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Patterns vs. Randomness

Patterns vs. Randomness

by William H. Benson

May 17, 2018

Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland in 1818. Although born into slavery, Douglass was fortunate enough to escape to the north as a young man, and there he became an ardent abolitionist.

Douglass said, “The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.”

Also, born in 1818, on May 5th, was Karl Marx, the German political writer and thinker. A writer for The Economist said, “Marx was a latter day prophet. The fall from grace is embodied in capitalism; man is redeemed as the proletariat rises up against its exploiters and creates a communist utopia.”

In 1816, a few English writers enjoyed a summer’s vacation at Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The poet Lord Byron suggested that they compete to see who can write the best ghost story. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s girlfriend, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, then just eighteen-years-old, dreamed of a scientist who built an eight-foot-tall creature, and then galvanized the spark of life into the being. 

“From vaults and charnel-houses he exhumed dead bodies,” Mary Shelley wrote. The scientist, Victor Frankenstein regretted his experiment. He said, “I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life.” Mary Shelley published her ghost story, Frankenstein, on January 1, 1818, 200 years ago.

Three random events: the birth of an African-American slave boy in Maryland, the birth of a Jewish boy in Germany, and the publication of the world’s first horror story. Few at the time considered those three events important, and yet we acknowledge them now.

An interesting thought. What is happening now, or who is being born now, in 2018, that people in the year 2038, 200 years, or eight generations, into the future, will look back on as noteworthy? A difficult question, because human beings see far better into the past than into the future.

Space exploration is the wonder of the age. For example, on Saturday, May 5, at 5:05 a.m. Pacific time, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, NASA’s team launched a rocket towards Mars. It should land on Mars’s surface on November 26, 2018, after six months and twenty-one days of travel across 300 million miles of space. America’s achievements in space astonishes the rest of the world. 

The discovery of life, even intelligent life, on other planets though, may occur sooner than we want. Like Victor Frankenstein, we may regret that possible discovery, depending upon the degree of intelligence and of technical sophistication that we may find elsewhere in the universe.

An interesting podcast I heard last week on Invisibilia asks a set of intriguing questions, “Are we destined to repeat our patterns, or do we stray in surprising directions? Is the course of our lives a predictable pattern, or is it random?”

The podcast introduces Shon Hopwood, who in March appeared on 60 Minutes. Shon grew up in David City, Nebraska. After dropping out of college, “after about ten minutes,” he returned home, shoveled manure in a feedlot, drank plenty of beer, and then robbed five small banks in Nebraska.

Authorities caught him at the Doubletree in Omaha, and the judge sentenced him to twelve years. He arrived at the Federal penitentiary, in Pekin, Illinois, in May of 1999, and there he lifted iron, ran miles on the track, played hours of basketball, and worked in the law library.

A casual observer would say that Shon’s life would continue to disappoint his parents and siblings, that he would achieve very little stuck in prison, and that his life pattern was well-established. Pekin released him in April of 2009.

In June, Shon will turn forty-three. He is now married with two children. He received his college degree from Bellevue University in Nebraska, and his law degree at the University of Washington. Today, Shon teaches criminal law at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. 

How did he transform his life? He began to read the law books in Pekin’s law library. He came to love the law, and saw that, “the law was a big puzzle.” He wrote appeals for other prisoners, and two of them the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear, an incredible stroke of unmerited luck. 

To Steve Kroft, on 60 Minutes, Shon said, “my life doesn’t make sense to me, and I lived it,” and he credits, “the people who went out of their way to make grace for me, and that made the difference.”

Steve Jobs spoke at Stanford College’s commencement exercises on June 12, 2005, and he said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” 

I wish my best to the high school and college graduates this year. I say, work to connect the dots one at a time, and create a life pattern that will astonish your parents and friends. Yield not to the temptation to swallow the delusions of racism, communist utopias, fabulous ghost stories, or robbing banks.