Normally I like to stir up pointless controversy on silly subjects, but this time I want to turn it around. There’s some even more pointless controversy right now over that woman who just won half a billion dollars in the Powerball. It seems that because there was a woman in line ahead of her who let her go first, people are saying the woman who gave up her spot should have a part of the winnings because the ticket was rightfully hers.
Reportedly, the ticket was a random pick. So the reasoning is, the good Samaritan would have had that ticket if she had kept her place and gone first.
This is innumerate BS.
There are three things people need to understand about random numbers: First, they’re not really random; they’re generated using a formula. Second, if the formula was bad enough for this to work the way these people think it should work, it wouldn’t be good enough to use for the quick picks. Third, if the numbers were truly random, this would all be just as moot.
Let’s start with #3: If the numbers were completely random, any variation whatsoever in the chain of events would have resulted in completely different numbers. End result: both ladies get losing tickets.
Now for #2. The pseudo-random number generators most often used by computers spit out numbers in a sequence that looks random, but isn’t quite. The way to get optimum results from these generators is to get them started (seed) with a value that’s subject to change, like the current time. But you wouldn’t want the second of two tickets to have a predictable number based on the first, so you’d want to reseed the generator between customers. The people who believe the ticket would have been the same are essentially saying the generator would never have been reseeded. That’s asinine; if the ticket printer is doing that, it’s probably doing a lot of other things wrong that would be easy for professional cheats to exploit. We can rule this scenario out because it’s stupid.
So #1 is academic. The generator is reseeded between customers. Therefore the first woman, had she not given up her spot, would have to have had her ticket printed in the exact same second—or more likely, the same millisecond or clock cycle of the machine (which is much faster)—for the numbers to match. That wouldn’t have happened. Instead, because the generator is made to act as random as possible, the #3 scenario kicks in and again both women would have bought worthless tickets.
At best, you can credit the woman who gave up her spot for setting up the right sequence of events for the quick pick to work out in favor of the person she was kind to. You could just as easily credit the cashier, the other customers, the traffic, the weather, and literally countless other factors. But that would be silly, almost as silly as insisting the random numbers would have been identical had their positions been reversed. Almost.
I feel like I may have beaten Randall Munroe to his next “What If?” column. If so, on behalf of my inner Hat Guy: Pthbtbtbt!