Leonard Cybernetics Bestiary - ?· Cybernetics Bestiary ... Many concepts from systems and cybernetics…

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<ul><li><p>Cybernetics Bestiary Allenna Leonard March 2008 Many concepts from systems and cybernetics are familiar to us through old sayings, fables, nursery rhymes and everyday use as well as newer metaphors and examples. Here are a few of them to look at in a new light. The Cow that Jumped Over the Moon Ridiculous, of course, unless you happen to be looking up a sloping field at moonrise at a cow on the crest of the hill. Ok, the cow probably stepped rather than jumped, but you get the picture. Or put another way, the picture you, as the observer, get depends a lot on who you are and where you are and how you think about the world. What you see isnt what someone else with an equally valid context sees. You have to duplicate the conditions if you want to duplicate the observationand it will never be exactly the same because you are you. The Dog that Did Not Bark Sometimes what isnt there is what is most significant. Arthur Conan Doyles detective, Sherlock Holmes, was a very observant man. He noted that, since the dog hadnt barked; someone the dog knew, not a strange intruder, had committed the crime. It is easier to see something that is present that shouldnt be than something that should be there and isnt. More Than One Way to Skin a Cat There can be many paths to the same outcome a condition Ludwig von Bertalanffy referred to as equifinality. It can apply to entrepreneurship, learning to play or environmental catastrophe. This concept has an interesting parallel in the development of cybernetics and systems theory in which thinkers from mathematics and physics; social and life sciences; and management and engineering came to understandings of circular causality </p></li><li><p>and dynamic processes that arrived at similar conclusions from widely different sources. Batesons Polyploid Horse Gregory Batson, in Mind and Nature, related a fable of a horse that was much bigger exactly twice the size of an ordinary Clydesdale. The problem was that multiplying the size by two multiplies the weight and the amount of food needed to sustain it by eight, the diameter of its windpipe and esophagus and its surface area by only four, and so on. In short, the animal would not be viable. A viable creature twice the size of a Clydesdale would be -- an elephant. It would have thick legs to support its weight, a digestive tract capable of handling the amount of food it required and so on. Scalability implies multiple and different inherent limits within its constant circumstances: in this case, gravity, oxygenation, and food energy requirements, among others. Maturanas Frog In a paper associated with Humberto Maturana * called What the frogs eye tells the frogs brain, the frogs interpretations of the behaviour of moving objects are described as falling into three categories: if it is small and moving, its food; if it is the same size and moving, its a potential mate; and if it is larger and moving, its a threat. These three categories work more often than not and serve the frogs survival well. But, if the situation changes, the frog does not notice. For instance, it will not try to eat a fly immobilized on a pin but will try to eat a rubber fly tossed in the air. In the same way, our choices cannot take into account new variables with old measurement frameworks. We need to test the frameworks (or the assumptions) from time to time to make sure they are still providing critical information and that no new variables have arisen. Vickers Trapped Lobster Geoffrey Vickers is well known for his quote The trap is a function of the nature of the trapped. His illustration was a lobster trap. It lures the lobster in but the lobsters perceptual map of the world doesnt allow it to see the way out which is counter-intuitive if youre a lobster. A man, or an otter, would not be trapped in a similar way because they would try to get out the </p></li><li><p>way they came in. But humans can be trapped too if the trap lures them into a dilemma that their mind-set cannot escape. The Canary in the Mine Coal miners, who worked in conditions where combustible or poisonous gas was always a risk, took canaries down the shafts with them. The canary is much more sensitive to the accumulation of gases than a human is and will keel over long before the miner would notice. But the miner did watch the canary, and knew to leave when the canary collapsed. Such indicators have played an important role in picking up early indications that something is going wrong while there may still be time to address the problem. The Elephant in the Room The elephant in the room has become a metaphor for the big problem no one wants to bring up because it represents an unpleasant truth that the powers that be dont want to hear or a problem that the people in the room do not understand or have no resources to solve. Either way, pretending the elephant isnt there means that any efforts that are made are likely to be irrelevant or detrimental. The Snake Eating its Tail The ouroboros is a symbol of cyclicality that is often used to represent self-reference, self-reflexivity or self-recreation. The snake or dragon eating its own tail is complete in and of itself. It is in some senses closed to outside information, reminding us that self-reference both helps us make sense of our perceptions and experiences and blocks us from seeing what might be beyond the frame of our own human senses or our traditions and understandings. The symbol is also sometimes used to refer to the union of opposites such as ying and yang or life and death. The Cheshire Cat The Cheshire cat, from Lewis Carrolls Alices Adventures in Wonderland represents an intermittent, but probably significant pattern. Some people see it some of the time but it appears and disappears just when you think you might be getting a handle on it. It can also be considered as part of a </p></li><li><p>transitional stage in emergence where the situation has yet to coalesce into an understandable and describable state. The Straw that Broke the Camels Back Every system has limits. Once those limits are reached, the system collapses. Often from the lightest touch or the smallest increment of additional load. So it is with the camel. The last straw marks the difference between a system under stress and a system in collapse. The Boiled Frog A frog placed in a pot of hot water will notice immediately and jump out. But, a frog placed in tepid water does not notice if the heat is turned on and the water heats up slowly. A cautionary note that sometimes-slow incremental changes detrimental to survival may not register until it is too late. The Foxes and Rabbits Foxes eat rabbits and rabbits multiply quickly. In a simplified predator/prey cycle, if foxes eat too many rabbits, the population of rabbits falls and the next generation of foxes doesnt have enough to eat and dies back. Then, with fewer foxes, the remaining rabbits multiply. The increased population of rabbits means that there is more for the foxes to eat and so it goes. Such population cycles are a good model of predator/prey relationships in nature and also in society. McCullochs Rat In The heterarchy of nervous nets Warren McCulloch reported a simple experiment that proved that there was no sumum bonum that applied across the board but that preferences depended on the particular choices or their order. (Kenneth Arrow and John Nash dealt with the same issue through mathematics.) When offered a choice between food and sex, the rat chose food. When the choice was between sex and avoiding electric shock, the rat chose to avoid the shock. When food was paired with avoiding electric shock, food was the preferred choice. The Butterfly Effect </p></li><li><p> One of the most striking metaphors of chaos theory is the idea that a butterfly on one side of the world can cause a storm on the other side. In other words, even very small changes in initial conditions can change outcomes in dramatic ways. Once the small variation has occurred, a process begins that leads to a chain of events that could not have been predicted. Battling Barnacles Many of us have enjoyed walking along the shore and marveling at the collection of seaweed and barnacles along the tidal pools. All looks peaceful and the only motion we see is that of the waves moving the plants and washing over the barnacles. But, if you were a researcher studying barnacles using time-lapse photography you would see a very different picture. The barnacles are banging together like cars at a dodgem ride in the amusement park, jostling for better position and pushing each other out of the way. But, their motion is too slow for us to see. Illiterate Elk In Northern Arizona, the elk population traditionally varied according to the amount of rainfall which translated into more foliage for them to eat. In wet years more elk were born; in dry years fewer. When ranchers began to graze cattle on the land, there was always plenty of water because the ranchers pumped it up for their cows. Now, elk cant read, so it wouldnt have done any good for farmers to put up a sign that said No Elk Allowed. So the result is that the elk have lost the constraint that kept their population balanced. The states answer has been to issue hunting permits for the number of elk estimated to be in excess of what the foliage will support. Horse of a Different Colour This is an expression says Oh, we just changed context. The conclusions we would have drawn before no longer make sense given what we now know about the rest of the situation. The colour has changed, and therefore, the interpretation has to change as well. Fox Guarding the Chicken Coop </p></li><li><p> This metaphor is often used to indicate a regulatory process that has been designed with a built in conflict of interest between the population to be protected and that of the regulators charged with the task. If a good regulator has to be a good model of the system to be regulated (according to Ross Ashby) then that regulator cannot be effective if it has divided responsibilities and loyalties. Trout in the Milk Sometimes evidence is too blatant to ignore although it is still circumstantial. Henry David Thoreau used this metaphor to show that anomalies cant simply be dismissed. Trout are not found in milk unless something has put them there which is well outside normal expectations. This is the reverse of the dog that did not bark something present that should be absent. If there is a trout in the milk, a new explanation is required. Tail Wagging the Dog This is a metaphor indicating that a system has its priorities backwards and is making decisions based on the wrong criteria. Often this is an indication of a distorted reward system that disregards efforts made on behalf of the whole in favour of those made on behalf of a single part. Deer in the Headlights The deer developed survival strategies based on threats from predators such as wolves where remaining motionless might make it difficult to find them if the wind was blowing the right way. It is exactly the wrong strategy to respond to a new threat that of vehicular traffic. When the threat changes, survival strategies have to change too. The Logical Ass The risk of failing to make a decision is exemplified by the metaphor of the ass that starved to death trying to decide which bale of hay to eat. Of course a real animal might hesitate before choosing which food to eat and if the food was mobile, it might get away in that moment - but human beings can </p></li><li><p>wait to make a decision until the decision is made for them or the opportunity disappears. Crabs in a Basket Crabs, caught in a basket, will not cooperate so that some of them could escape. In fact, if one seems to be reaching the edge, the others will pull it back. This is a metaphor for destructive competition, and sometimes of elevating personal grudges to the point that the survival of the group is jeopardized. Often competitors outside the basket will be the beneficiaries. The crabs will be someones dinner or the competition in the commercial or political sphere will gain an advantage. Chicken Little In the fable of Chicken Little, an acorn falls on her head and she assumes that means the sky is falling. She runs off to tell the king, spreading the rumour among the other animals who follow her until they meet the fox. The fox does not believe the sky is falling but does believe that the credulous animals will be easy prey. The lesson is that when an alarm is raised, it is a good idea not to panic but to question the evidence. Like many fables, the reverse is also true. Stafford Beer coined the metaphor of the ultrastable wheeled computer that would have sensors that would tell it when essential variables were out of whack and it would know to leave a burning building even if that wasnt part of its explicit programming. Cat with Nine Lives The cat is a good example of how flexibility and agility can help it to survive situations that would kill a more rigid animal. Eventually, threats catch up with the cat and its nine lives are exhausted but its resilience will enable it to beat the odds a few times before that happens. The cat is like an organization with more foresight and resilience or some resources in reserve that can hang on through turbulence and survive when others go under. Fish Out of Water Sometimes survival isnt possible. The fish out of water exemplifies the difficulty when an environment has changed utterly and none of the normal considerations apply. The fish does not have time to learn and adapt. </p></li></ul>