Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Brief History of grOw

I present to you, an abbreviated, relatively low detail, version of the most interesting bits of history of the game of grOw, made by thatgamecompanyoverthere.

Note that some events may be swapped around. You may get pedantic about that in the comments. It's less about precise details and more about underlying truths. And please pardon me for being a bit cute. I'm in a weirdly good mood today. Or a goodly weird one.


In the beginning, there was the grOw server. Some say it was programmed by some crazy software engineer who logs in at night when nobody's watching to troubleshoot the data. Others say it's the most splendid piece of AbandonWare known to man. Still others say the grOw program was an unintended byproduct of other partitions on the drive no one has yet been able to access. Those stories are for another time, though. It was an enormous machine that quietly ran a program based on four simple rules. The events happening with each tick of the computer's clock, however, were far from simple. Like many elegant games, simple rules added up to amazingly complex interactions.

The first 10 billion cycles didn't really hold everyone's interest. Most of the object elements were simple copies of H_001 and H_002. Large clumps of these were attracted to one another and eventually started squeezing the H_002's into He004's, and so on until there were many "heavier" object elements. Most of that time passed without anyone logged on to care.

Chapter 1: How to Copy

Eventually, however, some interesting happenings started on a little rOck made mostly of Fe, Si, and O_, and Al, orbiting and otherwise uninteresting ball of H_ and He. This rOck was called The wOrld. It was soon covered with liquid flOw. Inside the flOw, bits of H_, O_, N_, and C_ began to clump together into files called aminOs. At the bottom of the flOw, where it was dark and hot, these aminOs began to assemble into strings called genOmes.

Many similar interactions between object elements had happened before, but these genOmes did something quite rare: They made copies of themselves out of the surrounding aminOs. The process was imperfect, leaving in many errors, but this process led to longer and longer genOmes. Long genOmes could take protective resources from shorter ones, creating a sort of competition to see which could form the longest string. Eventually, another fascinating thing happened: Some genOmes developed copying "errors" that started manufacturing other chemicals from their surroundings. Those that made chemicals that protected them from other genOmes, or allowed them to copy themselves more efficiently and accurately prospered. Competition grew only fiercer as new innovations were cobbled out by trial and error. The complexity of these genOmes rose as time went on. Some specialized in taking materials from others, rather than manufacturing them all. With this, different strategies and specialties arose. These early genOmes were called "g3rms" and the resources they competed for was called "foOd."

Chapter 2: How to get foOd

Eventually, some g3rms started clustering together for protection. Eventually these clusters of identical genOmes themselves found a way to specialize in different tasks, determined by physical pressures, chemical interactions, and even parts of the individual genOmes that could be turned "on" and "off". Some clusters were large, some were small, but individual g3rms still existed: Large clusters had advantages where there was a lot of foOd. Investing that resource into bulk made it harder to steal from. The individual g3rms made up for their vulnerability by copying themselves more frequently: As long as a few survived to produce copies, their category would survive.

Things continued in this fashion to the point that the g3rm colonies began competing with one another. A variety of strategies appeared among them. Interested users came up with names for these general strategies. First, cOrns were colonies that remained in one location for most of their life. They prospered by using light from the nearby H_ ball to turn low grade foOd into higher energy grades. They would then use this energy to produce many smaller colonies called s33ds that would be carried by various means to another location. Those s33ds that landed in safe locations could then grow to produce others.

This source of high energy foOd, however, did not go unnoticed by another category called the hOrses. They would remove large chunks of the cOrns or entire s33ds and break their structure down into foOd they could use. These groups would compete with one another: Some cOrns would grow a defense against the assaults of hOrses, by growing spines, thick g3rm walls that would make the foOd harder to break down or extract, and so on, while the hOrses would develop stronger t33th, hardier foOd extraction mechanisms, etcetera.

Meanwhile still another strategy developed known as wOlfs. These genOmes essentially raised the hOrse strategy further by extracting foOd from hOrses. Competition formed as wOlfs and hOrses got faster, stronger, sharper, and so forth to eat or avoid being eaten.

In turn, there were crOws, who had many similar mechanisms to wOlfs, but favored taking leftover foOd the wOlfs couldn't store, or was too low grade for them. There were, of course, many genOmes that employed a measure of multiple strategies.

Chapter 3: The nOOdle

In the background of all this competition, still more innovations happened, notably including the evolution of the nOOdle: A mass of specialized cells that would direct a genOme's behavior according to outside stimuli. The earliest ones contained simple instructions: If you smell a cOrn, eat it. If you see a wOlf, move away from it. As the variety of genOmes steadily grew, so did the complexity of the instructions that a genOme would encode into its nOOdle. A particular kind of hOrse would need to know which kinds of cOrns it could extract nourishment from.

Eventually, nOOdles reached a level of plasticity: Many behaviors were too complex to simply encode through the genOme. Instead, the creature in question would acquire new instructions in its nOOdle by observing the world around it. This adaptation eventually led to the practice of many creatures demonstrating useful foOd-gathering behaviors to later generation copies. This was especially prevalent in wOlfs, who required larger nOOdles to outwit their prey, and crOws, who needed to recognize opportunities when they came and take advantage of them. Now, there was a new depth to copying strategy: Groups of creatures could pass on useful learned behaviors to later generations.

Chapter 4: The Ascent of homO

Many observers of the grOw server had been fascinated by the new behaviors exhibited by these creatures with large nOOdles. Many more would become entranced by a new group of generalist creatures that arose known as HomO. HomO was a subcategory of generalist creatures that combined the strategies of hOrses, wOlfs, and crOws. It required a massive nOOdle to contain the sheer variety of useful behaviors it could use to survive and copy, as well as discover new behaviors. Its pattern recognition abilities were, in many ways, too good: They would engage in pointless rituals born of coincidence. One homO of note injured itself by accident twice and formed a false connection between those accidents and observing a black c4t intersect its intended direction of movement. Though these rituals and prohibitions did cost time and energy, the cost was often small enough to be offset by significantly useful behaviors such as following hoOf-shape depressions to the hOrse that produced them. Many variations on homO existed, and tended to compete with one another. Though simple strength and endurance were useful in these struggles, the benefits of a larger nOOdle and progenitors diligent in passing on behaviors was invaluable. The eventual result is the current standard: homOsapien. It had one of the largest nOOdles ever seen in a homO, as well as an efficient file compression routine, to store more data with less nOOdle space.

Chapter 5: Sp34k!

Because homOsapien had a dizzying array of behaviors to pass on to later generation copies, they banded together into wandering groups. One day, a homO grunted in a peculiar fashion and extended a fing3r towards a nearby hOrse. The repetition of this behavior started a collection of learned behaviors called "language". Initially, it was quite simple, but over generations, different sounds became associated with different objects and behaviors. Syntax arose, allowing complex descriptions and precise commands to be transmitted between the nOOdles of completely separate homOsapiens.

This had yet another unexpected specialization effect: Before, grOw had genOmes that specialized in the colonial strategy, with individual colony members specializing into "c3lls" that would perform particular functions. The specialized c3lls of the nOOdle allowed populations of largely the same genOme to in turn specialize in behaviors according to local variation in climate. Now, homOsapien, though the transmission ability known as "language" could have individual members of a nomadic group specialize in the behaviors they learned. One homOsapien could learn everything he could about hunting to bring in and share foOd from a hOrse he killed. Another homOsapien could learn everything about cOrns, and know which ones are high grade foOd, when and where they grow, so that they could be gathered efficiently. Another could learn the fundamentals of multiple behaviors and teach the young copies while the specialists are working.

This meant that a group of homOsapien was not bound by the size of its largest nOOdle. Rather than keep redundant copies of instructions in each member's nOOdle, each could store different categories of instructions and leave working memory space for temporarily learning and forgetting other behaviors as needed, or to leave room for learning new behaviors by observation.

Chapter 6: F4rming

Gathering homOsapiens eventually studied the relationship between c0rn, s33ds, and sOil. They found that if they had enough leftover s33ds, they could cause their own plants to grow. Over generations, they found that they could plant s33ds from the most bountiful cOrns they grew to make bountiful copies. Over time, these cOrns, with enough care, could produce large amounts of foOd in a relatively predictable, stationary environment. They could, over generations of copying, produce more nourishing and pleasing foOd from these monitored copies. These cOrns eventually became known as crOps. Reliable foOds meant there could be more time spent understanding the world, and less time scrounging for scraps.

Chapter 7: ToOls

One day, a hunter homOsapien observed a piece of woOd and played with it. He was able to perform this idle behavior because the gathering specialists found a large collection of b3rries and fru1ts that would sustain the group for many, many years if carefully managed. He noticed that when bent at both ends, this piece of woOd would suddenly spring back into its original shape when he dropped his resistance. He tied the two ends together with a piece of s1new and pulled at the center. The creation sprang back into shape. He noticed the speed of the s1new as it went from bent by the pull of his fingers to a straight line. He fashioned a small sp34r in a manner similar to the method that his progenitor's progenitor's progenitor passed on to generations of copies. He put the small sp34r against the s1new and pulled it back. It moved forward suddenly as he let go. He repeated the gesture, eventually getting the small sp34r to go wherever he wished. It moved with great speed like a thrown sp34r, but farther. This meant he could kill a creature without giving as much chase. This saved time and energy, so he taught it to his young copy, who taught it to his young copy. Over further generations the free time these toOls, known as the bOw and arrOw, gave their users idle time to find ways of improving upon it. These improvements were also passed down the generations.

Chapter 8: scrOlls and bOOks

One day, a homOsapien thought about marks that were left behind by another tribe as hand prints left on a cave wall. He thought of the idea behind speaking as he did so, and ended up thinking of a new idea: If sounds from a person's mouth or gestures with your hands can be attached to ideas, could pictures and shapes also be attached to them? Marks on stone would last longer than a sound or a gesture. The speaker would not need to be around at the same time as the listener. In this manner, even two people who never met, or even lived at the same time could send messages or pass along ideas. You could also send a message to yourself, since marks on a stone last can longer than a single homOsapien's memory.

With this thought, a group of homOsapiens were no longer bound to the total memory capacity of everyone's nOOdles. Information could be recorded on a scrOll or in a bOOk, which would act as a substitute for nOOdle space. This, in fact, was superior to the nOOdle in terms of fidelity.

Chapter 9: The tOwn

With all the homOsapiens specializing in various trades, more time was open to understand the world. No one homOsapien needed to know everything. If a wise homOsapien knew something at an earlier time, it was probably written down and preserved, rather than allowed to die off. Because the farmers raised crOps, famine became less of a concern over time. Relatively few people could now do the foOd-gathering work that once required an entire tribe. Generations worth of bOOks were put into the schOol library, where children could learn a wide variety of topics, even those that did not directly produce food. Some became toOl makers. Some learned about plants out of curiosity, and when they grew up, learned that some had medicinal uses. Some studied rocks and metals to find which ones made the best tools, and made new, even more useful combinations.

Some grew bored with simply sustaining society and sought ways of eliminating problems that ate up time and resources. One of these problems was the formation of pointless rituals that came from the pattern recognition abilities that had done well enough in the wild. These people invented a method called "science." With science, they double-checked everything they did and found ways of reliably detecting patterns with less chance of false positives. The facts they uncovered involved such intricacies, they need specialized parts of the schools to pass on real understanding of the process, rather than just simple conclusions.

These scientists sought out other people to verify their results by conducting the same experiments, as well as gathering data from all other scientists in the world. The resulting mass of data was so vast, they needed many, many machines to contain it all, and a method by which these machines could pass this information to someone who wishes to access it. Using these innovations, homOsapien was eventually able to discover the genOme at the heart of all life and even study their own: They found little difference among their kind. The reason was unambiguous: The ideas the homOsapien civilization was built on blunted the red tooth and claw of nature. A person with a tiny increase in his nOOdle size that allowed him to memorize a few more facts did not make him more significantly likely to survive and copy his genOme than someone who used a bOOk to the same effect. Genetic evolution was almost, but not quite obsolete. As a society develops better methods of protecting its members from famine, disease, accidents, and violence, the fewer genetic hurdles there are to jump. This is as it should be.

Chapter 10: Inequality

Despite the advances that many homOsapiens had made, there were many who could not enjoy this prosperity. Some lived in places that were inhospitable for growing crOps. Some lived in places dominated by superstitions that demanded the mistreatment or even death of those who questioned their value. Some lived in areas where particular resources were scarce, the needy had to spend their time fighting one another for it instead of going to a good school or conducting research. Those who had gifts for certain fields were often forced to squander their genius on contemplating how to get their next meal or ambush the Haves, instead of unlocking secrets or designing new toOls. Many never had a chance to learn what knowledge the outside world had discovered for simple lack of time and access to that knowledge.

There is a saying: "If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." The advances we experience today are only possible because our ancestors were able to pass on that knowledge in a way that we can retrieve it. Scientific progress is built on the work of those who came before us. There is no gene that can tell us what dark energy is. There is no gene that will tell us how to analyze a cluster of data. There is only what we learn from our fellow beings. Shutting someone off from the mountain of diligent work from those who came before us will stunt even a genetic genius's growth. The destruction of that knowledge can easily cause a return to the Dark Ages. If you cannot give your offspring the knowledge shared by civilization, your DNA cannot preserve that progress.


James K said...

In my study of economics at university, and my perusal of econblogs I have read about the big questions in economics and economic history, and one of those questions is how it came to pass that Europe became so damn wealthy.

The answer is, nobody knows. The proximate causes are easy. The Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment caused the wealth, and a specific set of institutional arrangements in Britain (and it is Britain, not Europe generally) like firm property rights at least enabled the Industrial Revolution.

But after that it gets murky. Good institutions aren't enough to create innovation, but we don't know what else is needed. Population, resources and an educated populace all matter, but China had those, as did most of Western Europe.

There doesn't seem to be any particular causal factors at play in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that stand out. Its a mystery, and that's the primary reason we don't know how to pull Africa out of the mire. Masses of aid have been sunk into Africa with little to show for it and countries like Singapore got out of poverty with much less outside assistance.

This is a problem we don't know how to solve.

MWchase said...

IIRC, Jard Diamond had an essay proposing that innovation stems from certain dynamics that flourished best in Europe. China, for example, was too monolithic, and stifled innovation, while small islands with a couple hundred people just stagnated technologically because there was no competition. Since Europe was a bunch of countries being competitive, their memes experienced intense selection pressures.

The situation in Africa isn't quite analogous, of course, because there's all sorts of technology that they can import once they have the infrastructure. So the issue isn't making Africa what Europe was, but figuring out how to fast-track it to something like the Europe of today.

James K said...

MWCHase: Many have theories, but none of them are seen as widely compelling.

Theoretically getting Africa should be easier, since they don't have to invent all the technology from scratch. But in practice, we don't know how to do that either. Development economists have been playing with Africa for decades, and nothing they've tried has worked particularly well (Mohammed Yunus has made some progress with microfinance, but nothing game changing).

It seems the best recipe for success is "have an Anglo-Saxon legal system and attending culture", but that doesn't yield any useful policy proposals.