Stats Made Easy

Practical Tools for Effective Experimentation

Monday, October 22, 2007

The lottery of life versus death

I am enjoying a long weekend vacation in the Hill Country of Austin, Texas this weekend with my wife and youngest daughter. We took a side-trip east of the metro area to the town of La Grange where we came across a State historic site called Monument Hill. It commemorates the 1842 Mier Expedition that led to Sana Anna’s infamous decree that these invading Texans be decimated via lottery. The Mexican army put this command into effect via a lottery – 17 black beans were put into a pot with 159 white ones. Can you imagine having your life at forfeit for the ten percent chance of pulling a black bean? As one soldier after the other endured his lottery, did the remaining ones recalculate their odds? I went through something like this, but without the horror of anticipation, by surviving a heart attack and then learning that one in five do not. According to Texas Handbook Online, William A. A. (Bigfoot) Wallace did something much more useful than calculating his chances: He observed that the black beans were the larger and fingered the tokens successfully to draw a white bean.

Life really seems at times to be largely a matter of chance. Monument Hill overlooks the lovely Colorado River of Texas. The three of us followed a wooded trail along the bank that a park ranger recommended. Suddenly my two ladies leaped ahead of me. They had nearly stepped on a coral snake that I must have startled from my lead position. I mentioned this to the ranger upon my return and he just shrugged his shoulders and said we ought to expect snakes when walking the woods in Texas. However, although the ranger allowed that the coral is perhaps the most venomous snake in North America, its mouth is very small, so it cannot bite very effectively, and furthermore -- this reptile is very shy. Nevertheless, we three naïve Minnesotans learned a lesson: Never mess with Texas – especially wearing sandals. Waiting in the Minneapolis airport, I was chuckling at the Austinites pacing around in their boots. Now I understand the reason for this choice of shoe.

PS. In my 8/10/06 blog titled “Stats that will be the death of you” I reported the odds of an American dying of snake bite: 1 in 2 million.


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