Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Consideration: An Introduction to General System’s Thinking

I think I need to first start this review with a little digression, which I think will be justified, and is of importance.  I personally have a strong interest in the study of how we work, be that sociology, physiology, psychology, philosophy, law, biology, etc.  I have had less "interest" (i.e. time spent studying) in the just as interesting (i.e. fascinating) hard sciences with the exception of computer science, which I have had some time invested.  That being said, I learned long ago that much of what applied in one subject could be applied to another.  I recall a story (urban legend?) of man who told the dean of his college he could pass any written test.  He was given a test for dentistry even though he had studied philosophy (or something like that) and got a B on the test.

How does that have anything to do with General Systems Thinking (GST)?  Well, everything in a way.  The idea of GST is that you can create heuristically rules around the concepts that apply to more than one system of thinking.  It could perhaps be summed up by xkcd.  One field is generally an "applied" version of another field.  Now if the book only talked about this, it would not have been a very impressive book indeed. 

Frankly this is the hardest review I’ve had to write for a book in a long time.  I really would like to gush over it, to say it changed my life, because I could see it doing so.  On the other hand, it really didn’t teach me that much.  The concepts are hard work, but thinking at a high, pure, abstract and with a great deal of rigour is not easy.  I genuinely enjoyed the book, and frankly I felt the author did a great deal of multiple-faceted examples, to ensure the ideas were communicated well.  The questions at the end of the chapter were thought provoking; although sometimes they lacked enough context and expected a teacher to have the materials somewhere nearby.

I loved his willingness to note the problems with science and even with the field under study.  It makes the book feel much more like an honest discussion with a friend than some jerk trying to persuade my view by forcing his on me*.  I would like to take a quote of the author’s out of context, to note one of the places where he didn’t do this, but which I think was a innocent mistake:  "Try to cope with unfamiliar, complex phenomena, we try to…complete view… minimal view… independent view…."  The author gives an enumerated list of possible views a person might take in order to analyze something unfamiliar, yet he seems to be missing some possibilities.  For example, what about the diverse view, where you sample at random a complex data set in order to understand it?  I feel this is an honest mistake as he makes an honest effort to build together a persuasive case, including the acknowledging the flaws.  There is also an ethereal quality that some people have that causes one to trust a person, which for me this author connects with that.

* To be fair, I’ve often been persuaded by said jerks for a short time, until I’ve had some time to clear my head and see just how manipulative their words are.

A few more side notes before I hit my last point.  It is really annoying that the law’s he proposes aren’t recorded anywhere in the book as a whole.  Those laws as a list would have been useful to me, particularly with a little context.  Instead I have to keep referring back to find the exact definition of a given law.  I also found it funny how I kept reading "Brilligance" as "Brilliance", which is in a sense the author’s point (read the book and you'll get this)!  I have to say I found his "Cousins"/"Friends" argument (Pg 156) weak, as I can completely imagine grouping cousins together via relations from a individual basis.  That is to say, A has cousins B and C; B has cousins A and C; and C has cousins A and B.  Thus you can group those people together as cousins.  He never states why he feels that a person must be a cousin of themselves to make it valid.  Maybe he has a point, but it is unclear to me.

As anyone who talks with me often enough will know, I love quotes.  I find the small points of wisdom in them, sometimes with great value.  That being said, I loved this book’s use of quotes and felt it could in fact be highly quotable.  So for the rest of this review I’m going to try to cite quotations and novel ideas worth looking at:

  • "In short, we can learn about ourselves, which is really why all of us our playing this incredible game, call it poetry, beads, or, if you will, science" – Pg 143
  • "It will be objected…misrepresentations depending on over-simplifications… dilemma of the teacher: the teaching of facts and figures or the teaching of truth.  To convey a model, the teacher must reify and diagram and declare what cannot be seen at all.  The student… approximation of the truth, an approximation [t]he[y] will continue to revise all his [sic] life long. " - Pg 38, Karl Menninger
  • Pg 27, Robinson Jeffers, "The Answer" was amazing!
  • "If we want to learn anything, we mustn’t try to learn everything." - Pg 105, "The Lump Law"
    • (Boy am I guilty of this!)
  • "Things we see frequently are more frequent: 1. because there is some physical reason to favor certain states… . 2. because there is some mental reason… ." - Pg 100-101
  • "Laws should not depend on a particular choice of notation." – Pg 72
  • "…Grown-ups love numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: 'What does his voice sound like?' 'What games does he like best?' 'Does he collect butterflies?' They ask: 'How old is he?' 'How many brothers does he have?' 'How much does he weigh?' 'How much money does his father make?' Only then do they think they know him." -Antoine de Saint Exupery, Pg 67
  • "Heuristic devices don’t tell you when to stop." – Pg 55
  • "A general law must have at least two specific applications… If you never say anything wrong, you never say anything." – Pg 42
  • "Method for detecting if something is inside or outside of a given line by counting the number of line in two direction (up/left, down/right) and seeing if the count is even or odd" – Pg 145
  • While not specifically talked about, why is it that we can’t pass through glass (it is solid) but light can, yet light does not pass through everything, else we would never had shadows?
  • The author believes his system will fail to become popular, or become diluted with new views, which eventually will reverse the creators...  Then why do people create?  Why not just give up?  Does he only fear an evolution or would a revolutionary new view also be just as bad.  He claims people can only adapt (roughly) once in a given system before they become too attached to their system.  Why?  Can it be avoided or would people who avoid it not have enough passion to get the first system in place?  Is this a case of people dying too soon to adapt again?
  • "With respect to a given transformation, there are those properties that are preserved by it and those that are not." – Pg 154
    • What of money to an item?  What of the happiness in having money?  Compare that to the happiness of spending it?  On others?  On yourself?  Are those things equal even though the property might remain?  What if the other converts items back to money (pays you back)?  Is the transformation of the first dollar equal to the last dollar in your pocket?
  • "A system is a collection of parts, no one of which can be changed." – Pg 162
  • "We cannot with certainty attribute observed constraint either to system or environment." – Pg 214
  • "The number of untested assumptions in science is staggering.  On any say we can open any one of dozens of newly arrived journals and find reports of "discoveries" that were made simply by relaxing a constraint…" – Pg 215
    • I find it interesting that the author assumes that the untested constraints are simply made by science because of ignorance of the constraint rather than by necessity of time or other possible variable(s).
  • "1. Why do I see what I see? 2. Why do things stay the same? 3. Why do things change?" – Systems Triumvirate, Pg 228
  • "...Science comprehends the thought of reality, but not reality itself; thought of life, not life itself.  That is its limit, its only really insuperable limit, because it is found on the very nature of thought, which is the only organ of science." – Bakunin, Pg 229

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