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Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2006, 16:39 GMT
The perversity of randomness
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More or Less
Monday, 20 November, 2006
BBC Radio 4, 1630 GMT
More or Less took an almost random walk through random numbers.

There is enough order to our list of subjects - which also include the government's proposed legislation in the Queen's speech for an independent statistics board, and the oddities of a certain type of multiple choice question - to prove we did not choose them by chance. There's pattern to what we do on More or Less.

But that is why random things are so disconcerting, because they also contain what look like patterns.

In fact, that is the essence of randomness: it will, if allowed to go on for long enough, contain every kind of pattern or repetition we can imagine.

Except that these are not patterns really, they are just accidents that happen to look like patterns. Randomness is a brilliant impostor; it has a talent for disguise.

So owners of a certain MP3 player complained when they put it on shuffle and it played the same songs more often than they expected.

This was just randomness at its perverse best, but in the end the manufacturer changed the shuffle programme to make it less random so that songs would have a lower probability of being repeated.

We look at what is random, what is not and why it is so hard to generate truly random numbers.

And, of course, we offer a few more unintended consequences including the tale of the TV station that shut down its relay stations for the night by transmitting a series of pulses, and then one night showed a short news item about how the system shut down, including how the pulses were transmitted. See if you can guess the result.

Presenter: Andrew Dilnot
Producer: Michael Blastland

BBC Radio 4's More or Less was broadcast on Monday, 20 November, 2006 at 1630 GMT.


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