Eeny Meeny Miny Moe

I started this blog by writing about a common thing that I had thought about in a way that most people I know don’t seem to have.

Recently, I was reminded of something else like that from my childhood.

When I went to kindergarten, I first encountered a rather strange procedure that kids used to choose “randomly.” When they were choosing from a small set of things, they’d point to them alternately while reciting:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe (4 beats)
Catch a tiger by the toe (4 beats)
If he hollers let him go, (4 beats)
My mother said (3 beats)
To pick the very best one (6 beats)
And you are it (4 beats) or And you are not it. (5 beats).

And it wasn’t just kindergartners who were doing this! First graders, second graders, third graders, and more were doing this!

I remember thinking initially that it must be some kind of a joke. Were these people idiots?

I didn’t know the term “deterministic,” but I knew that this was a terrible process. It seemed obvious to me that if one used the same process each time, then it would follow the same pattern. Simple experimentation would surely indicate which choice would win. So, I did a few trials and realized that when choosing among 2 or 3 or 4 things, the choice pointed to on the first beat would always win (or with “not it”, the second one would lose). Later, I figured out that there were 25 beats which is 2n+1, 3n+1, 4n+1. I could have figured out the cases for 5, 6, etc., but 2, 3 and 4 were by far the most common cases.

But, nobody I knew gave any indication that they had figured this out. Did it not occur to them? Did they choose to remain willfully ignorant in order to preserve the efficacy of the procedure? Were people phenomenally incurious? Was there an unspoken agreement that figuring out the pattern was cheating (or breaking the spell)?

Eventually, I accepted the fact that many people didn’t think about things the way I did. They were happy to share common beliefs and practices without even wanting to know how they worked or if they made sense.

I know it now, but it still bugs me a little.


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