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MAKING EVERYTHING PERFECTLY FUZZY : Invoking Asian Thinking, USC's Bart Kosko Argues That the World Is Far More Ambiguous Than Aristotle Ever Imagined

April 01, 1990|SHELDON TEITELBAUM | Sheldon Teitelbaum writes for USC's Transcript, for USC Trojan Family and for Cinefantastique.

Kosko grew up in a largely Slavic, working-class Kansas City neighborhood called Strawberry Hill. His childhood was an odd mixture of "Little House on the Prairie" and the "Lord of the Flies." The woods behind his house were great for woodcraft, hunting and trapping and amateur rocketry. But they were also the scenes of sometimes vicious B B gun, wrist-rocket and Molotov cocktail battles between warring neighborhood kids. Bart, his friends recall, could always be found in the front lines.

"Bart was the most passionate person I ever met," recalls childhood friend Kevin Helliker, an author and journalist who lived two houses down from him as a boy. "Our sense of the Koskos was that they had more fun than anybody."

That changed tragically in Bart's 10th year, when their house burned down because of an electrical short. A few months later, Bart's father, a building contractor, was killed in a car accident.

"All kids have a keen sense of what's fair and not," Helliker says. "But Bart had this tremendous, inborn outrage at injustice. That outrage only increased after the death of his father."

The financially strapped Koskos moved to a farm near Lansing, Kan., where Bart threw himself into a variety of pastimes to escape his loneliness and anger. He gobbled up books on science, philosophy, literature, art and politics. Along with improving his karate, he taught himself how to play the mandolin, guitar, balalaika and piano. His friends never knew of his musical acumen until they read in the newspapers that he had won a national Young Composers Contest. Then in 1977, he won a full scholarship to USC, having composed an orchestral overture to "The Count of Monte Cristo" in high school.

As an undergraduate at USC, Kosko decided to supplement his income by writing for pay. Learning that the men's adventure market was wide open, he placed short pieces in magazines such as Oui and Gallery.

What motivates Kosko? "You have to understand that Bart is indignant over the ultimate imminence of his own death," says Helliker in an attempt to analyze his friend's drive to succeed in so many areas. "Last year, when we spent some time together, he advised me almost daily to reflect on the fact that the coroner would be cutting out my guts sooner than I imagine. Death was never far off--it should be stared in the face on a daily basis, he said, to remind us we don't have time to waste."

Kosko agrees that he views "with dread" the prospect of his own demise. Mortality is, in fact, what makes Bart run as if someone--or something--were chasing him.

KOSKO'S STAY at the USC School of Music was short-lived. Although he had passed his graduate placement exams, he and the school differed over what he should be studying. "I just hated atonal music," he says.

Kosko kept his scholarship for a year, but he was strongly urged to find another major. He chose philosophy and economics, eventually becoming a fan of free market economist Milton Friedman and a campus libertarian activist. But he soon ran into conceptual difficulties that might not have fazed his fellow students.

"In philosophy," he explains, "one does logic. But the Aristotelian theories underlying it hadn't changed in 3,000 years. That is never symptomatic of a healthy theory.

"I eventually abandoned philosophy because I felt that there was no room in academia for philosophers in the classical sense that Kant, Aristotle, Hume and Descartes had been. They had done their best to master all the science and mathematics of their day. In many cases they actually contributed to it. I began checking out math books." Kosko went on, in fact, to secure a master's degree in mathematics and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, which he viewed as a field in which most of his scientific interests converged.

Kosko's fuzzy road to Damascus ran through Austin, Tex., where he met Zadeh at an artificial intelligence conference in 1984. A year before that, he first saw the word fuzzy in a scientific paper. Kosko recalls being struck by revelatory wonder. "This really seemed to tie together many of my concerns," he recalls.

At the conference, Zadeh was fiercely attacked for his ideas. Kosko, a young graduate student, without a doctorate much less professional standing, stood in front of a room filled with the Pharisees of the scientific community and mounted an impassioned defense of a concept of fuzziness, although the mathematical questions had not been asked or answered. (Two years later at another conference, this same fervor would induce one scientist to bang on a table in Kruschevian fury, yelling that "a set is a set is a set.") Zadeh was impressed. Immediately afterward, Kosko mailed Zadeh a theorem supporting fuzziness. Zadeh eventually became Kosko's thesis adviser.

A year later, Kosko attended another conference at which a well-known probabilist insisted publicly, and almost persuasively, that Zadeh was violating some inherent law of nature with his theories.

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