Fight the Dead, Fear the Living: Civil Inattention at the End of the World

As anyone who has reached the age of 30 can attest, the hangovers sure do not get better with age. What make these hangovers almost bearable is the existence of Netflix, and having the unbelievable power of limitless streamed TV shows and movies available while you lie on the couch and hate yourself. After a particularly heavy night last Saturday, my girlfriend and I dragged ourselves out onto the couch at around 2pm on Sunday, and started binge-watching The Walking Dead. The show revolves around a group of people struggling to survive a Zombie Apocalypse, but is far more interesting than that premise sounds. Zombies are slow and stupid, so within a series or two, the zombie threat somewhat stabilises as our survivors learn how to deal with them, and the focus of the show shifts to their interaction with other groups of survivors in this post-apocalyptic world. These interactions rarely end well, and usually involve as many deaths as a zombie attack would have yielded. Maybe I have seen too many post-apocalyptic movies in my lifetime, but I did not find this too shocking. My girlfriend, on the other hand, could not believe that people would be so ruthless to each other when they were all going through this nightmare zombie plague together. They were all human and should help each other survive, she said, why should they act so barbarically to each other? Now, as you may have noticed if you are a regular reader of this blog, I am not the type of person that hears a question and doesn’t at least pretend to know the answer.

walking dead2015-02-21_21-37-25

One of the main reasons people congregate together en masse is because more is accomplished when we work together. Human society only really emerged when groups of people stopped wandering around hunting, and made permanent residences where they farmed, growing their own food rather than relying on just killing animals to survive. This led to probably the greatest achievement of the human race, which was how our ancestors removed us from the food chain. When within the food chain, our ancestors survived day-to-day, constantly scavenging for food and living from meal to meal. This is how all other animals on this planet spend their lives. To most animals, the future is merely where the next meal is coming from: it would be pointless to imagine further than that, even if their brains had the power to do so. To us, outside of the food chain, we can imagine tomorrow, and next week, and even do things today that we hope will benefit us years from now. We go to university, invest in the stock market, and commit to a twenty year mortgage.  All of this is backed up by our faith in the power of laws and law enforcers to ensure that society will still be there when this future that we imagine actually occurs.

Further, and I will be blunt; people are not actually supposed to live as close together as we do now. More specifically, we are not supposed to interact so much with people who are not in our own immediate family. Often we forget that we are little more than animals with big brains, but animals nonetheless. Not many animals play well with others of the same species that are not part of their own community. Communities develop from the mixing of two or more families that learn to cooperate, and these communities do not react well to outsiders. This was the same with humans, yet over a period of thousands of years, technological and political advancement have led to the emergence of towns and cities. The idea of a city, with millions of perfect strangers living side-by-side on a daily basis is something that is extremely unnatural  in an evolutionary sense, and one that is unique to humans.

Think of yourself on an elevator when a stranger enters. You both pretend to ignore the fact that you don’t know each other and are trapped in an enclosed space for what can feel like an excruciating amount of time. If you put one of your homo-erectus ancestors in that space with a stranger for the same amount of time, only one of them would be coming out when the elevator doors open again. The awkwardness you feel in the elevator is a kickback to this: your primal urges indicating to you that the stranger is a threat to you. What human society has achieved over the millennia is the strength of will to ignore these urges, and trust that the other person will not harm you, that the hundreds of other people walking down the crowded street with you will not harm you, and will ignore you if you ignore them. This system is known as “civil inattention”, and is once again backed up by the existence of laws and a police force to step in and impose order if it all breaks down.

Back to zombies. I hopefully have conveyed above that two of the main lynchpins of the massively urbanised society are 1) that we have removed ourselves from the food chain and 2) that we can safely live amongst strangers. These advancements are backed up by a system of laws that ensure the safety of all of us in case some deviants may veer from the course of civilised behaviour. In the event of a zombie (or any other kind of) apocalypse, the first thing to disintegrate will be the mechanisms of the state that impose order. The police force and army are not trained to combat the undead, and therefore will be overrun and therefore join them in their quest for brains, swelling the ranks of the walking dead. This precipitates the breakdown of the very fabric of society. When thousands of zombies are baying for your flesh, it is fair to say that we are well and truly back in the food chain. Further, with the breakdown of organised society, no excess food is being produced anymore, and therefore any survivors of the apocalypse must once again scavenge for each meal, living from day-to-day, while at the same time escaping the hoards of zombies who only want to eat human flesh.

Humans are adaptable, however, and this is why we have survived. After a certain amount of time, any survivors will adapt to the situation and forge outposts for themselves, attempting to rebuild a sense of society. Small communities may emerge, but how will they react to outsiders? Any safe haven from the zombie threat has been hard won, and no one wants to give up ground, or share scarce resources. In essence, this reduces the human race to how we were a few hundred thousand years ago, to the level of an animal fighting for territory when confronted with a stranger that is not part of the settled community. Even if the outsider is harmless, it is impossible to ignore the threat, as the times are different and there is nothing to stop one overpowering the other and stealing possessions. What is most unsettling is that even if you don’t believe this, and you believe people would never resort to this, your best strategy for survival would be just to simply assume that everyone you meet will try to kill you and that it is up to them to prove you wrong. Civil inattention is therefore impossible and the collapse of society becomes a mutually detrimental equilibrium in a prisoners dilemma. Survival, from the clutches of zombies and outsiders alike, is the only future in such a world, and therefore thousands of years of our advancement has been destroyed.

I don’t like zombie movies, nor the supernatural in general, yet I liked The Walking Dead. In a similar vein I am not a fan of fantasy, dragons nor magic, yet I have devoured every minute of Game of Thrones and every page of A Song of Ice and Fire. What I find fascinating in all of these is simply the politics involved in societies so vastly different from our own. The Walking Dead in particular makes you realise just how quickly the norms of society could breakdown if just a few hundred million people die, and in the process become zombies that crave the flesh of the living. It really reminds us of how fragile an existence we really live and how far we have come as a species, particularly when lying on a couch all Sunday evening praying for the end of your world.


On Optimal Strategies in Drink Promotions: Towards a Happier Happy Hour

The ‘Happy Hour’ is a cultural institution that exists in bars all over the world. For certain explicit hours of the day, often in the early evening, a bar will offer drinks served at much lower prices than normal, the aforementioned “happy” hour(s). This institution of course has benefits for both customer and the bar itself. The customer obviously saves money and feels good about claiming a discount. The bar gets more customers into the premise than they otherwise would expect at these hours, which hopefully will attract more customers from the street and maybe even some of the Happy Hour crowd stay on for longer once the prices go back up. The exact drinks promotion that is offered during Happy Hour can vary greatly from bar to bar, with conservative establishments offering merely cocktails reduced by a Euro/Dollar/Pound or two, while others can offer free shot chasers with each drink. By far the most common Happy Hour however is the ‘two-for-one deal’, where when you purchase from a limited stock from the bar (usually just beer and certain wines), another of the same drink will be supplied free of charge. This simple Happy Hour rule is widely used all over the world, but it is far from an optimal strategy for the efficient distribution or intake of discount recreational alcohol. This article critiques the two-for-one Happy Hour deal, and proposes a modified variant which is shown to offer extra utility for both the customer and the proprietors of the bar itself.

The fundamental rule of a Happy Hour is that any income earned during those magical minutes is extra income: it is likely the bar would be practically empty without the incentive. The deal attracts customers who otherwise would not exist, based on the promise of reduced price alcohol. In the case of the two-for-one deal, the bar will always lose money on each transaction involving the drinks included in the deal. The hope is that the extra business flowing from the increased number of customers will still mean that the bar is making money at the margins, albeit very incrementally with each extra customer that is getting a half price beer. Ideally though, the bar management want everyone who gets a reduced price drink to still be on the premises after the Happy Hour ends, and willing to pay for a full price beer which would make up for the lost bar income. This hope is not entirely based in reality however, as two-for-one bars generally empty significantly once the deal ends, as all of a sudden the bar is just a bar, with nothing happy about it whatsoever.

On the customer side, the two-for-one deal seems to be a great deal. Going to the deal with a (precisely) even number of friends would mean that for the duration of Happy Hour, each would pay half price for a beer or wine of his/her choice. Not many two-for-one deals venture outside these cheap standard beverage options however, meaning consumer choice is severely limited. Once the deal ends, there is not much incentive to stay in the bar, as the customers simply came for the cheap drinks that do not exist anymore. If the customer is responsible and wanted to go home at a respectable hour, this is fine. Otherwise, it is either a premature end to the evening or the beginning of a search for a new bar. In summary, the two-for-one deal is costly to the bar owner, and but a throwaway gimmick for the customer. The model works, yet it could be so much more.


An Alternate Model, Incorporating Risk

For the duration of a Happy Hour, all drinks are normal price. A customer queues and orders at the bar, and when the staff bring his bill and drinks, an unbiased coin* is flipped. The customer calls heads or tails. If he is correct, his drinks are free. Otherwise, he pays. All drinks in the bar are available to order, yet he cannot order more than 10 individual drinks at a time.

( *A variant is to have the barstaff roll a numbered dice in a cup, which is emptied on the table. The customer guesses whether the face value is odd or even)

In this model, the incorporation of risk is argued to add a more satisfying Happy Hour experience for both customer and bar proprietor. Whereas in the two-for-one model, the bar loses money on drinks included in the deal at a probability of 1, in this variant the probability of loss in each individual order is reduced by half, to 0.5. The risk is therefore shared with the customer, and therefore the Happy Hour becomes a game of chance between the two parties. What is most interesting from the point of view of the bar proprietor is that the stakes at play are always defined by the riskiness of the customer. Someone who has won a few rounds of a coin toss may get cocky and overextend himself to ordering expensive cocktails or shots, and may end up paying the price. Of course, he is just as likely to get the whole lot for free, but this is the game. The bar will see this act repeated countless times, and the results will even out eventually to a point where the customers and bar share the cost equally. From the bars perspective, it appears to be not much better than the two-for-one deal, yet the difference is that  in this model it is at least an opportunity to win money back, with varied returns due to the different stakes at play. In business, a 50% chance is much better than 0%, especially with the stakes raised. Further on, the model is also argued to offer a greater chance of post Happy Hour (and full price) customer retention than traditional deals.

On the customer side, the advantages of this model over the simple two-for-one are more subtle, yet immediately apparent. If it was not in human nature to get a rush from taking risks, then casinos would be empty, online poker would not involve money, and the international gambling industry would not exist. The simple act of placing a bet on the outcome of an event transforms the transaction into entertainment in itself. This is regardless of win or loss. Winning will produce momentary euphoria which the customer takes back to his friends, while losing will just want that customer to look forward to the next round, just for ‘one more chance’. With greater stakes, the risk of the customer increases, and these high stakes orders could even command the attention of the entire packed bar, just as in a casino. The introduction of risk, with its rewards of jubilation and also deflation, mean that there is raw human emotion flowing in a space where other Happy Hours just have people smiling over cheap alcohol. Here there is more mixing within the bar, more interaction with the staff due to their role in the game, and more camaraderie in the shared experience. I would argue here that all of this conspires to mean that there is a higher chance of customers remaining in the bar once the Happy Hour ends, perfectly content to pay full price. For as well as this hypothetical shared community, there is also the case of those who may have won a large share of their bets, and therefore have “extra”, discretionary income burning a hole in their pockets due to the natural high of winning a high stakes bet. All in all, a much richer experience than sharing the cost of a beer with a friend.

I cannot claim credit for the formulation of this model, for many readers (particularly those who were on Erasmus with me in Tilburg ’05) may recognise the basics from one place or another. I add merely a formal breakdown of the mechanics, as well as a few added constraints (the bar in Tilburg went bankrupt after a year) to prevent revenue losses for the bar reaching a critical level. This Risky Happy Hour has potential as not only a short-term gimmick, but also as an opportunity for a bar to show off its best drinks with the potential (from the customers point of view) of being completely free. Even without this, the bar will make a name for itself among many diverse crowds, from students to working professionals, meaning the opportunity for a much broader client base for the bar, and socialising experience for all involved. The bar may pay for half of the drinks, but due to the distribution of prices on order bets, that is not to say it pays half the bar bill. For a few hours, one night a week, they should take the risk.

Democracy and the Death of Decent Standards of Heraldry

The flag of the country we are born and raised in is a strange ever-present in our lives, and rarely do we question the value or meaning of whatever colours and icons make up the whole. I grew up with the Irish flag flying over every government building, hotel and a whole lot else as a result of Irish qualification for successive World Cups in 1990 and 1994. In our own country, our national flag blends into the background most of the time, as part of the scenery. It is even possible we wouldn’t notice it if it vanished from a few places. We only really notice the omnipresence of national flags when we go to a different country and suddenly notice a different colour billowing in the corner of our eyes: where once there was green, now there is red. It is then that the bubble briefly bursts, and we can look at this new flag presented to us and maybe wonder how they came up with this stuff at all. The Irish tricolour of green, white and orange was once explained to me in secondary school as follows. The green represented the Celtic natives of Ireland, the orange represented the protestant Orangemen of the Northern Counties, while the white part in the middle symbolised peace between these two groups. Initially I was thrilled to finally understand the meaning involved in this thing I grew up with, but this soon gave way to a realisation that it was all, well, just a bit shite. It wasn’t just that it was the mid-1990s, and the green IRA were still blowing chunks out of the orange side of the flag on a regular basis. It was more that it seemed like the flag equivalent of giving toddlers an art project of drawing peace, using only WordArt. The Irish flag is terrible, but it is far, far, far from being alone in this. And I will use this admission to justify the following rant.

When you think of European flags, the usual suspects immediately come to mind: the Union Jack of the UK, the French Tricolor, maybe the Italian tricolore, maybe the regal Spanish yellow and gold or the carbon copy yet still classy pick-your background-and-cross-colours Scandinavian idolatry. All of these are timeless examples of flags, just like Japans, Brazils, even the good ol’ Stars and Stripes. Germany’s might sneak in there due to Germanys prominence on the international stage, but really, no one is very fond of the German flag, particularly when not in Germany. Germany is different from all those others also because it has not been a country for as long. Germany was officially created in 1871, but really it has been in such a flux since then that it has only existed in its current form since October 1990, and uses the flag originally adopted by West Germany in 1949. The symbology of the German flag has been explained to me in a similar manner of how the Irish flag is ‘translated’, with each colour in the horizontal tricolour representing something or other about present, past and future. Of course, there is a historical reasoning about some Archduke of somewhere originally using these colours and he was a German patriot and did something and should therefore be remembered etc . This logic of course acts as a smokescreen to what is really going on, and the same is true for Irelands hippy peace loving tricolour: the chosen flag is a political compromise of a new democracy. And I put it to you that new democracies choose shite flags.

Unsure of the flag? Use this reference picture!

You don’t need to go any further than Europe for this analysis, to be honest. The secession of the Soviet States, the continuing breakup of the Former Yugoslavia, and originally Woodrow Wilsons triumphing of self-determination mean that Europe has possibly tripled its number of nations, and therefore national flags over the past century. Anyone who watches the qualifying matches for international football tournaments or the Eurovision Song Contest will be very aware of this, and many an Irishman has blamed the end of communism for Irelands failure over the past 20 years on both stages.  In addition to swelling the ranks in international competition, the end of communism has also given us an awful lot of shite flags. The atrocities committed to the tricolour since the breakup of the USSR have been astonishing, particularly with regard to the Baltic States. Estonia’s looks like a paint shade card you get from the DIY shop when renovating your bedroom. The Caucus Republics are no better, with the notable exception of Georgia. The less said about Central Asia the better. The Eastern European countries also tried out the tricolour to varied results, and the bicolour made an appearance to no effect whatsoever with Poland and Ukraine. Yugoslavia disintegrated a few years after the USSR, and the lessons of these debacles were taken into consideration duly. Most went for nothing fancy, just a tricolour with the traditional colours of the territory, albeit together with a national symbol. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia went mental, and they too deserve credit for their zest. Montenegro retained the flag of their monarchy, which is justified when you see how magnificent that flag is. Further westward, Austria and Ireland have nothing to be proud of either.

Of course, the US and UK were technically democracies when they adopted their flags, but this was democracy in the same way that Ancient Athens was a democracy. France gets an exemption from analysis because its flag was part of a historical movement (the French Revolution) and also brought tricolours into style, just so the breakup of the USSR could ruin them forever 200 years later. Flags of new democracies are usually terrible simply because they are designed by committee, usually immediately in the aftermath of a great struggle where the main focus of a government is to keep the country together, and therefore keep all parties in the new democracy happy. This involves a lot of initial compromise, particularly with regard to what colours and symbols people have to look at every day. There are generally a lot of different options available to choose from, but as is the case where a ridiculous amount of people have to be pleased : the least offensive, evocative, creative one is chosen. It could even be seen as a metaphor for democracy itself, the compromises no one wants yet are forced to look at every single day. Short-termism as a national symbol.  Yet by now these flags we grew up with are so engrained in the national heritage that they are like family to most of us, whatever country we are from. Alright, I know that most people reading this will have some story about how their lame tricolour was actually first adopted in 1835 BC by some guy who met Jesus, but come on, let it go: it’s shite and you know it. What’s maddening is that probably every country in Europe has a great flag hidden away somewhere in the attic that they are too afraid to use.