I want to talk about how random life is, but first a story about two childhood friends that have become enemies, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.
Rosberg and Hamilton became friends racing go-karts in Europe as young teenagers. They came from very different backgrounds and didn’t meet until they started racing go-karts, Rosberg was born into racing royalty and Hamilton is a Brit who grew up in a lower-middle class suburb of London, but they were both very good at racing and they soon started racing at the inter-European level. They are about the same age and they became friends even though they were so different.
Nico Rosberg is the son of Keke Rosberg, a Formula One Championship winning driver and Gesine Gleitsmann-Dengel, a German interpreter. He considers himself German – speaks fluent German, English, French and Italian – and grew up in Monaco. Lewis Hamilton is from a mixed race family that dissolved when he was two. He grew up with his mother and sisters and became very good at racing radio controlled model cars. Because of that, his father gave him a go-kart when he was six. When he was twelve, he moved in with his father to race. Nico looks like a Ralph Lauren ad and so does his wife, the daughter of a family friend he has known since childhood. Lewis favors a gangsta look, drives a purple Pagani Zonda, and has dated – seriously, off and on – an American, Nicole Scherzinger who Wikipedia identifies as the lead singer of The Pussycat Dolls, a burlesque troupe turned-recording act.
In the words of their boss, Toto Wolff, These boys have calibrated their whole life…to win the Drivers’ Championship in F1. And here they go – they are in the same car, competing against each other for that trophy and one is going to win and one is going to fail. This is a new experience for them – a difficult experience maybe.
I think – and I am far from the only one – that Lewis Hamilton is the best pure racecar driver in the world, but right now, Rosberg is leading in the championship even though Hamilton has won more races. That is because Hamilton has had an extraordinary string of bad luck. His Mercedes has had two race ending mechanical problem and he had additional electrical problems in qualifying that forced him to start 16th and last for two races. He was forced out of the Belgium Grand Prix in an accident caused by Rosberg, and last week, in Italy, he had an electrical problem on the start. Out of the 12 races run so far, Hamilton has had problems beyond his control in seven of them and Rosberg has had problems in one.
It is easy to see a pattern here, but there isn’t any. It is easy to see a conspiracy of a German Team trying to help the German get the Championship, but I find it hard to believe they would pay Hamilton 32 million dollars a year not to finish races (and, when Hamilton doesn’t finish, his car doesn’t finish and Mercedes is also trying to win the Manufacturers Championship). Even people who don’t normally believe in conspiracy theories have a tendency to systematize random events.
When I was in college, I worked on several experiments with students watching Flat Worm Behavior. In an effort to get truly unbiased results, we assigned participants to different areas of the experiment on a random basis. Now, we can go on the web and get a random number generator, but then, in the olden days, we would use charts – for lack of a better descriptor – filled with lines of random numbers. Looking at the numbers, they often didn’t seem random. Often they would seem to have too many numbers that formed patterns or a chain of the same number that was too long to seem natural. That is the problem, true randomness has pseudo-patterns and we think of random as being patternless. True randomness often feels fake.
In the 2002 season, the Oakland A’s won the American League pennant with a season record of 103-59. That is a 64% winning average. but from August 14th to September 4th, the A’s won every game they played. They had a 20 game winning streak. No other team has done that since 1935 and before that 1916. If the A’s had their seasonal average during that period, they would have lost 7 games instead of having their streak. If somebody had been told to randomly list wins and losses so that the average was a 64% winning average, it is doubtful that they would have put a twenty game winning streak in the middle.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me some information on 9-11 being a conspiracy. I am not much of a conspiracy buff because I think that life is much more random than people want to believe (although it has alway amazed me that one of the most likely conspiracies – that of William J. Casey, then head of the CIA who was rendered incapable of speech and then died just hours before before he was going to be questioned about Iran-Contra – has never gotten traction; if the head of the CIA can’t fake their own death, who can?).
We are pattern recognizing creatures, all animals are, and in the case of a huge catastrophe like The World Trade Center coming down, there are lots of random parts. We try to make all the random parts fit into a pattern and that often results in fantastical explanations but I am convinced that the only conspiracy was between al-Qaeda and the sorry, mislead souls, who flew those planes.