Tuesday, 18 August 2009

In case of zombies... panic!

Science has taught us many things. The origins of the solar system, the secrets of dna, how to make things explode. But today science is pushed to its very limits in a way I never thought imaginable. We, as a race, have now mathematically described the mechanics of zombie attack! I kid you not! The link below is a peer reviewed, published, scientific article which models the consequences of an outbreak of zombies.

One can only speculate at the mental processes that occur in the mind of a man who would be capable of such monumental research (the kind of man who puts a question mark after his name so he'll get more hits in google searches). Below is the link to the paper in question and for your convenience, a brief review of what it contains.

The paper.

http://www.mathstat.uottawa.ca/~rsmith/Zombies.pdf

The review.

The article begins with a brief but fairly complete history of the zombie and the evolution of the concept through popular culture. From voodoo to Romero to Shaun of the Dead, this paper references them all. I bet Simon Pegg never even dreamed that his satirical undead feature would ever appear in a peer reviewed paper outside of media studies (or inside probably) and yet there it is, reference 8!

After characterising the different types of zombie that might exist, the paper then goes on to describe the version of the monster it shall be focussing on. In this case the slow, mindless, flesh crazed beasts of most modern day horror flicks (however, given their results, the conclusions they draw most likely apply to the scarier, faster zombies of movies such as 28 days/weeks later).

Next they outline their basic model. It's simple enough, probably over simple but this is addressed later in the paper. There are the dead that might rise, the living that might die and there are the zombies. Various coefficients are used to describe motion between these populations and after a bit of maths and a splash of programming a conclusion is drawn. What is this conclusion? Why it's simple, the zombies eat everyone, unavoidably. Thus, probably my favourite part of the whole thing is the statement:

"Since all eigenvalues of the doomsday equilibrium are negative, it is asymptotically stable.
It follows that, in a short outbreak, zombies will likely infect everyone."

I don't think armageddon has ever been described so succinctly in mathematical terms before.

But wait, this can't be the end of the story, it's never that simple. Indeed. They now go on to include factors of a latent infected period of bitten people and the case of implementing quarantine protocols. In both cases we only delay the inevitable and once again the zombies eat everyone. Even if we fight back it is shown that we need to eradicate 100% of the zombies if we're ever going to survive, even then there is always the possibility that more might emerge once people start dying of natural causes again.

In fact, the only way humans can survive is in the event a cure is developed. Even then, only a small proportion of humans survive in a world over run by zombies. This particular solution does however create a unique and interesting situation which I think deserves further discussion. Thus:

"Our treatment would be able to allow the zombie individual to return to their human form again. Once human, however, the new human would again be susceptible to becoming a zombie... ...The cure will allow zombies to return to their original human form regardless of how they became zombies in the first place."

The converse is also surely true, that once a zombie again a person can once more be cured. The natural to conclusion to this is immortality. A person on the brink of death can become infected, become a zombie, be cured and live again. Thus, might there not be some merit in researching this cure, whether there is a zombie threat or not. Also, once this cure is developed, is there not further merit in creating a zombie problem in order to make possible immortality? I think we have the makings of a first rate B movie here!

All of this sounds pretty bad (except immortality of course) and it only gets worse when you include natural birth and death rates, giving the zombies an unlimited supply of food and potential zombies!

The article is summed up very nicely in one of its closing statements:

"An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous..."

Couldn't have said it better myself!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Film Review- Blood the last vampire vs Blood the last vampire SPOILER ALERT

I recently purchased the Anime film "Blood the last vampire" and tonight, viewed it along with the more recent live action remake, with the intention of comparing the two imaginings of the story and having done so I feel compelled to blog. So without further ado...

The Plot.

A quick summary of the plot for context. Our heroine, Saya, hunts vampires, the twist being she is one herself! Not only that, but she's an 'original'. She works for an organisation who discover that in an American army base in Japan, vampires have infiltrated the school as students. The year is 1966 and in the background of all this the Vietnam war rages. Saya goes undercover as a school girl to get the bottom of things and slay the evil demons haunting the school.

The Anime.

I've always been a fan of anime. It is something removed from Hollywood, a different way of visual presenting ideas. The story lines, the animation style, the scores, the characters, every bit of the genre in fact is so culturally different to the western equivalents. This makes it refreshing and exciting in today's world of a constant stream of block buster movies.

Blood the last vampire is no exception to this. The first striking break from current western traditions is the length. With two and half to three hours quickly becoming the average length of a film, I was more than a little surprised to discover this anime feature to be just 45 minutes long. What it lacked in length however, it made up for in pace. The characters are introduced swiftly and in action allowing much exposition to be covered in a very short time. A bit of necessary plot develoement and then the real action begins and once it does, it doesn't let up. Another unique aspect of this film is the time frame. The vast majority of the show occurs in a single day and night. All this might sound a bit hectic, but the pace is maintained without confusion via a very simple trick. The film does not needlessly go into the personal back stories of every single main character. Character development is handled through short shots in which we get a feel for the major players emotional reactions to the various situations. I feel this is far more personal than Hollywood's usual style of going into the lives of each of the characters invariable dysfunctional style. For example, in one scene near the end, our heroine has just slain the last villain, she walks over to it and feeds it as it dies with some of her own blood. This simple scene tells us everything we need to know about her personal involvement in the events that had just played out.

This tempo however, leaves many questions unanswered which I might have found frustrating had it not been for the marvellous final scene. This is a film not so much about the vampire hunter or the vampires, but rather it is about the nurse; a hapless bystander who gets caught up in the violence around her. Throughout the film, the nurse is a major plot device. Saya finds the vampires by watching the nurse, her movements are dictated by the necessity to protect her and the final scene shows the aftermath through the nurses eyes as she is interrogated by the police. She even gets the final words of the film, in which she compares the war Saya is fighting against her own kind to the Vietnam war, the backdrop of the movie. And here we discover the underlying metaphor. The writer is (very cleverly in my opinion) commenting on the nature war, it's ethics, it's necessity and yet it's insanity.

This doesn't mean I don't want my questions answered. How did Saya become a vampire? Why is she fighting her own kind? What sway does the clandestine company hold over her? Maybe we'll never know.

The live action film.

But wait! Here is a new live action, full length feature film to save the day and fill in the blanks. With an extra 40 minutes to play with it should be no problem whatsoever to delve into the inner workings of the company and their relationship with Saya. Right? Wrong!

Hollywood here we come. The character of the nurse, so essential to the anime, has been replaced by a teenage girl. Is this to make it more personal to a younger audience? Perhaps. Is it because teenagers are angst ridden and over emotional and it allows for those good old cliched dysfunctional family problems? Definitely! A good portion of the film is used to deal with the relationship between said angst fountain and her father. Pretty much the entire plot of the anime is dispensed with in the first 30 minutes and yet less seems to happen in that time.

But it's ok, here comes the flashback and we get our answers about Saya's past. Well, sort of. Her sword seems to get more of an explanation than her and when we do when we do learn something of Saya's situation, what is the focus on? You guessed it, her father! As if to make matters worse, the leader of the pack of vampires Saya is hunting in this version turns out to be none other than Saya's mother! Dysfunctional families all round then. No attempt is made either, to explain the fact that she just stopped growing up around 16 years old.

None of this truely helps us to understand the characters or how any of this situation came about in the first place. Nor does it help in conveying any message that the film might be left with, although given how little fuss is made about the war, that message is pretty much lost anyway.

The first half of this remake was pointless as it expanded in no way on the original and perhaps even detracted from it. The second half is, quite frankly, insulting.

The anime is a work of art, the remake is a work of ignorance.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Perseverance - Patience - Reward

It's the glorious 12th! Or it was a little over four ago. About this time every year the Earth passes through the tail of the pleasingly named comet, Swift-Tuttle. As our planet collides with the rocks and dust that Swift has left behind they burn up in the atmosphere, creating the years most spectacular meteor shower. At its peak, the Perseid meteor shower (named after the constellation Perseus, as this is where the comets appear to originate from*) boast 100 visible shooting stars every hour, some as bright as the skies most dazzling stars.

Now, it is no secret that England is one of the worst countries for observational astronomy. Both the met office and the BBC however, assured me that by one o'clock in the morning the thick blanket of cloud that loomed over Nottingham like a shroud would have completely dissipated and the shower would be visible for all to see. It did not. In fact, it wasn't until half past two that the first breaks in the cloud started to appear.

At the sight of this ever hopeful chink in the vaporous armour of the sky, I donned hoodie and jacket and headed out to the darkest spot on campus I could find. By the time I got there, the gap had past, but the cloud was breaking and the odd star could be seen shining through. I decided to wait it out. I waited. I waited some more. I waited until twenty past three and decided it was unlikely that any further opportunity for meteor hunting would occur tonight. I left for home bitterly disappointed.

I kept my eyes on the sky all the way home, and noticed as I past over the field in front of the campus sports hall that once again the clouds seemed to be parting and I had also managed to stumble upon an even darker viewing spot. I pondered for a moment before finally falling on the decision to stay put. So I lay down on the ground and looked up at the sky in the one spot where there was a sizable break in the cloudscape. Within five minutes I saw a streak of white flash across the sky, a minute later another. Two of the brightest shooting stars I had ever seen shot straight across my field of view. I was elated and stayed lying in wait for more until the clouds finally closed up again. Unfortunately this took only another five minutes and in that time I saw no more meteors.

I got to my feet and headed home, this time satisfied! Two is not the most meteors I have seen on an outing on the 12th, but they were spectacular, and for an astronomer such as myself, even being able to witness such a small part of the calendars best astronomical event was well worth the wait. And then, on my way home, I saw a fox! :D Best night ever!

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Notes on the Proms - Part II

Having written two fairly negative blogs and sounded like a completely miserable old git, I felt it was time to post something with a more positive twist!

Yesterday's Prom featured the National Youth Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto Number 1 and I have to say it was superb. I first saw this piece performed about four years ago by the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and fell in love with it instantly. It is a joyous and whole-heartedly romantic piece of music. The interplay between the piano and the orchestra is exquisite. This is a piece universally loved by performers and audiences alike and rightly so.

To put such a well known piece in the hands of children is a brave thing indeed and I have to say, the NYO carried the burden with ease. I have never seen such a talented group of young musicians. The soloist was necessarily a practiced pianist of a fair few more years than the rest of the orchestra, but said orchestra played in harmonic unison with piano like pros. The many challenging solo parts for individual instruments other than piano in this piece were handled perfectly. The orchestra, being one of the largest in the world, was made for this piece which requires force and presence of which these young performers had an abundance.

They finished the evening with a performance of Respighi's Roman Festivals, an equally exuberant and entertaining piece which the youthfulness of the orchestra was perfectly suited to. Over all a fantastic Prom and definitely one that everyone should hear. It's up on iplayer for the next week and I heartily recommended to anyone interested in classical music, or just music in general.

Notes on the Proms - Part I

Every year I try to catch as much of the BBC proms as I possibly can. For those who don't know, this an annual classical music festival with daily performances going on for two months over summer.

This year, as ever, I have been continually impressed by the pieces that have been presented, with influences from America and Japan and performances from a wide variety of orchestras, soloist and singers. It is a joy to listen to.

There is however, an aspect of the Proms which I am less happy with. This usually manifests itself in the Last Night of the Proms where the whole thing takes on a kind of pantomime persona to appease those members of the general public who wouldn't normally find classical music an accessible art form. While I can't argue with the motivation behind such a display, I find it somewhat distasteful to attempt to attract a larger audience with this facade of popular classical music. I know this sounds snobbish, but I really fail to see the logic in trying to draw people in with the promise of loud raucous and simplistic pieces when the rest of the festival hardly reflects this. On the other hand, it's a bit of fun and people enjoy it so who am I to complain?

This year I came across another example of this pantomime affair, the Children's Prom! Now in this case I really can't complain about it being a bit dumbed down for the audience and fully respect what the organisers are trying to do. They could however, have chosen to do with better music than they did! The first three pieces were inspired by the Big Bang, a storm, and a volcano and of course all contained loud noises and plenty of energy; they were perfect for children. They were unfortunately also all pretty much exactly the same! Formless, loud, cacophonous messes, symbolising the harsh and chaotic form of nature, the only variation I could pick out from these pieces was the types of percussion used to annoy the parents of the on looking children. This was a piece that perhaps needed to be written and some important points to make, but it only really needed to be written once, and certainly only performed once. Let us not forget, children don't have the longest attention spans and if you can say the same thing in one word that you can in three, you should use the one word.

The day was saved in the end when David Attenborough took to the stage and was simply himself, awesome! And then finally they played some real music, including a piece by Drum N Bass artist Goldie which I found pleasantly surprising. Still, I expect the kids loved it all.

He who has the gold...

In a recent copy of Philosophy Now I came across an article on The Golden Rule and felt some comments were required.

Simply put, the Golden Rule (do unto others, love thy neighbour and other variations) is considered by many moral philosophers to be the fundamental and universal tenet of morality. In his article in the July/August 2009 edition (issue 74) of Philosophy Now, Stephen Anderson argues against this premise. There are however, a few points where his conclusions seem to me to be fallacious and I'd like to raise those points now.

The first is a tiny point which he himself glosses over to some extent, and rightly so in my opinion. It is this; that the Golden Rule is not truly universal as there are those belief systems that actively disdain the rule, citing Nietzsche and tribal philosophies as examples. This seems to me to be making the wholly indefensible assumption that any philosophy or belief is moral in its own right. While I believe we should remain open to the idea that opinions other than our own might have a basis in morality, to make the assumption that all opinions hold some moral value seems obviously flawed. Is it not a condition that if we can define any basic principle for universal morality then we must be able to also define immorality in the same terms. Could not then these (minority!) beliefs be considered immoral and hence not be posited as an argument against the Golden Rule?

His second and I believe most flawed argument postulates two very different definitions of the Golden Rule; that of the positive and that of the negative. Thus, the positive Golden Rule states that one must DO unto others as one would have DONE unto oneself. This implies positive action on our part. The negative version tells us to DO NOT unto others as we would NOT have DONE unto us. This seems to suggest, as Stephen himself said, that inaction is sufficient to obey this rule.

"If we have only negative duty, an obligation to avoid harming people, that can be construed as imposing minimal obligations... ...In fact, the negative version may be fulfilled (if we wish to construe it that way) simply by ignoring our neighbour, for as long as we are not directly implicated in his harm, we have not transgressed the negative version of Golden Rule ethics."

However, it is a simple and obvious enough fact that any negative can be reworded as a positive to exactly the same effect. To take Stephen's example, imagine that you were lonely and in need of a friend. According to Stephen, if you tried to contact a friend, they are under no obligation to respond according to the negative Golden Rule. But it occurs to me that such a deliberate act of ignoring a person in need is an ACTION not an inaction. We can now substitute this action into the negative Golden Rule and say "DO NOT ignore someone as you would NOT like to be ignored yourself" and so it goes with any other example I can personally bring to mind.

Stephen Anderson's final point lies on the idea of sacrifice. The idea that to create a truly moral society we must sometimes do more unto others than we would expect done unto us, that this breaks reciprocity (tit for tat) and thus the Golden Rule is insufficient. I have only a few simple points to make on this. The first is that the Golden Rule states that one should do unto others as one would WISH done unto oneself not as we would EXPECT done, and I am sure many people wish others would make more sacrifices for them and so it seems to me that the concept of sacrifice is well treated in the Golden Rule. Secondly, I ask "How much sacrifice is the average person willing to accept on their behalf?" After all, have we not all at some point said "Only if it's not too much trouble," or "I wouldn't want to put you out."? Human beings are naturally opposed to the idea of others sacrificing too much in our names, possibly due to the expectation of necessary reciprocity. While this may at first seem selfish it actually goes to show how ingrained the Golden Rule is in our minds, that we naturally expect to need to reciprocate a good deed done. My third and final point is that in all the cases of sacrifice Stephen puts forward, I believe it can be shown that if not a personal, then at least on a sociological level, reciprocity is upheld. One such example he cites is that of parenting. But while we sacrifice for our children, our parents in turn made sacrifices for us and so in balance reciprocity is maintained. Further more, if a child is abused he or she is far more likely to become an abusive parent, further showing how this idea of reciprocity and hence the Golden Rule, is ingrained in our very nature.

Stephen then goes on to describe sacrifice not only to our neighbours but to our enemies, something he calls the Platinum Rule and suggests is something beyond most humans beings. A point raised earlier in his article suggested the difficulties of interpretation in the Rule, difficulties he himself stumbles into now. For in making a distinction between "neighbour" and "enemy" he is postulating two different rules which once again I believe are one in the same. However, to avoid confusion, I shall continue my arugments as if accepting this distinction and discuss the Platinum Rule. The Platinum Rule posits love our neighbour and our enemy but says nothing of our neighbour's enemy and I believe this is an important omission. Consider this example:

There are three nations, A, B and C (for want of better names). B and C are at war. C are the aggressors where B are fighting a purely defensive war. For A to love his neighbour (we shall refer to B as the neighbour and further suppose B is losing the war) he must intervene in the war and make an enemy of C. For A to love his neighbour's enemy (who is also his neighbour) he must make an enemy of B or do nothing. It is clear (as it has been designed thus) that C are at fault and for A to do nothing would be to allow the guilty to prosper. In any case, whatever A decides they must in some way break the Golden and Platinum Rules. It is clear then that A must defend B, as the innocent party, as this is the most acceptable way to break the Rules. Perhaps then the Platinum rule can be amended to a version that can indeed be followed; that one must love thy neighbour and thy enemy but not thy neighbour's enemy. Here then we can afford to make the sacrifice of loving our enemy as our neighbour is in a position by the New Platinum Rule to prevent us from coming to undue harm.

From this simple scenario we can draw a few conclusions. First, justice is the part of the observer, as it is in our courts, and is a necessary consequence of the Golden Rule. And second, and perhaps more importantly, that the Golden Rule is a basis for universal morality, not the whole story. This is a fact the Stephen Anderson seems to forget. Reality is far more complicated than any single rule can account for and we should not abandon a good premise on account of the fact that it needs specific variations for specific situations. That, I'm afraid, is just life!