Life, random

Graphic for “Life, random”

As someone who has studied several statistics courses for my major, I have grappled many times with the concept of randomness. At first look it seems easy enough to define: an event is said to have a random outcome if each possible outcome is equally likely to take place. Throw a die, and if it’s a fair one, then each of its six faces should have equal chances of showing up. If the die’s outcome is truly random, then over many tries the different possible results should show up with relatively the same frequency; throw a die six thousand times and the face with the four dots should come out around a thousand times. The same goes for all the other faces.

But people have more complicated thinking, and this clarity of definition is difficult to attain for some. If at the very start of your attempt to throw a die six thousand times, you come up with six dots for four times in a row, you would doubt the die’s randomness, wouldn’t you? The basic definition of randomness, however, does not actually imply that the same results cannot be achieved consecutively. Even if all the other faces possess equal likeliness of appearance, it does not guarantee them actual occurrence, especially in a small number of tries.

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Spaces redux

Beyond homes, schools, malls and other concrete spaces, there are more abstract categories of places that are as difficult to ponder about as they are difficult to define.

One of them is the space to which these words currently belong: the virtual realm. Go beyond mainstream thinking and you will discover that the separation between the real and the virtual is far more complicated than it seems. There is a growing discourse, likely fueled in part by the idea of virtual spaces, surrounding technology (particularly the Internet) and its relation to morality, or authenticity, and other such classical topics of philosophy. But this discourse has turned around on itself, and there are some who now argue that the place we have called cyberspace for a long time is not too virtual after all; it is still rooted in, and therefore not independent from, the reality that supports it. One could say that virtuality cannot be anything more than an augmentation of reality.

There are many aspects to this discussion that will surely continue well into the foreseeable future, given how technology has nowhere to go now but deeper into our everyday routines. Personally I would still say though that it is valuable to think of such a thing as a virtual space. I have had experiences that are fundamentally characterized by being online, and which cannot conceivably exist in any space other than in the virtual. I can even think of corners of the Web as if they were actual, physical places: some of them are fun, some of them are serious and buttoned-up, and some are even pretentious, or evil and dangerous. Certainly, these are all experiences judged by simply viewing through a glowing screen, but they are spaces in the way that we visit them, stay in them, frequent them, and even abandon them.

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Spaces and definitions

Spaces

A long time ago, our ancestors selected certain sounds from the diverse range of impressions that the human vocal tract is capable of producing, and agreed upon to attach meanings to those sounds, thereby creating language in a process that is still not yet fully understood today. In a similar way, we as individuals and as a society do not wander aimlessly about the places we live and move in everyday. We define spaces, we attach significance to certain areas of our world, and I think this activity will only intensify in an increasingly crowded, modern world.

Perhaps the most obvious and most-commonly defined space that comes to mind is the home. There is no shortage of instances in popular literature and culture that pay homage to this most comfortable and most valued of places. At the end of struggles and pain and sacrifices, there will always be a warm home full of love that the protagonist can return to. The movie Apocalypto, after all the scenes of horror and action-adventure, can be thought of simply as a man’s prolonged journey home. Superman, or Kal-el, was brought to Earth because of the destruction of his home planet. “The World is Our Playground and We Will Always Be Home,” according to the band Up dharma Down.

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Gaze

Gazing at the night sky to make sense of the countless blinking lights is clearly a universal hobby. All the ancient civilizations loved it: the geeky Greeks, the elegant Egyptians, even the mysterious Mayans. In between farming, warring, and the other simply joys of ancient civilization, these people found time, lots of it, to just look up and imagine all sorts of pictures that could be outlined by the random positions of the stars. (They found, among others, a crab, a cup, and a hunter along with his two dogs.)

Equipped with only their eyes and inquistive minds, they left us with all sorts of fascinating explanations for the persistent wonder of the night-time sky. We have stories of gods and goddesses, huge sky domes and celestial machinery that keep the sky moving through day and night.

The IYA 2009 logo
The International Year of Astronomy logo captures the wonder of stargazing

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Old Year’s Day

Last summer, and over the months that followed as I finished a rather substantial book by Professor Randy David, I was introduced to the idea of life as a narrative. I’m pretty sure it’s an idea that would stick with me for many years to come. And it’s bound to come up especially during times like this, on the eve of the new year, when the sociable thing to do is to reminisce and tweet about one’s favorite moments from the past year. (The more contemplative ones like to blog the products of their ruminations as well.)

Here’s one way to think about everything that has happened to you in the past year: they were either things that you planned, or they were the things that you didn’t plan. Thanks to the things that you didn’t plan, you can tell a story of the past year that’s more exciting than if everything turned out well. For example, if you’re a student like me, tonight you can tell the story of how you planned to get your grades up, but then you got caught up in the activities of some charitable cause-oriented organization so much that your grades suffered, but it’s alright because you found that work fulfilling and there you learned things you will never learn inside the classroom. Compare that to if things turned out well: you planned to get your grades up, and, well, they shot up. End of story; you need not provide further details because no one will listen to such arrogance.

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