I want to spend a few hours simply riffing about and around the idea of branching paths. I’m not sure what my end goal is, but I’m confident that something interesting will come up along the way. I’ll navigate by the Crackle, and look for a Boom.
Let’s see… Life is full of possibilities. There’s more possibility-space than we can fathom. There are lots of possible paths we can take at any given moment. This immediately makes me think of good ol’ Robert Frost, and what David Orr calls the most misread poem in America.
the road not taken
The Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken (1915), is often misunderstood, because it repeatedly gets misquoted out of context. This notably happens in the movie Dead Poets Society (1989), where Robin Williams, playing unorthodox English teacher John Keating, uses the closing lines to make a point about the importance of being a non-conformist. The lines are, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”
But Frost was not saying this directly to the reader as an expression of triumphant decisiveness. He was saying that that was what he would say in hindsight. He did not intend the poem to inspire people to take the less-travelled path! He starts by describing how the two paths are “just as fair” (basically indistinguishable), and the oft-quoted bit is preceded with the critically overlooked frame, “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence:”
So I believe Frost was really making a broader, subtler point about the human impulse to narrativize one’s decisions. He’s basically saying, “Y’know, once I’ve picked a path, in retrospect I’ll make up some explanation as to why I chose it.”
And, in a funny way, the people who quote him out of context, make that point for him! In a way that’s non-obvious unless you step back and see the bigger picture.
I think what fascinates me about all this is how people will insist on the reading that they want to make. The opening line of Madonna’s Frozen (1998) come to mind – you only see what your eyes want to see. Which brings me back to what I was talking about in resonance over coherence : “We simply inhabit the limited awareness that we have, and in that moment, that just feels like all there is.”
Or as Schopenhauer put it, “Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
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… is the idea that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that “fit” their names. Here’s a fun thread I’ve been assembling for a few years now.
I wouldn’t describe myself as someone who’s particularly into astrology– I have a casual curiosity about it the same way I’m curious about all manners of mythology and folklore. Apparently, one of the possible interpretations of my name, Visakan, is “branched, divided”. I was born under the Vedic star sign called the Vishakha Nakshatra, which ruled by both Indra and Agni, lightning and fire. I was born on the 6th of June, which astrologically makes me a Gemini, which also has the same idea of duality, twins, etc. I don’t know enough about either western or Vedic astrology to have anything interesting to say other than “hm, that’s interesting,” but it feels like something worth mentioning in an essay about branching paths. That’s quite a series of coincidences!
Though we also get back here to Frost’s point about narrativizing. He said “I shall be telling this with a sigh…” and I will concede that that is what I am doing with my name, and the web of pre-existing narratives around my name! It’s hard to displace a good narrative, even if it doesn’t particularly correspond to reality – as long as it has its own narrative logic. “Visakan means branching paths, and so nominative determinism is real, because Visakan does a lot of branching Twitter threads,” is a fun bit of narrativizing. I like it. I’m happy to roll with it, and it’s really no different than the way loads of people are happy to misinterpret Frost.
(Branching path not taken: voltaic essay on narrative logic)
Living in a reality full of patterns and non-patterns, and having pattern-seeking minds that spot patterns even when there are none… its tricky business. Best we can do maybe is to be thoughtful about it. Nassim Taleb’s work on Antifragile is relevant here – it’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to develop accurate models of reality, and so what really matters is recognizing that our models are always wrong, and doing our best to make sure that we don’t get accidentally killed by the inevitable wrongness of our models.
Not all branching paths lead to good places. But as long as you don’t die, even the bad places will teach you something that will help you on your journey.
From time to time I think out loud about “information architecture”, which is just my fancy-ish way of talking about the challenge of how to lay out information. The word “architect” means “chief builder”, “archon” being “chief”, and “-tek” being roughly the same as tech, technology, technical work, so a more literal translation might be “chief technician”. (But we now have new connotations regarding “technician”, which is a branching path about the nature of words that we will save for exploration in a later essay.)
For now: What is the technique of laying out information? How are we to do it well? I find it to be an infinitely interesting problem. In some ways we are all architects, because we all have to make something of our lives. We have to make decisions about what to do, what not to do, what paths to take, what paths not to take.
A thing that occurred to me once is that, sometimes when I say that I’ve been thinking about something for a long time, what it really means is that I have an idea-lattice in my mind, and the way in which that lattice has degraded over time has revealed something to me. In a way, forgetting aids remembering. More on this later.
I’m reminded of something Richard Feynman once said about learning physics: “You’ve got to forget the memorizing of formulas, and to try to learn to understand the interrelationships of nature. That’s very much more difficult at the beginning, but it’s the only successful way.”
We can then go on to triangulate from what we know, to new, uncharted territory. I believe this applies to much more than physics. It applies to all knowledge.
One of the great mysteries of existence is that the reality we inhabit is full of patterns. Part of this is that we are pattern-matching, pattern-seeking beings, and one of the tricky things about being human is that we will, again, “see what our eyes want us to see” – which is to say, we will see patterns that aren’t “actually there”. But that’s just a feature of the human mind, and once we understand it, we can work with it. We can double-check our observations by testing them, and corroborating them with other people (also a tricky business).
(Branching path not taken: voltaic essay on corroborating knowledge)
Here we get to desire paths, which is another one of my favorite concepts.
A desire path is a path that naturally develops over time from people walking it. I believe the example above is a set of footpaths on the campus of a university that were created by paving over the existing desire paths created by people walking across the lawn to wherever they needed to go. Look at it, doesn’t it feel uncommonly natural and soothing, rather than forced, authoritarian, imposed? It’s definitely not the most efficient use of pavement if you’re trying to minimize the material expenditure – some paths seem superfluous. But it’s likely the most effective way of organizing the paths.
If you look up the subreddit /r/DesirePaths, a lot of the examples particularly highlight cases where people subvert top-down planning by taking shortcuts, or by avoiding tedious obstructions.
If you watch a slow-motion video of lightning, you can see a similar thing play out. The charge(?) in the cloud sets out on a fractal of branching paths through the air in search of the ground, and when it finds it, BOOM!
I wish I was able to accurately explain the minutiae of the moment-by-moment series of events that happen in a lightning strike, but I keep forgetting details and getting things wrong... Still, we can use our eyes and describe what we observe – there’s clearly an “explore” phase where the lightning is branching out in many forked paths, and then the moment one of the charges connects with the ground, there’s a powerful backstroke, which is “the main event” that we perceive as lightning.
Here’s a fun little bit from a study in 1997 that sought to use an artificial ant colony to find efficient paths. The interesting thing is how the pheromone trails work. The ants deposit pheromones as they go, and the shorter path has a stronger pheromone scent. The weaker trail gets “forgotten”. Forgetting aids remembering! It’s a principle of contrast!
Crackle-boom, something just hit me!! I didn’t know why I was choosing to write about branching paths today, I just felt like it. I didn’t know that I would choose to talk about information architecture and desire paths, though it seems kind of obvious now in retrospect, because I’ve been thinking so much about “how do I write all these fucken essays??” and “how do I make sure I write what I want?”
“Pave the desire paths” is an excellent way to address information architecture problems. This essay is the first time I have properly connected these dots together. I’m always vaguely thinking “yea its good to pave desire paths”, and I’m always thinking “information architecture is hard”, but somehow until I wrote this essay, I never quite saw clearly that I’m talking about the same thing! This convergence alone, for me, is worth the rest of the rambling in this essay. I can’t know if it’ll be useful to anyone else, but for the time being I’m not going to worry too much about what is useful to everyone else.
I find it important to reflect on this: The ants that went the long way around the obstacle also contributed to the formation of the efficient path. Their contribution was just as important.
A big reason why information architecture is hard is because it’s not enough to simply know how the information relates to itself. Architecture is a people-centric activity. On top of asking “alright what’s all this then”, you also have to ask “who is this for?” A mental image that sometimes comes to mind for me – this is a little different as an analogy – is that you can’t really tell how the wind is blowing until you light a fire and watch how the smoke travels. “Information architecture”, in this slightly tortured analogy, requires knowledge of how the wind blows.
Take the example above of the ants finding the efficient path around the obstacle. The obstacle is in their way, and their perception is limited, so they can’t really know for sure which way around the obstacle is better. No individual ant has any idea wtf is going on. But as a collective, they can figure out the more efficient path by paying attention to the pheromone deposits along the path. (It’s also slightly funny to tie this back to Frost. “I took the path with more pheromones on it, and that had made all the difference!” I don’t know if that means anything. I’m in the delirious “we just say shit” phase of the writing process.)
I was stressing out for months because i was trying to find the efficient desire paths without the bad stuff. But now it’s becoming clearer to me that I should just make my peace with taking the bad paths too. There is no way of knowing what the right paths are in advance. You can’t order desire paths to emerge instantly. Desire meanders. It takes its time. You have to let it flow where it wants to go. As long as I don’t die, even my “inefficient” Crackle contribute to the eventual formation of the “final” Boom.
So, that’s some context for ye readers, if any of you are still here, about these voltaic verses. I’m taking all the paths. In this house we surf all the channels at once. We’re in the explore phase. If you’re simply looking for pithy, clever insight, come back next year when I find the elegant return paths! But if you’re curious to witness the messy, chaotic process of branching– if you care about the Crackle just as much as the Boom– then you’ve come to the right place. ⚡️
// Footnotes and links etc
You can learn more about the context and backstory of Robert Frost’s poem here, thanks to Katherine Robinson.
Funnily, what happens with Frost also happens with Samuel Beckett’s “fail better” quote! Man, the desire for inspirational babble is strong. It warps the copus.
I was going to mention this 2015 ribbonfarm post, The Capitalist’s Zombie, where Venkat tells an interesting story about a ‘local’ beer, Baltica Dry, that he had bought whilst in Chile. I put local in quotes, because it turns out that while Baltica is the popular workhorse beer in Chile, it isn’t actually made in Chile. It’s made in the US by Anheuser-Busch, which also makes Budweiser. Venkat’s goes on to describe how… it was good enough for him, he’s not exactly a beer connoisseur. It was “local enough”.
I haven’t yet read it, but Borges’ short story The Garden of Forking Paths is likely relevant to this stuff somehow. I was thinking of reading it for this essay, it’s fairly short, but it’s also a little too dense for a casual read. I should’ve known.
Fun nerding out section mainly for my own future reference: I actually have a tweet from 2013 where I say “desire paths are my new favorite concept”, I mention it in passing (“old desire paths re-ignite very quickly”) when thinking about unlearning habits, I have a thread in 2019 where I describe how multiple people weaving twitter threads together will create desire paths, also 2019 “you cannot truly know the desire paths in advance”, and then in 2021 I have my favorite use yet, where I describe how my twitter philosophy has come to inform my wider life philosophy.
I hope I’ll come back and write the essays that I’ve mentioned in “branching paths not taken”. That would be sick. But that’s up to future Visa. Current Visa’s job is to just hit publish on this mf, and to accept whatever happens.
These blog posts have been rly fun to read, like twitter (compared to a lot of blogs which recently are feeling like work to read).
Branching paths are actually one of my fav topics specifically, a bunch of math im interested in is directly from this (graph theory, decision theory, etc). If future visa wants to revisit that'd be sick (but up to him when the time comes of course)
i read the essay in one breath, and i loved how it is composed/architected even though you didn't know how the ideas will connect at the outset!
and indeed forgetting aids remembering and learning, this is a subject of a Brain Inspired podcast episode with the neuroscientist Tomás Ryan https://braininspired.co/podcast/127/ . and here is a review he co-wrote about the phenomenon https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35027710/