I really like this essay by Eric LeMay in Diagram 11.5. It’s called LOSING THE LOTTERY, and it does some fancy interactive computer stuff alongside more classic essay things. It starts by asking you to choose six numbers from among floating gray lottery balls. Once you do, you enter the essay: split into two parts, the essay sections (49 in all and, besides the first, randomly presented) on the left and on the right a computer-generated simulation of lottery results: using the six numbers you chose, it simulates winnings and costs based on buying a hundred $1 Ohio Classic Lotto tickets every second. Which, for the record, would be a lot of lottery tickets. Just keeping the page open for a couple of hours, I’ve already “spent” upwards of $200,000 on lottery tickets! Spoiler alert: no jackpot yet, fictional or actual.
As you might hope to see in an essay about the lottery, this one takes up questions of “luckiness” (an anecdote about an Ohio man who wins the 6-number-match Powerball, has his car broken into twice, loses incomprehensible sums of cash, only to win a second time); class (you might guess that Ohio’s poorest neighborhoods outspend on the lottery by a ratio of 2 to 1; that the fact of the lottery enables the sociological myth that, despite devastating wealth disparities, in this country, we’re all just one lottery ticket away from affluence and financial security); the business of the lottery (that, including payouts, the Ohio lottery’s expenses are only 60% of its profits; that if you choose the “cash option” instead of the 30-year installment payment on a jackpot, you only get half of the stated sum); and statistical manipulation (the author’s grandfather once schemed to record which numbers have come up most likely so as to predict what’s due to come up next).
The essay itself, or rather its 48 sections after the first, are presented in random order, making for 14,106,722,264,245,500,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000 possible sequences. I like the order I first read them in. I obviously never got that order again, still and each time I’m pretty convinced that this is the best order: the one I’m reading them in now. The fact remains that I can’t even comprehend of the number 14,106,722,264,245,500,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000. Do you know how you would say this out loud? And, I mean, even if you knew the right word, how would you say this out loud and mean it?
I think I like this essay in large part because it’s perfect for my little tiny attention span. Each section is a paragraph, at most 100 words or so, that ends. And then I’m on to the next one. Also: look over to the right! Have I won yet? Reading, reading, another second ticks by and I’ve “bought” another hundred lottery tickets. Good news: I’ve won $1,876. Bad news: I’ve spent $19,372. This is crazy!
(You know those billboards on the highway advertising casinos? They say ridiculous things about what their slot machine payout is. Brag about 70% or whatever. As a kid, I used to think that was so absurd. All that sign does is promise you that you won’t win. I mean, come on.) (My boyfriend and I have started buying lottery tickets. Not Powerball-types, just the cheesy scratch kinds that cost $2 and either end up paying out $3 or nothing, with the alleged possibility of $10,000. They’re crossword puzzles that totally aren’t puzzles. To quote John Ashbery, “I feel ashamed for myself and everybody on this planet.”)
“Odds of winning the jackpot in the Classic Lottery,” LeMay writes, are “1 in 13,983,816.” He says this and I do the math with the calculator on my phone, in part because I know from my college statistics class that computer-generated randomness is impossible, that it’s all just steady and predictable enough algorithms. I figure out that if I keep my web browser open to this page for 38.9 hours, I could hit the jackpot. I process that at that rate I will have spent 13.98 million dollars so as to win the 24.8, which isn’t bad until I realize that there is no way I will ever have access to 13.98 million dollars, short of, uh, winning the lottery. Finally, I remember that it’s not a real jackpot. I could keep my browser open for a day and a half and have nothing at all to show for it. Maybe a screenshot to post to Facebook or to this blog post. I am empty inside.
On my most recent spin through LeMay’s essay, the 49th and final section was about how computer-generated randomness does not and cannot exist. After all these minutes watching the numbers tick and tick up, I feel duped, even by a thing I knew. Well. There’s an experiential moral for you.