Good Logic: Bad Premise

If real life decision making could be as obvious as is typical in logic puzzles, the world would probably be a better place. The truth is that most decisions we make can be based on good logic, but start from bad initial assumptions — and these are usually made unconsciously.

A minor example of this happened to me recently. My solar physicist son visited us with his family last week. During one of our rambling conversations, I mentioned how difficult it is to get my clients to set up effective filing systems on their PCs. Some clients have hundreds of unsorted letters and documents. Since I am the type who has folders and sub-sub-folders to organize things, that drives me crazy.

Good Logic: Bad PremiseMy son said simply, “Filing in an implementation: search is the object.” He reminded me that many people advocate not organizing a filing system at all, but simply searching for things as you need them. Organizing digital data can be a waste of time. When filing is a physical thing involving moving sheets of paper, there is obviously a benefit in good organization to find things you want quickly. You would not want to search by hand through a random stack of papers every time you wanted something. The situation changes dramatically when filing refers to digital data and quick retrieval is the goal. Searching an unsorted collection of data is not a problem for computers, so why bother to set up an obsolete filing system? With Boolean search parameters, we can selectively retrieve specific items from incredibly large storage arrays in time short compared to navigating through a tree.

The stopped me for a while and made me feel a bit out of touch. Of course he was right and I was bringing my antiquated techniques to modern times. Worse, I was trying to foist my dated techniques on my clients.

Then the rational part of me struck back. The logic flow of decision making that I discuss in these postings came to my rescue. I was not obsolete! Instead I had been suckered in by a false premise like a rookie. The false premise from which his logical conclusions correctly flows is that the goal of organization is only to facilitate data retrieval.

Sure, if you assume the only goal of organizing folders and sub-folders is to enable rapid data retrieval, then the search-only without prior organization technique makes sense, even though something is working much harder than we might think it should have to work to do the job. However, I maintain the goals and eventual benefits of organizing goes far beyond simple ease of retrieval. In fact, that can be considered merely a nice by-product.

The main purpose of organizing is to create useful information.

By organizing data, unsuspected information can pop out that would not be obvious if you were depending solely on searching. Consider asking a traditional native about frogs in his environment. He could probably tell you a lot about frogs, like which are good to eat and which can be used to make poison, but this lore would not give you any idea of where frogs fit in the grand scheme of life unless a formal zoologist can show you a classification scheme in which frogs appear in relation to other amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. That is, what is a frog? Is it an isolated body that can be studied in depth, or is it part of a grand scheme? The answer is both, but we need the logical organization of data to make sense of the in depth local study.

A related purpose of organizing is to enable us to grasp patterns that might not otherwise be obvious. Setting up folders and sub-folders implicitly establishes a data filter and can extract patterns.

It was a good mental exercise, but I will continue to organize my folders. That is my decision.

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  • Brant Power

    I keep things clean solely for the fact I can find them faster. Especially when using multi OS. When holding onto large image files one couldn’t possibly remember exactly where that file was or the file name for that matter. Having a system to rate and tag files is critical in my field of work. The trick is to have just enough sub folders to contain your content into a relative space and location. The rest should be keywords to improve item look ups and rating to help sort out what is really important and what’s just there. This could be applied to any type of content.

    It maybe over the boarder for some but I have a naming convention for every type of file or content I encounter. So that way when I look up something I know what category it’s in then all I have to do is search for a suffix.

  • Anonymous

    The act of organizing and maintaining my files keeps me in touch with the information I acquire. Although I depend heavily on my computer’s search function, I would quickly lose touch with what I have if it weren’t for my folder and subfolder system.

    Great topic!

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    Here is the website we use to get it all from,

  • Craig DeForest

    Nice, Dad. You’re of course right that organization “pops out” of filing, while it doesn’t from search. But I’m increasingly leaning toward relational databases rather than the hierarchical one of folders. For example, I organize my collection of research papers in Mekentosj Papers, which is more like iTunes than like the file system that I used to use. Sure, you can flip through hierarchically — but you can also invert that hierarchy (e.g. searching for stuff by year, then author vs. author then year), which you can’t do with a hierarchical database.

    So I, too, stand by my belief that hierarchical databases (file systems) are of fading relevance — but I stand corrected on the importance of organization itself!