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.