Three on Context

Monday, August 22, 2011

This morning, I encountered three items, about completely different topics, that all illustrate the value of acquiring as much context about any given endeavor as possible.

First, in communications, Eric Raymond and Rick Moen explain "How to Ask Questions the Smart Way." For anyone who wants help on computer forums or has ever wondered why computer forums have the apparently contradictory reputations for rudeness and great service, this is a must read.

Regarding the rudeness, real or imagined:

We're (largely) volunteers. We take time out of busy lives to answer questions, and at times we're overwhelmed with them. So we filter ruthlessly. In particular, we throw away questions from people who appear to be losers in order to spend our question-answering time more efficiently, on winners.
And what's a winner in the books of someone with expertise who invites questions from ordinary people?
The first thing to understand is that hackers actually like hard problems and good, thought-provoking questions about them. If we didn't, we wouldn't be here. If you give us an interesting question to chew on we'll be grateful to you; good questions are a stimulus and a gift. Good questions help us develop our understanding, and often reveal problems we might not have noticed or thought about otherwise. Among hackers, "Good question!" is a strong and sincere compliment.
In other words, with limited time on their hands, hackers end up taking shortcuts -- like ignoring subject lines that say only, "Help me!" or skipping posts with poor spelling and punctuation -- as they filter a huge input for interesting problems to think about.

Just knowing what a hacker is interested in will help most people realize that a brief description of the problem in the subject line and a post that sets enough context (and, say, eliminates common possibilities) will make one more likely to receive help. But, in case that's not enough, or one wants to know other things that might give the impression that one isn't worth a hacker's time, Raymond and Moen go into detail.

The second item deals with the problem of weeding out phony Internet reviews, which have become a problem on commercial web sites.
"We evolved over 60,000 years by talking to each other face to face," said Jeffrey T. Hancock, a Cornell professor of communication and information science who worked on the project. "Now we're communicating in these virtual ways. It feels like it is much harder to pick up clues about deception."
The first link describes some of the things computer algorithms use to flag reviews as possibly fake, including over-use of personal pronouns, liberal use of adverbs, and lots of exclamation points. Coupled with the fact noted in the companion article that such reviews tend to be short on details, it looks like such reviewers are hoping to distract the reader with how "excited" they are about the product. It is thus interesting to see that we can, basically, program "bullshit detectors," due to the tactic used by many liars to substitute emotions for facts.

The third item shows why competing only on price is usually foolish, whether or not a businessman truly appreciates the full costs of operating. (The author has a great example of apportioning the costs of an employee.)
Over the last 20 or so years, I have worked in oil, electrical equipment, engineering, computing and marketing. In every industry I have seen multiple examples of firms competing with prices that are too low to sustain business over the longer term. In every case when these businesses fail, they were immediately replaced with someone with the same strategy. There will always be people prepared to run unprofitable business, mostly because they don't know they are doing it. [minor edits, bold added]
Note that a good businessman has to account for the cluelessness of these competitors, in some form or fashion. Knowing about the problem helps.

Whether one is asking a question, shopping, or trying to make a living, gaining as much knowledge as possible is plainly crucial. The first two examples show, however, that filtering out knowledge from garbage is a huge problem, both because poor communication can lead knowledgeable people to discount a valid message as garbage, and because skillful misuse of communication can lead good people down the primrose path. Becoming aware of how communication can go awry is thus a crucial part of functioning well in our division-of-labor society.

-- CAV

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