The Curse of the Outer Room
By Peter Sokol-Hessner
The office was well-distributed across its two joined rooms, with postdoctoral fellows matched to desks so that no fellow went without a desk, and no desk was wanting of a fellow. It was a cozy arrangement, there was no doubt, but everything and everyone had their place, just so.
The newest arrivals, Alphonse and Beatrice, were closest to the door in the outer room, working with their backs to each other with the door in between. Cedric coded immediately beside Alphonse. Derrick, the office’s longest resident, worked on his mathematical models next to Beatrice.
The outer room was a cordial, even happy place, where the fellows diligently worked, striving to contribute, however they could, to mankind’s ever-growing store of scientific knowledge. The outer room was cursed, however, with one tragic structural flaw that rendered the space not half as joyous and productive as a postdoctoral office should by all rights be, as bemoaned hourly by its residents: its outer wall, by which sat most directly Alphonse and Beatrice, was made of clear, beautiful, terrible glass. This wall, perhaps more naturally described as a window or a window-wall, looked upon the distracting hallway. Each fellow was therefore required to mount a fierce defense against the window, forcefully willing their attention to their work and away from the most ordinary movements or dull conversations rendered deeply intriguing and dramatic due to their simple proximity mere inches away in the hall.
The outer room’s residents had additional reason for lament at the contrast between their situation and the nirvana that was the inner room. The inner room was no larger, nor did it have more luxurious desks or more pleasing chairs, any of which might have sufficed to account for its reputation. No, the stunning attribute that set the inner room of the office forever and completely above the outer was its single window. The residents of this inner sanctum, Eric and Fabio by the door, Gertrude and Henry beside them, by the window, did truly treasure this portal to the outdoors and felt it a most positive addition to their days.
One morning, Gertrude stunned the office by announcing her imminent departure. “I will be leaving in a fortnight’s time to pursue a new opportunity in Manchester,” she explained. Though Alphonse, Beatrice, Cedric, and Derrick all offered their warmest congratulations and politely enquired after the details of the new position, their deepest thoughts were elsewhere: on the soon-to-be vacant seat in the inner room. Nothing could be more entrancing! That evening, when the others had left for the day, the four could not stand to wait a moment longer, and convened to discuss the situation.
After agreeing to decide as a group how to allocate the empty seat in the fairest possible manner so as to preserve their friendship, they fell to silence as each began thinking of solutions. Alphonse spoke first, saying “Perhaps we should decide by seniority? Derrick, that would mean that the seat would be yours.” Beatrice concurred, finding the approach both effective and equitable .“No, my good friend,” Derrick said, “I cannot accept – it would not be honorable, as I am senior to each of you by only a matter of weeks. Making a momentous decision on such a weak foundation would risk disaster!” As other unsatisfactory ideas were floated, and then dismissed, Cedric remained quiet until, in a pause in the conversation, he offered, “What if we decide using a computer program? We can give it our names, and it would randomly bestow the desk on one of us!” Though this idea was roundly commended, as it gave no member of the office more or less advantage, Beatrice quickly found a potentially fatal defect: “A computer’s random number generator isn’t truly random – it’s only pseudorandom,” she cried. “We cannot decide such a thing on pseudorandom numbers!”
And so the room fell silent once more, each fellow striving to conjure a way past this seemingly insurmountable problem – for every random number generator made by man was crippled by this algorithmic Achilles’ heel.
It was Beatrice herself who conceived of a solution. If man’s creation was the problem, then the answer must lie beyond the realm of man – indeed, in the stars! As she explained to her compatriots, “In the truest spirit of equity and solidarity, our decision should come from the heavens – from the randomness of cosmic rays descending into our atmosphere!” She further explained that she knew where to get such truly, absolutely random numbers born of the Heavens – a website obligingly titled ‘random.org’ – and even that very minute, did acquire such numbers as were fit for the program.
And so the universe itself decided that Alphonse should take Gertrude’s former seat, escaping the tyranny of the hallway, and coming to occupy a desk just delightful inches from the warmth of the sun’s rays, the sound of falling rain, and the feeling of an evening breeze. Nothing could be more wonderful!
Peter Sokol-Hessner received his Ph.D. in Psychology from NYU. He is now an assistant professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Denver, where he has an office of his very own, with three windows.