Randomness, in Four Parts

Despite the fact that this package is about randomness, it’s actually fairly well structured. But as it turns out, order might be more random than it looks.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: A few months ago, I did a piece on repetition that was something of a mechanical exercise, a test to see if I could come up with an edition of Tedium in less time than I usually can, using some of the structures of my newsletter MidRange, which is heavily structured around a prompt. The topic I chose was great, because it offered an opportunity to build variations on a theme. And you know what? Even though it was a bit of a rush to get that piece out, it was actually a lot of fun to do, and creatively fulfilling. And today, on the anniversary of MidRange’s launch, I wanted to write the absolute opposite piece—a four-part treatise on randomness, with each main portion written around a 30-minute time limit. Wish me luck. — Ernie @ Tedium

P.S.: Are you a longtime reader of Tedium? Read to the bottom, I have some questions for you.

Tedium on Patreon

Keep Us Moving! Tedium takes a lot of time to work on and snark wise about. If you want to help us out, we have a Patreon page where you can donate. Keep the issues coming!

We accept advertising, too! Check out this page to learn more.

Random dictionary

I was looking for a picture of a dictionary page with the word “random” on it, but it turned out I could use the cover. Pretty random, if you ask me.

Where did the word “random” come from, anyway? Was it random?

The thing about stuff being random is that it is supposed to happen without any true rhyme or reason, with the odds of it connecting in any way something we are generally unable to account for, except by chance.

But this concept had to emerge from somewhere, right?

Looking back at a few words in different languages, we get clues in terms of how this random word evolved.

For example, the German word rand often refers to the edge of something, i.e., out of the standard circle of expectation. Another early French-derivative parent word, randon, originally was a way of referencing speed, rather than the propensity of chance.

The propensity-of-chance definition came about in the 19th century, along with a growing interest in mathematics in general, but in many ways, “random” is not a word that has stayed put.

In fact, it keeps evolving, including relatively recently. In a 1980 column, legendary New York Times writer William Safire wrote about the evolving trends in words from college students, ending with this line about the way random was shifting into something of a noun:

A word that kept cropping up in this rewarding response by the Lexicographic Irregulars was “random.” My happiest days at Syracuse U. were spent just strolling about, determined to be aimless, and that wandering wonderment now has a verb: to random. The word, normally an adjective meaning “haphazard,” is also a college noun that Edward Fitzgerald of M.I.T. interprets as “a person who does not belong on our dormitory floor,” or, by extension, a welcome foreigner.

Some have suggested this noun-like definition of the word (which often gets shortened to “rando”) is wrong, but as NPR explained in 2012, it really reflects a prescriptive approach to language, which tends to evolve more organically—yes, randomly.

But it still bugs people. Ken Ringle, in a 2003 column for the Washington Post attempting to make heads and tails of the modern use of “random,” compared it to other faddish words:

Random is the flip side of that favorite slang term of post-World War II adolescent Americans: “neat.” “Neat” was the achievement (or at least appearance) of order and symmetry in one’s personal life equivalent to the butch haircuts, trimmed lawns and squared corners evanescent in 1950s public life. No loose ends left dangling. A well-tuned 1955 Chevrolet was “neat” in part because nothing about it had been left to chance.

Riffing on Ringle’s random obsession with “random,” The Awl contributor Paul Hiebert aimed for a higher cultural calling in attempting to understand it in the context of “neat,” timing neat’s popularity to the post-WWII era, and random’s popularity into the post-9/11 era.

“There is something unthinking and uncurious and unfeeling in its use. It is defensive. It indicates a lack of empathy,” Hiebert wrote. “Random is anathema to synthesis through imagination, a refusal to enter the unknown.”

That one random word can drive so much deep thinking is pretty random.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 3 minutes, 12 seconds

25

The age at which randomness peaks among humans, according to an academic study published in the journal PLoS Computational Biology. “At age 25, people can outsmart computers at generating this kind of randomness,” said Hector Zenil, a study co-author, in comments to the Scientific American.

This legendary pop song, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” almost didn’t happen.

The random encounter that changed the state of rock music forever

Honestly, the thing that got me thinking about randomness was Neil Young, the current hero of the progressive left for standing up against Spotify for hosting podcaster Joe Rogan on its service.

Certainly, a lot of what makes someone like Neil Young famous is a combination of a long track record mixed with a whole lot of great songs, but you can legitimately credit the power of chance for Young’s initial trajectory.

See, had things played out slightly differently in the mid-1960s, he might have ended up a sideman to late funk legend Rick James. Or he might not have had much of a career at all. But ultimately, had he not been in the right place at the right time, he would have been another desperate guy in Los Angeles looking for his big break.

But Young instead found himself running into a friend of his that he had previously hoped to start a band with—Stephen Stills, who he had met on tour in his native Canada—on a busy highway, in the middle of a traffic jam. He was actually looking for Stills in the Unites States, but the place Stills found him (rather than the other way around) was a total crapshoot, only enabled by the fact that Young was driving a fairly distinctive vehicle.

(Side note, given the stat we just published on randomness and age: Young was 20 at the time of this encounter, Stills 21.)

Neil Young Squires Hearse

Neil Young and his band, The Squires, next to the hearse they drove at the time. The fact that Stephen Stills knew Young drove this vehicle set the stage for their 1966 L.A. encounter.

Although playing in different bands, Stills and Young became fast friends, and Young immediately became interested in starting a band with Stills. Problem was, Stills was already planning on traveling to the United States to try his odds at becoming a rock star. In a time before cell phones, it was not a sure thing that Stills and Young would ever cross paths again.

Soon after the tour, Young had found work as a backing bandmate in a group called the Mynah Birds, which had an energetic lead singer who would find major success years later: Rick James. Just one problem, and one that emerged when the band was in the studio: James had gone AWOL from the U.S. Navy and was arrested in a Motown studio, serving a one-year prison sentence as a result of the desertion. (Clearly, it didn’t hurt James’ career in the long run.)

Young and his former Mynah Birds bandmate, Bruce Palmer, decided to sell off the band’s equipment, in exchange for a very old-school Pontiac hearse, which they then drove across the border, and then to California, when the chance meeting on Sunset Boulevard occurred. (Stills knew Young favored driving hearses, though not that specific hearse.) Almost immediately, Stills and his musical collaborator, Richie Furay, turned around to get the attention of Young and Palmer. Almost immediately, they started Buffalo Springfield, a band that became hugely popular in the L.A. scene literally overnight.

As the Winnipeg Free Press notes, the creation of Buffalo Springfield and enough bands to start an entire subgenere of music might not have happened had that chance encounter not happened:

If Stills had been looking the other way, Buffalo Springfield and its many offshoots (Crosby, Stills & Nash; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Neil Young & Crazy Horse; Manassas; Poco; Loggins & Messina) might never have happened. Young himself may not have become the iconic musical force he remains 50 years later.

In a way, a lot of life is the result of chance encounters—we are all creatures of circumstance, if you think of it—but generally, those encounters don’t happen thousands of miles from home, without the benefit of cell phones or GPS.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 6 minutes, 48 seconds

1925

The year Random House, the big-name book publisher, was first rounded. It is effectively named in the way it is to give it license to publish whatever it wants, per NPR.

ERNIE I

The ERNIE 1 computer. (via Light-Straw)

The random number generator that could change your life is named ERNIE

I don’t know why, but meeting other people named Ernie has always been a bit of a novel thing to me. My first name is so uncommon that I find myself finding affinity with other pop-culture Ernies, like the Ernie from Sesame Street, or Ernest P. Worrell.

But if I were British, I would have a random number generator to consider a cosmic brother of mine. His name is ERNIE, which is an abbreviation for his God-given name, Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment. And depending on how the numbers play out, he might just make you a little wealthier than you were previously.

ERNIE is at the center of the United Kingdom’s lottery bond system, called Premium Bond. The idea behind a lottery bond, for those not familiar, is that the system, designed to encourage investment, allows a small chance that you might make more than your normal investment in a given month.

For the Americans among our readership, think of it like this: Imagine a version of the lottery where you invest money, but you can redeem the value of the lottery ticket at any time. That money helps to support the federal government, but in the end, most people won’t get particularly rich as a result of this. A decent portion have a chance of seeing some kind of return from it, but a relatively nominal amount, nothing more than a few bucks. But for a very small number of people in the lottery, you could win a huge amount of money—if not quite as big as you could get from a Mega Millions contest.

The process that decides this, at least in the UK, is managed by ERNIE. Over the years, ERNIE has taken a lot of forms. In the late 1950s, when computers were the size of a large room or two, so was ERNIE 1, which was a mishmash of vacuum tubes and transistors. Over time, he got smaller and smaller, generally following broader trends in computing. (ERNIE 4, dating to 2004, fit on a device the size of a standard motherboard, and used thermal noise to randomly generate numbers.)

ERNIE 5 chip

The ERNIE 5 chip, which generates random numbers with light. (NS&I Corporation)

But the most recent version, ERNIE 5, has moved away from broader computing trends, and is now something of a pace setter; now, he’s one of the earliest prominent examples of quantum computing in action, at a time when quantum computing is a very exotic kind of thing. The primary chip that runs the computing device is roughly the size of a grain of rice, according to the BBC.

Each iteration of ERNIE gets a lot smaller and a lot faster. But lottery bond investment kept growing. By the end of ERNIE 4’s life, it would take hours for the device to run through the millions of potential winning lottery bonds, which grew hugely in popularity during its lifetime, putting lots of strain on the device by the end, per The Guardian.

Perhaps, if you’ve never taken part in a lottery bond before, you find this process a bit high tech. After all, you might be used to something closer to that spinning Bingo drum. But in many ways, the job of the ERNIE is much tougher. Essentially, it is managing a bingo drum including every single lottery bond in the system, and it has to make millions of choices. Even after all that, the odds of winning anything are one in 34,500 or something like that.

To put this all another way: ERNIE could make you rich, but the odds are much more likely that ERNIE will not call your number and keep you poor.

Thanks ERNIE.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 32 seconds

Random Numbers

(Mika Baumeister/Unsplash)

Why modern computers really struggle with the concept of randomness

But enough about ERNIE, impressive beast as he is.

I’d like to talk about your computer, or the one hosting your website, or the one in your pocket.

How can it do in terms of handling random numbers? To put it simply: Not always the greatest. For example, a traditional pain point of many web hosting tools has been displaying random content. Trying to show random things on WordPress, for example, is likely to cause problems for your server, especially if every user is taxing the random result, so it’s generally encouraged to avoid pure randomization when possible on CMS-driven websites. (I actually added random elements to the recent redesign of Tedium, but I did something clever to work around the headroom limitation: The random elements—the header images on the front and archive pages of the site—change only when I clear the cache or update an article. As a result, it appears randomly, but it’s the same randomness for everyone.)

But web hosting is one thing. Bigger challenges are out there for needs like cryptography, which relies heavy on number randomization. Part of the problem is that the ask being made isn’t quite so simple for a computer. In many ways, it goes against everything a computer is supposed to do.

“They’re deterministic, which means that if you ask the same question you’ll get the same answer every time,” notes Steve Ward, a computer science professor at MIT. “In fact, such machines are specifically and carefully programmed to eliminate randomness in results. They do this by following rules and relying on algorithms when they compute.”

As a result, this leads to situations where the computer’s decision-making isn’t really random, but “pseudo-random.” Think of a “shuffle mode,” for example. If it really was random, in the way we think of randomness, it would lead to situations where the same artist randomly gets played in the same playlist multiple times in a row, possibly even the same song. Which would, ironically feel less random, when in reality, it’s actually random. So companies like Apple and, yes, Spotify, have taken steps to put the song list up against algorithms that would discourage undesirable results from randomness, such as patterns that feel stale. Spotify was actually inspired by a 2007 post that described a concept called “balanced shuffle,” in which an algorithm decides to intentionally discourage the next song to play from being anything like the prior song.

“If you just heard a song from a particular artist, that doesn’t mean that the next song will be more likely from a different artist in a perfectly random order,” Spotify engineer Lukáš Poláček wrote in a 2014 blog post. “However, the old saying says that the user is always right, so we decided to look into ways of changing our shuffling algorithm so that the users are happier. We learned that they don’t like perfect randomness.”

And randomness has many much more important use cases, like cryptography, a huge element of both password creation and the blockchain.

Perhaps for this reason, organizations keep taking stabs to improve it. A refreshed random number generator was recently added to the Linux kernel, for example, and companies like Intel have taken steps to develop hardware solutions for generating random numbers.

Maybe we won’t truly have the problem licked until we embrace quantum computing.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 9 seconds

I often feel like randomness is a gift of sorts; we can’t anticipate what is going to happen, and often it leads to happy accidents that make life just that much more interesting, as artist of the moment Neil Young knows a thing or 10 about.

But the funny part is, even after all this time, we struggle to harness it. Computers struggle to convince you that they’re actually being random when they are, because randomness implies something that is different than what most people expect.

Seeing 20 of items show up at your door in accidental batches of similar items is random (and, in the Clueless sense, perhaps delivered by a random), but seeing 20 different things separated out by algorithm might actually be secretly orderly. But one feels more random than the other because we’ve been conditioned to think that way.

We may never get a handle on randomness, even with the help of quantum computing, but it’s pretty easy to embrace it for what it is sometimes. Why not just accept that random things happen?

--

Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

Find me on: Twitter