Tag Archive: London

London Encounter

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Peg Gantz)

In 1996, my son and I flew from Glens Falls, N.Y., (via Albany, N.Y., and Newark, N.J.) to visit my daughter, a college student doing a semester abroad in Bath, England. We flew in to Heathrow and took a train to Bath. At the end of our visit, we spent a couple of nights in London.

The day before our visit there had been an IRA bombing on a London bus, so security was very tight. Because of a suspicious package, and announcement was made that the tube would not stop at our intended station of Covent Garden, so we got off at the stop before and started walking in what I hoped was the correct direction to Covent Garden.

As we stopped on a traffic island in the middle of a street, I asked a man who also was on the island if he could direct me to Covent Garden. “Sorry,” he drawled, “but I’m from Texas, and I’m lost, too.” We went our separate ways.

Two days later my son and I were in line at Gatwick airport. (Yes, we flew IN to Heathrow and OUT from Gatwick; no idea why, but the tickets were a gift from my brother, who’d used his frequent flyer miles, so I was not about to question it.) A man stood in line behind us, and it was the Texan we’d encountered on a traffic island somewhere near Covent Garden in London! We exchanged greetings, made note of the unusual coincidence, and again went our separate ways. (And in case you’re wondering, I never saw him again.)

I’ve often wondered what were the odds of lost U.S. citizens from different parts of the country meeting for the first time on a London traffic island, then encountering one another again in line at the airport.

Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 261.  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 ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society.

Unfortunately, I have no answers for this one except to say that low-odds events must happen occasionally. This story actually reminds me of one of my own.

We (my husband, our two boys, and my parents) were flying from our home in Los Angeles to Vancouver the day before our ship sailed to Alaska. Our boys were (and still are) both constantly drawing and one of them was doing so while the plane was boarding. A man noticed, complimented our son’s work, and offered to draw something for him. In a few minutes my son had a personalized cartoon of Homer and Bart Simpson, drawn by a man who had worked as an artist and director for the show for many years.

The next day we saw the man and his family as we were boarding our cruise. He and his wife had two boys of their own, a bit younger than ours, and were booked on the same cruise and post-cruise activities. As you can imagine, we were able to spend some time together and became friends.

The odds are good that at least one family on a flight from LA to Vancouver is scheduled to board a cruise ship the next day, but the odds that two families who don’t know each other are scheduled to board the same ship AND interact are likely pretty small, although not nearly as small as running into someone in an airport that you saw on a traffic island days before in a highly populated city.

Are ‘Lucky Streaks’ Real? Science Says Yes

Maybe you’re not a gambler, but you probably have a grasp of the concept of a “hot hand” or a lucky streak. I’ve wondered before–is this a real phenomenon? My own experience suggests it could be, but one person’s anecdotes are just that. Luck-ily, a new study of online betting shows that the concept of a “hot hand” is real, but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect. The study found that when a person wins a bet, they become increasingly likely to succeed after each win. The converse is also true: Once you lose a bet, you become progressively more likely to keep losing.

The fascinating study looked at 565,915 sports bets made by 776 online gamblers in Europe and the United States, and found that, all things being equal, you’re likely to win or lose 48 percent of the time (draws presumably account for the remaining 4 percent). After a single winning bid, the chance of winning a second goes up ever so slightly to 49 percent. But here’s where things get interesting. After the second win, the chance of winning a third time increases to 57 percent. After that: 67 percent. Following a four-bet winning streak, the chances of scoring a fifth haul increase to 72 percent. The probability of a sixth win is then 75 percent, and finally, after six wins, bettors had a 76 percent chance of notching lucky No. 7.

What the heck is going on here? What probably explains this pattern is that after each win, people selected bets with better odds. Bettors appear to assume that after each win, they were more likely to lose–to regress to the mean, as they say–and so they compensate by making safer bets.

‘Winners worried their good luck was not going to continue, so they selected safer odds. By doing so, they became more likely to win.’
The study, published this month in the journal Cognition, also found that losses can breed more losses. After losing twice, the chances of winning decreased to 40 percent. After four losses, the chance of winning was 27 percent. After six duds, you have only a 23 percent chance of winning. The explanation: after each loss, gamblers on average choose bets that are less likely to turn out, apparently assuming that they are more likely to win than before–and perhaps to make up their losses (although, on average, people gamble less after each loss). As you probably know, bets with a lower chance of winning have higher payouts.

The idea that one is more likely to lose after winning, or more likely to win after losing, is known as the gambler’s fallacy (in reality, all things being equal, one is just as likely to lose or win on any given bet, assuming one is betting on independent events that don’t effect each other’s outcomes, as is the case with the vast majority of sports bets). This stands in contrast to the “hot hand fallacy”: that one is more likely to win while on a hot streak. Bettors apparently don’t generally believe this to be true, or at least their behavior suggests they don’t.

“The result is ironic: Winners worried their good luck was not going to continue, so they selected safer odds,” the researchers wrote. “By doing so, they became more likely to win. The losers expected the luck to turn, so they took riskier odds. However, this made them even more likely to lose. The gamblers’ fallacy created the hot hand.”

The researchers, Juemin Xu and Nigel Harvey at University College, London, conducted the study by examining the online betting activities of people on sports such as horse racing and soccer.

In Popular Science by Douglas Main

Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 235.  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. This phenomenon was discussed on Virtual Skeptics, #90. Listen, watch and enjoy: It’s like Meet the Press, but with chupacabras.

You’re perhaps not understanding what they studied.

They didn’t study something with a consistent bet. It’s more like craps. The subjects were able to choose from among different odds. After winning, people made more conservative bets–bets with better odds of winning (and presumably lower payouts). After losing, people make riskier bets, probably because those bets would pay more if they won.

So, overall, you wouldn’t win more money. You’d just win more often.


Here are links to references John Rael made in the Skepticality episode.

  • A new study of online betting shows that the concept of a “hot hand” is real, but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.
  • ‘Winners worried their good luck was not going to continue, so they selected safer odds. By doing so, they became more likely to win.’ The study, published this month in the journalCognition, also found that losses can breed more losses.
  • The idea that one is more likely to lose after winning, or more likely to win after losing, is known as the gambler’s fallacy  (in reality, all things being equal, one is just as likely to lose or win on any given bet, assuming one is betting on independent events that don’t affect each other’s outcomes, as is the case with the vast majority of sports bets).


Circling a Coincidence

(Submitted by reader David Sauder.)

Last month I arranged with an old friend that our families would meet for a picnic lunch near Ampthill, about 80 kilometres north of London.

Aerial View of Millbrook Proving Ground

I am not all familiar with that area (I’m from Canada, and we are living in London temporarily).  I looked at the satellite view of Google maps to see what type of landscape we would be lunching in.  On the satellite view I could see a large nearby circle, which was about one kilometre in diameter.  This perfect circle looked like a road, and had smaller roads and roundabouts inside it.

I wondered what it was, so at the picnic I asked my friend. He didn’t know what it was. We tried to see it from the hilltop where we were eating, but couldn’t find it. I figured I’d do some more searching later to satisfy my curiosity and left it at that.

A couple of days later we left for a family vacation at Disney World, in Orlando.  One of the first rides we took was a “Test Track” ride at EPCOT.  This ride is a simulation of a vehicle test track. Before getting on board the vehicle, the next group of ‘drivers’ is brought into a large room where they stand and watch a video that explains what to expect during the ride. As the video was ending, and the lights in the room were fading to black, I noticed the picture hanging on the wall right behind me. It was an aerial photograph of my ‘mystery circle’. As the room went black, I had just enough time to read the label on the bottom of the picture, which said “Millbrook Proving Ground”.  When I got home, I looked it up and that’s exactly what that circle was.

[EDITOR:  Sometimes it’s fun to just read the coincidence story without any analysis. This one is a cutie. Submit your own coincidence story when you are visiting The Odds Must Be Crazy. Click on the Submit a Story link on our homepage! – Wendy]

(Submitted by reader Carl Nichols)

Fifteen years ago or so I was working in London just around the corner from the House of Commons. Nothing unusual there, but one lunch time I was crossing the road and in the car in the front of the queue of traffic that had stopped at the lights was, to my surprise, my parents. My parents live a small village in Suffolk, about 90 miles from London (not a huge distance in the US but Britain is only 600 miles long so a reasonable distance here!)

They would come to London perhaps 3-4 times a year but coming into central London much more rarely. As I’m sure you’re aware London isn’t a small place and I would be reasonably surprised to randomly bump into anyone I knew, even if they lived in the city, and who happened to be in London for the day.

What are the odds on crossing the road in one of the biggest cities in the world at the same time as your parents are driving through that same spot?!

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 197. Take a look and leave your comments below.

I found this story interesting, even though the odds of this happening are much higher than they are in most of the location coincidence stories that we get. In fact, I am actually more interested in why the author did not know that the parents would be in town. It seems that seeing their child might be part of their plans.

Well, the parties involved did not travel thousands of miles and see each other in a remote location, but it still feels unbelievable. I suspect  the car is the reason. A car can move pretty fast, making it feel as though where someone in a car is at any given time is much more variable than someone on foot.

The placement of the car at the light might seem to make the odds of this incident even crazier, but if it was not in front, the author may not have even known that his/her parents were there. When crossing streets, people make eye contact with drivers, both because our parents taught us to and because it’s kind of a natural survival instinct (not that you could tell at my son’s middle school). The drivers in cars that are poised to run us over get our attention, but not those that are not. How many times has a similar incident occurred, yet nobody noticed because the parents were in the second or third car rather than the first?

If you have ever discovered afterward that a friend was at the same event—ball game, concert, trade show—at the same time as you were, yet you didn’t run into each other, think about how many times that must have happened, but because it didn’t come up in conversation, you never knew.

I’m a big fan of classic ghost stories and read at least a few pages from a book every night to help bring on sleep. I recently bought an excellent tome “Antique Dust” by Robert Westall. Without going into too many details, it’s a wonderfully bizarre short story collection about haunted British antiques in the style of the master of the antiquarian ghost story, M.R. James. For about ten days, I have been savoring a creepy little tale called “The Devil and Clocky Watson,” about a haunted mantle clock with a sinister background.

In the meantime I have also been working steadily on my own collection of mini-tales, “An Absence of Moonlight” which concerns various supernatural goings on in my imagined transmundane family. Although I hadn’t thought about the legendary “Hell Fire Club” of 18th century London for many years, my interest in it had been piqued during research for a section I was writing about. I Googled and read the real details about the club’s ribald members and history including its evolution into a much darker enterprise and their chief leader in that incarnation: Sir Francis Dashwood. I was fascinated, having had only a brief faux introduction to the “Hell Fire” mythos from watching an old episode of the “The Avengers” television series entitled “A Touch of Brimstone,” which featured Emma Peel prancing about in an unforgettable black leather fetish outfit – complete with spiked collar.

Anyway, I went to work spending the afternoon weaving my newfound tidbits of sordid weirdness into my writing. That’s nothing special so far. Just a completely random direction my writing took from off the top of my head. Now it gets weirder. Forward to last night: The Clocky Watson story was progressing really well, with Clocky himself having several sensual encounters with a lady ghost who climbs into bed with him, clinging to him for reasons later revealed. I got near to the end of the story and saw the word about a place called “Wycombe,” momentarily reflecting while reading that that name suddenly “rang a bell” although I didn’t attach must significance to it alone. I kept reading. Later at the very end of the story, it turned out that the haunted clock was portrayed as a relic belonging to Sir Francis Dashwood which was prominently displayed in the Hell Fire Club’s Medmenham Abby caves in West Wycombe, UK during the 1750s. The very words I had read a few hours earlier in the day. I stopped reading, took off my glasses, and felt a delightful chill run down my spine.

For a few moments, my own bed seemed haunted by something weird and unexplainable. What are the odds these two instances of the obscure Hell Fire Club would come up in two spontaneously unrelated places in a seven hour stretch of time?

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 190. Take a look and leave your comments below.

The odds are excellent; there is nothing spontaneous, unrelated, or unexplainable in what happened here. The readings were chosen by one person and they were related in that the author was reading a ghost story and became interested in the location while doing research for a story about the supernatural. The connection may seem obscure, but it likely isn’t. What comes to mind when you read the words “ghost story”? Perhaps gas lanterns in the fog and horse-drawn carriages? Old mansions with giant staircases? Gathering places of London’s upper-crust sound like a great location for a ghost story or a component of one. The author was probably so surprised by the second incident simply because he had taken such an interest in the club’s history after not thinking about it for some time.

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]

(Submitted by reader Susie Kaufman)

I have a friend who, some 40+ years ago, decided to travel around Europe.  Somewhere along his route, he hooked up with another guy (from London), also interested in art, so the two of them continued their six-weeks-long trek from gallery to gallery, museum to museum, country to country.

When they parted ways, there were promises of staying in touch, but it didn’t happen.

Maybe a decade later, my Los Angeles friend and I got onto a New York City subway.  We seated ourselves across from a chap with a knapsack, who politely asked for directions to an art museum.

Sure enough, it was his old travel-mate!  And THIS time, they stayed in touch.

[EDITOR: Certainly when you combine all the various factors of people who shared a very large city as a home with meeting up in another very large city that’s a common destination, you improve the odds a little bit versus them running into each other in, say, Topeka. But even so, it’s a big planet with 7 billion people in it. Factor down to those with the money and ability to travel and you still have an exceptional number. It can be pretty mind-boggling when this sort of thing happens. But then again, with that many people and that many combinations, it has to happen occasionally to someone. Doesn’t make it any less startling when it does, though.]