The Matrix revisited

One thinks the world is full of independent minds, capable of distinct thought. And then the fabric wavers just a little bit.

            While settling my father’s estate, I found a list of digital passwords and among them the PIN for retrieving his telephone messages. 7941. Not the kind of discovery that should have a profound impact on one’s life. But this did. You see, the passcode for my cellphone voicemail is 7941.

            Sure, you say, we each picked the number based on the same birthdays, significant events or a common numerology. Not so. In fact, if I am capable of concluding or even recognizing fact, I chose my PIN as a test of my memory. It was designed to be completely random. The numbers. Individually, in pairs, a triplet and a single, or as a four-digit set, mean absolutely nothing to me. Random.

            So what is random? A grouping of items with no apparent relationship. With no contrived origin. Of uncertain provenance. I would argue (now) that the prospect of computer generation has forced the mind to consider the source of apparent randomness. I am not a computer programmer. I am aware of allegedly random selection (lotto numbers drawn by computer). But I wonder how one could program a computer to select randomly from a given set of figures. The computer does not understand concepts the way we do (I think) and therefore must be directed as to the methodology of the choice. Tell it to select randomly and it must draw on its store of commands (past experience) and assets. Know it’s store of commands and assets and one knows the computer’s selection process. Know its process and the result should be predictable.

            Ten thousand to one. 10000:1. That is the likelihood of any two people choosing the same four digit code. The likelihood of a father and son choosing the same code may or may not be significantly greater. The likelihood of a father and son choosing identical codes for the same purpose among the myriad of codes that contemporary western people are required to choose, again, may be on a different scale. Clearly I am mathematically out of my element here.

            Whether spiritual or biological, it is reasonable to say that my father and I had the same programmer. That we chose the same passcode is both reasonable and arguably predictable. That I found this surprising is perhaps the only thing that is surprising.

A dog named Beckett

I’ll spare you the suspense; I’m unsure of what I can be sure.  This confirmation is the result of an innocent and insignificant event. I was out walking my dog, my companion of almost eleven years, and came upon a neighbour. She was pleasantly dressed, pleasantly enough for the occasion, being that it is a residential neighbourhood and the residents are known to wander about in the evening settling the excesses of domestic dinner. I saw this woman approach, not by design but by happenstance, the sidewalk determining our confluence. The sudden awakening of her expression projected her love of dogs.

            My dog is a Setter, a sporting dog, or such was my previous state of knowledge. I admit to not having carefully examined the issue before. “Hello” the woman offered, an instruction to stop to allow her to pet my dog. “What a lovely boy,” she added. “What kind is he?” I advised that my dog is an Irish Setter. “A Setter?” she asked. “Are you sure?”

            I’ve always found the question off-putting. I had answered her initial salve the best I could and my response in the first instance was the sum total of my knowledge of the matter. If I were unsure I might have so indicated. If I carried the conviction of a breadth of expertise I likewise would have so expressed. The point is that I answered with a degree of confidence consummate with my level of knowledge. It was the best I could do.

            I had answered the advertisement for Irish Setter puppies. The breeder’s business card identified her as an Irish Setter breeder.  The litter presented as I had expected it to look, though I confess to not being an expert in canine identification. The receipt said that my new purchase was a six week-old male Irish Setter and the photocopied pedigree form that arrived in the mail some weeks later similarly confirmed the breed, as well as sex (male), birthdate (June 25), kennel name, and the identity of the dam and sire.

            Am I sure?  What is it to be sure? It would not have taken any measure of conniving for the breeder to have misrepresented the nature of the breed in the advertising. My expectations of the image of an Irish Setter puppy has been formed by media- hardly a reliable source of certainty. I’ve read about Irish Setters, not with the mind of a researcher, but again by happenstance. One tends to gravitate toward media depicting familiar circumstances, as one living on a boat responds to stories of boat-dwellers. These Irish Setter virtual exposures cannot be interpreted as authoritative or conclusive evidence of the identity of my pet.    

            Over the years many dog enthusiasts have approached me. They’ve proclaimed familiarity with Beckett’s breeding, or quickly accepted my claims to his authenticity. Am I sure? What is an Irish Setter? Is there a breed standard as to how many outside genes are allowed without compromising the dog’s identity? Perhaps. My dog has not (during my stewardship) been subject to DNA testing. Though I’ve heard many professed generalities, I’ve not examined a scientific exposition of the identifiable and exclusive qualities that make an Irish Setter an Irish Setter. Am I sure? Is my dog a Setter? Is he Irish? I am uncertain as to the nature of a Setter, though I understand it to be a subset of the sporting dog class. Sporting dog is a class that is at once exclusive and non-specific. Although a number of dogs apparently qualify as Setters (English, Irish, Gordon), none are only Setters (not English, Irish, or Gordon).

            I looked into my neighbour’s eyes and tried to assess her expectations. Am I sure?  At what level? I’ve been told, but not by a tested authority. I’ve seen, but I’m not an expert observer. I believe, but based on vague and unreliable precedent. If pressed I’d confess to being unsure of what Irish means. Is a man named Xian Xing, born to Chinese parents in Tullamore, Irish? Is a baby girl christened Caiomhe, daughter of Sean and Maeve, granddaughter of Liam and Siobhan and Conor and Eilish of Belfast but born in New York City, Irish?

            Am I sure? It’s a strange question requiring access to a set of assumptions I cannot get my head around by an unnamed neighbour on an ordinary evening in October. An interesting doorway to the architecture of certainty. My dog is an Irish Setter. I am absolutely not sure.