Par une Bizarre Coincidence

August 7, 2016

The general subject of "Coincidences" is one that’s fascinated me, especially since I’ve started recently keeping a list of all of the coincidences I’ve been aware of happening in my own life (my current count is up above two dozen so far), but it’s also relevant to sabermetrics, since the idea here is to sort out meaningful events from those events that, unlikely as it may seem, are just coincidences.

I am a big believer in sorting things by the numbers, but unfortunately for me (and for you) I don’t really understand a lot of the math that Bill uses to distinguish when an event crosses the border from "likely" to "improbable" to "barely within the bounds of possibility" and back again.  That’s too bad, because I’m fascinated by oddball stats, and I’m trying to write now (right now) about the families of batters, comparing their stats but not really knowing which similarities are showing similar batters and which are just coincidences being measured in small samples. On the level of individual batters, small sample sizes are the only ones we have, hundreds of at-bats where we need thousands, or tens of thousands, to be sure that patterns are really patterns and not just aberrations in the carpet’s design.

Either way, though, I love me some coincidences. There’s nothing significant, I’m sure, in Stan Musial having 1,815 hits at home and on the road, or in his being born in the same small town on the same day of the year (November 21) as Ken Griffey jr., or his contemporary Warren Spahn having the same number of lifetime hits as he has lifetime wins (363) or his fellow Polish-American outfielder Carl Yastrzemski having the same number of plate appearances home and away (6,996, which upside down is 9,669.)  I loved it when the Rockies’ Bobby Jones faced the Mets’ Bobby Jones back in 1999 (Jones beat Jones, 8-5). (The New York Times coverage cited a previous game from 1899 when John B. Taylor of Cincinnati faced John W. Taylor of Chicago, and two other games from 1876, the first NL season, when George H. Bradley of Boston and George W. Bradley of St. Louis faced each other. This stuff never gets old for me.)

It has been pointed out here, by my friend mauimike, that the two catchers on the Angels in 2012, Chris Iannetta and Bobby Wilson, were born on the same day (April 8, 1983). The names of Ron Hassey and Henry Sosa are perfect anagrams of each other.  Two S.F. Giants debuted on the same day (I’m sure I read this somewhere on the BJOL site) who also are the only players born in the same small town in Alabama as each other (Willie Kirkland and Jim Davenport, Siluria, April  15, 1958). For several years the player who held many prominent records was also the first player listed alphabetically among the thousands of MLB players.  I’m sure you can supply some even stranger coincidences in MLB, all of which (and more!) can be explained by the sheer number of records all of us have available to obsess over. I’m quite sure that Ken Griffey jr. and Stan Musial are NOT the only people ever to have been born on the same day of the year in Donora, Pennsylvania—it’s just the fact that both of them played major league baseball and thereby made us aware of their shared birthdate and hometown. If they had both been pipefitters, or plumbers, or professors, why would we know about that, and why would we care?

This is silly stuff, the detritus of millions of numbers, names, dates—how could we have so many of each and NOT have some of them overlap with each other? But (because it’s baseball, where we dwell on names, and dates, and numbers) someone notices these things, and so we pay an odd attention when it occurs.  I once got into a discussion with Roel Torres on this site about the oddity of two MLB players, each named "Steve Ontiveros," not your typical "Bob Johnson" or "Bob Miller" or "Bobby Jones" sort of name (to name three pairs of New York Mets with the same name—the others are pretty common names, too: Mike Marshall, Pedro Martinez and Chris Young. You can count Shawn Green and Sean Green, if you like. I don’t).  I thought "Ontiveros" was a downright weird name (I certainly never came across it outside of MLB), and "Steve" isn’t that common a first name (though it pops up among us BJOL members frequently, if not freakishly), but Roel disabused me of the notion that it was off-the-charts coincidental, just phenomenally unlikely. He found 92 people in the U.S. who could answer to "Steve Ontiveros" now, many more than I would have thought. (The article can be found here.)

Most of the things we call "coincidence" are simply unlikely events that were bound to happen to someone, somewhere, in precisely the form they took, and you just happened to notice it when it occurred to you. Is it a coincidence that Evan Longoria’s name is the male version of Eva Longoria’s? I’m not sure anyone would have noticed it if they hadn’t also risen to fame at about the same time. It’s the "noticing" part of a coincidence that makes for the coincidence.

For example, I’m sure that most of the amazing things that have happened to me in my unamazing life, mindblowing coincidences, are things that I never even noticed. I’m sure I’ve ridden subway cars with people who eventually would become my best friends, or worst enemies, or co-authors, or students, and simply never noticed that then-stranger sitting across the aisle from me at the time. Now if someone had happened to photograph that subway car for some reason, and I were to see that photograph of me sitting close to my future ex-stranger, that would be a coincidence, but the coincidence would lie in my happening to see the photograph that someone happened to take, not the simple fact that one lifelong New Yorker was sitting on a subway car with another New Yorker. That’s nothing. How many millions of people have I ridden the subways with in my lifetime? I’d suppose the list of future celebrities, close intimates, etc. with whom I’ve shared a subway car would be quite astonishing, if there were any way to actually generate such a list. Going in to work every day, I share a subway car with a few hundred strangers—it would bizarre if one of them didn’t turn out, upon investigation, to have some intimate connection to me in the past, the present, or the future.

(Growing up, while I was still exploring some religious possibilities, this was a frequent thought: That some God-like creature was generating a recording 24/7, from every possible angle, in every possible medium, of my entire life, and Heaven would be getting to re-play any moment of my life, to see things I barely noticed at the time they occurred, or to re-live moments of joy, and to share all my great moments with anyone I liked, who would of course be available to me whenever I wanted, in the afterlife. I could also visit those events on Earth that I’d missed entirely—I could, if I’d wanted to, attend the World Series game in which Mays hauled in Vic Wertz’s blast from any seat in the Polo Grounds I liked, although I suppose that’s what Don DeLillo is for. Anyway, I digress….)

This is just one of the petty frustrations of being a writer, not a real coincidence, but it’s often the case that I get ideas, even start working on them, when someone else publishes my idea in frightening detail, suggesting that he or she has been reading my notebooks surreptitiously when I’ve been asleep. It’s not a coincidence, of course, because there are only so many ideas out there, and I’m not a Bill James/Isaac Newton/Charles Darwin-type original thinker. But this guy, Joseph Mazur, came out with a book Fluke this past March, when I had just started compiling my list of personal coincidences.  Here’s an article about the book by Mazur himself, noting the nature of coincidence.  The most interesting part of the article, to me, is the ongoing "Comments" section, in which people describe their own coincidences.

I actually left this off my list of two dozen personal coincidences, but the freakiest thing that ever happened to me as a budding author was when I was writing the first in a series of murder-mystery novels, with my "detective" being a grad student who enrolled in a different grad program, in a different discipline, in a different university, in a different state, every year (or every mystery, anyway), just for the love of learning different things, not intending to finish (i.e., get a Ph. D.) in any area of knowledge, just acquire some very basic expertise (i.e., get a Master’s degree), and move on. Hey, you’re supposed to write fiction about what you know, right? So this grad student, in the first mystery I started, was studying biochemistry (both my housemates were Ph.D. candidates in Physical Chemistry at Harvard when I was doing my first MA program in Creative Writing). My housemates had been regaling me with hilarious stories about this genius prof directing their dissertations who was obsessed with the color blue, drove a blue car that he parked in a special parking spot at Harvard that he had painted blue, wore all-blue clothing 24/7, etc., so I started my novel about a similar professor (who gets murdered, of course) who is trying to synthesize a rare blue salamander in a secret project to develop a cure for epilepsy. (I had collected salamanders as a boy, so they were the creature I knew the most about—like I said, you write about what you know, and there wasn’t all that much I knew about.)  Several years after leaving Boston, I’m about nine chapters into writing this novel, fall of 1987, when I take my infant daughter out to the local library where she can crawl around the carpet of the kids’ section while I find some new reading material, and I come across, you guessed it, a new mystery novel about a scientist who’s obsessed with the color blue and synthesizing a rare blue salamander…. I totally flipped out. (It is The Turquoise Dragon by David Rains Wallace, if you’d like to check out the cover.)  Needless to say, I never started writing Chapter Ten of my book, and it remains an unsolved murder mystery to this day. I ended up abandoning the whole series of planned mysteries—the trauma was that devastating to me, and there were other tempting ideas to write books about.

I will spare you the complete list of the more than two dozen examples of coincidences in my life, in the interest of protecting you from finding out what being bored to death actually feels like, but allow me to codify my principles in making up that list (and explain two or three examples in detail). Do you remember the argument Elaine Benes got into with Rava about whether there are big coincidences and small coincidences, or just coincidences? (One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, that—coincidentally?—concerned the odd coincidence of George spying among Jerry’s grandfather’s belongings the same exact statue that his parents had owned until George as a boy had accidentally broken it.) As unlikeable as she was, Rava had a point—there are no small coincidences. Almost half of my two-dozen-odd items are things like running into someone from home while we’re both vacationing thousands of miles away. Is this really a coincidence? It’s certainly odd, certainly unusual, but it sort of HAD to happen with someone sooner or later. It would be much odder if, in decades of travel, I had never ran into someone from home while on vacation. Running into someone in a place where I didn’t expect it is a small coincidence. So I guess I’m with Elaine.

Another category for eliminating the small coincidences of life (and I’m not talking about stuff like finding an old bathing suit that still fits me) is eliminating Facebook coincidences. As far as I’m concerned, Facebook and other social media is a whoreson coincidence generator: it exists so you make contact with people who’ve dropped out of your life long ago, so naturally you’re bound to come across some points in the intervening years where you and your long-lost buddy have stayed in the same obscure cabin on the western slope of Colorado, or eaten in the same Vietnamese restaurant in Fond-du-Lac WI. I found out through Facebook this year that one old friend from grad school had married someone who had written her doctoral dissertation under the direction of another old friend from my undergrad college at a university thousands of miles from where I’d met the first old friend. Furthermore, I learned that my friend’s new wife had been visiting a restaurant in Seaside, Oregon, which she posted a picture of, that was spotted (on my FB feed) by a third old friend from another grad school in yet another city (one of my Physical Chemistry housemates, in fact) who informed me that he owned property just up the road in Seaside Oregon. I don’t count such stuff, because it all stems from the whoreson generator of coincidences.

Sometimes I find out, without Facebook’s help, that one person I know well in one part of my life knows someone else from another, completely separate part of my life.  That’s also a pretty small coincidence. It seems larger when additional coincidences are piled on, but that only makes it a medium-sized coincidence, as when I was knocking doors in Easton, Pennsylvania for Obama in late October of 2008. When I was returning my leaflets and polling-place information to the regional office, I had to sign a form stating that I had returned them, and I noticed on the line above the blank space for my signature was the name of someone who had played shortstop for my bungalow colony when I was a boy, and above his name was the name of the editor of my second published book.  I called both of their (unusual) names, and found out that not only had they travelled from NYC to Easton PA but they were neighbors and close friends.

Some of the more valid coincidences are memorable because people wrongly made assumptions based on sheer happenstance. In second grade, I earned a reputation among my peers for being remarkably learned (their word for it was "creepy") because of a short story I happened to read one evening that included in the text the opening stanzas of Longfellow’s "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."  You remember the poem—it’s the one with the rollicking rhythm that begins "Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere/ On the eighteenth of April of ’75/ Hardly a man is now alive…" On a whim, I decided, for the first time in my life, to try to commit the stanzas to memory. I ended up memorizing maybe the first dozen lines, feeling pretty good about mastering that skill. It was a very cool bit of verse.

Next morning (I should mention that the book I read the poem in was definitely not a book assigned for school—I have no idea what the title was, but it was just in a book of stories accessible to seven-year-olds), Miss Nottinger announces that we’re all going to study a poem. "Has anyone ever heard of ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’?" she asks. A few (geeky) hands go up, though of that small bunch, I’m the only one whose eyes are bugging out at this coincidence, but wait—"Can anyone recite the first line for us?" Every hand other than mine goes down, and I’m asked to recite the line. Then, "Can you go on, Steven?" I say yes, and get invited to stand in the front of the room and recite away.

Probably I should have stopped at the second line, or the third, but I was curious how much I could remember from my little exercise the night before, so I pressed on. And on. And on.  And earned a reputation as "that very strange kid who knows poems by heart," that lasted through junior high school and maybe beyond. The next month, I was offered the chance to skip third grade, and I think this coincidental display played a part in that offer. If I had just read the poem, that would be a small coincidence, but committing it to memory? And being asked to recite it the next day? There we get into the realm of larger and larger coincidences.

So genuinely weird, strange, bizarre, woolly, complicated stories make for what you might call "real" coincidences, though I still question some of those:

Imagine that my dad’s name was "George Goldleaf" (which it wasn’t, but close enough for my purposes),  and that he grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, where he had a lot of relatives sharing his last name, including a cousin, also named "George." He moved to Brooklyn, NY in his teens (long story there), lost track of most of his Canadian family, and eventually took his own family, including me, to spend our summers in the Catskill mountains in upstate New York, a half-mile from the resort of Grossinger’s.  When I was trying to trace my ancestry after my dad died, I found a lot of references to him in the New York Times archives—where he had lived, restaurants he had owned, etc., including this sporting reference:  a small article from the early 1950s (when we started spending our summers in the Catskills) noting that George Goldleaf of Hamilton, Canada had gotten a hole-in-one at Grossinger’s golf course.

I was impressed, not least by the fact that I hadn’t even known my dad used to golf.  I told my brother about this odd fact, and he was equally amazed: my brother has been an excellent golfer since we were boys (he also got a hole-in-one his first time on a golf course, which I witnessed personally, another long, odd, unlikely story I shan’t tell here) and though my dad driven him to his first golf lessons, he hadn’t ever known that dad used to golf either.  But there it was, in black and white, to marvel over: George Goldleaf of Hamilton, Canada had gotten a hole-in-one at Grossinger’s golf course. Who else could it be?

As you may be guessing, it turned out that my dad’s first cousin, unbeknownst to him, used to vacation in the summer at Grossinger’s, just a short walk down Route 17 from our bungalow, and he was the golfer who had hit a hole-in-one in the early 1950s. I figured this out when, in the course of my genealogical searches, I re-connected with my Canadian family, and paid them a visit in the summer of 2014, over 60 years after this hole-in-one was hit. Among many other relatives, I met my cousin Larry for the first time, who was my cousin George’s son, and he happened to mention that his dad used to vacation at Grossinger’s (which in itself was much weirder for him than for us, Grossinger’s being a two-hour drive from Brooklyn, but about a nine-hour drive from Hamilton.) When I told Larry that my dad once hit a hole-in-one on Grossinger’s golf course, he of course said "So did mine!"

We quickly figured out what had really happened, and when I got back to New York City, I sent him a copy of the New York Times clipping.

Now, what is coincidental here?  Not all that much. It’s hardly a coincidence that two cousins with the same last name happened to be given the same first name as well, just a little odd, maybe, nor is it coincidental that they come from the same city in Ontario—that was where the whole clan settled in Canada. I supposed it was unusual that both cousins, unknown to each other, had chosen the same small town in the Catskills mountains to spend their summers in, and it was certainly odd that one of them would have gotten his name into the main newspaper of the other one for hitting a hole-in-one, but I don’t know if either fact, all by itself, constitutes much of a coincidence: Grossinger’s was a very popular resort, and they were both prosperous businessmen who needed someplace to spend their vacations in.

Was it a coincidence that in my short conversation with my newfound cousin one of us (I forget who) would have brought up the fact that our families used to vacation in the Catskill mountains?  Well, we had only a certain limited amount of biographical detail to share, and I suppose you could say that upstate New York was about as close I ever got to Canada, and as close as my dad’s cousin ever got to New York City, so that might be a subject that would have emerged sooner or later, though not necessarily with that particular cousin.

Was it coincidental that I’d come across the article about the hole-in-one? Hardly so: I’d been meticulously scouring all sorts of data looking for mentions of my dad’s name, so my coming across one (albeit of his cousin’s name, unknown to me) was deliberate.   The best I can say is that the entire string of non-coincidental events had to unfold in a very particular way in order for these events to have taken place in a way that I was conscious of.  If my dad and his cousin had been given different names, if they both hadn’t vacationed in the same small town, if my dad’s cousin hadn’t hit the hole-in-one, if the Times hadn’t covered holes-in-one hit by vacationing golfers, if I hadn’t been able to persuade my Canadian family that I was one of them (this was a rigorous persuading job, btw—they had no awareness of my dad’s existence 90 years after he’d left Canada), if Grossinger’s had never come up as a topic of conversation between my cousin and me, well, then this coincidence would have still taken place, but I (and now you) would never have been aware of what had transpired.

It’s the awareness that is the main part of any coincidence. I’m quite sure that simply amazing, phenomenal things happen to every one of us every day of the year that we are completely unaware of, some of which everyone is completely unaware of. What I mean by that is that most amazing things need to be demonstrated in order to seem properly amazing.  I’m typing this sentence sitting in a New York City subway car, and I have no doubt that two of the strangers on the car right now share some amazing coincidence that neither of them has the slightest awareness of: maybe one of them is the illegitimate child of another, or two of them were born on the same day in the same hospital,  or two of them have families that come from the same village in China (there are a lot of Asian people on this train just now),  or two of them were guests at the same wedding sixteen years ago—but they will never be amazed by this coincidence because they’ll never find out about it, and therein lies the thwarted coincidence.

The way I see it, we’re all allotted, at birth, a budget for coincidences: a billion gazillion things will happen to us in our lifetimes, and a very few of those will coincide in striking oddity. Of those very few, fewer still will become known to each of us, but when that happens, we will be properly freaked out by the tremendous odds against this one occurrence actually occurring, not realizing the billion gazillion occurrences that have occurred without anything unusual happening. On a cosmic scale, as my friend steve161 has reminded me, this explains how human beings exist in the first place in the form that we exist: a billion gazillion things had to happen in exactly the way they did simply for life to form on this one planet, and then a few more billion gazillion things had to occur during the evolution of life for conscious creatures to emerge who would be aware (eventually) of how life evolved. It’s a miracle, some would say, though I just say it was in the human race’s budget for coincidences that we would (you and I would) acquire consciousness just about the exact time that we could do something with that consciousness. You may, of course, ascribe this awareness to some supernatural force, if you like, and call it a miracle, but I prefer to think of it as a very large coincidence, the biggest one I know. And knowing it is the biggest coincidence of all.

 
 

COMMENTS (30 Comments, most recent shown first)

mauimike
Professor, on my bucket list, is to never read a college dissertation. Then I thought, when I was a young child, I had read JFK's, 'Why England Slept'. Why? At thirteen I wanted to be a lawyer and a politician. By 19, 20 at the latest I was over it. Some folks never do. They continue to believe that they know how to fix the world. They know how best to tell other people how to live. And if push comes to shove, they have a gun to make you. And it's only for our good. Cause they know best, because their lives are such a success. Anyway JFK's book was a 'thesis', so I'm still in the clear and I don't mean Scientology wise.
12:36 AM Aug 14th
 
MarisFan61
"Must have taken years of planning." :-)

That's a line from an old piece of Bill's on Ray Schalk and Wally Schang, about them both having had exactly 5306 career at-bats. (Unfortunately it seems that research has given Schang an extra at-bat and so they're no longer equal. BTW, what about Cobb's revised record......here's a quick self-quiz: What do you think of as his career batting average? For me it's still .367, not .366.)

Another of my favorite coincidences or non-coincidences is the two Alex Gonzalez's.
Alex Gonzalez's top age-comp during the center of his career (age 27 through 30, and again at age 33; 5 seasons' worth) was Alex Gonzalez, and Alex Gonzalez was also his #2 comp for his whole career (edged out by Greg Gagne). As for that other Alex Gonzalez, Alex Gonzalez was his top age-comp for his entire career except for ages 24 and 25, but somehow Alex Gonzalez was only his #5 comp on entire career. And oh -- their JAWS rankings are 166 and 167, back-to-back.
Which must have taken years of planning.
9:59 AM Aug 12th
 
Odieman
Of course if Prince Fielder is done we can add another coincidence to the list : Cecil and Prince both have hit 319 Home Runs in their careers.
9:36 PM Aug 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Oh, and mike? Siri Hustvedt wrote her dissertation on Charles Dickens (mostly on OUR MUTUAL FRIEND).​
4:37 AM Aug 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I lived at 545, MF61, and later (90s) my GF lived at 536, which I believe is right next door to 528. Small World indeed. (Which BTW is the title of a David Lodge novel I'm teaching right now.)
4:32 AM Aug 11th
 
MarisFan61
Steven: At that time (late '70s) my girlfriend lived at 528 W. 111 St., which was why I knew Moon Palace.
We probably passed each other on the street a few times. (It would be a remarkable coincidence if we didn't.) :-)
6:28 PM Aug 10th
 
MarisFan61
......and you thought "Steve" wasn't a common name..... :-)

(Not that this guy is "common." Or anyway I hope he isn't.)
6:27 PM Aug 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I recommend WHAT I LOVED, a novel about family and art, among other things. She's written several very strong novels, mike.

And MarisFan, Moon Palace had closed a long time back--I hadn't eaten there since the late 1970s, when I lived on the corner of 111th and Broadway.
6:24 PM Aug 10th
 
PeteRidges
Steven, you allude to Henry Aaron's former place at the beginning of the MLB alphabet. One of his records was the National League career home run record. The Federal League career home run record belongs to Dutch Zwilling, who until recently was at the very end of the MLB alphabet.

As for same names, the first two rounds of the 1993 draft produced two pitchers called Jeff D'Amico.​
4:27 PM Aug 10th
 
MarisFan61
Well, another coincidence, at least a moderate one.
I googled to see if that's the "Moon Palace" I knew (and it seems to be), and then, whether it's still there -- it isn't, closed 25 years ago. The first google match on the restaurant is a NY Times article about the closing, in which the main person who's quoted is the mom of an old friend. Not an extreme coincidence, because hey, we're all Upper West Siders. But it still counts, doesn't it.
12:44 PM Aug 10th
 
mauimike
The strange thing about 'Moon Palace' is that Marco is probably the fictional character that is most like me.

I have a few of her books. I'll read one.
11:31 AM Aug 10th
 
MarisFan61
Hey -- is that the Moon Palace that is (or was?) around 111th/112th Street on Broadway in Manhattan?
(First Chinese restaurant I ever ate at in New York.)

Mike: Thanks for that wonderful story from Auster.
11:11 AM Aug 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I not only know Auster's work, mike, but I've had dinner with him (he gave a reading at my university a few years ago, and some faculty went out with him afterwards). We spoke, mainly, about college days--he went to the same undergrad institution as I did, a few years ahead of me, and his first novel was about a Chinese restaurant (it was called, and the novel was entitled, Moon Palace) that we had both eaten in many times. His wife, btw, Siri Hustvedt, is maybe a better writer than he is, which is saying something, and is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. You should try reading her work, too--just mindblowingly good writing. I was reading his wiki entry just now (checking on how to spell "Hustvedt") when I came across this line: "Auster claims that people are so influenced by the continuity among them that they do not see the elements of coincidence, inconsistency, and contradiction in their own lives: 'This idea of contrasts, contradictions, paradox, I think, gets very much to the heart of what novel writing is for me. It's a way for me to express my own contradictions.'"
4:47 AM Aug 10th
 
mauimike
Thanks, Professor for the mention about the Angels catchers. Here's another coincidence, Bobby Wilson, was the same name as a cousin of mine who died a few months ago. And as an ongoing theme, he drank himself to death. I've always been interested in coincidence. Perhaps an early exposure and love of Charles Dicken's, might have something to do with it. You've probably heard of the Brooklyn author, Paul Auster. He also loves coincidence. I've read most of his work and last night I went through a couple of his collections of essays looking for this story. I couldn't find it, but I'm going to pass it along as I remember it. During WWII, there were concentration camps, that were meant mainly for killing. And concentration camps, that produced things that helped the Nazi war effort. In one of the producing camps in the Netherlands, two men became friends. One a guard, one a worker. The guard helped the other out. Gave him extra food. Better working conditions. He just helped him out. They survived the war. Went their separate ways. One day, years later, the workers daughter brought home a boy that she was sweet on. Things evolved. They fell in love. The family's had to meet. The guard and the prisoner had been living a few blocks from each other, in New York, for about 20 years. The guards son had fallen in love with the prisoner's daughter. When they saw each other, for the first time in 20 years, they just hugged each other and cried. Everyone knew it was meant to be. When I read this story, I remembered Bill and Mary Van Koppen, who meet in a Netherlands work camp and who I knew, after they had come to America, through Canada, and were happily married. I was young I thought I could write their story. Bill didn't want to talk, Mary, tried, but it was too hard and I wasn't ready to write it. The world is small.
1:29 AM Aug 10th
 
MarisFan61
WOW!

(That's a real wow!!)

BTW, re Aaron and 444: I might have thought of that too, but there's no "pain" in Aaron's name, and I guess my mind needed there to be pain in it.
7:27 PM Aug 9th
 
jaybracken
Am I here in time to post the Cecil/Prince Fielder both with 319HR coincidence?
1:53 PM Aug 9th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Wot? No McCovey?

10:22 AM Aug 9th
 
steve161
4:44? The first thing that popped into my mind was four-base hits by number 44, Henry Aaron. Even in my current state of pre-senility, I can remember that.
7:46 AM Aug 9th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. Forget the below comment.
It wasn't Phil Paine.

So, this is an example of a supposed coincidence that the mind has manufactured, evidently because the mind liked it.

Probably quite a few supposed coincidences are like that.

(Who was the 4-5 guy? I don't know. My second guess was Arnie Portocarrero, but it wasn't him either.) :-)
4:02 PM Aug 8th
 
MarisFan61
OK, I got one. From today. :-)
Just got back from the dentist. At the end of the 'session' (euphemism) I had to rinse with this fluoride stuff. I was told I shouldn't wash out or anything for 30 minutes. Since the stuff is a little bit foul-tasting and even more nauseating, I had my eye on the clock.
The time that the 30 minutes would end was 4:44. I usually look for a mnemonic for stuff like that, and most of the time what I come up with is a baseball thing, since I have some baseball connection to almost any number.
My quick connection to 444 is 4-for-9 or a won-lost record of 4-5 (or of course 8-10 or whatever). My main recollection for that is a pitcher who went 4-5 for .444 in 1957, because those were his stats on the back of the 1958 Topps card, and just about everything I ever learned about math or anything else was from the '58 Topps set.:-)
I have that 4-5 record firmly in my head, together with the guy's large smiling face on the front of the card. So I had no problem keeping in mind that the time I was desperately looking forward to was 4:44.

The guy on this Topps card is: Phil Paine.
Yes, Phil Paine. Coming from the dental appointment.

(Sorry, I thought it was pretty good.) :-)
3:58 PM Aug 8th
 
Steven Goldleaf
There but for the grease of God, go I.
2:58 PM Aug 8th
 
flyingfish
Of course that is the issue, Steven, but even then it's only part of the issue. How do you deal with all the coincidences that didn't occur? What about close but no cigar; say my friend had been in Munich when I was but hadn't gone to Prague? Those have to be part of the sampling frame as well. I don't know how to begin to calculate any of the probabilities for most of them.

As for the claim that my or anyone's life is improbable, I say no, its probability is 1 (or 100%). How do you calculate the a priori probabilities? That is an enormous, and I'd say insurmountable, challenge.​
2:08 PM Aug 8th
 
Steven Goldleaf
ff, the fact that you and I are alive at the same time (or alive at all, as steve161 notes) is a coincidence, as is the fact that we wear the same size overcoat and shoes (if we do) or anything else we have in common is a coincidence, but to be called a coincidence (by anyone north of Moronville) it needs a certain rarity, don't you think? Otherwise everything is a coincidence, and therefore nothing is.
10:44 AM Aug 8th
 
Steven Goldleaf
What are the odds that Steve161 and I (in Hey Bill this morning) would each independently make our first references to Steven Pinker on this site today? Calculate with and without the "Steven" factor.​
10:00 AM Aug 8th
 
flyingfish
Hi, Steven. To me, a coincidence is simply that, the occurrence of two events that are somehow related. Now, if you add the idea thatfor those two events to be considered a coincidence they have to be remarkable or unlikely, then you lose me as a scientist (but not as a reader). How unlikely? How do you calculate the probability? We do have ways of addressing those things. Here is a coincidence that pleased me. I went to Prague on August 20, 1968. It was then the capital of Czechoslovakia, now the capital of the Czech Republic, and on the night August 20-21 Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Warsaw Pact nations, mostly the Soviet Union. I went to bed in relatively free Czechoslovakia and woke up behind a very iron curtain. It was very dramatic and traumatic for the Czechs, but I was able to leave quickly and safely and get back to West Germany, where I'd come from. Last year I was chatting with a neighbor and friend here on Nantucket who is a few years younger than I am and we discovered that he had been in Prague on that same fateful night. That's just not very likely; I'd guess the chance that any two randomly selected people in the United States would have less than one chance in a million of having both been in Prague that night. But if we restrict the sample to people old enough to have been there then, and people whose families had the wherewithal to allow them to travel in Europe, then we increase the chances by a lot. Nonetheless, it doesn't become LIKELY by any calculus. But to me, it's a fun thing that happened, and nothing more.
9:42 AM Aug 8th
 
steve161
The existence of any individual--any one of us--is highly improbable. Every human being is the product of countless couplings, going back into prehistory. If any single one of those couplings--thousands of generations of them--had not happened, or had happened at a different time, that person would not exist.

Of course, another equally valid way of looking at it is what I call the tournament view. Pit 64 (or 128 or any other number) of teams against each other in single elimination, and one of them must come out on top. Similarly, people couple, and their couplings produce other people. In a sense, your existence is both highly improbable and inevitable.

It's all in how you look at it.

BTW: Steven Pinker, in one of his books, writes about the declining popularity of the name 'Steven' (including, as I suppose we must, 'Stephen'). I like to think that our generation broke the mold.
6:30 AM Aug 8th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Yes, of course, "Steven/Stephen" has been a common name for a while, MarisFan. I was just pointing that it's not exactly "John" or "Robert" or "William" especially not when coupled with "Ontiveros" (though "Seven" is still uncommon outside of SEINFELD, doncoffin). I wasn't even the only "Steven G." in my grade school class--from grades 1-6, my chief rival was also a Steven G. and there was another Steven with us all through elementary.

And as ajmilner has done, this article was an invitation (albeit not explicitly) to you to supply the circumstances of your own top one or two coincidences. If you think about it for a while, everyone can supply a mindblowing coincidence of some type. To riff on my last example, on that subway car there were maybe 20 Asians, 10 Eastern European Jews, 10 blacks 10 Hispanics, and 10 others, all of whom are ultimately related even outside their ethnic groups but within those groups, if you did a thorough DNA test, you'd come up with even closer relationships, probably one of which would knock your socks off. But of course, no one's doing that kind of DNA testing for years, as Bill is currently pointing in "Hey Bill." So it goes utterly unremarked.​
3:00 AM Aug 8th
 
doncoffin
Stephen/Steven has been a fairly common first name for a while (two of my closest friends in HS were named Steve), but less and less common over time. According to the Social Security Administration, Stephen/Seven was

20th in 1948 (the year I was born)
10th in 1968
28th in 1980
39th in 1990
54th in 2000 (.35% of male births in 2000)
73rd in 2010 (.26%), and behind Xavier & Ian)

https://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/popularnames.cgi
(Donald was 14th in 1948, and 377th in 2010)

Yes, I am weird.
12:50 AM Aug 8th
 
MarisFan61
Steve is a very common first name!!

It's a very odd coincidence that you apparently haven't come across that many. :-)
9:36 PM Aug 7th
 
ajmilner
My dad spent his time in college hanging out with members of his school's basketball team, who likewise hung out with basketball players from area colleges. He thus became good friends with a rival school's player (let's call him George), and my dad hung out at George's family home and even tutored him informally. Years later my father became a teacher in a school a couple of hundred miles away and fell in love with a young female teacher there. Only after they got engaged did my father find out that my mother was George's second cousin.
8:59 PM Aug 7th
 
 
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