Here’s a pattern I’d like to be able to talk about. It might be known under a certain name somewhere, but if it is, I don’t know it. I call it a Spaghetti Tower. It shows up in large complex systems that are built haphazardly.
Someone or something builds the first Part A.
Later, someone wants to put a second Part B on top of Part A, either out of convenience (a common function, just somewhere to put it) or as a refinement to Part A.
Now, suppose you want to tweak Part A. If you do that, you might break Part B, since it interacts with bits of Part A. So you might instead build Part C on top of the previous ones.
And by the time your system looks like this, it’s much harder to tell what changes you can make to an earlier part without crashing some component, so you’re basically relegated to throwing another part on top of the pile.
I call these spaghetti towers for two reasons: One, because they tend to quickly take on circuitous knotty tangled structures, like what programmers call “spaghetti code”. (Part of the problem with spaghetti code is that it can lead to spaghetti towers.)
Especially since they’re usually interwoven in multiple dimensions, and thus look more like this:
“Can you just straighten out the yellow one without touching any of the others? Thanks.”
Second, because shortsightedness in the design process is a crucial part of spaghetti machines. In order to design a spaghetti system, you throw spaghetti against a wall and see if it sticks. Then, when you want to add another part, you throw more spaghetti until it sticks to that spaghetti. And later, you throw more spaghetti. So it goes. And if you decide that you want to tweak the bottom layer to make it a little more useful – which you might want to do because, say, it was built out of spaghetti – without damaging the next layers of gummy partially-dried spaghetti, well then, good luck.
Note that all systems have load-bearing, structural pieces. This does not make them spaghetti towers. The distinction about spaghetti towers is that they have a lot of shoddily-built structural components that are completely unintentional. A bridge has major load-bearing components – they’re pretty obvious, strong, elegant, and efficiently support the rest of the structure. A spaghetti tower is more like this.
(The motto of the spaghetti tower is “Sure, it works fine, as long as you never run lukewarm water through it and unplug the washing machine during thunderstorms.”)
Where do spaghetti towers appear?
Basically all of biology works like this. Absolutely all of evolution is made by throwing spaghetti against walls and seeing what sticks. (More accurately, throwing nucleic acid against harsh reality and seeing what successfully makes more nucleic acid.) We are 3.5 billion years of hacks in fragile trench coats.
Scott Star Codex describes the phenomenon in neurotransmitters, but it’s true for all of molecular biology:
You know those stories about clueless old people who get to their Gmail account by typing “Google” into Bing, clicking on Google in the Bing search results, typing “Gmail” into Google, and then clicking on Gmail in the Google search results?
I am reading about serotonin transmission now, and everything in the human brain works on this principle. If your brain needs to downregulate a neurotransmitter, it’ll start by upregulating a completely different neurotransmitter, which upregulates the first neurotransmitter, which hits autoreceptors that downregulate the first neurotransmitter, which then cancel the upregulation, and eventually the neurotransmitter gets downregulated.
Meanwhile, my patients are all like “How come this drug that was supposed to cure my depression is giving me vision problems?” and at least on some level the answer is “how come when Bing is down your grandfather can’t access Gmail?
My programming friends tell me that spaghetti towers are near-universal in the codebases of large companies. Where it would theoretically be nice if every function was neatly ordered, but actually, the thing you’re working on has three different dependencies, two of which are unmaintained and were abandoned when the guy who built them went to work at Google, and you can never be 100% certain that your code tweak won’t crash the site.
I think this also explains some of why bureaucracies look and act the way they do, and are so hard to change.
I think there are probably a lot of examples of spaghetti towers, and they probably have big ramifications for things like, for instance, what systems evolution can and can’t build.
I want to do a much deeper and more thoughtful analysis about what exactly the implications here are, but this has been kicking around my brain for long enough and all I want to do is get the concept out there.
Does this feel like a meaningful concept? Where do you see spaghetti towers?
I'm so glad that
A) this was popular
B) I wasn't making up a new word for a concept that most people already know by a different name, which I think will send you to at least the first layer of Discourse Hell on its own.
I've met at least one person in the community who said they knew and thought about this post a lot, well before they'd met me, which was cool.
I think this website doesn't recognize the value of bad hand-drawn graphics for communicating abstract concepts (except for Garrabrant and assorted other AI safety people, whose posts are too technical for me to read but who I support wholly.) I'm guessing that the graphics helped this piece, or at least got more people to look at it.
I do wish I'd included more examples of spaghetti towers, but I knew that before posting it, and this was an instance of "getting something out is better than making it perfect."
I've planned on doing followups in the same sort of abstract style as this piece, like methods I've run into for getting around spaghetti towers. (Modularization, swailing, documentation.) I hopefully will do that some day. If anyone wants to help brainstorm examples, hit me up and I may or may not get back to you.
This idea has become part of my conceptual toolkit for discussing / describing a key failure mode.
(Note: the below part of the comment is from my Facebook comment about the article when it came out.)
There's a great connection you make to bureaucracy, and it's definitely worth exploring.
This gives me a good language to discuss something I've noted a number of times. I'd posit that selection pressure for bureaucracy limits how stupid the system gets as a function of the best simple alternative, and the difficulty of transitioning to it without turning off the system. This means that for critical systems where there is no incremental pathway to improve, it's near-permanent even if there are better alternatives - see the US healthcare system. For less critical systems, once an alternative is found, as long as the transition isn't too long/too expensive, and there are incentives that actually promote efficiency, it will happen. The critical fact is that the incentives need to exist for everyone that is involved - not just the end user. So if bob in accounting doesn't like the change, unless someone else can induce cooperation (like senior management,) it never happens.
Also "Normal accidents" by Perrow may be relevant: spaghetti towers have some natural rate of crashes, not too often, as this will not allow them to be built so high, but also not very rare, as they are not designed to be stable.
(somewhat annoying request: can you post this as a top level "official nomination" linking to this comment, if that's your intent? I realize it's a bit repetitive, but I'd rather spend marginal dev-time working on the UI for the Review Phase than improving the nomination UI, since it'll only be used for a week, and meanwhile this will make it easier to check how many nominations each post has)
Promoted to curated: I've wanted to curate this for a while, mostly because it introduces a concept in a nice and concise way, while also connecting it to existing concepts and scientific disciplines. I've also found the images pretty useful and good, and I do think we have a lack of images, and see this as a good example of low-effort images increasing the quality of a post by a lot.
Suddenly very inspired with the idea of a programming language where even the most carelessly constructed spaghetti towers are fairly easy to refactor.
I want to design a medium that can be assembled into a fairly decent set of shelves by just progressively throwing small quantities of it at a wall.
I want to design tools that do not require foresight to be used well, because if you're doing something that's new to you, that challenges you- and I want to live in a world where most people are- foresight is always in scarce supply.
I would call this a good visual representation of technical debt. I like to think of it as chaining lots of independently reasonable low order approximations until their joint behavior becomes unreasonable.
It's basically fine to let this abstraction be a little leaky, and it's basically reasonable to let that edge case be handled clumsily, and it's basically acceptable to assume the user won't ever give this pathological input, etc., until the number of "basically reasonable" assumptions N becomes large enough that 0.99^N ends up less than 0.5 (or some other unacceptably low probability of success). And even with a base as high as 0.99, the N that breaks 50% is only ~70!
The visual depiction of this as parts being stacked such that each additional part is placed in what looks to be a reasonable way but all the parts together look ridiculously fragile is excellent! It really emphasizes that this problem mode can only be understood with a global, rather than a local or incremental, view.
I wonder to what extent tax codes are spaghetti towers - every time someone finds a loophole a new bit of tax code gets added to close it without considering how to make a coherent whole. This would explain how the uk tax code runs to >10,000 pages
Having looked into this, it's only partly an issue of spaghetti towers. The more important reason that you get absurd page counts, however, is that tax codes are written in legalese. I saw the same thing happen when I worked in equity derivatives pricing, where a simple options contract for a call can easily be described in (at most) 10 lines of code, or expressed as a one-line equation. Instead, however, the legal terms are actually written as this 188 page pamphlet; https://www.theocc.com/components/docs/riskstoc.pdf which is (technically but not enforced to be a) legally required reading for anyone who wants to purchase an exchange traded option. And don't worry - it explicitly notes that it doesn't cover the actual laws governing options, for which you need to read the relevant US code, or the way in which the markets for trading them work, or any of the risks.
Extending that the legislation and law in general seems appropriate as well. I wonder if one contrasts and compares slice of time views of both common law regimes and statutory law regimes if there would be any differences.
I seem to work (and possible live) in such a setting ;-)
On one level I wonder how much we need to worry. The idea behind that comment is the problem we all face with the asymmetric nature of our knowledge when facing the future. The distinction here is not to say that sloppy planning and maintenance should be consider acceptable but that we can only avoid the spaghetti to some extent. This is not to suggest the author was suggesting that. Only saying we might want to think about where the margins of efficiency are.
I was also wondering if some of the innovations in graph theory might help manage decision-making in a spaghetti world. The idea of a programming language that can help refactor the spaghetti might use such tools.
The last (actually first but...) thought I had was "Hello Gordian Knot."
Where it would theoretically be nice if every function was neatly ordered
...but another problem is this: when you build a bridge, you know in advance what you need and what you don't. Nobody (sane) will demand that you add a platform for selling Coca-Cola and a pier at the bottom with an elevator to ground level,and whatnot mid-construction. In programming, you either work for military where you will get proper specification several inches thick, or you start developing and try to accommodate for sudden requirement changes on the fly. Good programmer is better at predicting which changes are more likely and designs their code so that those are relatively easy to implement. But when redesigning from scratch is not an option and refusing to change is not an option - spaghetti tower becomes the most viable option left.
Fixed it manually. The url specified didn't have a www or an http at the beginning, which means it was interpreted as a relative URL. Not sure what I want the behavior to be here, since sometimes we do want relative URLs. Will probably just start paying attention to it and fix it whenever I see someone accidentally adding a relative URL, and if it starts happening often will change the default behavior.
Wasn't the 2008 credit crunch due to this (at least partly)? Numerous dependencies between different financial institutions which they only partly understood so they all stopped trusting each other?
I've heard that there has been a similar situation for many years in derivatives - a vast complex largely uncharted edifice of dependencies between complex financial instruments that are based on other financial instruments e.g. share prices. If parts of it collapse no-one knows which other bits will collapse too. Its size depends how you look at it, but it's certainly in the trillions of $, and by some accounts it's far larger than the entire real-world economy. https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/052715/how-big-derivatives-market.asp
It seems to me you are talking about levels of entropy. High entropy systems still rely upon the low entropy of universal laws. A computer program routines may be itertwined, wrapped around each other, undocumented, may be a nightmare to understand, but if it works, why fix it? It conforms to the requirements to compile it into a useable executable file. A star that is exploding is like a spaghetti structure. It falls into a state of high entropy but only in as much as universal laws dictate how it will do that. Correct me if I am wrong but are you talking about levels of entropy?
Edited in later:
The kind of entropy I am talking about is a physical state. Imagine you make a building of bricks with a nice kitchen, dining room, etc etc. The building is left to stand for a 1000 years. At first it has low entropy. It is a very definite structure. Over time, roof tiles fall off, the rain gets in, wood rots, bricks crumble. By 500 years it has lost most of its original defining characteristics, it is falling into a state of high entropy. It is becoming a mound of rubble. Pour sand out of a 1000 buckets. At first the sand is shaped by the shape of the bucket, but then when it leaves the bucket that structure is lost. Pouring more sand on the floor, on top of the other sand does nothing to lower the state of entropy. Systems fall into decay. Unravelling the decay, creating some semblance of order brings about a different structure a different level of entropy
Many automobiles are spaghetti towers. The longer a model or drivetrain is in production, the more spaghetti. I drive a 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon. Its ancestors had horizontally opposed four cylinder air-cooled engines in the rear, like all ancestral VWs. In 1984 the Vanagon got water cooled, but still horizontally opposed four cylinder rear-engine. The plumbing is, as they say, like a submarine. Some later Vanagon models layered onto this concept four-wheel drive and air conditioning. Talk about plumbing.
Of course, most every automobile wiring system grew from simple ignition-lights-radio-heater-fan-windshield-wipers to include airplane-like control panels, wireless entry locks, theft alarms, seatbelt buzzers, seat warmers, electric windows, seats, hatches, sun roofs, and steering-wheel adjusters. I think four fuse panels is the norm now. My modern diesel pickup truck had two batteries, two alternators, and every gizmo in the catalog, layered onto the basic automotive wiring system.