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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Randomness Rules

I woke up at 3AM this morning, worrying about various things. It is amazing how many topics generate concern in the wee hours! Since I was awake and needed to distract myself from my cares, I picked up a book that I had been reading off and on for the past few weeks and finished it. It is called "The Drunkard's Walk; How Randomness Rules Our Lives," by Leonard Mlodinow. Dr. Mlodinow is a physics PhD and teaches at Caltech. This is a very good book. Here are a couple of concepts that the author presented:

There is a view that is sometimes called "determinism" - the concept claims that the current state of the world determines precisely the manner in which the future will unfold. One outcome of this viewpoint is the belief that one's personal qualities/character lead directly to specific consequences. In order for determinism to be true, the laws of nature must dictate definite outcomes and we have to know all of those laws. We also need to have all the data necessary to describe the system, and can't miss anything -no unforeseen effects. We also need to have enough brain power (or computer muscle) to analyze this vast quantity of data and draw the right conclusions.

I am going on record right now - I repudiate, reject deny and vilify determinism! Whenever I hear someone say "Everything happens for a reason," I want to tear my hair out. No, things DON'T happen for a "reason!" Things happen due to random events, which are things that can't be foreseen. The best humans can do to manage their futures is to build useful skills and keep trying persistently to catch a break.

Let me illustrate this with a long story.

In 1988, a young woman got on a bus in downtown Chicago, heading home after her work day. On the seat next to her was the classified advertising section of the Chicago Tribune. The woman didn't generally read the Tribune, and the ad section wasn't full of interesting news, but she picked up the paper to pass the time as she rode home. There was a column of personal advertisements - this was the "pre-Internet" era; personal ads were all the rage. The woman had recently ended a long relationship, so she looked at the "Men Seeking Women" section; she got out her pen and circled two ads, and took the paper with her when she got off the bus.

Back in her apartment, the woman called her brother. "I am thinking about answering a personal ad. Listen to these two and tell me which you like best." She read the personals to her brother, and he said, ""Hmmm...Well, the guy in the second one said he is a father. You like kids; maybe you should answer that one."

Ten days later, a tired divorced guy got home from work. In his mailbox was a large envelope from the Chicago Tribune, containing about 70 letters in response to his personal ad. He opened a beer and sat down at the kitchen table to review them. Many were sad; from women that seemed desperate. Some were from lonely professional women - doctors/lawyers/executives. And one was from the woman on the bus.

The guy opened the letter and glitter fell out, all over the floor. "Excellent attention-grabbing device," he muttered under his breath. The letter was short, but well-written. And it was typed, so he didn't have to decipher sloppy handwriting. The woman from the bus included a snapshot. She was very cute. He sat and pondered. Then he picked up the telephone and called the number she included in her note.

We have been married for 20 years now, and our oldest daughter is applying to college. She helped me raise the 2 kids from my first marriage and we are working on raising the 2 girls.

Random Events: (1) Someone left the classified section on the bus. (2) Woman gets on that bus. (3) Woman happens to sit near the newspaper. (4) Woman decides to pick up the newspaper and read the personals. (5) Woman picks 2 ads from the paper. (6) Woman's brother recommends that she answers one of the ads. (7) Woman decides to type letter. (8) Woman decides to put glitter in the envelope. (8) Guy notices these two touches. (9) Out of the 70 letters, guy decides to answer the woman's letter.

Actions that the Humans Took To Manage Their Futures: (1) Divorced guy wanted to meet a new person and was having trouble, so he took out a personal ad. (2) Woman that just left a relationship wanted to meet an new person and decided to answer the ad. (3) Woman took the time and used creativity to make her letter stand out. (4) Guy had the courage to call a complete stranger and ask her out on a date.

One could say that my two daughters owe their existence to glitter. How random is that?

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