The Magnet 20: How God Makes God

Experience this thought-provoking 1993 CD-ROM about probability, game theory, genetic algorithms, and evolutionary strategies

In 1993, I went to work for Wired as associate editor. I edited the shorter pieces in the front of the magazine and the reviews section in the back. Every day I’d get a cavalcade of books, CD-ROMs, games, software, consumer electronics, and other products in the mail. Companies sent me these items hoping for a mention in the magazine. I can’t recall anything I got for review back then (not even the things that ended up in the magazine) except for a CD-ROM called How God Makes God. The creator, Peter Small, sent it to San Francisco from England, along with a letter promising it would be an interesting experience. He was right, because I’ve never forgotten it.

How God Makes God is an interactive book that uses old Victorian and Edwardian periodical illustrations (digitized as 1-bit black and white images) to tell stories. There’s no sound. The book explores probability, game theory, risk-taking, the meaning of money, Keynes’ economic model, exponential growth, cooperation, competition, how genetic algorithms can explain human emotions, how emotions were shaped by evolution, intelligent computer programs, and related concepts. The overall purpose was to provide instructions for having an interesting life.

Even though computers don’t come with CD-ROM drives anymore, and How God Makes God won’t run on modern Macs, you can experience it by running it on the in-browser Mac emulator at Archive.org. (Hint: to make the title run at a tolerable speed, press control-S, then control-A. I made a video that shows you how to do this.)

How God Makes God presents its concepts (and their relatedness) in the form of Socratic dialogues between people. The dialogue is in the form of speech bubbles. It begins with a man and a woman having a conversation on a train. The man tells the woman he’s on his way to Monte Carlo for his yearly free vacation. The woman asks him how he can take a free vacation every year and he tells her he has a winning roulette system that pays for his meals, wine, lodging, and incidentals. He starts his vacation with a 1,270 guinea bankroll (borrowed from a friend, with the promise to pay it back at the end of his holiday). His system involves placing a 10 guinea bet on red or black (which pays 2-to-1). If he wins, he stops betting and uses the 10 guineas to cover his expenses for the day. If he loses, he doubles the bet by placing 20 guineas on either color and playing again. If he wins, he takes his 10 guinea profit and he stops for the day. If he loses, he doubles the bet (40 guineas) and tries again. He keeps playing until he wins once. His system is so successful, he tells the woman, that he often stays in Monte Carlo for a month. The woman tells the man she’d rather make a single 1,270 guinea bet.

The next chapter allows you to try the gentleman’s system by playing a simulated game of roulette with a 1,270 guinea bankroll. I tried it and stopped after winning 10 days’ worth of vacation:

But, as you might suspect, the gent’s system is flawed, and How God Makes God reveals the flaw by letting you run a simulation of many players using the strategy, showing how long they lasted before going bust.

With a bankroll of 1,270 guineas, you can lose seven times in a row before going bust. The odds of that happening are 1 in 128. Sooner or later anyone using this system will lose seven times in a row and have to have an uncomfortable conversation with the friend who loaned them the money. And because roulette wheels have a 0 (and a 00 in the U.S.) in addition to 18 red numbers and 18 black numbers but pay 2-to-1, the casino will always win in the long run. Over the long run, it will collect 1/37th of all the bets that are made. There’s no way around it. In fact, the woman passenger’s strategy of a single 1,270 bet is better than the man’s strategy of making many bets. But even in her case, the casino still has an advantage. The only way to win is to be the casino.

The roulette section of How God Makes God serves as an introduction to probability theory, which is important to understand when you get to the chapters that follow. This section will also have you tossing coins, rolling dice, and opening boxes to see if Schrödinger's cat is alive or dead. By the end, you’ll have a good feeling for probability theory and will be well-prepared to proceed.

The second part of How God Makes God continues in the Socratic dialogue format with a conversation between an anthropomorphic Sun and Earth (shown in the screenshot at the top). The Sun is alarmed that Earth is covered by crawling life forms and offers to burn them off its surface, but Earth says it’s taken an interest in humans and their way of organizing and explains to the Sun that humans seem to enjoy developing skills and learning strategies to gain an advantage in competitions with other humans to acquire wealth.

I won’t go into a detailed description of the rest of How God Makes God. With over 200 dialogues (or “threads” as Small calls them), How God Makes God takes about 14 hours to complete. Instead, I’ll quote Small’s description of How God Makes God:

The main attraction is the way in which it introduces and explains abstract concepts in an understandable way. The general idea is that each of 204 scenes presents the reader with a new concept. These 204 concepts progressively add together to build a complete conceptual framework to provide the reader with a unique, analytical way of thinking that can be applied both in social and business settings.

It teaches you how to think in terms of probabilities. It gives you a new understanding of groups and communication strategies. It shows you how to employ game theory to cope with competitive situations where there is risk and uncertainty.

Although covering fairly sophisticated ideas and theory, the style is light hearted, even humorous at times, with no arcane language or mathematics. Difficult concepts are explained using drawings, animations and interactive games.

Why is it called How God Makes God? Again, from Small’s website:

The title is of course the ultimate paradox. And this is what the understanding of evolutionary strategies is about: the resolution of paradoxes. The second law of thermodynamics tell us that order and organization gradually degrades, but, evolution leads to greater not lesser organization. This CD-ROM explains how this paradox is resolved and shows how the same mechanisms that bring order and efficiency to biological organisms can be used by us in both social and business situations.

I recommend giving How God Makes God a try. I have a feeling once you get started, you’ll want to keep going.

By the way, Small is at least as interesting as the CD-ROM itself. In the 1960s, he attended the Radar Research Establishment in Worcestershire and “studied electronic engineering and computer design technology, specializing in systems and automatic control,” according to his bio. Later, he worked as a technical development engineer for a machine tool company. While writing a correspondence course about investing, he became “interested in entrepreneurship and the application of game theory to business strategies.” He used what he’d learned by opening some clothing stores in London, most notably The Foundry in the early 1980s. Small hired a pre-Culture Club Boy George as the window dresser and sold the distinctive “blitz kids” fashions worn by Culture Club and Bananarama. (Here’s a video interview with Boy George talking about working for Small in the early 1980s.) Small moved on to work in many other fields, including opening a gambling club. According to his bio, “The most remarkable point about all of these business adventures — and there were many others — was that they were started without any previous knowledge of the businesses or the business subject areas. They were started on a whim and relied solely on applying the theoretical concepts of finance and game theory together with systems and strategies associated with biological systems.”

I searched the Wired.com archives and can’t find a review of How God Makes God there, so I guess it never made it into the magazine. But I looked through old copies of the bOING bOING zine and found that I reviewed it in issue #14 (1995). Here’s a link to my review on page 54.


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Thanks for reading! The Magnet is written by Mark Frauenfelder and edited by Carla Sinclair.