Arbitrary vs. Random Puzzle

A pole poll…

Image © 2021 Chris Culy

Power pole with staples

Pole with staples and paper


I go on and on so much about the difference between arbitrariness and randomness that you might think that it is obvious to me what the difference is. Well, theoretically, it is, but in practice, well… (I’m reminded of the saying, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.)

Take the pole in that photo above. One thing that stands out is the staples from notices that have been put up. Is their arrangement arbitrary or random? I’d say the arrangement is arbitrary but not random, since the notices would have been posted at a height to be easily visible to passersby. While I didn’t look, it is unlikely that there are staples at the bottom of the pole. [Update: I looked several days later, after I wrote the first draft of this post, and there are indeed no staples at the bottom of the pole.]

What about the bits of paper left over from notices? That’s a bit harder in that the notices were arbitrarily placed. However, if we consider which notices left traces (as of the other day), that seems random.

What about the texture of the pole itself? It is the result of at least 4 factors:

  1. The growing conditions of the original tree
  2. The shaping of the tree to form the pole
  3. The weathering of the pole
  4. The alterations to the pole due to affixing and taking down notices (pieces could chip off)

Of these, only (3) seems clearly random to me. For (1), a tree suitable for a pole can only grow in certain conditions, so the selection of the tree is not random. However, the actual conditions do seem as random as the weathering. For (2), poles are shaped mechanically, but with intention, which makes it seem arbitrary. However, there is an interaction between the shaping process and the grain of the tree, which is the result of random processes. Finally, the particular alterations in (4) seem random, but their location on the pole is limited to the arbitrary, not random, positions of the notices.

Which aspects do you think are arbitrary and which random?

Technical note

I processed the original photo to imitate in a simplistic way the old “color blind” emulsion which was sensitive only to blue wavelengths of light. This page has some details. A better way to approximate the effect would have been to use one or more filters to block the non-blue light, but I don’t have those, so this digital approximation will have to do.