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How Random are Scratch-Off Lotto Tickets?

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I'm not a lottery player -- I don't like throwing my money down a statistical hole in the ground -- but I'll admit that on occasion I have been the recipient of a scratch-off lottery ticket, and I have scratched it, and haven't won anything. What a bummer. But I recall one occasion as a kid when a friend of mine received 20 scratch-off tickets ($1 each) as a birthday present. He "won" $15 and was very excited about the affair. Two things about this bothered me: first, that his total birthday gift was actually less money than had been spent to give it to him; and second, that he actually sat there, scratching away and trying to figure out whether each card was a winner. "Why not just hand the tickets back to the cashier and have 'em scanned, to see if they're winners?" I asked. "Because it's fun!" he answered -- and this, apparently, is the answer to both of my objections. There are people (apparently many people) for whom the scratching off, and the thrill of winning little monetary rewards, is really enjoyable. So my friend was actually pleased that he got both his $15, as well as the exciting experience of scratching off 20 cards. I still don't get it, though I see it every day. (See the HBO documentary Lucky for a good overall look at lottery systems, winners, and losers.)

Yesterday, Jonah Lehrer posted a fascinated Wired story called Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code in which an MIT-trained statistician finds mathematical flaws in a particular scratch-off card in the Ontario Lottery, allowing him to predict winning cards about 90% of the time. Here's a snippet:

[After winning $3 on a scratch-off ticket, Mohan Srivastava] 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." ...

That afternoon, he went back to work. The thrill of winning had worn off; he forgot about his lunchtime adventure. But then, as he walked by the gas station later that evening, something strange happened. "I swear I'm not the kind of guy who hears voices," Srivastava says. "But that night, as I passed the station, I heard a little voice coming from the back of my head. I'll never forget what it said: 'If you do it that way, if you use that algorithm, there will be a flaw. The game will be flawed. You will be able to crack the ticket. You will be able to plunder the lottery.'"

What happens next is actually very surprising.

(Photo courtesy of Chris Winters, who writes: "Breakdown was: $58 in cash (left), 15 free tickets (center, not yet redeemed), the remainder losers (right)." Photo used under Creative Commons license.)

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Space
SpaceX's Landing Blooper Reel Shows That Even Rocket Scientists Make Mistakes
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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches.
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On March 30, 2017, SpaceX did something no space program had done before: They relaunched an orbital class rocket from Earth that had successfully achieved lift-off just a year earlier. It wasn't the first time Elon Musk's company broke new ground: In December 2015, it nailed the landing on a reusable rocket—the first time that had been done—and five months later landed a rocket on a droneship in the middle of the ocean, which was also unprecedented. These feats marked significant moments in the history of space travel, but they were just a few of the steps in the long, messy journey to achieve them. In SpaceX's new blooper reel, spotted by Ars Technica, you can see just some of the many failures the company has had along the way.

The video demonstrates that failure is an important part of the scientific process. Of course when the science you're working in deals with launching and landing rockets, failure can be a lot more dramatic than it is in a lab. SpaceX has filmed their rockets blowing up in the air, disintegrating in the ocean, and smashing against landing pads, often because of something small like a radar glitch or lack of propellant.

While explosions—or "rapid unscheduled disassemblies," as the video calls them—are never ideal, some are preferable to others. The Falcon 9 explosion that shook buildings for miles last year, for instance, ended up destroying the $200 million Facebook satellite onboard. But even costly hiccups such as that one are important to future successes. As Musk once said, "If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."

You can watch the fiery compilation below.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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travel
One Day, You May Not Have to Take Your Laptop Out at the Airport
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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

TSA security lines might be a little less annoying in the future. According to Condé Nast Traveler, the agency will soon test new airport scanners that allow you to keep your liquids and laptop in your carry-on bag during security screening, a benefit currently only available to those who have been accepted into the agency’s PreCheck program.

The ConneCT scanners have met the TSA's "advanced technology detection standards," according to the company that makes them, Analogic, meaning that they can be tested out at airports across the U.S.

Computed tomography scanning technology is regularly used in hospitals and research labs for everything from diagnosing cancer to studying mummies. The imaging technique uses x-rays that rotate around whatever object is being imaged to create 3D images that provide more detail than those created by the regular x-ray scanners currently used to inspect carry-on luggage.

The ConneCT scanners have been in the works for 10 years. The devices have x-ray cameras that spin around the conveyor belt that holds your bag, creating a 3D image of it. Then algorithms help flag whether there's something suspicious inside so that it can be pulled aside for further screening by hand. They've already been tested in airports in Phoenix and Boston, but haven't been used on a national level yet.

But don't expect to see the high-tech scanners at your local airport anytime soon. According to the TSA, they have to undergo yet more testing before any of the machines can be deployed, and there’s no timetable for that yet.

Until then, as you're packing your liquids, just remember—you can always just freeze them.

[h/t Conde Nast Traveler]

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