Monday, June 24, 2013

Can it happen?

I have gotten sidetracked this week by the new video game The Last of Us, which was released last week. I had not planned to buy it, but with its glowing reviews (some have compared its potential effect on video games to what Citizen Kane did for movies) and the fact that much of it takes place in my ancestral home of Pittsburgh, I broke down and bought it. I’m not all the way through the game yet, but I have to agree with the glowing reviews.

Screen shot from magazine GameInformer of The Last of Us in one of the game's Pittsburgh chapters. Visible here are the US Steel Tower, BNY Mellon Center, One Oxford Centre, and the Fort Duquesne Bridge. Also making an appearance in the game is Fifth Avenue Place and the underpass of either the Liberty Avenue Bridge or the Boulevard of the Allies. While these features are not necessarily in their proper locations or proportions, the designers obviously did a lot of research into downtown Pittsburgh.
That said, The Last of Us is not for everyone. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States. In that respect, it is similar to the popular Fallout series, in which you run around the mostly depopulated, anarchic, post-nuclear wasteland of the US, crawling inside ruins of famous monuments, avoiding mutants, bandits, and high-radiation areas, and generally just trying to survive. While I like the Fallout series and find it to be an interesting game, it is very depressing. And I do not understand why many fans of its publisher Bethesda were excited when Bethesda cut off further development of downloadable content for its hugely successful Skyrim title (with its story still unfinished) because they thought it was putting resources into the next Fallout game.

But The Last of Us makes the depressing Fallout look like Disney World by comparison. While Fallout tempers its grim story with an acknowledgment that it could never happen, largely because before the nuclear war the United States as depicted in Fallout was some weird 1950’s-style creature with futuristic technology – in short, a country that never existed – The Last of Us goes out of its way to explain that what was destroyed was the United States as you know it now, as well as at least 60% of the world population.

The apocalypse that forms the basis of The Last of Us’ world is not a nuclear war, but an almost overnight biological pandemic. A mutated strain of the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (“cordyceps”) infected much of the population, turning them into zombie-like creatures. In that respect The Last of Us is like the Resident Evil series and other survival horror games (though regrettably Resident Evil seems to have abandoned that genre as of late). The zombie apocalypse has always been a mainstay for horror. It can be far more frightening than nuclear attack inasmuch as while a nuclear attack is devastating to life and property, once it destroys, kills, poisons, and irradiates, that’s it. There are devastating after effects, but once it happens, it’s done and steps can be taken to start some sort of recovery. By contrast, the zombie apocalypse is ongoing. What it does not kill it turns into more zombies. Their presence puts anyone at risk of becoming a zombie and makes large areas uninhabitable. You can’t start recovery because you can’t stop the zombie outbreak.

Which is exactly what happens in The Last of Us. The cordyceps is initially spread through spores. You inhale the spores and the fungus starts growing inside your body and gradually taking over and destroying higher brain functions. Removal of the cordyceps without killing the host is impossible. In the case of the most hated enemies in the game, the “Clickers,” the fungus has taken over them entirely. The cordyceps has taken over their bodies entirely, warping them physically, growing over the top of their heads and through their eye sockets, destroying their eyesight. They can only see by “clicking” for echolocation. Their humanity destroyed, the Clickers only goal is to spread the cordyceps fungus, this time by biting.

The very limited backstory to The Last of Us indicates the cordyceps outbreak spread almost overnight. With removal of the fungus impossible and all attempt at vaccination ineffective, the US government tried to set up “quarantine zones” around major cities where the uninfected could live relatively safely behind walls and barricades. But as the uninfected population continued to fall and as many of the remaining uninfected were wracked by despair and privation, many of the quarantine zones were abandoned or fell to bandits, civil war, and the cordyceps itself. The government of the United States still exists in The Last of Us, but it controls only a few cities of the continental United States, under a state of emergency, its security forces hypervigilant and at times corrupt.

It’s a horrifying picture, a horrifying story, made much more uncomfortable by the fact that the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus is an actual real-life infectious fungus.

So, can The Last of Us actually happen?

It probably helps and is very comforting to know that while the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus is an actual real-life infectious fungus, it only affects ants, grasshoppers, spiders, and other insects and arachnids. In fact, it’s considered a good thing to help control these populations. Given the differences in physiology and biochemistry between insects and humans, the possibility of cordyceps spreading to humans is minimal.

Even if it did spread, the possibility that the cordyceps would spread the way it does in The Last of Us and affect human behavior is almost zero. While the cordyceps has been known to wipe out entire colonies of ants, it is not known to turn infected ants into attacking mutants. What it does do is, as the fungus grows within and on the ant, it turns the ant into a zombie who climbs to an overhanging leaf and clamp down on a major vein with its mandibles. Then the ant dies and the fungus turns the corpse into a fruiting body to spread the spores. What it certainly does not do until the ant’s death is destroy physical abilities of the ant, such as its eyesight, which would seem to actually inhibit the spread of the fungus. Obviously and quite understandably, Naughty Dog, the developers of The Last of Us, took some liberties for purposes of putting together a gripping story.

The portrayal of the collapse of civilization in The Last of Us is chilling but history strongly suggests a major pandemic would play out much differently. If one examines what is believed to be the worst pandemic in human history, the Black Death, which killed an estimated 75 million – 200 million people across the Eastern Hemisphere in the 14th century, one can find few similarities with The Last of Us. The Black Death (still not fully explained but often believed to be a form of bubonic, pneumonic, and septicimic plague spread by the rat-spread Yersinia pestis bacterium) wiped out an estimated 30-60% of Europe’s population, including entire towns. It caused major socio-economic upheaval across Europe (check out Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, for instance), but government (albeit government a lot more limited than it is today) never ceased functioning, never retreated into walled, barricaded cities, never abandoned large portions of the territory it ruled to the plague. And that was when the cause and spread of the Black Death was entirely unknown and government’s response to it almost totally ineffective.

The US government’s response to disasters is not always stellar (see, eg, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy), but it is far, far better than is the norm across the globe, and it is far, far better than is portrayed in The Last of Us, in which the government response is actually worse than the response to the Black Death more than six centuries ago. Tools for fighting the cordyceps infection, such as gas masks, ingress screenings and bleach (to kill the fungus itself), are shown in The Last of Us and would in real life form the basis of a much more effective response than the one seen in the video game.

So, The Last of Us is a great game, a great story, and a great chance to ask “What if?” And it should be enjoyed (if one can “enjoy” such a depressing scenario) as such. But the actual possibility of The Last of Us happening is next to zero.


  1. Ugh. That's what current Pittsburgh looks like. It's the ugliest city in America, the most run-down and the most difficult to navigate. Ugh.

  2. Huh? You ever actually been to Pittsburgh? Difficult to navigate, yes, but so is San Francisco. Pittsburgh has the most gorgeous skyline of any city not named "New York."

  3. Pittsburgh is easily the ugliest city and the ugliest metro area in America. San Francisco is far easier to navigate than Pittsburgh, and so incomparably prettier that it insults San Francisco to include it in a discussion with Pittsburgh.

    Pittsburgh is a mistake. There is nothing remotely "gorgeous" about anything in Pittsburgh. The neighborhoods are decaying, dingy, cramped, ugly. They show always show that stupid view of the Triangle, as if to show how impressive it looks, but they never go to the Triangle and take a photo of the original vantage. If they did, people would wonder, "why is there a 500 foot mountain right in this city's downtown?"

    This is their proudest image:

    Here's a view looking back at the photographer's vantage from the first shot:,-80.013267&spn=0.006442,0.016512&t=m&z=17&layer=c&cbll=40.441738,-80.013267&cbp=12,0,,0,0&photoid=po-16914921

    Notice how jammed in the downtown is? It's built on hilly land, jammed in between two rivers. Driving in it is a nightmare. Looking at the first image from the right edge back to the Fort Pitt Bridge, you see a little elevated roadway at the river's edge. That's a teeny-tiny two-lane Interstate (376) that serves as the main access in and out of Pittsburgh. Traffic jams are constant. No thought went into Pittsburgh.

    Pittsburgh is an ugly, embarrassing, scary place that should be abandoned. Columbus is growing; Indianapolis is growing; Cleveland has hope; Pittsburgh is dying. Western Pennsylvania is dying. Western and interior New York is dying. Ditto Vermont and interior New Hampshire. Get some land people can use, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia.

    This country no longer has need for you, Pittsburgh. You were only here because they could cheaply float coal up the Monogahela from West Virginia.

  4. Gee, a city started in the 1700's is not designed for cars? Go figure.

    SMH. But I can tell you're not bitter ...

  5. It may have been a useful city in the 1700s. In the 2100s, it's inconvenient and anachronistic. Not one Interstate serves Pittsburgh. Only spurs come into town. The three Interstates that come near it pass well away from town.

    Pittsburgh is relentless hills, making it very difficult to build atop, develop or construct a proper road system. Pittsburgh is the hilliest major city in America, and it's just too expensive and difficult a place to conduct commerce. All those nice things you have in Indianapolis can't be found in Pittsburgh.

    Plus, the population of Pittsburgh is culturally retarded (in the academic sense of the word) and insular due to the city's isolation. All too often, the city's population resembles a circus freak show, given the ubiquitous tattoos, bulbous heads and misshapen figures of the inhabitants. Quite often, and frequent enough to be unnerving, they simply don't look "normal." Take your water bottled when in Pittsburgh, folks.

    Appalachia simply doesn't fit with the direction of modern America.

  6. Wow! Anything you can find in Pittsburgh you can find in Indianapolis? That's news to me. All these years I've lived here and I never knew Indianapolis had a Major League Baseball team. Or a National Hockey League team. Or a professional ballet company. Please educate me on the identity of these organizations.

    And Pittsburgh is "culturally retarded" compared to Indianapolis? That's a new one. Pittsburgh was just ranked "The Smartest City in America" because of its percentage of college graduates and area universities. Indianapolis tries to retain college graduates (the unemployment rate here for college grads is 1.9% but that's mostly because there are so few jobs) but it suffered from the same problem Indiana does in that the Bible Belt culture (which is not present in Pittsburgh) actively drives out college graduates. Indiana cannot keep college graduates and cannot attract high-paying jobs because college grads don't want to move here and thus employers won't relocate.

    Indianapolis has tried to overcome the Bible Belt mentality with only limited success and is now further crippled by a city administration so corrupt it warrants a RICO investigation. Outside of downtown (which is the only thing the mayor's office cares about) the city is rapidly becoming a WASP Detroit with crime skyrocketing, police and city services being cut, and neighborhoods falling apart. I've seen in firsthand, with most of my law school friends having left Indianapolis, all telling me they can't stand the Bible Belt culture.

  7. Sports teams are a poor substitute for a life and a very shallow metric of a city's appeal. In Pittsburgh, however, sports utterly dominate the social landscape. Well, that, and drinking, often in conjunction. After seeing the absolute farce of Pittsburgh's riotous claim to being the "most livable city," and after seeing what manner of coarse beer-swillers who live in "Picksburgh" and live and die by the "Stillers," I'll only laugh at this town being anywhere near "educated," let alone "most educated."

    Drive around Pittsburgh (if you can), and drive around Indy. Indy is better, cleaner, newer, more attractive than Pittsburgh in every measure of livability.

    I truly don't know why you'd spend a minute defending Pittsburgh. There's an entire website devoted to the absolute life imperative to leave it:

    Let Pittsburgh fall, and let the world move on without it. Ugh.

  8. So, in other words, Pittsburgh likes sports and you don't so Pittsburghers are stupid. Pittsburgh has hills and you don't like hills so Pittsburgh is ugly. Those sure are objective criteria you're using there.

    That Pittsburgh has more universities than Indianapolis does, and more cultural institutions than Indianapolis does (in part because the Bible Belt culture here discourages a creative class) apparently don't qualify as metrics in your world.

    And, yes, I've actually driven around both cities. A lot. Indianapolis is indeed easier to drive around than Pittsburgh, as it is New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Diego, and Chicago. My response is, "So what?" Nothing whatsoever against Indianapolis, but those other cities have a lot more in the way of things to do than Indianapolis does, largely because they are not strangled by the Preacher in Footloose philosophy that dominates Indiana politics. Nor are they strangled by a corrupt and incompetent city administration that holds its citizens in contempt like Indy's Greg Ballard does (and, yes, the Ballard administration is worse than the Chicago political machine).

    I get it. You don't like Pittsburgh. I do. A lot. So does everyone I know who moved there from Indianapolis. For the reasons I just explained to you.

  9. I like pizza. Pittsburgh's sucks. Give me Bazbeaux or Puccini's, any day.

    Pittsburgh may have more universities within its limits, but they're not stellar. IUPUI and Butler are easily as strong as Pitt and Duquesne. CMU is fine for the New York kids who want a degree from outside the city, then run back home. Remember that Indy has two schools not 50 miles away that exceed the best of Pennsylvania, save Penn. IU is one of the finest schools in the world.

    Yes, hills fatally damn a city. No major city is this hilly. No, not even San Francisco. These hills will forever keep the big corporate players away, as site development is too expensive, and client access is too difficult. In Pittsburgh, people RARELY travel outside their small neighborhoods. Part of this smallness is insularity and fear; part is the hellish and inadequate road system. It's just too tough to get anywhere.

    I dispute Pittsburgh's "cultural institutions" presence. Much better music in Indy. I'll take the Noodle over lame, ugly, decrepit, run-down Carson Street. IMA is lovely. ISO is wonderful. If I need the best of the Arts the United States has to offer, Chicago is merely 160 miles from Indy, though 460 from Pittsburgh.

    I can't imagine anyone being happy with an Pittsburgh-for-Indy trade. It's just so ugly, damp, dark, sunless, old, run-down, depressing. State-mandated milk prices, gruff women, state-run liquor stores, vehicle inspections, omission of the infinitive when saying "the car needs to be washed." Not a White Castle in sight. Bad pizza. Very low level of service. Pittsburgh is finally getting a Fresh Market. Welcome to 1998, Pittsburgh. This is the only town I've ever seen where there isn't a single "good neighborhood," where you drive through and say "Oh, this is nice." You won't find any of that in Pittsburgh metro.

    The best thing about Pittsburgh is that it's two hours from Cleveland, but they put $15 in tolls on that hop, so Columbus is a slightly longer, but much cheaper, escape.


    Lastly, Pittsburghers have horrible physical tone, because it's so hard to engage in fitness. The place is so hilly that nobody can ride a bike. People here look old prematurely, and many still smoke.

  10. You sound like a Cleveland Browns fan, which I am, but unlike some Browns fans I do not hate Pittsburgh more than I love Cleveland. Because my family comes from both Cleveland and Pittsburgh, I love them both.

    And your beliefs are rapidly leaving the bounds of rationality. IU is a good school, great in some respects, but it is not one of the best in the world; it's not even one of the best in the B1G. It's on par with Penn State and behind Ohio State. Butler is a good school, but IUPUI is a commuter school that is not on the same planet as Pitt, Duquesne, Robert Morris, or Carnegie Mellon.

    And you do not want to start on music. Indianapolis is John Mellencamp: white guys with guitars and drum sets, none of whom bathe. Cleveland's radio is even worse - and that's saying something. Pittsburgh's R&B & dance stations blow Indy out of the water. The lone bar Slippery Noodle does not make a music scene.

    And I hate to break it to ya, but I've been down Carson Street. It's in much better shape than Broad Ripple.

    Can't speak to Pittsburgh's pizza, but I can say Bazbeaux is utterly overrated.

    And if you followed sports, you'd know how ridiculous your argument is that Pittsburghers never leave their neighborhoods. Pittsburgh fans travel very well to follow their (our) teams in the road. And Fox Chapel, Moon, and Mount Lebanon belie your insults.

    Finally, Pitsburgh women need no defending. They actually can more than hold their own against anyone in the looks or brains dept. I still have not figured out how so many gorgeous women end up in Pittsburgh, but they do. Indianapolis can't really speak to that, since it was recently rated as 40th out of 40 most populous cities in the US in which to be single and educated. In other words, Indy is Singles Hell.

    One last thing, I doubt Pittsburgh could care less what you think. You don't even register. Some cities just have auras of greatness. They just know they're great. New York and Los Angeles have that intangible aura. Sadly, my own beloved Cleveland (with the Rock & Roll HOF, one of the top 5 orchestras in the world and a top art museum) does not. But Pittsburgh does. Always has. Always will.

  11. I really don't give a damn about the NFL. There's so much more to life. No, both Ohio State and Penn State look perpetually upwards at IU and Purdue. In fact, you picked the two Big Ten schools (and now Nebraska) that spend all their time staring upwards at the rest of the conference. Ohio State is useful for the Big Ten, because it's the northern Alabama (minus the National Championships).

    And Pittsburgh cares terribly what I think. I'm better than it, and it really wants to be liked by people like me. Given the frailties of human nature, Pittsburgh has enduring advocates from people who have ancestral ties there and foolishly feel that criticizing this hellhole is tantamount to attacking their families, but Pittsburgh is not making new friends.

    "My girlfriend asked me to kiss her where it's dark and moist, so I took her to Pittsburgh."

    See the bottom:

    Have fun with this:

    For people who know better, Pittsburgh is pretty bad.

    Wait, did you close by saying Pittsburgh has an "aura of greatness?" Did you really just say that? You truly need to have your standards recalibrated.

  12. Your comments smack of more delusion than the Iraqi Information Minister.