Author Archives: Mark Draughn

Fighting Crime…With Homelessness

Just when I thought I’d heard every awful thing in the criminal justice system —

Actually, I’ve learned by now that the criminal justice system is an unending source of unjust practices and terrible outcomes, so let me start again…

It’s been a while since I heard any new stories about awful things in the criminal justice system, but that’s remedied today in this depressing story from ProPublica writer Sarah Ryley, which begins with an anecdote about what can happen to drug suspects in New York City, even after they are exonerated:

Finally, the results confirmed what she had told the officers all along: the wooden tray and the 45 paper cups of powder were drug-free. Jameelah El-Shabazz and Shakoor were released from Rikers and fully exonerated.

But El-Shabazz’s battle with New York’s legal system was only beginning. That September, another of her sons called to say the police were back, this time with a lawyer and a court order to seal the Bronx apartment. Her entire family had to leave — immediately.

El-Shabazz was facing a nuisance abatement action, a little-known type of lawsuit that gives the city the power to shut down places it claims are being used for illegal purposes. The case against her was based on the same drug allegations that had been dismissed in May.

As you might guess if you’re familiar with this sort of thing, it’s yet another situation where the state can use civil court proceedings to punish people for a crime without having to convict them of a crime or even charge them. In this case, the legal action was originally created to shut down business locations that had a lot of criminal activity (e.g. prostitution), but the NYPD now uses it to kick people out of their homes.

Three-quarters of the cases begin with secret court orders that lock residents until the case is resolved. The police need a judge’s signoff, but residents aren’t notified and thus have no chance to tell their side of the story until they’ve already been locked out for days. And because these are civil actions, residents also have no right to an attorney.

The story is filled with infuriating details:

Luis Rivera, 58, was shut out of his apartment in the Bronx for nearly a month in 2013 while he fought his case. […]

Rivera was described by people who knew him as having significant mental and physical impairments. […]

“He was not doing good at all,” she said. “He had cancer; he was on the transplant list. You could tell he was very sick. There were times when he didn’t remember what was what. He would shit on himself and everything.”

In court filings, Rivera said he did not understand what was happening when the police arrested him a second time as they served him with the nuisance abatement action. When he was released, he simply went home, then was arrested a third time for violating a temporary closing order.

“My understanding was that I could go back to my apartment because I was given my keys. I was handed some papers but I am not able to read or understand them on my own,” he said in an affidavit filed through his attorney, Rajagopal. “I am still very confused as to how or why the police were able to evict me from my home without a hearing or trial.”

I’m not a lawyer, but to me the justification sounds similar in concept to they way in rem civil forfeiture is justified:

Assistant Commissioner Robert Messner, who heads the NYPD’s Civil Enforcement Unit, concurred, saying, “You have to remember, it’s an action about a place. It’s not about people.”

Get it? They’re not kicking people out of their homes, not at all, they’re just preventing the homes from having people in them. It’s a totally different thing. Because asshats like Assistant Commissioner Robert Messner say it is.

And why would you need protections just for kicking people out of their homes? Can’t we trust the police?

The narcotics officer behind nuisance abatement cases against El-Shabazz and others, Detective Peter Valentin, has his own history. The Daily News earlier identified him as the most-sued officer on the NYPD’s 35,000-member force. Valentin was put on desk duty in 2014 for allegedly fabricating buys from confidential informants.

The idea for nuisance abatement actions shares a familiar history with other abusive policies:

William Bratton, fresh into his first tenure as the city’s top law enforcement official, hailed such actions in a 1995 white paper on quality-of-life policing as “probably the most powerful civil tool available to the police,” allowing officers to “sweep down on a location and close it without warning.”

And without any of that pesky due process. The NYPD usually asks a judge for an emergency order to kick residents out immediately, rather than waiting a few days to allow them to get a lawyer and come to court. The argument for an emergency is that the location is dangerous and there’s no time to wait. Apparently, few judges question the sincerity of this claim, even though the paperwork often shows that the NYPD has been sitting on the evidence of this supposed emergency for months.

NYPD’s Messner said his lawyers “talk to” the precinct officers to confirm the location still poses a problem, but don’t include this information in court filings for the sake of efficiency.

A person less charitable than me might suggest that the real reason they don’t include this information in court filings is that it’s not actually true.

“The judges don’t want to read tomes,” he said. “We could do 100 cases a year instead of 800 cases a year, with, you know, tremendous levels of detail. But we wouldn’t end up with a better product.  We’d just end up helping a lot less people.”

In other words, giving New York residents due process just isn’t in the budget.

Naturally, once people are kicked out of their homes, the NYPD can use the possibility of returning as a bargaining chip:

At the courthouse, the NYPD’s attorney usually offers to settle the case without going to trial — often by requiring tenants to bar specific people from their homes or to give up their leases. Then the closing order is lifted.

But if tenants decide to fight the case, they may not be allowed to go home until the case is resolved. Though cases rarely go to trial, settlement negotiations can take weeks.

That results in situations like this:

Juan Vadi, a 53-year-old recovering addict, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor drug possession and was fined $500 after police turned up a Ziploc bag of crack, two pipes and a plate with crack residue, and a marijuana grinder during a search of his parents’ Jamaica, Queens apartment.

Eight months later, police issued a nuisance abatement action detailing the arrest and claiming Vadi was using the apartment to sell crack. He insisted he would never sell drugs from the family home, where multiple generations share four bedrooms, and said he believes an acquaintance who always seemed to get arrested but never did any time fabricated allegations about buying drugs there. Nonetheless, in order to protect his family members from losing their home, Vadi agreed never to sleep there again for the rest of his life.

That sort of provision is not unusual:

The settlements often impose provisions that critics say erode tenants’ constitutional rights. The Daily News and ProPublica identified 74 cases in which tenants or homeowners agreed to allow warrantless searches in order to get back into their homes. They routinely waive their right to sue, and promise to vacate the home immediately and surrender their lease without going before a judge if accused of wrongdoing in the future.


Otero signed a settlement that says the NYPD can make unannounced inspections for a year, and if anyone besides her and her son are found in the apartment during the first six months, she will immediately surrender her lease.


Some of those facing nuisance abatement actions told the Daily News and ProPublica they thought the NYPD attorney was actually there to give them advice, unaware they weren’t entitled to free counsel and that the attorney actually represented the other side.

I’m sure it was an unfortunate and totally accidental misunderstanding.

By the way, if you’re wondering what kind of person makes it their life’s mission to throw people out of their homes, all I can say is that Assistant Commissioner Robert Messner sure has the ego to be a sociopath:

Messner said he was pleased that his staff’s caseload increased even as the department was cut from 65 to 55 people. “I’m an astronomically good manager,” he said. “This is an efficient way to address crime and provide police services.”

Yeah…I’m guessing this isn’t the only awful NYPD shit he’s been into over the years.

There are a whole lot more details in Sarah Ryley’s story. Read the whole thing.




A Little Oscar Math

One of the stories going around this week was that several black celebrities — including Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith — had announced they would not be attending the Academy Awards ceremony this year in protest of the lack of black acting nominees. Or as director Spike Lee put it in his oddly-capitalized Instagram rant:

How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White?

Let’s do the math.

When looking at racial statistics in the United States, it’s important to remember that black people really are a minority. I’ve seen complaints of the form “It’s outrageous that only 10% of <whatever> are black!”, but that’s actually not too bad. According to recent census estimates, approximately 12.6% of Americans are black, so 10% isn’t too far off. Depending what we’re talking about, the 2.6% difference could easily be explained by benign cultural and environmental differences.

Given that 12.6% of Americans are black, and assuming for purposes of the calculation that academy award voters are not racially biased in any way, what are the chances that not a single acting nominee is black? Could it just be random chance?

If there was only one nominee, then there would be a 12.6% chance of picking a black actor, which is the same as saying that there would be a 100% – 12.6% = 87.4% chance of picking a non-black actor. Expand the selection to two nominees, and there’s an 87.4% chance that the first one will be non-black, and then another 87.4% chance that the second one will also be non-black. So the chance of both of them being non-black is 87.4% * 87.4% = 76.4%. More generally, every time we add another person to the sample, that’s another 87.4% chance to keep the non-black streak going. So if we choose a group of N people at random, the chance of all of them being non-black is given by


From this, we can get the odds of all five nominees for Best Actor being non-black,

(0.874)^5 = 0.510

So we’d expect the Best Actor category to shut out black actors about half the time, even if the nomination process is completely colorblind. Add in Best Actress — raising the size of the sample to 10 nominees — and that works out to about 1-in-4 chance of a black shut-out:

(0.874)^{10} = 0.260

Two years in a row makes it 20 people, and the odds get worse:

(0.874)^{20} = 0.068

In other words, pure random chance will deliver an a slate of Best Actor and Best Actress nominees with no black nominees about 7% of the time.

I was just about to conclude that it’s not unreasonable that completely colorblind Academy could give black actors a two-year shutout entirely by chance, but then I noticed that Spike Lee says “For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White.” At first I thought Lee made a mistake — I counted 20 Best Actor and Best Actress nominees over both years, i.e. two consecutive years of 10 nominees, not 20 — but then I realized Lee is also including the Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories, which also haven’t had any black people for two years. That’s a 40-person-long streak of non-black nominees. The odds of that are pretty low:

(0.874)^{40} = 0.00458

That’s less than a 1-in-200 chance that this could have happened entirely by random selection. That’s not impossible, but it’s pretty unlikely. By comparison, in the social sciences, any result that has a less than 1-in-20 chance of arising under random chance is considered significant enough to publish. The lack of black acting nominees is very unlikely to be random chance. Something is going on here.

These simple statistics alone, however, cannot tell us what that something is. All we’re doing is comparing the racial composition of the population of acting nominees to the racial composition of the entire population of the United States. There’s a lot of room between those two populations to explain the differences, which could be caused by a number of factors other than racist voters in the Academy. For example, just making stuff up off the top of my head,

  • Perhaps cultural and environmental conditions make black Americans 10% less likely to think of acting as a legitimate career choice, and
  • Perhaps racial bias in acting schools makes it 10% less likely that blacks will get in, and
  • Perhaps racial bias in acting schools cause blacks to receive 10% less effective educations in acting, and
  • Perhaps cultural and environmental conditions make black Americans 10% less able to devote time and energy to their acting careers (e.g. because of a greater need for a paying day job), and
  • Perhaps racially biased casting directors are 10% less likely to cast black actors in the bit parts that will give them experience and exposure, and
  • Perhaps racially biased screen writers are 10% less likely to write major parts for black characters, and
  • Perhaps racially biased studio heads devote 10% less promotional effort to movies with black leads (possibly in response to racially biased audiences spending less on those movies), and finally
  • Perhaps racially biased Acedemy voters are 10% less likely to vote for black actors and actresses.

Combine all of those elements, and the calculation looks something like this:

\left(1-\text{0.126} (1-0.10)^8\right)^{40} = 0.108

So if there’s a 10% drag on blacks at eight different places along the way, then the odds of a two-year shutout for the acting categories is about 1 in 9. That means this explanation is statistically plausible.

I should emphasize, however, that I totally made up those explanations and the numbers to go with them, merely as an illustration of the kinds of things that might influence the acting nominations. These are the kinds of things we might want to look for if we are serious about figuring out what’s happening. It could turn out that all of the bias is indeed at the Academy voting stage, in which case a boycott might be a sensible response. Or it could just be that there is just an accumulated drag on black actors which builds up enough over their careers to keep them out of the nominations. I have no idea.

But I can do the math. And at 1-in-200 odds…something is going on.

No, 10% of College Grads Don’t Really Think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court

The internet is talking about a report that says 10% of American college graduates think reality TV star Judge Judy serves on the Supreme Court.

The 10% factoid comes from a report called A Crisis in Civil Education produced by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, but if you look at the actual question that appeared in the survey, you’ll see that’s not really true, at least not in the way everybody seems to think. The survey asked

Which of the following people serves on the U.S. Supreme Court?

Participants then had to choose one of the following four names as their answer:

Elena Kagan

Lawrence Warren Pierce

John Kerry

Judith Sheindlin

(Note that “Judge Judy” doesn’t appear anywhere on this list. Nobody picked out “Judge Judy” by that name as a Supreme Court justice.)

If you’re familiar with multiple choice testing, it’s not hard to figure out how people came up with their answers. Some of them simply recognized Elena Kagan as a Supreme Court justice and gave that answer. In fact, Kagan was the most common answer, chosen by 61.6% of college graduates and 44% of the general public. In other words, almost two thirds of college graduates got the right answer, as did almost half of the general public. I guess that particular factoid didn’t fit the narrative.

People who didn’t recognize Elena Kagan’s name would have had to guess an answer. If they happened to recognize any of the other names as someone not on the Supreme Court, they could use process of elimination to narrow down the list. They might, for example, recognize John Kerry as the current Secretary of State, former Senator, and former Presidential contender. Note, however, that eliminating Kerry does not depend on their knowledge of the U.S. Supreme Court, but on their knowledge of the Obama Administration, the Senate, or Presidential election politics.

The same is true for “Judge Judy.” Unless survey participants knew enough about reality TV shows to recognize Judith Sheindlin as the real name of “Judge Judy,” they would have no basis for eliminating her name as a possible answer. And if they couldn’t eliminate her, then Judith Sheindlin is just one of several unrecognized people who might or might not be a Supreme Court justice.

In other words, the most we can say from this survey is that of the 38.4% of people who didn’t recognize Elena Kagan, at least 1/4 of them also didn’t recognize Judith Sheindlin as “Judge Judy.”

It’s not as funny that way, though.


How To Win the Big Powerball Drawing!!!

There’s only about a dozen hours left to buy Powerball lottery tickets before the big drawing Wednesday evening. As I write this, the estimated jackpot prize is $1.4 billion dollars, making it the largest jackpot in the history of the game. And because I love my readers so much, I’m going to tell you how to win the Powerball jackpot!

I’m also going to tell you how to make the most possible money playing the Powerball lottery, which, it turns out, is not the same thing. I’ll even have a few thoughts on picking numbers.

But first let’s discuss some misinformation about winning the lottery. Self-proclaimed “lottery expert” Richard Lustig has in the past reportedly offered these tips:

  1. Set a “lottery budget” each month and use it to buy multiple tickets for the same game.
  2. Do not use the “quick pick.” Select random numbers for better odds.
  3. Play the same numbers every week.
  4. Select sequential numbers.
  5. Reinvest your winnings.
  6. Play numbers that haven’t been part of a winning combination in a long time.

Of these suggestions, #1 has no effect on the game, but may help you avoid spending too much. #3 makes no difference, #2 and #4 will reduce how much you earn, and I think so will #6. And Lustig’s #5 tip is the worst idea in the world.

I’ll explain all that later. But first, I’d like to talk about one thing Richard Lustig gets absolutely right. I notice it because Ashley Feinberg made fun of it on Gawker, as did Ryan Grenoble at HuffPo and Jameson Parker at Addicting Info:


Technically, Richard Lustig’s advice as shown in this image is correct. The key is the phrase “increase chance” of winning. The math is straightforward: A Powerball drawing can result in one of 292,201,338 possible number combinations, and you win if you own a ticket with that number. So if you own 1 ticket, your odds of winning are 1 in 292,201,338. If you own 2 tickets with unique number combinations, your odds of winning are 2 in 292,201,338. And so on. The more unique tickets you buy, the more chances you have to win. So if you want to win the jackpot, buy a lot of tickets to get the best odds you can afford.

(The number combinations have to be unique, because two or more tickets with the same number combination don’t increase your chances of winning. Also, in practice you can play more than one set of numbers on a ticket, but in terms of your winnings it’s the equivalent of using that many single-play tickets, so I’m just calling each play a ticket.)

As you buy more and more uniquely numbered tickets, your odds of winning increase linearly all the way up until you buy 292,201,338 tickets with unique number combinations — one for every possible number combination in the game — at which point the Powerball drawing must choose a number combination on one of your tickets.

See? I told you I’d tell you how to win the Powerball jackpot: Just buy all possible tickets!

Unfortunately, just because you win doesn’t mean you’ll make money. Powerball plays cost $2 each, so guaranteeing yourself a win by playing all 292,201,338 combinations will cost you $584,402,676, or just over half a billion dollars. Powerball jackpots are usually much less than that, so normally you’d be losing a lot of money if you bought all the tickets. (Actually, since you bought every ticket, you’d also win all the other prizes, which adds up to about $93.5 million, but you’d still lose a ton of money.)

Ah, but if the prize is $1.4 billion, as it is now, wouldn’t you make a net profit of over $800 million? Doesn’t that mean that buying a lottery ticket actually makes sense? Aren’t you guaranteed to make money if you do this?

As you can probably guess, it does not. There are three reasons for this.

The first is that the Powerball lottery is run by the state governments, and they allow themselves to lie to their customers in ways no one else can. The main Powerball jackpot number always the sum of the amount paid out in a series of 30 annual payouts. If they say it’s a $300 million jackpot, that means $10 million a year for 30 years. If you take it all in a lump sum, you get a lot less (but you get it all now). I’m pretty sure that no ordinary financial investment or gambling operation would be able to get away with misleading customers like this.

The current Powerball jackpot prize pool is estimated to be $868 million, so if you win it all, you can have that amount right away. (Unless your state is run by morons.) Or you can choose to let the state keep the money for you, in which case they will invest it in an annuity that will pay you about $46.7 million per year for 30 years, for a total of $1.4 billion. You could do the same thing yourself with the lump sum if you could find a way to invest the money that earns 3.7% interest, which is slightly better than the current prime rate.


The second reason you aren’t guaranteed to make money buying all 292,201,338 possible lottery tickets is because of income taxes. The top bracket of 39.6% kicks in at just under half a million, so if you won the $868 million prize pot, you’d pay $344 million in taxes and get to keep about $524 million. Since it cost you $584 million to buy all the tickets, you’d have a net loss of $60 million.

If you were professional gambler, you might be able to argue that the $584 million cost of the tickets was a legitimate business expense, so you’d only pay taxes on your net profit of $283.5 million, allowing you to keep about $171 million of the total. Not bad, right? Too bad you don’t actually have $584 million to spend on lottery tickets.

When you only purchase a fraction of the 292,201,338 possible tickets, you have to think in terms of something called expected value, which is the value of the jackpot prize multiplied by the probability of your actually winning it. So if you buy only 50% of all possible tickets (146,100,669) then you only have a 50% chance of winning, so the expected value of your winnings is half the lump sum payout, or $434 million. If you buy only one ticket, the expected value is 1/292,201,338 of the lump sum payout, which works out to $2.97. Since a ticket only costs $2.00, your expected pre-tax earnings are 97 cents for every ticket you buy.

You’ll have to pay taxes, of course, and since your expense is only $2, you owe taxes on the entire prize, leaving you with $524 million as described above, so the expected value of a ticket is $524,000,000/292,201,338 = $1.79.

That’s the second answer I promised you: Since every ticket you buy gives you an expected loss of 21 cents, the way to make the most money playing the Powerball lottery is to minimize your losses by purchasing exactly zero tickets. You cannot lose if you do not play.

(This is why Lustig’s advice to “reinvest” your winnings is so bad. If you lose money every time you play, then spending your winnings on playing the lottery just means you’ll lose that money too.)

The good news is that the expected value of each ticket depends on the odds of winning the jackpot, which never change, and the amount of the prize pool, which is creeping up. By my calculations, when the jackpot hits about $968 million you will get to keep just enough after taxes (assuming you live in a state that doesn’t have income tax) to cover the cost of buying all 292,201,338 possible tickets, which means the expected value of a $2 ticket will be 2 dollars, so buying tickets won’t lose you money.

Or it wouldn’t if it weren’t for…

The third reason it’s hard to make money on Powerball is that the grand prize is awarded on a parimutuel basis. That means the prize pool is split among all the jackpot winners. If two people have winning tickets, each one gets only half the prize pool. That’s normally pretty unlikely in Powerball, but when the prize gets very big, a lot of people buy tickets, and that increases the probability that more than one person will pick the winning number combination.

The previous Powerball drawing had a lump sum jackpot of $950 million, and the next one is estimated to be about $500 million higher. Since the jackpot gets about 32.5% of the ticket income, that means the Powerball people are expecting to sell $1.5 billion worth of tickets. At $2 a piece, it means that about 750 million tickets will be sold. Since there are only 292 million number combinations, there’s a pretty good chance that two or maybe three people will win, and that will reduce the expected value of a ticket below the $2 purchase price, making the expected value a losing proposition.

Ethan Wolff-Mann at Time estimates the break-even for the next drawing is at about $1.5 billion lump sum, or about $2.6 billion annuity payout, when adjusted for the probability of multiple winners. Anything less than that leaves you with an expected loss.

Now that I’ve thoroughly destroyed the value proposition of the Powerball lottery, are you still trying to come up with an excuse to buy a ticket? Well let me see if I can help by pointing out a couple of twists in my analysis.

First, it’s not clear that the mathematical expectation (amount won multiplied by the probability of winning) is the correct measure for a lottery player. It depends on your attitude toward risk. If I offered you either $100,000 or a 50/50 chance of winning $200,000, which would you choose? Since both choices have the same expected value ($100,000) most people will probably prefer the choice with less uncertainty and take the flat $100,000 award. But some people will choose to gamble. They have a greater tolerance for risk, and there’s no compelling way to say how much risk tolerance is the correct amount.

Among other things, it depends on your situation. If you need $200,000 to start a business and $100,000 won’t be enough, then you might take a chance on $200,000-or-bust to try to start your business. If you’ll die next week without a life-saving medical procedure that costs $200,000 then the certain $100,000 award is worthless to you. So maybe it makes sense in your personal analysis to risk the almost certain loss of $2 in order to have a really small but non-zero chance of retiring early and living happily ever after.

The second problem with my analysis is that I’m only counting the financial benefits of playing Powerball. There can be other benefits, such as the fun of knowing that for at least a little while there’s a very real (but very small) chance you could win big. Really big. If that fantasy becomes the most important thing in your life, you may have a gambling problem, but otherwise there’s nothing wrong with buying a ticket just for the fun of it. It’s certainly no worse than other ways we spend money to entertain ourselves, such as going to concerts, riding roller coasters, or sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley watching the Cubs lose.

So now that you’ve decided to play anyway, what numbers should you pick? Richard Lustig advised picking numbers that haven’t been winners in a long time, but that’s a classic fallacy: The balls have no memory. There’s no way for them to know that they’re “due” to win. Each lottery drawing is independent, and what happened in past drawings has no effect on what happens in the next drawing.

Mathematically-inclined people will also tell you that the drawing of numbers is completely random, so it doesn’t matter which numbers you pick. Both parts of that statement are wrong. The numbers drawn are not completely random, and it does matter which ones you pick.

The numbers aren’t completely random because they are produced by an imperfect mechanical system. The “identical” balls almost certainly aren’t. Not perfectly. Variations in the process that produces them will cause variations in properties like size, weight, roundness, weight distribution, and surface friction, and those variations will make some balls slightly more likely to be drawn than others. The effect will be small — otherwise it would be quickly detected and the ball set would be replaced — but it will be there, and it might show up in the history of the drawings.

A similar trick can work in casinos that are too cheap to replace expensive equipment like roulette wheels. Alert gamblers could spot when numbers start coming up non-randomly and change their bets to try to beat the house. You probably can’t do that with Powerball because the variations are too small and the lottery has a much bigger house edge than most casino games, but couldn’t you at least limit your losses a teeny bit by betting on the numbers most likely to come up?

Probably not. This version of Powerball has been going on for a few months, and over that period the four most common numbers drawn are 35, 25, 29, and 20, with the fifth most common number being a tie between 11, 31, 45, 49, and 51. The most common “powerball” number is a tie between 7 and 15. These anomalies appear in the data because either (a) there’s something special about those balls, or (b) it’s random chance. If there’s something special going on — if the balls are defective or rigged — then betting those numbers could slightly improve your chances of winning. But it it’s all just random fluctuations, then your chance of winning is unaffected by the numbers you pick, so betting the most common winning numbers can’t possibly hurt. It sounds like win-win.

Except that the lottery jackpot is perimutuel, and thousands of people have read the same statistics I just used. If a hundred of them decide to pick those numbers (a single $20 bill covers all 10 combinations), you could end up splitting the jackpot with all of them. The disadvantage of splitting the purse overwhelms any statistical advantage to picking the most likely numbers.

In fact, the effects of the perimutuel system are the most important factor in choosing lottery numbers, and they are the only factor you can control. Slight variations in the lottery balls notwithstanding, the numbers drawn in the lottery are random, but the numbers that lottery players pick for their tickets are not.

Humans are terrible at picking random numbers. No matter how hard we try, we fall into patterns and choose collections of numbers that badly fail the statistical tests for randomness. And a lot of people don’t even try. They reason, correctly, that all numbers have (very nearly) the same chance of winning, so they pick numbers from birth dates, address, and telephone numbers. Those numbers follow patterns — months less than 13, days less than 32 — that skew their distribution, causing ticket buyers to collectively cluster around some numbers and avoid others.

I don’t know which numbers people pick and which they avoid, but I can think of at lease one way for you to find out: Go around to as many different lottery sales locations as you can, and start collecting discarded tickets from the trash. It doesn’t matter that they’re all losers. Your purpose is not to learn which numbers win, it’s to learn which numbers people pick.

Go to as many different kinds of ticket places as you can, in as many parts of the country as you can. You probably need several thousand tickets to get a good statistical sample, and since about 70-80% of tickets sold are random Quick Picks generated by lottery computers, you’ll have to sift through a lot more to find the ones you need. I think Quick Picks are marked “QP,” but that may not be the case everywhere. If you can’t tell quick picks from hand-selected numbers, then you need even more tickets in your sample to overcome the random statistical noise of the computer’s choices. I’d aim for 10,000 tickets.

Once you’ve got your tickets, tally up how often people pick each number. Find the numbers that everyone else is picking the least, and use those numbers when buying your tickets. The lottery is still (very nearly) random, so you won’t be any more likely to win, but if you do win, you’ll be less likely to have to share it with someone else.

Or you could just buy a Quick Pick. It’s a lot more random than if you picked the numbers yourself, so there’s less chance of you and a bunch of other people clustering around a shared group of numbers that force you to split the jackpot, and it’s a lot less work than going through the trash.

(I’ve heard that the trash thing has actually been done successfully on some sweepstakes drawings. The house take was relatively small, the prizes were smaller and easier to win, and they were all awarded from perimutuel pools, so people who played thousands of tickets could expect to win a bunch of times, and the statistical analysis helped them reduce payout splits.)

Since I started writing this, the estimated Powerball jackpot has bumped up another $100 million to reach a total of $1.5 billion, or $930 million as a lump sum. I’m not going to go back and change the numbers in this post to match the new numbers from Powerball. They’ll probably just going to go up again, anyway. And besides, my basic conclusions still hold: There are three ways to improve your net lottery winnings (or more realistically, reduce your losses):

  1. Play the fewest tickets you can, ideally none. (At least while the jackpot is below $2.6 billion).
  2. Play only when the pool is very large. (Because it makes the payout higher.)
  3. Play numbers that are less likely to be played by other people.

So if you’re feeling that lottery fever, this would be a good time to treat yourself to a $2 Quick Pick and fantasize about what you’d do with all that money…

David Bowie 1947 – 2016

So David Bowie died last night. I’ve been watching the word break across Twitter. Reactions from everyone — from sex workers to Weird Al to Elon Musk.

People have been posting some of their favorite Bowie songs. I guess my choice makes me a traditionalist. It’s not the most radical of his songs, but it has some memories.

I, I wish you could swim
Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim
Though nothing, nothing will keep us together
We can beat them, for ever and ever
Oh we can be Heroes, just for one day

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be Heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day

I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns shot above our heads (over our heads)
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall (nothing could fall)
And the shame was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be Heroes,
just for one day

We can be Heroes
We can be Heroes
We can be Heroes
Just for one day

That was the single version. Here’s the album version.

I think this sums it up:

Oregon Under Attack — A Modest Proposal

So far the authorities in Oregon are handling the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters pretty well. They seem to be following a low-conflict approach rather than letting their egos get in the way, so the standoff hasn’t erupted into violence. That kind of low-conflict approach had helped to end an earlier standoff near the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada, but some pundits are now arguing that the earlier soft approach is what emboldened Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan to take this latest action.

I’m not so sure. All they’ve done is seize an empty building in the middle of the frickin’ wilderness, which doesn’t exactly strike me as the sort of bold and decisive victory that will put The Fear of God into the hearts of jackbooted government bureaucrats. I mean, there’s nothing around it for miles:


I think the current slow and easy approach taken by law enforcement is the right idea. Some people with ideological objections have called for police to try to force them out, but that tactic has a way of ending badly. In fact, I think law enforcement should bend over backwards for these guys. Check out this picture of the MNWR headquarters building that has been occupied by the protesters:


It’s not exactly the Nakatomi tower, is it? There are a few other buildings on the site. I can’t tell from news reports if they’ve been occupied, but I’m sure wildlife refuge employees can’t use any of the buildings as long as there are armed gunmen on the premises. You can the layout in this aerial photo:


One thing that immediately stands out is that these are not large modern structures. Many of them look like storage sheds. None of the buildings look very expensive. That makes me think they would be easy to replace.

I don’t want to do anything violent like bombing the buildings, but I can’t help thinking…if the Bundy brothers and their militia want that site so much, why not let them have it?

Just walk away. Tell the militia, “Hey, we’re gonna back off a mile or two down the road. You guys take your time, have fun, and when you’re ready to leave, just walk on out to where we’re parked, and we’ll help get you out of here. Good luck and God bless!”

The police can throw up a cordon to keep the militia guys from being resupplied, and of course to arrest them as the hostage negotiating team talks them into coming out.

Meanwhile, the MNWR headquarters staff can get some help from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to quickly throw up some temporary buildings.


With police blocking anyone who tries to leave the old headquarters building, everyone who works at the refuge can report to the new building and get on with their lives, and let the Bundy militia sit around in their dingy buildings in the middle of nowhere. In the cold. Without electrical power. As their food and water run out.

The militia might try to take over the new building, but now that authorities are aware of the threat, they could easily defend it with a handful of rifle-toting deputies in foxholes and guard towers (also handily available from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers).

Of course they might just let the militia take over the new headquarters one night so that the MNWR employees can just go back to their original building. Letting the militia keep the cheap prefab buildings makes things simpler for everyone. And at that point you can pretty much just bulldoze a 10-foot berm around them and be done with it.

Does It Matter If the Oregon Standoff is Terrorism?

A bunch of armed white guys have taken over a building in a wildlife refuge in Oregon, and liberal Twitter is going a little nuts because the media isn’t calling it “terrorism.”

It’s a lot easier to send camera crews to a St. Louis suburb than to a remote wildlife refuge, and they won’t be allowed as close to the action as they are in urban protests, but I understand the point: If a bunch of black people had done this, the usual law-and-order dipsticks would be screaming about terrorism. (And if a bunch of middle-eastern-looking people had done this, we’d have Presidential candidates calling for a drone strike.) So it seems weird when people are all of a sudden getting really sensitive about labels.

I get that. I know there are people who wanted to carpet bomb the Ferguson protesters because somebody burned down a QuikTrip, and now the same kinds of people are talking about the Oregon protesters “standing up to tyrannical government” over western U.S. land management issues. It’s natural to be angry that a bunch of white ranchers are being treated more sympathetically than black folks from the city. But the injustice here is not that white ranchers are being treated well, but that black people are treated so poorly.

The definitions of words like terrorism are inherently somewhat arbitrary and shifting, but I grew up in the 1970s, and terrorism back then meant shooting or kidnapping people, blowing things up, and hijacking airplanes. Basically, it was guerrilla warfare against non-combatants.

Whenever we get into an argument about definitions, I find it’s helpful to ask why the definition matters. All the activities that make up typical terrorism — killing people, blowing things up, kidnapping — are already defined as crimes, so what is the point of identifying some criminal act as terrorism? I’ve been thinking about my own mental definition of terrorism, and it seems to consist of three parts: (1) killing, kidnapping, or seriously hurting non-combatants or doing massive property damage, (2) by perpetrators who present an ongoing threat (3) to advance a political cause. The point of defining terrorism this way is that it identifies a pattern of dangerous crime that does not end with a single incident. It’s a continuing threat of serious violence that has to be investigated and fought. That’s what makes it different from most other kinds of crime.

Under my definition of terrorism, the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is not terrorism. You don’t have to like my definition, but if you’re going to insist that this incident is terrorism despite the lack of shooting or explosions or any kind if injury, can you explain to me why it matters? What’s so important about calling this terrorism?

That seems plausible. The Black Panthers got into gunfights with the police on numerous occasions, and when MOVE occupied a building in Philadelphia the police literally bombed it, killing 11 people, including children, and burning down an entire city block. In fact, in response to events in Oregon, someone at ThinkProgress even tweeted a picture of the MOVE fire:

But I guess my question is, if you’re complaining that the situation in Oregon isn’t being called “terrorism,” is it because you want that to happen to the white guys occupying the MNWR building?

I certainly hope not. While I think it’s likely that a bunch of armed black people who took over a government building would be treated a lot worse than the white guys in Oregon, I don’t think the solution is encourage the government and the media to treat the white people worse.

Some people have claimed that the militia group’s actions at MNWR meet the federal definition of terrorism in 18 USC 2331. I don’t know if that’s true (“acts dangerous to human life” could be twisted a number of ways), but I don’t see why anyone who’s not a lawyer (or a defendant) should care about the legal definition. Remember, this is the same body of law that says putting your own money in your own bank account is the crime of money laundering if you do it wrong. Unless we’re talking specifically about criminal charges, why should we let the technical language of law affect how we talk?

What concerns me about so many liberal commenters insisting that this is terrorism (or this or this or this) is that nothing good will come from encouraging an expansive definition of terrorism.

If you look at the huge list of things described as terrorism in the Patriot Act, almost every one of them is already illegal. So calling these things “terrorism” doesn’t make them illegal — they’re already crimes — it just allows prosecutors to demand ever harsher penalties. Since we already have a larger percentage of prisoners than any other country, is it really wise to encourage prosecutors to be harsher?

Ever since 9/11 (or maybe the Oklahoma City bombing) law enforcement and national intelligence agencies have been trying to make themselves seem more important — and not incidentally get more funding — by defining terrorism down to include all kinds of crimes. Hacking into a corporation’s servers is now “cyberterrorism” and cutting fishing nets and freeing captive animals is called “ecoterrorism”. In the media, people are calling Black Lives Matter protesters “terrorists” and claiming that blocking entry to the Mall of America is “economic terrorism.” In California, being in a gang or helping a gang member commit a crime is called “street terrorism.” Kids who post violent rap lyrics on Facebook are now charged with making “terroristic threats.” Some of those actions are definitely crimes, and others might be, but it’s a ridiculous stretch to call any of these crimes “terrorism.”

As for the armed white guys occupying the wildlife refuge, I’m just guessing, but I’m pretty sure the authorities could charge them for breaking into the building, for staying after being asked to leave, and for keeping other people out with threats of violence. Some of those crimes probably have gun enhancements, and there are probably conspiracy charges all the way around for the leaders. And that’s without a shot being fired or anyone getting hurt. Tacking on terrorism charges is unnecessary overkill.

Well, I’ve been complaining about the over-criminalization of practically everything for a long time here at Windypundit, usually in the context of the War On Drugs. This isn’t the best time, it’s just one more time.

Perhaps a better question is why do I think nice liberal people should back off on demanding that the situation in Oregon be called “terrorism”? My answer is that when it comes to tough-on-crime attitudes, what goes around, comes around.

Dwight and Steven Hammond, the jailed farmers at the center of this conflict, may be learning this the hard way. I’m just guessing, but I’ll bet that when legislatures first started passing harsh mandatory minimum laws, the Hammonds and most of their right-wing supporters in the wildlife refuge thought it was a great way to to put thugs in jail. And when Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, the Hammonds and their supporters probably approved of getting tough on terrorists. They must have been surprised as hell to learn that the AEDPA meant they would be facing five-year minimum sentences because fires they started on their own land got out of control.

For the folks on the left, it’s all fun and games watching right-wing white guys get in deep trouble, but getting tough on crime has a funny way of turning into massive incarceration of young male minorities. If the nice liberal people crying “terrorism” get their way, it could end up influencing the way prosecutors charge crimes, and it could encourage lawmakers to pass tough new laws to fight “right-wing anti-government terrorism.” Then a few years from now those same nice liberal people will be angry that 18-year-old black kids are being charged with some new crime called “terroristic damage to federal property” because they broke in and spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the walls of a post office.

Don’t Let the Tamir Rice Grand Jury Distract From the Goal

It’s been over a year since Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice, and now a Cuyahoga County grand jury has decided not to indict him for it, thus proving that grand juries will also let the ham sandwich walk, if that’s what the prosecutor wants.

Make no mistake, this whole process was a sham. Start with the fact that it took a year to get the case to the grand jury. Most homicide investigations are over in a few days, and even if the police needed to interview more witnesses and process more evidence, this case could still have been in front of a grand jury months ago.

Then there’s the unusually non-accusatory presentation to the grand jury. Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty says he recommended to the jury that they not charge Loehmann for the killing, which brings up the question of why he wasted so much time and effort presenting the case to the grand jury in the first place. My guess is that he didn’t want to charge Officer Loehmann, but he didn’t want to take all the heat for that decision, so he steered to grand jury to where he wanted it to go. Loehmann killed Tamir Rice, and the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office made sure he wasn’t charged for it.

Even though the process was fake, however, I’m not sure the end result was wrong. That Tamir Rice was killed is a tragedy, but it should take more than a tragedy to make a crime. There ought to be some element of intent. If Officer Loehmann had thought to himself “It’s just a kid with a pellet gun, but I’ll bet I can use that as an excuse so I can finally get to kill someone,” he would be a murderer. And proving intent doesn’t require mind reading, because a jury is allowed to draw inferences. They could decide, for example, that it was so obvious Tamir Rice was a kid with a toy that Loehmann’s shooting of him can only be explained as intentional murder.

Even if it’s not intentional murder, there could be lesser crimes that Loehmann  might have been charged with. Depending on local law, he might be found to have behaved recklessly or negligently in failing to identify Tamir Rice as a child with a pellet gun. He might have jumped to unreasonable conclusions and shot too soon, and that could lead to some sort of criminal charge, much the way you could be charged for killing someone in a car accident if the accident was the result of your intentionally engaging in dangerous driving, even if you didn’t intend to hit anyone.

Or it may be that Officer Loehmann didn’t do anything that amounts to a crime. He might have made an honest mistake. There’s even an argument that he made the mistake because his partner, Officer Frank Garmback, drove up so close to Tamir Rice that Loehmann didn’t have time to properly assess the risk. It’s therefore arguable that Garmback bears more responsibility for Tamir Rice’s death than Loehmann. Garmback’s lawyer claims that he meant to stop further away but the car slid in the snow.

If that’s all true, it’s possible that the killing of Tamir Rice was the sad result of a chain of honest mistakes by good police officers that unfortunately lead to a terribly tragic death. (Obviously it would be convenient for the Cleveland police if it was.) But even if the death of Tamir Rice is not a crime, it’s still a tragedy. Regardless of what it may have looked like to Officer Loehmann, a 12-year-old child is dead for no good reason.

Those of us who keep a mistrustful eye on the police have a name for these kinds of tragedies. We call them isolated incidents. As in, “The death of Tamir Rice was an isolated incident that is not indicative of a larger problem in American policing.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of isolated incidents: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Eric Harris, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Bettie Jones, and rather a lot of others that haven’t made the news. Everyone at that link is an unarmed black person who died in an incident involving the police. Some of the officers have been charged with crimes, some of the killings are probably justified, and many of the deaths appear to have been accidental, including TASER deaths and a number of black pedestrians struck by police cars.

Suppose you and I meet for drinks after work every Friday, and as part of our drinking tradition we flip a coin to decide who pays. After a while, you notice that I am consistently winning 4 out of 5 tosses. You might not be able to prove that my winning any single coin flip was more than an isolated incident, but the statistics make it very clear there’s a lot more going on than just bad luck.

Or suppose a member of your family checks into the hospital for minor surgery and ends up dying from an infection. Assuming there were no visitors, that infection had to come from a member of the hospital staff. All hospitals have problems with infection control, but suppose you investigated and learned that your hospital’s rate of deaths due to hospital-acquired infection is twice as high as other hospitals. The nurse or doctor who infected your family member presumably didn’t intend to kill them, and the hospital almost certainly doesn’t have a policy of deliberately infecting and killing patients, but the higher-than-normal rate of hospital-caused infection deaths still points to a serious problem.

Now suppose your hospital investigation revealed that black patients die from hospital-acquired infections at twice the rate of white people. That would be worth looking into, wouldn’t it? And if you ruled out other patient factors (genetics, environment, culture) then you’d pretty much have to assume that the hospital is more careless about infection control with black patients. Perhaps it’s unconscious bigotry, or resentment of patients who lack insurance. It could be that hospital administrators assign the better staff to take care of white patients. But whatever the cause, it ought to be stopped.

The Guardian‘s data on people killed by American police shows that in 2015 black people were killed by police at twice the rate for the rest of the population, and young black men were five times more likely to be killed by police than young white men of the same age. Some of that could be explained by the greater tendency of black people to commit crimes — they are being shot more by cops because they are more likely to present a threat — but I don’t think that would explain the higher rate of unarmed black people killed by police.

Once you’ve ruled out justified killings, you’ve shown that a problem exists. Identifying the cause might be harder. It could be that enough cops are straight-up KKK-style racists to cause the statistical difference. Or it could be that white cops just have a harder time identifying with young black men: They might see belligerent young white men as troubled kids who need straightening out while seeing equally belligerent young black men as hardened criminals that deserve no mercy. Or given the reports that Officer Loehmann had a poor record as a police officer, perhaps the problem is caused by something as banal as police commanders giving less thought to the quality of the officers they hire to to patrol black communities.

As I said at the top, I don’t know enough about the Tamir Rice shooting to know if officer Loehmann should be thrown in prison. (People who followed the case more closely than I may have reached more certain conclusions.) But I do know that when it comes to police officers killing black people without justification, throwing the officers in prison is not the primary goal. Throwing the officers in prison is at best a means to an end, and maybe even a necessary means, but the primary goal should always be to get cops to stop killing so many black people for no good reason.

Because that shit has got to stop.