Surviving the zombie apocalypse

You can do it, this map will certainly help.

Might be best to scout out your locations now, though.  You would hate to be in the position of trying to find the local gun store if the cell phone network is down and your iPhone is on its last few seconds of power.

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Which risks draw our attention?

WNYC’s On the Media ran a very interesting piece on their most recent show, aired this past Friday.  The segment centered on an interview with University of Cambridge professor Martin Rees, of the newly established Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

The primary focus of host Brooke Gladstone’s (sigh…) interview was to discuss the newly established Center, which will see to illuminate the prevalence in media and popular culture of those threats considered “journalistically appealing” despite their actual level of real potential danger, while other far more probable dangers go unnoticed or even dismissed by the media, and to attempt to draw journalists’ attention to the latter as well as other dangers which may not be on their radar screen.

Of course, this assumes that journalists will be universally interested in such assistance (some will, many others will not).  But for my purposes the more interesting questions which the Center could deal with were only briefly glossed over in the early moments of the interview.

Asked to provide an explanation for why such a Center was necessary in the contemporary media environment, Professor Rees made reference to how bad people are, in general, at evaluating risk and why it is necessary for someone to take a careful, dispassionate look at the question of both probability and consequences:

“People fret rather too much about what are actually rather small risks, like carcinogens in food, train crashes and things like that, but they don’t worry enough about these other kinds of risks which are perhaps improbable but which are so serious if they happened that even one occurrence is too many. And just as you still pay for insurance on your house, even if you don’t expect it to be burnt down, so we feel it’s worth a bit of investment in trying to understand and trying to protect against these new kinds of risks.”

It’s reasonable, for example, to insure a house against fire because even though advances in fireproofing and improvements in residential construction have made house fires increasingly rare, the consequences of a fire can be devastating and extremely expensive.  The threat that your XBox, iPad and your toaster will develop sentience with the help of the home wireless router, rise up to kill your family, and further seek to eradicate all of humanity might have much more serious consequences, but is less probable by several orders of magnitude, which is why Allstate, Travelers and Metlife don’t offer “rampaging homicidal toaster” insurance (though it turns out that you can get more general apocalypse insurance and, of course zombie apocalypse insurance).

I think Professor Rees is quite right that (prompted by copious media attention) people focus on and worry about the wrong risks, but it is his next point that I think is really crucial here.  Asked how much worry about the larger existential risks is enough, he replied:

“Well, I think enough is a bit more than they’re doing now because hardly anyone is thinking about them, really. That means they could be taken over by flaky scare mongers who make get them out of proportion, and what we want to do is to try and look at them seriously.

That point about the “flaky scare mongers” is the key, though I am not sure what the real solution is going to be.  We live in a world where the flaky scare mongers are, to a large part, running the show nowadays. Watch the evening news and along with the murders, corruption and traffic accidents, you get a heavy dose of advocacy funded scare media.  “Is the milk in your fridge killing your children?  Tune in at 11!”  Of course the answer is always no, but by the time the piece rolls around (invariably at the end of the newscast so that you’ve tuned in to the whole show), the news consumer has been exposed to a steady meal of bad outcomes without any context to mitigate the free-floating panic stirred up.  And then, as soon as the news is over, we settle down for the latest episode of Homeland or CSI or any number of police procedurals, and while we know on a rational level that such shows are fiction, our brains are less rational than we would like to think.

And so we have the idea that the world is a far more dangerous place than at any point in human history, that murder and crime rates are at an all time high, while thousands of children are abducted off the street by complete strangers every week.  Or that an invisible and undetectable planet is hurtling through space with our little blue marble in its crosshairs.  And because our sense of danger is aroused three times an hour by folks trying to sell us things, we remain stubbornly resistant to any suggestion that, while still permeated with risk of all kinds, our world is as safe as it has ever been.  We refuse to consider rational argument and evidence because our deeper, more primitive brain is convinced (as well it should be, given the constant stimuli) that signs and portents of our imminent doom is all around us.  This, on top of an overactive (though well earned) skepticism about the motives and abilities of experts.

Ultimately, the most important question for such scholars to consider may be the overwhelming “stickiness” of this apocalyptic attentiveness to some risks, despite positive evidence of their improbability.  Evaluating the relative risk of particular phenomena is all well and good, but until we understand why it is that we remain so very attached to particular risks even in the face of their manifest unreality, I’m not sure the Center will have any more luck in convincing people to pay more attention to the real and present danger posed by climate change or nuclear proliferation as opposed to more dramatically intriguing threat from zombies and the impending rise of Skynet.

OMG, Australia!!

Here in the United States, citizens are stumbling around in a zombie-like daze wondering when, if ever, our politicians are going to get their hands on some brains (and perhaps a spine as well) and get down to business solving the completely, totally, 100% self inflicted catastrophe we seem to be headed toward with the ‘fiscal cliff’ (here, I’ll admit I find the term ‘austerity bomb’ both more compelling as a phrase as well as more accurate as a description) debacle.  Many of our national political leaders have acted in ways that were (one imagines unintentionally) hilarious, but even our president, with his characteristic dry wit, doesn’t have anything which quite compares to this.

Apparently the Australians are known for a dry, irreverent wit, which Prime Minster Julia Gillard put on display in a mock statement to the nation promoting a morning show program focused on the impending end of all things, predicted for the morning of 7 December.  The big news is that apparently we missed it, here in the United States, because we woke up this morning and went about our days.

I will admit to being ever so slightly conflicted about humor like this.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love the satire and am always reduced to giggles of joy whenever someone ups the ante on apocalyptic humor, as PM Gillard has managed to do here.  And I think it must say something about the health of a political system when a national politician is able to step out from behind the screen of Very Serous National Leadership to have a bit of light-hearted fun.  But I do worry about all the people who can’t, for any number of different reasons, tell the difference between reality and the fantasy.  I would never argue that the topic ought to be verboten, my feeling about censorship is that more speech is better, and for every person running around with their hair on fire claiming that the earth is about to come to a violent end because of some swiftly approaching calamity, I think we ought to have a few others explaining that the 21st will come and go just like any other day, and in fact like every other predicted doomsday.

But I remain concerned nonetheless.  It’s normal for us to be concerned about the future and fascinated by the idea of apocalypse.  What I continue to be completely mystified by is the tenaciousness of irrational fears and a clinging to belief, especially so fundamentally pessimistic a belief, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Science can give us so much more information about how the world works, and the triumph of education is that more people have access to an unprecedented amount of that information, and yet we seem to be more, rather than less, susceptible to the lure of our worst fears.  Clearly, we need more information, more discussion, and even more humor to draw attention to the fact that some people have, with a great deal of certainty and copious ‘evidence,’ always predicted the end of things for one reason or another.  Those people have always been wrong.  There is no reason to believe, and many, many, MANY reasons to be skeptical that this time is going to be any different.

In a side note, I now have Prime Minister Gillard to thank for introducing me to Tom and Alex and, in a roundabout way, to Ig Nobel prize winning scientist Karl Kruszelnicki, whose ground breaking and tireless research deserves to be celebrated!

And, in a related note, Tom and Alex reminded me of this, which is one of my favorite movie clips.  As someone who has lived in Los Angeles, nothing makes me happier than watching it be burned, bombed, blown up and generally wrecked.

More shopping

At Brownells, where you can find a whole host of things that go various sorts of boom (as well as things to help them go boom, keep them going boom without sticking or jamming, clean up post-boom, and carry, store, and care for them in between boom opportunities).Generally, I’m not a big fan of guns (if there is one thing I have learned from The Walking Dead, it is that the boom brings more zombies), but what I do like about this is the clumsy guy.  You don’t usually see a clumsy dude in zombie movies or other horror flicks, up there with the token black guy and the other standard tropes, but he definitely should be there!

The apocalyptophiliac’s Black Friday guide

I sometimes think that if Black Friday isn’t an actual sign of impending apocalypse, it does at least give us the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what it could look like.  In other countries, they riot over government corruption and social injustice.  Here, we riot over cheap cell phones.  But don’t worry, even if you are like me, and have decided to avoid entering any retail establishment between now and Epiphany in order to preserve your health, safety and sanity, you can still get all your end of the world supplies delivered right to your door!

Amazon has got you covered if your apocalyptic fears center on the rise of the zombie hoards.  I appreciate that they begin by featuring protective headgear under the category of “brain protection,” but I would like to see them feature bite-resistant, as opposed to specifically fire resistant clothing.  Don’t get me wrong; I know you need to take care when burning the bodies to try to stem the spread of the pathogen/virus/alien ick causing the undead to run around with the munchies, but I’ve watched all the movies, and I know that the biggest danger the survivors face is not fire but instead that surprise nibble you get when you reach out to pull a door closed, or back up without looking behind you first.  You have to look a bit more, but they also have customer-generated Listmania posts featuring more general end of the world needs.

This is, of course, in addition to the simple 13-item guide produced by the helpful folks at REI.  There are lots of folks out there ready, willing and able to help you plan for the end of all things (for a fee, of course) and most of them will helpfully provide you links to the stuff you need.  Just make sure to get the expedited shipping; after all, we’ve got less than a month before M-Day.  Of course, the need to amass all of this gear can seem overwhelming, so start small.  A simple go bag and some helpful reference material will give you a good start.

Once you have all your stuff, you’ll need a way to lug it around with you.  Being on foot is no fun, especially with all that gear.  Of course, with all the mess on the roads (including random debris, the walking dead and other cars) you will want a truck, of course, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t travel about in style and comfort.  The amount of armor needed will, of course, depend on the precise nature of the end time scenario we face, though it might be best to just go all in and design the ultimate mobile bomb shelter on wheels.  Of course, if the end comes with a flood, those ultra-secure, heavily armored and fully stocked trucks will just sink.  Perhaps something like this would be more practical?

Finally, you will need the appropriate training and practice.  If you aren’t lucky enough to have training provided for you, the Center for Disease Control and FEMA have simple lists of supplies and suggestions, and there are lots of ways to meet others and practice survival skills.

But if you just need a last minute, all-purpose survival gift, suitable for stocking-stuffing, you can always go with this little kit, and have an all-purpose supernatural threat neutralizer.  Okay, the gun isn’t included, and you’ll need to get your own garlic necklace and bottle of holy water, but those are best when fresh anyway.

Happy shopping!

Only 28 days to go!

Tracking fascination

One of the dubious pleasures of blogging is the availability of analytics.  I say ‘dubious’ here, because although Google and WordPress helpfully offer me a wide variety of data that I can sift and track according to any number of metrics, it isn’t altogether clear to me why such data is useful.  Of course, if I were offering advertisements on my site, or if I intended to approach someone for funding, being able to track my readership would be extremely useful.  But I don’t, and so I’m left with pages and pages of data that I mostly ignore, though sometimes I check my stats pages in much the same obsessive way that some of my friends check their Facebook walls or Twitter feeds.

Today, I got to thinking about my sense that the current fever of apocalyptophilia we find ourselves in is a relatively recent phenomena.  I’m not in any way arguing that human beings have not always had a kind of horrified fascination for imagining the end of (all) things, or that we’ve never before gone through such periods in our history, only that the contemporary moment feels somewhat unique.  Part of that feeling, I am sure, stems from the fact that I pay attention to any occurrences of apocalyptic rhetoric and therefore I see more of it than others would.  Once you are primed to look for something, you tend to see it.  Nothing controversial there.

But I do have a sense that there has been a measurable rise in ‘apocalyptomania’, a condition I liken to a kind of social hypochondria where every difficulty, every large-scale phenomena is suddenly elevated to the status of an extinction-level geophysical event.  In addition to the perennial interest in the apocalypse narrowly construed (anything related to a particular Christian eschatological preoccupation), we’ve also had stormpocalypses and snowpocalypses and in Los Angeles we even had a carpocalypse with the temporary closing of the 405 freeway for construction.  And so, as they say, I had a curious.

Tracking for the incidence of ‘apocalypse’ as a search term

Lucky for me, Google Trends was there to help.  It turns out that the last year or so has seen a distinct rise in curiosity about apocalypse, at least according to the prevalence of the term in Google search data.  That peak in September 2004 represents the high point of this interest (and is coincident – see point N in the graph above – with the release of the disappointing Resident Evil: Apocalypse), with a fairly steady drop off.  Interest in the apocalypse as a phenomenon began to climb again in October 2008 (coincident with the early days of the world financial crisis and just before the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. Presidency).  Not all of those high points are related to the particularly Christian understanding of apocalypse, though the highest points are.  Point E represents the spike in interest in May 2011 during the height of the hysteria stirred up by Harold Camping and the helpful folks at Family Radio Worldwide over the impending (and still delayed) end of the world, while the spike at point A represents the ‘zombie apocalypse‘ hysteria sparked by a series of gruesome news reports.

But there’s an even more interesting graph to be had here when you just search for instances of “pocalypse” as a suffix.

Tracking for the incidence of words with the suffix ‘pocalypse’

See that line?  Assuming that my methodology and search terms are valid (not always a safe assumption, mind you), the story here seems quite clear.  In September/October 2008 (See above Re: global financial crisis) there was a sudden bump in the suffix ‘pocalypse’ being added to more and more words.  The extreme spike again is May 2011, and is most likely related to the above mentioned Camping/Family Radio fizzle.  Since the calmdown after The End failed to materialize in May, we don’t seem to have reset to zero but to have established one of the many ‘new normals’ of contemporary life where everything begins to take on apocalyptic proportions.

Incidentally, in my research today, I noticed this little gem.  Neil deGrasse Tyson has a much better track record than Harold Camping at bringing an end to planets, so we’d best hope that this isn’t an omen.