Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Never Tell Me The Odds - On Playing PowerBall

You know the scene.  Han Solo is about to take the Millenium Falcon into an asteroid field to shake Imperial pursuit when C3P0 chimes in:

"Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately three thousand, seven hundred and twenty to one!"

Han of course replies “Never tell me the odds!”

But in today’s information-saturated, over-metricized, infographicked, post-Moneyball world, we are always told the odds.

And we are poorer for it.

Distilling all things down to algorithms and models and stats is great for a lot of things.  It’s great for science and technology and sports banter, but there’s a cost to it as well.

It kills the fun.

In an operations management class I took, there was a case study contrasting Yamaha’s piano manufacturing systems with Steinway’s.  The case study was written to highlight how Yamaha’s use of automation, and standardization allowed them to produce a consistent, high-quality piano at lower cost.  This was supposed to come across as superior to Steinway’s hand-made methods that produced very expensive pianos that all sounded different from one another.

All of that is true.  Democratising music by making high-quality pianos broadly affordable to Tiger-moms all over the world is surely a good thing.

But isn’t the thought that, somewhere out there, there is an outlier piano tuned perfectly for your playing style and your living room, kind of magical?  That’s the essence of The Human Factor in all things.  You never know when the laws of variation might give you an instance of transcendent perfection.

This is where the 3-POs kick in: Problem number one – you’re a crappy piano player.  Problem number two – you’ll never afford one.

Again, all true.  But why kill the fun?

Later today, a PowerBall jackpot worth around $1.4 Billion will be up for grabs.  And predictably, the internet is already full of smug quants reminding all of us that we won’t win, given that the odds are stacked 292 million to 1 against us.

Don’t tell us the odds.  We know the odds.  We’ve always known the odds, and when it all comes down to it, it’s not about the odds.

It’s about that magical possibility.  That “1” in 292 million to 1. 

Yes, our daydreams and grand plans for Porsches, Yachts, and a University Cafeteria bearing our name are ridiculous.  But they are also fun. 

The gleeful thought of your entire department resigning en masse after hitting it big, leaving only an odds-spouting troll and the boss behind is kind of a terrible thing, but again, pretty damn fun to think about.

That narcissitic vision of starting your own foundation and (say it with me) “making the world a better place?”  Yes, totally rote; yes, totally clich√©.  But, oh, how much fun.

Yes, lotteries are, by and large, a tax on the ignorant and hopeful.  Yes, winning the lottery often winds up being less pleasant than people think.  And yes, gambling addiction is a real thing, and can have some pretty destructive consequences.

But you know what?  Screw all that.  There’s $1.4 Billion out there with our names on it, and we’re in it to win it.

Just remember:

Never tell us the odds

1 comment:

  1. Hi Brian. I read your post about your mom's old Apartheid era ID. I am collecting any stuff about Apartheid. Will you consider selling it to me? Thanks. You can email me at j_zyte@yahoo.com

    Thanks a lot!