Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The fine line between mathematical explanation and superstition

On Monday, I heard Tom, in Skype conversation with a fellow mathematician and collaborator, remark that every computer or computer-ish bit of technology in our house, excepting his electronic tablet, had over the last couple of weeks required either replacement or reformatting; which is to say, he's recently had to install or reinstall software on four computers. And then he remarked, "It's a Poisson process." And I had to laugh. The phrase "Poisson process" has been a familiar one to me for at least thirty years now. Tom invokes it when we're driving around, looking for a parking space; and he frequently reminds me that book orders arrive as a Poisson process. What, you might wonder, does he mean by "Poisson process"? Basically, it refers to events of a particular kind occurring in clumps. The invocation has become so ingrained in my consciousness that I now expect such a distribution of random occurrences and have retroactively applied it even to childhood experiences.

The weird thing is how perilously close this invocation is to the belief that bad luck occurs in threes. (Of course in the case of our instruments of electronic technology, the number of instances exceeded three.) Or the maxim "When it rains, it pours." It makes me think, though, that the old superstition may have derived from repeated actual observation, but without a rational means for explaining the observation except through a superstitious maxim.

In any event, although we are still having to tinker with and tweak our software and its installation, I fervently believe we are close to seeing the end of your computer woes. [Knock on wood...?] After much difficulty, Tom's finally been able to compile and print out the batch of royalty statements that are due and I'll be writing royalty checks this afternoon (which always makes me feel like a real publisher).

And finally, a heads-up: I'll soon begin posting the lists I've solicited from Aqueduct authors and friends, of the highlights of their reading, viewing, and listening pleasure over the past year. I was a bit late getting started with it this and a bit disorganized in issuing my invitations this year because of my writing retreat, but these lists have been so interesting in past years that I didn't want to skip them altogether, merely because things are a little hectic along the Aqueduct at the moment.

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