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How to (Truly) Improve Your Luck

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In 1938, a Detroit street sweeper named Joseph Figlock saved the life of a baby falling from an apartment building. A lucky moment, indeed. It was also an odd coincidence, because, according to Time magazine, the same man had performed the very same act just a year prior. Even more astounding? It was reported to be the same baby.

Astonishing tales like this make us laugh in disbelief. But behind the laughter lurks fear: Humans have a deep psychological need for the universe to feel controllable—or at least predictable. “People are much more relaxed if they feel in command, whether they really are or not,” says David Hand, a British statistician and author of The Improbability Principle. “The notion that events might happen just by chance can be terrifying.”

As a species, we persuade ourselves that we can influence random events, a fantasy psychologists call “the illusion of control.” Casino gamblers throw dice more gently when they want lower numbers, according to one study. In another, 40 percent of subjects believed they could get better outcomes from tossing a coin the more they practiced. It’s little wonder, then, that people sit up and listen when self-help gurus claim to offer techniques for learning to be luckier. The good news is that, in some sense, you really can “make your own luck.”

For starters, forget about influencing the outcome of truly chance-based events, like coin tosses or lottery draws. You should also avoid trying to make your own luck by focusing on the outcomes you desire, as advised in New Age bestsellers like The Secret. Research by the psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer indicates that the more people positively fantasize about, say, getting a great job, the less money they end up earning, perhaps because fantasy replaces effort that could get them ahead in the real world. Similarly, people who positively fantasize more about romance are less likely to ask out potential partners on actual dates.

Such findings draw attention to the fact that “luck” is an ambiguous term. We use it to describe life’s sheer randomness—but also to explain those opportunities we encounter because we’ve looked for them. Expose yourself to new people and events and you’re far more likely to meet your next employer—or the love of your life—than if you stay locked in your home. The best approach, research suggests, isn’t a laser-like focus on what you think you want. It’s to cultivate a radical openness to unplanned experiences, loosen your grip on your goals, and embrace uncertainty.

Several years ago, the psychologist Richard Wiseman recruited subjects who thought of themselves as either unusually lucky or unlucky. The self-described lucky ones, he discovered, shared a set of behavioral traits that maximized their good fortune. They were receptive to new experiences and invested time in expanding their social and professional networks; when things went wrong, they reminded themselves that things could have gone worse. By focusing less on their goals, they actually accomplished those goals more efficiently. In one experiment, Wiseman asked participants to count the number of photographs in a newspaper. The unlucky people diligently plodded through. The lucky ones were far more likely to spot one of two messages Wiseman had inserted on the page. The first read “Stop counting—there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” The other offered a $250 reward if the reader just asked the experimenter for the cash.

Wiseman concluded that being too goal-focused can actually interfere with achieving goals, something that bears out when you look at successful entrepreneurs. The popular stereotype of the innovator who envisions a miraculous new product or service and then stubbornly fights to make it real isn’t accurate, according to management scholar Saras Sarasvathy. Rather, the most successful innovators are the ones who are willing to use the people and resources at their disposal to take action—even if they can’t see the endpoint.

Uncertainty feels uncomfortable, so we’re tempted to do whatever we can to get rid of it. But learning to tolerate it instead will bring you better luck. Writer Karla Starr refers to this as “structured serendipity.” Don’t abandon your daily schedule, she advises, but make sure it includes chances for unexpected things to happen. Spend an hour wandering a bookstore; invite a random acquaintance for coffee. On social media, follow some people whose enthusiasms you don’t already share. Leave extra time for errands, to permit spontaneous detours en route.

And whether or not you improve your luck, you can take solace in the fact that you’re certainly luckier than Maureen Wilcox. In 1980, she bought tickets for the Massachusetts and Rhode Island lotteries and picked the winning numbers for both. Unfortunately, her Massachusetts numbers were the winning ones in Rhode Island and vice versa, so she won nothing.

And yet, Hand points out, statistically speaking, Wilcox was no less lucky than anyone else who didn’t win that week. The true lesson of her story isn’t that some people have terrible luck; it’s that almost everyone who plays the lottery loses. Spend those dollars on a cup of coffee with a stranger instead.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.