20 August 2009

Zombie Attacks

OK, yes, I have read the paper constructing mathematical models of an outbreak of zombie infection (as described in Wired and many other places.

The problem with it is that it's stupid. It's not stupid because it's a stupid idea, or a waste of time, or the wrong approach, or anything like that, it's just done really badly.

Basically, the authors make some simple assumptions about the rate at which the dead rise from graves, the rate at which they turn humans into zombies, and the rate at which humans kill them, and show that in any outbreak the zombies will kill everyone. They add a few slightly more subtle tweaks, and show that the zombies will still kill everyone.

Their conclusions rest entirely on one assumption that they make at the beginning and never defend, which is that dead people turn into zombies without any provocation, at a rate proportional to the number of dead people. That is, the number of new zombies rising in a given night is proportional to the number of people who have ever died (and not already risen). Even if you kill a zombie, it just goes back to being a dead person and will rise again in due course (proportional to the model parameter ζ).

Well, duh. Obviously in those circumstances the human race will be replaced by zombies. It really doesn't take a lot of mathematics to work that out.

The problem is that this falsifies their claim to a serious conclusion:

... While the scenarios considered are obviously not realistic, it is nevertheless instructive to develop mathematical models for an unusual outbreak. This demonstrates the flexibility of mathematical modelling and shows how modelling can respond to a wide variety of challenges in 'biology'.

I could believe that if they had shown that the modelling showed how different outcomes related to different assumptions. But that they published this without identifying the key assumption that produced their "zombie takeover" conclusion — the assumption that there is no way, natural or technological, from preventing any corpse from eventually becoming a zombie, contrary to pretty much all authorities as well as common sense — the only conclusion is that the mathematical model distracted them from thinking properly about the scenarios.

There's just no point doing this sort of thing unless you take it seriously.

Update: Wrote my own improved model

09 August 2009

The Rights of the Mob

Previously on Anomaly UK, I have discussed Rights and the relationship between rights and Mob Violence

I am brought back to these subjects by a programme I happened to catch last night on BBC4, about the Miners' Strike.

The point I had previously missed, but has to be taken into account, is that a mob of protesters is generally recognised to have additional rights beyond those that exist in law.

From a legalistic viewpoint, the violent clashes of 1984 were very clear. The government has the duty of keeping the roads open - that has been the case for as long as there have been governments and roads. If a group illegally blocks the road, they must be removed, without more force than necessary, but with as much force as is necessary. If that means charges of mounted police, then send in the horses. If it means tanks, send in tanks. If it means machine-guns, load them up. It is out of the question that the law can be openly defied by violence.

Clearly, that's not the situation - nobody saw it that way. The horses were controversial, tanks and guns would have been out of the question, while giving up and allowing the strikers to block the road was a real possibility. Nor was the restraint on the government's actions some irrational daintiness on the part of Lady Thatcher - to have employed sufficient force to make victory in the field certain would have torn the country apart. The Police and Army would have run real risk of mutiny, workers in other industries would have sided with the miners - these were real dangers which put the outcome of the overall dispute in doubt.

Any model of where real power lies in the country, such as I have been attempting to create, is incomplete unless it can explain what rights a mob is understood to have, to form and to break the law without facing any greater force than lightly-armed police.

The limitation of the power of the state is simply that it can't shoot everybody - it requires a level of voluntary cooperation from the population in general in order to function. But that only pushes the question back - why would rolling armoured cars through picket lines have forfeited that cooperation? It breaks some unwritten rules, but where did they come from?

I wrote in the context of more recent disturbances that rights are acquired by violent precedent - that if a group has won a conflict in the past, they will be assumed to win again, so that conflict is avoided. But that does not cover the case - what is the precedent for the use of military levels of violence against mobs in England not being successful? The chief candidate that comes to mind is the Peterloo Massacre, but that was not really unsuccessful, in that a revolt was averted. 1972's Bloody Sunday would seem more relevant, being both recent and a case where lethal force used by the government did backfire politically, but I get the feeling that at the time Northern Ireland was seen as more of a special case, being at that time a conflict between two groups in the population rather than one group against the government.

My impression is that Peterloo is the key precedent, and the reason it counts as a defeat for the government is because the British regime in its entirety - from the TUC to Margaret Thatcher herself - is descended not from the government of 1819 but from the protesters of 1819. They won in the end and the measures that the ancien regime used against them are now out of bounds.

04 August 2009

Remember 42 days?

Really excellent point at Heresy Corner last month. After all that fuss, for weeks and weeks, about whether the counter-terrorism bill of last year would include the provision for detaining terrorist suspects for 42 days, the subject is now so forgotten that when the minister concerned talks about it, it is not newsworthy.

This is the best demonstration of my recent claim about the limits of voter influence. Because we all knew all along what Heresy Corner proves, that the argument was never about a concrete legal proposal at all. The question was a symbolic one. What was at stake was entirely feeling or impression -- did the government need to show it still wanted to do more for security, or was the whole fluid inspections, photography restrictions, CCTV thing going too far? Should we trust the security services or the civil-liberties lawyers? Would the new powers affect "ordinary people" or just outsiders, and if so was that a bad thing or a good thing?

The technical questions about arrest, and evidence-gathering capabilities before and after charge, PACE, legal discovery and so on were far too complex to be part of the debate, even with the enormous coverage the issue got. The questions of what it meant for the authority of Gordon Brown, the status of members of his cabinet, the future positions to be taken by the Conservatives, and the momentum of political sentiment in the public were much more tractable. The end result was the government lost. That was what it was all about, and the details of criminal procedure being no more relevant now than they were then, there is nothing more to be said.

Celebrity and Politics

So, Esther Rantzen has confirmed that she will by standing at the next election, in spite of my entreaties.

I do not think she will win, but she may be a harbinger of what is to come. I have suspected for a while that media figures are capable of moving into politics very successfully, through the more normal mechanism of joining major parties rather than running as independents. In the long run, the question is not so much whether celebrities will be able to win seats in parliament, as why they would want to.

It is necessary to understand what an MP is. Technically, MPs are legislators, who vote in parliament on bills and motions. However, that is now a ceremonial role, with no effect on the government or the country. The position of MP is an apprenticeship to the ministers or shadow ministers. In the same way that apprentice footballers have the irrelevant job of cleaning boots to keep them in their place and instill obedience, MPs have the irrelevant job of turning up for votes in accordance with the whips' orders. (They also have the even more irrelevant job of acting as a kind of Citizens' Advice Bureau for their constituents, but I'm not sure whether that's to give them practice running an office, or for some other nefarious end.)

Therefore being an MP is, in itself, no more desirable a prize than being a football club boot-cleaner. OK, it is rather better paid, but that's not much of a pull for the average TV star. It doesn't even provide much publicity - does anyone remember hearing much about, say, Gyles Brandreth during his time in the House?

The position of MP is only meaningful as a step towards the front bench, just as a football apprentice is only in it for his chance at the first team.

The advantage that a celebrity has is recognition. But while recognition is an advantage while rising in a political career, it is a handicap as the top approaches. When it comes to a party leadership contest, the most important factor is actual power - Gordon Brown was able to succeed Blair because he was already powerful. But after that the biggest advantage is not being disliked. In a leader-of-the-opposition contest, the ideal is for the general public not to know anything about you at all. That worked for Cameron, Duncan-Smith, Hague, and Blair. (Howard was an exception, but he was never intended or expected to win a general election).

Therefore, if a soap star or newsreader wanted to succeed in politics, they could probably get selected as a candidate, probably get into parliament, would probably be able to rise quite rapidly to a junior government role - PPS, or Minister of State, but would find it quite difficult to reach a major cabinet position, because of all the people who didn't like them.

We see glimmers of the future in Brown's elevation of Alan Sugar. Not being an MP, Sugar is out of the main political career path, but if his entrance had been a bit more planned he could have got a seat in the Commons and been better situated for a less temporary role. He would have gained his current position in his first parliament, but the odds would not be in his favour for further promotions.

The celebrities with the greatest advantage would be those whose public roles gave them credibility on political issues; the interviewers, newsreaders, and pundits. Robert Peston, say. Or more lightweight figures like Nicky Campbell, or Rantzen twenty years ago rather than now.

I suspect the step has been slowed by the reluctance of party grandees to admit potential rivals with such inbuilt advantages. In today's environment, however, the potential candidate only needs to announce his intention, and the onus is on the party to explain why they are refusing him.

The key question, as I said, is whether celebrities would want to abandon their media careers for politics. Most wouldn't, at the moment. We have seen that those that did, like Martin Bell and Robert Kilroy-Silk, set their expectations too high.

But once a few more oddities have blazed the path, the game changes, because ambitious young things with eyes on the greasy pole will see media as the career path to the cabinet - not in one explosive burst but by working through the ranks just a bit quicker than the normal rate. Rather than hanging around the think tanks and party research offices, they'll be driving with all their ambition into the local TV studios, working the system with whatever influence they have at their disposal to get them the foothold of popular visibility, so that they can then switch to party politics with a head start over their anonymous rivals. Rising stars will be guided by their political mentors through tame TV or newspaper departments. The end result is that the two sectors just merge into one. Media figures will expand their reach from the political areas they currently own (such as the London Mayoralty) to those which are currently held against them by the party machines. Shifts from media to politics and back, like Kilroy-Silk's will become commonplace.

What's most important is not the effect on politics, but the effect on media. That is always the way - politics stays the same, but what it touches gets polluted. The Robert Pestons and Jeremy Paxmans (Paxmen?) of the future will not be doing their jobs because that is what they set out to do - they will be doing their jobs to get the public reputation that will put them in high government office. The detrimental effect on the media will be equivalent to the detrimental effect on Parliament of making an MP job nothing more than a stepping-stone. The lines have been blurring for some time.