Tuesday, December 27, 2011

66: Fuzzy Dice


    Recently my wife was making fun of the fuzzy dice hanging from the
rear-view mirror in my car.  Now, my fuzzy dice are a bit unusual,
being the 20-sided icosahedral dice used in Dungeons and Dragons; thus
my wife is especially embarrassed to drive with me.  But ordinary
6-sided cubic fuzzy dice hanging from mirrors are actually not too
uncommon in the U.S., so this got me thinking.  Why do people have fuzzy
dice in their cars?  What is the connection between random number
generation and driving?
    I could come up with a couple of ideas off the top of my head.
Maybe they simply symbolize that every time you go out on the road,
it's a gamble-- with all the unlicensed drivers, teenagers, and
meth-heads out there, it can be pretty random whether you will make it
back.  Another possibility is that they may be useful in certain
randomized algorithms.  For example, if you're too lazy to remember
when to change your oil, just roll the dice every week.  If you get an
11 or 12 on the pair of 6-sided dice, get an oil change.  In the long
term, you will change your oil an average of once every twelve weeks,
since there is a 1 in 12 chance of rolling an 11 or 12 on a pair of
fair dice, which is about right.  Somehow I think only the geekiest
drivers would think of this scheduling method though.
    Doubting that either of these is the right explanation, I did a
little web browsing, as usual.  They seem to have originated in the
1940's or 1950's, and been most popular through the 1970's.  Some
comments have claimed they exist in England too, where they are known
as "fluffy dice".  Some wise-arse pointed out that the sum of the
total number of dots on a pair of dice is 42, which is the answer to
the ultimate question of the universe in the Hitchhikers' Guide
science-fiction trilogy, so perhaps they can mystically solve roadside
dilemmas.  And, in a similar vein, there is a claim that 42 is the
largest number such that it and all smaller integers are mentioned in
the Bible, so there may be some religious significance.
    Probably the most realistic suggestion I saw was that World War 2
pilots hung dice in their planes to symbolize luck, and transferred
the tradition to their cars when they got home, but plastic dice
melted in the sun, so they replaced them with fuzzy ones.  A related
explanation says it was risk-seeking hot-rodders who started the
tradition, for roughly the same reasons.
    But oddly enough, this seems to be the one question in life
without a definitive answer on the Internet.  So, you can take any of
the explanations I mentioned, or they all might be wrong.
Incidentally, if you think you have the real answer, I'd love to hear
it: email erik@mathmutation.com.  But this may be one topic that will
forever remain a mystery.
    And this has been your math mutation for today.



  • Article on the origins of fuzzy dice
  • A long discussion on the topic
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