Playing the Lottery, part 3

Now that we’ve discussed Pascal’s calculations of “expected value” and the various shenanigans the Lottery uses to make the prize look bigger than it really is, let’s talk about the end results of being a so-called winner.

First, ask yourself what money is good for. Seriously. There are things you can get if you have money which you can’t get if you don’t have money. For example, if you have $2 you can get a hamburger, which can mean a lot if you’re very hungry. If you have just $10 you can get a good meal at a restaurant. If you have $50 you can spend the night in a hotel room instead of sleeping on the street. If you have $1,000 you can rent an apartment for an entire month. With $10,000 you could buy a nice used car or an older motorhome. With $100,000 you could buy a small house or a really nice motorhome. With $1,000,000 you could buy a really nice house plus have enough money left over to buy food for yourself for several years. Each of these examples demonstrates the utility of money. With it, you can get something you need or want, without it you can’t. This might affect your happiness level (or might not) but it certainly can affect your health and your safety.

But how much utility can you get from $2,000,000 compared to $1,000,000? You can buy a house that’s twice as big. But will that make you twice as happy? Will it make you twice as safe? Will it make you twice as healthy? Certainly not. The difference between struggling to find food and shelter vs. having a nice house full of food is about $4,000 per month. Beyond that, having more and more money only adds a tiny amount to the list of things you can do and how healthy/safe/happy you’ll be.

Of course, if you got $10,000,000 you could give most of it away to other people. Then both you and 9 of your friends could each have a house full of food. But my point remains that $10 million in the hands of one person is not 10x better than $1 million.

Consider the following game. I’ll put 30 six-sided dice into a shoebox and shake it up. You buy a ticket from me for $1,000 and then we open the box. If all 30 of the dice have landed on 6, I pay you $1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That’s one billion billion billion dollars, also known as an octillion. It’s many many times all the money on Earth right now. If you had that much money, it would literally be impossible for you to spend it all because there simply isn’t enough stuff on Earth for you to buy. Let’s calculate the expected value for this game. The chance of rolling 30 sixes is 4.52337×10^-24, which is .00000000000000000000000452337 .

EV = (4.52337×10^-24)x($1 octillion) – (1-4.52337×10^-24)x($1,000) = +$3,523.37

As you may remember, any positive expected value at all means that the game is tilted in favor of the player and it’s a “good” bet. In this case, you are risking $1,000 and expect to make a profit of $3,523.37 which is a fabulous return on your investment. Would you do it? Would you actually pay me $1,000 for a ticket to play this game?

I submit that, even if you believed that I’d be able to follow through on the promise of paying out if you win the bet, it still would be foolish for you to spend $1,000 on a ticket. The amount of happiness you’d get from winning simply isn’t worth what you give up by having to pay me $1,000.

This demonstrates a fundamental flaw in the Expected Value formula. It assumes that getting 100x as much money has 100x as much utility or will make you 100x as happy, and that’s simply not true. The larger the numbers involved, the less useful the formula becomes.

However, there’s a positive result from buying a lottery ticket which has nothing to do with winning. Just buying a ticket gives you a chance to dream about changing your life. If the amount of happiness you get from dreaming about becoming a millionaire makes you happier than keeping the cost of that ticket, then it might be money well spent.



Playing the Lottery, part 2

In my previous post, I talked about a calculation called “expected value”, which helps measure just how fair or unfair a given game is. I also talked about “the gambler’s downfall”, which basically means that the player is much more likely to run out of money before the house does. In this post, I’ll talk about five ways the state lottery tries to trick you into thinking that the game is better than it really is.

#1 The prize might be divided among several winners. They want you to think about the size of the jackpot and ignore the fact that several winners may end up splitting the jackpot. A $72 million jackpot sounds bigger than a $24 million jackpot, but that’s just an illusion. The $72 million jackpot is much more likely to be split three ways, so each gets $24 million.

#2 They lie about the value of the jackpot. I’m not talking about taxes; that’s a whole other subject. Imagine a game where, if I win, you have to pay me right now, but if you win, I take 30 years to pay you. How fair does that sound? When they tell you that the prize is $24 million, that’s a deception. The truth is that they are essentially offering you a gift certificate which is only worth $14 million. You can trade it for $14 million in cash, or you can trade it for an annuity that pays $800K per year for the next 30 years. The problem here is the difference between Present Value and Future Value. $24 million is the Future Value, spread out over 30 years. But I don’t care what it will be worth in the future. What matters is what it’s worth right now. The Present Value is only $14 million, not 24. There exact ratio of Present Value to Future Value depends on interest rates, but right now PV is roughly 60% of FV over 30 years.

#3 They use huge numbers in order to confuse people. Most people can understand small numbers like $50 and $1,400 but they have trouble understanding just how big is a million, or a billion. The lottery takes advantage of this by offering what seems like a large prize and burying in the fine print the fact that the odds against you are even more astronomical. Sometimes it’s 14 million to 1 against, sometimes it’s 292 million to 1 against. Your brain sees both those numbers as just “really big”, even though the second one is twenty times higher.

#4 They make the game complicated. This has the double whammy of making it more fun (because it feels like you have some control) yet it also makes it harder to understand the odds. Even if you’re one of the rare people who learned Pascal’s formula for expected value, they are betting you won’t be able to apply it to such a complicated game. It has been said that the lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math. The truth is that even people who are relatively good at math have trouble understanding the lottery. Luckily, you have me to help you.

#5 The exact parameters of the game aren’t known until after it’s over. In order to figure out how much you might win, you need to know how many tickets will be sold. But that’s not known at the time you buy your ticket. And they are constantly adjusting their estimate of what the jackpot will be. In fact, the size of the jackpot also depends on how many tickets get sold.

Let’s try to estimate what the expected value of the lottery really is. First, it’s not guaranteed that someone will win. It’s very possible that there won’t be any winning tickets. The more tickets get sold, the greater the chance that someone will win, but that also increases the chance that the jackpot will be split. And remember that the advertised number isn’t the actual jackpot. Unfortunately, we’ll have to make educated guesses for some of the numbers. Suppose they advertise that the jackpot this week will be $18 million and we think there will be 30 million tickets sold. Suppose this is a standard $1 “pick six numbers from 1 to 49” lottery, with 13,983,816 unique combinations of numbers. Let’s call that last number n; you’ll see why in a minute. All things being equal, any ticket has 1/n chance of winning. But, assuming that someone wins, the best guess for how many winning tickets there will be is 30 million divided by n. The jackpot will be divided by this number, which means we’ll actually multiply the jackpot times n over 30 million. And lastly, remember that the actual jackpot is only about 60% of the advertised jackpot. And we need to multiply all this by the probability that someone will win. Given 30 million tickets, I’ll estimate that to be 75%.

EV = (75%)x(1/n)x(60%)x($18 million)x(n/30 million)-$1.00

Notice there’s an n in the numerator and denominator, so the n’s cancel. Same goes for the “million”. That just leaves…

EV = (75%)x(60%)x($18)x(1/30)-$1 = $.27-$1.00 = -$.73

This is a really bad expected value. It’s negative (of course) meaning the odds are tilted against the players. On average, each ticket costs $1.00 and loses $.73. That’s a huge profit for the house.

Well, let’s suppose that no one wins the jackpot this week and it rolls over to another week. Now they’ll another 30 million tickets and the advertised jackpot is $36 million.

EV = (75%)x(60%)x($36m)x(1/30m)-$1 = $.54-$1.00 = -$.46

This is better, but it’s still a large profit for the house, and that’s on top of all the profit they made last week when there were no winners at all.

Let’s take it one more step. Suppose that once again there are no winners and it rolls over again. This week they advertise the jackpot to be $72 million. Why such a big jump? Because they expect to sell more tickets! This week there will be 60 million tickets instead of just 30 million. Now it’s 90% certain that someone will win.

EV = (90%)x(60%)x($72m)x(1/60m)-$1 = $.65-$1.00 = -$.35

The house still expects to make a 35% profit this week, on top of all the profit they made last week and the week before. The only way that your EV becomes positive is if there’s a rollover followed by a week where very few people buy any tickets. But they’ve convinced everyone to buy the tickets because $72,000,000 sounds great.

Now, let’s use the real-world numbers from last week’s Powerball Lottery. The jackpot was advertised as $1.5 billion and they sold 371 million tickets.

EV = (85%)x(60%)x($1586m)x(1/371m)-$2 = $2.18 – $2.00 = $.18

Amazingly, we’ve actually found a game with a positive expected value, which means it favors the players (slightly). Players could expect a 9% return on their investment. This leads to another question. If you could buy one of every single ticket, would it be worth it? First, consider that n=292,201,338 for Powerball, so you’d need to buy that many tickets. And you’d have to hire an army of 120,000 people to help you buy them, which would cost around $50 million to pay their salaries for one week, bringing your total investment to $634 million. You’d be increasing the number of tickets sold to 663 million, and the jackpot would go up another 200 million or so. Also, you’d be guaranteeing that there would be at least one winner.

EV = (100%)x(100%)x(60%)x($1786m)x(292m/663m)-$634m = $471m-$634m = -$163 million

So that would be a really bad business plan. It’s not smart to invest $634 million when you expect to lose $163 million of it. The EV changed when you altered the game by buying so many tickets.

Anyway, what actually happened last week is there were 3 winners, so each of them got $328 million (Present Value), which isn’t nearly as big as $1.586 billion but it’s still huge. But is it really all that great? Will it make you happy? Will it solve your problems? That’s the topic for part 3.

Playing the Lottery, part 1

There was a lot of talk last week about the huge jackpot in the Powerball Lottery. Many people were wondering… is it true that this Lottery was somehow better than other Lotteries? As a former math teacher, I find such questions interesting. I’m going to tackle this in three parts. Part 1 will be about how to judge the fairness of gambling games in general. Part 2 will talk about strategies the Lottery uses to try to trick you. Part 3 will discuss the complicated question of how winning and losing affects your happiness.

First, let’s look at a simple way to judge whether games are fair.

The simplest game I can think of is a coin flip. I flip the coin, you call it heads or tails. If you guessed right, you win. Otherwise, I win. But what, exactly, do we “win”? Suppose we each put up a dollar and the winner gets to keep all the money. I think you’ll agree that this is a completely fair game. Neither of us has an advantage over the other.

But that’s not generally how gambling works. The person who sets up the game (called “the house”) can adjust the game to give themselves an advantage. As the saying goes, “the house always wins.” But there are varying degrees of just how lopsided the game might be.

Let’s consider a slightly more complicated game. I’ll roll a six-sided die underneath a cup and invite you to guess what number is showing on the die. But you have to put down $3 before you guess. If you guess the number, I’ll give you $12. How fair is this game? Fortunately, a very smart man called Blaise Pascal came up with a way of calculating this, 400 years ago.

Imagine yourself playing the game many times (or many copies of yourself playing the game together). On the average, do you come out ahead? Consider the six-sided die game described above. Clearly, you’ll lose this game most of the time. But it might be worth it to play, if the amount you win is sufficiently large compared to the amount you lose. Imagine playing the game six times and winning just once. You lose five times. All together, you’ve won 1x$1=$12 and you’ve lost 5x$3=$15. So you’re down by $3 after six games. That’s an average loss of 50 cents each time you played. This gives us a measure of how fair the game is. Your “expected value” is -.50 , which is roughly 18% of what it costs you to play the game. From the house’s point of view, they expect to make an average of 18% gross profit from each game.

This isn’t precisely how Blaise Pascal did it. He suggested that you should consider all the possible outcomes, calculate the probability of each, and multiply each probability times the win/loss associated with that outcome, and add up those values. Let’s try it his way.

You probability of winning is 1/6. Your probability of losing is 5/6. Multiply 1/6 times the $12 win and you get $2. Multiply 5/6 times the -$3 (negative because it’s a loss) and you get -$2.50. Add together $2 and -$2.50 and the result is -$.50, which is the same expected value we calculated above.

Note: when the house has the advantage (which is nearly always), the expected value will be negative. If you ever find a game with a positive expected value, that means the player has the advantage over the house. Such games are very rare.

Let’s compare that game to another one. In this next game, I’ll write down a single digit, anywhere from 0 to 9. You have to guess the number to win. I sell you a ticket for $2 and you write your guess on the ticket. If you guessed right, you win $17. Let’s calculate the expected value for this game. There are 10 choices so your probability of winning is 1/1o. Multiply that by $17 to get $1.70. Then multiply 9/10 by -$2 and get -$1.80. Add together $1.70 and -$1.80 to get -$.10, which is the expected value. But wait. There’s a mistake there. Did you catch it? I said I’ll sell you a ticket for $2 and you write your guess on the ticket and maybe you win $17… but you don’t get your $2 back! So even when you win, you really only came out ahead $15, not $17. So really we should have added together (1/10)x($15)+(9/10)x(-$2) = -$.30.

So the six-sided die costs $3 to play and you expect to lose $.50 (about 18%) but the 0-9 game costs $2 to play and you expect to lose $.30 (which is only 15% of $2). So you lose 18% of your money in the first game but only 15% of your money in the second game. Hence, the 0-9 game is a better bet for you. Of course, better for you means worse for the house.

Generally speaking, if the house takes less than 10%, that’s pretty good for the players. If the house takes more than 20%, that’s bad for the players. If the house takes more than 50%, that’s terrible for the players.

So now let’s look at a game where the house takes more than 50%. It’s a charity fundraiser. They walk around the room selling tickets for $1. At the end of the night, they count how much has been collected, put 1/4 of the money into a big glass jar and then randomly draw a number to see who wins. If your ticket matches the number, you win what’s in the jar. Suppose they sell 600 tickets, taking in $600. $150 of it ends up in the jar. So if your ticket wins you come out $149 ahead. The chance that your ticket wins is 1/600. The expected value is (1/600)x($149)+(599/600)x(-$1) = 149/600 – 599/600 = -450/600 = -.75 which means that, for each $1 ticket sold, the house keeps 75 cents. That’s great for the house, but bad for the players.

Let’s go back to the 0-9 guessing game for a minute. We calculated that, on average, you’ll lose 15% of your money. Imagine that you start with $100 and you use it to buy 50 tickets. On average, 5 of those tickets will be winners and 45 will be losers, so you end up with $85. What happens next? Suppose you buy 42 more tickets. You’d expect 4 of them to win and 38 to lose. Now you have $69. I think you can see where this is going. If you keep using your winnings to buy more tickets, eventually you’ll end up with no money left at all. The point is that recycling your winnings back into more tickets causes you to lose even more money than what the expected value says.

Of course, there’s a tiny tiny chance that you’ll have a lucky streak, winning game after game, until the house runs out of money (called “breaking the bank”). But honestly, who do you think will run out of money first, you or the house? This is called “the gambler’s downfall”.

Let’s talk about roulette. You pick a number from 1 to 36 and hope that the ball will land on that number. The “odds” are 35 to 1, but there are 38 spaces on the wheel. So if you bet $10 you have a 1/38 chance to win $350 (and keep your $10 too), plus a 37/38 chance to lose your $10. The expected value is (1/38)x($350)+(37/38)x(-$10) = -10/19, approximately -53 cents. That’s barely 5% of your bet, so this is a good game from the player’s point of view. But think about what would happen if you recycle your winnings. Suppose you walk in with $500 and you say “I’m going to bet $10 on my lucky number fifty times”. We don’t know precisely what will happen, but you’ll probably win once, maybe twice, and walk out with either $360 or $720. Not bad. But if you take those winnings and keep on betting it, you will eventually run out of money and walk out with nothing.

On the other hand, Suppose you walk in with $500 and say “I’m going to bet $10 on my lucky number until I run out of money or until I win, at which point I’ll stop”, then you have almost a 50-50 chance to walk out with more money than you came in with. You might even walk out with $850 if you win on the very first spin. As Kenny Rogers sang, “Know when to walk away.”

From the house’s point of view, it’s still a win for them. Suppose it takes you forty bets until you eventually win one and quit. Imagine you and 1,000 other people all making forty $10 bets. According to the expected value, the house predicts an average profit of 53 cents times forty bets times 1,000 people, which comes to $21,200. On a good day, the house might make $30,000 profit at that roulette table. On a bad day, they might only profit $10,000. But the house always wins.

That’s all for Part 1. In Part 2, we’ll discuss state-run Lotteries and how they trick you into thinking that the game is better than it actually is.



Star Trek Pagh

I just got through watching “A Matter of Honor”, the Star Trek TNG episode where Riker is temporarily posted to a the Klingon ship Pagh. At the end of the episode, he takes command by deposing the Klingon captain and says to the Klingon crew, “I’m your captain now”.  With weapons armed and a crew which is ready for a fight, he hails the Enterprise and orders Picard to lower their shields and surrender. So I started thinking… what if the Klingon weapons officer had fired a photon torpedo at that moment?

Suppose the Enterprise were destroyed by the hit. Kargan was aboard the Enterprise at that moment. That leaves Riker as permanent captain of the Klingon ship Pagh. His first office is now Lt. Klag. Naturally, Captain Riker would chastise the weapons officer, possibly kill him. But it would be too late to undo the damage.

Neither Troi nor LeForge appeared in that episode, so it’s possible that they were not on board the ship at that moment. Also, Beverley Crusher was at StarFleet Medical during season two, so she would have survived as well. Maybe some strange twists of fate would get Troi, LeForge, and Crusher transferred to the Pagh as well, and then Captain Riker and his mostly Klingon crew could travel the galaxy having adventures aboard the Pagh.

I think this is an interesting though experiment.

And, according to Rule 34, somebody somewhere has made porn about it.

Bring out the popcorn!


ten crazy theories you can’t disprove

Everything you know is based on information you gather with your senses, compared to memories that are stored in your mind. You believe that this knowledge comes from your interaction with the real world and the objects and people which inhabit that world. Plato pointed out that a person who lived their entire life in a cave, seeing nothing but shadows and never seeing the objects which cast the shadows, would think the shadows are real, just like we think the world we see is real. But what if that’s all an illusion? Could you prove it?

Here are ten crazy theories about the universe which cannot be disproved.

#1 This life is really just a dream you’re having while you’re lying in a hospital bed somewhere, in a coma.

Every detail of your life, and every memory you think you have of it, is really just a highly detailed dream you’re having. None of it is real. Any minute now, you might wake up and find yourself lying in a hospital bed, in a world with a completely different history, and say to yourself “Oh, it was all a dream.” Right now, you think you’re a 32-year-old real estate agent with 2 kids but the truth is that you’re a 60-year-old school teacher who never got married, having a dream about being a 32-year-old real estate agent with 2 kids. Some dreams can seem very real when you’re in them and you never know for sure until you wake up.

#2 This life is really just a dream and Earth doesn’t exist at all.

Similar to #1 above, you’re in a coma having a dream but the hospital bed is on an alien planet which is very different from Earth. In fact, Earth doesn’t exist. You just dreamed it up. You think you’re a Homo Sapiens but you’re not. As the philosopher Chuang Tzu asked, if a man can have a dream about being a butterfly, how do you know that you aren’t really a butterfly who’s having a dream about being a man?

#3 The entire universe doesn’t exist, except for you.

This world is a dream all right, but you aren’t lying in a hospital bed on Earth or any other planet because there are no planets. You dreamed the very concept of stars and planets. The truth is that your mind is the only thing that exists in the cosmos and everything else (even your body) is just part of this dream you’re having. Rene DesCartes famously said Cogito Ergo Sum ( I think therefore I am ) but the only person you know for sure to be thinking is yourself, so you exist and maybe that’s all there is. Just you. Thinking and existing.

#4 The universe is real but it was created five minutes ago.

For reasons unknown, an omnipotent god decided to create a universe with you in it, complete with galaxies and stars and planet Earth, and everything on Earth, including other humans. But this god didn’t have the patience to spend 6 days creating the universe and then wait 6,000 years for history to unfold gradually, leading us to this exact moment in time. This impatient god decided instead to create the entire universe, just as you perceive it to be right now, five minutes ago. Any memories you have of things that happened more than five minutes ago are false memories. Those memories were created five minutes ago. Any artifacts you find which appear to be more than five minutes old were actually created five minutes ago, complete with features which give them the illusion of being much older, and those features were created five minutes ago.

#5 The world as we know it is just a computer simulation.

Remember the game The Sims? If computers keep getting better and better, it may become possible to program a simulation which is so detailed that the characters in the simulation become self-aware. The world they inhabit seems very real to them. It’s the only world they have ever known. It’s perfectly consistent for them, even if the rules are slightly different from those of the world inhabited by the programmer who wrote the simulation. Now, given the idea that there could be thousands of such simulations running on thousands of different computers, and only one real world, what are the odds that this world, which you think is real, is actually the one real world? Isn’t more likely that it’s one of the many many simulations? Perhaps it was created by a programmer in the far off future who wanted to see what life might have been like here in our time, which is the ancient past from the programmer’s point of view.

#6 You’re in a simulation which is running parallel to the real world, on trial for a crime you haven’t committed yet.

Similar to #5 above, you’re in a simulation, but it’s not the ancient past, it’s present day. There’s the real you who inhabits the real world, and there’s a thousand simulated yous who inhabits a thousand simulations. The real you has been arrested by the thought police who suspect you are about to commit a crime. They’ve programmed a thousand computers with a simulation of the real world, and put into each one a highly detailed simulation of you and your personality. They are monitoring the simulations to see what you’ll do. In each simulation, there will be a situation where simulated you will have an opportunity to commit a crime where simulated you thinks no one will ever find out. If the majority of the simulated yous go through with the crime, then the real you will be punished with horrific torture. So, dear reader, you think you’re real but actually you’re just a simulation and the real you is handcuffed in a police station awaiting the results of this test. If you, the simulation, commit a crime (which crime? impossible to say…) then the real you will be tortured for a very long time. So watch yourself.

#7 You’re in a parallel simulation, accused of treason and being tested for loyalty.

Similar to #6 above, you’re one of a thousand simulated yous whose actions will have dire consequences for the real you which is handcuffed in a police station. This simulation is your chance to prove your loyalty. The problem is… loyalty to whom? You don’t know. Perhaps the programmers are Nazis who are giving you this chance to prove your loyalty to the Nazi Party. If you denounce the Nazis in this simulation, the real you will suffer for it. Or maybe the programmers are Communists fighting the Nazis who are expecting you to denounce the Nazis and demonstrate your loyalty to Communism. There’s no way to tell what it is they want you do do or say. But if you make the wrong choice, the real you will tortured for a very long time.

#8 You’re in a simulation which appears to be 14 billion years old but really it was created just 6,000 years ago and you’re being tested for… something.

Is the simulation real, or does it just seem real? Either way, you find yourself on planet Earth, surrounded by people, a few of which are desperately trying to tell you that the universe is only 6,000 years old. You laugh at those people but actually they’re right. And you’re being tested. The creator/programmer wants to see how you will act. Certain actions will prove your loyalty and the real you will be rewarded, other actions will show your disloyalty and the real you will be tortured. But which actions are which? The creator/programmer has deliberately put false clues into the simulation regarding the age of the universe. What if there are other false clues telling us to do certain things and not do others when really that’s precisely what condemns us to torture? Does the creator reward people for being gullible? Does the creator reward people for being skeptical? There’s not way to cover all the bases. No matter what you do, there’s a risk that you’ve chosen the wrong answer. In the words of Bill Hicks, “Does that bother any of you? That God might be fucking with us?”.

#9 You are immortal.

The world is real, you are real, but you can never die. You see other people dying around you and you believe that some day you will die but the truth is that you’ll keep avoiding death, somehow. Every bullet fired at your head will miss by a few inches. Every disease you catch will just fail to kill you. You’ll keep getting older, of course, but no matter how bad your health gets, you never… quite… die. The only way to disprove this theory is to actually die but then if and when that happens you aren’t conscious anymore so you never have that “Aha!” moment where you can say “Look, I’m dead!”. So there’s no way to know for sure that you aren’t immortal.

#10 Everyone is immortal.

According to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, every event splits the world into two worlds, one where it happened and one where it didn’t happen. Suppose the real you branches into this world and a ghost you branches into the other world. This happens millions of times each second. At every single branch point, there is at least one branch which leads to a world where you survive. For example, someone points a loaded gun right at your head and pulls the trigger. Will the gun misfire, yes or no? That event splits the world into two worlds, one where you are alive and one where you are dead. The real you follows the branch into the world where you are alive and in the other world it’s just a ghost you. The ghost is dead. But the real you is still alive, in another world. So the real you is immortal, because every single event has some possible way that the real you could survive (even if the odds are astronomical), so the real you always will survive. In those other worlds, other people see you die but it’s not the real you, it’s a ghost you. And the same thing is true about other people! Their real selves always branch to a world where they survive, but it may not be the same one that the real you is in. So you see people dying, but it’s just ghost them. The real them is still alive. And they see you dying, but it’s not the real you either. Everyone is immortal. Again, the only way to disprove this would be to have an “Aha!” moment after you’re dead. But if you’re dead, it’s too late to have that moment.

None of these theories can be proven false. There aren’t any experiments that you could conduct whose outcome would confirm or deny the truth of these theories.

But hey, there’s probably nothing you can do about it anyway, so don’t waste time worrying about it.


Freedom of Speech

I’ve seen dozens of articles where people complain about being told they can’t fly the American flag and they say it’s violating their right to Freedom of Speech. Pretty much every single case I’ve ever seen, when you dig down into it, you find out that the real problem had nothing to do with the flag itself. For example, somebody puts up a flagpole at the edge of their property and it turns out to be on the public right-of-way. The government tells the property owner to move the flagpole. The next day, you read a story about “They tried to stop me from flying the American flag!”. Nonsense.

Here’s one about some school kids who almost started a riot on Cinco de Mayo. It seems the white students were trying to intimidate some Mexican students, basically sending the message “we belong here and you don’t”. At one point, they chanted “USA! USA!” while waving a giant American flag, and the Mexican students replied with “Fuck those white boys”. The school administration told them to knock it off. And then someone says “OMG they won’t let you fly an American flag? What about Freedom of Speech?”

This sounds a lot like the shouting-Fire-in-a-crowded-theater exception to me. Basically, SCOTUS is saying Freedom of Speech doesn’t give you the right to shout “I hate negroes!” in a crowded lunchroom. In that Cinco De Mayo story, the flag itself wasn’t a problem, it was the way that certain students were using the flag. If you read the details of what they did and understand the emotions behind it, it seems obvious to me that it was a huge disruption. That’s why the school told them to knock it off. Disruptions don’t stop being disruptive just because you incorporate a “sacred” symbol into it.

People get bent out of shape over Freedom of Speech and I shake my head and think “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” When the President dissolves Parliament and orders the arrest of anyone who complains about it, THAT’S violating Freedom of Speech. When the President runs for reelection and orders the arrest of anyone who runs an advertisement suggesting a vote for the challenger, THAT’S violating Freedom of Speech. When the President-for-Life starts a war and orders that anyone who criticizes the war should be rounded up and prosecuted for treason (or better yet, just detained indefinitely without a trial) THAT’S violating Freedom of Speech. The whole point of the 1st Amendment is that, if the government does something bad, the problem will never get corrected if it’s illegal to complain about the problem.

While I think it’s ludicrous that the FCC slaps broadcasters with huge fines for not bleeping certain words, that’s a far cry from slapping broadcasters with huge fines for criticizing members of congress. THAT would be violating Freedom of Speech.

Having said that, I do think that there are times when we’ve come close to the line. I heard several conservatives in 2002 saying that criticizing POTUS during a time of war is borderline on treason. Luckily, they didn’t actually start arresting people for it (or if they did, we never found out about it). Edward Snowden is another example; he blew the whistle on some nefarious government spying and he they want to prosecute him for treason. There was a time when children were compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, basically violating Freedom of Speech by in a backwards way by not giving them the option to refrain from declaring their loyalty to the government. But thankfully that changed and SCOTUS recognized the right to refuse a loyalty oath.

So you gotta ask yourself. Would you rather live in a country where once in a while somebody has to take down their flag? Or in a country where failure to show respect for the Glorious Leader gets you arrested in the middle of the night?


Ripley’s is bad at math


Okay, pop quiz. Grab a random person off the street. Find out what day of the week they were born. What are the odds that they were born on the same day of the week as you?

Wait. Before you answer, consider this alternate version. Grab two random people off the street. Find out what day of the week each of them were born. What are the odds that they were born on the same day as each other?

Do you think both versions have the same solution? If so, you’re right. The answer is the same for both. The answer is 6 to 1 against.

There is 1 chance out of 7 that two people were born on the same day of the week, and 6 chances out of 7 that they were born on different days of the week. That’s a ratio of 6 to 1.

Suppose you were born on a Friday. And you meet someone else who was also born on a Friday. What are the chances? 1 out of 7. “Aha”, you say “but it should be 1/7 for me times 1/7 for the other person, which is 1/49” but you would be wrong to say that. The reason you’re wrong is that this story works equally well for any day of the week. It doesn’t matter at all what day you were born on. Whatever day it happens to be, it’s the same day as itself. The only thing that matters is what’s the chances of the SECOND person also being born on the same day. So it’s 1 chance in favor and 6 against, ratio of 6 to 1.

Alright. You meet a couple walking down the street pushing a stroller in which is their baby. You stop to chat. They tell you that they have an amazing family because all three of them were born on a Tuesday. How amazing is that? What are the odds?

The chances are 100% that the dad was born on the same day as himself. The chances are 1 out of 7 that the mom was born on the same day as the dad. And the chances are 1 out of 7 that the baby was born on the same day as the mom and dad, so we multiply 7×7=49 and we get 1 chance out of 49 in favor and 48 chances out of 49 against. So the odds are 48 to 1 against.

Not really all that impressive, huh. On average, every 49th couple has this same story to brag about.

Finally, let’s take a look at the April 8th 2015 Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon. It says that there’s a couple with a baby and all three of them have the same birthday. What are the odds? Let’s ignore leap years to keep it simple.

What are the chances that the dad was born on the same day as himself? 100%. What are the chances that mom was born on the same day as dad? 1/365. What are the chances that the baby was born on the same day as dad? 1/365. Multiply those together and you get 1/133,225 which means 1 chance in favor and 133,224 against, hence the odds are 133,224 to 1 against all three having the same birthday.

But Ripley’s said 1:48,000,000.

This is the third time I’ve seen Ripley’s make a math error.


thank you thank you thank you

When being polite, you should say please, thank you, and you’re welcome. It annoys me when people get it mixed up.

Imagine you’re in a restaurant and the server asks you if you want some water. You say “thank you”. Then the server pours you a glass of water, and you say “thank you” again. Then the server says “thank you” and leaves the table. WTF? That was supposed to be PLEASE, when you wanted the water, then “thank you” when you get the water, and then the server was supposed to say YOU’RE WELCOME. It’s like we’re actors who can’t remember our lines here.

What’s even more messed up is if you don’t any water, then you say “No, thank you” so now you’re thanking them for something you didn’t even happen! But people would look at me funny if I said “No, please”, even though that’s the logical thing to say.

SEVER: Do you want some water?

PATRON: Yes, Please.

(Server pours water)

PATRON: Thank you.

SERVER: You’re welcome.

or it could go like this….

SEVER: Do you want some water?

PATRON: No, Please.

Okay, one more thing… if you’re not comfortable saying “you’re welcome”, you could also say “no problem” or “you bet” or “sure thing” or just mumble “mm hmm”. Anything but “thank you”.



Who’s next?

I’m very happy to see that Alabama has started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. They seem to have a glitch in the fact that some counties are turning people away, but that will be straightened out soon. In a very short time, we can expect that the US Supreme Court will issue a ruling which says same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional because it goes against the idea of equal protection under the law.

The sad thing is that, just when we can see the light at the end of the tunnel for this group of people, it seems to be getting darker for another group. I’m talking about transgender people. There’s a new bill up for vote in Florida which would require businesses to track who uses which bathroom and prevent people from using the wrong bathroom. This means that business owners would be, not just permitted, but required, to look at every single person who uses their bathroom and judge them as to what gender the business owner thinks they look most like and then refuse to let the customer say for themselves which gender they are and which bathroom they should use.

So… if you’re a woman who is only attracted to other women, the good news is that you can marry the person you fall in love with. But… if you’re a man trapped in a woman’s body, the bad news is that you will be hassled when you go to the bathroom. And maybe arrested.

It seems that there’s this big pile of hatred and intolerance which just has to be applied to somebody. So if one group manages to escape the hatred it just gets redirected at someone else.

Here’s a message to anyone who is upset by the idea of letting people choose what bathroom they use. The world you think you live in is make-believe. You imagine that everyone fits into these neat categories of “men” and “women” and you think that if you go into a bathroom which is reserved exclusively for your gender that you are magically protected from people who might secretly look at you funny. This fantasy world doesn’t exist. Most men are attracted to women, some are attracted to men, some are attracted to both, and some of them are crazy sociopaths who enjoy humiliating and terrifying other humans and don’t care too much about their victim’s gender. So you aren’t safe in the men’s room. You never were. You have this irrational fear that letting people choose their own bathroom will let some pervert attack you. Guess what. You’ve been vulnerable to pervert attacks already. Somehow you’ve managed to live with it up until now. And, unless you’ve led a very sheltered life, chances are you’ve already shared a bathroom with a transgender person and you didn’t even know it. Were you traumatized? Of course not.

The place where I work only has one bathroom anyway. It’s barely big enough for just one person to use at a time. Nobody cares what gender you are. And the bathroom in my house is like that too; only one person uses it at a time so nobody cares. Most public bathrooms have individual stalls anyway, so why get freaked out by the face of the person who’s washing their hands at the sink next to yours? That’s the easy solution, just make all bathrooms unisex with individual stalls.

I’ll admit that locker rooms are a bit trickier problem. People want to change clothes without being ogled. But guess what… separating by (supposed) gender doesn’t accomplish that goal. When you’re in a gender-segregated locker room, you can still be ogled. Speaking for myself, I don’t care. I don’t worry about whether someone will make rude comments about my body or if they’ll make unwanted sexual advances at me or if they’ll fondle me or rape me. I don’t worry about it because I trust people to respect my boundaries. And I’ll extend that some trust to anyone regardless of whether they are the same gender as me, or a different gender, or transgender. And I promise that I’ll respect their boundaries too.

That’s how it works at nudist resorts. You can glance at someone’s body, just like you might glance at someone’s shoes, but you don’t stare with your tongue hanging out, and you don’t make rude comments or unwanted sexual advances, and fondling will get you kicked out, and rape will get you arrested. We all know that those things are unacceptable. Trust people to act like they’re supposed to act. I trust people and people can trust me. That trust is not conditional based on your gender.


GMO’s and overpopulation

I have good news and bad news about overpopulation.

The good news is that the rapid increase in the world population of humans seems to have been caused by the industrial revolution but once we’ve gotten past the transition, population is finally beginning to stabilize. The total number of human babies being born each year has leveled out in the last quarter century or so. It’s highly likely that we’ll peak at 11 billion and won’t go any higher than that.

The bad news is that 11 is probably way too high to be sustainable in the long run. Even if each of those people have a very small ecological footprint, it’s just too damned big when you multiply it by 11 billion. The question of what size human population actually would be sustainable is the subject of much debate, but I think the answer is someone around 1 billion.

Overpopulation is still a problem. And GMO crops are going to make it worse.

Even IF it turns out that GMOs are 100% beneficial and harmless, with no unintended consequences, the mere fact that it promotes population growth should be enough of a reason to dislike it. Add in the fact that GMOs promote monoculture and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. And that’s even assuming that they DON’T have dangerous side effects which we haven’t had time to identify yet.

Imagine you have ten mice in a cage. Every day you put in enough food for ten mice. Come back in a year, how many mice will there be? Ten. Keep putting in enough food for ten mice and the actual population will hover around ten mice. But suppose you are a malicious, cruel, sadistic bastard who actually wants to see lots of starvation. What strategy would maximize your cruelty? Gradually increase the food in the cage to feed 20 mice, then 40, then 80, then 160, then 320, until the mice are so overcrowded that they are wallowing in their own filth, and then abruptly go back to only giving them enough food for 10 mice. Watch 310 mice die of starvation almost overnight.

Mechanized agriculture doesn’t cure starvation. It helps to create the conditions which make starvation more deadly, when the system eventually fails.