The Memory Hole

The last few times I’ve spoken with my dad about politics, we’ve talked about the politics of nationalisation vs privatisation. My feelings on this matter are that anything to do with infrastructure should be under the former; anything else, well, fill your boots.

So he said: Give me an example of when nationalising something made it better. And as it happens, there’s a dilly. The East Coast Main Line.

The East Coast Main Line runs from London to Edinburgh (or vice versa) through the Midlands and Yorkshire. It’s spent time in both private and public hands, but what I’d like to talk about is the last 13 years.

In 2009, the then-franchisee, National Rail, walked away from their contract. They were losing money hand over fist and decided that the cost they would pay by walking away was a better choice than to continue running the railway. No-one else wanted to buy the franchise – after all, it was losing money – and so the government nationalised the franchise. 

During the time it was privately owned, the franchise owner was losing £20 million every six months. In private hands, the franchise suffered £40 million a year lossesSource

For the next five years, from 2009 to 2014, the franchise was owned by the British People. During the time it was nationalised, the East Coast Main Line returned more than £200 million a year to the public purse, and had record levels of customer satisfaction. Source

That right there is a pretty clear example of how having a nationalised railway saves you money. Even before taking into account that if it’s privatised, the shareholders want a profit which by definition can’t go into the business paying for things like, ooh, trains, staff, heating. That sort of thing.

In 2015, despite its success as a nationalised service the East Coast Main Line was privatised again. On the eve of the general election. The Coalition couldn’t even bear the thought of the railway being in public hands during the next government, so they made sure it wouldn’t happen even if Labour won. Source 

And the operator returning money to the taxpayer and with  record levels of customer satisfaction wasn’t even allowed to bid for the franchise. Source

A few years ago, when I first had this conversation with my dad, all of this information was available on the Wiki page for the East Coast Main Line. At the time of writing, it’s not mentioned on the page at all.

What with Labour now officially planning to renationalise the railways, I thought it was important to get this information back online. 

Beating Covid-19

Covid-19 is what’s known as a novel coronavirus. Novel as in we’ve never encountered it before, and coronavirus being a specific type of virus. It’s called that because its shape makes it look like a bit like it has crowns on it. It was first discovered in humans at the end of 2019, beginning of 2020.

Here’s how it’s unlike other viruses (like seasonal flu, or the common cold): 

After you catch a cold or the flu, your body produces an immune response – first to fight off the virus, and secondly to kill it if it ever pops up in your system again. But because Covid-19 is a new virus to humans, no-one had any natural immunity to it.

That’s the first bad thing.

The second bad thing is its infection rate, known as r0. (Where they come up with these catchy acronyms leaves me baffled.) The r0 is basically the number of other people that someone with the virus is expected to infect, all other things being equal. So a person who’s contracted a virus with an r0 of 1 would be expected to infect one other person, on average. An r0 of 2 would result in two new infections for each person.

If you think about this, it means that anything with an r0 of less than one will tend to die out, because it infects fewer people as time goes on. And anything with an r0 of greater than one will tend to expand. And the higher the r0, the more quickly it will expand.

Have you ever heard the story of the grains of rice and the chessboard?

In ancient China, a servant had done a good deed for her employer, who asked her how she would like to be rewarded. The servant said “I should like enough rice to feed my family.”

“How much is that?” said her employer.

She pointed to the chess board in the corner of the room and said “Today, place a grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, and I will take it home to feed my family.”

“You won’t be able to feed them very well on that,” he replied.

“Tomorrow, place two grains of rice on the second square, and I will take it home to feed my family.”

The employer looked on quizzically.

“Each day, place double the number of rice grains on the next square, and I will take them home to feed my family. After the last square is full, I shall have more than enough rice.”

So the employer, chuckling at how cheaply he was rewarding his servant, placed a grain of rice on the first square, and watched her take it home. The next day, he placed two grains of rice on the second square. On the third day, four grains of rice.

After a week, there were 64 grains of rice on the 7th square. To put that in context, there are about 200 grains of rice in a level teaspoon. Not looking good for the servant this far, is it?

But the number is doubling every day. And don’t forget, there’s all the rice she’s still got at home. 

So on the 8th day there’s about half a teaspoon of rice on the square.

On the 9th day, more than a teaspoon.

On the 10th, coming up to a tablespoon.

And each day, the number of grains of rice keeps doubling. Two tablespoons. Four tablespoons. Eight.

After two weeks she takes home about half a kilogram of rice. On the next day after that, a full kilogram. On the 16th day, two kilos. On the 17th, four kilos. And it just keeps growing.

Today, world rice production in a year is approximately 500 million metric tonnes. Our wily servant will have taken that much rice home on day 54, with 10 squares left to go on the chessboard.

(Obviously, though, the employer realised the wisdom of his servant long before that, gave her a promotion, and definitely did not have her killed for being a show-off.)

This is an example of what’s called exponential growth, and this is the problem with Covid-19. Our current best-estimate r0 for Covid-19 is approximately 2.4. And with exponential growth, small differences make a big difference – if our wily servant had asked for 2.4 times the rice grains on each square (let’s pretend that we can sub-divide rice grains for a moment) then she would have surpassed current world production of rice on day 39. In less than two thirds of the time.

So what can we do about it? Let’s just vaccinate everyone, right?

Unfortunately this is where the bit about it being a novel coronavirus comes in. In order to have a vaccine, we need to have samples of the virus. And because it’s never affected humans before, we don’t. It’ll take at least a year, maybe more to develop one.

So should we all just spend our time watching episodes of Survivors and waiting for the end of humanity?

Well, no. Because of immunity.

This isn’t the first coronavirus that humans have had. Like other viruses, those who get better from Covid-19 will develop antibodies that prevent them catching it again. We already know that this happens –  this paper has the details, but here’s the important bit:

(IgM is the thing that helps you fight it off in the first place; IgG is the thing that hangs around in your body to fuck the virus up if it ever tries to come back again.)

And it gets better. 

Because once a certain number of population can’t catch the virus any more (because they have the relevant antibodies), it becomes almost impossible for the virus to, well, go viral. There just aren’t enough previously-uninfected people for it to spread to, so a few people will get ill, but we never see the exponential growth phase. This is known as herd immunity.

It’s also one of the benefits of vaccination. A vaccine is basically a shitty version of the virus; too rubbish to actually infect you properly, but just good enough to provoke your body into making an immune response so you can’t get the real thing if you’re ever exposed to it.

So despite the fact that it’s a bastard disease, we’ll beat it in the long run. All it needs is time for enough people to acquire immunity that those without will also be protected.

But there’s another problem. Until that happens, people are going to catch Covid-19. And some of those people are going to die. As well as being bastard infectious, it’s a lot more dangerous than the flu, especially to old people.

So the main problem now is that when people catch it, a serious number of them are going to need hospital treatment. And we don’t have enough beds, or intensive care units if they all become sick at the same time.

Which is why we need to flatten the curve.

Curve animated gif

We don’t need to defeat it now; we just need to keep our health services from being overwhelmed until our bodies defeat it for us. (Or we get a vaccine, which helps that process along – but as mentioned above, given the r0 of Covid-19 and the time to produce a new vaccine, we may well have defeated it already by the time the vaccine is ready.)

So how do we flatten the curve?

The most important measure is known as social distancing. Basically:

  • Don’t go anywhere you don’t need to
  • If you do go somewhere, stay away from people (about a metre)

If the virus doesn’t have enough people to spread to, its r0 drops. And as we’ve seen earlier, small differences in r0 can lead to big differences in the time it takes for the big numbers to arrive. So work from home if you can, and get your shopping delivered rather than pick it up in person. Right now the most important thing we can do to save lives is just stay the hell away from each other.

If you must go out, wash your hands. As well as being spread by people, the virus can hang around for up to a week on plastic and metal surfaces – you know, like door handles, tables, and so on. But it can’t stand soap. Twenty seconds of washing your hands with warm soapy water will kill any Covid-19 you may have picked up on them from the environment while out-and-about. So make the first thing you do when you arrive anywhere wash your hands.

Doing these things drops the r0 of the virus, means that fewer cases will hit the healthcare system, and that more lives will be saved.

After that, it’s just a matter of waiting it out.

Self Identification

I recently read these three tweets by Helen Lewis, and it helped clarify for me the difference between those against self-ID and the rest of us.

The second tweet is the key one here, because it assumes that those in favour of self-ID believe the act of saying a thing causes it to be true, rather than the thing being true in and of itself and then expressed by speech.

This is why the false equivalency argument is brought out. Piers Morgan can say “I identify as a penguin” as much as he likes, but this doesn’t make it true. He doesn’t identify as a penguin. He can say it, but it isn’t a true fact about his beliefs, or about the state of the world.

Those against self-ID (Terfs and others) believe that there is a measurement of gender which can be tested and pointed to as an objective state of fact about the world (usually genitalia). And so saying “my pronouns are [what-have-you]” can never be true unless they match the objective fact about that person’s gender.

But their basic premise is wrong. Intersex people make up between 1-2% of the world’s population. That’s about the same as redheads. Here is an excellent explainer thread by Delaney King about being intersex.

Gender isn’t a simple binary. Never has been.

If you believe in the absoluteness of gender, then the concept of pronouns assigned by any way other than this absolute must be a lie. An untruth. An evasion. A belief that one can magically change what-one-is by the power of language.

And if that’s true, why can’t you simply turn into a penguin by saying you are one?

But telling people your pronouns isn’t that. It’s still a statement of the truth, just one that can’t be objectively tested. If someone steps up onto a stage and says “My favourite TV series is Doctor Who” then for some people, this is a true statement. For others it’s not. This is not a fact that can be objectively measured. But it can still be true.

If Jeremy Corbyn had said “my pronouns are she/her” on that stage, Labour would not have its first female leader, because that statement isn’t a true fact about the state of the world. Specifically: Jeremy Corbyn’s pronouns are not she/her. They are he/him.

But if the Terfs are wrong and gender isn’t an absolute, then people can have different pronouns to those they have been assigned, either at birth or later in life. And those pronouns can change over time.

So if someone whose pronouns truly were she/her became leader of the Labour Party – whether trans, cis, or intersex – then at that point Labour would have its first female leader.

At some point, I expect that we’ll also have our first Prime Minister who’s a Doctor Who fan. And the way I’ll know that to be true is this:

They’ll tell me. And I’ll believe them.

Some thoughts on The Burning Wheel

Recently my Tuesday night Role-playing group played a nine-episode campaign of Luke Crane’s Fantasy RPG system The Burning Wheel. The current edition is Burning Wheel Gold.

It’s safe to say the experience was divisive. We started with (I think) 6 or 7 players, and in the end-game had two. But that end-game… wow.

It’s a fascinating system, and to say that it’s not for everyone is an understatement of the highest order. But its weird mechanics have produced hands-down some of the greatest story moments I’ve seen in an RPG system. I’m going to try to tease some of the reasons for that out here.

First up, the presentation. The books are written in a first-person style and insist that there’s Only One Way To Do It. Some people find the style irritating, but I think a much larger problem here is the lack of coherent editing. It’s difficult to find where things are, and no PDFs are available for easy searching. The rules in one book also contain references to rules in other books (some of which are out of print), with no cross-referencing. It’s very much the author’s home system, published as-is, with all that implies.

But how does it play?

Character Creation

Characters are created (burned, in the parlance) by using a life-path system. The GM tells you how many life paths you can take, and you travel through them picking up skills and traits as you go.

The life-path system has no pretensions to balance. At all. Want to just win at everything? Elves are the way to go. Want your character to be pretty incapable? Orc. Despite having no licence, Burning Wheel is perhaps the most Tolkienesque of games that I’ve ever seen. And this implied setting is heavily baked into character creation. Want to play an Orc? (Two of my players did.) Then you start out with the Cannibal trait. And everyone who’s not an Orc hates you. Your life paths, like you, are nasty, brutish, and short. And your skills suck.

Other than this implied setting – you get nothing.

And here’s where it starts to get interesting – the world is created in play by the players. It’s a no-prep system. Instead, the world is formed by their actions.

The Core Mechanic

The basic gameplay mechanics are available free from DriveThruRPG but I’ll try and explain how it works:

Every skill that you have is rated from 1 to 10 next to it, with 1 being “You’ve seen a sword before,” through to “You’re the most legendary sword-wielder on the planet.”

Similarly, everything that you might want to do has a difficulty from 1 to 10 with one being “You don’t even need to think about it” and 10 being “A miracle.”

To do something, you roll a number of dice equal to your skill. Less than three on a die is a failure, four or more is a success. If your successes are equal to or greater than the difficulty, it happens.

And here’s where it takes a sudden left-turn from other RPGs. The world is not an objective reality which the game interrogates; instead, it is defined by your roll.

Before rolling dice, you establish these things:

  • What do you want to happen if you succeed?
  • What’s the difficulty?
  • What happens if you fail?

The difficulty’s a flat number based on the 1 to 10 scale. Let’s say you’re facing off against a dragon with your sword and you want to kill it with one thrust.

What do I want to happen? I want to kill the dragon.
What’s the skill I use? Sword, axe, bow. Any of those would work.
What’s the difficulty?  Let’s face it, that’s going to be a miracle. 10.
What happens if I failWell, as GM I can only see one option here, which is that you get eaten.

And then you roll the dice. And if you make the number, the thing you want to happen, happens. And if you don’t then the other thing happens.

And whatever happens stays true. Forever, unless the state of the world changes.

What do I want to happen? I want to pick the lock on this door and get through before the monsters arrive.
What’s the skill? Locksmith would do the trick.
What’s the difficulty? It’s an act that requires expertise, so that’s a 5.
What happens if I fail? You fail to pick the lock.

Make the roll, and you’ve picked the lock. So far so ordinary.

But here’s the interesting thing – you failed to pick the lock. And that’s true forever. Neither you nor any other member of your party will ever be able to pick that lock unless the state of the world changes (eg someone replaces the lock with a different one).

This takes a lot of time to get your head around. Here’s an example from our game.

What do I want to happen? I want my friend to impress the King by dressing smartly. I’ll use my Court-wise skill to outfit him in the latest fashions.
What’s the difficulty? This will require expertise: 5.
What happens if I fail? Everyone at court thinks he’s a rube.

Don’t like the failure mode? Fine, don’t make the roll. (Obviously if the PC being dressed looks at the failure possibility and says no thanks, I don’t want to take that risk and will do something else instead rather than dress up in the finery you select, then no roll would be made in that case either.)

But if they agree to dress up, and you fail the roll, both of you are stuck with the result. The world has crystallised around this choice, which will remain true. You’ve got a bad rep with the court or an in with the King. You can’t look at the roll and go “Ah, I’ve failed, let’s try a different outfit.”

Once you start to get your head around this, the possibilities are endless, because you make the world.

Another example from the game. The King is dead (a terrible accident, or so the party like to tell everyone) and they are now temporarily in change of the Capital City.

What do you want to happen?  I want to organise a Constitutional Convention to completely reform the governance of the Kingdom, introducing civil rights for LGBT folk and setting myself up as the Regent.
What skill do I use? Persuasion.
What’s the difficulty? Ha ha ha. 10.
What happens if I fail? You’re in the dungeon, and the exiled leader of the opposition has returned and is now running the country.

And you successfully make the roll, and whatever you asked for is now true. There you are, running the country.

So storytelling works completely differently in this system to any other. You choose the thing you want to see in the world, and (providing you make the roll) narrate straight to it.

World-changing events become commonplace based on the beliefs of the characters – which is very different to taking a wander into a dungeon to get  some pie and experience points.

Character Advancement

Character advancement is by testing skills – whenever you make a roll you compare the difficulty to your skill, and need a certain number of tests in each category to advance. If you don’t have a skill, you can test against it anyway, but difficulties are doubled – so you’re likely to fail anything but the simplest tasks.

It doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail, you still get the test. So it’s good to start using skills, even if the failure mode is bad for you.


Your character has three Beliefs, which define the game they want to play. So if a character has a Belief “I will kill the last dragon” then they’ve defined a couple of things about the world:

  • There is only one dragon left
  • A lot of the story that we’ll tell will be about finding and attempting to kill it

A character gains Artha points by acting on their beliefs, which can be spent on things like getting extra dice for rolls.

Interestingly, you gain the Artha by acting either with or against the belief, as long as it comes into play. So if you have the Belief “All Wizards Must Die”, then  if you come across a wizard, then no matter whether you kill them or spare them, you still get the money.

Artha is spent to make amazing things happen – like adding extra dice to your roll, or shifting the roll so it becomes a lot easier. With Artha and a friend or two to help out, suddenly those impossible 10s become a lot more likely.

The extra subsystems

Outside of these basic rules, there are other subsystems for fighting and convincing other characters to do what you say – but when we tried them (especially in the early stages when attempting to get our heads around the very different way in which the core mechanic forced us to engage with the game) we found them to be un-necessarily complicated, and I ended up rolling back the system so that everything was run from the core mechanic – which worked very well, once we’d figured out how it worked.

Final Thoughts

All in all a fascinating experience, and definitely one I’d like to try again. But it may be difficult to find others who’ll give it the time and space to become its own thing. If your idea of fun is just going out and murdering monsters rather than creating a world and inhabiting it, perhaps this isn’t for you. It certainly wasn’t for five out of seven of my players.

The emphasis on learning-by-doing and use of Artha to make the impossible possible means that it’s perfectly doable to create a character who can change the world through the awesomeness of their crafting skills; a knitter or basketmaker with the power of kings.

I can completely understand why this system is beloved by game designers and unpopular with those looking for a “normal” RPG; the way that the core mechanic creates a living world on the fly rather than helping you interact with one which already exists results in a completely different style of gaming, where instead of making your character try against a world that already exists, your success or failure alters the fabric of the world itself.


I’m watching some Buffy tonight for the first time in a year or two, and suddenly it hits  me like a kick to the stomach that knocks the breath from my lungs.

I’m Giles now. 

I’ve been Xander and Spike and Willow  (never Buffy, never her), but I’ve been the plucky assistant, the brave and helpful pal, the sometimes-monster, but always there, direct and up front with the hero, sharing her joy and pain, and now suddenly and awfully and out of the blue, my reflection has changed, and there I am in the story, different.


And perhaps I’ll be a part of the adventure still, but never at the heart of it, never a hero in this story.

Not any more.

(And I used to be an Anya or an Oz or a Cordelia. But still never a Buffy, never her.)

And I pause the DVD and I stop and I think (because I am a Giles now), but there’s no coming back, not now, not never, not any more.

I am old and I shall never be a Riley or an Angel again.

And I think to myself:

I am still here, in this story. I may no longer be at the heart of it, but here I am, reflected.

I am Giles.

I am Joyce.

I am content.

Satellite Six Schedule

I’m off to Satellite Six at the end of the month. Hurrah!

No? No.

Fair enough.

The Satellites (of which this will be the sixth, keep up at the back there) are a series of rather lovely UK Science Fiction conferences with a the-science-in-science-fiction theme.

(Science Fiction conferences are usually called conventions rather than conferences because Historical Reasons,  but that always reads to me like 1950s vacuum cleaner salesmen gathering in a motel in Buttfuck Idaho to tell each other how awesome they are and then cheat on their wives.)

The first Satellite was held back in 2007 as a one day con to commemorate 50 years since the Space Age dawned with the launching of Sputnik 1. Since then, Satellite has grown from strength to strength, with Satellite 4 being the 65th Eastercon – the yearly national UK SF conference.

But enough history! As well as being around the con generally, here’s where I’m going to be in particular:

Blakes 7 40th An­niver­sary pan­el
16:30 – 17:30 in Toma (Alternative)

Blakes 7. The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.
There will be spoilers.

The Great Sa­tel­lite De­bate: Who should speak for Plan­et Earth?
14:30 – 15:30 in Toma (Alternative)

The UNKNOWN have arrived from Outer Space, and a representative from Planet Earth must be selected to greet them.

I – and others – will make a case for who (or what) this representative should be, and then the audience will choose who represents us all at the moment of First Contact.

This may not work out well for Humanity.


So if you’re around,  please do come and  say hullo!

Also,  there is a non-zero probability that I might run Hey Kids, Let’s All Meet The Gin Wizard! and/or Doctor Magnethands.

This probability will increase the later it gets, the drunker I get, and (at least in the case of “Hey Kids, Let’s All Meet The Gin Wizard!”), how much Costume is in the immediate vicinity.

Gilgamesh Reviews Roundup

Sarah Lott as Hunter. Picture: McVirn Etienne

“Writer Piers Beckley artfully condenses the source material to create a lively story that plays out in a mix of poetry, prose and song. The icing on the cake however is Ray Shell’s boisterous direction, which remains sympathetic to the spirit of the Gilgamesh legend while using various theatrical devices to shape the narrative.”

 – The Stage

“It is a story full of detail and symbolic meaning of which Beckley offers the dramatic highlights, fights, steamy sex, ritual and exotic images and it is told is poetic and heightened language that makes it easy to mix the hieratic and the natural. […] Beckley, Shell and the company demonstrate that it doesn’t depend on scale to deliver an epic—and this is one that is full of dramatic surprises.”

 – British Theatre Guide

“It seems like an almost impossible task to reduce twelve long stories into just one hour, but somehow Piers Beckley has managed it and it makes a stunning play. […] These people and the talented cast all work hard to make a high class imaginative production.”


“So, let’s set the scene. Welcome to Uruk, a barbaric city whose king – Luke Trebilcock’s rangily charismatic Gilgamesh- is the living law of instant life and death, endlessly entitled to cursory rape 24-7. Instantly, we’re immersed in a set of brilliantly sparse, sepia backdrops eerily reminiscent of a prehistoric spin on Edvard Munch’s iconic Scream painting, strikingly stalked by women worthy of Wonder Woman’s bloodthirsty Amazons. Like everything else here – set, acting and costumes – the language is as bluntly, pleasingly effective as a smack in a prissy, unsuspecting sycophant’s face. Tough, compressed and uncompromising, Piers Beckley’s script is pure bullet-points to Ray Shell’s machine-gun direction, a seamless montage of scenes bursting with self-contained power.”

QX magazine


Tickets are still available for the final performances this week.


Outside In Makes It So

Outside In Makes It So

A new release!

I have a piece in one of my favourite assemblages of oddities, the new Outside In, which has just come out in the shops.

This one – Outside In Makes It So – contains 174 curious and wonderful essays on or about or around Star Trek: The Next Generation, each of which is roughly tied to one of the original episodes and/or films. Very roughly in some cases, which is part of the joy.

Mine is for one of my favourite episodes: Cause and Effect. Which, for my money, also has the best pre-credits sequence of any episode of anything ever.

My fee (as with all of the other Outside Ins I contributed to) will be going to charity, but technically this is the highest per-word rate that I’ve ever had.

Gonna just luxuriate in that concept for a while.

Anyway, you can buy it from the ATB store here.


Ray Shell directs Gilgamesh (Luke Trebilcock) and Enkidu (Toby Wynn-Davies) as they enter the Forest of Cedar in search of the demon Humbaba…

Three weeks isn’t a long rehearsal period by any stretch of the imagination, so we’re being very disciplined about it.

The first week was for blocking – letting the actors know where and when they need to be on our stage. Then once they’ve got the mechanical aspects down, they can bring all their skill to the acting part of their role.

Which is what this week is for, as we run each scene again and again, and look at the show as a whole. This is where the actors find their characters and bring them into the world.

It’s an absolute treat watching the show come together. You can have a read about just how proud I am at in this interview with The New Current.

We’re going to take you on a journey into the secret tales of the world of 4,000 years ago, with sex, death, love, danger, and mystery. Tales of Gods and Men, of the sacred harlot and the beast-man, of the King who raised and almost destroyed a city, and the man that he fell in love with – and lost.

You can buy tickets online or by calling 033 3012 4963.



Great Humbaba

Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

That fella leering out of you from the front of our poster?

That’s Humbaba. A demon with seven auras, the touch of any of which bring death.

He’s also sometimes known as Huwawa, and the picture is of a clay mask made of the demon about 3,800 years ago and currently in the British Museum. You can find out a little more about the provenance of the mask at the British Museum website.

Imagine. Almost 4,000 years ago, this mask would be used to tell the story of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and their battle with the demon in the Forest of Cedars.

A story that even then had already been told for hundreds of years.

See Humbaba fight Gilgamesh and Enkidu again this October at the White Bear Theatre.

Tickets are on sale now.