Everyday entropy: the long tail of the what

After God created men and women, according to local legend, he gave them cattle, the source of “milk and meat and prosperity of every kind.” But God offered mankind a choice: “You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What.”

The pacific Dinka wisely chose the cow. But others picked, and continue to seek, the mysterious, unnamable, destructive and possibly unattainable What.”

-Francine Prose, the New York Times

What then is “the what”? Eggers omits the question mark but the lost boy’s long march is a pilgrimage in search of an answer. A mysterious man he meets during his trek helps him to begin to see what “the what” is not.”

-the Guardian

Dave Eggers, What is the What

I don’t live anywhere, and you should learn from this.  Why do you think I’m alive, boy? I’m alive because no one knows I’m here.  I live because I do not exist.

Out there everyone is killing each other, and those who don’t kill each other with guns and bombs, God is trying to kill with malaria and dysentery and a thousand other things.  But no one can kill the man who’s not there, correct? So I am a ghost.  How can you kill a ghost?
I had no comment on this for it seemed the man did indeed exist.
By this contact alone, me with you, I’m making a great deal of trouble for myself.  I have fed you and I have seen your face.  But I feel safe only in knowing that no one is likely looking for a boy like you.  How many of you are there?  Thousands?
I told him that there were as many of us as he could imagine.
So you won’t be noticed.  When we’re done talking, I’ll send you back toward them but you must never tell where you found me.  Are we in agreement?
I agreed.  I do not remember why it occurred to me to ask this man about the What but it seemed that if any man might have an answer, even a guess, it would be this strange man who lived alone and had saved so much, had even thrived, amid a civil war.  So I asked him.
Excuse me? he said.
I repeated the question, and I explained the story.  The man had not heard this story but he liked it.
What do you think is the What? he asked.
I didn’t know what I thought.  The AK47?
He shook his head.  I don’t think so, no.
The horse.
He shook his head again.
Airplanes? Tanks?
Please stop.  You’re not thinking right.
Education? Books?
I don’t think this is the What, Achak.  I think you need to keep looking.  Do you have any other ideas?


The momentum distribution for an ideal gas in equilibrium has a curiously long tail, with no limit on how fast a single particle might be going.  One may, through random chance, achieve relativistic speeds.  Most particles have average momentum, and even the slowest have slightly more than zero, so the midpoint between the high and the low is far above the average.

Wealth distribution also has a long tail, and that tail makes it very hard for people to accurately assess the average wealth of the people around them.  Because we can’t survey people broadly, we tend to assume that average is about halfway between top and bottom, but that’s not how entropy works.  The average of any random set with no upper limit, such as the sets of gas particle velocities and personal wealth, falls much closer to the bottom than the top, so that our perception of average wealth is way higher than the actual average, which is much closer to poverty than the average person can imagine.


This is the temptation of “the What.” The What is the long tail of possibility: the opportunity to be cut adrift at sea and randomly find yourself at the far end.  The average person will die horribly, but someone will wash up on Richard Branson’s private island.  This possibility that transcends probability is why people go to war, gamble and fail to build civilisations.  The fantasy that the midpoint between drowning while being eaten by a shark and becoming Richard Branson best friend must be pretty good, when the reality is that the average person dies a quiet death of dehydration.

Only a few people are able to calculate the average more than 2 values without a calculator, so even if people have a reasonable cross section of acquaintances, they won’t be able to run the numbers to find their mean income.  Instead, they’ll have a feeling that the average is the midpoint between the high and the low, which is way above both the median and the mean.  Wealth, moreover, stands out from poverty, so that the What glimmers in the mind’s eye like a mirage of wealth that is just over the next rise.



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