Thinking in Systems

 Donella H. Meadows
“So, what is a system? A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. 

A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.

There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion.

We know a tremendous amount about how the world works, but not nearly enough. Our knowledge is amazing; our ignorance even more so… 

You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. Purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals.

Missing information flows is one of the most common causes of system malfunction. Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention, usually much easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical infrastructure. 

Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own.

Thou shalt not distort, delay, or withhold information.”

― Donella H. Meadows, 

Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Donella H. Meadows (March 13, 1941 – February 20, 2001) was a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher, and writer. She is best known as lead author of the influential book “The Limits to Growth” and “Thinking in Systems: a Primer”

( from the excellent: )

Why do birds suddenly* appear…

…to flock?

Google ‘why do starlings flock’.

Actually, I’m being a little unfair, as I haven’t provided you with any ‘starter’ reading. Try these:

And here is the famous Boids simulation developed by Craig Reynolds:


Then we can have a discussion about what constitutes an explanation. For you. For scientists. For others…


*Regrettably, it isn’t because, 

“They want to be

Close to you.”

Why I love my possessions as a mirror and a gallery of me | Aeon Essays

“Were I to live without my stuff, I’d have the same intellect, the same memories, values and beliefs that I hold now; but, without objects anchoring me and providing pleasure, I fear I’d fly off the face of the Earth. I know I’d be a miserable version of that self, endlessly muttering: ‘I used to have one of those.’ As Belk reminds us, people entering the military, religious orders, concentration camps, prisons and other institutions have their personal possessions removed immediately, to eliminate their uniqueness.

Shorn of my possessions, I would still be me. But, I suspect, not for long.”

Go read it.

The Evolution of Cooperation

​The Evolution of Cooperation, is, if I recall correctly a book by Robert Axelrod, or his brother. It uses game theory to explain how a strategy called ‘forgiving tit for tat’ conquers all others.

And here it is, in a cat video.

A&E for Mail

What happens at A&E?  Triage. Can we do triage on email? Yes. What would it consist of? Let’s see.

OK, two scenarios, which together remind me of Richard Pryor’s awesome and charming ‘Black people and snakes’ routine

(some details, but no video, shame at


Scenario A : an office, somewhere

Somebody in your office, in a meeting with some other people cuts their hand really badly with the blunt disposable craft knife (that has been kicking around in an a plastic toolbox known as ‘The Box Of Meeting Stuff’), as they are trimming some flipchart paper down to quarter size for an activity. Lots of blood. Scenes of mild panic as the movie classification people say. OMG, OMG! Hold on don’t panic! Where’s the first aid box. I don’t know, do we have one? YES, its a legal requirement! Well, I don’t know, where’s Dave (the boss) He’s in a meeting. Ask Gladys! She’s on her lunch break.. Meanwhile Gary is bleeding out, you wouldn’t mind so much but it’s all over YOUR laptop keyboard…

Scenario B: your local hospital, A&E

What’s this? Yes that looks quite naughty, hold it over your head. To slow down the bleeding. Put this round it (hands wad of tissue to victim), hold it tight.

Things to remember…

…when you’re really really really busy and up against a deadline and let’s face it in a bit of a flap, way behind and there’s a thing you cannot delay or change at all and its really really important, and an email arrives…

  1. Pause
  2. Deep breath in, holddd, exhale slo w w l y and repeat
  3. Now actually read it slo w w l y
  4. Then think, think for a few moments
  5. Then respond.

Thank you, I’m here all week.

File under: we wouldn’t have to teach grandad to suck eggs if he didn’t keep doing it wrong