Monday, January 11, 2010

Cutting Your Losses

I was standing at the vending machine at work today, buying some chips with lots of small coins (nickels and dimes). And as I often do, I carefully inserted the nickels first, then the dimes; if I had used any quarters, they'd have come last.

You may—assuming you've read this far—wondered why this is. To be fair, having done this for a long time, I wondered myself for a moment. And then I remembered.

See, when I first started doing this, I was in college. I was living in the dorms. The dorms had vending machines, which were balky, much like anything in the dorms. They would, occasionally, find something objectionable about your change. They were even particular about the way you inserted your change; sometimes, it would take six or seven tries for you to get it to accept a specific dime. I would bring extra change just in case, if I had any, but sometimes even that would run out. So there I would be standing, with 45 cents that the machine was refusing to take, and more money back in the dorm room that I could try out on the Keeper of the Fizzies. But in order to get that money, I'd actually have to back to the dorm room. Away from the vending machine.

I'd run downstairs, get the change, run back upstairs, and hope that in the meantime, no dormitory Grinch had decided to get a 30-cent discount on his Coke.

Because, as it happens, sometimes they would. I'd get back and there would be no credit at all in the vending machine. You might suppose that Whoever It Was would at least leave the credit they had benefited from in change on the side, but noooooo.

That's when this business with inserting change in ascending order of value started. It was a way of cutting my losses. You might think that it would be simpler for me to just push the coin return and withdraw my change before heading downstairs, but in the first place, the coin return lever was balky, like everything else, and in the second place, it had often taken me lots of effort to get those coins in and I was reluctant to relinquish those hard-won gains.

Eventually, I managed to obtain a small dorm fridge and thereafter bought my drinks at the market. But this was before all that. Just the same, I continued my coin-sorting practice even to the present day, where (I daresay) my co-workers are far less likely to stiff me out of a handful of change than my dormmates were.

You know me, always looking for something mathy about the situation, so here's the question: Suppose that I only used n nickels and d dimes (no quarters), that I foolishly brought exact change, and that the vending machine refuses to take exactly one coin, randomly and uniformly selected from all the coins. On average, how much less money did I place at risk going nickels first than I did going dimes first?

The answer: The average reduction in risk was equal to the value of the nickels multiplied by the fraction of coins that were dimes.

I had thought to try to tie this story to something deeper, but I just can't bring myself to do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment