Unambiguously Good

 Libby Lavella, performing at at Categorically Not! 8th June 2008

Libby Lavella, performing at Categorically Not! 8th June 2008

Tonight’s Categorically Not! event was rather good fun, and interesting too. There were three excellent presentations under the theme “Ambiguity”. (See here.) K. C. Cole did a great job in bringing these people together (and of course in acting as M. C. on the night).

Bart Kosko did a great job talking principally about “fuzzy” mathematics, contrasting it with more binary (if you like) systems of logic. I think that his overview was great, and he talked about all the grey areas in logic and questions of epistemology where a “fuzzy” system is needed. (The question of whether a door is open or closed is on the one hand rather straightforward in its binary-ness, and on the other hand -depending upon the purpose of the question- better described in terms of the degree to which it is open or closed… He discussed many more and pointed examples, (the previous is a bit trivial, sorry) and charted a touch of the history of the mathematics of this area).

I must say that I do not agree with his strong characterization (as he went to some effort to do) of the “hard sciences” as somewhat wedded to the certainties of 1s and 0s of definiteness. I sympathize with some of what he said in this regard but I think it was misleading (I expect unintentional though) to not mention the field of quantum information – which makes great and essential use of manipulating information that is not just 0s and 1s, but can be (in a very precise sense) somewhere in between. (I pointed this out a bit in the questions and answers after – see below). Quantum information, as a phenomenon (and as a field of study in its own right), has powerful consequences for physics, mathematics, and communications. It’s not the fuzzy logic he was talking about, but it is a concrete realization of several of the things that he emphasized as desirable when it comes to embracing the uncertainties, ambiguities, and indefiniteness of the world in concrete mathematical terms. Rather than give the impression that the quantum information field does not exist, in his place I’d have mentioned it as an interesting example of a certain sort of “fuzziness” and then gone on to talk about why it is not what I primarily was getting at (if that’s indeed the case – this fuzzy business is more than just about the managing of probabilities, he was emphasizing, which is fair enough). Anyway, overall he did a very good job in his 20 minutes.

Doe Mayer was also very good, and presented video examples of the sort of media she studies in the field of what might be called “social change”. She studies how to construct media (film, television, etc) that -through the packaging of factual information in the form of entertainment- can make a real impact in societies. Examples included public information advertisements on television in Turkey, and a popular soap opera (Soul City) in South Africa. They brought about societal change with regards to issues of public health, domestic violence, etc. There were several contact points with the Ambiguity theme. An obvious but important one: Is it education, or entertainment? She made the point that real change in behaviour comes about more likely as a result of having the material make a real emotional contact with the viewer (hence a soap opera with characters you can relate to involved in showing the consequences of spousal abuse, the options the abused spouse has to them to act, etc), and often because the material itself has some ambiguity in it that provokes discussion and engagement (if a piece of material is too obvious, and you either agree or disagree with it at the outset, it is not as likely to engage). Well, there was a lot more to it than that, but that’s some of the essence of her 20 minute contribution, I think. It was excellent work.

Libby Lavella performing at Categorically Not! June 8th 2008At the end we had the musician and artist Libby Lavella present for 20 minutes. She talked a lot about ambiguity in song lyrics, and how important that is for having the song remain fresh and engaging (and, perhaps I could add here: have long term relevance). She ventured that art would be rather dull without ambiguity, which to my mind is absolutely true. For song, she spoke about that familiar business of everyone having their own idea about what a song’s lyrics might mean, and how important that ambiguity can be. She mentioned that even the songwriter -such as herself- can sometimes be unsure as to what they really meant at some points in a song. She illustrated by singing some songs (such as Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man, Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, and also one of hers (just recorded, performed for us for the first time, and I’ve forgotten the name. Go to her website for more.).) Extract of the Dylan lyrics:

“Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?”

It was an excellent segment, and you could see that people wanted more when she’d finished. (This all reminds me of a discussion I had with someone I met at a party the other day. I was making the case that it was all too easy to dismiss the lyrics to “MacArthur Park” as drug-induced gibberish – it seems more to me to be in large part about a lost and/or unattainable love – or at least that’s what I take away from it (and perhaps bring to it as well).)

The three presenters came up for a question and answer session afterwards, giving lots of opportunities (which were taken) to interact with the audience and with each other to explore more of the themes they brought out.

Doe Mayer, Libby Lavella, and Bart Kosko at Categorically Not! 8th June \'08

Doe Mayer, Libby Lavella, and Bart Kosko, at Categorically Not! 8th June 2008

It was good, although I found myself quite annoyed at the end of it, since there were rather too many oversimplifications (mainly by Bart) about how science was all about the certainties of traditional logic of 1s and 0s and how this misses a big part of the picture. While I agree that science can benefit from broadening of the mind to embrace more ways of quantifying things, (including realizing in some cases that the very process of quantifying and defining some things is fraught with problems – how many grains of sand can you take away from a pile of sand before it is no longer a pile of sand? – ) I think this is a mis-characterization of science that plays a lot into the fears and misconceptions of a general audience. I would have liked someone to have had (or taken) the opportunity (I’d already used up my question) to point out strongly that science is almost by definition intrinsically tied to ambiguity. It is not about certainty, but is about, if you like, managing uncertainty and ambiguity. Consider the discussion in society about global warming, whether it exists, and whether our actions are responsible for it or not. There’s also the physics example discussed on this blog and elsewhere quite a bit: We cannot say for sure that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment that switches on later this year (we hope) won’t produce black holes that will gobble up the earth, but we can say that given all we know about how the science works, and how the universe seems to have worked for a very long time, that it is quite unlikely.


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5 Responses to Unambiguously Good

  1. Ian says:


    It’s interesting reading your thoughts on Bart Kosko’s talk — I (dimly) recall reading his book, Fuzzy, a few years back and had similar reservations. What I took away from the book was a feeling that he was trying to come across as a bold maverick, shaking up the foundations of stodgy old, binary-obsessed science with the rather ground-breaking notion that things can be in more than two states (I am trying very hard to refrain from scare-quotes here.)

    It was exactly the same as reading some of Malcolm Gladwell’s books and wondering whether there was a lot ‘of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ or whether I’d just missed something in my reading! Perhaps it tells you more about how Mr. Kosko sees science than anything else?

    Anyway, thanks for some more good food for thought (as ever). I may have to re-read that dratted book again now to see if the older me can take something more from it…

  2. Bilal says:

    I wish I could have been at Cat Not, but I was out of town. From what I read, seems like it was a fun and enjoyable evening. I actually liked your take on quantum information and it would have been fun to engage Bart Kosko in further discussions.

  3. Clifford, I had a blast performing for such an engaging and interesting crowd. I love CatNot! My song is called Counterfeit Counsellors. It was finished last night in the studio at 3am. I went straight from CatNot to Henson to see it completed. It will be added to my myspace page http://www.myspace.com/libbylavella this week. Glad you enjoyed the music.

    See you soon. Thank you!

  4. Counterfly says:

    I feel like a stodge saying this, but I wish concepts of fuzzy logic and chaos theory and unfortunately (as my research is very quantum) the uncertainty principle would be presented with a heck of a lot more care, as basically every nonscience-type I know has exactly the wrong idea about all of them, and the crunchy-nonscience among them have dangerously wrong ideas about them.

  5. Michael Turmon says:

    Unfortunately Prof. Kosko has been doing this kind of repetitive free-association regarding fuzzy sets for, oh, about 20 years now. Take a look at