"On Exactitude in Science"

Here is some guidance on analytics - around specificity and modeling - from the most unlikely of places: Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine writer and early exponent of the magical realism genre of literature. 

Borges wrote a one-paragraph short story (analytics story-telling aficionados, take note!) that I often refer to in situations where it becomes clear to me that people are missing the point of modeling.

The story is about unrealistic burdens placed upon cartographers in a distant realm to create an exact map of the kingdom - to the absurd point where the map of the kingdom is as big as the kingdom itself.

Without further ado, here it is (albeit in English rather than the original Spanish):

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

You can read about the provenance of the story in the Wikepedia entry which relates a similar theme from a Lewis Carroll work. I love the quote at the end of that piece - “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight!"

Remember, folks, because many do not: the whole purpose of a model is to build an abstract representation of reality that suffices for certain purposes. If you start to add every minute detail back in, the model falls apart under its own weight. 

Also, you don’t need to restrict story-telling in analytics to dress up the process and results; you can also use story-telling and references to literature, history and science to help people “get” analytics.

Amit Mohindra