Reality has a surprising amount of detail
March 18, 2024 1:28 PM   Subscribe

Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality. You can see this everywhere if you look. For example, you’ve probably had the experience of doing something for the first time, maybe growing vegetables or using a Haskell package for the first time, and being frustrated by how many annoying snags there were. Then you got more practice and then you told yourself ‘man, it was so simple all along, I don’t know why I had so much trouble’. We run into a fundamental property of the universe and mistake it for a personal failing.
Blogger John Salvatier talks stair carpentry, boiling water, the difference between invisible and transparent detail, and how paying closer attention to the beguiling complexity of everyday life can help you open your mind and break out of mental ruts and blind spots.


Ask HN: Do you also marvel at the complexity of everyday objects?
It was such an odd moment, but it's has caused a lasting perspective shift. almost every day I'll look at some commonplace object I took for granted and think "this is actually so complex, no single human has all the knowledge or expertise to create it".

I'm curious if anybody else has had a similar experience and/or what are some simple everyday objects that give you pause when you stop to think about their complexity
xkcd: Work (and appropriately, the hidden complexity behind it)

I, Pencil
I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet,
not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.
Meteuphoric: Why did everything take so long? (previously)
One of the biggest intuitive mysteries to me is how humanity took so long to do anything.

Humans have been ‘behaviorally modern’ for about 50 thousand years. And apparently didn’t invent, for instance:

- rope until 28 thousand years ago.
- the wheel until at least 4000BC
- writing until 3000BC
- woodblock printing until 200AD

This kind of thing seems really weird introspectively, because it is hard to imagine going a whole lifetime in the wilderness without wanting something like rope, or going a whole day wanting something like rope without figuring out how to make something like rope. Yet apparently people went for about a thousand lifetimes without that happening.
...and the follow-up post: Why everything might have taken so long

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (previously):
sonder n.
the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
posted by Rhaomi (48 comments total) 120 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, saving this for tonight's reading. It sounds terribly riveting ...
posted by Czjewel at 1:33 PM on March 18

....So, I started a new job in the end of January; it's been a big step up from what I was doing before (but it's similar to things I have done in the past). Still, every new work place has its own unique quirks and nuances and what-not, and I've been spending most of the past few weeks feeling like a totally stupid doof who doesn't know what the fuck she's doing and expecting I'm about to be fired any minute now.

I REALLY, REALLY needed to read this. Especially the parts about how over time, the little details that are freaking you out right now become second-nature. Thank you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:34 PM on March 18 [13 favorites]

This is something that Tech Writers know all too well because much of the job involves approaching subject matter experts who often have spent years + years becoming experts and who often get "that look" when asked to break complex material down into more granular steps. I've often thought of learning as being kind of like a trash compactor of sorts, and it's easy to understand how/why this can be lost in translation across disciplines / domains.
posted by clandestiny's child at 1:55 PM on March 18 [10 favorites]

Timely! I took my first ceramics class yesterday. How hard could it be, right? You put a lump of clay on the wheel and just kind of hold your hands there and spin it into a disc and then whirl it out into a bowl? Ha. My entire body is sore today. I had NO IDEA. Looking forward to reading all of this.
posted by HotToddy at 1:56 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

This kind of fractal detail is what makes life interesting, TBH. I am novelty seeking, and the best way to get novelty is to work on learning to be modestly competent at things you have no idea how to do. Because of the spiral of complexity.

It's also why rich people think poor people don't know anything. Because how hard can it be to do whatever it is that poor people do? They must be stupid, just look at how trivial it is to (clean a bathroom / walk a dog / flip a burger / etc). When of course it's the rich person who's the idiot. There is no unskilled labor.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:02 PM on March 18 [32 favorites]

Also saving to pore over in my free time. For now I'll say that this is a common recognition about the sensate part of consciousness when people start to meditate. That's to say that it's like a sudden, wild encounter with the reality that the part of you that invents thoughts is eerily separate from the part of you that *notices* thoughts, and making that connection breaks down the filter that tunes out the noisiness of the former to such an extent that almost everyone responds with some variation of, "holy fucking shit, you mean there are a million billion thoughts and feelings flying around in there at all times???" At a deeper level, you can hit the same recognition about the raw sensual input systems, so you can have a similar stunning recognition of just how much data is pouring in from your eyes, ears, tongue, nose, skin, belly, and it can be truly overwhelming. The details are overflowing in the world, outer and inner.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:15 PM on March 18 [8 favorites]

Related, I've been reading Deb Chachra's How Infrastructure Works, which is less textbook than a paean to the incredible complexity of nearly all human activity, which is reliant at least to an extent on an incomprehensible network of engineering standards, materials, technologies, and so on. In other words, it's an ecologized view of infrastructure, which is a delightful departure from the deceivingly simple title. Even better, it's also a political ecology of infrastructure. Come for the wonder, stay for the "wow, we could do so much better."

The proposition that complexity is a fundamental and universal principle makes me think we should make "ecologize" as popular a slogan as, say, "got milk?". LMK if you want a t-shirt or a bumper sticker.
posted by criticalyeast at 2:29 PM on March 18 [9 favorites]

I started practicing a martial art two years ago, when I was 36. My kid and I started together. I remember vividly the first day I went to class, watching the advanced people practice and thinking, wow, I literally can't imagine making it to that level.

Two years later, I know the beginners are watching me and thinking that. And I'm looking at the people who have been practicing it for twice as long as me, thinking the same thing. And all it is, at its root, is a few sets of rules for hitting each other with sticks. How hard can it be??

But there are guys in their 50s and 60s in my dojo who can wipe the floor with every single one of us, including people who are bigger, younger, stronger, and generally fitter than they are. This is so fascinating to me. And there are so many niche areas of human endeavor that are like this! Basically all of them! Where you can work on them for decades, and still keep learning and growing and getting better and understanding more deeply. Makes me so excited to be human, you know?
posted by potrzebie at 3:11 PM on March 18 [10 favorites]

This may sound a tad sentimental, but I grew up in a ruined city which barely provided some important services at all. Every morning when I leave the house in NYC and see that the trash has been collected and the shopkeepers have cleaned the snow off in front of their stores and the buses are running, a small part of my brain says: This is miraculous. I'm not always conscious of it, but I feel it.
posted by praemunire at 3:59 PM on March 18 [30 favorites]

Textiles. Anytime I see fictional scenarios depicting people living over long periods in tiny, isolated outposts and/or in post-apocalyptic hellscapes, I wonder: Where do their clothes come from? Or, more specifically, where does their fabric and thread come from? Where are the cotton or wool mills? Tanneries? And what of the agriculture needed to support cotton, wool, or leather production? Or how about sewing needles? The level of labor specialization and industrialization required to get to our current quality and quantity of clothing is staggering and almost entirely invisible to our modern sensibilities.
posted by mhum at 4:22 PM on March 18 [16 favorites]

We used to have a CEO who took advantage of this. He would understand that there were a lot of details in any activity and people (managers) paying attention would learn them. He'd occasionally decide to drill down at seemingly random points. If you'd approved some six-figure purchase, or were accountable for some major project, you'd better be able to demonstrate familiarity with the details. He could sort that out even when it wasn't his specialty, because you'd try to find the person who did know to explain it. But if you did that, you were "just a guy with a suit and a slide deck", only we're in California so you probably didn't even have the suit.

It annoyed the hell out of some people for understandable reasons, but it really set the tone for what was expected from a well paid level of managers. They were supposed to manage. The company has definitely declined without him.
posted by mark k at 4:41 PM on March 18 [10 favorites]

The textiles thing really gets me, too! There's just So Much Labor that goes into even very basic textiles. It's a pet peeve of mine in colony sim type games -- so often, you either "grow cotton" or "shear sheep" and then ... that just somehow directly produces cloth. I found a game recently that includes not just the spinning and weaving steps, but even things like scouring wool before it can be spun and retting flax in a pond before you can dress it and then spin it. It was so exciting to me to see a game-maker appreciate and engage with the complexity of domestic systems instead of devoting all the crafting trees to weapons.
posted by duien at 4:45 PM on March 18 [8 favorites]

In the movie Locke (which is great if you think that you'd happily watch a 90 minute movie where Tom Hardy reads the phone book aloud) there is a discussion between the title character and one of his employees (Gareth?) about the particular type of concrete that is being used in the construction and how it's the wrong type of concrete (spoiler, but not really, because everything is going to shit around him).

Unless you work with concrete, concrete is likely more complex than you thought it was.

I saw a reddit comment where a grad-school libertarian decided that making lights for traffic intersections was NBD and then only possible reason they could cost so much is massive grifting and incompetence and anyone with half a brain could do it for 1/10th the price. They got schooled - hard - by someone who worked in the field.

Traffic lights are more complex than you thought they were.

It's all so much more complex than you think it is.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 5:05 PM on March 18 [7 favorites]

almost every day I'll look at some commonplace object I took for granted and think "this is actually so complex, no single human has all the knowledge or expertise to create it".

Which reminds me of:
[Arthur Dent] had been extremely chastened to realise that although he originally came from a world which had cars and computers and ballet and armagnac he didn't, by himself, know how any of it worked. He couldn't do it. Left to his own devices he couldn't build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.
I felt that when I read it for the first time. I'm good with computers, but if some civilization asked me to create one for them I'd be so incapable that I'd probably end up getting cooked, sliced up, and served in a sandwich.
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:15 PM on March 18 [10 favorites]

This is something that Tech Writers know all too well because much of the job involves approaching subject matter experts who often have spent years + years becoming experts and who often get "that look" when asked to break complex material down into more granular steps.

I am both a Tech Writer and a subject matter expert, and even then making technical documents useful by non-experts is a difficult and fascinating process.
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:17 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Unless you work with concrete, concrete is likely more complex than you thought it was.

Which reminds of the time in college when our civil engineering professor proceeded to tell us all about the human remains that were uncovered during excavation for the new library that was under construction at the time, which after some understandable consternation were determined to belong to the (centuries) old anatomy lab that had previously been on that site. At one point he paused and said "I don't know why I'm spending so much time on this, but then again it's more interesting than talking about concrete!"
posted by TwoWordReview at 5:24 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

As praemunire mentioned upthread about waste pickup and snow removal in NYC, I sometimes get so freaked out about how much infrastructure is required to run a city that I start to feel very small, very overwhelmed, a little dizzy and that I know nothing and understand nothing. Then it passes (but not really) and I go on my merry way up the paved street with moving vehicles and that has sewer lines underneath it and power lines above it, cell phone towers a little higher and airplanes way up there, past homes and buildings filled with people who livelovedie eatdrinksleep laughcrymeh that have gas lines and water lines and electrical lines that come from places that are sometimes far away or sometimes close by but inaccessible and over the bridge that's close to the grocery store and it all just works even when it doesn't and the definition of apocalypse is when all of this stuff completely stops working...

...and how is it possible that somebody realized that if you grind up dried grain (?!) that it could be turned into bread? As far as I'm concerned, this is just as miraculous as the wheel.
posted by ashbury at 5:59 PM on March 18 [12 favorites]

> Unless you work with concrete, concrete is likely more complex than you thought it was.

Book recommendation: Courland's Concrete Planet, 2011.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:01 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

It's all so much more complex than you think it is.

This is how I feel about Art, Music, Crafts, whatever you're into. There's so much incredible detail once you get a little way in, it can be overwhelming. But it's also wonderful, what humans can do, and have done. And so tragic, how in the dim and (hopefully) distant future it will all be lost; even Mozart will be forgotten, or even intentionally deleted.
posted by Rash at 6:14 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

ashbury: how is it possible that somebody realized that if you grind up dried grain (?!) that it could be turned into bread?

OMG, every time I make a new recipe, or learn how a raw material is processed before I can even begin to cook with it, I get this feeling.

Who smoked a jalapeno pepper and dried it and crushed it?

Who decided to stick their hand in a behive, and then mix that with water and let it wild-ferment?

Who the hell decided to try fois gras?!
posted by wenestvedt at 7:00 PM on March 18 [5 favorites]

My wife was telling a story this weekend about a friend of hers, a nuclear chemist, who collects Uranium Glass. My wife asked if it was safe to collect something like that, where the interesting trait is its radioactivity, friend said "Yeah." When my wife asked if she could eat off of or drink out of the stuff, friend said "No." Both times, friend laughed like these were clearly obvious facts. Because the flipside of this is how easily we lose sight of what's "obvious" to people who aren't experts in the same fields that we are.

This is one of the distinguishing traits of great lawyers, for instance - knowing how to make non-obvious things clear to non-lawyers. And not just, like, when talking to a jury, either. I'm a non-practicing lawyer in a position where I'm often kind of a go-between between the tv production company (whom I work for and who would really like to do a bunch of stuff that they probably can't for one reason or another) and their counsel (whose retainer we don't want to eat through with a dozen calls and emails every day.) As someone who is Not Your Lawyer™ but who can spend an hour on the phone with counsel at the beginning of a production to know how they like to apply certain issues, I can turn around and try to make sure the production actually complies with that advice. But on other jobs, I'll be on calls every week where all the producers are on with all the lawyers and the gulf of misunderstanding seems insurmountable, in part because of the stress involved with this time being billable. The lawyers who can cut through that to get everyone on the same page of understanding are phenomenal and to be appreciated.

My real field of something-close-to-expertise is in story theory, which mostly amounts to my doing talks about it on occasion to (mostly) non-experts. This is, thankfully, a topic that's pretty easy to make interesting for laypeople, but it's an inherently squishy topic, with a lot of guidelines and no hard and fast rules and lots of interdependencies and when it all comes down to it, it's a matter of taste. And when writing a talk, it's difficult for me to zoom out to the level of what I can cover in 20 minutes, stripping away jargon that's useful to me and even just industry-wide jargon that it's not worth trying to teach to a layperson if I only have so much time to try to make my real point.

Anyway, this discussion made me think of this xkcd, so I'll end with that, but damn, yeah, everything is fractally detailed, and that's a good thing to keep in mind when getting frustrated with something new.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:02 PM on March 18 [5 favorites]

There's so many directions in which to discuss this fascinating essay, but I can't let the discussion go without mentioning what Brent Yorgey memorably I-thought-called-but-didn't quite the burrito fallacy. (In fact, Salvatier might have had just this example in mind when referring to Haskell, but doesn't seem explicitly to reference it, so I feel comfortable doing so here.)
After struggling to understand [monads] for a week, looking at examples, writing code, reading things other people have written, he finally has an “aha!” moment: everything is suddenly clear, and Joe Understands Monads! What has really happened, of course, is that Joe’s brain has fit all the details together into a higher-level abstraction, a metaphor which Joe can use to get an intuitive grasp of monads; let us suppose that Joe’s metaphor is that Monads are Like Burritos. Here is where Joe badly misinterprets his own thought process: “Of course!” Joe thinks. “It’s all so simple now. The key to understanding monads is that they are Like Burritos. If only I had thought of this before!” The problem, of course, is that if Joe HAD thought of this before, it wouldn’t have helped: the week of struggling through details was a necessary and integral part of forming Joe’s Burrito intuition, not a sad consequence of his failure to hit upon the idea sooner.
That essay has always spoken to me in my capacity as a teacher, and I expect this one will, too.
posted by It is regrettable that at 8:14 PM on March 18 [11 favorites]

Who the hell decided to try fois gras?!

I'll do you one better: lac, which is, to borrow a famous line from SNL, both a furniture polish and a desert topping.
posted by pwnguin at 8:15 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

Oh, wow, I know that it's bad form just to sit around and quote the essay, but let me sit around and quote the essay:
Frames are made out of the details that seem important to you. The important details you haven’t noticed are invisible to you, and the details you have noticed seem completely obvious and you see right through them. This all makes makes it difficult to imagine how you could be missing something important.
The first sentence especially is just one of those perfect phrasings that it would never have occurred to me beforehand to put that way.
posted by It is regrettable that at 8:20 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]

I feel like I experience this with respect to becoming a better birder all of the time. For me, there are slopes and plateaus in learning how to identify birds. The slope is the "i don't know what I'm looking at or hearing" stage, the plateau is "I think I've got this". And once you think you're on the plateau, you see or hear something that makes you question what you've learned before, and you realize you're on the slope again, or (to be more realistic) you were always on the slope and some new aspect of the complexity of identifying birds just became more apparent.
posted by mollweide at 8:37 PM on March 18 [4 favorites]

Who the hell decided to try fois gras?!

I'm pretty sure that was Ford Prefect.
posted by Avelwood at 9:58 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

Perception is essentially lossy compression; understanding, even more so.

Randomness is just information for which we have no workable compressor.

There's a lot of it about.
posted by flabdablet at 10:43 PM on March 18 [3 favorites]

It's a (technology) pyramid scheme
posted by rebent at 11:02 PM on March 18

I’ve been trying to learn to code recently with the hopes it’ll help me in my next job. It has been a battle to do even the simplest things. Even setting up the environment and getting the code to print “Hello world” seems to involve myriad complexities that have been silently elided over by the guides. All the documentation is unintelligible, and Stack Overflow is as likely to confuse me with new terms as it is to solve the immediate problem.

I was nodding along with recognition at the blog’s description of “steps within steps.”

This seems to have coincided with a period of low mood which is no doubt linked. I’m bad at it and I know I’m bad at it. I had a genuine moment last week when I thought, this is Too Complicated For Me and there is no point trying to compete with people who Know What They Are Doing. I left my last job for many reasons but part of it was the continuous feeling that there was something I was supposed to be doing, I had no idea what it was, and the fact I didn’t was my own personal shortcoming.

Weirdly, I can also see myself starting to not see the details I had to work to understand. The hours I spent googling why I was getting errors saying I hadn’t downloaded the right Python libraries even though I had. Or the embarrassingly long time I spent trying to work out how to log into my own MySql Server. I do many correct things without thinking, and I know when I meet someone who struggles with these things that I might have to work to put myself back into the headspace of a total noviciate.

One of the things that has kept me going is watching a YouTube video with some title like “what it’s actually like to code”, and it’s just a guy staring at one terminal error after another and googling a lot. I shall add this blog to the list of helpful things.
posted by Probabilitics at 12:44 AM on March 19 [8 favorites]

Even setting up the environment and getting the code to print “Hello world” seems to involve myriad complexities that have been silently elided over by the guides.

As an retired software developer I can assure you that this is absolutely par for the course, and is the exact reason why getting some sort of Hello World to work on the actual target device is always a software developer's first goal when working with a new toolchain or target.
posted by flabdablet at 1:19 AM on March 19 [8 favorites]

Thank you @flabdablet, it really helps to be told that this is normal!
posted by Probabilitics at 1:44 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]

Who the hell decided to try fois gras?!

I used to have a similar joke about natto (fermented soy beans with a pretty foul stench that have a slimy texture that turns very stringy in a visually, to me, repellent way). I’d say “how hungry did the first person to eat natto have to be to actually eat it?” and haha, etc, until one day a friend looked at me and said “very.”

That kind of killed my joke, but it’s also always the answer to anything about “who thought of eating (thing)?”, hunger has always been the great motivator. The lucky ones got something to eat, the unlucky ones showed us what to avoid.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:04 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]

I left my last job for many reasons but part of it was the continuous feeling that there was something I was supposed to be doing, I had no idea what it was, and the fact I didn’t was my own personal shortcoming.

Some degree of impostor syndrome is absolutely normal as well.

I let it get me down horribly before first turning up for work at each of my first three jobs. On the fourth one I sat myself down and told myself sternly: pull yourself together, Stephen, you've indulged yourself in this terror of incompetence three times already, every time you've got the hang of it quite quickly and things have worked out just fine, so are we really going to have to do this completely spurious agony dance for every new job from here until death? At which point I actually took my own best advice (a rare occurrence) and it's scarcely ever bothered me since.

It seems to me that if it's been a month since somebody was hired and they still have no clue what the job actually entails, that's very nearly never their fault and almost always shitty management or an actually bullshit job or both, and that the correct response is to shrug and keep taking the employer's money until they either train you or sack you.
posted by flabdablet at 5:57 AM on March 19 [7 favorites]

Thank you for sharing this fascinating article.

When I was still in school, I often used to spend the break times looking at a random patch of concrete or paint or gravel, because it amused me that no matter how long I looked, there was always more to see and think about.

The shape of a crack (why did it form in that exact shape? Why did it crack exactly there? ) the tiny mosses and bits of debris, stains, (what caused the stain? Why are some damp things darker when they're damp than when they're dry? How is it possible to *see* that something is greasy without having to touch it?)

I still do that sometimes. Everything is fractal. I find that soothing. Sometimes this level of visual detail assails me even when I'm not trying to see it, which is one of the reasons I tend to walk looking down. Too overwhelming.
posted by Zumbador at 6:50 AM on March 19 [4 favorites]

I'm of two minds about this, as someone who spends 8 hours a day discussing designing software products. A lot of the what is done is honestly completely superfluous, it's stuff that modernizes only slightly or meets a very small use case for a small number of users, and much of it is just because committees design it and they pay us salary, not by the hour, so we think about it a lot, as a way to spend 8 hours if you are being cynical or because our clients deserve it if you are not.

It's like that 'sweater conversation' in the Devil Wears Prada, but it's not remarkable because every single aspect of modern life is like that - committees of people working 8 hours a day to make everything.

On the other hand, even if some of what we do is silly and superfluous, or the decisions are made somewhat randomly and another decision made by a different set of people would have been just as good, a lot of the still standing stuff is extremely necessary towards living a modern life. So scenarios and movies about the end of the world always make me laugh, like somehow the expectation that the majority of life would kinda the same but just more guns and roving bands of robbers is just so far from reality that they are silly.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:31 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]

Going to game nights and playing games you've never encountered before: the rules seem super-complicated and like they'll be impossible to remember, but then you start playing and everything eventually clicks. It's a lesson for me about so many things in life, and that sometimes you just need to kinda jump in and do the thing and everything will eventually make sense.
posted by biblioPHL at 7:36 AM on March 19

It was playing chess that finally taught me that simply doing something a lot, without even any conscious intent to improve, makes me better at it.

This felt revelatory when I first noticed it. I was what, 25 at the time? I wish somebody had explained it to me properly before I started high school.

If I'd intuitively understood the value of practice when presented in year 7 with endless worksheets of maths problems I'd known perfectly well how to do since year 3, then rather than reacting with boredom and frustration (and ultimately with flat refusal, leading to my first ever experience of failing a subject at school) I'd just have done them and enjoyed watching time to completion get ever smaller.

Without that intuitive understanding, "practice makes perfect" was just a stupid annoying cliche that old people would trot out from time to time. Might as well have been "turn that frown upside down" for all the good it did me. I had it firmly fixed in my head that the point and purpose of my schooling was knowing more and more things, of which knowing how to do maths problems was a subset. Doing things I already knew how to felt like an utter waste of time, just pointless makework.

The older I've got and the more people I've dealt with professionally (on both sides of that relationship), the more I've come to appreciate the vital distinction between knowing how to go about doing a thing and knowing how to actually do the thing. The latter really does only come with practice.
posted by flabdablet at 8:18 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]

Everything is fractal. I find that soothing.

Not sure that every thing is fractal; I prefer to think that detailed understandings can be thought of in that way.

It's pretty rare to encounter any natural system that actually is self-similar at all scales. Almost all have scale boundaries at which structural self-similarity breaks down (I can't think of a counterexample, but somebody else almost surely can). That said, modelling natural systems using fractal approximations to cover the range of scales they apply well to is often super useful.

When I first found out just how outstandingly effective fractal compression can be, it tweaked my worldview's confirmation biases in just the nicest way. Given that I've long seen learning as analogous to lossy compression, I particularly enjoyed the analogy between the high computational cost of finding a good fractal encoding compared to using it, and the high effort cost of acquiring a new expertise compared to using that.
posted by flabdablet at 8:47 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]

I've been spending most of the past few weeks feeling like a totally stupid doof who doesn't know what the fuck she's doing and expecting I'm about to be fired any minute now

I've been feeling like this for about 17 years in business now. If you figure out how not to feel like this, please share!
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:50 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]

almost every day I'll look at some commonplace object I took for granted and think "this is actually so complex, no single human has all the knowledge or expertise to create it"

It's easy to see why the smartphone has become the most popular invention this century. It's incredibly advanced, yet at the same time, so simple a child can make one.

--Philomena Cunk
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 10:05 PM on March 19 [6 favorites]

Thanks for a great post. Classic Metafilter long-form
posted by xtian at 4:51 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]

One of the biggest intuitive mysteries to me is how humanity took so long to do anything.

Humans have been ‘behaviorally modern’ for about 50 thousand years. And apparently didn’t invent, for instance:

- rope until 28 thousand years ago.
- the wheel until at least 4000BC
- writing until 3000BC
- woodblock printing until 200AD

Are they joking? This is SO fast. Given the timeline of the earth.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:32 AM on March 20

(This post is great thanks)
posted by tiny frying pan at 8:44 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]

This is SO fast

It really kicked into high gear once science got invented. "OK, so it's all super messy and complicated, but what happens if we get systematic about finding out what we've definitely got wrong?" is one of those truly excellent questions that seems like such an obvious thing to ask, but only after somebody else has asked it first.
posted by flabdablet at 9:44 AM on March 20

Also conversely, all tech winds up highly path dependent, more advanced tech even more so.

As a fun thought experement..

We kinda figure Moore's law makes the computer revoluiton inevitable, once you've discovered electronics, including some radical alteration of our cultural & technogical trajectory. All this felt invisible from the 50s & 60s, so imagine if Project Orion had really taken off, which involves incredible technological challenges.

If you detonate atomic weapons in orbit, then their gamma rays can interact with the upper atmosphere and magnetospehere to become radio waves. It makes them harmless to life, but worse for electronics. Project Orion might've acted like perpetual solar flares.

It'd be easier to harden electronics against more common occurances than solar falres, but it'd make them less reliable and/or more expensive, and maybe slow down Moore's law. We could've a society who settled the Moon or even Mars, but lacked personal computers.

We never even made Biosphere 2 work right, well biospheres are even more complex than our usual tech, but you'd maybe invest the effort once you're doing enough nuclear detonations to feed a moon base.

As a more radical aside, I really love this tiny youtube channel by Tom Murphy, which hints at even wilder future differences in "what humans do" (which he thinks might no longer be termed civilization)
posted by jeffburdges at 12:16 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Why did we wait so long for the bicycle?
The bicycle, as we know it today, was not invented until the late 1800s. Yet it was a simple mechanical invention. It would seem to require no brilliant inventive insight, and certainly no scientific background.

Why, then, wasn’t it invented much earlier? [...]

To understand this, I dug into the history of the bicycle...
posted by Rhaomi at 12:03 PM on March 22

We'd a post on "Why did we wait so long for the bicycle?" but the blogs conclusion reads:

economic factors: there needs to be a certain level of surplus to support the culture-wide research and development effort that creates inventions

cultural factors: Howes says that “innovation is not in human nature, but is instead received. … when people do not innovate, it is often simply because it never occurs to them to do so.” Joel Mokyr says, similarly, that “progress isn’t natural” (and his book on this topic, A Culture of Growth, helped inspire this blog).
posted by jeffburdges at 4:40 PM on March 24

I'm ultimately not too impressed by Jason Crawford (that progress blogs) or Joel Mokyr (progress isn’t natural). Joel Mokyr has too much great man myth (Geoffrey Hodgson), and ignores many other people's better theories (Brad DeLong).

It's important that progress isn’t natural of course, Joel Mokyr misses when increased energy or slaves becomes an essential input, like most economists.

"As the 18th century unfolded, it became something close to a consensus that science and technology were the engines of economic progress." (Joel Mokyr)

I do think 18th century inventions were slightly less fossil fuel dependent than afterwards, but it's still humans learning to harness non-renewable resources.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:15 AM on March 26

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