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Offbeat – 30 August 2012

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Going to space has been great for technology, and for the art of quick rationalisation. I’m not entirely sure what to do with the knowledge that the moon isn’t made out of cheese.

“Because it’s there.” That quote is often attributed to Edmund Hilary. It was actually said by George Mallory, who was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. He died shortly afterward, doing just that. Remember what he said. That’s important. And that he died. That’s important as well.
People do things that defy logic. They climb mountains, fly to the moon and run naked across football fields. Even when they are set out on the path of hedonism, they are illogical: sometimes they drink low-alcohol beer. Where’s the predictability?
Bees are fairly predictable. They collect pollen and convert it into honey. They look after the hive and the queen. The same is true of ants, though they obviously don’t make honey. Everything works according to what resembles a genetically coded program that consists of input, processing and output. There is a limit on the amount of deviation.
As I write this, the word ‘random’ jumps to mind. It’s not just something that describes an aspect of chaos. It’s also just become a mark of quality entertainment. You must have seen it on the social networking sites. “That’s so random!”
Random can be good or bad. Streakers are good, at least for photo journalists. Many flash mobs are good, especially the ones that sing in crowded places and get on You Tube. Guys like the Norwegian lunatic, or the idiot who fancied himself a villain and opened fire in a Batman movie, are not so good, but still qualify as elements of randomness.
Good and bad types of random both come from the same place. Ants can get by on doing the same thing all the time, and so can bees. Humans can’t. Too much of the sameness drives people to do strange things, or at least things that are different. Even the most hardened black coffee person will experiment a bit of milk in the brew.
‘A change is as good as a holiday.’ That’s not just an aphorism from a cunning boss who softens denial of a leave request with assignment of a new desk that has a view of the stationery cupboard. My guessing is that random affirms the pleasures of the routine. In the case of our coffee drinker how is he or she supposed to know that black coffee is better if not for dabbling with milk?
Hence, we get to the point that somewhere between a brain the size of an ant or a bee and a brain the size of a human, the need for randomness becomes important. If you are doing research into the behaviour of dogs, bear in mind that dogs themselves can become bored and will bark at imaginary enemies. And now you know why kitty sits on a vantage point with one exquisitely sharp claw primed to inject an element of randomness into your day.
What’s the point of randomness? Personally, I believe that modern aerobic instructors owe some kind of debt to Monte Python’s ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’. NASA put men on the moon. I noticed a lot of the benefits of that as enumerated in hundreds of articles. Going to space has been great for technology, and for the art of quick rationalisation. I’m not entirely sure what to do with the knowledge that the moon isn’t made out of cheese.
Randomness drives things on the way a drunken driver gets from here to there: in fits and starts with lots of detours to avoid the roadblocks and breathalyzers.
If not for Mallory, Hilary would probably have been somewhat less interesting and Tenzing Norgay would have been an unknown. The death of Mallory created a thriving tourism industry and everybody knows what a sherpa is. And strangely enough, if not for the odious Breivik, ‘ultranationalist’ would not be a four letter word, and we would all be far more complacent about demonstrating our tolerance towards people who do not fit the blond-haired, blue-eyed mold.
Randomness is good, but sometimes it is difficult to see the benefit. Perhaps it all boils down to the idea that a view of the stationery cupboard really is as good as a holiday. And maybe stirring ther toms is our best defense against entropy.

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