I’ve always thought that the loveliest expression of [the dualism between “precision modeling” and “thick accounts”] is set out in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities…

Kublai Khan seeks to understand his empire as a chessboard:

Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to comparison with the game of chess. … Now Kublai Khan no longer had to send Marco Polo on distant expeditions; he kept him playing endless games of chess. Knowledge of the empire was hidden in the pattern drawn by the angular shifts of the knight, by the diagonal passages opened by the bishop’s incursions, by the lumbering, cautious tread of the king and the humble pawn … By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes; it was reduced to a square of planed wood.

But Marco Polo, it turns out, understands the chessboard in a very different way.

Then Marco Polo spoke: “Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods, ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist. … Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was once a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down … This edge was scored by the woodcarver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding …