23 May, 2011

Tune in to the spirit: With the right abstraction

A man was sitting in a roadside coffee shop sipping his coffee, when he saw a strange sight. Two municipal workers were busy at work on the road. One of them diligently dug a hole, and the other filled the hole back up. They then proceeded 10 meters ahead and again repeated the hole digging and filling up exercise. 
Intrigued, he went and asked them what were they up to. And one of them replied, "Well, we are planting trees. Joe here was in charge of digging the hole, while Sam who has called in sick today was in charge of planting the tree, while I am in charge of filling back the hole. We are professionals. We follow rules and we don't stop work just because one of us is absent!"


I'm reminded of this story quite often these days. :-) 
Like the other day when we went to a shopping mall, many of which are now under increased security measures. Every entrance had a metal detector and everyone entering the mall is supposed to walk through them. We didn't notice the metal detector and went by the side of it and immediately were stopped in our tracks by security people who asked us to walk through the detector. We then came back and walked through the detector and the detector beeped loudly for all of us. Following this, we were just let in and no one looked our way! 
When asked whether they are going to frisk us, they smiled and waved us on. "Rules!" they said. "Everyone must walk through the detector!" 
Sigh.. :-)
On the one hand we see a lot of refrain from people that Indians don't follow rules. "Just look at our traffic!" they say. And on the other hand, when we do follow rules, we get stories like the above. 
I've searched long and hard for a good term to explain the above kind of behaviour. Finally, I think I've got it: a clerical approach to rules. 
I don't mean to derogate clerks or their profession by saying so, just calm down.. I'm just saying that it is not enough, and there are certain other crucial skills that we don't have, and instead substitute with clerical skills when the other skills are what are necessary.
By definition, a clerk is someone who has to ensure that rules are complied with. They are not to question the rules themselves, and often times do not have the larger picture in mind as to why the rules are there in the first place. They are supposed to chide and admonish or even punish anyone who doesn't comply with the rules as written down in its letter. 
Basically, a clerical approach to professionalism need not necessarily uphold the spirit behind the activity in question.
It is argued that when dealing with large systems, it is best to comply with rules by the letter than try to reason out the spirit in every case. 
I beg to differ. 
As systems become larger, it becomes more and more complex to formulate rules in such a way that the letter does justice to the spirit in question. Take the case of the mall security example above. Having everyone enter through the metal detector only, was a rule to ensure that no one is above security screening and basically that security has to be upheld. But that is left unsaid in the letter of the rule and is basically implied. 
There is a saying attributed to Boris Pasternak: What is laid down, ordered, factual is never enough to embrace the whole truth: life always spills over the rim of every cup.
It is not possible to capture the "spirit" in writing. In fact, all our communication, including writing, is supposed to induce the right kinds of cognitive connections in our minds so that we are given a pathway to realize the underlying spirit. The words are not the spirit themselves. Words are not a substitute for thought. We still have to think enough to realize the underlying spirit. Words only help us in this process.

So how do we realize the underlying spirit? As I just mentioned, it is not possible to explain it completely in writing. But nevertheless, here are some speculations and thumb rules. 
A common mistake that I encounter when trying to reason about the underlying spirit is the following rule, typically coming from game theoretic arguments, that is considered axiomatic: Whatever we are trying to do has to make rational sense to all the people involved
Well yes, but not quite. Consider this following example. A teacher is trying to give grades for a class that has basically shown little interest in learning. Now, it makes perfect rational sense both for the teacher and the student if the teacher just gives good grades regardless of how the class has performed. The teacher can then avoid headaches of students coming back for grade correction and it avoids heartaches for the students of having to deal with bad grades. 
But then, such a decision, even though it is rational to all parties involved, violates the spirit behind the activity! The spirit in this case is that learning and academic integrity has to be upheld -- both by the teacher and the students. 
The spirit is more than just benefit for the parties involved. It is also more than what is pertinent here and now. Some things need to be done, because, they need to be done. The benefits of such activities can only be seen in the long term, with intangible payoffs and over larger issues. Education is one such example, where it is difficult to quantify the benefits of upholding the spirit behind education. Knowledge unsettles us as much as it paves the path to wisdom. Ignorance is bliss and all that.
So, well, let's say we are ready to think and won't excuse our laziness by just following rules by the letter. But even then, tuning in to the underlying spirit is hard. Often times, we don't have enough time and resources to tune in. So, what are some tools that can help us in tuning in to the underlying spirit? 
The best cognitive tool to this end is to have the right abstraction. It is very difficult to explain what is abstraction. Recently when some of us were debating about this, we realized that there is no term for "abstraction" in many, perhaps all, Indian languages!
Abstraction is not the same as vantage point, point of view, opinion, or a lot of candidate notions for which there are terms in Indian languages. 
An abstraction is essentially a cognitive model where just the important things are focused upon and everything else is well, "abstracted away." Abstraction involves "information hiding" yes, but it is not just about hiding any arbitrary piece of information. 
In French, there is a term called Raison d'ĂȘtre, translated as "Reason for existence" of a concept, which perhaps comes close. The right abstraction in understanding a rule, is one that focuses on the reason for existence for the rule. 
Here is another example that illustrates the importance of understanding the reason for existence.
Recently, we had this issue about course pre-requisites. One of my courses (let's call it course B) had another course (let's call it course A) as pre-requisite. The way the courses were offered, it caused a lot of confusion in the minds of students wanting to take up course B, in their decision to take up course A. 
Let's just say that courses B and A were offered in the same semester. And of course, there were jabs saying how can we be so "unprofessional" and so on. 
But the problem is of course, scheduling. We have limited time and resources within which all courses have to be scheduled. And for the tech-savvy among the readers, you might recall that scheduling is one of the most celebrated NP-complete (just understand it as "very hard") problems. There was just no other time in which courses A and B could be offered. 
So by offering the two courses in the same semester, did we violate the pre-requisite constraint? To understand this, I asked a question. What does the fact that course A is a pre-requisite for course B imply: 
  1. You can't take course B without taking course A
  2. You have to finish course A before starting course B
  3. Course B requires knowledge that one typically obtains in course A
I must say that I was quite surprised to note that several people who answered, chose option (1). While, the way I see it, the option is clearly (3).

Option (3) is the best interpretation among the above to uphold the spirit. Why? Because, there is a reason why courses are offered. And no, the reason is not that the students can get a degree and write this course name in their CVs. The reason for existence of a course, is that we collectively learn about something.

And once we see the reason for existence of a course, we can see that the pre-requisite rule is basically an advisory. It is not a rule to be hammered down, but an advise to students on what they should know beforehand. It is telling the students that in order to understand the concepts in course B, brush up on some background knowledge, which are typically covered in course A.

On the other hand, with option (1) as the interpretation, in this case, there was no solution. Given the time and other constraints, it was not possible to schedule courses in such a way that the "entry prohibition" interpretation can be implemented.

One could either say that "Well, there is no solution" and drop course B or say that, "We want to learn, so we'll work harder and get the required background knowledge" and take up both courses.

In my opinion, the latter is the one that best upholds the spirit, while the former is a clerical approach to interpreting pre-requisites.


Abstraction skills are not learned overnight. They have to be inculcated right from primary mathematical education. Yes, mathematical education. 
Our understanding of what is mathematics seems to be so lopsided that many of us don't really understand what mathematics is about. Apart from stereotypes of scary looking Greek characters, mathematics seems to be broadly equated to performing computation. 
In mathematics classes in primary school, we are taught multiplication tables, division rules, rules to compute the LCM, HCF, square roots, etc. But we are never taught why we need to do all these stuff in the first place. We are never taught how we can take a realistic problem setting and pose it as a mathematical model in precise terms, by "abstracting away" unnecessary details and keeping the focus on what is important. The clerical way of thinking seems to have deep roots. 
Getting the right abstraction will not guarantee that we will tune in to the underlying spirit; but without the right abstraction, there is hardly any hope..