Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The allure of possibility versus the science of probability.

What with all this Derren Brown stuff and that, I've been thinking a lot recently about the Lottery, about casinos, about the games of chance we play with our money and why we do it.

The Lottery is probably the most extreme example. The chances of winning the jackpot are remote and, in fact, a single line is not terribly likely to win any prize. 'It could be you' approximately one out of fourteen million times. An averagely healthy middle aged man has a higher chance of dying in the hour before the draw takes place than he does of winning the jackpot. Flush a pound coin down the loo and you have more chance of seeing it again than winning the lottery had you bought a ticket with it. You are almost as likely to find a winning lottery ticket on the floor as you are to win with one you've bought. Etc etc. So why do people play this game at all? And don't make me laugh and tell me it's for the 'good causes'.

I decided to take this a stage further and do a few sums.

Let's take what I'd say was a fairly average lottery scenario.  I personally rarely put my hard earned cash into the hands of Camelot, but I know plenty of people who spend much more than the example that follows.

So, let's say Joe Blow plays Lotto twice weekly (after all, what if you didn't put your numbers on and they came up?) and buys 5 lines. He also puts 5 lines on Euromillions, and buys a couple of £2 scratchcards a week. So we're not talking an addict by any stretch, but just someone who thinks 'It bleddy well won't be me if I don't get a ticket.'

If you total that up, we've got £21.50 a week. That doesn't sound too bad, does it? It's not exactly breaking the bank...

Well, unless you think about the other stuff you could do with that cash. Total it up over the course of a year and it comes to £1118, which is actually quite a lot of money.

How much is Joe Blow likely to win?

Well, the chances per line of winning the Jackpot are 14 million to one, and five numbers plus the bonus one in about two million. Even getting four numbers is a one in over a thousand shot. The chance of winning a tenner is 1 in 57. On that basis, with his tenner a week, our Joe can expect (theoretically) to hit his three numbers and win a tenner 9.12 times a year, and his four numbers once every two years - coming to a grand total of about £123/year. He can expect to win the jackpot or any of the big prizes, well, quite a bit less than once in his entire life. He's spending £520 each year, so that means he's losing about 76% of the money he puts down. Sure, we can add the bigger prizes to the mix but they make very little difference, being so unlikely. So I reckon we can safely say Joe's going to lose about 75% of the money he spends on the lottery, over time. If this was a casino game, we'd say the house edge was 75%.

There would be slightly different numbers for Euromillions and for scratchcards, of course, but it's after one in the morning now and I ain't looking them up and working them out. I suspect the scratchcard figures will be significantly better, and the Euromillions ones, worse. Just a guess...

When you think about it, there are so many better ways to spend that £21.50 a week. You could keep a teenage girl
or store your car in a 'Insulated, Secure, Dehumidified controlled environment', have your own, year round pitch at a caravan site in Newquay. You could give it all to good causes, instead of the twenty odd percent passed over by Camelot.

You could even invest it. Sure, you don't get the heart stopping flurry of watching the draw with the ticket in your hand. However, putting it in a savings account, for example, would get you about 3% pa on your money, making you an extra approximately £16.60 a year (based on putting the money in every week and not making any withdrawals) and, of course, you get to keep the £1118 you've saved as well. And you could invest in stocks, shares or property and get a better return. Well, not based on recent form, of course. (Investments can go up as well as down, none of the information here constitutes investment advice just a few facts and figures yadda yadda...)

You would even be better off heading down the casino with this money. There are lots of casino games, if you know the correct strategy for playing them, with relatively low house edge. For example, if you play perfect strategy Blackjack (something you can learn and that is well documented on the interweb) over time, you should lose about 0.5% of your money. So you get to keep 99.5%. There are other slot and Casino games where the house edge is less than 5%. Considerably better than the lottery, when you look at that way. (Remember, equivalent to a house edge of about 75%!)

So, in short, you'd be better off saving up that £21.50 and taking the whole lot (plus your £16.60 interest) down the casino one night every year, and having a good ole time on the Blackjack table.

But, of course, it *could* be you. And we all know why people play, really. Life changing amounts of money is why. Like the Euromillions last week with a jackpot of £83 000 000. Hell, despite knowing everything I've just typed, I bought a couple of tickets. The prize money was too much to ignore, even though I knew just how unlikely it was that it would ever be mine.

And that's the weird thing about the lottery. Because, despite being rather reticent to give Camelot my hard earned cash over the years, I find myself in profit so far. I haven't entered more than about thirty times since that first draw in 1994 when I had my first lottery win.

Let me take you back in time.... imagine swiggly lines making the screen go all misty... and then you see me. it was November and the nights were closing in. There I was, slim and young and hopeful, just 23 and so soon out of a mathematics degree that I should have known better, sat on the sofa at my mum's house with my first ever lottery ticket (one line) in my hot little hands.

The first number came out. It was 30. It was on my ticket. The second number came out. It was on my ticket. The third number came out. It was on my ticket.... My heart was beginning to beat rather fast at this point.

By the time the draw had finished I'd found out I was one in a million.

Well, one of 1,073,695 people who'd won a tenner. Fancy that, and the first three numbers as well. I realised that no other lottery draw would ever match the excitement of that first one, well, unless of course the second half of the draw lived up to the promise of the first, and I so I've never watched a live draw since. Well, not until that evil bad man Derren Brown did his naughty prediction show.

Still, I did go on to have a lucky run. Over the course of the next several months, I only entered a (lucky) seven times. I lost three times and won a tenner three times. Then, as part of a family syndicate, I won about £50. I decided to quit while I was ahead.

I've bought only a few tickets a year since and won another tenner, and fifty something on the Euromillions, so I reckon I'm probably still slightly in profit. I also know two people who have won life changing amounts of cash. But then, I know a lot of people.

None of that changes a thing. I am an outlier and still insist, despite my experience, that there are much better ways to play with your hard earned cash.

But, of course, "It could be you."

Good luck with that one.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Destined for all this writing...

As suggested by Tricki in some of the comments below, I've got some extracts from my work up on the net. Do take a look here if you're interested in reading more.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Did he stick you to your seat?

For those who didn't have chance to watch it, here's what Derren Brown did on the telly tonight. But don't get too excited/worried about getting stuck to your chair if you watch it. He said right off that it wouldn't work ont tinterweb.

It didn't work for me.

I did watch the film. It made my vision go a bit milky but that's all. The music was a bit creepy but fneh. I don't believe for a second that one minute of a white flickery screen stuck anyone to their anything. What's the word I'm looking for? Misdirection.

There was no chance of me sticking to my chair. It was just never going to happen. I wasn't the 'best' at being 'talented enough at being susceptible'. Nor was I the right mix of 'creative' and 'special'. Oh, the power of suggestion.

All that said, I felt an almost overwhelming desire to ring in and say something stupid, as did my husband.

And I have to admit that I'm beginning more and more to feel that I have been manipulated somewhere along the way. I've never been a Derren Brown fan - not that I dislike him but I've never actively been very bothered about what he does - and yet, this last week, I've added him as a friend on Facebook and started following him on Twitter, as well as checking out relevant forums and blogs on the subject of Derren Brown.

There are some very interesting theories and thoughts in the comments on my previous posts and I thank all those that have taken the time to read my blog and comment. One of these theories is that 'The Events' is not about the actual events at all, but much more about us interacting with them, turning them into something bigger. One commenter points out that some of Derren's words in the first show were almost a 'call to arms' to us to join in and make these illusions into something bigger. From what I've experienced, that makes total sense.

So I wasn't stuck to my sofa today. But I was sat on it, watching. I take it all back. That's pretty impressive Derren and I must be cool, clever and talented enough to be susceptible after all. Go me!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

A personal thank you to Derren Brown

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Derren Brown for increasing the readership of my blog by, well, quite a lot. Actually, it's not really his doing, to be honest. I wrote a wish on a piece of paper and put it in my pocket. If anyone asks me, I'll say it was a trick...

I'd also like to point out to the new readers of this blog, who may or may not have spotted book launch photos on the right hand side from a few years ago, that I am thinner now.

And, while, I'm here, I'll just announce the next part of Derren's trick before it comes to light by itself. By showing a (bogus) method to the world on Friday suggesting that, if only we get together in groups of 24, do automatic writing and average out the numbers, we too can win the lottery (forgetting the small fact, of course, that he didn't) I'm guessing he may have set something in motion. I'm guessing that enough people will have seen and believed it, or think, what the hell that they'll actually get together in groups of 24 and give it go. There will probably be a significant number of these groups set themselves up and try to win using the wisdom of the crowd.

Of course, one of them will...

PS See this blog here for yet more evidence of misdirection by Derren Brown. Derren Brown fixed the lottery. Yeah, right. His second explanation was just as likely as his first one. ie absolute nonsense. Still, interesting that he showed the studio audience extra footage. I bet he didn't expect them to talk about that on blogs, facebook or to their families and friends, did he? Lmao.
PPS. My husband just won twenty quid on a scratchcard and gave it to me. Bless...

UPDATE: 15th September. Do a search on Facebook for "Derren Brown Lottery" and see the groups beginning to proliferate there along the lines of 'Let's predict the lottery Derren Brown stylie'.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Events of misdirection....

Derren Brown. Manipulator. Misdirector. Liar? I won't say some of the other words I've seen friends and family use about him tonight. They're too rude.

What I will say is this. I think everyone's been focusing the last two days on 'how he did it' when, in fact, what we saw on Channel 4 on Wednesday was a simple illusion that Paul Daniels could have pulled off. Camera trick, spilt screen, LED balls, time delay, who cares? However he did it, it was dead simple. As I said at the time on my Facebook status:

"Derren Brown lmao. He shows us his numbers *after* the BBC and everyone's amazed? That's not a prediction... Interested to see how he did it, except that the whole thing reeks of much simpler illusion than I thought it would be.... Paul Daniels could have pulled off that one."

Now, Brown always said his events would be events of misdirection. I think he's misdirected us entirely here. He's got the entire nation focused on a simple illusion, one that was, frankly, below him, when in fact his real trick was performed tonight. He convinced 24 people in the studio, and countless in homes around the country, that the way he did this was using 'deep maths' and 'the wisdom of the crowd'. He even showed us everything on video to 'prove' it.

For those who didn't see, Brown got a group of 24 people in a room together and got them to predict the lottery numbers. They were rubbish to begin with, getting just one right between them. He went through various iterations of the experiment. Taking the average of each number in the individual predictions - not much better. Then he got them to predict but stay in the room until after the draw so they couldn't profit from their predictions, removing greed from the equation. He sent them team building. He had them guess their numbers and averaged them again. Finally, he had them do automatic writing and, again, calculated the average of the numbers. It seemed the team got better and better. Some goes in, they even got 4 balls correct. Finally, they appeared to predict the numbers for last week's lottery. They were incredibly pleased with themselves and you could see it was genuine. It was almost convincing.

Appeared to predict. Almost convincing. As much as I'd love to believe 24 people in a room could work together and genuinely guess the National Lottery numbers, I'm afraid I can't. I don't have to think very hard to know this isn't true. It's all an illusion.

It was interesting, the way Mr Brown carried out that final prediction. The group did their automatic writing and wrote down their numbers again. This time, Brown calculated the averages. Without showing the group, he wrote them on the balls, sealed them in a tube and went on his way to the Channel Four studio. The rest is history. The group of 24 watched live and celebrated their victory. It was clear they believed.

But they hadn't seen those numbers on Derren's balls (oooer missis, sorry, couldn't help myself) until the show. Until after the actual lottery draw. Just like the rest of us. They had only seen the automatic writing they'd put on their own pieces of paper and would have had no clue what these would have averaged out at...

But how did they manage to get three numbers right, then four? We know this bit is genuine. We see their numbers being collated and averaged, right in front of us and them. On one occasion, a member of the group does the calculations and, on others, independent observers do. What happened with their previous predictions is still pretty unlikely, right? So why not believe they actually did produce the numbers Derren took into the Channel Four studios with him?

Well, yeah, it's quite unlikely they would improve over the weeks. Fairly unlikely they would ever predict four out of six numbers at the end of a number of weeks of trying. But not nearly as unlikely as guessing all six. (Reminder for those who can't remember - 14 million to 1!)

I suspect there were several groups being filmed like the one we saw tonight, going through the same kind of experiment. They did the team building, they did the automatic writing. Derren didn't know which would provide the right footage but he knew chances were that one of them would. The 24 people we saw today were the most successful of the groups and used to try to convince us that there was more to this illusion than we could possibly understand.

The real trick was to get us staring at the screen on Wednesday, finding clips on YouTube in the two days since, submitting to forums with all our theories and ideas. When the truth was, he never predicted a thing.

My favourite twitter through the whole event came from Derren himself.

"#derrenbrown is/was at the top of Twitter trends. This is very new to me. I'm not really dressed for it. Thank you, very kind. Xx" 5:57 PM Sep 10th TwitterFon

Really Mr Brown? So you can predict the Lottery numbers on live TV but not that you're going to be the biggest trend on Twitter the next day? Man, I could have told you that!

And the best Facebook update came from my mate Dex.

"Well I thought I'd give it a go. Did 10 minutes of automatic writing but all I could get was a stream of profanity and "Kill smug twat" over and over.

Derren Brown says that next week he will glue us to our sofas using hypnosis. Come on Derren, don't make me laugh. To be fair, you did that already this week. But never again....

Thursday, 10 September 2009

How did he do it?

If you don't know what I'm talking about then I can only assume that you A. have been gravely ill or asleep for more than 48 hours, B. took a trip to another solar system last night or C. are not from the UK and no one else is bothered. But that's okay, because you can watch the footage of Derren Brown 'predicting' the UK National Lottery numbers live on Channel Four here and catch yourself up.

Of course, the entire world wide web is buzzing this morning with theories and ideas about how he might have pulled this off. The one that seems to have convinced most people is this idea. It fits with what Derren said, that this illusion took a year of his time to set up. He only ever promised to get five numbers right so that massively cuts down the permutations of numbers he'd have to film, right? And it fits with the footage if you watch it carefully. Derren switches off the TV when he's written the numbers down, he pauses and stands still. There's even a gap in his speech at this moment.

There's just one problem with this theory. In the second, supposedly spliced on, pre-recorded TV clip, Derren would have to carry in his hand a card with the actual lottery numbers on it. He's supposedly just written them down from the TV a moment ago, so they have to be right. His prediction can be one number out, but the writing on the card can't be. This takes us right back to our 14 million little recordings, though, doesn't it?

Whatever the explanation is on Friday, it is even cleverer than that. And most of the nation will watch with bated breath to find out how he did it. I'm going to watch it, that's for sure.

Which brings me to the actual subject of my post. Because I wasn't really talking about his trick with the numbers. Derren Brown is a master illusionist and I've seen him do stranger things. They always end up being viable, explanable illusions and, sometimes, he reveals his methods to us. Bringing us in on the secret makes us feels as clever as him, and we like him all the more. We don't feel cheated because his methods are so intelligent and novel, so that we can only admire him.

I think he pulled off a much bigger trick than predicting the lottery numbers last night. I'm the kind of person who doesn't buy in properly to popular culture. I've never watched Big Brother, for example, and couldn't give a toss what the current status is between Peter and Barbie (although, admittedly, I do know there is something going on there despite my total lack of interest...) But last night I was hooked. I was completely fascinated with how he was going to pull it off. Then I was completely obsessed by how he might have done it. I even dreamed about it.

He had us. All of us, completely hypnotised and transfixed. How did he do that?

This one I can have a go at explaining. For a start, he chose the lottery. How many people can honestly say they've never bought a lottery ticket or at least dreamed of winning it? It could be you. Probably the most successful marketing gimmick of the last two millennia. Yes, of course it could be you, but the actual chances that it will be are around 14 million to one per line of numbers, so it's not very likely. What always puts this in perspective for me is the plain old laws of probability that say the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are just as a likely to come out as any others. Last week's numbers are just as likely to be drawn again as the ones on your ticket. I remember back in the 80s some cynical comedian flushed a pound coin down the loo and said 'You're just as likely to see that back as win the lottery' and that's about right. (All of this, of course, ignores the fact there are other prizes to win, some of them well worth having, and these are much more likely to happen to you.)

The National Lottery (or Lotto, I suppose I should say) is something that has already captured our imaginations. We are already hypnotised by its power, the possibility that our lives could be completely transformed. Derren Brown was already compellingly famous but we would have tuned in to pretty well any old Joe Bloggs saying he could predict the lottery numbers and convincing Channel Four to give him a time slot to prove it.

And then this is the thing. Not only does Brown not predict the numbers in time for us to get rich (of course, that wouldn't be allowed, Channel Four have even banned him from buying himself a ticket pffftttt!) he doesn't 'predict' the numbers at all. He shows us a set of balls and reveals the correct numbers are indeed stuck to them after the lottery's been drawn. The whole thing felt a bit Paul Daniels, for me. 'I put the card you are going to choose in this box.' Basic Magic Circle stuff.

Is the world ablast with 'what a crock?' this morning, then? It turns out not. Wherever you look on the web there are hoards of people saying how brilliant Brown is. Most people talking about this agree he's a genius, and the best illusionist we've ever seen. There are others who seem to genuinely believe he has some kind of psychic power. Even the cynical ones who are saying 'prediction my ass' are convinced he's going to blow us away with his denouement in the show on Friday and are looking forward to finding out what he did.

And, by some remarkable coincidence, Brown's new TV series started last night. I wonder what the viewing figures were like for that? Tickets went on sale for his latest tour. I bet them there phone lines were quite busy. I don't want to but I have to say it - the man is a genius!

There's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that he has the nation well and truly hypnotised. Truth be told, I'm not really sure how he did that either. I'd kill to know.

Look into the eyes, in the eyes, not around the eyes, into the eyes, you're under. Buy my books. Buy my books. Buy my books....