I’ve recovered from a weekend geodashing trip to Sioux Falls and then a minor surgery to remove some skin growths (no calls from doc, path reports must not be alarming). So I’m sorta getting back into the swing (rut) of weight loss trudge. I hit a low just before heading off to Sioux Falls, but, of course, then bloated up by 8.2lbs in just two days (obviously not real, don’t even Nate Silver’s help to figure that out) and maybe will re-lose to that low by this next Sunday weigh-in.
Sioux Falls is a pleasant weekend trip and this time with eleven dashpoints to grab. We were planning on trying one of the downtown restaurants so I programmed our route to the motel via the possible restaurants. I’d seen hints of weekend events (it was harder than normal to get reservations) and sure enough, downtown was packed, with people sitting on strategic corners in lawn chairs waiting for something (presumably some parade and then street faire). When we reached the motel the immediate area was swarming to motorcycles (some event for them, not yet really Sturgis time) and then in the motel lobby a bustle of activity related to bicyclists.
Later I learned there was a 45 day ride across the northern U.S. that just happened to stop, not only in Sioux Falls, but at our motel, on that day. Now talk about coincidences, what are the odds (like p=1/45 the cyclists would be in Sioux Falls, probably p=1/104 for us to be in Sioux Falls) we’d be in same place at same time. A bicycle ride across the U.S. is significant to me in that: a) I always wanted to do this, and, b) I did do a ride across most of southern Germany and some of Austria, so I know what a multiday ride is like, and, c) I’ve now done a “virtual” ride (stationary bike miles in the basement transferred to a map) almost across the country (Boston to San Jose). So some would see the woo factor and say it was fate that I encountered this group.
And that is the interesting point, when the improbably happens, it seems like it was “meant to be.” But is it? Or just a statistical fluke? Now Nate would say it is only a prediction that is made in advance of testing the validity of the prediction that matters. If, after the fact, we find a curious and/or interesting coincidence, naturally we think it must mean something. But never in a million years would I have predicted I would encounter a cross-country biking tour in Sioux Falls last weekend. So it wasn’t fate, just coincidence.
But then again, who knows. I went to the outpatient surgery clinic on Tuesday. There are bound to be dozens of these in Omaha. One bit of trivia my wife and I searched for on our trip was the population of the Omaha Metro, nearly 900K it turns out. I know just a few, probably less than 30, people in Omaha. Now what are the odds that someone I know would be in the same outpatient surgery facility the same day I’m there – pretty low, huh? But that’s exactly what happened. I walk in and see my brother-in-law in the recovery area, amazing. But is it really? I knew he and I shared the same doctor, plus we’d discussed our experiences with minor surgery by that doctor. The doctor does his surgeries in only one of two outpatient areas and only one day a week at each. My brother-in-law and I both live in the same area of town (thus would pick the closet and thus same surgery facility). But the odds are still pretty low. I’ve now had three surgeries in about three years (at the same place, same doc) and my brother-in-law has had several (same place, same doc), but still the odds are pretty low we’d be there at exactly the same time. But, again, Nate would say, unless I made a prediction to encounter my brother-in-law there (or even just someone I might happen to know) the after-the-fact observation means nothing, at least statistically.
But then what about meeting Sterling Cleveland. He’s the guy walking across the U.S. for diabetes and personal quest. His journey has taken months and he just happened to be in Omaha and at the Starbucks I inhabit on Sundays at the same time I’m there. What are the odds of that? Astronomically unlikely. But, OTOH, once again I didn’t predict that. How many people walk across the country (or even enough of it to be an unusual event)? How many go through Omaha? How many years have I been here to encounter any of them? IOW, how many walkers could I have bumped into but didn’t.
It’s the same thing with bumping into someone I knew in the Tokyo airport. Or bumping into famous people in airports or other places. Or happening to visit the U.S. Senate the exact day a very serious challenge was made to the Vietnam War (a rather important thing to me). Or meeting people from the same time I grew up in, thousands of miles away. The list goes on and on, if I really tried to recollect all the coincidences that have happened.
And that’s the point. Unexpected and unlikely things happen to all of us and when they do it seems really significant. But it’s just chance. The way to think of that is to consider how many other unlikely things DIDN’T happen.
The only way an event is significant is if you predict it before it happens and then it happens, not to merely take note of an unexpected unlikely event which is certain to seem significant to us.
So this is the whole issue Nate Silver raises and the whole reason why nutrition and health stories in the “news” are such garbage. People simply can’t distinguish between chance and causation. So, as lately in the buzz, Jenny McCarthy, peddler of all sorts of woo, now has a platform to claim the pure coincidences in her life as fact and most of the public will be gullible enough to believe it.
It is just chance. But, nonetheless, you can enjoy it when it happens and be surprised – it’s one of the fun things in life.