Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Roulette And The Magic Of Math

Steve McQueen plays a young officer on a Navy ship where a scientist, Jim Hutton, is testing a state-of-the-art computer. The computer is programmed to predict exactly where a ballistic missile will impact based on knowing where the missile took off from and the missile’s launch trajectory. It occurs to Steve McQueen that a roulette ball falling onto a roulette wheel is kind of like a missile coming down and perhaps the computer could predict which sector of a roulette wheel a roulette ball will land in...   Steve McQueen talks Jim Hutton into trying, an admiral’s daughter gets involved, a rich hot dog heiress gets involved and by the end of the film everybody—the Venice government, US Navy brass and Russian politicians—has gotten involved. It’s great stuff, great fun and one of my favorite movies of all time.

No More Bets,” CSI Las Vegas, Season Four, Episode #91 — The son of a Vegas old-timer convinces some college friends to try hacking together small computers and custom software in an attempt to beat the odds at Vegas roulette wheels. His friends come through and their system works, but the young man has an agenda of his own. And so does his father. And so does the owner of the casinos that get scammed. Gil Grissom and his team, however, sort it all out. This is much more depressing than “The Honeymoon Machine,” but it’s an interesting crime story that turns out to be more about the gritty personalities of Las Vegas regulars than the magic of mathematics.

This is the real thing. This is the narrative of the real-life events which have been fictionalized by writers over the decades. A group of college students hack together fancy little computers, hack together software based on the mathematics of orbital decay and head off to Las Vegas to beat the odds at roulette. Thomas Bass, now a physicist, then one of the students—interestingly, now living overseas!—provides lots of details of why the group attempted their adventure, how they thought it out and practiced it, and how they finally succeeded. There’s none of the international intrigue of “The Honeymoon Machine,” and none of the dark death and retribution of CSI’s “No More Bets,” but the story is about as interesting as a non-fiction book can get. Oddly, it’s not particularly fun, and I suspect Thomas Bass isn’t revealing all the details of why the group breaks up after their initial success.

The simplicity of roulette is very seductive. Mathematics can perform amazing tricks. There are still lots of people out there trying to beat the odds of roulette with tricky algorithms. Good luck.

I will confess that “The Honeymoon Machine” has shaped a great deal of my thinking. I have written one or two programs touching on the odds of a roulette wheel. I've never actually entered a casino, however. I've nothing in common with the people from “The Eudaemonic Pie” and the violence of “No More Bets” is terrifying to me.

The wacky fun of “The Honeymoon Machine” has always been my idea of what life either is, or should be. I'm working on it. Wish me luck.

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