Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Luck of the draw

This is a sequel to my previous post:

I often use poker as a theological analogy. That's in part because poker is an iconic game in American culture. In addition, it's a flexible analogy that can illustrate different doctrines, viz. prayer, predestination, miracles. Here's another example:

I'm going to continue with my original analogy, but develop it in another direction. The question is whether something that's not random can seem to be random. 

Suppose, as a teenager, I discover that I have telepathic abilities. BTW, this isn't purely hypothetical. There is evidence for telepathy. For instance, philosopher Stephen Braude has documented this phenomenon. Likewise, Classicist Gilbert Murray had quite the reputation as a mindreader. My illustration doesn't depend on the reality of telepathy. I'm just using it to make a point of principle. But it could actually be realistic.

Back to the story. As an enterprising, but not overly scrupulous teenager, I realize that I could use my ability to make an easy and lucrative living for myself, if I play my cards right (pardon the pun). It dovetails perfectly with certain kinds of gambling. I'd be unbeatable at chess or poker.

However, I have to be very discreet about my ability. A casino would not be amused by the presence of a psychic poker player. Not to mention the players I cheat. 

Although I could be equally invincible at chess or poker, I dare not play both, as that would draw too much attention to myself. The trick is not to acquire a reputation as a great poker player (or chess player), since that would attract unwanted attention. I must figure out how to succeed without becoming too successful for my own good. Maintain a low profile.

I'm not a regular customer at the casino. I only go there when I'm low on money. And since the amount I win varies from one game to the next, I don't go back at regular intervals. From the casino's perspective, there's no pattern to when I show up. It seems to be random.

Of course, that's not the case. I go there at irregular times because the amount of the jackpot varies from one game to another. Sometimes I win more, sometimes I win less. When I win more, I can live on that for longer. When I win less, I need to replenish my bank account sooner.

Moreover, people don't spend money at the same rate every month or ever year. Maybe I buy a new car one year, or buy a boat one year. Or maybe the boat engine needs to be repaired, so I'm out a lot of money that month. 

So, from the casino's perspective, it's completely unpredictable when I will turn up, even though that's not really random, but determined by my finances, which are determined by my winnings and expenses. There's actually a connection, but the casino doesn't have enough information to piece it together.

In addition, if I always went to the same casino, that would arouse suspicion. Even if my visits were infrequent, my success would still raise red flags. So, to cover my tracks, I spread it out by visiting different casinos in Reno, Vegas, and Atlantic City, as well as Indian casinos. That creates a randomized appearance. Yet it's calculated randomness. There's actually a pattern to it. But each casino is unaware of my activities at other casinos.

Finally, although I can win every game, that would be a dead giveaway. I'm an unbeatable player who must pretend to be beatable to thrown them off the scent. I must lose more often than I win. A tactical loss. Once again, that's to feign the appearance of happenstance. 

The point is not whether it's ethical for a mindreader to be a professional poker player or chess player. It's just a handy way of demonstrating how, in principle, one agent's actions can purposeful and methodical even though they seem to be aimless or coincidental to observers. 


  1. "That creates a randomized appearance. Yet it's calculated randomness. There's actually a pattern to it."

    Exactly. :)

    You could actually follow a completely random number generator to tell you how whether to win or lose, how often to play, etc, and end up with a totally random sequence that people would think isn't random because "it doesn't look random."

    Apple had to tweak their random song selection on the iPod because, even though it was as random as they could make it, it would randomly select multiple songs from the same artist or even album to play sequentially - because those tracks were actually randomly selected. People assumed that made it "not random", and Apple had to make their "random shuffle" not really random anymore. What people wanted wasn't "random shuffle", it was "I want you to shuffle my playlist in such a way that no two songs from the same artist or album appear sequentially" which isn't random at all - random didn't look random so the people wanted a calculated result with elements of randomness.

    One thing that would tip your hat would be to make your activity try to appear random when it's really not. Good forensic techniques will spot that, so don't think about the randomness too much. :)

  2. This seems similar to what the Allies did in WW2 when they cracked Enigma. They knew about certain battle plans, u-boat attacks, even the Holocaust. But they couldn't tip their hand, otherwise the Germans would change Enigma.

    So the Allies intentionally let the Germans win some of the time, even at the cost of lives.

    Also, they would try to have other plausible explanations available. Like if they knew a u-boat would be here or there at this or that time thanks to intercepting an Axis transmission and decrypting it, they'd make sure an Allied plane would be flying somewhere near the u-boat so the Germans would think they were discovered by the plane.

    The Allies worked hard to make their knowledge of German plans seem like mere coincidence or otherwise random.

    1. Another illustration I recently ran across is a spy reporting back on his activities. He knows his communications might be intercepted, so he has to express himself in ways that his superiors will understand, but an eavesdropper won't.

    2. This illustration seems to show how it's possible for the exact same transmission to be understandable to one group but not another. To one group it's just random gibberish or meaningless chatter, but to another it is so much more.