A Million Random Digits

One of the projects of the quasi-government think tank the RAND corporation shortly after its formation in the 1940s was research into the generation of random numbers.

This generated the publication of a book that seems like a great choice for any true weirdo on your holiday list: The 1955 hardcover A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates.

Need I say that, unless you’re a “true random numbers” geek, the book is for practical purposes what it promises to be? According to Wikipedia, “It was produced starting in 1947 by an electronic simulation of a roulette wheel attached to a computer, the results of which were then carefully filtered and tested before being used to generate the table.”

Not being a computer wonk, I have to imagine that the publication of the book in 1955 seems less bizarre to computer people than it does to me. What I do know is what Tom Jennings’ page on the book tells me:

If you’re not excessively math literate, you’ll have to accept at face value that truly random numbers are not only excruciatingly useful, but extremely hard to produce. So-called “Monte Carlo” techniques, where a random starting point is chosen for working out a problem, require them. Basically, numbers are random when the next number in a series is completely unpredictable, like tossing a coin. In other words, there is no information contained in one number that can be used to determine the value of the next, or previous.

Viewed another way…

Mathematical tables are essentially distilled information and order, human intellectual production of the finest kind, selfless and pure.


…on which assertion I remain neutral, as I do on the difference between true randomness and pseudorandomness, which becomes incredibly important in fields like cryptography, and in some computing applications. Random.org has an Introduction to Randomness, which is not nearly as Monty Python as I hoped.

By the way, the RAND book has a $90 cover price and it’s running $121 and up for a collectible hardcover of the 1955 edition, so if you’re considering a copy as a holiday gift, I hope your recipient really likes random numbers, or you’re billing the Department of Defense.

But, having primarily aesthetic interests, that’s not what I give a damn about anyway. What I love are the Amazon reviews of the book’s 2001 paperback reissue, like this one by “Roy“:

If you like this book, I highly recommend that you read it in the original binary. As with most translations, conversion from binary to decimal frequently causes a loss of information and, unfortunately, it’s the most significant digits that are lost in the conversion.

Or this somewhat more subtle nerd-joke, by BJ from Waltford, England:

For a supposedly serious reference work the omission of an index is a major impediment. I hope this will be corrected in the next edition.

…or from Fuat C. Baran:

A great read. Captivating. I couldn’t put it down. I would have given it five stars, but sadly there were too many distracting typos. For example: 46453 13987. Hopefully they will correct them in the next edition.

Or D.C. Froemke’s one-star review:

At first, I was overjoyed when I received my copy of this book. However, when an enemy in my department showed me HER copy, I found that they were the OPPOSITE of random – they were IDENTICAL.

(By the way, please don't click this button -- I'd hate Amazon to look too closely at this page and start nuking the more absurd reviews -- c'mon, Amazon, you gotta let us have some fun while you're shutting down Wikileaks on behalf of the Illuminati!)

Then there’s the ones that seem like the might either be making a Math Nerd Joke obscure enough that I can’t decipher it, or they might be totally serious, like this one from B. McGroarty:

The book is a promising reference concept, but the execution is somewhat sloppy. Whatever algorithm they used was not fully tested. The bulk of each page seems random enough. However at the lower left and lower right of alternate pages, the number is found to increment directly.

Then there’s the ones that aren’t serious, but hit a little too close to reality. Take, for instance, R. Rosini’s review:

While the printed version is good, I would have expected the publisher to have an audiobook version as well. A perfect companion for one’s Ipod.

Which is kinda funny that R. Rosini should mention that, y’know? ‘Cause while “R” may have to wait a while to pick up the audio of this book, perhaps “You Might Also Like” some of the weirder projects over at public-domain audiobook portal Librivox?

For instance, check out the captivating The Golden Mean to 5,000 Digits, or the LOLZ-a-minit recordings of the first 50 digits of Pi, interpreted by Librivox volunteers in the style of a “Captain’s Log” from Star Trek, “Previously on 24,” as dispatches from the Cylons, the Daleks, and more.

If that whets your appetite for Pi recitations, perhaps you’ll want to give up your addiction to the Father Brown mysteries and enjoy the whole first thousand digits of Pi, in Librivox’s Insomnia Collection Vol. 1.

Oh, also, the RAND corporation? Some people think they’re kinda creepy…I dunno. What do you think? How creepy can a place be if it generated the idea for the neutron bomb?

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2 comments on “A Million Random Digits
  1. You know, the Conet Project CD is not too far off from an audiobook version of this.

    And I owned this book. Unironically.

  2. Fantastic! Those Amazon reviews outdo even the plutonium ones.

    Also, your “Math Nerd Joke” is just making a joke about the page numbers!

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