In July 2003 details leaked of a new venture from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: an online market for financial speculation on possible terrorist attacks, assassinations, and coups. “Futures markets have proven themselves to be good at predicting such things as elections results,” the Defense Department argued. “They are often better than expert opinions.” DARPA—already under fire for its proposed Total Information Awareness program—was forced to abandon the idea.
A twelfth-century-bc Chinese king consulted an oracle and was told his lucky charm would not be a tiger, dragon, bear, or leopard but rather a wise counselor. He soon came upon a sagacious old man fishing in the river and conscripted him into service. It is said the man’s virtue was such that he fished not with a hook but with a straight piece of iron; acknowledging his integrity, fish impaled themselves voluntarily.
“Among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal,” poet John Berryman told an interviewer in 1970, two years before his death. “Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”
In November 1934 a team of American baseball stars, including Babe Ruth, toured Japan. When they arrived for a game in the town of Narashino, each man was presented with a horseshoe-shaped flower wreath. Ruth detested the gift; he later told a Japanese baseball magazine that he considered such wreaths bad luck and had never hit a home run after receiving one.
Suetonius reported that Caligula often cheated when playing dice. The emperor once interrupted a game to go into the courtyard, where he spotted a group of rich knights passing. He had them arrested, stole their goods, then “resumed the game in high spirits, boasting that his luck had never been better.”
The Cincinnati Commercial complained in 1871 about the game of fly loo, a “detestable canker that destroys men’s souls.” Players selected sugar lumps and bet on which would attract a fly first. “Every afternoon from twenty to thirty of the very flower of our mercantile population retire to a private room and under locks and bolts give themselves up to this satanic game,” the article noted, “while the deserted ladies are languishing for a little male conversation below.”
A young nobleman in ancient Athens fell in love with a statue of Agathe Tyche, goddess of good fortune. He hugged and kissed it, then offered the local council a large sum of money to purchase it. When his request was denied, he decorated the statue extravagantly with crowns and garlands, offered a sacrifice, uttered a lengthy lamentation, and killed himself.
When Apple released its Shuffle feature for iPods, users were deceived by the true randomness of its playback; songs from the same album or artist were often grouped by chance. Complaints led Steve Jobs to alter the device’s programming and begin offering Smart Shuffle, which allowed users to adjust the likelihood of hearing similar songs in a row. “We’re making it less random,” he said, “to make it feel more random.”
Sailors’ fear of bananas may extend back to seventeenth-century Spanish ships trading in the Caribbean. Crew members would often purchase wooden crates of the fruit, and when their vessels sailed north to pick up the Gulf Stream in the Straits of Florida, hazards of the passage shipwrecked many, leaving behind stray clumps of bananas floating ominously on the water’s surface for later ships to see.
On Friday, January 13, 1882, thirteen men met in New York City as the Thirteen Club; they walked under a ladder, ate lobster salad sculpted into the shape of a coffin, and sat beneath a banner reading morituri te salutamus (“we who are about to die salute you”). The following year, the club’s newsletter gleefully reported that “not a single member is dead.”