Why ebola puts the zombie apocalypse into proper perspective

I spend quite a bit of time wondering about the zombie apocalypse. Like why I and a few drinking buddies will be sole humans out of 7 billion who aren’t turned into zombies? If I put gym treadmills outside every window on my house, will that be enough to stop the zombies coming in, and can I generate electricity that way? And why do we suppose it will be a ‘human’ zombie apocalypse? Maybe we’ll be inundated with zombie llamas. Here in New Zealand someone made a movie about zombie sheep. Very funny it was, too.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

But really I shouldn’t worry. Zombies aren’t real. Unlike the ebola outbreak in West Africa, which is very, very real – and no laughing matter. So why the zombie thought? Well, a friend of mine suggested that the social impact of the ebola outbreak raging in West Africa has a lot in common with the way we imagine a zombie apocalypse in the west. Everybody you know and love is suddenly snatched away by a quick and lethal infection that seems to have come out of nowhere. It spreads by touch. If you help them – as you must, because we are all human and care is the highest human virtue – you risk getting it. It devastates families. It destroys organised society. And nobody is immune. Nobody.

This is actually true of any pandemic – ebola, of course, is far from the first serious disease to erupt in a population. I suspect that the fact that we envisage the social impact of a ‘zombie apocalypse’ in terms that so closely match a real uber-pandemic disease outbreak is indicative of the depth to which our fear of pandemic is etched into our cultural make-up.

None of that reduces the tragedy unfolding in West Africa. There is only one up-side. Viruses transmit in two ways. There’s airborne – usually meaning you breathe them in after somebody nearby has sneezed. Or sometimes the infected mucus settles on a surface, you touch that surface and fail to wash your hands, then transfer the virus to your mouth when eating. The other main mechanism of transmission is ‘serum’, meaning the virus is carried in body fluids.

Ebola is of the latter variety. You have to make direct contact with the patient’s body fluids. That makes it hard to catch. Medical professionals run a high risk while treating victims, as do family in close promixity to a victim; but it’s not in the ‘catchability’ league of airborne viruses.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Down side is that ebola remains live and infectious after the victim has died. That’s why health officials have been carrying bodies away with full bio-hazard procedures.

So why has it been happening? Ebola was first noticed in West Africa in the mid-1970s, though it was around before then. But it was always isolated. The disease was SO quick and SO lethal that outbreaks burned themselves out. But this time it hasn’t. From the viewpoint of the virus it’s a great survival mechanism. For humans? Not so much.

That’s not the only reason why it’s been so difficult to contain the outbreak. By one of the ironies that dog the real world, the countries it’s hit are the least able to handle an emergency of this kind. Borders are arbitrary and spanned by social groups, a function of colonial-age map-making – making ‘border closing’ difficult. Infrastructure is poor by western standards. Crowded living conditions and poor urban sanitation make serum transmission easier. Another issue is that it takes a week or ten days after infection for the symptoms to show – but during that time, the victim is infectious. And that makes for a perfect storm.

Ebola is unlikely to spread widely in the West as it stands. But if ebola becomes entrenched across populations in West Africa, as seems likely, it’s got more opportunity to mutate. And that’s where the bad news starts. Just to put ebola into perspective, the current lethality of about 90 percent is well above the 30-60 percent of the Black Death that ripped through Europe in the mid-fifteenth century. It’s way above the 10-20 percent mortality rate of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Sure, there are vaccines in the works. It takes time to develop them, time to manufacture them – and time is something that just isn’t available right now. Certainly not for the poor folks affected in West Africa. Maybe for the world. Damn.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Living on shaky ground – out this week

A major earthquake rattled much of the southern North Island of New Zealand during the early hours of Tuesday morning – magnitude 5.5. It woke Kiwis from southern Hawke’s Bay to Wellington and was classed as ‘strong’ by our seismologists.

Living On Shaky Ground 200 pxLuckily nobody was hurt, and no damage was reported. Good news in a land where earthquakes are a fact of life. Curiously, it came in the very week my new science book on seismology and earthquakes is being published by Penguin Random House. Living On Shaky Ground: the science and story behind New Zealand’s earthquakes. Good thing I wasn’t writing a book on the zombie apocalypse. Though, scientifically speaking, we get so many earthquakes here that I’d have been surprised if there wasn’t one when the book was released.

That, of course, highights why I wrote it. One of New Zealand’s biggest ongoing issues is earthquakes and the volcanoes and tsunami that go with them. It’s a vital subject – an immediate subject. Certainly that’s true for the long-suffering folk of Christchurch whose city was shaken to pieces, with terrible loss of life, in 2010-11. However, life atop the collision point of major tectonic plates is something that every Kiwi has to come to terms with.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.

A photo from the book – one I took of Christ Church Cathedral – icon of Christchurch for well over a century and the raison d’etre for its founding in 1850, wrecked by the devastating earthquake of February 2011.

The real issue, of course, is what’s in store for us. That’s something science can tell us – the physics of earthquakes. I’ve looked into that in this book, outlining, for general readers, how the science works, what it’s about, and what we can expect from the scientific understanding. It’s a vital subject – certainly here in New Zealand, where earthquakes are a constant fact of life. And to me, that also makes earthquakes something more than just science. They are also a human phenomenon.

Pedestrians and cars at the bottom of Molesworth Street, Wellington, after the magnitude 6.6 shock of 16 August. Aftershocks up to 5+ magnitude were still rolling in when I took this.

Pedestrians and cars at the bottom of Molesworth Street, Wellington, after the magnitude 6.6 earthquake of 16 August 2013. Aftershocks up to 5+ magnitude were still rolling in when I took this.

What do I mean? To those living in earthquake zones the real issue is the human reality. Earthquakes are not a nebulous future risk; they are a certainty. The question is not if, but when and how. And to me, the human reality – the way we react to these cataclysms of nature – is as important a focus as the science, and something I’ve built into the book. Underscoring, for me, the point that science – for all that we view it as abstract – is really as much a human endeavour as anything else. Isn’t it.

So how do we react? And what is the science behind earthquakes? I’ve got a few posts coming up on that – though you’ll need to check out the book to get the full story. What I will say, though, is that such events almost always provoke people to find strengths in themselves that, perhaps, they did not know they had. That, to me, is such a wonderful testament to the reality of human nature.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why I run an Apple-free household but am still cool

Apple’s theatricals this week haven’t convinced me to buy an iPhone 6 – which, as Ron Amadeo pointed out, has the same screen size and features as a 2012 Nexus 4. George Takei got it right when he tweeted that he couldn’t remember the last time so many got so excited about 4.7 inches.

Not that this an admission of being un-cool, though it might seem so to the phanbois. Earlier this week I commented on some guy’s blog that I’m Apple-free. Other products do all I want at less cost and I’m not interested in the Apple cool factor. Another commenter wondered whether I still watched black and white TV.  Absolutely. I watch shows about sarcastic assholes.

Get real folks. Apple isn’t a religion. They make consumer products. For profit.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

My Apple-free desk. From the left: ASUS laptop, i7 4771 Windows desktop (yes, the same CPU Apple use in their iMacs), i7 860 Windows desktop.

When I look at the venom displayed on some of the forums and blogs, against Apple-critics, I suppose I got off lightly. But as I say, commenting that I don’t buy Apple isn’t license for the fans to make personal attacks of any sort. Apple are a consumer product company. Competitive. But failing to buy it doesn’t, by definition, make you a luddite.

I suppose it’s not surprising, really. Apple’s schtik – originated by their late CEO, Steve Jobs – was an appeal to cool, to the social status that, we are conditioned to think, comes with this consumer product or that one. That approach underlies most big brands, of course – and it certainly worked for Apple. Hugely. In the late 1990s Apple was a dwindling computer company that had failed to compete with Microsoft. Jobs came back on board and reinvented it as a lifestyle choice – a company whose products bypassed the reason circuits and drove straight to the appeal of emotion.

It worked a treat. People didn’t buy Apple because they could get a sharply better phone, or sharply better computer. Apple’s gear was always well engineered, well designed and reliable. But so was the gear sold by other major manufacturers. Most of it was also just as easy to use. That wasn’t why people bought Apple. They bought Apple because it was a statement about themselves. They get drawn into it – I mean, I heard that some guy in Australia microchipped his own hand, on the off-chance that some rumoured feature might be built into the iPhone 6.

It was, by any measure, a brilliant recovery. Genius. But when I look at the sarcasm, the personalised anger with which some respond when anybody questions Apple products – when I suggest that, maybe, other products are as good – I have to wonder. Do people validate their own self-worth by ownership of an Apple product? Is that why they get so angry, sarcastic and abusive? So personal?

Is this where Jobs wanted his customers to go when he reinvented Apple?

For myself, I don’t feel the need to define or validate myself with any consumer product. It’s just stuff, and these days it’s increasingly short-life stuff. For me, phones, tablets and computers are things you buy for a purpose. Not to make you better than somebody else. Products. For me that’s the arbiter. Will it do the job I need it for – properly, and without compromise? And at what cost – up-front and lifetime? How reliable is it? Will the maker support it for that lifetime – and a little way beyond – at reasonable cost? If I drop a phone, what will it cost me to replace it?

All these reasons keep intruding whenever I look for any new consumer product. The fact that this path has produced a wholly Apple-free household, I think, speaks for itself.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why celebrity phone hacking is really everyone’s problem

Until last week, I’d never heard of Jennifer Lawrence, still less known that she apparently had salacious selfies on her phone’s cloud account. Now, it seems, everybody in the world has the news, and apparently the stolen pictures will be made into an art exhibition. Do I care (just checking the care-o-meter here)? No.

But what I do care about is the fact that the celebrity selfie hacking scandal is everyone’s problem.

1195428087807981914johnny_automatic_card_trick_svg_medMy worry has got nothing to do with the way the public debate has been sidetracked by red-herrring arguments, all flowing from the cult of celebrity that began, in the modern sense, as a Hollywood marketing device during the second decade of the twentieth century. That’s why these pictures get targeted. Hey – get a life. Celebrity Bits are the same as Everybody Else’s Bits. Get over it. Celebrities are also entitled to their privacy and property, just like everybody else.

No – the problem is the principle of data security. Everybody’s data security. It’s an arms race, on-line and off. People store all sorts of things on electronic media these days. Medical records, bank account details, passwords. Some of it ends up in the cloud. Some doesn’t, but even home computers may not be safe. Hacking goes on all the time, often looking for your bank account. It’s a sad indictment of human nature that those perpetrating this vandalism look on it as an assertion of superiority. I believe the term is ‘owned’, spelt ‘pwned’.

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

It’s not going to be resolved by passing laws or codes of conduct. Some immoral asshole out there, somewhere, will spoil the party.

All we can do is be vigilant. Various services are introducing two-step authentication, in which you can’t just log on by password, you have to add a code that’s sent to your phone.

You still need a strong password. I am amazed that the most popular password is – uh – ‘password’, pronounced ‘Yes, I WANT you to steal my stuff’. Other stupid passwords include ‘123456’, the names of pop-culture icons (‘HarryPotter’) or something published elsewhere, like your pet’s name.

But even a password that can’t be associated with you has to meet certain criteria. The reason is mathematical – specifically, factorial, a term denoted with an exclamation mark. In point of fact, the math of password security gets complex, because any human-generated password won’t be truly random – and terms such as ‘entropy’ enter the mix when figuring crackability. But at the end of the day, the more characters the better, and the more variables per character the better. Check this out:

  1. Any English word. There are around 1,000,000 unique words in English (including ‘callipygian’) but that’s not many for a hack-bot looking for word matches. Your account can be cracked in less than a minute.
  2. Mis-spelt English word. Doesn’t raise the odds. Hackers expect mis-spellings or number substitutions.
  3. Eight truly random lower case letters. Better. There are 208,827,064,576 combinations of the 26-letter alpha set in lower case.
  4. Eight truly random lower and upper case letters. Even better. These produce 53,459,728,531,456 potential passwords.
  5. Eight truly random keystrokes chosen from the entire available set. Best. There are 645,753,531,245,761 possible passwords.

If you use 10 truly random keystrokes, you end up with 3,255,243,551,009,881,201 possible combinations. But even that is still crackable, given time – so the other step is to change the password. Often.

Make it a habit. And – just out of interest, seeing as we’re talking about true randomness, does anybody know what the term ‘one time pad’ means?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

The real truth of the First World War

There has been a growing consensus among historians in recent years that the First and Second World Wars were not separate events. They were two acts in a 31-year drama that began in 1914.

Ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, probably 1 July 1916. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Royal_Irish_Rifles_ration_party_Somme_July_1916.jpg

Ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, probably 1 July 1916. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, there are reasons to argue that this war was followed by a third act, set up by the collapse of the old order in the First World War – the rise of Communism, which was not resolved by the Second World War and led to the Cold War. That did not end until 1992. These events defined the society, politics and economics of the twentieth century; and it is for these reasons that Eric Hobsbawm has argued that this century – in those terms – was a ‘short’ century, beginning in 1914 and ending in 1992.

I’m inclined to agree. As far as the two World Wars are concerned there is little doubt about the integration between them. Briefly the argument is this. In 1918, the German state collapsed, but the advancing Allies were still – certainly by George Patton’s estimate – a few weeks off being able to beat the German army. The result was that Germany essentially retained an unbroken field army. This was dispersed by Versailles, but the soldiers, brought up like the rest of Germany on the notion of ‘Reich’, felt cheated. Into the breach leaped a shell-shocked veteran of the Ypres front, sporting the Charlie Chaplin moustache he’d devised for gas-mask wear.

SMS Baden, one of the last of Germany's First World War super-dreadnoughts.

SMS Baden, one of the last of Germany’s First World War super-dreadnoughts. Public domain.

It wasn’t difficult for Hitler to whip up support based on the popular sense of injustice and denied destiny, drawing power from disaffected former soldiers who formed a significant demographic group. It was also not hard for him to find a sub-culture within Germany who could be blamed. All of this was wrapped in the guise of a ‘new order’, but actually it was not – the Nazis, in short, did not come out of a vacuum; they merely re-framed an idea that already existed. This connection was realised by the British as the Second World War came to an end and they wondered how to avoid repeating the mistakes of 1919. As early as 1943, Sir Robert Vansittart argued that Hitler was merely a symptom. The deeper problem was that Versailles hadn’t broken eighty-odd years’ worth of Bismarckian ‘Reich’ mentality.

Wright_Shattered Glory coverThis perspective demands a different view of the First World War. So far, non-military historians in New Zealand – working in ignorance of the military realties – have simply added an intellectual layer to the cliche of the First World War as a psychologically inexplicable void into which the rational world fell as a result of mechanistic international systems, the pig-headedness of stupid governments and the incompetence of Chateau-bound general officers. There has even been an attempt by one New Zealand historian to re-cast Britain and the Allies as the aggressive, evil villains of the piece. Military historians have not been seduced by such fantasies, but have still been captured by a pervasive framework of sadness, remembrance and sacrifice. Into this, again for New Zealand, has been stirred mythologies of nationalism, of the ‘birth’ of today’s nation on the shores of Gallipoli in 1915. The result of this heady mix has been a narrow orthodoxy and an equally narrow exploration of events in terms of that orthodoxy.

Landing at D-Day. Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.

Landing on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard. Public Domain.

I question this framework, not least because of the argument that the Second World War was a specific outcome of the First. The implication of the two being different aspects of a single struggle is clear; there are questions yet to be investigated about the ‘why’ of the First World War. The issue is the extent to which the ‘Reich’ mentality was perceived as a genuine threat in 1914 when Britain (in particular) debated whether to enter the conflict, and whether and how that answer drove the Allies to persist even after available offence (infantry) had proven itself inadequate against the defence (wire, machine guns and trenches). We have to remember that fear of German imperialism had already driven Europe’s alliance structures from the 1880s. And, for New Zealand, the question is how did that intersect with – and potentially drive – the sense of pro-British imperialism that did so much to define our mind-set in the generation before 1914?

These sorts of questions are beginning to be asked in British historical circles now. I keep being invited to symposia at various universities over there, where these matters are being discussed. Unfortunately we are a long way off being able to properly pose such queries in New Zealand. Yet, realistically, that interpretation needs to be explored. Perhaps I should do it. What do you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Close encounters of the meteor kind – this weekend

Back in 2013, I wrote a piece that mashed Pope Benedict’s resignation with the science of the meteorite that exploded over Russia. I was Freshly Pressed by WordPress on the back of it. Good stuff.

The fly-by. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

The fly-by. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

This weekend, a similarly sized chunk of space debris – about 20 metres in diameter – is rolling past Earth with closest approach of just 40,200 km, directly over New Zealand, at 6.18 am on Monday 8 September, NZT (18:18 Zulu, 7 September).

I use the word rolling deliberately. Everything spins in space.

The meteor’s called 20214 RC (R-C) and was detected only on 31 August by the Catalina Sky Survey at Tucson, Arizona. And that raises a point. The spectre of Earth being clobbered by even a modest piece of space detritus has haunted science for decades. Right now, we’re doing something about that – scanning near-Earth space in a hunt for likely impactors.

The orbit. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

The orbit. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

What we’d do if we found such a thing, other than despatch Bruce Willis, isn’t clear. Nuking them isn’t an option – the evidence is growing that some of these space rocks are just clumps of loose-ish ice and dirt. In any case, you’d end up with a cloud of debris, still hurtling for Earth and still able to deliver virtually the same kinetic blow to the planet. Personally I think we should splash one side of any likely impactor with black paint, but that method (which exploits asymmetric re-radiation of absorbed thermal energy) requires several years’ warning. This new encounter comes just a week after discovery – with all that this implies.

There’s no danger from 20214 RC (R-C). It’s got an orbital period of just over 541.11 days, which is different enough from Earth’s to mean there won’t be another encounter any time soon. But one day the orbital mechanics will mesh and it’ll be back in our vicinity. It won’t be an impact danger. But we don’t know what else is out there.

Yup, you’ve got it. That old sci-fi doom scenario involving a meteor suddenly sloshing the Atlantic into the US Eastern Seaboard and Europe? It’s baaaack…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Swearing and cussing? Sirrah! It’s a lot of craven murrain

The other week the Prime Minister of New Zealand used a word in public that literally means the ordure of a male cow. The colloquial meaning the PM deployed it for was ‘rubbish’.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Thou dankish unchin-snouted malt-worm!’ William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Oooh, naughty. Or is it? Way back in 1970, the same word was publicly used by Germaine Greer when she visited New Zealand. Then, police issued an arrest warrant. This time? The PM is in the middle of an election campaign in which everything he says or does will win or lose voters – and nobody batted an eye.

But of course. In New Zealand, today’s generation don’t regard this term as particularly offensive. I’ve seen the same word used in book titles, in the US it was the title of a Penn and Teller series, and so on. But that’s swearing. Words come and go. If they didn’t, we’d all swear like that impious swiver, Will Shakespeare.  Zounds! (God’s Wounds). The big word of his day was fie. But wait, there’s more. Not satisfied with the general vocabulary – which included some of the Anglo Saxon we use – the immortal bard is usually credited with coining around 1700 new words, many of them boisterously intended. You can check some of them out for yourself – here’s a Shakespeare insult generator.

What changes is the degree of offence society considers the word causes to ‘polite’ ears. That’s how Benjamin Tabart was able to use Shakespeare’s vilest word in his 1807 childrens’ tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Of course, by that time the hot potato word was ‘damn’, so offensive in polite society it was soon censored to d—d. That became a swear word too – ‘dashed’.

As always, older swear words that now seem acceptable aren’t directed ‘at’ anything. They’re abstract intensifiers that have lost connection with their original meaning. That’s different from offensive words intended to demean others’ behaviours, beliefs or cultures, which never become acceptable, any time. The fact that new terms of this latter kind keep turning up says quite a bit about the unpleasant side of the human condition.

But abstract intensifiers, directed at revealing one’s response to an ordinary event – like stepping in dog poo – are something else, and the funny thing is that any word will do, providing it’s understood. Sci-fi authors coin new ones often as devices for reinforcing the difference between ours and their future society. In Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) the word was ‘frack’. An obvious homophone, but it worked well anyway. Or there’s Larry Niven’s Ringworld-series ‘futz’, which to me sounded like a mashup with putz. But you can’t fault the logic – the ‘different but not TOO different’ principle demanded of accessible SF.

I’ve only seen one place where a different word emerged. It was in Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero. The forbidden term, the deeply offensive word of his galactic future, repeatedly used by his ‘starship troopers’? Bowb. It echoed 1930s slang, but Harrison made it the verboten word and used it with stunning effect – a multi-purpose obscene noun, verb and adjective with which readers instantly identified because of the context. ‘What’s this, bowb your buddy week?’ a trooper demands as his power suit fails and nobody stops him drowning. ‘It’s always bowb your buddy week’, the gunnery corporal tells the troops as the man sinks.

Bowb. Conveying the intensity of personal emotional response to the abstract without the current-day offence.  And that, of course, is the essence of writing – transmitting the intended emotion to the reader. Way cleverer than using existing swear words.

Trouble is, when I use bowb  in conversations, people look at me funny and think I’m a gleeking, beef-witted dewberry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014