Asimov and the Orange Box


I am re-reading the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. This will be the second time; the first was back in the 90s. I have listened to some portions of the audio books, but only in sporadic and incomplete bursts, like most of my audio book experiences. Nevertheless, I am committed to reading the trilogy once again. I recently bought a hardcover edition that includes all three books: Foundation , Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. There are a lot more Foundation books, which include various prequels, sequels, and spin-offs, but I am really only interested in the classic story arc dealing with Terminus.

Inspired by Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Foundation Trilogy is about the fall of a sprawling Galactic Empire and a small, secluded planet at the edge of the galaxy engineered to function as a haven for human knowledge. This haven is actually one of two such planets at opposite ends of the galaxy known collectively as the Foundation. Harry Seldon, mathematical prophet and founder of the Foundation, develops a branch of mathematics called psychohistory, a mathematical sociology that enables him to predict the future on a  large scale. He calculates the fall of the Galactic Empire, warns of a subsequent thirty thousand year dark age, and advocates a plan to minimize this dark age down to a single millennium. This plan becomes known as the Seldon Plan and involves the creation and development of the Foundation planets. Initially, the Seldon Plan calls for the creation of a great compendium, the Encyclopedia Galactica, to preserve human knowledge through the coming dark age. However, it is later revealed that the Encyclopedia was a ruse, an act of misdirection. Its real purpose was to concentrate a group of skilled scientists on a remote planet with the long term goal of revitalizing the fallen empire. Much of the Seldon Plan operates in this way. A crises emerges and like a deus ex machina the Seldon Plan manifests itself with a solution. Everything is prearranged and ordered according to the logic of psychohistory.

I always found the character of Harry Seldon and his psychohistory fascinating. The idea that sociopolitical events could be predicted using mathematics captured my imagination and drew me in like a magnet.  The intersection of history and mathematics, a rare Venn diagram of interests, but one with personal appeal, found surprising expression in the opening pages of Foundation. What’s more, years later I would discover that some mathematicians and scientists actually believe in a kind of psychohistory that may enable us to predict large, sociopolitical events in the future. Whether it is psychohistory or some quantum computer aided statistics of the future, most mathematicians agree that any future equations of society will only work on a large scale dealing with large aggregate populations.

On the video game front, I completed Batman:Arkham Asylum for the second time. I have played through the single player story mode on normal and now hard difficulty settings. This is the way I usually play games. The first time through is almost like a dry run in which I fumble my way through struggling with the mechanics of the game and becoming acquainted with whatever inventory system/experience point grid the game might have. The second time around I fly through the game and actually enjoy the action a lot more. Batman:Arkham Asylum was a really great game the second time around. With a stronger grasp of the fundamentals, I better employed the stealth combat style to defeat enemies gracefully and the detective work required to solve the Riddler’s Challenges. Of course this second time through strategy won’t fare very well with extremely long games like Oblivion or Baldur’s Gate.

Meanwhile, I traded Batman:Arkham Asylum and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 in at GameStop and finally got The Orange Box. It was marked at $29.99, but with the trade-ins it only cost me $5. Whenever people complain about GameStop, I am always amazed. I always have a good experience. The Orange Box is a game compilation, a box-set of sorts from Valve, featuring Half-Life 2, Portal, and Team Fortress. Back in the 1990s, when I first got a computer, I played Half Life for hours and hours. The game was so ahead of its time with dynamic story telling and interactive non-playing characters. One of my fondest gamer memories was finally emerging from the Black Mesa Research facility only to discover that military black ops were out to kill Gordon Freeman. I never played Half Life 2. It took too long to come out and by the time it did I lacked sufficient computer hardware, money for a console, time to play…life simply got in the way. Now I can finally play Half Life 2. What’s more, I can also finally play Portal and see what everybody is raving about. I have thus far completed the first three parts of the 11 parts of Half Life 2 and have completed about 10 Test Chambers in Portal. I think I will be playing the Orange Box for a while.

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Bad Movies, Good Docs, and Robopocalypse

I just relaxed for most of the Labor Day weekend. I avoided taking on any large, ambitious projects. This always leaves me feeling guilty. There is this vague checklist in my head, a list of things I should be doing and should have done, and nothing I do ever gives me a sense of completion. Perhaps I just miss school.

I watched a lot of bad movies and a few good documentaries over the weekend. I think I have exhausted all the good movies available and am only left with the crud at the bottom. I was unable to even sit through these films in their entirety, turning them off less than 50% of the way through. These included The Expendable (25%), Battle: Los Angeles (45%), and Attack The Block (15%). The last film has garnered a lot of good reviews and features a tenuous connection with Hot Fuzz with actor Nick Frost and director/writer Joe Cornish, but the whole British hip-hop scene of Jamaican accented teens dressing and behaving like American  gangster rappers really turned me off. And right from the beginning the story asks way too much of the viewer: Are we really supposed to sympathize with a character who mugs an innocent women of her jewelry?

At least I had a good backlog of documentaries in my Netflix cue. This is my great fallback position; when in doubt and out of ideas watch a documentary. I watched Botany of Desire and Helvetica. Botany of Desire deals with the history of four plants (Apples, Tulips, Potatoes, and Marijuana) and their relationship with humans. The film argues that the way these plants appeal to humans, Apples for sweetness, Tulips for beauty, Potatoes for sustenance, and Marijuana for pleasure, is an adaptation that has created a symbiotic relationship with humans and has enabled these plants to evolve and flourish for centuries throughout the planet. Helvetica is a documentary about the eponymous sans-serif font, an independent film dealing with typography, graphic design, and global visual culture. An 80 minute film about typeface fonts…what more could you possibly want?

I finished reading Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson. My initial reaction was pretty negative. The whole thing seemed like a ripoff of World War Z, the brilliant zombie apocalypse book by Max Brooks. However, about 100 pages into the story, the novel starts to assert itself. The initial seemingly random cast of characters are fleshed out and solidified with recurring appearances, each having their own continuity that often intersects with other characters. What started out as a verbal history of an event conveyed through security cameras and interviews turns into a well rounded plot. My favorite parts were near the end when the writer gets inside the head of the freeborn robot Nine Oh Two. These freeborn robots break free from the enslaved control of the AI Archos, the villain of the story also known as “the Big Rob” who is directing the war against humanity. It is really interesting the way these robot allies regard their human comrades. From what I understand, Robopocalypse is slated to be made into a movie direct by none other than Steven Spielberg. It will probably make a really good movie, especially with DreamWorks behind it. As a book it was a lot of fun, a mediocre read at worst, nothing that will keep Charles Stross awake at night, but still a good read and with only a 350 page length it didn’t absorb too much of my time.