To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Year 4: Part 1: Post 6: Better than Chance

Campus is getting recognizably springlike.

The snow has mostly melted away, and while I'm fairly sure more is going to fall before the end of the month, it's good to see the grass again. Nothing much has greened up yet, but the red maples are flowering and many of the other trees' buds are swelling--the sort of things I wouldn't have noticed a few years ago, but now I look for it. The weather's cold and raw more often than not, and even the warm days are warm only in a relative sense, but relative warmth matters,and it's nice to be able to sit outside in just a sweatshirt and enjoy the sunlight.

I was doing exactly that the other day, sitting on the Mansion porch enjoying the sunlight. I'd been planning on going in to work that morning--my job with the landscapers off-campus was supposed to start up again this week, but my boss called at the last minute and told me not to bother. There's something wrong with the plumbing at the shop, so he decided to delay starting the season while he fixes it. And since I'd cleared my schedule in order to work, without work I had nothing to do but sit in the sun.

But instead of getting warmer, I gradually got colder. I'd spent the night outside in the cold damp and then I'd overslept until nearly breakfast time so I couldn't get a hot shower, and I couldn't really get warm after the chill of the night.

Anyway, so I went inside and wandered into the library, where Aaron was playing cards on a computer. It was an odd thing for him to do--we don't have an unlimited supply of electricity on campus, and we all have a habit of not using power unless we really need it. So for Aaron to be using a computer, rather than a deck of cards, to play cards seemed odd. But maybe he was waiting while the computer did something else in the background. Aaron does a lot of work on the computers. He's comfortable with them in a way most of the rest of us aren't.*

I stood behind him and watched. Of course, he was playing Solitaire, but it wasn't the kind I was familiar with. There was more than one deck involved and the layout pattern was different.

"What are you playing?"



"Yeah. They say every game is winnable. It's not true, but most of them are. It's more skill-based than most solitaire games."

"What skill?" I asked, genuinely curious. "What does it involve?"

"You move cards here, you move them there." He kept playing as he spoke, as if his mind were only half on the conversation. That was ok with me. It didn't seem like a very important discussion. He continued. "The thing is, it's not really direct. You can't usually win just by making the obviously helpful moves. There aren't enough of them. So you move them here and move them there to gradually get closer to the circumstance that will allow you to win. Like this. There are no obviously helpful moves, but if I do this and this and this, I free up some extra cards and get closer to opening up an empty column. That puts me in a better position to use whatever comes up in the next deal."

"Like life?"

"Yeah, kind of."

"You could teach some kind of magic course that way, couldn't you? Playing life like a spider solitaire game, making oblique progress towards your goals by rearranging this and that and gradually opening up room so you can make the most of luck?"

Aaron seemed to take the idea at least semi-seriously, nor did he seem at all surprised by it. He did chuckle a little bit.

"It wouldn't be a very encouraging magic, though," he said. "I mean, I'm doing well to get a win rate of 4%. And in real life there's no 'undo' command."

"You have a point."

"Yes, I do...but there's a long history of using cards for divination. Playing cards and Tarot cards aren't that different. And a Solitaire card game is kind of like an active, moving, Tarot spread. A passive, receptive activity is divination, an active, manipulative version of the same activity is magic."

I thought about this for a bit.

"Well, what would be the win rate without skill," I asked. "What could be expected from chance? Seems to me, the measure of magic is not how often you succeed, but how much more often you succeed than you would otherwise? Maybe life is just plain hard?"

And Aaron stopped playing his game for a moment to look up at me.

"You're getting pretty clever, you know that?" he said.

* Campus seemed to be about ten years behind the rest of America as far as electronics. This was in 2003, and while the rest of the country was more or less online all the time, the school was only starting to explore integrating computers into our programs. There was no rule addressing it yet--that came a few years later--but the campus culture effectively discouraged personal electronics, including cell phones.--D.

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