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Maryland Lottery a case study in the science of random numbers

Maryland LotteryMaryland Lottery: Maryland Lottery a case study in the science of random numbers

The Maryland Lottery provides a good example of why true lottery ball machines are much better than a computerized drawing for choosing lottery numbers.

"This is the super-secret lottery vault."

It's 90 minutes before Tuesday's lunchtime picks, and Patrick Morton, the 35-year-old drawing manager for the Maryland State Lottery Agency, is only half joking as he hovers over a small keypad deep inside the studios of WJZ-TV.

Beside the keypad is a large metal door - locked, alarmed, monitored by camera. With a quick peek over his shoulder, he briskly taps in a code known only to four others at the agency. Then he slides a key into the door and swings it open. Inside the shed-sized room are four draped lottery machines, a Compaq computer and a small safe.

The safe protects eight custom-made sets of numbered pingpong balls.

The elaborate security may seem extreme, but not to Morton. After all, he says, these tools create a commodity so precious that it earned the lottery agency nearly $1.4 billion last year: random numbers.

Valuable, elusive and often misunderstood, randomness has never been hotter. "There's definitely an increasing demand for random numbers," says Mads Haahr, a Danish computer scientist who operates a busy online service that creates and delivers them.

And it's not just lotteries and casinos. Much of the demand for randomness is driven by the Internet and the need to encrypt sensitive data.

Every time you buy a book on Amazon or bid on an eBay auction, the store's computers must generate hundreds of random numbers. These numbers, in turn, serve as mathematical code keys for scrambling credit cards and other important information.

"Randomness is really the key to all online security," says Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Scientists are also increasingly turning to random numbers to solve tough problems. Biologists, for example, tap randomness to help them predict the location and function of genes within DNA. Astrophysicists use it to gain insights into the birth and death of stars.

And without randomized clinical trials, in which some patients get experimental drugs and some get placebos, cancer researchers couldn't be sure whether a new treatment really shrinks tumors.

As the demand for randomness grows, some researchers are even dreaming up new ways to create it, experimenting with exotic sources ranging from lava lamps to radio static.

It's just the latest in a centuries-long quest for new ways to generate sequences free from predictability or pattern.

Gamblers in ancient Sumer and Egypt were the first to seek sources of randomness. Their solution: dice.

Coins, cards and numbered balls weren't far behind. But when scientists and statisticians first became interested in random numbers, they found traditional tools too limiting.

The famed Scottish physicist Lord Kelvin grumbled in a footnote to a 1901 paper that his attempts to generate random numbers by tossing chits of paper in a bowl were "quite insufficient." Some chits, he found, were always less likely to be picked than others.

After a similarly unsuccessfully attempt to draw cards from a bag, British statistician L.H.C. Tippett hit on a more creative method in 1927: He dug up church records and recorded the middle digits from the measurements of the area of each parish. Tippett ultimately published a table of 41,600 random numbers generated this way - the first example of an increasingly popular scientific genre.

That genre peaked in 1955, when the RAND Corp. unveiled what is still considered the magnum opus of randomness reference books: A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates.

The 600-page tome sold 500 copies in its first four months and quickly became a favorite of scientists, pollsters, lottery officials and others who required randomness in their work. RAND even received a fan letter from a Navy submarine captain who reported that he consulted the tables to avoid predictability every time he needed to take evasive action.

RAND researchers, who required nearly a decade to ensure the numbers in the book passed statistical randomness tests, did confess to cutting one corner.

"Because of the very nature of the tables, it did not seem necessary to proofread every page of the final manuscript in order to catch random errors," they wrote.

Four decades later, statistician George Marsaglia at Florida State University packed a CD-ROM with 4.8 billion randomly produced 0's and 1's. Marsaglia's recipe for randomness?

"Rap music," he explains.

After generating random digits using traditional methods, the statistician digitized several rap recordings - turning the sounds the artists produced into more digital ones and zeros - and then mixed the result with his previously created sequences.

The CD-ROM, he says, has been a big hit among scientists ever since.

Today most people turn to computers when they need a string of random numbers. There's just one problem: Logic circuits are not good sources of spontaneity. "If a math chip inside a computer does something unpredictable, we call it broken," notes Landon Noll, a mathematician and cryptographer.

That's because computers are what mathematicians call "deterministic." In other words, they do only what they're told to do. To overcome this handicap, researchers are pairing computers with more reliable sources of disorder.

Noll and former colleagues at Silicon Graphics invented one of the hippest of these hybrid random number generators in 1996 by training a digital camera on six oozing lava lamps. The camera captured the movement of the heated oil blobs and converted it into digital sequences that served as seeds for a list of random numbers.

Noll, who now works for the computer security firm System Experts, recently collaborated on a new version of the system called LavaRnd (www.lavarnd.org) that does away with the lamps. It turns out that the chips inside a cheap digital camera with its lens cap generate random electronic "noise" that can do the job, says Noll.

Others are turning to quantum mechanics in the quest for genuine randomness. Their logic: quantum events such as radioactive decay are by definition unpredictable.

So John Walker of Fourmilab in Switzerland has rigged a Geiger counter to his computer and launched a free service called HotBits (www.fourmilab.ch/hotbits). The instrument is trained on a decaying capsule of Krypton-85.

Haahr of Trinity College, meanwhile, is relying on chaos derived from a different source: the atmosphere. Or more precisely, the static it produces on the radio dial.

Haahr hit on the idea while briefly working on an effort to launch an online casino. But he quickly hit a snag: Better portable radios electronically smother between-station static. So Haahr and his team dropped by a Radio Shack and ordered the salesman to tune the cheapest radio in the store between stations. When they heard hiss, "we were jumping up and down," says Haahr. "The guy thought we were pretty crazy."

Since it launched in 1998, Haahr's online service, Random.org, has distributed nearly 68 billion random numbers. Recipients include an Environmental Protection Agency inspector who uses them to pick which companies to audit, a locksmith who uses the digits to decide where to notch keys, and a music composer who channels randomness into his scores.

Despite these innovations, retro sources of randomness - coins, cards and the dancing pingpong balls of a lottery machine - aren't likely to disappear anytime soon. Which is why Patrick Morton flicks on the Compaq computer in WJZ's lottery vault and punches a few keys.

A window pops up. It reads: "Pick 3: 2-8-3"

It looks like the lottery numbers, but the computer is actually randomly selecting which of the eight identical ball sets to pull from the vault for the midday Pick 3 drawing. The computer also tells him which sets to use for Pick 4 and even which lottery machines to wheel into the TV studio.

An hour before the drawing, Morton and a colleague will place the balls in the machines and conduct several test runs to ensure they spot no biases. Finally Morton calls out, "Game ready!"

At 12:28 p.m., as the lottery's rock-tinged theme music echoes through the cavernous studio, Morton smiles under the hot lights and coaxes seven balls to emerge from the Pick 3 and Pick 4 tumblers as announcer Marty Bass calls out the numbers.

Later, Morton estimates that each 60-second televised drawing requires three hours of preparation. "It can be nerve-racking," he confesses.

Jimmy White, another lottery official standing nearby, adds, "People don't realize the lengths we go to introduce and maintain randomness in the process."

Baltimore Sun

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37 comments. Last comment 11 years ago by Rip Snorter.
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four4me's avatar - gate1
MD
United States
Member #1701
June 18, 2003
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Posted: June 11, 2005, 2:45 am - IP Logged

Today when i read this article i learned something new about Maryland's lottery. They way they select the balls and machines for the games is different than i was told by and employee whom worked there years ago. So they must have changed things since then. Buddy Roogow meets with lots of other lottery directors so maybe this technic to pick machines and balls will filter down to other states if they aren't already using this idea.

Hopefully states that use computers to pick lottery numbers will read this and see that ball drawings are the only way to go.

    ayenowitall's avatar - rod serling4.jpg

    United States
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    April 22, 2004
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    Posted: June 11, 2005, 8:28 am - IP Logged

    If randomness equates to unpredictability by definition, is any type of RNG used for lottery drawings proven defective if someone manages to predict draw numbers? The notion of randomness seems rather subjective. Do we want randomness, or do we even know what it is?

    aye'

      atlasshrugged's avatar - candle
      Alaska
      United States
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      May 27, 2005
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      Posted: June 11, 2005, 8:58 am - IP Logged

      four4me, if I am not mistaken the Georgia lottery uses a system very similar to this with their balls. They have 4 sets of balls for each game and these sets are rotated in some manner for each draw. Periodically the sets are replaced. This is why I have to roll my eyes a bit when I hear folks say that it is "fixed."

      aye, I read a story recently about a mathmetician who had figured out the algorithm used for a particular computerized lottery in Canada. He used the algorithm to win two jackpots in a row for that lottery. Had to go to court and everything because the lottery commision there said that he had cheated. The judge said that even though he was really smart to figure this out, he had not cheated. They changed the algorithm after that to something more complicated. Seems they would have learned their lesson and scrapped the computers altogether.

      When I told my husband that the missouri lottery was all computerized he said that we should try and figure out the algorithm they use to generate their random numbers and we could make a killing. As if either of us has the know how to come up with something as complicated as that. Green laugh  -Bonnie

        LOTTOMIKE's avatar - cash money.jpg
        Tennessee
        United States
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        October 15, 2004
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        Posted: June 11, 2005, 9:49 am - IP Logged

        Green laugh

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          balto md
          United States
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          April 12, 2004
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          Posted: June 11, 2005, 10:08 am - IP Logged

          I have been playing maryland lotters , from the time it started, and i have always, throught it was fair a the right way to draw numbers . I also have been a wittness, at WJZ DRAWING they do as the say. i havwe been there to watch the drawing                                                                                                                                           

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            Amarillo/Austin
            United States
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            April 25, 2003
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            Posted: June 11, 2005, 10:44 am - IP Logged

            Thanks!!

            This is a useful article that I will save for my Pick 3 resource files.

            Orangeman            Dance

             

             

              four4me's avatar - gate1
              MD
              United States
              Member #1701
              June 18, 2003
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              Posted: June 11, 2005, 11:00 am - IP Logged

              If randomness equates to unpredictability by definition, is any type of RNG used for lottery drawings proven defective if someone manages to predict draw numbers? The notion of randomness seems rather subjective. Do we want randomness, or do we even know what it is?

              aye'

              Randomness and predictibility. it would seem that the two words fit the sentence very well but not really. If one could predict a random event every time it wouldn't be random. because the logic would come into play.

              I'd say that it one was to somehow be able to place a camera and link it to a pc for a keno game that uses a computer chip. That the numbers being drawn run in cycles if you had a program that could decipher the numbers and keep track, at some point it would find the numbers that are hitting the most. possibly even 10 numbers that hit more times than others. Now a person trying this would have to start running a tracking program the day they installed the chip and loged it to the keno game and continue running the program until they pulled the chip. But you would have to know the start and stop date. I have been told that when they change the chip for keno draws that they send a message to the terminals letting them know they will be servicing their pc. This usually means they are changing the chip.

              On another note i was told that keno is based on a take in pay out percentage. During the machine cycle time it notes all the numbers being played. And pays a percentage of the take. this is one reason i don't like the game because no matter how many times you play the same numbers if other people aren't putting numbers down your chance of winning a ten spot are greatly diminished. So if any computerized drawings are structured like this people are getting robbed.

                MADDOG10's avatar - smoke
                Beautiful Florida
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                July 18, 2004
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                Posted: June 11, 2005, 4:55 pm - IP Logged

                If randomness equates to unpredictability by definition, is any type of RNG used for lottery drawings proven defective if someone manages to predict draw numbers? The notion of randomness seems rather subjective. Do we want randomness, or do we even know what it is?

                aye'

                  And here I thought everyone lived in the state of "unpredictability"..~  Hmmmmm

                    i'm waiting for someone to push the right button...!

                                                             

                                                               "  When Injustice Becomes Law, Resistance Becomes Duty "

                  RJOh's avatar - chipmunk
                  mid-Ohio
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                  Posted: June 11, 2005, 5:27 pm - IP Logged

                  What is that saying? "I may no be able to define it, but I know it when I see it."

                  Maybe that's how randomness works and if you know it when you see it then you can pick a good spot to be in when it happens again.

                  RJOh 

                   * you don't need to buy more tickets, just buy a winning ticket * 
                     
                               Evil Looking       

                    Maverick's avatar - yinyang
                    USA
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                    October 29, 2004
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                    Posted: June 11, 2005, 5:49 pm - IP Logged

                    COMPAQ? Right there is a reason to go with balls.

                    Hehe, just kidding Compaq usersWink

                      Badger's avatar - adu50016 NorthAmericanBadger.jpg
                      Wisconsin
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                      Posted: June 11, 2005, 10:37 pm - IP Logged

                      WHat did I miss? If MD is using ball machines to draw their numbers, then why the computer all set up to spit out RNDs??

                      ============

                      How can you tell if a politician is lying?

                      Answer: His lips are moving.

                        time*treat's avatar - radar

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                        March 30, 2005
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                        Posted: June 11, 2005, 11:50 pm - IP Logged

                        "Logic circuits are not good sources of spontaneity. "If a math chip inside a computer does something unpredictable, we call it broken,"

                        -- I thought we had called it the Pentium I.

                         

                        In neo-conned Amerika, bank robs you.
                        Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms should be the name of a convenience store, not a govnoment agency.

                          four4me's avatar - gate1
                          MD
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                          June 18, 2003
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                          Posted: June 12, 2005, 12:32 am - IP Logged

                          WHat did I miss? If MD is using ball machines to draw their numbers, then why the computer all set up to spit out RNDs??

                          Maryland uses a computer to pick the cabnet the balls are locked up in and the machines that will be used to run the ball drawings.

                           

                          Other than that the only time computer is used is for keno. I was trying to explain in my post the problem with computers use in drawing numbers.

                          Maryland has all ball drawings except KENO

                            visiondude's avatar - eye3logo
                            light on my feet
                            United States
                            Member #356
                            May 20, 2002
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                            Posted: June 12, 2005, 2:29 am - IP Logged

                             as i am making my way thru the article with all the dna, physicists, random this and random that, the worlds most brilliant "minds" blah blah blah (lol), ........i just know that they are going to say it  ......("but visiondude has the best explanation thus far;  a $1 quick pick + you were meant to") ...but they never say it.

                            i was a bit let down after that one.  i so crave the adulation of the scientific community by nailing this one so my name will be immortalized in one of these tomes about the lottery.  ok so i don't crave adulation.  but i do press on about proving my three year long "point" here at LP (that the lottery is unpredictable because it is random).

                            when someone can convince me that those little untainted  ...(as long as they are)...   ping pong balls have memory, and that they can talk to each other to let the ones know that are "due" that it is their turn at picking stardom, then i will concede.  until then the only effort worth it,  is the effort it takes me to hand the clerk a $1 bill.

                            until then #2; i will watch you guys wrestle over this issue,  and i will be man enough to admit i was wrong should someone in here (hopefully) shows those guys at MIT (or wherever they etcha-sketch this stuff) a thing or three.

                            i do believe though that the computer draws can be cracked and/or fixed...

                              20/20

                                        "i am .........."meant to"       

                            P.S.,  that RJoH  is a stand up guy.  thanks,  vision

                                     until further notice,  it's  france everyday