28 September 2011

The Dullest Day is Actually Quite Interesting

This year has been a pretty busy one. We have had tsunamis, Arab revolutions, a new sovereign nation, nuclear scares, a royal wedding, covert assassinations, the capture of war criminals, the final space shuttle flight; and I think some guy from Australia even rode a bike in France quite well.
We should think ourselves lucky that we find ourselves in such interesting times.
In fact this clustering of seemingly significant events this year made me think of an article I read a while back about the distribution of interesting events in the past hundred years. Ironically the most interesting thing to come from this study of significance was the identification of the past century’s dullest day.
Apparently this day was the 11th of April, 1954.
According to Computer programmer William Tunstall-Pedoe, the only things of note that happened on that day was “a general election was held in Belgium, a Turkish academic was born and an Oldham Athletic footballer called Jack Shufflebotham died”.
I checked Wikipedia and couldn’t find anything else of note myself, but this study went a lot further than I did in my idle clicking. It compiled over 300 million facts about world events over the past one hundred years, and created a matrix which garnered importance from not only the events themselves, but also from how they were linked to each other.
From this the program (True Knowledge) was able to pinpoint that particular Sunday as the most humdrum of days on record.
Remarking on this fact the Cambridge researcher explained "Nobody significant died that day, no major events apparently occurred and, although a typical day in the 20th century has many notable people being born, for some reason that day had only one who might make that claim - Abdullah Atalar, a Turkish academic”.
Now I am not going to go into how objective this conclusion is, or how we define what a boring, or significant event was; after all that wasn’t even the purpose of the program to begin with. What I am interested in however is the more philosophical ramifications of this title ‘Most boring day’, or perhaps, ‘least interesting day’. Because to me, as soon as you figure out that this day was objectively the day with the least going on, well that makes it seem more interesting if you ask me.
Consider if you wrote these days down in a list from most interesting, to least. Wouldn’t you find the last entry somewhat more significant given its new position at the nadir of importance? But then what?
So it becomes more interesting, and then moves up the list, but then instantly loses the very quality that gave it importance, and is surpassed in dullness by its now slightly less important, but at the same time all the more interesting neighbour.
Perhaps I am just rambling (I have been known to do this), but this reminds me of an interesting paradoxical riddle I once heard called the Unexpected Hanging Paradox.
In this paradox we are presented with plight of a prisoner, condemned to execution, and at the mercy of a judge administering the sentence. The judge informs the prisoner that they will be executed on a weekday the following week, at noon, but that the day of the execution will be a surprise to the prisoner. That is to say, when the executioner knocks on the door, the prisoner would have been unaware that that was their final day until that point.
However the prisoner in this case is a wily character. After a quick cogitation on the subject, they conclude that they will escape from their impending hanging alive.
Pictured: the prisoner
Their reasoning starts by excluding those days upon which their hanging wouldn’t be a surprise. Offhand there is seemingly only one example of this; Friday. As if it gets to Friday, and the prisoner has yet to be hung, then surely this cannot be constituted as a surprise when the executioner knocks on the door, as it is the only day left!
So Friday is out of the question, but that still leaves the rest of the week I hear you say. Ah dear reader; the prisoner has thought of that too.
Given that Friday has been eliminated from possible ‘surprise’ hangings, the last possible day must be a Thursday. But as before, if you arrive at the end of a Wednesday and find yourself still persistently breathing, then your only other option would be a Thursday, which would be not at all that surprising!
This kind of reasoning can be extended to exclude Wednesday, Tuesday and finally Monday from the possible hanging days, until the prisoner is assured that they will survive this ordeal intact.
Generally the riddle, or paradox, ends here with a glib recount of how, confident that they would escape their sentence through this feat of reasoning, the adroit prisoner is shocked to find the executioner knocking on their door Wednesday at noon (or some other arbitrary day).
There is some innate distrust of the prisoner’s rationale in this paradox. You can’t help but feel that is something wrong with their arguments, even though each step seems to make sense. The difficulty isn’t just with this simple iteration though; it is a problem still widely debated in the academic world, with philosophers and logicians seeking the correct answer, and appealing to epistemology, or the leaky inductive argument for answers.
It seems to me that it is the prisoners own pride that leads to a life-threatening confidence in the first place.
Nevertheless, before my tangent strays too far off topic I should try and wrangle it back in to place. I brought up the unexpected hanging as a way of dealing with this, ‘most boring day in history’ thing.
The second we start to eliminate days from the category of ‘boring’, we will always leave the next likely candidate as the new dominant force of dullness, and then next in the crosshairs to be blasted with importance. This is the leaky inductive problem that is also present in the unexpected hanging case.
I guess there is at least one thing we can be certain of, and that is that there is at least one professor at Bilkent University who may take aim at the 11th of April 1954 being the dullest day on record. And that’s Professor Abdullah Atalar.
I will assume that he is saying something rather profound here. Well done Professor Atalar; you are important

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