I’m sitting in the coffee lounge at the Microsoft Architect Insight Conference in Old Windsor. I just have to share this with you.
Last night at the conference dinner, there was a good evening’s entertainment, complete with a “pub quiz” style game. The dinning hall had about 250 people seated around 20-or-so tables. Between two of the rounds of the quiz, the MC announced new game: a roomful of heads-or-tails.
He invited us to all stand up. He would then toss a coin where we couldn’t see it. If we thought it was heads, we should place our hands on our heads. If tails, then on our backsides. Simple stuff. After each turn, the losers would be asked to sit down. This would repeat until there was a last man or woman standing.
The roomful of people took only 7 coin-tosses to get to last man standing.
The amazing thing about this experiment is that it’s guaranteed to come to a conclusion pretty quickly, and that someone in the room is likely to be that last person standing.
Each coin-toss adds a factor of 2 to the odds. This is how it played out:
The first toss gave me odds of 1:1 of being left in the winning group. Which happened.
The second toss ave me 3:1 odds of being left in. Which also happened.
After three tosses, and odds of 7:1 the 250-odd people had dwindled to about 30. And I was still in.
As time goes on, this completely ordinary set of events leaves a continually shrinking group of people feeling more and more significant. We tend to call this feeling “luck”. However this feeling of significance is an illusion.
Four tosses, 15:1, still in.
Five tosses, 31:1, seven of us still remain. We’re called onto the stage.
6 tosses, 63:1, this group is now halved. Three of us left (and I’m still here).
What turns out to be the last coin-toss of the evening, the other two guys pick tails by placing their hands on their posteriors. I choose heads.
Odds of 127:1, someone in that room out of the 250 won a bottle of champagne. For that one person, they feel lucky. A complete illusion, but one that is shared by many other people in the room. Cries of “lucky bastard” echo round the room.
Yep. I won the champers. A completely random walk, but one destined to result in one person necessarily walking off with the prize. Ask me to call heads or tails correct 7 times and I’d think you were barmy. In the context of that room, it all seemed to make sense to me. It’s not luck, karma or destiny:
It seems I’m a random walk!
What didn’t make so much sense was my table then going on to win the “pub quiz” later that evening. The top of the range Microsoft Wireless Keyboard and Mouse set is very much appreciated. Thank you Microsoft UK!