Modeling Language Spotlight
Three Cat
March 16, 1997

Editor's Note: This model is easily the most profound and esoteric model in the entire modeling language. Its philosophical implications, implied by its feedback loops, challenge our current world view of how the universe works. This article, however keeps to the level of playing with the simpler ramifications of the model, leaving the larger questions for another time...

Like the other models of the MG Taylor Modeling Language, the Three Cat Model is protected by copyright. You can use it only by meeting these four conditions.


The Basic Model
The Three Cat model is a metaphor for information management in the act of creation. It may be easily played in a glass bead game with any number of other models, particularly the Seven Stages of the Creative Process.

On the simplest level, the model summarizes the acts of observing reality, forming a concept, and testing that concept by building a model to reveal our understanding. The model is then compared to reality for verification, the concept is adjusted, the model rebuilt, and so on.

Here are the definitions of the three components of the model.

glyph info Element Description
Real Cat The real cat stands for "objective" reality. Actually, we don't really ever see the real cat. Our senses gather signals from the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, fluctuations in air pressure that register on our ears as sound, and the electrochemical signals that result from physically touching an object. Because our information concerning real cat is most incomplete, there's always more to learn.
Concept Cat As we observe real cat, we create mental models to use as aids in decision making. We learn to associate current phenomenon with past occurrences of similar phenomenon. We make decisions based on projections of past behavior onto the current situation. Lacking any such direct associations, we are forced to invent.
Mechanical Cat In order to test our concept, we create physical models and compare them to the reality. The artist paints; the engineer builds scale models; the business person turns to planning software and spreadsheets; the writer composes stories.

 

Now, what about the connections between the three cats? There are two lines that connect any two cats. One line is a squiggle and the other has a triangle in the middle of it. The squiggle is the symbol for a resistor in electronics and refers to the attenuation of information traveling in that direction. So, for instance, the communication of information from Real Cat to Concept Cat is severely attenuated. The triangle is another symbol borrowed from electronics--an amplifier. The information running from Concept Cat back up to Real Cat is amplified. You don't have to be an electrical engineer, however, to understand what's going on. Imagine that you're an artist about to draw a cat. When you look at the cat, do you transfer everything there is to see about the cat into your mental concept? No. In fact, you throw away nearly all of the potential information that you can perceive--99% is a conservative estimate. Instead, you concentrate on the way the back curves or the spacing and shape of the eyes. Even when the painting is done, and even if it's done in a photographic style, you will have only captured a tiny fraction of all that is there to be seen. The point of art--whether its painting or the art of managing an enterprise--is to be aware of what you're choosing to keep, and what you're throwing away. Then the challenge is to shape what's left into a whole that conveys whatever message you wish.

But what about the amplification in the model? Take a look at the amplification line leading from Mechanical Cat back to Real Cat. Imagine that you've drawn a line on your paper that represents the curve of the cat's back. Someone happens to walk by, and glancing at your drawing in progress asks, "what's that?" You explain that the line represents the curve of the cat's back. Your explanation is an amplification of the mechanical drawing you've done, so that it can be properly related to the reality is represents. In business, spreadsheets are accompanied by memos explaining various terms and abbreviations (not to mention the results). All mechanicals--all physical or tangible models require explanation when they are related back to the reality they represent. Sometimes the explanation is built into the culture and remains hidden, other times it must be more clearly stated.

Summary of the Connections
Real Cat-Concept Cat
ATTENUATION
This has been covered in the discussion above. Information flowing from reality is severely attenuated as it takes shape in our mental models. The methodology used for determining what to throw away and what to keep is addressed in the 'Spoze model.

AMPLIFICATION
This is usually an unconscious act. Our concept of cat, for example, probably includes only a few basic features--the ones most everyone can draw--the triangular ears, curve of the mouth, the oval pupils. We don't need to "download" all information about all cats in the universe to build a good enough mental model that lets us distinguish cats from other kinds of animals. In order to learn more about cats, however, we must translate our mental symbology back up to reality by amplification. Here's an example.

Many people don't realize that cats don't walk on their hind feet. Instead, they walk on their toes. What we think is the cat's leg extending below it's body is mostly foot, ankle and lower leg. The upper leg is hidden in the mass of the animal's body. In order to correct this deficiency of understanding, most people must consciously amplify the simple stick leg they are used to drawing to represent the cat's back leg and begin to compare it with what's really going on in the cat's anatomy. Instead, many inexperienced artists get caught drawing and redrawing the same mistakes because they are unaware of the mismatch between their concept and the reality. Even looking at the real cat doesn't seem to help. Their concept must be revealed or made plain and amplified in the mind of the student before the mistake can be realized and corrected.

Concept Cat-Mechanical Cat
ATTENUATION
Despite the limited scope of our concepts, they are vastly more complex than the models we can make from them. No matter how hard we try, no tangible model that we make ever exhibits all of the features that we can imagine incorporating. At some point we have to stop. Knowing what to leave in and what to throw out is most of the game.

AMPLIFICATION
Our models nearly always require explanation. We find ourselves constantly reminding ourselves that "the number in this cell corresponds to this feature". Documentation and technical journals are created to correct this problem, but really the only answer for it is collaboration among designers.

Mechanical Cat-Real Cat
ATTENUATION
The purpose of building a model is not to replicate reality. We've already seen that the laws of successive attenuation in the model prohibit such a purpose from succeeding. Therefore, it is useless to require such impossible fidelity. The characteristics and infinite detail of the Real Cat are captured only in aggregate by the model. Nevertheless, it is possible for the model to prove its fidelity with Real Cat behavior at this aggregate level. For example, we might expect a painting to present us with the essence of a real cat, but not the behavior of the cat over time. The artist chose a static medium to prove her concept. There' s no point in asking why it doesn't show the cat in the process of running. Likewise, business models will be based upon a great many assumptions of the aggregate behavior of components of the real business, or, in the case of agent-based emergent systems simulations, on assumptions for the rules of behavior of individual agents in the enterprise.

AMPLIFICATION
This was discussed in the text above. Because our models are comprised of so much less information than was contained in either the Real Cat or the Concept Cat, some portions of the model will probably have to be translated, and portions of the reality will be missing entirely. These omissions often require explanations.

 

The Uses and Abuses of Two-Catting
The model works great when it's employed with attention, craft and discipline. There are some practices that must be watched for and employed with care: they have the potential for both great value and danger. These occur most often when one of the cats is removed from the iterative process. Because there are three cats in the model, there are three possible combinations of two-catting. I'll look at them in turn.

Real Cat-Concept Cat
GREATEST VALUE
Often we need to learn the art of observation. In business it may take the form of "management by walking around." Sometimes our lack of skill in building mechanical models hampers our ability to translate features from the Real Cat down into our concept. In these cases, some focused interaction between only your mental concept of something and the object itself can help establish a good mental model. This is also a way to develop "gut feelings" that can tend to pan out well in certain circumstances.

GREATEST DANGER
This kind of two-catting allows all sorts of unsubstantiated assumptions and errors to accumulate. A non-geologist can look at an outcrop of rock and develop some mental model about how it got to be the way it is, but the concept will likely be based on incorrect assumptions. Since the observer is under no obligation to prove the model by putting the assumptions on paper and then testing them against a different outcrop, there's little chance of ever being set straight.

Concept Cat-Mechanical Cat
GREATEST VALUE
Sometimes it's good to just do a core dump and tweak a model. Sometimes it's too expensive to return to the "real cat" over and over again to improve the concept, and data must be collected in the initial stages, brought back from the field, and worked into a model in isolation of the thing being modeled. [Note that if the data is collected physically, then that represents building a mechanical cat.] This is also a great tool for building a working model of your assumptions. Such a model can be used diagnostically to discover any holes, inconsistencies or errors in your concept.

GREATEST DANGER
Without any reference to reality, it's easy to build up a sort of nonsense, fantasy world. In extreme cases, it's possible to believe that the Concept Cat IS the Real Cat. We all suffer this at one time or another, and it plagues civilization in general. Stereotypes, prejudices, a sense of personal limitation, and fear all result from this closed loop behavior between what we think the world is like and our documentation of these personal beliefs. Pseudoscience falls in this category of two-catting.

Mechanical Cat-Real Cat
GREATEST VALUE
Once we believe something about reality--once we have a firmly established concept or mental model--it can be very hard to uproot and change. Eliminating Concept Cat from the equation can be useful in these circumstances. But it's difficult. One technique is suspending judgment when testing a model with reality--especially a priori judgment.

GREATEST DANGER
Without engaging Concept Cat, we don't learn. Many of us have had jobs that required only a mindless comparison of figures on reports (Mechanical Cat) to items in an inventory (Real Cat). No thinking involved. No growth potential.

 

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