Games of Chance

As somebody with a firm grip on science and statistics, I’ve always had a weird relationship with games of chance.  Generally speaking, I’ll calculate the odds and opt out, being the opposite of a gambling man — not only is there nothing I like better than an iron-clad guarantee, but I’ll view that as somewhat dubious until I see results.

In the fifth grade, I was once motivated to try my luck by a carnival drawing where one of the prizes was a big orange kangaroo that I found compelling, for some reason.  The idea was to pay a quarter, reach one’s hand into a Tupperware cereal-keeper full of tickets, then check to see if one’s numbers matched one of the prizes.  After a few questions and some quick math, I calculated my odds of winning anything to be about one in a hundred, and my odds of winning the kangaroo about 1 in 700.  Not wonderful odds, and I’d be stupid to pay a quarter for the privilege of reading a non-winning number from a ticket, but that kangaroo somehow managed to convince my addled fifth-grade mind that if I rummaged around in there, the ticket would magically find my hand because my desire was so great.

I suspect that a lot of fiction has this same side effect on impressionable young minds, even those straining to be rational.  Intellectually, I knew this was a ridiculous notion, but I wanted it to be true so badly, I almost had myself convinced.  It was just enough so that I handed my last quarter to the lady and rooted around in the Tupperware.

When I unfurled my ticket, a healthy dose of skepticism and anticipation kept me from getting too excited, and I checked the number three times before handing it to the lady — and collecting the kangaroo I had won.  It sat on my bed for years as a loved reminder of how every now and then, long odds do pay off, and it may be worthwhile to loosen up on cold rationality every now and then.

Years later, I got the idea that I would buy a lottery ticket.  The odds of winning are calculated for you (“virtually impossible!”) so I was under no illusions that I’d win anything.  As a test of my mental resolve, I was going to play all ones — which is difficult to imagine ever coming up, but has the exact same odds as winning (“virtually impossible!”) as any other number.  In this case, I justified it to myself because I wanted to see one of the automated lottery tickets at the grocery store in operation.

I put $1 into the machine, which promptly jammed, and went out of order.  What were the odds?  I promptly gave up on the lottery.

I’ll fast forward past counting cards in Atlantic City to being at the zoo with my four-year-old daughter whose attention has been captured by a claw machine with a bin full of tightly-packed stuffed animals.  “I want the tiger!” she says, pointing to a tiger behind the glass.

It seemed like a good time for a harsh lesson on probabilities, so I lectured her at great length about how unlikely it is that we’d win it on the first try, and that those games work because the amount of people money put in trying to grab a prize is always more than the cost of the prizes, and how I didn’t want her to be too disappointed when she didn’t win.  She solemnly took the 50 cents I handed her and promised she wouldn’t beg to play again if she didn’t get the tiger.

We still have that tiger.   I suspect my lecture was instantly forgotten.

Today I decided that I’ve give the lottery another chance, partly because if I don’t win, a significant chunk of the money goes to the schools, and partly just to see what it’s about these days.  While it’s not possible to play online, it’s possible to print out a PDF that allows one to buy tickets by mail, so I figured, what the heck:  if I don’t win, I’m not out much money, and if I do, hey, free money.

My rational mind was immediately assailed by a number of roadblocks, that weirdly reminded me of the jammed lottery machine decades earlier:

  • It took several tries to get the PDF to download.  The first time I got a PDF, it was blank
  • After filling out the form, but before I was able to print, my computer crashed (which never happens.)
  • My printer jammed
  • I was going to use a credit card to pay, but I used it earlier and misplaced it within the house
  • After deciding to just write a check, my pen flakes out, ruining a check.  It takes me 20 minutes to clean and fix my pen.
  • My printer jams when printing the envelopes, which it never does — not just once, but four times, ruining a swath of envelopes and causing me to have to apply for postal refunds

Coincidence?  Gentle fate trying to save me from wasting my money, or cruel fate trying to keep me from winning millions?

I’ll let you know, assuming this letter ever makes it.


Fun with the Secretary of State

A short while ago, I was traveling through New York, and somehow managed to leave my driver’s license with the TSA. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except that I needed to fly out of Chicago the next day, and I needed to rent a car at my final destination, which probably isn’t possible without an actual driver’s license.

My strategy was to go to the Secretary of State’s office downtown (this is the Illinois equivalent of the DMV) before it opened, in what seemed like a futile effort to acquire a license before I needed to be at the airport. Fifteen minutes before it opened, there was already a crowd of fifteen people waiting for the doors to open.

After a moment, a lady with a clipboard came out, carefully locking the door behind her. She announced that she would be coming to each of us in the order that we showed up, and giving us numbers to speed things along. She came to each of us and asked why we were there and confirm that we had the required documentation. Ahead of me in line:

  • A man from Michigan wanting an Illinois driver’s license, who didn’t have his Michigan license because he lost it for driving under the influence. (Sent away)
  • A woman who wanted a state ID, but didn’t have her Social Security card, because it “got wet.” (Sent away, with the suggestion that she replace that first.)
  • A man in a suit with some kind of letter instead of one of the required documents. “They told me over the phone this would be sufficient,” he insisted. “Nobody told you that,” she said flatly, and sent him away.
  • A teenager with no paperwork whatsoever, seeking a state ID. (Sent away.)
  • A man seeking a driver’s license. After looking at his paperwork, she asked, “where do you live?” “Indiana,” he answered. She politely explained that you have to live in Illinois to get an Illinois driver’s license, and sent him away.

After a few variations on the above, she got to me last, and I showed her my paperwork, she handed me the number two. The doors opened, and $5 and 5 minutes later, I was holding a brand new driver’s license. I was utterly unprepared for this jaw-dropping display of government efficiency, which left me with plenty of time to catch my flight — time enough to go home first.

At home, the TSA from New York called, to let me know they had my driver’s license, which they offered to send me immediately. (Since I had to fly in a few hours, I would have needed a duplicate anyway, but I received my old license the next day.)

I contrast this sharply with my experience just a few years earlier at the same office of the same agency. I received in the mail a renewal notice for my license plates that had somebody else’s name on it. I tried calling first, and after an hour on hold, was informed that I’d have to go sort it out in person, and bring the physical license plates from my car.

After another hour and a half waiting in line, I explained the situation to the bored, slow-moving woman behind the counter who didn’t quite appear to be listening. “You want to change your name?”

I explained again that the name on my renewal notice was wrong, and handed her my license plates. She looked at the plates, at my renewal notice, and my driver’s license. After a few minutes of contemplation, she typed something into her computer.

“These aren’t your plates.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. “So, how do I get this corrected?”

“You have to bring in both sets of plates,” she explained.

“This is the only set I have. This is the set I was given… by you guys,” I tried to clarify further. “I only have one set.”

“Well, these are the ones you have to bring in,” she said, and gave me a plate number nothing like the ones I’d placed on the desk.

“So, you want me to find these license plates somewhere in the State of Illinois, detach them from whoever’s car they’re mounted on, and bring them in?”

“That’s right,” she beamed, apparently pleased that she had finally gotten through to me.

“So… Do you think the person whose name is on my renewal form has those plates?”

(blank stare)

“So… Can you tell me where you mailed the renewal notice for my plates?”

She looked this up on her computer, and compared it to the address on my driver’s license. “It doesn’t match your address here, so for security purposes, I can’t tell you what it is.”

“And this is the guy whose house you want me to drive to in order to retrieve the plates you sent him by mistake?”

(blank stare)

“Fine. I just want to renew these plates and correct my name.”

“You can’t do that, these aren’t your plates.”

It was my turn to stare blankly.

“You’ll get arrested if you put these on your car,” she explained slowly.

One of the two state troopers now standing immediately behind me said, “do we have a problem here?”

“If I didn’t have a problem, I don’t think I would’ve stood in line for so long,” I explained. “That’s kind of the whole point.”

Apparently deciding that I wasn’t a threat, they backed up … a little.

“Okay, look, I just want valid plates on my car that I can actually renew and that won’t get me arrested.”

She thought about this for a moment. “You can get new plates for $20 more.”

Unhappy, but with no alternatives, I handed over the money and she gave me a new set of plates.

“Just out of curiosity, are you going to tell the guy who has my plates? So he doesn’t accidentally renew them or whatever?”

“Oh, I’ve already updated the system,” she said languidly, “and there’s a warrant out for his arrest for the guy who stole your plates.”

“Wait… what? He didn’t steal my plates, you mailed them to him.”

“Yeah, but we don’t have a way to put that in the computer. I’m sure he can explain that when they pick him up.”

Epilogue: In an effort to spare some poor guy from being arrested for no particular reason, I called information and what little I knew and tried to call the guy whose name appeared on my renewal notice. The girl who answered the phone said he’d already sold the car “to some guy out of state.”