Archive for January, 2012


Musical Condos

(Submitted by reader Dave R)

In about 1985 I got tired of dealing with the apartment manager where I was living in Santa Ana, and moved into a nicer condo across town.

Shortly after that I was invited to join an organization. I won’t name it because it isn’t important, but it’s a national social organization that has local chapters. I’ll call it the ABC Club. The local chapters often have parties at the members’ homes. So I joined the ABC Club and went to my first event, a party at someone’s house not far from where I lived. At the event I was introduced to several of the local members, including a man who was identified as the President of the local chapter of the ABC Club, I’ll call him Richard Barry (obviously not his real name, but the point is we shared some common feature of our names, a first matching a last, or something similar).

A couple of days went by, and then I received a letter at my new home, addressed to Richard Barry, ABC Club Orange County, (with my address of course). So I looked at this letter, trying to wrap my head around the situation, trying to figure out whether they had sent me some membership materials and perhaps put the wrong name on the envelope, since our names were similar. I think I eventually opened the letter to see if it was for me, and found it was some kind of bank statement, or treasurer’s report, etc.  for the ABC Club, clearly not intended for me.  So I decided to call Richard Barry. As a new member I think I got a roster of all the local members with their contact information, or I may have looked up the number in the phone book. Anyway I called him up and after exchanging hellos, I said “Richard, I think there’s something screwed up in the roster or the addresses for the organization, because I just received some correspondence for the group, with my address but at my condo, but it has your name on it.” He asked me,  “What’s your address?”  I said “110 Brookline.” He said, “Oh, I used to live there, I just moved out last month.”

So yeah, what are the odds? I wouldn’t even know how to begin calculating them for a situation like this!

[EDITOR: The final question seems pretty valid to me. With all the factors of addresses, location, timing, moves, people involved, this one seems all but incalculable. Extremely impressive.]

Since I Do Have A Coincidence

(Submitted by reader Mark D)

All of us have very traumatic events in our life, that had we a choice, we would like to either omit or forget.  An unforgettable event in my life that falls into this category is when I suffered critical 3rd degree burns in my home the morning of March 6, 1959.

Rushed to Childrens’ Hospital in L.A. for emergency round-the-clock surgery, I awakened in the early evening of March 7, 1959 and saw that my parents had generously placed my portable radio next to my  hospital bed.  Turning it on to KFWB, L.A.’s leading Top 40 outlet of the day, I heard the local debut of “Since I Don’t Have You” by The Skyliners (played from the beginning just as I turned the knob), which has gone on through the ages to become a vocal group classic, certified as a standard by ASCAP due to over 100 remakes in the past half century.

I didn’t have much of a 1959, spending 6 months of it either in the burn ward of Childrens’ Hospital or home convalescence. The Skyliners through all the years have remained my favorite all time vocal group, undergoing numerous personnel changes throughout, and recording for a plethora of different labels, persevering and gaining new and younger fans in the process.

When I saw on the Skyliners website that they had planned their Fiftieth Anniversary concert to be held at the beautiful Benedum Center For The Performing Arts in their home base of Pittsburgh, PA, I could hardly believe the date:  March 7, 2009.  The numerical coincidence of 50 years to the day when I first heard them under unfortunate circumstances was too much for me to resist.  I knew I had to be there.

On March 6, 1959, I awaited the arrival of my ambulance around 9:00 a.m., wondering if I had any life left.  On March 6, 2009, with exactly a half century of life behind me, I awaited the arrival of my airport shuttle in front of my home  at 9:00 a.m. with totally different emotions.  I truly had tears of joy in my eyes as the plane descended into Pittsburgh.  The following night, I waited in a long line outside the Benedum Theatre in Downtown Pittsburgh, talking with a group of people from Sylvio’s Tratorria in Canton, OH and telling them of what had happened to me a half century earlier and what a truly special occasion this was for me.  This group had ties to Henry Deluca, one of the concert’s promoters.  I was told later that Jimmy Beaumont and Donna Groom of The Skyliners were talking about my VSA (very strange anniversary) backstage during the gala show.  They went on at 9:00 p.m. EST for their headlining segment of the show.  It was 6:00 p.m. on the West Coast, where I first heard their signature tune “Since I Don’t Have You” 50 years earlier, to the hour!

Seventy-Six Trombone Coincidence

(Submitted by reader Mary B)

My husband and I were just waking up on a Saturday morning. My husband mumbled, “I am so tired, it would take seventy-six trombones to wake me up.” He rolled over, picked up the TV remote, and clicked on the television set at the foot of our bed. Booming out of the TV comes the words and music, “Seventy-six trombones led the big parade…”

Unbelievably, the television happened to be tuned to a station that was airing the the movie, The Music Man, and he had turned it on at the exact moment of the start of the main parade scene.

We both sat bolt upright, looked at each other and gasped. We had each thought that we had temporarily lost our minds. But no, it had really happened. I still can’t believe it, but it happened.

[EDITOR: What are the odds... that people would still be watching that movie after all these years? Actually, I bet pretty high since the licensing costs are probably dirt cheap since nobody knew how to write a good contract back then.]

Synchronized Shrek in Stereo

(Submitted by reader Joey D)

While watching the third installment of the Shrek series, I wondered who was performing the voice of Rumplestiltskin so, naturally, I Googled my question. I clicked on the YouTube link, as I thought it would most likely show me the person doing the voice. It was video of a series of clips from the movie. As it began to play, the scene on the video was in perfect sync with the scene playing on my television!

[EDITOR: Now let's add Dark Side of the Moon into the mix and see what we get...]

Historic Day at the Track

(Submitted by reader Dave R)

On Sunday, 9/11/2011, the first three horse races at Belmont Park in New York City ended with the horses numbered 9, 1, and 1 winning the races, respectively. A spokesperson said the odds must be a million to one against that happening. I’m not sure how many horses were in each race so I can’t figure the exact odds, but it certainly isn’t million to one against. If there were 10 horses in each race the odds of that particular combination would be 1 in 1000.

However so many people bet on that exact 3-pick due to it being the date, a $2 bet only paid off $18, or 9:1.

[EDITOR: While the odds of that combination are 1 in 1000, I imagine the odds of it occurring on that particular day drive it up quite a bit. Anyone wish to do some math for us?]

Audio Friends

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Carrie Poppy, from Oh No, Ross and Carrie!)

I wanted to hear an episode of the Skepticality podcast because I’ve never listened to it. So I randomly clicked on an episode, and started listening. The interviewee was one of my closest friends! TOMBC!

[EDITOR: The friend's name, presumably, was not TOMBC (our initials). If so, that's an even bigger coincidence!]

A Coincidence in the Garden (and on TV!)

(Submitted by reader Joey D)

I was working in my yard and I came across several plants that I found very interesting and unusual. I knew they were “weeds” as I hadn’t planted them myself, but I had no idea what they were.

I picked one, roots and all and went into the house to see if I could identify it on Google. I walked in and a woman on the television walked straight toward the camera, holding the exact same plant and said, “This is wild garlic.” I gasped! It wasn’t even a story on gardening, but rather, it was a news piece on how difficult it is for the care-givers taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient.

[EDITOR: All right, all right, this one IS just plain eerie. Even I'd be pretty darn startled by it.]

Retail Coincidence

(Submitted by reader Dave R)

I grew up and attended school in the Pacific Northwest. Immediately after graduating from college in 1977, I moved to Southern California to accept a job. I soon made some new friends, and one in particular that I began hanging out with on the weekends. This friend liked having a donut for breakfast in the morning, something I never did.

So several months after moving here, one Saturday morning found me in a donut shop with my friend. The guy behind the counter had been one of my classmates in college. OK, so far an interesting coincidence, but not THAT amazing that two guys that both grew up 1,500 miles away would run into each other like that, even if neither of us had said anything to the other about moving to Orange County, CA.

Another thing this friend got me to do was to start buying music tapes. I was always the frugal type, and just listened to whatever was on the radio while driving. So just a few months after the encounter above, I went to a Wherehouse Records in a different city with my new friend. Sure enough, there was my college classmate behind the counter again.

[EDITOR: Insert generic joke about the lack of job stability in college graduates here.]

Knot That Strange

Last month an article on one of my favorite websites, io9.com, grabbed my attention. It included a discussion of studies and simulations which demonstrate (and provide evidence for) some of those things in life that lead us all to think that fate is trying to tell us something. Specifically, the adage we call “Murphy’s Law” states that what can go wrong will go wrong and it is supported by both mathematical proofs and observations.

“When it comes to long strands of string, from proteins in a person’s cells to the rigging in a ship, this means spontaneous knotting. People have written papers about how string knots up the minute it’s given a chance to jiggle around.”

The article goes on to discuss a simulation of a random walk (direction for each step is determined randomly) in 3-dimensional space with the restriction that no space can be occupied more than once. The path of the walk simulates the placement of a length of string – the beginning and end of the path are the ends of the string and no part of the string can occupy the same space as another part. What the researchers found was that any sufficiently long walk (string) must contain a knot. The longer the walk (string), the more knots.

This can teach us that tossing our Christmas lights into a box is almost certain to result in knots to untangle next year, but it can also teach us a lot about risks, coincidences, and how to think about those things.

Barbara Drescher

When I was nine years old my family lived on the Great Lakes Naval Station (on the shores of Lake Michigan) for about a year before buying a house off the base. Our home was in a cul de sac that was shared by several families. One of the families of which we were particularly fond was a widower with a boy and girl about the same ages as my brother and I. Fast forward to more than four years later, after we had moved twice and now lived 2,000 miles away in Sacramento, California. We drove the three hours from our home to a tiny fishing hole called Blue Lake for a weekend of camping and fishing. About an hour after we arrived, my mother suddenly blurted out, “Hey, isn’t that Bud Neighbor [not his real name]?” Sure enough, camped a few spaces down were our old friends.

I have had quite a few similar experiences, but none as bizarre or unexplainable as this one. Should we have been freaked out and considered some cosmic connection?

To find out, let’s turn back to the article I mentioned and Murphy’s Law. Is it true that anything that can go wrong will go wrong? Well, not exactly. You can get on that plane tomorrow and be confident that you will survive the flight (your odds are approximately 9.2 million to 1). However, if you “tempt fate” enough, even the least likely disaster will eventually happen. Of course, your plan to commit suicide via commercial airliner will require you to fly every day for more than 25,000 days to ensure success, and even then you have no guarantees.

The problem of spontaneous knotting is simply a matter of odds. It relies on something called “The Law of Large Numbers”, which dictates that any event which can occur will occur if given enough opportunities.* String knots up when there’s a lot of it because there are a number of ways in which it can be knotted.

Without going through a bunch of math, let’s look at how we determine probabilities. There are two properties to consider when determining whether an event is unusual (vs. expected):

View full article »

Paying it forward by the side of the road

(Submitted by reader Daniel S)

I hurt my back on Monday. Nothing severe just have to stay in bed and take muscle relaxers for a couple of days. I’m not sure exactly how I did it because the pain wasn’t instant, it just got worse as the day progressed until I couldn’t get out of bed Tuesday morning. I’m pretty  sure I hurt it that morning when I stopped to change a tire for a little old lady who had a blowout on the side of the interstate. She was very sweet and thankful and said that normally her husband would have come to help her but he was out of state. She offered me money but I wouldn’t accept it. I just told her to remember to be nice to others.

Fast forward to today. I get a call from my Mom about an hour ago that she has had a blowout on the interstate and it’s pretty close to the same place that I had stopped to help the lady on Monday. I feel helpless because I can’t get up to go help her so I tell her that if she can’t get it changed to call me back and I will start calling friends who may be near her. About half an hour goes by and she calls me back. She got the lug nuts off but the tire wouldn’t budge. It was stuck on. Just then a little old man pulled up and asked her if she needed help. He got a hammer out of his pickup and got the tire off for her and changed it. She offered him money but he wouldn’t accept. He said that his wife had a blowout around the same place two days ago and he was out of town and felt helpless that he couldn’t come help her. He said that she told him that someone stopped and changed the tire for her and wouldn’t accept money but told her to be nice to others and he was just paying it forward.

[EDITOR: I have nothing snarky to add to this. It's a genuinely sweet story and stands on its own.]


Updated 5/22/2012

Below are the exact notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 183. Take a look and leave your comments below.

As with all of these stories, the odds of these events rely on answers to a number of questions and the list is shorter than one might think:

  1. What is the probability that the author’s mother would have a blow-out within a few days of the first event?
  2. What is the probability that this would occur in the same general area?
  3. What is the probability that the woman’s husband would be driving in the same general area at the same time?

You might be thinking that the question of whether the husband would stop to help is also a factor, but I’m going to argue that it is insignificant.

Pro-social behavior has been a topic of intense study by psychologists since modern psychology began and it continues today because it is much more complicated than most people think. We tend to view the behavior of others as driven by personal values and
personality, yet this view is mostly inaccurate. One finding which was apparent in early studies and has stood the test of time is that our behavior is driven much more by situations than by anything else. This is a good thing, because it means that there are things we can do to increase pro-social behavior in general and as recipients of it.

One early finding is that people are more likely to take responsibility for the welfare of others (or even for another’s property) if they are simply asked to do so. This is due, in part, to our feelings of obligation, both because we agreed to it and because it is expected. However, more recent research suggests that a large part of the effect can be attributed simply to the fact that a pro-social attitude is easily accessed when we are reminded (a kind of priming).

In this case, the woman the author helped specifically asked her to “pay it forward”. The added feeling of gratitude and debt that she felt was certainly a factor, but the effect of noting that she could do the same for someone else is not insignificant. Additionally, pro-social behavior is contagious; we want to smile at people who smile at us. We are more likely to help someone if we have been on the receiving end of such help in the past.

In this way, ideas like those put forward in “The Secret” or those that motivational speakers promote (e.g., the power of positive thinking) can appear to be effective means of personal gain.

In some ways, they can be. However, it is important to keep in mind that 1) there is nothing supernatural about this effect, 2) it cannot be guaranteed or forced, 3) we are talking about human reciprocity. A positive attitude will not help you win a sweepstakes or ensure that your cake comes out delicious. Asking for special treatment is also not a good way to convince others to provide it, either. However, a positive attitude toward others, both in providing help to others when they need it without expecting something in return and in trusting that others are willing to help when you ask for it yourself, will improve everyone’s chances of acting pro-
socially.

So, after addressing the probability that the husband would stop to help the mother and concluding that it is highly likely, given the events two days prior, the other questions are the statistically-interesting ones.

The probability of getting a flat tire is relatively small in modern times in comparison to 30 years ago, but it happens. It is rare enough that the probability is mired in enough factors to make it difficult to calculate. Questions such as how often one drives affect this probability a great deal, but they also effect the other factors. For example, if you drive a lot, you have more opportunities to get a flat tire, but you are less likely to allow those tires to wear down to unsafe tread depths. Where you drive is a factor as well. If these two women were the victims of flats this close together, perhaps there is a large amount of sharp debris in the roadway, increasing
everyone’s chance of getting a flat tire.

The location and likelihood of a flat are tied together for other reasons as well. The author of the post clearly lives close enough to where his mother’s flat occurred that he could have helped if he had not been injured. Although humans may travel great distances, the majority of us live most of our daily lives within a relatively small “home range”. The fact that most accidents occur in the home is not due to our homes being unsafe, but simply due to the amount of time we spend there.

Likewise, the probability that the woman’s husband was driving in the same general area is not exactly low, nor is the probability that he was driving at that time. The fact is that humans share enough of a pattern of activity that we can predict the flow of traffic fairly well and make reasonable assumptions about the operating hours of businesses.

So we are left, once again, with the question of why this particular gentleman stopped to help when nobody else did. That, I think, rests on the fact that the author made the gesture he made when he made it.

The one question remaining is, what is the probability that neither woman would be a member of AAA? That, it turns out, is quantifiable.

Estimates of the number of drivers in the United States range from 250 to 300 million. AAA boasts a membership of 51 million. Conservatively, one in five drivers is a member of AAA, so the probability of a given driver not being a member is roughly .8. The distribution is probably clustered somewhat geographically, but ignoring that, the probability, choosing two drivers at random from this population and neither being a member can be written:

P(approximately) = .8 x .8 = .64.

This is better than a coin toss.