Fractals in everyday life

One of my favorite jokes goes like this:  Winston Churchill is at a dinner party talking to a wealthy socialite. “Madam,” says Sir Winston, “would you consider sleeping with me for a million pounds?” “Why Mr. Prime Minister,” the surprised woman answers nervously, “I suppose I would.” Churchill quickly counters, “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?” Shocked, the proper lady huffs “Mr. Prime Minister, what type of woman do you take me for?” “We’ve already established what kind of woman you are,” counters Churchill, “Now we’re just haggling over the price.”1

What I like about that joke is the way it messes with scale. The act has one meaning when the monetary rewards are large, but have quite another when the rewards are small.  The act, however, remains the same. I’ve always cited this joke as the reason I oppose the death penalty. The reasoning that these are really bad people and deserve it doesn’t do anything for me. The issue isn’t what kind of people they are. They’ve demonstrated that. The issue is what kind of people we are. Once we, as a society, decide it’s OK to kill someone, the question of who we kill and why is just haggling.

This post isn’t about the death penalty or any other big hot button issue. What it’s about is fractals. A fractal is a self-similar repeating pattern that occurs over and over regardless of the scale at which you observe it. In mathematics a fractal is created by taking a relatively simple equation, providing some initial values and then solving the equation. Then the results of the first run are used as new values for another run. Those results are fed back into the equation, and so on.  It’s recursive. Graph the results and you can get intricate patterns that seem to repeat themselves no matter how far in you zoom in.

I’ve always thought that we humans don’t appreciate the fractal nature of behavior. In another lifetime I worked in the Astrodome Ticket Office. The guy who supervised the ticket sellers during events was a banker in his day job.  He’d come straight to the Dome from work and usually bring his dinner with him. He was kind of fun to mess with, I will admit. After a while some of the other part-timers started eating part of his dinner while he was busy getting the sellers out the door to their booths. He would blow up. One time, during a particularly choice rant, he declared for all to hear: “I know it’s just food.  But if someone is willing to steal food, they’re willing to steal money.” I think that was the last time anyone ever ate his dinner. It was kind of a point of pride that we handled obscene amounts of money on a daily basis. That you’d steal any of it was the worst thing you could be accused of. It violated the code.

During the Clinton impeachment I was always amused by the “Rule of law! Rule of law!” folks. Somehow the reverence for the rule of law only started after they were done breaking the speed limit driving into work. It runs the other way, too.  I’m not a corporation, so I can’t pick and choose what laws I get to follow based on closely held religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby, on the other hand …

One of my favorite sayings is that character is what you do when you’re stopped at a red light and there’s no one around. That’s who you are. What you do — or don’t do — in that situation will bubble up into other areas of your life. And affect the people around you.

Now enjoy Jonathan Coulton’s rendition of Mandelbrot Set. (Unfortunately time has caught up to the song. Dr. Mandelbrot died in October of 2010.)


1I’ve always heard this told about Churchill, but the invaluable Quote Investigator conclusively demonstrates it’s just an old joke.

3 Replies to “Fractals in everyday life”

  1. The point wasn’t to say that people who don’t follow traffic laws are bad people. If that were the case I’d probably be considered slightly more despicable than a war criminal. The point I was trying to make is whatever mental calculus you use to decide when and how you break traffic laws will probably translate into other areas of your life. You’ll use the same rules, just on another scale. And by “you” and “your” I mean anyone’s. That’s the fractal part of the calculus.

    Since I unintentionally hit a nerve, let’s break down what you said. When you decide to speed or run a stop sign you clearly take the safety of others into account. It’s late. It’s not a well-travelled road. You’re familiar with it. You know what the sight lines are. You understand you’re taking a chance, but you really want to limit any negative consequences to yourself. I’m not qualified to pass judgement (or interested in the job), but I’ve got no criticism. There are a lot of really good things that can happen if you approach other situations with those rules. My example of the “Rule of Law! Rule of Law!” folks back in the Clinton impeachment days was pointing out that they were not willing to accept shades of gray in Clinton’s rationalizations when clearly they accepted all kinds of shades of gray for themselves.

    I’ll admit to struggling with the point I wanted to make. Decrying hypocrisy is fun, but not that damned hard to do. And most folks will argue that what they’re condemning and what they do are somehow different. But if you think about it, the whole “pay it forward” idea is predicated on the idea that small, random acts of kindness can have a an unpredictable, yet positive, effect over time. That’s equally fractal.

    I wanted to say something about Leviticus. It gets trotted out all the time, as you well know, but never for its prohibitions against tattoos and shellfish. If the Westboro Baptist Church had any claim on self-consistency they’d have a permanent protest set up outside the Red Lobster in Florence, KY. And before protesting the latest celebrity or military funeral, they might want to check out who’s offering all-you-can-eat shrimp that week. All the abomination before God you can eat.

  2. Not sure I agree “old” friend. We get mad when people are quoted “out of context”. I was thinking about breaking the speed limit or running a stop sign. I don’t leave work til 11pm. I live in the middle of nowhere. I break the speed limit and run (the ONE) stop sign on the way home. I’ve worked a 10hr shift and have an hour drive home, so yeah, it maybe wrong but since it saves me 10 mins or more I do it. I’m a danger to no one but myself.

    Is it wrong? Sure, and I’ll pay any fines. Does it mean I’m less a “good” person?

    I do agree “Christians” which I consider myself one, are awfully selective about which rules they want to enforce. The main difficulty I have with corporations “deciding” they don’t want to cover birth control, abortion etc. is that they should NOT know what the employee is doing in the first place! None of their business! So they are affecting others lives.

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