☞ Alternate Histories and Societal Complexity

An Alternate North America.

I don’t know if this is something that happens to others, but in times of uncertainty and tumult, I find refuge in alternate histories. It’s a balm to imagine What If: what if things were different in the world that I live in, for good and for bad? How could small changes lead to divergent outcomes, ones that add up over time?

Unsurprisingly, this is one of those moments that calls for some alternate history. So, as part of my consumption, I happily absorbed the first season of the series For All Mankind, a television show that imagines the Space Race if the Soviets had landed a man on the moon first (the first words on the moon: “I take this step for my country, for my people, and for the Marxist-Leninist way of life. Knowing that today is but one small step on a journey that someday will take us all to the stars.”) Would the world be better or worse? Or simply different? It’s not entirely clear.

I also enjoyed the book For Want of a Nail. Subtitled “If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga,” this is one weird artifact. More worthy of a perusal than a careful cover-to-cover-read, it’s written in the style of a Twentieth Century textbook and replete with extensive footnotes. Beginning with the period before the American Revolution, it elaborates what might have happened if the rebellion had failed (one outcome: Thomas Jefferson is executed). And like other alternate histories, it shows a world that is both similar and different to our own. From Wikipedia:

North America is divided between two nations: the Confederation of North America (CNA), a union of British colonies that remains nominally associated with the United British Empire, and the United States of Mexico (USM), a bilingual nation resulting from an influx of expatriate American rebels to Colonial Mexico. Other major powers include the United British Empire itself; the German Empire, which dominates much of Europe and the Middle East; the Japanese Empire, which dominates eastern Asia; and Kramer Associates (KA), a vast global corporation that arose in the USM but is now based in Taiwan. All of the powers are engaged in a nuclear arms race that was initiated by Kramer Associates' detonation of an atomic bomb in 1962.

This is clearly distinct from our own history, yet technological and social changes have still caused certain similarities, such as a world war that begins in the late 1930’s. Reading what is essentially a scholarly tome from an alternate universe is certainly intriguing.

To be clear, these stories are not simulations of an alternate world. If we were to run rigorous computational simulations of “what-if” scenarios, we hope for predictive power, or at least some insight into the impact of changes that we might make. But when we tell stories, we only have to adhere to one criterion: it has to feel “right.”

Within that rightness is not accuracy, but realism, interestingness, and a willingness to recognize the complexity of human society. And perhaps that is the takeaway of all serious alternate history: that the world is complex. Any worthy alternate history must acknowledge the true nonlinear complexity of our society. Small changes make big differences, but large changes can also sometimes make almost no difference whatsoever. And that’s what makes them feel right. History rhymes, and so do parallel histories.

And with that, I leave you with a whole host of maps of alternate histories (and even more here).


Here are a few links of interest:

I’d also like to highlight two new books by my friends:

Kate Greene’s Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: A series of thought-provoking essays about Kate’s several months on a simulated Mars mission. It touches on life, space travel, solitude, and so much more.

Morgan Housel’s The Psychology of Money: A collection of lessons on how to think about investing and wealth, it is chock full of wisdom and a delight to read.

Until next time.

☞ To Simulate a World

Or, Why I'm delighted by Dwarf Fortress even though I've never actually played it

File:Dwarf Fortress world generation.png
Dwarf fortress world generation.

I’ve never played the computer game Dwarf Fortress. And yet I am drawn to the ideas that undergird this game, a game that involves managing a group of dwarves as they build a fortress. For despite its spare graphics and a goal that sounds basic and straightforward, it appears to contain within it an unbelievably deep complexity and simulated richness. Just as Carl Sagan noted that if “you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,” if you want to have dwarves build a fortress, you must first generate entire worlds, complete with detailed geologies and civilizational histories.

From Wikipedia, here’s a bit about its process of world generation:

The process involves procedurally generated basic elements like elevation, rainfall, mineral distribution, drainage and temperature. For example, a high-rainfall and low-drainage area would make a swamp. Areas are thus categorized into biomes, which have two variables: savagery and alignment. They have their own specific type of plant and animal populations. The next phase is erosion—which the drainage simulates. Rivers are created by tracing their paths from the mountains (which get eroded) to its end which is usually an ocean; some form into lakes. The salinity field defines oceans, mangroves or alluvial plains. Names are generated for the biomes and rivers. The names depend on the area's good/evil variable (the alignment) and though in English, they are originally in one of the four in-game languages of dwarves, elves, humans and goblins; these are the four main races in any generated world.

After a few minutes the world is populated and its history develops for the amount of in-game years selected in the history parameter. Civilizations, races and religions spread and wars occur, with the "population" and "deaths" counters increasing.

This is far beyond “reticulating splines” of SimCity 2000; it’s playing with cosmic powers. And because of the sprawling complexity inherent in Dwarf Fortress, this means that there is an associated richness to its bugs. After my previous discussion about simulation and SimCity, my friend Taylor Clauson recently recommended that I check out Dwarf Fortress’s change log. And it does not disappoint. If you just look at the overall changes page, you can see a lot of strangeness:

  • Stopped dwarves from carrying mugs forever

  • Allowed soil critters to live in wider temperature ranges

  • Made pain from broken tissues depend on relative part size

  • Stopped people from being enough to satisfy a need to see great beasts

  • Allowed legless animal people to pet animals

The list is long and bizarre. And the Dwarf Fortress bug tracker and change log goes even deeper. It is amazing and bonkers, with mentions of a giraffe being trainable for war as well as problematic vampires that can destroy a city’s population while living in its sewers. This richness verges on debugging reality.

And when I think of debugging reality, I can’t help but be reminded of the simulation hypothesis, the idea that the universe is actually a computational simulation. Because here’s the inevitable question, if you want to explore this hypothesis seriously: Can we find bugs in our cosmos? Or can we at least find ways of testing whether we are in a simulation of the world, as opposed to simply using the idea as a fun thought experiment for late-night discussions among undergrads?

And, because everything has been overthought before, there are a number of physics papers about this, such as these:

I guess the upshot is that when exploring a sufficiently complex simulation, we are bound to find obscure and interesting errors. Or at least make an apple pie.


In the last issue of the newsletter, I discussed (and likely oversimplified) the philosophy found within the Toy Story franchise. My friend Ben Fry pointed me to this incredible video by the screenwriter for Toy Story 3, which discusses the mechanics of its plot and its themes. It is a fantastically thought-provoking talk and well worth watching.


In June, Alan Jacobs wrote about the concept of “stochastic resonance in reading”:

But if you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.

This idea of finding in seemingly unrelated texts unexpected sources of fresh ideas and novelty is one that resonates (ugh!) with me quite strongly, as I am a big proponent of trying to develop tools for serendipity. I even made a tool to spur me to revisit the many books that I own.

In that spirit, I recently finished reading Stanisław Lem’s 1960’s novel His Master's Voice and was gratified to come across this passage that explored the common issue of scientific knowledge being tucked away, unread, in the vast repository of scientific publication (something I discussed in The Half-Life of Facts):

Rich lodes of potential discoveries no doubt lie in various libraries, but have gone unnoticed, untapped, by competent people.

Nothing like an old book to contain within it resonances of the idea of stochastic resonance in reading.

Until next time.

The Philosophy Embedded in Children's Stories

Or, Overthinking the Toy Story franchise

Toy Story logo.

I like overthinking children’s stories, particularly the philosophical ideas that they might contain. One children’s book we own ends with animals exiting a bus and entering a zoo. What exactly is going on here? Are there humans in this zoo, instead of animals, Planet of the Apes-style? Are there two classes of animal in this world, some of which are kept in zoos and others which visit them? Or are these animals simply going to their job, which is to be creatures captive in a zoo? Whichever choice it is, there are some troubling things going on in this society.

Or, several years ago, I wrote an article about the nature of technological innovation as espoused by the books of Virginia Lee Burton (author of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, among others). This was mainly done so I would stop pestering my wife about these issues while I read these books to my daughter. And I loved Ian Bogost’s take on the board books of Sandra Boynton.

So, when I watched the Toy Story movies with my children recently, I was naturally drawn to various philosophical implications. Specifically, their nature of teleology. Teleology is, roughly, the purpose or end goal of something, whether object, creature, or even human. From Wikipedia:

Teleology or finality is a reason or explanation for something as a function of its end, purpose, or goal. A purpose that is imposed by a human use, such as that of a fork, is called extrinsic.

Natural teleology, common in classical philosophy, though controversial today, contends that natural entities also have intrinsic purposes, irrespective of human use or opinion. For instance, Aristotle claimed that an acorn's intrinsic telos is to become a fully grown oak tree. Though ancient atomists rejected the notion of natural teleology, teleological accounts of non-personal or non-human nature were explored and often endorsed in ancient and medieval philosophies, but fell into disfavor during the modern era (1600–1900).

I feel on pretty solid ground stating that, nowadays, for most of us, teleology is something we must find for ourselves, rather than it being intrinsic to humanity: Why are we here? What is our purpose? We have to search for these.

But for toys in Toy Story, there is no such struggle. They are toys: their telos is to be played with by children, and to give them joy. That is clearly an extrinsic purpose, but since they are also sentient, it creates a strange tension. They are self-aware and feel that their purpose is a clear one, an end goal for which they have an internal—dare I say ‘intrinsic’—drive. They could work to figure out what they truly desire, rather than simply work towards their goal of being a good toy, but those that do this are very much the exception in the franchise (see Toy Story 4). Rather than viewing life as striving towards finding a purpose and meaning, the toys of Toy Story have their purpose prescribed as a given. They just need to figure out how to best do this.

After thinking about this, I did some searching online, and was happy to see that the Internet, naturally, provides a community of others who also think overly deeply about these matters. Specifically, a number of Catholic publications have explored this topic: here and here.

Would it be easier to have a purpose, like a toy, as opposed to finding a purpose? Maybe. But would it be as fulfilling? I don’t think so.

Anyway, congratulations. You have now participated in “Overthinking Children’s Stories with Sam Arbesman.” Now go check out The Pixar Theory and enjoy a very deep plunge down another rabbit hole.


I was recently perusing an old issue of Wired magazine from April 2000 that I had kept (it’s the one where Bill Joy writes about why the future doesn’t need us) and came across this in the letters to the editor:

Wish granted, Letter Writer, wish granted.


After I sent out last month’s issue which included a discussion of simulation, a number of readers wrote and highlighted some simulation tools (Thanks so much! I love corresponding with readers). Here are a few that were mentioned to me or that I’ve seen recently:

I would also like to highlight an incredibly prescient piece on simulation from 1996 entitled “Why computer modeling should become a popular hobby.” There is so much in this that is delightful:

If one doesn't find race cars exciting, maybe one will find creating animals that can thrive in a desert environment, policies that prevent the extinction of tigers, or agents that can hold their own in an on-line discussion of presidential politics, more to taste.

It even includes prescriptions for how to making simulations more powerful and accessible, from visualization tools to “simulation construction kits.” Well worth a read.


Lastly, I recently published an essay, along with two of my partners at Lux (Bilal and Zavain), about how to use complex systems thinking—all-too-relevant in a pandemic—to reimagine a more robust society: A Complex World Worth Creating.

Until next time.

☞ Revisiting the World of Simulation

File:Sc2kscr.png
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

File:Hinman collator.jpg
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.

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