Monday, March 18, 2013


So by the same reasoning which makes me sure that the Korellians will revolt in favor of prosperity, I am sure we will not revolt against it. The game will be played out to its end.

So then, said Jael, you're establishing a plutocracy. You're making us a land of traders and merchant princes. Then what of the future?

Mallow lifted his gloomy face, and exclaimed fiercely, What business of mine is the future? No doubt Seldon has foreseen it and prepared against it. There will be other crises in time to come when money and power has become as dead a force as religion is now. Let my successors solve those new problems, as I have solved the one of today.

I recently made the mistake of reading a few snippets of Isaac Asimov's science fiction novel, Foundation. The book was lying around at home for a few weeks while Laura was reading it—and while I envied her for getting to read the novel for the first time. Days later, those few snippets I read ended up becoming the entire novel, thus marking what I believe is the fourth time I've read this book.

Foundation is like Frank Herbert's Dune in that both are books that I first read as a teenager, both are books that comprise the beginning of an epic science fiction series, and both are books whose nuances, I think it's fair to say, no teenager can appreciate. They're also the two books I've reread the most times, science fiction or otherwise.

Yet despite my three previous readings of Foundation, there were many details new to me in this latest reread. For instance, religion. I had completely forgotten that religion had a role for the early Foundation, as the fledgling planetary nation quite purposefully set up a religion with which to subdue its more powerful neighbors. By the way, this is the specific purpose of word religion in the quote above, not a trashing of religion in general.

Other new details from the book came out not as a consequence of my having forgotten previous reads but instead from better relating the events in the book to our own planet's real history of crumbling empires. In Part 2 (The Encyclopedists), there's the imperial archaeologist who thinks good research involves little else but to weigh the arguments made by previous scholars—a backwards vision that serves as a prelude to any good dark age. In Part 3 (The Mayors), there's the Foundation's hostile neighbor, Anacreon, relying on a centuries-old, restored Imperial cruiser for the bulk of its naval power, just as mighty empires are not usually brought down by foreigners using foreign-made weapons but by periphery upstarts turning the empire's own technologies against it. In Part 5 (The Merchant Princes), there's the backstory of the imperial admiral plotting against the emperor, a reminder how though empires are finally conquered by a foreign general, it's the ones on the inside who do the most damage on the way down. None of the nuance in these examples, I'm sure, I understood in any of my earlier readings.

Barr's face darkened. Civil wars are chronic in these degenerate days, but Siwenna had kept apart. Under Stannell VI, it had almost achieved its ancient prosperity. But weak emperors mean strong viceroys, and our last viceroy—the same Wiscard, whose remnants still prey on the commerce among the Red Stars—aimed at the Imperial purple. He wasn't the first to aim. And if he had succeeded, he wouldn't have been the first to succeed.

Did Laura have as much as 5% of my enthusiasm while she read the book? I don't know. I tell her the series is worth continuing, as the first book's linear plot eventually gives way in subsequent books to twists and surprises that are as epic as anything in the genre. And both the writing and characters improve—or at least become more immediately gratifying. The first book, stylistically, isn't much more than a lot of guys talking. And by guys I mean that literally—there's exactly one female character in the entirety of the novel, and it's a minor role encompassing just a few pages.

As for me, I think I'll take my own advice: I've placed a hold at the public library for series's second novel, Foundation and Empire. One may eventually run out of Kurt Vonnegut novels to read, but that's hardly as much a problem with Isaac Asimov books—especially when there's so much good rereading to do.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


A sad thought for me is that the total number of books I can read in a lifetime is smaller than the number of good books that exist. Yet, another sad thought is that someday I'll run out of Kurt Vonnegut books to read. Here's a list of the Vonnegut books I have read—maybe in the order I read them, though I can't be sure.

  1. Player Piano
  2. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
  3. Breakfast of Champions
  4. Slaughterhouse-Five
  5. Cat's Cradle
  6. Mother Night

According to Wikipedia's list of his novels, Vonnegut wrote fourteen, leaving me with eight unread.

Monday, March 4, 2013


One of the great surprises of my childhood was learning how to read music notation and realizing that all music is reducible to mere notes. This may seem absurd to a lot of people; after all, what else would music be reducible to? But at the time it was incomprehensible to me that music is reducible at all. Music comprises a wide spectrum of sound, from the grandeur of a multi-movement orchestral symphony to the simplicity of a solo voice singing a folk song, from the pop music on the radio to the sounds of my sister's piano practice emanating from downstairs those years ago. Not all music appeals to me, but of the kinds that do they seem too special—too magical—to be made of the same building blocks as are other forms of music.

Some wholes are greater than the sum of their parts, and music is one example of such a gestalt whole. Without prior training and experience to know any better, how could one predict the utter difference between a C-G chord and a C-F# chord? One sounds open and pure, the other harsh like a car horn. Yet the three notes played individually each sound plain and ordinary. The individuals give no clue as to what their combined form will be.

Music is only one such emergent behavior, and one of the overarching joys of my life has been discovering and learning about how everything else that's special and amazing we see in the universe is similarly made up only of simple building blocks. One such other whole that's greater than the sum of its parts is modern computing and software. This may seem mundane to a lot of people, but by the fact that you're reading this blog post means you see at least the effects of the magic in front of you right now. Use Wolfram Alpha to search for distance to the sun in inches or use Google Maps to search for a bike-friendly route to the nearest pizza place: to such fuzzy questions you'll get answers in fuzzy English, but under the hood it's nothing but ones and zeros—which is to say it's just electrons getting pushed to and fro in circuit boards. How can anyone look at a bag of transistors and capacitors and other electronic components and see the Internet arising from such simple parts? I suspect no one really does, but it's important that we try.

In his book Six Easy Pieces, the physicist Richard Feynman writes:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.