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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Systems Theory

By Gordon Rugg

Systems theory is about what happens when individual items are connected and become a system. “Items” in this context can be anything physical and/or abstract, which gives you a pretty huge scope. Systems are ubiquitous. Examples include mechanical systems such as vehicles; social systems such as organisations or countries; and logical systems, such as software. Many of these systems can cause disasters when they fail, as in the examples of nuclear power plant safety systems or autopilot systems in aircraft; systems are important.

There are regularities in how systems behave, and some of those regularities are both counter-intuitive and extremely important. That’s a potentially dangerous combination.

If you understand systems theory, then the world makes a lot more sense, particularly if you combine it with game theory, which will be the topic of one of my next articles. Most questions that start with “Why don’t they…?” can be answered either with “Resources” or “Systems theory” or “Game theory”.

In this article, I’ll look at some core concepts from systems theory.

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Occam’s razor: The weaknesses of simple-looking explanations

By Gordon Rugg

So what is Occam’s razor anyway, and why should anyone care?

The core concept is brief: Other things being equal, we should choose the simplest valid explanation whenever possible.

Amateurs often view this concept as a clean blade of truth, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. It’s widespread in politics, often phrased as “common sense” analysis.

That’s a nice idea, but reality is more complex, and Occam’s razor often causes more problems than it solves. Like the damaged, time-worn razor in the picture below, it’s far from being a flawless blade.

straight razor 4

This article is about why simple-looking explanations often turn out to be complicated in reality, and why apparently complicated explanations often turn out to be simple.

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The Voynich Manuscript: Emergent complexity in hoaxed texts

By Gordon Rugg

This article is a short summary of an article by Laura Aylward and myself, originally published online in 2004. The full version is here:

http://www.scm.keele.ac.uk/staff/g_rugg/voynich/emergent3a.pdf

Our article is about producing meaningless gibberish text using the table and grille method, with a view to producing text similar to that in the Voynich Manuscript. We found a variety of complex side-effects from various ways of using the table and grille method, which would affect the statistical properties of the output.

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