They say a man makes his own luck, and the key to a life of good fortune is one that maximises random encounters. But is it possible to live a truly unpredictable life? In this article taken from the latest issue of Hack Circus ('Chance'), Michael Reeve hands his fate over to the d6.
About 25 years ago, I read a book called ‘The Dice Man’ by a man called Luke Rhinehart, and I hated it with a passion.
The book’s concept intrigued me. It follows the life of a thirty-something psychotherapist, also named Luke Rhinehart, who finds his life dull and decides to entrust all his major life decisions to rolls of a dice. As a seventeen-year-old, inexorably heading towards A levels and university, the concept appealed. What if you completely abdicated responsibility for your major life decisions to chance? What wondrous options could life hold in store, if one was brave enough to fully trust in fate?
Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to be the sort of question that I was going to find answered in the book. The options that Rhinehart assigns to his dice rolls are, at best, irresponsible – and at worst, sociopathic. His first dice roll, found on page 69 of the HarperCollins paperback edition, assigns a 1-in-6 chance to raping his downstairs neighbour’s wife, Arlene – which he then rolls and proceeds to carry out. Fortunately, Arlene consents to have sex with him, but nonetheless, it’s referred to as “rape” throughout the book, and represents a pretty disturbing initial foray into the world of chance.
His second dice roll, immediately following the first, is little better. Rhinehart assigns 1, 3 and 5 to the decision to go to sleep; 4 or 6 to think about what he’d done; and 2 to “rape Arlene again”.
What justification can there be for “living a dice life”? According to Rhinehart, “a human personality is the total pattern of accumulated limitations and potentials of an individual. You take away his habits, compulsions and drives, and you take away him”. In other words, by attempting to live randomly, he’s seeking to remove the influence of his personality on his life.
But the problem with this is clear. Throughout the book, the options assigned to the dice rolls are not random at all: he’s coming up with them using the very thing that he claims to be trying to exclude from the decision-making – his personality.
Quite aside from that, there simply aren’t enough options on a single die to allow truly random behaviour. The most complex dice roll in the whole novel is 3d6, which makes his use of the term ‘Dice Man’ singularly offensive to those of us who know what “3d6” actually means.
So, all this in mind, I decided I could do better. I set myself the challenge of examining what it would actually mean to live a random life. For example, maybe I’ll have a snack now, and I’ll assign the dice rolls to different options;
(1) Cheese sandwich
(2) Some toast
(3) Cup of coffee
(4) Orange juice
(5) Bacon sandwich
(6) Give up on writing this article, and just send it to Hack Circus as is.
Look, I’ve even thrown in a Rhinehart-esque “wild card” option! In fact, these options aren’t quite as mundane as they first seem – I don’t actually have any orange juice in my flat, so I’d have to go out to the shops to buy some. I'm crazy!
Right, here goes. Oh, I have to end the article here. Well, we had fun, didn’t we? Bye then.
Not really! I actually rolled a 2, and had some toast. But I had you going.
Were I to live truly randomly, my first problem would be how to actually generate properly random numbers. I can’t just jab the random button on my calculator because it isn’t actually random, but pseudo-random. It uses formulae or precalculated tables to produce numbers that appear random. However, my research soon led me the website random.org, which has taken great pains to generate numbers that are as random as possible by listening to atmospheric noise. It’s a delightful website with a tech-filled, geeky history of how it came to be, and it is infused with enthusiasm for the challenge of generating true randomness. You can feed random.org a range of digits, and it’ll generate a random integer within the range. It seemed ideal for my experiment.
“The options assigned to the dice rolls are not random at all: he’s coming up with them using the very personality that he claims to be excluding”
I thought I’d start off by modelling a random walk within my bedroom, starting from next to my bed (I’d assumed that the decision to begin living randomly had followed getting up), and generating two integers for each step of my walk; one for distance, one for direction.
While introducing a good amount of chance to my life, that’s still fairly prescriptive. I hadn’t assigned any way of selecting different activities, though, so there’s no option to start dancing, or jump, or squat, or blink. But a random life has to start somewhere.
I modelled 100 imaginary walks from the edge of my bed. For the sake of brevity, I decided that I’d interact with the first object that I encountered, and treat that as the end of the walk.
The results were not wildly successful. Just over half of the time, I ended up returning to bed. On only eight of the random walks did I actually manage to leave my bedroom. Needless to say, I concluded that adopting a random life was inevitably going to come with a significant concomitant reduction in productivity. Between all the walking and rolling and regular imperatives to ‘stop writing’ and ‘go back to bed’, frankly it’s a wonder that this article ever got
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