Effects of Fortuna

“Call it,” Kelsey said, tossing a quarter. Her command was ritual, meaningless, though not only because I always chose heads, but because it was a false choice. My decision wouldn’t affect the odds. She established this ceremony years ago when our work lunches became routine. Winner pays for lunch. We were software engineers at Fastr, a tech startup involved in the burgeoning domain of high-frequency trading, so her idea of a simple, stateless solution to splitting the bill naturally appealed to us both. We didn’t have to remember who paid last, and the law of large numbers meant it would only become more fair the more we had lunch together.

Kelsey frowned at the quarter, “Tails. I think that’s the third in a row. This must be one of your coins.” It was well known that before Fastr I was employed by the United States Mint. This wasn’t the first time I was blamed for bad luck on a coin toss. “Just how did you end up at the Mint anyway?”

“It was a decision I made as a kid, shortly after I saw It’s a Wonderful Life,” I said dismissively through a mouthful of cold fries.

“I don’t see the connection.”

“You remember my personal philosophy, don’t you? About how I want to affect the whole world. In the film, George Bailey visits a parallel universe where he was never born, to observe the effects he had on his own world. I’ll never get that particular opportunity, but I’m still motivated to maximize my effects. That’s what attracted me to Fastr. Most people don’t understand that we don’t actually do high-frequency trading. Our business is analysis.”

Kelsey nodded. “Right. Every microsecond of latency costs high-frequency traders millions, and our data and analysis shaves off those microseconds. We tell the actual high-frequency traders where to build their towers or lay their fiber optic cables.”

I traced my finger across the table as if it were a map, “One of our reports was behind the fiber optic cable tunneled through the Appalachian Mountains last year. Did you know they blew up an entire mountain to lay that cable? They literally changed the landscape. I’ve told you about my contribution to that report.”

“I recall you were involved in the Monte Carlo Method analysis. There were many ways to lay that line, too many to evaluate exhaustively, so instead your team evaluated a random sample according to my team’s model.”

“Yup. Though some routes were essentially equivalent as far as your models could tell. Different seeds gave slightly different results because they happened to tip the balance another direction. Just before we finalized the report, I chose a different seed such that the recommended route would pass through a mountain. As a result of my activities one evening, some mountain in Western Pennsylvania is now gone. My effect will remain for eons.” I attempted the most Machiavellian grin I could manage.

Kelsey was unimpressed, “But what does this have to do with the Mint?”

“My seed-meddling changed the outcome of essentially only one coin flip, even if the effect was dramatic. At the mint I had a broader goal. It’s not a secret since anyone can look it up, but during my final months I was Director of the Mint… up until they fired me.”

“You were fired from the Mint?!”

“Well, I was strongly encouraged to resign, but the result is the same. Do you remember the coin shortage? That was largely my fault. Coins come out of the die heads-up, or at least they used to, then they maintain consistent orientation throughout the whole process, all the way through annealing. My first and only action as Director was to stop and retool the production lines one at a time, replacing the die with a flipped die. After a few months and significant expense, all coins were coming out of the mint flipped.”

Kelsey examined the quarter that had decided our lunch. “So by changing the initial orientation of all coins, you’ve inverted nearly every coin toss. According to the date on this coin, that includes our lunch.” She paused thoughtfully. “To counter, from now on I’m deliberately putting my coins in a canonical orientation before a toss.”

“Sure, some coins will have my flip oriented out of them, but most won’t. Consider all the decisions I’ve reversed, particularly on the margin. Our world is composed of chaotic systems, so even the little stuff can count. How many close sports matches have had their results changed by the opening coin toss? How many careers decided? How many couples have or haven’t had children as the result of an inverted coin toss? Entire future generations will be a different group of people. Not better or worse, just different.”

Kelsey signed the check, then with the pen to her cheek, “Did you know that Fastr nearly failed to receive funding in its final venture round? It reportedly came down to a coin toss. I wonder if that was one of your coins.”

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Chris Wellons

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