The Systems Bible: The Beginner's Guide to Systems Large and Small

Category: Humor
Author: John Gall
This Month Hacker News 1


by bradgessler   2022-03-10
I just redefined technology as “something made by humans that barely works”

If you look at the stacks we build everything on top of, it’s insanely brittle and barely works. We simply lie to ourselves that it’s otherwise so we can get out of bed in the morning actually ship something that’s useful to another human being.

If you don’t believe me, look at the organization or source code behind the black box you’ve built everything on. By some miracle it works, but barely.

I’ve found the best book that describes this is “The Systems Bible” —

You’ll chuckle as you read it and learn to embrace the miracle that anything works.

by bradgessler   2022-02-21
I’ve developed a heuristic where anytime I hear phrases like “affordable housing”, “make college affordable”, “affordable healthcare” I simply translate it to “unaffordable”.

Inevitably when these become government programs, they simply throw money at the problem without addressing fundamental supply and demand issues and accomplish very little except drive up prices. Then, when investors see prices going up and to the left, they rationally throw money at it in a way to make even more money, which drives up prices even more.

There’s so many charts like] that beautifully articulates this phenomenon in a way that applies to government policy, software systems, management, org structures, or any complex system of people or machines.

by smacktoward   2019-03-24
Any HN reader who has not read Gall's book Systemantics (whose latest printing is under the title The Systems Bible: really ought to rectify that. It's not perfect, but it will give you lots of things to think about, and Gall's witty writing style makes it a fun, easy read.

(I pulled my copy out just a few weeks ago so I could quote a different Gallism that was relevant to an HN discussion:

by smacktoward   2019-01-26
I've read it, and own a copy. It's very good. There are bits you can argue with, and some of the examples used (like the one cited here) are a little too just-so, but it is absolutely a book that will make you think. And it's funny too, which is nice.

(If you want to pick it up, be aware that in its most current printing the title changed from Systemantics to The Systems Bible:

by smacktoward   2019-01-11
The classic (and hilarious) book The Systems Bible ( has some deliciously tart words on this subject:

We present the Fundamental Law of Administrative Workings (F.L.A.W.): THINGS ARE WHAT THEY ARE REPORTED TO BE...

The net effect of this Law is to ensure that people in Systems are never dealing with the real world that the rest of us have to live in, but instead with a filtered, distorted, and censored version which is all that can get past the sensory organisms of the System itself...

This effect has been studied in detail by a small group of dedicated General Systemanticists. In an effort to introduce quantitative methodology into this important area of research they have paid particular attention to the amount of information that reaches, or fails to reach, the attention of the relevant administrative officer or corresponding Control Unit.

The crucial variable, they have found, is the fraction Ro/Rs, where Ro represents the amount of Reality which fails to reach the Control Unit, and Rs equals the total amount of Reality presented to the System. The fraction Ro/Rs varies from zero (full awareness of outside reality) to unity (no reality getting through). It is known, naturally enough, as the COEFFICIENT OF FICTION.

by ekke   2018-10-24
This is fascinating. For anyone interested in a slightly odd but unique and in-depth view of Systems design and failure, would like to recommend "The Systems Bible: The Beginner's Guide to Systems Large and Small" by John Gall.

by chubot   2017-10-05
Yeah that quote definitely crossed my mind. However I think the OP is confusing ideas vs. systems:

The next big idea invariably seems to grow out of the next small idea; ideas that are big from the beginning almost never work.

That doesn't really make sense with respect to ideas. The real quote is about SYSTEMS, from this book:

The system is the realization of the idea. You can have a big idea, but you can't implement it all at once. TBL had a big idea, which is necessarily a big system. So he grew it from a very small piece of code (HTTP 1.0 was ridiculously simple.) There was an unbroken chain from small system to big system.

The misleading thing about Linux is that it IS IN FACT a big idea -- it's just not a technological idea. We already knew how to write monolithic kernels. But the real innovation is the software development process. The fact that thousands of programmers can ship a working kernel with little coordination is amazing. That Linus wrote git is not an accident; he's an expert in software collaboration and evolution.

Linux is a universal hardware abstraction layer, which is an easy idea in theory, but extremely difficult in practice until Linus figured out how to make it work.

So Linux is a big idea too, as well as a small system that grew into a big system.


This reminds me of Paul Graham's advice:

Let me conclude with some tactical advice. If you want to take on a problem as big as the ones I've discussed, don't make a direct frontal attack on it. Don't say, for example, that you're going to replace email. If you do that you raise too many expectations. Your employees and investors will constantly be asking "are we there yet?" and you'll have an army of haters waiting to see you fail. Just say you're building todo-list software. That sounds harmless.

Empirically, the way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things. Want to dominate microcomputer software? Start by writing a Basic interpreter for a machine with a few thousand users. Want to make the universal web site? Start by building a site for Harvard undergrads to stalk one another.

I think that's pretty much in line with what's said here. You can have a big idea, a big 10 year goal, but you have to break in into steps. Gates had an explicit goal of "a PC on every desk" and Zuckerberg had an explicit goal of "connecting the world" (at some point, not at the very beginning). But they necessarily started small.