Thursday, April 1, 2010

* * The Secret to Wealth * *

Shift #37

SUNDAY, APRIL 11 – Caltrain Station to Union Square -- $7.60

A FEW NIGHTS AGO my fare was giving a presentation on the laws of probability at the Exploratorium, over by the Golden Gate Bridge, and while shuffling his deck of cards at the beginning of a demonstration, he accidentally dropped several of them onto the floor.

A member of the audience, a young woman, stepped forward to help retrieve them, and one thing led to another, and now, several days later, after an exchange of emails, my fare has just stepped off the train from Palo Alto, where he’s spent a couple of years studying the laws of probability at Stanford. In a matter of weeks he will be have earned a Ph. D, but right now he’s headed to the Westin-St. Francis on Union Square to meet the young woman for a cup of coffee.

Most of the people on the train, he says, were coming up to San Francisco for today’s Giants vs. Braves baseball game, and he feels bad for them, as there is a high, and obvious, probability that the game’s going to be cancelled. It’s been raining hard all morning, and right now a steady downpour is drumming onto the roof of the cab. Tiny explosions of water are hopping from the asphalt along Fifth Street like mid-birth popcorn.

We chit-chat about baseball, and about women, and about what sort of career options are available to a soon-to-be Stanford probability Ph. D, and then, as we’re crossing Mission Street, I ask him to outline the presentation he gives.

He says it’s designed for a general audience, and he begins to describe a trick he performs as part of the evening: he says you can toss a coin in the air so that it looks like it’s flipping end-over-end, when in reality it’s not -- it’s simply wobbling very energetically, like a dinner plate you’ve clumsily placed on a table; it flutters and wobbles and flutters and wobbles until it finally settles down. An observer watching my fare’s demonstration would -- probably -- think he or she had seen a completely legitimate, end-over-end flip of the coin, but in fact my fare knows for certain whether it’s going to come up heads or come up tails….

We’re just two blocks from Union Square now, and nearing the end of the ride, and I suddenly realize the enormous opportunity I’m squandering... “Please,” I say, “if you don't mind, I just gotta tell you this story…”

He: “OK…”

Fortunately I know this story pretty well, as I’ve told it quite a few times, but never to anyone with the unique expertise of my fare. Me: “I’ll be as fast as I can.”

He: “OK.”

Me: “Thirty-five years ago, when I was twenty-three years old, I lived in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado and worked in an underground mine. I soon came to the conclusion that there must be some preferable way to make a living, and I decided to investigate the world of gambling. I read every book on gambling and the laws of probability that I could find in the Boulder, Colorado, library, and I came up with a Theory. I’d been a history major in college, and my Theory was built around the old maxim about history always repeating itself…”

We’re following the wet, slick, cable car tracks up Powell Street now. Union Square is just half a block away. I glance over the back seat. My fare nods. He’s listening. He’s quite familiar with scenarios in which things repeat themselves.

Me: “So I figure that if history repeats itself, if it is in fact true that something that has happened before is likely -- is almost guaranteed -- to happen again, well, does this have any ramifications for the present moment? Specifically, was there some application I could take into a casino and use to make money?”

At Geary Street, we stop for a red traffic signal. On the side of a Muni bus passing through the intersection is a billboard featuring a quotation in large letters, part of some new advertising or public service campaign: Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education -- Mark Twain. I make a mental note to investigate -- later, but not now! I glance over the seatback again. My fare says, “Uh-huh…” He’s still with me -- he’s in Absorb mode, it seems.

Me: “So I zero in on the game of roulette -- the red and the black. Fifty-fifty. If the past is likely to repeat itself, does-it-or-does-it-not follow that when the ball has landed on black on the previous spin of the wheel, that there is then -- if history repeats itself -- an increased chance, even an infinitesimally increased chance, that it will land on black on the next spin?” I don't wait for any feedback, but plow ahead. “I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but that winter I spent hours and hours, week after week, month after month, tossing coins in the air, one hundred tosses in a row each time, and keeping careful track of the results. And I became convinced that there in fact IS an increased likelihood -- maybe one and a half a percent, but in a casino that’s all you need. And yes, I am aware of the theories about how my own participation -- all my hopes and expectations -- might be skewing the results of my experiment...” -- I peek back at him -- he nods, Yep, could be... -- “but those were my results. About one and a half percent. Pretty significant, really...”

The traffic signal turns green. I pull through the intersection, glide to a stop at the curb opposite the St. Francis (I note the long line of cabs parked in front), freeze the meter -- $7.60 -- and without looking back I just keep talking.

“So I decide that I’m willing to lose two hundred and fifty dollars to prove or disprove my theory, and I devise a system that tries to minimize my risk. I set it up so that I’ll either win twenty-five dollars each time I run my system, or I’ll lose two hundred and fifty and I’ll just call it quits.” My fair murmurs; I interpret this as a sound of interested engagement, but it’s possible that he’s simply dozing off.

“When summer comes around, some friends and I make a road trip to California and as we’re heading back to Colorado I convince them to stop in Reno. I run my system in a casino, just once, and bam, right off I win twenty-five dollars. But my friends don’t want to stay and they drag me out of the casino, and the whole way back to Colorado I’m thinking, It worked -- it friggin worked! I’ve got the Secret to Wealth!"

I pause and look back. My fare’s not asleep -- he’s leaning forward now, his right hand resting on the seatback, a bill pinched between his thumb and forefinger. He might be dying to escape me, but then again he might be entranced by my story, impressed by my Theory... For all I can tell, he might right now be recalculating the options available to a newly-minted Stanford probability Ph. D...

“So when I get back to Colorado, it’s making me nuts. I spend three days explaining my theory to everyone I know, telling them about the twenty-five dollars I won in Reno, asking them to point out any flaw they can see. No one sees a flaw. And after three days I wake up in the middle of the night -- not just the proverbial bolt upright in bed, but an actual bolt upright -- and I realize I gotta get this over with. In the morning I hitchhike three hours to the Denver airport, there’s a plane just leaving, I have to sprint through the terminal. In Las Vegas I take a cab to a cheap motel where the desk clerk asks me, ‘How long are you staying?’ I say, ‘I’m not sure.’ She says, ‘I’ll-put-you-down-for-three-days…’ She’s seen a million people like me …”

I peek back again -- my fare is smiling. He’s seen a million people like me. We’ve all seen a million people like me. There’s a sucker born every minute. But he says nothing.

“I head for the nearest casino and right away…” -- I snap my fingers – “Right away I win twenty-five dollars. I run it again…twenty-five more. And twenty-five more…twenty-five more…twenty-five more…twenty-five more…twenty-five more… Ten times in a row it works, and I’m just freaking out. I’m twenty-four years old, I have the Secret to Wealth, I will never work again…

“And then the eleventh time: I sit there for three straight hours -- and I can’t think of Anything more boring than that -- but I can’t win twenty-five dollars, and I never lose my two-hundred-and-fifty. And while I’m sitting there I notice at least one flaw I hadn’t thought of, something I’d completely overlooked -- that little green slot on the wheel, the house’s take -- three percent! Finally I leave the table -- I’m a-hundred-and-fifty ahead for the night, nice, but hardly the great wealth I’d imagined -- and I go back to my room and get out pencil and paper and do the math and realize that even if my theory is right -- and to this day I’m still convinced that it is -- I’m never going to prove it at the roulette wheel. Even if you’ve got a one and a half percent edge from history repeating itself, you’re not going to beat the house’s three percent edge. I still believe in my theory, but… Whaddyathink?

He’s right there behind me, just over over my shoulder, smiling a bit more broadly now, but still saying nothing. What’s there to say, really? He just shrugs.

“So there it is,” I tell him. “You find a game where the odds are a true fifty-fifty, and I’ve just given you the Secret to Wealth. All yours. Free.”

He snorts -- kind of softly. He extends his hand with the money in it. I turn forward, away from him, and punch the button that makes the figures on the meter disappear. “Every day I give away one free ride,” I tell him, “and today this is my free ride. I’ve never had the chance to tell that story to a Stanford probability Ph. D before. And you’ve been very kind to listen. So you get a free ride… What are the odds of that?”

I don’t know what he’s thinking, but finally he speaks. “Yes,” he says, and he's laughing. “What are the odds of that?”


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