25 October 2010

Luck coincidence fate and fiction

On my post of 15 of October there was an odd coincidence. I had an anecdote about the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. It turns out Mandelbrot died on the 14 of October and the news was in the papers on the 16 of October, so I was writing about Mandelbrot as the world was awaiting the news of his passing. I also posted this on the LessWrong group web log, as you can see here. At least 22 of the people there read my article and gave it a positive vote and around 10 people commented on it, but nobody mentioned the coincidence about Mandelbrot being in the post. It may be weird to nobody else but it sure felt weird to me when I looked at the New York Times front page on the 16 of October and there was Mandelbrot's obituary and I was just posting about the fellow yesterday.

There is a vast literature on the whole topic of low probability events that we observe all the time. Why do people believe weird things? Apparently human reasoning about probability is naturally terrible. Leo Tolstoy might have thought my holy guardian angel guided me to the usage of the Mandelbrot example on that day. The man obviously had a horrible grasp on what is a possibility if you judge by the plot of his great novel War and Peace.

There is luck. There is coincidence. And then there is that is completely impossible to observe in a billion trillion human lifetimes, which is what Tolstoy writes about in that book. Just off the top of my head:

1.) Andre and Anatole in the same surgeon's tent at the same time at Borodino where 30 000 Russian soldiers were fatally wounded.

2.) Andre being evacuated to the Rostov's house in Moscow, then being among the ten randomly chosen to evacuate further to one of the Rostov's country houses.

3.) Nikolai foraging around Smolensk and happening upon Maria's country house at the exact precise hour her serfs were carrying out their rebellion.

Apparently you have to have the genius of Tolstoy to make stuff like this up. The probabilities here are like 30 000 to 1, 100 000 to 1, and 100 000 000 000 000 to 1. This isn't impossibly unlikely. It is fiction.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.