Tag Archive: New York

(Submitted by reader Jim Houston)

A few years after graduating from college in upstate New York, I returned to where I grew up in Pennsylvania and found a job about 20 miles away  from my hometown. The job wasn’t related to my major in Physics, but computer programming was something that was a bit more portable, and within a few months, I was asked to find other programmers for the project team.

Sifting through stacks of résumés is an exercise in looking for familiar experiences that would suggest someone can do the job you need done, so one morning I see a résumé that looks so familiar I could have written it myself. I realized as I read it that I must know this guy and so decided right away to call him in for an interview. He went to the same college as I, graduated the same year, and in the same major.  There were about 100 of us freshmen in the department and we all took the same intro courses for the first two years.  While 100 classmates is not a large group, I  may not have known many of their names, but usually recognized them if we passed each other in the halls.  So that I couldn’t place the  interviewee from the name on the resume didn’t strike me as unusual.

When my classmate walked in for the interview, I felt that I had never ever seen this guy before.  It was so unlikely that we could be in the same classes and not have recognized each other, that we actually spent a fair amount of time in the initial chat comparing notes on where we lived, who our professors were, who we knew etc…  Freshman year, he lived one dorm over in a complex of about 2000 students.  The next year, we both moved up to the newer North Campus dorms and again lived a couple of dorms apart, and for the remaining two years we both lived in apartments that were about three blocks from each other.

It turned out that we probably didn’t take classes together because we were six months out of sync on the prerequisites, but largely knew the same people and had the same professors.

What came next floored me. He not only grew up his entire life in my hometown, but I discovered he lived two streets away from where I had lived my entire life up to that point.  He had gone to a different school system and was on the other side of a major street that I had rarely crossed. He was as convinced as I was that even if we had somehow crossed paths, we had never seen each other before.

So when people bring up stories of chance encounters that demonstrate what a small world it is, I like to bring up my counter story of what a BIG world it is. For twenty years, I lived within two hundred yards of a person with very similar interests, went to many of the same playgrounds, stores, and parks and yet were still complete strangers.

(For the statistically inclined, college size was 16,000 students. Class sizes were about 40 people. The population density of my hometown is 15,000 people per square mile. The number of people who lived on the two streets in question is about 250. The rest is an exercise for the reader 🙂

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 201. Take a look and leave your comments below.

I love this story. There is, of course, nothing shocking about the coincidences except that the men did not remember each other at all. This should not be the case given the size of the school and the proximity of their childhood homes. And yet it is not surprising at all to me as a psychologist who has studied attention and memory.

The fact of the matter is that the author almost certainly interacted with the interviewee many times and simply did not notice or remember him. It is even more interesting that neither noticed the other while they were in college. I would expect at least that “I know you, don’t I?” feeling.

We all probably encounter many of the same strangers often, but without an interaction that is out of the ordinary, we don’t even encode their faces. If human beings were not so selective, we would be unable to function as we would need to sort through enormous amounts of information on a constant basis. Instead, we encode what we think might be important later and store it as connections to other bits of information.

To see this for yourself, try to draw the heads side of a penny–right now, without looking at one.  You have seen hundreds in your lifetime and you can probably recreate the gist of the coin and some of the details, but do you know where to put everything? Did you draw something that is actually on the tails side? Is the date in the right place? Which direction is Lincoln looking?

For some fun and interesting demonstrations of selective attention and memory, I highly recommend “The Invisible Gorilla” by Daniel Simons, a psychologist who has studied this phenomena.

(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

Stranger from the Same Land

(Submitted by reader R Till)

About 10 years ago I was visiting New York City overnight with a friend. As we were walking down the street in Brooklyn a car pulled over and the driver asked for directions to such-and-such.

We said we didn’t know, we were just visiting from North Carolina. The driver said they were visiting from Cary, NC (a suburb outside Raleigh). I laughed and said that I lived in Cary, and he said he lived in the Preston subdivision. I told him that I lived in Preston’s “rival” subdivision at the time (suburbs are so weird like that haha).

I hope he found the place he was looking for…

[EDITOR: This is the sort of story you tend to hear a lot of, or variations of it. Certainly you get people who grew up together running into each other, but you also get stories of people from the same neighborhood, school, street, etc. who never met (sometimes separated by time, sometimes by pure chance) finding each other somewhere else. This one seems ripe for statistical analysis, as it’s clearly common enough, and when you consider populations, tourist destinations, transplant rates, etc., it’s definitely guaranteed to happen pretty darn regularly, which is exactly what we see here. But it’s still pretty jarring when you see it.

Years back I filmed a movie in Salt Lake City with Nick Cassavetes before he had stepped into (and nicely filled) his father’s directing shoes and was still acting. We spent a lot of time off-set together and when hometowns were discussed it turned out he had lived in mine when he was younger. We narrowed down the exact building in which he lived, which was directly next to the DMV. It was particularly infamous to me because during one of my lengthy visits to that lovely bastion of hope and cheeriness a crowd had formed by the window to watch as a man stood nude in his full-height living room window, displaying himself gleefully to everyone there. Thankfully Nick confirmed this was NOT when he lived there and he was definitely not the man in the window. But it’s a perfect example of those funny little hometown connections in a very unexpected place that lead to a great 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.]

Baseball Odds

(Submitted by reader David Newell)

Three years ago I had a business trip to attend in New York. As an attendee I was to receive tickets to a Yankees game. Before leaving, I asked my young boys what they wanted me to bring them back. The older one replied a foul ball. But not just any foul ball, but one hit by A Rod.

Right, I thought to myself. I have been going to Dodgers games for 40 years and have never caught a foul ball – Ever!

So be it. We go to the game and come the 7th inning, not a whiff of a foul ball coming my way. I had already purchased two souvenir balls to bring back to the boys just in case. There was a bus leaving at that inning to take us all back to the hotel, but there was no way I was going to leave the game early – not just because I hadn’t caught a foul ball, but this was the last season before Yankee Stadium was going to be demolished – and I wanted to enjoy every minute of it.

So, 7th inning comes and goes, 8th inning comes around and sure enough A Rod will be coming to bat. I had recently read a book that had talked about visualization and the power of suggestion – so as he’s coming to bat I’m repeating a mantra of A Rod hitting a foul ball my way.

The next thing I know, he pops up a foul ball close to where I am. I can see by the trajectory that it’s going into the next section over, but if somehow everybody goes for it and no one catches it cleanly – I can play the deflection. So I run out of my seat into the aisle where I think I might have my best shot at this. Sure enough the ball comes down – no one gets it cleanly and it pops back up right toward me. It lands on the ground and I scramble down and swoop it up – and sure enough, there was my foul ball from A Rod.

I was so blown away by all of this, that I decided to keep the ball myself here in my office as a reminder to what the power of positive thinking can do.

Besides, I can’t really split the ball in half to give to each kid, can I?!

[EDITOR: Now that we’ve established this super power of yours, let’s get cracking on world peace, shall we? Or at least a lottery win…]