Tag Archive: Los Angeles

A Classic Coincidence

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Ian Dodd)

In May of this year I attended a conference of humanist organizations in Atlanta, Georgia where I had a conversation with one of the local organizers. She told me she had a brother who was living in Hawaii but considering a move to Los Angeles, where I live, sometime later in the year and asked if she could pass my phone number on to him.

I had forgotten about the exchange until last week when I got a call from an unknown 808 area code number. The young man on the other end of the line explained who he was and how he had my phone number. We chatted briefly and I found out he and his wife had arrived in LA, they were looking for a place to rent and we made a date for lunch with a couple days later.

As we got to know each other over lunch, I learned that they knew nothing of the organization his sister and I are both affiliated with, so I told him how it was I came to meet her. Then they asked about my family and I explained that I had two children, one not much different in age from them, who had graduated from a small college in Minnesota in 2014 with a degree in Classics.

The young woman interjected, “Your daughter didn’t happen to go to Carleton College, did she?” Which, if you’re listening to this podcast, you can already guess what my answer was. Listeners should understand that Carleton is a college of 2,000 students in rural Minnesota. This young woman explained that her childhood best friend from growing up in Houston, TX had graduated from Carleton the year before in 2013, also in Classics, a department of about a dozen students.

I texted my daughter and my lunch companion texted her childhood friend to ask if they knew each other only to find out that the two of them had been study buddies through ancient Greek language for the 3 years they overlapped and are still close friends.

And by this last weekend, they had found a place to live: they will be renting from my wife and me starting in a couple weeks.

Seriously? The odds of this must be crazy!

Below are the extended notes provided by statistician and podcaster Kyle Polich for use in Skepticality Episode 264.  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.)

So this story covers a series of seemingly unlikely events. Let’s try and break them down and isolate the parts that are not surprising from the parts that are eyebrow raising.

One of the important lessons here is around *conditional* probability. What is the probability that a person can play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the bassoon? Pretty low! What about the probability of that given the fact that they’re a professional bassoon player – very high!

To begin with, our listener is out of town chatting with a conference organizer who mentions her brother is moving to the listener’s city. There are almost 40k municipalities in the United States, so shall we say the odds of this are 1 in 40k or 0.0025%? Not quite.

Let’s consider the complement of this situation. Imagine you meet someone and proudly announce “I’m from Los Angeles”, to which they reply, “Cool! I have a good friend that lives in Gainsville, FL!” I mean, that’s nice, but I’m from LA. I think it’s fair to say our investigation only starts *conditioned* on the fact that a common city comes up in conversation.

Moving ahead to the part of the story in which the listener meets the relocating young brother and wife, and mentions having a daughter who attended a small college in Minnesota in 2014 with a degree in classics. The young women mentions having a close childhood friend who studied the same subject in a Minnesota school, and asks if they might perhaps have attended the same school and know each other. There are almost 200 colleges and universities in Minnesota. I’m not sure what qualifies as small, but if half of them are considered small, we can call those odds about a 1% chance.

Setting aside how many childhood friends the young woman had and how many universities they spread out into, maybe we call these odds 1 in 100 chance. That’s like betting on a specific number for rulet and winning. Unlikely, but not extraordinary.

But now we get into *conditional* probability. What are the odds that two students at a small school in a small department of about a dozen students know each other? I should hope pretty high!

So all in all, I find this one noteworthy, but not excessively surprising, and if I had to put a firm number on it, I’d say in the neighborhood of 1% likelihood.

The US Census tracks state to state movement.  Kyle put together a fun, interactive data visualization that allows people to select a state and see the percentage of people that leave that state and what other states they migrate to.


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.

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 Spencer Marks)

I was just finishing watching a movie with my son and as the credits were rolling, I got a text from a friend in Seattle. We engaged in a few back-and-forth messages, and to make a point about something, she told me to look up Ken Kesey, a name I had never heard before.

I turned to my laptop which was beside me, looked up Ken Kesey, and quickly found that he was the author of the book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” My jaw almost dropped, as that was the movie I had just finished watching and whose credits were rolling!

My friend in Seattle could not have known that I had been watching that movie as I am in Los Angeles and there had been no conversation about it prior to that. Since the movie was made in 1975, and this story happened in August of 2013, it wasn’t like the movie was fresh on everyone’s minds!

Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 217.  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 coincidence is impossible to quantify for several reasons. Depending on how we frame the question, the probability of this occurring depends on the number of films one could have been watching at the time as well as the number of authors the friend could have mentioned.

However, there are things to take note of in this story. One bit that we often fail to consider when something like this happens is that the the author’s friend clearly knows the author well. She suspected that the author would enjoy Ken Kesey’s work and, apparently, she was right! That part is not a coincidence, but the timing surely is.

Cruising for a Coincidence

Several years ago I went on the CFI cruise to the Caribbean. I arrived a day early in Orlando and stayed overnight in Orlando’s airport hotel. The next morning at the shuttle service parking area to the cruise ship, I overheard some people talking, and especially some “skeptic buzz words”… and recognized one of the people seated waiting for the shuttle, Eddie Tabash. I asked if I could join them because I recognized him from his lecture at CFI-Los Angeles just a few months earlier, and even remembered that at the time, his favorite candidate for president was General Wesley Clark.

Eddie sat by me in the bus to the ship, and we talked about a lot of skeptic trivia, and boarded the ship together. He promised to introduce me to CFI Founder Paul Kurtz and some of the other luminaries who would be on the cruise, and we went on some of the shore excursions together.

Toward the end of the cruise, we were waiting in line for our dinner seating, and he was complaining about how much work would be awaiting him when he returned to Los Angeles. I offered to help him, and he kidded that he couldn’t wait for me to finish law school. I said I used to do office work part-time for my father who had a civil litigation practice. He asked my father’s name. I told him, and he said, “You are Myron’s daughter?”

It turned out that when Eddie was just beginning to practice law, he came up against my father in court a few times, and my dad cleaned his clock. Eddie had been working for a law firm that was sending him on fools’ errands, and my dad would invite him back to his office, and encourage him to do himself a favor and leave that firm. My dad could see that Eddie was a smart man whose talent was being wasted. Evidently, Eddie took that advice, because he now has his own practice specializing in Constitutional law.

We went to tell Dr. Kurtz about our amazing coincidence — but all Paul would say is “All those lawyers know each other….” I never did help Eddie with his mountain of work after the cruise.  But even I, a confirmed skeptic, and Eddie, a more-than-confirmed skeptic, were amazed at the unlikely confluence of our paths crossing aboard a cruise ship full of skeptics after his friendship with my father that didn’t involve me at all.

Battlestar Portlandia

(Submitted by friend of the site, Brian Hart)

At a restaurant in Los Angeles one recent Monday, I spotted Battlestar Galactica’s executive producer and writer, Ronald D. Moore, at a nearby table.

It should be noted that the highly acclaimed, re-imagined series went off the air back in 2009, and I saw Moore there in January 2012.

On Friday of the same week, I was watching the show Portlandia on the IFC channel, and one of the comedy pieces revolved around Battlestar Galactica.  Fair enough.

However, the main joke became that the couple watching the show became obsessed with it, and demanded that Ronald D. Moore write new episodes specifically for them.  Several original BSG members appeared on the show, doing a table read, along with Ronald D. Moore himself, playing a local Portland actor, “Kim Reynolds”.

Spin up the FTL drives, and make a Jump into coincidence, these odds are crazy!

So say we all!

[EDITOR: Brian seems to have a penchant for running into celebrities right around the time they’re mentioned in podcasts or featured out of place on television. Maybe it’s less coincidence and more that Brian relentlessly stalks them until they happen to line up to make a good story…?]

(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.]

[Today’s article is cross-posted with Mark Edward’s permission with SkepticBlog. If you’re unfamiliar, please go check them out.]

This last weekend was Christmas, a time when I usually sit around doing nothing but feeling blue. This time was different. My girl Susan was coming to visit and the only real plans we had were to go and see “The Artist.” That being planned, the rest of the days off were set for winging it and hanging out when and where we felt like going.

On Thursday morning, I mentioned to Susan that I wanted to remember to call my friend Ray Bradbury and wish him a happy holiday. Next day on Friday, we drove into downtown L.A. to see the Weegee exhibition at MOCA. Leaving at around noon, we made our way downtown and began the process of looking for a cheap place to park. We finally randomly settled on a spot across the street from Grand Central Market on Hill Street.

Mark Edward

This classic melting pot of L.A. has always been one of my favorite places to wander around and watch the bustling activity, grab a quick bite and best of all; it lies conveniently a few blocks around the corner from the more expensive MOCA district where it has been since 1917. Being a photographer by profession, Susan snaps away at anything that sparks her fertile creative mind and after partaking of a latte and croissant, we found ourselves outside on the busy east side of South Broadway. I chanced to glance across the street and remembered (for the first time in twenty or thirty years) the wonderfully bizarre interior of The Bradbury Building. I had been there a few times in my past and had a connection with the place. Being a fan of the ’60s television series The Outer Limits and having had the privilege of a friendship with the series’ producer Joseph Stefano, I knew a bit about the strange workings of science fiction writers and how they had used the building as a location not only in the seminal black and white episode of The Outer Limits: The Demon with the Glass Hand, (1964) but also countless other productions including D.O.A. (1950),Blade Runner(1982) and Wolf (1994).

The building has an odd background. Some might even call it a “paranormal” one. Wiki says:

“A local architect, Sumner Hunt, was first hired to complete a design for the building, but (the originally commissioned Lewis L.)Bradbury dismissed Hunt’s plans as inadequate to the grandeur of his vision. He then hired George Wyman, one of Hunt’s draftsmen, to design the building. Wyman at first refused the offer, but then supposedly had a ghostly talk with his brother Mark Wyman (who had died six years previously), while using a planchette board (Ouija) with his wife. The ghost’s message supposedly said “Mark Wyman / take the / Bradbury building / and you will be / successful” with the word “successful” written upside down. After the episode, Wyman took the job, and is now regarded as the architect of the Bradbury Building. Wyman’s grandson, the science fiction publisher Forrest J. Ackerman, owned the original document containing the message until his death. Coincidentally, Ackerman was a close friend of science fiction author Ray Bradbury.”

Suffice it to say that this building, its history and general noir demeanor are to say the least: bizarre. I hadn’t made any conscious linking between Ray Bradbury and the Bradbury building as we crossed the street and entered the cavernous lobby. That could have been interpreted by some as a coincidence, albeit a rather weak one. No, hang on – it gets weirder.

We lingered for a half hour or so and took some nice shadowy photos, particularly shooting from one stairway landing that overlooks the lobby from the second floor. We left the building enchanted with the visual charm of the beautiful wrought iron and stone work and quite invigorated by the experience.

The next day was Saturday, Christmas Eve. We decided we would go and see a matinee of “The Artist.” The film itself is a silent film and shot in black-and-white that captures the era when silent films began to morph into “talkies” (1927-1932) and how the main characters deal with the rocky transition.

In stunned amazement, we both sat in awe as a five minute scene unfolded in front of our eyes shot virtually on the exact spot we had been standing on the second floor landing in the Bradbury Building just 24 hours before. What are the odds? Spooky…

Mark Edward is a professional mentalist who specializes in magic of the mind. He continues to be consulted by the media for his knowledge of spiritualism, psychic fraud and ghost lore.

More from Mark can be found at SkepticBlog and TheMarkEdward.com

At the end of 2009 I started contract work at Current TV in Los Angeles. During my first week there the premises in which they’re located held a company Christmas party to which I was invited. I ended up having a long conversation with one individual about science fiction novels, short fiction, and Escape Pod, my favorite SF podcast. He hadn’t heard of it, but was interested in checking it out.

The following day, on my ride home, I decided it was time to start catching up on Escape Pod as some changes in my life had cut down on my podcast listening and I was a few months behind. The first story I put on was entitled Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store, and as I was quickly informed by the moderator, it was (brilliantly) written by Robin Sloan… a then employee of Current TV.

So in the very same week I started work at one of my all-time favorite workplaces and had a conversation about one of my all-time favorite podcasts, both were tied inextricably together by one science fiction short story, which also immediately became one of my all-time favorites. The odds MUST be crazy…

I live in Los Angeles, CA. My friend who lives and works in Washington DC announced on Facebook that she has a new Twitter account name, so I entered that into the Twitter Find People feature, and followed her. We otherwise were Facebook friends, but I had not been following her on Twitter.

Within minutes, my email showed that she was following me, too. We exchanged Direct Messages. I told her I barely ever used Twitter to announce what I was doing, but preferred to use it like little emails, just for Direct Messages.

My cousin Steve also lives and works in DC. She wrote back the following: “Your cousin Steve (I think) was my Mac instructor the other day. How do I know? We were in my email and he saw you sent me a message.” I immediately thought: The Odds Must Be Crazy 🙂

[EDITOR: The same thing happened to me last week. Only instead of Twitter it was on <CENSORED> and instead of my Mac instructor it was my <CENSORED>. But otherwise exactly the same.]