on the zombie apocalypse

•5 August 2017 • 4 Comments

I’ve been thinking about the zombie apocalypse. Not the middle or late stages of the apocalypse, since that always seems to follow a straightforward and predictable course, as we see in World War Z and 48 Days Later and many many other books and movies.  Wherever they have come from, zombies bite people and create new zombies, and so it continues until it reaches an end.

Rather, I was thinking about the early stages of the apocalypse, of how the apocalypse begins. Whether for instance, a la Night of the Living Dead and Thriller, the dead rise from the earth.

Driving through Georgia over the past couple of weeks, I made an observation. We passed many cemeteries and memorial gardens on the road: some were old and some more recent; some were small family plots and some large scale community enterprises. But only one of them was enclosed by a fence or a wall. Particularly given that The Walking Dead is set in Georgia, I would have thought the locals would be more concerned with the dangers of the rising dead.

In England, on the other hand, almost all of the cemeteries are surrounded by a wall high enough to impede zombies from freely wandering the landscape. Perhaps there is a simple cultural explanation about how we should remember the dead.

Or perhaps there’s a deeper explanation, that this difference relates back to a now forgotten but recent zombie apocalypse, which struck Europe, hence the walls, but missed the US, hence the lack of walls and fences. I know that it’s a bonkers idea and that it’s a horrible thing to wish upon people, but I want this zombie apocalypse theory to be true. I want there to have been a zombie apocalypse and some deep, persistent cultural amnesia, the only memory of which is the existence or lack of walls around cemeteries.

And once one idea gets started, other ideas start creeping in. What would happen to nuclear power stations during a zombie apocalypse. I’ll admit that I am not an avid or extensive reader of the zombie canon and so perhaps this idea has already been done, and done well, but I suspect there is a good story about a group of workers holed up in a nuclear power station, desperately trying to keep the core from going critical while being besieged by zombies.

This ties into a different thread of ideas, namely that of the doomsday scenario, in which we have created something which we cannot undo. We then have to spend more and more effort in keeping this thing we cannot undo from going bad, until at some point this takes all of society’s effort, and then something breaks. Admittedly, the zombies are not the doomsday scenario but this might be a strange way of exploring some of the issues around nuclear power, an idea that’s been explored to some reasonable extent.

I think that money might be considered as a doomsday device, and that there are others. But this is taking us away from the zombies. Though this has admittedly been a bit for a facetious zombie rant, I think it highlights something different. Namely, how do we as humans build systems to remember things that we do not want to forget.  This preservation of knowledge against the ravages of time and disaster is something that I’m starting to explore, and a fascinating topic it is.

when ideas disappear

•5 August 2017 • 1 Comment

A few nights ago, when I was more than halfway asleep, I found myself besieged by some ideas that I thought might be worth saving.  Like everyone else who’s ever admitted to trying their hand at stories or a novel, I get asked where my ideas come from.  Sometimes, the answers are more interesting than the question, though I’m not sure about the case at hand.  For me, some of the time, they come from the random confluence of two tangentially or unconnected things that happen to mesh in my brain.  Amusingly, these will sometimes reveal themselves, unbidden by any wish of mine, in the flow of conversation.   But some of the time, they are just the bumps in the road as I’m walking to the Land of Nod.

Working by the light of my phone, I dutifully wrote them down, trying to include enough information to allow me to reconstruct them come the morning. Of the four that I wrote down, three made sense in the light of the new day. One is a different take on a idea I’ve been kicking around for some long time now.  Keep watching, in hope 😉  One was inspired by the book I’d finished before turning out the light. One is an idea that came while driving. But the fourth consisted of a single word. Lucy.

And I have no idea what this fourth note was supposed to be. Lucy is the name of my parents’ dog. A lovely dog, and we were visiting mom and dad a few days ago, at the time I wrote this note to myself, but for the life of me (and how English have I become) but I can’t reconstruct the idea I had. All I have is the knowledge that half asleep, I thought that I had a good idea for a story that somehow related to Lucy, but no information and no idea of what that idea might actually be.

And it has to be Lucy the dog, since there are no other Lucys that I’ve been thinking about. There is an aikidoka named Lucy I used to practice with occasionally, years ago now, but I hadn’t thought about her for many years until I started conducting this most recent internal Lucy audit. There is the Scarlett Johannson movie, which I haven’t seen and which is on the list but not at present high on the list. There is I Love Lucy, but again, not something that’s had been in my mind recently. And I still have no idea why I wrote Lucy in my list of ideas, though I am half convinced that it was a good idea. Clearly, at the time I thought it was once worth saving, and that the single word Lucy would provide a sufficiency.

In retrospect, the irony of all this is that had I not woken up and written down Lucy on my list, I probably wouldn’t have remembered that I’d had an idea in the middle of the night, and I wouldn’t have found myself in this position of being haunted by the ghost of an idea but without the body of the idea to bury.

This has happened before. For more than 20 years, I’ve been haunted by the ghost of a mathematical idea, one that I didn’t write down before falling asleep. One that left the same hole in my imagination. It was after this mathematical ghost visitation that I started keeping paper and a pen by the bed, writing down the ideas that hit as I’m falling asleep. I’m still waiting for that mathematical idea to reveal itself, though I’m beginning to suspect that it just might not. Hopefully I won’t have to wait as long for Lucy to reveal herself.  But she hasn’t yet.

the commencement address I should have given

•24 July 2017 • Leave a Comment

Earlier today, I delivered a speech at one of our graduation ceremonies.  The British tend not to refer to them as commencement speeches, but it’s the same sort of thing, namely a mildly rousing, now-you’re-going-forth-into-the-world-and-don’t-forget-us inspirational address to the new graduates.

I didn’t write the speech, and I’m glad of that for reasons I’ll get to in a few paragraphs.  It was a good speech, referencing the university and its mission, highlighting achievements from some of the students, and by all accounts I delivered it fairly well.

But had I been given the opportunity, and more importantly had I been willing to seize the opportunity, offered or not, there is a different speech I should have given.  I’ve always been captivated by the non-Vonnegut non-commencement address, because it sings to me.  I was tempted, I’ll admit, to forget the speech I gave earlier today (with all apologies to its author) and give the non-Vonnegut non-commencement address, but I didn’t, perhaps to my eternal regret.

But it did start me thinking.  What things would I try and blend into a commencement address?  What sorts of messages and lessons would I want to pass on, even if to a group of students and parents who at this point in the ceremony are looking forward to celebrating, rather than sitting and listening.  And there are a lot of things I would want to bring in.

I’ve always been taken by The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer.  I chose to give it as a reading when my sister got married and it’s something I find myself coming back to regularly.

Somewhat weirdly, I’ve always been fascinated by the four enemies of the [person] of knowledge  by Carlos Castenada.  I read the Teachings of Don Juan at a young and impressionable age, and this one part in particular has never left me.  Though I’ve not explored this in any depth, I’m sure there are connections between this and the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, and with many Buddhist teachings.  Something to add to the list of things to do in retirement.

There are other things as well.  I’ve been collecting sayings and aphorisms and bits and pieces for years, which I go back and read through from time to time, and there is a lot in that list that is valuable and interesting and perhaps sufficiently worthwhile to subject others to.

I’m not sure what the perfect commencement address would be.  I suspect that it could only occur at some strange temporal and spatial intersection between me and my state at that moment, my audience, the phases of the moon and the sun, and many other things besides.   And I can only hope that some day in the not too distant future, I find myself at that intersection point, written and ready.


the origins of a quest for the scientifically accurate disaster movie 1

•22 July 2017 • 2 Comments

Following on from the Kora borehole and fiction, and looking back on some of the (many) half finished stories littering (both literally and figuratively) my desk, I have realized that there is a quest awaiting me that I have yet to take up.  I want to create a scientifically literate and scientifically accurate, large scale, end of the world but not quite, disaster movie.

As I’ve already noted elsewhere, I am a fan of the outrageously and grotesquely bad disaster movie, from the heartwarming and endearing Crack in the World to the spectacularly bad The Core, from the asteroid tag team of Armageddon and Deep Impact to the mutating neutrinos of The Day After Tomorrow and the Earth-crust displacement theory of 2012 and many many many more besides.  And yes, I am both happy and sad that UK Netflix does not carry Category 6: Day of Destruction, lest I become more familiar with the intricacies of its plot than I am already.

Many, though not all, of these movies share the feature that as in Exploding Sun, the Earth undergoes large scale destruction caused by the central conceit of the disaster scenario, but miraculously all seems to be fine in the end, as though the bad thing we’re just spent the past couple of hours watching hadn’t happened.

But this is something that in a 2 or 3 hour movie, I’m willing to overlook.  Yes, I do admit that I would find the mechanics and politics of salvaging a world from the brink of disaster, with the seas evaporated and the heat budget of the Earth swung massively out of anything approaching the usual, to be a fascinating topic but I suspect it’s better book than movie.

But beyond ignoring the geopolitics of disaster prevention, disaster mitigation and disaster recovery, there is the lurking and subtle issue that in many of these movies, the science underlying the disaster does not lie within the bounds of science as we currently understand it.  In fact, the science as given in these movies lies beyond the bounds of what might be considered reasonable poetic license.

Needless to say, this is not an observation that is original to me.  But it is one thing to say, the science of disaster movies is remarkably non-scientific.  But it is another thing to say, here is a spectacularly accurate portrayal of science in a disaster movie to keep the audience awake at night.   But let’s start thinking, just what might such a movie look like?

Perhaps such a movie already exists.  Perhaps such a movie is impossible, since either the scale of the disaster would be such that nothing would survive or it would make much better book than movie.  Perhaps I have just spent my time watching the wrong end of the disaster movie spectrum. Perhaps, to quote the old apocryphal referee report that no one wants to get, perhaps such a movie would fill a much needed gap in the literature.    Or perhaps there is a niche to fill here.


the Kora borehole and fiction

•25 June 2017 • 2 Comments

The Kora superdeep borehole is the stuff of the disasterously bad disaster movies that I so love to watch.  Between 1970 and 1989, Soviet scientists decided to see how deep they could drill into the Earth.  In the end, they created a hole 12,262 metres deep and 23 cm in diameter.

I’m sure there’s a movie, either made or in production or tucked away in someone’s drawer, lost to the world, about the reckless older scientist who demands to keep drilling for the advancement of his own research; the young acolyte who realizes his mentor is indeed reckless and that disaster is about to befall the planet and tries to stop him; and the Earth-ending disaster that is only narrowly averted by heroic actions and a change of heart from the older scientist.

But that movie is something for another day.  The reason I’ve brought it up is that the Kora borehole reminds me of something else as well: the difficulties of drilling deep.  I don’t know what problems the drilling team encountered during their 20 year project, but I’m sure there were some.

So how does this relate to fiction?  I have stories that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to write.  I have stories and scenes and the outlines of ideas that come from the dark corners of my imagination.  And one of the things I’ve learned is that my imagination has some dark corners indeed.

So what can I do with these dark stories?   There is a part of me that doesn’t want to write them down, to take them from being unformed figments of my imagination to the reality of being words on paper.  There is a part of me, I’ll admit, that doesn’t want to admit that my imagination can be as dark as my imagination has demonstrated it can be.  And I’m not entirely sure of what to do.

But I suspect I know what will happen.  I will at some point write them down, and I might then try to find a place to send them.   I suspect that I am not alone in this exploration of the dark corners of imagination, and I suspect that with a bit of poking around, I’ll be able to find a group with whom I can share these stories.  And we’ll just have to go from there.

the powers of words 1: if

•18 June 2017 • 1 Comment

I like words.  I’ve always liked words, and I am in no way unique in liking words.  But there are some words that I spend more time and attention on than other words.  One of these is IF, my favourite 2 letter word.

I think that IF is an exceptionally powerful word.  Perhaps this comes from my life as a mathematician, wherein we regularly use IF to create worlds and entire alternate universes.  IF my situation satisfies these assumptions, THEN I can do all of the following things, and this is a very common sort of mathematical statement. 

We do of course have to be careful.  When we start with a statement that is false, that is when we start with IF (and then something false), then we can do anything.  And this is where mathematics and fiction part ways.   In mathematics, we use IF to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow path.  We start with IF (and then something true), we see explore the places to which we can get, starting from there.
In fiction, though, I think it’s different.  IF is still a remarkably powerful word, but we no longer need to tie it to truth.  Rather, we need only tie it to something sufficiently plausible to be the point from which we start the story.  Perhaps our IFs are true, perhaps not.  Perhaps there is faster than light travel and warp drive and wormhole travel, and we can enjoy these stories. 

I don’t keep a list of my favourite IFs, my favourite sufficiently plausible beginnings, but science fiction is rife with them.  Very little of what we read and what we write, or try and write, can begin without some IF at its core, some assumption of the world being different than it currently is, that allows the story begin.  

There are some spectacular IFs out there.  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the notion of the beast within.  Frankenstein and the birth of the mad scientist, as though electricity might be enough to break the power of death over life.  The Borg, which I have to admit is one of my favourite IFs, the group mind that continues to assimilate and grow.  IF there is a set of rules of behaviour to which we all bind ourselves, what consequences might flow.  

And thinking about IF, I have a quest, and it’s an unfortunate quest.  I want to develop the IF that captures the imagination of others.  The IF that creates new worlds that others want to explore.  

The reason it’s unfortunate is that the hurdle is high.  What might capture the imagination with so many others trying the same thing.  But what else is there to do.  And so, we step away from the blog and we see what worlds we can create.

another old lesson come back to haunt me

•2 June 2017 • Leave a Comment

Years and years ago now, when I was a relatively new lecturer, I attended a course of teaching large lectures.  As a mathematics lecturer, I teach many large lectures and so I attended, and there is one thing I remember from that course.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember who taught the session and that is something about which I feel sad.

The person giving the session started with a simple exercise.  As quick as you can, he asked us, list the months of the year, and though I don’t remember, we as a group most likely then mumbled January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December under our breaths and a low murmur filled the room.  Probably.  I just timed myself, and it took me just under 5 seconds.

Next, he said, list the months of the year, but in alphabetical order.  This takes longer.  And I still tend to forget August, which is now second instead of eighth, even though I’ve done this more than once.

The point he was making is that just because we know something, in this case the months of the year, we aren’t necessarily able to use that thing we know, in any way we want to use it.  There are constraints and restrictions on the things we know, on the knowledge we hold in our heads, and we are not able to use that knowledge in any way we wish.

When I’m teaching, I tell this story, and I tell it because I think this basic lesson is an important and useful and incredibly helpful lesson.  Just because we have a piece of knowledge, a collection of fact in our head, doesn’t mean that we have control over that knowledge, over those facts.

And so I would ask, give it a try.  I don’t think you need to time yourself listing the months of the year in their usual chronological order.  The 5 seconds I give above is probably not out of line.  But time yourself listing them in alphabetical order, and see how things go. And then I invite you to think about this basic lesson, and as you go through your days, to see just how often this basic lesson turns out to be useful.  Because I think it’s rather nifty.