☞ Revisiting the World of Simulation

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.

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