Friday, October 19, 2012

A Coin Toss: Determined Randomness

Flipping a coin.  The most random of acts, used to settle disputes or choose between options.  The outcome is purely arbitrary.  The odds of landing heads or tails are even. Most noticeably, it is a mainstay in sports, football in particular – from the backyard Nerf game to the multimillion dollar NFL industry, we call it in the air to determine who will kick off and who will receive.

Outside the outcome of the game itself, the coin toss is the most wagered on aspect of the Superbowl.  Curiously, it had been won by the NFC for fourteen years straight leading up to the most recent Superbowl.  Even so, the odds in Vegas were even for heads or tails.  No matter how often the result has been the same, the chances remain 50 – 50 each time the coin is flipped.  The streak was broken and the AFC won the toss this past year.

Papa John’s pizza, the official pizza of the NFL, opted not to advertise during the Superbowl.  Instead, they poured their marketing budget into the coin toss.  If the toss came up heads, all of their rewards members would receive a free large pizza and two liter of Pepsi.  It did, and Papa John’s gave away millions of pies.  They also added scores of people to their rewards program, an invaluable source of targeted contact information.  Heads or tails, they won.

All of this – the decision of who will kick off, the Vegas line, and the Papa John’s pizza promotion - is tied to the randomness of the result.  The intrigue comes from this being a model of perfect chance.  Half the time it will end up heads, half the time tails.  There is no discernible pattern and no way to predict what the outcome will be.  You call a side and have a 50-50 chance of being right.

But really, the coin toss is not as random as we may think.  It is, instead, a matter of physics.  A flipping coin must obey established laws. Three primary variables are influencing the outcome – the rate of rotation, the amount of time the coin is in the air, and the amount of change in the axis of rotation.  Though complex in the computation, there is a formula at work with a mathematical solution. Control the variables and you can predict the outcome of the coin toss.

Persi Diaconis, a statistician at Harvard, did just that.  He built a coin flipper, a device that allowed a coin to be flipped repeatedly with the same conditions.  No matter how often it was tossed, the result was the same.  Diaconis could guarantee a heads or tails outcome.  From the moment of the toss, he knew how the coin would land.

The randomness is not in the flipping coin.  It is introduced by erratic humans. The coin flip is predictable, the coin flipper is not.  We flip the coin with varied force at different heights and different angles and catch it in the air at different moments.  The physics formula for flipping coins still holds, but it is impossible for us measure all those variables of speed and force and height in the moment that the coin is airborne.  From our perspective, the result is random.

But what if we could measure all those variables in that moment when the coin is spinning?  What if the formula was as simple as 2+2 and we could do it in our heads?  The coin flip would become far less useful as a random determinant.  We would know the outcome before the coin landed.  It would be determined from the moment the coin was launched.  In this there is a lesson of providence.

They posted a new position at work - a convenience store district manager.  Currently, I manage the company’s highest volume store.  There is no room for growth for me as a single store manager.  I’m at the top of that ladder.  A district manager is the next significant step in my career development. I meet all the qualifications they are looking for.  I sent my resume in.  Now I wait.

For all my qualifications, I would be foolish to think that I am the only potential candidate.  There are other high volume stores with equally competent managers.  I know I am on the short list (someone in the know let that slip).  I also know that, even if short, it is a list.  There are other qualified people who want this job.  I suspect there may be three or four of us vying for the position. 

It feels wholly uncertain to me.  I know I have a chance.  Maybe as good as 50-50.  Maybe less so.  I watch the coin flipping through the air waiting to see if it comes up heads.  Random?  Not quite.  The result of the coin toss is determined from the moment it leaves the hand.  The formula is too complex for me to figure out.  But the one who tossed the coin knew the outcome from the moment it was launched.

I believe in world that is under the control of a sovereign God.  He knows the formula and can do the computation.   He flipped the coin for an intended result.  While I wait anxiously for the outcome, God has already settled it.  Whether I will get the job or not will come as no surprise to him.  He flipped it that way.  This is determined randomness.  What from my vantage point is an arbitrary flip of a coin is from God’s viewpoint a settled physics equation.

I hope to get the job. But even more so I want to trust the coin flipper.  He knows what best.  This is not a coin toss in isolation.  There are countless concurrent coin tosses that are determining the direction of my life.  I see the one coin spinning, he see the myriad…and promises that the outcome of  them all will work out for my good.  Even if this one ends up tails.  Heads I win.  Tails I win.  But when I call it in the air, I’m still picking heads.

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