Branches: Monte Carlo, Pandora, and Navigating the Antilibrary

Nassim Taleb starts out The Black Swan with a concept called called the antilibrary. It is comprised of the countless shelves of books one has not read. When we go out to find something new to listen to, we are entering a kind of antilibrary: all of the songs we await to hear, all of the bands we have yet to discover. Its structure is all consuming. One cannot help but feel overwhelmed by its contents. Where do you start?

The start was where Stanislaw Ulam found himself, staring at a deck of cards. Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who had participated in the Manhattan Project, was forced to take up Solitaire after a near fatal case of viral encephalitis. The doctors had no other choice but to advise Ulam for the interim to relieve himself of heavy mental activity. Solitaire was a good distraction.

As he played, Ulam could not help but wonder what the chances were of playing a fifty-two card Solitaire successfully. He toiled through calculations in his head but they were to no avail. The possibilities continued to add up; too many calculations to rack his mind over.

So then Ulam decided to flip the script. “I wondered”, he wrote, “whether a more practical method than ‘abstract thinking’ might not be to lay it out say one hundred times and simply observe and count the number of successful plays.” It was far easier than trying “to try to compute all the combinatorial possibilities which are an exponentially increasing number so great that, except in very elementary cases, there is no way to estimate it.”

Out of Solitaire Ulam crafted what became known as the Monte Carlo method, a statistical technique that I will let its creator describe:

“The idea was to try out thousands of such possibilities and, at each stage, to select by chance, by means of a ‘random number’ with suitable probability, the fate or kind of event, to follow it in a line, so to speak, instead of considering all branches.”

This method was used in computing processes that revolve around the branching of events. Solitaire, as Ulam started with, is one example. The production and multiplication of neutrons in uranium is another.

And how about exploring what music to listen to?

When you think about it, the exploration of new music is a process built upon branching events. Start with a genre, branch off into a band, branch off into an album, branch off into a song. Each of these branches have others that stem off from them. Sub genres, bands that are made up of members from said band, different versions of an album or song, etc. This branching is what makes the antilibrary so dense and intimidating.

We have taken a cue from Ulam. The Monte Carlo method is conceptually behind one way we navigate the antilibrary: music players like Pandora or Spotify. Out of thousands of possibilities we pick an artist, genre, or mood. That is the branch we start on. From there, these players continue by going from branch to branch in random skips and sequences. Each song played is a symptom of this process that can go on and on ad infinitum.

“The genius of Monte Carlo”, George Dyson writes in Turing’s Cathedral, “lies in the ability to extract meaningful solutions, in the face of overwhelming information, by recognizing that meaning resides less in the data at the end points and more in the intervening paths.” Those intervening paths are what allow Pandora to find a new song we like. It is the branch to branch relations that create the chance for one to have a new meaningful connection with a composer’s work.

In light of the overwhelming information of our musical antilibrary, it is the intervening paths that allow us to start finding more music that resonates with us.


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