The Mule is a Black Swan

Isaac Azimov guided my transition from children’s books to adult literature.

In Azimov’s Foundation novellas, mathematician Hari Seldon uses the probabilistic science of psychohistory to chart the decline of Galactic civilisation into ten thousand years of ignorance and disorder.  Seldon makes a well-placed intervention, founding a colony of archivists on the planet Terminus at the unregarded edge of the galaxy.  This becomes the Foundation, the seed from which a new civilisation is to grow, shortening the dark ages to a single millennium.

After only a few hundred years, however, enemy ships invade the home planet Terminus.  A mutant calling himself the Mule, with overwhelming psychic powers, has rapidly forged a power strong enough to overcome the Foundation.  This cataclysmic event was outside the scope of Seldon’s probability-based science to predict.

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However, Seldon had also founded, in secret, another colony.  The Second Foundation is populated by psychohistorians, trained in his science, able to predict galactic events based on a new balance of probabilities and then act to bring his planned future back on track.

Isaac Azimov has been feted for his predictions made in 1964 of our life today.  He could see forward to something like mobile phones and tablets but never predicted the internet.  In the Foundation stories, however, he captured the essence of what people later recognised in the 9/11 attack or the 2008 financial crash and called Black Swan phenomena.  Black Swan Events are outliers to any sensible informed educated probabilitstic understanding of our world.  They, by definition, have major impact but are unpredictable in any useful way.   Importantly, though, Black Swan Events will inevitably occur at some point if we wait long enough.  For the Foundation, the Mule is a Black Swan.  Seldon knows cataclysms will occur unpredictably so he builds flexible systems able to recognise and respond to such events when they occur.  By imagining Seldon, Azimov also encapsulates the concept of anti-fragility, planning resilience in the face of unpredictable events.

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There are no black swans in these illustrations, drawn at Blacktoft Sands as the rain drifted in through the ports in the sides of the bird hide.

Farming Black Swans

This weekend I drove for ten hours.  Unusually I did not listen to the radio.  Instead I wrote a book in my head.  It is called “Farming Black Swans”.

If I write it down, it will be non-fiction, possibly a technical manual if my research bears out the concepts in my head.   However, in essence it is a narrative so might just as well be a novel.  A central character would be a mathematician by trade and spirituality.

20140629 Blacktoft (1)On the way home, I broke my journey.  I spent the morning drawing at Blacktoft Sands, marshland and reed beds where the River Trent empties into the Humber Estuary.

There was one distant swan. It was white.  It is not featured in this watercolour sketch.  Those blobs at the front are indeterminate ducks.

All swans are white.  Discuss.