Monday, September 11, 2017

ELL vocabulary - random

Random is an often-used English adjective.

Here's the simple definition:

random: made, done, happening, or chosen without method or conscious decision

A more complete definition is:

random: having no definite aim or purpose, not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring without method or conscious choice; haphazard.  (From the Oxford English Dictionary.)


Dice are a good example of randomness because a die, when rolled, produces a random number.  For the six-sided dice pictured above, when we roll one, we do not know what number of pips will appear on the side facing up.  The number that appears is "not sent or guided in a particular direction."  The number that appears is random.

Random events happen all throughout our lives.  In fact, random events happen all throughout the entire universe.  The movement of the electrons around the nucleus of an atom is (mostly) random.  The day-to-day movement of prices in the stock market is random, though some people are very good at seeing larger trends, and make lots of money from that ability.  Even the moment-to-moment movements of weather events are random, though it is possible to detect patterns by observing past events and current conditions.  Right now, Hurricane Irma is hitting Florida, the most southeastern state in the United States.  Whether a hurricane will or will not happen, and how strong it will be, and the direction it takes are all events that may be predictable generally, but as to detailed specifics, are random questions.

One thing that can be heartbreaking is when we want to think that something is random, but we know it is not.  If I have a heart attack some day, I would like to think that such an event would be random.  But it would not be so.  I can reduce the chances of having a heart attack by exercising, eating healthy foods, and limiting the stress in my life.  Doing those things is tough to do, and uncomfortable.  But if I choose to lie around and eat lots of fat and salt, and then in fifteen years I have a heart attack, I should know a heart attack was coming.  It would not be random, much as I might like to believe it was.

Sixteen years ago today, early in the morning, I was teaching English in a classroom and learned that two United Airlines jet planes had flown into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City.  We now call that attack 9/11, pronounced "nine-eleven."

Photograph by Chang W. Lee for The New York Times.
For the people in the World Trade Center on that day, the attack must have seemed random.  Why that day, and that hour, as opposed to any other day?  But the truth that the United States has had to face is that 9/11 was not random at all.  The World Trade Center buildings were very tall and easy to attack.  In fact, security officers working in those buildings had been warning the people there that an emergency was eventually bound to happen.  I have heard that they often tried to get the workers in those office buildings to practice evacuating in the case of an emergency, but that people were unwilling to do that practice.  They wanted to pretend there was no chance of an accident.

And was the choice of the World Trade Center as a target random?  We know that it was not.  As I wrote above, it was large and easy to hit.  It was also a symbol of the financial strength of New York City, which was itself a symbol of the strength of the United States.  People who were angry at the United States's wealth and power saw the perfect target in the World Trade Center because the World Trade Center was a symbol.

And even the date, 9/11, contains the same numbers as the three-digit code that one dials for emergencies in the United States, 911.  (It helped, though, that September 11, 2001 was a clear and cloudless day, a perfect day on which to pilot two airplanes full of jet fuel into skyscrapers.  Maybe the weather on September 11th was randomly good for flying planes into buildings.)

Assignment for today: Make a list of five random events that have taken place in your life.  Look at your list.  Then ask yourself--Were these things all truly random?  Did they all occur without "method or conscious choice"?  Or could some or all of them have been predicted?  Often, we would like to pretend things are random when they actually are not.

#English teaching
#lesson planning

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