Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Zombies, Zombies Everywhere

Quick update to last week's observation about the attraction zombies and zombie flicks hold.  My six year old son "discovered" a mini-game available for our iPhone, "Plants versus Zombies," and wrote off to Santa asking for it.  Of course, the Man in Red delivered ($2.99 - a bargain), and Alastair is now enamoured of the game.


          Zombie on       Traffic Cone
           Zamboni           Zombie

I have to admit to a certain creeping addiction of my own.  The Pea Shooters and Cherry Bombs are particularly amusing, as is the Disco Zombie, who gives a whole new meaning to "Death before Disco."

Friday, 16 December 2011

They're COMING for You, Barbara!

This past week, I watched the season finale for the excellent AMC series The Walking Dead.  I like the show on several levels - it's an entertaining melodrama which raises multifaceted issues, the acting is generally good, and let's face it, you can never get enough living dead shambling about threatening the protagonists in ever creepier ways.

File:Judith O'Dea clutching grave in Night of the Living Dead bw.jpg

Judith O'Dea, "Barbara" from the 1968
George A Romero classic that started it all

The show will return, apparently, in mid-February, so I've a couple of months to wait to see what is going to become of the shrinking band of survivors struggling to escape suburban Atlanta.

I've long enjoyed these sorts of films, whether the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, its various follow-on films (Dawn and Day), or similar films like the terrific 28 Days Later (from Danny Boyle, who went on to direct Slumdog Millionaire to great acclaim) or the re-imagined Dawn of the Dead from the early 2000s.

Oddly, one thing to the "zombie" movie genre is that one never hears the word "zombie" ever used by one of the characters.  "Ghouls."  "Things."  "Walkers."  Sure.  But never the "Z" word.  Even the recent best-seller, obviously about zombies, is titled World War Z.  Just cannot bring themselves to say it.  But I digress.

My wife hates them, and considers the whole premise ridiculous, but whenever I watch these films, there are several things I cannot escape thinking, and perhaps that's why they captivate me (and apparently, lots of other people).

First is, the irresistible temptation to imagine "what would I do if I were in that spot?  Would I be able to survive, and if so, how?"

It strikes me that in virtually all of these scenarios, the survivors would probably end up being OK if they were just able to keep their wits about them.  In 28 Days, the outbreak is contained to an island (in this case, Great Britain.)  Because the problem is spread, quickly, through blood, it's next to impossible to imagine how the epidemic could spread beyond the English Channel, and in fact, towards the very end of the movie, the protagonist lies at the edge of death, sure that the world is on the edge of being wiped out, when he sees the contrail of a jet flying over, as if nothing has happened.  OF COURSE, the virus is only in Britain, and the rest of the world has gone on pretty much normally, as is evidenced in the sequel.  And since the victims of "rage" become raving, homicidal maniacs, all that would be required would be to find a secure place, and wait for them to die of thirst or starvation - a few weeks perhaps.

The same is almost surely true in the other Dead-inspired movies.  One suspects that, given time, the undead would, quite literally, fall apart.  Though mobile, they are not immune to rot and decay (as the special effects of wizard Tom Savini attest), and if the living could just hang on and let nature take its course....

Interestingly, a "study" - a simulation - was done by a group of epidemiologists at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada was published in 2009.  They modelled various scenarios of zombie outbreaks, and the chances for the human race at survival, given various responses.  The results are not, to say the least, encouraging.  It's a bit math-heavy, but a very good read, IMHO.

Which brings me to one of the other unifying themes, and that is, in virtually all of these films and stories, the real "bad guys" turn out not to be the dead, but the living.  Yes; the zombies represent an existential, and omnipresent, menace.  But inevitably, it's panic and internal bickering that prove to be something the survivors cannot overcome.  There is as least as much blood shed by the protagonists as the zombies.

I suppose the writers are saying that, even when confronted with extinction, our innate nature to destroy each other cannot be controlled.

Finally, in several of the movies (28 Days in particular), an interesting, quasi-Dr Strangelove question is raised.  Soldiers near Manchester, England have set a sort of trap for survivors, promising food and protection for those who can make it.  It's revealed later that they intend to kill any men who arrive, and have other plans for the women.  The lieutenant, almost apologetically, explains when asked why such a monstrous plan was devised, that he promised his (all male) outfit that he would find some female survivors.
We fight off the infected or we wait until they starve to death... and then whatWhat do nine men do except wait to die themselves? 
In the films, at some point the issue of the value of survival is always raised, though perhaps not so bleakly as that.

It reminds me of the famous tortoise "Lonesome George," the last of his kind, living in the Galapagos Islands.  George, estimated to be between 90 and 100 years of age, is the last Galapagos Giant Tortoise.  Tortoises, for all their charm, and not particularly circumspect, but it's a rather sad idea to imagine that when he inevitably is gone, that's it, since there are no more females of his kind.

How would human beings react in such a situation?  In 28 Days Later, somewhat violently.

Anyways, Walking Dead returns in about eight weeks.  I'm marking my calendar.

You Never Know

This morning, I saw a sports news article that left-hand pitcher Dontrelle Willis has signed a contract to pitch next year for the Philadelphia Phillies.  In and of itself,. a rather unremarkable story, really.  Guy was 1-6 last year in Cincinnati, ERA of 5.00.  The Phils are taking a chance on him, with a plan to use him as a lefty-lefty specialist next year in the bullpen (lefties hit .127 against Willis last year, which means that right-hand batters must have clobbered him, given his ERA).  There's a ton of these guys who hang around to come in to games in the seventh or eight innings, ostensibly to get one batter out.

What's interesting, and in my view, sad, about this story is the trajectory of Willis's career.  He was the rookie of the year in 2003, and was the runner-up for the Cy Young Award in the National League in 2005, when he went 22-10, tossing five shutouts in 34 starts.  At the time, Willis was 23 years old, and looked to have a long, bright career.

Since the season he chalked up 22 wins, he was won a total of 26 games.

Over six seasons.

And 22 of those 25 were in 2006 and 2007.  For the past four years, Willis has bounced around, pitching pretty poorly for three teams, and winning four games.

Dontrelle Willis, by all accounts I've read, is seen as a pretty good guy.  He never gets in the news for bringing a gun to a nightclub.  Or fighting with a photographer.  Or sending lewd "tweets" to some woman not his wife.

It's truly a bizarre and unfortunate turn of events.  Apparently, his control simply abandoned him, bringing to mind the old maxim (I think from Casey Stengel): "A pitcher who ain't got control, ain't got much."

Essentially, Willis is looking to hold on to what's left of his professional career, which may be over.  He is 29 years old.  You really never know how things are going to work out, and if you need any evidence of why to be grateful for the opportunities and successes you've got when you have them, a reason not to look with envy  or complaint about what you don't have, think about Dontrelle Willis and his career trajectory.

Willis is joining his boyhood friend Jimmy Rollins in Philadelphia, and had this to say about the announcement:
Wherever they need me, whatever role.  I heard someone talking about pinch-hitting, so whatever role. With all of these starters going nine and 10 innings, I'm not sure I'll get the chance to do that. But I just want to get into the best shape I can be and I feel great. I'm not going to rock the boat; I just want to get on. 
 It's a refreshing, and realistic assessment.  No whining; no complaining.  No demand to be a starting pitcher or else.

I sincerely hope that the "D-Train" will make the Phils next year, and have a great season within whatever parameters he is allowed to operate.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

E Pluribus Nevermind

Several years ago, Vice President, future Nobel Laureate, venture capitalist, and all-around (generally acknowledged) genius and renaissance man Al Gore made a remark that the US was, true to its motto (e pluribus unum), "from the one, many."

Of course, Mr Gore got the Latin wrong, but for a guy who invented the internet, put a stop to the unfortunate drowning of polar bears, and gave us the media-shattering "" (without which, how could the eight people who tune in each night watch Keith Olbermann fulminate to the point of near self-implosion), it's a small error.

And in retrospect, perhaps Al Gore was speaking the truth.

To wit: this weekend in the New York Times, there appeared a brief screed attacking the state of Texas, and how it has re-drawn its electoral map, post-2010 census.  In an editorial entitled "Voting Rights and Texas," the Editors complain that, as Texas has added four new congressional seats, the legislature re-drew its boundaries to an effect that there are now 26 "safe" Republican seats (up from 21), whilst at the same time, districts in which "minorities" (largely, Hispanic people in this case) make the majority has fallen from 11 to 10.  All of this, despite the fact that (according to the Times), "almost half of all that growth (in population) came from new Hispanic residents."

Thus, the Times conclude, Texas's new congressional seats represent a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and since Texas is under remediation orders stemming from Jim Crow era laws (yes; the Act is renewed every time it comes up for vote, and thus, one might conclude that how Texas draws its districts, unlike, say, California or New York, will be under federal review forever), the Feds need to step in.

I don't have the data to argue that the Times analysis is correct, but let's presume that they are correct.

There is at least one huge problem with this "analysis," and that is, the number of new Hispanic residents in Texas has accounted for half of the population growth. Unfortunately, only citizens may vote - so in a sense, it doesn't really matter on its face how many new residents a district has when talking about the Voting Rights Act.

But the most egregious problem in the Times' piece is their word choice:"They (the legislature) reduced the number of districts where minorities could elect the candidate of their choice to 10 from 11. (emphasis added)


What is implicit in this argument is a couple of things.  First, that the "candidate of their choice" for Latino voters is necessarily a Latino one, and second, that a Latino candidate cannot win a district where Latinos are not the majority.

Aside from the obvious fact that a black man is now the president of the US, with a plurality of white votes, this sort of "logic" represents a further slide of our nation into the sort of Balkan nonsense elsewhere.  Have we really reached a point where we should be setting aside seats in our government, virtually explicitly, based upon the ethnic makeup of the land?

That's an extreme endgame of what Mr Gore (mistakenly, one presumes) said out loud.  And was endorsed when the Justice Department blocked the new map as it is allowed to do under the 1965 Act. Big shock, of course, given that the alternative map proposed actually INCREASES the number of seats that the Democrats regard as "safe" by three.

To his credit, the AG for Texas argued that the courts, who will judge ultimately this case, have as their job to "apply the law, not to make policy."  The Times counter that the VRA, Section 2, impels the courts to act because of the imperiled ability of "minority groups to elect the representative of their choice."

In a land where we are putatively equal before the law, "groups" do not elect anybody.  In a land where, if Martin Luther King's messages are to be believed, one's "representative of choice" need not be someone of the same race as yourself.

In a nightmare scenario, played out in places like Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia, we will allot our government to groups rather than people, and our representatives  must "look like" the group they represent.  A black man necessarily cannot represent a white constituency, or an Asian a Latino one, etc.

And I have no idea what it is going to mean for my mixed-race son.

THAT does not bode particularly well for a country that is projected to be one with no majority in my lifetime.