Ask Fuzzy: Unpredictable outcomes – now that’s random

Question: What is “random”?

A simplistic definition of “random” is that anything can happen. It’s simplistic but also wrong because it depends on the situation. You can flip a coin and get a heads or tails, but a jack of diamonds makes no sense.

A better definition is that random means you cannot predict the outcome.

There are degrees of random and in the strongest, all options are equally likely because there are no patterns. My Dad was infuriating playing Canasta because he kept track of the cards, and therefore which ones were more likely to come up next. He could do that because the game is not completely random.

The idea of random raises deep philosophical questions, which even has implications for whether the universe has a fixed destiny and therefore whether there’s such a thing as free will. This might be the case if you had perfect knowledge of the state of the universe and the processes that govern it.

If, for example, you could replicate every atom in a person’s body, then exactly replicate a situation, you could predict precisely how they would behave. If you knew the location and energy states of every atom on the planet, you could forecast the local weather at 6.37pm 100 years from now.

Maybe. It’s a tough call and the enemy is the chaos of the wombat effect. A single wombat burrow can nudge the course of water trickling across a watershed. That later becomes a mighty river, changing the shape of a continent. With chaos, the smallest thing can have huge downstream consequences that are unpredictable.

Computers are good at calculations, but genuine random numbers are difficult because they rely on step-by-step algorithms. Given the same starting point, they’ll produce the same result. These are called pseudo random. One novel solution for this uses light from a lava lamp.

Each game on a poker machine is random and the gambler’s myth is that a machine is due to pay, or this one is lucky. They are carefully designed so that every individual game is unrelated to every other.

What is not random is that on average they strip 10 to 15 cents out of every dollar you put in. So $100 becomes $90, and when that’s fed back in, it drops to $81. At that rate, after about 50 $1 games, it’s all gone.

Response by: Rod Taylor, Fuzzy Logic

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