Tag Archive: mall

(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.

Fly like a beagle

(Submitted by reader David Buck)

I work in an office tower that’s connected to a shopping mall. Yesterday I was taking a break from work by going to the grocery store and buying a tray of vegetables for a healthy snack. When I arrived at that section of the store, I saw a friend of mine there who I’d known for about 30 years.

“Hi” I said.
“Hey,” he replies, “you have a birthday coming up soon.”
“Yea,” I answer, “but I’ll be out of town that day.”
“I have a scary birthday coming up” he says. “I’m turning 50”.
“Been there, done that,” I say. “It’s not such a big deal. It’s just another day”.
“Well,” he answers. “You know what they say… ‘Time keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’ into the future’. Then it’s something like ‘I want to fly like a beagle to the sea’ – you know bark, bark, splash.”
“I didn’t know beagles could fly” I said.

We both chuckled and I went to the cash to pay for my vegetable tray.  I left the store and walked outside to enter the mall near my office tower and all the time I had that song running through my head.  When I entered the mall again, the music that plays constantly in the mall had just started playing “Time keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’ into the future.” I just shook my head and thought “the odds must be crazy”.

Below are the extended notes provided by Ed Clint for use in Skepticality Episode 216.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own sarcastic and hilarious commentary.

The odds might be crazy, or maybe they’re simply stressed and in need of a holiday. Judging by the letters we get, song coincidences are common, or at least more so than other sorts. Consideration of the “raw-ish” odds sheds some light on this. If you picked a song at random, what are the odds of hearing it played by an independent music-player such as a mall? The company Gracenote catalogs music, and lists over 100 million songs. However, that number includes duplicates, international, and independent music. Perhaps more relevant are the libraries of streaming music services because they will only pay to stock music people are likely to want: LastFM houses 12 million, Rdio 18 million, Spotify 20 million, and Pandora offers about a million unique songs. Conservatively, we might say there are 20 million pop songs “in the ether” that people regularly wish to listen to. This number is still far too high for our story. A shopping mall won’t play hits from the ’40s or Gangsta Rap, as much as we might want to hum “Cop Killer” to ourselves when perusing khaki slacks. Those genres are included in every streaming music service, but really a store manager is going to confine musical choices to playlists including only the relatively recent (’90s and forward), songs that charted, and those which are G-rated and inoffensive. Not so coincidentally, these are also the sorts of songs an acquaintance is most likely to cite in public conversation.

That cuts down the number substantially. There are no more than 20,000 songs that could fit that description. What about the other half of the problem, how likely is it an acquaintance would mention *any* song to you on a given day? Unless you’re on the cast of Glee, hard to say. Surely somewhere south of a percentage point make our best-case odds less than 1 in two million, and probably much less than that.

However, it is possible there was very little real coincidence at all. Commercial music services that provide tunage to stores, and even radio stations have a much smaller and more rigid weekly playlist than you might think: 150-200 songs replayed throughout the week. Many (like myself) who have worked in retail can confirm hearing the same songs repeatedly. Since we know the grocer works very close to the mall, it’s not unlikely he had been there recently. Since his own birthday was near, hearing the song would have stuck in his head, consciously or subconscious.


Edward Clint produces the Skeptic Ink Network and writes about Evolutionary Psychology, critical thinking and more at his blog Incredulous. He is presently an intern at the JREF and a bioanthropology graduate student at UCLA studying evolutionary psychology.