Stories and software tend to be single-threaded, mostly-linear chains of cause and effect. That makes for a good narrative, as plot elements unfold and characters develop; that makes for a good computer program, understandable, controllable, predictable. But real life is extraordinarily nonlinear and multithreaded: a web of people and events that defies simplistic analysis, and that exhibits infinite strength and resilience.

Single-threaded software crashes at the slightest error, as all of us have too-frequently experienced. Single-threaded stories unravel and lose credibility at every oversight. ("Didn't the author know that Mercury rotates?" ... "Why wouldn't the detective have smelled the decaying corpse after two weeks?" ... "Going back to him, after what he did to her, was totally outside her character!") Software and stories are fragile.

History isn't like that; there are always networks of forces that drive large-scale developments. Geography, technology, resources, demographics, economics, cultural factors — all work together in feedback loops, constantly interacting and influencing one another. Push on one, and the others change to compensate. That's why embargos so rarely work; that's why price controls fail; and that's what dooms legislative attempts to change human nature.

Beware of attempts to explain world events in terms of simple stories. Beware of attempts to model complex systems via simple simulations. Instead, explore alternatives ... demand error estimates ... and maintain a strong skepticism, even (or especially!) when dealing with seemingly-well-validated predictions.

(See ^zhurnal 8 May 1999 CelebrityHistory)

Wednesday, June 06, 2001 at 06:09:22 (EDT) = 2001-06-06


(correlates: LeverAge, MagnaFortuna, OverQualified, ...)