Tag Archive: telephone

The Mischief Makers

(Submitted by anonymous reader)

Toward the end of summer vacation after my junior year of high school, I was sitting at home, and thought about one of my friends that I hadn’t seen or talked to since the school year had ended. Scott and I weren’t especially close friends, so while we hung out together in school, we only interacted outside of school a couple times a year, usually during the school year. Something had come up that I thought might interest him (I no longer remember what it was), so I dug up his phone number and gave him a call. His mom answered (this was before any but the most spoiled and rich high school kids had cell phones) and told me that he was out with friends. She said she’d have him call me back when he got home.

About half an hour later, my doorbell rang. I went to the door, and there was Scott! Naturally, my first thought was that he happened to talk to his parents and they told him that I had called, so he stopped by before coming home, but no, he had no idea that I had called. He was stopping by because he and some of his other friends were out doing some mischief around town. When they got to one of the corners on Harris Road, Scott apparently thought of me, since that’s my last name. He and his friends took the sign down and tossed it in their trunk. When they parted ways to go home, Scott came by my house to give me my street sign.

I thought of something that would interest a friend that I almost never interacted with outside of school, and who I hadn’t seen at all in about two months at the same time as he thought of something that would interest me (a personalized street sign). The odds of this happening are probably pretty much incalculable, but they’re definitely pretty crazy!

[EDITOR: This is a perfect example of one of those simple moments that catches us by surprise. Granted, this one included a misdemeanor.]


(Submitted by reader Bob LeDrew)

When I was a kid, I was at home one evening and the phone rang. I picked it up and said, “hello?”

“Hi! Is that Bob?”
“Put your mother on the phone.”
“Can I tell her who’s calling?”
“Oh come on, Bob, stop messing around and put Evelyn on the phone.”

My mom’s name IS Evelyn. But I didn’t know the voice, and started to get a little creeped out by the presumption. We went back and forth, each of us getting irritated.

“Are you sure you’ve dialed the right number?”
“Is this 736-xxxx?”
“Then put Evelyn on!”

I was flummoxed. This person wouldn’t say who they were. I didn’t recognize their voice. But they knew my name, my mother’s name, and had the right phone number?!

Somewhere in my brain, something made me ask “What area code did you dial?”


We were in 902, the area code, for Nova Scotia, Canada. 702 is Las Vegas.

I explained this to the person on the other end of the line. She hung up, and I ran to tell my parents that somewhere in Nevada, there was someone with our phone number named Evelyn who had a son named Bob. CRAZY!

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 186. Take a look and leave your comments below.
I love it when I get to add to the craziness. I had this same conversation when I was a teenager, almost verbatim. My parents’ names are Bob and Carol (Yes, like “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice”) and my voice was very similar to my mother’s and people often mistook me for her. The caller asked for “Bob” and when I asked who they were they realized that I was not my mother and asked for “Carol”. I became suspicious and questioned them further; it turned out that they had dialed a wrong number and reached the wrong Bob and Carol. We had a good laugh and ended the call.
A year or two later, the same gentleman called and started with the usual small talk. I answered with the usual small talk answers, all the while trying to place the voice. At some point he realized that I was not Carol and asked my name, so I answered by asking his and we eventually realized what had happened. This kind of thing actually happened to my father a lot more than you might think. I recall a time when my father received some rather distressing phone calls and letters regarding the unpaid taxes of someone with his name who lived in our neighborhood!
So, let’s start with the not-so-unusual: I am not surprised at all that there is a common name in the submitted story and my own, since “Bob” is so common that it is used like “Joe” to imply a typical man. According to babycenter.com, “Robert” was the #1 name for baby boys for decades, was among the top 10 until 1990, and has not left the top 100 in more than a century. But let’s look at the probabilities within the original story itself.
The odds of two households having a mother and son with identical names and phone numbers which differ by a single digit depend on the commonality of the names and available phone numbers. With just a little bit more information, namely the year in which this occurred, and a LOT of research and computation, we could estimate this fairly accurately. Without that information, we can still make a few assumptions and cut a few corners to determine if the odds are indeed as crazy as they seem. Keep in mind that as I write this I do not know the identity of the story’s author and I will limit the source of some estimates to information about the U.S. for practical reasons, even though part of the story involves Canada (which complicates matters, but should not affect the outcome tremendously).
First we’ve established that “Bob” is extremely common, regardless of the ages of the mother and son. “Evelyn” has not been in the top 10 since 1915, but it was in the top 100 until 1953, then dropped in popularity somewhat until 2008, when it returned to the top 100.
If we assume the mother in this story was born when her names were rather popular, but recent enough for this to happen after area codes were in use, I will guess that this occurred in the 1980s. If 3 in 1000 (averaging and rounding) of the women in this age group are named Evelyn and 25 in 1000 boys 8-18 years old were named Robert, then the probability of a mother and son having the names Bob and Evelyn as opposed to any other configuration are approximately 15:100,000 or 3 in 40,000. Not extraordinarily low given that, according to infoplease.com, there were more than 62 million family households in the U.S. in 1985, so more than 4600 of them probably had mother/son combinations who answered to Bob and Evelyn. Less than 10% of households in 1985 did not have phones, so let’s say that there were 4200 Bob/Evelyns who could receive the call.
Where this gets much trickier is in estimating the probabilities related to the phone numbers. There were limits to the possible phone numbers at the time, making a calculation of the probability that two mother/son combinations named “Bob and Evelyn” would have numbers one digit apart a lot more work than I am willing to do for fun. However, we can get close to this by estimating the probability that someone would reach such a couple by dialing a 10-digit number incorrectly. In this case, what is more relevant than those limitations is the number of active phone lines. Tradingeconomics.com estimates the number of fixed and mobile telephone lines in the U.S. in 1985 at over 116 million. With 4200 of those including a Bob/Evelyn, that’s more than 1 in 25,000.
If you only dial one number incorrectly, the number of ways to dial 10 digits incorrectly is 100, but depending on which number you dialed incorrectly, the odds of reaching a person are actually small given that fewer than 1 in 50 of the possible combinations of 10 digits was in use at the time.
So, let’s assume (again, conservatively), that 2 of the numbers you could dial incorrectly would reached an actual phone. The odds, then, of reaching one of the 4200 Bob/Evelyns by dialing a single number incorrectly are about 7 in one million.

The Ring Comes Home

I’m shockingly realizing right now that an entire decade ago the film The Ring came out in theaters. For anyone who was around at the time and had movie-going friends, this was a phenomenon. It was impossible to avoid hyperbole about what a brilliant, shocking, terrifying horror film it was, and it simply, truly, positively could NOT be missed. I’m not a horror fan, but my then-wife was and I did my job and took her to the theater to see it.

Personally, I wasn’t impressed. I felt like most of the “terror” was cheap startles of either something jumping out or a quick cut to something gruesome. Maybe I missed something, or maybe I really did expect more from what had been sold as one of the greatest horror films ever, but it left me cold.

Now I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying the main concept in the film is that a person views this video that contains a series of weird, creepy, and oddly sickening images. After the video is done, the phone rings. When the person answers the phone they hear a girl’s voice tell them that they have seven days left to live. If they don’t get someone else to watch the video before then (transferring the curse to them), they’re dead. Predictably (to me, anyway), the film ends with that very video being shown full-screen to the theater audience, in theory to terrify them by transferring the curse to them. I’m sure that was exceptionally scary for anyone who enjoyed the film better. It did nothing for me. At least not at the theater…

When we arrived home afterwards I walked into the house to hear the sound of a ringing phone. Except the house phone wasn’t ringing. The ringing was coming from my computer in the bedroom. It was the ring it makes when the main line rings so I can hit a pop-up to allow it to receive a fax, except again, the main line wasn’t ringing. I checked the screen and there were no programs running in the taskbar that could have triggered it and the fax pop-up wasn’t visible. The phone continued to ring. I checked the notification area and found no fax application or anything else that appeared related to the sound. The computer kept ringing. I opened up the task manager and started closing process after process, working my way down to core applications. THE COMPUTER KEPT RINGING. Finally I initiated a system restart at which point the ringing stopped during shutdown and didn’t return after I started the system back up.

So while the film itself didn’t do much for me directly, one of the strangest bugs I’d ever experienced on my computer happened to occur perfectly timed against the plot of the film, and managed to do exactly what the movie failed to do: scare the crap out of me. And to this day I have no idea what happened.