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Friday, March 21, 2008

Random Socks

Some people are going to read the title of this blog and assume I am talking about networking sockets, or sock puppets on wikimedia projects. I would like, instead, to talk about something a little bit less serious: feet socks. The socks that you wear between your feet and your shoes. If yours are anything like mine, they are probably made of a combination of cotton and something stretchy. At least, they start out stretchy, but by the end of the day they are worn out and tired.

I have a particular dislike for putting on dirty socks. It happens on occasion, when you need to be dressed before you've had time to get ready, and rather then putting a whole set of clean clothes on your dirty self, you opt instead to wear yesterday's clothes. This occasionally manifests itself in the form of yard work, where we tend to do it early in the morning before people have showered, and in the interests of frugality we decide not to create a second set of dirty clothes to be washed (we have a perfectly good set of dirty clothes from yesterday, just lying around).

Anyway, as I mentioned above, I have a particular dislike of putting on dirty socks, and when it happens, I tend to make a mental note of it. When you wear a pair of socks for a day, it tends to stretch in predictable ways. In my case, I notice that the big toe tends to stretch one corner of the sock a little further out then the rest of the front-end and so I can tell, when I put the same socks on again, whether I have put them on the same feet as they came off, or if I am putting them on the opposite feet. If a sock is put back on the wrong foot, the asymmetrical stretching from the previous day tends to make it ever so slightly less comfortable then it would be otherwise. This, in turn, increases my dislike of the entire situation. I definitely take a mental note when I've put a dirty sock on the wrong foot.

Here is where I try to get to the point. Though I am only taking mental notes and not written ones, it seems to me that I tend to put socks back on to the wrong feet significantly more often then I happen to put them on the right ones. If I take the socks off and throw them randomly into a pile on the floor, and then pick them up randomly in the morning, I would assume that my odds of getting it right are about 50%. This isn't the case, and I seem to be in the middle of a very long streak of getting it wrong. Of course, if something that should be random appears to be biased towards good or bad, we all say that it must be luck. In my case, I was convinced for a while that I was simply in the middle of a statistically possible, but improbable, streak of bad luck.

Despite the fact that it was my first reaction to think that somehow my socks were out to get me, or that I was suffering some kind of bad luck or whatever, I knew deep down that there had to be some kind of rational explanation for the whole thing. There must be some kind of reason why my socks kept ending up on the wrong feet. So I started taking mental note of more then the when of sock reuse, but also the how. I started paying closer attention to the way I took my socks off at night, and the way I put them back on in the morning.

What I found should not come as a surprise to any rational readers (assuming, of course, that anybody besides myself is reading this nonsense). When I took my socks off at night, I put them on the floor not in a random pile, but in a pretty regular order. From where I was sitting, I tended to put my right sock on the left, and the left sock on the right. In the morning, because I am right-handed, I would grab the sock that was on the right first and put it on my right foot. Follow in turn with the left, and suddenly my streak of bad luck is nothing more then a very subtle pattern that stems directly from my subconscious behavior. A process that I assumed to be random because I wasn't consciously manipulating it turned out to be completely deterministic.

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