Saturday, June 02, 2012

Donald Signs with a Publisher

Donald Crankshaw, my first blogging friend, has signed up to publish his novel Fire. That novel and the related short stories have always been my favorite work of his. The book will be published under the title Heirs of Fire, which I think is an improvement. Presumably he can continue the series then with other titles like "Heirs of ...".

In honor of this historic occasion, I've even capitalized my post heading because my lower-case headings always annoyed Donald.

I would leave a congratulations on his web site, but for some reason I can't comment over there. I think it's the same problem I used to have with Foxfier's site.

the seduction of gambling

I just got back from a short vacation in Las Vegas, Sin Capitol of the United States.

I've never been much of a gambler because I believe in odds. If the odds are against you in a game of chance then that means --practically by definition-- that playing that game of chance is a poor decision. But if you play one of the games where skill counts and you play with a reasonable level of skill, then your expected rate of loss is so low that you are essentially paying only a few dollars an hour for entertainment, with a small chance of hitting it big. So when I'm in Vegas with a friend who likes to gamble, I will play a little video poker and blackjack.

I splurged this trip, and sat down at a $10 blackjack table with a hundred-dollar bill. I really was just hoping to walk away after an hour with $80 or so. Two hours later I walked away with $350.

It's hard to describe the feeling of power you get when the cards just keep falling your way and the stakes are large enough that you care. I've had good runs in video poker a couple of times, but there we are just talking about stakes of twenty-five cents. It's fun to win but it's not the same as when both the stakes and the potential wins are significant.

Gambling makes a fool of natural reason. When you try something and you succeed  then natural reason tells you --correctly in most cases-- that you have hit on a good strategy and you should do it again, expecting success again. When you use a new fish lure and catch a fish in a few minutes, natural reason leads you to think that you have found a good fish lure. When you add rosemary to your rib steak and it comes out with a hardier more enjoyable flavor then natural reasoning leads you to continue to use rosemary with beef.

So when I spent a couple of hours betting ten dollars a hand on casino blackjack and kept winning, over and over, my natural reason was very strongly informing me that I had found a successful strategy. My reason was telling me that I was good at this. It was telling me that I could just sit down here any time I like and make as much money as I wanted. As I played I had to consciously correct my natural reason. I kept reminding myself that no matter how many hands I won, the expected gain on the next hand was still negative. It was like having an argument with myself:
natural me: Wow! This is easy!

mathematical me: This isn't easy it's just random chance.

natural me: I should raise the stakes so I win faster!

mathematical me: All that will do is make me eventually lose faster.

natural me: But I'm winning right now! Shouldn't waste the opportunity when I'm winning!

mathematical me: I'm not winning right now. I've had a streak of winning, but there is no reason to expect the streak to continue.

natural me: If I had raised the stakes twenty hands ago I would have made a lot more money!

mathematical me: Which tells me nothing whatsoever about what will happen if I raise the stakes now.
In a normal pursuit, the natural me would have been right. It took a real effort of will for the mathematical me to overcome this natural reasoning process.

The experience left me sympathetic to gambling addicts. If I hadn't the mathematical background that I do, I can see spending the rest of the trip trying to recapture that experience and losing hundreds in the process, because my natural reason would be telling me that eventually I could make it all back.

Junior high school should have a couple of weeks of probability as part of the required course work. They should cover the various mistakes that people make when gambling or calculating odds to try to inoculate people against gambling.

Of course, if done effectively, this could destroy Las Vegas in a couple of generations, so it will never happen.