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Hoping with Numbers

With all the talk of the record setting Mega Millions jackpot I thought it was a good time to talk about how I solved "the problem" of lotteries.

Now, while I am an employeed IT professional, I have yet to amass enough in my 401k to feel "safe". I still must sell my labor every day and worry about what would happen to my ability to "provide" if I lost my job and couldn't find another.

That said, I play the lottery mainly because I like random numbers, and I like the brief spurt of "whatif" fanciful thought that goes on after I buy each losing lottery ticket.

In playing the lottery there are two schools of thought:

  • Playing special numbers (e.g. birthdates, ages of children, etc)
  • Quickpick everytime

I like the idea of "special" meaningful numbers, but these often skew low, and increase your chance of a winning jackpot pick "colliding" with someone else, potentially halving (or more) your theoretical jackpot winnings.

Also, with special numbers, you also feel somewhat compelled to play all the time, lest the one day you didn't play, your numbers hit. That would be a pretty terrible feeling. That clearly isn't a rational fear, but is a very real emotional one.

Random numbers are fine, other than the fact that most lottery machine hardware was certified in the 80s, and just have abismal hardware random number generators. Also, I want to have *some* say in what my numbers are (e.g. say I want it to have a "24" in it and the rest random).

My solution to this was to write my own program that would generate random "picks", and if my favorite number happened to come up, I'd play the numbers. As it turns out, having a single specific number "hit" is a 1/9 chance. So I end up playing the lottery about once every three weeks (three picks per week).

This has several advantages over the above: first, it means I get excited when my number comes up, and it makes playing the lottery more special. It also happens to be far cheaper and convenient than buying a lottery ticket three times a week.

And since my number picks are new each time I don't risk any potential "oh no I didn't play my standard numbers" regret.

My biggest problem with the lottery is often what to do if I won. Most people's head's swim of quitting their jobs, buying a house on the beach and a fancy car. My head swims with what other people's reactions might be.

How impossible would it be to appear generous after winning 500 million dollars? You could give everyone you know $50k and still have half of them say "Pfft, *only* $50k, he's got like, infinity money."

I put considerable thoughts into numerous scenarios, whether to just give flat sums, wait until people ask, setup specific rules and hire an administrator to deal with them. The whole things drives me crazy with worry.

When I pose this question to co-workers, I'm stunned by some responses, some say "I wouldn't share a thing", some say "I'd keep it secret", both interesting options I hadn't considered, but I don't find either workable for me.

My solution to this was to stop playing the high jackpot lotteries. I've decided that winning $150k would make me far happier than $150 million. $150 million is life destroying. You have to alter everything, if only to keep your children safe from potential ransom.

It also neatly solves the burden of generosity above, as $150k is more: "Oh, I hear kyle won a little money and paid off his mortage", "Good for him!" money.

$150k is a mortal windfall. $150 million is moving to Olympus.


The loto has been ruined for me ever since Mr. Connors said the, "The lottery is a tax for people who are bad at math." Though, now I know it is a cliche, it was the first time I heard it, and I thought it was very clever, so it stuck with me.

I love math and hate taxes. Thus, I can never play the loto.

This is also why I love the story of Joan Ginther, who one multi-million dollar scratch offs 4 times. She is a former stats profession and the general assumption is that she used math the beat the 1980s randomness algorithms you mentioned. That is beating taxes by being good at math!
by: Mike (contact) - 18 Dec '13 - 08:02
It is less a tax and more a pie in the sky investment with a very high potential upside and a really terrible ROI of 0.25.

Playing every 9th game (on average) costs me about $17 a year, which the things I learned about pseudorandom numbers and genetic algorithms more than makes up for it, for me.
by: Kyle (contact) - 21 Dec '13 - 11:24
Have you heard of the companies which used to figure the odds on the big lotteries and then buy up all of the numbers (or as many as they can). I understand it has been successfully accomplished in several cases, the largest variable being the odds of more than one person winning and having to split the pot.

And yes, I see your point. Especially since it turned into a fun programming project. Doubly so if you happen to support the things that lotteries fund (often public education, etc).
by: Mike (contact) - 30 Dec '13 - 10:02


Meta Information:

Title: Hoping with Numbers
Date posted: 17 Dec '13 - 13:37
Filed under: General
Word Count: 619 words
Good Karma: 87 (vote)
Bad Karma: 63 (vote)
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