chaos theory and isaac asimov's foundation series

I just finished reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy – Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation – with tentative plans to continue with other books in the series except for those not written by him. However, as much as I’d like to acknowledge the importance the series has within science fiction literature, I don’t find them as interesting or complex as his robot series. In part, the issue lies with his conception of psychohistory, the fictional mathematical science of predicting future events based on a statistical analyses of the behaviour of large groups of individuals. As implemented in his stories, psychohistory predicts the decay and fall of a galactic empire followed by a long period of barbarism and chaos. The “last and greatest” of the psychohistorians, Hari Seldon, uses the science to create a plan that would reduce these dark ages from thirty thousand to one thousand years through the creation of two Foundations.

From a storytelling perspective, the Seldon Plan is much like those prophecies in fantasy novels. The Seldon Plan, which is unknown to key players on account of the fact that psychohistorical predictions won’t work if people are aware of the predictions, is such that the First Foundation can never fail. This results in stories whose protagonists must deal with key crises in a disordered, Empire-less universe by gradually recognizing the only option circumstances affords them, which means Foundation and the first half of Foundation and Empire are ultimately anticlimactic in the sense that we’re reading about characters following a prescribed plan.

Asimov mixes things up a bit in the second half of Foundation and Empire by introducing his conception of a flaw in the Seldon Plan. Where the plan deals with the behaviour of large groups, there is always a risk posed by unpredictable individuals. Hence, the Mule’s conquest of the Foundation and the rationale for the Second Foundation. Where the First is responsible for blindly carrying out the Seldon Plan based on group statistics, the Second is responsible for overseeing the plan’s execution and deal with individual threats. Again, it’s riveting stuff, but Asimov introduces a different kind of anticlimax. Consisting of psychohistorians not only aware of psychohistory and the details of the Seldon Plan but able to improve upon of it, the Second Foundation consists of telepathic people capable of predicting the future with such precision they can set into motion complex stratagems to manipulate events to their desired outcomes. So we read a story about characters who can’t tell whether they’re being manipulated or not, acting in a way that they believe ultimately supports their agenda, only for us to discover that the entire plot has been planned out by the Second Foundation from the beginning.

Critically, the original trilogy was written in the 40s-50s-60s. But it’s the 70s that saw the development of the theory that refutes psychohistory’s core premise: chaos theory, the notion that even the slightest change in a deterministic system can create wild, unpredictable variance. On a more common sense level, however, it’s clear that Asimov’s conception of psychohistory doesn’t take into account unpredictable natural disasters; an asteroid strikes the ship carrying the Prime Radiant (the device containing the mathematics of the Seldon Plan), an outbreak of an incurable infectious disease, etc.. So as much as the idea is interesting, psychohistory is as implausible as it dramatically unsatisfying. Of course, implausibility isn’t necessarily an obstacle – science fiction is speculative, after all – but Second Foundation wasn’t helped by the fact that the final revelations were predictable.


TFPO column: playing with the budget...and getting burned

There's no winning when it comes to the California budget, especially when we remain so confused about the status of the "public" in our political ideologies. Find out for yourself with some cool, but disturbing, budget balancing tools.

Playing with the Budget...and Getting Burned

What do you think California's Powers That Be should do about the budget? What choices did you make in regards to California's budget? I'd love it if you sounded off in the comments directly below.


film review: moon

Just when I was beginning to despair with finding a decent, let alone good, science fiction movie, along comes the superlative Moon to serve as a reminder that it is possible to tell meaningful science fiction stories without resorting to violent action or made-up technobabble. Impressive is how thematically layered the film is...ut that conversation is best kept for a time when spoilers aren't a problem. All that need be said now is that Moon is an outstanding film not to be missed.

Fly Me to the Moon for an Unforgettable Trip


long road ghost - part 9 of 9 (conclusion)

“Gang warfare,” the Sheriff said. I didn’t have the heart to argue with him. Besides, with the hit my noggin’ took, who knows if I remembered what happened rightly. All I knew was that Alex was missin’, Brom had also disappeared, and a twisted piece of scrap was all that remained of the bikes, mine included. Mornin’ traffic, I learned, is what found us.

The next few weeks were really quiet, the days spent livin’ the old, much-loved routine of pourin’ drinks and fixin’ bikes – and the Bonneville needed a lot of extra lovin’. Then, against all expectations, Brom came in one night, lookin’ like he hadn’t slept in days and was bein’ chased by Old Nick himself. Bloodshot eyes, dirty; his good looks had gone the way of his sanity. But I gave him a beer on the house, feelin’ sorry for him as he yammered on wildly about the headless rider and the cops.

“I can’t be out at night,” he kept sayin’. “I can’t be out at night.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to offer him a spot to sleep in some dusty corner of the bar; he was wanted by the police and I sure as hell didn’t want to cross Monk. Then again, the softie in me didn’t want to see Brom get killed or driven insane before gettin’ a chance to set his life on the right path. But before I could make a decision, Brom jumped off the bar stool and rushed out to a shiny bike – a Suzuki, of all things. I followed as quick as I can, only to see Brom ride off into the moonlit distance on a bike he probably stole. The sound of another motorcycle, like an angry dog, startled me. I turned to see a black and chrome Harley Road King. The rider wasn’t headless, but it seemed as if he burned with the blue-white flame I’d seen on the headless rider. I got in closer for a better look and almost jumped out of my skin when the rider turned to look at me. Within the flame, partially hidden by a black helmet, I thought I recognized Alex Crane, only his narrow face was twisted into the ugliness of a man possessed by anger. I didn’t have a chance to find out for sure; he sped off in the same direction as Brom. I’m not sure why I didn’t follow. Scared, I guess. None of it made any sense.

The doctors said I might suffer some lingerin’ effects from the concussion. Whatever, as the kids say these days. I still didn’t sleep well for many nights after that, and I still get a mighty big shiver whenever someone mentions the headless rider. And I never did see Brom or Alex again. I eventually did tell the Sheriff what I saw, not that it helped any.

A few months after the whole thing peaked in a TV news frenzy and went the way of the latest celebrity fuck-up scandal, Monk stopped by for a beer. Even out of uniform – he had on blue jeans, a clean-pressed white shirt, worn black cowboy boots – the man looked like he could stop a freight train in its tracks with only a stare. But he was in as good a mood as I’d ever seen him, despite the frustration that he’d had no leads in what was now bein’ called the Headless Rider murders. Monk hated the name and without saying a word he let me know what he thought about me blabbin’ my mouth off to the press and givin’ em ideas. I just blamed it on too much beer, though when I sobered up I regretted feeding’ the red meat to the newshounds.

“Ghost and ghouls and goblins, huh,” he said. Seein’ as everythin’ was quiet, I poured the Sheriff and me a pint of that Newcastle the customers kept ravin’ about and leaned on the bar across from him. The radio belted out a static-filled oldie.

“Ghosts and ghouls and goblins,” I said, and we clinked bottles. “Unless you still think its gang warfare.”

He laughed. It sounded like breakin’ glass. “Who the hell knows? Probably not. But who the hell knows?”

When I didn’t say anything, he added, “I ain’t gonna tell what you did or didn’t see. I wasn’t there. Whether it was some headless spectre you saw or it was something else, I can’t say.”

“Guess we’ll never know.”

“Guess not. The evidence ain’t speaking. But I’ll say this.”


“Thinking about Alex and Katrina…I’m probably too far gone to find myself a woman to get old and wrinkly with,” Monk said. “But if I do, I’d sure hope…”

I knew where he was goin’ with it. I had been thinkin’ the same. Here we were, two old men hangin’ on to the glory days, faced with not much more than more of the same, stuck with somethin’ we couldn’t explain, and one question that burned more than any other. Without an answer – who could say anythin’ about love’s rise and fall? – we drank our beers in silence.


Missed a part of Long Road Ghost? Catch up by clicking here.


TFPO column: the healthcare debate - no stomach for anarchy

In the ongoing debate over healthcare, it's quite frustrating to watch as the PTBs dance - if that inelegant foot stomping can be called dancing - around universal, public coverage. At least non-centrist Democrats are pushing in the right direction.

And while I still haven't gotten to the point I want to arrive at - the California budget - I stand entirely by my accusations of philosophical cowardice. Because before we can discuss healthcare, there's still some detritus to clear away in regards to the notion of the "public."

The Healthcare Debate: No Stomach for Anarchy


film review: the notorious newman brothers

Don't you just love it a fun little movie? I sure do. And this is certainly a fun, if flawed, little movie.

The Notorious Newman Brothers: Gangsters Gone Silly


long road ghost - part 8 of 9

The sky was a bleedin’ red and with my eyesight not bein’ quite what it was it took a long time for me to adjust to the lack of daylight. By that time, Brom and Alex had already reached Rasor Road, revvin’ their engines and givin’ each other cold looks. They were none to happy to see me when I pulled up alongside them.

“Ain’t gonna solve nothin’,” I said. Leanin’ closer to Alex, I suggested he let the law handle things. But he just got sad with the pain of a broken heart and said, “I don’t know what I want more; for me to be dead or that rat bastard.”

“If ya gonna get melodramatic about it,” I said. “Christ.”

And the two went off down the freeway, leavin’ me behind with a cloud of exhaust beneath a dark sky. But then I felt somethin’ strange, the hairs on the back of my neck standin’ straight. From nowhere in particular came the howlin’ sound of a motorcycle, like a wolf on acid. Then I felt something rush by me; it was too quick for me to see. My heart was beatin’ fast; I admit it. But I got on my bike and sped off after Brom and Alex and whatever else passed me by, swallowing my growin’ dread – I was very far from bein’ a fearless young buck.

I could feel the furious shakin’ power of my Bonneville between my legs as I gave the engine some gas and counted off the ticks to the 70 mph mark. It didn’t take long for me to catch up with Brom and Alex, who were each tryin’ hard to get the upper hand, but merely passin’ the lead back and forth. And damned if they weren’t alone. A headless rider dressed in black leathers, his stump burning with a blue-white flame like the one comin’ out of his exhaust, was gainin’ on them. I tried yellin’ out, feelin’ the fear build up in me like high-pressure steam, but the roar of engine and wind drowned me out. A goddamned headless rider who somehow always managed to stay ahead despite me pushin’ my growlin’ baby to the limit.

Brom and Alex were close enough to start tryin’ to push each other off their bikes. They swerved on the weirdly dead-quiet freeway – where the fuck was the traffic? – barely keepin’ control of themselves and their machines as they jabbed at each other. And on went the headless rider, that ghost outta hell. I saw him reach down to pull out a wicked blade, a machete with a motorcycle handlebar for a grip. Santa Claus was right; it did glow. I was almost close enough to the headless rider to do somethin’, but what that somethin’ would be I had no idea. That’s when he caught me by surprise by slowin’ down suddenly , forcin’ me to brake. The sudden change in speed made me lose control – a stupid thing, really, for an ol’ biker like me – and I wiped out, barely registering the sight of the headless rider swingin’ his blade towards Alex’s neck and loppin’ the poor guy’s head clean off.

I was lucky. Sometimes you’re meat…sometimes you’re not. I was five for five. But even with a helmet the shock to my head made me see things, like little silver stars, that weren’t there. It hurt like a motherfucker. I passed out.

When I came to, a young woman in a medic’s uniform was goin’ over me with a fine tooth comb, ignorin’ me when I said I was fine. Just a few cuts and bruises. Like I said, lucky. Sheriff Monk, cars with flashin’ lights behind him, loomed over me and didn’t waste time hasslin’ me for details of what happened. I told him what I could, leavin’ out the loopy-soundin’ headless flamin’ parts. When I asked about Alex, he told me they didn’t find head, or body, or motorcycle. That gave me the chills.

Next week...the conclusion!


TFPO column

The debate around healthcare is irritating to a large part because of the confusion within American culture - a kind of schizo schism in which the "public good" is automatically equated with the evils of fascism. Even socialism, which isn't identical to communism, is the second deadliest epithet after "liberal." Yet, as someone who has experienced both Canadian and American healthcare, I still prefer the Canadian model even though I have to admit that it's not perfect and needs overhauling. There's actually more to it than the reason why "public" is a dirty word, but there's only so much room in a column. This week, then, is sort of an unofficial first part to a multiple-part series on the notion of the public.

The Healthcare Debate: Who's Afraid of the Public?


film review: easy virtue

Easy Virtue is the kind of movie that lingers. It invites endless, giddy dissection, because each scene has the nuance to invite close attention. Wonderful characters, a rich plot, and superb execution...

Easy Virtue, Hard Knocks


long road ghost - part 7 of 9

No sooner had Monk driven off that Brom scratched his itch to pick a fight with Alex. This time a punch connected and Alex fell bloodied to the floor. Katrina went to his side, eggin’ him on, but despite all that anger and hate, Alex stayed down like he did before.

“Just like in college,” Katrina said. “Mouse.”

If I didn’t like Katrina before, I liked her even less for leavin’ her man and cozyin’ up to Brom like he was a hot shot.

With Katrina droolin’ all over Brom and Brom promisin’ to teach her how to ride, Alex left with a mouthful of bad words for his wife. The mood in Sleepy Hollow, what with the death’s of Brom’s gang and the ugly business of man fighting for and losing a woman’s heart, was sour beyond even the medicinal powers of beer or the strongest whiskey.

A few days passed and the sour mood still hadn’t lifted. I was watchin’ Forbidden Planet on the bar’s beat-up TV. I’d never seen it before, but the story about a man whose murderous subconscious gets animated by alien machines was pretty good, if a bit beyond me in the technical details. In the back, Mojo washed dishes while whistlin’ one of those god-awful show tunes, don’t ask me which one. Sleepy Hollow was actually pretty quiet, even by Tuesday night standards. A phone call explained things.

“You know Katrina Crane?” said Monk. It was one of them rhetorical questions; he knew damn well Katrina was a regular.

“What happened now? You catch her and Brom doin’ the mambo?”

“She’s dead, Rip,” said Monk. “Same as Brom’s boys. We found her not far from her home. It seems she’d been riding Brom’s bike. A Triton, right?”

A Triton. Triumph engine, Norton frame. A classic beauty. That was Brom’s, all right. I figured he’d been givin’ Katrina lessons.

“Where’s Alex?”

“Don’t know,” I said. “Hasn’t been around since Saturday.”

The Sheriff hung up on me, his mood worse than ever. Couldn’t blame him. That serial killer had been a nightmare…now the whole town was gettin’ spooked by somethin’ that couldn’t be dismissed as gang violence, or whatever excuse they’d come up with to explain the Bone Riders’ deaths. Even the usual gang preferred not to hang out at Sleepy Hollow on account of the rumors and whispers.

Brom was sittin’ at the bar, though, quiet as a church mouse for a change. I argued with myself as to whether to share the bad news with him or not, than figured that since his bike was at the scene, he’d find out soon enough. Then Alex walked in, his face redder than a taste tester at a chili cook-off, and screamed at Brom.

“You killed her! You and you’re stupid bike! If she hadn’t been riding it, she’d still be alive.”

What Alex didn’t say was that maybe Brom would be dead instead, but Brom caught the drift. It made sense - that is, if this whole thing really was about someone gunnin’ to take out all of the Bone Riders and mistakin’ Katrina for Brom’s crew. But Brom didn’t argue – he just grabbed Alex by the neck and pushed him outside. I followed, only to find the two fellahs gettin’ on their bikes. I expected they were goin’ to settle things by seeing once and for all who was master of the road. Fearin’ for the worse, especially with the Sun goin’ down, I revved up my Bonneville – a beautiful noise – and followed along.

To be continued...


TFPO column: ralph nader - an inconvenient man?

I’m currently reading Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality in particular intrigues me. So far, it’s a bit like swimming in quicksand. He is not an especially analytical writer/philosopher/theorist, in that his text does fall into the traditional reason/evidence-supported thesis model. For example, he declares that Disneyland is a simulation of America, to the point that America is, itself, Disneyland – a simulacrum that replaces reality.
Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the "real" country, all of "real" America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.
Interesting, but he doesn’t really elaborate or prove his idea through logical or empirical means. Maybe he’s not playing with a full alphabet of letters. There’s a glimmer of something, though, but considering that Baudrillard tends to write obscurely, it’s hard not to suspect that this is why postmodernism gets such a bad rap. Perhaps even more so than Derrida, Baudrillard’s writings need explanation from in order to extract something sensible. (Although, even these “explanations” tend to be declarative, of the order that “Baudrillard says X,” which doesn’t help.) After all, what are we do with sentences like “If one envisions the entire cycle of any act or event in a system where linear continuity and dialectical polarity no longer exist, in a field unhinged by simulation, all determination evaporates, every act is terminated at the end of the cycle having benefited everyone and having been scattered in all directions.”

Derrida, I can understand. Baudrillard, however, has yet to be proven. Simulacra and Simulation is a carnival of free-association. Having said that, I’m rather interested in the transformation of Ralph Nader from public hero to public pariah. Although you won’t find a hint of Baudrillard in this week’s column, I’m wondering if perhaps Ralph Nader doesn’t exist…replaced, as it were, by a simulation of Nader manipulated through the media to serve various political and economical interests. From the heroic to the destructive, Nader is lost as an agency, replaced instead with a monetized sign-value whose currency trades at various, mostly decreasing, values depending on one’s agenda. But there I go, getting weird. I’ll stop and refer you back to normal speak in this week’s column, in which I truly come to appreciate Ralph Nader and his efforts to better the country.

Ralph Nader: An Inconvenient Man?

And I highly recommended seeing "An Unreasonable Man."


film review: up

A buddy of mine took his three-year-old to see UP, which is rated PG, and then was very much the outraged daddy when the kiddo bawled his eyes out from the surprisingly intense violence. But before even the worse of these, I was surprised when, early on, the film's hero Carl hits someone over the head with his cane and draws blood. Bonafide, red blood. I can't remember the last time I saw that in a Disney or Pixar film. Full review at TFPO:

After Up Must Come Down


new theatre review: cymbeline

Los Angeles continues to surprise me...the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon is something of a revelation. The production of Cymbeline, however...not so much.

Deciding Whether to Toast or Roast Shakespeare in the Canyon

long road ghost - part 6 of 9

That urban legend sure got creepy, though, when police found Sick Jimmy, Nasty Nasty, and Potatohead, heads cut off and left lying on the groud next to their bodies, about thirty miles out of Baker. Their souped-up choppers were only slightly trashed.

“I don’t want to hear about that serial killer crap,” the Sheriff said. “He’s dead, and these losers sure aren’t women.” A lean black man vainly trying to keep a white beard off his face, Sheriff Jackson Monk was ornery in the way only lawmen can be. He and I went way back, even to high school. But where I took to ambushing rich cagers with the Fire Kings to steal their money, Monk, that badass goody two-shoes, went on the police academy. He’s the one who put me away. But all that was ancient history. We were both gettin’ too old for the past, so we got along as best as we could. He turned down an offer of beer, but listened plenty as I told him what I knew. Not very much, really. The boys had come in for a drink and left when there was no sign of Katrina.

“Cocksucker!” came a scream; Brom, comin’ in with a demon look on his face and headin’ straight for Alex.

“You couldn’t fight ‘em fair, you fuckin’ cage monkey, so you had to ambush ‘em like a coward, huh?”

Alex protested while duckin’ out of the way of Brom’s mean right hook, then got angry, pointin’ out how Brom wasn’t gettin’ along all that well with his boys either.

“Were they making deals behind your back?” he said, makin’ Brom even madder.

Monk laid down the law on their asses and everyone piped down. Katrina couldn’t confirm that he’d been home that night – he went out for a night ride, he said, to get over his fear from the pumpkin stunt. Brom was out “on business,” which meant drugs and rival gangs, which meant he wasn’t goin’ to cough up an alibi unless his ass was covered first and he had absolutely no choice.

“Whoever did it was a real pro,” Monk said. His voice had more gravel than a quarry. “Rode up beside them and chopped their heads clean off. He hunted and chased every one of them down.”

“Must be some rider,” I agreed. “’Specially if none of the traffic saw him do it.” I didn’t feel sorry for those boys, except, maybe, for the fact that they didn’t get a chance to really grow up. Twenty-somethin’ and nothin’ to show for it but beheaded corpses and a short life of crime. And to think, they could’ve been me if I hadn’t straightened out.

“Better than anyone you know?”

I took a long look at the Sheriff and nodded. You can do some badass shit on a bike. Hell, I seen bikes to some badass shit to riders. That bitch in the back, the one that those dumbass t-shirts keep sayin’ fell off? She didn’t fall off. That bitch is Death and she always goes along for the ride, clutchin’ tightly. That’s the way we like it; fast, hard, relentless.

But I reckoned that chasin’ and decapitatin’ folks on bikes took some doin’, more than anyone I know could do.

“It was the rider,” someone said. “I seen ‘em.”

Monk and I looked around the room until we saw whose lips were yappin’; some guy who slinked into a corner chair with a beer or ten. I hadn’t spoken to him much, though Mojo swore it was Santa Claus takin’ a vacation from the North Pole. Mojo was right, if you wanted to believe that Santa Claus rode a sweet red 1950s Indian Chief instead of a sleigh and summered in California.

“He had no…he had no head,” Santa Claus went on. “He swung this bla…this bla…blade that shined like the moon. He was on fire..fire…kinda…”

Monk gave me the kind of look that said he wished he could pistol-whip the drunk sunavabitch for babblin’ on with nonsense; the Sheriff had heard plenty of headless riders stories used to explain everythin’ from bad drivin’ to missin’ doggies. But Santa Claus didn’t stay conscious for long and Monk moseyed out of the bar with a mean, unhappy look on his face – the kind that said he’d be back to get what he’s lookin’ for.

Tune in next week for Part 7...


TFPO column: evaluate this - when marketing is medicine

Note: I accidentally put in the wrong hyperlink to my column. That has been corrected.

The topic of skepticism came up in a recent discussion with a friend who was under the impression that skepticism is nothing more than total doubt. There's the skeptic, running around and pissing on everybody's truth claims, laughing maniacally as balloons pop and dreams come crashing down. But there's a flip side to this caricature, namely, that of the incredulous fellow whose mind is so open his or her brains leak out like pudding from a microwave.

In fact, skepticism is a middle ground. Rightly associated with the scientific method, the best and most reliable method of obtaining knowledge of the natural world, skepticism is all about evidence-driven reasoning. The Skeptics Society lays it out very well in their mission statement. And with that preface, this week's topic is precisely about the need for skepticism in situations when marketing takes the place of medicine found in science.

Evaluate This: When Marketing is Medicine