Wired has a totally charming story of one man’s quest to understand and beat the confounding scratch-off lottery ticket:
Mohan Srivastava, a geological statistician living in Toronto, was working in his office in June 2003, waiting for some files to download onto his computer, when he discovered a couple of old lottery tickets buried under some paper on his desk. The tickets were cheap scratchers–a gag gift from his squash partner–and Srivastava found himself wondering if any of them were winners. He fished a coin out of a drawer and began scratching off the latex coating. “The first was a loser, and I felt pretty smug,” Srivastava says. “I thought, ‘This is exactly why I never play these dumb games.’”
The second ticket was a tic-tac-toe game. Its design was straightforward: On the right were eight tic-tac-toe boards, dense with different numbers. On the left was a box headlined “Your Numbers,” covered with a scratchable latex coating. The goal was to scrape off the latex and compare the numbers under it to the digits on the boards. If three of “Your Numbers” appeared on a board in a straight line, you’d won. Srivastava matched up each of his numbers with the digits on the boards, and much to his surprise, the ticket had a tic-tac-toe. Srivastava had won $3. “This is the smallest amount you can win, but I can’t tell you how excited it made me,” he says. “I felt like the king of the world.”
Delighted, he decided to take a lunchtime walk to the gas station to cash in his ticket. “On my way, I start looking at the tic-tac-toe game, and I begin to wonder how they make these things,” Srivastava says. “The tickets are clearly mass-produced, which means there must be some computer program that lays down the numbers. Of course, it would be really nice if the computer could just spit out random digits. But that’s not possible, since the lottery corporation needs to control the number of winning tickets. The game can’t be truly random. Instead, it has to generate the illusion of randomness while actually being carefully determined…”
Srivastava had been hooked by a different sort of lure–that spooky voice, whispering to him about a flaw in the game. At first, he tried to brush it aside. “Like everyone else, I assumed that the lottery was unbreakable,” he says. “There’s no way there could be a flaw, and there’s no way I just happened to discover the flaw on my walk home.”And yet, his inner voice refused to pipe down. “I remember telling myself that the Ontario Lottery is a multibillion-dollar-a- year business,” he says. “They must know what they’re doing, right?” [Link]
This story reiterated in my mind how important it is to have a good understanding of science and mathematics in modern society. Consider how many activities in your day are governed by a mathematical code or logical pattern of some kind. Every minute you spend on Facebook you are helping Facebook perfect and equation to predict what you might buy for example. Nerds are poised to inherit the future.