02 April 2008

...What To Leave Out

I got a hat tip from the Freakonomics blog today in reference to a recent post about the Wikipedia article for "real life." The post accepts the premise that fantasy and reality are complements rather than substitutes (a position Contraria Sunt Complementa naturally supports), and it zeros in on Robin Hanson's pro-complement point that "fiction can suppress irrelevant detail and emphasize important essences, like a math model" (hyperlink added).

Of course, such suppression is a big part of the game for us researchers who write simulation software. In fact, I'd argue that it's the game. Not because implementation is trivial (it's not), but because fantasy has to start from scratch, so to speak; without "suppress[ing] irrelevent detail," even the fastest model builder never has a chance to catch up. There's just to much detail to try to capture.

I talk a little bit each week here at CSC about editorial judgment, a subject that--despite going-on six years of engineering training--I have much more real-life experience with than its engineering analog. I'll make an effort to rectify my recent lack of engineering-judgment coverage in the coming weeks, especially as I try to summon some myself in order to finish up my work on GENIUS by the end of the summer.

I admit to occasionally succumbing to the need for a motivational Post-It note above my workstation. "Simplify, simplify" wouldn't be a bad motto in light of the addition-by-subtraction nature of modeling. But I'm going to go with the titular reference from the Douglas Adams piece that--almost four years ago now--first got me thinking about the importance of teaching engineers how to decide what to leave out:

"What have we got to lose?"

No comments: