Saturday, August 4, 2012

Little Fuzzy

 This post will also be found in Tehachapi's The Loop Newspaper

There is a mathematical concept called “fuzzy sets”. Normally in mathematics (or logic) an object either belongs to a set, or it does not. If we talk about (counting) numbers the concept of an even number is precise enough that a number either is even or it isn't. But in everyday thinking we are constantly dealing with things that aren't so simply categorized.

For example, to a small child, virtually every adult she knows is tall. But as we grow up, the set of tall people changes, no longer including people that we once considered tall. And even as an adult we may be able to say that a certain person is tall, but another is “kind of” tall. Membership in the group of tall people is fuzzy.

We can even get a little silly and consider the set of fuzzy cats. There are cats that are certainly fuzzy, so belong to the group, and there are “hairless” cats that certainly do not. And there are a lot of cats in between. Ones that are sort of fuzzy. So fuzziness is a fuzzy concept. (As an exercise to the reader, you can go through the same process with dogs.)

Due to the fact that it is hard to make rules or laws that deal with fuzzy concepts, we often have to make arbitrary cutoffs for inclusion in a set. For example, you might be in a high risk group if your cholesterol is above a specified value. Or you might be struggling to make ends meet, but still not fall into the income range to be said to be in poverty.

In the science fiction book Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper (available for free as an ebook from Project Gutenberg,, and as an audiobook at Librivox, there is a legal issue, actually a murder case, depending on whether certain creatures satisfy the definition of intelligent. When laws get involved, we can get some pretty hard and fast rules applied to some pretty fuzzy concepts.

In Little Fuzzy, the definition they use for intelligent is “uses language and builds fires”. Which has problems built in for aquatic creatures. Not bottlenose dolphin would ever be able to be considered intelligent if they had to build a fire. So hard and fast rules can lead to problems if we haven't thought those rules through in all scenarios. 
Now, I may have mentioned the book before, but I do have a certain guilt associated with it. I judged the book by its cover. There were these cute little furry people with great big eyes. It didn't look like it would fit my mature sensibilities (I was in high school after all). So I didn't read the book for several years. But once I did, I've ended up rereading it a few times. So hopefully I learned a lesson.

Maybe I did, since a short play I've written “NIMBY” deals with the problem of judging things, in this case people, by appearances. This play is going to be performed as Readers Theatre (actors reading the play) at the Center of the World Festival at Pine Mountain Club on August 18th
I realize that that is Mountain Festival weekend, so I won't be able to stack the voting with my fans... Is that crickets I hear?

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