We ran the Vacancy Information Service for many years for TIAPEI. The service provided information about lodging vacancies on PEI by telephone or from a website. The telephone service, which was expertly crafted by Gary Clow (son of Bobby Clow, of Clow’s Red and White in Hampshire), was designed to provide callers with a random selection of five properties with vacancies in their area of interest.
The service was truly random: every time a new call came in, a brand new random selection was culled from the database and presented. Over the season of thousands of telephone calls this meant that every property with vacancies had an equal chance of having their information delivered to callers. We had statistics that showed this clearly.
The problem was that although this was true over time it wasn’t, of course, true for just one or two calls. Because every property had an equally random chance of being selected during a given call, it was quite possible that a specific property would show up in two successive calls. Or that a specific property wouldn’t show up in three or four successive calls.
If you were Bob’s Bed and Breakfast, and you called in twice and heard Jane’s Bed and Breakfast on both calls, you assumed that Jane was somehow getting a “special deal.”
And that’s the problem with randomness.
I had cause to think of this today when I read this Newsweek article that calls into question the randomness on the iPod shuffle. I think the problem is the same: if the iPod shuffle is truly random, then it’s likely that it will appear that certain songs are being preferred over others, even if, over the long term, the exposure of every song is statistically equal.
And if Apple’s experience is anything like ours, a lot of people will never believe that.