A Ball Of Blue Flame

English: 42, The Answer to the Ultimate Questi...

I didn’t speak before now about my last exam. The thing is, I’m really not sure how I did.

It felt good. I left the exam hall exhausted, elated, as if I’d given my all.

I just wish I could be sure that my all is the all they wanted.

I have no complaints about the paper. Couldn’t really have been better from my point of view. I was able to avoid the cost analysis question I dearly wanted not to do. It wasn’t a hard one; basically it’s just a sum. The problem was those two words – “cost analysis”. I had to stay alert through a whole exam, and just looking at them makes my eyelids droop.

The systems theory question on the other hand was all too exciting. Yes, seriously. It involved concepts that have interested me for a long time. Visualising the world not as discrete objects but in terms of interacting systems, flows of activity and information. Emergent phenomena – how all the complexity and wonder of life arises out of apparently simple chemistry, or indeed solid matter out of ephemeral probability. The danger with this was that I could easily blow the entire two and a half hours if I got hooked on a wild-eyed Idea.

So I began with the case study question, which retrod a lot of ground we’d covered in our projects. This made it easier, but had the downside that my head was preloaded with too many things I could say. And I think I said too many of them, because I spent over an hour on that one.

Thankfully, next was what’s known as a decision table. These distil a complex decision-making process into a simple table you can look up. You might – as in the example – be a college book shop trying to decide whether to keep some old titles in stock or return them to the publisher. There are a bunch of factors involved, how do you decide? Well here the table shows that if, for example, an edition is no longer current. but has been requested by staff, then the correct response is to keep it. Simplicissimo.

Condition USER RULES
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Edition Is Still Current N N N Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Old Edition Requested By Academic Staff N N Y
Any Copies Sold In Last 3 Months N N Y Y Y Y Y
More Than 15% Of Stock Sold In Last 3 Months N N Y Y Y
More Than 20% Of Stock Sold By Mid-Semester Y N N
Sales Manager Believes Book Will Still Sell N Y N Y N Y N Y
Return Remaining Stock X X X
Consider Returning 75% of Remaining Stock X
Keep Remaining Stock X X X X X X

Why is the table so small? Having six conditions, each with two possible values – Yes and No – you’d think it would need (2x2x2x2x2x2=) 64 columns instead of 10. The trick is that some conditions make others redundant. Look at what happens if the Sales Manager decides a book will still sell. Their word goes, making all other considerations moot. By examining the logic in this way you can reduce the table to its essentials.

The problem then is making sure you’ve done it right. Do the rules really cover all possible situations? Could two different, contradictory actions be invoked by the same set of conditions? That latter is particularly significant because tables like these form the basis of computer programs, and when a computer is stuck between two conflicting responses it explodes.


Examining a table for logical consistency sounds scary, but when you boil it down it’s a puzzle not unlike a Sudoku. Having practised, I’d got the knack of solving them visually. Well, simple ones… That saved time which by now I badly needed. I’d left myself barely more than half an hour for all the theory. Things were now officially intense.

So I don’t recall clearly what I wrote… I do know though that somehow I got stuck on aspects of systems theory that bug me. Couldn’t I write a happy answer about the many aspects that I think are cool and interesting? No, apparently I can’t do that.

Really it was one particular lecture slide I was hung up on. This had compared science to the systems approach, contrasting them as analytical versus holistic, qualitative versus quantitative, so on. In other words presenting the systems approach as a counterbalance, even an alternative, to science. That struck me as just wrong; overshooting the holistic and heading into homoeopathic country. Or “needlessly messianic”, as I described it. (Which incidentally was the second entirely pointless Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy reference I found myself slipping into these exams.)

In particular it described science as “reductionist”, which to me is to misunderstand it completely. Sure, science takes things apart and examines the components. But it doesn’t do that to understand the components; rather the objective is to see how they all work together – as a system. As a whole.

Holism is right there in science. To claim otherwise is to traduce humanity’s most important philosophical tool for one’s own obscure – or obscurantist – motives.

OK I didn’t say that last sentence, thank God. I was having a bit of a head rush but I still knew better than to condemn the subject I was being examined in as an evil conspiracy. I’m not doing English lit any more. And I don’t think that of course. What I hope I managed to convey is that I find systems theory attractive, but at the same time worry that this very attractiveness may make it dangerous. Is it a useful way of looking at the world, or a friend to fuzzy thinking? Well, I’m not sure – but I want it to be useful.

Maybe my suspicions were refreshing, maybe I’ll be marked down for insufficient imbibing of the Kool-Aid. In short, yet again I am certain that I either (a) did a really good exam or (b) plunged off the cliff in a ball of blue flame. One or the other.

At least it’s not dull.