Mental models, and the Other as dark reflection.

By Gordon Rugg

This article is the first in a series about mental models and their implications both for worldviews and for everyday behaviour. Mental models are at the core of how we think and act. They’ve received a lot of attention from various disciplines, which is good in terms of there being plenty of material to draw on, and less good in terms of clear, unified frameworks.

In these articles, I’ll look at how we can use some clean, elegant formalisms to make more sense of what mental models are, and how they can go wrong. Much of the classic work on mental models has focused on mental models of specific small scale problems. I’ll focus mainly on the other end of the scale, where mental models have implications so far-reaching that they’re major components of worldviews.

Mental models are a classic case of the simplicity beyond complexity. Often, something in a mental model that initially looks trivial turns out to be massively important and complex; there’s a new simplicity at the other side, but only after you’ve waded through that intervening complexity. For this reason, I’ll keep the individual articles short, and then look in more detail at the implications in separate articles, rather than trying to do too much in one article.

I’ll start with the Other, to show how mental models can have implications at the level of war versus peace, as well as at the level of interpersonal bigotry and harrassment.

The Other is a core concept in sociology and related fields. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. People tend to divide the world in to Us and Them. The Other is Them. The implications are far reaching.

The full story is, as you might expect, more complex, but the core concept is that simple. In this article, I’ll look at the surface simplicity, and look at the different implications of two different forms of surface simplicity.

It’s a topic that takes us into questions about status, morality, and what happens when beliefs collide with reality.

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Crisp and fuzzy categorisation

By Gordon Rugg

Categorisation occurs pretty much everywhere in human life. Most of the time, most of the categorisation appears so obvious that we don’t pay particular attention to it. Every once in a while, though, a case crops up which suddenly calls our assumptions about categorisation into question, and raises uncomfortable questions about whether there’s something fundamentally wrong in how we think about the world.

In this article, I’ll look at one important aspect of categorisation, namely the difference between crisp sets and fuzzy sets. It looks, and is, simple, but it has powerful and far-reaching implications for making sense of the world.

I’ll start with the example of whether or not you own a motorbike. At first glance, this looks like a straightforward question which divides people neatly into two groups, namely those who own motorbikes, and those who don’t. We can represent this visually as two boxes, with a crisp dividing line between them, like this.

However, when you’re dealing with real life, you encounter a surprising number of cases where the answer is unclear. Suppose, for instance, that someone has jointly bought a motorbike with their friend. Does that person count as being the owner of a motorbike, when they’re actually the joint owner? Or what about someone who has bought a motorbike on hire purchase, and has not yet finished the payments?

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Surface structure and deep structure

By Gordon Rugg

The concepts of surface structure and deep structure are taken for granted in some disciplines, such as linguistics and media studies, but little known in others. This article is a brief overview of these concepts, with examples from literature, film, physics and human error.

The core concept

A simple initial example is that the surface structure of Fred kisses Ginger is an instantiation of the deep structure the hero kisses the heroine. That same deep structure can appear as many surface structures, such as Rhett kisses Scarlett or Mr Darcy kisses Elizabeth Bennet.

There are various ways of representing surface and deep structure. One useful representation is putting brackets around each chunk of surface structure, to clarify which bits of surface structure map onto which bits of deep structure; for example, [Mr Darcy] [kisses] [Elizabeth Bennet].

Another useful representation shows the surface structure mapped onto the deep structure visually. One way of doing this is as a table, like the one below.

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The simplicity beyond complexity

By Gordon Rugg

The simplicity beyond complexity is a concept attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It appears in at least a couple of forms, as described below.

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” This quote, which on the Holmes Sr page has “my right arm” instead of “my life,” is one for which I haven’t found the source so far, and so I will leave this quote as it is on both pages. – InvisibleSun 18:05, 10 October 2006 (UTC)

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Oliver_Wendell_Holmes_Jr.

It’s interpreted in at least a couple of ways.

One way, which I won’t go into here, is about working out how to solve a problem, and then hiding the complexity of the solution from the user, so that the product is simple to use.

The other way, which I will go into below, is about why apparently sensible simple explanations often don’t work, and about why there’s often a different but better simple explanation that only emerges after a lot of complexity, confusion and investigation.

Adapted from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Graphic_labyrinths#/media/File:Triple-Spiral-labyrinth.svg

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Explosive leaf level fan out

By Gordon Rugg

Often in life a beautiful idea is brought low by an awkward reality. Explosive leaf level fan out is one of those awkward realities (though it does have a really impressive sounding name, which may be some consolation).

So, what is it, and why is it a problem? Can it be a solution, as well as a problem? These, and other questions, are answered below.

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Pattern matching

By Gordon Rugg

Note: This article is a slightly edited version of an article originally posted on our Search Visualiser blog on May 17, 2012. I’ve updated it to address recent claims about how Artificial Intelligence might revolutionise research.

So what is pattern matching, and why should anyone care about it?

First picture: Two individuals who don’t care about pattern matching (Pom’s the mainly white one, and Tiddles is the mainly black one (names have been changed to protect the innocent…)

Image

Pattern matching is important because it’s at the heart of the digital revolution. Google made its fortune largely from the simplest form of pattern matching. Computers can’t manage the more complex forms of pattern matching yet, but humans can handle them easily. A major goal in computer science research is finding a way for computers to handle those more complex forms of pattern matching. A major challenge in information management is figuring out how to split a task between what the computer does and what the human does.

So, there are good reasons for knowing about pattern matching, and for trying to get a better understanding of it.

As for what pattern matching is: The phrase is used to refer to several concepts which look similar enough to cause confusion, but which are actually very different from each other, and which have very different implications.

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Referencing

By Gordon Rugg

So what is referencing anyway, and why should anyone care about it? What’s the difference between the Harvard system and the Vancouver system and the assorted other systems? How do you choose references that send out the right signal about you?

The answers to these and numerous other questions are in the article below. Short spoiler: If you do your referencing right, it gets you better marks, and you come across as an honest, capable individual who is highly employable and promotable. Why does it do this? Find out below…

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