Day 628: Heads, Tails, Noses And Lizards

originally published September 19, 2013

Another day, another thousand words. But what to write about? I’ve got a few ideas lurking in my patented idea slop-bucket, but how do I know which is the right one to scoop into today’s word-trough? I could flip a coin, roll some dice, maybe pin the ideas to a dartboard, fire back some tequila and see which concept bubble the dart of my focus should puncture today. I could assign each idea to a marble then dump a laundry bag of marbles down a hill and write about the one that rolls the furthest.

No, too much work. I can respect a good game of chance, but there’s a limit on how much cleanup I’m willing to undergo just to get a random result. There is a simple elegance to the coin toss, despite its potential complications: What if it hits the ceiling? What if it bounces off a table?

A game of chance should be simple. These are games we play in order to facilitate a balanced decision, or to figure out who has to go downstairs and deal with the pizza guy. They are games designed to speed up life, to allow us to scuttle past the weighing of pros and cons so that we can sink our teeth into the meat of the rest of our day. So why write about them? Well, it came up tails this morning, so here we go.

As long as we’ve had coins, we’ve flipped them so we could avoid making decisions. But is this really the best method for turning our responsibility over to fate? Not according to researchers at the University of British Columbia. Learning how to manipulate a toss to land a certain way is not that hard, provided you’re using the standard flip ‘n catch method. They taught a group of people the technique, then watched them compete to see who could land the most heads in 300 flips. Everyone scored over 50%, and the winner pulled off a 68% success rate.

If you really want an edge in your next coin-motivated scenario, use an American penny. Most coins around the world use some sort of raised mass in its images, and in the case of the penny Lincoln’s head is notably heavier than the Lincoln Memorial pictured on the tails side. The truth is, you won’t really see this come into play on a flip, where gravity blows its horn at a much louder volume, but if you can talk your opponent into spinning the penny instead of flipping it, pick tails to have your 50/50 odds get bumped to around 80/20.

In 1940 the Three Stooges consulted a Magic 8-Ball in the 18-minute romp, You Nazty Spy. On the surface this looks like product placement, but in fact this was the first time someone conceived of the idea of using an oversized billiard ball to predict the future. Albert C. Carter gets the credit for turning this into a phenomenon, inspired by a hokey device his clairvoyant mother used to use in her act – umm, sorry… consultations. Unfortunately Albert didn’t live to see the 8-Ball become a phenomenon when it finally hit store shelves in 1950.

The inside of a Magic 8-Ball contains alcohol (but don’t drink it – seriously, if you try, you should probably just walk away from the 8-Ball and attend a meeting), dyed dark blue for a ‘mystical’ effect. A white 20-sided die spins and swirls amid the blue gunk and supposedly provides a random yes/no answer when you peek through the little window. Except this is also rigged. Of the 20 possible answers, ten are ‘Yes’ or some variant thereof, five are ‘No’, and five are some sort of ‘Ask again later’. So with an air of positivity that betrays the 8-Balls façade of random outcome, you’ve got a pretty good shot at getting a ‘Yes’ out of this hunk of plastic.

If you’re stuck with a task that nobody wants to do, you’ve got a few options in the world of chance games. You could draw straws, which is such a heartily-embraced cliché it has even worked its way into the lawbooks. It’s true – if an election in the UK remains tied after three recounts, drawing straws is an officially sanctioned means for determining a winner.

You could also employ the ‘Nose Goes’ method, in which one person places a finger against his nose and everyone else must do the same, the last to clue in being the poor schmuck who has to do the unpleasant task. Or you could combine the noses and the straws and simply compete to see who can ingest the most cocaine. It all depends on the people you hang out with.

If you run with a crowd who isn’t always teetering on the brink of being broke (perhaps from doing too much cocaine), you should try credit card roulette next time you head out to dinner. At the end of the meal, everyone tosses their credit card into a hat or a bag, and the waiter or waitress picks one out at random. The card he or she picks is the card that will pay everyone’s tab.

This game made the Patriot Ledger in South Boston back in 1998 when an unfortunate sod named Evan Bogardus played the game with eight of his friends, getting stuck for a St. Patrick’s Day drink bill of $348.26. The gang then went out for dinner (hey, it’s St. Paddy’s Day in South Boston – of course they drank that much before dinner), and Evan lost again, having to pay at least double that amount.

I’d stay away from this game unless you’ve either got a lot of money or friends who don’t eat or drink much.

If you’re tired of tie-breakers when playing rock-paper-scissors, simply stretch your finger-twisting skills and play the bigger version: Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock. Now you’ve got five different hand signals and less chance of choosing the same as your opponent. It may seem confusing at first, but each symbol can defeat two others and can be defeated by the remaining two.

Rock still smashes scissors, but it also crushes the lizard’s skull. Paper still inexplicably suffocates rock, but can also be used to disprove Spock. Scissors may hack paper in two, but they can also decapitate the lizard. The lizard will eat the paper and poison Spock. Spock will melt the scissors, possibly by setting his phaser on ‘eliminate office supplies’, and he can do the same to a rock.

Assuming your friends can keep up with the expanded rules, and assuming they all have the manual dexterity to make a Vulcan salute, this sounds like a pretty good game for putting the future in the hands of fate. Except even rock-paper-scissors has a strategy, particularly if you know how your opponent thinks.

Maybe there is no real random game of chance. Maybe we’re all stuck with the intervening finger of a preordained destiny that we can’t escape. I’ve asked the universe, but all it told me was, “Reply hazy, try again.” Damn.

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