I’m Terrified of Winning the Lottery

I avoid the lottery as much as possible.  That’s not exactly right, because “avoiding” the lottery makes it sound like intentional action.  It isn’t.  98% of the time, it doesn’t take intentional action, the lottery is quite easy to ignore all on its own.

But occasionally, the prize gets so big that it’s impossible to ignore.  It’s all over social media, and good old fashioned antisocial media too.  People talk about it at work waiting for the coffee to brew, and at the soccer fields waiting for the kids’ practice to end.  All of this attention drives the prize even higher.

“Did you get your lottery ticket?” becomes a perfectly legitimate conversation starter with a stranger in line at the grocery store.

“What would we do with all of that money?” becomes a perfectly legitimate conversation starter at the dinner table, followed by a brief lesson on probability for the wide-eyed kids, who’ve convinced themselves that a Lamborghini Diablo is in their near future.

Like everyone else, when the jackpot is big enough to be news, I buy a ticket.  Because I’m scared I’ll win without one.

I have an irrational fear that my numbers will come up, but I won’t have a ticket.

Years ago, as I was falling asleep with the TV on, the lottery drawing came on.  It was just a standard jackpot, but it initiated a panic attack.  The first number caught my attention — 8, the day of my birth, our first child’s birth, and the digit I’ve adopted as my “lucky number.”  Then came the second number — 31, my wife’s birthday.  Then the third — 11, the month of my birth and the birth of our second child.  Was I really lying in bed watching all of my lottery numbers get drawn, without a ticket in my hand?  The fourth ping pong ball exited the chute — 9, the month of our anniversary and third child’s birth.  I started to sweat, and felt a tightening in my chest.  I reached for the Xanax.  Then came the fifth number — 44.  Whew.  No significance there.  Well, other than 44 being the number of my favorite baseball player as I was growing up — young and naive enough to believe that athletes were heroes — Cincinnati Reds center fielder Eric Davis.  But that was quite a stretch.  There are a dozen more meaningful numbers I’d pick before ever getting around to 44.

I hadn’t won the lottery.

Thank goodness, because I didn’t have a ticket.

Ever since, I’ve managed to ignore the lottery, not giving it much of a second thought.  But occasionally, that’s impossible.  There was a recent jackpot that exceeded, or came darn close to exceeding, $1 billion.  Largest jackpot ever, impossible to ignore.

The day of the drawing, I bought my ticket.  With my numbers.

Birthdays and anniversaries — my numbers.

At the dinner table, we talked about what we would do with all of that money.  11-year old son decided we’d buy an English Premier League football team — preferably Sunderland or Everton (who just so happened to be looking for a primary investor).  Middle child — always the pleaser — 8-year old son decided to give it to our church.  6-year old son decided to use it to buy Snoopy.  Whatever that meant, I was pretty sure we’d be able to afford it.  My wife and I even got caught up in the daydreaming — it’s near impossible not to.  We joked, and laughed.  And our oldest said, “You know, I read that that kind of money corrupts people, so maybe we shouldn’t have even bought a ticket.”

I don’t know where he read that, but he’s probably right.

Happiness is a popular topic among social scientists.  Studies are done.  Books are written.  More studies are done.  Who’s happier — left- or right-sided brain people?  Which make you happier — cats or dogs?  What ice cream flavor makes you the happiest?

Some of these studies are reputable.  A couple of them caught my attention recently.  In one of them, Princeton researchers determined that beyond an annual income of $75,000 for a family of four, money doesn’t add to our level of happiness.  This $75,000/year seems to be the magic number — certainly not enough to fund every fantasy or satisfy every earthly desire, but enough to pay the mortgage, feed and clothe everyone, and maybe take a yearly vacation to the beach or the mountains.  Below this income level, money apparently can buy some amount of happiness.  Above it, not so much.

In another study that’s almost 40 years old, researchers found evidence for a “happiness baseline.”  Studying long-term happiness, they found negligible statistical difference in the happiness levels of lottery winners and amputees.  While winning the lottery typically resulted in a short-term “happiness boost,” happiness dropped in the following years to pre-lottery levels.  Similarly, while losing a limb to an illness or accident led to a short-term drop in overall happiness levels, victims returned to their original levels of happiness over time.

This is fascinating.  Over time, someone with 5% of the wealth and 75% of the limbs of someone else can be just as happy.  Maybe even more so.

Back at the dinner table, things had taken a turn for the worse.  Oldest son was angry — he’d just been told that despite our imagined billionaire status, he would still need to finish fifth grade (and probably even more schooling than that).  Middle son was crying — he’d realized that all this talk of a new mansion on the beach meant we’d sell the house we lived in currently, apparently the only house he ever wanted to live in.  Youngest son was even upset — worried that Snoopy would die because we had no idea how to feed a cartoon dog.

Everyone eventually calmed down.  Our oldest realized he’d actually miss school, especially seeing all of his friends every day.  We convinced the middle one that we weren’t going to move, and if we ever did we’d look for a house with a swimming pool.  We assured the youngest that someday we’d get another dog — a real one that we know how to feed.  Our oldest reminded us that that kind of money corrupts people.

I’m terrified of winning the lottery.  But maybe it isn’t because I’m afraid my numbers will come up and I don’t have a ticket.  Maybe it’s really because in lots of ways, especially the important ones, I’ve already won.


Engineering the Kids

Eleven years and four months into being a dad, I think I’ve learned the hardest part about it all — doing nothing.  Doing something is easy.  The baby’s crying?  Change his diaper.  Baby still crying?  Warm up a bottle.  Still crying?  Rock him to sleep.

Still?  Whiskey.  For me.

I also think I’ve learned that the older they get, the more you have to do nothing.  As much as you want to get on that bus with them on the very first day of school just so you can make sure they get there and find their classroom, and then heck you’re already there so you might as well stay for lunch, you have to stand in the driveway and watch that big yellow deathtrap kidnap your offspring.  You have to stand there and watch it drive off into the distance, until in a panic you run to the garage, jump in the car and chase it down, all the way to school, parking across the street and watching to make sure he gets in ok.  Because how do you really know otherwise?

As much as you’d like to pull the referee aside and explain away that traveling call because he really is such a good kid and would never do anything against the rules like that on purpose, you have to do nothing.  Except use it as a teaching moment during the ride home on the occasional unfairness of an otherwise relatively charmed life.

As much as you want to do something, anything for crying out loud don’t just stand there and watch them suffer, you stand there.  And do nothing.

And you learn later, sometimes much later, that they weren’t suffering after all.  They were doing something else entirely — they were learning.

When my wife and I tell people that we’re both employed as engineers, one of three things happens:

  1. They insist that we must have the most efficient, well-run, process-driven household of anyone on the face of the planet, ever.  “I’ll bet you’re never late to anything,” they say.  Or, “Is anything in your house ever out of place?”
  2. They suddenly remember a prior engagement, dinner reservations that they must rush off to, or Fluffy’s appointment with the groomer.
  3. They look at us with pity and mutter, sometimes in a barely audible whisper, “Oh your poor children.”

While 1 and 2 are more frequent, #3 is definitely the most accurate.

Oh our poor children.

Human beings, all of us, are naturally hardwired to see cause and effect relationships, even when none exist.  I had a piece of German chocolate cake at one in the morning, and look at that, I weigh a half pound less today than I did yesterday.  I think I’ve discovered the next diet fad.  We’re easily fooled by coincidence and correlation, looking for singular cause and effect relationships wherever we can and completely missing the larger system hard at work behind the curtain.

When future engineers are learning to be future engineers, this becomes ingrained even further.  Mostly because the seemingly best way to learn to solve engineering problems is to turn them into singular cause and effect incidents.  Make a design change to the widget and run the analysis to see how the stress changes under load.  Tweak the gains in the controller and watch what happens to the response in the signal.  Change a valve position and examine the effects on the laminar and turbulent flow.

So already hardwired to see cause and effect relationships, and trained to look for them even harder and exploit them in the world of levers and pulleys, electrons, and chemical reactions, society somehow allows us to procreate and wreak all kinds of havoc on our next generation.

Oh our poor children.

Surely this happens with other occupations.  Surely accountants help their kids set up spreadsheets to track allowance and expenditures.  Firefighters always on the lookout for safety violations that could burn the house down.  Government officials must spend even more of their time than the rest of us convincing their children that yes, indeed, they really do know what’s best for them.

For engineers, it’s looking for cause and effect.  One evening, I actually heard these words tumble from my own mouth:  “We’ve just got to find the root cause for why he won’t settle down in his crib until he’s been in there for an hour and a half.”

Then we discovered magic — the magic of do nothing.  Quit trying to fix whatever might be wrong.  Restrain the urge to take action, with handcuffs and rope if necessary.

I’d like to say this was brilliance on our part — that we analyzed the system, conducted a thorough fault tree analysis and determined that nothing was the right course of action.  I’d like to say that.  Truth is, we’d investigated everything on that stupid fault tree and were completely out of ideas.  Not to mention exhausted and irritated with each other.  Totally defeated by a 6-month old who just happens to be absolutely reliant on us for his survival, we sat.  And we did nothing.

And the little &*%^ was asleep in 45 minutes.

Then I turned back into an engineer, “You know what this means?  At this rate, tomorrow night he’ll fall asleep in 22 1/2 minutes!”  And we were right back where we started.

We’re still afflicted by this need to fix things, by the urge to intervene and figure out the problem, by the compulsion to do something.  But we’re getting better.  And it’s a good thing we’re getting better, because from what I understand there’s a whole lot of letting go in our future.  Driving lessons.  First dates.  College.  A friend with adult children told me, “Your worries don’t go away as they get older, they get more expensive.”

We go to work and try to make things as perfect as they can be.  To find the problems, analyze the root causes, and fix them.  To make efficient processes more efficient, productive systems more productive.  And then we come home to a happy mess, and try to do nothing.  Nothing, except listen to how they navigated their days, in all their complicated elementary school glory.  Trying not to fix, trying not to suggest alternative courses of action that might’ve worked out better, trying to just listen.  Because we’re learning that they aren’t machines that need maintenance to function at peak efficiency, that they don’t need to produce at 100% accuracy, and that usually they’ve got to figure this out for themselves.

They’ll settle down in their cribs in half the time all on their own, if we just get out of the way and let them.




The Worst Kind of Connected

I’m the worst kind of connected.  So connected I don’t even realize how connected I am.  I’ve got devices connected to other devices connected to vehicles connected to email accounts connected to thermostats connected to appliances.  The engineer in me thinks this is cool.  Maybe someday, as I’m pulling out of my driveway, my connected oven will tell my connected vehicle that I forgot to turn it off.  My connected vehicle will apply the brakes, shift into reverse, and take me back to the garage.  Or better yet, remotely shut off the connected oven for me.  And since everything is logged into Facebook, my connected vehicle will post a selfie and automatically tell all of my connected friends about its accomplishment.  I won’t even have to lift a connected finger.

The CIA doesn’t need to implant a chip behind my ear to know where I’m at, who I’m with, and whether or not I remembered to floss this morning.  I’ve done it to myself with all of this connecting.

My dentist assures me that floss isn’t connected.  Yet.

I work in Columbus, Indiana, a cute little town with architecture that rivals that of Chicago and San Francisco (I’m not kidding).  Columbus, Indiana is located about 35 miles south of where I live on the south side of Indianapolis, a not-so-cute big city with architecture that rivals Toledo.

I got into my car on a recent weekday morning to drive to work, and noticed a message flash onto my iPhone screen.  It was Google maps, politely informing me that the route to Columbus was clear and it should take me 43 minutes to get there.

Wait, what?

Even with no more than two or three sips of coffee in my system, this struck me.  I caught my breath, dropped the phone on the passenger seat, and looked over my shoulder to see who was there.  Was there a Googler living in my backseat sending me these messages?

I spent most of the drive trying to figure out how my phone knew where I was going.  I have toast for breakfast on weekdays, but not on weekends.  Did the connected toaster alert Google?  I get up earlier on weekdays.  Was the connected low-flow shower head the culprit?  What about the connected alarm clock?

Then it occurred to me.

I’m not too connected.  I’m too predictable.

The Google algorithms had figured out the pattern, that’s all.  When I plug my phone into the USB port in my car at 6:15am on Wednesdays, I’m headed to Columbus, Indiana.  The algorithm wouldn’t need to be terribly complicated to figure that out — even with just a semester of C-plus programming, I could probably code it myself.

This didn’t make me feel much better.

My phone knew where I was going without me telling it or asking it how to get there.  My phone knew I wasn’t getting an early start on a west coast hiking trip via Boulder, Colorado, where I’d stop for a 2-day layover to sample street music and local IPAs.  My phone knew I wasn’t headed to the airport to board a private jet to Madrid to close the big deal and then hit the town with our new business partners for tapas and martinis.  My phone knew I wasn’t rushing to the ER, where I’d gown up for immediate surgery because there was a horrifying waffle iron incident at the local Bob Evans and I was the only surgeon in town skilled enough to perform such a delicate, life-saving operation.

No.  My phone knew I was driving to Columbus, Indiana, to spend a good portion of the day sitting behind a desk typing characters into a screen, and the rest of the day sitting at a conference table with 4-10 other unfortunate souls typing characters into screens while pretending to listen to whoever happened to be talking at the moment.

My phone knew all of this, and more.  Powerless to stop it, my phone did what any well-meaning travel companion would do.  It told me the route was clear.

The reality of my existence hit me like a ton of bricks.  Or a ton of feathers.  A ton of something.  I’m that guy.  The guy 19-year old me swore I’d never be.  Aren’t I supposed to be feeding tens of thousands of malnourished children?  Playing to sold out shows at Red Rocks?  Curing cancer?

This bothered me.  I thought about it most of the day, wondering how this had all come to pass.  I drove home in silence.  No music.  Not even a Freakonomics podcast.  Thinking about it all.  Could I still do all of those things I told myself I would do?  Was it too late?  Was I destined to live a life accurately predicted by 20-somethings with bad facial hair and closets full of hoodies?

I parked in the connected garage and walked into the connected house, all of this weighing on my mind.

And then I smelled dinner on the stove.  And I saw a bottle of wine on the counter.  And there were two boys sitting at the kitchen island doing their homework with the help of a beautiful woman who looked a lot like the girl 19-year old me fell in love with a couple of decades ago.  And there was a third boy running to me with his arms extended, yelling “Daddy’s home!”

And everything fell right back into place.

And suddenly, the algorithms didn’t bother me so much.

Google might’ve known I’d be in that exact spot at that exact moment, but it had no idea that I was right where I needed to be.