Mental models, and making sense of crazy uncles

By Gordon Rugg

The crazy uncle is a well-established and much-dreaded part of Western culture. There’s probably a very similar figure in other cultures too, but in this article, I’ll focus on the Western one, and on what is going on in his head.

Why are crazy uncles permanently angry, and keen to inflict their opinions, prejudices and conspiracy theories on other people? Some parts of the answer are already well covered in popular media and in specialist research, but other parts are less well known.

In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the better known elements, and then combine them with insights from knowledge modeling, and see what sort of answer emerges.

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Mental models and metalanguage: Putting it all together

By Gordon Rugg

The previous articles in this series looked at mental models and ways of making sense of problems. A recurrent theme in those articles was that using the wrong model can lead to disastrous outcomes.

This raises the question of how to choose the right model to make sense of a problem. In this article, I’ll look at the issues involved in answering this question, and then look at some practical solutions.

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Mental models, worldviews, Meccano, and systems theory

By Gordon Rugg

The previous articles in this series looked at how everyday entities such as a cup of coffee or a Lego pack can provide templates for thinking about other subjects, particularly abstract concepts such as justice, and entities that we can’t directly observe with human senses, such as electricity.

The previous articles examined templates for handling entities that stay where they’re put. With Lego blocks or a cup of coffee, once you’ve put them into a configuration, they stay in that configuration unless something else disturbs them. The Lego blocks stay in the shape you assembled them in; the cup of coffee remains a cup of coffee.

However, not all entities behave that way. In this article, I’ll examine systems theory, and its implications for entities that don’t stay where they’re put, but instead behave in ways that are often unexpected and counter-intuitive. I’ll use Meccano as a worked example.

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Mental models, worldviews, and mocha

By Gordon Rugg

Mental models provide a template for handling things that happen in the world.

At their best, they provide invaluable counter-intuitive insights that let us solve problems which would otherwise be intractable. At their worst, they provide the appearance of solutions, while actually digging us deeper into the real underlying problem.

In this article, I’ll use a cup of mocha as an example of how these two outcomes can happen. I’ll also look at how this relates to the long-running debate about whether there is a real divide between the arts and the sciences as two different cultures.

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Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 4

By Gordon Rugg

The first article in this short series examined how conflicting conventions and requirements can lead to a movie being unrealistic. The second article explored the pressures driving movie scripts towards unrealistically high signal to noise ratios, with few of the extraneous details that occur in real conversations. The third in the series examined how and why movies depict a world which requires the word “very” to describe it.

All of those themes are arguably about movies either selecting versions of reality, or depicting versions of reality which are simplified and/or unlikely. Those versions are unrealistic, but not actively wrong in the strict sense of the word. The underlying common theme is that they’re simplifying reality and/or exaggerating features of it.

Today’s article looks at a different aspect, where movies and games portray the world in a way that flatters and reassures the audience, regardless of how simplified or exaggerated the accompanying portrayal of the world might be. This takes us into the concepts of vicarious experience, of vicarious affiliations, and of why Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds. It also takes us into the horribly addictive pleasures of TV tropes…

Horrors of the apocalypse, and Wagner…

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Patents, pensions, and printing

By Gordon Rugg

The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution are often portrayed as a flowering of bright new ways of thinking about the world, shaking off the dull orthodoxy of previous centuries. Well, in some ways that’s true, but there’s also a fair amount of unglamorous practical underpinning that usually receives less attention.

This article is about those underpinnings.

One of the striking things about technological developments before the Renaissance is how many of them spread slowly, if at all. Why was that?

If you look at the question from the viewpoint of a mediaeval inventor who has just come up with a bright new idea, then you start seeing the importance of various factors that don’t get much attention in popular history.

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Why are we being examined on this?

By Gordon Rugg

It’s a fair question, if it’s being asked as a question, rather than as a complaint about the cosmic unfairness of having to study a topic that you don’t see the point of. Sometimes, it’s easy to answer. For instance, if someone wants to be a doctor, then checking their knowledge of medicine is a pretty good idea.

Other times, though, the answer takes you into deep waters that you’d really rather not get into, especially if there’s a chance of some student recording your answer and posting it onto social media…

Why do some answers take you into deep waters? That’s the topic of this article. It takes us into history, politics, proxies, and the glass bead game.

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