Wednesday, March 01, 2006

iPod Moments

  • 9, 3, 10, 1, 5, 8, 2, 6, 4, 7
  • 1, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 8, 10, 6, 7

One of these two strings of numbers was generated by a computer using a random number function. The other one was generated by a human (me). Look, ponder, and then file that fact away for a moment.

This morning on my stroll to work I had a nice little iPod Moment. An iPod Moment is when the iPod does something droll whilst it is shuffling randomly through its playlist. A sort of mundane one would be playing two songs by the same artist or from the same album back to back. A more interesting one is when it plays a song and then a cover of that song back to back. This morning's glimpse from Serendip was the selection of Jason Falkner's "Before My Heart Attacks," immediately followed by Falkner's former band, Jellyfish, doing "I Wanna Stay Home."

I am not alone in noticing this phenomenon. I believe, e.g., that the father of one OaO reader has actually called him up on occasion when the iPod does something witty with its random playlist. And there's apparently a small band of fanatics out there who believe that the iPod is reading their minds, or at the very least that the random shuffle algorithm that the iPod uses is not truly random. I have wondered aloud at times whether there's a little humanness built into the algorithm, especially after we hear three songs in a row from the same artists but from different albums.

Generating true randomness is indeed a notoriously difficult task for a computer, and it's caused a lot of people a lot of problems when sets of numbers that were thought to be random turned out not to be. What makes this a somewhat more obtuse problem is that things that truly are random tend to be full of instantly noticeable patterns. Go back to those numbers at the top. There's an absolute dead giveaway that one of them is machine generated and one of them is human generated (actually, there are two). In the first string there are no discernable patterns--the numbers aren't in order, they don't repeat, there's basically no connection between one number and the next. The second sequence has that unusual string of repeating 4s and 5s.

You are clever OaO readers, so you already know that the second pattern is the machine generated one (I didn't manipulate that second pattern in any way--I generated ten random numbers between 1 and 10 and those are the ten numbers I got. I was expecting some sort of pattern to show up somewhere, and indeed one did). The other list was carefully manipulated to remove everything that a human might think wasn't random (the first dead giveaway that it wasn't truly random) and also to use each number exactly once (the second dead giveaway -- a truly random number generating routine will generate a string like this about .03% of the time).

At this point I'd usually offer you some sort of narrative tag that ties all this together neatly, but today I'm all about randomness. So screw you. Make your own narrative.

Next: More narrative made just for you!
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dan said...

I thought the writer of this blog was the only one out of the people who read it that did *not* own an iPod? Did I totally make that up?

Transient Gadfly said...

No, it's just that we bought one in between then and now. Thus did I ruin a perfectly good binary sort between 'us' and 'them.' I'm sure I'll find a new one, though.

Sam said...

Of course they bought an iPod! They did well to resist as long as they did, but my powers are great! My next conquest after the TG's is a colleague here who is a complete tech newbie, but his CD player broke and I swooped in for the kill - he's now loving his nano. Soon everyone shall own iPods, and while Steve Jobs will get all the credit (and money, and fame) much of the success will be owed to me.

Rebecca said...

ah Jellyfish. sigh. how I loved your quirky concert decorations, most notably the litebrite.

sageblue said...

What about transcontinental serendip, in that the last song I heard on my iPod was "Untitled" by Jason Falkner (and, yes, it was on Shuffle)?

And thanks Red for making me remember the Jellyfish litebrite moment, except that now I cannot remember when/how I saw them perform...God I'm old.