Thursday, June 23, 2011


"Arbitron has chosen you to take part in the Radio Ratings."

So said the package that arrived in the mail for us from Arbitron. In addition to two crisp, brand new dollar bills in the package, a reward for merely opening it (okay, how many of those are sitting in the trash?) I can earn a $10 gift certificate for keeping a diary of my radio listening for a week. What could be simpler? I can use $10.

The diary is kept on line, on their website. I need to record every instance of listening to the radio, whether I selected the station or merely happened to be in the room when my husband turned it on. I need to record the station, whether it's AM, FM, internet, satellite, or other, whether it's at home, in the car, at work or somewhere else, and when I started listening and when I stopped. This sounds easy enough, right?

Nothing is ever simple for me. My husband's alarm goes off at 6:30 every morning. Lately I have been awake by five, in the room next door, working on the computer. I can hear the radio, in the sense of the radio being on, but I can't really hear it, in the sense of knowing what is being played. Do I count that? When we drive around in the car, my husband will switch back and forth between the public radio station and the station owned by a local high school, which plays jazz all day long. Very often, I don't notice when he switches from the public station to the high school one. It's just as well I can't drive at the moment, because I do even more station switching than hubby does, and if I tried to keep notes about how many stations I switched to and when, I'd be a menace on the roads. 

Which brings up another point. The act of keeping track alters my listening habits. I'm more aware of listening to the radio as an activity and probably chose it more than I would have if I had never signed up to do this. At the moment I'm listening to Pandora online, which is something I haven't done in months. If I were driving somewhere, I'm sure I'd select one station and stick to it, or maybe just not listen at all, to make record keeping easier.

Due to hubby's listening habits and my frequent passenger status in his car, I'm recording a lot of time spent listening to the public radio station, which I don't even like. I think its slogan should be, "This is NPR - all boredom, all the time". So now I feel like I should go out of my way to listen to stations I like on my own time so that they will be represented in my listening diary.

I can't really think of a better system. Well, I can think of science fiction-y solutions like a tracking device implanted in your ear which will monitor the stations you listen to automatically, but I wouldn't prefer that. I've just run up against a concrete example of the oft-noted phenomenon that the very act of observing changes what is being observed.

I've also run up against several examples of how hard common behaviors can be to define. Am I listening to the radio if I have a vague awareness that  it is on? If I hear a few words spoken or a few notes played and then tune it out to the point I don't notice that the station has been changed? What percentage of what I hear has to be attended to before I can say that I am listening? 

The branch of logic that deals with questions like this is called "fuzzy logic". Crisp logic deals with phenomena that are binary: "A" precludes "not A" and vice versa. If I'm listening to the radio in the car, I am not at the same time listening to it in the house. If the station I am listening to is an AM station, it's not an FM station. Little of what we experience in life works that neatly. Most distinctions, like the one between "listening" and "not listening" are fuzzy.

"Fuzzy logic" is a misunderstood term.  It has been my experience that when the average person hears the term "fuzzy logic" they think "bad logic", not "good logic applied to fuzzy phenomena". 

 What's crucial to realize is that fuzzy logic is a logic OF fuzziness, not a logic which is ITSELF fuzzy. . . .[J]ust as the laws of probability are not random, so the laws of fuzziness are not vague.

Not being a logician, crisp or fuzzy, I have been left to make my own decisions about how to classify and record my listening habits, and they have sometimes been quite arbitrary. I hope I'm supplying good data in return for my $12. 

Good? Data?

I think I'll go listen to the radio.

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