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October 24, 2014


Favorite short stories:

"The Nine Billion Names of God"
"The Star"

Favorite non-typical Clarke


Favorite tropes:

Seldon crisis
"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent"

Wouldn't both of those tropes be Asimov's Foundation trilogy rather than Clarke?

I am covered in shame.

If that's the worst mistake you've made this week, you are having an exceptionally good week! ;-)

I am still surprised by how vividly I remember so many Arthur Clarke stories -- including the two Joel mentions as well as the Osmotic Bomb from the White Hart stories, and Rendezvous with Rama, which was one of the first stories that helped me understand how big the galaxy is, in both spatial and temporal terms.

I am covered in shame.

But props for the Hari Seldon shout out.

(The acceptable face of Marxism ?)

Rendezvous with Rama, what a wonderful reminiscence. Thanks for mentioning it. I tend toward Foundation and the Future History Stories, LeGuin and even Andre Norton because I love the concept of familiars. Clarkes works often come as an afterthought, but I love the reminder. And, even more than Seldon, Lazarus Long is an incredibly quotable character.

Yes, Heinlein's characters get quoted quite often.

This had me googling some stuff about 2001 that may be of interest


According to this, Martin Balsam was originally the voice of HAL.

I was struck by the Ridley Scott film, Prometheus, and how much the synthetic David sounded like HAL. This is an interesting take on HAL's orientation

Sadly, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma:


Hari Seldon ... The acceptable face of Marxism ?

Marx was good at diagnosing the ills of capitalism visible to him; he was truly awful at prediction on all time scales.

Are there any Marxists any more, any where in the world, who truly believe that history has laws like physics, and that dialectic takes a predictable course? I suspect not. Such a belief would be hard to hold, in the face of the complete failure of theory to predict outcomes. (When will the similar failure of US supply-side economic predictions [hello, Kansas!] similarly discourage it's quasi-religious adherents?)

Seldon's "laws" of psychohistory seem to me like Star Trek's warp drive: necessary to the plot, and unlikely ever to exist.

Back to Clarke: I mostly read his stuff back in the earliest sixties, a decade before Kubrick made 2001 out of "The Sentinel", and before the first _Rama_ was published. _A_Fall_Of_Moondust_, _Prelude_To_Space_, _The_Sands_of_Mars_, _Islands_In_The_Sky_, _Childhood's_End_. (I was buying cheap paperbacks off the drugstore rack with money from my paper route, and we were on our way to the moon, but hadn't gotten there yet.)

Other favorite SF from those days : Clifford Simak's stuff, Wyndham's Triffids, Sturgeon's _More_Than_Human_.

Asimov's and Heinlein's characters are quotable. But for good stories it is hard to beat James Schmitz. Demon Breed and the other Hub stories are hard to top.

Much love for the Scmitz reference

joel hanes,

in your question: I do, in fact, believe that Seldon's laws are possible. Human beings react, statistically taken, in preditable ways to external stimuli. The problem is to find out all these laws and to measure reliably the initial state.

Classical economics, which was the ground that Marxism built on, is a failure because it is a too simple model. Men are not rational, and even when they are rational in a wider sense, they are not economically rational.

Non-classical economics, whose most vocal proponent is Paul Krugman, have done a lot to account for human irrationality.

I think that, like weather and turbulence, the course of large-scale human interaction will prove to be impossible to predict even with very good information about initial conditions.

And the "external stimuli" are another problem. What kind of science could have made the detailed prediction that in late 2013 a child exposed to blood from a hammerhead bat would become infected with Ebola? And yet large consequences have flowed from that incident.

Obligatory relevant SF :
"A Sound Of Thunder", Ray Bradbury


I am familiar with the problems of chaotic systems. It is beyond doubt that any model of human society would have chaotic properties. Yet, chaotic systems are not unpredictable. They have typically a number of attractors that have large probabilities. Even if we cannot predict what an individual human does, it is well wihin bounds of possibility to estimate a rate of infections of African children from new strains of Ebola and to introduce this into a larger model.

In fact, this behaviour of chaotic systems was even known to Isaac Asimov whose speculation on psychohistory envisioned exactly a model like that. This is not surprising: Asimov was a competent physicist.

Part of the problem with models to "predict human behavior" stems from a widespread lack of understanding of statistics. People think that, if a prediction isn't 100% accurate every time, the whole basis theory must be not just imperfect but wrong. That's why they are so caustic when, for example, an election race in which a model says a candidate has a 66% chance of winning, sees the candidate with 1 chance in 3 actually win. Not realizing that, if a model said 2 chances in 3, but that candidate always won, the model would be even more seriously flawed. Even though its prediction was, to the ignorant, "more accurate."

Agreed that you cannot predict with any certainty what an individual human being will do. But you can (and we routinely do today) predict what portion of a population will react in a particular way in response to specific stimuli. that, after all, is what advertising and politics are all about. Both, admittedly, are still more art than science in most cases. But they still work on the basis of "If I do X, I can get a lot of people to do Y."

Nor can you predict specific black-swan-type phenomena -- kind of by definition. But you can roughly estimate, based on past evidence, how often such a phenomena will typically occur. And make reasonable estimates of what masses of human beings will do in response to specific kinds of stimuli. So you can incorporate into your model things like "how will people react to a new plague, or the possibility of one" (however you want to define "plague").

It is perhaps noteworthy that two of the features of Asimov's psychohistory projections were that a) it was seriously weakened when it tried to calculate what specific individuals would do. And b) its calculations could get disrupted by a black swan (the Mule). Which indicates that it still had serious weaknesses overall -- hence the on-going work of the Second Foundation to refine the model.

Agreed that you cannot predict with any certainty what an individual human being will do.

Show me any individual human being and I predict (with 100% certainty) there was a birth and there will be a death.

The stuff in between? Who the f*ck knows.

there was a birth and there will be a death.

Um. And taxes ?

It had to be said.

I seem to recall some years back someone asked a prominent science fiction writer (or was it Carl Sagan?): "What do you think is the life expectancy of a child born today?" To which the answer was: "I'm afraid it may be infinite."

So taxes are a safe prediction. But death may be a less safe one. At least at some point.

Under "it had to be said" one should also add, for believers, the possibility of religious exemption(s) to the "100% certainty" of death. The fact that no one on ObWi has hitherto pointed this out is more an expression of our demographic or collective mindset than a guarantee of universally accepted truth.

I must disagree, Dr. All believers that I know of accept the fact of death; they just don't believe that death=extinction of the person.

As an unbeliever, I was amused by this question posed by the mathematician John Allen Paulos in his book Innumeracy:

It's been estimated that, because of the exponential growth of the world's population, between 10 and 20 percent of all the human beings who have ever lived are alive now. If this is so, does this mean that there isn't enough statistical evidence to conclusively reject the hypothesis of immortality?

JakeB: I know many believers whose creed includes the "translation" into heaven (without death) of Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament and the future "rapture" of believers when Christ returns: "Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with Him in the clouds . . ." In such a faith, death is NOT 100% certain. I'm not sure if there are equivalent beliefs in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, but I suspect there might be. Never Say Never.


You're right, I totes forgot about the Rapture.

As it happens, I recall Sam Harris using the fusiform gyrus (may possibly be the wrong brain structure, as I read End of Faith more than 10 years ago) as an example of why the whole idea of being with your loved ones in heaven didn't make sense: you can't recognize faces without a functioning fusiform gyrus, so how can you, as a spirit being, recognize one bit of heavenly ectoplasm as being different from the next? But if you were bodily translated, you escape all those problems.

Yes, but the Rapture only takes people directly into Heaven that are alive at the time. Those people who are dead and in the ground are, obviously and trivially, dead.

Elijah ascended directly as kind of a reward for services rendered. I think it's kind of unreasonable to suppose that for me, that will happen. I tend not to take much as a given, in terms of transition to the afterlife.

Even Jesus died. He had to. People who count on not dying are...well...perhaps self-assuring to an excess.

Obviously I am a Christian. I just try to be humble about it, for one because that's part of being a Christian: that you are saved through no doing of your own.

Muslims would object to the claim that Jesus died (as did (do?) some heretic Christian groups). According to them it was either a dummy or an identical twin that got nailed to the cross while the real Jesus got spared that fate.
For Biblical literalists there have to be some immortals around since Jesus claimed that some alive at the time of his resurrection would 'not taste death' before his second coming. Since most people believe that the second coming has not yet taken place and the resurrection is now almost two millenia ago, some guys must be quite old by now. I assume HE was not just referring to the Eternal Jew ;-)

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