The Plankton Valhalla Bestiary

This page is a showcase of the word definitions and transformations that I use for Plankton Valhalla’s explanations. It’s a living document that I’ll update as more terms appear in future essays.

Louis Daguerre was a panorama painter, but his passion for his craft led him to invent first the diorama, then the daguerreotype, known as the first photographic process. He set out to paint theater stages and ended up inventing a defining technology of the 20th century. This was possible because Daguerre didn’t shy away from questioning the very tools that everyone around him had been using for a long time. Come to think of it, most of the tools and techniques in existence today have probably been created and improved while trying to achieve something else. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

I don’t consider myself an artist or inventor, but I think it’s worthwhile to tinker with the tools at one’s disposal, and the tool I have is language. Plankton Valhalla is about the content of its essays as much as it is about the exploration of new or underrated ways to explain those ideas.

A language is a fluid, plastic tool of the mind. Its way of changing is slow and organic, without anyone deliberately driving it. At some point people look back and realize that their great-great-grandparents wrote in a funny way. But sometimes people make changes to language intentionally, with specific goals in mind. This happens a lot in science: “virus” used to mean “poison” long before it was employed to mean a “microscopic infection agent”, and “field” still has its own distinct meaning(s) outside of the concept used by physicists, like “magnetic field”.

I sometimes modify or tune words on this website, and (usually) it’s intentional. Most often I do what’s called semantic broadening and semantic narrowing, meaning that I deploy an existing word with a broader or narrower meaning than usual. In most cases I borrow them from great thinkers of the past and present, rather than inventing them myself. I believe that making those changes is necessary to un-muddle certain topics and to shed light on points easy to overlook.

Still, changing the meaning of words out of the blue can be confusing! Hopefully the following list of “evolved words” will help you keep track. I’m not insisting that everyone adopt these modifications, but I do believe they are better in the contexts I use them in.

Updated on: July 20, 2023



BAEB stands for “Boundaries are in the Eye of the Beholder”.

A system (see the system entry below) is a part of the universe that we—as in, some observer—decides to consider differently from the rest. To understand the world, we draw boundaries and give the inside of those boundaries names: Alice, Bob, dog, rock. But those boundaries are arbitrary, a convenience for the observer and nothing else. This is an important point, so the acronym BAEB might come up often on this site.

More on this in The Invention of Systems.


Computation is the transformation of information from one form to another.

The word compute comes from the Latin for counting. The modern word that everyone knows about is closely linked to electronic computers, but people can be computers too if they compute stuff mathematically.

However, like with “information” (see the information entry below), “computing” has been appropriated by some physicists and philosophers to have a much broader meaning: to transform something with a well-defined process, whether it’s an electronic device or not, living or not. So they say that an ecosystem, or a quantum state, or a group of cells—in short, anything physical—“computes”.

The insight in this usage of the word is tremendous. It leads to a very deep understanding of reality, and I will write about it extensively. But using the word “computation” so loosely is counterproductive. It strongly implies, in the mind of the average person, something that is designed, intentional, and aimed at a specific goal. The scientists that use the term know that no intention is involved, of course, so they can get away with it. But when you try to explain their research to a layperson, saying that “the universe computes” is very confusing.

So on Plankton Valhalla I dial back the breadth of the word’s meaning to be only the transformation of information, where the word “information” is itself much more limited than the way those scientists use it. More on this in an upcoming essay.


A difference is a trait, property, or feature that can be distinguished from others.

This is the meaning of the word that is generally understood, no tricks or modifications here. However, I make it work a lot harder than usual. Beyond being a convenient term to distinguish two things in everyday speech, I believe that “differences” between things are a fundamental idea for the understanding of reality. The reason should be obvious: if a difference isn’t there, nothing will happen because of it. Everything that exists and happens in reality is determined by the countless differences that make them up at all scales. See Differences, Contraptions, and A Ripple Universe for an introduction, and Toying with Ideas of Glass Circuits for more examples.

I treat “differences” as a parent category for “information” (see the information entry below). In other words, information is a special kind of differences, namely the “differences that (can) make a difference”. I think this kind of distinction makes for neater explanations.


Information is the potentially meaningful arrangement of things.
Equivalently, information is a difference that can make a difference.

Here I differ from the common use in physics. Physicists use this term in an extremely broad sense, to mean simply “the arrangement of things”. In that sense, even a photon and a black hole contain information. This runs counter to the intuitive meaning of the word (“something that informs (someone)”), and is nothing but confusing.

Instead, I base my definition on Gregory Bateson’s idea that information is the differences “that make a difference” (see the differences entry above). Particles, black holes, people and everything else in the universe is made of differences, but only a very small subset of those differences is what I call information. So who do they “make a difference” for? For a system capable of perception, hence the “potentially meaningful” qualifier in my first definition. More on this in an upcoming essay.

My only small adjustment to Bateson’s phrase is changing “makes” to “can make”, because not all information ends up being used.


A system is a set of differences that is treated as a unit by an observer.

This is another of those very important, very popular, and very vague terms in science. Each discipline seems to be using “system” in its own way. My definition is one of the broadest, closest in meaning to that of General Systems Theory developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy. You can read more about it in The Invention of Systems.

Note that this definition is different from the one used by one of the greats of systems science, Donella Meadows. She wrote in Thinking in Systems, a Primer:

Is there anything that is not a system? Yes—a conglomeration without any particular interconnections or function. Sand scattered on a road by happenstance is not, itself, a system. You can add sand or take away sand and you still have just sand on the road. Arbitrarily add or take away football players, or pieces of your digestive system, and you quickly no longer have the same system.

In my definition of the word, all those things are systems. The examples she calls “system” is what I’d qualify as “complex” systems: a subcategory. I prefer my broader definition because it will allow me to clarify the distinction between living and non-living things.

See also the BAEB entry above.


  • Top image: A hundred anecdotes of animals pl 057 (1901), Percy J. Billinghurst.