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A Very Lucky Wind
August 25, 2010 8:45 PM   Subscribe

Do we live in a world where there is magic and meaning, or is it all just chance? Radiolab meets two young women who share a nearly unbelievable story of coincidence and fate. Then they consult with statisticians for a very different take on the same story. This short audio documentary is charming and delightful. A Lucky Wind won a Best Documentary: Honorable Mention Award in the 2009 Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition as well as the 2009 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award (Radio Documentary).

Bonus reference material: Methods for Studying Coincidences by Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller. And Littlewood's Law.
posted by storybored (92 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
tl;dl. Man, the production is annoying.

Is there any software out there that will rapidly transcribe podcasts and allow me to just read the damn things? There are so many interesting-sounding half-hour or hour-long podcasts with no production, mediocre production, or annoying production -- any of which I feel confident I can read in just a few minutes without any substantial loss of meaning or quality.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 8:53 PM on August 25, 2010 [27 favorites]


Insert Dr. Manhattan's silly speech about miracles.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:57 PM on August 25, 2010


Do we live in a world where there is magic and meaning, or is it all just chance?

Both.
posted by telstar at 8:57 PM on August 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


I call it "This American Life Syndrome"

"Hi . . . I'm Ira Glass. . . . Today . . . we talk to some Spanish moss . . . about . . . what it would be like . . . if they didn't have to hang out of trees.


. . . and now . . . a strange interlude . . . *dixieland jazz*


When Bob first met Teddy . . . he never would have suspected . . . that . . . they would both be fascinated by . . . soap box derbies."


It's like they think I'm gonna hang on their every . . . word.
posted by nola at 9:03 PM on August 25, 2010 [57 favorites]


No magic. Meaning, only the meaning we make.

Delusional morons will tell you otherwise.
posted by smcameron at 9:08 PM on August 25, 2010


"... or is it all just chance?" Well, I'd hate to think all of this *waves at the world* was on purpose.

Something that would be a very interesting statistical analysis, to me, would be determining the destiny versus randomness against traits like optimism or against background histories (birth status, trauma, congenital illness) and try to put that against the general background of both pattern-matching and the desire for what the folks will do at the end, just as they say in the episode, to tell the neat story anyway.

Obligatory kvetch: ah, RadioLab — your production never fails to make me await the BOOOP! to advance the filmstrip one frame while leaving me with the same nostalgic "What was that? Did I learn anything during this?" feeling at the end, just like grade school.
posted by adipocere at 9:08 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


So what was the "nearly unbelievable story of coincidence and fate"?
posted by paisley henosis at 9:14 PM on August 25, 2010


Screw it, I'm going to rant. Once upon a time, radio announcers were employed by virtue of the sound of their voice. It needed, most of all, to be crisp and clear -- but also, depending on the topic, to be melodious, or grave, or comforting. There was no editing; the announcer needed to be able to maintain a rhythm and timbre to their diction that would be both enjoyable and compelling, where you couldn't help but be sucked in to the story that they wove.

These days, you can tell what political party a radio commentator is with by the tone of their voice. Calm, wry and whiny? It's a liberal! Loud, gruff and sarcastic? It's a conservative! Gone are the melodious, grave or comforting voices of the past, where the tone indicated whether the programming was news, drama or a particular kind of music more so than political affiliation. Where every word fit like a glove.

But here, we have the arrhythmic, jarring experience of editing as well; where you can hear the Protools knife cut into the conversation without respect to rhythm or beauty, where sound effects and music pepper the narrative as cued up by a helium-huffing morning show host on heroin.

Award winning? I'd rather hear Howard Stern tell this story -- and the man would probably approach it with more subtlety and grace.

I'm done now.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 9:15 PM on August 25, 2010 [25 favorites]


Mitchell and Webb provide a British version.
posted by Grimgrin at 9:17 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


We got a theory... about magic... and miracles.

If magic is all we've ever known, then it's easy to miss what really goes on.
posted by oulipian at 9:27 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Chance sometimes produces extraordinary, unlikely results. I once bumped into a friend from high school in Minnesota in the streets of Bangkok.

I actually expect this sort of thing is more likely in a world of chance. If there was a plan, there would be a lot less excitement, unless God is treating the universe like a mystery novel, and for no clear reason other than to occasionally surprise us.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:27 PM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


What I really hope is that we can turn this thread into yet another discussion about how much we hate or love the way Radiolab is produced, instead of discussing the content. Because that would be useful and new to the site.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:32 PM on August 25, 2010 [14 favorites]


Well, let me tell you mine then. No edits. No FX. No music. I'm seven years old and my dad finally trusts me with the combination to our locker at the tennis club. 10-16-22 (or whatever). I run into a kid I met at summer camp and we start goofing around as kids do. Eventually, we're at his dad's locker but he doesn't know the combination. So what the hell, I try my dad's combination. 10-16-22.

It opens.
posted by philip-random at 9:34 PM on August 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


Do we live in a world where there is magic and meaning, or is it all just chance?

telstar said: Both.

Forrest Gump agrees: "I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze. But I think maybe it's both. Maybe both are happening at the same time."
posted by amyms at 9:38 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


What I really hope is that we can turn this thread into yet another discussion about how much we hate or love the way Radiolab is produced, instead of discussing the content. Because that would be useful and new to the site.

Aw come on man, I was just funning. Don't take me to serious I'm trying to choke down a bottle of apricot brandy while watching City of the Living Dead. Truth is stranger than fiction.
posted by nola at 9:39 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do we live in a world where there is magic and meaning, or is it all just chance?

Bit of a trick question, that. "The world" is a cold uncaring place which wouldn't notice if everyone one of us was wiped of the face of it. We create magic and meaning. For all our numerous failings, that's what makes humanity great.
posted by lholladay at 9:42 PM on August 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


We're in Chile, talking about a guy we shared Spanish class with back home some months ago. Boom. He walks around the corner and up to our table, just like that.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:47 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I bumped into a college classmate, same year, in the streets of Berlin. That was pretty cool.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:50 PM on August 25, 2010


I would love to see Jad Abumrad at a trip to the DMV:

"Next in Line please!"

wait wait

This

"...so I look at my licence and I see that

This is

*background laughter*

JAD abumrad here to

"...it's almost expired, so clearly I need to

UPDATE MY license

a production of WNYC in New York
BEEP!

posted by leotrotsky at 10:00 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


software out there that will rapidly transcribe podcasts

My iPod Touch had a double-speed feature for listening to podcasts. It clipped micro-segments out of the sound to make it faster without distorting the pitch, and it was great. I wish my current player (an Android phone) had something like that.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 10:10 PM on August 25, 2010


This reminds me of the discussion we had here awhile back about random DNA database sweeps and how they would get these "one in a bazillion" matches that actually were to be expected just given the sample size, even if the matched parties were innocent.

Also... I love radiolab. I don't get all the hate.
posted by lucasks at 10:16 PM on August 25, 2010


I think chance comes into a lot of it and the very rare strikes of luck (such as in this case and some of the ones mentioned here) tend to stick out and our minds can't really interpret them in light of the universe and its chaos and time spans our brains aren't quite wired for.We do tend to orally interpret the meaning of statistics a hell of a lot and make bold statements and (god forbid) predictions based on the interpretation of a single event. I do it every damn day - and I wish I did it less...
posted by fantodstic at 10:19 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm sure everyone could list off anecdotal evidence of bizarre coincidences if they can recall them properly. It's really not very woo-woo to presume that there are kinds of larger scale organizing principles that we just don't have the mind or computing power yet to fathom yet are every bit as influential as gravity. There just might be far less variation in events than is evident from the froth on the surface. Human activity could in reality fall into very narrow patterns that only appear to be random and unique.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:21 PM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


philip-random - Your dad had a secret second family?
posted by crayz at 10:21 PM on August 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


Let us lay the platter, no point in arguing over matters of taste. I suggested my aunt try Radiolab. She listened to one episode and then told me she wished it did not have the sound effects. Radiolab even did a survey to see if the sound effects were bothersome.

If they had the resources, they could compromise with a Radiolab and a Radiolab Express, exclamation point! You can clearly see which way I lean, but maybe it would increase their audience.

Radiolab is entertaining and educating. Sure for a while there I thought Rob and Jad were going to break in to fisticuffs, but they changed it up. Maybe someone won an argument.

And it gives you stuff to talk about socially. People love the Toxo story. I cry sometimes on the first Zoo story. Fireflies, the fat man, even the lady with change in her hand. Sure there are some kinks. But they have broken some ground with their style. They got a nod from Ira, which is when I started listening. And now someone is seeping sounds in to the pieces of NPRs main shows when they do not have a microphone on location, or when someone is explaining something.

The Blue: "What is your point?"

A chemistry professor of mine once said that the best newspaper he ever read was a 4 page (I think->)Moroccan rag that simply laid out the facts of a story in bullet point under a headline. Left it all up to the reader. And the questions the writer asked. Asked with his audience in mind. Maybe the sonic element engages an audience who would not listen otherwise. Capturing ears for science. Weave and de-weave, somewhere in there people know something they did not before. Tastes change, but I think Radiolab might whet appetites. Again maters of taste. Anyway. More important arguments. Take care.
posted by casual observer at 10:33 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


crayz: philip-random - Your dad had a secret second family?

That or they were lovers.
posted by paisley henosis at 10:35 PM on August 25, 2010


I'm pretty sure stuff just happens, and we just ascribe meaning to it.

And I happen to love RadioLab, even though while listening on my bike commute one of their sound effects just about caused me to crash.
posted by cccorlew at 10:47 PM on August 25, 2010


I wish my current player (an Android phone) had something like that.

VLC has had the scaletempo module for about a year and a half now, which allows you to set the playback rate in fine increments (± 0.1X), both slower and faster, without affecting pitch. Most things are quite listenable at 1.4X and if you concentrate you can still pick up most speech at 1.8X - 2.0X. The default key bindings are ] for faster and [ for slower.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:57 PM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Once, I was sharing an anecdote about the time I snapped my fingers at the exact same moment the lights went out in my school. When I got to the climactic (such as it was) point in the story, I snapped my fingers and the power went out again -- this time a whole city block and a bridge were engulfed in the moonless night. Much later, I was telling that story, and when I snapped there was yet another blackout. I had a uncanny feeling that I should maybe just stop telling that story altogether.

Now, see, I know that I don't have the ability to turn off the lights with a snap of my fingers. I know that I'm just selectively ignoring all those other times I've snapped, to no effect. I know that I might even be misremembering how it went down, exaggerating the coincidental timing on one or more of these events. I know these things. I'm not magical. And I'm not a total fool. 34+ years, 3 chancy snaps: this is surely no big deal.

But the thing is, a few times since then, I've run afoul of those sorts of embarrassing moments where you wish you could just slink away under the cover of darkness. Each time, I've had to fight a powerful urge to start snapping -- you know, just in case.
posted by .kobayashi. at 11:01 PM on August 25, 2010 [27 favorites]


What's great about blogging heads is that it actually has a speedup button. You push it and the audio plays 1.4 times as fast (without changing the pitch). If there was a 2x button I would press it.

The fact that there aren't transcripts, or summaries, means these people are more interested in having everyone hear their wonderful voice and production then actually communicating the story.
posted by delmoi at 11:19 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I searched for "confirmation bias" and didn't find it anywhere in these comments.

Comfirmation bias.

See? I'm smart too!
posted by tspae at 11:20 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


God-DAMN this was totally annoying, I truly wanted -- and want -- to choke these people. I hope their legs grow together. I hope they die in a car fire. What dicks!

I hung in there, and hung in there, hoping they'd die in the broadcast, what a pleasant co-incidence that would have been: I want them to die in a car fire, and they *did* die in a car fire, and I got to hear it -- Wow! How rockin' is this ?!? What a beautiful world we live in !!!

These Ira Glass copycats don't get to get away with being Ira Glass -- and I can't stand this when Glass does it, either, but at least it was/is his schtick, and regardless his smarminess or not he brings great things to us. I can deal. I think he's great, truth be told, I can barely imagine the amount of energy he consumes just doing what he does every day, and I'm glad he gives us what he does. The guy is 51 years old, he looks like he's eleven, he's got fourteen peoples energy, I feel I'm lucky to hear him, to benefit from his work. Glass is great. So it's cool. I'll deal.

But what if, because of his success, people like these shmoes start to think his -- Ira Glass -- success is not *in spite* of his smarm but *because* of it, and they adapt/adopt, as these clowns have, and what if for the rest of our lives we've got to listen to this kind of crap any time we want to hear a goddamn story. I'm going to go jump off the roof, just in case this happens...

(Okay, okay, I don't really want them to die in a car fire. But I wouldn't mind they go dumb for a year every time they do this...)
posted by dancestoblue at 11:46 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I simply couldn't get past all of the distractions to hear the story. This annoyed me enough to comment on it here, although it has already been said. So, "metoo!" I guess.
posted by moonbiter at 12:15 AM on August 26, 2010


I stopped listening when they asked me to scroll to the right.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:47 AM on August 26, 2010


This is kind of excruciating... the sound effects are awkward and totally in the way, and I can't help but wonder why this isn't available just as a cheeky SEPARATED AT BIRTH, UNITED BY BALLOON, AND GUINEA PIGS news story I can glance at and grasp fully in exactly 30 seconds, smile, and then head back to Fark.

Instead, I'm trying not to strangle myself as I reach to close the tab.
posted by disillusioned at 12:54 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


As someone who truly enjoys both Radiolab and Ira Glass, I am shocked that so many MeFites hate them so much. I heard this piece in it's proper place in the full-length radiolab, but I relistened after reading all of the complaints.

It seems to me a lot of people are not seeing this for what it is... the whole idea of wanting to fast-forward through it, or read a transcription is, I suppose, understandable. But from my perspective, it's the same as if there is a terrific film and people are asking to fast-forward through it or read the script to get the information.

The information is very very interesting, but part of what makes this piece of radio so enjoyable is the storytelling. In my opinion, the storytelling is exceptional. They take you all the way through this story in a way that pulls you along the whole time. The music, sound effects, pacing, are all working to tell the story in a really grabbing way. I think that's admirable and new, I don't think it's tedious and frustrating. Is that because I'm seeing it as a different product, or because of my personal taste?

If you're not in it for the ride, then I suppose it could be frustrating. But really, take 20 minutes if your time in the evening to stop doing other things, to relax, and to listen to the piece and allow yourself to be led through the information. As someone who has heard Jad talk expertly in-depth about the intricacies of radio storytelling, I have full faith he knows what he's doing. In my personal opinion he does it really really well.
posted by ejfox at 12:57 AM on August 26, 2010 [13 favorites]


. It's really not very woo-woo to presume that there are kinds of larger scale organizing principles that we just don't have the mind or computing power yet to fathom yet are every bit as influential as gravity.

And unlike every principle, rule, or law that we've found, it somehow distinguishes between clusters of particles that have the capacity for self-awareness and particles that don't.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:59 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've never had anything surprising happen to me, ever. Which is quite unlikely and surprising, I guess.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:00 AM on August 26, 2010


http://www.randi.org/jr/07-20-01.html
The claim is that on June 14th, a 10-year-old U.K. girl named Laura Buxton found a balloon in the garden of her home in Pewsey, Wiltshire. This was a "message" balloon, bearing the usual note from the sender, who we're told in this case lives in Blurton, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, some 140 miles from Pewsey. The item says that:

1. The balloon had been sent aloft by another 10-year-old girl.

2. Her name is also Laura Buxton.

3. Both girls are fair-haired.

4. Both girls have black Labrador dogs.

5. Both girls have a guinea pig.

6. Both girls have a rabbit.

Wow! Sounds remarkable, doesn't it? Dr. Chris Chatfield, a well-known and respected statistician at Bath University, was quoted by the press as having said that the odds on Laura finding her namesake by using a randomly-released balloon were "a million to one — if not more." [...]
posted by pracowity at 2:43 AM on August 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


When I met my second husband, I was living in the house his parents had lived in 20 years earlier when he was born. We were unaware of this until years later when his mother mentioned they had lived there.

We actually had our first sex in the room that used to be his nursery.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:57 AM on August 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


I enjoyed the production, as I have not heard this kind of style in radio before. No, what surprised me is that they didn't calculate the probability for the Laura story. Now that would be truly interesting. The conclusion was: let's not spoil the magic- what they don't understand is that statistics is the magic!
posted by niccolo at 3:20 AM on August 26, 2010


I happen to love This American Life...but I love it just as much at 2x, and I can listen to twice as many.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:22 AM on August 26, 2010


The mother of one of my old girlfriends is named Laura Buxton.

I used to live across the street from where I now live with my current girlfriend. At that time, it was her best friend's grandmother's apartment, and the two of them spent a lot of time here, so I almost guaranteed saw her in the neighborhood.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:28 AM on August 26, 2010


LiveJournal used to have a link on its main page that would take you to a random journal. Years ago, I clicked that link, found a journal that looked kinda interesting, scrolled down a bit, and decided to comment on an entry about five posts down the page.

Already there was a comment written a few weeks before by a girl from Eastern Canada (with me in the West), saying that she had found the journal, and the post, through the "random journal" feature too. Whoa! Out of hundreds of thousands of journals! And she chose that particular post, just like me! What were the odds? She and I chatted, hit it off, became internet friends.

Last year, when she was pregnant and suicidal and toting a gun, my mom and I talked her down.

I know our connection was just coincidence on top of coincidence, but I couldn't be more glad that it happened. And knowing how things have worked for us so far, she's probably in this thread right now! Say hi, everyone!
posted by EmGeeJay at 3:31 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Way to miss the fucking point. If I'd had the entrepreneurship to write my name on a balloon when I was 9 and a half and I got a letter back from a ten year old with the same name and a similar appearance I'd be over the fucking moon. I'd tell everyone. I'd feel pretty special. I don't give a shit how statistically it was bound to happen. I was a pretty smart kid. I understood that it had to happen to someone. But it didn't. It happened to me. The odds of it happening to someone were perhaps one in 10 million - and you better believe I'll be working this out for real at work tomorrow with accurate weather and census data - but the odds of it happening to me were astronomical. And seriously, these guys sound like they wrote their script with Creative Writer.

All that said, I enjoyed it. The randomness lady seemed nice. And that law prof guy seemed genuinely sad that he ruined the happy vibe.

Also. SOREN!
posted by doublehappy at 4:19 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am very glad I listened to the whole thing, because as the girls' story was going on I was already digging out my pet links on coincidence and randomness... but hallelujah, the whole point of the piece was to make those very points. The last two minutes in particular - where the presenter admits he was "sifting for similarities" when interviewing the girls - was particularly important because people do this unconsciously when choosing which details of a "miraculous" story to remember or to emphasise.

The sad fact is that many people simply do not understand how coincidence works. That, taken with the very human urge to ascribe "specialness" to seemingly mysterious or unlikely events, is all it takes to keep magical thinking going strong.
posted by Decani at 4:22 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hate Radiolab. Their production technique of cutting and pasting snippets of interviews is used to distort what people say, and RK and staff are a bunch of pompous poseurs.

Oh, and yes it's coincidence. Ooh look, a pattern! Quick ma, stop the Volvo!
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:25 AM on August 26, 2010


I've only just got into TAL, relatively speaking, and I love it. If I was in the States I'd be pitching stories to them every week. I love those kind of stories - slices of ordinary life, sometimes turned extraordinary. The kind of thing that's on the Radio 4 documentaries I always end up missing. Now I'm a little afraid to try Radiolab. If you're a Glass hater (I really like his voice) then try The Story.

Meanwhile, The Forty Year Old Boy was recommended on here and the one I downloaded was just some bloke going on about lapdancing whilst someone shreiked in the background. Limenviolet giggle a lot but at least there's actual content in there...
posted by mippy at 4:27 AM on August 26, 2010


I listened to this episode on my long walk yesterday. I find that the sound effects and editing force me to just let go of any expectations about narration. It's like a tilt-a-whirl on a saw-toothed track. I start giggling and I can't stop.

I feel about Radiolab the same way I do with the Click & Clack brothers. That affect...they're unwittingly taking the piss, you know? It's like that adorably insufferable friend you want to punch in the face and then kiss better every time they tell another labored pun. Or the high school science teacher who gets so caught up in the experiment that he asks you all to stay after the lunch bell because the homemade volcano is about to explode and isn't nature amaaaaaazing??? Or my dad, who is so annoyingly pleased with himself when he refigures out the perfect volume setting for the 20th time during the 30-minute show. GOD BLESS THEM ALL.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:45 AM on August 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


The second part, about the gambling lady with Parkinson's...that was heartbreaking. (Or was that a different one? The New Normal, maybe?...I listened to a couple of them yesterday...it was a long walk.)

Also, was this Stochasticity episode a recent rebroadcast? I downloaded it yesterday from last year, just because I thought it sounded neat. Neat, huh?
posted by iamkimiam at 4:51 AM on August 26, 2010


tl;dl, but the topic is one that's been of deep interest to me for a long time.

I neither strongly believe nor strongly disblieve in woo-woo, but I think the believers and disbelievers both miss something deeply disturbing about their respective beliefs. And there really only are two possible beliefs that make any sense; middle grounds are even more unworkable than the extremes.

In scenario #1, the universe is completely materialistic and there is no woo-woo. None whatsoever. There is a complete, simple, consistent set of rules which describe everything that can possibly happen. This universe might not be deterministic (thanks to quantum randomness) but it is ultimately simple and comprehensible. Science is a powerful tool for exploring this universe.

But in scenario #1, you have to ask why the belief in woo-woo is so prevalent. Even people who are strongly disinclined to believe in it have experiences which are so profound they are swayed. It means that a fundamental misperception of the universe is built into us at a deep level, and none of us are immune. The temptation to succumb to this is probably why some woo-woo disbelievers are so fervent in their disbelief; they can feel the temptation. This also explains why lotteries and casinos work as tools to separate people from their money. There is something fundamentally wrong with us that may not be fixable and may ultimately doom us.

In scenario #2, we are not misperceiving certain things -- the universe permits woo-woo. We can observey that it only permits woo-woo under certain conditions, though. No wizards throw lightning bolts from mountaintops; instead, the woo-woo influences the results of supposedly random events. Woo-woo is never completely inexplicable by materialism, it's just at times mind-blowingly unlikely. I would say most people probably are more inclined to believe in scenario #2 than scenario #1, if only because that's the way we're wired.

But scenario #2 comes with a great big fly in its ointment too. Why does the woo-woo avoid wrecking the materialist model? At times this requires a great deal of tap-dancing on something's part. One has to conclude that the universe is both consciously and actively lying to us about what it is. And this is a problem that science is powerless to explore, because science depends on the universe acting consistently; if it shows atoms and molecules on demand only when you fire up the electron microscope, you have only its occasional missteps to provide clues that a rougher model is at use in other situations.

The thing is, if the universe ever lies to us about anything, we have no basis on which to ever trust it for anything, either. This is why there really isn't a third or compromise position. If any woo-woo ever violates the materialist rules of the universe in any way, even once, it implies that all of reality is being manipulated to a purpose we can neither know nor usefully influence. And I don't think most of the people who believe in woo-woo quite get the implications of that.
posted by localroger at 5:55 AM on August 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


It's interesting to me how many people seem to hate the sort of post-production storytelling that you get with Radiolab, This American Life, and other programming of that ilk and, then, finding that they hate that sort of storytelling, feel compelled to convince the rest of us how utterly terrible and unworthy the program is, complete with hipper-than-thou sarcasm.

What's humiliating is that I used to do the same thing to my Garrison Keillor-loving parents, always rolling my eyes and doing the low, sensible, corn-fed storytelling voice with what I thought was the most wickedly-satirical edge, because MAN, how can anyone love A Prairie Home Companion, for pete's sake?

I mean, seriously. What a dumb show. Everyone's so dumb for liking that show.

Everyone's dumb but me. I should have my own show.

Ironically enough, unlike most whining, soapboxy, smarter-than-you media experts, I did have my own show. Not on the radio, mind you, but up on stage at various venues in Baltimore, Washington, and elsewhere, and not a very big show or a very widely-beloved show, but really just a show I did a couple times a year. I stood up, accompanied by my own music and my own sound design, and talked about being in special education, about being homeless and living in an abandoned industrial chicken house, about laying in the grass on the nearby spaceflight center and watching laser beams criss-crossing the sky, about looking for my fairy godmother among prostitutes, racists, and the mentally ill.

Some people loved what I did. I think there's probably a lot of crossover in audiences with the NPR/PRI crowd, as that's an audience that enjoys a well-produced story about lives and events off the beaten path. I'm stuck performing because I'm a lousy puppeteer and other people don't get my accent right, but I'm not a huge fan of the part afterward, where all I want to do is get my gear packed up as fast as possible so I can get in the car and stop somewhere for a vanilla malt to congratulate myself for a good performance or ameliorate a bad one. I just don't have that inherent hamminess that you need to really revel in such things, but because I'm my own technician, roadie, and entourage, most times, I get stuck in the mix at the edge of the stage.

The praise is okay. I'm grateful, but I don't know how to respond. The criticism--well, that's another thing, and it's not that I'm not interested in criticism, or that I don't think my work can be better, because it can always be better, and my path in the process of performing is one intended to improve my work every time I perform it. It's just, well, I'm not interested in most of the criticism I get from people who don't practice my craft, and who step up, full of their inflated sense of understanding of exactly where and when my performance went wrong and how they think it should have gone, to dress me down.

"Umm, don't you think the sound was too loud when the wolf caught up with you in that story?"

Well, no, actually. I used a very loud and very disruptive sound, played on speakers that I went to the trouble to actually hide under random seats in the audience because I specifically wanted to convey the jarring, unsettling moment of shock at being caught by a wolf in a dream I had about being Donna Reed.

"I mean, people could have heart attacks from that sound. Just sayin'."

Thanks. Thanks for waiting after my show to tell me I'm doing it wrong. It's helpful!

"I'll make a note of that," I say, "and thanks so much for coming!"

My performances vary. Some have been great, others have been just completely devastating, disasters from the moment I stepped on stage, but there's always that helpful critic who'll show up to set me straight.

"You know," the lady said, grasping my hand in the way a grandmother does when she's trying to make a gentle point, "You're such a good storyteller, and you have such a talent, but you really let yourself down by being anti-semitic and using words like 'nigger' in your play."

I stand up for myself to point out that it's a character in my show saying those things, and they're in there to demonstrate that character's bigotry, but no, I'm wrong, I've undermined my talent, and on and on and on.

I've been doing these one man shows for nineteen years now, and one of the best things I've learned is that no matter what you do, and how well you craft your performances, and no matter how many people show up for your performances and laugh at the right parts and cry at the right parts and stand up, clapping, at the end of the thing, some people will always want you to do what they want. It's not enough for them to just go elsewhere, to consume media that suits them--they want you to know how wrong you've been.

And Garrison Keillor? He really isn't my cup of tea, and I find him a little hard to listen to, but you know what? He's great radio. He's beloved, and he's a real craftsman who's honed his talent over the years into something that makes people think, and makes people happy, and tells a good story in a good way. It's not my way, but that's neither my problem nor my business. I don't have to love something for it to be good.

Radiolab gets me, sometimes, with the sound design. It can be over the top, or intrusive, or distracting, but those things are issues I have as a sound design freak. They're also issues that come from the fact that Radiolab is daring in a way that most media isn't. They're playful and arch, clunky and sophisticated, sometimes in a way that makes a story sing, and sometimes in a way that weights a story down, and holds it down.

Thing is, no one's making you listen.

The world is not an intolerable place because Radiolab annoys you, is it? Is it so unbearable that they produce it that way, and have fans (LOTS of fans) that love the way it sounds that you just can't restrain yourself from standing up against the cruel tyranny of Radiolab?

Really?

Make your own show, then. Do it better. Make people happier. Make something, or anything, or, and this is the one critics rarely bother to do, write to the producers and tell them how you think they might have better told their story. That's the tricky thing--of all the complaints I've had, there have been a few, well-articulated, humbling points that actually changed how I worked, partly because they were targeted, specific, and explained in some detail how the issues interfered with the critic's enjoyment of the story, and partly because they weren't little snotty blind-sides, smug, sneering contempt, or hip, happenin' showy eye-rolling.

That's the problem here. The complaints are directed at us, on this online forum that Jad Abumrad may or may not read. Does complaining about Volvos and strange interludes really do anything to improve the show, or do they just show off how clever, canny, and media-savvy you are?

If you really care to make a point, you can email Radiolab.

If not, shouldn't you really be commenting on Youtube videos?



That said, I enjoyed this episode quite a bit. It's a nice reminder of how we can distort our view of the world to make it seem like it works they way we wish it would work. There's something nice about being able to see the world through a filter of magical realism, even when we know, at the same time, that the world may not actually be as magical as we want it to be. That's a decent middle ground, the region where stories happen, caught neatly between happy fantasies and mature understanding.
posted by sonascope at 6:06 AM on August 26, 2010 [23 favorites]


localroger, did you ever play Kult?
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:37 AM on August 26, 2010


In scenario #1, the universe is completely materialistic and there is no woo-woo. [...] But in scenario #1, you have to ask why the belief in woo-woo is so prevalent.

It's like asking why a leopard has spots. Spots are goofy. Spots, at first glance, would make a leopard more noticeable, more likely to get into fights with neighbors, and less likely to sneak up on lunch. But spots work. Leopards with spots thrive.

And this bit of illogical woo-woo shit in our heads in no doubt evolutionarily advantageous to us, or at least is a relatively harmless side effect of something else that is evolutionarily advantageous to us. Our heads are full of silly things that persist because they do us more good than harm or because they are acceptable side effects of something important to us.
posted by pracowity at 7:38 AM on August 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


And this bit of illogical woo-woo shit in our heads in no doubt evolutionarily advantageous to us

The most popular theory seems to be that the highly sensitive pattern recognition, combined with a bias toward false positives, probably kept us alive when we were commonly subject to being attacked and eaten by predators. Now, however, it pareidoliatically betrays us and tells us that the homeopathic remedy we took before getting better from a cold obviously cured the cold, or that the five successful guesses out of a disregarded hundred prove that that psychic really was talking to our dear departed. We are trying to understand a world of social nuances and non-being-pounced-upon dangers, and we are doing so with brains evolved for not getting pounced upon and devoured thousands of years ago. That's a big part of why woo persists- we are built to find patterns and prefer the affirmative conclusion to the null hypothesis, and we are applying that to a world in which that is no longer quite as adaptive as it once was.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:00 AM on August 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


I also like PHC. I find Kellior really relaxing - I would listen to it if I needed to sleep early for an early shift. It's the radio equivalent of tomato soup - so comforting and just like you remember it.
posted by mippy at 8:30 AM on August 26, 2010


> I also like PHC. I find Kellior really relaxing

His phlegmatic nose whistle breathing causes me to reflexively smash the off button on my car stereo. Most radio voices tend to bother me because they're the sonic equivalent of the old "if you keep making that expression your face will stick" tale but I can usually ignore that. But, nose whistling is unforgivable.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:38 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


No magic. Meaning, only the meaning we make.

I always think of this as "religion for atheists." In that, the answer to the meaninglessness of existence is to assert that there is meaning because we say so.

Much like regular religion, it's not terribly satisfactory. Both feel like putting your fingers in your ears and going "Lalalalalala!"

Not that I'm judging that.

On good days, you don't care. On bad days, you do whatever you have to to make yourself keep going.
posted by emjaybee at 8:58 AM on August 26, 2010


The meaning of existence is food.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:02 AM on August 26, 2010


philip-random: 10-16-22 was probably the factory setting.
posted by stevis23 at 9:03 AM on August 26, 2010


Is it just a coincidence that most of us find this sort of radio production annoying?

Well, doy?
posted by everichon at 9:06 AM on August 26, 2010


I always think of this as "religion for atheists." In that, the answer to the meaninglessness of existence is to assert that there is meaning because we say so.

You misunderstand. The concept of "no meaning but what we make" is not an assertion that there is in fact transcendental meaning because we say so, but rather a redefinition of the concept of meaning away from the vague idea of connectedness or significance beyond the strictly human to the assertion that things which matter to humans matter to us. As we are the only sentients we are aware of, it makes sense to define "meaning" in terms of our perceptions and desires.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:06 AM on August 26, 2010


Chance sometimes produces extraordinary, unlikely results. I once bumped into a friend from high school in Minnesota in the streets of Bangkok.

The year after I graduated high school, during which I was an exchange student in Hannover, West Germany, I ran into a woman who graduated with me in a visitor-neglected exhibit in the basement of the Reichstag Museum in (then) East Berlin. It was a definite WTF moment.
posted by hippybear at 9:40 AM on August 26, 2010


Every week all sorts of interesting coincidences don't happen, for millions of seconds at a stretch.

I have innumerable encounters with other people, media, animals, input/output, and agents of all kinds, with no bizarre coincidences.

Once in a while, there is one.

It sure is nifty.

(As for unending irritation with podcasts in general, I've suspected it boils down to learning theory for a while--if you're a visual or textual learner, you're probably not going to dig podcasts.)
posted by wintersweet at 9:55 AM on August 26, 2010


It's been awhile since I listened to Radiolab... always enjoy it when I do, though. Thanks for posting this...
posted by ph00dz at 10:00 AM on August 26, 2010


"And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever."
posted by homunculus at 10:07 AM on August 26, 2010


crayz: philip-random - Your dad had a secret second family?

That or they were lovers.


My dad's dead now but I must say, I kind of like the idea that he had some "other" life that he managed to keep secret to his grave, particularly the notion that he and the other kid's dad were lovers.

Hmmm?
posted by philip-random at 10:25 AM on August 26, 2010


I have a funny stochastic story to share.

So as many of you know, I've been traveling eastward for the last 4 months as I prepare to move from the US to England. Being in a liminal space is a weird experience (which I highly recommend) and there are some hidden things you discover about yourself and the world along the way. It's all part of the adaptation to being a nomad I suppose. Your experiences with people and faces and roads and waking up and going to sleep...all of that shifts around a bit.

So here I am, stumbling home after midnight, half-drunk, down a dark street in a little suburb of Boston. I've finally figured out the bus system in my new temporary town and am feeling pretty proud of myself and my ability to navigate in this once-unfamiliar place. I guess you could say that my guard was down a bit. Which is why I absolutely did not trust myself when I saw, in the window of the only lit room on the dark street, a familiar face. Why should I? I mean, I've beat that game, having duped myself with false recognition from Mexico to Martha's Vineyard. But yet, there was MeFite not_on_display, sitting there on his computer at the street level bay window. I had met him, Jessamyn and many delightful others two weeks prior at the Horseneck Beach MeFi meetup in Southern Mass. Clearly this was just me messing with my own head, aided by alcohol and late-night mental boredom. I must have upped my game, False Recognition, Level 2.

I thought for a second about flapping my arms and getting his attention. But then I thought better of it. First, surely I had to be wrong. And if so, what did that say about me? Which would be confirmed by acting the part of crazy drunk woman on dark street harrassing unsuspecting internet users in their homes. So I did the sane thing. And emailed Jessamyn.

Something along the lines of, "Ok, this is going to sound nuts, but I *swear* I just passed not_on_display in his house. Does he live in _____ on _____ street?" And my sanity was preserved when she replied back immediately..."Oh hey, yes it was. We were playing Scrabble!" Whew. And hey, neat!

Anyways, that's it. I thought it was pretty funny and random. Especially considering grapefruitmoon's (who I also met for the first time at the Horseneck beach MeFi meetup) recent thread asking for experiences MeFites have with meeting people IRL (who happen to be on MetaFilter).

GMOB, I know.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:41 AM on August 26, 2010


pracowity & pope guilty -- our proclivity for perceiving woo-woo goes far, far beyond oversensitive pattern recognition. People are capable of having entire experiences (both individual and en masse) which could not possibly have happened IRL. Read The Mothman Prophecies sometime. Sober level-headed people who know all about the probability thing become convinced; read G. Harry Stine's On the Frontiers of Science. Do any of the experiments suggested by the late Robert Anton Wilson in Cosmic Trigger and see what happens.

I once did four ten-card Tarot readings in a row (dealing the cards myself) in which nine of the cards landed in the same positions. When I brought this up on another site I was pounded with explanations of how I can't shuffle cards and how such a result isn't really as unlikely as it seems given all the other unlikely things that might have happened too. Neither explanation is convincing; I am very aware of card clumping and was taking extreme measures to randomize the deck, and the unlikeliness of such a result is really beyond the pale. It actually got funny how the anti woo-woo folks were dogmatically insisting on their version of reality woo-woo apologist (at that moment) me was the one actually presenting numbers and asking really, seriously, how this thing be expected to ever happen even once in the entire history of the universe.
posted by localroger at 11:25 AM on August 26, 2010


localroger: Do any of the experiments suggested by the late Robert Anton Wilson in Cosmic Trigger and see what happens.

You mean Cosmic Trigger I: The Final Secret of the Illuminati?

I think I'll go ahead and judge that book by its cover (and title,) thanks.
posted by paisley henosis at 11:46 AM on August 26, 2010


I think I'll go ahead and judge that book by its cover (and title,) thanks.

Then, you would be rather foolish.

I DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING

This remark was made, in these very words, by John Gribbin, physics editor of New Scientist magazine, in a BBC-TV debate with Malcolm Muggeridge, and it provoked incredulity on the part of most viewers. It seems to be a hangover of the medieval Catholic era that causes most people, even the educated, to think that everybody must "believe" something or other, that if one is not a theist, one must be a dogmatic atheist, and if one does not think Capitalism is perfect, one must believe fervently in Socialism, and if one does not have blind faith in X, one must alternatively have blind faith in not-X or the reverse of X.

My own opinion is that belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence. The more certitude one assumes, the less there is left to think about, and a person sure of everything would never have any need to think about anything and might be considered clinically dead under current medical standards, where absence of brain activity is taken to mean that life has ended.


And so on ...
posted by philip-random at 12:19 PM on August 26, 2010


Wilson was really good at saying things that sounds perfectly reasonable until you come down.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:25 PM on August 26, 2010


Something that strikes me about the title of the Radiolab piece always sort of bothers me, and I think a number of people here have touched on this--why does it have to be that the universe is either a cold numbers game OR magical and amazing?

I'm a nonbeliever when it comes to spiritual matters (as opposed to a disbeliever, to make it a little more clear), and I think of the universe as being a coldly-dispassionate, unsympathetic, and largely unfriendly place, a machine running on numbers, and still, I think it is a magical and joyous place, filled with all sorts of wonders and reasons to feel awe. There's really not a good reason to create a dualistic, either-or reality when everything can be true.

There's a huge old industrial building on the south side of Baltimore that once housed a major distribution center for Montgomery Wards and now is just business lofts. I take note of it every time I come in or out of the city, and when I'm driving with people I've only recently met, I am compelled to explain that that place, right over there, is where my grandmother was fired for being a witch.

She'd come in one day, joining the group of her coworkers there, and noticed one woman smelled strongly of roses.

"You smell just like roses," she said, "or perfume all the way from France."

It helps to imagine a proper Baltimore accent for this line.

The woman claimed not to be wearing perfume, or anything, really, but my grandmother was sure that she smelled roses every time the woman was around.

The next week, no one would talk to my grandmother. The woman who smelled like roses had had some sort of horrendous accident with a piece of machinery at the place and died. No one would work with her, either, and the whispers were that Cora had second sight, that she was a witch, even. It wasn't long before she was called into the manager's office and let go.

"Cora, you know it ain't my choice, and you do a damn good job up 'ere, but..."

Of course, my grandmother was not a witch. She was born with a caul, though, and the midwife, Mammy Jackson, spit whiskey in her face to make her stubborn and put the caul in her bosom to sell to a sailor. Sailors in those days would buy a caul because they believed you wouldn't drown if you had one with you.

She wasn't a witch, didn't have second sight, or special powers. There's no such thing.

Thing is, she thought she did, and her faith in that notion that she'd been given a special gift made her a more giving, more joyous, more compassionate person, because she always felt like she'd gotten more than her share in life, and so she had to live up to that gift.

My grandmother was just a plain-looking blue-collar worker with a third grade education, but she was magical. There was just a glow to her, a sparkly little light that was always there, and I know we love our grandparents and imagine them to be more than they were, but I had another grandmother, and my friends had grandmothers, and none of them were like she was.

It always seemed like things happened just right with her, and that there was this way that things would happen around her, but it's confirmation bias shaped by the love we had for her, and how much we wanted her to be right. Sometimes, you are a fully-conscious, fully-aware participant in a lovely, wonderful lie, and that's just fine.

There is no real magic in the world, but I have seen it firsthand.

"Joe-B," she'd ask, "What'll you have to drink?"

"Ginger ale from the spigot," I'd say, even though it was just water. It was just water from a faucet she got that had an aerator on it instead of a raw spigot, and the way the water looked all fizzy and bubbly from the tap just looked to her like ginger ale, and that's what she called it, and what we called it, and what I call it now, when I'm feeling like revisiting those days.

It was just water. There is no real magic in the world.

Knowing this, I am quite comfortable with sitting down to have a glass of ginger ale from the spigot. I know that it is real and that it is not real. This is where some of life's best things come from.

"Joe-B, did I ever tell you that I'm part Indian princess from outer space?"

"Aww, c'mon, you are not."

I'd scoff, but it means that I'm part Indian princess from outer space, too, on my mother's side, and I'm perfectly content to accept that noble and dubious heritage. I don't have to choose a side, reject fact or fantasy, or settle for either-or. Besides, it explains a lot that would require a hell of a lot more math to justify.

Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

I'll take the wonders of science and the magic of bullshit, both. It's an amazing world.
posted by sonascope at 12:44 PM on August 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


At the MeFi meetup where I met jessamyn, during one of our first conversations (about the age-range of the other meetup attendees), I met bondcliff, and quickly found that he and I shared not just the same exact birthday, but we were also born in the same town, and have the same first and middle name.

Now that was weird!
posted by not_on_display at 1:11 PM on August 26, 2010


You only need 23 people to get a 50% chance of a shared birthday.

Probability is so fucking unintuitive.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:42 PM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, let me tell you mine then. No edits. No FX. No music. I'm seven years old and my dad finally trusts me with the combination to our locker at the tennis club. 10-16-22 (or whatever). I run into a kid I met at summer camp and we start goofing around as kids do. Eventually, we're at his dad's locker but he doesn't know the combination. So what the hell, I try my dad's combination. 10-16-22.

It opens.


And that's how I discovered that I had a brother.
posted by Naberius at 1:49 PM on August 26, 2010


Pope Guilty sez: "You only need 23 people to get a 50% chance of a shared birthday. ... Probability is so fucking unintuitive."

Yes, but what are the chances it would be ME? ... anyway, this wasn't just the same day of the year, pick-a-year, this was the same year, day, town, first and middle names. The chances of that, though I don't know how to calculate them, has to be much smaller, especially as that meetup had a wide range of ages and names.
posted by not_on_display at 2:52 PM on August 26, 2010


Yes, but what are the chances it would be ME?

That's actually the other side of things. Everything that happens to somebody has to happen to someone, and we always think things are more interesting and/or significant than they really are when they happen to us.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:34 PM on August 26, 2010


I once bumped into a friend from high school in Minnesota in the streets of Bangkok.

I was once riding on the back of a truck in bumper to bumper traffic in Bangkok, and a car passed right by me with with an "Escape to Wisconsin" bumper sticker on it, which is where I was living at the time. It was surreal.

I'm not sure if that was the crazier coincidence, or that we both had statistically unlikely experiences in Thailand regarding two states that are right next to each other from the other side of the world. If you say that this happened in 1996, I'm going to go buy a lottery ticket after work.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:48 PM on August 26, 2010


If you dismiss Robert Anton Wilson as being "out there" because of his associations or the artwork on the cover of his book or your perception that he only makes sense when you are smoking weed then you are completely missing and proving his point at the same time.

Wilson styles his own style as "Guerrilla ontology." By this he means that his works are a mix of things that are definitely obviously true, things that are definitely obvious put-ons, and things that aren't so obvious. The trick is to get you to think about -- really think about, not just slap an "agree" or "disagree" sticker on -- those latter things. And Cosmic Trigger is probably one of the most accessible and successful writings in that form since the Marquis de Sade wrote Yet Another Effort.

The point of the exercises I mentioned, which are scattered throughout CT and its sequels, is to confront you with the very things that originate from within that are likely to contradict your assumptions about reality, no matter what those assumptions are.

In any case Wilson isn't the only writer I mentioned. John Keel acted much like a combination of journalist and anthropologist chasing "UFO" flaps (I use the quotes because Keel himself came to the conclusion that whatever was going on it had nothing to do with space aliens). Unlike most other UFO groupies he took the time to listen to what people were really saying happened to them and the results were amazing.

And G. Harry Stine is a bona fide rocket scientist (of the early NASA variety) who had nothing to gain by publishing a very accessible, even kid-friendly how-to book of projects based on principles that couldn't possibly work but had worked for him. Stine, ever the engineer, confidently believed that his experiments were evidence that some breakthrough in science remained to be made, but those with an education in woo-woo will quickly recognize a lot of radionics stuff in there, and that radionics is simply magic(k) which uses the language of science as its symbolic system.
posted by localroger at 5:06 PM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


And yet Windows 7 appears to have been simultaneously and independently dreamed up by dozens. I...I just don't know what to believe anymore.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:11 PM on August 26, 2010


"There is no meaning in life. Meaning exists only in language. Meaning refers to life." - Robert Anton Wilson (from the documentary "Maybe Logic")

magic and meaning, or is it all just chance?

"The scientists said 'The sun is a molten rock in the sky, can you not see that?' [William] Blake said, 'I cannot see that; I see a choir of angels singing 'glory, glory, glory to the lord God omnipotent.' And that's Blake's reality. Both realities are equally right depending on where you're at." - RAW

RAW speaking about the great magician who makes the grass green; the Master who creates every reality you notice.
posted by thescientificmethhead at 5:44 PM on August 26, 2010


I really enjoy Radiolab and was just downloaded every podcast they have. So there?
posted by Mid at 7:15 PM on August 26, 2010


Am I the first person to notice that there's a math error in the analysis of the 7-heads-in-a-row out of 100 coint tosses? They start off correctly saying that the probabity of 7 heads on 7 tosses is 1/128. Then, they seem to say that 100 tosses is roughly equivalent to 14 sets of 7, so the odds are multiplied by 14. (They do not go into full detail but that seems to be the gist of the argument). But, of course, the run of 7 heads could occur without being in one of these "segments" - it could be the last 3 tosses of the first set and the first 4 of the next, for example.

Also, they would have been just as surprised if they found 7 *tails* in a row, so the final probabilty of "a surprising outcome" should be multiplied by 2.

Doing a little math, if P(k, n) is the probability of getting a run of *at least* k heads out of n tosses, then

P(k, n) = 1/2^k if k == n, and otherwise we can write a recurrence relation:

P(k, n+1) = P(k, n) + [1-P(k, n-k)] / 2^(k+1)

this comes from considering that the k-run could have occurred in the first n tosses, or else
(mutually exclusive case), a run of k heads did NOT occur in the first n tosses, but it ended with a sequence of T followed by N-1 H's, followed by an H on the last toss.

I don't see offhand how to solve this in closed form but its easy to get an approximate numerical solution. I get P(7, 100) = 0.31752, meaning that the chances of getting 7 heads
in a row are close to 1 in 3, not one in 6 as stated in the broadcast. And considering the fact that 7 tails would have been as surprising as 7 heads, the probability of a "surprising" event - a run of 7 or more flips that are the same - is 63.5%

Either the analysis in the program is wrong, or I'm wrong - any correction would be appreciated!
posted by crazy_yeti at 8:22 PM on August 26, 2010


OK, correcting my own post - (tricky to get this probabilistic reasoning right!)

everything above is correct except for the claim that the streak could have been H or T, so we should multiply by 2 - the multiplication by 2 gives a probability that is too high, because the outcomes "streak of at least 7 H's" and "streak of at least 7 T's" are not disjoint. So the probability of a streak of at least 7 of anything is

2*P(7,100) - probability(7H's *and* 7 T's)

It's a little harder to write the recurrence relation here, but easy to code up a simulation.

After 100000 simulated series of 100 tosses, there was 31741 events of at least 7 heads,
54362 events of 7 H's or 7 Ts, and 9226 events of 7H's and 7Ts.

The 31741 is a close match to the previous calculated value - 0.31741 ~ 0.31752

For a streak of at least 7 of anything, either H or T, the probability is about 54.3%

If we consider only streaks of length *exactly* 7, the probablilites drop considerably, since after a series of, say, 7 H's, there is a 50% chance of another H, extending the streak to length 8. So, the probability of a streak of length precisely 7 is the probability of a streak of length 7 or more, minus the probability of a streak of length 8 or more. From the simulation, probability of a streak of exactly 7 H's is 14.59% and streak of exactly 7 of either H or T is 22.86%

None of these numbers match up with the "1 in 6" from the broadcast!
posted by crazy_yeti at 10:10 PM on August 26, 2010


Years ago my then girlfriend and myself were in Cancun. We decided to head over to a few bars that were suggested to us. I hailed a cab and we boarded. I began to describe our destination to the driver in halting Spanish. He turned and said, "How ya doin'?" It turns out that he was a ex-native of Brooklyn, NY who was born not very far from me, on East 3rd Street. He visited Cancun and decided to stay there.

That was when I knew he was a witch and killed him. Okay, that last part is not true. But we were surprised. He said that my Spanish was pretty good for a gringo.
posted by Splunge at 3:19 AM on August 27, 2010


I emailed Jay Koehler (the statistician interviewed in the story) and recieved a polite reply. Of course, since the original radio program aired over a year ago, this has already been discussed quite thoroughly, and Koehler supplied this link:

http://www.leancrew.com/all-this/2009/06/stochasticity/

which explains a bit more - his "1/6" was only meant to be a rough estimate, and the producers of the show, through sloppy editing, obscured that fact. I think the editors did a disservice to both Koehler and the listening public.
posted by crazy_yeti at 9:17 AM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think less of RAW because I only know him by reputation. It is because I've read quite a bit of RAW that I think less of him.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:51 AM on August 27, 2010


I thought RAW was mostly just meant to be read as stoner fiction with a healthy dash of "don't let other people define your reality for you" moralizing. People actually take it seriously?
posted by Burhanistan at 9:59 AM on August 27, 2010


RAW's nonfiction is a lot like a novel that has no sympathetic characters, including the nominal protagonist. That can be a pretty good hat trick if you pull it off, but some people are going to hate it no matter what because they can't relate to a story which has nobody in it with whom they want to identify.

Similarly, RAW applies himself to studying the world with no preconceptions at all; no moral preconceptions, no preconceptions of how it's put together or what it's made of, no preconceptions about what rules guide the unfolding of events and causes and effects. He starts by flatly denying that any possible set of preconceptions is valid or useful. So if you happen to have preconceptions to which you are too attached you're going to hate it. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground there, either.

RAW doesn't intend for you to "take it seriously." In fact, letting go of the whole "take it seriously" thing is one of the major lessons he wants you to take from his writing. People take all sorts of things way too goddamn seriously, often with no justifiable reason. What he wants you to do is to give other models a chance. You don't do that by "taking them seriously," you do that by not taking your own conflicting models so seriously that you can't even entertain the possibility that they're wrong or less useful at times. But again, that can be a profoundly uncomfortable thing for some people who feel adrift and helpless without some kind of belief system to ground them, and those people aren't going to like RAW at all.
posted by localroger at 10:30 AM on August 27, 2010


RAW has serious "If you keep your mind too open your brain will fall out" issues.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:50 PM on August 28, 2010


He seemed to keep his own brain more or less in place. I saw him speak twice (early and late 90s) and the guy had no flies on him either time. Funny, informed and professional. In response to a question about what he thought of X-Files, he said, "I always preferred the way REPO MAN dealt with the alien idea."
posted by philip-random at 10:01 PM on August 28, 2010


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