Absent student forfeits raffle

By stemcel at 9:23 pm on January 16, 2009 | 6 Comments

Here at the University of Washington CSE Department we often have events called Tech Talks, where guest companies come in and give a demonstration of their technologies and expertise. Tech talks are usually interesting, and the visiting companies usually bring free company-branded “swag” and often have raffles for bigger, more exciting prizes. But what usually draws hungry CS students (this one, anyway) is the free food that the company inevitably brings. I’ve never won anything.

Last night we had a tech talk given by Palantir Technologies, a very promising-looking company that aims to transform the way people work with large data sets by making it easier to discover and visualizing trends and connections in the ever-accumulating mountains of data generated by our modern technological culture. They had a great sales pitch, a fascinating presentation, tons of free swag (hyperbole here, but it was really a lot), and quality free frood from Taco del Mar. And at the end of the evening they planned to raffle off an iPod touch. Not everyone stayed for the whole event, but as it wound down the time for the raffle finally came.

Normally everyone attending a tech talk who is interested in participating in a raffle writes their name on a piece of paper, folds it in half, and places it in a box/hat/whatever. Palantir had all the entries in a black beanie, and built up the suspense before reaching into the hat and pulling out a name. Drat, not me again. I could tell by the size and shape of the paper that some other student was the lucky recipient. But who? The Palantir rep unfolded the paper and read it aloud in stentorian tones: “John Smith!” (That’s not really his name, but that’s not the point of this story. We’ll call him “John Smith.”) I looked around for John, but couldn’t see him. “He’s not here!” I called, joined by several other voices. Maybe I’d have a chance to win this after all! “Not here?” asked the rep. “Well, we’ll just draw again.” He tossed the forfeited entry aside and reached into the hat again. Suspense built as he pulled out a piece of paper, unfolded it, and read aloud once again…. “John Smith!” The atrium was silent for a few seconds. After a moment or two had passed I said “Well, that explains a few things.”

I’d always attributed to luck the fact that some people just seem to win more often in raffles like that. Naively you might expect not to see repeat winners (after all, it has to be spread around, right?), but a little bit of probabilistic reasoning tells you that runs or repeats may be improbable in any specific case but in general are to be expected. Now I suddenly admitted the possibility that while there was something chancey going on here, it wasn’t chance. And why not, right? If you’re having a one-item raffle there’s no reason not to put your name in more than once. No one’s going to go looking through the entries afterwards, and if you win you win. Unless, of course, you’re not there and you win. Twice.

It’s possible that I’ve misunderstood all these years the unwritten rules that these raffle are run by, or perhaps more properly the unwritten rules that these raffles are won by. After all, there are many raffles, sweepstakes, etc. where multiple entries are accepted. But if not, well, that’s a different story.

Obviously no one was hurt here, no bones broken and no innocents harmed (though perhaps some innocence was lost). But these sort of events should be treated seriously. Real things are at stake. I’ll list just some of the things I’ve seen go at tech talk raffles recently:

I guess in the broader context you’re not stealing anything by stuffing a raffle hat. Not from me anyway. But how far is it from there to stuffing ballot boxes? Bank accounts? Money is all just bits now anyway. A little extra here and there wouldn’t really hurt the economy. Should we be comfortable with this sort of attitude being held by the same people who may write the software that handles your bank account? I don’t think so. A paper-cut is a little thing, once. But this way of thinking, when carried to its natural conclusion, is not just one paper cut. It’s many. And that’s not sustainable.  I used to think that around here we just didn’t have to worry about that sort of thing.

I wish I could have kept thinking it, if just for a little longer.

Filed under: Current Events,Ethics,Integrity,Physical Security6 Comments »


  • 1
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    Comment by lidor7

    January 17, 2009 @ 3:32 am

    It was a 16gb iPod Touch, by the way (~$300). What I wonder about that particular raffle was what the ideal shape/size of the paper would be. Also, since all the entries were initially going into a small plastic cup, I was wondering how well shuffled it would be as well. In such a raffle system where the entries are submitted on pieces of paper we provided ourselves, it would seem certain types of entries would be picked more often. To be honest, I had my own paper shape/size strategy.

    Anyways, it seems like in any sort of interaction, there’s an inherent amount of trust. It is unfortunate when that trust is broken. I wonder how many times that guy put his name in the cup in order for Palantir to have drawn his name twice in a row, and if he wanted it so badly, why didn’t he stick around to claim it?

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    Comment by FatherOf1000000

    January 17, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    Possible consequences of his action:
    -The Palantir employees who were present at the drawing might remember his name, and if he applies to that company and those employees see his name, then the application process may not go as planned.

    -For fellow CSE comrades, he might lose trust here and there.

    His biggest flaw is not sticking around to claim the iPod (The event was planned from 5:30-7:30, the drawing was around 7:00. He miscalculated the presentation time), which led to the exposure of his scheme. In fact, his scheme would’ve worked perfectly since there wouldn’t be a second drawing from the same hat.

    People have different values and beliefs. If he valued his integrity that much, then he wouldn’t have taken advantage of the system, or at least he wouldn’t have allowed such flaw to happen.

    Maybe to him, the list would be like:
    – Integrity: $0
    – His reputation: $5
    – Materialistic goods: priceless

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    Comment by Ryan McElroy

    January 19, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    Thanks for the story, stemcel. For future reference, the student referred to in the story is myself, Ryan McElroy (Oh snap!)

    To answer some of the questions raised: I put my name into the cup 6 or 7 times. I used pieces of paper that were different sizes. Furthermore, I walked around with the cup getting others to put their papers into the cup before putting my papers in. I figured the best chances would be just below the top layer of papers — the picker would skip these because they would be “too obvious” — but well above the bottom, because picking one of those would mean all of the papers from the small cup would have to fall out, and the picker wouldn’t want to clean up a mess. So that’s where I placed the papers with my name.

    After I heard the news that I had “won” (twice!), I lamented a bit that I hadn’t stuck around (attending a night class was more important for me), but maybe the way it turned out was for the best?

    It is also interesting to note that several students watched me systematically write down my name and stuff the cup. Just like in the No-Tech Hacking talk I just watched, even after it was clear what my actions were, no one said anything. So, I’ll end on this interesting question: would you have said anything if you had seen what I was doing?

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    Comment by eyezac

    January 19, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    This isn’t exactly the same, but it reminds me of the Milgram Experiment. In the case of the raffle, instead of revealing people’s reluctance to defy authority, it shows their aversion to social confrontation in general. The people who watched you cheating in the raffle evidently decided that it was easier to look the other way than to risk breaking the atmosphere of sociability. It’s easy to imagine this same factor causing people to turn a blind eye in more serious situations as well. Just how much corruption does there have to be before someone is willing to create conflict by denouncing it? If people can be made aware of this danger at the low cost of the integrity of an i-pod raffle, I think it’s well worth it. Thank you for helping us learn an important lesson, Ryan!

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    Comment by qwerty

    January 23, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    I think the issue here isn’t whether you would do something to stop it if you saw this happening. It would be socially hard to speak up and voice your opinion on it. The fact remains that anyone who saw this happening would most likely notice who the person was, and any trust/respect would be lost to Ryan. Especially once it was revealed via the drawing. When they called his name the second time, that moment of silence was people immediately changing their view on Ryan and noting the “honor system” violation he committed. So maybe the question here is – which is more important, an iPod touch or your integrity?

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    Comment by elenau

    January 23, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

    In this story two things surprised me the most: the systematic scientific approach to increase the probability of the paper being picked, and the honesty of “John Smith”.

    There are a few things I wonder about – why wasn’t I expecting to encounter this type story on this blog, and whether the author has approached John Smith personally.

    I see why it could be discouraging not to win anything at all. I don’t normally win myself. But you never know when it’s coming.

    Last year, there was a similar ruffle ticket during a special event in CSE. When the names were called, I wasn’t it, so I wanted to throw my ticket away – they were numbered tickets without names. Another student stopped me and said that there was supposed to be another round. Since I really didn’t care I offered him to have my ticket, but he refused to take it, and put it back into my jacket pocket.

    Half an hour later, my number was called. Who would have thought!

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