The Birthday Problem: Or, We’re Terrible at Estimating Probability

While I’m away from the computer, here’s a guest post from one of my favorite people, Caren Gussoff ( writing about her new book. Caren was in my Clarion West class and is a terrific writer. I haven’t got my hands on the book yet but I do know: BOB is a character in the book.

Humans are naturally terrible at estimating the probability of something happening. There are many theories as to why: it’s a side effect of subjective consciousness, that we seek a “confirmation bias” to inject meaning into the random data that we move through on a daily basis; a trait somehow favored in our evolution that’s kept us safe and viable (fearful or emotional events leave a bigger imprint on us); or simply that few folks receive an adequate education in maths when we are young enough for it to carve into our thinking. It fascinates me that our intuition about how frequently (or infrequently) events can and do happen — for instance, thinking of a song right before hearing it on the radio — is wrong (we think it’s an “eerie coincidence,” while, in fact, the actual probability of such a thing happening is higher than we think). In fact, this skew is the theme of my latest novel, The Birthday Problem (Pink Narcissus Press, 2014).

We personalize everything … which makes sense, because, given our consciousness, everything happens to us (the individual) or in relationship to us (someone we know, don’t know, and not-me). I wanted to write a book that relied on coincidence; in The Birthday Problem, every character has a relationship to every other character in some way or another. They are a web of people all affected by the same tragedy — malfunctioning nanobots that cause symptoms of mental illness. But their interconnectivity was how I played with the phenomena of poor probability judgment and whether it felt possible that all of these very different characters could be so closely related.

The title refers to a classical paradox that, IMHO, nicely sums up our failings in understanding probability. The birthday problem asks how many people need to be in a room together for there to be a 50% (or greater) probability that two of them share the same birthday (month and date).

Unless you already know the answer, whatever you are thinking right now is wrong. Now, it feels like there need to be a LOT of people in a room for there to be a 50/50 probability two of them share the same birthday. You may even think, quite logically, that it would require at least 365 or more. But really, it just takes 23 people in one room to get a 50% probability that two of them will share the same birthday.

There’s great explanation of the math here: Understanding the Birthday Problem.

For less number-oriented thinkers, this explanation is quite tidy: The Birthday Paradox.

Interesting, right? Even when you see the math, it still feels wrong. And that unsettling feeling is what I tried to recreate in The Birthday Problem.

The Birthday Problem is available at Pink Narcissus Press, Amazon, B&N, and in stores everywhere.

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I didn’t want to leave that cranky pants post at the top while I was away.

Fan event tonight with the Portland Timbers!

Look, here I am with Norberto Paparato, Ben Zemanski, Jorge Villafaña, Michael Nanchoff and Darlington Nagbe (!). Aren’t I adorable clutching my Mom purse? That other guy is Billy.

And how about this one? squee!! Diego Chara #1 fouls in the league this season. Nagbe is the most fouled player. Our team is so balanced. And Steve Zakuani has never looked happier to be hanging out with the fans. (To be fair, this was at the end of the event.) And Billy again and home grown player Bryan Gallego.

Be good while I’m offline.

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One More Chance to Get it All Wrong

The past couple weeks have been ground zero for doing it wrong.

I wanted to put a travel alert on my bank account. I went to the branch and was told to wait for a banker. I talked to the banker and he seemed surprised like I was a fussy old lady and he was just indulging me. Then he thought I should open another bank account: just for travel. That way if something happens, I have an alternative.

I’m ahead of you pal, I have another account at a different bank. I also asked the banker specifically what the travel related fees would be and he agreed that there would be fees and that would be something to watch out for. Then he tried to sell me an American Express card to save on fees. I felt it was unlikely that travel related fees would be more than the annual fee for Am Ex.

Then after all that he told me I still had to call customer service.

Remember my rant about Verizon and how all they can do at the store is sell you stuff? Same at the bank. They can give you your very own cash that you earned yourself and they store for you or they can sell you stuff. They can’t do anything else. I called customer service and got into a phone tree where the only choices were to check my bank balance or get transferred to someone who could sell me something. I had to do that thing were you yell at the auto-attendant until she reluctantly transferred me to a person. I finally got that settled.

And speaking of Verizon, I needed to confer with them also about this travel. Phone tree that had no choices that I want. Yelling. Put into waiting queue and told they are experiencing extra long wait times. What does that mean? Unfortunately I didn’t have an extra long time right then. I decided to try the live chat (I know you’re shaking your head right now, desperate times … ). The interface was confusing but once I was connected it was kinda okay. At one point I was totally confused about what was going on and thought: I should call customer service so I can ask questions. Then I remembered that I was talking to customer service. I think this one is settled, too.

Finally, I ordered a specialty item from a store that only sells 2 things. In order to do this I was forced to create a user account, including a separate username other than my email address and it scolded my only moderately secure password. Like I need a really secure password for a place I’m never going to return to. I ordered both things. One magically arrived on my doorstep. Never got a shipping confirmation or anything. I figured the 2 items must have been separated in transit but several days later I still hadn’t received them so I went to the website and logged in. It didn’t need a username, just my email and moderately secure password. And next to my second item it said cancelled-back ordered. So I had to contact customer service which luckily was straight email and I also kindly suggested implementing a system to inform customers what the hell is going on with their order. I guess it’s not cancelled, just back ordered and they appreciated my suggestion. Just kidding! No one ever tells me they appreciate my suggestions.

I’m going to be offline for a couple of weeks. There will be tweets and photos.

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Brazil v. Netherlands

This game wasn’t pleasant to watch. I had my phone and looked at twitter and youtube clips of kittens playing the piano before I realized I could be doing something else and I moved on. Ending up 3rd or 4th in the World isn’t bad from a big picture perspective but neither team had anything to celebrate.

Germany v. Argentina

Yay! My team won. About an hour after the match I was up to my elbows in everyday life stuff and I looked up and thought: we won!

Great game. No major controversies. Both teams played their hearts out. Great goal from Götze. The only bad part was having to watch sad Argentines suffer through the second place ceremony. I don’t know a better way of doing it but it seems mean to make a losing team stand around and watch the celebrating people lose their minds.

Phew. My team won. I am not familiar with this feeling. They won in 1990 which I saw. And Euro Cup in 1996 which I did not see. Could you even watch Euro cup games in this country in 1996?

When I talked to my Dad he said, “Whew, it’s over. We can take a break from soccer.”

HA HA Because the Timbers are in Seattle tonight. I have another game to get through. I really loved hearing Ian Darke pimp the game during the WC broadcast. “If you’ve enjoyed World Cup, you will enjoy Major League Soccer.”

You know it!

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FIFA World Cup Games 61 and 62

Wow. Germany v. Brazil.

What can you say? After the 3rd goal I said, I don’t understand what’s happening. I thought I was watching a replay or some sort punked version of World Cup. Then the TV showed a lady in Brazil colors making a “I don’t understand what’s happening face.”

I wasn’t alone.

Having watched my team get humiliated on the pitch, I feel for Brazil. I was glad I was Team Germany.

Argentina v. Netherlands

Historically, I’ve been a Netherlands fan but I haven’t been enjoying them lately and I wasn’t sad to see them go out. I can’t even imagine what that 3rd place match is going to look like.

I’m still Team Germany but I wouldn’t be unhappy to see Argentina raising the trophy. Let’s hope for a good match and no PK final.

Remember the dramatic baby raccoon rescue in our backyard?

This morning I saw a mama and three fuzzy baby raccoons on the way to the park-n-ride. They were waddling across a busy street so I didn’t have high hopes for the family but hopefully I’m wrong. (Edited to add: every time I read a previous post I find a typo or bit that doesn’t make sense because I do everything in a hurry. I always think I should fix but rarely do. In this case I need to point out that the raccoons were not on their way to the park-n-ride. They were crossing the street. I was going to the park-n-ride.

And my final note, today I was answer lady at the bus stop. One lady came up to ask me a question and then argued with me when I answered her. I finally said: I don’t know what you’re asking me. And she told me she thought her bus was coming soon. Lady: an express bus comes about every 7 minutes until 6:30pm. That’s not a daring assumption you’re making. (I know I shouldn’t be mean. If you don’t normally take the bus, it’s easy to panic. But don’t argue with me.)

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What I Found Today

I’m successfully finding things I’m not looking for today.

I came across these when I was trying to find a greeting card. I did 15 seconds of research and am going to say they’re from 1998.

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FIFA World Cup Games 59 and 60

Only 4 games left! Last night we were getting ready to go to the neighbors for dinner but it was too early so I sat down and found myself watching Houston play New York. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here watching soccer,” I said.

My team played at 8pm and for the first time I skipped it because we were out front makes things explode. I was pretty excited about our selections but compared to other fireworks going off in the neighborhood, we were piddly. I can’t believe regular people can buy that stuff and shoot it off in the front yard. Must have been the $699.99 Big Bang. It was still fun and we had a great time shooting our flaming balls.

I checked my team’s score at around the 55th minute and it was 0-0. When I went to bed I saw it was 2-2 and figured I’d watch the 2nd half.

The World Cup games today were Argentina v. Belgium and Netherlands v. Costa Rica.

I liked the Argentina game. I thought Belgium played great, they just couldn’t get any scoring together against Argentina.

I don’t know what to tell you about Netherlands. It used to be one of my favorite teams but I didn’t love the way they played in the final in the last World Cup and I’m not loving the way they’re playing now. They hit the ground really easy. And that thing where they spin around. I’ve never been tackled while I was running really fast and kicking a ball but it’s hard for me to imagine that I would roll over and over like a hot dog on a stick. I really wanted to see Costa Rica go through. Couldn’t we have one surprise in the semis?

No. I have to watch Germany play Brazil on Tuesday and Argentina play Netherlands on Wednesday. Either of these would make great final matches.

After all that soccer I watched most of the second half of the Timbers game on my DVR. Then I went back and watched the end of the Brazil v. Columbia match that I turned off in a snit fit the other day so I could see the end.

Then I was finished with soccer. No soccer tomorrow. I’m going to sleep in and have a lazy-ish day.

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FIFA World Cup Games 57 and 58 and 4th of July!!

I thought the Germany v. France game was the second game and Brazil v. Columbia was the morning game. I decided to sacrifice the Brazil game because I had so many errands to take care of. Then I checked the schedule and Germany was first. I scrapped all my plans except for the 9am dash to fireworks lane.

I have lived here 20 years and I have never been to a major fireworks seller. I’ve been to a few stands but never the ginormous hangars filled with everything but grenade launchers. Maybe they do have grenade launchers and I don’t know what they look like.

I should add that I grew up in Southern California where depending on where you live you can have either tiny “safe and sane” fireworks or nothing. I still can’t get over how much of this stuff there is.

First we went to Black Jack because that is the destination brand. We were there at 9:02am and it was like Macy’s a half hour before closing on Christmas Eve. People were stacking shopping carts full of this stuff. Bob said there was already stuff out of stock.

You can’t tell but the Big Bang costs $699.99.

We’re total noobs and had no idea what to buy so we left and went next door to the warehouse which was much less crowded but no less overwhelming. I had a very nice young man come over to help me. Clearly he’d been partaking of something else legal in Washington because he enthusiastically told me about the awesome colors and varieties of whatever I was looking at. If we could figure out a way to combine fireworks and pot we’d be billionaires. (Probably, someone has already done it.)

We bought some fountain somethings and some variety something that the kid said was a good choice. I’ll try to take photos.

Last year on the 4th there was a spontaneous party with the neighbors out front and I think there has been some slightly more organizing going on. I don’t know because I’m not on Facebook and I’ve been stuffing my face with World Cup for two weeks. I made a pie and a salad to bring and Bob has grilling stuff.

So back to the games: Germany in another nail biter. I had to watch it delayed so I turned off all my electronic devices and hoped the phone wouldn’t ring until I found out the result. I only watched part of the Brazil v. Columbia game. It was choppy and I wasn’t enjoying it and decided to do some chores instead. I gave up at the 70th minute. I guess I missed the best part. It’s like that Doctor Who with the vicious angels that only move when you aren’t looking.

Two big games tomorrow and then only 4 games left.

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FIFA World Cup Games 54 and 56

On the way home I saw a sign at a pizza type place that said: Do you want to watch the soccer championship series?

That’s almost good enough to make a special trip back to take a photo. Maybe this weekend I can get up early and do it. It’s in a terribly inconvenient location.

Ugh. What a couple of long days. I’ve been getting up even earlier so I can leave at 6am and be at the office before 7am so I can start early and take a long lunch.

These games going into extra time are killing me.

All the Round of 16 games I’ve seen (I didn’t get to see them all) have been nail biters. My poor nails.

Germany went through, whew. USA did not. Total heartbreaker bummer. They played their hearts out and Tim Howard is a national hero.

I’m behind on everything in the world. The commute home tonight was insane. I walked out of the office at 4:30 and didn’t get home until after 6pm. The good part is that everyone on the bus, including the driver, were great sports and laughing. I’ve never been on a bus that full. This is Vancouver transit, not Tokyo.

A big guy sat down next to me and said: you won the lottery.

I said: So did you.

Does that sound snotty? I meant to be funny but later I worried that I might have sounded snotty. He laughed.

Two rest days (World Cup) I know that means for players but I need rest, too. I’m hoping I can get caught up at the office. Then two huge games Friday and Saturday plus a Timbers away game on Friday night. Being in love with soccer is a curse sometimes.

In other news, my shoulder is feeling about 95% pain free thanks to Saint Melonie of Vancouver Yoga Center. She worked on me on Friday and then in class last night there was a lot of focus on my problem area (shoulder blades) and there were huge stretches of time today where I felt completely fine. I have a whole new appreciation for people who suffer from chronic pain, and for being pain free. I’m still doing tons of self-care and homework to keep it up.

I’m also dying to work on the hedge but resisting the urge because that’s how I got into this mess.

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FIFA World Cup Games 51 and 52

This is Ishi Pishi Road.

This is the view from Ishi Pishi Road. Would you speed in the middle of the night on this road?

The part where they crashed is narrow and winding but they were by houses and not on a cliff.

This morning I watched Mexico and Netherlands. I was slightly Netherlands leaning. Finally, in orange! But once Mexico held the lead for awhile, I was rooting for them. I don’t think you could watch the goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa without falling a little in love with him. Another heartbreaker in the end and Big Orange goes to the next round.

I half-watched Greece and Costa Rica but it was mostly boring and choppy with some rolling around. By the end I wanted both teams to lose. Costa Rica led forever but then lost it and Greece equalized in stoppage time which meant it was going into an overtime round. I turned off the TV and Bob told me that Costa Rica went through.

Big Germany game tomorrow and USA on Tuesday and then 2 rest days to get me through until the weekend. We’re getting down to the real nail-biting now.

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