Interview: ii Host Samuel Arbesman on “Coding as Magic”

Published Tagged , , ,

Please enjoy this partial transcript of a thought-provoking interview with writer and scientist Samuel Arbesman, as we discuss his adventures in computer programming, word-inventing, and his upcoming Salon, “Coding as Magic!”

Q: On your website you mention you “spend a lot of time trying to catalyze the adjacent possible.” I would love to know what you mean by that!

A: Well, first of all, it sounds nice! (*Laughs*)

I have a background in science, a PhD in Computational Biology. I like complexity science and network science. A lot of the work that I like doing is at the intersection of many different domains, especially with complexity science, and has to do with applying various different mathematical and computational models to different areas of study. I’m always thinking about connecting different ideas together.

In terms of the adjacent possible, essentially, there are all the things we know, all the things we know we are capable of doing. And then there are other, different ideas that unlock certain additional capabilities.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman? They have this book, Why Greatness Cannot be Planned. The idea behind it is, when you’re in this kind of high-dimensional search space, whether it’s searching for some solution, optimizing to solve for a problem, or trying to actually increase the frontier of knowledge… Sometimes having a very specific goal in mind can work to galvanize people, but other times, it is more beneficial to create a set of stepping-stones ideas which can go on to unlock other capabilities you may not have imagined.

One way to think about this would be looking at computer games like Civilization. In order to develop one skill, you might need masonry, and in order to get there, you have to gain various other abilities and ideas. In my role as a scientist, writer, and in the VC world, I am not necessarily the one innovating. I’m not necessarily the one building the new ideas or starting the companies or inventing new products or even necessarily doing my own scientific research. But what I do do, what I love doing the most, is helping people get to the point where they can be innovating themselves. So, through my writing, I’m connecting new ideas in exciting new ways to get people to think about things differently.

I’m really trying to act as a catalyst, like lowering the activation energy, to allow these novel interactions to occur. That’s really what I’m interested in doing.

Q: You said your PhD is in Computational Biology?

A: Yes, computational biology. I actually got my start with a lot of modeling in evolutionary biology, so I still use evolutionary metaphors in a lot of my thinking. But I was also part of this fellowship program that was devoted to complex — nonlinear and dynamic — systems. It brought together people from social sciences, physics, biology, all these different areas. We were all studying different things, but I found that there are these mathematical and computational models that could be applied universally, underlying a lot of large, complex networks and large, complex systems. So whether you’re studying how innovation happens within cities, or how phase transitions occur in physical substances, or the molecular networks of interacting proteins… these things are different in their own special ways, but you can use these mathematical models to understand all kinds of cross-disciplinary similarities.

Actually, because I got so excited by this program, by the time I got ready to write my dissertation, I realized I actually wanted to do more of the complex systems research, and very little of the biology. I told my dissertation committee, and they said, “well, you’ve taken all the biology courses you need, so if you want to go off and do some weird thing… it might not get you a job, but that’s your own affair!”

So in the end, my dissertation actually had really little to no biology in it, which is kind of hilarious.

Q: Another fun fact from your website — you named a new word?! Can you tell us about that?

A: The word is “mesofact.”

I coined it… I guess, now over a decade ago. I originally wrote about it in this little essay that I later included in one of my books. The idea is focused around changing knowledge which is one of the topics of my first book.

Let’s say there are two kinds of categories of knowledge or information that we have in our heads. There are the things that change really quickly (ex. what the weather’s gonna be like tomorrow or what the stock market closed at yesterday). And on the other hand, there are the things that change extremely slowly (like, evolutionarily, how many fingers are on the human hand or how many continents there are on the planet).

In between those two categories are what I call “mesofacts.” This type of fact changes slowly, but on the order of a few decades or one human lifetime. The problem is, we learn those facts the same way we learn facts that don’t change at all over the course of our lives. So, for example, we’ll learn the number of billions of people on the planet and then forget to mentally update this kind of thing. We’re quite close to eight billion, but a friend of mine was telling me how someone was talking about “the fact that there are four billion people on the planet…” And, even though that’s what we learned as kids, it’s now wildly inaccurate! Or, to give another example, when we were little, we learned that dinosaurs were these gray-green reptilian monsters. But now we’re beginning to think they were actually warm blooded, like fast-moving fearsome chickens with feathers. Totally different!

So understanding how mesofacts change as well as how we perceive that change is something really important. When we’re young we learn a huge amount about many different things — social studies and history and biology and physics. But then, as we get older, we begin to specialize and learn more and more about less and less — which is important for our specialization of our jobs — but during this time facts and knowledge are shifting slowly, unpredictably, and we don’t perceive it until one day our kid comes home and says, “guess what dinosaurs are weird chicken things!”

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your journey into writing? Have you always been a writer and a scientist, or when did you make the leap into writing?

A: I’ve always been interested in writing. I’d say I began doing more formal writing in graduate school, but that it really didn’t take off until I was doing my postdoc. Oftentimes in graduate school people will take a course entirely unrelated to whatever they’re doing, as a palate cleanser, in a way. So some of my friends did sports, or took a foreign language… and I took a creative writing course.

It felt like it was me and a bunch of freshmen primarily, and we spent a lot of our time writing short stories and poetry. I loved it. It was a lot of fun.

I actually co-authored New York Times essay with my grad school advisor about some of our research, so that was really exciting! And that was my first major publication.

Q: Thinking about that course in creative writing, have you ever thought about writing fiction?

A: I’m in the very early stages of a third nonfiction book, but in between my second and third I actually took a break and worked on a novel. I actually have a manuscript!

It’s not a complete thing, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to see the light of day, but I did talk to various agents about the possibility. To me, the fiction industry is a lot harder. But yes! It was really great experience, and I don’t know yet what I’m gonna do with it, but it was a lot of fun.

Actually, a lot of the different ideas in that [fiction] novel are also going to be revisited in a very different sort of way in the nonfiction book I am currently working on.

I would say “nerdy fiction” is very well suited for acting as traction for a variety of topics where you can discuss things in a different sort of way than the nonfiction route.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the topic for your Salon?

A: This is an idea that I’ve been thinking about, playing with for a while.

In terms of coding, I have been programming for a very long time. Some of my early memories are sitting with my father, when I was three or four years old. Our first computer was a Commodore VIC-20, and it was very different to modern computers! You would get a computer magazine, and in the back of the magazine, there were pages of code you could enter in. I remember we had this one game, a skiing game where you control some little skier going down the slope. I remember my father writing the text and then we would see the result on the screen. Sometimes it would be buggy and we’d have to go and debug stuff, but this was my first taste of seeing the relationship between text and making something happen on the screen. It was a really powerful thing.

Years later, I began to program on a macintosh. We switched to Mac in, like, the late eighties and we were a Mac family for a while. There was this program called HyperCard. There was a language called HyperTalk underneath it all, and it gave me this very easy on-ramp to coding. You built these things called stacks and each stack had a “card” which is kind of like a page on the screen. You could just type it in, add buttons, and these things all had code underneath that you could add to and modify. So if you wanted to make a little button that would make a weird noise when you clicked it, it was actually very easy to do.

So I began doing that, and then I began programming screensaver animations and stuff like that. And then I began doing more programming in high school, then through college, and then, even when I was doing more scientific training, I still did a lot of coding. Especially with computational biology!

I’ve always been thinking about coding, and how coding is a way of writing.

And coding, in some ways, is the embodiment of this yearning we’ve had for millennia to write or utter words that do something in the world. That’s magic. It’s like the way people talk about spells, and sorcery, and all of that.

There’s even this classic computer science textbook (*holds up book*) and it’s referred to as “the wizard book.” There’s even a Unix command called “Bless”! So, in coding, there’s already this kind of weird sense of the mythological, the theological, and the computational all bound up in this interesting way. And if you take this analogy very seriously you can see the magic of technology. It just works! Magical kind of like the way Steve Jobs used to talk about the iPhone.

I’m interested in the way people talk about coding like magic in the way of witchcraft — as craft. Like, for instance, Hogwarts is not a diploma mill. You have to go there for many, many years and learn the craft of magic, of sorcery.

But coding is also really messy, a massive amount of debugging, so I’ve been thinking about this analogy a lot. Where it works, and where it doesn’t. I want to use this Salon as an opportunity to look at how far we can take this analogy. How far we can push it before it breaks.

We hope to see you there!

—ii Editorial

P.S. To learn more about Sam, his work, and other fun facts, check out his website here!