Travel, randomness, and good fortune

by Rob Tiller

Last week I spent a couple of days in San Jose and Palo Alto at meetings of the Linux Foundation counsel group.  I did three presentations myself and heard talks on virtualization, open source license enforcement, trademarks and open source, patent troll lawsuits, and other topics of professional interest.  I had a chance to socialize with some very bright and knowledgeable open source legal people and catch up on industry news and gossip.  The days were lively, but long, starting with a working breakfast and ending with a working dinner, and I was ready to head home on Thursday.

The flight from San Jose took me to Dallas.  As chance would have it, Dallas experienced its heaviest snowfall in history that day.  Across the eastern U.S., tens of thousands of flights were cancelled in what was described as the worst travel day since 9/11.  My flight into DFW landed on time, but sat on the runway for almost an hour.  By the time I made it to the gate for the connecting flight, which was due to leave at 3, it was 3 sharp, and too late.  The next flight was in 5 hours.  I claimed a spot at stall with a bar stool and free electricity, plugged in my laptop, and got some work done.

Eventually I came to a stopping place, gave up my precious electrical connection, and looked about for coffee and something to eat.  For some reason, people were more than usually chatty.  I normally keep chats with strangers during air travel to a minimum, primarily because I’m trying to get other things done. Also, with a tendency toward the introvert side of the personality scale, I tend to see the cost-benefit analysis of a one-time talk as more on the cost side.  But in the various lines and pauses on Thursday, I met a photographer from Dallas, a defense department weapons system specialist from Dayton, and a salesperson for highway building equipment from San Diego, all interesting and pleasant.

The snow continued to come down throughout the afternoon, and I kept expecting to hear that the Raleigh flight was cancelled.  Instead, AA loaded up in a timely manner, and closed the door.  My seatmate had the Wall Street Journal, and agreed to share it.  Things were looking good, and then they froze.  We eventually spent more than 4 hours on the runway waiting for de-icing, being de-iced, and taking off.  I finally got home about 4:15 am.  The total travel time was 17.5 hours.   Happy as I was to be home, it took me another couple of hours to get to sleep.  I was late for my 9 am interview with a prospective intern.

On the trip I finished The Drunkard’s Walk:  How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow.  It is an account for non-mathematicians of the history and meaning of the great ideas of probability and statistics.  Mlodinow explains that without an appreciation for probability and statistics, people have an overwhelming tendency to find patterns and meaning where there is none, and greatly overestimate the amount of control they have over their own fate.  This is almost certainly true, but it’s a bit depressing.  It’s therefore possible that people who understand it generally don’t care to talk about it.  One positive point Mlodinow makes late in the book:  success and happiness are more likely if we take more chances.  That is, you can’t win the coin toss if you don’t toss the coin.