Door Number Three

They call it the Monty Hall Paradox. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Let’s Make a Deal was a popular game show. The host, Monty Hall, would present a random contestant with 3 doors or curtains, numbered 1, 2 and 3. Behind one was a prize, but crazy stuff like a year’s supply of creamed corn would be behind the other two.

Contestants would pick one of the three doors and Monty would have the lovely stage girl open a different door that has a clunker behind it. Now there are only two doors and one had the real prize; the one the contestant selected or the other one. So far, this is pretty simple but here’s the twist — Monty Hall asks the contestant if they would like to switch their choice to the other door. This is where it becomes a paradox. The contestants almost overwhelmingly stick with their first choice, even though elementary mathematical deduction shows that switching increases the odds of winning from 1/3 to 2/3. It’s counterintuitive and most people think: There are two doors left, therefore I have a 50% chance of winning, no matter which one I pick, and they are scientifically proven to be wrong by relatively simple probability equations. It’s even been tested. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

I do this a lot — think about paradoxes that epitomize a predicament. The Monty Hall Paradox is one I think about a lot because I find myself or others making choices only to find out later they were not the correct or best one, even though it seemed, on the surface, to be a simple enough problem. Hindsight is 20/20, so they say.

Another one I like is called the Latent Savant Paradox. Well, that’s what I call it anyway. Everybody is really good at something. It doesn’t matter what it is, they are better than almost anyone else at doing one thing. It could be could be picking the perfectly ripened melon at the grocery store or hitting treble three in darts. It might be doing word jumble puzzles or picking out perfect-fitting shoes. Everyone has some ability they excel at but they may not know it.

The interesting thing about Savant abilities is not what they are but how the person capitalizes on that special ability. Obviously, some abilities are more useful than others and that finally brings me to what I really wanted to tell you about in the first place — Sick-Guy.
On a recent airline flight, I sat next to Sick-Guy. The flight was full and I couldn’t sit with my family. I had the bitch-seat between a balding, overweight mouth-breather in the window seat (a.k.a. Sick-Guy) and a young mother with a restless infant in the aisle seat. It would be a long three hours.

Taking off scared the baby and she started crying. Sick-Guy was bogarting the armrest, knuckles white and head pressed back in the seat, eyes wide. He was perspiring. I crossed my arms and tried to find my happy place as the plane reluctantly lifted from the runway.

As soon as we attained altitude and the Fasten Seatbelt light went off, Sick-Guy needed to go to the restroom. The mother and I got into the aisle to let him by. Getting up disturbed the baby, who had just stopped crying, and the wailing began anew.

I decided to stay standing while I waited — the seats are cramped so I took it as an opportunity to stretch my legs. Bright side, silver lining and all that; eternal optimist I am not but I do know how to make a situation marginally less awful.

When Sick-Guy returned looking pale, he apologized and asked the mother if she would like to change seats, giving him the aisle seat in case he needed to get up again. Now I know what I wanted and I wanted the window seat with an armrest all my own and a window I can lean on and maybe sleep on, but I wasn’t asked. The mother thought about it. Do you want door number one, door number two or door number three? She wanted to keep the aisle seat. She stuck and I was stuck. The Monty Hall Paradox held true. Not only that, she asked if I wouldn’t mind holding the baby while she went to the restroom herself and without delay, Sick-Guy jammed his fat ass into the row and down to window seat. Outstanding. A year’s supply of creamed corn.

I apparently have the kind of face that a stranger would trust me with their child. Parenting skills just aren’t what they used to be. Taking the baby in my arms disturbed her and she started crying even louder. I know she will eventually wear herself out and go to sleep. Probably about the time we land.

I sat down in the middle seat again and tried to rock the child, who protested loudly. Sick-Guy was perusing the Sky Mall catalog, earmarking pages. Does anyone really buy stuff from Sky Mall? Personalized dog bowls, portable dumbbells you fill with water and Green Lantern ring replicas? Okay, the Green Lantern ring is pretty cool but really, who buys this stuff?

Holding the crying child, I watched Sick-Guy exercise what I think is his savant ability and his namesake. Without looking up from the catalog, he pulled a sick bag from the seat pocket. Flicking it open with one hand, he placed the opening around his mouth and as if by will, proceeded to vomit into the bag. He threw up exactly three times and was controlled, even graceful in the process. There were no false starts — when he puked, it was a full load. When I’ve been sick like he was, I make horrible noises often punctuated by profanity and imploring death to just put me out of my misery. Not this guy, not a sound. He actually turned a page in sky mall and earmarked it — a reminder to buy some orthopedic shoes, while he was throwing up.

After vomiting three times and still looking at his magazine, he mopped his chin with a tissue, placed it in the bag and deftly sealed it, twisting the wire fasteners with one hand. He then punched the Call Stewardess button overhead and held the bag up until she came by and claimed it. I had just witnessed a ballet.

So struck with awe at Sick-Guy’s grace, I had to ask the obvious. “Flying make you sick?”

“Only when I read,” was his response, still not looking up from his magazine.

“So why do you read on a flight?” I’m sure the stunned irritation was evident in my voice, raised so he could hear me over the screaming, flailing child in my arms. A friend of mine had once asked me what I thought Hell would be like. If he asks again, I will have an answer — Sitting bitch-seat on a crammed airplane, next to a vomiting guy while holding someone else’s screaming, kicking baby… and they have run out of alcohol.

“Why do I read? What else is there to do on a flight?” He was even flippant about it.

That was when I exercised my Savant ability — I don’t punch people when they really, really, really deserve it.

The mother finally came back. It had been so long, I thought she grabbed a parachute and bailed out. I wouldn’t have blamed her. She took the child from me and popped out a breast, presenting the nipple to the baby while I tried not to stare and failed. The baby began nursing and finally calmed down.

Eons later we landed and I joined my family at the exit ramp. My wife told me she slept the entire flight. Good for her. My son had found several things he wanted to buy out of Sky Mall, like the voice-command R2-D2 droid. Okay, that is pretty cool. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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  • http://twitter.com/bdestefanis bdestefanis

    i fail to see how changing your selection, from say door 1 to door 2 improves your odds when there are two doors remaining. it may be true that you have better odds, 50%, at this stage in the game than you did when there were three doors, 33%, but the act of selecting at this stage doesn’t improve the likelihood of choosing the winning door. In other words, the selection you made when there were three doors is just as likely to be the winning door as the other door, and changing your selection at this point does not improve your odds in any way. your odds have improved, but you can’t improve your odds by changing your selected door.

    • Tasmin

      it does improve the likelyhood. look up ‘the monty hall problem’.

    • http://twitter.com/Gilthwixt Patrick M

      I thought about this, and figured it out. The reason why switching raises your chance of winnings is because they are guaranteed to show you a losing door. Let’s outline this. If two doors are LOSE, and one door is WIN, you have a 2/3 chance of picking LOSE on your first guess. They then reveal a losing door, leaving one LOSE and the WIN. If your original choice is a LOSE (2/3 chance), then switching gives you a WIN. Though it may seem like a 50/50, because you made a choice out of three and are guaranteed the choice to switch after removing a losing door, the probability of winning after a switch will always be 66%

    • Mitchlavender

      Yeah.  And it is exactly that thought process that lead a lot of folks to lose on “Let’s Make A Deal.”

  • Goatboy

    You must have been sitting next to Patton Oswalt, because he tells essentially the same story on his album “Finest Hour”.

    “…this guy was the Zorro of vomit-bag users. He was amazing. He was sitting there, he had a magazine on this leg and he was reading it and you see it hit him, and he never looked up from the magazine. He reached up with one hand, grabbed a vomit bag, snapped it open with one hand, fitted it over his mouth, made a sound-proof seal, then started violently throwing up. But it sounded like this (muted vomit sounds). Finished. Took it away from his mouth, wiped his lips as he did it. Sealed it, little metal tabs, folded with one hand.”

    • Joshua Lee

      Well played, sir.

    • Mitchlavender

      Inspirational, is it not?

  • Waicool

    I’ve got a $50 bill for whoever can show me a hard boiled egg.

  • Jazzy

    An even simpler solution is to reason that switching loses if and only if the player initially picks the car, which happens with probability 1/3, so switching must win with probability 2/3 

  • Marion

    Still laughing – you reminded me how much I hate flying.

  • http://twitter.com/DanielKaye_ Daniel Kaye

    Excellent read, I’m still in shock of the gaul of the guy holding his used sick bag up for the stewardess.

  • Turg

    I found this story to be humorous.  I know a guy a work who has luck just like that.

    • Mitchlavender

      Yes.  I do just have that kind of luck.

  • Mitchlavender

    Er… Waicool.  (Really? Waicool?) she delivered… pay.

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