Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, Steam Ticket, Pioneertown and Crossborder Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections,” “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries,” and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias.” He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other publications.
A Short Story
By Jeff Fleischer
As a kid, Joe Concanon was always something of an expert at math. Especially math he could apply to the real world. Theoretical calculus was all well and good, but he always liked numbers that meant something. That was why he studied accounting in college, and why he wound up working as an international currency trader. Being able to calculate exchange rates in fractions of a second was a handy job skill.
Probability, and his grasp of it, was a big factor in Concanon’s success. If one could calculate the odds that a particular currency was going to increase in value and when, one stood a better chance than the competition of buying and selling at the right time. At his level, most of the traders were excellent at calculating probability, so it was a fair fight. At the same time, as Concanon’s supervisors would often boast, he was one of the best. When a brain worked the way his did, it became at turns fascinated and frustrated by statistical outliers, by those things that completely defied probability.
While he made a considerable amount of money as a trader, Concanon still chose to take the commuter train every day, as the odds of getting in a deadly accident increased to about one in sixty-seven hundred for a driver. His one noticeable nervous habit, which he practiced nearly every morning on his train ride, was flipping a coin over and over. Knowing that the probability of a coin landing with either side facing up was a one-in-two proposition, he enjoyed producing patterns with a row of coin flips. The habit started when he was a kid taking long car trips with his parents, where he found it a statistically more reliable way to pass the time than his sister’s attempts to find license plates from all fifty states.
Like anyone, he found pennies on the ground from time to time, and he always picked them up. Concanon never believed such an act would provide good luck, despite the nursery rhyme to the contrary. He preferred the idea that pennies saved eventually added up to dollars earned. Based on experience, he’d determined the statistical odds of finding a penny on his walk home were one in eleven. With holidays, he’d calculated that meant an average of two dollars and forty-nine cents a year. Factoring in the other coins he’d find from time to time, he’d calculated a total average annual haul of four dollars and fifty-four cents. The odds of finding a penny like the one he picked up that particular night, however, were incalculable. Which, true to his nature, he found by turns fascinating and frustrating.
The next morning, Concanon rode into the city, flipping the penny he’d found the night before. In the twenty-two minutes he spent on the train, he flipped the coin six hundred and sixty times, which was a typical amount for a typical trip. The atypical part was that the coin landed with Lincoln’s face on top all six hundred and sixty times. Concanon’s mathematically focused brain had no explanation. Each flip, of course, had a fifty percent chance of landing on heads, and each flip was clearly independent of the one before it. Still, after twenty identical results, Concanon started to think something was wrong with this coin. Nothing about it seemed counterfeit, and it didn’t feel weighted at all. After six hundred and sixty independent but identical results, Concanon was determined to find an explanation.
An advantage he had as an international currency trader was he worked with people who were genuine experts in all facets of money. As brilliant as Concanon was at determining the value of currency, he had coworkers equally brilliant at determining the value of individual coins, from their origin to their weight to the worth of irregular pieces. Already convinced this coin was irregular, and therefore potentially valuable, he showed it to three of his colleagues. Try as they might, none of them found anything off about the penny. It was thirty-three years old and a little worn down from use, but still had the correct weight, the correct balance, the correct mix of copper and zinc. The experts studied the coin thoroughly, and Concanon received three expert opinions that the coin’s odds of turning up heads or tails were indeed fifty-fifty. Each returned it to him saying they had gotten both results, but Concanon figured there was a one-in-three chance they were lying.
Figuring the morning’s events therefore had to be a fluke, Concanon made sure to keep that particular penny. He flipped other pennies during his phone calls during the workday, and they all responded in the usual fashion. Some wound up heads about sixty percent of the time, others closer to forty, but none produced anything like that morning’s streak. On the train ride home, though, he abandoned his normal evening routine of reading a paperback mystery and just flipped the odd penny nervously. His first attempt produced heads. He tried again. Same result. And again. And again. With a slight delay at one of the stops, his ride home took twenty-five minutes—and produced seven hundred and two flips, all of them heads.
A less intelligent man than Concanon would have attributed the coin’s streak to dumb luck, or to some kind of divine will, or even to magic. Being an intelligent man, however, he maintained his faith in the law of averages. He knew that, sooner or later, the penny had to turn up tails.
Normally when he got home from work, Concanon had a range of ways to occupy his time. Thirty-four percent of the time, he would rent a video from the convenience shop downstairs. Eighteen percent of the time, he would go to the gym for a swim and a steam, while sixteen percent of the time he would read a novel by lamplight. The odds of him sitting up all night flipping a penny were normally much lower than one in one thousand, but that was how he spent his evening. He did have the television on, but paid little attention to it while focused on the penny. By the time he gave up, exhausted from a long day and in need of sleep, he had flipped the coin seven thousand, five hundred and eighty-two times. Seven thousand, five hundred and eighty-two fifty-fifty propositions that produced seven thousand, five hundred and eighty-two identical results.
The next morning, Concanon started to wonder if this statistical anomaly was in his own head. He knew American adults had a one-in-five chance of having some form of mental illness, though the odds of one manifesting itself so quickly and so randomly were admittedly low. On the train ride to work—during which he couldn’t help trying another five hundred and eighty-three heads-producing flips—he tried explaining his dilemma to each of the people who sat next to him. The woman who waited beside him at the departure station nodded gravely as he explained how he had a coin that wouldn’t come up tails no matter how hard he tried. She politely declined to try flipping his coin herself, and he noticed that she switched lines at the last second to board a different train compartment. The old man Concanon sat next to once aboard had no patience for listening to strangers, as he’d had an abnormally high percentage of encounters with grifters, so he pointedly refused to listen and instead switched seats. The only one who listened at all was a recent graduate who got on one stop before Concanon got to work. He seemed moderately interested and even gave the coin two flips. Both of which came up heads, but which he dismissed as a statistically common result for two random coin flips.
It only took thirty-seven hours from the time Concanon had found the penny on the sidewalk for its improbable streak to affect his work. He didn’t lose his ability to calculate the probability of changes to exchange rates or to determine the best moments to buy or sell euros or pesetas or rands. It only looked that way because too much of his attention was focused on trying to calculate the odds of so many consecutive coin-flip results, result totals that by then reached into the tens of thousands. That day he had six golden opportunities to make a beneficial trade that he was too distracted to execute, resulting in a thirty-four percent decrease from his average rate of profit, the worst day he’d had since he began working as a currency trader. His abnormal numbers earned him a meeting with his supervisor, which took up one-sixteenth of his workday and therefore prevented a further dip in his profit. By day’s end, Concanon couldn’t recall how much money he’d bought or sold since the morning, but remembered to the exact number how many times one piece of money had landed on the same side. That number was already eighty-three thousand, six hundred and twelve.
As he walked home from the train, on which he’d flipped the coin another four hundred and twenty-five times, Concanon considered just tossing it on the ground and being done with his ordeal, though he didn’t like the odds that he might pick it up again by accident some number of days later. He contemplated mixing the coin in with the rest of his pocket change or in the coin jar he kept at home, in the hope that not knowing which it was would prevent him from becoming obsessed with it. He correctly analyzed that this was a poor option, as any coin he took from it had a one-in-two chance of landing on heads the next time he flipped it. A one-in-two chance of erasing the strange sense of worry this coin gave him, but also a one-in-two chance of retriggering it. When he went to rent a video from the convenience store downstairs, he fully intended to give the penny to the clerk as part of his payment, but his impulse buy of a candy bar brought the total to a flat three dollars, and he didn’t have enough other change on him to use it. He considered leaving it in the little plastic take-a-penny tray, but didn’t want to burden some unsuspecting innocent with the coin on the off chance they shared his nervous habit. He wouldn’t have minded doing so to the clerk as, in Concanon’s experience, the guy was rude to him exactly seventy-eight percent of the time.
After another night of betting on the laws of probability and losing—another eight hundred and forty-one flips—he decided to destroy the coin for good. Concanon knew that destroying federal currency was technically a crime, but that his odds of getting caught were too slim to even calculate, and probably far lower considering he was only destroying a penny that cost more to make than it was actually worth. He knew the odds of an American dying in a fire were one in about eighty-one thousand, and didn’t think that was worth the risk of trying to melt the coin. Instead, he chose to leave the penny on the railroad tracks when he went to work the next morning. Concanon had heard about pennies derailing trains, but knew that was a myth. He also knew of six cases where people had been killed placing pennies on tracks, but those people had been either young kids or drunk pranksters. The odds of it happening to him were a fraction of a fraction of one percent.
The next morning, after being unable to resist another three hundred sixty-one flips at the station, Concanon saw the train coming in the distance. Subtly, keeping out of the station master’s line of vision, he snuck over to the tracks, knelt down, and placed the coin on the tracks. Hoping the burden was now gone forever, he took a few steps back and waited for the train to arrive. It did so precisely on time, a one-in-twelve occurrence. After watching the steel commuter train crush the penny as it slowed to a stop, Concanon boarded, finally able to focus on his workday. The entire ride down, for the first time in his two thousand and sixty-eight trips to work as a currency trader, he refrained from flipping a single coin. The odds were he would have to find a new hobby.