Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Chernobyl 2: The Explosion


Have you ever heard of the bat and ball puzzle? It's a maths puzzle. Cedric buys a cricket ball for ten pence. Let's imagine that it's the 1950s. You can't buy a cricket ball for ten pence nowadays, but let's imagine it's the 1950s. He buys a ball for ten pence. He buys a bat as well. The bat is one pound more expensive than the ball. How much does he pay in total for the bat and ball?

Pripyat's main square

Instinctively most people would say one pound and ten pence. The ball is ten pence. The bat is a pound more expensive equals a pound. One pound ten pence.

But that's wrong. The bat isn't a pound. It's a pound more than 10p, which is £1.10, and then you add on 10p for the ball equals £1.20. I remember the first time I worked this out in my head. It felt incredible, as if a huge rush of refreshing air had blown into my mind. I felt as if I understood the universe. I was intelligent! I remember thinking of all the things I could do with my intelligence. The limitless horizons of the universe were within my grasp, but something went wrong.

Technically you're not supposed to go into or climb on the buildings - it's unsafe - but the tour operators aren't dummies. This is why I'm not naming the company I picked, because I don't want them to get in trouble. It would take just one dead American tourist to put a bunch of Ukranian tour guides out of work and perhaps even behind bars.

Intelligence is not enough. The ability to solve maths problems is not enough. Neither is writing, or the ability to play guitar. Mastery of tools is just the first step. You still have to beat the metal; write the symphony; use your knowledge of maths to prove once and for all that the gravitational constant is indeed constant. That is where I failed.

But, oh, that magic feeling. It took me an age to understand what went on inside Chernobyl's number four reactor in the early hours of 26 April 1986, and even though I think I understand the technical aspects there are so many things I'll never understand, at least not fully. The culture for example. As mentioned in the previous post I'm not like most other people on the internet. I'm British, not American, so modern Ukraine isn't as jarring as it might be if I was an upper-middle class Californian. When I think of the Soviet Union I think of Britain in the 1970s, but with secret policemen on every street corner and no David Bowie.


A year after Chernobyl there was another atomic accident, this time in Goiania, Brazil. Some scavengers broke into an abandoned cancer treatment centre and stole part of an abandoned radiotherapy machine. It was a powerful gamma radiation source used to deliver targeted radiotherapy, but they didn't know that. From their point of view it was a piece of scrap with glowing blue pellets inside it. They passed it on to a local scrap metal dealer, who took it home to show his family.

They were fascinated by the supernatural blue glow that came from inside the device. They broke it open and passed the radioactive pellets to their friends, who fell ill. Eventually the authorities realised what was going on and intervened, but four people were given lethal doses of radiation, including the scrapyard owner's six-year-old daughter-in-law. Dozens more were contaminated by radioactive debris that had leaked from the container.

It's easy to scorn those people. How could they have been so stupid? But perhaps they didn't think a lethal radiation source would be left behind in a derelict hospital. There was just one guard, who took that night off to visit the cinema. Perhaps they simply didn't know about radiation. I didn't grasp the fact that radiotherapy involves radiation until I was a grown-up. Until then assumed it was just a word.

Every generation has a different past and a different future; we are driven by ghosts on a radar screen, shadows cast by bonfires, unknowable illusions conjured by the inner light of faith. The staff on duty at Chernobyl that night were the product of a system and a culture of which I know nothing. They had different dreams and different fears, they lived in a different world.


They had been asked to run a test. Nuclear reactors need a lot of electricity to keep going. Ordinarily this comes from the reactor itself, but in the event of a malfunction there is a backup generator. Chernobyl's backup generator took too long to bring online, so the authorities decided to find out if the inertia of the freewheeling reactor turbine could generate power even after the nuclear reaction had been quenched.

The test was scheduled for the daytime, but there was an emergency so it was put off until late at night. I have no idea if the night shift was less well-briefed than the day shift. The issue of individual responsibility for the disaster is still a thorny subject. Twenty-six years earlier, in 1960, there was a huge explosion at the Soviet rocket base in Baikonur. An ICBM fired its upper stage while the rocket was still being fuelled. Almost a hundred people were killed in the fireball.

Among the dead was Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, their leader. The investigative commission decided to punish no-one because, in the words of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, "the guilty have already been punished". Whatever firing squad the authorities had ready for Nedelin was redundant; he was already dead.

If the Chernobyl accident was the result of human error the people responsible for pushing the buttons paid for it with their lives. They died slowly, their insides burned by radiation. Their bodies were buried in metal coffins in order not to contaminate the soil. A handful of Chernobyl's senior staff were sentenced to hard labour, and by the time their sentences were over the Soviet Union no longer existed and they were effectively unemployable.

The disaster had two immediate technical causes. The first was Xenon poisoning. When Uranium-235 decays it spits out neutrons. Most of the neutrons fly off into the air, but some of them crash into other atoms of Uranium-235, which causes them to decay as well. The end result is a nuclear chain reaction of neutrons smashing into U-235 atoms, which decay and fire out neutrons that smash into U-235 atoms etc.


The smashed U-235 atoms leave behind little chunks of atomic debris called fission products. One such product is Xenon-135. Most of the fission products have no effect on the nuclear reaction, but Xenon-135 absorbs neutrons and slows the reaction down. Ordinarily the flow of neutrons quickly burns away the Xenon, but if too much builds up inside the reactor rods the neutrons grind to a halt and the power drops. This is Xenon poisoning. Xenon-135 evaporates in a little over nine hours, but the team working on the reactor that night couldn't wait nine hours, they had a deadline.

There's an experiment you can do. Heat a pan of water until it boils, then drop in a piece of ice. In a few seconds the whole pan stops boiling. The cold ice is just enough to push the water below the boiling point, but when the ice melts the pan starts boiling again. Imagine you want to boil away the ice really quickly, so you turn the gas all the way up. That's more or less what happened at Chernobyl.

During the test the technicians at Chernobyl slowly deactivated the reactor by pushing control rods into the reactor core, but Xenon-135 started to build up within the fuel rods, which caused the reactor power to decrease much faster than the staff expected. They didn't want to wait for the Xenon to decay naturally, so they withdrew most of the control rods in order to burn off the Xenon.

Apparently the staff managed to run the test, although history doesn't record if it was successful or not. By the time they finished most of the Xenon had burned away. The control rods were still disengaged, and when the Xenon evaporated the reaction started to go into overdrive because there was nothing left to block the neutrons. One of the technicians hit the emergency scram button, which sent the control rods back down into the reactor, but the results were unexpectedly catastrophic.

The second technical cause of the disaster was the design of the reactor itself. Let's talk about water. Water has several functions in a nuclear reactor. It generates steam that powers the reactor's turbine. It draws heat away from the fuel rods and stops them from melting. It can also be used to raise or lower the power of the reaction by moderating the flow of neutrons.

The Chernobyl reactor is build on the river Pripyat. The reactor is behind me; you're not allowed to take pictures this close from this angle.


The moderating effect of water is slightly counter-intuitive. Water slows down neutrons, and a lot o water will block the neutrons entirely and stop the reaction. Paradoxically a little bit of water actually makes the reaction more powerful, because slow neutrons sustain a reaction better than fast neutrons. Imagine that slow neutrons are big fat blundering chunks of energy smashing their way through the fuel rods whereas fast neutrons are tiny little high-speed bullets that immediately shoot off into the ether.

Nuclear reactors are designed so that the individual fuel rods are subcritical. By themselves they can't sustain a nuclear chain reaction. They don't produce enough neutrons. In order to start a nuclear reaction the rods have to be placed next to each other, at which point the flow of neutrons between the rods is in theory high enough to make the reaction start.

But even then modern reactors are designed so that their array of fuel rods is also subcritical. The nuclear reaction doesn't start until water is added to the reactor. If the water leaks or boils away the nuclear reaction stops because the neutrons are going too fast to sustain a chain reaction.


Modern reactors are not however immune to failure. If a water-moderated reactor loses its water the nuclear reaction stops, but there's nothing to stop the fuel rods from overheating and melting. This is what happened at Fukushima. The plant operators at Fukushima shut down the reactor properly, but the loss of cooling water meant that some of the fuel rods melted down, wrecking the interior of the plant and releasing nuclear contamination into the environment. A meltdown is a catastrophe, but it's a slower and more manageable catastrophe than a massive steam / hydrogen explosion.

At Chernobyl the water wasn't supposed to be part of the nuclear reaction. It was used purely for heat transfer, but the designers still had to compensate for its presence. When the control rods were pulled out of the reactor cooling water rushed into the channels, which reduced the reactor power slightly, so the rods were designed with graphite tips. Graphite slows down neutrons and boosts the nuclear reaction, the idea being that as the water rushed into the control rod channels the graphite tips would boost the reaction just enough to stop the power suddenly dropping.


The problem is that during the final stages of the disaster most of the cooling water had boiled into steam, which doesn't absorb neutrons at all. As the control rods pushed down into the reactor their graphite tips boosted the power, counteracting water that was no longer there, and in a split-second there was a massive positive feedback loop. The heat shot up and deformed the rods, jamming them in place, and then the runaway reaction caused the remaining water - thirty thousand gallons of it - to erupt into a violent steam explosion.

The resulting blast threw the concrete lid of the containment vessel to one side, opening the reactor core to the turbine hall. A few seconds later an even more violent explosion blew open the roof of the building and threw chunks of burning graphite and nuclear fuel into the surrounding environment. A raging fire began to send a cloud of radioactive smoke into the environment.

Two of the reactor's staff were killed immediately, buried by debris. For a few weeks the official death toll only included these two people, which was accurate but misleading, because most of the staff on duty that night were dead men walking. The dosage was too high for their equipment to measure but they could taste it. For the most part they survived for a few weeks, a few hung on for a couple of months.


As of 2018 the official death toll is 37, including four helicopter crewmembers killed in a crash during the clean-up operation. There are rumours that many of the "liquidators" were worked until near-death, at which point they were shipped off to other parts of the Soviet Union to die anonymously. Furthermore the uncertain aetiology of chronic radiation sickness has frustrated attempts to come up with a definitive death toll. The World Health Organisation estimates 4,000 excess deaths as a result of the disaster. A study by a member of the International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates 9,000 excess deaths plus over twenty thousand extra cancer cases, not necessarily fatal.

On an economic level I very much doubt that the extra money from disaster tourism will ever compensate for the loss of several towns plus an expensive radar array and a nuclear power complex plus the cost of cleaning up the disaster area. Belarus, just over the border, doesn't even get money from tourists. The Soviet Union initially tried to clean up the area by itself, but after the collapse it fell down the list of Russia's economic priorities, and now the zone is managed by international agencies.


On a political level the disaster appalled General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, who took a dim view of the old guard's attempt to brush it under the carpet. A few weeks later he gave a televised speech which poured scorn on international alarm at the accident, but his words have none of the reality-distorting chutzpah of vintage Soviet propaganda. If nothing else the lack of transparency made his novel new policy of glasnost look like a hollow sham. I can't help but draw parallels with the Challenger disaster of 1986. In both cases potential safety risks were deliberately overlooked by an organisation keen to maintain a schedule, but in the words of Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and member of the commission selected to investigate the disaster, "reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

It would be nice to think that Feynman's contributions to the Challenger investigation were lauded and acted upon, but seventeen years later exactly the same culture he damned lost Columbia and its seven crewmembers; in contrast the Russian nuclear industry has not had a major nuclear accident since Chernobyl, so perhaps people can change after all.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Chernobyl 1: Ukraine


Disaster Tourism
The disaster happened in the early hours of the morning, when the night shift was on duty and the local residents were asleep. One of the plant's storage tanks overheated. The seals burst and over forty tons of poison gas boiled off into the air. As the gas cooled it fell to earth, and within a few hours over three thousand people were killed by the toxic cloud. Over the following days and years thousands more joined them.


Bhopal is a state capital and manufacturing hub with a population of around two million people. It will forevermore be remembered for the gas leak of December 1984. The plant still exists but it was closed down years ago. Access is difficult for foreigners and there are no organised tours. I have no desire to visit. It would be the most awful holiday.

There's a famous academic paper by a chap called William Adams, published in 1986. It's called "Whose Lives Count?". Adams studied US news coverage of international disasters in the 1970s and early 1980s in order to find out how badly foreign people had to die before they mattered. He concluded that one dead Italian received over eight times the coverage of a dead Filipino, over eighty-four times a dead Chinese person. The further the disaster from the United States - not just geographically but also culturally - the less coverage an individual death received.


Adams pointed out that there was a complicating factor. China had much heavier state censorship than the United States or Europe. The same was true of the Soviet Union. In 1980 a Vostok rocket exploded on the pad at a spaceport near Archangel. Almost fifty people were killed but the disaster was not acknowledged by the Russian authorities until 1989. Relatives of the victims were told that there had been a plane crash. In 1979 an anthrax outbreak at what was then Sverdlovsk killed over sixty people, but although the deaths were reported - they were blamed on tainted meat from unscrupulous market traders - the fact that the anthrax came from a biological weapons plant was not revealed until 1992.

"But we're just as bad, if not worse", and perhaps a hundred years from now it will be revealed that the news media in Britain and the United States were just as guilty, and that literally every death in Britain during the 20th Century was the result of government action. Perhaps it will be revealed that human beings are in fact immortal, but corrupt governments have been hiding that fact from us. If you are reading this blog post in the year ten thousand, please don't think badly of us; we didn't know any better.

The Duga-3 over-the-horizon radar complex. Over-the-horizon radar requires a tonne of computing power, which explains the server racks. The Soviets built the complex near Chernobyl because it was out-of-the-way and no-one would notice the coming and going of military personnel.

There were limits to the power of Soviet censorship. During the Cold War the West generally believed that the Soviets were, if not actually evil, then at the very least inflexible and incompetent. Monolithic in their thought processes. Willing to believe in a fiction rather than admit error. Massively wasteful.

The shoot-down of Korean Air 007 in 1983 fed into this narrative. No-one denied that the pilots had strayed over Soviet territory, but the decision to blow the airliner out of the sky spoke of a system that didn't care about human life and wasn't capable of individual initiative. Soviet attempts to blame the disaster on the United States won no-one over, and in the end the lack of transparency made the Russians look even worse; there were persistent rumours that the bodies of the victims had been retrieved and destroyed, or that some of the passengers had been captured alive and tortured.

Perhaps the Soviet authorities believed that rigid control of the media made them look strong, but in reality it came across as petty. Our own media was in theory free, and despite Watergate newspapers generally weren't seen as a major threat to the stability of the nation, so what were the Russians scared of? A few words never toppled a government.


The censorship failed again in 1986. In October reactor number four at the nuclear power plant near Chernobyl exploded, sending a cloud of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The cloud drifted west and north, and two days later it tripped radiation detectors at a nuclear power plant in Forsmark, Sweden. When it became apparent that there was nothing wrong with Sweden's reactor it was a simple matter to trace the prevailing winds back to the Soviet Union.

At first the Soviet authorities tried to downplay the incident, which again led to speculation that there had been a major disaster with thousands of deaths. Yet again it fed a suspicion that the USSR was a false front hiding a mass of crumbling infrastructure. Here in the UK Spitting Image made light of Russian censorship and the stereotype of Russian technology and unreliable junk persisted for years afterwards.

Chernobyl became one of those things that children of the 1980s remember vividly, even though details at the time were sketchy. Unlike Challenger or Lockerbie it didn't leave behind indelible images of exploding rockets or the broken wreckage of a Boeing 747. Instead it left behind mental images, of fire, of a building on fire, of melting flesh and a mushroom cloud.

A note about locations. Chernobyl town existed long before the reactor; in the 1970s it was greatly expanded to supply personnel for the Duga radar complex. A small town called Chernobyl-2 also grew around the Duga radar shortly afterwards.
In 1970 Pripyat was built to house workers for the nuclear power plant.
As of 2018 Pripyat and Chernobyl-2 are abandoned. The Chernobyl power plant is still operational and a small number of workers commute from Chernobyl, which is mostly abandoned. When I talk about "Chernobyl" I'm generally talking about the whole exclusion zone plus the 1986 disaster.

For the remainder of the Soviet Union's lifespan Chernobyl was a touchy subject and by the time the USSR collapsed it was old news. I was only ten years old when the disaster happened but the name stuck with me. As a teenager I didn't think about it. I must have assumed it had been cleaned up and dealt with, and it was, although not as I envisaged it. In the early 2000s Eastern Europe became a "thing" in the West - driven by computer games and appearances in spy films - and interest in Chernobyl grew.

I took most of these photos with the cameras above, an Olympus Pen F and a Pen FT. Mostly using Kodak Pro Photo and TMAX. The harsh colour photographs were taken with my mobile phone. The lead-lined pouch wasn't for the film, it was for my testicles. You can't be too careful.

Do I have any desire to visit the site of the Bhopal disaster? None whatsoever. I have no personal connection with Bhopal. The disused plant presumably resembles any other disused factory. It is one of many things in this world that I don't think about from day to day, from year to year, and I imagine the people of Bhopal probably don't care about me and are capable of surviving without my presence. I hate it when people pretend to care. It's fake and it fools nobody. Lefties tend to think of brown-skinned foreigners as if they were an undifferentiated mass of children; I don't. I think of them as people, like me, and I'm not going to trample over their graves to generate content for my blog.

Why did I decide to visit Chernobyl? Spectacle and novelty. I went to see the spectacle of a city of the past frozen in time. There are many other cities in the former Eastern Bloc that are similarly derelict, but short of learning the language and driving there myself I have no way to visit them. Chernobyl is within my grasp. It gives me something to talk about, generates some content for my blog, gives me a chance to wear my big coat and take some photographs. A brush with danger without any danger. If anybody asks I can say that only a few people died, and it was long ago.


I am however late to the party. You've probably been to Chernobyl already. You went in 2009 or 2011, back when the reactor didn't have a big cover on it. You took a lot of photographs and perhaps tried out your drone. Maybe the trip was given for free in exchange for a blog post. You can't get away with that now. Maybe you published a book about your adventures.

Can't get away with that either because publishers aren't interested in Chernobyl any more. That seam has been mined out. In fact it's fashionable to pooh-pooh Chernobyl nowadays. There's a little cottage industry of blog posts moaning that Chernobyl isn't like it was. It's like Everest, overrun by hordes of common people who do not understand things as deeply as you or I.

Chernobyl is one of those places that takes a little bit of work to visit but isn't particularly hard; it's easier than the big gas crater in Turkmenistan, a lot easier than exploring the Caspian Sea via cargo ship, but harder than Iceland or the Faroe Isles. The exclusion zone has a road network, a few shops, and a couple of hotels, but you still have to arrange admission via an agency, because it's an ecological disaster site.

And also a functioning nuclear power plant. The plant now belongs to Ukraine rather than the Soviet Union, but even the pro-Western government of Ukraine isn't keen on people nosing around a nuclear power plant. Do you remember when Ukraine was a major nuclear weapons power? After the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew from Ukraine the bombers and missiles were left behind. Ukraine gave them back to the Russians. I wonder if they regret that.

The reactor was built near Chernobyl because it was out of the way, and also because there was plenty of water. Nuclear reactors need a lot of water to keep them cool.

Kyiv
You have to get to Kyiv first, because the tours start from Kyiv. Do you have to go on a tour? That depends. Are you conversant in Ukrainian or Russian, but preferably Ukrainian? Are you prepared to walk twenty miles from the nearest functioning train station - which is over the border in Belarus - without being spotted or shot?

Bear in mind that Belarus was hit harder by the disaster than Ukraine on account of the prevailing winds. If you're going to make the crossing on foot it'll be a lot slower than driving, so you'll be exposed to a lot more radiation. If you're eager to go by yourself I'm not going to rat you out, but bear in mind that Chernobyl is in the middle of nowhere. It was deliberately built in the middle of nowhere so that if something went wrong no-one in Moscow would be hurt. That's why we put Dounreay up in Scotland, so that if something went wrong no-one in London would be hurt. There's ample woodland but even if you hide under tree cover you'll stand out a mile on thermal.


I'll tell you how I did it the easy way. I flew from Gatwick with Ukraine International to Boryspil Airport, Kyiv. After arrival I withdrew a few hundred hryvnia from an ATM in the airport and took the bus to Kyiv city centre. The bus is outside the airport building, to the right. From what I remember the stop says "City Bus", but the coach itself has SKY BUS written on the side in purple.

All you have to do is take a seat and wait for the driver to collect the money; he walks up and down the bus. He has change. It costs 100h to get to the main station, 60h for a Metro station south-east of the city centre. Ukrainian money is mostly notes and the ATM will probably give you a 100h note. Make sure to end your turn under full cover with overwatch enabled and don't discount the value of flashbang grenades. They have a huge radius and really work. You can afford to dash during the first turn.


The bus deposited me outside Kyiv's central train station, which has several different names. There is a large and very popular KFC just outside the train station that is open 24 hours a day. Don't feel bad about eating Western takeaway food in Ukraine. KFC has self-service screens but they aren't in English. There are two nearby McDonalds that do have English menus. One day all of it will be in English.

The hotel has a fantastic field of fire.

Next you need the Metro. The Metro entrance is on the other side of the station from from the bus stop. You can either walk through the station, dodging past soldiers and masses of people getting on with their lives, or use the underpass, which is off to one side and hard to spot unless you've scouted the area beforehand with Google Street View.

Thirty years of radioactive poison has taken its toll on Kyiv. The people have built a large underground transport network in order to escape from the surface. As I sat on the Kyiv metro at six o'clock on the morning the other passengers looked tired and drawn. Ukrainian women appear to weigh no more than eleven or twelve stone, versus a far more more normal fifteen or sixteen stone here in Britain. Such is the pervasive air of fear in the atmosphere that at certain times in the day the roads in central Kyiv become packed with cars, packed with people trying to escape.


Ukraine in general and Kyiv in particular is in a state of flux, at least as far as British tourism is concerned. On the positive side everything is cheap in Kyiv if you are British. As of 2018 a McDonalds meal is around 89h, which is £2.15, versus £5.49 or so for the same thing in the UK. Before you complain that I travelled to a foreign country but ignored the local cuisine in favour of American food I would like to make it clear that every single day I ate the most adventurous dishes in Kyiv's top restaurants, where I know all of the chefs personally. On Wednesday I visited Kyiv's top chef at his country home where we drank the finest wines and I made love to his daughter. I only mention McDonalds because some readers of this blog might be pressed for time.

It has to be said that Ukraine is not famous for its cuisine, which is made from cabbage and beetroot, but on the other hand British food is even worse - we have Fray Bentos pies that aren't even pies, and sausages made out of pig's blood - so I feel I can look the nation of Ukraine in the eye.

Prices. Hotel prices in Kyiv are also modest. You can go up a tier. I travel light and cheap, but this time I had a kettle and a fridge and a dedicated shower and a washing machine. Ukraine doesn't have a prohibition on alcohol and no-one minds if you wear shorts. No-one speaks English. As a British person I don't find that a problem because I usually don't interact with the locals anyway. It can only be a matter of time before British people shun Poland and decide to go on rave-ups in Ukraine instead, at which point the people of Ukraine will learn English and all their street signs will be in English and we will have ruined another country once again.


Ukraine is non-standard. It's East. Not hardcore East like Khazakstan but still East. It's more East than I have ever been. The furthest East I have been is Budapest, which is technically East but felt West because Hungary uses the same alphabet and is only a short train journey from Austria.

Ukraine on the other hand has an alien aspect. It has a completely different alphabet and all the traits of former components of the Eastern Bloc. Solid but crumbling buildings, a well-educated population, very few fat people, apparently masses of corruption although I didn't see any myself. I expected to see gangs of teenagers dressed in Adidas, squatting while drinking vodka and glaring at passers-by, but in the end the people looked mostly normal. My only other knowledge of Eastern Europe comes from dashcam videos of car accidents, but I didn't see any car accidents. If you're reading this in Ukraine, I want to reassure you that in my opinion you're all right. You can sleep happy tonight.

Kyiv is in pretty good shape, surprisingly so given the bad hurting currently going on in part of the country, and the bad hurting that took place in the main square just a few years ago. There was however still something jarring about Kyiv. It was the Metro.


The Metro was built many years ago, when Kyiv had fewer people. Fewer, smaller people. The platforms are generally very deep and it would cost a fortune to enlarge anything, so the Metro is constantly crowded, but the thing that struck me most was the adverts.

You can learn a lot about a place by studying the adverts; by studying adverts you are reverse-engineering the thought processes of the marketing people who bought the advertising space. Here in the UK advertising is ubiquitous. London in particular is covered with adverts for expensive car brands and Hollywood films, because marketing people are confident that Londoners have money. London feels real and substantial because it has the best adverts.

In Kyiv the adverts were for power tool companies and local nightclubs. Cheap adverts for small businesses. It made the Metro feel cheap and small. I have to assume that luxury car manufacturers and makers of expensive watches and jewellery do not feel that the people of Kyiv are their target market.

One day the entire world will be covered in adverts for BMW and Bulgari, but until then there are colourless pockets of grim poverty where people simply live their lives without dreaming about Omega or Desigual, and Kyiv is one of those pockets. I pity those people.


Using the Kyiv Metro is relatively simple. I asked one of the staff for a contactless Metro card - I said "contactless?" and pointed. She understood me. We didn't build HMS Dreadnought for nothing, you know. The contactless Metro card is a green plastic card that you preload with Metro journeys using vending machines in the stations. For all its faults the Metro is really cheap.

Technically I should have given the card back, but I might go again. Living in Ukraine for six months is probably a lot cheaper than living in Britain. Perhaps I might move there.
A bohemian subculture will grow around me, and then house prices in Kyiv will skyrocket because of gentrification, and it will be all my fault, but I'll still moan about it. Middle class people are poison.

How would I solve the problems of Kyiv? Firstly I would demand a fee of £15m for my services, payable to my company, of which I am the only employee. Secondly I would advise that the Metro increases its prices tenfold. That would cut down on overcrowding.

Some people might find it hard to use the Metro because of the price increase; they can either stay at home or use alternative transport. Thirdly I would implement a congestion charge whereby cars passing through Kyiv have to pay a fee. I would spin it as an environmental measure. Fourthly I would raise the salaries of Kyiv's executive body and also cut a deal with local businesspeople to relax whatever planning laws Kyiv has. The congestion charge might push some locals into desperation and poverty, but I have long believed that a thing does not exist unless it can be observed - quantum postmodernism, I call it - and as long as Kyiv's media keeps its mouth shut about the homeless all will be well in the garden. Besides which the poor shouldn't expect to live in the nation's capital city. That's just selfish. They should live in little slums around the edge.

That is my model for Kyiv and for the whole world.


What else? Most of Kyiv's signs are written in the Ukrainian and Latin alphabets, but almost none of them have English translations. One exception is the Metro, which has an English voiceover, specifically an irritated-sounding American English voiceover. The central train station has several names. The entire station complex is called Kiev-Pasazhyrskyi ("passengers"). The southern part of the station, where the Sky Bus drops you off, is Kiev-Pivdennyi ("southern"). The Metro stop - which isn't directly connected to the station, but has a building just outside - is Vokzal'na, roughly "in the station", apparently derived from the English word Vauxhall.

The biggest problem with Kyiv as a tourist destination is that there isn't all that much to see, and the city is a nine-hour train journey from the rest of Ukraine, which doesn't have much to see either. Odessa has some famous steps, but at the base of the steps is a bunch of bars and a ferry terminal, and at the top is a statue and nothing. Ukraine in general is enormous but only has a handful of tourist destinations. As I write these words the most popular activities listed on TripAdvisor for all of Ukraine are Chernobyl and a gun range where you can shoot Kalashnikovs, which is something I'd love to do but I'd never admit it in public. Ukraine is one of those strange, isolated places where people get on with things without debasing themselves to bring in tourist dollars.


I realise that I'm dismissing an entire country. In my defence, most stuff on the internet is written by Americans, generally upper-middle-class Americans who earn a lot of money and live in relative luxury. They write about the world from a position of superiority. When they criticise foreign lands they are essentially kicking something that, to them, is small and weak, for the amusement of their peers. I am not American. I'm British, and Britain does not have a position of superiority over anything, and neither do I.

In the 1970s the Eastern Bloc had the Trabant and concrete tower blocks, but we weren't any better. We also had concrete tower blocks, and they were just as badly made. We had the Morris Marina, one of the most depressing cars ever to sell more than a million units. It was made with bits of other cars. The two-door coupe version had the same doors as the four-door, so it looked as if the doors were too small. There was absolutely nothing special or different about the Morris Marina.


We had the three-day week, there were only three television channels, men were ugly, most women were ugly, television was brown and there were "dolly birds", life was horrible, there was the Yorkshire Ripper etc. When the Sex Pistols sang about digging under the Berlin Wall in order to escape to the Eastern Bloc they were only half-joking. A lot of people who came of age in Britain in the 1960s grew up with an outside toilet. London still had bomb damage into the 1980s. The thought of living in the Eastern Bloc only sounded bad because it was full of foreigners, not because the standard of living was worse. If I disrespect Ukraine it's not because I look down on the place, it just doesn't stand out to me.

See, some places attract tourists because they're good-looking. The Bahamas for example. Nothing of note ever happened in The Bahamas and there are no museums, but people go there because the beaches are nice. Other places compensate for their lack of physical beauty by reminding us of things we saw on television when we were young. The remains of the Berlin Wall aren't much to look at but they mean something to me because I remember watching the wall come down on television.

Unfortunately for Ukraine the countryside is mostly flat, its cities are no more or less attractive than those elsewhere, and apart from Chernobyl I know nothing about the place. I don't know much about it and I'm not minded to find out because I hate learning; learning is difficult and depressing, because every time I learn something I realise how ignorant I used to be. Learning doesn't make me happy.


From now on Elon Musk will always be Knob Mack to me.

What did I see in Kyiv? I contemplated an overnight train journey to Odessa to see the steps, but there wasn't time. I visited the main square, which was the site of an apocalyptic protest in 2014 that left several people dead. I learn from The Guardian's Comment is Free section that the protesters were stooges of the CIA who were each paid $25 to turn up and throw petrol bombs, and that the killings - which didn't happen - were false flag operations orchestrated by CIA-backed neo-Nazis and that Ukraine was stupid to turn its back on Russia in favour of the European Union and NATO. Ukraine is apparently the most corrupt nation in Europe.

I love The Guardian. It's a rich source of comedy in a bleak world. Maidan Square is dominated by a large ugly hotel which sits on top of a hill. It's an obvious sniper spot, an awesome one. You would have the most incredible kill-streak if you could get up there with a rifle. In computer games it's easy to run uphill, in real life it's not.

The former Kiev Arsenal camera factory.

I visited the Kiev Arsenal camera factory. I have a Kiev 4 rangefinder camera. It was made in Kyiv, in a factory just outside the Arsenal metro station. Sadly the factory closed a long time ago, and although it was briefly taken over by a camera shop that sold medium format gear, that has gone as well. I didn't have time to explore camera shops in Ukraine.


I went to Kyiv's war museum complex. This was built during the Soviet era to commemorate the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, but it also has a collection of Cold War tanks and aircraft, including a Hind helicopter gunship that you can sit in. The museum is topped by a statue of a huge woman holding a sword, which must have struck fear into the hearts of the German army.

The complex is built on a hill. It seems to be a popular location for wedding photographs. The first couple of rooms in the museum have coverage of the recent unpleasantness in the Donbass, including some uncannily lifelike models of infantrymen who have participated in the conflict; they all have nicknames like Hawk or Trapper or The Bohemian etc. The rest of the museum has two long chains of rooms that progress through Ukraine's involvement in the Second World War.


Visiting military museums in the former Eastern Bloc is an odd experience because they were the bad guys. What do they have to be proud about?

I've visited a military museum in Dresden, which was in the former East Germany. The people of Dresden were the bad guys during the Second World War, and when the war was over they continued to be the bad guys, although they weren't quite as bad. Dresden's museum has a difficult job to do. It has to document Germany's unambiguously villainous involvement in the Second World War; then document and mildly celebrate the armed forces of the GDR; then it has to celebrate Germany's post-unification armed forces but without giving the impression that war is good, because modern-day Germans are a bunch of wimpy peaceniks.


My recollection of the museum is that Nazi propaganda posters gave the impression that their war was a pan-European crusade against Soviet Russia, whereas the Cold War exhibits suggested that the East German army spent most of its time shaking hands with Angolans.

Ukraine's Second World War museum felt a lot simpler, albeit that I don't know a word of Ukranian so there may be subtleties that passed me by. No, tell a lie. I know one word of Ukranian. Om-sheer-brow, which is "the doors are closing".

Unlike some other European nations Ukraine didn't throw its lot in with the Nazis, it was invaded and occupied in 1941 and liberated a few years later by the Soviet war machine, at which point Ukraine's armed forces enthusiastically joined in the final battle against Germany. Almost seven million Ukranians died during the conflict, most of whom were civilians put to death for no reason whatsoever by the Nazi regime. Human beings aren't rational. You can't understand them if you only think rationally. You have to embrace chaos to understand human beings.



The issue of Ukranian participation in the Holocaust is a thorny one. The Soviets weren't interested in digging up that part of the past and I have the impression that no-one in modern Ukraine is particularly minded to do so either. As a British person it's great not having to deal with that kind of historical problem. From my point of view World War Two was Dunkirk, the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and then D-Day and victory! Also the Japanese beat us, but we don't talk about that. It's great to live in splendid isolation on an island that doesn't have any hostile borders. It simplifies things immensely.


Alas, in the age of the jet bomber and the nuclear missile we aren't far enough away from Europe to turn our back on it entirely, but I'm digressing here, next chapter.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Eidolon: The Flies You See


We seek him here, we seek him there; those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven, or is he in hell? Let's have a look at Eidolon, an indie survival-exploration-art game from 2014.

Do you remember indie games? They were awesome. I'm old enough to remember when all games were indie games. The solar system was very young back then, filled with clouds of gas and fragments of rock. Eventually most of this matter coalesced into planets, leaving only a small scattering of asteroids and comets to fill the gaps between Call of Duty and Gears of War and FIFA. They are the gas giants of computer gaming's solar system.


Occasionally one of the little chunks of rock enters the Earth's atmosphere and becomes a shooting star, viz Minecraft and and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. At least one indie meteorite, Doom, struck the gaming landscape with such force that it wiped out all life, paving the way for an entirely new ecosystem to emerge.



A story node - when you pick them up, you learn a bit more about the world of Eidolon.

Eidolon was not a shooting star. My recollection from 2014 is that it attracted a bit of press but otherwise skipped off the atmosphere back into space. Reviewers tended to compare it with the visually similar, but cheaper and shorter Proteus. As a survival game it was released slightly too late to capitalise on the hype surrounding Don't Starve, with which it has very little in common; it was also overshadowed by the vaguely similar but considerably more grounded The Long Dark and also DayZ, which shared the game's expansive scope but was tonally very different.

According to an informative post-mortem by lead developer Kevin Maxon, it cost $650 to develop and netted the team $125,000, a living wage for four years' work, less so given that nine other people also worked on the game.


Now, there's indie and there's indie. In Britain in the 1980s indie music was in theory published by record labels that weren't part of a conglomerate, but in practice indie was shorthand for jangly guitar pop made by young white men with floppy hair. By the end of the decade the most popular acts on independent labels were rave and techno artists, but no-one ever described them as indie even though they were. Conversely James (jangly) and The Jesus and Mary Chain (floppy hair) were archetypal 1980s indie bands even though they were on Fontana-Phonogram and WEA respectively.

Not so fantastic now, are you, Mr Fox?

A similar dichotomy exists in the computer games world. Indie is both a publishing model and a particular style. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds was at least in the early stages an independent development, but no-one calls it an indie game nowadays, partially because it's a commercial juggernaut but mostly because it's a lowbrow action game for kids.


Conversely top indie titles Journey and The Last Guardian were bankrolled by industry giant Sony and released with a major promotional push, but they will forevermore be described as indie titles because they have an artistic bent. Modern indie games are possessed of a childlike wonder. They have orchestral folk music on the soundtrack, a vague but uplifting plot, simple graphics. They exist to flatter white people; to make white people feel good about their life in a perfect world.

What is Eidolon? It's a 3D exploration game. The gameplay consists of wandering around the abandoned shell of Seattle and its environs four hundred years from now, long after a disaster has killed off the local population. Humanity still survives elsewhere, although you never meet any other people. You might not be a person yourself. You walk like a human being and have to eat to survive, but the developers deliberately chose not to show your hands or feet, leaving open the possibility that you're a ghost, or a robot drone, or some kind of alien wanderer. Or perhaps, get this, an eidolon, a distant echo of a human soul. It's Greek.

It's interesting to compare Eidolon with DayZ. The concept is similar, a little bit, but the execution is utterly different. Eidolon is obviously much less realistic, but it has style. The realism of DayZ doesn't leave room for style although the visuals do effectively convey a drab mood.

In other respects the games are visually identical. Eidolon is at the top.

Eidolon has a day-night cycle. Sometimes it rains, although this is just a graphical effect; your character isn't affected by it. After walking for a while you become hungry and have to eat. After walking even more you have to sleep. You can stave off hunger by eating mushrooms and berries that are scattered around; you can hunt animals with a bow and arrow; you can fish, and eat the fish. You have to cook the meat first otherwise you'll get sick. Some of the animals attack you - this is very rare - and if you sustain a wound or develop an infection you can either wait for it to heal or treat it by applying honey, which you get by shooting down bees' nests with your arrows.

It's not a vegan-friendly game, but in the real world nature has killed millions, perhaps billions of human beings, so nature is not entirely innocent. Furthermore in the absence of society or God the only moral code is one you devise yourself, and I choose not to devise a moral code because life is hard enough without limiting your options.

Compared to The Long Dark the survival elements are perfunctory. You don't need to drink. You don't need shelter or bedding. Clothing isn't modelled. You have an infinite supply of arrows and fishing lures. Your character automatically guts and debones fish and animals. You only get cold when in water or while climbing the mountains that border the terrain. You warm up naturally. You can sleep in the open perfectly fine. The game encourages you to light a fire before going to bed but I haven't bothered and haven't noticed any problems from it. Lighting a fire never fails. It requires tinder but nothing else. As far as I can tell natural resources respawn so you can in theory live forever.


Man-amplifiers

You begin the game with a backpack, a scrapbook for notes, and a tablet that displays simple graphics. The first few square miles of terrain contain the only four tools your character uses - binoculars, a compass, a bow, and fishing tackle. In theory you don't need them, but there are large areas without mushrooms and berries, where the only source of food is fish, and without the tackle you'll probably starve. That's how I died the first time. You can die from falling or starving; death sends you back to one of a number of magical swamps although thankfully you keep your tools. If you know all of this in advance you might not die ever, the game is quite generous.

But what's the exploration in aid of? Eidolon is essentially a piece of digital archaeology. As you journey you stumble upon floating green things. Bump into them, and you get a bit of backstory:


Each bit of backstory has a tag that you can click on ("Wild Girl" in this case). When you do, a green thing appears and whizzes off into the distance; follow it, and you find another story node. Alternatively a bird periodically appears and leads you to the next point of interest. That's essentially your only goal. You wander the landscape piecing together a fragmentary narrative. It appears that people in the future developed a cure for death, but this created as many problems as it solved, and long before you came along it all fell apart and now nature has erased most of our presence.

Some reviewers found the lack of a tangible goal unsatisfying. Once you pick up all the story nodes (there are apparently 168) there's no ending cutscene. You just carry on exploring and taking screenshots until you get bored. I don't mind. I've enjoyed plenty of games that didn't have an end, and conversely suffered lots of poorly-thought-out, unsatisfying conclusions. In the hands of another team Eidolon would probably have finished with the player repairing and activating a giant machine, or something, and there would be a light show and some uplifting music. There would be a sense of closure. Instead Eidolon left me with a sense of loss, which is perhaps what the team intended.

Boxout: Precedents
Beyond the name, Eidolon has nothing to do with Lucasfilm Games' The Eidolon (1985), which was a primitive first-person dungeon crawler that used Lucasfilm's fractal engine to make tunnels:


The gameplay consisted of driving around a series of mazes in a steampunk carriage shooting monsters. It wasn't much fun. With a lot more work it might have become a revolutionary dungeon role-playing game along the lines of Dungeon Master, which was released two years later. The Eidolon's 3D engine is actually more advanced than Dungeon Master. Sadly it's just a shell of a game, basically 3D Monster Maze (1982) wrapped up in a more advanced graphics engine, but less compelling because the monsters just sit there waiting for you to attack them.

Explorer / a licky boom-boom down

Gameplay-wise Eidolon is much closer to Explorer, a long-forgotten title published back in 1986 by Electric Dreams. It was written by a chap called Graham Relph, who was a fan of orienteering. In Explorer your spaceship has crash-landed on an uninhabited jungle planet. Nine essential components have been scattered far and wide. You have to find them.

To complicate matters the planet is huge. It's procedurally-generated; the adverts boasted over forty billion locations. As with No Man's Sky most of those locations look the same. Contemporary reviews didn't overlook this. It attracted a certain amount of grudging respect for the boldness of its concept, I can't imagine it sold very well.

I found part of my ship. Eight more to go.

How does Explorer work? You have a simple radar that gives you a bearing to the nearest spaceship part. You can walk to it, or fly with your jetpack. Your goal is to find all nine parts of your spaceship and teleport them to the same location. After you find the first part it gets a bit harder; your echo-locator keeps locating that part, so you have to travel far enough away that it picks up the next part instead. To help with this the game has teleporters scattered around. Each location in the game has a name, and with forty billion locations you can just type any random nonsense and you'll end up somewhere.

You can drop radio beacons to mark a spot, and ultimately you have to make a little mental map of where the beacons are in relation to your current position and that of your stash of ship parts. In practice I suspect most people loaded the game, walked around a bit, then gave up. Periodically you have to shoot a little bug that dances around the screen - this is irritating - and your energy goes down, so you have to stock up on power. I can't remember how.

The 3D effect is a simple flick-screen affair reminiscent of Lords of Midnight although it's less effective. The viewdistance is so short that it doesn't feel as if you're walking into the terrain; it just feels as if the game is showing a random selection of screens one after the other. You don't interact with anything. Your character can walk straight through thick jungle and swamps without pausing, and the abandoned huts that dot the landscape are just there for show. There's nothing to discover and there are no survival elements.

As with The Eidolon the game has an interesting engine but feels like a basic prototype. With a bit more work Explorer could have been be a cult classic but playing it today it's just too slow to be enjoyable even as a walking game. It was released for the ZX Spectrum and ported to the Amstrad CPC and Commodore C64; the three versions are very similar. The C64 version preserves the Spectrum's blocky two-colours-per-character-square graphics. Explorer was produced by The Ram Jam Corporation, one of those short-lived-but-high-profile software companies that - along with Nexus Productions and The Big Apple Entertainment Company - came and went in the blink of an eye in the 8-bit years, leaving very little behind.


This has nothing to do with the article. It's a tombstone in Venice's cemetary. It haunts me to this day. The past gets wiped out and only fragments remain.

On a superficial level Eidolon reminded me a couple of other games. The simplistic graphics put me in mind of early illustrated text adventures, notably Twin Kingdom Valley (1983), which had a larger scope than most and was illustrated with a set of attractive albeit low-res still pictures. Eidolon could have been written as a text adventure without losing much, although I would have missed the sunsets.

Twin Kingdom Valley, which I remember for its use of the colour magenta.

The other game that springs to mind is Survival (1984), an early educational title for the ZX Spectrum. In the game you are either a lion, mouse, butterfly, hawk, fly, or robin, and your goal is to stave off inevitable death by eating food while avoiding predators. It's a lot like life, and that's what's appealing.

You treat me like a dog / get me down on my knees

Mice have more predators than lions; hawks can see more of the surrounding terrain than flies. Your water level goes down faster in the desert. Beyond that the're almost nothing to the game, which to be fair was sold as educational software rather than entertainment. There's nothing else to do other than navigate the terrain in search of food.

It's surprisingly bleak. No matter how much you eat your energy eventually runs out. You either succumb to predation or starve. You don't get a chance to mate, so ultimately you spend your short life alone and die a virgin. I can empathise with that. My life has followed a similar course. If there are any women out there who would like to help me avoid such a fate, please get in touch via the comments. I am financially solvent and my basement flat - it's more a room than a flat - my basement area is quite presentable if you don't mind the smell of fly spray. The flies, you see.

Obviously we could never be married. I already have a waifu. But consider it.
End Boxout

The cities are littered with the husks of buildings and wrecked cars, and also little white objects. It took me a while to realise that they were bones.

Eidolon was released back in 2014 but it passed me by at the time. As I write these words Steam is selling it at a budget price so I snapped it up. It still runs on modern hardware although at least on my machine it's a bit flaky, with occasional lock-ups. It feels as if it's leaking memory. It's available for the PC and Macintosh, but it requires a fairly powerful PC and doesn't get on well with Macintosh graphics hardware because the developers were, as they admit, very inexperienced.


Did I enjoy it? Is it any good? As with The Long Dark it's essentially a mood piece; if Long Dark is 50/50 mood/gameplay, Eidolon is 90/10. The simple graphics coupled with the huge viewdistance are gorgeous. Michael Bell's music is almost stereotypical for this style of game - acoustic guitar folk with electronics, this time without violins or wordless vocals - but it's quirky enough that it doesn't become irritating. It also sounds as if it was recorded in mono, but I could be wrong.


The edge of the vast playarea is bounded with snowcapped mountains.

The play area is very large and you explore it slowly. It works as a kind of pastime, like knitting or jigsaw-puzzling. As with MirrorMoon EP I think of it as an illustrated music video with a game attached to it, and I suspect that, in the future, it'll be one of those things I remember fondly without feeling the need to play it again. Like Scott Walker's The Drift or STALKER: Lost Alpha. It would be a terrific screensaver if it wasn't such a resource hog.

Post-release the game had some patches but development has long ceased; the Eidolon available today is its finished form. There is no modding community. Ice Water Games still exists and is still an indie developer. Their subsequent titles have been mostly ambient games that explore the meditative elements of Eidolon; their most recent titles are Viridi (2016), a real-time plant-watering simulator, and Fireplace (2018), an interactive fireplace. Putting on my businessperson's hat I suspect that Ice Water Games are trapped in an indie loop whereby they don't gross enough to expand their team to have enough developers to create a game that will gross enough to expand their team etc, but as long as they can afford food and shelter they're in a better position than millions of other people, the end.