Tag Archive: Spencer Marks

(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.

Odds on Current Events

(Based on a link submitted by reader Sean Duncan)

The Independent Investigations Group, which as you loyal, dedicated, and detail-oriented readers know is a Los Angeles, California-based organization that investigates claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience, is affiliated with The Odds Must Be Crazy and provides a lot of our support and backing.

The IIG regularly receives all sorts of communication regarding a wide variety of topics, including requests for advice on how to handle unusual situations related to the IIG’s fields of expertise. In this case, listener Sean Duncan decided to write in and get the IIG’s assistance with a subject he’d been discussing with a friend. Here is that email:


My name is Sean and I live in Shelton, WA. I’m emailing because a skeptic of skepticism asked me about how, sometimes in disasters, thousands of people will die in a particular building yet one will survive for days or weeks because they are in the right place at the right time. I told this person that I would contact the Independent Investigations group because they like to calculate the odds of things. With so many people calling this phenemona a miracle, it might make for a good segment on The Odds Must Be Crazy. If you have the desire to calculate the odds of this Bangladesh woman surviving 17 days, we’d both appreciate it.




Through this communication a long discussion thread was started to address the question and build a complete picture of what would be required to answer it. We found the results really interesting, and have decided to share some excerpts with you below:

Comment by Barbara Drescher:

There is absolutely no way to calculate the odds of such a thing; it would require knowing everything about the building at the time of the collapse as well as defining the context (e.g., the odds of surviving, given that one is in the building when it collapsed, or the odds of it collapsing right when one is standing in that spot?).

How I would respond to such a question would be to ask more questions. If it is a miracle that she survived, then what is it that the other 1100+ people died? How many people do you think survived for several days, but died before they were rescued? Would it be less of a miracle if it was 15 days or more of a miracle if it was 18 days?

This kind of thinking is flawed because it is “post hoc”, or after-the-fact. Given what we know happening, the odds of that happening are 100% (because it already happened). Even if we predicted that a survivor or two would be found this long after, it’s still not remarkable because it happens. People will always be “in the right place at the right time” and “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. When we think about all of the circumstances that must be “lined up” for such a thing to happen, it looks remarkable, but something has to happen. Some set of circumstances is going to be the set that occurs. Someone will eventually win the lottery.

I’m reminded of the research that Hugh Ross did in which he calculated an outrageous probability that the universe would produce human beings. It was so outrageous that he concluded that it must have been an act of God. However that kind of thinking is exactly like asking someone to pick a number between 1 and 600,000,000,000, then being shocked by the number they picked, given that the chances of them choosing that number were 1 in 600,000,000,000.

Comment by IIG Chairman Jim Underdown:

It reminds me of two related issues. The question is like asking what are the odds of surviving a car crash. It depends on the car, the speed, the driver, what it hit – and countless other factors.

The post hoc example I like is the paint bucket that fell off a ladder. What are the odds it would produce exactly that spatter pattern? … 100%!

Comment by Jerry Schwarz:

It may be important to emphasize the difference between the probability that a specific person will survive for that long and the probability that one out of the thousands of people in the building will survive.  I suspect that many people don’t understand that difference.

Comment by IIG Steering Member Dave Richards:

The kind of statistics I have a real problem with are ones where there’s a bimodal or multimodal aspect. For example if you plot the ages of death for 10,000 individuals on a histogram, it won’t be a nice bell curve – there’s going to be a big spike in infancy due to childhood diseases, another spike in middle age from heart attack and stroke because that’s when those usually happen, more spikes from various cancers for people that outlive the other stuff, and then finally a spike when the body just finally gives out from old age. To boil such a spiky graph down to a single average age for longevity is pretty much a useless statistic. But this kind of thing is done all the time in news articles.

Jim Underdown responds:

I guess I’m arguing that because each car crash (plane crash, building collapse) is unique, and survivability depends on lots of factors dependent on that particular crash, making general predictions (or assigning odds) about someone surviving any such incident would be beyond the amount of useful information you’d ever have access to in a random event like this. The odds you’d come up with in your car crash statistics might easily be useless unless you added in lots of other controls like speed, car make, alcohol, etc. A sober person who never drives a Mack truck more than 20 miles an hour will be well beyond the insurance company’s risk tables. (Sort of along the lines of shark attack risk for those who never go near water.)

The correspondent is interested in whether we can assign odds to her having survived. There’s quite a difference between calculating the odds that someone would survive, and that this particular woman would survive.

Barbara Drescher rounds up the strategy of developing probability: 

Starting with a very specific question is essential and without one, it’s not even possible to guestimate.

And I think that’s the disconnect that people have when they think of these kinds of occurrences as miraculous (I don’t think it’s relevant whether they consider it an act of God or just a really amazing coincidence). Post hoc thinking has the luxury of being vague, but it’s not the vagueness that makes it bad.” And following up: “I just don’t see how that’s relevant. The question isn’t about how statistics are used. It’s about whether an event is extraordinary, probabilistically speaking.

IIG Steering member Spencer Marks adds:

… the way I read the question about the odds didn’t seem (to me) strictly a question about the odds of surviving the collapse of the building, but of the survivor living for 17 days. That question of course is ALSO not a matter of “odds,” but of many different environmental factors such as the ambient temperature, perhaps humidity, his availability to water, his general condition before the collapse … Like Barbara said, this is not a matter of odds but purely biological and physiological science at work, and that should be mentioned!

Bay Area IIG member Leonard Tramiel summarizes: 

There is a very good reason that the odds here are different. It’s related to the reason that it is considered a “miracle”.

It happens rarely. We can state the odds of being in a car crash because this happens many times every day. Surviving a building collapse for more than two weeks … not so common.

Given the poor statistics, we are forced to consider computing the statistics and that is hopeless for either building collapse or car crash.

Overall we found this was a rather interesting (you can feel free to disagree with us without hurting our feelings) look into the thought processes that sometimes go into analyzing stories like this.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled stories. There will be further interruptions.

Are We On The Same Page?

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Spencer Marks)

In 1973, the year I turned 12, a book came out called “Blue Money,” about pornographers and that industry. My father was a prominent attorney, and an entire chapter of the book was devoted to him. The author of the book, Carolyn See, had spent several weeks, all day, every day with him to research the book, and on one page, Page 222, there is a mention of me, not by name, but simply as “we talked about his son” (I am the only male child of my father, so this reference is me, for sure).

Twenty-four years later, I am mentioned in another book (to my knowledge, these are the only two books at this point); this time, it was the book “Evidence Dismissed” by Detectives Lange and Vannatter, the lead Detectives in the O.J. Simpson homicide investigation. This time, my full name is mentioned … also on page 222!!!

[EDITOR: Now that this story’s been published, it will naturally throw into doubt any future such coincidences as we’ll never be able to prove the authors didn’t place his name on that page purposefully, just to screw with him. – Jarrett]

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Spencer Marks)

Just the other day, I stopped into a tool store to buy some things, and as I was checking out, I noticed the cashier was named “Brandy.” My mind immediately went to the song, “Brandi, you’re a fine girl” by Looking Glass, and was tempted to verbally say to this girl, “Brandy, you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you would be…”

I chose not to, because I figured she had heard this 1,000 times in her life, so I just paid and left. I walked straight to my car, turned it on, and guess what was playing on the radio?!? If you guessed, “Brandi, you’re a fine girl,” YOU’D BE RIGHT!

[EDITOR: I guessed “Magical Mystery Tour,” but then again, I’ve never been very good at guessing games. – Jarrett]

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Spencer Marks)

A few years ago, I was driving home, and saw something moving in the middle of the street on the north end of the block that my house was on. When I got close enough, I realized it was a 12” California Desert Tortoise just walking down the middle of the street, in broad daylight, and in the middle of the city! Not wanting him (I knew it was male due to the “fighting fork” under his carapace) to get run over, I picked him up, and took him to my house. He seemed very comfortable around people, since when he would see someone approach, he would actually run toward the approaching person (well, as fast as a tortoise can run!), presumably to get fed. I figured he must have been hand-raised, since he had absolutely no fear of humans at all, and seemed to enjoy their company.

A month later, I was talking to a friend (one I didn’t talk to that often), about him coming to pick up some equipment from my house, and he asked for my address. As soon as I gave it to him, he said, “Oh wow … I grew up on that very street … just at the other end of the block from you!” We then talked a bit about who was in the neighborhood when he was growing up, and who still had a house there, and all of that sort of stuff, and for some reason he said, “I had a pet tortoise when I was a kid, and we couldn’t find it when we moved out, so I wonder if it is still at that house…”

I almost fell over! I told him that I had just found a tortoise in the street DIRECTLY in front of his old house the month before. He had moved away over 30 years prior to that, so I assumed it MUST have just been a different tortoise, but when he came to my house to pick up the equipment, he took one look at the tortoise, and said, “YEP! That’s him!”

I asked him if he wanted him back, and he said no, so today “Speedy” lives with me at my new house, with lots of places to roam, and spoiled with fruits and veggies by all who see him!

[EDITOR: We’ve all heard the crazy story of the dog or cat that manages to track their family ALL the way across the country to their new home (and seen plenty of movies about it, too). But it takes the brilliant staying power of a tortoise to stick around and wait 30 years for their family to return to them.]

Updated 4/23/2012

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 181. Take a look and leave your comments below.

In most of the stories of coincidence we share, the proximity, time-wise, of two incidents is short, but it’s hard to be shocked by it. Given the number of people with which Spencer was likely to interact in the weeks following finding the tortoise and the likelihood that some of those people lived in that neighborhood at some time in their lives, interacting with the tortoise’s previous owner is less unusual than it appears. The tortoise coming up in conversation is not that unusual, either. Any mention of where Spencer lived was bound to spark a conversation about the fact that the friend once lived there and that topic is likely to spark memories of the pet left behind.

If the tortoise was an adult when it was lost by the friend, the odds were pretty good that he would still be there 30 years later. The three biggest questions that spring to mind are:

  1. What is the probability that the tortoise would remain in that location for 30 years without intervention?
  2. What is the probability that the tortoise would have been moved (or taken in and cared for as Spencer did) by someone during those 30 years?
  3. What is the probability that the tortoise would still be alive after 30 years?

That the probability that the tortoise would remain in that location is high is fairly obvious to most people, I would think. It would take a tortoise most of day to travel even a mile, so tortoises tend
to maintain a rather small home range. Being removed by a new resident or other human requires being seen. Despite his size, which is not insignificant, the tortoise managed to be lost in the first place (assuming it was an adult at the time). The species is known for borrowing, so it is highly likely that he dug a hole under the house and spent much of his life there, undetected. Raccoons, larger and more active animals, thrive in urban areas and are rarely seen by their human neighbors. What’s more, the desert tortoise lies dormant during colder months, reducing the amount of time it is visible even more. I also wonder how many people would even know what to do if they saw a tortoise walking across the road. Unlike Spencer, I would not have known the species or sex of the animal, nor would I know whether it was safe to pick it up. I might simply try to hold traffic until it was safely across the road, then let it be.

If they survive to become adults, the lifespan of a tortoise is similar to that of a human, so 30 years is not unusual at all. The tortoise’s survival, therefore, relied on its ability to find food and avoid predators. Since their diet is mostly grasses, we are left with predators as the biggest danger. More specifically, ravens and coyotes (since gila monsters, badgers, and foxes are rare in this tortoise’s location). If, as I’ve assumed, the tortoise was an adult when it disappeared, it is fairly safe from these as well. Ravens will eat tortoise eggs and juveniles, but the shell of an adult is usually too much work when other food is more readily available. Although there might be some overlap in the daily cycle of the coyote (which tends to retreat to its den when the sun rises) and the desert tortoise (which is most active in the first half of the day), again, the tough adult shell makes a tortoise less desirable than other choices. In short, the chances of surviving 30 years on its own are excellent, assuming (again) that the tortoise was an adult when it was lost. It’s actually quite small if it was very young. Only 1 in 5 survives to adulthood in its natural habitat.

When we consider all of the factors, the one which brings the probability of this incident down the most is the temporal factor – the order and proximity of the events in time. It is certainly considerably lower than the average participant’s chances of winning a football pool at their office. Still, it is much greater than that of my next door neighbor winning the California lottery, yet that jackpot is won by someone’s next door neighbor dozens of times each year.

Acting Like Cops

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Spencer Marks)

One time, when I was still a police officer, I went into the break room at the police station and there was another officer there (we’ll call him Phil); he was reading a newspaper, and I sat across from him.  Out of the blue he said, “You know, Marks (my last name), you are one of those guys who always seems to know everybody.”

I said, “What do you mean by that?”  He continued, “You always seem to be connected to people in these Officer Involved Shootings (we had recently had several  of them in the City of L.A.), from different divisions, and you always seem to know a lot of different people…”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said. “I know a lot of cops, I’ve worked at a lot of Divisions and I know a lot of people…”

It was a weird conversation. Just then he lowered the newspaper and he pointed to a picture of Val Kilmer, who I grew up with, as Jim Morrison in a movie about the Doors that was about to come out. He said, “I can hardly wait for this movie to come out — I’m a huge fan of Val Kilmer and I’m a huge Doors fan.”  I thought, “How did he know that I grew up with Val Kilmer? Did he talk to someone and just set me up with that elaborate statement?”  Or is this just a weird coincidence?

And I kind of thought about it for a minute, and said, “you know Phil, you won’t believe this…”

Phil said, “Don’t tell me; you know Val Kilmer…?!”

I said, “I grew up with him. It wasn’t like he was ‘Val Kilmer the actor’– it was Val and his brothers Wesley and Mark–Val was in my sister’s class, and Wesley was in my class. We went to their house all the time, they came to our house to play and we were all friends…”

And Phil said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah… whatever” and we dropped the conversation.

Ten days later, my phone rang at home, and a hesitant voice said “Spencer? It’s Val Kilmer.” At first I thought Phil was just pulling my chain. I hadn’t talked with Val in 15 years and didn’t really recognize his voice right away. So I sort of answered in a very nonchalant voice, “Oh… hi.”

Then he said, almost apologetically, “Is it OK that I called you at home? Peggye gave me your number. I’m doing a new movie and I’m playing an FBI agent and Peggye told me you are working as a police officer and gave me your number…”  Those were the magic words, because I knew Phil wouldn’t have known my sister’s name, so I said, “OF COURSE it’s OK  that you called me at home!” Val came over, and we talked for a few hours at my house, but I told him, “I can tell you what it’s like to be a street cop, but not an FBI agent… but I have a friend who’s in the FBI. Let’s go talk with him tomorrow.”  So I arranged that.

The coincidence part is pretty much over, but the rest is more about human interest. We went (the next day) to talk with my friend the FBI agent, then went to the gun club to go shooting. I felt I needed to apologize to Val about the lukewarm reception when he first phoned. I explained about Phil and the conversation 10 days earlier.

Val started laughing hysterically — we had talked earlier about how the press gets everything wrong, and he said, “Let me send Phil a picture; it’s on two frames, one with a picture of me as Jim Morrison, the other is a picture of me as Jim Morrison being dragged off stage by police officers, and signed: ‘Phil, don’t believe anything the press tells you, but believe everything Spencer tells you. — Val Kilmer'”

Two weeks later, the package arrives, and Phil opened it, and said “Very funny…” as if he didn’t believe it was a real autographed picture. So I said “Dude, if you want Val’s autograph, take good care of it. It’s a real autograph… don’t throw it away.”  He seemed like he didn’t trust me. Six months later I asked what he did with the autographed picture; he said it was hanging on the wall in his den.

I guess he figured it was real, because it was postmarked New Mexico… and it would have been a very elaborate joke to have it relayed through New Mexico.

[EDITOR:  While he may have been connected to people involved in these shootings, Spencer has never shot any members, friends, or family of our team while on or off duty, and had he, we can state with confidence that the case would have been quietly settled out of court, with an agreement of silence, for an undisclosed sum of money that may or may not have allowed us to cover the web hosting costs of this blog.]

Reading Aloud

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Spencer Marks)

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast, and trying to multi-task, and was also reading an e-mail while listening. My eyes rolled over the word “assume,” and just as I was reading that word, the speaker on the podcast SAID “assume” in the course of her speech. It wasn’t “close,” it was EXACT, like the speaker was reading the text to me! Of course, that was the only word that coincided, but it caught me off guard for an instant, like I had been listening to the e-mail, instead of reading it!

The Third Time…

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Spencer Marks)

Around 1987, I was a young man of about 25 or 26, and went to a party on a Saturday night. This party was in the hills above Beverly Hills, and while there, I met (for the first time), Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady on “The Brady Bunch.” We ended up having a conversation for about 20 minutes, and then I moved on with mingling with other guests.

About three days later, I was in a supermarket, turned the corner, and there was Barry once again, shopping! I said, hello, and had to remind him that we had just met 3 days before, and where. We ended up talking for another 10-15 minutes, and I joked about, “well, see you soon!” even though we did not exchange any information or make plans to do so.

About two days later, I went into a place that I had once worked, an indoor shooting range, and there was Barry once again! This time, he actually remembered my name, and said, “Oh, hi Spencer!”

So, in one week’s time, I ran into the same person three different places, unconnected to each other, and separated by some distance.

I did not see him prior to that, or after that, until I was at a July 4th party in 2009, and had to remind him of that one odd week, 22 years before.

Got Smart!

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Spencer Marks)

When I was just a wee lad, around 11 or 12 or so, I would go to my father’s office over the summer and work for him, doing little things, here and there. His office was on Wilshire Blvd., and our house wasn’t too far off of Wilshire, so I would jump on a bus to get to his office, and to get back home. One day, while I was sitting on the bus bench waiting to go home, there was this little old lady sitting on the bench next to me, and we started up a conversation. I asked her what she had done for a living (before she retired) and she said she had been an actress. I asked her if she would have been in anything I would have seen, and she said she had been in an episode of “Get Smart,” which to this day remains one of my all time favorite TV shows.

I asked her which part she had played, as the series was on every day (and by then in reruns), I had most likely watched every episode 3-5 times, and would know if she was lying! She described the scene, which I remembered, and I was excited to meet her! The bus came, and we continued to talk on the bus until I got off at my stop. I walked home the four blocks, and noticed from the TV guide that “Get Smart” was about to start in 5 minutes! I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t that be a GREAT coincidence if it was THAT episode?” AND GUESS WHAT?!?

It was a whole DIFFERENT episode! But it WOULD have been cool!

No, I’m kidding  … it WAS the episode, and there was my new friend! I was watching her just 15 minutes after leaving her on the bus (very much ALIVE, if any of you were wondering!) That remains one of the coolest coincidences EVER to happen in my life! Hope you all enjoyed it too!