Course Handout - The Basic Laws of Life and Complex Systems

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First published online 16:16 BST 1st May 2001, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [2.0 - copyright] 09:00 BST 4th July 2018.


1 - Digest of the Recognised Basic Laws of Life

         Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety: A systems law which states in essence that a control system always has to be more complicated than the system it is controlling. [In fact, this is one of nature's most inconvenient laws, being responsible for many, if not all, human disasters. See our e-paper on "Systems Thinking" for the full explanation.]

         Finagle's Law: This law comes from the science fiction writer Larry Niven, and states that if something can go wrong it will go wrong. The University of Karlsruhe point out that there is no greater proof of the fundamental validity of this law than the fact that it is usually incorrectly cited as Murphy's Law (see below).

"Skin cancer can be caused by two types of ultraviolet light, the short, energetic wavelengths of light in the sun's rays. One is UVA, which penetrates the skin most deeply and can suppress the immune system and damage cells. The other is UVB, which also damages skin cells. The 'factor' rating on a bottle of lotion refers to the level of protection against UVB, historically considered the greater danger. A little known one to four star system - normally printed on the back of bottles - indicates the level of protection against UVA. Experts now believe UVA may be a greater cause of malignant melanoma [and] since the use of sunscreens encourages people to stay longer in the sun and the protection afforded by these creams against UVB far outweighs that against UVA, the use of sunscreen creams may indirectly increase the risk of developing the skin cancer." (The Daily Mail, 29th September 2003; reporting on a Mount Vernon Hospital study by Professor Roy Sanders; emphasis added) [See full press release]

         Gall's Fifth Axiom: This law also comes from "Systemantics", and states that the total behaviour of large systems cannot be predicted.

"Britain's railways absorbed a record amount of public subsidy last year but almost one in five trains continue to run late. [.....] The subsidy for each mile travelled by a passenger - a key measure of rail expenditure - increased by 50 per cent in the last year, from 5.3p to 8p. Yet 18.8 per cent of trains were delayed." (The Times, 26th June 2004.)

         Gall's 12th Axiom: This law also comes from "Systemantics", and states that a complex system cannot be made to work - it either does or it doesn't.

         Gall's 15th Axiom: This law also comes from "Systemantics", and states that a complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works.

         Gall's 16th Axiom: This law also comes from "Systemantics", and states that a complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work.

         Gall's 28th Axiom: This law also comes from "Systemantics", and states that when a fail safe system fails, it fails by failing to fail safe.

         Jenkins' Law: This law comes from the social and political commentator Simon Jenkins, and states that "any outfit moving into a splendid new headquarters is heading for the rocks" (The Times, 6th February 2004). The law is richly supported by caselore, not least the fact that London's crime rate "soared" the moment Scotland Yard relocated to a glass tower full of computer screens.

         Le Chatelier's Principle: This law comes from the French chemist Henri Louis Le Chatelier (1850-1936), student of the laws of chemical equilibrium, and proposes in effect that systems tend to oppose their own proper function. Disturb one state of equilibrium, in other words, and the system will settle down in another. [Original statement in French.]

         Murphy's Law: This law comes from the engineer Edward A. Murphy in 1949, and states that if there are two ways of doing something, and one will result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it that way (which is why your bread always lands butter side down).

         Parkinson's Law: This law comes from the economist C. Northcote Parkinson, and states that work expands to fill the time available.

         Parkinson's Law of Data: This law is an IT variant of Parkinson's Law proper, and states that data expands to fill the filestore available.

         Peter Principle: This law comes from the economist Laurence J. Peter, and states that in a hierarchically structured organisation people tend to be promoted to the level at which they are first able to demonstrate their incompetence. [Compare the Seventh Law of Computer Programming and Smith's Fifth Law in Section 3.]

Case: In a 26th July 2004 article, Phillips drew heavily on the case of the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, London, [picture], reflecting gloomily that this celebratory monument was more often closed than open, and was rapidly becoming an international laughing stock. The main problems were (a) that it had been sited under trees but left unprotected against blockage by leaves, and (b) that it was intended to be paddled in by children yet made of treacherous-when-wet polished granite. Citing then a number of similar civil engineering faux pas, including London's dangerous-to-walk-across Millennium Bridge [picture], she concluded that these projects were all "triumphs of style over substance" and metaphors for "political ineptitude and broader national decline" (The Daily Mail, 26th July 2004).

         Sod's Law: This is standard (and not entirely polite) English idiom, and is simply a variant of Finagle's Law.

2 - The Laws of Computer Programming

Here are three of the laws of computer programming [source] .....

         First Law of Computer Programming: Any given program, when running, is obsolete.

         Fifth Law of Computer Programming: Any given program will expand to fill all available memory. [Compare Parkinson's Law of Data, above.]

3 - Some Light-Hearted Suggestions of Our Own

"This guy was a Walter Mitty." So span Tom Kelly, Downing Street spokesman, early August 2003, describing Dr. David Kelly, scientific advisor on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction until his suicide on 18th July 2003. When this clear attempt to belittle in advance Dr Kelly's testimony on the "Dodgy Dossier" affair was made public on 5th August 2003 - the day before Dr Kelly's funeral - Tom Kelly was obliged to eat very humble pie very quickly and very publicly. Nevertheless, the fact that this breathtaking gaffe came just after the Government press machine had been instructed to stop spinning against Dr Kelly is prima facie evidence of the validity of our First Law. A week later, we were hearing that Dr Kelly was in fact "the UK expert on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction", with more than 35 visits to Iraq under his belt (The Daily Mail, 12th August 2003).

The London congestion charging scheme was introduced on 17th February 2003 and charges motorists 5 a car for entering Central London. In the period to 3rd August 2003, 441,000 penalty notices were sent out, only half of which have been paid. This, coupled with the fact that about a fifth of drivers have abandoned their cars in favour of public transport has caused a serious shortfall for the IT contractor involved, which has been bailed out with 31 million out of the public purse. Persons suffering from Livingstone's Syndrome have also been known to pass on a related condition known as "contractor's lip", an uncontrollable rictus which can all too easily be mistaken for a self-satisfied smirk, and for which there is no known treatment.

The first of the stealth taxes. On 7th June 1998, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Tony Blair based a spirited defence of his university tuition fees policy on the facility to take these "by way of a loan that will be repayable only when people are earning at least 10,000 a year after leaving university". This was utter tripe, for the loan system covered (and still covers) maintenance costs only, not fees. This convenient Prime Ministerial error was set right the following week by an alert readership, but the man himself has yet to apologise for not knowing his own policy, and for introducing the first of the stealth taxes on the back of what to all intents and purposes was nothing less than a victory for breeze over understanding.

"Breast cancer patients are actually waiting longer for treatment since the Government introduced targets, it has emerged. [.....] Despite the extra billions spent on the NHS, cancer experts say patients are being pushed from one hospital queue to another." (The Daily Mail, 30th July 2003, reporting on a King's College London study led by Dr. David Robinson [Press Release].)

"Waiting targets have created a counter productive system in which seriously ill patients are not given priority treatment [because] experienced consultants have to focus on patients with relatively trivial conditions to clear backlogs." (The Daily Mail, 30th July 2003, reporting on a British Medical Association survey.)

"Giving girls under 16 contraceptives has been shown to raise the number of underage pregnancies. This is because the policy appears to encourage teenagers to have sex ....." (The Daily Mail, 5th March 2002, reporting on a Nottingham University Business School study).

"Literacy hour is 'destroying our children's love of books'. [.....] Studies show that the highly structured daily literacy hour may have driven up reading ability, but has sent the 'enjoyment factor' tumbling." (The Daily Mail, 3rd December 2003, reporting on a National Foundation for Educational Research study by Dr Marian Sainsbury. [Read the official NFER Briefing].) "More than 1 billion poured into the Government's computer revolution in schools would have been better spent on books, [because] spending on information and communication technology (ICT) has an 'insignificant' effect on pupils' performance in more than 500 secondary schools studied." (The Daily Mail, 25th October 2003, reporting on a study by researchers at the Open University and Staffordshire University)

"Since the abolition of the 192 [directory enquiry] service almost a year ago, calls to directory enquiries have fallen by three million a week and confusion about the different prices of the new 118 numbers has escalated. [.....] Jenni Conti, principal researcher at Which?, the Consumers' Association magazine, said: "'It is all very disappointing. The whole premise was that introducing competition would drive prices down but it has not done that. Liberalisation has led to more expensive services and less well informed customers .....'" (The Times, 23rd August 2004.)

Case: On 27th October 2003, David Blunkett announced, as part of a "get tough" reform package, that asylum seekers who tear up their passports on the way to Britain could be jailed for up to two years [the specific idiocy here being that no record is kept of the passport presented when you get onto an aircraft to prove who you are when you get off it]. By the end of the following month, however, it was beginning to dawn on airlines that they would have to add a couple of hours to all check-in times just to get the additional photocopying done. UPDATE: This a year later by way of further support: "Emergency powers to detain foreign internationals indefinitely without trial - introduced by former Home Secretary David Blunkett three years ago - could be ripped up after nine Law Lords decided they contravened human rights laws" (The Daily Mail, 17th December 2004).

         Smith's Fifth Law: This is the systems variant of the Seventh Law of Programming (above), and states that systems controllers are naturally promoted until they find themselves in charge of a system whose inherent complexity they can never grasp.

Case: See any of the cases of unmitigated roguery listed in Sections 3.7 and 3.8 of our e-paper on "Systems Thinking".

4 - References

See the Master References List