The Null Device
Today is Election Day in the US, as Americans vote for their next President and congressional representatives, and to pass or reject ballot initiatives. Polls opened some hours ago and voting is well under way, with record turnouts being reported, all of which points to a resounding victory for the Democrats, in particular their charismatic Presidential candidate, Barack Obama. And in the red corner, the Republicans aren't looking too good.
And the first calls of an Obama victory are trickling in; election prediction site fivethirtyeight.com has published their final prediction, giving Obama 349 electoral college votes to McCain's 189, with 98.9% probability of an Obama victory. And according to the BBC's live text feed, Ladbroke's has already paid out on an Obama victory. Of course, it's not over till it's over; unless there is a resoundingly clear result, the result will almost certainly be thrashed out tooth and nail in legal challenges and counter-challenges. Though right now, it looks like there will be change.
One should probably mention the other, lower profile, electoral races of the day. The Congressional race looks set to strengthen the Democrats, though could fall short of giving them 60 seats (required to prevent the Republicans from blocking legislation by filibustering, which appears to be some sort of parliamentary denial-of-service attack). And various states have a number of ballot propositions being voted on. Californians, for example, are voting on whether to constitutionally ban gay marriage, whether to approve a high-speed railway line between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and whether to rename a sewage treatment works near San Francisco after George W. Bush.
A code of practice published by the British government reminds owners of dogs and cats to ensure that their pets are not only fed properly but provided with adequate entertainment and mental stimulation. Rumours that the government will distribute laser pointers to all cat owners to assist in this could not be confirmed.
In today's Graun, British comedian Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead fame) has an illuminating treatise on the history and mythology of zombies, of the horror-film variety:
I know it is absurd to debate the rules of a reality that does not exist, but this genuinely irks me. You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can't fly; zombies do not run. It's a misconception, a bastardisation that diminishes a classic movie monster. The best phantasmagoria uses reality to render the inconceivable conceivable. The speedy zombie seems implausible to me, even within the fantastic realm it inhabits. A biological agent, I'll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower. It's hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.
Another thing: speed simplifies the zombie, clarifying the threat and reducing any response to an emotional reflex. It's the difference between someone shouting "Boo!" and hearing the sound of the floorboards creaking in an upstairs room: a quick thrill at the expense of a more profound sense of dread. The absence of rage or aggression in slow zombies makes them oddly sympathetic, a detail that enabled Romero to project depth on to their blankness, to create tragic anti-heroes; his were figures to be pitied, empathised with, even rooted for. The moment they appear angry or petulant, the second they emit furious velociraptor screeches (as opposed to the correct mournful moans of longing), they cease to possess any ambiguity. They are simply mean.
To begin at the beginning, Haitian folklore tells of voodoo shamans, or bokors, who would use digitalis, derived from the foxglove plant, to induce somnambulant trances in individuals who would subsequently appear dead. Weeks later, relatives of the supposedly deceased would witness their lost loved ones in a soporific malaise, working in the fields of wealthy landowners, and assume them to be nzambi (a west African word for "spirit of the dead"). From the combination of nzambi and somnambulist ("sleepwalker") we get the word zombie.