I was talking this week about ‘chucking some random numbers’ at my career; which I think some people listening thought might be bit reckless.
But in fact what I have in mind is well grounded in computer science.
Going back and listening again to ‘Algorithms to live by’ out walking the dog today, I was reminded that there are excellent design, creativity and evolutionary reasons to ‘chuck in’ a bit of randomness…
After all, life is all about optimisation.
Being randomly jittered, thrown out of the frame and focused on a larger scale, provides a way to leave what might be locally good and get back to the pursuit of what might be globally optimal.
But there are (and should be) limits:
The cult classic 1971 novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (real name: George Cockcroft) provides a cautionary tale. Its narrator, a man who replaces decision-making with dice rolling, quickly ends up in situations that most of us would probably like to avoid.
I remember flirting with The Dice Man in the 1990s – and it’s a young man’s game… Later on in life there’s much more at stake.
But maybe it’s more about how, and how much:
If the Dice Man had only had a deeper grasp of computer science, he’d have had some guidance.
‘Algorithms’ says there are three golden rules; first, from ‘Hill Climbing‘:
Even if you’re in the habit of sometimes acting on bad ideas, you should always act on good ones.
Second from the ‘Metropolis Algorithm’:
Your likelihood of following a bad idea should be inversely proportional to how bad an idea it is.
And third from ‘Simulated Annealing‘:
You should front-load randomness, rapidly cooling out of a totally random state, using ever less and less randomness as time goes on, lingering longest as you approach freezing. Temper yourself—literally.
And that’s that the original Dice Man did too:
Cockcroft himself apparently turned, not unlike his protagonist, to “dicing” for a time in his life, living nomadically with his family on a Mediterranean sailboat, in a kind of Brownian slow motion.
At some point, however, his annealing schedule cooled off: he settled down comfortably into a local maximum, on a lake in upstate New York.
Sometimes you need to know when you’re in a good place:
Now in his eighties, he’s still contentedly there. “Once you got somewhere you were happy,” he told the Guardian, “you’d be stupid to shake it up any further.”