Taxi Cab Confessional

I caught a cab home at 1am, not on the company dime this time, but because it's my Friday and I was spent and my eyes hurt and I just don't feel like it. Couldn't really afford it, but.

New York City cab drivers have this thing they do - you give them a destination and they drive off in the most confident manner before calling their dispatchers, speaking in their own language (not English, usually) and figuring out how the fuck to get there from here. It's such a city thing, like even the cab drivers don't want to look like they haven't lived here for their entire lives.

So my cab driver is talking through his bluetooth headset, not getting lost or anything, and I assume he's got a great spotter on the other end of the line.

But something strange happens.

We stop at a light in the middle of Brooklyn, off the highway and on street level, at a particularly quiet T-intersection, the long side of which parallels a big warehouse (so no cross traffic) and I manage to pick up the other side of his, I now realize, extremely quiet and tender conversation.

I hear the voice of a little girl speaking in Hindi.

I thought about the time difference between here and New Delhi, and realized that it much be early morning there, that he was probably saying goodbye to his daughter on her way out the door to leave for school. It's a fiction that lives entirely within my own head, really, but the feeling of family, of distant family, was overpowering.

And then I realized that all I'd given him was my address and he knew exactly which way to go, shaved three dollars off my fare. And I felt really rotten because I'd read his name off of a laminated piece of plastic instead of asking him for it himself.

As part of my postgraduate life here in Edinburgh, I'm expected to tutor a couple of dozen first (of four) year undergraduate Mathematics students. Thus I was involved in the marking of their group theory exam this past Friday. As the questions were being assigned to markers, there seemed to be a reluctance to take the logic question, probably because students manage to tie themselves in hard-to-follow knots with this material. However, I spent some of my previous year at Bath tutoring on set theory and logic to Physicists, so was prepared for the worst, and I'd also spotted that the question was multiple choice, so the actual marking shouldn't be too taxing, so I took responsibility for that one.

Still, 207 scripts later I was somewhat worried by the general standard. There were quite a few attempts which received full marks, but many more received zero, including elsewhere high-scoring candidates. Whilst the emphasis of a group theory exam should be group theory, the pressure of an exam and lack of access to notes will always dampen performance, and I probably received a few scripts that were pure guesswork, that's still a disappointment. Whilst it pains me to say it, a student could become competent at first year undergraduate mathematics just by learning how to 'turn the handle' of appropriate bits of mathematical machinery, and as this is pretty much all that they do at school, they may find that university-level mathematics isn't really the subject they thought it was. To make the leap from computation to understanding, it strikes me as vital to gain mastery of basic logical manipulation. Nor should this just be the domain of Mathematicians; if anything, a precise understanding of the structure of an argument (and its falsification) should be even more crucial to the Humanities.

So I'm going to reproduce the question here and then attempt to unravel it in a precise manner but without recourse to the more abstract approaches of formal logic, in the hope that everyone can follow. Here goes:

Consider the statements:
A. All people who can sing in tune are musical.
B. Some people who cannot sing in tune are musical.
C. Some unmusical people can sing in tune.
D. Some unmusical people cannot sing in tune.
E. No unmusical person can sing in tune.

Mark with the number 1 any of the statements B,C,D,E that are logically equivalent to statement A, with 2 any that are (logically equivalent to) the negation of A, with 3 any that are (logically equivalent to) the converse of A, with 4 any that are (logically equivalent to) the negation of the converse of A and with 0 any which are in none of the above categories.

If you'd like to try this yourself, and I hope you will, then you should stop reading now for a spoilerless attempt. The relevant definitions are here on e2, whislt the next few sections explain in detail what each means, if you need more hints. The section labelled "cases" gives a full summary, from which you just have to match with the (possibly different) formulations above- sadly, some students got this far then somehow lost the plot. The answer can then be checked at the bottom.

It seems that the easiest way to proceed is to establish what an example of each number would look like, then match those to the statements given. To do so, of course, requires an understanding of the notions of negation and converse.


Amongst the scripts which contained some reasoning (rather than just a final answer), the overwhelming majority of those that went wrong did so because of a misunderstanding of negation. To negate a statement is to make it false: not to find its complete opposite. For our statement

all people who can sing in tune are musical

negating is as simple as putting "not" in front:

not all people who can sing in tune are musical

But what I tended to see was the opposite of A:

no people who can sing in tune are musical
Certainly, if no tuneful people were musical, then it would be the case that not all tuneful people are musical. But this over-reaches: all we need to negate the statement is one unmusical, tuneful person; not that every tuneful person be unmusical.

Put another way, statement A asserts that it is impossible to be an unmusical person who sings in tune. So if I tell you that Bob sings in tune, you know he's musical. Its negation therefore asserts that it is possible to find such an individual; i.e., knowing that Bob sings in tune tells you nothing about his musical status. But the opposite is concerned with a different group of people: it means that if I tell you that Alice is a musical person, you can conclude (oddly) that she can't sing in tune.


The converse of a statement is its reversal: that Y causes X, instead of X causing Y. This won't, in general, have the same meaning, and often won't even be talking about the same things. The converse of our statement A is as follows:

All people who are musical can sing in tune

Now we know that given a musical person, we can count on them to sing in tune; but we no longer make any assertions about the musical nature of someone who can sing in tune. They could be musical, in which case our statement above doesn't generate any contradiction (it verifies their ability to sing in tune); but if they're not, since the statement says nothing about them, there is no problem.

More formally, we are dealing with statements of the form "P implies Q", equivalently, "if P, then Q". Sometimes, one has the situation of "P, if and only if Q" which is the combination of P implies Q and Q implies P. So we can speak of necessary and sufficient conditions: if you know one holds, you can be sure the other does (sufficient), and if you know one doesn't, you also know the other doesn't (necessary). This is the concept of logical equivalence which we also need for answering the question.

It's vital to recognise that a statement needn't be logically equivalent to its converse: that P can mean Q without Q meaning P. Whilst it's necessary to drive at 20mph to hit 150mph (150 implies 20, if only briefly), no-one argues that driving at 20mph should be banned because all the 150mph drivers have done it, since it's not inevitable (i.e., 20 doesn't imply 150) that driving at slow speeds will lead to faster ones. Nonetheless, the same (invalid) argument arises for "gateway drugs"- even if it was the case that all class A drug users had used cannabis, that tells you nothing about a random cannabis user's taste for stronger substances, since the (assumed) necessary condition (class A use implies cannabis use) doesn't prove the converse, that cannabis use is sufficient to get you on the harder stuff.

Negation of converse

Since we know the converse, and know how to negate, this is easy:

Not all people who are musical can sing in tune

That is, a musical person needn't be able to sing in tune, so knowing about someone's musical ability sheds no light on their singing under this assumption.


So we have

1) All people who can sing in tune are musical
2) Not all people who can sing in tune are musical (negation)
3) All people who are musical can sing in tune (converse)
4) Not all people who are musical can sing in tune (negation of converse)
0) None of the above


1) Tuneful and unmusical is impossible
2) Tuneful and unmusical is possible (negation)
3) Musical and untuneful is impossible (converse)
4) Musical and untuneful is possible (negation of converse)

The answer

So we can compare to our given statements.
B says there are untuneful people who are nonetheless musical; this is the same as 4.
C says there are unmusical people who can sing in tune; this is the same as 2.
D says it's possible to be an unmusical, untuneful person; none of our reformulations consider such individuals, so we have case 0.
E says that being unmusical prevents you from being someone who sings in tune, so it's impossible to be both, that is, we have case 1, a rewording of A.

That's it! I'd be interested to know how people got on with this, whether you tried it 'cold' or followed the explanation some of the way. I'm also bound to have mistyped something in a crucial way, so let me know if you spot an inconsistency.

In Memoriam Cutty Sark

At around 4:30am London time today, the 138-year old tea clipper Cutty Sark caught fire. Arson is suspected. The flames were put out by 7:00am, but during that time managed to destroy most of the inside of the vessel. Cutty Sark was undergoing a £25million restoration program at the time so luckily, the masts, artefacts and at least 50% of the structure was detached and undergoing repair.

Cutty Sark left from the Clyde for her maiden voyage on 16th February 1870, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to Shanghai in three and a half months. She made 8 journeys to China and back for the tea trade, one record-breaking run back from China taking 72 days.

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