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Road Rage!

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Michael Farese.

I have less of a story and more of a question. My girlfriend is from New Jersey and has a very, um, animated personality. While driving, she often gives people certain gestures, honks, flashes headlights, etc.

I always tell her that she needs to be careful and that she shouldn’t do things like that because there are crazy people out there who might try to run her off the road (or worse) in a fit of road rage. She tells me that I’m being ridiculous and that she has a better chance of getting struck by lightning.

My question is: does she have a better chance of getting struck by lightning? Am I worrying about something that has only a negligible statistical chance of occurring?

Looking forward to some insight!


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 243.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog.

Hmmm…. Well, finding statistics about road rage is difficult, mostly because the definition of “road rage” is fuzzy. However, after looking at several different sources, I believe it’s safe to say that it seriously injures or kills around 1500 people in the U.S. per year, and that doesn’t include incidents in which only minor injuries or property damage are involved.

By contrast, the number of people who are injured by lightning in the U.S. each year is fewer than 300. On average, the number killed is 33.

Several websites echoed this sentiment written in About News:

“Statistics tell us that most all of us have been involved in an aggressive driving experience either as the victim or the aggressor at some point in our lives.”

Yet the lifetime chances of being struck by lightning at some point in one’s life are about 1 in 12,000. So I’d go with the author on this one.

Watch This Coincidence

(Submitted by reader who prefers to remain anonymous.)

I grew up in Alaska, and didn’t move to Michigan until 1990. After a few years of marriage, my wife and I decided to buy a new house (2002). We just contacted a realtor and looked on the internet ourselves. We finally decided on a house in a town about 10 miles away, because we thought it was a great deal.

I was a construction worker at the time.  About 5 years later, I got into watchmaking, and 4 years after that I opened my own watch repair shop in town.  There were many open storefronts for rent, and we finally decided on the one that looked like it was in the best condition. Soon after, I started researching the local watchmaker who lived and worked in town (he died in 1910). Long story short… not only am I in a storefront literally across the street, but I’m related to both him, and one of the founders of the town.  I don’t think I need to tell you that watchmaking is not a common profession. My great-grandfather was the watchmaker’s second cousin. And I’m a descendant of the brother of one of the founders of the town.

The only thing that makes the story sound less coincidental is if I admit that my mother grew up in another town about 40 miles away, and that her family has lived in this area since the 1830’s.

Holy Comical Coincidence, Batman!

As I have 2 monitors, I like to watch something on one while surfing the web on the other. I decided to re-watch Batman the Animated Series.

While browsing through stuff in an artist community website, I came across a little fan comic derived from one of the episodes of Batman (coming across comics isn’t rare, but this is the first one I’ve seen derived from a specific episode). I was about to pass it by until I noticed that the comic supposedly took place during the exact episode that I happened to be watching!

The Spooky Cab Ride

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Celestia Ward

Greetings. I had a strange coincidental experience a couple of decades back that, unfortunately, wasn’t cute or funny. My odds-must-be-crazy story is actually kind of gruesome and not for the weak of heart. So if you don’t mind a change of pace from your typical stories, I’ll tell you mine.

Some years ago, in Baltimore, I worked part-time with a small crew of artists in the tourist district. There were maybe eight of us. After night shifts I would routinely take a cab home; as a young female, waiting for a bus late at night could feel a bit lonely and dangerous. I would walk across the street to the large hotel taxi stand and usually there would be one or two cabs waiting.

One Sunday night I hopped into the one waiting cab and the driver told me he had just gotten paged by one of his “regulars” and would need to go pick her up–but if I wanted to ride along he’d drop me off afterward for a reduced fare. I had never had a driver offer this before, but there were no other cabs at the stand and a cheaper ride sounded good to me. I was in no hurry.

This regular client was a nurse who was just getting off her ER shift at the major hospital in the city center. We chatted as we rode, and she described the victim of grisly crime that had come in the previous night. An eighty-year-old woman had been attacked by her adult son, who lived with her and had a history of mental illness. He had come home from a drinking binge, accused her of stealing his money, and beat her up–even cut into her lips and cheeks, the nurse said, convinced, in his psychotic state, that she was hiding money in her mouth.

The cab driver and I were horrified. She said that the police had this man in custody and were expecting to charge him with murder. The old woman was in very bad condition and not expected to recover.

The nurse was dropped off at her house, then the cab driver took me home at his promised discount, and I just assumed that would be the last I heard of that awful scenario, unless the local news was covering it.

I went to work the next night and saw a couple of coworkers with grim expressions on their faces. They told me that Joe (I am changing his name) wouldn’t be working with us anymore. I first assumed that he’d finally been fired–Joe was kind of a jerk, had some issues and drank too much. No one really liked Joe.

It hit me sideways when my coworkers told me he had been arrested–for killing his mother! Out of the whole city, out of all the times I had taken a cab, I had ended up in the one taxi cab that–unknown to me at the time–got me a firsthand account of a murder committed by a coworker.

Tell me, what are the odds??!


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 242.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog.

It’s hard to say what the odds are without more information. The population of Baltimore at the time would be helpful, but not entirely, since the odds are increased a great deal by geography–the proximity of Joe’s home to his work place and the hospital where his mother was taken are not coincidental. So, I can say that the odds are much higher than one might think, but it is still quite a coincidence, and similar to stories I have heard before (I even have a similar story myself).

It is a gruesome story, and that gruesomeness enhances the chill and eeriness of the coincidence.

John’s New TV

(Submitted by TOMBC Team Member John Rael)

The day I went to my bank in order to get a personal loan, I came home, turned on my LCD TV (Westinghouse LVM-47W1), which I’ve owned for six years, and started seeing random ‘snowlike’ pixels on the screen. I turned it off in order to turn it on again… it would not turn on again.

I unplugged it and replugged it. Nothing. It was officially dead. Even though its standby light was on, and it kept making a slightly high pitched hum sound.

Keep in mind, without the loan I had just received (that very day), I would not have been able to afford another television until at least October. Anyways, I’m not sure how relevant any of that is to the coincidence, but there you go. Feel free to incorporate any info you happen to know about me personally (career, lifestyle, etc.). Also, feel free to ask me any questions.


Below are the extended notes for use in Skepticality Episode 241 provided Edward Clint.  Ed Clint produces the Skeptic Ink Network and writes about Evolutionary Psychology, critical thinking and more at his blog Incredulous. He is presently a bioanthropology graduate student at UCLA studying evolutionary psychology.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary.

TV used to be pejoratively called the “boob tube”, until computer monitors became the rightful heir to that meaning, partly because televisions used to be cathode ray tubes. The cathode tubes of our primitive low-def ancestors were electron guns firing away at the screen one pixel at a time. Today’s liquid crystal display (LCD) TV technology is much more reliable, having fewer moving parts, and no electron gun. Thanks to this tubal migration, today’s tube-less TVs can have a mean-time-between-failure of 100,000 hours. This means that, on average, if you watched 5 hours of TV a day, it would take 54 years for the device to fail. A bit less if you like Peter Jackson movies.

TV failure in general is pretty rare. Then again, John, you’re probably not an average user. I’m told you spend a large amount of time and energy on making and consuming videos for the internets and whatever other media outlets still exist. I assume that means you work with lots of footage of cats and people falling off of things. So maybe you really put that Westinghouse through its paces. Even if you used it 24/7, it would probably take 11 years to reach the statistical breaking point.

What’re the odds you’d just happen to be able to replace a broken set on the day it breaks? A fairer question is, how many different expensive things breaking that day could have seemed like a strange coincidence? I have not been to your house, John, but I know you don’t drive, and I will assume it is populated with a variety of large fancy cameras that aren’t compensating for anything, some high end editing equipment, and at least two fancy blenders with way more settings than anyone could possibly need. I’m not sure why I assume there’re blenders, it just feels right. The breakage or loss of any of these items on a given day still isn’t too likely, but the odds are more moderately unhinged than crazy, which seems about right for John Rael.

A triple play birthday!

Today is my birthday, so here’s a birthday-related anecdote for you.

About a dozen years ago, I went to a lecture at a nearby school.  As we waited for the lecture to start, the lady in the seat to my left started talking with me.  After a little while, she mentioned her birthday is August 11th.  The lady in the seat to my right overheard, and she told us that HER birthday is also August 11th.  At that point, I revealed that my own birthday is August 11th, too!

None of us had ever met or even seen each other before, but we’d all just happened to sit side by side by side!  Since then, the lady on my left has become a good friend, and every year we celebrate our birthdays together.

Gamer’s Timed Coincidence

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Lee Christie)

Hi, I listen to your segment on Skepticality and encountered a coincidence today that I felt would be fun to share with you.

After watching a show on TV, I began playing “NES Remix” for Wii U (a new downloadable game which gives you hundreds of mini challenges lasting usually about 10-20 seconds each from 16 classic Nintendo games from the mid ’80s).

I was playing using the portable gamepad screen alone, and left the TV on the same channel I was no longer watching. It was playing a program called “Rude(ish) Tube” with an assortment of amusing clips and at that moment, a series of clips involving cats.

I had been playing the challenge stages of “Donkey Kong Jr.” for a while and then just as I switched to playing the first underground stage challenge of “Super Mario Bros.” remix (which has a 10 second timer on the challenge to collect 4 coins then ends), the TV clip show started showing a clip (lasting about 15 seconds) of an cute ginger cat jumping around, reacting to the unmistakable music and sound effects from an underground level of “Super Mario Bros.”

I don’t recall another instance of hearing the underground-level SMB theme on a TV show, and certainly not coinciding with me playing 10-second underground-level challenge of SMB.

Note: as “NES Remix” was only released 6 days ago and I assume these shows have a longer time between recording and air, I suspect the people who submitted the clip of the cat were playing the original 1985 “Super Mario Bros.” or a re-release of it, not the recent “NES Remix” as I was playing.

That’s Textbook

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Rich Catalano)

I am an English teacher in Japan. I have used a variety of ESL textbooks over the years, but this year caused a stir. Why?

In one of the stock images, I appear in the background. I checked, and this particular photograph was from Getty Images, a famous stock-image company. The setting is a museum, and it shows two people looking at an unseen piece. I am in the background, alone, looking at a different piece. It is obvious that I am not the focus of the photograph, so perhaps I was captured inadvertently.

I showed this photo to everyone who knows me, including my ever-doubting wife, and they all concur that the image is me.

In the past, I went to Europe every summer with a group of students and always visited museums. Perhaps this is when the photo was taken.

Not sure if the odds are against this, but they seem to be.


Below are the extended notes for use in Skepticality Episode 240 provided Edward Clint.  Clint produces the Skeptic Ink Network and writes about Evolutionary Psychology, critical thinking and more at his blog Incredulous. He is presently a bioanthropology graduate student at UCLA studying evolutionary psychology.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary.

Rarely can someone say that they have a “background in teaching ESL” and mean it so literally. The odds must be astronomical. No, probably worse than that, because the odds of liking astronomy are pretty good. Who doesn’t want to tool around the universe in a giant chrome leech with Neil deGrasse Tyson? When scientifically analyzing likelihood in questions such as this, we separate the larger question into two smaller ones termed the “boring part” and the “interesting part”. It’s a Bayesian method. Probably. Anyway, the comparatively boring part is how likely is it you’d wind up in a stock photo in the Getty Images library? Or, not just Getty but any similar image supplier? For a world-trotting agorafile like you, maybe not as bad as you think. The top eight such services have a combined 155 million images. There is a constant demand for new images, and every day thousands of these get sold to hundreds of clients from cable news networks to product catalogs. Not all of those 155 million images are photos of people, but your odds of being in there are higher if you are a in a labcoat holding a clipboard, like to stand in front of a lot of sunsets, or, in this case, were looking at one of those dumb Louvre statues that doesn’t even have arms.

The more interesting part is, what are the chances that image would find you once it was in the Getty bank, and in a textbook you’re teaching from? Unless you’ve been doing this job for 60 years, probably on the low side. On the other hand, our increasingly visual media-rich global culture might be making this sort of thing more common. Just two weeks ago The Nation website reported a math textbook in Thailand had to have its cover changed because the bespectacled professional woman center frame is Japanese adult cinema actress Mana Aoki. You and Ms. Aoki have something in common: your images might have been sold or used dozens or hundreds of times by now. Plus you’re both apparently highly recognizable by a small set of Japanese people. That’s a feather in your cap.

Coincidence? I think so!

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Michael O’Dea

Hi there,

I enjoy the show and want to tell you my against-the-odds-story.

I am from Dublin, Ireland and I was on vacation in Boston, visiting my cousin about 20 years ago.

There was a free public concert in the Boston Common park. (It was Kid Creole and the Coconuts, not that that is relevant!)

I was with an American friend who was a server in a Boston restaurant (Legal’s) at the time. As we enjoyed the music he met a colleague from the restaurant who was with a companion and they chatted for a few minutes as we watched the gig. My friend then went to introduce me, when the companion turned around it was my next-door-neighbour from Dublin!

We had not seen each other for years and had no other connection of any kind other than growing up in adjacent houses.

What do you think?


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 239.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog.

I think this is an interesting coincidence! Normally, I would talk about the factors that would increase the probability of this happening, so I will, but there are really very few. People living next door to one another are much, much more alike than two people chosen at random from the global population. They are more likely to be close together in S.E.S. (socioeconomic status), for example. They are more likely to be exposed to similar cultural icons (such as music genres). Factors such as these may exponentially increase the probability of running into each other at just such an event.

However, given the astronomically small base probability (e.g., given all of the people in the world, the probability of any two people, chosen at random, would meet), this is still a story with crazy odds.

Consider the factors that don’t really come into play here, but have in similar stories we have encountered. For example it is unlikely both been inspired to visit by the same event (e.g., hearing a mutual friend talk about visiting Boston). They may have been inspired to visit (assuming the companion was also visiting and not living there) by cheap airfare to the U.S., but then why choose Boston? The probability that they all met each other through mutual friends is greatly reduced by the fact that the Americans know each other because they work together (unless, of course, they knew each other before working there).

So we must rely on the mathematical rule that we should expect at least some low- and even astronomical-probability events to occur in our lives, given the large number of events that occur.

When NPR and iTrip Collide

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Charles Dahlheim

Back in the bad old days before bluetooth became common in automobiles people often used FM transmitters on their cellphones to listen to their music in their cars. These transmitters often used low FM frequencies and would override reception in nearby cars.

One day I was listening to a fascinating story about how some outstanding grade school science teachers were rewarded by being given a ride on NASA’s Vomit Comet. The teacher’s students had designed experiments for their teachers to perform under microgravity conditions and I was very interested to hear about their experiences.

Just as the story reached the part where the teachers were going to describe how it felt to be weightless, I suddenly heard music coming from my radio and Lionel Richie started singing “Ooo what a feeling, when you’re dancing on the ceiling”.

It’s a good thing I was pulled up at a stop light or I’d have driven off the road. The coincidence was awesome.


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 238.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog.

Hahaha! Very cute.

The odds are not as crazy as people might think. Lots of music might have been funny in that situation. A line from Space Odyssey, maybe, or any line about floating or feeling. I can think of several off the top of my head, some more fitting than others, but all pretty funny, like “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now”, “I can see clearly now”, “I’m hooked on a feeling, high on believing”, or “Up, up, and away”. And I’m sure there are many more that are even better.

But of course none of that reduces the humor of the story, and it was a low, if not crazy-low probability event.