How Blank is Your Paper?

Art by NightCafe

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of constructivism in Cybernetics. The title of the post is a nod to the famous philosopher John Locke’s idea of “Tabula Rasa” or “blank slate”. Locke believed that we are born with blank slates and that our experiences in the world lead to knowledge of the world. Constructivism in Cybernetics does not align with the idea of a blank slate, but it does align with the idea of our experiences in the world leading to knowledge of the world. From the time of enlightenment, the belief became dominant that we have access to an objective world and the knowledge of this world can set us free. Constructivism starts with the idea that we construct knowledge of our world, but we do not have access to the objective reality. We are not born with a blank slate. We are born with gene patterns that were passed on from our ancestors through evolution. For example, when we are born, we already know how to grip or reach out to warmth etc. We are also born with an operationally closed framework for learning. Similar to what Immanuel Kant would say about categories of understanding, we have a framework that we use to “see” the world. This framework is similar to other humans, but different enough to make them unique to us. How we experience the world becomes unique to us.

One of the main impedances to understanding this viewpoint is the notion that we have access to an objective world. Another notion that I would like to slightly challenge is the idea that we have representations of the world. Similar to Martin Heidegger’s ideas, our default mode of us is as beings in the world. This means that the world itself is our representation. We act in the world without first creating a representation. When we walk around, open doors, hold things etc., our body conforms to the environment naturally. We are situated in the world as a part of the world itself. When we open a door, our hand conforms to the shape of the door knob without us having to create a representation of the door knob. This does not mean that we cannot make representations, if needed. We can of course think in concepts, but this is not our default mode of being in the world.

From a constructivism standpoint, we have an embodied mind. This means that the mind is not separate from the body, and the body is not separate from the mind. We are ultimately meaning makers. We cannot ignore the “we” in this view. Rene Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” A fallacy that is often overlooked in this, is that he started the sentence with an “I”. He already snuck in the “I” before trying to demonstrate the existence of the “I”. It’s like asking “who created the universe?”. By asking “who”, one is already sneaking in a creator and therefore starting with a bias. In cybernetics, the emphasis is on the stable correlations that we establish in a social realm. What we construct is reinforced and often corrected by the others in the social realm. In order for this to be effective, we need repeat interactions. The more we interact with a phenomenon in a social realm, the more “real” it becomes to us. In addition to other people, the social realm also includes the language, the script and other societal aspects such as culture, moral implications etc. We are creatures of habit and our times.

A great example to understand how we construct stable correlations without having access to the objective world comes from Lynn Hoffman. I have slightly modified it for our purposes. Imagine rubbing a crayon on a piece of paper over a coin. The first time you rub, you may not be able to make out the coin, but the more you rub the crayon back and forth, the better the coin gets visible on the paper. What we have is the paper and we do not see the coin. The coin becomes “real” to us as what we constructed on the paper with the repeat interactions. The differences on the surface of the coin stand out to us as we interact more with it. This helps us construct the coin based on what we know already without a direct access to the coin. Traditionally, in philosophy there is a tendency to separate ontology (study of what exists) and epistemology (study of knowledge). Cybernetics is not about the world itself (what exists?); it is about us in the world, in the social realm, and how we make sense of it. In this worldview, ontology feeds epistemology as much as epistemology feeds ontology.

Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was OC Curve and Reliability/Confidence Sample Sizes:


OC Curve and Reliability/Confidence Sample Sizes:

“Reliability” as dreamt by Dream by WOMBO

In today’s post, I am looking at a topic in Statistics. I have had a lot of feedback on one of my earlier posts on OC curves and how one can use it to generate a reliability/confidence statement based on sample size, n and rejects, c. I provided an Excel spreadsheet that calculates the reliability/confidence based on sample size and rejects. I have been asked how we can utilize Minitab to generate the same results. So, this post is mostly geared towards giving an overview of using OC curves to generate reliability/confidence values and using Minitab to do the same.

The basic premise is that a Type B OC curve can be drawn for samples tested, n and rejects found, c. On the OC curve, the line represents various combinations of reliability and confidence. The OC curve is a plot between percent nonconforming, and probability of acceptance. The lower the percent nonconforming, the higher the probability of acceptance. The probability can be calculated using binomial, hypergeometric or Poisson distributions. The binomial OC curves are called as “Type B” OC curve and do not utilize lot sizes, generally represented as N. The hypergeometric OC curves utilizes lot sizes and are called as “Type A” OC curve. When the ratio n/N is small and n >= 15, the binomial distribution closely matches the hypergeometric distribution. Therefore, the Type B OC curve is used quite often.

The most commonly used standard for attribute sample plans is MIL 105E. The sample plans in MIL 105E are identical to the Z1.4 standard plans. The sampling plans provided as part of the tables do utilize lot sizes. These sampling plans were “tweaked” to include lot sizes because there was a push for including economic considerations of accepting a large lot that may contain rejects. The sample sizes for larger lots were made larger due to this. The OC curves shown in the standards however are Type B OC curves that do not use lot sizes. Hypergeometric distribution considers the fact that there is no replacement for the samples tested. Each test sample removed will impact the subsequent testing since the number of samples is now less. However, as noted above, when the ratio n/N is small, the issue of not replacing samples is not a concern. For the binomial distribution, lot size is not considered since the samples are assumed to be taken from lots of infinite lot size.

With this background, let’s look at a Type B OC curve. The OC Curve is a plot between % Nonconforming, and Probability of Acceptance. Lower the % Nonconforming, the higher the Probability of Acceptance. The OC Curve shown is for n = 59 with 0 rejects calculated using Binomial Distribution.

The producer’s risk is the risk of good product getting rejected. The acceptance quality limit (AQL) is generally defined as the percent of defectives that the plan will accept 95 percent of the time (i.e., in the long run). Lots that are at or better than the AQL will be accepted 95 percent of the time (in the long run). If the lot fails, we can say with 95-percent confidence that the lot quality level is worse than the AQL. Likewise, we can say that a lot at the AQL that is acceptable has a 5-percent chance of being rejected. In the example, the AQL is 0.09 percent.

The consumer’s risk, on the other hand, is the risk of accepting bad product. The lot tolerance percent defective (LTPD) is generally defined as percent of defective product that the plan will reject 90 percent of the time (in the long run). We can say that a lot at or worse than the LTPD will be rejected 90 percent of the time (in the long run). If the lot passes, we can say with 90-percent confidence that the lot quality is better than the LTPD (i.e., the percent nonconforming is less than the LTPD value). We could also say that a lot at the LTPD that is defective has a 10-percent chance of being accepted.

The vertical axis (y axis) of the OC curve goes from 0 percent to 100 percent probability of acceptance. Alternatively, we can say that the y axis corresponds to 100 percent to 0 percent probability of rejection. Let’s call this confidence. This is also the probability of rejecting the lot. The horizontal axis (x axis) of the OC curve goes from 0 percent to 100 percent for percent nonconforming. Alternatively, we can say that the x axis corresponds to 100 percent to 0 percent for percent conforming. Let’s call this reliability.

We can easily invert the y axis so that it aligns with a 0 to 100-percent confidence level. In addition, we can also invert the x axis so that it aligns with a 0 to 100-percent reliability level. This is shown below.

The OC Curve line is a combination of reliability and confidence values. Therefore, for any sample size and rejects combination, we can find the required combination of reliability and confidence values. If we know the sample size and rejects, then we can find the confidence value for any reliability value or vice-versa. Let us look at a problem to detail this further:

In the wonderful book Acceptance Sampling in Quality Control by Edward Schilling and Dean Neubauer, the authors discuss a problem that would be of interest here. They posed:

consider an example given by Mann et al. rephrased as follows: Suppose that n = 20 and the observed number of failures is x = 1. What is the reliability π of the units sampled with 90% confidence? Here π is unknown and γ is to be .90. 

One of the solutions given was to find the reliability or the confidence desired directly from the OC curve.

They gave the following relation:

π = 1 – p, where π is the reliability and p is the nonconforming rate.

γ = 1 – Pa, where γ is the confidence and Pa is the probability of acceptance.

This is the same relation that was explained above.

In my spreadsheet, when we enter the values as shown below, we see that the reliability value is 81.91% based on LTPD value of 18.10%. This is the same result documented in the book.

We can use Minitab to get the same result. However, it will be slightly backwards. As I noted above, drawing the OC curve requires only two inputs – the sample size and the number of rejects allowed or acceptance number. Once the OC curve is drawn, we can then look at the different reliability and confidence combinations. We can also calculate the confidence, if we provide the reliability. The reliability is also 1 – p. In Minitab, we can input the sample size, number of rejects and p, and the software will provide us the Pa. For the purpose of reliability and confidence, the p value will be the LTPD value and the confidence value will be 1 – Pa.

I am using Minitab 18 here. Go to Acceptance Sampling by Attributes as shown below:

Choose “Compare User Defined Sampling Plans” from the dropdown and enter the different values as shown. Please note that the acceptance number is the maximum number of rejects allowed. Here we are entering the LTPD value because we know the value to be 18.10. In the spreadsheet, we have to enter the confidence level we want to calculate the reliability, while in Minitab we have to enter the LTPD value (1 – reliability) to calculate the confidence. In the example below, we are going to show that entering the LTPD as 18.10 will yield the Pa as 0.10 and thus the confidence as 0.90 or 90%.

Minitab yields the following result:

One can use the combination of sample size, acceptance number and required LTPD value to calculate the confidence value. The spreadsheet is available here. I will finish with one of the oldest statistical quotes attributed to the famous sixteenth century Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra that is apt here:

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating. By a small sample we may judge of the whole piece.”

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Second Order Variety:

Second Order Variety:

Art by Dall-E

In my post today, I am looking at variety in Cybernetics from a second order cybernetics standpoint. I have written a lot about first and second order cybernetics here. First order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, and second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems. In the first, the observer is outside of what is being observed and in the second, the observer is part of what is being observed. The observer being part of that which is being observed brings self-referentiality/circularity into the scope of the observation. In the first, the emphasis is on an objective world out there, and in the second, the emphasis is on the subjective experiential world.

Variety is defined as the number of possible states of a situation, as distinguished by an observer. I am using the word “situation” instead of “system” because from a second order cybernetics standpoint, the word “situation” brings in the aspect of an experiential world. Variety from this view corresponds to the ability of the observer to make distinctions. For example, consider the set of alphabets {A, a, b, c, C}. Here an observer can say that the variety of the set is 3, counting the three alphabets. Another observer might say that the variety is 5, distinguishing between the lower and upper cases of the alphabet. As an additional example, consider the case of Morse code. Morse code is made of basically four states – a dot, a dash and two spaces. The dash is three times the duration or length of the dot. All the English alphabets and the Arabic numerals can be represented by the dots and dashes in different sequences. The space between the characters within a word is represented by the absence of the signal for a duration of three dots, whereas the space between words is represented by the absence of the signal for a duration of seven dots. For an observer not familiar with Morse code, the variety of a message could be just 1, whereas for an observer familiar with Morse code, the variety of a message could be pretty large depending upon the size of the message. One more interesting trivia about Morse code is that the different sequences of the characters are represented in the order of ease of use. For example, the letter “E”, the most commonly used letter in the English language is represented by the simplest representation of just one dot. Similarly, the numbers have longer sequences than alphabets.

Variety in Cybernetics is viewed as being tied to complexity. The complexity of a situation is dependent on the ability of the observer to make distinctions. In other words, the complexity of a situation is defined by the observer as the variety of the situation. I will also introduce another notion that is of utmost importance in second order cybernetics – purpose. The purpose of an object is determined by the subject. This is also tied to the notion of variety. As an example, let’s say that an observer needs to open a paint can. The only thing available for the observer is a flat edge screwdriver. At that point in time, the observer may see the variety of the screwdriver being more than one state. Apart from the normal use of the screwdriver to screw in a screw, the observer may see an additional use of using the flat edge to pry open the paint can. The actions of an observer when presented with a situation is dependent upon the observer’s ability to make distinctions. One other close notion that was explained by Ross Ashby with regards to variety is that of constraints. I had earlier denoted variety with the ability of the observer to make distinctions. This ability is tied to the notion of constraints. In the example of using the screwdriver to pry open the paint can, the ability to make that distinction is constrained by the observer’s knowledge of inserting a narrow edge into the gap of the lid of the paint can. The analogy of narrow edge of a paint can opener to the narrow edge of a flat screwdriver was useful for the observer. If that ability of making analogies was absent, then the observer would not have had the requisite variety needed.

I would now like to look at the idea of second order variety. Generally, second order uses self-referential phrases such as “understanding understanding” or “improving improving”. Second order variety in this aspect will be variety of variety. In the example of Morse code, the observer is having the variety to differentiate individual characters which will enable the observer to differentiate between different words. The observer having the variety to differentiate individual words and understanding semantics of the English language will enable the observer to differentiate different sentences. The observer having the variety to differentiate between sentences will enable the observer to understand the general theme of what is being said. In other words, variety begets variety. The more things one knows will increase the chance of getting to know even more newer things. From this viewpoint, diversity in any situation is a blessing. For example, knowing carpentry can help in an entirely different situation such as writing an essay.

When I started thinking about variety from the second order standpoint, it reminded me of a quote from Nassim Taleb and Bali, an Indian mythological character. Taleb in his book Skin in the Game recalls a saying by the brother Geoff and Vince Graham that summarizes the ludicrousness of scale-free political universalism:

I am, at the Fed level, libertarian;

at the state level, Republican;

at the local level, Democrat;

and at the family and friends level, a socialist.

This of course would change according to who the observer is, what values they hold dear and the context of the situation. Holding a steadfast rule universally with a predefined variety is also ludicrous.

The Indian mythological character, Bali, was the monkey king of Kishkindha in the Hindu epic Ramayana. He was given the choice of any boon by Brahma. Bali asked for the boon such that in a fight, Bali will gain half the strength of his opponent. His opponent would lose half his strength to Bali. Bali was said to have the strength of 70,000 elephants, and his boon made him impossible to defeat in a direct combat. His boon made him able to fight anyone and defeat them. His immense strength along with the boon gave him a lot of variety. He was able to amplify his variety with his boon in a fighting situation. He was killed by Lord Ram who shot an arrow from behind a tree while Bali was fighting with his brother Sugriva. From a cybernetics standpoint one could say that Bali’s abilities were attenuated by Lord Ram by not engaging in a direct fight.

I welcome the reader to check out these posts on making observations:

The Case of the Distinguished Observer:

Observations on Observing, The Case Continues:

View from the Left Eye – Modes of Observing:

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was A Saint and a Leader:

A Saint and a Leader:

Art by Dall-E

In my post today, I am inspired by a thought experiment posed by cybernetician Vladimir Lefebvre. He posed the question whether a saint knows that they are a saint? In his words:

Consider the social or cultural picture of a saint. The question is: does a saint know that he is a saint? Of course, if a saint thinks that he is a saint, from a cultural point of view he is not a saint. So, whether a person can be correctly thought to be a saint depends on who the observer is. In order to describe itself, an organism must contain an image of itself (logical self-reference). But a saint, in order to be a saint, will not think that he is a saint (psychological self-reference).

If a person tries to become a saint, then they cannot ever be one. If a person thinks that this is how I should act as a saint, then they are not acting in good faith. Lefebvre points out that a saint cannot see themselves as perfect. He notes:

Such an individual cannot ‘see’ himself as perfect. Thus, ‘perfection ‘ is always an external characteristic of an individual and cannot be a component of his own self-description. Saints are perfect more often than other types of individuals… We see that perfection is an external characteristic of an individual: a person is perfect from other’s point of view and not from his own. If a perfect individual occupies the place of an external observer and reflects himself as perfect, he would in this way destroy his perfection. One’s own perfection is inaccessible to the ‘inner sight’ of an individual himself.

I found this to be a great insight, and this made me look at the importance of self-reference for a leader. From a second order cybernetics standpoint, I see a leader as someone who is able to generate attractor states in a complex network space. For example, a leader inspires people to act in a certain manner under certain conditions. They are able to generate patterns of behavior on a larger scale. From a cultural standpoint, the view of a leader has many characteristics to a saint. They are meant to be selfless and think of the general good of the people. However, from a second order standpoint, we see that there are differences compared to a saint.

A leader has to see themselves as a leader, unlike the saint. They have to refer to their own ideals and values when they have to make decisions. They have to also view themselves from other peoples’ viewpoint. A saint and a leader are both defined less by their words and more by their actions. Being a leader means that they are leading people towards a goal. However, this means that they are assigning a purpose for the group. This is a fascinating topic for me. In a group, if one does not assign a purpose for themselves, then they would be assigned a purpose by someone else. In other words, one could easily be viewed as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. A “good” leader should not be viewing others simply as a means to an end. A leader, from a second order cybernetics standpoint, observes their own actions and at the same time appreciates other people’s perspectives. The first step from a self-referential standpoint is to be transparent with our intention and values. We have to provide a narrative around them for others to orient themselves with.

From this perspective, we should look at the here and now (short term thinking), at the same time care about the there and then (long term thinking). We see that humans are not resources anymore, but cocreators with us as we generate organizational patterns. There are now books a dime a dozen on leadership prescribing how to be a leader. Being a leader is contextual. A little bit like a saint, it is others who determine how good of a leader one is.

I will finish off with a wonderful Zen story that is appropriate here:

A disciple who loved and admired his Zen teacher decided to observe his behavior minutely, believing that if he did everything that his teacher did, then he would also acquire his teacher’s wisdom. The teacher always wore white, and so his disciple did the same. The teacher was a vegetarian, and so his disciple stopped eating meat and replaced it with a diet of vegetables and herbs. The teacher was an austere man, and so the disciple decided to devote himself to self-sacrifice and started sleeping on a straw mattress.

After some time, the teacher noticed these changes in his disciple’s behavior and asked him why.

‘I am climbing the steps of initiation,’ came the reply.

‘The white of my clothes shows the simplicity of my search, the vegetarian food purifies my body, and the lack of comfort makes me think only of spiritual things.’

Smiling, the teacher took him to a field where a horse was grazing.

‘You have spent all this time looking outside yourself, which is what matters least,’ he said. ‘Do you see that creature there? He has white skin, eats only grass and sleeps in a stable on a straw bed. Do you think he has the face of a saint or will one day become a real teacher?’.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Informational Closure in the Human and the Machine:

Informational Closure in the Human and the Machine:

Art by Dall-E

One of the concepts that seems hard to grasp with regards to Cybernetics is the idea of “informational closure”. This idea was introduced by Ross Ashby as “informational tightness”. Ashby defined Cybernetics as the study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and control – systems that are “information-tight”. Just like something that is described as water-tight, where water does not enter it from outside, information-tight refers to the condition where information does not enter it from outside.

Ashby also said that when a machine breaks, it changes its mind. Ashby referred to “machine” as a collection of parts that interact on one another and an “organization” as the specific way they are put together. For example, when a user pushes on a button, a door opens. The machine in this case is the button together with the wiring that can interact on the door together with the hinges. Ashby would say that Cybernetics in this case is the study of all possible actions that could have happened when the button was pushed, but did not. The cybernetician would ask why of all the possibilities, the action of the door opening happened? That specific action happened due to the specific manner the parts are connected to one another. If the parts were connected differently something else would have happened such as the door staying closed and refusing to open. I use the phrase “refusing to open” to tease the idea of the machine having a mind. As a nod to Descartes, in the case of this machine, its mind is indeed its body. It acts the way it does because of its structure. If there was a loose connection, then the machine would indeed change its mind, and refuse to open.

Here, the reader might be tempted to say that the user is providing an input or information via the press of the button. From a cybernetics standpoint, the user is actually perturbing the machine, and the machine’s behavior to this perturbation is to behave in a specific manner as dictated by its internal structure and organization. This is the reason why if there was a loose connection, the user pressing the button would result in a different behavior altogether. There is no information being received that is processed by the machine. The user could use the same pressing action on a keyboard and it would elicit an entirely different behavior, one that is consistent with the keyboard’s internal structure and organization. The machine’s mind is already made up, so to speak. If one were forced to define information in this regard, it would be something to the effect of “information is that which has the potential to elicit a response.” But here is the catch, what elicits a response is not the information, but the internal structure of the machine. In order to respond, the machine must have a closed organization. Information tight or informational closure means that the machine does not process information from outside. Instead, it is perturbed and this elicits a response based on its internal structure.

Two Chilean cyberneticians Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela came up with the idea of autopoiesis that brought a new dimension to this. Their perspective is that humans are informationally closed as well. Maturana pointed out that prior to 1950’s, scientists and laypeople used to talk about neurons transferring or transmitting impulses. And after the advent of information theory by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, everything was viewed in a new light – that of information and entropy. The idea of conveying information from one person to the other, and information being processed is an attractive one. From a practical standpoint, one can see that this does not make sense. How many times have you conveyed information to another person only to have been misunderstood? As George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

We are obviously different than machines. We are not wired in order to be to elicited for specific responses. How we respond instead is based on a historical coherence. An easy example is how one responds to their own name. When we were infants, we were called our names, and we did not respond based on our then closed organization. With each repetition, we came to correlate the sound of the name to a response from us guided by reinforcement in the form of attention, love etc. The utterance of our name created a strong correlation in our behavior. There can still be instances where we may behave differently if our names are called such as in the case when your mother was using a stern voice. The history of interactions with others creates a stable response that we generally tend towards to. The more perturbations we have in the form of these interactions, the more we tend to respond in a particular manner. We have an embodied mind, unlike the machine. And unlike the machine, we are autonomous entities. We may still choose to change our mind for no good reason.

One of the examples that Maturana gave to further this idea is that of looking at a flower. The traditional way is to say that the light from the flower reaches our retina and this acts as information, and we see the flower. The informationally closed way is explained by Maturana as follows:

When light reflected by an object that the observer describes as external reaches the retina, an activity is initiated that is enclosed in the structure of the retina itself (and not in the structure of the source of light, nor in the structure of the world). The external world can only trigger such changes in the nervous system of an organism as are determined by the structure of the nervous system itself. The consequence is that there is no possible way, in principle, for the external world to communicate itself in its primordial, true form to the nervous system.

In other words, the flower does not inform the nervous system that it is a flower. Instead, the nervous system constructs an experiential reality of “flower” based on its own structure. It should refer to itself in order to make sense. This aligns with the view that each of us uniquely experience the world. What the color blue is? or what the sound of a hand clap is? – are all different for each of us, and this is based on our history of interactions and our closed interpretative framework. This brings attention to the essential point that what we experience is only one version of a human reality. To exist in a social realm requires us to be respectful of the other participants.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was On the Ambiguities in Complexity:

On the Ambiguities in Complexity:

In today’s post, I am looking at the ambiguities in complexity. I am inspired by the brilliant French philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir. She was a proponent of existentialism, the school of philosophy that puts emphasis on human existence first and foremost. Their motto, as noted by Jean Paul Sartre, is “existence precedes essence.” This basically means that we create the meaning of our lives. There is no authority outside of us dictating what our essence must be. We are responsible for our construction of what we become.

The ideas of existentialism have many similarities with the philosophical school of constructivism in Cybernetics. I have written about this before. Similar to existentialism, constructivism says that we construct a version of reality and that we are responsible for our construction. In the social realm, constructivists believe that we aim for consistency through our continuous interactions with the other constructors. If I am constructing a version of reality, this means that others are doing the same. The language and culture act as external frames of references to provide a stable version of reality. The emphasis is not for correctness but consistency.

De Beauvoir realized that the ambiguity of our existence is part of us. We are subjects who engage in ongoing construction of a reality, at the same time we are objects in the construction of others in the social realm. In other words, we are creators while at the same time creations in someone else’s construction. What we identify as selves is in relation to others. We aim to have autonomy in our actions, and this often comes at the cost of others autonomy. The choices we make influences the choices others make and vice versa. There are no moral authorities dictating what everyone’s role is or what everyone should be doing. These ideas resonate strongly with Cybernetics. The ideas of constructivism are at the core of second order cybernetics.

De Beauvoir advised us to identify and withstand the pressures of the constraints that the contingencies of our times such as societal norms and expectations throw at us. We are to use our freedom to maximize our potentialities and shape our own lives. We can do this only when we acknowledge the ambiguities. We find freedom when we recognize the freedom of others.

With these ideas we will look at complexity. Loosely put, complexity is the interconnectedness that we identify or experience. When we pull on a thread here, something else moves in another location. Everything seems to be connected to everything else. Complexity in cybernetics is observer dependent. This means that the magnitude and “quality” of complexity can vary depending on the observer. This is also dynamic. This means that depending on when you are asking, the “what” of complexity can change. This also means that there are no clear demarcations or domains in complexity. There are certain portions that are less “complex” and some that are more “complex”. Cybernetics is not interested in the “what” but in all of the possible behaviors seen by the observer. The observer is able to make certain states occur more often than the others by playing with the constraints. Ernst von Glasersfeld wonderfully defined cybernetics as the art of creating equilibrium in a world of possibilities and constraints.

What does this mean if there are multiple observers? There are so many dimensions and so many possibilities. Cybernetics talks about the constructive dance between the observers. Every interaction is an invitation to understand each other. We need to talk about what we see and what think we see through others eyes. We face complexity as part of facing situations. We seek to obtain a stable state that covers certain desired attributes of the situation. In order to know this, we have to have a good understanding of the possibilities and the available constraints that can be used to achieve some of the possibilities. The constraints can be used to generate attractor states that the dynamic “system” latches onto and those attractor states will cover the desired states. There is a lot of literature about leaders with respect to complexity. Leaders are people who take up the responsibility to create conditions so that attractor states containing certain desired states are generated.

The discussion of complexity demonstrates the presence of ambiguity through and through. Who chooses what the desired outcomes should be? Who decides who should do what? Who decides to utilize the constraints for which some people may have to pay more? As noted, there are no moral authorities in these situations. Taking heed to de Beauvoir’s words, we should not run away from the ambiguities. Instead, we should embrace them. We should understand that there are always others in the social realm. We become a self through the others.

To say that there are rules for complexity would be a terrible idea. However, there are several heuristics that we can use to embrace the ambiguities. We should engage in the cybernetic dance and encourage being openminded to others’ viewpoints. We should practice empathy and try to understand the different perspectives. We should engage in dialogue more with the intent of actively listening. We should understand the power structure that is predominant and work with the marginalized groups so that their voices are also heard. We should celebrate the differences. We should look for similarities in differences and differences in similarities. We should cherish each other’s autonomy.

I will finish with some strong words from Simone de Beauvoir:

Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces. Though they are masters of the atomic bomb, yet it is created only to destroy them. Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s. Perhaps in no other age have they manifested their grandeur more brilliantly, and in no other age has this grandeur been so horribly flouted. In spite of so many stubborn lies, at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Desiring and Second Order Cybernetics:

Desiring and Second Order Cybernetics:

In today’s post, I am looking at second order nature of Cybernetics. I have written many a times about second order cybernetics. I am inspired by the ideas of the late French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. Lacan is a hard author to read. He is one of those authors that you need the dummies book for the dummies book of his ideas.

I will start with a quick introduction to second order cybernetics. The idea of the cybernetics of cybernetics was presented in 1967 by the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead. She looked at cybernetics as a way of looking at things and as a language for expressing what one sees. She challenged ASC (American Society of Cybernetics) to use the ideas of cybernetics to its own organization and operation. The phrase “Cybernetics of Cybernetics” was coined by the Socrates of Cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster. He was the editor for the Macy conference papers, and he reached out to Mead for the title of her paper. Mead was not able to respond on time, and he chose the name “Cybernetics of Cybernetics”. Von Foerster thought of first order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observed systems, and second order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observing systems.

Cybernetics is closely related to a teleological activity that is based on feedback. The most common explanation is that of a steersman guiding the boat to its destination. The direction of the boat needs to be adjusted according to the water and the wind. The adjustment is based on the steersman’s ability to judge the deviation from the desired path. This is the first order cybernetics. Second order cybernetics, on the other hand, looks at aspects such as:

  • Am I on the “right” path? Is there a need to change the destination itself?
  • How can I better my navigation skills?
  • How good am I at navigating the boat? Etc.

There is a first order nature to the second order cybernetics because the same idea of feedback in the first order cybernetics is applicable in the second order cybernetics. However, the first order and second order cybernetics are on different domains. Saint Augustine, in his book “Confessions” wrote:

I have become a question to myself.

This type of questioning is not possible with first order cybernetics. Another way to look at this is using the example of ChatGPT. ChatGPT is often able to come up with excellent answers to our queries. It seems to possess “knowledge”. But does ChatGPT know that it possesses that knowledge? It is not able to use any type of knowledge until we pose the question. It “knows” the answer only when we ask the question. We don’t always know that we know something until we face a problem situation that presents a need for that knowing.

I will loosely use Lacan’s ideas of “desire” to expand on this. We are driven by a lack of something. This could be the latest iPhone model or any of the million new things that we do not have. We seem to be never fully satisfied in life and we feel that getting a new something will change this. We feel a dissatisfaction due to this lack. But once we get this new thing, our feeling of dissatisfaction does not go away. It just gets transferred to lack of some other thing. There will always be the other in our life that we want. Lacan’s brilliant insight was that what we desire is actually the desiring itself. Therefore, the object of our desire is not significant. The object itself then becomes not the goal, but rather a means to an end. Our object of desire is the subjective experience of desire itself. Desire for desiring itself becomes the churning force for us to desire more things leaving us in a flux. The things we get may make us feel temporarily complete. However, the desiring for desiring itself takes us to a new cycle of desiring for a new thing.

The desire for the object, such as the latest model of iPhone, can be viewed as a first order aspect. Understanding that what we truly desire is the desiring itself is then the second order aspect.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Another Post on Constraints:

Another Post on Constraints:

In today’s post, I am looking again at the idea of constraints in relation to Ross Ashby’s ideas and the ideas of second order cybernetics. As far as I know, Ashby did not go into the differentiation of first and second order cybernetics. A lot of what he wrote can be filed away under “First order cybernetics”. But to do so will be missing the forest for the trees. A lot of Ashby’s ideas were ahead of his time and resonate with the ideas of complexity and systems thinking.

Ashby tied the idea of constraints to variety and the observer. Variety, as I have written here before, can be loosely put as the number of possible states differentiated by an observer. So, for example, an analog light switch can be said to have a variety of two – ON and OFF. Constraint is the relational part between an observer and a “system”. A “system” here is a select number of variables chosen by an observer to represent a phenomenon of interest. To elaborate these ideas, I am taking the example of an observer who chooses a Christmas tree as an area of interest. Further, let’s consider that the tree is connected to an analog switch with a variety of two as stated before. The observer can decide they would like to leave the tree ON for the entire Christmas season to reflect the Christmas spirit.  The variety of the switch is now reduced to one, barring any unforeseen incidents. The switch is always kept in the ON position. Out of the two possibilities, a constraint was applied so that there is only one possibility.

Ashby was very clear that Cybernetics is about looking at what something is doing, instead of looking at what that “something” is. From this standpoint, we are looking at possibilities, which is a “black box” view. We are looking at how something is behaving and are not really interested in the intricacies of how things are connected together.

Ashby noted in his private notebook that “A Cyberneticist is a man[sic] who observes what might have happened, but did not.”

This idea of “something that might have happened, but did not” is related to the notion of constraints. Cybernetics is often depicted as a science of teleology. This is the first order Cybernetics. For example, we often depict the idea of a steersman moving towards a goal, where a clear path is set. From the idea of constraints, we should be looking at negative explanations. We may choose the destination, but the path is set by the constraints. Gregory Bateson, another intellectual giant in Cybernetics, noted the following about negative explanation:

Negative explanation is an aspect of cybernetic theory that emphasizes restraints. According to negative explanation, events take a particular course because they are constrained from taking other courses. Alternatively, positive explanation seeks to determine the causes of particular events. Rather than focusing on “Why?”, negative explanation involves describing the constraints under which systems operate.

We consider what alternative possibilities could conceivably have occurred and then ask why many of the alternatives were not followed, so that the particular event was one of those few which could, in fact, occur.

In a similar fashion, Ashby wrote:

Cybernetics looks at the totality, in all its possible richness, and then asks why the actualities should be restricted to some portion of the total possibilities.

The real world gives the subset of what is; the product space represents the uncertainty of the observer. The product space may therefore change if the observer changes; and two observers may legitimately use different product spaces within which to record the same subset of actual events in some actual thing. The “constraint” is thus a relation between observer and thing; the properties of any particular constraint will depend on both the real thing and on the observer. It follows that a substantial part of the theory of organization will be concerned with properties that are not intrinsic to the thing but are relational between the observer and thing.

We often emphasize on having a goal or direction, but we neglect the importance of constraints. Some constraints can be physical such as a ball rolling down a chute.  The ball will always follow the same path. Now compare this to a rock falling down a hill. It may not follow the same path if you repeat rolling it down a hill. Some paths are more likely than others. And no matter how many times you roll it down a hill, some paths are never taken due to the physical constraints of the hill. These can be understood from a first order Cybernetics standpoint. From the second order Cybernetics standpoint, it is very important to understand the relational nature of constraints to the observer. What is limiting to one person can be nurturing for another. From the second order Cybernetics standpoint, the constraints are our biases and other epistemic constraints that limit or enable our actions.

According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was made to roll a large rock up a hill and have it roll down; only to repeat this exercise again and again for eternity. He was made to do this as a punishment. Curious enough, in another part of the world, in Kerala (India), there is another mythology that talks about another character who rolled a large rock up a hill only to have it roll down. Naranath Branthan (The madman of Naranam) would roll a large rock up a hill and have it roll down. He would repeat this again and again. His reason for doing this was entirely different than Sisyphus. Naranath Branthan was not doing it for punishment. But, he was doing it for fun. The stories about him said that he would laugh with joy and clap his hands as he watched the rock roll down the hill. If Sisyphus would had found joy in what he did, the Gods would have been forced to free him from the punishment since it would cease to be a punishment.

I will finish with a wonderful story about Naranath Brandan.

One day he met Kali, an Indian goddess, as he was retiring for the night. Kali was impressed by the madman and told him that she will give him a boon (blessing).

“I do not want any boons”, the madman said. He just wanted to get on with his night and go to sleep.

Kali informed him that she has to give a boon or a curse, and she insisted that he take a boon.

“I want to increase my life time by a second”, the madman replied. Kali told him that she could not do that.

“Then I want to decrease my life time by a second”, the madman said. Kali told him she could not do that either.

The madman thought for a while and asked Kali to move the elephantiasis from his left leg to the right leg. Kali complied, and the madman lived happily with elephantiasis on his right leg from that day onwards.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetics and the Stoics:

Cybernetics and the Stoics:

In today’s post, I am continuing on my thoughts on stoicism through the lens of cybernetics. In Cybernetics, we call regulation the act (art) of responding to external disturbances in order to maintain selected internal variables in a range. For example, our body maintains the internal temperature in a specific range. We have internal regulations built in through evolution to ensure that this is done. In the language of cybernetics, regulation refers to the act of countering the external variety. In order to counter the external variety, we must have requisite variety. As noted in the last post, only variety can absorb variety. If the external temperature goes up or goes down, our body should have a mechanism to react so that the internal temperature is maintained in a specific range. If it is not able to do this, we will not stay viable. The goal of requisite variety in this instance is about maintaining the status quo.

There are mainly two types of regulations in cybernetics as Ross Ashby noted – direct and indirect regulation. Direct regulation is the type of regulation where there is an established framework of counteractions that the agent can use. In the case of body temperature, heat loss can be promoted in a hot environment by many different mechanisms such as sweating or by reduction of muscular activities. Similarly, heat loss can be minimized in a cold environment using several mechanisms such as shivering or other activities to improve body insulation (reducing blood flow to the skin). There are several other mechanisms used by our bodies that are not listed here. These activities come under direct regulation because these happen without any oversight from us. Our bodies have evolved to do these things. Direct regulation is obviously limited in what it can do. For a low complex organism such as a wasp, direct regulation is adequate for survival. When the environmental conditions change or become extreme, direct regulation will no longer be able to provide requisite variety. In this case, we need indirect regulation. Indirect regulation refers to our ability to achieve requisite variety through second order activities. This involves learning mechanisms. For example, when it gets cold, we learn to move to a warmer location or to put on more clothes or to start a fire. We learned to create warm clothes or generate fire at will. This type of regulation did not come through evolution. What did come through evolution is our ability to learn to adapt. The second order refers to the ability to learn. Direct regulation is first order in nature. Second order is where you realize that the current specification is not working and that we need to change what we are doing or change the specification altogether. First order is simply realizing that there is a gap between the current state and where we want to be, and upon this realization continue on an already prescribed path.

We can see that indirect regulation has much more impact for our continued survival than direct regulation. Both types of regulation involve attenuation and amplification of variety in order to achieve requisite variety. As noted before, external variety is always higher than internal variety. Variety is directly correlated to complexity. The impact that the complexity in the world can have on us is ever increasing mainly because we are getting connected to the world in unprecedented ways. What I am typing here at my home can reach someone else in the farthest corners of the world in a matter of seconds. Something that happens locally in one location can have a direct impact on the entire world, as evidenced by the Covid 19 pandemic. How can we ensure our viability in these conditions?

Stoicism provides a lot of guidance for us in this regard. Stoicism provides us guidelines for us to improve our indirect regulatory activities. I am not discussing the dichotomy of control here since I discussed it last time. Instead, I will look at what Stoicism says about adversities in life. Most of our trouble comes from the fact that we do not orient ourselves properly. We give into direct regulation such as freeze, flight or fight. This worked for our ancestors, but this will not work, say for example, in a workplace environment. It is not easy for us to orient because we are not expecting the variety of the adversity that was thrown at us. It could be that we were put in a challenging situation where we have put ourselves or our company at a huge risk condition. Or something drastic happened that requires immediate action or our lives are in danger. How does one improve our internal variety in these conditions? How does one learn to attenuate the external variety so that we don’t focus on the noise? How do we amplify our variety so that we concentrate only on what is needed?

Stoics talk of a great tool that will help us here. It is called “premeditatio malorum”. This stands for “negative visualization”. When we start our day, think of the many ways, the day could go wrong. Think of driving in the traffic and someone cutting us off or getting into an accident. What can we do in this situation? Think of going into the important meeting and you saying something that would be perceived as silly. What would you do in this situation? Meditating on this is in many regards a way to prepare ourselves to better prepare in case such things do happen. It is obviously easy to go wild with this exercise, so we should keep it as practical as possible.

Another key insight from the stoics is the idea of seeing every experience as an opportunity. Every adversity or challenge that we face is an opportunity to learn. The big project that we are embarking upon work is an opportunity to improve ourselves. The challenges that are thrown at us actually make us better when we welcome them as challenges to finetune our skills. Many a time, stoicism is badly represented as being detached from reality. When something bad happens, the stoics are expected to be emotionless. On the contrary, stoicism is about being able to ground ourselves to reality and reorient ourselves so that we can use every experience as a learning opportunity. As with the premeditation malorum, we must exercise caution and not go out of our way looking for challenges. Instead we must take on the challenges that come our way and not run away from them. We must learn to be practical with the theory.

Seneca presents us with a paradox of fortune and laments those who were not fortunate enough to have gone through any misfortunes:

I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.

Epictetus asks us who Hercules might have been without any of his adversities:

“What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?

Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So, by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.

And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir into him action?”

Perhaps, at this juncture the reader is reminded of resilience and maybe of antifragility. From a cybernetics standpoint, resilience is a matter of maintaining status quo after a setback. This can be done mainly through first order activities and through second order activities as needed. Antifragility, on the other hand requires second order activities which leads to post traumatic growth (PTG).

I will finish with some wise words from the philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius:

Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

If you are interested in Stoicism, you might like:

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetics and the Dichotomy of Control:

Cybernetics and the Dichotomy of Control:

In today’s post, I am looking at the dichotomy of control in stoicism through the lens of cybernetics. My main source for the dichotomy of control (DoC) is the great Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. One of the common interpretations of this dichotomy is that we need to realize what is in our control and what is not in our control. We should accept the things that are not in our control as they are. The only thing we can control is how we react to them. As a fan of cybernetics, I was attracted to the notion of “control”. I will discuss this idea of DoC first from a first order cybernetics standpoint, and then from a second order cybernetics standpoint. First order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, and second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems.

There are many translations out there for Epictetus’ Enchiridion. My main source for our discussion here is from the translation of Elizabeth Carter.

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

In Cybernetics, the notion of control is highly important. Cyberneticians talk about controlling a system through feedback. In order to control a system, the controller should have more variety than the system itself. Variety refers to the number of distinguishable states of the system. For example, a light switch generally has a variety of two (ON and OFF). With this, we are able to control how a light works. We can turn it ON and OFF, when we want. This is obviously a simple case. When we are dealing with complexity, the external variety is always greater than ours. In order to stay viable, we need to achieve requisite variety.

Requisite variety is the least amount of variety that we should possess in order to maintain our essential variables in a specific range. Essential variables are those variables such as our body temperature or oxygen level etc. that ensures that we stay viable in our environment. Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of Cybernetics, came up with the law of requisite variety that states only variety can absorb variety. In simple terms, if the environment is imposing a variety demand on us, we should have enough variety to respond in order to stay viable. If the environment gets cold, then we should have a means to keep our body temperature in the viable range. This could be achieved by putting on warmer clothes or by not going out in the cold weather.

As noted earlier, the external variety is going to be more than our internal variety. In order to achieve requisite variety, we must attenuate the variety coming in, and also amplify our internal variety. Attenuation of variety is generally more effective in achieving requisite variety. In the example of the cold weather, we can stay inside our house, which cuts down on the cold from reaching us. We could put on a fire to amplify our variety and stay cozy and warm.

Coming back to the dichotomy of control, we can use the cybernetic ideas of attenuation and amplification. We need to focus on the things we can control (amplify), and be indifferent to things that we cannot control (attenuate). This is a “trust the process” type approach. If you are driving to work, we should focus on how we are driving and we should be indifferent to those who cut in front of us. How we react is only up to us, and we should not give away power to others to control us. If we are going to an important business meeting, what we can control is how we prepare for the meeting, and how we manage our appearance. We cannot completely control how others will receive us. That is outside our control. But we can amplify ourselves by learning about topics and working on our people skills.

Up to this point, we were looking at a first order approach. There is a prescriptive nature to what we have discussed. From the second order standpoint, the emphasis is on understanding our understanding; in improving our process of improving. The Greek word that Epictetus used was “ep’hemin”. This was often translated as “control”. However, a better translation is “what depends on us.” The term “control” assigns a causal nature, whereas “what depends on us” assigns a dispositional nature. Using the idea of “what depends on us”, we can be ready with a simple answer to any complex question – “it depends.” Most often, we are attracted to giving specific solutions to complex situations, as if we have a complete understanding of the situation. When we step back and look at this from a complexity standpoint, a better answer is always “it depends”. It depends on the context of the situation.

Epictetus explained further about the dichotomy in Enchiridion:

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

We get distressed when we do not understand the dichotomy of control. When we falsely assume how others act depends on us, we are trying to swim against the flow. What depends on us are our responsibility and nobody else owns them. From a second order cybernetics standpoint, this points to the idea of responsibility in constructivism. We construct our version of reality based on our ongoing interaction with the world around us. The more we interact, the better we can construct a stable and viable version of reality. This is our own responsibility, and we should not give this responsibility to others. At the same time, we should ensure that others are able to do the same. On a similar note, we should also not give up on this responsibility by blaming the past experiences or circumstances. We still owe it to ourselves to own this responsibility. It is up to us to find meaning and purpose to our lives. We should not give up on this responsibility.

One of the nuances that I realized with my learning with stoicism is that our emotions are not under our control. We will still get angry or frustrated, but with practice, we will be able to use these emotions to guide us to a virtuous reaction.

The early stoics were big admirers of Socrates. When faced with an adversity, they would ask “what would Socrates do in this situation?” Following second order cybernetics, we should instead ask, “what would the best version of ME do in this situation?” Our task is to understand how we understand and improve how we improve. There is no point in giving this task to someone else.

If you are interested in Stoicism, you might like:

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Phenomenology of Informationally Closed Beings: