Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Elements of Logical Comprehension

We are all aware of the often-used literary technique in which the author shows interaction between the protagonist and a stranger. The stranger ends up being the villain of the story, doing things only expected of a mad man. Only by the very end, the author pulls off a shocker, telling us something that wasn't known before. It changes the whole meaning of the story, and we suddenly start sympathizing with the stranger. One famous story that comes to mind is "Broken Routine" by Jeffrey Archer. This technique works because we, as readers, place full faith in the author in telling us the complete account of events, both seen and unseen. Indeed, intentional gullibility is often the best way to enjoy classical literature. But this shouldn't stop us from understanding the essential principles to be followed to have a complete understanding of any event. What follows is my understanding of the elements that should be used in any attempt to understand events in a logical manner.

Any piece of information, by itself carries little meaning. If you hear someone saying "Yes", you can't expect yourself to form full picture of what was going on. However, it is common human nature to synthesize stories (or theories) around facts where none exist or are not immediately clear. This has the potential to create confusion, but often helps us guide through decisions based on incomplete information. It is not without reason that many people believe humans are much more suited for the real world than computers, who tend to wait for enough data before taking any action.

Any event comprises of three components: Context, Perspective and Expression. Take away one, and you create the potential of confusion.

Context is the most visible part. Context refers to the situation that exists when and where the event takes place, the metaphorical page everyone has to be on at the start of a conversation. Context can be defined as something that is easily visible to anyone present where the event occurs. Since physical presence is not the only way to be present, presence can broadly be described as ability to sense the essence. In a public speech, it is knowing and seeing (at least) the speaker and the crowd. In a teleconference it would be knowing the speakers, the agenda, and the mood. Gossip columns thrive best by quoting celebrities out-of-context, which is often the easiest way to tell half-truths.

Perspective is about knowing the background. It is seeing the unseen. The story I referred to in the first paragraph is an example of one with missing perspective. A missing perspective is easily left unnoticed. You can't know so easily if the labor union leader who betrayed his fellow workers was just greedy, or had received death threats. Whenever possible, we should try to establish a working communication with the person in question before forming an opinion, giving enough time to clarify his reasons and beliefs. But again, this is not possible every time. In such cases, the best we can do is asking question "Do I know enough to form an unbiased opinion?"

Expression refers to the active part of the event. In its most general form, it is a sentence (or sentences) in a natural language, though it can also be a facial expression or body language. Unadulterated understanding of the expression (cognition) is key to forming an unbiased opinion. Language and cultural barriers are the biggest hindrance in assimilating the expression. While lacking a funny bone is a case of missing perspective, having a poor understanding of the language is an example of inaccurate cognition.

I have tried my best to come up with all possible elements that make up logical comprehension, but there may be more that I missed. I will be glad to include any suggestions, which can be left in comments.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Net Productivity

I just came across this study from a group of researchers in University of Melbourne. In brief, it claims that those workers who use internet at work for personal leisure activities (in moderation) are on an average 9% more productive than the rest.

Although I haven't read the actual study yet, this post is based on assumption that the University of Melbourne is reporting the study accurately. If so, I have serious concerns over the way researchers used the data to fit their theories. Using the same data, which I believe is a questionnaire filled out by many professionals when asked by the researchers, I can draw many more independent conclusions:
  • People who are more productive at work are more comfortable using the internet at work for personal use.
  • People who are more productive at work are more comfortable accepting the fact that they use internet for personal use in a (supposedly) anonymous survey.
  • The more computer savvy people in workplace are more productive. (This is different from what the study concluded. The study did not take into account whether the same people also use computer more effectively for official purposes.)
As you can see, it is easy to fit many theories on to same facts. Unless they do controlled experiments, such studies should be taken with a pinches of salt. A controlled experiment here would have been monitoring people who didn't use internet at work start using it without letting them know they are being watched. That is, monitoring employee productivity in organizations that previously didn't have internet access (or had draconian laws punishing people caught surfing for private work) start having liberal attitude towards the issue. Keeping workers in dark is essential because if they knew they are being monitored, they naturally start performing their very best.

Without these control measures in place, it looks like an attempt to pass off correlation as causation.