Looking for patterns: a priori versus random searching

I had an email from another Michael the other day pointing out the curious excess of the number five in matters related to the Riddle: My message from +ORC was posted on May 5th (5th day, 5th month), there are five rows and five columns in the Riddle, and (at least in my GIF) five matrioshkas.

On the surface, this looks interesting, if not suspicious. Why five? What is its significance? Is this a clue?

Well, possibly: probably not. There's nothing proven. The human brain is a remarkable machine for finding patterns. Visual patterns, audible patterns, symbolic patterns and abstract ones. You might (if you are really warped) see the face of Bill Gates in the clouds. I was at a meeting the other day with some visiting Chinese scientists, who had an interpreter. I speak no Chinese whatever (Mandarin, Cantonese, or anything else) - apart from knowing that "Chung Kuo" means China. I was listening to the words being spoken when I heard what sounded exactly like "Tiger Tim" - who I think was a comic character. I doubt very much that was what they said, but my mind identified it as the pattern. And here we have the pattern of fives.

The question crossed my mind, what significance do these patterns have?

I read an interesting paper in the science journal "Nature " many years ago, by a Hungarian seismologist purporting to prove that the planet Uranus was located on the horizon, at times and places where earthquakes occurred, significantly more often than would be expected as a random event. This has a significance in astrology, and the seismologist was attempting to draw the conclusion that astrology had some predictive value for earthquake occurrence. Depending on your prejudices, you will either laugh at this or be fascinated.

In a subsequent issue there was a rebuttal - in quite vigorous terms - by another scientist, who proved that the idea - as presented - was a load of rubbish. The argument went like this.

If you go through a collection of statistics looking for patterns, without knowing what you are looking for, you will find patterns, but they are likely to be meaningless. If you look for enough "patterns" you will eventually find one that appears to be not at all random, but the very process of looking for patterns randomly invalidates the statistics that seek to show it is a non-random pattern. In simple terms, if you look at the clouds for long enough (or at least until you go psychotic), you'll eventually see Bill Gates. But it will be a random event, no matter how unlikely (or unsettling). It will not necessarily mean that Microsoft has taken control of the world's weather!

What does all this have to do with the +ORC Riddle, you have been asking for the last few paragraphs? I'll tell you.

It says, "be very careful of any patterns you think you see".

By all means note them, and follow them up, but be suspicious of their reality. You need more evidence before you can believe them.

The correct thing to do is to develop your hypothesis first, then look for statistical patterns that support it. Do not go looking for patterns first, without any idea what you're looking for.

In other words, look at the Riddle, formulate an hypothesis, look for evidence to support the hypothesis. And, eventually, find the mythical +ORC URL. I hope.

A final thought. The Riddle says "correct this link". Not "the Web site address". So it could be any form of file accessible on the Internet, including files findable using gopher, ftp, telnet or anything. We don't even know for sure that we won't have to hack into a Unix server somewhere, though I "feel" that's unlikely. Just don't assume +ORC's URL will be a Web page.

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