How to be fooled by randomness


This is a roulette wheel. It is a machine for producing numbers between 0 and 36.

Sometimes it produces a 7…


Then sometimes it produces a 13…


If a 7 is produced on one spin and a 13 on the next spin, you don’t think that the roulette machine itself has changed.

You know that there is a difference between the output of the roulette machine at any one time and the actual properties of the roulette machine.

You don’t call the 7 or the 13 “the roulette” do you?

You know that both of these numbers are the products of the roulette machine. They are not “the roulette” machine itself. They aren’t the wheel or the ball.
They are the result of the wheel and the ball interacting.

The wheel and ball put together comprise “the roulette machine”, they are designed in a certain way to produce numbers.
The roulette machine is capable of producing numbers. That’s it’s purpose.

The picture below shows the actual capability of the roulette machine at achieving its purpose…


It is capable of producing numbers between 0 and 36.

It can produce red or black numbers, odd or even numbers.

But if on one occasion it produces a red, odd, 7….

It does not mean that the properties of the roulette machine have changed, cos it can produce on the very next turn a black, odd, 13..Capture

When we’re talking about a casino roulette wheel it is easy to see the difference between the actual number produced by the wheel on any occasion and the properties of the wheel itself.

Black 13 does not mean that the wheel is more or less likely to produce another black 13 in the future.

But when people talk about other things, they get very confused about what they’re actually talking and thinking about…


This is the crime machine. It produces crime.


There are a lot more components than the wheel and ball of the roulette machine.
When you look at it really closely, it’s still complicated.


You could work out how bits of it work, how one cog is connected to another, but to see how it all works you have to see how it all works together, ie you’ve got to switch it on.
Fire it up!



The crime machine produces crime!

Not just one crime, but all crime.

Imagine the crime machine is the crime machine for YOUR TOWN, wherever you live.

Every murder, every drunken punchup after pub closing, every complicated fraud involving Nigerian bank accounts, all the crime in your town is a product of the crime machine.

This crime machine isn’t an actual machine of course, no cogs and whirring fans, in fact it is mainly invisible.

It is the complicated interaction of hundreds of things, like the level of unemployment, how many police there are, housing conditions, streetlighting, level of disposable income, cost of alcohol etc

All these combine with each other in hundreds of complicated interactions, uncountable and impossible to make sense of individually, even to notice them, unless you’re the end victim.

So to summarise…

What’s the name of this machine?

The crime machine!

What does it produce?


Why am I belabouring the point in such an annoyingly repetitive way?

Because people mix up two very different things….

(1) the crime machine and
(2) the crime it produces!

These two separate things are mixed up SO much they are called by the very same name…


For example….


Crime” is up! Oh no! Things are getting worse!

Wait, what is up?

This year the numbers of crimes produced by the crime machine is higher than the numbers of crimes produced in previous years, but has the machine itself changed?

Is it likely to continue to produce more and more rapes and murders?

Or are the events of the crime machine in action this year not the same as the properties of the crime machine over the years?

They aren’t the same thing, no.

One is the realisations of the crime machine in action, the events it produces over time, and the other is the properties of the crime machine, ie what it is capable of producing today, yesterday, and tomorrow if nothing changes.

One is the generator, the other is the things it generates, the generator in action.

So what? Is this just being annoyingly pedantic about words and labels?

If you don’t know what you’re talking about when you’re talking, then you don’t know what you’re thinking about when you’re thinking.

“Crime has decreased” <> “the crime machine has improved”.

The first is only concerned with the random amount of events produced this year, the second is concerned with whether the system that produces crime has fundamentally altered and will produce less crime now and in the future.

To “improve” the numbers produced by the machine, whatever machine it is, all you have to do is wait, sit around, cos sooner or later the numbers will run in your favour.

To improve the system that produces the numbers is far harder, but that’s the actual job of management.

You can spot when an organisation confuses these two things, dead easy. They do things like report performance using binary comparisons of any sort ie up/down arrows, comparisons with other organisations or quartile groupings.
They do this because they think that managing is a project, rather than a process. A project begins and ends, it has a result at the end, and this years numbers are the result of this years project, as if it is a stand alone item.

The job of numbers, the numbers produced by whatever machine is being managed by managers, is to inform and educate as to the qualities of the machine itself, cos whatever it is will be a lot more complicated than a roulette wheel and you won’t have full control over it.
The job of numbers is not to compare with other numbers to see if they are higher or lower.
That’s for fools who can’t tell the difference between a roll of the roulette wheel and the actual roulette wheel itself.

NB i totally stole the imagery for this blog post from Mr “Fooled by randomness” himself Nassim Taleb, here. For reference.

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1 Response to How to be fooled by randomness

  1. David Valentine-Hagart says:

    I’m not sure about these machine analogies. The emergent reality is (as you do say) always more ‘organic’. Yes, the purpose of the roulette wheel is to produce random numbers, not to go round and round bouncing a little ball, so I’d say, in that analogy, that the 7 or 13 are exactly the roulette, in that moment where the ball settles irreversibly into the 7 / 13 / whatever < 37 numbered slot. Folks are betting on the number the ball falls in (purpose) not the spin.

    The roulette wheel (and the crime machine for that matter) don't exist entirely 'from their own side'. They are just emergent phenomena and as equally subject to moment-to-moment change as all other components of the big 'ol co-dependent 'Universe at large system'. The properties of the roulette machine in any moment do change, because they are co-dependent with many other non-wheel things such as the speed of the initial spin by the croupier, friction from air resistance, the proximity of the gamblers, and even their expectations of the resulting number !

    So the machine and result are not separate. Don't be fooled into thinking some things are permanent and some things are random. It's the middle way between these extremes. Everything is co-dependent, and so empty of inherent existence. Everything else is just names. And I'm just parroting Nagarjuna now 🙂

    I do love your stuff. Always makes me think, and laugh at the same time.. Go Purpose.


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