Sir Francis Bacon

Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend.

--Of Studies--

Second Foundation - Physics versus Psychics

~1100 words

New Interesting Words!

Licentious - adj - Unconcerned with law or moral standards, especially a lack of sexual restraint

Crinoline - noun - a type of petticoat resembling a hoop skirt (19th century fasion)

For the past few years I have made it my business to familiarize myself with the important authors of science fiction. I have read selections from the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Orson Scott Card, and I am currently puttering my way through Issac Asimov's Foundation series.

In case you are not familiar with Asimov, he wrote a number of influential works, including the foundation series (naturally), the "greater" foundation series, which includes the foundation, robot and galactic empire series, and some of his works were made into fairly famous movies. You might remember "I, Robot" starring Will Smith, and "Bicentennial Man" starring Robin Williams. He established his reputation in the pulp science fiction magazines writing short stories, and by the age of 21 he wrote 'Nightfall', a work of social science fiction that brought him to the forefront of science fiction.

Some weeks ago now I finished Second Foundation, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The thing that amused me was not so much his wry wit (which was also very funny) as his deft and shameless plot contortions.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the the series, the Foundation, after which the series of books is named, is a scientific society dedicated to the physical sciences, planted at the end of the galaxy. The Galactic Empire, which has held for thousands of years, is crumbling, and this one beacon of enlightenment will shorten the thirty thousand years of barbarism after the fall of the empire to a mere millennium. All of this is based in a predictive, statistical science called "psychohistory", which can predict social trends for large groups thousands of years into the future. Somewhere in the middle of the second book (Second Foundation is the third ironically enough), a mutant, unpredictable by statistical methods, conquers the Foundation. That being done, the only thing left to do is to chase the rumor of a second foundation, which was concealed upon its inception. It's almost an underworld of intergalactic politics, a concealed organization dedicated to the preservation of "mental science", which includes psychohistory.

They communicate with their minds, inferring entire sentences from small facial gestures. At least that's the first theory. Later on Asimov seems almost to change his mind, relying the a latent psychic ability of the human animal.

The first Foundation is dedicated to the physical sciences. Anti-gravity ships, hand held nuclear devices, ray guns, that sort of standard sci-fi fare. These are all natural extensions of the sorts of things we have today. In these instances I always find it more interesting what a sci-fi author doesn't predict, as opposed to what he does.

For example, the Foundation universe is analog. People still use paper, data is stored strictly in read/write devices, and people do their math by hand. This is the future before the pocket calculator. Somewhere near the end he goes on for a whole paragraph about this device he has that is so much better than it's primitive ancient-earth version. The device? the logarithmic slide rule.

Completely analog. Also fantastic. The slide rule (in the right hands) can calculate multiplication, division, trigonometric ratios, square roots, logarithms, and more, depending on the model. They used these all the time in the days before the scientific calculator. Reading about slide rules sixty gazillion years in the future made me giggle like a little girl.

The physicists are pitted against the psychics, who are guardians of the "Seldon Plan", a map through history of the Foundation's sociopolitical status. The idea is that today's encephalographic analysis plus the then burgeoning science of psychology yields scientific control over the mind. Once the first foundation re-establishes centralized galactic government, the second foundation will swoop in and become the ultra-intelligent ruling class that, by virtue of their powers over the minds of their proletariat, will rule indefinitely. Most of these mind games, interestingly enough, concern not blatant thought control, idea implanting or mind reading, but emotional control. That is, control over a subject's emotional state. Best way to stop rebellion? Give your troops an artificial loyalty to the cause. Best way to conceal your existence? Make everyone in the vicinity completely unconcerned with you.

Mind powers, unfortunately, have fallen into disfavour (even ill repute) in most science fiction these days. Having read this book, I can hypothesize a few theories which my commenters are more than welcome to prove false if they so desire. First, psychic powers are not scientific enough for science fiction. The whole "latent ability" argument doesn't really hold water because if it were true we would never have invented manual communication. Dolphins are a possibility though. Second, it is more difficult for a reader to sympathize with a character that is fundamentally distinct from normal human experience. You can't just say, "your brain is not capable of understanding this exchange", and expect the reader to say "wow! that's pretty awesome". They are more likely to say "wow! Now I don't know what to think." Third, the science of biochemistry and molecular biology has more or less demystified many of the gray areas authors of all sorts liked to play in. I would love to digress into how neurology has killed the ghost in the machine, but I'll save that for another post..

The Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Definitely worth the read.

PS: I noticed as I was writing this, the words "physics" and "Psychics" are almost anagrams of one another. All "physics" needs is another 'c'.


Sorry everyone, this isn't a real post. I need to publish a verification code for Technorati before I can be added to their indexes.

A shameless ploy to increase readership.

Here's the code:


I expect I'll have another post ready for my loyal blogonauts by monday or so.

Necrology 1

Just to let my loyal listeners know, I have set up a separate page on which I will post interesting vocabulary when I come across it. You may have noticed one such digression in my post "From Bleeding to Brooding." Well I have two more, and I am now keeping them in a neat and tidy, alphabetized list for quick and easy reference. Somewhere near the top of your page should be a little link that says "Interesting Words." It will actually likely be more interesting to people who don't read my posts on a regular basis, but having more content is a plus, even if it is recycled old content.

{insert joke about politicians / news media / re-run channels}

Might as well get the two I found out of the way then. I suppose I will try to begin each post with such an entry. We'll see how it goes. Depends on whether I find any.

moribund - adjective - 1. near death 2. In a state of stagnation or obsolescence

nescient ('nay-see-ent) - adjective - according to Webster's a bit of a catch-all, but primarily ignorant, uneducated, lacking knowledge or sophistication. Also, unenlightened, innocent, artless, gutless, and illiterate.

As in, my friend finds my opinion nescient.

I was having an interesting discussion today, stemming from a short story I've been working on. The story roughly concerns temporal mishaps, and without giving too much away, death is involved. He recommended a book called "Death and Dying - Challenge and Change", an anthology of essay excerpts, all about the various aspects of death as they relate to individuals and societies. Or at least, the individual and society thirty years ago when the book was written. It was a textbook for a course my friend had taken in University, and he was more than happy to lend it to me. It is organized into various sections (one or two of which I might skip), and the first concerns itself with the changing meanings of dying and death. The angle that interests me is how the changing meaning of death alters the underlying mythological framework of modern society.

The first article I read, "On the Dying of Death" by Robert Fulton, I will be blunt, was not Dostoevsky. His academic leanings were evident in his endless run-on sentences. Nevertheless he mades an interesting argument.

Fulton asserts that death is dead (or dying) due to the removal of death from daily life. He has some more provocative (and therefore more interesting) opinions toward the end of the article, but that is the main point. His attack is two pronged.

The industrialization of America (which effectively [and ostensibly] includes Canada, henceforward I will refer to them collectively as "the continent"), brought about a radical change to both the organizational structure and underlying philosophy of the continent. This included the centralization of medicine, whereby patients travel to doctors, doctors no longer travel to patients. Effectively, people die in hospitals far more frequently these days than they do at home. Back when the continent was predominantly rural, a person was allowed the dignity of cashing in their chips from the comfort of their own bed. In this case, the family would deal directly with the dying person as they were dying, and the family generally had to take care of the funeral service and burial themselves as well. These days, someone about to die is rushed to a hospital where select family members hold their hand in a foreign environment. Fulton suggests that this works against a natural and healthy grief cycle.

He also says that this continent has raised an entire generation (by now two) that is(are) emotionally stunted. Children are protected from death. They are often not allowed into the rooms of dying people, and are actively discouraged from attending funeral services (when indeed they occur at all). Children are denied the chance to engage in this ultimate expression of the natural course of life. This makes it very difficult for a person, later in life, to come to terms with their own mortality. Fulton says this is like sweeping the problem under the carpet. Programmers might call this the ostrich method. It is evident in the very language we use. We have one thousand and one euphamisms for death, and to discuss death is a social tabboo.

When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, or rather, when he constructed his absolutely stable society in which every adult was conditioned to achieve regulated emotional states, he recognized this need. I seem to remember a scene, the noble savage is in a hospital wing with his dying mother, and suddenly a whole class of four-year-olds are released into the room to be "death conditioned". Essentially, the children were exposed to death so they would come to terms with their own mortality, which destroys a great deal of angst and worry. I don't know if the reader has read Brave New World (I highly recommend it), but this utopia is all about not worrying about things. Just take a Soma holiday. These preschoolers are found repugnant by the noble savage, who represents the world as it was before the social apocalypse that produced the utopia. It is interesting, Huxley said we should abhor it, and Fulton says we should embrace it.

I just googled it, and apparently some drug company actually named a drug after Aldous Huxley's Soma. Incredible.

Being a person who occasionally reads obituaries, I have noticed a recent trend in ceremonial burial. A lack thereof. Increasingly people are rejecting funeral services, opting for direct burial or cremation without wakes or visitations, processes useful for the grieving family. Again, it is denial of death, an unwillingness to accept that grief has power over our lives. It is my opinion that insisting on a direct burial without thought for your family is narcissistic, but that is beside the point. Here is an experiment, ask your boss how many weeks you get off in the event of a death in your immediate family.

The net effect is that death, by and large, becomes meaningless for the average citizen of the continent. Look to the news. Death every day. Look to books and films. Violent, gory, tragic, sudden, comic, death. Real death is inaccessible and entertainment is filled with artificial death, I think to fill the void. It would be interesting to compare the number of deaths on television and in reality over a couple of months. The problem with this of course is that if death is meaningless, then so is life, and by extension the entire concept of immortality. Homer used to tell very long epics about immortal people. Today the only reason you would talk about an immortal is to prove their mortality.

Of course, I have been interested to note that Mario has gone from mortal to immortal. If you lose all your lives in Super Mario Brothers, you start again from the beginning. Ever since the "infinite continue", Mario has been effectively immortal. And don't even get me started on saving your game.

image by ~xiaobluexz of An excellent artist who posted an excellent study of human anatomy.

Cross Reference

I'm approximately halfway through book one of Crime and Punishment, which equates to about 1/12 of the book total (if you don't count the epilogue). I noticed some interesting things while reading, and I thought I'd share them with my loyal readers.

Before we start though, let me say that the story is engrossing. One does not usually think of 19th century translations thus, but this is evidently an exceptional case.

I must praise Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the translators for this modern edition of an old book. The prose flows easily from the page, and they include a large number of textual notes that elucidate the unschooled proletarians' understanding of the story. Whether they comment that Raskolnikov is wearing the same type of hat Dostoevski posessed, or that St. Petersburg experiences very little night in the summer due to its lattitude, they are all insightful and increase my understanding of the text.

Two such textual notes left me spinning a bit, as they consisted entirely of references to passages in the Bible. I find it interesting that in this day and age the translator would assume the reader have ready access to a Bible. These days one would just ask the Internet, but this 17 year old translation predates the widespread use thereof. At any rate, the house in which I live is the sort of place where one can find such books laying about on sideboards and writing desks, so I was in need of no such electronic assistance.

The references were twofold. In the story, an old drunk, Marmeladov, is soliloquizing his woes to the primary protagonist (also antagonist, depending on your perspective) Raskolnikov, including the fate of his daughter, forced to a life of prostitution to support her destitute family. He says that on judgement day his daughter will be selected among the chosen, forgiven for her sins because it was for love of her family that she sold herself to such an ungodly industry. The biblical reference, Luke 7:47, is as follows from the English Standard Edition:

"Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little."

It was as if he had to prove his argument, and did so by indirectly quoting scripture. Through the entire scene, what Marmeladov says to simultaneously assure and berate himself is more interesting than what he says to entreat Raskolnikov. In his self deprocating fashion, and in continuing with the judgement day theme, he says of himself and his kind (that is to say, drunks and oafs and layabouts) that they will stand before the lord like beasts and be marked and treated as such. The reference here is Revelations 13:15-16, which I will not quote here. Suffice to say it concerns the fate of man, decieved into worshipping the beast (read the devil). The passage itself was not what interested me. A few verses later, they mention the specific mark on the populace imposed by the beast, the number six hundred and sixty six.

I had always had a morbid curiosity concerning the origins of the mark of the beast, as it is still a very prevalent piece of modern mythology. I didn't exactly read the passage in context, but as with most things I imagine the symbology has been blown right out of proportion since it's original inception. It's all over the place really. In the first Harry Potter book, how old was the alchemist who synthesized the philosopher's (or sorceror's) stone when he died? 665. Try examining your local grafitti. My heart nearly stopped the other day when my lunch rang up six dollars and sixth six cents. I had thought the origins were most likely pagan, with a possibile nod to the apocrypha. Nope, turns out every bible I've ever held had the reference somewhere near the back.

Now, I call myself Christian, but I was unfamiliar with these two references. Both new testament, both cross referenced from my edition of Crime and Punishment. Hence, they are cross references. Hence the pun in the title.

From Bleeding to Brooding

I started Crime and Punishment today, even though I didn't get half way through the Iliad. Normally I would never flout the Schedule so openly, but I have simply had enough of my particularly abysmal translation.

I bought the book because I liked the Odyssey, more accurately a late 19th century translation thereof, and imagined that buying from the same publisher would yield a book of similar quality. I was wrong. My brother warned me of the peril of buying thrift editions. I ended up with a early 20th century translation that makes several grievous, systematic, and unapologetic offenses on my opinion of the degree of liberty a translator should have when interpreting a story.

Offense number one. The translator, in his infinite wisdom, decided to replace all of the Greek names for their roman equivalents. If I'm going to read the Iliad, I want to hear about the Greeks, not the Romans. If I want to hear about the Romans I'll read Cicero. Yes, they are essentially equivalent, and yes, I could have survived without the Greek names. It's just irritating.

Offense number two. He decided to take a plethora of the ancient Greek phrases and insert what he perceived to be their twentieth century equivalents. Everyone who has ever been in a high school English class will know that filling your work with cliches does not make for a very engaging story. No, I'm not even going to throw a cliche in there to prove my point. That is also cliche. The worst part is I have no idea what Homer actually said, and half the fun in reading an ancient text is learning how people used to speak.

A possible three, call it two point five, would be that he doesn't include all the epithets. I know they're there, I read the Odyssey. For those of you in the blogosphere who have no idea what I'm talking about, an epithet is a word or phrase that precedes a character's name to provide description. They were used abundantly in Homer's Odyssey and Iliad because the original Greek is in verse, not prose, so epithets were used to correct the metering. Some examples: clear-eyed Athena, god-like Odysseus, rosy-fingered Dawn (who is more than once personified in this manner), and my personal favourite, Aegis-bearing Zeus. Don't paraphrase/disperse the epithets! They are important!

The book was also getting a bit onerous to read, because for pages and pages you see nothing but detailed accounts of the gruesome deaths of every single soldier who died. I'm sure it picks up later on, but it is not unusual for me to pick at Homer. Homer is my Brussels sprouts. I know I have to read him, and I do, but in manageable pieces.

At any rate, I cast aside my Greek epic (at least momentarily), and pick up Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Having only read the introduction and the first chapter at the time this post was published, I can assure more detailed and interesting posts to follow.

Some months ago, I was in a bookstore, and saw a copy of Crime and Punishment sitting innocuously in the bargain bin. Having heard of the story (who hasn't?) and wondering what the fuss was about, I read the first page. I came to the instant conclusion that I must at some point read this book. That day has come. The first page was better than I remember it, and the rest of the first chapter was pretty good too.

I also read the introduction, which was informative but left me slightly apprehensive. I seem to have stumbled upon a multi-layered, multifaceted work of artistic genius that penetrates deep into the brooding soul of humanity. It was all a bit too ostentatious for me, I was more interested in Dostoevsky's political and philosophical leanings. The turning point in his life, as I gather, was spending ten years in prison for fostering anti-governmental sentiment. Before that he was a liberal-minded writer, pro-communist, and enjoyed arguing with people about their political opinions. shortly after being released from prison he wrote a book entitled "Notes from the Underground." I gather it was a condemning satire of everything, including itself, and a stab at rationalist thought. One quote they quoted which I now quote: "Two times two is four is no longer life, gentlemen, but the beginning of death."

I have another book on my shelf that is of similar opinion. It is called "Voltaire's Bastards", by John Ralston Saul, and it is essentially a criticism of the entirety of western society for the last five hundred years. More on that when I start reading it again, which, I'll be honest, might be a while. It's another one of those sorts of books I pick at now and then. To be fair though, the thing is a monster (in terms of length and density of text).

By the way, here is your word of the day:
Polemic(puh-'lem-ik)- noun - A controversial argument, or, one who takes up a controversial argument.

"Notes form the Underground" echoed itself in just about everything Dostoevski wrote from that point on. Crime and Punishment was originally a grand argument against the Nihilists. He later revised it (i.e., used his first draft for kindling) and it transcended his somewhat dubious philosophical debates.

Crime and Punishment, in case you hadn't heard, is a murder mystery told from the perspective of the murderer. What makes it interesting is that the murder is as mysterious to the murderer (if not more) than it is to everyone else.

Should be a good book.

My recent trip to the bookstore

It was 20% off everything day a few days ago at my local bookstore. It concerned me that such a momentous occasion might go unnoticed by the vast majority of the proletariat. Yet, the store was bustling with the happy bookworms, myself included, so some at least noticed that knowledge had gone on sale for the weekend.

I acquired some books I have been meaning to read for some time, in complete disregard for the Schedule of course. I, for good or ill, have at least two books that I simply must finish before I touch these recent acquisitions, which would be bothersome if they were not excellent books as well. I make a habit of reading as many excellent books as I can.

I almost picked up a little book full of Robert Frost, but two things stayed my wallet. The publisher, in their great wisdom, had decided to print the inside cover with little snowflakes. It seemed so childish, sort of like the playground bullies, who twist people's names around to do them mental injury. I'm sure they thought it clever, but I found it in poor taste. They also wanted too much for it, even with the sale.

The books I obtained were the Silmarillion and the Prose and Poetic Eddas.

Those of you floating around the blogosphere who have ventured into the vast realms of J.R.R. Tolkien should recognize the Silmarillion, or at least it should sound vaguely familiar. I expect the Prose and Poetic Eddas are less known.

The Poetic Edda is a very old book of poetry written in the 13th century, and is highly important to our current understanding of Norse Mythology. The Prose Edda is the compliment to the poetic edda. Also written in the early 13th century, it was an effort to prevent the dilution of Norse culture by the spreading influence of Christianity, given that these stories, similar to Homer's epics, were part of an oral tradition. Like the Odyssey and the Iliad, the Prose and Poetic Eddas are cup and spoon. One can scarce be found without the other.

I have been attempting to make a study of classic mythologies, and the Eddas are running parallel to some really nice Greek epics I have been working on intermittantly for some time now. More on those in another post. I have particular interest in Norse mythology, given the degree to which it has infused itself in various subcultures.

I forget where I read it, possibly wikipedia, but the Eddas were a strong influence on J.R.R. Tolkien as he was writing the about Middle Earth. The Silmarillion (which I have been grossly mispronouncing for years. My current approach -> Sil-muh-'rill-ee-on ) was compiled in the seventies by J.R.R's son Christopher, who put it together essentially by sorting through and editing his father's notebooks and scratchpads. It is the backstory to the Lord of the Rings. So, first I read the Eddas, the backstory to J.R.R. Tolkien. Then I read the Silmarillion, the backstory to the Lord of the Rings. Then, perhaps, I read the Lord of the Rings again (maybe the hobbit too), and see what crops up.

Tolkien could be safely considered one of the greatest and most widely influential writers of fantasy fiction who ever lived, so in my mind he deserves a second look. I was quite young when I first read them and likely did not absorb all there was to absorb. I'd hate to think I'm dissecting him, but if I find any noteworthy nuggets I will certainly share it with the blogosphere.

Regardless, the Eddas stand on their own merits, as does the Silmarillion, but together they form such a comprehensive study that I almost want to drop my current book and pick these up immediately. But I can't of course. There are rules to these things after all, so I must find a slot for them in the Schedule.