The Powerball Jackpot is $425m. Should you play?

Everything you never needed to know about Powerball

Once again, a large lottery jackpot is making headlines around the country. Tonight’s Powerball jackpot is currently advertised at $425 million. You might be wondering to yourself, “hmm, I wonder if the jackpot is big enough to be worth playing?” Before you go out and buy a ticket, why not take a look at the math?

The math in all the headlines

Tonight at 10:59 p.m. EDT, at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, a machine will select the winning Powerball number by selecting 5 white balls out of a drum of 59 and one red ball out of a drum of 35. That means the total number of possible combinations is 59 choose 5 for the white balls times 35 choose 1 for the red balls, for a total of 175,233,510. It costs two dollars to play. So if the Jackpot is more than $350,467,020, it makes sense to play, right?

Well, not exactly.

First off, that $425m in all the headlines is an annuity that gets paid out over 30 years. That $2 is coming out of your pocket is actual money, so you want to compare it to the actual money you win. The Powerball people advertise this number, too, but in smaller print: $244.7m. Not a bad return on a $2 ticket, but it’s a lot less than the $350m we set as our “worth playing” threshold. So you shouldn’t play until the jackpot gets bigger, right?

Again, not exactly.

Small prizes

Even if you don’t win the jackpot, you can win smaller prizes. Your ticket needs to match all six balls to win the jackpot, but if you match the red ball and/or three out of five red balls, you win something. Outside of California (which we’ll get to later), there are 8 lower prize tiers ranging from $4 (for matching just the red ball or three out of five white balls) to $1,000,000 (for matching all five white balls but not the red ball).

The total expected value of those smaller prizes is about 36 cents per ticket. So to calculate the break-even jackpot point, you could say that on a $2 ticket, you’re spending $0.36 for small prizes and $1.64 on a shot at the jackpot. So the break-even jackpot would be 175,223,510 x $1.64 = $287,366,556 (actually, since it’s not exactly 36 cents worth of small prizes per ticket, the number is $287,280,900). We’re not there quite yet, but we’re close, right? If no one wins tonight, the jackpot will go up past the $287m threshold. Does it make sense to buy then?

As you’ve probably guessed, it gets more complicated.

Split Jackpots

If you do win the jackpot, there’s a good chance you won’t take home the whole prize: there are a lot of other people buying tickets, and there’s a good chance that one or more of them will split the jackpot with you. Exactly how good a chance depends on how many people play. So, how many people play?

Well, Saturday night’s advertised (annuity) jackpot was $300m. Discounting to the cash value, that’s $172.7m. Meaning that the cash value of the jackpot has grown by $72m since the last drawing. Each ticket purchased nationwide adds $0.5995 to the jackpot, so there must have been 120 million tickets sold for tonight’s drawing. If the tickets are randomly distributed among the 175 million combinations, then there’s a (1-1/175,223,510)^(120,000,000) = 50.4% chance that you get the entire jackpot to yourself.

If there are C total possible ticket combinations and N total tickets sold, then if tickets are randomly distributed, the probability of splitting the jackpot with S other people is the binomial function: ((1/C)^N)*((1-1/C)^(N-S))*(N choose S). Because we’re dealing with such large values of N and C, this can be approximated as P(S)=((1-1/C)^N)*((1-1/C)^(-S))*(C^(-S))*((N^S)/S!) = ((1-1/C)^N)*((N/C)^S)/S! In this case, C= 175,223,510 and N=120,000,000, so the formula works out to (50.4%)*0.685^S/S!

If you split the jackpot with S other people, then your payout will be divided by (1+S), so to calculate the expected value of the jackpot if you win, you need to sum, from S=0 to (in theory) S=N, P(S)/(S+1). In reality, P(S)/(S+1) gets vanishingly small rather quickly, and it’s easy to calculate that the sum is 0.724, meaning that if you win the jackpot, you should only expect to win 0.724*$244.7m = $177.2m. So the expected value of a $2 ticket is $0.36 for the small prizes plus $1.01 for the large prizes, for a total of $1.37.

From here, it’s tempting to just say, “well, sure, we just need the jackpot to be high enough so 0.724 times the jackpot is more than $287m. $397m, or a headline (annuity) jackpot of $689 million, ought to be the break even point.

But there’s a problem with that logic. The higher the jackpot grows, the more people buy tickets. And the more people buy tickets (bigger N), the lower the sum of [((1-1/C)^N)*((N/C)^S)/(S+1)!] gets. Since Powerball expanded to California, there has only been one headline jackpot larger than the current $425m: a $590m jackpot that sold roughly 240 million tickets. At N=240 million, the split jackpot correction factor drops to 0.545, and at that correction factor, the jackpot would have to be $287m/0.545 = $527m cash, or a headline jackpot of $915m. Taking the probability of a split jackpot into account, the expected value of a $2 ticket on that lottery was still only $1.52.

That is far higher than any jackpot on record (excluding the “El Gordo” prize in Spain’s Christmas lottery, but that’s generally divided into 180 smaller shares), so we don’t have any data on how many people would buy tickets. It certainly seems, though, that the trend of higher jackpots, leading to more sales, leading to a higher likelihood of a split jackpot, would continue.

Which leads to the surprising conclusion: It’s not clear that there is any possible Powerball jackpot size where buying a ticket has positive expected value.

Taxes and Utility

It gets worse.

In the United States, money you win in the lottery is taxable income. And for most people, money you spend on lottery tickets isn’t tax deductible. So you’re wagering post-tax dollars to win pre-tax dollars.

Now, a disclaimer: I’m not a tax expert, so don’t take this as tax advice. But in general, the federal government and many states allow you to deduct gambling losses up to the amount of your gambling winnings for the year. So if you already have a net gambling profit for the year, you can probably deduct the cost of your $2 Powerball ticket. There’s still probably some mucking about to do about possible differences in marginal tax rates, AMT exclusions, and such, but like I said, I’m not a tax expert. To a first-order approximation, even if the expected value of a ticket does exceed $2, unless you’ve already got gambling winnings this year, after taking taxes into account, it’s still a losing proposition.

And even aside from taxes, there’s the matter of the utility a person gets from money. $200,000,000 is not actually a hundred million times as useful as $2. Without getting too deep into the philosophical questions about money and happiness, let’s just go with a simple model where the utility of money is the log of total wealth. If we’re trying to optimize expected utility, then if your current total wealth is W and the probability of winning the jackpot is P, you should play when ln(W) < ((1-P)*(ln(W-$1.64)) + P*(ln(W+J))). This is approximately the same as J > (W/(W-$1.64))^(1/P)-W.

1/P is just the number of possible ticket combinations, 175,223,510. If the median American has $70,000 in wealth, then they can maximize their utility by playing when the jackpot exceeds ((70,000/69,998.36))^(175,223,510). This is a number with well over a thousand digits. Even if you’re a millionaire, the jackpot necessary to justify playing is well over a hundred digits. You need to start with a total wealth of more than $10 million to ever possibly justify spending $2 on a Powerball ticket, if you’re trying to maximize your expected utility of wealth.

So that means you should never buy a Powerball ticket unless you’re rich, already have gambling winnings for the year, and the expected jackpot is really high, even after taking the probability of splitting the jackpot into account. Right?

Well, again, not quite.

Other considerations

Here’s where I come clean: in spite of all the math, I’ve actually bought a ticket for tonight’s drawing.


Because Powerball’s not an investment. It’s a game. I play because I think it’s entertaining. It’s like playing whack-a-mole at the carnival: maybe you’ll win some cheap trinket, but odds are the only thing you’re paying for is the experience of playing.

As you’ve probably figured out by this point, I enjoy thinking about the math related to the lottery. I also enjoy letting my mind wander and think about what I’d do with a nine-figure windfall. And I find it a little easier to let my mind ponder these questions when I know I’ve got a lottery ticket in my pocket. These aren’t things I need to think about every day, so I don’t play the lottery every day, but spending $2 a couple of times a year is worth it for me.

Also, of that $2 ticket, about $0.96 goes into prizes, about 10 cents goes to the local business where I bought the ticket, about 5-10 cents goes to lottery administration expenses, and the rest goes to the state. And I know I’m in the minority here, but I really don’t mind giving the state government a few extra dollars each year. I think most of what the government does is pretty worthwhile.

At the end of the day, $2 just isn’t that much. You probably wouldn’t think twice about spending that much on bus fare, or on a bottle of water. If you feel like buying a ticket, buy a ticket, if you don’t, don’t, but remember that it’s entertainment, and not investment.

California is special

As anyone who lives here knows, California is a little different from the rest of the country. As it turns out, California’s Powerball rules are also a little different from the rest of the country.

In most states, the smaller Powerball prizes are fixed amounts specified in the rules. For example, if you match only the red ball, and no white balls, you win $4. The odds of winning that prize are 1 in 55.406, so the expected value of that prize is 7.2194 cents. Due to random variation, sometimes more people win prizes, and the lottery pays out a little more than 7.2194 cents per ticket sold, and sometimes fewer people win, and they lottery pays out a little less than 7.2194 cents per ticket sold.

In California, however, prizes are calculated in the opposite direction. The lottery allocates exactly 7.2194 cents per ticket sold to the “Level Nine” prize pool, and then divides that prize pool evenly among everyone who matches just the red ball and no white balls. When fewer than the expected number of people win prizes, then the quotient is a little higher than $4, and when more than the expected number of people win prizes, the quotient is a little lower than $4. But the California Lottery always rounds down to the next whole dollar, with the remainder going into a “special prize fund” used to promote other games. So about half the time you win a small prize, you’ll get a dollar less than you expected. On net, this decreases the expected value of California Powerball tickets by 1.57 cents relative to non-California Powerball tickets.

There’s another quirk in the California rules, too: while all the other Powerball states award a $1,000,000 prize for matching all five white balls, but not the red ball, California treats that prize almost like a separate jackpot game. Other states’ expected payout on the million dollar prize is 19.4037 cents per ticket, but sometimes it’s more, and sometimes it’s less. California, on the other hand, allocates exactly 19.4037 cents per ticket sold to the “Level Two” prize pool. And fairly often, nobody in California wins this prize. When that happens, the prize pool carries over to the next drawing. The exact adjustment is a function of how many tickets were sold for the drawing statewide and how big the prize pool carryover is from the previous drawing. From past drawings, it appears that a million dollars in growth in the national headline jackpot corresponds to about 115,000 tickets sold in California, so for tonight’s drawing, there are probably about 14.4 million tickets in the state. And someone matched 5 out of 5 white balls on Saturday, so there’s no carryover from last time. The odds of matching 5/5 white balls and no red ball are 1 in 5,153,633. So there’s an additional downward adjustment of $0.194037*((1-1/5,153,633)^14,400,000) = 1.19 cents per ticket. So, overall, California Powerball tickets for tonight’s drawing are worth 2.76 cents less than non-California Powerball tickets.


The one sentence takeaway: no matter how big the jackpot gets, you should only buy Powerball tickets for their entertainment value.

And if you buy a ticket, good luck tonight.

Next Story — Today’s Vagenda
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Today’s Vagenda

Ready for the day.

6:00 am. Arise. Wrap your cardigan-sheathed hands around a mug of hot cardamom lemon water; squint into the distance from your craftsman veranda. Breathe authentically. Pick off a passing man with your bespoke porch rifle.

6:30 am. Laundry. The heather-gray linen kitchen towels from last night’s festivities need washing. Delicate cycle; honeysuckle gentle wash detergent. Head back upstairs. Roll up your husband’s body inside the flokati rug upon which it rests. Dust surrounding area with small-batch microfiber.

7:30 am. Morning e-mails. Remind the others about this weekend’s dick-burning.

8:15 am. Breakfast: coconut-ginger scones with raw wolf meat. Using the giraffe filter on Snapchat, falsely accuse a man of rape.

9:00 am. Nap.

9:18 am. Yoga while watching latest Real Housewives of New Jersey; question Jacqueline’s motives. Move the rug-swaddled corpse to a dumpster behind Whole Foods. Buy chia seeds in bulk.

11:30 am. Back home. Shower; wash face with homemade semen-cucumber scrub. Triple steam vulva. Check internet. Mob formed yet?

1:30 pm. Doctor’s appointment — ask about ‘pleasure abortions.’ Do they do group packages? Alison’s birthday is coming up.

2:55 pm. Retail therapy; there’s a sale at Michael’s. Purchase 37 mason jars. Text Jenny for her scrotum-infused kombucha recipe. Commit vehicular manocide in the parking lot. Text while driving; tell the internet mob they can stop — you’ve just killed the man you falsely accused of rape.

4:30 pm. Kill a football team.

4:45 pm. Nap.

6:30 pm. Order artisanal pizza. Abduct the delivery guy upon his arrival; make him dance for you while you work on screenplay for an all-female Saving Private Ryan.

7:30 pm. Google cyanide. Ethically harvested version available?

7:45 pm. Nag a man to death at the local bar.

9:25 pm. Deactivate bitch shield.

9:30 pm. Apply lavender oil to temples, crawl into bed. Snuggle under your hemp percale sheets; set your noise machine to “crickets+men crying.” Fall asleep censoring male speech online.

Next Story — Hey U of Chicago: I’m an academic & survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.
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Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.

From a getting-to-know-you worksheet I give to my students on the first day of class.

TW: sexual assault, stalking

Today, news broke that the University of Chicago had issued a letter to all incoming Freshmen warning that the school is not a “safe space” and that students should expect to be “challenged”. Most notably, UofC came out against the use of “trigger warnings”, brief content advisories that sometimes are placed on syllabi or lecture slides to alert students to potentially upsetting material.

Many came out in vociferous support of UofC’s stance seeing it as crucial blow for intellectual freedom, levied against an increasingly coddled, demanding Millenial student body. Education should be provocative, decriers of trigger warnings say. College professors should make you uncomfortable. If you ask for, demand, or expect to be warned about objectionable content, you are missing out on an invaluable learning opportunity, or so the logic goes. More than one political cartoon has already depicted pro-TW Millenials as whining, entitled infants in cribs of their own making.

There’s like dozens of these.

As a social psychologist and a professional academic in Chicago working for multiple universities on an at-will basis, academic and intellectual freedom is a value I am inclined to strongly support. I do believe that professors should feel free to express extreme viewpoints and present challenging material to their students in hopes of expanding their thinking and drawing out critical reflection. And as an instructor with my own classes, I often present material or ideas that some students may disagree with or vehemently dislike. Like many academics, I am dismayed when my colleagues are denied intellectual freedom, and are fired or otherwise punished for wearing political insignia, presenting challenging material, or espousing views some students object to. And as a researcher who studies and publishes articles on the psychology of open-mindedness and political tolerance, I am generally opposed to censorship.

Seriously, I believe in open-mindedness and intellectual freedom. Look at this paper I spent years on.

Trigger warnings are none of those things.

What are trigger warnings? Trigger warnings are small advisories placed before the presentation of material that people may find acutely upsetting. Sometimes they are placed in course syllabi, prior to weeks where distressing content is discussed, or on lecture slides, before the presentation of graphic or unpleasant or otherwise triggering material. The term “trigger” is a reference to trauma triggering, an experience common to people with post-traumatic stress disorder, whereby encountering a word, person, or object that is reminiscent of trauma causes a person to experience flashbacks, physical/emotional distress, or panic.

For example, if I was sexually assaulted or raped in a 2002 Kia Sportage (I wasn’t), I might feel uneasy or panicked sitting in the back of a 2002 Kia Sportage (I don’t). If I was forced to have sex that I did not want to have (I was), I might feel incredibly unhappy, shaky, and even slightly out of touch with reality when someone near me makes a joke about rape (I do). Triggers range from the graphic (rape & murder imagery, vivid gore, etc) to the banal (I have an acquaintance who is triggered by apples, because of an abuse experience involving apples), and from the common to the exceptional. For a good example of a banal and uncommon trigger, see the infamous “Trigger Warning: Breakfast” comic published anonymously to The Nib.

Triggers are not a PTSD-exclusive problem. Other mental illness symptoms can also be activated by triggers. For example, if a person is recovering from bulimia, they might feel an urge to purge after witnessing a scene from a movie in which a character throws up. A person who experiences extreme depression and suicide ideation might be incredibly distressed to read a book narrated by a suicidal character, and so on. A person’s experience of being triggered can be visible and physical, or internal and very subtle. Triggers are many and varied, and their effects are unique to each individual.

It is impossible for a professor or teacher to anticipate every student’s triggers, and frankly, I’ve never met a student who was demanding or entitled about having their specific triggers tagged in advance. What I have encountered, numerous times, are students who have a trauma history or a mental illness that involves triggers, who are only willing to gently and quietly request trigger warnings after I have made my pro-TW stance abundantly clear. These requests have always been polite and reasonable, and have never involved scrubbing my syllabus clean of challenging material.

One student asked me to warn them if I ever discussed cutting or self-harm in class, since they were a former self-harmer working on sobriety from cutting. Another student asked me to give them advanced notice if lectures in my class would touch on weight loss or calories, as they were battling an eating disorder. A student who was a recent rape survivor asked if they could sit quietly in my office with me for a moment, because they’d just been forced to confront their abuser and they were feeling shaky. Another student had anemia and asked me to warn her if I presented any gory images to the class, because she would involuntarily faint.

I have honored every request for a trigger or content warning that a student has ever given me, and I go out of my way to tag any potentially upsetting material with trigger warnings. I don’t do this because I am a beaten-down, scared shitless academic with no intellectual freedom. My students have not backed me into a corner and demanded that I keep thought-provoking content at bay. Students who disagree with me politically or philosophically (of which there are many) do not try to silence me under a deluge of TW requests. My universities have not twisted my arms, pinned me down, and affixed black TW duct tape across my mouth. That’s not how TW’s work.

I wrote this essay because a handful of tweets weren’t enough.

In the vast majority of cases, trigger warnings are adopted on an individual basis by faculty who opt into using them. A national survey by the National Coalition Against Censorship indicated that fewer than 1% of universities in this country have formal trigger warning policies. In cases where students desire trigger warnings, this desire is usually expressed in the form of a personal request from student to professor. In addition, trigger warning requests span a variety of ideological positions — they are not the sole purview of liberal Millenials. Over half of the educators surveyed by the NCAC reported providing informal warnings regarding course content of their own accord. In other words, a near majority of academics provide trigger warnings on their own anyway.

So if I, like most of my peers in academia, have not been forced by immature Millenials to wrap my course content in a comforting diaper of trigger warning bubble wrap, why do I choose to use the damn things? If you’ve read this far, you probably have some idea. So here’s your trigger warning that below I am going to briefly discuss rape and domestic violence!

— — — —

I was violently sexually assaulted while I was in graduate school, and later, I was stalked and harassed by an ex-partner. These experiences were harrowing, and left emotional and psychological wounds, as well as triggers. I am well aware of them, and know how to avoid them when I need to avoid them. However, I often challenge myself to face them head-on. Trigger warnings help me to emotionally prepare for discussions of rape, stalking, and assault, and allow me to filter out or avoid disturbing content when I’m having a particularly rough day and am not up for it. The language of triggers and trigger warnings gives me a straightforward social script I can use to communicate my trauma reactions to others.

Because I am a rape survivor with trauma triggers, I know firsthand that the experience of using trigger warnings completely contradicts the anti-TW stereotype. I am not a soft-willed, petulant baby. I am a battle-tested, iron-willed survivor who has faced far more personal horror than any anti-TW demagogue could. I do not use TW’s to “protect myself” from writing that challenges me intellectually. I read writing by people I disagree with on a daily basis, for both academic and personal enrichment; my use of trigger warnings to sometimes avoid rape- and stalking-related content is utterly irrelevant to that. And the use of trigger warnings does not make me weak. Trigger warnings empower me by allowing me to customize my reading-about-rape experience. I get to choose when and how I present myself with upsetting or triggering content. This makes it easier for me to do so regularly. And for the record, when I am faced with triggering material, I am not a trembling, weeping wreck, fuck you very much.

Of course, sharing my personal trauma experience only the scratches the surface of why I support trigger warnings. My life on earth as an academic, and as a person perceived as a woman, has left me with manifold reasons to use and celebrate TW’s. Like the (dude) professor who admitted to me that he showed the rape scene of Boy’s Don’t Cry to his sociology class, causing a student to run out of the room having a panic attack (she had recently been raped). Or the student who froze up or left the room whenever a topic relevant to their trauma came up, who stopped skipping classes once I knew their triggers and could warn them accordingly. Or the theology professor I knew, who presented his class with graphic, bloody images of what a real-life crucifixion would look like, and had a student vomit in the front of the classroom. Or the writer I know who faints at the sight of needles entering flesh, who had to take a bio 101 course where that very image was projected on a massive screen at the front of the room. Or the domestic violence victim I’m close friends with, who cannot drive through certain areas of her home city because they remind her of her assault. Or the untold scores of students in my classes who are victims of trauma or sufferers of mental illness, who will never feel safe admitting their triggers to me (because trigger warnings are so relentlessly mocked), who will be forced to suffer in silence or miss out on valuable learning opportunities (and grade points) if I lack the empathy to anticipate their needs.

How can someone call themselves an educator and not be sensitive to these incredibly common needs? How can someone be a proponent of intellectual freedom and not want to make their classroom a space where everyone feels free from emotional harm and psychological violence? How does warning a student that a lecture might touch on murder or rape make the university a less open environment? Aren’t we supposed to make our classrooms accessible to students with disabilities? Why does the University of Chicago think that discouraging students from advocating for their own mental health is a blow to the quality of their education? Do they not want mentally ill or traumatized students at all? Why are so many academics so hellbent on providing traumatizing content to students? Why are these established, comfortable Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers so threatened and scandalized by being asked to give a two-word heads-up? Do they not realize Millenials are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for an increasingly devalued education, and that of course they want to have a little bit of influence on the quality of what they’re buying?

I am a college professor, a psychologist, a rape survivor, and a proud user of trigger warnings, and I can’t figure out the answers to those questions. I’ve read all the fuming anti-TW screeds; I’ve bashed my head against the rants and the wringing of hands and I’ve “challenged” myself to understand their outrage, but I just can’t. Most of them don’t seem to understand what trigger warnings and safe spaces even are. I want my students to feel emotionally safe so that they can take on cognitive challenges from a position of strength. That’s all. And I hope that makes the anti-TW babies cry, cry, cry.

Next Story — where should we start?
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where should we start?

Let’s start at the beginning.

It’s 8:29 a.m. and I’m peeking my head around the corner of the HR director’s door for our meeting, which starts in one minute. Immediately, I know she kn0ws. My boss said he didn’t tell anyone except for his boss, so I don’t know if he’s lying or if his boss told her or what, but she knows. You can always tell when people know. They look at you differently, even if they don’t mean to.

“What’s going on?” she asks. We make eye contact and she smiles, a kind smile but a knowing smile, because she knows I know the question is rhetorical, and I sit but only briefly because I’m flustered and I think the other chair might actually make more sense logistically so I stand and move my things, I’m going to sit in the chair furthest from the door so I don’t look like I’m trying to escape and isn’t another person coming to this meeting, I will sit in this other chair with the plush emoji sunglasses pillow already taking up half of the seat, okay here I go, I am sitting on the emoji’s face, this is fine.

“You know,” she says, oh no, here she goes, she wants to Talk About It, “This is no different than having a broken leg. People don’t talk about it, but it’s just as serious.” My eyes start to well up with tears as I chug some water to avoid making eye contact, keep drinking the water, I’m not thirsty but if I stop drinking I’ll start crying and that’s an unsurvivable scenario, “I can see in your eyes that you’re hurting. We need you to get better. Fix your leg.”

The door opens just as I run out of water.

“Aisha! Please come in, this is Amy. She wants to talk about taking a medical leave of absence.”

Let’s start at the beginning, which is right this very second. I am 27 years old. I am successfully raising a dog and six houseplants. My family is proud of me. My boyfriend wants to marry me. I get paid well for work that I enjoy; I have no debt.

The beginning is now, right here, in my bed. It’s a Tuesday morning, it’s 9 a.m. and I should be at work but I can’t get up.

Let’s start at the beginning.

It’s July 2015, in the beginning, and I am drunk in a hotel room. People always say Work travel seems so glamorous! and I don’t know how to tell them that I spend a lot of it crying or vomiting in secret, so I smile and nod. My eyes sink further into black-rimmed holes in my face, their fall accelerated by 4 a.m. wake-ups and fine just one more drink at dinners. I see silhouettes of skylines as I leave cities that I’ve technically visited, I guess. I’ve been to Miami, but have I been to Miami?

It’s July 2015 and I am in love with a man who does not have the desire nor the emotional capacity to love me back. We’re not dating. We’re not really anything. We sleep together sometimes and I don’t understand why he doesn’t want me, but I’m drunk in a hotel room and he’s telling me he can’t come over and he doesn’t want to sleep together anymore. We weren’t anything before, but we’re Officially Nothing now.

So I text him.

you are garbage and you’re going to die alone. I hope to god you find yourself where I am someday (accidentally in love with a sociopath, hanging halfway off a 15th floor balcony & wondering what it feels like to crack your head open on the sidewalk).

Morning comes. So, too, do the headache, the nausea, and the remorse. I email him once a day, every day, until he finally responds.

I hope you get better. I want you to get better. But that’s not something that I can help with.

Let’s start at the beginning. It’s 2000.

Do you remember 2000? It’s an awkward year. In 2000, I browse for clothes at Hot Topic and then replicate my own poser pop-punk persona that I’ve cobbled together from Goodwill finds and shoplifted eyeliner from the Meijer in the next town over. I have acne and a crush on all the boys, one of whom calls me Pizza Face and creates an AIM account to taunt me for not knowing enough about Green Day. A girl named Krissie tapes a sign that says “freak” to my locker.

School gets out at 2:28. My house is empty until 5:30. I spend my free time carving deep straight lines into my arm with a razor blade that I stole from my grandmother’s medicine cabinet and writing poetry about suicide on a simple blog (plain black background with white Times New Roman font) that my mom inevitably finds. She takes me to therapy. They give me a prescription for Prozac. I am 11.

Let’s start at the beginning. It’s 1919. On Long Island, a pair of Polish immigrants are having their first baby. That baby will grow up a little and raise her two younger siblings after her mother has a nervous breakdown, and will eventually get married and have four children of her own. One of those four children will also have a nervous breakdown, marry an alcoholic, and give birth to her only child — me.

Let’s start at the beginning. It’s spring 2008 and I’m a freshman in college. I didn’t think I needed antidepressants anymore when I left home last fall but it’s April now and I’m coming unhinged, the top of my head is disconnecting from the bottom of my head, do you ever feel that way? I go to the campus psychiatrist and he writes me a prescription for Wellbutrin.

It works and it works and then one day, all of a sudden, it doesn’t work anymore. Depression is like that. You think you’re cured and then one day out of nowhere you’re hyperventilating outside the Olentangy River Road Big Lots.

So I go back to a psychiatrist for the first time in 8 years, which sounds easier than it is. Do you know what mental health care is like in this country? Half of the doctors don’t take your insurance. The doctors who do take your insurance have a two-month wait for new patients. If it’s more urgent than that, they tell you to go to the emergency room, as though the average American can afford an emergency room visit.

So I wait two months for an appointment. But before I even do that, I have to admit I need to see a doctor. And that’s hard. Realistically, I‘ve needed to see a doctor for a year. Maybe two years. Maybe the Wellbutrin never really worked. Sometimes I wonder.

After two months, I walk into an office park in the suburbs and tell a pleasant-looking total stranger that I’m losing my mind. It takes an hour and I tell her everything, literally everything because I’ve gone over it all in my head for eight weeks, even the number of people I slept with in the last year in case that indicates a tendency toward bipolar disorder.

“I think you have major depression,” she says, reiterating the diagnosis I’ve lived with since 2000. “Probably generalized anxiety disorder, too.”

We start by doubling my Wellbutrin dose. It helps with my depression, but it makes my anxiety worse. I start pooping, on average, once every five days. “Wouldn’t you rather be constipated and not want to kill yourself?” you might be asking, and the answer is no: that’s no way to live (Shit Free Or Die). I report back to my doctor, who reminds me that this is all correlation and does not imply causation. But what else do we possibly have to go on to decide what to try next?

All we have to go on is what didn’t work: Prozac. Zoloft. Lexapro. Whatever I took between Lexapro and Effexor. Effexor, which worked but with extreme side effects. Wellbutrin, which used to work but doesn’t anymore.

So then we try Pristiq, which is essentially just different enough from Effexor to let the drug company renew their patent (I’ve been doing a lot of reading). I have too much energy in the morning, but it subsides by 2 pm and leaves me unable to do much other than sit on the couch. Weed seems to be the only thing that helps with the side effects and I start smoking it a lot. It causes tension in my relationship.

I tell the doctor about all of this — except the weed— and she decides to split the dose in half: two 25mg tablets, twice daily instead of one 50mg tablet per day. The side effects change: I am less intensely tired when I am tired, which is more of the time.

One day, about two weeks into the transition to twice-daily pills, I wake up at my boyfriend’s house and hurry home to get ready for work. I stop at Starbucks (venti soy unsweetened iced coffee), I feed the dog (Blue Buffalo Wilderness), I don’t take a shower but I do get dressed (dress, sweater, sandals, all black), and then I sit back down on the bed.

“Help,” I text my boyfriend.

I take my shoes off. I climb under the covers and the dog comes with me and I am sobbing, suddenly my body is heaving and I am so sad but I couldn’t tell you why. I can’t move, I can’t breathe. “Maybe,” I think, “Maybe I’d like to die.”

Depression is good for a handful of things. Growing out your eyebrows, for one. Finishing all 12 seasons of Criminal Minds on Netflix. Creating Pinterest boards full of elaborate desserts while eating takeout. Letting your dog’s stray hairs settle into little black fluff balls that float across your hardwood floors like tumbleweeds.

Depression is bad for everything else.

Let’s start at the beginning, which is actually two beginnings that have twisted and warped their way into the same memory in my mind.

I’m between the ages of 3 and 9, which I know because we still live in the small two bedroom apartment in Englewood with the bright red patterned carpet in the kitchen and my mom drives a teal Ford Taurus station wagon. She’s raising me herself, which I won’t fully appreciate for almost two more decades.

We’re in the car and she’s yelling at me. She yells a lot in these memories, which in the present causes her to think she’s the reason I have depression in the first place. I’ve grown to understand that it’s likely a lot more complex than that. I also know that she loves me and did her best, and if anyone understands how hard it is to ask for help, it’s me.

We’re in the car and she’s yelling at me. We’re also in the kitchen and she’s chopping carrots. I’m young; I don’t have a word for depression yet. I haven’t been exposed to the concepts of suicide or self-harm. But I want to throw myself out of the moving car. I look at the knife she’s using to chop carrots and wonder what it would feel like — would it kill me?

So, how long have I been depressed? I think a better question is: have I ever not been depressed?

Let’s start at the beginning, rewind the tape, back before my parents were married. They’re not my parents yet, either. They’re just a couple, in love, on a camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I don’t know exactly what year it is, but it’s the 1980s and my father is sober.

He’s sober and he’s having a terrible time, which my mom doesn’t know until he tells her, “If I’m gonna feel this way all the time, I might as well just drink.”

Let’s start at the beginning: it’s August 25, a Thursday. It’s been a rough day already for the dog and me, though it’s still early. Just after midnight, severe thunderstorms roll through and I have to coax him out from his favorite spot under the bed; he is barking and barking and will not stop, and is so scared that he snarls at me when I peek down to check on him. The only thing that seems to calm him when he does emerge is the world’s tightest hug — like a Thundershirt, except it’s my body — so we stay like this for two hours in the middle of the night.

I wake up again when my alarm sounds at 6, and we greet each other as we usually do: him with a yawn and a stretch, me with a Good morning, my love and a quick head scratch. Except something feels different when I lock eyes with my neurotic, 20 pound dog this morning. He’s begging for belly rubs, sure, but something else too.

And it dawns on me: I got him through the storm. This ball of fluff needs me. I spring into action, collecting things from where they lay around the house. From my bedside table, I grab what’s left of the weed, the bowl, and two empty beers. I empty the fridge of 11 more beers and two bottles of wine, its only contents. I rifle through my medicine cabinet for my secret stash of muscle relaxers. I got them after a car accident and I save them for special occasions, taking one every so often when I really can’t sleep but monitoring the supply to ensure I still have enough that it’d kill me if I swallowed the whole bottle.

Everything goes in the trash.

I come back to bed, feeling strange. My dog looks like he has questions, though his English isn’t great so I’m not sure what they are. I scratch him in that spot behind his ear that he likes and tell him he’s a good boy. I give him the world’s tightest hug again — not for him this time, but for me.

And then I get up and turn on the shower. I am ready.

Next Story — The Apple-Google shift
Currently Reading - The Apple-Google shift

The Apple-Google shift

In the last couple of years, two very distinct things have happened — or, to be more precise, been happening — in the world of consumer tech, in my opinion. A shift has occurred: Apple, once the definition of innovation, has become stale, content to rest on its laurels; while Google, once ugly and disparate, has continually pushed forward with new and better products that are a delight to use.

The result is two-fold: firstly, from a software perspective, Google-authored apps have all but replaced Apple’s defaults on my iPhone; secondly, for the first time ever, I find myself potentially choosing a Google phone over an Apple phone — a choice that represents not just a one-off hardware purchasing decision, but a first tentative step outside of Apple’s ecosystem and, as a result, a break in unashamed Apple fanboy-ism.

Okay, so I’m considering a switch to Android. No big deal. I’m following in the footsteps of many, many, many others. But what I find interesting outside of my own personal decision is that there seems to be a growing discontent with Apple — especially amongst former so-called fanboys/girls — and, at the same time, a growing appreciation of what Google have been doing, especially from a design perspective. In many ways it’s unwise to compare these two companies alone, but few would disagree that these days they’re the two sides of one coin.

So I thought I’d try and pick this apart. What’s actually changed?

It’s not that Apple no longer creates great products, but there’s just not that spark there anymore, is there? Remember when a new MacBook or iMac would launch? Or the iPhone? Or pretty much any new product? The buzz was palpable; the hype almost always justified. For years and years, Apple constantly innovated, whether it was with entirely new product lines or updates to existing ones, but recently everything has just felt a little… well, meh, hasn’t it?

Could this feeling because Apple is now so ubiquitous, no longer the underdog? Possibly. And could this be down to some very shrewd business decisions, with Apple deciding to refine and hone rather than experiment, as evidenced by the longer life cycles of designs for their phones and computers? Very likely.

But that doesn’t excuse recent product launches that have (again, in my opinion) fallen flat by their past standards. The MacBook? Well, it’s a lovely little machine (and I’m typing on it right now) and I even took a whole set of photos to capture its beautiful form, but time has revealed it to be irritating in many ways (the keys repeatedly get stuck, for instance, and the removal of a magnetic power connector is genuinely irritating). The Apple Watch? After the initial magic wore off, I came to the conclusion that it’s essentially useless — as did almost every other Apple Watch owner I’ve spoken to. The new Apple TV? A total lack of innovation — both from its previous version and the numerous offerings from competitors. New iPhones aren’t even exciting anymore.

In many ways, I wonder if this all started with the launch of iOS 7: although I was originally one of its supporters when it came out and enraged half the Apple-buying world, when I think about it these days, iOS still doesn’t really encourage interaction. It’s not about flat design versus skeuomorphic design; it’s more about how Apple laid the groundwork for what a great, minimal, mobile operating system could be… and then never really built upon those foundations. The same could be said of their camera technology. The iPhone camera’s noise reduction algorithm has ruined many a photo that would have benefitted from not being put through a paint-like Photoshop filter. Oh, and don’t even get me started on Apple Music. What a mess. Sure, it’s not a total failure from an interaction design point of view, but it’s a sub-par effort from a company that should really be far, far, far better than any other steaming music competitors. That Apple Music has been so successful is only down to the ecosystem they’ve cultivated — not because it offers a superior experience.

Then there’s just all the douche moves Apple has made again and again with proprietary connections — their decision to remove the headphone jack on the forthcoming new iPhone being the latest. All of this has added up to make even this most ardent of Apple fanboys start to question his allegiances.

And all the while this has been going on, Google — which, with each new product launch, whether software or hardware, has become even more of an Apple competitor — has continued to innovate; to make better versions of Apple’s own apps. (I don’t even need to mention Maps, do I? No? Good.) And from a design perspective, Google has well and truly grown up: Material Design offered a lot of promise when it was first announced, and in the time that’s passed since, it’s proven itself to be a strong framework for unifying a the company’s multiple software offerings. Sure, there are times when its incarnation feels a little templated and dry — Google Play Music, for example — and perhaps it’s easy to praise Google for their grown-up new looks when, until recent times, Google web apps were so damn ugly. (Remember how Gmail used to look? For a reminder of that less graceful era, look at the browser version of Google Calendar.) But the difficulty of creating a system that works in so many instances, both in terms of aesthetics and interaction, should not be underestimated.

Beneath all of these apps and interactions and aesthetics, there’s another layer of Google that has become so trusted: its infrastructure. Yes, I get the fears about our data being mined to show us more relevant ads, but who do I trust for reliable cloud syncing: Apple or Google? Who do I trust to backup and share my photo library: Apple or Google? Whose infrastructure do I trust for my emails, documents, calendars, and more: Apple or Google? Granted, the latter could be any service provider vs. Google, but the point is that Google’s infrastructure underpins so much of the internet and our daily lives, it often just doesn’t make sense to let someone else handle what we know Google can handle so well.

(At this point, i’m going to refrain from delving into lengthy praises of particular Google apps and services, but I do want to give a quick mention to the Google Calendar and Google Photos iOS apps. They’re so radically superior to Apple’s equivalents, I’d question anyone’s need to ever open those defaults again.)

All this is to say: if Google can be this good on a competitor’s operating system, how much better can it be in its own environment? This is the question that’s been gaining traction in my head recently.

Android used to be a poor man’s iOS, but it’s obviously grown a lot since then. Unfortunately, fragmentation is a problem that’s plagued Android from the very beginning and is probably the primary factor that’s never allowed me to take switching seriously, but here’s where it gets interesting: with Google making (via OEMs) its own Nexus hardware, it’s possible to use a vanilla version of Android, free of bloat from carrier-installed software. It also removes that weird you-can-only-use-this-particlar-version-of-Android thing that plagues Android phones made by other manufacturers, and, in doing so, puts Google on an evening playing field with Apple: control the hardware and you control the software.It just works.

So it’s this vision of Android — a Google phone in its purest form — that’s making me, and others, consider the switch. And with new Nexus phones rumoured to land (or at least be announced) very soon, the opportunity to do so might be just around the corner.

Or maybe not. The new iPhone is also due very soon. Maybe it’ll be amazing. Maybe it’ll be the best hardware and software combination that exists in the world. Maybe Apple’s core apps, services, and experiences that underpin the entire iOS / macOS / tvOS ecosystem will up their respective games and I’ll look back on this post as blasphemy.

But — sadly — I’m not sure that’s something the Apple of 2016 is capable of.

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