Dumb Things I Have Done Lately

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Zombies vs. Bean Counters -- Guess Who Wins?

[The third in a series of entries looking at the modern zombie. See why zombies are the perfect enemy for our time and why you shouldn't try to overanalyze zombies -- like I'm going to do here.]

Crunching the Numbers on Zombie Cracking
For the bulk of World War Z, the world is in the throes of a full-fledged, Class 4 zombie apocalypse scenario, where zombies roam the Earth and humanity is under constant assault, hunkered down in a few safe zones. It's essentially a static siege situation.

Now, in the Max Brooks books, zombies freeze solid in the winter (though they thaw in the spring with no ill effects). Additionally, winters are harsher and longer, lasting 8 months out of the year due to a "nuclear autumn" effect, where soot and particulates from burning cities and limited nuclear exchanges block sunlight, causing global cooling. (Where "spring's like winter used to be," p. 320)

It's also established that inhabitants of besieged outposts wait for the zombies to freeze solid, then raid the surrounding areas for supplies to get them through the rest of the year. (p. 190)

Now, ex-infantryman Todd Wainio talks about the liberation of Detroit, where they faced a zombie "moat" of over 1 million zombies (also known by the nickname "Zack," a callback to Vietnam's "Charlie") surrounding the twin forts of Comerica Park and Ford Field (p. 321)

Here's the problem. You're surrounded by a million zombies (who have to pretty much be wall-to-wall: see below). Winter starts, and they freeze solid. So those people who aren't out foraging take their trusty crowbars and start cracking zombie skulls (example, p. 130). So the question then becomes:
How many zacks could a zack-cracker crack if a zack-cracker could crack zacks?
Let's start conservatively: 1 zombie per minute. (I'd originally gone with 2 per minute, but we'll take into account snow, fatigue, illness, travel time, etc. 1 skull cracked per minute is a good start.)

That's 60 zombies per hour. Assuming 8 hours of workable daylight, with rest periods and such, call it just 4 hours a day of actual crowbar-swinging time. That's 240 zombies per person, per day.

With zombies frozen 8 months out of the year, call zombie season 240 days out of the year.

That means, each individual frozen zombie skull-cracker could account for 57,600 zombies per year.

Which means that, in theory, 20 people dedicated solely to zombie-bashing (and not worrying about disposal, maintenance, or anything else) could crack over 1 million zombie-skulls in a single year.

Assuming the "forts" sheltered a few hundred people, there's still plenty of additional zombie-busting capacity if people can't get close to their theoretical maximums.

And that's just by hand.

For More Fun, Just Add Guns

The book also talks about the Battle of Hope (New Mexico) where the military, using massed lines of infantry and a one-shot, one-kill philosophy, fights and wins their first major engagement to retake zombie-occupied America (everything east of the Rockies) -- (p. 273, my favorite part of the book).

The soldiers line up shoulder-to-shoulder in two ranks for uninterrupted firing (one shoots while the other reloads), shooting at a rate of one shot per second in a deliberate attempt to keep a mechanical pace and "Out-G the G." (This is actually a nice David Hackworth reference, though for Hackworth, the G stood for guerrillas in Vietnam, not ghouls. As far as we know.)

Since Brooks' zombies are slow zombies, they'd be converging on the defensive position, slouching and shambling almost shoulder-to-shoulder. 1 primary/secondary shooter pair, killing one zombie per second, gives you 60 zombies per minute (assume just slightly less, since shooters have to switch position every 30 shots or whatever the magazine capacity is); or 3,600 zombies per hour. (In reality, no one could keep up that rate of fire for an extended time -- you'd burn out the barrel of your rifle.)

If you assume a constant rate of killing (at the Battle of Hope, the pace slows down as zombies start piling up), you just need 278 shooter-pair-hours to kill a massed bunch of 1,000,000 zombies. Which means that 556 shooters (and their supporting personnel) could theoretically pulp 1,000,000 zombies in an hour.

(The bloodiest human battles, like the Somme or Antietam, don't even begin to approach these numbers -- if you look at the number of killed, not wounded. Zombies always walk -- upright and slowly, they don't dodge, they don't take cover and they don't shoot back. However, they won't stop for anything but a headshot.)

The timeline extends since you have to allow plenty of time for the zombies to walk into firing range, which is a good thing, since you need to rotate shooters to give plenty of rest breaks and allow time to switch out weapons and replace barrels.

Basically, if the humans are able to pick their battle; if they're set up in a good, well-defended position; have enough supplies and enough backup shooters; and nobody panics, it's a foregone conclusion. (Oddly, in the Battle of Hope, they rely on firepower alone, with no barricades, elevated firing platforms, earthworks or trenches to slow down the zombies -- though eventually the massed zombie corpses form their own barricade. This would seem to ignore the lessons of the Battle of Yonkers, where insufficient or irrelevant force protection measures contributed to the debacle).

Wisely, the book also doesn't specify the size of either the human force or the number of zombies killed.

Back to Detroit -- the Summer Scenario (Also with Guns)
So we're back to the Siege of Detroit. It's the summer and there are a million zombies shambling around the streets. Think the Dawn of the Dead remake, where the mall is completely surrounded by a sea of zombies.

This is actually a little problematic -- looking at the satellite map, Comerica Park and Ford Field are in the middle of the city:

There's some open space, but it's not like, say, FedEx field, surrounded by parking lots:

Assuming each zombie requires about 3 square feet of standing room, that's 3 million square feet of zombie; it's a square about a third of a mile on a side, or about 69 acres total.

Anyway, forget that for now. As long as the defenses are good and the zombies can't get in, you can airdrop rifles, a crapload of ammo, and a Special Forces instructor to train shooters, then thin out the zombies at your leisure until winter comes and you can start cracking skulls.

At more realistic rates of fire -- a zombie headshot every 10 seconds, or 6 aimed shots a minute -- that's 360 zombies per hour, or 2,880 zombies per 8-hour day (again, we'll assume two-man teams -- one person shoots while the other rests and reloads), that's 347 shooter-pair-days to kill a million zombies.

If you figure Brooks's zombies are unfrozen 120 days out of the year, 4 shooter teams -- 8 shooters, plus support -- firing constantly, 8 hours a day, every day, could break the siege in a single year (as long as they could keep the ammo supply coming and rifles functioning).

(Also, 6 aimed shots per minute is extremely conservative, considering that a Civil War soldier with a muzzleloading black powder musket could fire 2-3 aimed shots a minute.)

Air Supply
As for the ammo required in the zombie shoot -- figure 30 lbs for a case of 1,000 rounds of 5.56mm ammo. A million rounds is 1,000 cases, or 30,000 lbs, well within the capacity of a C-130 Hercules. Making allowances for the weight of the different parachute delivery systems (I'm not an expert -- whatever would be appropriate for a small landing zone; low speed, low altitude would be okay -- it's not like zombies have anti-aircraft capability), you wouldn't need too many sorties, and the book establishes that the U.S. still has a most of its airlift capacity (p. 170).

It would seem to be an efficient way to help thin out the zombie population. After all, each zombie killed at a static defense spot is one less the army has to deal with, and that's why safe zones were left in occupied territory in the first place -- to serve as bait (p. 109).

So What's the Point of All This?
That's a very good question. Basically, it shows that, as enumerated in the book, once the situation stabilizes after the Great Panic, the zombie threat is best seen as a logistical problem -- an exercise in pest control.

Sure, you can rationalize it by saying that even my conservative zombie disposal numbers are too high, due to lack of ammo, too much snow, other factors (feral animals and people, disease, etc.) , etc. It's primarily a thought experiment -- one that shows that I've spent way too much time with what's my favorite book right now.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Caught Up in the Halo Hype (The Last One Standing)

Up until now, I've managed to avoid most of the hype around Halo 3 (which should be out... right about now). I'm not much of a gamer -- I have an Xbox (Zero60), and I completed the first Halo (though only on Heroic, not on Legendary), but that's it. I don't even have Xbox Live.

Then, last week, I caught this clip of the Halo theme done on Mario Paint:

It started with that. Now, with all the commercials and the hype, I can't get the Halo theme out of my head.

It Gets Better
Then, today, saw this Halo promo short film on the Discovery Web site: Halo: Last One Standing, which is evidently part 3 of a series set right before the events of Halo 3, with effects done by WETA (the SFX company that did Lord of the Rings, not the public broadcaster).

It also evidently kicks seven types of ass.

Just as an example, there's a scene about halfway through, where a Marine gets jumped by a Brute, tries to scramble away and gets pulped by the Brute and his Gravity Hammer. It's chilling and brutal:

Note the blood spot where the unfortunate Marine got Hank Aaroned into the wall. At least he died with his pistol in his hand.

If the Halo movie looks anything like this short, it's going to rock.

However, in the spirit of sucking out the fun of sci-fi by overanalyzing it, I do want to point out two things that don't make sense:

1. Early on, a Marine grabs a Brute Spike Grenade that's sticking into the wall next to him about to explode, and hurls it into the air, blowing up a Covenant Banshee that's streaking by:

The Banshee he's going to frag is off-screen.

It looks really cool, but leaving aside the fact that it's ludicrous (unless he was just trying to get rid of the grenade and simply got improbably lucky), it's way too short of a throw. The grenade, which is about 2/3rds the length of a baseball bat, barely completes a full rotation and doesn't diminish appreciably in the distance before it hits the conveniently-passing Banshee. For the Banshee to be that close, it would have to be a whole lot bigger.

Yes, I know they applied artistic license to fit everything in frame, but you're already having a guy shoot down the equivalent of, say, an A-10 ground-attack jet by chucking a hand grenade at it -- we're already stretching credulity pretty far.

(Now, if you have the Master Chief do it; sure, why not -- he's a cyborg. But you still have to fix the perspective problem.)

2. The apparent plot of the short is that the Marines need to figure out where the Master Chief is going to land by painting him with a laser designator:

According to the dialog, "Search & Rescue teams are awaiting coordinates," and "That's it, we got it; recovery team has his coordinates."

Of course, needing a guy on the ground to paint a re-entry vehicle makes absolutely no sense. To make sure the guy was within visual range, you'd need to put in him the general vicinity of the landing (and if you knew that, you wouldn't need the guy).

And it's re-entering the atmosphere -- it's not something you can hide. Once they spot it on radar/lidar (or just look out the window of that hovering Pelican dropship and follow the smoke trail), they'll know where it's going to land (the guy on the ground wasn't marking it all the way down, so it's not maneuvering -- it's on a ballistic trajectory).

I suppose it could have been explained away as some back-assward way to do IFF interrogation,if they were trying to sneak the Master Chief's re-entry vehicle in among a cloud of decoys, but the dialog and on-screen action don't indicate this (and there's that whole "guy on ground" problem again).

Anyway, this is an awfully long entry for someone who ostensibly isn't interested in the Halo 3 launch, so I'll just say I hope the movie is good, whenever it comes out.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Zombies: Don't Look Too Close (Or, The Less You Know, the Better)

[Second of a few entries on the modern zombie. See my previous entry about why zombies are the perfect enemy for our time.]

My radioactively-reanimated zombie costume from last Halloween.

When fans are faced with the temptation to overanalyze, quantify, and contextualize fictional elements to see how they would "work" in the real world, the best advice comes from some philosophers who said:

"Just repeat to yourself, 'It's just a show, I should really just relax.'"

On the flip side of this, creators of fictional worlds should resist the temptation to explain too much, because the more complicated things get, the more potential inconsistencies you introduce. And when you go to the well too often (generally to fill screen time), you run the risk of watering down your creations, or otherwise make them look silly.

Two prime examples of this: The Borg were great as inexorable, unstoppable, relentless future cyborg zombie-surrogates, but when they started being the go-to Villain of the Week on Star Trek, when they started getting bogged down by nanoprobes and unimatrices and technobabble, and because they kept getting beaten, they stopped being really scary (thanks a lot, Voyager).

As to explanations making you look silly, one word: Midichlorians.

Zombies Don't Much Care for the Laws of Thermodynamics

The world of Max Brooks' zombies (in the Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z) is especially susceptible to all this, because it's written in documentary-style and aspires to something approaching reality. And the closer you look at the pseudoscience of zombies, the sillier it gets.

For example: The zombie virus ("Solanum") is bloodborne and 100% communicable at even the most minute levels ["...even one organism is enough to begin the cycle", ZSG. p. 4]. It's also 100% effective (that is, you're guaranteed to be killed and reanimated as a zombie -- additionally, if you eat zombie-virus infected flesh, it's 100% lethal, though at least you die and stay dead).

Because it's so transmissible, the entire human population would probably be zombified simply due to mosquito bites. To prevent this, in Brooks' world, parasites which might otherwise act as disease vectors instinctively "know" not to attack the infected.

Forget sniffer dogs to screen refugees -- you could check people by having them stick their arms in boxes of mosquitoes.

(Incidentally, the Zombie Survival Guide mentions that there are no documented cases of people having sex with a zombie, so it's left unclear as to whether the zombie virus can be sexually transmitted. It's likewise unclear if an infected carrier can spread the virus via sexual intercourse, though the other dictates of the universe suggest so.)

As to the rest of it: To his credit, Brooks' characters readily admit they don't know why zombies are able to do what they do. Brooks' zombies resist bacteria, so they don't really decay -- they abrade. They freeze solid in winter, but revive when thawed. They're immune to high pressures at the bottom of the ocean. They eat freshly-killed flesh, but they don't get sustenance from it -- they just do it because they are jerks.

Given that last bit, Brooks' zombies also don't care much for the laws of physics, since they are perpetual motion machines -- they produce work without requiring fuel. Put them on one of these power-generating walkways, and you have cheap, sustainable, non-greenhouse-gas-emitting undead energy.

The Point of All This?

As with many elements in popular fiction (especially science fiction), so to with zombies: It's best not to ask too many questions -- just suspend disbelief, and no matter how implausible the plot mechanisms might be, as long as they're internally consistent, you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

(I'll save the Reaver implausibility discussion for some other time.)

Next time: Crunching the Zombie numbers.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

9/13/99: Never Forget - Moonbase Alpha

Reminder: September 13 marks the anniversary of the Moonbase Alpha disaster, when a nuclear chain reaction knocked the moon out of orbit and into deep space:

9/13/99 Never Forget Picture

Never Forget:
Space: 1999 9/13/99 Never Forget Animated Badge

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Note to Self on Time-Shifting, Appointment TV and Self-Control

Dear Dumbass,

With the abundance of TV time-shifting technologies available to you, both digital (which you, inexplicably, don't have) and analog (which you do), and given that the entire series is now available on DVD, I put forth that, just because SpikeTV shows Star Trek: Deep Space 9 reruns, does not mean you need to watch them at that particular moment in time.

Especially if those particular moments are between 2 and 3 AM.

Even if they just started in on Season 4, which is a full season after when the show really hit its stride, Worf joins the cast, and the Dominion War draws near.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Logon's Run, or A Long Way to Go for a Stupid Sci-Fi Joke

Sample Web registration form in the world of Logan's Run:

Birth Date:

Why yes, I am still very punchy right now.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

9/13/99: Never Forget

Sept. 13, 1999: Never Forget

September 13, 2006 marks the anniversary of the tragic events at Moonbase Alpha, where all 311 of the base's inhabitants were lost and presumed killed after terrorists set off a thermonuclear chain reaction on the moon's Nuclear Waste Disposal Area 2.

The resulting catastrophic explosion blasted the Moon out of Earth orbit and into deep space (an event that has been seared into our collective consciousness through repeated viewings of footage from Alpha's internal cameras):

It seems hard to believe, but only 7 years after the Moon was stripped from the sky, the events of Sept. 13, 1999 seem distant and remote -- as if they had happened 30 years ago, not 7.

To commemorate this horrific event, and to honor its victims, I've created some graphics to show our resolve and prove to those who would harm us that we will NEVER FORGET:

We Will Never Forget Moonbase Alpha

Similarly, we must always remember the heroism of the Eagle Transport pilots and crew as they tried to rescue the trapped Alphans:

Let the Mighty Eagles Soar

May the victims of the Moonbase Alpha attacks always be remembered:

God Bless Moonbase Alpha

Spread the word with graphic badges:

Space 1999 Memorial Gif: 9/13/99

Space 1999 Memorial Gif: 9/13/99

Space 1999 Memorial Gif: 9/13/99

9/13/99: Never Forget.


Okay, so I liked Space: 1999 as a kid. I had some of the toys -- an Eagle transport (not the big one... though I wanted it), the playset (with action figures), the Colorforms, and a jigsaw puzzle. But I'm not a diehard fan. I don't participate in any of the online fan forums. And I especially never thought I'd be doing up tribute graphics for the "anniversary" of a fictional event from a 70s TV show.

So why do it?

I blame YouTube, and two blog entries that were floating around the geekosphere last month: The best and worst sci-fi openings of all time.

I didn't geek out about the lists then and I won't now (other than to say that the Blake's 7 opening and closing themes should have been on the best list).

Not only did the Space: 1999 theme song bring back memories, but it rocks. It still kicks ass (listen to that bass line! the wailing guitars! the orchestral break!) -- and it's aged really well (unlike, say, the Star Blazers theme, which, though still epic, is a lot more like a show tune than I remembered).

Anyway, when I was watching the Space: 1999 opening credits, I zeroed in on the "September 13, 1999" title cards.

Obviously, because of the Sept. 11 anniversary, we've been seeing a lot of remembrances and memorials on the Web, including graphic tributes of genuine sincerity (but varying quality) with crying eagles and "Never forget" and such.

I think it was the eagles that did it for me. Eagles and the Eagle Transporter. I guess you had to be there.

Anyway, I'm not trying to make fun of anyone's 9/11 memorial graphics -- I guess I just kind of overloaded on them over the past week. So that's why all this "Never Forget: 9/13/99" silliness.

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