Dice and the blue dress

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A more serious blog than usual. Not so many jokes today and a long blog (even by my standards).

You see, Patti, my muse, has given me a challenge. “Write a blog about dice”, she said. The many uses of dice.

You can just imagine her thinking … “that will shut him up.” And I imagine she’s expecting a list of dice games like backgammon and monopoly.

I wonder if we can be a little bit more ambitious? Let’s see if we can use dice to have happy relationships, make non-random decisions, explain conspiracy theories, disprove the power of prayer and luck, make money and lots of other things besides.

Happy relationships first. There will come a time when your other half will ask for your opinion on something. The red dress or the blue?

The secret is to pick one at random (say on the roll of a dice) and then say it with utter conviction. Whatever you do, don’t let her see you rolling the dice. Be confident, be bold and say … the red one because it matches your eyes. On second thoughts, the blue might be more politic.

You see, it really doesn’t matter which you choose as long as you seem confident and sincere. She wouldn’t have asked you if she could choose herself. She knows you too well. This means that the decision is so finely balanced that either would be fine.

How to make good decisions. This one is really sneaky because it is a lot less random than it seems. If you are struggling to make a decision, write down all the options on a piece of paper. Put a number against each option from 1 to 6. If you have fewer than six options, just leave one blank.

Now make yourself a promise. You are going to roll a dice to decide what to do. You absolutely must do whatever the dice decides. No best out of threes.

With that in mind, look back at your list. Are there any options on there that you really don’t want to come up? If so, strike them off. Are there any options that you really want to win? If so, put the dice away and just do it.

When you have the list exactly as you want it, throw the dice over your shoulder where you can’t see it. As you are throwing it, does an idea pop into your head about which option you really want to win?

Look down at your list. Again, do any of your options jump out as either must-win or must not win?

If all else fails, turn around and do whatever the dice tells you. Because if you have got this far and still don’t know what to do, you are back into red dress/ blue dress territory. It probably doesn’t matter what you choose.

Explain conspiracy theories: At the heart of nearly every conspiracy theory is at least one thing that does not seem to make sense. Something that seems so unlikely. An unbelievable coincidence.

Have you ever thought about a distant relative or a long lost friend – only for them to ring you the next day? How spooky is that, eh? What are the odds of that happening?

As it turns out, it’s not spooky at all.

Unlikely things are bound to happen if you do things lots of times. As an experiment, I rolled a dice 10,000 times. Actually I cheated. I wrote an excel spreadsheet to do it for me, but the effect is the same. And when you look through the results, you start to notice some “weird” results.

My 73rd, 74th, 75th and 76th rolls were all sixes. That’s four sixes in a row.

I rolled four twos in a row between rolls 79 and 82.

There is nothing magical going on here. You will get similar results if you do it yourself.

When you think of someone and they phone you shortly afterwards, that is nothing more than the laws of probability doing their thing. You think of people all the time. Most of the time they don’t phone and you quickly forgot that you thought about them. Over a lifetime there are certain to be occasions when the very unlikely happens – you thinking about someone and them phoning will coincide.

Nothing remarkable or magical. You just don’t notice the huge number of times when unlikely things don’t happen.

This also helps to explain evolution – small and random chance happenings over a very long time.

Disprove the power of prayer and luck (and the pointlessness of gambling): here’s a funny thing. People think that numbers are just numbers. They all behave in the same way. What no-one tells you is that big numbers behave differently to small numbers. They follow different rules.

Using my dice-rolling spreadsheet, I simulated rolling a dice 100 times, 1,000 times and 10,000 times. Then I compared how many times each number had come up, against the theoretical probability of 16.6%.

In the 100 rolls experiment, the number of times that individual numbers came out varied between 15% and 21%. That’s a range of 6% percentage points between the most frequent winner (3) and the least successful (5).

In the 1,000 roll experiment, the range was 15.2% to 17.5%. That’s a range of 2.3 percentage points between most successful and least successful.

In the 10,000 roll experiment, the range narrowed even further – between 16.2% and 16.9%.

If we carried on with this experiment and rolled the dice millions of times, the times that each number came up would get closer and closer to 16.66%, We would roll nearly as many 1s as 2s, and so on.

What is happening here is that small numbers of dice rolls are unpredictable. But big numbers are more predictable. The laws of probability always win in the end.

That’s why gambling is nearly always a waste of money. The bookmakers and casinos set the odds of winning to be slightly in their favour and then let the rules of probability do their thing.

For example, on roulette the pay-out for betting on the right number is 36 times your stake. But the odds of winning are usually 1 in 38 – the ball could land in any one of the 36 numbers or in either of the two zeroes (in a typical roulette wheel).

Because the pay-out is less than the odds, over time the casino are guaranteed to make money. The gamblers are looking at the unpredictable small numbers – their own experience and the few roulette rolls that they can see. The casino is banking on the much more predictable larger numbers.

It is the same with the latest fashion for in-play betting on sports. An online bookmaker will offer odds on the next person to score a goal, the final score of the match, how many yellow cards there will be, and so on.

Naturally, the bookmaker will have calculated those odds by looking at hundreds if not thousands of football matches. Their computer programs will have told them exactly what the odds are for a certain striker to score next. The odds that they offer are set to be sufficiently tempting, but not high enough to reflect the real probability. The punter doesn’t know any of this.

In the long run, the bookmaker can’t lose. Apart from skill-related games such as poker, gambling is really a tax on stupidity.

But there is one interesting thing we can do with a roulette wheel or a dice. We can look for clues to see if prayer or luck works.

People don’t tend to choose numbers at random. We have favourite numbers – birthdays, house numbers and so on. We also have so-called unlucky numbers, such as 13.  This means that during a lottery or the spin of a roulette wheel there will be a considerable amount of prayer and luck focussed on these favourite numbers.

How do we spot this? Fortunately for us, most “lucky” numbers tend to be low. The month and day of birth dates will be below 31. House numbers are more likely to be low than high. These numbers will be getting far more prayer and luck directed at them than the less popular numbers.

So all we need to do is to look at the winning numbers from lotteries, dice rolls or roulette wheels to see if these “lucky” numbers come up more often than the less favoured.

And what do we find?

Nothing. Not a flicker. Popular and prayed-for numbers come up no more often than unpopular and unprayed-for numbers.

In fact, one of the proven ways to improve your odds in a lottery is to choose unpopular numbers. You have no better or worse chance of winning, but you have a better chance of winning a bigger prize.

Hmmm. Now I look back on this blog and I’m not so sure it’s the right thing to post. It’s something that I needed to say, but it’s a long way from my normal stuff about artichokes and naughtiness.

Let me know what you think of it …

And maybe I’ll make a future post about the even more exciting things that happen when you throw two dice at a time.

Well, it’s exciting to me.

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