“Yes. That. Well, that one, ladies and gentlemen, is a most curious little potion called Felix Felicis.”
— Professor Horace Slughorn, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
My most recent Labyrinthians have been about traveling to Israel and talking like a Brit (and daily fantasy sports). Based on their topics, these pieces might sound like bullsh*t — and they are — but really they’re about more than traveling and talking. They’re about risk and luck.
In this piece I want to think about the intersection of risk (and/or uncertainty) and luck (and/or randomness).
Also, as you read this, imagine I’m speaking these very words directly to you in a bad British accent over a nice cup of afternoon tea. That enhances the experience.
“You Dare Use My Own Spells Against Me, Potter?”
Let me start by saying you’re lucky I didn’t open the piece with a long passage like this one:
“It’s liquid luck,” said Hermione excitedly. “It makes you lucky!”
“Quite right, take another ten points for Gryffindor. Yes, it’s a funny little potion, Felix Felicis,” said Slughorn. “Desperately tricky to make, and disastrous to get wrong. However, if brewed correctly, as this has been, you will find that all your endeavors tend to succeed . . . at least until the effects wear off.”
“Why don’t people drink it all the time, sir?” aid Terry Book eagerly.
“Because if taken in excess, it causes giddiness, recklessness, and dangerous overconfidence,” said Slughorn. “Too much of a good thing, you know . . . highly toxic in large quantities. But taken sparingly, and very occasionally . . .”
“Have you ever taken it, sir?” asked Michael Corner with great interest.
“Twice in my life,” said Slughorn. “Once when I was twenty-four, once when I was fifty-seven. Two tablespoonfuls taken with breakfast. Two perfect days.”
He gazed dreamily into the distance.
Alright, let’s talk about luck.
Randomness vs. Luck
Randomness and luck are similar as words and concepts. If someone used them interchangeably, I probably wouldn’t protest. In fact, in my previous article on luck, I used the two as synonyms.
But randomness and luck aren’t exactly the same. Randomness is to luck what chaos is to chance. It’s not a coincidence that after Harry drinks some of the potion, “slowly but surely, an exhilarating sense of infinite opportunity stole through him; he felt as though he could have done anything, anything at all.” What Harry feels is not the rapture of the unpredictable but the ecstasy of clarity:
“Trust me,” he said. “I know what I’m doing . . . or at least” — he strolled confidently to the door — “Felix does.”
Randomness is a hammer. Luck is a screwdriver. In the end, both tools put sharp metal into multiple pieces of wood — and both can kill you if you’re on the wrong end of the action — but they function differently. A hammer strikes. A screwdriver guides. So it is with randomness and luck.
By the way, I know nothing about how tools work. I’m sure that’s clear.
Having Said That . . .
. . . in this piece I’m going to treat randomness and luck as if they’re synonymous.
You might think that my spiel on randomness and luck was . . . random, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t even bad luck. Given that I’m writing this piece, the odds were always pretty high I’d write some words only tangentially related to the larger point. Plus, for a while I’ve been concerned with randomness, accuracy, and precision, so all of this is in keeping with what’s come before.
Randomness, Uncertainty, and Risk
In my most recent Labyrinthian on luck, I noted that many DFS players conflate randomness with improbability. Randomness is structured around the concept of the unknown, whereas improbability is based on facts and data that can be used to make a predictive statement regarding the unlikely.
For instance, if in our Player Models we predict that a player will have low ownership, it’s not random if he’s rostered in any given tournament lineup (per our DFS Ownership Dashboard). It’s just a low-probability occurrence. If we project that a player will score X DraftKings points and instead he scores X/2 DK points, that’s not really random, because our Trends tool will show that comparable players in similar situations historically have hit only X/2 DK points at least five percent of the time and probably much more frequently.
And, really, is there anything all that random about an event that occurs at least once in 20 opportunities?
Just to drive this home with my aforementioned hammer: Randomness and improbability are different — and (I think) that difference actually matters.
I’ve written before about the two sides of uncertainty. Whereas Nassim Nicholas Taleb sees uncertainty as a leverageable opportunity, Nate Silver sees it as a statistical difficulty. Specifically, Silver thinks of uncertainty as a problem (in part) because it’s too easily confused with risk. Per Silver:
Risk, as first articulated by the economist Frank H. Knight in 1921, is something that you can put a price on.
Uncertainty, on the other hand, is risk that is hard to measure. You might have some vague awareness of the demons lurking out there. You might even be acutely concerned about them. But you have no real idea how many of them there are or when they might strike.
Improbability is the father of risk. Randomness is the mother of uncertainty.
Before Harry takes his sip of liquid luck, he plans to go to Slughorn’s office after the professor has eaten dinner. There, he hopes to convince Slughorn to give him his true memory of his conversation with Voldemort regarding horcruxes. (By the way, if you’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books, why on earth are you still . . . you know what, never mind. If you’ve read this far, the odds are you’ve read a Harry Potter book.)
After Harry drinks liquid luck, his plan immediately changes:
He got to his feet, smiling, brimming with confidence.
“Excellent,” he said. “Really excellent. Right . . . I’m going down to Hagrid’s. [. . .] I’ve got a good feeling about going to Hagrid’s. [. . .] I feel like it’s the place to be tonight, you know what I mean?”
“No,” said Ron and Hermione together, both looking positively alarmed now. [. . .]
This evening, he was the luckiest person at Hogwarts.
Why he knew that going to Hagrid’s was the right thing to do, he had no idea. It was as though the potion was illuminating a few steps of the path at a time: He could not see the final destination, he could not see where Slughorn came in, but he knew that he was going the right way to get that memory. [. . .]
It was when he reached the bottom step that it occurred to him how very pleasant it would be to pass the vegetable patch on his walk to Hagrid’s. It was not strictly on the way, but it seemed clear to Harry that this was a whim on which he should act, so he directed his feet immediately toward the vegetable patch, where he was pleased, but not altogether surprised, to find Professor Slughorn in conversation with Professor Sprout.”
According to the representation of luck in Harry Potter, when one is in the midst of chaos contrarianism is the proper course. In a state of randomness, conventional action is unwise. Plans must change. That which previously made sense (and still makes sense to those who don’t see the randomness) is no longer optimal.
One can’t plan randomness. One can only follow the opportune pathway it paves. Without question, the vision of randomness presented in Harry Potter is distinctly Talebian. If I were Littlefinger, I might say that luck is a ladder.
Sometimes, Specialist Knowledge Is Unnecessary
It’s become something of a running joke at FantasyLabs over the last couple of weeks that Co-founder Jonathan Bales is a NASCAR DFS genius.
In reality, he knows less than nothing about the sport — he’s still not sure whether Jeff Gordon is retired or racing — but Bales has managed to make a not insignificant amount of money recently by entering Daytona contests.
Side note: As of now we have no plans to launch a NASCAR product. Don’t email or tweet at us asking when we’re launching NASCAR. We’re not. I’m not joking. Don’t email or tweet at us asking about NASCAR. Don’t even think about it.
How can a guy who knows nothing about NASCAR win at NASCAR DFS?
He steers into the skid of racing randomness. Preseason and early-season races are often random. Restrictor plate races especially are random. Bales, ever the contrarian, has leveraged that randomness.
I asked him about his strategy for the first slate of NASCAR he ever played. Here’s what he said: “I mean, the first night I literally just picked guys who had the lowest fantasy PPG.”
Regardless of the sport, when one is immersed in DFS randomness doing what makes little sense often makes the most sense.
I don’t think that C.S. Lewis said it first, but he said it most famously: “Sometimes the longest way round is the shortest way home.”
The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company
It was one of my New Year’s resolutions to read more, and (because I’m a slow-ish reader) I’ve just now finished a book I started near the beginning of the year, Henry Petroski’s Evolution of Useful Things. It’s a good book — I used it as the cognitive inspiration for a number of Labyrinthians — and I’d recommend it to absolutely nobody. Seriously, you don’t need to read it. I read it for both of us.
Anyway, Petroski at one point discusses how the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, formed in 1902, transformed from a failed quarrying enterprise to the massive multinational conglomerate that manufactures Scotch tape and Post-it notes and is known all over the world simply as 3M.
How did the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company become 3M? How/why did an excavating business eventually develop Scotch tape and Post-it notes?
I could tell you the entire story, but instead I’ll give you one word: Randomness.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Randomness is random . . .
. . . always.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.19, 114
This is the 114th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation. Previous installments of The Labyrinthian can be accessed via my author page.