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Friday, December 23, 2022

The Mosquito Coast 2.8: Hari Seldon in Mexico


Those of you who have been reading this blog, even for just the past year, will know who Hari Seldon is. In case you don't, he's the protagonist in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (I think his original trilogy is the best science fiction ever written), who is able to statistically predict the future.  He invents a method called "psychohistory," which comes from LaPlace's Demon in philosophy (though LaPlace is not mentioned): if you were able to know everything about human behavior, capture it and put it all in mathematical form, you could see what people will be doing tomorrow or even a century from now.

[Spoilers ahead ... ]

So watching today's episode 2.8 of The Mosquito Coast, you can imagine how happy I was to hear Allie explain to Charlie that psychohistory (without naming it) was how Allie's Sandpiper program worked.  (I would have been even happier had Allie -- that is, the makers of this episode -- given Asimov a shout-out, but ok.)  It was a sterling moment to see Allie point out a bird to Charlie in the Mexican jungle, and explain that if we knew every single thing the bird had done in the past -- every single scene of its behavior -- we could reliably predict what it would do in the future.  

That's far better than recent election polling, which often fails to give accurate predictions because people could lie when asked whom they will be voting for, or just change their minds -- the problem being that what people say they are going to do is vastly different from their actually doing it.

And I also think Allie's explanation was at least as good as Hari Seldon's in the Apple TV+ rendition of the Foundation series, the first season of which left a lot to be desired.  But that's a story for another day. (If you're interested, see Nobel laureate Paul Krugman's disappointment with the Foundation TV series -- Krugman has long cited Asimov's Foundation trilogy and psychohistory as inspiration for Krugman's work in economics -- and also the podcast discussion I had with two lifelong fans of Asimov's Foundation stories.)

Come to think of it, The Mosquito Coast, now nearing the end of its second season, really is a kind of science fiction, and it was firing on all cylinders, including in the beat-up pick-up truck that Dina steals from her almost boyfriend in an attempt to get away. I keep thinking that Dina is going to wake up one morning and realize she likes the partial paradise where she and her family now live, but it looks like that's not going to happen.

Here's one thing about my behavior that I can indeed accurately predict for you -- I'll be back here next week with my review of the next episode. And I doubt that I'll ever find a science fiction saga I love more than Asimov's Foundation series. It actually started as a series of short stories in Astounding Stories in the 1940s (Astounding Stories changed its name to Analog in 1960 -- 15 of my own science fiction stories have been published in Analog). But think about it. Some eighty years ago, before statistical projections came to play such a major role in our lives, Asimov wrote some riveting narratives in which those kinds of projections were center stage. Good for The Mosquito Coast for putting this into the spotlight.

See also The Mosquito Coast 2.1: Thirteen Years Ago ... The Mosquito Coast 2.4: Motion Pictures on the Cave Wall ... The Mosquito Coast 2.5: Hitting the Fan ... The Mosquito Coast 2.6: Close Calls ... The Mosquito Coast 2.7: Sandpiper

And see also The Mosquito Coast 1.1-2: Edgy, Attractive, Enlightened, and Important ... The Mosquito Coast 1.3: Broadening Horizons ... The Mosquito Coast 1.4: Charlie and the Gun ... The Mosquito Coast 1.5: Charlie and the Gun, Part II ... The Mosquito Coast 1.6: What Kind of Brother? ... The Mosquito Coast season 1 finale: I'm Well Bitten

See also my essay, Foundation, Dune, and LaPlace's Demon

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