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Green Card Lottery Judgment Favors Mathematical Randomness 210

Posted by timothy
from the asd8n3q2-asj9qujj8^JVBn-as&h32 dept.
guusbosman writes "Yesterday a district court in Washington, D.C. issued its ruling in a case that boiled down to the definition of 'strictly random.' In the 2011 drawing of the U.S. 'Green Card Lottery,' a computer programming error was made and two weeks after the official drawing of the lottery the Department of State closed the website and voided the results. A lawsuit sought an injunction claiming that, while the process was not mathematically random, it was random in the dictionary definition of 'without definite aim, direction, rule or method.' The court, analyzing language from the State Department's regulations, and examples from laws on casinos and the like, rejected that and came out in favor of a mathematical definition of randomness. The lottery is voided and the results of the new drawing came out today at noon EST."
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Green Card Lottery Judgment Favors Mathematical Randomness

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  • Definition? (Score:5, Funny)

    by gmuslera (3436) * on Friday July 15, 2011 @07:04PM (#36781220) Homepage Journal
    Sometimes xkcd [xkcd.com] is pretty relevant
    • by am 2k (217885) on Friday July 15, 2011 @07:56PM (#36781658) Homepage

      Here's another one: Dilbert [dilbert.com].

      • by istartedi (132515)

        I wonder if he had Revolution 9 [wikipedia.org] in mind when he did that.

        BTW, I seem to recall that it won "least popular Beatles song" in some survey although I don't have a citation.

  • by ShooterNeo (555040) on Friday July 15, 2011 @07:08PM (#36781256)

    The only impressive thing here is that the judge (or his aides) apparently cracked open a dictionary or maybe even a math textbook to get a basic idea of what "random" means. Unfortunately, the judiciary doesn't always rule on the basis of absolute mathematical or scientific fact, when it is relevant to the case. For example, in the arson trial of a Texas man who supposedly (for no credible reason) murdered his wife and children they brought in arson 'experts' who had no scientific validity to their process at all. A Texas arson expert looks at some char marks and somehow always (whenever it is a criminal investigation) concludes "it's arson". Despite the improbability of every fire said 'expert' examines during his career being caused by a crime.

    • But in your example, the jury is attempting to rule on the basis of scientific fact. An "expert" in court is deemed to be as credible as the "expert" that wrote the textbook.

    • Re:Well (Score:5, Insightful)

      by wagnerrp (1305589) on Friday July 15, 2011 @07:42PM (#36781528)

      For example, in the arson trial of a Texas man who supposedly (for no credible reason) murdered his wife and children they brought in arson 'experts' who had no scientific validity to their process at all. A Texas arson expert looks at some char marks and somehow always (whenever it is a criminal investigation) concludes "it's arson". Despite the improbability of every fire said 'expert' examines during his career being caused by a crime.

      Well this is surely a weighted claim if I've ever heard one. Just think about this for a moment.

      Scenario 1: A building burns down. An expert comes in and calls it arson. Arson being a crime, the police investigate, find a suspect, put them on trial, and the expert is presented as a witness explaining why they think it is arson.

      Scenario 2: A building burns down. An expert comes in and calls it accidental. Accidents are not crimes. There is no investigation, no suspect, and no trial for the expert to sit at and say it was not arson.

      So, again... what is the likelihood an expert witness would claim a fire was arson at a trial?

      • Because he would investigate every scene, and ALWAYS say it was arson. Because there was no statistical or numerical way to show if a particular burnt patch ACTUALLY was arson, beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the supreme court bitchslapped it down, after the state of Texas murdered the man, and they released several other prisoners sent to prison for the same reason.

      • by Vellmont (569020)


        So, again... what is the likelihood an expert witness would claim a fire was arson at a trial?

        You're missing the point. Of course arson investigators hired by the government are going to testify that arson occurred more often than they say it was accidental. The point is that arson investigations are often conducted by people totally unqualified to do so.

        I saw the Frontline episode the OP is talking about. One of the many points it tries to bring home is that fire investigators in many states don't have

        • by wagnerrp (1305589)

          One of the many points it tries to bring home is that fire investigators in many states don't have any scientific training in how fires spread, and are more often than not just experienced fire-fighters "with a hunch". They haven't conducted scientific studies on fire, don't have degrees in science, and have little more knowledge about fire than simply having experience. Experience without theory, and rigor is little more than a series of anecdotes. Frontline showed the opinion of an ACTUAL expert (with scientific training, academic study, and experimental evidence) who said it was quite obvious that the fire was accidental if you've studied how fires happen.

          You can bring in expert witnesses to say whatever you want them to say. It is the job of the defense attorney to question their conclusions, their training, their credentials. If they can't do that, then they're of no worth.

    • by enjerth (892959)

      The only impressive thing here is that the judge (or his aides) apparently cracked open a dictionary or maybe even a math textbook to get a basic idea of what "random" means. Unfortunately, the judiciary doesn't always rule on the basis of absolute mathematical or scientific fact, when it is relevant to the case.

      I don't get it. What's the deal with distinguishing the difference between the mathematical and dictionary definition of random? The argument that it fits the dictionary definition does not hold water.

      To suggest that a process which methodically ignores eligible applications is "without definite aim, direction, rule or method" is erroneous. Excluding applicants that filed after the second day is both a method and quite definite.

    • The Supreme Court once ruled that a tomato was a vegetable even though it is scientifically a fruit. That case, Nix v. Hedden, dealt with a tariff on vegetables but not fruits. The government taxed tomatoes as vegetables even though they were botanically fruit. Tomato importers who had paid the taxes sued. The Supreme Court ruled that even though tomatoes were botanically fruit, the law was meant vegetables in the colloquial sense. Go for lawyers!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nix_v._Hedden [wikipedia.org]

      • by Dahamma (304068)

        It wasn't that crazy, though, since the tariff was on "vegetables", which itself is not a scientific word - so applying a scientific term in the first place wasn't valid. In fact, the original definition of "vegetable" was *all* plants. That would have been a cool Supreme Court ruling...

      • The process is generally

        Scientist: What do we call stuff like this?
        General Public: Vegetables
        Scientist: OK.
        -Time passes-
        Scientist: Hmm. There seems to be a difference between some things in this group and other things in this group. I'll exclusively call the other things vegetables.
        -Time passes-
        Scientist: What do we call stuff like this?
        General Public: Vegetables
        Scientist: You're wrong, you idiots.

      • by Vellmont (569020)

        And the supreme court made the right call.

        Are you trying to argue that words can't have multiple meanings? Language is evolving all the time, and it's not controlled by one group of people. Context matters, and in this case the context wasn't a botanical one. People don't treat tomatoes like fruit, they treat it like a vegetable. This is legislation, not a scientific paper in botany.

  • by assantisz (881107) on Friday July 15, 2011 @07:09PM (#36781276)
    Anybody else remember the Green Card Lottery Spam [wired.com] all over USENET. Good times. Canter & Siegel...
  • Isn't any string of numbers random ? It is just how probable to get that string that is relevant. And whether the output of the generator can be predicted or not.
    • Re:Well (Score:5, Informative)

      by Ruke (857276) on Friday July 15, 2011 @07:37PM (#36781492)
      The problem was that the buggy algorithm only randomly selected entries that were submitted during the first two days that the submission system was open. The law specifies that entries are to be selected "in a random order," which implies (at least to the judge) that all of the entries must be shuffled in, and given equal probability of being chosen.
    • by blueg3 (192743)

      A string of numbers is never random in and of itself -- it's the method by which they are generated that is random or not. The sequence "9 9 9" is random if and only if it happens to be the output of a random function.

      What you perhaps mean is that any string of numbers could have been the output of a random function. That's not strictly true, but it's close enough. You certainly can't tell just by looking at the string of numbers whether it's really the output of a random function -- though you can often ma

  • ... without definite aim, direction, rule or method ...

    I always thought that's what arbitrary meant. Random (to me, an admitted geek) is always in the mathematical sense.

    • by ewanm89 (1052822)
      As a crypto geek myself, randomness means an extremely specific mathematical definition with probabilities and distributions of data, which would be better described in a dictionary as totally impossible to predict.
    • Arbitrary does not imply 'chance' so much as 'human discretion'. The sense of random described is in line with the larger use of the word. 'Random' is a cognate of 'run' and its use in probabilities refers to the idea of making a rushed choice. (In which cases, using a badly-cobbled together computer program seems oddly appropriate.)

      The problem stated was that "The algorithm that was used only looked at submissions of the first 2 days." I am not sure exactly what they think they mean by "scientific rand

  • by digitaltraveller (167469) on Friday July 15, 2011 @07:14PM (#36781310) Homepage

    This year they also added a CAPTCHA after you've signed in for the results.
    So I had a little OMG moment today before the usual let down.

    My wife and I have applied every year for the last 9 or so (since they went to internet based registrations). It's always been the same, nothing has changed until now.
    In hindsight, since I never applied in the first two weeks I was probably wasting my time all those years which is a bit of a bummer.

    I probably should have just went over on an H1-B. It always seemed a bit like indentured servitude tho..

  • // $gets_green_card = ( rand()/rand_max() < $green_cards_to_give_away / $total_applicants ? true : false); //randomly choose applicant
    $gets_green_card = ( in_array($applicant_name, $array_of_my_friends_to_give_green_cards) ? true : false); //choose from an array!


    That sort of programming error? what sort of error are we talking about here?
  • At least not as far as anyone knows. This is not a scientific question, it is more of a philosophical or even a theological question. If there are deterministic physical laws governing how objects interact, then it is possible to predict anything. Realistically, no one will have the computational power to make such a prediction, so achieving randomness is really just a matter of achieving something close enough to truly random that no one can predict it.

    In the Eudemonic Pie, some young iconoclasts manag

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      measurement of the decay of atoms in a radioactive mass.been around for years. we know it will happen, just not when, and th

    • It's random that a random number can be generated randomly.

    • The only way we could have true randomness is if there are some sort of measurable phenomena that cannot be predicted. Quantum mechanics dances around this question, and even if there is a state change that is genuinely random, it would be difficult bordering on heroic to measure it in a practical way so as to create a random number generator.

      Actually, there are many commercial devices [wikipedia.org] that use quantum effects to generate sequences of numbers that are unpredictable even in theory. Or, if you're careful about it, you can even use a simple Geiger counter [ciphergoth.org] to generate truly random data.

    • If there are deterministic physical laws governing how objects interact, then it is possible to predict anything.

      Well, for starters, there are objections to your premise [wikipedia.org].

      Then the second problem is your assumption that physical laws "govern" how objects interact. We don't have to accept that assumption; we can assume instead that physics is a collection of predictive theories about the world, which we accept because they meet some statistical criteria.

      The experiments that support your typical physical theory don't produce the exact numbers that the theories' equations predict. We don't reject the theories because

    • Random is demonstrable. Over a large enough sample size random numbers will have a uniform distribution. Unpredictable random phenomena can also be observed in nature. Lava lamps are one of these. When I was in high school in the 80's my Chemistry teacher demonstrated random Brownian motion by mixing two chemicals together and pointing out how the colors changed. I don't know what they're teaching kids these days. Apparently not that.

      Computer science spent a fair bit of time on randomness and put it to be

    • Thermal noise works. There's other types of hardware random number generators as well. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardware_random_number_generator [wikipedia.org]

    • Quantum mechanics does not "dance" around the question of the existence of randomness--it very explicitly predicts the probability distribution of various measurements. From that it's just a matter of some calculus to produce random numbers according to virtually any distribution you might want. Measurements of quantum mechanical effects are not terribly difficult, either. Try using a Starn-Gerlach device [wikipedia.org] to get a random stream of bits. I suppose it could be debated whether or not these results are philosop

  • by sqrt(2) (786011) on Friday July 15, 2011 @08:06PM (#36781730) Journal

    If labor is to be restricted from freely leaving one country and coming to another, then so too should capital be restricted. If I cannot walk across the border and sell my labor where it is more highly valued, why should the business tycoon on the other side of the line be allowed to set up a factory in my country and exploit my lower standard of living and lower wages? You cannot have an ethical and just system where only one form of immigration is allowed to be effectively infinite and the other is not. The restrictions on capital moving between borders should be similar to the movement of labor. I'd prefer this to be accomplished by loosening the restrictions on the movement of labor, not by restricting capital flow. Letting capital walk the earth freely while we keep workers chained to their place of birth is one of the primary tools of the capitalist elite ruling class and the Global North countries to maintain their hegemony over all peoples. It is directly opposed to the principles of self-determination and progressive philosophy.

    • by cdrguru (88047)

      I'd say it is up to the receiving country. If China wanted to block all further building of factories, they certainly could. If Mexico wanted to make it illegal for poor farm workers to come to the US, they could block them. Instead, Mexico makes it illegal to enter their country without permission and only through authorized border crossings whereas the US by comparison has nearly a big sign saying WELCOME!

      Absolutely, we would all be better off if China decided they didn't want the factories any longer

  • Every computer programmer knows that any random number he generates programmatically is not "mathematically random". The strict definition being that the program to produce the number must be longer than the number, which, of course, is impractical. Pseudorandom is really the best we can do without special hardware.

    But even if we could, it is still about unpredictability. Just because you can't predict the output of an RNG, doesn't mean it will always be unpredictable. People find new patterns that may fit

    • by readin (838620)
      Unpredictability is the key, or course. The method that was used looked at only the first two days submissions. Suppose you knew that the computer program doing the selection might have a bug, and that even if that bug were found the results would not be invalidated. You might try to take advantage of that bug by submitting in such a way that you get the benefit. You could submit very early, expecting the bug to pick up only early entries, or you might submit very late thinking it will pick up late bugs.
    • Every computer programmer knows that any random number he generates programmatically is not "mathematically random". The strict definition being that the program to produce the number must be longer than the number, which, of course, is impractical. Pseudorandom is really the best we can do without special hardware.

      Ah, but you are so wrong. Try a google search on "entropy gathering". There are well known ways to generate truly random sequences without any "special" hardware, using environmental noise collected from device drivers and other sources. There are Linux distros whose /dev/random implementations use these techniques. On other Unixen the EGD (Entropy Gathering Daemon) provides random sequences in a similar way.

      See the Wikipedia article on /dev/random for more info.

    • by Vellmont (569020) on Friday July 15, 2011 @10:40PM (#36782546)


      Every computer programmer knows that any random number he generates programmatically is not "mathematically random".

      Perhaps very bad, or at least ignorant computer programmers think this. The good ones know about things such as "hardware random number generators", which generate random random numbers using thermal noise, which is random at the quantum level. These are built into many chipsets, and are hardly considered exotic. I've got one myself in a cheap VIA motherboard. QM could be wrong of course, anything in science can be. If you think you can predict thermal noise, or some other quantum phenomenon, I guarantee there's a nobel prize in it for you if you're correct. If you're really holding out for that without any evidence to support it, then the conversation is essentially over.

      We can possibly debate on whether other sources of randomness (keyboard timings, network latency packets, etc) are truly unpredictable. That's not something I have any special knowledge of. But you're quite wrong if you think that nothing is truly random. Our current theories about how the universe works would say that the lowest level of everything IS random and unpredictable.

      • To be fair, the GP did say random numbers generated "programmatically" aren't strictly random. Maybe they meant to discount hardware random number generation this way. It's unclear where eg. keyboard input lies, then. Perhaps they meant something like "a fixed Turing machine given as input only how many random integers in a fixed range it should produce--call it n--will only give pseudorandom ones for sufficiently large n".
        • Whoops, I should have included a length k (for fixed k) binary string in the input to that Turing machine, along with n.
  • by Freddybear (1805256) on Friday July 15, 2011 @08:47PM (#36781996)

    http://www.random.org/randomness/ [random.org] has a useful discussion of pseudo-random (program generated) versus "true" (aka physically generated) random numbers.

  • Back in pre-online application days, Green Card lottery used to be pretty much a sure shot for anyone with half a brain and ability to follow basic instructions.
    They had no real form to fill, but rather a set of fairly simple and specific guidelines. You had to use a plain piece of paper, and write in order (numbered or not) your name, date of birth, mailing address, a few other items I now forget. You needed to attach a photo of specific size (with a staple, in the top right corner of the page). You had to

  • (not from the US) I though all this "Green card lottery" stuff was just some satirical comment on the US immigration process, turned into banner text by unscrupulous scammers trying to steal money from unsuspecting foreigners. Which retard thought that a lottery would be a good idea?

  • I was curious so wanted to check the diversity lottery website (http://dvlottery.state.gov/ [state.gov]) and encountered this statement: "This web site only supports Internet Explorer 6.0 and Internet Explorer 7.0.". I guess if you want to take part in the diversity lottery you have to do away with some of your freedoms to make use of say Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or Safari.
    Somehow the term "diversity" does not seem to cover that bit :) Makes you also wonder who is the target audience for this lottery.

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