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The Systems Bible: The Beginner's Guide to Systems Large and Small: Being the Third Edition of Systemantics

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  536 ratings  ·  63 reviews
Hardcover published by Quadragle/The New York Times Book Co., third printing, August 1977, copyright 1975.
Hardcover, 314 pages
Published January 1st 2002 by General Systemantics Press (first published 1977)
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Jul 27, 2013 rated it did not like it
I think what this book demonstrates is that a certain kind of common sense isn't sense at all, but rather a cynical tyranny of half-truths. It is disingenuous, in that it attempts to borrow the prestige of technical language exactly while also writing in a register of humor, so that any attempt to see past it would provoke the guard reflect of not being in on the joke. Another frequently-used convention is to use upper-case words to make conceptual entities seem justified, well-known, and ...more
Sep 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Some parts systems theory, some parts psychology. Author has a quirky writing style and a consistent dry sense of humor which I enjoyed, but can't see it being everyone's liking.

This book reads like as if a shaman were educating you about complex systems. Very pithy, but also can come across as not rigorous enough.

I wish the author had tackled more systems post-failure scenarios and how to deal with messes, and I would be happy to add that 5th star. Author briefly touches system resiliency, but
Apr 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It's a one of a kind book -- it's the System as idiot blind Azathoth, piping a monotonous tune on a flute at the center of the Universe. It's the System at two in the morning, faking a human voice, blithely informing you there is no emergency and you have always been on fire. It's the System you created that tells you it's going to take your face to make its customers feel more comfortable.

It's a book that tells you every program that you write will have bugs, every company you work for will
Dec 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: complexity
A simple and brilliant work that you'll probably misunderstand.

Gall, with wit and concision, advocates an attitude and mindset of deep humility and skepticism when dealing with systems. The problem is that this book really is the Tao of Systems Thinking. To receive its wisdom and recognize its profound depth, to grasp even the need for systems-skepticism, the reader should expect to meditate on these aphorisms for days, months or even years. As an intro to systems thinking, its not very good or
Dec 26, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: engineering
A cross between Dilbert, Dao De Jing and Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents. Large technological and social systems lose track of their original purpose and turn self-serving; they do not function as designed because their creators forgot Le Chatelier's principle and were unaware of various feedback loops. The process of observing the systems changes them. Passive safety is better than active safety; when used mindlessly, safety devices and procedures themselves become safety hazards.

The examples
Otto Lehto
May 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Do not take this book very seriously. It is a quirky little comedy essay about General Systems Theory. There is really nothing to compare it to, so I really have no idea how to rate it...

Although it lacks any kind of scientific rigour or empirical accuracy, it does a pretty good job of explaining the basics of how (complex) systems work. It does so in a surreptitious way by simplifying the science behind systems theory and complexity theory into pithy slogans and anecdotes. (This is bad
Phil Eaton
Mar 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Douglas Adams writes a book on complexity and failure.

In the top two books I've read in the last five years.
John Fultz
Aug 01, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What a very odd book. The voice is incredibly serious, yet often with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The style reminds me a bit of The Dilbert Principle, but with less overt humor and more "wink-wink-nudge-nudge, but no, this is really serious".

Also, it's an old book, and it shows through the examples and footnotes. Many of them date to the 60s and the 70s. Although this printing was released in 2012, there's a lot of the previous decades leaking through.

All of that having been said, the
Eric Franklin
Feb 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absurd, hilarious, and useful, this is a complete and creative toolkit for understanding and interacting with systems. Replete with humorous examples and rife with overt cynicism, a timeless representation of human futility for engaging with our own creations.
Mark Sanchez
Jun 05, 2016 rated it did not like it
Funny at times, but I'm not sure there was actually much I could take away from it. I did like the use of very short chapters.
Nov 20, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
tries unsuccessfully to be flip and not very insightful, but its a quick read with an interesting of mind tickling maxims.
Oct 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I read the book in one sitting on a Friday when I was taking a break from working on some annoying distributed systems issues. It speaks to the timelessness of Systems problems that a book that was first published in 1975 can have such an impact even today. There have been many Systems Theory books since this one and I had just read John Miller's "A crude Look at the whole" and expected more of the same treatment. Boy, was I surprised!? The book is broken into very small chapters that ...more
Alexander Yakushev
Mar 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
However satirical, this book presents hard questions and no easy answers. It is a very humbling experience that makes you rethink your approach to solving problems (and whether what you do solves them at all).
Ulas Tuerkmen
Oct 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Things are not working, that much we agree about. For me, these 'things' are mostly software systems which drive me closer to the edge of insanity the more I work with them, and for the author of this book it's mostly human organizations. The arguments of the book are supposed to apply to all systems, so we can ignore this minor difference. Who or what is to blame for this state of affairs? Or even better, how can we navigate it? The culprit, according to the author,is the systems that we see ...more
May 30, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book on a Saturday afternoon. Small book, amusing writing, easy to follow.

This book was published in 1975. Don't be surprised if some of the examples, and some of the language, is somewhat dated.

The author attempts to be both amusing and academic in his approach. I find most academic writing to be dry and overly intellectual. While the intellectual aspects of this book annoyed me to some degree (otherwise it would have 5 stars) the humor does shine through.

What are the common
Nathan Glenn
Nov 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Not what I expected, but still very relevant. I expected something very academic and mathematical. The author claimed many times that his principles were "axioms", and that they were pristinely mathematical in nature and all self evident. This was a rather annoying claim, since the book was not mathematical at all, nor were the axioms necessarily self-evident (though good supporting examples were provided). Despite this, it all still rings perfectly true. A system can be a blessing or a curse, ...more
Taylor Pearson
Feb 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: business, complexity
Complex systems are one of my favorite subjects and The Systems Bible is a great entry in the genre.

Simple systems are a sum of their parts: a bike is just a bunch of parts. If you take a wheel off and replace it with another, no big deal.

In a complex system, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you take the heart out of a horse and then replace it a few hours later, it doesn’t start working again like a bike. This does not mean we can’t understand complex systems, only that they
Feb 10, 2016 rated it liked it
"we humans tend to forget inconvenient facts, and if special notice is not taken of them, they simply fade away out of awareness", p. xx.

"The reader is hereby warned that any such optimism is the reader's own responsibility", p. xxi

"Error is our existential situation and that our successes are destined to be temporary and partial", p. xxv.

Efficiency Expert: Someone who thinks s/he knows what a given System is, or what it should be doing, and who therefore feels s/he is in a position to pass
George Anderson
Jun 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was first published in 1975 and has gone through several printings.
It is a serious book that sometimes masquerades its points with humor. The general theory supported in the book is that: "Systems in general work poorly or not at all". Two representative corollaries of this theory are: "Large systems usually operate in failure mode" and "The system tends to oppose its own proper function." The strength of the book is the examples of real world systems behaviour ranging from the
May 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I would like this book to be required reading for all high school or college students. It would help dispel the now unhealthy wide-spread blind faith in "systems." To paraphrase the author: A large system (Congress for example) never does what it says it does. Large systems have their own goals.

"The Systems Bible" is written for the layperson. It is very witty and full of usable wisdom.
Lou Cordero
Sep 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
The copy I read is subtitled "How systems work and especially how they fail". Wonderful easy read sheds light and humor on the development of complex systems. The impossibility of solving the problem correctly and completely. I recommend this book to anyone involved in the design of complex systems.
Sep 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
On the one hand, this book is an opinionated rant about how systems are unpredictable, unworkable and difficult to make work, cloaked in a (moderately clever) satire of a pretentiously-academic tone. I suspect he's sending up the confident systems-thinking texts of the era it was written in (70s). So not a lot of evidence, and his case studies are often more curmudgeonly than clearly representative. Also the way in which public-service departments fail to work feel a bit dated - computers have ...more
Steliyan Stoyanov
Jan 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is an absolute must-read for everyone building anything (be it IT professionals, any kind of engineers, etc). So many stories (and hopefully lessons learned) are listed in this book. Now that I am thinking of it, it's really interesting from a consumer point of view as well, because exactly the consumers are using a big number of systems. This book can just give a different perspective on those.

Personally, I really like the writing style of the author, he is not ridiculing or
Jan D
Jan 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
The book gives principles or rule of thumbs on the behavior of cybernetic systems (which can be almost anything: Companies, machines, nation states…).
The style is direct and dry and the assertions tend to be more cranked-up rather than careful; fittingly, what I called “rule of thumbs” is refereed to as “axioms” of system behavior.
The author gives many examples, mostly ones where things go wrong due to being unaware of the systems behavior pointed out in the rules. These examples are often
David Westerveld
Presented in a very humorous and entertaining way, this book is packed with ideas that make you stop and think.

Why don't things work the way you expect them to? Well, this book will tell you. It might seem discouraging to know that a "Complex System cannot be 'made' to work. It either work's or it doesn't," but when you think it about, it is easier to (principle 31) align your system with human motivational vectors, than to keep banging your head against fundamental systems laws.

And never
Deane Barker
Dec 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
This book infuriated me. I wanted a serious discussion of systems theory, but what I got was a Dilbert-esque attempt at comedy.

The book is incredibly hard to follow. I started off diligently trying to highlight stuff and make sense of it, but the writing is scattered, and is going for laughs most of the time. I gave up trying to treat it as a cogent discussion of anything.

Every once in a while, there's a centered statement in ALL CAPS, which meant to be a "principle of systemantics."

The only
Nov 07, 2019 rated it it was ok
A really weird book, I couldn’t gage how seriously it wanted me to take it. The general spirit the book is written in is easy to agree with; we should be cautious when interacting with, understanding, and designing systems. However, nothing about most of the individual rules feels profound. Many rules feel vague and arbitrary. The optimistically named “axioms” feel vulnerable to counterexamples.

The overall cynical view the book takes is disappointing, lacking substantial constructive advice to
Mack Clair
Jan 08, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: owned
A good read. The actual book as such lasts only for 193 pages; the remainder is spent on appendices containing bibliographies, indices, and expertise.

I wish the examples weren’t so dated. In the age of the internet, humans are more intimately involved in systems than ever and interact with systems of unprecedented complexity and size. As examples:
-We add privacy settings to our social media accounts because the information we added to the site negatively impacts our privacy.
-We live in the most
Aug 25, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This should be required reading for anyone contemplating stepping over the line from hobbyism into corporate America. 'A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.' should be a corollary to Fred Brooks' second system effect.

I think reading this book as if it is NOT satire makes it even funnier. Try it! It's a fun read, and doesn't take long to get through. Not sure how easy this book
Carlos Arias
Aug 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A bit pessimistic but brilliant nevertheless

I enjoy this refined manual on systems. The style sarcastic and provocative challenges your assumptions and keep you thinking. I found it a bit pessimistic because systems (not all of them!!!) are the foundation and the way societies reinvent themselves. I liked the image about that the parts of a plane fight the purpose of flying but in the right combination and the due maintenance they are able to fly! So are systems...
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John Gall (September 18, 1925 - December 15, 2014) was an American author and retired pediatrician. Gall is known for his 1975 book General systemantics: an essay on how systems work, and especially how they fail..., a critique of systems theory. One of the statements from this book has become known as Gall's law.

Gall started his studies in St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. He received
“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work.” 6 likes
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