Horses have never really liked me ... this one has just caught on.

Horses have never really liked me … this one has just caught on.

Last week I was invited by collaborators to attend the Nomaoi horse festival in Minamisoma, Fukushima. This festival dates back 1000 years, to the warring states (sengoku) period, and appears to have arisen from some kind of training ritual. It was cancelled in the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake but has otherwise been held every year, even during the war (as far as I know). It is a big event for the towns of Soma and Minamisoma, and I and other collaborators were invited as guests of our local project collaborator. He arranged us excellent seats for all the events, souvenirs and a formal dinner, so overall it was an excellent event. It’s a major tourism event for the town, but it’s also clearly of huge importance for the town itself, with (I think) this year 504 horses and riders participating, and probably an equal number of footmen.

Summoning the beasts

Summoning the beasts

The ceremony lasts three days, but I only saw the second day. This day starts with a parade through town by the samurai, all mounted on their horses and wearing their ceremonial armour. They are arranged in groups according to their sponsors: the most important sponsors are the three shrines that are the focus of the day, but other groups – suburbs, companies, etc. – can also sponsor a squad. The squads are arranged in the style of the armies of old, with a general, colonels, etc. Higher orders wear flags on their backs, and ride ornately decorated horses. They stop at regular intervals along the parade to announce their purpose, and occasional small dramas of military life are played out (with comedic overtones) during these moments.

A peasant's last sight

A peasant’s last sight

This parade is surprising for the amount of activity it involves – in addition to general’s conferences, there are occasionally lieutenants charging up and down the line, drummers announcing the arrival of a new squad, announcements of names and faces over a loud-speaker, and occasional tumbles – I saw one man thrown from his horse, and the people opposite me nearly got run down. The riders are all ages and sexes and all classes – I saw one of my collaborators (an internal surgeon) on horseback, followed soon after by a heavily made-up girl who would probably be judged to be pretty low-class by the locals (I’m not a good judge of these things). Very elderly men rode by on plodding draught horses, followed by children on ponies. The trappings were largely traditional, with the stirrups, saddles and girth all apparently modeled on the ancient fashion. We’ll come back to that …

After the parade we returned, with military precision, to our base camp for a 10 minute rest, and then headed to the racecourse. Here, the braver warriors gathered to race each other around a 1000m circuit as a huge crowd watched. This racecourse would also be the venue for the final battle, so I was to spend several hours here in our covered tent, enjoying my obento lunchbox and my free beer, and watching warriors try to kill themselves.

The battleground and warriors in transit

The battleground and warriors in transit

I say “kill themselves” because the races were incredibly dangerous. I watched 6 races, with 6 participants per race, and out of the 36 participants identified the following events:

  • 3 fallen riders
  • 2 hospitalized riders
  • 4 escaped horses
  • 1 injured horse

Fun for all the family! The riders fell because they were hurtling around a tight track on horses without proper stirrups, with massive flags strapped to their backs. The horse fell because it tripped over its rider. No one was wearing a helmet. This is the most dangerous festival I have ever seen in Japan, by a long shot, and with an injury rate of 1 per 12 participants would have to be one of the most injury-prone sports I have ever seen. It was at times quite hideous to watch.

Finally after the races were (mercifully) finished we got to enjoy the final battle. This battle is a mad scramble to catch flags falling from the sky, in which all the (surviving) samurai gather in the centre of the racecourse and charge after the flags. The flags are, of course, hurled aloft by fireworks, shot out of a kind of mortar, that explode with a huge roar high above the gathered horses. Standing on the hillside, I could look behind me to some of the resting horses and see how they panic when the fireworks cracked. Horses and fireworks mix so well, why not start a battle with a massive explosion? And then do it 10 times? The warriors compete for 40 flags, fired into the air over 10 bouts. I left after 4 bouts, and in that time I saw two warriors fall from their horses – and when they landed they were still wrestling over the flag they had caught. Now that’s commitment …

Capture the flag, samurai style

Capture the flag, samurai style

This festival is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining event, well worth taking the opportunity to view. It’s edgy, exciting and historical, and everyone gathered there is really involved. I strongly recommend, if you’re in Japan at the end of July, making a trip to Minamisoma to experience this unique Japanese event. Just don’t participate if you value your life!


Imagine our planet sends out a colony ship, to colonize some distant planet. It’s flying at near light speed, but the journey is still expected to take about 300 years; time dilation effects on the ship mean shipboard it’s only, say, 150 years – 5 or 6 generations. While the ship is speeding to its destination, development continues on earth, and about 100 years after launch they discover faster-than-light travel. By the time the colony ship reaches its destination the planet has already been colonized, populated, developed and matured. The colonists arrive to a huge party, to discover their mission was pointless.

If you were one of the middle-aged residents of that colony ship, would you be happy with the society that sent your great-grandparents out into the dark? You spent your entire youth and young adulthood in a tin can, for nothing except the promise that soon – in your lifetime – you would arrive at a new world and have the chance to make a unique contribution to human history. Instead, some bunch of cosseted earth-siders got their first, because they had the good fortune to be born 200 years later. Your contribution becomes a footnote, for which you waited 40 years in the freezing dark, drinking your own piss.

Crooked Timber has an interesting discussion about the viability of colonizing interstellar space, started from one of John Quiggin’s economists’ assumptions. In amongst all the technical jiggery-pokery about giga-joules and the Great Filter, a few people have pointed out the moral bankruptcy of colony ships, based on the simple and obvious fact that the children are being born into a tin can, and have no way out. Thinking about this at the gym (which, presumably for weight purposes, a colony-ship wouldn’t have), it occurred to me that the moral issues associated with colonization are getting a lot more real than those discussed in the Crooked Timber post, and that we need to be aware of a serious risk of moral hazard, and of serious ethical challenges, in our lifetime. I speak, of course, of the Mars One private mission to Mars.

Mars One and moral hazard

Mars One aims to settle up to 40 humans on Mars by 2025, on a one way mission. The mission will be financed by some kind of Big Brother style TV show documenting the (no doubt fascinating) process of colonizing Mars. The settlement is intended to slowly develop, even to ultimately be able to expand using local materials – hopefully to even build a dome of some kind large enough to grow trees. But it is likely that for the foreseeable future it will be dependent on supplies from Earth, and that these supplies will be coming through the parent company – which is financing itself through the sale of research opportunities and the TV options. For a few years this seems like a pretty viable source of income, but people will get bored of the Mars TV, and anyway we don’t know what will happen to that parent company. This all raises the very real possibility that the company will fail, at which point those people on Mars are ostensibly going to be cut off from their supplies. There is also the possibility that they will breed out there in the Red, and that their children won’t be happy about their birth situation. Which raises two scenarios demanding attention from the people of earth:

  1. The company goes bust, and suddenly the task of supplying those 40+ people (80 if the adults have been breeding efficiently) falls on … who? A government will have to step in and bail out those people, because no one on Earth is going to tolerate the possibility that 40 or more people in the world’s first ever interstellar colony will starve to death because of a corporate bankruptcy. This project is too hope-y to fail. Once the company gets those shmucks onto Mars, the rest of the world is going to be basically strong-armed by morality and sentiment into backing the project no matter what. And given that currently there are only three groups – NASA, ESA and Russia – capable of getting stuff to Mars, this means it will be Europe, the USA and Russia that foot the bill if anything goes wrong. This is classic moral hazard, banker bailouts on an interstellar scale (if not financial magnitude): the private company raises a couple of billion bucks to sink into a stupid high-risk project and then, when it collapses, for reasons not predicted by the regulatory authorities, it can’t be allowed to go down.
  2. The company continues, and the settlement is a success, but the Children of Mars decide they would like to swim in the sea. They point out to their earthbound cousins that they didn’t ask to be born in a Mars colony and they would like to go home. If the original company is gone under this problem will be even more pronounced: not only is the ESA and NASA supplying the adults, but now the kids point out (quite reasonably) that they want out of their squalid little collection of domes. But nobody has the means to get them out. That wasn’t planned for. To get them out, space agencies will have to send the component parts for a rocket, then the fuel, and the folks on Mars will have to assemble that rocket, and with no option for test flights, the kids will hop on and come back to Earth. That’s a hideously expensive project, but someone on Earth is going to have to foot the bill and it’s going to be very hard to deny that responsibility. Of course, once the kids start going back, the adults will demand the same right. Which means that Earth has to either tell them – we’ll keep supplying you till you die, in a society with no children (who’s going to care for you?), or “sure, you made this decision 20 years ago when you were young and stupid, but we’ll bail you out now.” That’s classic moral hazard.

You can see the way this will play out on earth, but in case 2) it is possible that the original inventors of the project will be dead. No one will even be around to be angry at. And, in a really visceral way, no one is going to be able to say no. Of course one can imagine other scenarios: imagine that the first settlement was made by the USA under Kennedy, and they were willing to spend 2% of their GDP on it; 40 years and a couple of financial crises later, with an increasingly oligarchical and corrupt government, suddenly Americans have a huge public debt and a weird resistance to growing more, their economy is declining, economic power is shifting east – but they still have to commit to sending supplies to That Stupid Colony. The kids of the new era might think they had been shackled with an unreasonable burden (“we could spend that money on Obamacare”) but of course, their choices about it are restricted to either abandoning the colony to starve, or paying some fantabulous amount of money to bring them back. This is hardly a fair choice to saddle your grandkids with. And of course, the original colonists are the people who made the stupid choice to go there, but even if you made them pay they wouldn’t be able to – no human being can work off a debt that size.

Note also the costs of supply will escalate if there are unforeseen medical problems associated with low gravity: then money will have to be sunk into solving the problem, and not by the company that sent them up there. And who is going to educate the kids? That is usually a state responsibility, but no one is going to be setting up a school on Mars. A solution will have to be found based on some kind of school of the air.

But there are other, unpleasant moral issues that will arise in the future of such a colony.

The morality of forced interstellar stardom

Mars One aim to pay for their project through some kind of television project, that will start from 2025. No doubt for a short time this will be hugely popular, but after a few years of watching people wandering around in a couple of inflatable domes the viewers are going to get tired. Revenues will decline. The company will have growing costs though, as the colony needs supplies to feed more members. What will the company do? It might be able to make up the shortfall in research services (“you want to investigate that crater? We’ll send a rover”) but there will be a limit to this, and of course as they try to sell more research services the price will go down. So then, naturally, they will begin to try to make the TV show more appealing. And how are they going to do that?

Zero-G porn.

Of course, for starters they’ll use the usual run of Big Brother-style offerings: stupid game shows, conflict, diary-room confessions, titillating shower scenes (well, maybe not, on Mars). But this will pale after a few years, and we all know what will happen next. Pressure will be brought to bear. Things will be done. People’s relationships will be laid bare. The failing relationships will be filmed; the young couples getting together; people’s most private moments. And the colonists will face an unpleasant choice: the person who supplies your water is telling you you need to make your tv show more “appealing” by doing X. Will you refuse? Probably not. And then, of course, there will be children in all this. Will they even be told about the cameras? At some point they will realize that all their earliest years of development were being filmed against their will by some arseholes a billion kms away, and watched by a million more arseholes. When they come of age, into their tiny domed town of 100 people, they’re probably going to have some righteous wrath saved up.

What will they do? What should we do about what they’re going to do, what has been done to them? When these kids, who have never been to a prom (but have seen prom-date movies), who have never been to a nightclub (but have watched music videos), who have a choice of, like, 6 partners (but have watched a thousand rom-coms) demand to return to a land with trees and standing water, what are the people on earth going to say to them? “We enjoyed watching you grow up on a strange planet, but we can’t afford to have you back”?

What does a riot look like, in a domed city made of plastic on a world with no atmosphere?

There is also, of course, the endless possibility for horror in this settlement. Suppose a dome blows, and the usual emergency systems don’t work properly: the colony loses its farm section, and no matter how hard we try we can’t get the food to them in time because it’s physically impossible. There’ll be no eating grass roots and insects and watching children with swollen bellies but knowing a precious few will survive, like Ethiopia in the 1980s. Everyone will have the certain knowledge that they will die. Will we be forced to watch as they turn to cannibalism? Who will turn off the tv feed? What if they have a broadcast installation? Then the videos will be going up on youtube no matter what the company does, and anyone with a dish will be able to see the sordid terrible end of our first stellar mission. We can all imagine hundreds of similar scenarios, and all of them on film by design.

Preparing for the moral hazard of Mars One

It’s not looking likely that anyone is going to ban Mars One, but it seems to me that as a society we need to come up with a plan for what will happen as a result of it. This isn’t Jonestown or even Greenland in the 15th century: whether we as individuals agree with the project, once it is in place on Mars we will all be watching it and cheering it on. Which means that we need to recognize that there is a risk that things will go wrong, and future generations – or us, in 30 years time – will have to bail out at enormous cost a project which was marginal from the beginning. I think governments need to find a way to prepare for that, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the first step in that preparation is to make Mars One think about the future. At the very least, some of the capital they raise needs to be put aside against eventualities. Some possible uses for a Mars wealth fund include:

  1. Simple investment, to ensure that by the time things go wrong there is a stock of money available to finance special projects
  2. Trust funds for the kids. They’re going to want stuff, and we’re going to need to provide it, so we should prepare
  3. Funding directly to government-run space research projects, especially projects for deep space propulsion and Mars exploration. If the funds are used to develop alternative ways of getting to and living on Mars, it improves the options for those people in the future
  4. Contingency funds for if the Mars population grows too fast
  5. Profits could be invested in sending extra supplies to Mars, to build redundancy and stockpiles

With mechanisms like this in place, bailouts will be less costly, and there will be insurance against risk.

Laws also need to be passed. Governments need to look very carefully at the contracts these colonists are signing, and add clauses about the rights of colonists to refuse new entertainment demands, and the way that those contracts might extend (or be inferred to extend) to children. Anything involving porn or cam-girl type stuff needs to be carefully discussed. Some kind of dispute resolution system is going to be necessary, possibly even independent oversight. Imagine, for example, that a Mars colonist is being pressured to do some semi-nude stuff, but doesn’t want to: what options does he have to resolve that? What if the company refuses him access to a workplace rights lawyer? The company at the very least should be forced to establish an independent communications system, guaranteed by government, so that people on Mars can have a reliable and independent way to contact friends, relatives and conciliation bodies. Otherwise they will essentially be slaves.

I don’t think any of this has been considered.

Are Mars One taking the piss?

I’m noting that there is an application fee of between $5 and $75 for potential Martians, and they are hoping to recruit a million applicants. If the Mars One people are planning to fold before the project is initiated they will make a lot of money. It seems like a lot of aspects of this project are going to run on a very tight deadline, and haven’t been thought through. Is it possible that the whole thing is a get-rich-quick scheme that is never going to see reality? It seems very possible to me. But if not, we as a society need to be thinking very carefully about what we want to tolerate up there, and how we’re going to manage the ethical challenges and moral hazards of a private initiative to colonize Mars.

Outside the city ...

Outside the city …

I am finally away from my Greek Island and the “five star” resort with no internet access, so I am able to resume blogging. Yesterday evening I arrived in Athens for a three day stay, and as is my wont in a new city, the first thing I did was go out for a wander. My hotel has a rooftop bar with a view direct to the acropolis, which is pretty amazing, and is on the temple slopes so it’s a short walk to the old town. Walking through the old town one can catch regular glimpses of the acropolis from the streets, and also experience the pleasures of a summer night in the city. The streets were heaving with people, all out to enjoy the evening air. All the restaurants in Greece seem to be open to the sky, and alfresco dining is the norm, so everywhere you look people are enjoying eating under the stars. I passed a Suleimanese punch-and-judy show, where the puppets are dressed in Persian-style pantaloons and curled hats (but still beating each other) and the horde of gathered children scream at the villain in Greek. I passed a concert being held in an old temple ruin, all lit up with red spotlights. Every square was full of people sitting chatting and drinking; the main square was absolutely heaving with young people in groups just enjoying the night air. The weather was dry and warm, the temperature perfect, the sky a million miles away and clear and the whole balmy evening cupped within the bowl of the distant mountains, with the Acropolis the gleaming jewel set in the middle of that frame, seen occasionally between buildings and lit up against the night sky.

I found a stylish open restaurant in the old town, that served excellent food and had a massively camp Swiss host. They serve a chicken cooked whole inside a loaf of bread and cut up on your plate for you, and an exquisite lemon-flavoured pumpkin soup garnished with little cthulhu-esque octopuslets. I didn’t have my camera with me so didn’t order the cockerel; I may return to experience this strangeness this evening. I have to say, the way Greek people use lemons in their cooking – and the predominance of citrus throughout their cuisine – is excellent and commendable.

After dinner I wandered a little more, enjoying the chaos and light-heartedness of the city. I found myself in the area just west of the Syntagma square, which is supposedy full of bars and night clubs, and in front of a rock bar called Six Dogs. They were hosting an American band called The Shrine, some sort of classic heavy rock outfit that I’ve never heard of, so in I went, for my first experience of Greek punk/metal fans.

What is on your playlist, Archilokos?

What is on your playlist, Archilokos?

The band was average, I have to say, and somewhat hamstrung by the fact that their singer has exactly the same accent as the weird zoo-owner from the Mighty Boosh. They were a pacey, hard rocking classic metal outfit with a bit of skate-punk overtone, so pretty likeable overall. The crowd, however, were fascinating. First of all they were really lively and cheerful, bouncing around with way more energy than the band deserved, and managing to do spontaneous crowd-surfing efforts even though there were only about 50 of them. This meant that whenever one of their number wanted to go up, he had to get the others to lift him, and then a group of 10 or 15 fans would go charging around the room in a little chaotic loop, carrying the surfer aloft, and then drop him. It’s not quite lollapalooza, is it? But they were really into it. But the best thing about them was the way they looked so … classical.

I think every second rocker in the crowd was basically a classical Greek stereotype, come to life then covered in tattoos and stuffed into a pair of skate-punk shorts and a band t-shirt. They all had the broad shoulders and narrow waste of the classic Greek pottery or statues, and that particular style of Greek beard that you see in the classic pictures: the one that is cropped close to the skin along the jaw and near the ears, but extends to a block or point out from the chin, and merges in a perfect gradient with short-cropped hair. It works perfectly with the classical Greek profile of aquiline nose and strong jaw. The rockers also had the same classical hair style, that is neatly cropped at the back but then a little unruly or longer and forward-pointing near the front.

It was like moshing with the guys from 300, if they had bothered to put on t-shirts. It was one of those classic moments, like when a French waiter pulls a 110% expressive face, or a German man says very precisely about one of his most memorable experiences, “it was in general perfect” with German precision, or a Japanese person bows on the phone – one of those moments where the person you are talking to is subconsciously channelling a million years of cultural history and to the rest of the world they’re a stereotype of fantastic proportions, but to them it is so completely normal that they would never realize they were doing it, even if you could play them a video of the moment. So it was that these Greek rockers were moshing not to the tune of an ordinary Venice Beach band, but to a couple of thousand years of classical Greek history. The Pelopennese war through hardcore, or something. I think I will dub this style of Greek counter-culture “300-core.” I hope to see more of it as I wander this city of romance and history!

Yesterday I arrived in Rhodes, Greece on a two week work-related trip. Rhodes is a very nice spot, and Greece generally excellent, after a day here I can recommend it to anyone looking for a warm, pleasant and friendly place to spend a little time. And really, what could be a better way to spend two weeks of work time than on a Greek island? However, as soon as I arrived in Rhodes I was struck by a hint of something going wrong in Greece, something which I think may not be the fault of ordinary Greek people, and which maybe serves as a harbinger of all of Europe’s fate. I thought I’d blog on my first impressions of Greece, with perhaps a little added opinionating about how Greece’s economic problems are presented by the pro-austerity gang who are in the ascendant in America and Europe. I’ve only been here a day so nothing I say is even worth of elevation to the level of considered opinion; it’s just idle musings on my first impressions of one (very rural) part of Greece.

Before I came I had visions of the islands from Porco Rosso, and pretty much everything else I knew about Greece I got from Gerald Durrell and sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, so I think it’s safe to say that I was arriving here with a pretty blank slate as far as cultural expectations go. However, Greece has been in the news a bit recently, with its economic woes being seen as a barometer for the trouble spreading over all of Europe. So I was interested, given my limited knowledge of life in Greece, to see how the land of capricious gods compares with the scary stories and hype that are broadcast across the western print media.

The first thing that I have to say is that everyone I have met (except the scary tattooed guy on the plane) has been friendly and warm, and embarrassingly multilingual. The food is excellent and the weather perfect – the only noticeable drawback of May weather in Greece appears to be that it is bone dry, and I really don’t know where the water for the hotel pool is coming from – I have seen precious little evidence of any water that isn’t in the sea. And there is a lot of sea, cobalt blue and amazingly pure. But then, I am on an Island… and the sea wasn’t very kind to me. Within minutes of dipping my toe in, I was stung by something.

However, as soon as I arrived in Greece I noticed a kind of neglect and decay that I really wasn’t expecting from a European nation. I don’t think it’s new either, and I have a suspicion that what I see hereabouts has very little to do with the global financial crisis and its effects on Greece. I think it’s part of an older, deeper malaise that is moving through all of Europe and just happens to have affected Greece first. Amongst the countries I’m familiar with, I think it will hit Britain next (or already has). What I see in Greece makes me think of many of the things I see in Britain, only without the patina of aggressive British defensiveness, and with sunshine.

This decay was obvious at the airport, which is a kind of cute but crumbling 70s relic, with holes in the ceiling through which the wiring can be seen, those low and oppressive ceilings so common in 70s public architecture, and a barely functioning arrivals lounge – there is no passport control, but it hardly matters anyway because the doors for non-EU passport holders are broken and don’t open. Once you’re outside that and out into the sunshine, you’re greeted immediately by a site that is quite rare in most of the rest of Western Europe and certainly very rare in Japan or Australia: a horde of extremely old passenger cars. They’re tiny, dusty relics from before the era of pollution controls – 80s and early 90s vehicles mostly, and battered, obviously heavily used. The taxis are all new Mercedes, but ordinary passenger vehicles are often much older than I am used to seeing in Europe. The city bus is also very old and battered, the seats obviously replaced many times and the shell battered and scuffed.

The next thing I noticed, once in my taxi, was how overgrown and neglected the countryside looks. Thick, wild shrub and grasses that were obviously untended reached right up to the roads (which are also in quite bad shape), and there was rubbish everywhere. It doesn’t appear that any effort has been made to maintain the unused land near roads and public facilities, and it’s turned into a kind of wasteland. I don’t think this the Greek government, local city authorities, or residents intend to let the countryside go wild, and in a dry and fire-prone area like Greece it’s probably not a very good idea to allow wild shrub to encroach on roads to the extent that they do here. I think this is neglect, and this sense is only enhanced by the state of the buildings I saw on my journeys through Rhodes.

Rhodes is littered with abandoned, half-finished buildings, and also with the deserted shells of abandoned businesses – especially hotels. Many of these buildings are obviously in the early stages of construction, and obviously no one is coming back to them. Some appear to have been abandoned a long time ago, not as far as I can tell during Greece’s most recent economic problems. This reminded me of Beppu, which is also a town undergoing a collapse in tourism revenue, and also has abandoned hotels and pachinko parlours scattered across the urban landscape – as well as areas of overgrown landscape that should be (and probably once was) carefully tended. It’s as if the Greek municipal authorities don’t really care about the impression that their town gives when people first arrive, or don’t have the money to do anything about it, or both.

We hear much about the infamous Greek government’s “profligate” spending and taxing policies, but looking around Rhodes I don’t see much evidence that ordinary Greek tax-payers are getting much bang for their buck. Whatever municipal services Greece provides don’t seem to be showing up in the most obvious and immediate way – rubbish disposal and parks management. I suspect that there are many Greeks who observe the same thing, and wonder why they’re suddenly having to tighten their belts when they don’t get much in the way of visible public services to start with.

I think Rhodes has in common with Beppu a long-term collapse in its main industry – tourism. This isn’t a novel, post-GFC phenomenon, but is a long-term, sustained trend that isn’t going away and reflects a brutal reality for peripheral tourism towns in developed nations. These towns grew during the boom eras of population growth and tourism, before globalizaion, and in the period when the working class of the developed world had relative purchasing power and free time. These factors combined meant that it was easy for these towns to sustain a huge tourist industry, and areas like Beppu or Rhodes grew rapidly on tourist money. But after the purchasing power of the working and middle classes began to decline, and as Asia developed, I think these tourist towns began to run into trouble. They had to compete with Asian countries for tourists, but comparatively they aren’t a great deal cheaper – travelling to Beppu, for example, costs a Japanese worker only half as much as a trip to Thailand or Cambodia, but hotels cost more. I suspect the same is true for Europeans, who now have options in Eastern Europe (places like Latvia and Croatia) for short trips, and Asia for longer trips. In such a situation, former tourist towns have to either adapt and find new industries, or they will become fading remnants. Beppu may adapt or may fade, depending on the success of its new university; but Beppu has easy road and rail connections with population centres like Kokura and Fukuoka that have huge industrial bases and thriving economies. Rhodes is an island in a country that doesn’t have a large industrial base to start with. What is it going to do?

This is another example of how the GFC may be a symptom of a bigger economic shift, and of western nations’ inability to find a solution to that shift. Industry and economic growth is heading East, and with the development of the East huge sections of traditional western economic activity are being hollowed out. In response to this the west has tried to sustain its economic growth through bubbles, and each successive collapse has simply destroyed more jobs. Greece’s economic problems aren’t solely caused by the GFC, which is simply a symptom of the desperate measures western economic policy-makers have taken to try to deal with the loss of real economic power. The result of this long-term economic decline in Rhodes is a countryside festooned with abandoned, half-finished buildings and sad, empty hotels. The same phenomenon is hitting the UK now, but instead of too many buildings unfinished, the UK has too few buildings, and too many ordinary people up to their eyeballs in debt trying to keep hold of the home they have. They do have the empty businesses though, as whole towns lose their retail sectors and corporate lending dries up.

I’ve got no idea what western policy-makers should do to stave off this change. I don’t know if they can, but I think that “wait for Asia to collapse” is not a policy option, and neither is it wise to seek new and innovative ways to reinflate the housing bubble. I think that maybe they need to revitalize industry policy: pick things they’re good at and make them work. Spend taxpayer money on finding ways to make stuff again. Industry policy is what made Japan, Korea and Thailand successful, and the fruit of that policy can be seen in their theft of western business. But fighting off Asia is going to mean a return to deficit spending, an acceptance of government debt, and a recognition that the market doesn’t just pick winners: it strangles losers. And currently, Europe and the USA are looking like the losers. Rhodes is the sign of things to come, and I think the UK is next if they can’t begin to reflect on the underlying causes of the GFC, and the best way of coming to terms with the new world order.


ドイツで10日間の旅行をしました。観光中の休憩は、Baden-Badenという町にあるドイツの伝統的なスパでドイツ温泉文化を楽しめました。きれいな舞台にある温泉に入る癒せそうなFriedrichsbad Spa も露天風呂が多いCaracalla Thermeにも入ってみましたが、日本の温泉文化と違いますから、レビューしようと思いました。

Friedrichsbad Spa



  • シャワー部屋
  • 54度のdry roomです。普段15分間にのんびりする
  • もっとあついdry room に通るはずですが、私がその部屋を入ってみたとtoo much でしたから見送りました
  • マッサージの部屋ですが、マッサージはちょっと怖いからそれもパスしてしまいました。マッサージは石けんで洗ってくれるタイプですから少しソープランドみたいなと思いました。。。
  • サウナでした。普通にサウナに入らない私が、5分か10分くらいにこの部屋で汗をかいた
  • 6つのぬるいプールに入りました!全部は、最高水温が34度でした!1つは、泳げるくらい広いですから、heated poolみたいです。
  • クリーム部屋:自分で、何かの本格クリームをぬる。
  • リラクゼーション部屋:30分くらいに、あったかい布団に巻かれて、のんびりする。

じつは、Friedrichsbad Spa には、最高水温のプールは34度ですから、少しがっかりでした。舞台がきれいな18世紀のビルなのに、そんなに癒せるわけではない。もし、プールが40度以上なら、完璧な経験いなるかもしれませんが、34度のプールはheated swimming poolより楽しいところではない。


Caracalla Therme



このプールの全部は34度か32度から、基本的にheated swimming pool でした。近くにはせまい38度の温泉みたいなプールでしたが、ほかには少しぬるい。改めて、がっかりでした。舞台がレソート風のきれいな建物ですが、風呂が残念でした。



The Germans are a happy and innocent people, without deep-seated psychological issues …

I am taking a much-needed 10 day break in Germany, to attend an old player’s wedding and do some comparative research on German hot springs. I’m in Konstanz for five days, enjoying the Bodensee (where Zeppelins were invented), Europe’s largest freshwater reservoir, and then I’m off to Baden-Baden to enjoy the spas, and Tubingen for a bit of romantic old European townage.
The wedding was great and I’ll be doing a blog post on the joys of German weddings later. I love Germany and in general all the Germans I meet are really great, so I’m having a great time. Although I have internet, I’m too busy enjoying myself to do much posting. So for the next 7 days or so, it’s unlikely that this blog will be updated much (though it is Europe, so I may have to take shelter from inclement weather!) When I get back I may also have something to say about Germany as an influence on gaming (I enjoy Warhammer, after all, and it’s largely set in Germany). But for now I’m going to enjoy an extensive collection of German beers, and leave the details for my return to daily life … see you on the other side!

Battleship Island

Battleship Island is an abandoned island in Nagasaki, that for some years was the most densely populated island on Earth. It was abandoned over a 3 month period in the 1970s, so most of the buildings were left intact, with even some possessions still inside. The island built up over 200 years for the sole purpose of undersea coal-mining: it hosts two mineshafts that go about a kilometre underground and branch out in a network under the sea. Because the island is too far from the mainland for commuting, a community built up around the mines. At its peak this community included schools at all grades, a cinema, pharmacy, clinic and city hall. The island is only about 500m long and 150m wide, so the community was densely packed, and by the 40s the island was so heavily built up that it resembled a battleship – hence the name, gunkanshima (軍艦島), although the island’s official name is Hashima (端島).

While I was in Nagasaki presenting my HIV model, I took a trip to gunkanshima. It’s a fascinating place in its own right and, I think, for people interested in role-playing settings, could make an excellent adventure setting. Some kind of Meiji-era Outland-style detective story springs to mind, or a Cthulhu-in-the-mineshafts post-WW2 horror story. So here are some pictures and background to give a feel for the place, as both a fine example of modern industrial archaeology and a potential adventure setting – and an excellent zombie survival spot. Also, if you’re in Nagasaki this is an excellent afternoon trip, so I’ll give a few pointers on how to get there at the end.

The Island from the tennis-court end

It takes about an hour to get to the island from Nagasaki harbour, with a brief stop at Takashima to look at a diorama of Battleship Island and visit a museum of coal-mining in the area. This is interesting for its depiction of coal mining through the ages, and its excellent three dimensional cut-away models of the mineshafts under the islands. Here you can get a sense of what a claustrophobic and grim world coal-mining was during the era of the island’s existence, and why the setting is ripe for cthulhoid fantasies. The guide will also give you an explanation of what it was like to live on the island (he grew up there) and set a kind of stern tone of things-that-are-gone that I think is quite helpful for appreciating the decay on the island itself.

The view from the coal-loading side

The boat approaches the island from the coal-mining side, so you see the flat (Eastern?) side of the island with the apartments and schools of the tennis court end on your right, and the shrine just visible at the top of the island. The parts most visible from this approach are the most intact; once you land you can see a lot more rubble.

Coal-processor remnants

From the pier it is possible to see the stilts that used to hold the coal conveyor belt, and which once ran through piles of coal. The buildings in the distance are the old schools: elementary school at the bottom and high school further up, with the top floors devoted to a gym of some kind. From this the proximity of the residents to their only source of employment – and the reason for the island’s whole existence – is pretty clear. As someone who lived in the shadows (literally) of a lead smelter in a one-industry town, I can imagine the importance this industrial infrastructure had on the island – everyone who lived here was either directly working in the mines, or there purely to provide services to those who were. It’s a town that must have closed down as soon as coal mining stopped, and the Japanese economy shifted rapidly away from coal in the 1960s and 1970s, so it was inevitable. In fact the whole island was owned by Mitsubishi – so when they closed it no one had a choice, and everyone had to move out in a very short time. There are apparently still apartments with their televisions left behind, and other markers of residential habitation still stuck on walls or doors.

Coal miners' baths (left) and pit head (far right)

Further to the south are the pit head and coal mining facilities. The miners bathed in heated sea water, and for much of the history of the island everyone experienced strict water rationing – no fresh water could be used for anything except drinking and food preparation until a pipe was laid from the mainland in the 50s. There were also no private bathing facilities – the apartments were linked to public baths that everyone shared (a very common Japanese practice even now in towns like Beppu, where for example there is a guesthouse for foreigners that doesn’t have its own bathrooms but expects guests to use the local public bathhouse). The building at the top of the above picture held a rainwater trap, I think, and a pipe leads down the hill to the apartments. The lighthouse was added after the island was abandoned, since before then it gave enough light from human habitation not to need its own lighthouse.

The view from the swimming pool

On the western side of the island from these facilities are more apartments, pictured here with a building whose purpose I don’t know (left, foreground). This picture was taken from near the swimming pool, which was a salt water pool filled directly from the sea. The whole island is surrounded by sea walls to protect it from storms but during typhoons these walls are insufficient – on the tour you will be shown photos of waves crashing over the building in the foreground, and residents of the apartment blocks looking down on the storm from the roofs of their homes. All of the apartments in Battleship Island had gardens on their rooftops, because although greenery is visible in these pictures there was none when the island was in use – the green you see here is a recent, natural addition. For the residents the only chance to appreciate elements other than stone and water was the time in the rooftop gardens.

Battleship Island's eastern side

This photo, taken on the return to the ship, shows the island in more perspective. The block in the middle is the second pit head; the building on the hillside is another apartment, possibly containing the city office. The vista stretching away from the foreground is of the coal processing facilities with the school in the background. What you see here is the work of 40 years of typhoons and storms and salt water. Most of this area was reclaimed from the sea in the first half of the 20th century; I guess by the last half of this century it will be reclaimed by the sea, unless someone decides to preserve the island in perfect form. As it is the whole place is a dangerous place, an we all had to stay very carefully inside the fenced off areas, and once the sea has had another 40 years to work its destructive way through the reclaimed areas I guess the island will become unvisitable.

Industry abandoned: the remains of the coal loading dock

The island is in many respects a kind of microcosm of Japan’s industrial history – it grew as Japan’s economy grew, and its economic and physical fate were determined by the powerful economic forces shaping Japanese society; as a result its demographic development mimicked that of Japan as a whole. Our guide showed us a magazine article from the 1960s, when Battleship Island was the most heavily populated place on earth, asking “Is this the future of Japan?” Now it is deserted and crumbling, a fate that will undoubtedly come to many other Japanese towns of similar size. As a model of the way industrial societies grow and decline this island is a powerful example, and an extreme example as well of the way that access to resources shapes the physical and cultural landscape. This isn’t the only such example in Japan – Shimane’s Iwami Ginzan is an abandoned silver mine in a slowly fading rural area that harkens back to the time when Japan was the richest country in the world because of its silver resources. They are long gone, and Shimane is now famous for its religious heritage and its crumbling seaside towns, and not much else.

If you visit Nagasaki I strongly recommend a visit to the island. You will also get a nice overview of Nagasaki’s working harbour, and see some of the scenery in the peninsula, during your trip. I booked my trip with Takashima Kaijo, which at time of writing does 9am and 14:00pm departures for 3 hour round trips, and employs a guide who used to live on the Island. It’s all in Japanese, but they have an English pamphlet that gives you the crucial information you need and some nice pictures. The staff speak enough English to get you on the ship – you need to sign a disclaimer and pay 4300 yen (about $43) for the trip (not refundable if the weather is too harsh to get onto the island). The conditions are described on their website in English, too.  Their office is a little distance from the main harbour terminal, but their website has a map and you can find other cruise companies in the terminal if you don’t want to take the risk. They can take up to 210 people, so if you go during a busy time it will be a bit crowded; you probably need to be prepared for a fairly regimented style of tourism but it’s not too cloying (but don’t take photos while the guide is talking – he’ll get angry). You get about 15 minutes to take photos and wander around and since you can’t leave the confines of the viewing area this is more than enough. The staff are very sweet and accommodating, overall. The ship also stops at Yojima, which apparently has an onsen (hot spring) and hotels, so if you wanted you could make a nice couple of days by booking into an onsen hotel in Yojima and making the trip to Gunkanjima a side trip (about an hour shorter from Yojima).

Finally, it should be recognized that Gunkanjima is a heritage site and as such a little respect should be shown: as the guide says, to us it’s a pile of rubble but to him it’s his hometown (実家). So don’t go breaking their rules because you think they’re silly, or get worked up because they wouldn’t land on the island and you lost 4000 yen. Also, if you are planning to go to Nagasaki I think this week – the 24th – 30th – is probably best because it coincides with the tall ship festival, which is quite a nice harbourside event. This season the weather is a little unpredictable, but I think it’s clearing up for the end of spring, so if you are in Japan in late April Nagasaki could be worth the effort. And if you’re in Nagasaki at any time, Battleship Island is a great afternoon trip, well worth the money and of interest to anyone who is interested in history or a little urban exploring.

In Wednesday’s Guardian, Charlie Brooker continues his series of articles on his trip to Japan, and in the same tone: where he started his first article with a long paragraph that combines toilet humour and assertions about the kookiness of Japan, this article starts with a description of a computer game about bouncing turds, and finishes the introduction with

Unfathomable, futuristic madness: that’s what made me want to visit Japan.

So, in case you weren’t sure from the first article, Japan is strange and fascinated with toilets and poo.

Except, really, it’s Brooker who is fascinated with poo. He seems quite taken with the abject, if his first article was anything to go by. But once again, after he’s got the obligatory toilet humour and stereotyping of Japan’s “futuristic madness” out of the way, he carries on with a valid observation about this place:

it’s a place where being a geek (or otaku) is comfortably mainstream. Former Prime Minister Taro Aso is an enthusiastic manga-collecting otaku, the TV ad breaks heave with glossy commercials for collectible card games, and multi-storey games arcades are commonplace.

This is very true. Of course, he immediately follows this important observation with another example of drawing the wrong conclusion due to limited data:

the subway is eerily silent: thanks to a strong underground signal, everyone’s staring at their smartphones, texting, playing games, or reading. Only after a fortnight did it strike me: not once did I hear a single person actually speaking into their phone on the Tokyo subway. Everyone – and I mean everyone – seemed to be perpetually tapping and swiping in silence. Unnerving to many: to a geek like me, it felt strangely comforting.

This, Charlie, is not because everyone is madly playing some game or other. You might actually have noticed a lot of people reading these things called “books.” But the reason they’re not talking into their phones is because there are signs and announcements asking people not to. It is considered very poor manners in Japan to talk on your phone in restaurants, cafes, bars or trains. i.e. in public. And people in Japan follow these rules. If it’s “unnerving to many,” this is because that’s another one of those things about the west that don’t make sense once you haven’t lived there for a while. Those people you saw on the subway being quiet aren’t doing so because they are obssessed with a game; they’re doing so because they are refraining from offending others. That’s not “strangely comforting,” it’s perfectly ordinarily comforting.

The rest of the article consists of a fairly nice description of one of Japan’s bigger game arcades, from the perspective of someone who is familiar with what should be going on but can’t understand it because he is in a foreign land. Again, though, he pushes the unfathomable nature of the thing too far, and again reminds us that Japan is exotic and incomprehensible:

a roomful of sombre youths vying for individual supremacy using some form of networked arcade strategy game that uses collectible cards. Imagine witnessing a game of bridge being played in the Cabinet War Rooms in the year 2072 AD … whatever the theme, the nature of the action is absolutely impenetrable to the casual onlooker.

Charlie, here’s a real-life hint for you: to people outside the nerd world, this kind of stuff is absolutely impenetrable in their own language. Now that you don’t speak the language, you can be reminded of how people feel when they watch you at your normal hobby. Eye opening, isn’t it?

Other than this, the article struck me as a missed opportunity. There’s a photo of an “otaku girl” at the top of the article but she doesn’t look otaku to me, and (probably because he hasn’t had time to notice), Brooker hasn’t mentioned how different gender relations are amongst nerds in Japan compared to the West. To wit: in Japan, being a nerd is not only more acceptable, but it’s especially more acceptable for girls. There are adverts on the trains targeting Wii at old people, and the latest computer games (like Mario Land and Monster Hunter) at young women. There is an advert for a trading card game in which a member of a currently-popular boy band goes to a game shop and plays the card game with the lonely kid in the corner; there are adverts for a new trading card game where some of the cards are based on members of a famous boy band (Exile, I think). In Ikebukuro there is a whole series of shops devoted to targeting pornographic manga at women. This is a hobby world that is not just mainstream, but mainstream for both genders – and this is why Wii was invented in Japan, not the USA. It’s a shame that Brooker didn’t find a way to comment on this, and on how much easier that makes being a nerd in this country. He also didn’t find any opportunities to talk about the darker side of the nerd world in Japan: pachinko, or AKB48. Instead, he just took a last chance to remind us that Japan is crazy and incomprehensible. Just in case we didn’t know that.

I wonder what his next article will tell us? Feel free to put your predictions in the comments …

Today I had the rare pleasure of being invited, with the Delightful Miss E and some Australian friends, to my landlord’s house for a lunch of osechi ryori, the special new year’s food that Japanese love to eat at this time. The photo shows the main foods, all of which were hand cooked by our landlord and his family. Starting at the snow pea and going clockwise, we have:

  • A steamed snow pea
  • Beneath the snow pea, barely visible, Burdock root cooked in Mirin and soy sauce (as well as some lightly pickled carrots, invisible in this shot)
  • Two pressed fish cakes
  • A little flower of pickled carrot (the deep red flower-shaped thing)
  • A boiled sato imo (a type of potato)
  • Poking out from beneath this potato, just barely visible as a little tongue of yellow, cold herring eggs
  • A boiled kyo imo (a type of potato)
  • Konyaku (yam’s paste, sometimes called “Devil’s Tongue)
  • In the centre, the yellow curl is sweetened rolled grilled egg

It’s extremely rare to get an invitation to a Japanese family’s home on New Year’s Day – the equivalent of getting an invite to a Christmas dinner in the west – so we were feeling very privileged, especially to receive delicious home cooked food (actually the herring eggs were pretty awful). What’s more, one of our friends was vegan, but Mrs T had cooked a special version of the grilled egg, which used pumpkin and arrowroot flower instead of egg (and I would guess was probably much more delicious!) So, in return, I made my famous vegan lasagne, also known as “the carnivore conversion kit” or, amongst representatives of the meat industry, “public enemy number 1.” I shall put up the recipe in the next few days.

If you value your carnivorosity, stay well away from this!



You must gather your party before venturing forth ...

I gained a great deal of inspiration for role-playing from my trip to Iceland, and I hope that much of what I saw and experienced there will inform a Compromise and Conceit campaign run in Svalbard. Much of the inspiration gained from my trip to Iceland will come simply from amazement at the stark beauty of the landscape (useful background information for an Australian planning to set a campaign in the far north) and from an appreciation of the general coolness of the Nordic universe[1]. But there were also some particular ideas, and some specific information, that I gleaned from this trip, which I think is useful for grounding a campaign in particular historical periods. Some of what I learnt is very general, some specific to Iceland, some generalizable (perhaps) to a Norse-specific campaign. I was simultaneously reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, so I can’t guarantee it hasn’t been coloured by his very specific view of how pre-medieval pagan societies worked, but I hope that at least some of what I found in Iceland has currency beyond my own campaign ideas. So here it is, in no particular order. A lot of these ideas serve to establish a campaign in which the majority of the community is living in poverty and pretty low settings; this may not be to everyone’s tastes, and so some of what’s suggested here may not be worth adopting (and it may be exaggerating the state of life in 12th century Iceland, which I’ll use as my focus for a campaign setting).

Travel and the Weather as Adversary

Until the 19th century Iceland had no proper roads, and to travel from one part of the country to another required trudging over essentially wilderness on tracks beaten out by other travellers. In winter this meant passing over snowy ground, and the path was not kept clear. Instead it was marked by little cairns of stones every couple of hundred metres, and travellers simply moved from cairn to cairn. Traveling a modern road in a comfortable bus on a perfect Autumn day it was easy to forget what this means for your average 12th century traveler, but our guide told us that in winter or fog the weather could be so bad that, even quite close to Reykjavik, travelers could easily lose sight of the next cairn, and become lost on the moors easily. Getting lost in a winter storm in Iceland would be a death sentence for all but the very lucky, and the natural consequence of this is that one would not travel in winter. This has huge ramifications for much of human society – trade, war, adventuring and life in general would grind to a halt, and the whole world would be waiting with baited breath for spring. In turn this places huge stress on festivals that mark the thresholds of seasons and changes, because they also represent the return of life, motion, and human congress.

I remember speaking with an Afghan doctor about his research project when I was teaching statistics a few years ago. His interest was in reducing maternal mortality (a huge problem in Afghanistan, and intricately related to infant mortality), and he told me about a very simple problem that does not exist in modern Nordic countries. In winter in many parts of Afghanistan the heavy snows block passes and roads and prevent all forms of travel. This means that if you’re giving birth in winter, you get no support of any kind beyond that which is available from your immediate neighbours. Given the single best protection against maternal mortality is access to medical care (or, in a fantasy world, clerics) when complications occur, this basic lack of infrastructure (cleared roads) that we in the west take for granted presents a huge barrier for Afghan women’s health. The same would apply in any rural town in 12th century Iceland, but even worse – food and other vital supplies would also be frozen in, making preparation for the winter of crucial importance. One need look no further than this to understand why brutal strongmen were capable of popular rule in such societies: no one cares that they demand a virgin a year, if they guarantee security for your winter preparations. To return to Afghanistan, an interesting article in today’s Guardian suggests westerners have misunderstood Afghan support for the Taliban for these kinds of reasons:

Most ordinary people associate the [national] government with practices and behaviours they dislike: the inability to provide security, dependence on foreign military, eradication of a basic livelihood crop (poppy), and as having a history of partisanship (the perceived preferential treatment of Northerners).

and they credited the “good Taliban” with not doing these things, as well as the ability to provide justice swiftly and fairly. In dark ages societies this was no doubt a very easy way to be liked: guarantee your subjects security to prepare for winter, and you can take what you want from them (within reason) in spring.


Hang it, smoke it, mash it, and wash it down with ammonia

This brings us to the topic of Icelandic food, which is an interesting mix of the delicious and the horrific and, in some ways, still recalls the food culture of old. Iceland still relies on imports for most of the things we take for granted, and until the 1930s couldn’t grow most vegetables or fruits locally, so a lot of the old-fashioned foods still persist. The worst examples of these are thoramatur, a disgusting series of foods that obviously derive from a period of history when food was less reliable than it is now, nothing could be wasted, and much had to be cured or preserved using gross or stinky methods[2]. More generally, the food that Icelanders ate 100 years ago was very limited in its variety, very simple, and indicates a very limited palate. I have found in GMing that food can be used to add elements of vivid realism to a campaign setting, and can serve as an indicator of e.g. hostility, poverty, welcome, and the importance ascribed to meetings or deals[3], and food in an Iceland-style setting could be easily used to establish that sense of living-on-the-edge that a medieval Icelandic setting should have. Consider the examples in the picture above, which I ate at the Loki Cafe near the main church in Reykjavik. From top right, going clockwise, we have smoked trout, smoked lamb, mashed fish, in the middle we have wind-dried cod with butter, and at the rear (thankfully hidden from view), rotten shark. For Icelanders over a certain age, these last two are a delicacy. I have to say the wind-dried cod is palatable compared to your average Japanese dried smelt (though I didn’t try it with beer – Japanese dried fish tastes fishy before you have a beer, and then it literally explodes with a new dimension of fishiness once you take your first sip). The dried shark, hakarl, tastes very strongly of ammonia – it goes up your nose like horseradish or mustard, only it’s ammonia. Why anyone would eat this I don’t know, but I guess historically this served a very useful purpose. Your village catches a 5m long Greenland shark, which would provide enough meat for your whole town for a week, but it’s poisonous, so you have to rot it to get rid of the poison. You lay it down in Autumn, stick it in barrels before the snow comes, and by mid-winter you have a week’s supply of meat when everything else has run out. Imagine sitting in your wind-blasted, freezing 12th century hut, with 3-5 hours of sunlight a day, down to your last few kilos of smoked lamb, drinking nothing but intensely strong rye spirits (because beer doesn’t exist), eating stale rye bread, and knowing that in a week you’ll be down to nothing but the rotten shark. That, my friends, is living on the raggedy edge. I don’t know if Iceland was that poor in the 12th century (they also had trade items that may have made them very rich) but I’m guessing that away from the centres of cultural life things could go this way in lean times – and remember that the little ice age struck Iceland at that time too. By varying the food culture as your PCs travel across the frozen land, you can easily give them a sense of increasing poverty and/or desperation, as well as a sense of realism.

Women’s roles and Inequality

Not a nice way to end an affair

Iceland prides itself on its feminism and its advances in women’s status, and there is some evidence that women had some form of equal voting rights to men (at least at a local level) before they did in the rest of Europe, enacted through the peculiar system of Iceland’s local parliament and its local voting system. Early rules in the settlement era (from 980 AD onward) suggest that women were allowed to own land (as much as they could walk a heifer around in a day!) and be the head of a household. During the reign of the Danish monarchy it’s likely that a lot of these rights were ignored or stripped away, but in general it seems like Iceland had a (relatively) progressive outlook on women’s rights from an early era. My guidebook suggests this may have had a lot to do with the precarious environment – not many Icelanders would have had much leeway to keep women sequestered in the farmhouse in this period, and the right to work is a huge driver of women’s equality. More generally, this tells us something about women’s equality in medieval societies in general, and how it is a much more nuanced and complex issue than modern lay interpreters of medieval history generally believe. Modern views of women’s rights in history seem to generally be that women had none, had few leadership chances (either covert or open) and were victims of an intensely patriarchal society. I don’t think it’s that simple, and my general guess is that women’s equality was actually at times and places quite advanced amongst the peasantry, and quite restricted amongst the nobility; conversely, the poverty of the lower classes worked against women’s health and welfare much more harshly than it did men. For example, most modern images of marriage in the medieval era see it as a restrictive bond on women, but in fact before the Victorian era in the UK (for example) marriage was a pretty haphazard institution, not particularly well adhered to amongst the lower classes and implemented in very different ways at a local level. Thomas Hardy’s description of a registry office in Jude the Obscure gives a nice insight into the way the lower classes may have looked on marriage at that time. Meanwhile, of course, high-class women in the medieval era were definitely used as pawns in political games, but this may not have been a general problem for other women. One common feminist critique of Victorian and Regency literature is that it was propaganda for a new form of marriage that took an absolute and regressive view of women’s bondage to men within the marriage compact[4]. As another example, two of Britain’s most vigorous, most expansionist and most culturally active and successful periods were under the reign of powerful and well-respected female leaders (Elizabeth and Victoria), and I think it would be hard to say that they were figureheads.

So while the popular fantasy of medieval countries may be of women oppressed and powerless, the reality is likely much more nuanced. Obviously in our fantasy worlds female warriors, thieves and wizards are a dime a dozen and this is completely ahistorical and something most of us aren’t going to ditch from our campaigns, but it’s not necessarily ahistorical to have these women supported by a culture in which women’s rights may be contested, diverse, and at times quite liberal. Women farmers, spokespeople, politicians and criminal masterminds are not outside the realms of possibility in the real world, so it’s perfectly possible to extend that further in the fantastical world without stretching the truth overmuch; and it’s perfectly possible to smooth out the worst historical abuses of women in the interests of having a campaign world that isn’t completely detestable, without making the political and cultural landscape unrecognizable.

Which isn’t to say that women’s life in Iceland was easy. The picture above is of the “drowning pool” at the historical parliament, where women were drowned for “sexual crimes” and infanticide. Men were burnt at the stake or hanged for the same crimes.

Inclusion and Consensus

Having shown that rather disturbing picture, it’s worth noting that very few people were executed in Iceland during the era of drowning pools and burnings; although empowered to use capital punishment, Icelanders generally considered this punishment abhorrent, and opted instead for blood money or outlawry as an alternative. The worst punishment in Iceland was considered to be outlawry, in which a criminal was driven out of society. In fact, this is how Greenland was settled. This points to a society which considered exclusion to be a terrible fate, and I think there is a very simple reason for this: in a place like Iceland, being driven out of the polity is a death sentence, because of the need to work together to survive the harsh climate. In other places (especially, e.g. large parts of Asia and Europe) it would be very easy to make one’s life anew if cast out of one’s local society, because the land was bountiful enough to live off of without much support. Not so in Iceland. I think the same thing applied historically in Australia, and the result is a political and cultural system based on consensus rather than conflict. It was for this reason that the althing (the parliament) was established, and it drives a certain type of politics. The flipside of consensus cultural models is that there is an extremely strong pressure not to deviate from cultural norms: witness the restricted range of roles available to men in Australia, and its historical disapproval of homosexuality, as an example. Most British will tell you they find Australian men alarmingly macho, and this is because British men have a more diverse range of roles and available characters. There’s more space for cultural play in a society which doesn’t value consensus so highly. This type of politics will go to huge lengths not to exclude people, and will respond warmly to a cultural group once they are granted the status of “included” (see, e.g. Australia’s rapidly changing views of Aborigines since the 1960s). The downside is that once you’re out, you’re really out. You don’t get to live in a contested space like, say, the Travellers or asylum seekers in Britain – you’re gone. In historical Iceland you were also, literally, gone – you sailed over the seas and that was that.

In gaming terms a consensus society probably doesn’t figure highly until it comes time to resolve conflicts between powerful groups. Then, the players will need to find subtle ways to deal with their political opponents, and may need to come to terms with the fact that they can’t kill them but have to settle for subversion, or even maintaining their enemy’s public facade while removing the source of their power. In my experience this type of adventuring – political intrigues, problems that can’t be resolved with a blaster – is harder to do and very hard to do well. But many players like games of subtle intrigue where covert action is essential, and it certainly enables the GM to keep his favorite bad guys alive and causing trouble for longer. Even though Iceland comes from a Viking heritage, it doesn’t necessarily present the kind of climate where you can just bash your enemy until he hands over his potions – unlike a lot of classic fantasy adventuring worlds. Such a world probably also means that the PCs will be accepted even by communities that might side with their enemies, but once they cross the rubicon they are doomed – no one will take them in even if threatened, and even if not on the run from the law they will face a miserable existence. Can they turn this on their enemies? And how does it change play to be aware of these rules?

I think it’s for these kinds of reasons that the Icelanders came to a parliament so early, and in the next post on this topic I’ll try to talk about the costs of war, variants of slavery, and the cultural sophistication of the early medieval period.

fn1: I guess it’s hard for Europeans to grasp, but for Australians a place like Norway or Denmark is exotic; for Japanese, the UK is exotic. So while Europeans might look at Norway and think, “meh, Vikings” and consider Australia a foreign and alien landscape, for me everything Nordic is new and exciting.

fn2: It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry on the mid-winter foods and festival of Iceland makes it clear the festival was revived (or created!) in the 50s, and that although it was based on historical foods these foods weren’t necessarily staples of the diet. This is a really cool and interesting example of invented culture, but I’m guessing that the foods used served the role I ascribe to them here, as mid-winter survival foods – just like sausages and smoked meats elsewhere in Europe, or that weird and disgusting rotten fish in Sweden.

fn3: I think I should elaborate on this in future

fn4: I don’t claim to agree with this view, or to know much of anything about it

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