A Losing Formula
In the late 70’s, my father brought home a strategy football game. The game was quite simple. Whoever was on defense had a deck of cards, each with a different defensive alignment. The game’s board was a grid, along the top of which were 20 or so different offensive plays, from Dive to Razzle Dazzle (my brother’s favorite). The defenses ran along the side. The player on offense would announce which play he was running, and the player on defense would reveal which alignment he had selected, the two choices would be cross-referenced like finding coordinates on an X-Y plane, and you would learn the result of that play. In this way, it was really a guessing game, not a strategy game. It became an intuitive, psychological struggle to read the other player’s mind and proclivities. There was a lot of, “He thinks I’ll throw a bomb, but I’ll actually run a dive – unless he thinks I think he thinks I’ll run a dive in which case I’ll throw the bomb.” You were always better off going with your first instinct.
At this time, my father had begun to learn how to program computers. He looked at this game and began to hatch a scheme. He believed he could come up with a program that would tell which play or defense would have the highest rate of success given the down, distance, and so on. He dreamt of having his children go to a big gaming tournament armed with a stack of computer printouts and whipping all the adult competitors.
Fortunately, the permutations proved too expansive for either my father’s know-how or actual interest in the project. I believe it was probably the latter. It seemed emblematic of his struggle at that time: a doomed search for a means by which the straight line of intellect could triumph over the reasonless nudge of intuition.
I was glad to see this plan die. My heart always sank when he painted the image of our theoretical triumph. On the one hand he was my father, and he had so many dreams; it would have been nice to have just one not come up well short of where he imagined it might take him. On the other hand, intuition seemed like the great equalizer in human endeavor, available to all regardless of age or income. Why look to triumph over it?
I cannot blame him for wanting a world that could be won with computer programs. Like all fathers, he wanted his children to be safe, and I do not believe he understood where safety could be found outside the clear perimeters of logic. But where is the safety in a life stripped of choice? That safety is a seed still buried, hiding beneath a world where anything is possible.
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