The Funny Things About Foundation

When Isaac Asimov first conceived the idea for his Foundation stories it was 1941, and World War II had just erupted. The first three stories in the series appeared in John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine between 1941 and 1944. The whole breadth of the tale was not finalized and collected into book form until the early 1960’s. In 1966 it won a Hugo for Best Science Fiction Series, a category created to honor it and one other seminal competitor: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

I first read the Foundation series front to back in the early 1990’s. Recently I got the bug to reread it, probably because my steady diet of nonfiction had become overwhelming. A number of things stand out to my older and more critical eye. Some of them are anachronisms that certainly would have seemed reasonable to Asimov in the 1940’s, but which, when they appear in a far-future setting of galactic empire and interstellar travel, seem highly amusing to those of us in Asimov’s future who still don’t have any of those things. Others are just quirks of the writer’s own style that caught my eye. So here are a few of the funny things about Foundation:

They Use Paper

The setting is the far, far future. The Milky Way Galaxy consists of millions of populated worlds united under the Imperial rule of Trantor. Vessels of every description use hyperspace jumps to travel effortlessly and quickly between the stars. And yet, when Mayor Indbur of The Foundation is irritated or bored in Foundation and Empire he scratches little drawings on sheets of paper from a pad and then tosses them into an atomic flash disposal unit. When a secure personal message needs to be delivered it arrives sealed in a tube, engraved on silvery film that quickly destructs as it is read. Perhaps most amusingly, when in that same volume Ducem Barr visits Trantor in the company of Lathem Devers one of the first things he does is grab the topmost of a stack of newspapers. Here in the 21st century the debate rages as to whether newspapers have any economic role in the new world of information, and paper is used less and less each day. But to the Asimov of the 1940’s these seemed like important and durable features of civilization. Asimov did not predict email, or data encryption, or the web, at least not in Foundation.

Everyone Smokes

Tobacco use was prevalent and popular in Asimov’s day, and it is sprinkled liberally, though not artlessly, throughout Foundation. Cigars are most often mentioned, followed by cigarrettes and pipes. On two of the narrated appearances of Hari Seldon his simulacrum makes the unseen audience free to smoke as part of his introduction. Atomic flash dispensers are provided on desks and in waiting areas for the disposal of ash and the cleaning of pipe bowls. In the early story of Terminus the qualities of Vegan tobacco are extolled over the home grown variety, but as the empire fails home grown is all they have. As the Foundation establishes itself cigarrettes make a reappearance. When in Second Foundation the team of Toran, Bayta, Mis, and Magnifico visit the ruined world of Trantor to search the library there, they are offered home grown cigars from a ceremonial humidor, and even the woman, Bayta, partakes. The health effects of tobacco were not unknown when these stories were written, but they were buried under a tidal wave of positive messaging. Tobacco seemed like another permanent fixture of civilized society to Asimov, and he had no reason to foresee the negative perception that would attach to the tobacco leaf over the next fifty years.

Everything is Atomic

Speaking of nuclear flash disposal units, virtually all the high tech in the stories is nuclear powered, and often in amusingly naive ways. Atomic radiation is used to execute prisoners, destroy documents, dispose of waste, and lend an aura of godhead to the boy king Lepold of Anacreon. Nuclear power is the economic leverage which Terminus uses against Anacreon, which no longer has it. It powers all devices from the largest ships and their weapons down to the seemingly magical jewelry with which the Foundation trader Les Ponyets ensnares the nobility of Askone. In the 1940’s and 50’s the U.S. Government was happily subjecting thousands of soldiers and civilians to radiation to see what would happen. The dangers of radiation were not well-understood, and Asimov was predicting that it would come to be the basic source of power for all of modern civilization and beyond. Today we in the U.S. are so intimidated by it that we haven’t begun a new nuclear power plant in fifteen years or more. To be fair to the author, virtually all SF stories of this period made liberal use of the wonders of atomic power. Modern authors are required to be more sophisticated.

Computerized Star Maps!

In 1941 the first modern computer was two to four years from being invented, depending on whose version of the history you want to believe. In Asimov’s fictional world computers play a very minor role. They are calculating and counting machines, as in the one that controls Hari Seldon’s Time Vault on Terminus. These were the things that scientists were considering using computers for at the dawn of the second World War. Asimov did not predict networked information and the revolution it would have on media (see “They Use Paper” above). Messages are still written down or sent by “Hyperwave Relay.” Video is delivered by television, and in one case he actually mentions “television sets” being sent to a backward world as an item of trade. But the best example is the navigation of starships. In Second Foundation when Han Prichard and Bail Channis travel to Tazenda to seek the location of the Second Foundation they are aided by a useful new tool that has just been developed: a screen that can display the stars as they appear from any point in the galaxy, and even zoom in on and rotate around any point. Imagine! Those of us who use Celestia, or World-wide Telescope to do the same thing today from our desks at home, but who still can’t travel anywhere beyond the confines of our own planetary system, are allowed a chuckle, but will have to forgive Asimov’s inability to foresee all this.

Gender Roles

When the Foundation stories were born World War II was just about to lay down the first real challenge to traditional gender roles, as men marched off to war and Rosie marched down to the aircraft factory to spend her days with a riveting gun. There are few strong females in Foundation. All the great events of history are manipulated, discussed, and reacted to by men. Bayta, the wife of the trader Toran in Foundation and Empire is one of the few examples, and even she is not immune from the views of women as Asimov observed them in his day. When the planet Haven is under threat from the Mule, Bayta counsels one of the girls who works in her volunteer group to “visit the washroom and get your peaches and cream on.” Asimov is trying to demonstrate the emotional condition of the population of Haven, which we later learn is due to the Mule’s specific abilities. Naturally those most affected by an emotion-based attack are the females! Off to the washroom, ladies. Still, we can hardly give or take from Asimov on this account. He was just working from what he knew, and what he thought the things he knew might lead to.

It’s All Dialog

This last one is not an anachronism, but rather an interesting note on the author’s style. Asimov mentions it himself, in his introduction to the paperback edition of the series. When preparing to write the fourth story after a long hiatus he reread his earlier work, and was uneasy because there was no action. He must have gotten over that uneasiness, because he stuck more or less to the same pattern for the rest of the series. There are little bits of action here and there: someone fires a blaster, or a ship lands. But for the most part the entire plot is advanced through dialog. Each scene begins with a minimum of descriptive set-up in which the characters are introduced, and then proceeds through the dialog resulting from the set-up. It is in the dialog that open questions are resolved and the next set of questions introduced. As a writer who has made paltry attempts at fiction here and there I find this fascinating. It tells me that plot and character are the things that count. Description and action serve only to support and advance the characters and what happens to them, and Foundation is an extreme example of this in action, from a master of the art.

A Cheap Piece of Crap

I have a family. We live in a frame house in the suburbs. What we do here on our acre is process Chinese appliances. I’m not sure how we got the job, or when, but it’s not that big of a deal because it isn’t that big of a job. In fact all we have to do is use the appliances until they break, and then throw them out. It takes very little time from when a new applicance is unpacked until it fails, so we are able to do quite a few per year. We use one, break it, then look at each other and say “What a cheap piece of crap!” Then we bin it and head down to Walmart for another assignment. Over the last ten years we have processed approximately 124 hair dryers, 76 curling irons, 40 coffee makers, 32 motorized dental appliances, 21 toaster ovens, 15 vacuum cleaners, 7 electrically powered devices of unknown purpose, and 3 dishwashers. So I think we’re doing our part.

There are also the things we buy that break at some point, but which actually cost more than the gas + time to go get another one at Home Depot, and so some of these we have had repaired, like the $450 clothes dryer that burned out a circuit board after three years, or the “Schwinn” elliptical exercise machine constructed of welded steel that just broke in two. Okay, I am pretty heavy, but it was steel, and it broke. Just a cheap piece of crap. At certain times I can’t help thinking back to my Mom and Dad and their household. Sure, it cost a month’s pay to buy a new washer or dryer back then, but once you had one it lasted twenty years instead of ending up rusting in some landfill within the decade. Like my percolators. All 12 of them. I happen to like percolated coffee. Keep your $20,000 six-cylinder Japanese steampunk brewer and give me a pot with a basket and a bubble on top.

Thankfully you can still find percolators amidst the barren waste of drip machines. They cost $59 and last about six months. A friend of mine received a 25 year-old percolator from one of his relatives, and it works like a champ. As it should, since there is very little in our technology-fueled world that is as dumbass-simple as a percolator. For that matter there isn’t anything all that complicated about toaster ovens, or vacuum cleaners, or dishwashers. I’m a programmer, and what I do is the most complicated thing there is in time and space, so I laugh loudly at the crude simplicity of these greasy electromechanical devices. The only excuse for not building a percolator that lasts longer than a political news cycle is that you can’t afford to, because nobody will pay you for it. And why should they when they can grab a cheap piece of crap at some big retail outlet, use it until it collapses from shame, then toss it to the curb where it will magically disappear?

I used to be a staunch free-trader. I sincerely believed that free-flowing trade would increase the prosperity of the entire world. All it seems to have done instead is fuel the growth of big-box retailers as the US-side logistics and fulfillment arm of China Inc. I’m rapidly becoming a protectionist, because I can’t see one positive thing that has come out of it. Yes, everyone can afford a new vacuum cleaner now, because it costs less than spit. But if they can afford to buy a new one every two years because the old one broke when the cat looked at it, then they can save up and buy a good one that will last ten years. Free trade hasn’t made vacuum cleaners affordable: modern production methods have. U.S. manufacturers can make good products that are much more affordable than their equivalents were 40 years ago, but nobody will buy them as long as companies like Walmart can flood the market with throw-away crap.

Companies don’t have to operate this way. Walmart doesn’t exist because cheap goods are available overseas and readily importable into our economy. That trade has made them larger, but they would be successful even a world where everything had to be made here. Scale matters, and so does efficiency. Walmart sells cheap Asian goods because they can, and because they can people have come to expect these things to be cheap, and because people have come to expect these things to be cheap all the old-line American names like Magnavox, and Raytheon, and Westinghouse, and Schwinn have been sold off to Asian manufacturers, and their U.S. businesses are nothing more than marketing front-ends. Can you really be a world-class power when you don’t remember how to make anything? We need trade, but we need trade to be put in its proper perspective. We need a level playing field, so that Americans have jobs building things that Americans use. We need to relearn how to complete on quality, rather than price. Economic security is still security, and it’s time U.S. politicians remembered that.


I don’t write often about things I own. I don’t, for that matter, own all that many things. Well, that’s a lie, sort of. I “own” a lot of stuff, but most of it is household crap, or actually belongs to my kids, or my wife. I’m talking about things that are mine, and that for the most part nobody else cares about. I have a Martin D-18, and a couple of good computers, a few hundred books, my Canon A650-IS, and a 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser. Pretty much everything that isn’t clothing or tools fits in my small office off the kitchen. Except the FJ.

When I bought my truck (from Muller Toyota in Glen Gardner, which dealership I heartily recommend to prospective Toyota buyers) gas prices were just starting to head north again. Sales had fallen off. A lot of people had bought one when it was the coolest new thing, only to encounter its true character and trade it in. Inventories were building on the new and used sides of lots across the country. I was able to get a good deal. That was a little over a year ago, and in the last fourteen months I have had a chance to put the FJ through just about every kind of terrain that it will ever encounter under my hand. That covers just about everything except rock-hopping, which I have no interest in unless the rocks stand between me and something neat. I have collected a few pictures of the truck in various places. Hope you have a chance to check them out.

I’m not quite a motorhead. I don’t have time to get greasy very often. But I am a motorheart. I love my vehicles, and I love to be nuts about them. By the time I buy something I have spent six months, minimum, researching every angle of it. Success, to me, is when I get into the thing a year after taking delivery and still get a charge out of driving it. The FJ does that for me, and more. It ain’t the perfect vehicle, about which more below, but it is hands down the best 4WD truck I’ve ever owned, and one of the best vehicles of any type that has ever graced my driveway. It’s funny-looking from some angles, pugnacious from others, but tough as nails and more capable in stock trim than any 4WD to come down the pike in a long time. The first time I test-drove one I broke into a spontaneous grin that lasted an hour and cramped my cheek muscles, and I swear to God that still happens, even if I’m just heading to the deli for cigars.

Let’s face it, very few people really need a truck like this. If the ones who do were the only market they’d have to pay $80k to get a base model. Truck manufacturers have long been selling these rigs to the armchair suburban adventurer, and many of those units never see anything more challenging than some snow in the winter time. Over time the realities of this market have pushed SUV’s, as we now call them, from simple, tough utility vehicles to AWD-equipped crossovers with leather seats and all the acoutrements of luxury. Many of the people who buy these things rushed to get the FJ when it was new and interesting, only to discover that it is a throwback: it’s a simple, tough vehicle. Note that I didn’t say “utility” because even I couldn’t keep a straight face while typing that. The FJ has about as much practical utility as a Harley Soft-tail.

Not that it matters. What you get with the FJ is a combination of a few things that make it shine: the welded body on a heavily-gusseted 4Runner frame; the nearly 10 inches of clearance under the differentials; the torquey 4.0 liter V6; the old-fashioned tough-as-titanium part-time 4WD drive train; active traction control and rear lockers; the generous amount of suspension travel; sharp approach angles; the truly excellent road manners and driveability. The truth is that it’s the closest thing to my 1980 Ford Bronco that you can get today: it’s just a truck. If that’s what you’re looking for, and pickups are out, then what else are you going to buy? A Jeep? Please. We FJ guys occasionally get a little good-natured attitude from Jeep guys. I tell them there are only two words needed to explain the wisdom of my choice: “Chrysler,” and “Toyota.” Jeeps are good vehicles, but you have to get a Rubi to have the capabilities of a stock FJ, and as far as road manners and handling go… it’s not even close. Like I said… Chrysler… Toyota… just repeat that a few times. We’re not comparing apples and oranges here.

As for capability in the terrain the vehicle was built for, I’ll line my stock FJ up behind any Jeep and go where it goes, as long as we aren’t hopping rocks. People who hop rocks break stuff, and the ones who are good at it will admit they break stuff. They’ll even joyfully relate exciting tales of breaking stuff. I’m into not breaking stuff. Beyond that, if you’re laughing at the FJs offroad abilities then you haven’t driven one. Ask the guy who had to stop his Wrangler and air down his 35’s on Cape Hatteras the other day, while I scooted past him on 32 PSI stock Bridgestones. The FJ pretty much goes where you point it. A couple of days later and not far from there I used my strap to yank a 3/4 ton Home Depot utility truck out of the sand. Didn’t even bother getting into low and locking up the rear. A good-looking blonde girl standing nearby pronounced herself surprised that the FJ could do it. She shouldn’t be, but I guess it’s that whole funny-looking California surf beach vibe thing that the Yota marketers were shooting for. Underneath the retro-cute exterior this is a ballsy damn truck.

So what’s not good about the FJ? A lot, actually. Enough that, if you are the ordinary American truck buyer and you’re perusing this site, I can say confidently that you don’t want one. The gas mileage is abysmal for a small 4WD. If I can get 18 mpg on the open highway I’ll write a ballad about it. The truck is boxy, the windshield is nearly verticle, and it just shoves its way through the air at great cost in naptha. The suicide doors are stupid. The rear seat is barely usable. There are no windows that roll down behind the front seat, and the rear is like being stuck in coach class on a packed flight with no ventilation. The windshield is so narrow and forward that you have to lean in to see stoplights. Rear visibility is not worth discussing. There is a lack of interior storage. The plastics scratch too easily. The factory roof rack is ridiculous. The bumper wouldn’t stop a trotting poodle. In fact the only thing standing between Toyota and having a truly legendary utility vehicle is that it has so little true utility. It’s a two-seat adventure machine that sucks on gas. Oh yeah, you need to be an optimist to own one of these.

As for me, I’m an optimist, and I’m optimistic that when another twelve or fourteen months have passed I will still be getting a thrill from driving my FJ to new places, or old ones for that matter. If you think you’re like me, then you might want to give this truck a try. If not, then please don’t buy one. If I want to sell mine and get a ’09 sandstone I don’t want to be competing with your trade-in. You’d be better off with almost anything else short of an Excursion.

OBX Time

Over the last week my family and I had the pleasure of joining the rest of our far-flung and extended clan in Nag’s Head for the wedding of my brother and his delightful fiancee. Which is to say that by the end of the week the clan was even more extended and far-flung than it had been when we started. The wedding was held on Coquina beach, across from the access road to Bodie Island Light. The weather, and the relatives (for the most part), behaved admirably, and an excellent time was had by all. I had never been in the Outer Banks area before, and was captivated by the dunes, the long stretches of pristine beach, the Atlantic breakers rolling in after three days of steady winds. I managed to get out and take some pictures, capturing some scenes from Oregon Inlet all the way to Hatteras Light. I’ve collected the better ones in this gallery. Have a look and let me know what you think!

Covering the Bases

Something occurred the other day that got me thinking about complexity and the huge costs of covering your bases. It was just a little thing, but it caused a fair bit of trouble. We have an Eclipse project that builds remotely on an AIX box. The make target refers to a build variable that contains environment settings and other important information to pass to the server-side make. One of the experienced devs on the project was helping me debug the build and sent me some terms to add to the build variable. To get them to me he IM’d them. I copied the variables out of Kopete and into the build variable edit box in Eclipse.

Thereafter the build started failing repeatedly on the remote end. The dev looked at the build variable. I looked at the build variable. Everything was perfect… but it wouldn’t run. It took about half a day of trying various things to make it work before we realized that when I had copied the text from Kopete into the edit box in Eclipse it had included a carriage return. That was causing the issues with the make command on the AIX machine. To my mind this is a clear bug. A single-line edit should not invisibly accept carriage returns. I can understand a few rare cases where you might want to accept a CR/LF, but then you should display it as something other than whitespace, since by definition in a single line edit there is no other way to indicate the presence of a CR/LF.

But this is by no means a rant about that. This isn’t the first time I’ve lost a chunk of productivity to a silly error. Eclipse has hundreds of inputs and for whatever reason a bad decision was made on this one, or something was left unnoticed or undone. It happens. The occasion simply served to highlight for me something which has prompted me to climb up on the soapbox more than once over the last twenty years: inherent complexity. Everyone wants software to be simpler and more robust, but few recognize that the current complexity of software is inherent in the things we ask it to do. My Dad sometimes has reason to rant about the complexity of his computer when it doesn’t work right. He’s an engineer, and I occasionally remind him that a CNC drilling machine is difficult to learn to use correctly too, and the average personal computer is one hell of a lot more complex than that, because it is not tuned to a specific purpose.

The increases we are able to achieve in usability are subject to the same laws of diminishing returns that govern investment in any technology or method. We got a big jump when we went from punch cards and tape to terminals. We got another big jump when we went to GUI interfaces and pointing devices. Additional big gains will be hard to come by until, or unless, computers themselves are able to be much more autonomic, and be of much more assistance in guiding their users. That doesn’t mean we need animated paper clips that pop up and offer to fill in an email address for us. It does mean we need self-organizing interfaces that recognize the nature of repeated tasks on a per-user basis and internally proceduralize them so that they can be accessed and actuated at a higher level.

In the meantime, the average general purpose computer loaded with software will continue to appear dauntingly complex, because it is dauntingly complex. And in complex engineering environments it costs big bucks to cover your bases. Ask NASA. If it costs x dollars to shake out 95% of a given program’s inputs, controls, and environmental constraints then it costs 2x to smooth out the remaining 5%. What this says about the long-term viability of free software and the collaborative development model I am not sure, however I am sure that this whole concept is related to the general feeling that there is a lot of amazing FOSS software out there… and that most of it has more than a few rough edges remaining. Getting rid of those rough edges requires dedicated, and costly, testing and quality control, and to date only companies like Microsoft and IBM have had the economic punch to play that game. That’s why Visual Studio, for all its flaws, is a much more polished product than Eclipse is now, or perhaps ever will be. Money is still important.

Van Campen Cemetery: Update

On the 16th of last month I posted about my attempts to locate the Van Campen burial ground near the former site of Calno, New Jersey, and about the overgrown mess I found once I was successful. At the time I expressed disappointment with the National Park Service for not keeping the property cleared. I have since exchanged emails with Mr. John Wright, Park Archeologist and chief of Cultural Resources at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Mr. Wright was kind enough to fill me in on the situation with the burial ground, and I hope he won’t mind my repeating the outline of the tale here.

It turns out that the family burial grounds in the region were exempted from the federal land acquisition program back in the Tocks Island Dam days, and are still privately owned. The cemetery near Calno had been maintained for some time by Mr. Harold Van Campen and Ms. Jean Zipser, however it has fallen into neglect since their deaths. Mr. Wright has offered to pass along my report to members of the Van Campen family, and I in turn have offered to help them clear the property if they have a mind to do so. Mr. Wright did not mention who currently owns it, but it is probably a safe assumption that it is still in Van Campen family hands.

So there you have it: no government negligence; but just the perhaps-unavoidable decline of will over the years. This is, after all, the eventual fate of all old burial grounds. I do hope, though, that this one has a few more years left in it.