Friday, January 23, 2015

Zombie Refritos

I hate zombies. I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer, so it's in my job description to think about these things. I don't mind them in a fantasy setting - I particularly like the draugr of Skyrim...but when the concept tried to enter the realm of science fiction...meh.

First of all, the zombies of the zombie apocalypse are frightfully boring. Always a product of a strange new disease, an engineered virus, always behaving in the same goddamned way. In groups, stumbling around, trying to kill everything that moves. They do work effectively as a metaphor for the consuming, dominating nature of contemporary American society, but that's a one-shot thing. Attack on Titan uses a similar metaphor for the giants who consume humanity, only, notice that there are no knockoffs to that series. It works once. After that, just another gimmick.

They'd be so much more interesting in a science fiction apocalypse story if they were mutated into something more sensible. The head-crab zombies of Half-Life 2 are the perfect riff off of the concept. They make zombies comprehensible in the Half-Life universe. Excellent storytelling. If you haven't played Half-Life 2, you need to get the game and experience Gordon Freeman's journey. I'm such a fan, guess who's in my home-screen background image on my phone: the G-Man.

Imitation is flattery. I chose to emulate Marc Laidlaw and the other developers at Valve in my exploration of the zombie apocalypse, the short story "Retirement Age." You can buy it here:  Much more interesting to think about the technology that could create classic zombies, who would use it, and the purposes to which they would put it.

First, there is only one technology that could hold the "promise" of creating undead creatures, nanotechnology. Diseases, even artificial ones, have a patient zero. Modern medicine understands the spread of disease. There's an entire branch of medicine focused just on this one thing, it's so important to the health of humanity. Epidemiology. Look at the smackdown the epidemiologists of the CDC - yeah, there's an entire federal agency devoted to this one thing - gave to SARS, are currently giving to Ebola, because they understand how biological entities cause disease. They understand the patterns. Blood-borne diseases find it especially hard to spread. We didn't all die of AIDS and rabies, did we? Rabies is a ferocious disease, by the way. Spread by contact with blood and body fluids, in its end stage it causes infected mammals, including humans, to become raging beasts bent on attacking and biting anything that moves. Kinda like zombies. Has the world fallen to hordes of rabies monsters? Nope. "See that man over there, foaming at the mouth and trying to bite everyone? Shoot him." Also, rabies victims loose the ability to eat or even drink, their bodies wear out after a few days, their brains eaten up from the inside, they die...for real. Nothing in nature can prevent a dead body from rotting away. If there ever were a zombie outbreak, their bodies would be eaten by dogs and pecked away into nothing by birds, rotted into the soil by bacteria. You gotta bend molecules, reshape the human body to keep it moving after death. You need micromachines.

We can't yet build spooky shit like that. If someone could, they couldn't be from the Earth. ET hates us. But why not bombard the Earth with asteroids? That'd kill us real good. The only thing is, our nice, juicy biosphere, the global ecosystem within which we live, that's unique. Even if life were everywhere in the galaxy, none of it would look like life on Earth. You're aliens, you hate us because we're a bunch of kill-crazy cave men with nukes and not a lick of sense, but you love the dolphins. You deeply crave the scent of flowers. How to smoke us without destroying the Earth's beautiful, abundant, glorious life? Asteroids out, nukes out, violence is out. We can fight back. Even engineered diseases are out, since we have just enough medical technology to defeat them.

What you need to get the job done is an army of robots programmed to kill only humans, preferably made up of humans. I suppose you could use your gnarly mind-powers to create a kill-crazy religion...only, maybe they've tried that already, didn't work out. Martin Luther was an alien? Mohammad was an alien killbot? Hong Xiuguan a telepathic ET with a grudge? What next? Nanotech. They build nanomachines, distribute them throughout the environment, wait until they reach saturation in the human population, and activate them all at once. There will be freaks with powerful immune systems who can withstand the nanomachines, so convert the infected into killing machines to hunt down the immune. Wait a hundred years - seriously, if you can build sophisticated nanomachines, you can engineer yourself to be immortal - come back, pristine Earth, beautiful biosphere intact, no more killer apes.

Isn't that just a little bit more interesting than an unexplained rampage of dead people? Not counting the draugr, of course. I <3 draugr.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

When giants fight...

The two main ride-share companies are in a brawl. Well, not Lyft, mostly. Uber likes to play hardball. Remember, both these companies embody the Libertarian soul of Silicon Valley. It's an all-against-all hootenanny, where each company's drivers are pitted not only against the opposing company, but each other.

Right now, if you're thinking of driving for either company, you might want to consider that part-time job at Walmart instead. Both companies over-hired for New Year's Eve, which means in most cities there are too many drivers, too few fares. Uber wants to cut up Lyft's drivers by eliminating anyone driving for Uber who also drives for Lyft. They've designed a temporary program of perks to force their drivers into dumping Lyft. Uber also cut fares. Lyft cut fares. The get-rich-quick scheme peddled by both companies is a lie. Those perks Uber is using? If you don't follow the rules TO THE LETTER, you won't be getting that extra buck or two.

How does this make sense? It doesn't for a conventional company concerned about contractor retention and profits. It does for a startup. They don't want to make a profit, they want market-share, which they'll use on venture capitalists to generate more loans and investment. At the root, they don't care about the drivers at all. One of the two is more polite about it than the other one, but at root, yeah...

So why am I still driving? I am at the cusp of old age. The many years I spent as a caregiver, my life's work as a novelist, those aren't pluses when looking for work. I don't care about their games. I'm not in it to get rich quick. I'm in it to pay the rent. That's all. For that purpose, for the desperate, which I guess includes me, it's perfect.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Incidents on the Road

So you want to be a ride-share driver? Here's a common occurrence.

After a fare in the North Valley, a lovely couple who like to drink, and who are great rides. They tip well, too, always a plus. After taking them to their favorite neighborhood bar, I immediately get another ride request. Google leads me to a drunken young woman in the middle of the street. She's too drunk to give me her home address. It was a residential neighborhood. I approached a family out tinkering with a car in their driveway. They had no idea where she had come from. While we were talking, a man came out of the house across the street. He was this woman's boyfriend. He started screaming profanity at her. I stepped in and shouted, "Calm down!" I thought I'd have to punch him if he made a move toward the woman. Can't have that. I wasn't looking forward to it, I'm a hair's breadth away from being an old man. This guy was in his twenties. But I can't have a man beating up on a woman in my presence. Don't go there when I'm around. The father, son, and mom started shouting at the guy. The man cursed them. The dad went thermonuclear. He was going to beat the guy's head in. I stepped up and started screaming, "Everyone calm down!" Something inside me desperately wanted to prevent this family man from going to jail on ag assault charges. The wife grabbed his arm. The man stormed back into the house, the woman following him a moment later. The wife talked to her, tried to get her address before she left. The girl was just too drunk.  They were drunken guests of the woman across the street. She came out and apologized for their behavior.

If you can't do what I did that night, maybe you shouldn't be a ride-share driver. We deal with a lot of drunks. Most of the time, they're like the lovely couple at the start. Sometimes...yeah.

Personal note: I haven't been drunk since the day the first Gulf War ended in 1991. I think you can see the sense of that. I have nothing against stoners, by the way. The most someone high on cannabis has ever done to me: offer me a toke and a bag of chips. If you have to get high, smoke pot, don't drink.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ride-Share to Hell and Back

I'm a ride-share driver. This isn't a rant against the company I work for, since my experiences with them have been uniformly polite, so I won't say which of the three or five ride-share companies in existence is mine.

The first thing you learn, watch your back. The company's not out to get you for the most part, it's your passengers and the street. I work Sundays, and on a recent Sunday morning, I picked up a fellow ride-share driver. He needed transport to the impound lot. He had been carjacked the night before. Some guy walked up to his car while he was waiting for a couple of drunken women to get in, knocked on his window, stuck a big gun in his face, and made off with his car. The police had found his vehicle that morning and had it towed to the impound yard for safekeeping. The street will bite you in the ass.

What would the Birdman have done? I'd call the drunks and tell them that I was putting them on the clock AND I was going to drive around the block until they were read to go. "Call me when you're ready, I'll pick you up. The alternative, I can cancel the ride. You can call back when you're ready to go." Of course, these are my after-the-bars-close-drunks-three-in-the-moring rules. I have a different set of rules for afternoons when I'm picking up my usual fares. Always have a sense of where you are and the possible dangers around you.

Doesn't mean you have to be grumpy about it, though. I'm still cheerful to my passengers, even the drunks. I still have a positive outlook on the job, but my awareness of my surroundings has increased. My awareness was already at a high level - that's just me, a friendly nice, honest guy who has known murderers, grifters, burglars, barroom toughs, and shoplifters. Me, the nice guy, one of my ex-girlfriends was a thief who stole money from the purses of other women, who ripped off furniture to furnish her own apartment. "I'd never steal from you," she said to me once, when we were naked together. I'm honest, it's a karma thing for me. I know death is always close. Act the way the universe, quantum mechanics, M-Theory, Buddha, Jesus, the Tao, and Confucius tell you to act, and you don't have to worry about death. Just another transition. It's also the way I was raised. I honor my parents by my good behavior. But most of you fucks haven't a clue. You'll do anything to anyone to get off, get high, or get money. So, to borrow a phrase from popular culture, my Force Sense is active, my spider sense tingles, I know Voldemort is nearby...always.

That's how you have to act when you drive in an urban area, or anywhere, really. Lock your doors unless a passenger is entering or leaving. Always make sure a passenger enters their house or apartment after dropping them off. Only takes a few seconds, once they're in the door, then leave. This should be doubly true of female passengers. Women in American society are a prey species. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. It's up to all of us to change that.

Second, watch out for yourself. If a certain area creeps you out, leave that place. Don't stand there fucking around with the ride app. Don't wait on a passenger whose phone doesn't work or who won't answer their phone. GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE. Don't carry a gun or knife, it will make you overconfident. Rely on your Jedi training, on what you learned in class at Hogwarts. Listen to Master Yoda, pay attention to the Force, what it is telling you. Leave that place. "Keep you safe, it will!"

Thus ends the lesson for today.