Reflections on the rules

Home Design Build Race Links Reports Other Topics


I've always been fascinated by formal systems, which is why I guess I'm comfortable with "higher maths". What interests me most, however, is not admiring them as objects of beauty and mystery, but using and applying them to everyday problems. A body of rules is a formal system just like mathematics, and there are some important discoveries about mathematical systems that apply to a body of rules. Close by the mathematicians are linguists, psychologists, sociologists, computer scientists, and philosophers who are struggling with problems to do with the meaning of words and the nature of knowledge and understanding; their findings also apply to a body of rules. And finally we have the engineers whose expertise, we hope, lies in making things which work. They might have some insights into the problem of making rules that work.

So what do we have? It is quite a radical change from the way most people think about things like rules. We're going to focus on the racing rules of sailing (RRS), and also include the IOM class rules.

1 The nature of rules

Always incomplete & inconsistent

The first issue is about the completeness and consistency of any formal system. It is in principle not possible to write a body of rules that are complete, self-contained, and self-explanatory. This comes from Godel and his famous "Incompleteness theorem". Paraphrased, it says that a formal system, such as a set of rules, is always incomplete -- there are always questions and issues that the rules cannot decide. Paraphrased again, it is impossible to write a "perfect" rule. This is "impossible" as in "impossible both in principle and in practice", not merely "impossible in practice" which is what most people think. No amount of careful thinking, no amount of agonising over the right word to use, no amount of editing or re-arranging, no amount of consulting and consideration will yield a "perfect" rule. What these things do is take a rule from being "95% good" to being "99% good". They are, of course, worth doing, because we get a better rule; but doing them cannot yield a "100% perfect" rule.

Although a rule-maker could write at length about the why's and wherefore's of his rules (look at all the RRS books we have), there will always still be situations and issues that are unexpected and unanticipated (look at all the arguments about the RRS). That is "always" as in "always no matter how hard you try", not "always 'cos you didn't try hard enough" which is again what most people think. The unanticipated and the unexpected will always cause situations that are not covered by the rules. Hence, the unanticipated and the unexpected will also cause situations that fall outside the rules and their intentions. Because of the unexpected and unanticipated, a body of rules is always evolving and always incomplete.

Always socially constructed

The second issue is about the meaning of words. The best place to start is with a long but deep quotation from Shotter (Conversational Realities, 1993):

    [We can no longer take it] for granted that we understand another person [...] simply by grasping the inner ideas they have supposedly put into their words. [...] Most of the time [...] we do not fully understand what the other person says. Indeed, in practice, shared understandings occur only occasionally [...]. [When shared understandings do occur] it is by people testing and checking each other's talk, by them questioning and challenging it, reformulating and elaborating it, and so on. For in practice, shared understanding are developed or negotiated between participants over a period of time, in the course of an ongoing conversation [...] But if people are not simply putting their ideas into words, what are they doing [?] Primarily, it seems, they are responding to each other [...] in an attempt to link their practical activities with those around them. [...] [I]t is from within the dynamic[s ...] of these actively constructed [conversations] that what is talked about gets its meaning. (p. 1, 2)

Shotter is making a number of vital points.

The words are not the meaning

First, words, in themselves, are either squiggles of ink on paper, or acoustic vibrations in the air. They have no intrinsic meaning. Think of trying to read hieroglyphics if you are not an ancient Egyptian, or Chinese if you are not Chinese. The "real" meaning of a word or rule is given by many things, and it turns out that the particular shapes of the squiggles -- the words themselves -- are the least of it:

  • the context in which the rule is invoked
  • the reader's general personal and cultural characteristics: their value system, attitudes, beliefs, and "world view"
  • the reader's particular views on and understanding of the role and point of these sorts of "rules" in general, and the intent and purpose of the particular rule in question
  • the reader's ambitions, motivations, and purposes
  • the society, culture, group, and frame in which the reader finds and defines himself
  • the way the reader understands others to have used and understood the particular rule in question, and these sorts of rules in general

In general, there seems little to be gained by the view that the meaning of a rule is given by the "plain" or "ordinary" (or any other flavour of the) meaning of its words, not only because of the considerations mentioned above, but because this does not help to induce consensus on what a rule might "really" or "actually" mean.

Always "interpreted"

The "understanding" that someone has of a rule, the "real meaning" that they attribute to a rule, is given by an act of interpretation, either consciously or unconsciously. We are talking here not of the "official interpretation" that might be given to a rule, but the every-day "interpretation" that we all give to the words we see and hear in order to make sense of them.

Most of the time, our interpretations of words are completely unconscious, and so it might seem strange to claim that, nevertheless, we are continuously interpreting words people use. We just read and understand. In addition, it seems that we have cognitive equipment which restricts our automatic, unconscious interpretations to just one outcome from many possibilities, and so we are not even aware that there were other possibilities, other interpretations, in the first place. This has been well-studied in cognitive psychology under the heading of visual illusions.

Their application always in a social context

"Interpretations" of rules and "determinations" of what they "really" mean do not generally arise in isolation, but are contextualised in time and place to the everyday business of using and applying them, and arise from a consensus in the actions of a group of interested parties. The point is that the "real" meaning of a rule is validly revealed in the use that is made of it, and is thus not free of issues of conformity, influence, power, and politics.


This about describes the rules of sailing for me. I can't grasp them just by reading them, and I don't fully understand them when I do. I get some understanding by conversing with others (talking and writing, but sometimes shouting on the pond-side!), by using them (making a protest, being a member of a Protest Committee), and by checking, questioning, and challenging, all over a period of time. The result is that both my understanding is shaped, and so is the understanding of the others involved in our activities. We have jointly constructed a (socially) agreed meaning to give to the words of the rules -- the "real" meaning of the rules is not contained within their words.

One of my favourite rules is RRS 53:

    Rule 53 Skin Friction

    A boat shall not eject or release a substance, such as a polymer, or have specially textured surfaces that could improve the character of the flow of water inside the boundary layer.

I guess most skippers know that this, the current version of RRS 53, was put into the rule book after Dennis Connor won the America's cup in 1986 with riblets. As far as I know, protests under RRS 53 are unheard of, because skippers "know" that the rule is "intended" to prevent just two things -- polymer ejection and riblets -- and not any of the other things that boat doctors do to their boats. Strictly speaking, all of the following activities involve specially texturing the surface of a hull and are illegal by RRS 53 -- "sanding" with 400 grit in a uniform, straight line from stem to stern in order to induce parallel microscopic grooves in the surface; "normal" sanding with 2000 grit wet and dry; polishing; waxing; painting; simple cleaning....

It is an excellent example of a rule which, as written, is completely unworkable, but when given a shared understanding of its intent, works just fine in practice.

2 Improving the social construction of rules

What we actually mean by "improving the rules" is improving our understanding of them, or improving our adherence to them. It should be clear that attending to the wording of a rule is a relatively small part of "improving" it. Remember that, as well as it being absolutely impossible to construct a rule that is 100% unambiguous and 100% clear, it is also absolutely impossible to cover every eventuality or anticipate every possibility. Attention therefore needs to focus on the other matters identified earlier. If you want to improve understanding of rules:

  • Give guidance on the intent and purpose of each of the rules in question. The emphasis here is on the intent of the rule -- the sort of issue it addresses, and the way it wishes to deal with that issue. In my opinion, this is the single most important activity that would be expected to improve understanding and adherence.
  • Give guidance on the role and purpose of these sorts of "rules" in general, and the appropriate value system, attitudes, beliefs, and "world view" involved in them. No body of rules is value-free; it may be worth making the value system of the rules explicit. Keep in mind the distinction between the "letter of the law" and the "spirit of the law", and decide what sorts of rules these are. It is unlikely that they would be the former. Our racing rules of sailing are firmly based on the concept of sportsmanship, and the idea that, if you've transgressed, not only do you not need an exactly-worded rule to tell you to take your penalty, but you don't seek to evade your penalty by a letter-of-the-law approach.
  • Give guidance on the way others use and understand the particular rule in question, and these sorts of rules in general. Publish and discuss cases. Discuss how the rule might be applied in a variety of "What if..." scenarios.

3 Engineering good rules

If we think of rules as tools, as products which should help do a good job, then we can introduce a whole set of concepts from systems engineering.

The Shewart cycle

The centre-piece of any engineering approach to the solution of a problem is the Shewart cycle -- analyse the problem, design the solution, implement the solution, evaluate the outcomes.

Systems analysis is concerned with "what" -- what topics do the rules need to cover, what is the intended audience for the rules, what are the intended outcomes of effective rule observance?

Systems design is concerned with "how", given an understanding of "what" the rules should do -- how will the rules be engineered to achieve the intended outcomes, how will all segments of the intended audience be accommodated, how are the various rule topics to be treated?

System implementation is concerned with "doing it", given the design developed earlier -- actually constructing the rules in line with the design, ensuring that the design standards set are followed.

To complete the cycle, the implemented rules must be evaluated, tested, and reviewed. If the cycle is not completed in this way, the whole engineering exercise is likely to be ineffective.

For the RRS, this cycle is well understood and well implemented by the rule makers. There are various standing committees and sub-committees of ISAF and ISAF-RSD whose task is precisely to take this approach to engineering the rules on a cyclic basis.

4 Improving the engineering of good rules

With a good cycle in place for the development of rules, there are two areas which might help with improving this development: systems theory, and principles from quality assurance.

Systems theory

General systems theory is a branch of theoretical engineering which is concerned with the structure and functioning of whole systems. It focuses on the big picture. In particular, it looks at the "soft" side of the system -- the people -- as well as the "hard" side -- inputs, processes, outputs.

Amongst a number of matters, systems theory draws attention to two aspects of a functioning system which are of interest to us here: the control sub-system embedded within the system, and the attitudes and expectations of the people who both run the system and are impacted by the system.

Control sub-system

The effective control of any system requires four components: that we monitor the outputs of the system, that we know what these outputs should be, that we compare the actual outputs with the required outputs, and that we take corrective actions to change the way the system operates to bring the outputs into line with what is required. If any one of these components is missing, the system cannot be controlled or managed.

If we look at a rules "system", we can immediately ask a number of questions.

  • Do we know what the outcomes of the system actually are? That is, are we measuring or sampling the results of applying the rules? Can we say with confidence, for example, what proportion of penalizable racing incidents actually result in penalties taken?
  • Can we say what the outcomes should be? That is, do we know what measurements represent a "well-functioning" system of rules? Can we say, for example, that the rules "should" result in penalties being taken for 100% of penalizable incidents? 90%? 50%? 20%?
  • Does anyone anywhere compare actual outcome against required outcome? That is, do the rule makers monitor the system operation and compare what happens with what should happen? For example, do race committees report to organising authorities, and do organising authorities report to the rule-makers, that while 90% of start-line incidents resulted in penalties being taken, this only happened in 40% of mark-rounding incidents?
  • Are there any mechanisms in place which allow the system to be tweaked or changed so as to bring actual outcomes into line with requirements? That is, are there effective mechanisms in place which change the system in good time and in the right way? For example, do race committees have the freedom and the authority to modify a rule in the light of their experiences, and if so, do they know how to do that within the rules system as whole? Another "for example", do the rule makers prioritise their updates of the rules according to the facts they have about penalties being taken (or not) for penalizable incidents? According to whether a certain class of competitor is being victimised by the rules system, not advantaged?

The idea of the control sub-system is to say that, beside the "normal" system which operates "normally", we need a sub-system which can effectively manage the "normal" system. There are some hints here that we need to attend to system measurements in order to assist with effective management. This idea is developed below.

The people: those operating the system, and those impacted by the system

Systems theory is concerned to have us look carefully at the attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and expectations of the people involved in the system. It is also careful to say that we must think, not only about those people who run the system, but about those affected by the system -- its beneficiaries, and its victims.

The point here is that the best-intended (and the best, technically) systems can fail utterly if the people operating the system have different ideas about the system from those of the designers; and if the people impacted by the system have negative instead of positive experiences of the system outcomes. These fundamental issues can be overlooked where there are time pressures on the development of the system, for example, or where the focus is on "technical excellence" instead of "effectiveness" or "usefulness".

For example, do Protest Committee members have adequate training in the intent and purpose of the rules? In the operation and procedures of a protest? In the appropriate attitudes to display while a member of a protest committee? For example, do protesters and protestees have adequate protection against flawed decisions of a protest committee?

Quality assurance

The recent "quality" movement has led to a number of insights into quality and what makes a product or service of high quality. For our purposes we can look at recent ideas on the quality management of a production or development process. There are two aspects of significance here. One is a focus upon the process of working, and the other is on the measurement of what we are doing.

Improving the development process

If we take an engineering process such as our rules development process (analyse what rules are needed, design the rules required, implement the rules, evaluate the results), we find that we can achieve reasonable quality in the end product (the rules), but that this quality reaches a plateau. Time and again, we expend the same sort of effort in the same sort of places, getting the product (the rules) to the same sort of quality. What has happened is that we have attended exclusively to the quality of the end result, and have not equally attended to the quality of the process which brings about the end result. In order to achieve quantum improvements in product (rule) quality, we must additionally focus on the processes we use in engineering and developing those products (rules). This is a subtle and significant addition to our view of improving the quality of our rules.

The implication is that we must think about our rule development processes. For example, we assume that the rule makers should exclusively be international experts; but why? There is substantial evidence that "ordinary" skippers are excellent at spotting problems that an "expert" may well fail to see.

Measuring and metrics

We know we need to attend to system measurements in order to assist with effective management of the system. We also should know that we need to be very careful about what we do measure, because these measurements will come to define the system and how well it operates.

It is very difficult to make rational decisions about a system if we do not have relevant measurements of that system's operation. For example, we know that there are difficulties with the current definition of windward and leeward. In order to devote significant effort into resolving these difficulties, we really do need to know things like what proportion of incidents involve windward-leeward issues, what proportion of protest committee decisions would be reversed if the windward-leeward definition were changed, and so on.

The point here is that we need to develop some thoughtful, useful metrics of how our rules work, so we can make informed management decisions about rule changes, and about process changes to the rule change procedures.

5 Dealing with disagreement

Disagreement about the meaning or use of a rule cannot be avoided. Because the "real" meaning of a rule is revealed by acts of social construction and individual interpretation (conscious or otherwise), a formal system of social construction and individual interpretation is required to resolve disagreements. Such a formal system in other contexts is called a "court of law". What kind of court do we require: decision by an "expert" authority, or decision by a jury of peers? Does our choice tie in with the choices we made earlier about developing the rules?

We must be as concerned about the quality of court decisions on disputed rule observance as we are about the quality of the rules themselves. Our well-intentioned and well-engineered set of rules is of little use if they cannot be confidently policed and prosecuted. As current political theory would have it, the issues to do with legislation (setting the rules) are completely separate from the issues to do with enforcement (policing, prosecuting, judging, sentencing, appealing). Do we want to have the legislative and judicial functions in our rules carried out by effectively the same people and the same bodies?

Appreciating the extent and limitations of our judicial procedures mirrors exactly our appreciation of our rules -- our judicial procedures are always incomplete, always inconsistent, always socially constructed, their significance less in the way they are worded than in the way they are used, their significance and "meaning" lying in their intent and purpose, their success lying in ensuring justice is done rather than the rules merely being applied.

If we want to improve our judicial procedures, all of the comments made earlier on improving our rule making apply -- we must attend to our judicial system, and its control sub-system in particular; we must attend to the engineering of our judicial procedures; we must attend to measuring the way our judicial procedures work; we must look at improving the quality of the judicial procedures; and so on.

From the point of view of the social construction of the judicial procedures, we must give guidance to race committees and protest committees on:

  • The intent and purpose of the disagreements and disciplinary procedures
  • The motivations and attitudes which are appropriate for members of these committees
  • The contexts in which disagreements are judged and penalties imposed
  • The way others have used and understood the particular judicial procedures
  • The way others have used and understood these sorts of procedures in general

Although the judicial procedures are also "rules", they are very different sorts of rules from those rules we were discussing earlier, the racing rules or the class rules or whatever. There is a very strong case to separate the judicial procedures from "the rules", and deal with them differently, perhaps calling them the "Judicial rules of sailing", or JRS.

Some explicit ideas on interpreting rules are given in a separate Web page.  That page shows, in various ways, that interpreting a rule involves identifying and then giving effect to the intention of the rule-maker, or (what is the same thing) identifying and then giving effect to the purpose of the rule.  This is quite contrary to what most people think.  It is usually held that the "real" meaning of a rule can be found by considering the rule on its own, and by giving the words of the rule their ordinary meaning.  As we have seen, both of these notions have serious difficulties.

6 Conclusions

Our incomplete body of rules is incomplete both in principle and in practice, and hence is always flawed and subject to a measure of doubt; always subject to debate and challenge; and always subject to a degree of conflict. And when we have doubt, challenge, and conflict, we have (sigh!) issues of politics, influence, control, authority, negotiation, and power which involve issues of interpretation, intent, and application.

A rule, any rule, requires "interpretation" (consciously or unconsciously) for its understanding. Understanding a rule requires more than just the words of the rule, it requires an understanding of the intent of the rule, and arriving at any understanding involves values, context, and background.  We can suggest that notes or commentary should be provided with the rules on their intention and purpose, and similarly for official interpretations.  Then, the application of a rule is a political act, involving motivation and purpose, power and influence.  Official interpretations are made by a power-group whose views, while generally accepted, are nevertheless legitimately subject to challenge and test.  Finally, the rule-makers and protest committee members themselves are fallible, and that the idea that they must necessarily know better is therefore always rather wide of the mark.

In developing our rules, and in developing our judicial procedures for the rules, we need to attend to the engineering of appropriate development processes, to the attitudes and beliefs of those people both operating the processes and impacted by them, to the measurement of outcomes, and to the improvement of the quality of both the outcomes of rule and judicial procedure development and the processes by which these rules and judicial procedures are developed.

Finally, we might consider distinguishing and separating the rules themselves from the judicial procedures (ie judicial rules) involved in policing them.

Is there a conclusion? Perhaps the "obvious" -- that the making and use of rules is an intensely social and political activity in which we are all, one way or another, involved, and it is not simply a "technical" activity with "rights" and "wrongs".


2022 Lester Gilbert