Note: This is a selection from Quality, a tdaxp series.
Photo Courtesy Despair.com
Dramatically overestimating me, Bill from Dawn’s Early Light asked me to take a look at an interesting Economist article on biased judging in Europe’s version of American Idol.
What makes a good song? Lyrics, melody and rhythm have their place, of course, but for entrants of the Eurovision Song Contest on May 21st, geopolitics may be the decisive factor. Neil Johnson and his colleagues at Oxford University have gathered voting data from 12 years worth of Eurovision Song Contests in order to analyse the links between different countries, and their “compatibility” with each other. These data confirm what many already suspected: that the contest is not always about the quality of the songs. The research, published in arXiv, an online archive more usually devoted to papers about physics, has shown the contest also has a deeper meaning, and reveals how “European” each country is. Despite its Eurosceptic image, for instance, the data suggest that Britain is very much in tune with the rest of Europe. Supposedly Europhile France, by contrast, is actually out of kilter with many of its European cousins.
Hmmm…….. “What makes a good song?” the article asks. “The contest is not always about the quality of the songs,” it continues. Interesting. But anyway…
Dr Johnson and his colleagues picked the Eurovision contest for their analysis because it is largely free of economic and governmental bias, and does not depend on income, on education or (much) on language. This, they argue, makes it a good measure of compatibility between countries, capturing something of the underlying character and mood of a given country at a given time. If all were fair and equal, and judges had similar musical tastes, any given song should receive a similar score from all countries, with terrible songs garnering few points and good songs many. In reality, though, some dreadful dirges get a few ridiculously high scores, while better ditties receive a smattering of surprisingly low ones.
When the article says it “is not always about the quality of the songs,” it begs the question: what is quality? In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig has his protagonist ponder this
It wasn’t until three o’clock in the morning that he wearily confessed to himself that he didn’t have a clue as to what Quality was, picked up his briefcase and headed home.
Later, in more depth
Quality — you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others — but what’s the “betterness”? — So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?
The Economist‘s article on pop idols spirals into philosophical madness!
Bet you weren’t expecting that!
Zen‘s hero is a lecturer of rhetoric in a state university, and he tries something the the British economics newspaper also realized
To reinforce the idea that they already knew what Quality was he developed a routine in which he read four student papers in class and had everyone rank them in estimated order of Quality on a slip of paper. He did the same himself. He collected the slips, tallied them on the blackboard and averaged the rankings for an overall class opinion. Then he would reveal his own rankings, and this would almost always be close to, if not identical with the class average. Where there were differences it was usually because two papers were close in quality.
Compare to the article text:
If all were fair and equal, and judges had similar musical tastes, any given song should receive a similar score from all countries, with terrible songs garnering few points and good songs many
If averaging favorites works for college freshmen in Montana, it should be good enough for the European pop-literati!
One time trying to define quality, Zen‘s hero seems to endorse an American-Idol-like process for deciding what “quality” is
He didn’t know, but he did know that by subtracting Quality from a picture of the world as we know it, he’d revealed a magnitude of importance of this term he hadn’t known was there. The world can function without it, but life would be so dull as to be hardly worth living. In fact it wouldn’t be worth living. The term worth is a Quality term. Life would just be living without any values or purpose at all.
“That’s the look. That sums it. Squareness. When you subtract quality you get squareness. Absence of Quality is the essence of squareness.
But there are crueler judges than hipsters. Other teachers ask him if Quality exists objectively, in items themselves, or subjectively, in the mind of man
“This was brought about in response to Phædrus’ wild meanderings about Quality when the English faculty at Bozeman, informed of their squareness, presented him with a reasonable question: “Does this undefined `quality’ of yours exist in the things we observe?” they asked. “Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?” It was a simple, normal enough question, and there was no hurry for an answer.
Neither option is valid – the hero is on the horns of a dilemma
Because if Quality exists in the object, then you must explain just why scientific instruments are unable to detect it. You must suggest instruments that will detect it, or live with the explanation that instruments don’t detect it because your whole Quality concept, to put it politely, is a large pile of nonsense.
On the other hand, if Quality is subjective, existing only in the observer, then this Quality that you make so much of is just a fancy name for whatever you like.”
The author demolishes both options in turn
But it turned out to be false. The Quality that he and the students had been seeing in the classroom was completely different from the qualities of color or heat or hardness observed in the laboratory. Those physical properties were all measurable with instruments. His Quality…”excellence,” “worth,” “goodness”…was not a physical property and was not measurable. He had been thrown off by an ambiguity in the term quality. He wondered why that ambiguity should exist, made a mental note to do some digging into the historic roots of the word quality, then put it aside. The horn of the dilemma was still there.
What the classical formalists meant by the objection “Quality is just what you like” was that this subjective, undefined “quality” he was teaching was just romantic surface appeal. Classroom popularity contests could determine whether a composition had immediate appeal, all right, but was this Quality? Was Quality something that you “just see” or might it be something more subtle than that, so that you wouldn’t see it at all immediately, but only after a long period of time?
A dilemma is like a charging bull, and either horn can kill you. If a bull is aggressive, you can turn (and be gored), throw sand in his eyes (try to trick it using a logical fallacy), sing it to sleep (answer that you, unlike the questioner, are not smart enough to know), or go through the horns. The first stage is noting that quality is a larger than an individual
He noted that although normally you associate Quality with objects, feelings of Quality sometimes occur without any object at all. This is what led him at first to think that maybe Quality is all subjective. But subjective pleasure wasn’t what he meant by Quality either. Quality decreases subjectivity. Quality takes you out of yourself, makes you aware of the world around you. Quality is opposed to subjectivity.
Finally, the breakthrough. What is Quality? Answer:
I don’t know how much thought passed before he arrived at this, but eventually he saw that Quality couldn’t be independently related with either the subject or the object but could be found only in the relationship of the two with each other. It is the point at which subject and object meet.
As a Computer Scientist, I loved reading Zen and its sequel, is that they complement network theory so well.
Entity-Relationship networks are an old database concept
Two Entities And Their Relationship
To see how this works, let’s backtrack earlier in the book where Pirsig writes
He remembered [philosopher John Locke]‘s statement that no object, scientific or otherwise, is knowable except in terms of its qualities. This irrefutable truth seemed to suggest that the reason scientists cannot detect Quality in objects is because Quality is all they detect. The “object” is an intellectual construct deduced from the qualities. This answer, if valid, certainly smashed the first horn of the dilemma, and for a while excited him greatly.
In Computer Science terms, you would say that an unconnected object is meaningless. To put it slightly differently, an object without a semantic network has no knowable purpose.
An object, existing meaninglessly
Its potential is unknown because its qualities are unknown
Now let’s build a diagram that shows meaning — a semantic network. First, we will show a semantic network showing an entity and a list of things it likes. Remember that according to Locke, it is through these qualities that it is knowable.
An object, existing meaningfully
Its semantic network lets us know the entity
Now, a second semantic networking showing a second entity and a list of things it has
Another object, existing meaningfully
A different semantic network shows us different information
If we tie these together, we get something special. It can be called a semantic internet, or a world of discourse or even a database.
Two connected semantic networks
Now we have a world
To tie this all back together…
we can “instantiate” (fill in) our semantic network with
- Entity 1 as Eurovision Judge
- Entity 2 as a Miss Paparizou’s winning song, “My Number One”
- Attribute 1 as “energetic singing”
- Attribute 2 as “slutty singer”
Quality is the overlap between two semantic networks
The more relations between two entities, the more quality the relationship has. A song cannot have “quality” by itself, just as a listener cannot have “quality.” The song and the listener make the quality together.
Technically, our semantic network is just a more complex version of our original E-R diagram
Quality is the Relation between two Entities
but by breaking down the relation into semantic relationships, we see so much more.
Also note that your semantic network determines the quality you will experience. This is another way of saying that your relations define you. As Pirsig wrote
In a sense, he said, it’s the student’s choice of Quality that defines him. People differ about Quality, not because Quality is different, but because people are different in terms of experience. He speculated that if two people had identical a priori analogues they would see Quality identically every time. There was no way to test this, however, so it had to remain just speculation.
Quality makes life worth living. Quality makes life. What a dry meaningless horror the world would be if we were alone!
The Jesuit-educated Ortega y Gasset said the same thing
I am myself and my circumstance
as did the early 17th century English Catholic philosopher John Donne
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine own were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
So why do some nations seem to vote in groups in Eurovision? Because they have quality (very meaningful — thick semantic network) relationships. Quality between nations, quality between nations and songs, quality everywhere!
But does this mirror my earlier modeling of Europe? That’s a post for a different time…
Update: Slashdot picks up the story.
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” by Robert Pirsig, 1 April 1984, http://www.virtualschool.edu/mon/Quality/PirsigZen/.