Tag Archive: California

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Rob)

My first job after college sent me on a five-day training course in Boston, where I made fast friends with three other students. We were all traveling from different states (North Carolina, Nebraska, Michigan, & Missouri) and our ages ranged from 22 to mid 40s. Somehow we all hit it off in class and went to dinner every night before returning to our hotel.

Eight months later, I flew from NC to San Diego on a work conference. Checking into my hotel, I happened to bump into my Nebraska buddy hauling his luggage through the lobby. Amazed, we chatted for a few minutes, and I learned he was on a work trip of his own, unrelated to mine.

The next evening, I exited the elevator and passed none other than my Missouri friend, who was staying on my floor. He too was on a work trip, and after picking my jaw up from the carpet, I suggested we meet up with Nebraska guy and go out to dinner for old time’s sake. “What are the chances?” remained the theme of our conversation as we set off to find Mr. Nebraska.

Long story short, the three of us ended up at a seafood place, laughing, swapping stories, when suddenly our Michigan friend passed by our table, did a quadruple take, stared at us for a moment in silence, and burst out in laughter. Turned out he was a vendor at my conference, and was sent to demo a product that I would eventually take back to NC.

So, our impromptu gang had managed to assemble once again, from one coast to the other, from Massachusetts to California, eight months apart. I tell all my friends and dates this story, and none of them believe it. It’s certainly the most improbably bizarre event that’s ever happened to me, and I can’t even begin to calculate the odds.

You’d think I would’ve kept up with these guys, but honestly I never did. We never got together again after that fateful week in San Diego

Below are the extended notes provided by mathematician Brian Pasko for use in Skepticality Episode 263.  Brian is on the faculty at Eastern New Mexico University. His interests include scientific skepticism, popular science books and improbable coincidences that makes one wonder just what the fates are up to. Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary.

Cool! The Drake equation is named for physicist Frank Drake. It provides important considerations to estimate the probability of extraterrestrial civilizations in the universe. Finding the probability of you four friends meeting seems hard. Let’s analyze your situation with Drake as inspiration. The probability that you all meet as you described is the product of the probabilities that:

  1. You all happen to be in the same city (or, nearby) at the same time;
  2. three of you get the same hotel (and actually see each other!); and
  3. that the third person comes to the restaurant at which the others are eating (and actually see each other!).

This product is, let’s say, small. However, there are some interesting facets that affect this probability. The first is that I suspect you four are in the same industry. This may increase the likelihood of you all being in the same area at the same time. If this assumption is correct, you’re all likely in the same economic class as well. This narrows the selection of hotels you each choose and the restaurants you’re likely to patronize.

You could have met Michigan and Nebraska at the hotel instead of Missouri and Nebraska. So we need only that three of the four friends were at the same hotel. This increases the likelihood of a meeting by factor of three! Also, you could have seen any of the other two at any time during the day. In addition, you’re all on work trips and so probably are moving in and out of your rooms at the same times of the day, which increases the likelihood of a meeting.

Of course, the meet up could have happened in a lot of different ways. For example, two pairs of you could have met at two different hotels; or not at hotels at all but on the street getting the same cab; or at a pub after work hours… You get the idea.

A consequence of Drake’s ideas is that if we happened to find alien life in our solar system it would imply that the universe is positively rife with life! I suggest that if such a meet up happens again between you four, rather than lightening striking twice, it means that you’re often in the same place at the same time and just don’t see each other.

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Andrea Monticue)

Last Sunday, I was driving and listening to the audiobook by Mira Grant, “Parasite.” The story takes place in the near future, and the characters live in the Bay Area of California. In the book, the main character and her sister decide to go shopping at “the big mall in San Bruno.”

Guess which parking lot I was pulling into when I heard that phrase? Yes, the “big mall in San Bruno,” California, otherwise known as Tanforan.

I go to that mall about once every couple of months. I’m not a fan of big malls, but there’s a Barnes & Noble there.

The only reason I’m listening to “Parasite” is because I enjoyed Grant’s zombie trilogy. 

Below are the extended notes provided by statistician and podcaster Kyle Polich for use in Skepticality Episode 260.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary.

(Kyle studied computer science followed by artificial intelligence in grad school with a focus in probabilistic reasoning and planning. His general interests range from obvious areas like statistics, machine learning, data viz, and optimization to data provenance, data governance, econometrics, and metrology. He enjoys exploring the intersection of statistics and skepticism and sharing related insights with others including through his podcast Data Skeptic. Visit Kyle’s blog Data Skeptic, and give the podcast a listen.)

I suppose the question here is: “What are the odds of arriving at a specific location just as a character from an audio book is arriving at the fictional version of the same location?” but actually, that might be the wrong question to ask.

This seems like a case of postdiction, also known as the hindsight bias, or put more simply, a case of remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.  Most people have had the experience of thinking of someone and then immediately getting a phone call or text message from them. I have to confess, that always does feel a little spooky, even to me. But in reality, if every time I thought of a friend, acquaintance, of loved one, they ended up calling me right away, I’d be endlessly annoyed with how many impromptu calls I’d have to take. Yet, the goose bumps that sometimes accompany these infrequent coincidences make them memorable.

There must be dozens, maybe hundreds of other malls in the bay area that the author could have chosen.  As of the time of recording, the Wikipedia page for San Bruno, CA lists five specific locations that are not parks or schools, one of them being – you guessed it – the Tanforan Mall. For me, this is enough to say that it’s not surprising that a story taking place in San Bruno might feature a scene at this location.

If you studiously compiled a list of actions taken by characters in Parasite, I suspect you’d be surprised to find how long this list is with only one memorable overlap to your own actions. So while precise likelihood is hard to establish here, I think this tale is a great reminder that experiencing a few seemingly odd coincidences every so often is really the norm, not the exception. Google Littlewood’s Law for further reading if you’re interested. And just to prove the point, I want to say congratulations to a certain listener who has recently taken a new job. I won’t say who, but if you’ve had a career change in the last 3 months, my congratulations go out specifically to you.

The Isolated Artist

(Submitted by blog reader Rick Stromoski)

In 1989 my wife and I moved to Connecticut from Los Angeles due to a job offer for her that we couldn’t refuse.

I was and currently am a free lance cartoonist who has always worked from home so it tends to be an isolated existence to begin with. To alleviate the feeling of stir craziness I would occasionally take classes with the idea of getting out of my studio but also possibly learn something new.

I enrolled in a night Illustration class at Central Connecticut University and the instructor’s name was Dana Schrieber. When taking attendance for the first time he came across my name and hesitated. He asked if I had a brother Robert who lived in Los Angeles and I answered in the affirmative. He then told me that he once owned a small gallery in Los Angeles and represented my brother Bobby’s work in the early 1970s . An interesting coincidence given that it was over 15 years and 3,000 miles and we met on the whim that I’d take a night class and he was the instructor. The class ended and that was the last I’d seen of Mr. Schreiber.

Fast forward to the year 2011. My then 16 year old daughter Molly was a junior attending a prep school in Northern Connecticut and met a boy and they started dating. We liked the young man very much and soon we were making plans to meet his mother and her steady boyfriend over dinner. Turns out when we arrived at the young man’s house the steady boyfriend was none other than the same Dana Schreiber who taught that illustration class I’d taken back in 1989. We were all amused at the coincidence but it also afforded me the opportunity to complain about the “B” he gave me for the class.


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 228. Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast  for our own sarcastic and hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog.

This story is adorable. I can’t think of all that much to say about it that’s interesting, but there are the usual culprits. We tend to forget that factors such as an interest or occupation (in this case, art) increases the probability of running into people who know the people we know. There is also the fact that if it was a friend and not a brother, the author may never have discovered that the teacher was connected because the teacher wouldn’t have recognized his name. Think about how many times that has probably happened in your own life.

In general, we all tend to share interests and values with our family members, the people we work with, and the people we call friends. We are more like those people than we are like random strangers. And those interests and values attract us to others. So, people tend to “cluster”, even if those clusters are large.

(Submitted by friend of the blog Emery Emery)

Local News

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. – Marion Shurtleff believes in miracles.

In December, the 75-year-old San Clemente, Calif., resident found a piece of her childhood from Covington, Ky., tucked in the pages of a used Bible she purchased at a bookstore near her home.

“I opened the Bible and there was my name,” Shurtleff said in a phone interview from her home. “I recognized my handwriting. I was shaking, literally. I was crying.”

What Shurtleff found was an essay she wrote for her Covington Girl Scout troop when she was 10-years-old.

“It’s three pages, almost four. This was the requirement for the foot traveler badge.”

Shurtleff remembers going to Girl Scouts on Fridays while she attended Fourth District Elementary in Covington. She would go on to graduate from Holmes High School before moving to California for the first time in 1963.

In the essay, she found a detailed account her 10-year-old self gave of a day’s hike through the city that included a meeting of her troop at Trinity Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue.

“We left at 10 in the morning. We went to Devou Park and went around where we had camped the prior year. We walked back to the church and then I took a streetcar home about 4 in the afternoon,” Shurtleff said, summarizing her trip.

Her favorite part of the whole letter she said, was an editorial comment she left in a brief paragraph.

“’We were well provisioned,’” Shurtleff read from the letter. She goes on to describe how each member of the troop had a compass, lunch, and backpack.

“All my friends laughed, and said, yes Marion, that’s you, well provisioned.”

Shurtleff said there was no other clue as to how the Bible carrying her letter ended up in California. The only clue on the letter itself was the name, “Bonnie Gene Edwards,” who she believes was an assistant at her school.

Besides the letter, Shurtleff said she was surprised by the attention she’s received since her story originally ran in the Orange County Register. A local television station, CBS 2 picked up on it and then the Internet.

“I was surprised when the church secretary sent me the email saying it made it to Yahoo,” she said.

Since then, a genealogist and church group has attempted to contact her.

Shurtleff said she would like to know the history of the Bible she purchased. She also added she’s heard speculation that perhaps she always had the letter and possibly forgot it

“I’ve moved too many times. I’ve been down to bare bones. That Bible could have been in Timbuktu, or Alaska. I believe it’s God showing His Grace to us and His love, making us aware that there are stranger things that happen.”


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 227. Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast  for our own sarcastic and hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog.

I love this story for several reasons. First, let’s talk about the odds of this happening. There are many factors to consider, some of which Wendy suggested, which involve knowing the history of the book itself. The way I see it, the odds of this happening are extremely small in any case, but many times smaller in some cases than others.

Sixty-five years passed between the time Ms. Shurtleff wrote the essay and when she found it in the Bible. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the essay was placed in the Bible, for safekeeping or perhaps as a bookmark, shortly after she wrote it. This would undoubtedly be in Kentucky. But we can only speculate about how the Bible ended up in a bookstore in California, and how that happened is important in determining the odds that Ms. Shurtleff would find it.

The least shocking possibility is that the Bible once belonged to Ms. Shurtleff, it moved with her from Kentucky to California, and she got rid of it at some point afterward. It is reasonable that she simply didn’t recognize it. If that is what happened, the odds that Ms. Shurtleff would choose and buy that particular Bible are much, much higher than if she had never seen that Bible before. We tend to favor the familiar, even if we aren’t aware that something is familiar.

This would still be a shocking story unless Ms. Shurtleff frequents the store where she bought the Bible. In that case I would have to speculate that the Bible was among books that she sold to the store at some point, or to a neighbor, perhaps in a garage sale, who then sold it to the store.

However, after reading the story, what seems most likely to me is that the essay was left behind during a troop meeting at the church and was placed in one of the Bibles there and forgotten. It must then have been purchased by someone who moved to California at some point. This would make the probability of it finding Ms. Shurtleff very, very low and dependent upon the rates of migration from Kentucky to California during those sixty-five years as well as how often Bibles are sold or given away.

But there are two other interesting thoughts I have about this story. One is a question: why was the essay still there after sixty-five years? This suggests that the Bible was rarely used. Then again, it was discarded, unless it was acquired after its owner passed away.

Finally, I have to wonder about Ms. Shurtleff’s explanation for what happened. She is quoted as saying, “I believe it’s God showing His Grace to us and His love, making us aware that there are stranger things that happen.” If God wanted to show Ms. Shurtleff a miracle, why did he choose such a mundane document, a merit badge assignment? Why not a love letter or some other meaningful document?

(Submitted by reader Cathy Smith)

My best friend in Jr. High was Lisa Butland.  We were both Air Force brats, stationed in Germany at the time.  By the time we graduated high school, our families were transferred to Texas, hers to Austin, and mine to San Antonio.  Afterwards, I moved to California, and we completely lost touch with one another.

Over ten years later I was back in San Antonio, and my boyfriend lived at the German House Co-Op, by the University of Texas campus.  One of the residents, Mark, looked vaguely familiar to me, but it took me a few visits to figure out why.  The kid with the Coke bottle glasses he reminded me of was only about twelve years old the last time I saw him.  As soon as I realized who he might be, I knocked on his bedroom door.

“Mark?” I peeked my head in the door.  The room was dark because the shades were still drawn.  Mark was in the top bunk, and his eyes were squinting because he did not have his glasses on yet.

“Yes?”  he said.

“Did you ever live in Germany?” I asked.

“Yes?”  he responded looking puzzled.

“Was your dad stationed at Hahn Air Force Base?”  I asked with a big smile.

He hesitated.  “Yes?”

“Is your last name Butland?”  I was getting excited.

“Yes?”  He sounded slightly disturbed.

“Do you have a sister named Lisa?”  I continued.  He obviously could not see the expression on my face.

He looked a little worried.  “Yes?”

“Do you remember a Cathy Sexton?”  I asked.

At this point, his eyes opened as wide as they could.  He took a big gasp of air and in an astonished voice exclaimed:  “You know Cathy Sexton?!!”

That was about twenty years ago.  As soon as he realized that I was Cathy Sexton, he gave me his sister’s number, and Lisa and I have been best friends ever since.

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 200. Take a look and leave your comments below.

I’m sure that you can guess what I’ll say about this one: it’s not so surprising, but it’s interesting nonetheless!

The most common coincidence stories seem to be related to meeting people with whom they had a past connection. They are very significant to the people who experience them, but the truth is that they are less interesting statistically than one might think.This case is no different; she met the brother of her long-lost friend not far from where she left them and they were probably close in age and socioeconomic status, increasing the probability of frequenting the same places.  As often is the case, I find the story about how they discovered the connection more interesting than the connection itself.
The majority of stories are either about someone the author clearly recognized or a conversation which leads them to realize that there is some deep personal connection, usually geographical. I have rarely heard stories in which the author’s memory is jogged after a few exposures to an individual.
We all meet people who seem very familiar and sometimes it takes us some time to put our finger on why. This is so common that it was used as a plot device (ever see the movie “The Arrival”?). But the vast majority of those cases involve a distinctive feature or mannerism which is shared by someone we know well rather than a person we have actually met before. For example, everyone with an underbite reminds me of a cousin I was close to while growing up.
But the fact that the author eventually figured it out and acted on it (and that it turned out to be someone she actually knew) makes this story unusual.

Iolanthe You There?

(Submitted by reader David Doggett)

In 1991 I lived with my new wife in Boulder Creek, CA, a mountain community in the Santa Cruz mountains, not far from the Pacific coast of northern California. Although only twenty miles from San Jose and Silicon Valley it seems like a world away, partly because the major highway is a winding road where it is difficult to go 40 MPH for very long. Because of the length of the drive and the curviness of the road it was seldom that we went into Silicon Valley for evening events.

My daughter lived with her mother in the city of Milpitas, CA which is on the other side of  San Jose from The Santa Cruz mountains.  The south bay area, around San Jose, is home to about 2 million people.

In 1991 my daughter was due to graduate from high school and so my wife and I planned to go to her graduation. Since we would be in Silicon Valley for her graduation we arranged to take in a play that was being put on at Santa Clara University. The play we got tickets for was the operetta Iolanthe, a play by the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Although Iolanthe is considered to be an adult play, first performed in London at the Savoy Theatre, on 25 November 1882, I am the eternal optimist so I offered to buy my daughter a ticket if she wanted to accompany us (on her graduation night). I had never seen Iolanthe and was excited about this opportunity.  Well, she informed us in effect “thanks but no thanks” because she had a date for that night. She didn’t know where he was taking her but he said it would be a “cool” evening. So, after pictures galore off we went to the play assuming our Grad would have a wonderful evening at some young people’s night spot.

We arrived at the play and we were floored to discover that our daughter and her date were running the concession stand at the play Iolanthe!!

[EDITOR: Concessions stand? Cool date, indeed. – Jarrett]

(Special submission by friend of the blog, Barry Karr, Director of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry)

When I was 13, my parents packed up the whole family into a RV and took us on a several week cross-country trek across the United States. We started in Western New York, traveled across the northern section of the US, down into California, and heading back across through the southern states.  (On a historical note, we were there at San Clemente, Calif., the day Nixon flew there after resigning the presidency.)

Anyway, one day, while we were doing the sights in San Francisco, we went into a little pizza restaurant near Fisherman’s Wharf to get lunch.  There were seven of us, my parents and five kids.  While behaving like kids,  and eating pizza as fast and furious as kids are famous for, a husband and wife sitting at the table next to ours got up to leave (I am not sure if they were leaving because of us).  They asked my parents if we’d like the half pizza or so that they had not touched.  I don’t recall if my parents (at that point) accepted or not, but they did engage the couple in a bit of a conversation.  The usual things came up like what were we doing, what we were visiting, where were we from etc.  Then the conversation went something like this:

My Father:  “we’re from New York State”

Woman:  “That’s interesting, so are we, but we moved away some years ago.”

Father:   “Really, what part of New York?”

Woman:  “The western part of the state.”

Father:  “So are we, what town?”

Woman:  “Well, it was such a small town, if I said it you’d never have heard of it. We were from a town called Arkport.”

Father:  “That’s where we’re from!”

Much more conversation and catching up on family and mutual friends followed. And, without doubt,  we took the pizza.

[EDITOR: There’s a definite theme with people with precisely common roots running into one another in far-off locations. I particularly like the common assumption that “it’s too small for you to have heard of.” It further increases the oddity of the run-in simply because the number of people who could have any connection to the town in question is severely reduced. And yet we see it a lot. Is there any meaning behind it? Did they learn anything from this endeavor, or make a connection that was of particular value? It doesn’t sound like it. There’s no lesson to be learned. But it just shows us that unlikely events like this clearly happen for no reason all the time. Which means occasionally they’ll happen even when there does appear to be some hidden message. But that’s only to be expected.]


Stranger from the Same Land


(Submitted by friend of the blog, Brian Hart)

I was listening to George Hrab’s Podcast (episode #240) on my iPod while heading out to one of my familiar lunch spots in Santa Monica, CA.  In this episode, George did a bit called “The History Chunk”, where he tells what happened on this particular date in history, usually in chronological order, and then makes some kind of joke about it. He mentions how in 1982, boxer Duk Koo Kim died after a bout with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.

Thirty seconds later I see Ray Mancini having lunch in the very restaurant I was walking into.  I clandestinely snap his picture.

Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini

You could have knocked me over with a boxing glove!

[EDITOR: You’re lucky Ray didn’t knock you over bareknuckled for taking clandestine photos of him while he’s trying to have a nice meal. Watch your back…]

A Common Name

We were on the phone recently for almost 45 minutes with our friend Dawn who has moved to Northern California. We’ve been friends with her for ‘way over 20 years, and about half that time she was married  to a man named Jim, Jim Thomas.

Later, I was scrolling through an online bulletin board, and one of the messages was from Jim about Dan Ackroyd.

This past weekend, I happened to see a documentary about comedians who died young, including John Belushi, and included shots of him with Dan Ackroyd in the Blues Brothers… And the name of the man who posted the bulletin board message is Jim Thomas. So — that’s like a pattern seeking triple whammy. Of course, Jim Thomas is a pretty common name, like Wendy Hughes, that lends itself to coincidences.

(Submitted by reader Bethany G)

I lived in California and went to college, and lived in a small residence of 50 people down the hall from a Japanese student.

About 15 years later I went to Tokyo, and was walking down the subway platform of one of the numerous subway systems in Tokyo, and I literally bumped into him. We were both utterly, utterly astonished that this could happen in a city of 30 million people. I had lost touch with him until then, and actually hadn’t even expected to be in Tokyo at that time, let alone bump into someone I had lived two doors down the hall from for three years in college.

Updated 5/8/2012

Below are the exact notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 182. Take a look and leave your comments below.

Well, it seems that the odds of this happening would be two in 30 million (and it’s a great title for the post), but they really aren’t. Here are some monkey wrenches in that estimate:

  • The odds of running into someone and that person being from that residence hall are 50 times the odds of it being any specific person.
  • The odds of someone from Japan returning to Japan after college are relatively high compared to the odds of students from other countries returning home.
  • Normally, the odds of running into someone you knew is higher than one expects because the fact that you once knew them means that you shared some values or habits of some kind, which increases the probability that one can be found in a given location. However, in this case, the subway is an extremely common mode of travel in Tokyo, so the location is not as influential.
  • The odds of this event occurring at some point also rely on how long the author was in Tokyo, how active she was during that time, how active the friend was during that time, etc.

This story is comparable to the other stories of running into people, like mine. They seem like
stories of fate, but they would really only be astonishing if we predicted them – details intact.