Saturday, August 29, 2009

Chance in a lifetime

For many years I have always held a German number-lottery ticket. I buy only the cheapest one, which merely makes me a participant. Unlike many people, I don't try to improve my chances by poring over the results of previous drawings to decide what numbers to select, or by subscribing to "systems", and I don't look forward feverishly to the drawings. I always check the same six numbers, and remain indifferent to anything except the million Euros (more or less) that would flow my way if I "won".

Some acquaintances indulge themselves in mild ridicule at this minimalist approach of mine. They think either that the lottery itself is a waste of time, or that I should invest more. At the end of his Memoirs of my Life and Writings, I find Gibbon explaining my views on this subject. I too see no reason to be perfectly easy about anything:
The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful. This day may possibly be my last: but the laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular, still allow about fifteen years. [Mr. Buffon, from our disregard of the possibility of death within the four and twenty hours, concludes that a chance, which falls below or rises above ten thousand to one, will never affect the hopes or fears of a reasonable man. The fact is true, but our courage is the effect of thoughtlessness, rather than of reflection. If a public lottery were drawn for, the choice of an immediate victim, and if our name were inscribed on one of the ten thousand tickets, should we be perfectly easy?]