The Safety of Numbers
Written by Joe Longo
Monday, 12 March 2007 10:15
With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, many New Orleanians look forward to yet another rationale for excessive liquor consumption in broad daylight. In celebration, many of us will patronize our favorite local Irish-themed pub. Some of us may even drink to our recently departed, taken before their time: 37 as I write these words, though by the time you read this the number is likely to be higher.
For me, St. Patrick’s Day will always have special associations, for it is on that day in 2006 that my wife and I made an offer on what is now our Bywater home. It is embarrassing to admit this now, with a year of vivid hindsight, but we made this decision during a surge of genuine optimism, and to celebrate we joined friends at Molly’s on the Market on Decatur Street and tipped several celebratory beers.
Late the next evening, on the same day we handed our realtor a $5000 deposit, Michael Frey was shot and killed during a botched robbery just off Frenchmen Street in the Marigny neighborhood, which lies between Molly’s and the neighborhood to which we had just committed our lives. For us and for many others, Michael Frey’s murder officially ended the era of good feeling in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Since the Michael Frey killing, nearly 200 additional citizens have been murdered, which in a city whose population hovers in the range of 200,000-250,000 makes for compelling odds that you may be next. Since I am a gambler, I like to put the numbers in perspective, so for the purpose of comparison, and in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I will use a dice game that is a staple of Irish bars citywide, the Roll-a-Day.
On the surface, the Roll-a-Day is an irresistible proposition, particularly after your third pint of Guinness. For one dollar, you get to shake five dice in a cup and roll them out, and if all the dice come up with the same number (1-1-1-1-1, 2-2-2-2-2, etc.), you win the pot, which increases by $1 with every failed attempt. To keep the process democratic, you are allowed only one roll each day, hence the name.
The odds of hitting the Roll-a-Day are 1,295-to-1. Wise bettor that I am (with the exception of horses and pro football and Jai-Alai), I like to wait until the pot goes beyond $1,295 before taking my chance, because once it does, the payout will exceed my chances of winning, which gives my $1 investment what gamblers call a positive expected value (+EV).
Let’s compare these odds to New Orleans’ current rate of homicide. Let’s say that today is St. Patrick’s Day, and for simplicity of math (and the likelihood that we will get there) let’s say exactly 200 people have been murdered since last St. Patrick’s Day. Let’s also adjust the current population estimate to 240,000, an average that falls somewhere between the most pessimistic numbers and Mayor Nagin’s delusional figures.
With these numbers, we conclude that in the Irish calendar year (3/17/06-3/17/07), there was one murder for every 1,200 citizens, or 1,199-to-1. (A more scholarly report actually adjusts the average slightly lower.)
With this rough estimate, you might conclude that your chances of hitting the Roll-a-Day are actually worse than your chances of being killed in transit to and from the bar. But this only assumes that you only roll the dice one time a year, say on St. Patrick’s Day. But actually, every day you venture out to your favorite Irish pub to plunk down your $1, your chances of hitting the Roll-a-Day increase, while your chances of being killed only fluctuate according to the ebbs and flows of the murder wave.
Yet in another sense, every day that we step outside our doors (even into our backyards, as it turns out), we are playing Roll-a-Day. For some of us, due to privileged circumstance, the pot always lays us favorable odds, but for others, it never does. As certain as you may feel that the way you conduct your life brings your murder odds well above the 1,199-to-1 average, imagine those on the other side of the equation. Someone, after all, has to take the initial hit on those negative expectation days (-EV) when the Roll-a-Day pot has only $300. These folks are, in gambling parlance, taking much the worst of it.
But even if you feel the odds are well in your favor, let me remind you that when it comes to probability, anything is possible in the short term. On the same day as the record-setting Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds out in Gentilly, there was assault rifle warfare taking place blocks away at the well-trafficked intersection of Broad and Esplanade Avenue. And before you take solace in the news that only the “intended victim” was hit, how confident are you in the surgical strike capabilities of an AK-47 fired out of the window of a moving Dodge Magnum by someone not employed by the United States military? Would you have been willing to pass that intersection on your way to the Fair Grounds at the moment of engagement? What odds would I have to lay you to take that ride?
I could delve deeper into individual situations (proposition bets, they’re called), perhaps analyze different probabilities for each class of citizen, but to do so would bring me beyond the limitations of my mathematical abilities. Besides, the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, if it is about anything, is about irrational bluster and drunken certainty.
The main point you should take from this lesson in probability is this: like the Roll-a-Day, there are expected value considerations when deciding whether to risk death and venture outside, so be alert for fluctuations in the odds. For instance, the Mardi Gras holiday brought in additional hundreds of thousands of tourists, and even though people were killed, any individual’s chances of being one of those killed diminished dramatically. It is for this reason that Mayor Nagin and Chief Riley were able to declare Mardi Gras an unqualified success.
By this logic, it’s clear that what New Orleans needs is more excuses for excessive liquor consumption in broad daylight. Such events bring the crowds, and hopefully on St. Patrick's Day, as you order your next pint of Guinness and shake the cup, you can feel, for the brief instant that the dice dance on the bar, the safety in numbers.
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