16.4.09

Coincidence

This story comes in 3 acts.

ACT I: Japan. August 1999

As a graduation gift, my father took me on a 10-day tour of Japan. I'd be starting as a new professor at WWU in the fall, and I had with me a sweatshirt and T-shirt with the WWU logo on them.

One morning in Hakone I wore the sweatshirt on a cruise across a lake in a giant crater. Once ashore, I was noticed by a group of American girls. They were on a high school trip from Bellingham, and excited to see someone from the same town.

Neat! What are the chances of being in Japan and meeting someone from the same town back in America? I wondered idly. I didn't give it any further thought until a few days later in Osaka when I wore my other WWU shirt I'd brought along. My father and I left our hotel room and got on the elevator at the 17th floor. Remembering what had happened last time I wore such a shirt, I wondered again what the odds were that I'd meet someone from Bellingham today. This time, though, I wanted an actual estimate, so I asked my father for the world population. 6 billion he tells me. I began to do rough calculations, people that have lived in Bellingham at some point, 1 million. Those who may be travelling to Japan at this point, 1% or 10,000. Number of people I'd see today...

As I was calculating, the elevator stopped on the 13th floor. An American couple walked in. The man pointed to my T-shirt, "Western Washington? No way! I'm class of '86, she's class of '89."

Now, what are the odds of meeting someone from Bellingham that day in Osaka at the exact same time I was trying to calculate the odds of such a thing happening?

ACT II: History Class. October 2004.

In 2004 we'd just bought our second house and moved to Ferndale. I was teaching a history class, and on that day I was collecting drafts of papers from students. They turn in multiple copies of their drafts, one copy for me and others for peer review. I shuffled a stack of papers and began handing them back to students. "What are the odds that noone will get their own paper back?" I ask as I hand out the first paper.

"Zero," the first student says. "I got my own."

I stick the paper into the middle of the stack and give him another. "What's the odds of it happening twice?" I ask, handing out the next paper.

"This is mine," the second student says. There are gasps of amusement and amazement around the room, myself included.

"What are the odds everyone gets their own?" I ask.

The third student does not get her own paper, and neither does anyone else in the class. It occurred to me later that once again the events for which I was attempting to calculate the odds, happened, as I was calculating.

ACT III: Dairy Queen. Later the same day.

That afternoon my wife and I were out for Dairy Queen. I told her of what had happened that morning and related it to the elevator in Japan. "Maybe I have a power," I told her, "that when I'm calculating the probability of something happening, it happens."

I thought maybe we should test it. I suggested calculating the probability that we'll know the next person who walks through the door. We discussed the probability a bit, decided it would be low as we'd just moved to Ferndale and knew almost no one. But, the DQ is near the interstate, so...

I began my calculations. Population of Ferndale, mix of visitors to DQ, number of people we know...

The door opened. In walked Bob Stull, our real estate agent who sold our last house and helped us with this one. It was a very weird moment.

On the way home, we stoppped by the grocery store and I filled out a lottery ticket. While filling it out, I calculated the odds of winning.

It didn't work. I don't think that should stop me from trying again ...