☞ Revisiting the World of Simulation

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Screenshot of SimCity 2000.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about simulation and prediction. Yes, our world is complex and nonlinear (and particularly so right now), but even given all of the feedback and interconnections of our natural and anthropic world—not to mention their interplay—there is the dream that we can make sense of our world and see how things will play out. From weather prediction or extrapolating tech trends to the psychohistory of Hari Seldon, there is the persistent hope that we will be able to collect the relevant data, determine the interrelationships and correct algorithms for the system we are interested in, and, in the words of Leibniz, “Let us calculate!”

But we are far from that reality. We need better tools for this process of simulation, prediction and forecasting. Right now, for too many of us, what is the current-state-of-the-art simulation tool? The spreadsheet. If we want to work with a system, we open a spreadsheet and try to make a simple model. But we can do a lot better.

As I’ve begun thinking about the potential for simulation, whether new types of spreadsheets or wonky simulation tools, I am drawn back to one of my first experiences in this realm: SimCity. SimCity was a formative piece of software for me. Yes, it was a toy and necessarily simplified, but it gave me a sense of the complexity of the urban system: I could play with the knobs of this miniature world and see how it responded. In many ways, it is a fantastic—albeit simplified—paradigm for interactive and intuitive simulation software. But not only that, SimCity led me to learn more. I can recall going with my parents to the local university library so I could find books about urban design that had been cited in the SimCity manual.

All of this made me excited when I came across a recent article about Maxis Business Simulations. Maxis was the company that made SimCity (and SimEarth and SimLife and SimAnt…) but for a time, in addition to building these computational toys, they also had an arm for building more “serious” simulation and prediction tools, with an eye towards more clear didactic education and understanding. They made a number of these tools, most of which were not released to the public, though they did have a brief impact:

From 1992 to 1994, a division called Maxis Business Simulations was responsible for making serious professional simulations that looked and played like Maxis games. After Maxis cut the division loose, the company continued to operate independently, taking the simulation game genre in their own direction. Their games found their way into in corporate training rooms and even went as far as the White House.

Perhaps this kind of work in the simulation space—both ones that aim for verisimilitude as well as ones that are clearly simplified, or even explicitly games—could only exist in this weird time period in the 1990’s, but I don’t think that’s true. In fact, because of increased processing power and better data, we might be ripe for a golden age of simulation. We finally could begin to create intuitive and interactive simulation tools.

Of course, there is a downside to better computational power and data when making sophisticated simulations: it’s now too easy to make a model complicated. We can add a variable here, tweak a parameter there, pour in a massive dataset, and suddenly we have a simulation which we think represents some aspect of the real world, but is so complex that we no longer know if it is accurate or not. This is especially true if we can only test its validity by trying a huge number of combinations of parameters. So caveat simulator (or something more accurate in Latin).

Nevertheless, there are some intriguing trends here and I think we can do a lot better than spreadsheets or whatever else we find in the simulation space. So you will likely hear more from me about this in the future. But in the meantime, Dear Reader, if you know of anyone working on this—from reinventing the spreadsheet paradigm to modeling cities or other large complex systems—please do not hesitate to reach out and let me know.


Here are a couple things that my friends recently released:


And here are a few links worth checking out:

  • Some scientific news from 1863: “Experts Doubt the Sun Is Actually Burning Coal

  • The “So-called Tower of Babel”

  • And from Paul Kedrosky, on the history of Beating the Bounds. It includes this wild bit:

    Pain was used as an aid to memory, and the form of attack was determined by the landscape. If they came to a stream, the children’s heads might be dunked in it; if the boundary ran against a wall, they might be encouraged to race along it, so that they would fall into the brambles on either side. If they came across a ditch, they might be encouraged to jump across it, so that they would slip in the mud. 

And, in the world of the idea of half-life of facts being applied to lots of fields, I recently learned of The Half-Life of Financial Knowledge.

Until next month.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend, and even encourage them to subscribe. Or simply let me know; my preferred social network is email.

☞ The Import and Export of Ideas

The Power of Cross-Pollination

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A Hinman Collator.

Some of you might recall my little web tool Blink Microscope that I wrote about last year. If you don’t, please feel free to check it out, but my focus here is on the origin of the name of the web app: it derives from a device used in astronomy that allows the user to “blink” between images of the night sky and discover minor differences. The blink microscope, also known as a blink comparator, was even involved in the discovery of Pluto.

I was therefore excited to learn that (via Alan Jacobs’s wonderful newsletter) that this technology was also used in a domain far removed from astronomy. Specifically, a similar device, known as the Hinman Collator, was used in the humanities to find minor discrepancies between different editions of texts. Imagine a scholar blinking between different editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and watching the changes leap out:

Arthur M. Johnson, who would take over the commercial manufacture of the collator, wrote that Hinman developed the basic design of his machine after studying something called the “astronomer's microscope.” The device to which Johnson was referring is properly known as the blink comparator and was invented in 1904 by the German instrument-maker Carl Pulfrich. The basic principle behind the blink comparator is the same as that of the Hinman. Two objects, in this case photographs of the same star field taken on different dates, are set up in the machine, superimposed, and then viewed alternately. Any difference between the images calls attention to itself by appearing, just as on the Hinman, to dance or move about. The most famous use of the comparator was made by C. W. Tombaugh, who discovered the planet Pluto with it in 1930. [quotation from here]

This is an example of the import and export of ideas. It’s the ability to take scientific concepts, technologies, or theoretical frameworks from one domain and apply them to entirely different ones. And as the world has become more specialized, this ability has become that much more important. It helps reduce reinvention of ideas, and shows that there are certain fundamentally similar insights that stretch across fields.

This import and export of ideas is also a particular skill, and one that is often undervalued in our specialized world. It requires a broad knowledge, as well as a comfort in going deep into specific areas, to learn what is known already in that domain, as well as what the holes are in that knowledge. It’s essentially an analogy-making skill, recognizing that the concept of evolution can be useful in understanding technological change, or that certain mathematical processes can help us understand the growth of the World Wide Web. This ability to make analogies and import ideas from one field and export them to another is the kind of skill that is useful in everything from scientific research to the startup and venture world, and even in writing for general audiences. As described by the subtitle of a book coauthored by Douglas Hofstadter, analogies are “the fuel and fire of thinking.” And this ability to bring ideas from one field to another is a fundamental way that we innovate.

So go out and do some import/export of knowledge.


A few things worth checking out:

Until next month.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend, and even encourage them to subscribe. Or simply let me know; my preferred social network is email.

☞ The Wonders of Wikipedia

Making a Space for the Fractal Complexity of Knowledge

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I was a relatively early adopter of Wikipedia. When I was in college in the early 2000’s, I would evangelize Wikipedia as the closest thing we had to complete world knowledge. And my friends would laugh at me. Anyone could edit it! It was full of errors! Vandals could run rampant!

But I’d like to think that I won this argument. Whether or not it’s acceptable as a reference source for reports in middle school and high school, it is now the place where people go to resolve bar bets, learn about probability distributions, or find the details of old television shows. The Encyclopedia Galactica is here, and it is Wikipedia.

That’s why I was so delighted to read a recent Wired article on Wikipedia, with the apt title of “Wikipedia Is the Last Best Place on the Internet.” Go read the piece; it’s fantastic.

One of the most important features of Wikipedia—and the fraction of the Internet that Wikipedia represents—is a deeply obsessive approach to knowledge. If you want to learn about the border irregularities of the United States, the details of license plates throughout the world, or, as I detailed in a previous issue, want to learn the pocket histories of interstellar societies, Wikipedia is where these tendencies thrive. But here’s the thing: it’s not that Wikipedia rewards this kind of thinking. Rather, this is the true nature of the world: it is deeply weird and fractally complex. Wikipedia simply creates a space for this, a place where fractal weirdness can thrive.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the complexity and messiness of knowledge—both scientific and technological—in both of my books The Half-Life of Facts and Overcomplicated. And one of the takeaways of all of this thinking of mine has been that there are so many nooks and crannies to knowledge. As much as we would like our understanding of the world to be clean and elegant, it’s not. There are exceptions to general rules, odd historical incidents, and just the bonkers nature of society. And Wikipedia has a home for it all.

We need to make a place for the exceptions and the weirdness of the universe, rather than trying to make everything conform to simple rules, or simply even fit within the confines of a complete set of the Encyclopædia Brittanica. What we know about the messiness and intricacy of the world should not be limited to the length of a bookshelf. It should be unbounded and ever-growing. Wikipedia allows for this. And that’s why I love it so.


A few links worth checking out:

Until next month.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend, and even encourage them to subscribe. Or simply let me know; my preferred social network is email.

☞ Unspooling Computational Worlds

Computer programs on Twitter

During this turbulent and tough time, here is something entirely virus-unrelated and hopefully thought-provoking:

We often think of software as large and complex structures, made up of thousands or even millions of lines of computer code. And they often can be. But there are also many instances where tiny bite-size bits of code can yield complex and delightful programs. In the November issue from last year, I wrote about thinking about coding as magic, the idea that words can have power and act like little computational spells. Related to this is the idea that one can unfurl from small snippets of text entire pieces of software.

And what better place to do this—write tiny delightful programs—than on Twitter? I am far from the only one who has thought of this. For example, there is a wonderful Twitter account that will run any BASIC program that you tweet at it. From a discussion of this account, here is a fun example:

Random triangle generation, colors, and fills. Really such simple code that still sucks you into the screen!

It's projects like this that really show how powerful visual code can be!

The creators of Mathematica developed a similar project, called Tweet-a-Program: “Compose a tweet-length Wolfram Language program, and tweet it to @WolframTaP. Our Twitter bot will run your program in the Wolfram Cloud and tweet back the result.”

People have also tried this with Processing, and I’m sure many other programming languages as well). And you can even go a bit further than this: here’s an entire website that exists entirely in the text of its URL. Wild.

Programming languages are each distinct, and these kinds of projects highlight the differences in compactness between them. But no matter what language we are thinking about, they also demonstrate the basic idea that there is a generative power to computing: small snippets of text can unspool entire computational worlds.


Here are a couple quotes I’ve recently come across. The first is from Geoff Manaugh and is about exploring an abandoned mine:

there were plastic lawn chairs everywhere. And they were facing the water.

While the actual explanation for this would later turn out to be both entirely sensible and incredibly anticlimactic—the mine, it turns out, is occasionally used as a performance venue for unusual concerts and events—it was impossible not to fall into a more Lovecraftian fantasy, people coming here to sit together in the darkness, waiting patiently for something to emerge from the smooth black waters of a flooded mine, perhaps something they themselves have invited to the surface…

I stumbled across another intriguing quote in Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club:

The politics of the dispute were strictly academic—that is, the issues were myriad, they were interrelated in arcane ways, and they were fantastically petty.


A few links worth checking out:

  • The Graphical Birth of Plate Tectonics: About the maps and figures involved in the development of the idea of plate tectonics. It is also fascinating how truly new the scientific concept of plate tectonics are: as per this article, “Plate tectonics, the modern theory that describes how the continents on the surface of the Earth do indeed float around, was finally laid out in 1967.” And yet when I learned them in school they were taught in a way that made it feel so old and settled. (from Paul Kedrosky)

  • An app can be a home-cooked meal: By Robin Sloan on coding and home-made software. This piece pairs well with my article on HyperCard and end-user programming. From my article: “As we go about our daily use of technology, each of us might recognise the need for not-yet-created small tools and applications. But because these are not the kind of things that would be showered with venture funding or become the next Facebook, no one will create them for us.”

  • A rotary cell phone: Very thoughtfully done.

  • Where Be Dragons? Why was Dungeons & Dragons (or similar games in that style) only invented in the 1970's? Fascinating piece on innovation and timing.  (also from Paul Kedrosky)

Until next month.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend, and even encourage them to subscribe. Or simply let me know; my preferred social network is email.

☞ Pocket Histories of Interstellar Societies

A Very Sci-Fi Issue

Flag of the United Federation of Planets.

I’m a fan of science fiction. But as much as I enjoy the ideas and the storytelling, when it comes to grand interstellar societies—galactic empires, federations, and all that—one of the things I love the most is to simply read the histories of these worlds. A capsule summary of how a world came to be—technologies invented, geopolitical shifts, how it ticks and operates, and the current state of that universe—is my catnip. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading the stories that are placed in these settings too, but I am also a big fan of simply learning about how these these vast interstellar settings for humanity are constructed.

Happily, Wikipedia is quite helpful in this regard. There’s the setting of Hyperion, Foundation, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, Dune’s world, and my personal favorite: the Culture of Iain M. Banks. I am obsessed with these pocket histories of future universes.

For example, here’s an overview from Wikipedia of Dune’s Butlerian Jihad:

As explained in Dune, the Butlerian Jihad is a conflict taking place over 11,000 years in the future (and over 10,000 years before the events of Dune) which results in the total destruction of virtually all forms of "computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots". With the prohibition "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind," the creation of even the simplest thinking machines is outlawed and made taboo, which has a profound influence on the socio-political and technological development of humanity in the Dune series.

And from Memory-Alpha, here’s a bit on Star Trek’s Federation’s initial contact with the Borg:

Then, however, the period of peaceful exploration came to an abrupt end. In 2365, the Federation encountered its single worst threat, in the cybernetic pseudo-race known as the Borg. One of the most powerful and destructive forces in the entire galaxy, the Borg invaded the Federation twice within less than a decade. They were unlike anything the Federation had ever encountered, and were only foiled by chance and resourcefulness. The Federation was thus schooled in the fact that, in the vast, unexplored reaches of the galaxy beyond what they knew, there were threats that they could not even imagine.

This stuff is great. And it seems that my interest in these kind of overviews is not unique, and speaks to the enduring appeal of technical manuals and Tolkien’s appendices. And to be honest, this kind of exploration of the setting of fictional worlds (counterfactuals, fantasy, anything) is enticing. In an interview, Michael Chabon even spoke of working to avoid the all-encompassing worldbuilding siren song when he was writing The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (Wikipedia also has a great discussion of its setting). As per an interview:

But I did make maps of Sitka. I sensed I could get sucked in very easily to doing beautifully rich, detailed maps of Sitka and environs, so I tried to be strict with myself and just made crude pencil sketches that aren’t much to look at, to try to figure out where everything was.

And if you’re wondering what this might look like for our own planet and history, you can check out the CIA World Factbook’s entry for the World. From a recent edition, here is a brief overview of the Twentieth Century:

Globally, the 20th century was marked by: (a) two devastating world wars; (b) the Great Depression of the 1930s; (c) the end of vast colonial empires; (d) rapid advances in science and technology, from the first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (US) to the landing on the moon; (e) the Cold War between the Western alliance and the Warsaw Pact nations; (f) a sharp rise in living standards in North America, Europe, and Japan; (g) increased concerns about environmental degradation including deforestation, energy and water shortages, declining biological diversity, and air pollution; (h) the onset of the AIDS epidemic; and (i) the ultimate emergence of the US as the only world superpower. The planet's population continues to explode: from 1 billion in 1820 to 2 billion in 1930, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999, and 7 billion in 2012. For the 21st century, the continued exponential growth in science and technology raises both hopes (e.g., advances in medicine and agriculture) and fears (e.g., development of even more lethal weapons of war).

Sweeping and magisterial.


Here is a fun graphic showing the timeline and success of the Star Trek series and movies (from this article):

Ad astra!


Here are a couple articles worth checking out:

Here’s also some recent research on whether average human body temperature is changing (Half-Life of Facts Alert!):

Body temperature is a crude proxy for metabolic rate, and if it has fallen, it could offer a clue about other physiological changes that have occurred over time.
“People are taller, fatter and live longer, and we don’t really understand why all those things have happened,” said Julie Parsonnet, who specializes in infectious diseases at Stanford and is senior author of the paper. “Temperature is linked to all those things. The question is which is driving the others.”

Until next month.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend. Or even just let me know; my preferred social network is email.

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