Two great characters on the edge of chaos

Two great characters on the edge of chaos

On the weekend I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the new offering from JK Rowling. This movie is set in the Harry Potter world before the events of the Potter books, and I guess is intended to flesh out that world for a new generation of audiences. The movie itself is great and I strongly recommend seeing it, but the implications of some of its content for the broader world that Rowling has built, and for the viability of her vision of the world outside of the Potter stories, are dire. This movie raises some serious problems both about the structure of the world as it appears to have been envisaged, and also about the nature of the “good guys” in this world, and it rubs up against some of my complaints about the lack of imagination in modern fantasy. I’d like to talk a little about that and in doing so I’ll throw in a couple of minor spoilers, but first the movie itself.

This movie is set in New York in 1926, in the same world as the Harry Potter books. The main character, Newt Scamander, turns up just as a series of magical terrorist attacks are happening across Europe, blamed on some dude called Grindelwald. Scamander is carrying a suitcase full of magical creatures that he has collected for study, and by dint of a major series of accidents he ends up embroiled in a battle to save New York and a single child from a monster. In the process he gets caught up with a muggle (in America, a “no-maj”) called Jacob Kowalski, and two witches (sisters) called Tina and Queenie. he has to simultaneously protect his monsters from the US law that forbids all magical creatures (on pain of death apparently) and protect himself from the machinations of a sinister senior wizard called Graves. The result is a classic Rowlingesque rollicking adventure which in my opinion is in many ways superior to the Potter movies, primarily because it doesn’t involve children and doesn’t have the same weight of world-ending seriousness. It also lacks the stuffy public school atmosphere of those books, instead having a louche American roaring twenties atmosphere that makes it much more relaxed and fun. The setting, although completely different from the Potter stories, is seamless with them, and the movie manages to evoke the exoticism with which America was viewed by Brits back in the 1920s without deviating at all from the sense of the setting. In particular, the two women, Tina and Queenie, were genuinely exotic, in a very 1920s American way, and in my opinion Queenie in particular worked really well to separate the American setting from stuffy British Potter without in any way undermining the context of the original stories or this movie. The monsters were brilliant, either awe-inspiring (the Thunderbird, the Obscurus) or engagingly cute (the Niffler) and were true to the design principles and style of the original movies. Some of the interactions with them, especially the Niffler and the Thunderbird, were vintage Potter, and even if the movie had been in other ways second rate the rich scenes with the monsters would have saved it. But this movie is far from second rate: the action scenes are excellent, the pace is good, and the plot is a simple, coherent and believable story that comes to a quite well executed finale. It is internally consistent and doesn’t depend on the audience forgiving mistakes or suspending their disbelief, and has that feeling of a plot pared back to its essentials to make sure the viewer doesn’t have to do double takes or try to hold together a bunch of leaky ideas at once to accept the conclusion. It’s a big story but a tight, believable arc that holds the action together and keeps you engaged and enjoying it without thinking. It’s one of those movies which you know you would still have enjoyed even if the monsters were second rate – but they most definitely are not. The main characters are also great – Scamander, Queenie, Tina, the Niffler, and Graves are all excellent characters well acted. Scamander really comes across as the gentle well-meaning misfit that he is, as does Queenie, and Tina the slightly tragic investigator who hasn’t quite got it together. The only let down is the brief appearance of Johnny Depp at the end – I’m completely over Johnny Depp’s acting, though I used to like him, and I don’t want to see another one of his supposedly fresh and original but actually completely cookie-cutter eccentric performances outside of a Tim Burton makeover (which I won’t watch). I certainly don’t want to see it spoiling an actual decent movie. But besides his brief annoying cameo, everyone else was great. The movie has minor flaws, as most movies do, but they’re not worth even documenting. It’s great. See it. You will love it.

So what’s wrong with this movie? The first big flaw was the fact that this movie comes straight to the point about the magical administration ruling the parallel universe of witches and wizards in the Rowling setting: it’s straight-up fascist. Now I missed some of the Harry Potter books and movies (skipped the middle 77 and saw the underwhelming final two), but my impression was that in the modern era the magical administration is overtaken by a kind of military coup near the end and turns kind of nasty, but based on Fantastic Beasts it appears that the administration that was taken over by this supposedly nasty military emergency government was actually – well, not really any different to a military emergency government. Particularly striking was the ability of senior figures in the administration to summarily execute other wizards for minor crimes, without evidence or trial, to confiscate property and to invade people’s minds. Indeed, the person who gets the execution order is then put to death by one of her good friends in the administration, who seems to think the whole idea is fine, which suggests that there is a level of brainwashing going on in this organization that is up there with North Korea. Meanwhile this Grindelwald dude is running around the world trying to undermine the administration and blow the wizards’ cover and get them noticed by muggles – but when I see people being executed without trial by the wizard’s rulers I am not inclined to think he’s wrong. If it’s Rowling’s intention to flesh out the world of Harry Potter, she needs to be careful that she doesn’t flesh it out in a way that makes Voldemort seem like the good guy, because I was only a few minutes into this movie before I thought the forces of wizarding administration were the bad guys, and certainly halfway through I was assured of it. I should add that this seems to be a trend in movies recently, that the administrations of the “good guys” are way too evil to be good – I saw this also in the Bourne Legacy (awful movie, don’t bother) and pretty much any of the Avengers-type movies that I have been able to stir myself to watching. It’s really hard to convince myself to appreciate the good guys when the people they’re working for are, well, dictators and war criminals.

The other aspect of the movie that bothered me – and that dovetails with this fascist administration – is the callous difference between the wealth of wizards and the poverty of muggles. The movie starts with the no-maj, Kowalsky, going to a bank to get a loan to open a bakery. He needs a loan because he has no money, but the bank won’t give him one because he lacks collateral, and they don’t have infinite resources so they don’t want to risk some of their finite stock of cash on this dude with no money. This is classic scarcity economy stuff: nobody has enough resources. The bank dude points out to Kowalsky that there are machines that can produce a hundred doughnuts a minute, and Kowalsky replies by pointing out that his doughnuts are better because they’re hand made. Then halfway through the movie, Queenie bakes him a strudel that is better than anything he can make – and she does it in a moment, without touching it. Then at the end some wizards wave their wands and repair shattered and crushed buildings across New York[1] in a matter of minutes. We are repeatedly told that the wizards can’t allow their secret world to be discovered by muggles because this would spark a war – and you can see why. These wizards are sitting on power so great that they can rebuild shattered city blocks in a moment, and they’re hiding this power from their fellow citizens in a society that took years to build a single skyscraper. At the end of the movie Scamander leaves Kowalsky a suitcase full of silver eggs from one of his monsters, as collateral for his bakery loan – Scamander’s rubbish is worth more than anything Kowalsky owns. Yet these wizards and their fascist society refuse to reveal themselves to the normal people struggling all around them, for fear of starting a war.

They’re not the best people, are they? They could lower the veil, reveal themselves, have access to the institutions of a society of 3 billion people, and the cost for them would be that they might have to donate an afternoon a week repairing inequality and solving world hunger – but they are desperate to hide themselves from this society. It’s a deeply cynical view of who these people are – but these people are the people we’re meant to be sympathizing with. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I can’t. The only wizard who has anything good to say about this is Grindelwald, who wants to reveal the existence of wizards and make them deal with the human world. I think he kind of has a point, though he probably advocates slavery or something.

I don’t know where Rowling is going with this new series of stories – based on the first movie, it appears she’s going somewhere fun, which will be spoiled only by the presence of Johnny Depp – but if she doesn’t fix this little issue I can see it becoming increasingly difficult to paper over as she explores the context and social structures of Harry Potter’s world. I’m not convinced she can – Harry Potter, remember, is fundamentally a story about a boy who is born rich and receives everything he needs for nothing while those born poor struggle to get half of his benefits, even though they’re way better at what they do and work way harder – and although she’s probably a good enough story teller to get around it, for me this huge and glaring problem at the heart of the Potter world is going to only grow bigger as we see more of it. Harry Potter was a movie about the triumph of inherited wealth, in a class-based society (of the haves – mages – and the have nots – muggles – in the classically classist setting of England and public schools) and this movie is a story about the 1% – people so rich they can ignore the law of conservation of energy, and so idle and feckless that they refuse to share this power with the rest of society in case they might have to do a day’s work putting their powers to the service of those beneath them. But I am expected to side with the 1% in these movies. I don’t think I can do it for long.

But I could for this movie, which was fun. So watch it, enjoy the chaos and the sadness, and try not to think about the huge inequality at the heart of this fun and extravagant world.


fn1: Why do American movies love destroying their own cities? Is it a deep psychological scar?



On the weekend in addition to a fine session of Vampire: The Masquerade I managed to get my philistine arse down to the Tokyo National Art Center for an exhibition of paintings from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. I went with a Japanese friend, and while my friend was oohing and aahing at all the cool artwork, I was remembering my trip to Venice and imagining Drew smashing her culture chip and killing the Pope.

And so then I stumbled on this picture, which I think summarizes everything Drew was getting at when she got angry with the skeezy old men leering at the virgin Mary. I think this picture, which is called St. Jerome in Penitence and the Virgin and Child Appearing in Glory, contains a kind of potted summary of everything that is wrong with Christianity’s strange and tortured attitude towards sex. It features an old semi-naked man (Jerome) punishing himself for thinking lascivious thoughts, while staring at a small statue of a young man who was tortured to death by his father because everyone keeps thinking about sex, and all of this being stared at approvingly by the spirit of Mary, whose sole reason for being able to judge anyone for thinking sexy thoughts is that god made her pregnant against her will but she stayed pure. In this one picture we have sin, guilt, death, and purity, all deeply entangled with sexuality and heavily leavened with judgment. It’s hard to see on the internet version, but we also in the bottom left hand corner have a kind of terrified looking lion, nature subjugated – another core Christian ideal. It really is the Renaissance version of one of those tweets that people subsequently delete that tells you everything you need to know about their inner life, and wish you didn’t.

In addition to this picture of a skeezy old man punishing himself for being skeezy, the exhibition had a whole bunch of pictures of Mary being told that she was going to have a baby against her will. Impregnating someone against their will is now considered to be a pretty shifty form of abuse (even if it isn’t rape; it’s easy to find stories of abusive partners fiddling with contraception to try and get their partners pregnant), but it’s a central theme of Renaissance art (or at least it was in this exhibition). Mary looks pretty unhappy in most of the pictures where she’s being told this, but it’s hard to say that she really is – my friend said she looked like she was about to say “why me?” but in reality almost every person in almost every picture looked unhappy. I guess the Renaissance wasn’t a happy time, which is why all the models had Resting Bitch Face. But she certainly looked shocked, and the narrative accompanying some of the pictures made clear that she is supposed to be shocked.

As you would be.

But anyway as a consequence of giving birth to this damned child who grew up to be killed by his own father, she gets to hang out in heaven with another baby (the same baby? Seems to be the implication of the title of the picture – is heaven a kind of Groundhog day where she is constantly pregnant but never gets laid?) and cast judgment on all the men who are secretly dreaming about doing God’s work inside her. And this is the only payoff any of these pictures offer – the chance to judge others. Sure, there’s one picture of heaven, but it makes heaven look like the bottom 10% of that Iron Maiden Number of the Beast poster, where everyone is screaming and dying or fucking, only in the Renaissance version there’s no fucking. Renaissance paradise looked a lot more like hell than I think they intended, but that’s apparently the reward for a life of Resting Bitch Face and self-flagellation. Which I guess is why Bassano produced this monstrous visual rendition of his tortured inner soul.

Just to be clear for all the doubters and whingers, I’m not saying the picture is bad or shouldn’t be held in esteem or whatever. I didn’t like it, but I’m no critic and I don’t think I can separate my appreciation of the art from the nastiness of the content, so I couldn’t really appreciate it, but if people say it was influential and important then I’m happy to believe them. My point is merely that it says so much in one dense little package about the origins of so many of our modern problems with sex and sexuality. In that respect it is a thing of (horrid) beauty.

Two other random thoughts I had while wandering the gallery:

  • I wonder if these artists, all male, had actually seen many babies or any naked women? I don’t mean this facetiously, I really wonder. If raising babies was women’s work perhaps they didn’t see many, which might explain why the babies are all a) the wrong size and b) horribly ugly and c) painted like miniature adults. Perhaps they didn’t see much of their children? In the same vein I noticed that their men were much better drawn than their women and I wondered if perhaps they had never seen an adult woman who wasn’t their wife? I then started wondering – a lot of the women in the pictures look more like teenage girls, in particular their breasts are kind of half-formed and not mature. It made me think – could it be that the only people they could find as life models for female subjects were the children of poor families, and the reason that their women are so badly drawn and strange looking is that they were extrapolating from the budding female bodies of local 12- or 13-year old milkmaids?
  • The same day I went to see this I had read an article about terrifying new findings of highly antibiotic resistant bacteria in chickens and pork, accompanied by more warnings about the dire threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Of course the Renaissance was a time before both antibiotics and the contraceptive pill, not to mention advanced cancer treatments, and it’s likely that most of the older people in the pictures are suffering from various ailments that we just can’t imagine being an issue for the kind of rich people depicted in the scenes – tooth decay, chronic pain, chronic headaches due to poor eyesight, that sort of thing. Maybe Mary looked unhappy in all those paintings because she had a chronic UTI? If so, anyone who doubts the threat of AMR for our future quality of life should check out a hall of Renaissance paintings and ask themselves – do I want to go back to that??

This exhibition really impressed upon me that I don’t like this kind of art. Of course I find it interesting and I engage with the exhibition, even if in this case my random speculations may seem a bit facetious. But ultimately it doesn’t seem like good art to me, and the messages it contains are quite horrible. As a document of our past it’s fine, of course we should respect it and view it etc., but when I look at art like this I always leave overwhelmed by all the horrible ideas behind it, and I really think that to properly present this art to a modern audience some kind of sensitivity to or discussion of these issues would make for a better viewing experience. In this case the majority of the audience were Japanese, so it’s probably just a curiosity to them, but for westerners looking at this art it is really rich in themes that we may not be able to express clearly in words but which I think hit us anyway, and a bit more engagement with how those themes affect modern audiences might help them to react a little less viscerally to some of the denser, nastier stuff. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an exhibition of this skeezy ancient art that has made any attempt to engage with these more controversial aspects, and I expect I never will. But I think it would be nice. And I think until we do begin to engage with these underlying archaic values consistently and clearly, we’ll never really see them swept away.

Which is what I want to see. I want to see this creepy undercurrent of death and guilt and dirt washed out of our sexual substrate, so that we can get on with the business of being sexual unencumbered by our necromantic origins.


Today I saw Independence Day: Resurgence, because I wanted to watch something stupid with big explosions and I have forgotten enough of the original to make it feel like I was doing something novel. Of course it was fun – big things got blown up, there were tidal waves and monstrous destruction, heroic fighter pilots taking on the behemoth, etc. But it was also, pretty much from the start, a showcase for everything that is wrong with modern action movies. Except that it’s fun to watch shit blow up, this movie was a completely execrable effort.

It had the usual problems one learns to live with in modern action movies: speeches that are meant to be stirring end-of-the-world heroic efforts but are actually just kind of lame; random shifts in timing that mean that a 4 minute countdown to human extinction takes an hour, but a day-long trip to the moon happens at the speed of plot; American triumphalism that is so common and boring now that it might as well be part of the scenery; and military dialogue that is meant to be snappy and jocular but just comes across as wooden (everyone wants their soldiers to be like Aliens or Dog Soldiers but they just come across as macho try-hards). This movie struggled under the additional burden of occasionally being a bit top-gun like, and having a bunch of relationships between male leads that were way too closet-homosexual (a problem since Top Gun, I guess). I’m pretty sure that two scientists were meant to be gay (one gets killed of course because that’s the rule for same sex relationships) but I don’t want to impugn the actors – they may just have been terrible actors whose ineptitude came across as camp.

But one learns to live with this kind of thing. This movie was weighed down by bigger problems than these – the kind of problems that are too common in modern action movies, and really ruin them. Here are some of these problems, with spoilers (which I hardly think you need to care about – if you go into this movie thinking any of the non-gay heroes are going to die, or that the human race was ever under any real threat, you really do deserve a medal for your naivete).

The pointless alarms: I think there were at least three points in the movie where a major character has a breakthrough of some kind – usually, in this movie, because they have some deep connection to the alien mind – that enables them to realize that there is a big problem coming up, such as a major attack or a trap. Their discovery/revelation of this big issue is a major scene in the movie, and they rush to tell everyone, but in every instance they’re too late. Everyone finds out at exactly the point that the character reveals the issue, because the issue happens right then. There’s a whole subplot of this movie about how some humans were affected by contact with the alien hive-mind and they get insights into the alien’s plans from this contact, but every single time they rush into the control room to yell “it’s a trap!” or appear on the podium to say “they’re coming!” or whatever, it’s irrelevant – the trap springs a moment later, or the shadow of the spaceship is already overhead, or the top secret weapon is activated by someone else who has no connection with the aliens whatsoever. But of course none of our heroes (except the gay one) are allowed to die, so then we are treated to this ridiculous series of complications and implausible events that enable the heroes to escape the trap, or survive the sudden arrival of the alien spaceship, or whatever. The movie would be so much simpler and less irritating and more coherent if these realizations – and all the backstory necessary to support them – were stripped away; or, so much more tense and self-consistent if the warnings came in time to change the course of the story. Instead, since the story writers are complete idiots, the plot is constantly annoying you with this irrelevant backstory to justify urgent warnings that make no difference.

The bad guy’s plans are just dumb: All too often this kind of movie has a bad guy who could win everything by sticking to a simple plan that works, like flying a 3000 km long spaceship over the Atlantic Ocean, blowing up everything in your way, and then sucking all the molten metal out of the earth’s core. Instead, the bad guy does stupid shit that doesn’t make any sense, either from a practical planning point of view or within the framework of the particular form of implacable evil that the bad guy represents. Sometimes the problem is just that the bad guy’s overall plan for world domination is such obvious bullshit that it should be comedy, like when the Joker (or was it the Penguin?) planned to put hallucinogens in the Gotham City water supply and then rule the world (?!). In this movie though it’s the more common problem that the evil bad guy has a simple plan that doesn’t require any embellishment, and so the embellishments don’t make any sense; and then at the end the bad guy does something completely irrational that obviously is high-risk and doesn’t match the bad guy’s personality at all. In this case, having proven that the 3000km long spaceship can destroy every orbital defense in a second, control gravity sufficient to tear entire cities into the sky, and drill a hole to the earth’s core in a day, the bad guy has to lay some kind of trap to lure a few of earth’s bombers inside its 3000km long spaceship and then blow them up. Why? Why doesn’t it just wipe them all out in a millisecond and keep on about its business? And how does this trap in any way relate to its subsequent ability to destroy all the earth’s satellite communications? (The movie suggests that they are linked somehow). This is just incoherent. Of course then subsequently, having proven that it has a spaceship capable of destroying any opposition and protecting it from any harm, the evil bad guy decides to depart in a much smaller ship and attack the main human base, which is heavily defended, rather than just sending minions. Suddenly the bad guy goes from being an implacable insect mind of infinite evil and cruelty to a vengeful viking with no common sense. This kind of sudden change in behavior really obviously was just done to make the plot work, and when the writers betray the principles of the characters so that they can make a story, you just find yourself thinking they’re arseholes with no respect for their audience.

The pointless sacrifices that don’t matter: It’s apparently impossible to send a guided missile through a hole the size of a large crater in this super-technological future, so instead a bunch of brave dudes have to commit to a suicidal run to get that weapon in there, and then of course it doesn’t work anyway because the whole thing was a trap. This might make sense except that moments earlier we’ve been told that the air force will use drones to break down the 3000km long spaceship’s (previously impervious!) shields. I’m sorry, but if you want me to place some value on a person’s self-sacrifice, you actually have to give me a reason why they should kill themselves.

Being a dickhead idiot jock never has consequences: Apparently when you work on a top-secret high-value moon base that holds a weapon so powerful it can destroy massive alien spaceships, that is the prize of earth’s fleet, you can just steal a spaceship, go to earth, pick up a couple of guys you think you might need (who incidentally never told you where they were) then return to the moon and be given no punishment. You can also nearly destroy that weapon by your own stupidity, then do something really reckless to stop it being destroyed, and be grounded for a day. Even though it’s your third offense, and your first offense involved destroying an experimental jet and nearly getting your buddy killed. Here’s the thing, idiot hollywood writers: jocks aren’t cool. They’re bullies and dickheads. You don’t make them cooler by making their bullying, reckless, stupid behavior consequence-free. When you do that you just make most of the audience like them less, and wonder why they’re cheering these people on.

The cataclysms that don’t: This 3000km long spaceship settled over the Atlantic and created a tidal wave so great that it washed away Florida, and hurled cargo ships around like matchsticks; but a tiny salvage ship full of dodgy dudes out in the middle of the Atlantic, a mere kilometre away from the source of the ship’s death ray, was completely untouched and not even rocked by a wave. In case you’re thinking “oh but that was just the eye of the hurricane, right?” the writers are sure to make it clear that this is the only ship left in the area. Similarly we see these ordered refugee columns fleeing the destruction and leaving a lane of the road open for people to pass them by, and we see a rain of destruction in which one city is dropped on another city but our heroes’ valiant spaceship is completely undamaged by being in the middle of it all. This kind of thing is really annoying because it tells you immediately that all the death and destruction you’re going to see is not a threat to your heroes – they’re immune to everything and anything, and the story will make this clear repeatedly, so that by the end you’re bored of the supposed “challenges” they get caught in. Why should I invest any energy into supporting the struggle of a bunch of dudes who I know are going to make it out no matter what, because they’re jocks?

Once, just once, I would like to see one of these movies go through all these stupid errors and then in the last 20 minutes wipe out the earth and kill all the heroes because they’re reckless fools. That, of course, is never going to happen. So instead I have to sit through these movies full of shlock in order to see a few things blown up. I guess if writing these kinds of stories were difficult this might be okay, but I’m a GM and I know how to make a simple plot that involves lots of violence for a good purpose; plus I’ve seen movies like Die Hard, Aliens, Starship Troopers and Dog Soldiers which are able to make a simple story hang together in a believable way, even though every aspect of every one of those movies is completely unrealistic.

This shit is really not difficult to get right. Why is it so hard for modern Hollywood blockbusters to make a decent action movie?

Hot on the heels of a (probably wrong) paper on ivory poaching that I criticized a few days ago, Vox reports on a paper that claims schools that give away condoms have higher teen pregnancy rates. Ooh look, a counter-intuitive finding! Economists love that stuff, right? This is a bit unfortunate for Vox since the same author has multiple articles from 2014 about rapidly falling birth rates that are easily explained by the fact that teenagers are really good at using contraceptives. So which Vox is correct, 2014 Teens-are-pregnancy-bulletproof Vox that cites national pregnancy and abortion stats, or 2016 give-em-condoms-and-they-breed-like-rabbits Vox that relies on a non-peer-reviewed article by economists at NBER? Let’s investigate this new paper …

The paper can be obtained here. Basically the authors have found data on school districts that did or didn’t introduce free condom programs between 1989 and 1993, and linked this with county-level information on teen birth rates over the same period. They then used a regression model to identify whether counties with a school district that introduced condom programs had different teen pregnancy outcomes to those that didn’t. They used secondary data, and obtained the data on condom distribution programs from other journal articles, but because population information is not available for school districts they used some workarounds to make the condom program data work with the county population data. They modeled everything using ordinary least squares (OLS) regression. The major problems with this article are:

  • They modeled the log of the birth rate using OLS rather than directly modeling the birth rate using Poisson regression
  • Their tests based on ratios of teen to adult births obscures trends
  • They didn’t use a difference in difference model

I’m going to go through these three problems of the model, and explain why I think it doesn’t present the evidence they claim. But first I want to just make a few points about some frustrating weaknesses in this article that make me think these NBER articles really need to be peer-reviewed before they’re published.

A few petty complaints about this article

My first complaint is that the authors refer to “fighting AIDS” and “AIDS/HIV”. This indicates a general lack of familiarity with the topic: in HIV research we always refer to the general epidemic as the HIV/AIDS epidemic (so we “fight HIV/AIDS”) and we only refer to AIDS specifically when we are referring to that specific stage of progression of the disease. This isn’t just idle political correctness: patterns of HIV and AIDS differ widely depending on the quality of notification and the use of treatment (which delays progress to AIDS), and you can’t talk about AIDS by itself because the relationship of AIDS and HIV prevalence depends highly on the nature of the health system in which the disease occurs. The way the authors describe the HIV epidemic and reponses to it suggests a lack of familiarity with the literature on HIV/AIDS.

This sloppiness continues in their description of the statistical methods. They introduce their model as follows:

Condom model

But on page 10 they say that the thetas represent “county and year dummies” and that the Tc represents “county-specific trends”. These are not dummies. A “dummy” is a variable, not a parameter, and “dummies” for these effects should be represented by an X multiplied by a theta. In fact the theta and Tc are parameters, and in any kind of rational description of a statistical model this model is written wrong. It should be written with something like ThetacXc where Xc is the dummy[1].

This kind of sloppiness really offends me about the way economists describe their models. This is a simple OLS regression of the relationship between the log of birth rate and some covariates. In epidemiology we wouldn’t even write the equation, we would just list the covariates on the right hand side. If anyone cares about the equation, it’s always the same and it’s in any first year textbook. You don’t make yourself look smart by writing out a first year sociology equation and then getting it wrong. Just say what you did!

So, with that bit of venting out of the way, let’s move on to the real problems with the article.

Another model without Poisson regression

The absolute gold standard correct method for modeling birth rates is a Poisson regression. In this type of equation we model counts of births directly, and incorporate the population as an offset. This is a special case of a generalized linear model, and it has a special property that OLS regression does not have: the variance of the response is directly related to the magnitude of the response. This is important because it means that the uncertainty associated with counties with small numbers of births is not affected by the counties with large numbers of births – this doesn’t happen with OLS regression. Another important aspect of Poisson regression is that it allows us to incorporate data points with zero births – zero rates are possible.

In contrast the authors chose to use an OLS regression of the log of the birth rate. This means that there is a single common variance across all the observations, regardless of their actual number of births, which is inconsistent with the behavior of actual events. It also means that any counties with zero births are dropped from the model, since they have no log value. It also means that there is a direct linear relationship between the covariates on the right hand side of the model and the outcome, whereas in the Poisson regression model this relationship is logarithmic. That’s very important for modulating the magnitude of effects.

The model is, in fact, completely inappropriate to the problem. It will give the wrong results wherever there are rare events, like teenage births, or wherever there are big differences in scale in the data – like, say, between US counties.

Obscuring trends with a strange transformation

I mentioned above that the article also uses the ratio of teen to adult births (in age groups 20-24) to explore the effect of condom use. Figure 1 shows the chart they used to depict this.

Figure 1: The weird condom diagram

Figure 1: The weird condom diagram


Note that the time axis is in years before and after implementation of the program. This is a highly deceptive figure, because the schools introduced condom programs over 4 years, from 1989 to 1993. This means that year 0 for one school district is 1989, while for another it is 1992. If teen births are increasing over this period, or adult births are decreasing, then the numbers at year 0 will be rates from four different years merged together. This figure is the mean, so it means that four years’ worth of data are being averaged in a graph that only covers ten years’ worth of data. That step at year 0 should actually occur across four different points in time, within a specific time trend of its own, and can’t be simplified into this one diagram.

Note that the authors only show this chart for the schools that introduced a condom program. Why not put a similar line, perhaps in a different color, for school districts that didn’t? I suspect this is because the graph would contradict the findings of the model – because either the graph is misrepresentative of the true data, or the model is wrong, or both.

This graph also makes clear another problem with this research: the authors obviously don’t know how to handle the natural experiment they’re conducting, since they don’t know how to represent the diverse start points of the intervention, or the control group.

Lack of a difference in difference model

The authors include a term for the effect of introducing condom distribution programs, but they don’t investigate whether there was a common effect across condom distribution and non-condom distribution regions. It’s entirely possible that school districts without condom distribution programs also saw an increase in teen pregnancies (1989 is when MTV came out, after all, and all America went sex crazy. It’s also the year of Like a Prayer, and Prince’s song Cream was introduced in 1991. Big things were happening in teen sexuality in this period, and it’s possible these big things were way bigger than the effect of government programs.

Statistics is equal to any challenge, though[2]. We have a statistical technique for handling the effect of Miss Calendar grooving on a wire fence. A difference-in-difference model would enable us to identify whether there was a common effect during the intervention period, and the additional effect of condom promotion programs during this period. Difference-in-difference models are trivial to fit and interpret, although they involve an interaction term that is annoying for beginners, and they make a huge difference to the interpretation of policy interventions – usually in the direction of deciding the intervention made no difference. Unfortunately the authors didn’t do this, so we see that there was a step change in the intervention group, but we don’t see if there might have been a similar step change in the control group. This effect is exacerbated by having county-specific time trends, since it better enables the model to adapt to the step in the control group through adaptively changing these county-specific trends. This means we don’t know from the model if the effect in the intervention group was really confined to the intervention group, and how big it really was.

The correct model

The correct model for this problem is a Poisson regression modeling teen births directly with population as an offset, to properly capture the way rates change. It would be a difference-in-difference model that enables the effect of the condom programs to be extracted from any general upward or downward steps happening at that time. In this model, figure 1 would be replaced by a spaghetti plot of all the counties, or mean curves for intervention and control not rescaled to ensure that the intervention happens at year 0 for all intervention counties, which is misleading. Without doing this, we simply have no evidence that the condom distribution programs did what the authors claimed. The ideal model would also have a further term identifying whether a condom program did or didn’t include counselling, to ensure that the authors have evidence for their claim that the programs with counselling worked better than those without.

I’m partial to the view expressed that counselling is necessary to make condom programs work, but Vox themselves have presented conflicting evidence that teenagers are perfectly capable of using condoms. Given this, explicitly investigating this would have provided useful policy insights. Instead the authors have piled speculation on top of a weak and poorly-designed statistical model. The result is a controversial finding that they support only through very poor statistical modeling.

The correct model wouldn’t have been hard to implement – it’s a standard part of R, Stata, SPSS and SAS, so it’s unlikely the authors couldn’t have done it. It seems to me that this poor model (and the previous one) are indicative of a poor level of statistics and research design teaching in economics, and a lack of respect for the full diversity of statistical models available to the modern researcher. Indeed, I have a Stata textbook on econometrics that is entirely OLS regression – it doesn’t mention generalized linear models, even though these are a strong point of Stata. I think this indicates a fundamental weakness in economics and econometrics, and leads me to this simple bit of advice about models of health and social behavior prepared by economists: they’re probably wrong, and you shouldn’t trust them.

I hope I’m wrong, and Vox don’t keep vexing me with “explainers” about research that is clearly wrong. I don’t hold out much hope …

fn1: for those digging this far, or who often stumble across this horrible term in papers they read, a “dummy” is just a variable that is either 0 or 1, where 1 corresponds to the event of interest and 0 to not the event of interest. In epidemiology we would just say “we included sex in the model”. In economics they say “we included a dummy for sex.” This is just unnecessary jargon.

fn2: Except the challenge to be fun.


Today the Guardian reported on a new study that claims a large sale of legal ivory in 2008 actually led to an increase in illegal elephant poaching. Basically in 2008 China and Japan were allowed to pay for a large stockpile of legally-obtained ivory, in the hopes that this would crash the market and drive ivory traders out of business. Instead, the study claims, the sale led to a big increase in poaching – approximately a 66% increase in elephants killed, according to the study. This is interesting because it appears to put a big dent in a common libertarian idea for preserving endangered species – that allowing a regulated trade in them would lead to their preservation. It is also one of those cute findings that puts a hole in the standard just-so story of “Economics 101” that everything is driven by supply and demand. We all know that in reality there are many factors which moderate the effect of supply and demand on crucial markets, and on the surface this study appears to suggest a quite contradictory supply and demand relationship in illegal poaching markets, in which increasing supply boosts poaching. But is it true?

The Guardian report links to the original study, which is held at the National Bureau of Economic Research behind a paywall, but which I managed to get a copy of through my work. I thought I would check the statistical methods and see if the study really did support this conclusion. My judgment is that this study is quite poor, and that the data doesn’t support that conclusion at all, due primarily to three causes:

  • A poor choice of measure for illegal poaching that doesn’t clearly measure illegal poaching
  • The wrong choice of statistical method to analyze this measure
  • The wrong experimental design

I will go through each of these reasons in turn. Where equations are needed, I have used screenshots from the original paper because I’m terrible at writing equations in html. Let’s get started.

The PIKE is a terrible measure of illegal poaching

The study is based around analysis of a data set of “legal” and “illegal” carcasses observed at search sites in 40 countries. Basically a “legal” carcass is an elephant that died on its own, while an illegal one is one that was shot and looted. Apparently poachers don’t bother to clean up the corpse, they just cut off the ivory and run, so it’s easy to see when an elephant has been poached. However, because no one knows the full details of elephant populations, the authors study an outcome variable called the PIKE, which is defined as the ratio of illegal carcasses to total carcasses. In their words (screenshot):

PIKE equation

They say that this enables them to remove the unknown population from the outcome by “normalizing” it out in top and bottom of the ratio. They justify this with a little proof that I am not convinced by, since the proof assumes that probability of discovering carcasses is independent of the number of carcasses, and that legal mortality and illegal mortality are not related in any way. But even if it factors out population, this PIKE measure doesn’t tell you anything about illegal poaching. Consider the following hypothetical scenario, for example:

Imagine a population of elephants in which all the older elephants have been killed by poachers, so only the pre-adult elephants remain. Every time an elephant becomes mature enough to have decent tusks a poacher kills it and the corpse is found. Further, suppose that the population is not subject to predation or other causes of legal mortality – it is young, and the environment is in good shape so there are large stocks of easier prey animals for lions to target. This population is at high risk of collapse due to adults being killed as they mature; indeed, let’s suppose no babies are born because adults are poached as soon as they reach sexual maturity. Thus every time an elephant is killed, the population drops by one towards its inevitable crash.

In this case, at every time point the PIKE would be 1, because there are no legal carcasses. The PIKE will remain 1 until there are no elephants left to die, at which point it will jump to infinity. It doesn’t tell us anything about the impending population collapse.

Consider now a situation where there are a great many more legal deaths than illegal deaths. Denoting illegal carcasses by y and legal carcasses by x, we have y/(y+x) where y<<x. In this case we can approximate the PIKE by y/x, and if e.g. the number of illegal carcasses suddenly doubles we will see an approximate doubling in the PIKE. But suppose y is approximately the same as x. Then we have that the PIKE is approximately 1/2. Now suppose that the number of illegal carcasses doubles; then the PIKE increases to 2/3, i.e. it nowhere near doubles. If the number of illegal carcasses again doubles, it increases to 4/5. But if all deaths drop to 0 it then increases to infinity … So the magnitude of the increase in PIKE is not a direct reflection of the size of the change in poaching, and in at least one case even the direction is not meaningful. That is not a well-designed measure of poaching. It is also scale free, which in this case is a bad thing because it means we cannot tell whether a value of 1 indicates a single illegal carcass or 10 illegal carcasses. Similarly we don’t know if a value of 1/2 corresponds to 1 or a million illegal carcasses; only that however many there are, they are half of the total.

The authors say that this variable is constrained between 0 and 1, but this is not strictly true; it actually has an additional non-zero probability mass at infinity. This strange distribution of the variable has implications for model choice, which leads us to the second problem with their data.

All the models in this study were poorly chosen

The authors choose to model the PIKE using an ordinary least squares (OLS) model with fixed effects for country and a (separate) fixed effect for each year. An OLS model is only valid if the residuals of the model are normally distributed, which is a very strong assumption to make about a variable that has lots of values of 0 or 1. The authors claim their residuals are normally distributed, but only by pooling them across years – when you look at residuals within individual years you can see that many years have much more normally distributed residuals. They also don’t show us the crucial plot of residuals against predicted values, which is where you get a real idea of whether the residuals are well-behaved.

An additional consequence of using an OLS model is that it is possible to predict values of the PIKE that are unphysical – values bigger than 1 or less than 0 – and indeed the authors report this in 5.6% of their data points. This is indicative of another problem – the PIKE shows a non-linear response to increased illegal kills (see my example from 1/2 to 2/3 to 4/5 above), so that for a fixed number of legal kills each additional illegal kill has a diminishing effect on the value of PIKE, but a linear OLS model assumes that the PIKE changes by a uniform amount across its range. Given that the goal here is to identify increases in the PIKE over time, this runs the risk of the model over- or under-estimating the true effect of the 2008 ivory sale, because it is not properly modeling the response of the PIKE score.

The authors try to test this by fitting a new model that regresses ln(illegal carcasses+1) against a function that includes ln(legal carcasses+1) like so:

PIKE alternative model

This introduces a new set of problems. The “+1” has been added to both variables here because there are many zero-valued observations, and ln(0) doesn’t exist. But if there are lots of zero-valued observations, adding one to them is introducing a big bias – it’s effectively saying there was an illegal carcass where previously there wasn’t one. This distorts low numbers and changes the patterns in the data. The authors claim, furthermore, that “The coefficient on legal carcasses φ will be equal to unity if the ratio of illegal carcasses to legal carcasses is fixed”, but this is both nonsensical and obscures the fact that this model is no longer testing PIKE. It’s nonsensical because that is not how we interpret φ. If φ=1, then we can rewrite their equation (8) so that the left hand side becomes the natural logarithm of (illegal carcasses+1)/(legal carcasses+1). Then we are fitting a linear model of a new variable that is not the PIKE. We are not, however, assuming the ratio of illegal carcasses to legal carcasses is fixed. If φ is not 1, we are modeling the natural logarithm of (illegal carcasses+1)/(legal carcasses+1)^φ. The ratio here is still fixed, but the denominator has been raised to the power φ. What does “fixed” even mean in such a context, and why would we want to model this particular strange construction?

The authors do, finally, propose one sensible model, which is similar to equation (8) (they say) but uses a Poisson distribution for the illegal carcasses, and still fits the same right hand side. This is better but it still distorts the relationship between illegal and legal carcasses by adding a 1 to all the legal (but not the illegal) carcasses. It also doesn’t properly account for elephant populations, which is really what the legal carcasses serve as a proxy for. There is a much better way to use the legal carcass data and this is not it.

Finally there are two other big problems with the model: It uses fixed rather than random effects for country and site, which reduces its power, and also it doesn’t include any covariates. The authors instead chose to model these covariates separately and look for similar spikes in specific possible predictors of ivory usage, such as Chinese affluence. The problem with this is that you might not see a strong spike in any single covariate, but multiple covariates could move together at the same time to cause a jump in poaching. It’s better to include them in the model and report adjusted poaching numbers.

The wrong experimental design

An expert cited in the original article noted this interesting fact:

The Cites spokesman also noted that there had never been a one-off sale of rhino horn: “However, the spike in the number of rhinos poached for horn largely mirrors what has been seen with ivory. The illegal killing of rhino for its horn in South Africa alone increased from 13 in 2007 to close to 1,200 last year.”

This suggests that there has been an upsurge in illegal poaching across Africa that is independent of the ivory sale, and could reflect changing economic conditions in Africa (though it could also reflect different markets for ivory and rhino horn). It’s possible to test this using a difference-in-difference approach, in which rhino poaching data is also modeled, but is treated as not having been exposed to an intervention. The correct model specification then enables the analyst to use the rhino data to estimate a general cross-species increase in poaching; the elephant data identifies an additional, elephant-specific increase that could be said to be due to the ivory sale. The authors chose not to do this, which means that they haven’t rigorously ruled out a common change in poaching practice across Africa. If the CITES spokesman’s point is correct, then I think it likely that we would conclude the opposite to what this study found: that compared to rhinos, elephant poaching did not increase nearly as much, and in fact the ivory sale protected them from the kind of increased poaching observed with rhinos.

Indeed, it’s possible that there were poachers flooding into the market at around that time for other reasons (probably connected to development and increasing demand in Asia), but after the ivory sale most of them switched to killing rhinos. That would suggest the sale was successful, provided you aren’t judging that success from the standpoint of a rhino.

A better model: Bayesian population estimation followed by Poisson regression

It’s possible to build a better model using this data, by putting the legal carcass data to proper use and then using a correctly-specified Poisson regression model on the illegal carcass data. To see how different the results might then look, consider Figure 1, taken from the Appendix of the paper, which shows the actual numbers of illegal carcasses in each year.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Distribution of illegal elephant kills, 2002 – 2013 (year is above its corresponding histogram)

Does it look to you like the number of elephants killed has increased? It certainly doesn’t to me. Note that between 20 and 50% of observed data are 0 kills in all years except 2002 (which the authors say was the start year of the data, and exclude from their analysis). Can you strongly conclude any change from these figures? I haven’t shown the legal kill data but it is broadly similar in scale. Certainly, if there is any upward step in illegal kills in 2008, it could potentially be explained simply by changes in populations of elephants – if even a small change in elephant density leads to an extra 1 or 2 extra kills per site per year, it would lead to distributions like those in Figure 1. To me it seems likely that the single biggest determinant of elephant kills will be the number of elephants and the number of poachers. If we assume the number of poachers (or the pace of their activity) changed after 2008, then surely we need to consider what happened to the population of elephants overall in 2008. If it declined, then poachers might catch the same number as 2007; if it increased, they would catch more.

The best way to analyze this data is to directly adjust for the population of elephants. We can use the legal kill data to do this, assuming that it is mostly reflective of elephant population dynamics. It’s not easy, but if from published sources one can obtain some estimate of the mortality rate of wild elephants (or their life expectancy), a Bayesian model could be built to estimate total population of elephants from carcasses. This would give a credible interval for the population that could then be used as what is called an offset in a Poisson regression model that simply modeled counts of illegal kills directly against time. The advantage of this is that it uses all 0 count events, because a Poisson model allows for zeros, but it adjusts for the estimated population. I think the whole thing could be done in a single modeling process, but if not one could obtain first a distribution of the elephant population, then use this to simulate many different possible regression model coefficients for the effect of the ivory sale. In this model, the effect of the ivory sale would simply represent a direct estimate of the relative increase in mortality of elephants due to poaching.

Then, to complete the process, one would add in the rhino data and use a difference-in-difference approach to estimate the additional effect of the ivory sale on elephant mortality compared to rhinos. In this case one would find that the sale was protective for elephants, but potentially catastrophic for rhinos.


Based on looking at this data and my critical review of the model, I cannot conclude that the ivory sale led to an increase in poaching. I think CITES should continue to consider ivory sales as a tool to reduce elephant poaching, though with caution and further ongoing evaluation. In addition, based on the cited unnamed CITES spokesman, evidence from rhino culling at the time suggests the sale may even have been protective of elephants during a period of increased poaching; if so, a further big sale might actually crush the business, although there would be little benefit to this if it simply drove poachers to kill more rhinos.

With regard to the poor model design here, it shows a lot of what I have come to expect from economics research: poor definition of an outcome variable that seems intuitive but is mathematically useless (in health economics, the incremental cost effectiveness ratio shows a similar set of problems); over-reliance on OLS models when they are clearly inappropriate; poor model specification and covariate adjustment; and unwillingness to use Poisson or survival models when they are clearly most suited to the data.

I think there is lots of evidence that legal markets don’t necessary protect animals from over-exploitation (exhibit A, the fishing industry), but it is also obviously possible that economic levers of supply and demand could be used to kill an illegal industry. I suspect that more effective, sustainable solutions to the poaching problem will involve proper enforcement of sales bans in China and Japan, development in the regions where poaching happens, and better monitoring and implementation of anti-poaching measures. If market-crushing strategies like the 2008 ivory sale are going to be deployed, development is needed to offer affected communities an opportunity to move into other industries. But I certainly don’t think on the evidence presented here that such market-crushing strategies would have the exact opposite of the intended effect, and I hope this poor quality, non-peer-reviewed article in the NBER doesn’t discourage CITES from deploying a potentially effective strategy to stop an industry that is destroying a majestic and beautiful wild animal.

The age of degenesis has begun ...

The age of degenesis has begun …

My group’s regular member Grim D returned from his annual Christmas holiday in Germany bearing a sleek black rule book for a German RPG called Degenesis, revised and newly translated into English. We were astounded by this book, both for the beauty of its contents and the scale of the project it represents, and as soon as we opened it we became obssessed. We played the first session of a short campaign last weekend, and this is my review of the good and points of this incredible game.


Degenesis is described by the developers as “Primal Punk” role-playing, set in a post-apocalyptic future 500 years after Eschaton, a meteor fall that laid waste to the earth, unleashed radical climatic changes, and released strange spores that mutate human and non-human life. In this far future humanity has regained some form of functioning society but struggles in a world ravaged by both the aftermath of disaster and the emergence of new, dangerous forms of genetic mutation called “homo degenesis”. Europe suffered the worst of the meteoric damage, and in the aftermath of the disaster Africa became ascendant – but Africa too suffers from the strange ecological changes that fell from the sky. Africans raid Europe to take slaves back to their rich lands, and the people of Europe pick over the bones of their past trying to recover even the smallest semblance of their past glory.

The rules are divided into two books: Primal Punk, which describes the world, and Katharsys, which describes the rules. In Primal Punk you learn in great detail about the history of the apocalypse and the strange things that happened afterwards, as well as the main cultures – Balkhan, Borcan, Neolibyan, etc. – that dominate the post-apocalyptic landscape and the cults from which character classes are drawn. By the time you’ve read 300 pages of history and cultural background, you are ready to begin creating a character you hope might survive this brutal ecological hellzone.

Fascist in a wetsuit

Fascist in a wetsuit

Raw passion and beauty perfectly combined

The first thing to say about this game is that it is a creation of unrivaled beauty. I haven’t seen anything as well designed and perfectly conceived since Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay back in the 1980s. The mere books themselves are a robust and imposing presence, two solid black (or white) minimalist tomes packed in an apocalypse-proof cardboard sleeve. They are constructed of high quality glossy materials, easy to read and handle, and liberally strewn with art of eye-catching beauty. The pages carry subtle prints that change according to the section, giving an atmosphere to the book without overwhelming the reader, and there are a series of symbols and iconography that are carried throughout the text. Chapters and sections of chapters start with quotes from a small cast of famous writers, ensuring that a coherent feeling of post-apocalyptic foreboding envelops the reader. Everything has a punk/skinhead/goth artistic style, as if the whole project were banged out in a squat in East Berlin to the sound of dark sub-cultural music – for example, the symbol for the Clanners cult looks a lot like something from an Einsturzende Neubauten album, and a lot of the iconography and imagery is drawn straight from pagan-core or deep ecologist/punk imagery. There’s also a healthy strain of fascist imagery and iconography throughout the text, most especially in the ever-present influence of the Spitalians, flamethrower-wielding medical extremists who will happily burn a village to save it.

Furthermore, there are movies: two trailers have been produced for the game which really beautifully capture the loneliness and desolation of the post-apocalyptic world, as well as the culture of the Spitalians who play a central role in the iconography and history of the game.  This is one of those projects were nothing was left to chance, no image or artwork allowed to jar with the theme of the books or their aesthetic, and every available medium has been used to ensure that the world completely engages its players. But what of the game itself?

Throwback in Borca ...

Throwback in Borca …

Culture, cult and concept: a simple and flexible character creation system

Characters are created by combining a culture, a concept and a cult. Cultures are the broad national groups of the post-apocalyptic world. The world has been torn asunder and smashed together, so that for example Britain, Ireland and France are merged into one culture. Choice of culture affects the upper limit that can be attained for some skills and attributes, and also the choice of cults available to the character. The player can then choose one of 20 or so concepts such as The Adventurer or The Chosen which further affect upper limits on skills and attributes. Finally a player chooses a cult, which determines yet more upper limits. Cults are broadly speaking the same as character classes, but most cults have a couple of different paths one can take. For example, I’m playing an Apocalyptic who specializes in deception and stealth (called a Cuckoo) but there are others devoted to battle or assassination; the Spitalians may be medics or they may be fighters, or a little of both.

Once these are chosen the player assigns points to skills and attributes, to take them up to their limit. The player must also choose whether their character will be primal or focussed; this choice rules out one skill and rules in another, and determines how a character will interact with the world. You can test all of this yourself with an online character generator, or see the stats for my character here. After this one also chooses backgrounds, such as resources, renown or authority, that affect your PC’s relationship to the cult of which he or she is a member.

Finally, cults have ranks, with names, and rank attainment depends on skills and backgrounds. These ranks come with benefits and responsibilities, and sometimes choice of one rank rules out development trees in others. This whole system in combination is very flexible and detailed and really makes a big break from the standard race/character class approach to character development. It also loads your PC up with a whole bunch of background narrative that extends far beyond the limited background one normally finds in fantasy systems. You haven’t even started playing and already your character is a rich and deep person…

Time ... to sacrifice everything

Time … to sacrifice everything

The system: Elegant dice pools and sudden violence

The system uses a d6 dice pool mechanism with the pool constructed from the sum of attribute and skill with modifiers, including penalty dice. Successes occur on a 4-6, and any 6 is an extreme success called a “Trigger” that enhances the outcome (e.g. every trigger is +1 damage in combat). More 1s than successes indicates a botch, and the target number of successes is set by the difficulty of the action or by an opposed skill roll by the target. For example, my character Sylvan has a 6d6 dice pool with his blade bracelet, and against an active target this will usually need to hit a target of 2. Every trigger adds one to damage, and the base damage for his blade bracelet is 3, so there’s a good chance he will hit someone who is not actively dodging and do 4-5 points of damage. He has a special talent (called a “potential”) that enables him to subtract 1d6 from the opponents active defense dice pool for every trigger he rolls, and if he rolls 2 triggers he gets a second attack. So if for example he rolls a 1,3,3,4,6,6 on his dice roll then he has three successes and two triggers. If his opponent is defending actively the opponent reduces his defense pool by two dice (for the two triggers). If his opponent fails to roll at least three successes then Sylvan will do 3+2 damage (for the two triggers) and then get a second attack (because of the two triggers). It’s a simple dice pool system that enables a rich range of outcomes without having to delve into multiple types of dice or special rules on criticals, etc. There are also systems of extended actions which enable triggers from the first part of the action (e.g. riding a horse) to carry over to the second action (e.g. attacking).

Combat is also very violent. Characters have a small pool of flesh wounds and an even smaller pool of trauma wounds, and they die when the latter hit 0. Armour takes off damage, but every trauma wound applies a -1D penalty to all actions. For example, my character Sylvan has a leather coat (2 points of soak), about 10 flesh wounds and 5 trauma wounds. A single crossbow bolt does 10 points of damage, so he will survive one if it doesn’t have too many triggers but will definitely go down to a second. The edginess of combat is further enhanced by the use of Ego in initiative. Characters have a small pool of Ego points (about 8 in Sylvan’s case) that they can use to boost initiative rolls and to add dice to the first action of the round. Initiative is rolled every round, and ego points are spent secretly. So if you spend 3 points in round 1 you get an extra 3D on your initiative and your first action, raising the possibility of killing your target instantly.

However, once your Ego reaches 0 you are unable to fight – and some characters attack Ego, which is recovered only slowly. Combat in this system is more vicious than anything I have seen in other games, and definitely best avoided. Especially since the best healers are eugenicist maniacs who will burn you as soon as treat you …

This extreme violence leads to one of the first problems I see with this game.

The flaws of an ultra-violent system

The adversary we killed in the first adventure, the Blacksmith, was a legendary figure in Scrapper history, but we wasted him in a round. This happened because the extremely violent system means that big bosses are vulnerable to large groups of low-level people. Even though he acted first, the Blacksmith could only harm one of us, and we were then all able to deliver 5-10 points of damage to him each in that first round. Tesla, in fact, delivered 22. Wounds and armour don’t scale with levels, so a Scrapper Cave Bear won’t have five times as many wounds as a beginning Scrapper. This means that if a GM doesn’t deploy a big boss with minions to screen him or her, the boss will go down in seconds. It also means that in order to have a boss tough enough to put up a fight, it’s likely the party will have to lose members quickly. This is fine if you’re into campaigns where people die quickly and get replaced, but many players aren’t and it creates strange narrative twists to have new characters popping up in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. I suspect it will also mean that players soon learn to start characters with specific weapons to ensure that they get the first death in combat. This isn’t a flaw per se, but I think it means the system will encourage a certain style of play and GMing that won’t be to everyone’s taste (fortunately, this style is very much to my taste!)

The problem of loaded histories

Another, potentially bigger problem this game faces may arise as a consequence of its own richness. Moreso than any game I have played except perhaps World of Darkness, this game has a deep and complex history and cultural milieu that is deeply interwoven with every aspect of character development and play. This makes it a great game to read and an awesome product just to have in your RPG library, but also means that the typical avenues of creativity and expression open to players and GMs may be shut down. For players there is always the option to build your own clan, giving some flexibility to character creation, but I think this richness and density of background material may be felt as constricting by some GMs. If you’re the kind of GM who likes to have a set of tools to build your own worlds with, then this game won’t work for you – once you’ve read the background material – and especially if your players are really into the background material – you’ll find it very hard to insert your own creative impulses into the game. I’m not GMing this system so I don’t know, but from the outside it looks to me like a game where the GM has to deploy their creativity very much within the confines of the given history and background, rather than against it. I think for some GMs this will make the game superficially appealing (all that rich material is ready to use!) but ultimately frustrating, because every action available to them is restricted by the canon.

Go get 'em!

Go get ’em!

Conclusion: Degenesis is a really great game

But oh what a splendid canon it is! And what a luscious, awe-inspiring introduction to that canon. Degenesis redefines standards in modern gaming, not only in terms of the sheer physical commitment to the production of the game but also the intellectual and artistic energy devoted to the content. This is no shabby low-grade kickstarter delivered late on poor-quality paper, but a real tour de force of creative energy by a small team who really have pushed the boundaries of what modern game designers are capable of. It’s fun to play, in a coherent and well-imagined world brought to vivid, stunning life by a high quality and beautiful physical product. Even if you never play it, this game is a worthwhile addition to your gaming library, but if you get it then I recommend you do try and play it because it is a simple, elegant and enjoyable system in a rich gaming world that has been brought to life for you with such loving attention to detail that you cannot help but want to wade into that spore-infested, violent future.

Enjoy it, but remember: There will come a time when you have to sacrifice everything!

Art note: the pictures are all from Marko Dudjevic, the artist for the game, whose work can be found on DeviantArt.

Review note: I am going to write a post in future specifically about the twisted politics of the game, including some of the controversy about the fascist imagery. I don’t think it detracts from the game, but more on that later.

Be sure to return your books before the due date ...

Be sure to return your books before the due date …

I’m in grim London for a week, doing some work at Imperial College while the looming skies glower down on me. One great thing about flying ANA to London is you get to see Japanese-language movies with English subtitles, something that’s almost impossible if you live in Japan. Since my Japanese is not yet good enough to properly understand TV (except, strangely, Darwin ga kita), I like to take this opportunity to enjoy a movie I wouldn’t otherwise understand. This time around I stumbled on Library Wars: The Final Mission, a hilarious movie about librarians at war with the state that ultimately made no sense and was vaguely unsatisfactory.

The basic premise of Library Wars is that the government has set out to censor all published work through the Media Betterment Act, but after a violent battle in which 17 people died the Librarian association declared themselves implacably opposed to censorship and established a Library Defense Force that responds violently to attempts to censor books. Naturally in the ensuing years things have escalated, and now there is this kind of hyper-violent kabuki drama in which the Media Betterment Committee turn up to a library and declare that they will inspect it; then the Library Defense Force refuse on the grounds of the Libraries Freedom Act Clause 33; then the Media Betterment Committee tells them they will attack the library for a period of one hour; then they shoot each other for an hour; then everyone goes home[1].

How this makes any sense to anyone is a complete mystery to me, but that’s the background. The movie follows a junior member of the Library Defense Force (LDF), a girl called Kasahara san who is (secretly) in love with her instructor, Dojo san, and is also a klutz and a ditz in a very charming way. She is based in the main base of the LDF, at Musashino (which is near my home), along with Dojo and random other characters. They are charged with escorting the original copy of the librarian association’s statement of principles to an exhibition on freedom at Ibaraki prefectural museum, where they will guard the book at any cost. As they prepare for this mission we see that the older brother of one of the LDF members, Tezuka san, is involved in a cunning scheme in conjunction with the Ministries of Education and Justice to destroy the LDF and end librarians’ independence.

The first half of the movie sees this scheme played out, largely pointlessly, and involving Kasahara san in a random kind of weird plot. Then the second half is an extended battle between the LDF and the Media Betterment Committee soldiers at the Ibaraki Prefectural library. This extended battle is a bit boring since it largely involves lines of soldiers with shields shooting at each other but it’s also hilarious because it takes place in a massive library, so there’s lots of shooting of books and stuff. Also Dojo and Kasahara san end up behind enemy lines so there’s a bit of skullduggery and hand-to-hand violence. There is a surprising amount of brutal slaughter by the end of it, certainly sufficient to convince me that being a librarian is a tough job. To me the ending of the whole thing didn’t make any sense, but then I didn’t really expect it to because how can a story involving a war between librarians and the government have any resolution that makes any sense? It’s madness.

The movie has several good points: the acting is good, Kasahara’s character is really cool (though why she likes grim arsehole Dojo is a mystery to me) and the scheming older brother Tezuka is a good evil dude. Some of the battle scenes are entertaining for either their stupidity or their brutality. But overall the movie suffers from a completely incomprehensible justification, an increasing chain of implausibilities that inevitably get built on top of this background, and a few sections that are emotionally overwrought but probably make sense if you’re into the valour and self-sacrifice aspects of war movies (I’m not; I just keep thinking to myself “this shit is not worth dying for”). Also, the link between the plot to undermine the LDF in the first half and the big battle in the second half is tenuous and not really even attempted, so it’s like a movie with two unrelated stories squished together for no apparent reason.

Like almost every Japanese sci-fi I have ever seen that is set in Japan, the movie also suffers from the tired “Agency A is in conflict with Agency B and they’ll kill anyone to win” basic narrative hook. You see this all the time going as far back as Ghost in the Shell, and I think it’s really boring and often incomprehensible (later Ghost in the Shell instalments have so many mysterious and poorly-explained organizations competing with each other that I just can’t be bothered). I see this plotline, along with the inevitable sacrificial near-total destruction of the good guys that happens in so many Japanese sci-fi movies, as an unresolved trauma from World War 2, where the Japanese defeat was at least partly due to conflict between Army and Navy and the war probably wouldn’t even have started if the idiots in the army had been willing to work with their own government instead of trying to overtake it. I also find this plotline annoying, boring and often incomprehensible, so I’d like to see it just dumped and some other kind of idea take its place. Of course that’s not going to happen for a Library Wars movie, since the Librarians Militant need someone to fight against and it wouldn’t be cool if they were murdering people who return late books (although a spin-off assassin movie on this theme could be fun I suppose). I probably should have thought of this before I turned on the movie, but it was fun fluff for a 12 hour plane trip.

In summary, I don’t think it’s a great movie but some of the characters are nice, it’s smoothly done, and if you want a fun two hours that you don’t have to think about too much that involves a lot of killing and shooting, I can recommend it.

Also return your books on time, or Kasahara san will break your arms.

fn1: More background can be found in the description of the novels on which this movie is based.

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