Chaos Piggies

Don Argott’s 2009 film The Art of the Steal led me down a primrose path to some insight about chaos in human interactions.

25 November 2017 – After viewing Don Argott’s 2009 film The Art of the Steal about the decades long history of the Barnes Foundation and its gradual conversion from a private suburban-Pennsylvania art-education institution into a Philadelphia tourist attraction, the first thing I thought about was the Beatles’ song “Piggies.” The second thing I thought about was the chaos of human interractions. That led to an epiphany about the class struggle that has been going on, probably, since long before there were humans around to divide into classes that could struggle.

To understand what I’m talking about, the best place to start is with some general observations about mathematical chaos.

The fundamental characteristic of chaotic systems is that they have limited predictability. That is, while they may seem to evolve along a predictable path in the short run, as time goes on “what happens next” becomes increasingly unpredictable until eventually all bets are off. You can set something up to keep going forever, but if it turns out to be a chaotic system, eventually it comes unravelled.

Another chaos characteristic is what electronics engineers call 1/f noise. It’s called 1/f noise because if you carefully analyze the signal, you find it’s a mixture of waves whose amplitude is inversely proportional to their frequency. It’s found in measurements of everything from ocean waves to solid state electronics. When you see this kind of behavior in virtually anything, it’s a sure sign of chaos.

It turns out that the best way to create a chaotic system is to take kazillions of things all acting independently, then somehow get them to affect each other. In the case of human society, you’ve got kazillions of people all doing their own things independently, but having to work together to get anything done.

Now, let’s look at the Beatles’ song:

“Have you seen the little piggies/Crawling in the dirt?” …

“Have you seen the bigger piggies/In their starched white shirts?” …

Sound familiar? The lyrics are pointing out an observation of 1/f noise. The “little piggies” are analogous to the rapid, high-frequency fluctuations whose effect is swamped by the larger, low-frequency fluctuations represented by the “bigger piggies.”

In other words, the big and powerful few have and outsized effect compared to that of the small and powerless many.


I’m not crediting George Harrison with sufficient insight into mathematical chaos to draw the parallel between it and the social scene he was describing. He was certainly smart enough and interested enough to make the connection, but in 1968 when the song was released chaos theory was not widely enough understood to inform Harrison’s songwriting. Most likely at the time he was simply creating a metaphor in which we now can percieve chaos.

Okay, what has “Piggies” to do with The Art of the Steal?

The thesis of the film is that big, powerful politicians conspired to run roughshod over a group of small, relatively powerless art lovers trying to preserve the legacy of one Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who created the Barnes Foundation in the first place. Supposedly (and we have no reason to doubt it) Barnes hated the big, powerful interests who ultimately got control of his art collection decades after his death.

The lesson I’d like to draw from this whole thing is not quite the lesson the film would like us to draw, which is that the big piggies are bad guys beating up on the good guy little piggies. That’s the usual class-struggle argument.

To me, the good and bad in this tale is a matter of viewpoint. What I’d prefer us to learn is that Barnes’ attempt to create something that would forever function as he wanted it to was fundamentally doomed to failure.

Human society is a chaotic system, so any human organization you set up will eventually evolve in ways you cannot predict and cannot control. That’s Mommy Nature’s way.

If you try to go against Mommy Nature’s way, as Barnes did, Mommie Nature SPANK!