Making luck
Posted by aogThursday, 25 December 2003 at 19:51 TrackBack Ping URL

USS Clueless, with regard to the capture of Saddam Hussein, mentions “how 4th Division made its own luck”. That’s an interesting concept that I’m going to elaborate on because it’s part of an larger meme that I’m working on about living in a fuzzy world.

The bottom line is that the capture of Saddam Hussein was, in fact, a matter of luck. The 4th could easily have missed that hole and lost the capture. Yet it’s also the case that his capture was the result of hard work. How can both be true? Because we live in a probablistic world where nothing is ever certain. There are two ways to deal with this fact.

One is fatalism - just accept whatever happens and hope you get lucky. This one is the easy path. It’s also the more modest path as it presumes that one’s actions don’t have much effect on what happens1.

The other path is to “make luck” by tweaking the odds. This is based on the belief that while one can never guarantee an outcome, one can act in such a way as to change the odds.

This latter is what the 4th did, both tactically and strategically. Tactically they modified the odds of each outing by gathering intelligence and concentrating their efforts in the most likely spots. This improved the odds on each roll of the dice. Strategically they maintained a hard pursuit, which gave them repeated opportunities to roll the dice.

Trying again and again is an excellent technique for dealing with small chance. It’s a central fact of probability that even low probability events become likely if one can roll the dice enough times. For instance, if you have only a 5% chance of winning, you can change that to better than even by trying 14 times. Strategically one wants to arrange matters so that winning once is enough (for instance, the 4th ID only need to “win” once looking for Saddam Hussein, whereas he had to get lucky every time. That’s why it’s good to be a predator and not prey). You still have to “get lucky” but by arranging multiple attempts you are making your luck.


1 Note the equivalence here with predeterminism. While the construction of reality is completely different, both lead to the same behaviour because ultimately choice doesn’t matter.