November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Casual Observer




by Mark Levy

It may have been Albert Einstein and his amusing friends, hammering out the details of quantum mechanics at the beginning of the last century, who started us on a path of uncertainty. Werner Heisenberg developed the famous Uncertainty Principle to explain how the smallest elements in the universe are individually unpredictable, but if you analyze enough of them, you find that they — like a school of fish — follow statistical rules. You may not know exactly where one sub-atomic particle is located, but you can figure out the probability of its being at a definite location. Basically, those physicists changed the way things are now perceived. Instead of determining exact properties, they relied on probabilities. It still doesn’t make sense for objects we deal with. I mean, most of us who see a baseball heading for our head will duck, because we know exactly where that ball is heading. But that’s not the case with atomic particles.

Nevertheless, quantum mechanics changed our outlook, even if we’re not smashing atoms into each other.

Let me show you how different things are now, for you and me, compared to a hundred years ago.

I know myself pretty well (finally)! For example, I know I have an addictive personality. I’m the guy for whom Lay’s potato chips came up with the slogan, “Bet you can’t eat just one.” And I don’t stop at potato chips. Peanuts, cookies, and M&Ms all entice me like Sirens singing to Odysseus. My middle name is Binge.

With an addictive personality, I dare not engage in drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. The same goes for gambling — especially gambling. If I were to approach a roulette wheel, my night wouldn’t end until I lost my house.

Of course, I am not alone. Sometimes even the most disciplined among us cannot resist the urge to bet. In our society, opportunities to gamble are thrust at us from every direction, like General Custer in Las Vegas — not to mix a metaphor — surrounded by casinos owned by tribes of Native Americans.

An entire lucrative and reputable industry has developed based on our temperaments. It’s called the insurance industry. What is insurance, if not a gamble? You bet that you will get sick or die before your insurance policy expires so that you or your next of kin can benefit from the policy. The higher the premiums, the more the potential payout or reward.

And have you rented a car lately? You are asked to bet on whether you will return to the car rental with an empty tank of gas. The gas is prepaid, so if you don’t use it all, down to the last expensive drop, you pay for it anyway. Last year I was sure I could beat the odds by planning to use up a tank. But I soon discovered my hotel was too close to the airport. It was also downtown within walking distance of every place I wanted to visit. So I paid an exorbitant fee for parking at the hotel for five days, never moving my rented car, and returned it with a full, paid up tank. The experience cost me $250 more than if I had merely taken a taxi — even a private limousine — to and from the airport. Speaking of cars, why do we plunk our change into parking meters? It’s because we’re betting that we’ll receive a more expensive parking ticket if we don’t. In other words, parking meters are merely stationary slot machines with no opportunity for a payout –- unless you pack a baseball bat in your trunk.

Let’s talk about something fundamental: heating my house. My oil fuel delivery company is playing a game similar to the rental car companies. I can pay for a year’s worth of oil at the present price — lock it in, regardless of how the price of oil will change this year. The company is willing to gamble that oil prices will drop, so it will win at my expense.

Of course, I’m a sucker for that kind of bet — they call it option contracts on Wall Street — believing that the price of oil will never decrease. Just the sort of famous last words that General Custer might have uttered on his way to the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Here’s another example of gambling that corporations can get away with: air flights. If I book early, the airplane ticket is usually less than if I wait till the last minute. So I’m forced to gamble that nothing will happen to change my plans. It’s cheaper to buy non-refundable tickets, too, but I can buy flight insurance — there’s that insurance again — in case I can’t make the flight. They sell that sort of insurance for ocean cruises, too. Basically, for every trip, I’m one medium-sized kidney stone away from regretting that I didn’t buy travel insurance.

Telephone plans can be as bad. You can prepay for a certain number of minutes every month and bet you won’t go over. The only way to win that bet is to keep your phone n your file cabinet.

Major appliances all have optional extended warranties. When you purchase one of them, you’re betting that your dishwasher, say, will break down and flood the kitchen before you say good-bye to your obnoxious relatives at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend.

Even our federal government has gotten into the act. The feds want me to bet that I will live only a short time longer, now that I reached the age of 62, in which case it would be best to claim social security benefits now, rather than at age 65. But if I live much beyond 65 — and I’m betting that I will — it’s better to defer collecting payments until I reach my 65th birthday, so I will receive larger monthly checks. Once again, I’m forced to bet against my life expectancy.

Einstein and his buddies probably weren’t thinking that the laws of chance were going to affect the average person’s life like they do; but chances are, things will get even less certain for us in the future.

In fact, I would bet on it.


About the author:

Mark Levy, Ragazine.CC’s “Casual Observer,”  also occasionally contributes “Feeding the Starving Artist,” pro bono legal advice for working artists. You can read more about him in “About Us.”