial fantasies of the Organization are guaranteed salvation, with the rest only offered salvation where it is convenient. This is very consistent with ISIS’s extreme ideology, which both punishes people for any kind of minor past infractions against a strict religious standard, and treats Sunni adherents as cheap collateral in its war goals: those who didn’t think to get enlightened and join ISIS are expendable, because they don’t have the purity and commitment that would justify any effort to spare them.

Finally, there is a similarity in targets. In addition to newspapers and politicians, the Organization targets actors and actresses, supreme court justices, and conservative politicians. There are multiple passages in the book railing against conservative politicians, who are racist but not willing to make the extreme steps necessary to see in the new world order. This is similar to ISIS, who consider Hamas and the Islamic Brotherhood to be apostates for considering the use of democracy or negotiation to achieve their aims. The Diaries have an early scene where a cell member is revealed to be “merely” a conservative: they execute him because he doesn’t support their nihilistic form of revolutionary activity. Later on, too, they have to fight a military enclave in Washington State that is run by “conservative” military folks, who want to restore the constitution: they deal with such anathema in an appropriately brutal way. All rival political ideologies, no matter how similar to theirs in goals, are judged impure and dealt with in the same vengeful and exterminationist way. The battle between the Organization and “conservatives” (and libertarians!) in the Diaries is similar to that between ISIS and al Qaeda. There is also a striking similarity in attitude towards people who share the Organization’s broad beliefs but were willing to compromise in order to get rich – these men get very short shrift, and strike me as very similar to the way some of the Sunni sheikhs were treated by ISIS.

The eternal terrorist

This would be simply fanciful rhetoric, except that the Diaries have inspired serious terrorists, and are very popular amongst white nationalists: they represent a real and genuine expression of the vision and goals of the white nationalist movement, which is also the oldest terrorist threat in the USA. The KKK, the original white terrorist movement, formed during the reconstruction era and was around until the end of the civil rights movement, only to be replaced by the network of arseholes that produced Timothy McVeigh. Since then the movement has subsided, and seems to have collapsed into just lone wolf idiots, but historically it was the greatest threat to American domestic security for 100 years. Now a similar movement of nihilistic, destructive purity has arisen in the Middle East, with similarly apocalyptic and violently exclusionary goals, and most analyses of this phenomenon are treating it as if it were unique. My reading of the Turner Diaries suggests that it is not unique at all: it is actually a sadly derivative form of terrorism, just terrorism, with the same ideological framework as white nationalism, and remarkably similar targets. Of course it has been more successful than white nationalism in the USA, but that’s because it sprang up in a situation closely resembling chapter 25 of the Turner Diaries rather than chapter 1.

I don’t know what produces this apocalyptic vision of society, and this antagonistic understanding of the causes of society’s problems, but it looks to me like a lot of terrorists hold it in common, and that people as vastly different as Baghdadi and Turner can have a very similar vision of who their enemies are and how to deal with them. It must be something very common to the human condition, and I don’t know what should be done about it, but my reading of the Turner Diaries, and my understanding of their influence, tells me one simple thing: ISIS aren’t new, or alien to western experience, although we might like to think so. They share a lot with the dark heart of our own racist past, and maybe if we look back there we can find ways to stop these movements from happening in future. Maybe the enemy really is us.

 

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, that makes the rare achievement of building on its predecessors in the series to bring post-apocalyptic film-making to what must, surely, be its apotheosis. Visually stunning, with a brilliant sound-track, incredible pace, and a simple joy in hedonistic old-school road wars violence that is deeply infectious, this movie immerses you in its insane world from the very beginning and doesn’t let you escape until the credits roll. It is thorough in its vision of a grim, wartorn post-apocalyptic wasteland, unrelenting in pursuit of heady, dizzying action and absolutely frantic. But beneath its simple patina of gorgeous landscapes, sweeping chases and exciting stunts, it is also a movie of many layers, combining an uproarious vision of a freakshow post-apocalyptic death cult with a powerful homage to Australia’s alternative and bush culture, and a subtle nod to an eco-feminist critique of the societies that are driving to their own destruction. This is one of those movies that you can appreciate for its visual splendour and action sequences, but also that you can enjoy for its crazed Aussie clowncar humour, and contemplate afterwards in the light of its ecological and feminist politics. This, in my opinion, is the perfect balance of themes for a post-apocalyptic movie. It doesn’t make the mistake of unrelenting hopelessness that characterizes some movies like The Road; it doesn’t dull you to sleep with the empty spaces and silences of an empty world, like The Last Man on Earth or Legend; and it offers something more uplifting than the empty survivalism or post-human cynicism of much of the zombie survival genre. Through the post-apocalyptic setting it offers both excitement, gore and social critique, all couched in such a spirit of over-the-top, raucous and invigorating fun that surely only a zombie couldn’t help but at least slide into the scene and get that rev-head spirit going.

The introductory scenes of the movie leave us with a bewildering array of visions of craziness and freakish people that are confusing and overwhelming, as the scenes of Max’s capture are played through the tunnels and byways of what looks like a massive underground punk/skinhead garage. It will be some time before we figure out what’s happening to him or why, but before we do we’re given a sumptuous feast of the sick, the freakish and the mad as we watch the elite of the citadel lording it over their filthy crazed masses. This 10 minutes is like Peter Greenaway on speed, without purpose or sense, but then we hit the open road and get a few minutes to start putting it all in place – oh, that‘s why the women are being milked, that‘s why the freaks are running the circus, those women are running away from him! Then the trouble starts again and we’re back into chaos, but with a few sentences of expository dialogue (finally!) and the dawning realization of the trouble Max is in, and all of it set against a backdrop of classic 1990s Aussie sub-cultural monuments: the punk styling, the rev-heads worshipping V8 with their elaborate steering wheels, the skinhead warboys who’re whiter than Aryan and go all chrome and shiny to die on the Fury Road … In a couple of minutes of frantic action we’re shown an ecosystem, the skeleton of an apocalyptic death cult, and an entire aesthetic to go with it. Then the chase starts and we’re still absorbing it as Mad Max is roaring (or, more accurately, being roared) onto the Fury Road, which in this world is basically anywhere wheels can turn. But the freakshow doesn’t subside – just when you think you’ve seen it all, come to terms finally with the internally consistent madness of it all, new craziness pops into the scene, and tears up the desert with more chaos, and then makes sense again. What you see on the trailer – some dude in a harness with a flame-throwing guitar, a gigantic dude with oxygen tanks, that scary dude with the mask – that seems so over the top and stupid, it all makes its own brand of crazy sense before you’re even twenty minutes in, and you haven’t even met the object of all this craziness, or even the worst of it all yet. Then when it’s all said and done and you’re reading the credits and seeing who these people were – the Doof Warrior, Rictus Erectus, the Organic Mechanic, Nuks the Warboy – you realize you still didn’t get all of it because nobody told you their full name but every detail of their names is a homage to Aussie subcultures, especially the doof scene but also punk, hardcore and all the tattered, dreadlocked, bullet-studded chaos of the 1980s and 1990s underground. Here it is, flying out of your cinema screen in one last glorious death rattle of insanity, road-rage and revhead joy.

Beneath this infectious ecstasy of the open road the main characters are laying out an ecofeminist thesis. The basis of the story is a group of women – called the Wives – who are apparently genetically perfect (and very beautiful!) fleeing from their tyrannical husband Imortan Joe, with the help  of his best road warrior, a one-armed woman called Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron). Joe hopes to have healthy babies by these women, and keeps them locked up for his use until he can get a male heir to rule after he is gone. But they don’t want to be things, so they leave, and his warboys have to chase them. This is a pretty basic feminist plot, made stronger by a couple of narrative devices. First of all, the alleged hero of the show gets fridged at the very beginning – as in literally, nearly – and only gets drawn into the story by accident. He manages to fight his way to Furiosa’s side but his role in the story is just luck, he was meant to be just another thing back at the citadel and it’s pretty clear first, at least, that Furiosa isn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of bringing him along. He’s the passenger for much of the first quarter of this movie, and the chicks are driving the car. Then, these women are not helpless – they are agents of their own destiny, and act with all the tools, strengths and wiles at their disposal to make their getaway. They don’t know how to fight and they aren’t strong (and one is about to give birth) but they don’t let any of that stop them doing all they can to take charge of their situation. These women are also the expositors of the film’s ecofeminist thesis, using their few moments of dialogue (no one in this movie wastes breath speaking!) to drop a few choice eco-feminist koans. The crux of it all comes when one of the Wives is trying to push Warboy Nuks out of the truck, and they are arguing about whether she is one of the citadel’s folk or not. Nuks says that he is not to blame, but she demurs, and yells “Then who killed the world!?” before tossing him overboard. At another point one of the women is credited with calling bullets “anti-seeds”: you plant one and watch something die. These are classic tropes of eco-feminist thought, being delivered by strong women whose presence on the screen is inextricably tied to their femininity and their fertility, and a war being fought to control their powers of birth, that are so precious on this planet that (the implication is) was blighted by men like Imortan Joe. They don’t stand up to expound on a manifesto or to make demands or philosophical claims but every time these girls speak they say something linked to an eco-feminist creed. Even the first time we meet them, one of them is cutting off a chastity belt with teeth built into it, freeing herself of patriarchal sexual shackles, and the perverse vagina dentata fears that the patriarchy brings with them.

I must confess I love it when a good movie works an ideology into its very bones, but does it so well that even though you know it’s there you just get sucked along with it anyway. I have no care for Mal’s simplistic libertarianism in Serenity but I did love watching him righteously defend it; I can’t stand the authoritarian violent message underlying 300, or the way it elided Spartan slave-holding and paedophilia, but I loved watching those men fighting for their worthless cause. When a movie saturates itself with an ideology but does it so well that you either don’t notice or don’t care, or – best of all – everything makes sense in the context of that ideology, that is when you know a movie is well crafted. And Mad Max: Fury Road has carried this off brilliantly, with the rollicking plot and the rollercoaster of stunts and enemies and explosions and madness carrying you all the way to the eco-feminist oasis – and back again.

With this movie I think George Miller has drawn together a few ideas he was playing with in the first three Mad Max movies, but wasn’t quite able to pull off. We see hints of a feminist agenda in Beyond Thunderdome, with the powerful Aunty Entity running the town and trying to use Max as a pawn in her schemes. We see here too the role of oases and lost places as signs of hope, but in Fury Road Miller has been able to better combine them with the narrative of judgment on those who brought the world down that he played with in Mad Max 2. The whole thing is also carried off with a remarkable creative continuity: the names, the punk styles, the language of speech have a certain similarity to them, as do the baroque car designs and the hard scrabble economics of theft and hyper-violent rent-seeking. Even the actors are in some cases the same: Imortan Joe is Toecutter from Mad Max 1. This is a full campaign world Miller has created over the past 30 years, leavening it over time with better production values and now a much stronger environmental message, and maturing some other themes (like the role of power-mongers), but that campaign world has been remarkably consistent across all that time.

For all of these reasons, Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie well worth waiting 30 years for. Later this year Star Wars 7 will come out, and we have to hope that there, too, we will finally see continuity with the original legend after 30 years of lost chances. I am not holding my breath on that, but I can assure you, dear reader(s), that Mad Max: Fury Road is something special, and will redeem this year of cinema – and possibly this decade – no matter what happens at christmas. Watch it, and ride eternal, shiny and chrome!

 

Full of terrors ...

Full of terrors …

This is a level 7 cleric spell that does 10d10 damage per round (no save) to a single target. It also instantly grants the caster a profound insight into the psychology of everyone who witnessed the death of the target. After receiving this insight, the caster must make a save vs. death to avoid losing all respect for those whose mind she now knows.

[Warning: this post contains spoilers for both the TV show Game of Thrones and its associated books. Don’t read on if you haven’t yet got to season 5 episode 9]

So last night Stannis Baratheon did what any sane viewer of this show should expect him to do, both on character grounds (he’s a murderous arsehole) and metaplot grounds (George RR Martin is a murderous arsehole). But reading around the traps this morning it appears that a lot of people are shocked that Stannis – the man who killed his little brother with an abomination born through adultery to a psychopathic witch, and cut off his advisor’s fingers, and burnt Mance Rayder alive for shits and giggles – is willing to sacrifice his own daughter to the lord of light’s [insatiable] blood lust just when his entire life’s goal is going pear-shaped. Others are shocked that a show that threw a kid from a window in episode 1 – and allowed the incestuous arsehole who did it to redeem himself later! – and burnt two farmboys to death because of reasons, should somehow murder a noble child that everyone loves.

The Guardian has an excellent episode-by-episode blog of the show, with generally excellent above-the-line posts and great below-the-line banter, including by some dude who writes only in the voice of Stannis Baratheon. The blog writer, Sarah Hughes, declares that burning a child to death may be a step too far for her, in the same episode that we are shown another character paying to fuck a child and making it pretty clear that the child is going to be severely damaged by the affair (“you’ll have another one for me tomorrow,” he warns the brothel madam). This is not the first child we’ve seen burnt to death, or thrown from a window; it’s not the first barely-adult teenage girl we’ve seen murdered (though usually they’re raped first) and her fate is hardly special against the general backdrop of violence and murder in this show. What about that horrible little tete-a-tete north of the wall, where a bunch of men in black find a community in which a single man rapes all his daughters, murders their male children and raises the girls as sex slaves; and what do the crows do? They rebel against their leader so they can take the guy’s place. But burning some girl you were starting to like is a step too far? Lots of people in comments are complaining that this is outrage for the sake of it, suggesting that it’s just done to lure public attention or something (because the most pirated TV show in history really needs more press!) Have these people been watching the same show as me or is there some kind of politically correct, heavily pixelated version that Guardian readers can download? Because I can’t comprehend how anyone would be surprised that a man as cold, driven and vicious as Stannis Baratheon would burn his own daughter at the stake, or that burning a child at the stake is somehow a step further in any direction for this show. In response I can only think of that great Raul Julia line from Streetfighter: “For you it was the most important day of your life, but for me it was just … Tuesday.” This is not a show where a single extra dead child is going to tilt the scales.  Especially when you consider that the week before everyone was singing the praises of a 20 minute long battle scene in which multitudes of children died and were reanimated, and one excellent character was attacked and murdered by undead children.

There’s an obvious class analysis to be had here: how is it that some rich, educated girl in a dress dies and we are all up in arms about it; but no one notices the way that Sansa was completely relieved and happy to learn that two boys burnt alive were not her brothers. They’re just two farmkids, irrelevant in the scheme of things, their deaths a hapless accident that brings her joy because it confirms her brothers (real people!) are still alive. And of course wildling children aren’t even human, right? By now we’ve all become so complicit in the vicious intrigues of the elite that we’re now thoroughly indoctrinated into their code of combat: only rich people matter, and though their lives are expendable they should only be expended for a purpose. To channel Drew’s dialectical ephemeralist for a moment, quoting the Falcon:

Little people they liquidate. And time and again they cream your liquidation, your displacement, your torture and brutal execution with the ultimate insult that it’s just business, it’s politics, it’s the way of the world, it’s a tough life, and that it’s nothing personal.

In my opinion one of the great joys of this show is that it gets us complicit in the brutality and bloody-mindedness of the ruling elite that we should be despising, so that we even feel horror and indifference when they do. Sure, you burnt a few farmboys but I’m much more well-disposed towards you now I know they weren’t important; and sure, you raped and murdered a girl but rich boys will be boys, eh?

Which brings us to the obverse of this, which is the shock that many people on the ASOIAF reddit are apparently feeling that the show would lead Stannis to this bitter and barren path. I can’t read the reddit, because it contains spoilers (I tried and I think I just found out Jon Snow’s fate which is really annoying) but the word on the Guardian blog (and expressed by a few people directly there too) is that the reddit is up in arms about how the show “broke” Stannis’s character and goes against his character in the books. The latter argument is easily dismissed since apparently the show’s makers have revealed they got this little bbq party straight from George RR Martin; but the former is interesting. There are actually people out there who believe that it’s out of character for this murderous, devious, sinful man to kill his own daughter if it suits him – and worse still they don’t like him anymore. They’ve been led so deep into the psychology of the books that, I guess, they actually think his previous horror shows – the mass burnings, the satanic rituals, the fratricide, the prisoner-killing and the ruthlessness of his war tactics – are all signs of a good man. Presumably if he had just ordered all the guards on the picket tortured and hanged (which he did) and then held off burning his daughter everything would be a-okay … The truth, of course, is that there is nothing about Stannis’s conduct that is morally acceptable, and he is a deeply evil man. His daughter even said this, that picking sides was the reason for all the trouble in the first place and if everyone just stayed home none of this shit would hit the fan in the first place. I guess we’ll never find out where this logic would take her, since her dad decided to burn her alive in order to ensure the side he picked won.

It’s interesting that the readers of these books seem to be prone to picking up the psychology of the psychopathic ruling class to the extent that they can accept Stannis despite his many evil deeds; but they haven’t picked up the cosmology of the show that they can accept that the sacrifice of Shireen is obviously essential to the success of his mission (because of magic reasons). Because once you accept his religious fanaticism and the undoubted efficacy of his red witch’s powers, it’s obvious that when you’re in a bind you should burn whoever proves handy to her. It’s only morally beyond the pale for a man of Stannis’s sterling qualities if it’s useless, and it’s clearly not useless. But many people on the Guardian blog were protesting that it was senseless savagery, and many on the ASOIAF reddit appear to have the same view, and they can get behind a man who commits deeds too foul for words if they’re useful but they can’t accept a man who murders his own daughter because they think it’s useless. Is this ability to engage readers in the psychology of the books, but fail to bring them into the cosmology, a failure of George RR Martin’s? Or is it a failure of his readers’? Having not read the book I don’t know but I’m inclined to the latter because the people protesting this “senseless” savagery on the Guardian blog hadn’t all read the books, and so presumably had also managed to accommodate the ruthless logic of the TV show but not its magical cosmology. Is it a problem of the low-fantasy genre that we don’t believe the power of magic? Or is it just a problem when lots of people not steeped in the fantasy genre watch a fantasy show?

I think it takes special skill to get people to accept a deeply flawed and immoral world view so completely that it takes the burning alive of a schoolgirl to get us to snap back to our normal frame of reference. This is great work by the TV show’s creators, and really shows how far they’ve sucked their viewers into the horrible world they’ve created. Let’s hope next week they reward us for our complicity with a river of noble blood.

I’ll finish by quoting someone from the Guardian blog:

Guess i’m rooting for the Night’s King now then….

 

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 …

These nets can't be replaced

These nets can’t be replaced

Next weekend I will be running another short adventure in my Flood campaign world, and the adventure trigger will be the arrival near the Hulks of one of the drowned earth’s most potent environmental threats: the Miasma.

The Miasma is a special type of jellyfish swarm that can only exist in the depopulated aquatic deserts of the world ocean. With almost all land sunk thousands of metres below the surface of the ocean there are very few areas where fish can spawn and thrive, and huge expanses of the earth’s surface are too far from these spawning areas for larger fish to be able to survive in them. These areas, too far from fish populations to support any biodiversity larger than plankton, have become a strange and top-heavy ecosystem. Aside from occasional large predators migrating through, these empty wilds have become the domain of the grazers: whales, basking sharks and jellyfish that thrive on the plankton in surface waters. But the most efficient and terrifying of these open ocean grazers are the jellyfish, which sometimes by happenstance gather together into huge swarms, sometimes tens of kilometres across, that dominate the open ocean wherever they drift, and leave a terrible path of destruction behind them, like enormous army ants of the open seas.

The survivors of human civilization live in terror of these jellyfish swarms, which they call miasma. These swarms, though composed primarily of plankton-eating drifters, are also usually heavily infested with giant, slow-moving grazers and a large number of deadly predatory jellyfish. They consume everything in the ocean around them, and are an existential threat to the fishing grounds that most human communities zealously nurture. They also transform the atmosphere and sea around the swarm, turning the ocean into a kind of limpid swamp that offends the sensibilities of drifting raft communities, and is deeply toxic.

Most raft communities float on oceans more than 1000 m deep, and are as vulnerable to the currents as a jellyfish swarm. To maintain a reliable ocean food supply, the rafters carefully and systematically build up local ecosystems, which in turn feed a network of wild distant ecosystems. In areas like the Gyre, where a relatively large number of human communities live in close proximity, this produces a wider network of ecosystems that spread beyond the immediate vicinity of the rafts and support wildlife somewhat akin to the offshore ecosystems of the old world. But these systems are fragile, and require careful stewarding by the rafters. Every human community that floats on the waves has some system of undersea support for local fish life, that may be as simple as a series of sub-surface floating breeding beds made of old tires, or a complex architecture of reed beds and corals under the hulls and keels of the rafts. In the Gyre, where human communities are structurally large and complex, there are a host of shallow underwater structures that are thriving with sea life that once would have only existed at the shoreline: lobsters in nooks and crannies of the rafts, oysters growing on the old submarine superstructure that gives the larger rafts stability, and small fish breeding amongst every chain link, tyre underside, and submerged rope knot in the entire archipelago of floating human life. There is even a small community of sea lions on the Hulks. Every underwater structure is covered in sea weeds, and kelp grows downward and outward from the edges of the rafts. Further out, larger fish prey on the smaller fish, moving nomadically between communities and eating the larger fish that live further out from the human settlements. The residents of the Hulks put a lot of time into the care of these undersea communities, enforcing strict waste disposal rules and carefully tending weedbeds and corals to ensure that the ecosystem is balanced and thriving.

A miasma can end 100 years of this careful management and stewarding in a few days of insensate gorging. When the miasma overwhelms a human community it will consume everything that floats free in the water. All plankton and feeder fish will be sucked up by the filter feeders, and the larger fish will be found and killed by the predatory jellies. Sea mammals in the open water when the miasma hits will be entangled and drowned, or slowly paralyzed by the accumulation of stingers. The water the miasma carries with it is devoid of oxygen and highly acidic, and if the miasma is moving too slowly on the currents the effect of this tide of pollution will be to destroy all corals and weeds in the raft and its vicinity. Lobsters, crabs, prawns and octopuses that might be untouched by predatory jellies will suffocate in the miasma, and once the swarm has passed all that remains will be dead and rotting sea life. Sometimes the miasma does not pass, and the weight of its central parts will drag the raft community with it, leading to starvation and death for all those onboard. If the rafters do not realize the danger, escape may be impossible: small sailing ships do not have the power to escape the weight of jellyfish in the water, and most smaller powered vessels will have their rudders and rotors entangled, stalling them in the water. Once trapped in the sea of deadly stingers, there is no way to swim out. There are many stories of miasmas that are haunted with the ghosts of lost rafts and ships, and many people claim that they are more dangerous for a small raft community than the ocean’s storms.

There is no herding these slow beasts

There is no herding these slow beasts

The miasma carries its own meteorological phenomena, that in large part are the reason for its name. On the edge of the swarm freely moving predatory jellyfish hunt anything that moves, but in the body of the swarm are primarily filter-feeding drifters, some of them larger than a small boat. Near the centre of this gelid mass the sea becomes so thick with packed-together jellyfish that it is almost solid, and devoid of any other life. When the jellyfish here become too densely packed or when the swarm becomes too large, they die and rot, creating a fetid and stinking swamp of rot. The largest swarms becalm the sea around them, changing its texture so that waves are dampened and currents stop; there in the middle of this becalmed and dense swamp-like realm, the sun beats down and the sea heats up, giving off a stinking and rotten cloud of steam and heat haze that obscures the surface of the water. Most swarms above a certain size carry with them a thick, swamp-like haze that is impenetrable on all but the stormiest of days. Rumour has it that the largest swarms break up under their own meteorological effects: the heat from the centre creates storm cells that scatter the swarm and cast it about into smaller swarmlets. Usually one can smell the swarm before one sees it, because tendrils of this rot drift ahead on the currents. If one is lucky the swarm will be large enough and dense enough that the rafts can be moved out of the currents, or some kind of defenses prepared. But for the larger swarms, or for rafts adrift on a strong current, there is no defense: only prayer.

The miasma leaves problems long after its passing. In addition to destroying all marine life attached to the rafts, it will leave polyps on every surface, and every part of the underside of the rafts needs to be scoured clean to ensure that the raft does not, a year later, become the centre of its own swarm. Jellyfish will also destroy nets and befoul important undersea structures, their weight breaking precious ropes and chains, blocking inlets for power and water desalinators, and poisoning the water as they die and rot. Delicate floating solar panels will be damaged or lost, and the acidic water may do irreparable damage to the oldest and most fragile parts of a long-lived raft community. Small boats may be carried away under the pressure of the swarm, or their propellors and other underwater components entangled and ruined. The raft will also find itself floating in an open sea devoid of life, and any community that is used to catching fish in the immediate vicinity of its decks will need to find a way to venture further afield for food until the ecosystem rights itself – if ever it does. Most likely, though, the local ecosystem will be destroyed, and the rafters will need to make a call on other human communities they know to obtain new stocks of coral, shellfish and weed to regrow their precious ecosystem. Usually such help comes with a high price, that many communities cannot pay: they will then break up, and individual rafts will be forced to brave the open ocean as they seek new fishing grounds or functioning communities to join.

The larger communities are the most vulnerable, because they cannot move. These communities have found ways to ride out the miasma, or even to divert it, but their efforts almost always come with a great cost, in equipment and often lives. Where once jellyfish were annoying pests at the beach, they have now become the greatest terror of the open ocean, and for a community like the Hulks the onset of a major miasma is a threat that most of its residents will only ever see once in their lifetimes – if they survive it …

I’ve recently been building a fairly complex series of Bayesian spatial regression models in BUGS, and thought I’d share some tips based on hard won experience with the models. The various BUGS packages have the most cryptic and incoherent error messages of any stats software I have ever worked with, and although various Bayesian boosters claim that their modeling approach is intuitive, in my opinion it is the exact opposite of intuitive, and it is extremely hard to configure data for use in the packages. Furthermore, online help is hard to find – google an error message and you will find multiple websites with people asking questions that have never been answered, which is rare in the modern world. I take this as a sign that most people don’t understand the error message, and indeed the BUGS manual includes a list of errors with “possible interpretations” that reads more like the I Ching than a software guide. But Confucius say Enlightenment is not to be found in Black Box Pascal, so here is my experience of BUGS.

The models I’m running are complex, with nested conditional autoregressive structures and the higher level having more than 1000 areas with complex neighbour relationships, and millions of observations. I originally ran them on a completely hideous Hewlett Packard laptop, with 4 cores and 8Gb of RAM. I subsequently upgraded to a Dell Workstation (joy in comparison to HP’s clunky root-kitted horror) with 8 cores and 16Gb of RAM; I’m not sure that hardware is the main barrier to performance here though …

The HP machine had a secret administrator account (arseholes!) so I couldn’t install winBUGS[1], so I started off running OpenBUGS called through R’s R2OpenBUGS package running in RStudio. I use R to set up the data and initial values, because I can’t think of any other way to load millions of observations into a text file without going stir crazy. But when I call OpenBUGS it just hangs … no error messages or any other kind of indication of what is going on. I also can’t tell if it is happening at the data loading or compiling or inits stage.

Some digging around online and I found an old post by Andrew Gelman, observing that BUGS does not work well with “large datasets, multivariate structures, and regression coefficients.”

i.e. pretty much every statistical problem worth doing. Gelman also notes that “efficiently-programmed models can get really long, ugly, and bug-prone,” which seems like a contradiction in terms.

Anyway, noting that my data was large, with multivariate structures and regression coefficients, I thought maybe I should tone it down a bit so I tried using a higher level of spatial heirarchy, which reduces the adjacency matrix by an order of magnitude. Still no dice. It was at this point that I upgraded to the bigger computer.

On the bigger computer the smaller model actually worked! But it didn’t work in the sense that anything meaningful came out of it … It worked in the sense that it reported a completely incomprehensible bug, something like a node having an invalid value. I tried multiple different values and nothing worked, but somewhere on the internet I found someone hinting that you should try running BUGS directly rather than calling through R, so I tried this … having created the data in R, I killed OpenBUGS then opened the OpenBUGS interface directly and input the model, then the data, using the text files created by R[2].

When I did this I could step through the process – model was syntatically correct, then model failed to compile! Given that loading inits comes after compilation, an error telling me that I had the wrong initial value seems a bit misleading… in fact I had an “index out of range” error, and when I investigated I found I had made a mistake preparing one part of the data. So where the actual error was “the model can’t compile because you have provided the wrong data,” when called through R the problem was “you have the wrong initial values” (even though I haven’t actually loaded initial values yet).

WTF?! But let’s step back and look at this process for a moment, because it is seven shades of wrong. When you run R2OpenBUGS in R, it first turns the data and inits into a form that OpenBUGS can read; then it dumps these into a directory; then it opens OpenBUGS and gets OpenBUGS to access those files in a stepwise process – at least, that’s what I see R doing. If I decide to do the model directly in the OpenBUGS graphical interface, then what I do is I get R to make the data, then I use the task manager to kill OpenBUGS, then I call OpenBUGS directly, and get OpenBUGS to access the files R made in a stepwise process. i.e. I do exactly the same thing that R does, but I get completely different error messages.

There are various places on the internet where you might stumble on this advice, but I want to stress it: you get different error messages in OpenBUGS run natively than you do in OpenBUGS called through R. Those error messages are so different that you will get a completely different idea of what is wrong with your program.

Anyway, I fixed the index but then I ran into problems after I tried to load my initial values. Nothing seemed to work, and the errors were really cryptic. “Invalid initial value” is not very useful. But further digging on the internet showed me that OpenBUGS and WinBUGS have different approaches to initial values, and winBUGS is not as strict about the values that it accepts. Hmmm … so I installed winBUGS, and reran the model… and it worked! OpenBUGS apparently has some kind of condition on certain variables that they must sum to 0, while winBUGS doesn’t check that condition. A free tip for beginners: setting your initial values so they sum to 0 doesn’t help, but running the same model, unchanged, in winBUGS, works.

So either OpenBUGS is too strict, or winBUGS lets through a whole bunch of dodgy stuff. I am inclined to believe the former, because initial values shouldn’t be a major obstacle to a good model, but as others[3] have observed, BUGS is programmed in a completely opaque system so no one knows what it is doing.

So, multiple misleading errors, and a complex weirdness about calling external software through R, and I have a functioning model. Today I expanded that model back to the original order of magnitude of small areas, and it also worked, though there was an interesting weirdness here. When I tried to compile the model it took about three hours, and produced a Trap. But the weird thing is the Trap contained no warnings about BUGS at all, they were all warnings about windows (something called Windows.AddInteger or similar), and after I killed the Trap my model updated fine. So I think the compile problems I previously experienced may have had something to do with memory problems in Windows (I had no problems with badly designed adjacency matrices in the larger model), but OpenBUGS just doesn’t tell you what’s going on, so you have no idea …

I should also add, for intrepid readers who have got this far, that this dude provides an excellent catalogue of OpenBUGS errors with his plain English explanations of what they actually meant. He’s like this mystical interpreter of the I Ching for Bayesian spatial regressives. Also I want to add that I think the CAR spatial correlation model is super dodgy. I found this article (pdf) by Melanie Wall from the Journal of Statistical Planning and Inference (what a read!) that shows that the way we construct the spatial adjacency matrix is the primary determinant of the correlation structure, and that the correlation structure determined by this adjacency matrix is nothing like what we think we are getting. Today on my whiteboard and with the help of R I imagined a simple industrial process where each stage in the process is correlated with the one before and after it, and I showed very easily based on Wall’s work that the adjacency matrix required to describe this process is completely different to the one that you would naively set up under the framework described for CAR modeling. So I think most of the “spatial correlation” structures described using CAR models have no relationship to what the programmer thinks they’re entering into the model. But I have no proof of this, so I guess like everyone else I’ll just press on, using the adjacency matrix I think works …

So there you have it. Next time you see an opinion formed on the basis of a spatial regression model built in BUGS, remember the problems I had getting to the output, and ask yourself – do you trust that model? Really?

fn1: Well, I could copy winBUGS into the program files folder but I couldn’t patch it or install the immortality key, which, wtf? When I bought Time Series Modelling and Forecasting by Brockwell and Davis, ITSM came as a free disk with the book. When I buy the BUGS book I get to install software that comes with a big message telling me to get stuffed, and years later they finally provide a key that enables you to use it for free …

fn2: If you aren’t aware of how this works, basically when you call OpenBUGS in R, providing data from inside R, R first dumps the data into text files in the directory of your choosing, then OpenBUGS opens those files. So if you aren’t comfortable preparing data for BUGS yourself, use the list and structure commands in R, then kill OpenBUGS and go to OpenBUGS directly … the text files will remain in the directory you chose.

fn3: Barry Rowlingson does a pretty good job of showing how interesting and useful spatial analysis can be: see e.g. his post on mapping the Zaatari refugee camp in Syria.

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