18 Sept. 2007
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Meredith's Million, Whittaker's Million$

This blogitem, oddly, was prompted by a single sentence in an article in which I would normally have no interest.  It had a teaser link:  Winner reflects on nightmare lottery.  "Nightmare lottery?"  Could they be talking about the Rikl Lottery, which we learned to play over a year ago?  Of course not!  That lottery returns a guaranteed 50 cents on every dollar to every player.  After clicking on the link, I read the story about Jack Whittaker, who won the single biggest jackpot ever in the "Powerball" lottery.

The prize was worth $314.9 million. Whittaker opted for the lump-sum payout of $170 million -- $93 million after taxes.

"That's a lot of money."  But apparently that lottery doesn't have as lavish a return as the prize amount would indicate.  Although the publicity claims that he won $314.9 million, they rarely remind their potential customers that if they want their winnings now rather than over an uncertain lifetime, it's $170 million.  Before taxes.  After, he gets to keep about 30% of his total "winnings."  So what's the nightmare?  Plenty of people believe that even $93 million is "a lot of money."  Apparently, enough people to dog his every footstep and ruin his life, not to mention to cost him his friends and his marriage.  And the irony of all this is that Whittaker was a rich man to start out with.  He was a businessman with friends, a marriage, and $17 million dollars.  What can you do with $93 million that you can't do with $17 million?  I'm sure there's a lot, but depending on how you look at it, either amount makes one remarkably rich or not rich at all.  My threshold for "really rich" is somewhere in the billion dollar range.  I.e., enough money to have your own space program, which is why I admire the handful of really rich people who do have that much money, and who do have their own space program.  And why I wish Bill Gates and especially Warren Buffett would think a little harder about just how to use all that money.

$25,000 Is "A Lot Of Money"

In fact, pretty much any amount over $1000 is "a lot of money" if you happen to watch the teevee game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."  I would characterize the following as a "secret shame" except it obviously isn't secret, at least not any more.  I watch, on occasion, that very same program, hosted by the pleasant Meredith Vieira.  Although I make no special effort to watch the show, I am often in front of the teevee while my housemate is watching, as that show is her preferred viewing during its allotted time slot.  Here's a brief summary of how it works:

A contestant is asked questions, starting at a value of $100, and progressing, with roughly increasing difficulty and doubling monetary value of the question, to $1,000,000.  There are two thresholds, $1000, and $25,000, at which, if you've won that much, you get to keep at least that regardless of further progress.  The questions leading to $1000 are trivial and occasionally risible, so that almost every contestant reaches that level.  Beyond that, they get harder, and while a goodly number reach and keep $25,000, I have yet to see anyone get even close to the million dollar grand prize.  To keep it interesting, the contestant has options, such as asking for an audience vote, switching questions, and calling a "lifeline," i.e., friend or associate who might be an expert on the subject of the question. 

After each question is asked, the contestant has the option of either answering the question or keeping the money he has won up to that question.  But if he answers incorrectly, he loses all that he has made down to the highest "threshold."  The agony is palpable.  Sometimes a clue-free contestant chooses to guess and occasionally guesses correctly.  More often, with no idea of the correct answer, he will say "You know, X Thousand is a lot of money" and explain that he's going to keep it and go.  The audience applauds wildly, Meredith convincingly congratulates and consoles him, and it's on to the next potential million-dollar winner.

You Knew All That

The above description I'm sure is nugatory.  Apparently, until I became aware of the show, I was the only adult United States resident who didn't know how Millionaire worked.  But I felt it was a necessary preamble because I got to write "lot of money" two more times, and I could be wrong about the "only adult" theory.   Preamble complete, let me tell you my Millionaire history...

The first time I heard of the show was when my late friend Joe told me about it, pretty much as I have related it above.  Of course my very first question to him was, "So, what was a million dollar question?"  He told me one he had seen:  "Of the four Galilean Satellites of Jupiter, which is the largest?"  Having read Heinlein's "Farmer in the Sky" in my youth, I immediately answered "Ganymede."  He told me that I was supposed to wait for the four choices.  I practiced my quizzical look.

As I became familiar with the show, I became even more familiar, if that was necessary, with how differently-knowledged I am.  I watched contestant after contestant struggle with the most utterly trivial math and science questions imaginable.  Questions that used all their lifelines and machinations I often answered without waiting for the choices.

One day when I arrived at work I found our office manager missing, and I inquired as to whether he had gone defective.  "No," I was told, he's on "Millionaire" today!  Wow!  Soon he can support us in the style to which we'd like to become accustomed!  My next thought was "How insultinghe didn't ask me to be his science or geography lifeline."  With a hearty harumph, I awaited his return, only to find that he wasn't on the show, he was only in the audience.  I forgave him the lifeline lapse.

Richard and Meredith

The conjunction "and," above, is the closest Meredith and I will ever get.  Of that, I'm certain.  Despite my propensity for answering the expensive questions before the choices are given, and my frequent ability to deduce the correct answer by eliminating the wrong ones, there is no way this Richard will ever either get on the show, or, if I miraculously did, get anywhere near a megabuck.  I would almost certainly make it up to $1000 (as does everybody), and would get embarrassingly stuck on the very first question about movies and the actors therein.  My knowledge of that subject extends to Mr. Roberts and Forbidden Planet.  I would probably get past the first one with help from the audience, and maybe the second one with help from my housemate/lifeline, who always gets them right.  Beyond that I would be on my own, and somewhere around $4000 to $16,000 dollars I'd hear myself saying "Meredith, that's a lot of money" and exit amidst laughter while trying to rip out my tongue for emitting the "That's a lot of money" clich.

But Meredith would be consoling and congratulatory, not to mention pleasant.  May I end this item with a comment about her?  I can think of nobody from whom I would rather receive consolation.  I happened to watch a few seconds of the "Emmy" program on Sunday, which I assure you wasn't deliberate.  They had a bunch of people going on and off stage, each more obnoxious and witless than the previous.  I know nothing about Meredith personally; for all I know she's the one who drowned those poor frogs I wasn't able to save from the skimmer and eats small children for dinner, possibly after poisoning them with beryllium.  But at least on the teevee, she's such a pleasure to observe compared to all the others who randomly appear on that screen.  I don't believe the cable company offers a Meredith Channel, but if they did, I would surely subscribe, and maybe even watch once in a while.

Scooped Again

You know how I'm always reminding you to "Be careful?"  Well, my pet adjuration has been usurped, this time by the Safety First Society.  According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the organization adopted "Be careful" as its slogan in response to the very high accident rate.  In 1914. 

I wonder who's pre-stolen "Be lucky." 

NP:  "Ride The Ride" - The Bangles

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