What A Coincidence?

I’m assured that there really are no true coincidences – just apparent ones, but when a surprising coincidence happens it can feel slightly strange. Carl Jung considered them as “Synchronicities” and seemed to legitimately hope for them to have some significance.  Others, such as Arthur Koestler (“The Roots of Coincidence”) abused their journalistic skills to paint too optimistic a case for their hidden meanings.  Meanwhile parapsychology, which tried to exploit them and had some serious recognition in the 1960s to 1980s, has now effectively dropped off the map thanks in part to the excellent exposé work by James Randi and Martin Gardner (who recently did declare himself a theist before dying).  Nevertheless we should keep an open mind at all times, no matter what our inner convictions.  Progress has only been made possible by those willing to consider new ideas.

A most common apparent coincidence is the unexpected meeting of two people, often in odd places.  In a Globular Cluster of stars living near the outer edges of the central bulge of galaxies, one could expect many ‘meetings’, just on a simple mathematical basis.  Globular clusters contain a few hundred thousand stars orbiting on random axes but the seemingly peculiar coincidence is that they hardly ever collide, even though they have been gravitationally attracted to, and have been orbiting, each other for as long, or even longer, than the ~10 billion year age of the host galaxy.

M80 Globular Cluster

M80 Globular Cluster

Credit:PIC “A Swarm of Ancient Stars – GPN-2000-000930” by NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team, STScI, AURA – Great Images in NASA Description.

For billions of years they pass by each other without the ‘coincidence’ of two of the stars hardly ever ‘meeting’ or colliding.  The reason is that though they are all gravitationally attracted to each other each the space between those stars is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times greater than the size of all those stars taken together. (Don’t be misled by the apparent large size of one illuminated pixel in the photo – the star itself is much smaller).

Back on earth, where people live a lot closer to each other, I’ve always been amused by the coincidence of the seemingly unusual ‘meetings’ which do occur.  Here are some true cases I collected over the years:

      1. On leaving the Toledo Museum of Art this week, we were followed by our neighbor, and museum director, Brian who we thanked for a very professionally run Area Artist’s Show, excellent food in the museum café, and of course our free charge up for the electric Nissan Leaf. Maybe there were only a few hundred people there that night but the chances of our going out the door together had to be greater than a few hundred to 1?
            2. Finally got to see the sinfully hilarious “Book of Mormon” this week, in a happy and full house of about 2400 people. In the seats right beside us were Stan Joehlin and his wife who we’d not seen since his small party for glass specialists given last summer.  Odds: Much greater than 1 in 2400?
            Click here to see one of the many great numbers in it:

3.  But similar people do similar things and go to similar places: so when travelling in the East many years ago, more often than not, I would run across a fellow traveler friend at one of the many embassy and consulate visits where we’d obtain needed visas for the travels. But when I ended up on Toronto Island I was surprised to meet, on the ferry boat, a fellow traveler I’d not seen or hear of since 10 years ago in the Tibetan café in Katmandu where we sheltered for months while waiting for the 1964 Indian-Pakistan war to end.

(This is not my friend but it was my favorite public bath in town back then)

4. While a guest at a Pittsburgh wedding in a great cathedral 12 years ago I was a little alarmed when the weather turned and thunder boomed only when the couple spoke their vows. I hope they are still happily married?

5. In Toledo 14 years ago we were warned of a test run of the local tornado sirens to be held at 10:00 am next day. At 9:58 am a most ferocious storm rolled in and no one knew how to interpret the sirens that blared two minutes later.

6. Twelve years ago in Perrysburg the old Maumee river bridge was scheduled to be demolished by explosives on a quiet Sunday morning. 15 minutes before the explosion I counted the largest flock (51 birds) of Turkey Vultures that I ever saw, before or since, circling (anticipating?) overhead.


7.  I have 2 night blooming Epiphyllum (aka wrongly as Cereus) plants, previously split from one plant many years ago.  The blossom only opens for one night and then expires.  One of the plants lives upstairs by an East facing window, the other is downstairs by a South facing window. As you can imagine, their micro-climates are quite different, yet 4 years ago they both only blossomed once in the whole year, but amazingly, or not, they both chose the exact same night to open up that year.

8.  About 30 years ago I was sheltering from heavy rain, standing under a palm tree near a beach about 100 miles north of Rio de Janeiro.  Talking to one of the other strangers there, it turned out that his cousin married my cousin! (Well perhaps not that very odd: there about 110 of us there for the Laser sailing championships, with only a few from each country.  And I was interested in talking to the only another one with an Irish accent).
Cabo Frio 1977
9.  After struggling with a related NYTimes X-Word puzzle clue, I asked Susan if “Confucius was confusing”? The next day the Financial Times had the following item headline: “Confucius Confusion. (Nobel) Peace prize winner stays away”.

10.  When sailing across the Atlantic, we had no wind one day and so motored. For man-overboard practice we threw over a life jacket and returned to look for it after a few minutes.  When we got to the spot a pod of dolphins were circling it and waiting for us it seemed.

11.  A coincidence that fortunately did not happen concerned a 2 day press announcement I attended for a new glass product that was to have been held in early September. For commercial reasons the date was brought forward by a few months and so missed what would have been a tragic (for me) coincidence.  The year was 2001 and the location was the New York World Trade Center.
WTC Pencil_3631

12.  This month we went to New York by train. Arriving at Penn Station on a dark wet night and waiting in a long line for a cab, I was surprised when the man immediately in front of us turned and recognized me.  Sean Lawton had worked with me in the glass business 10 years previously.  If I know 10 people in that city, and 10 million live there, does that make it more than 1 in a million odds of our meeting?
(I do know that you only need about 23 people in a room to have a 50/50 chance of 2 of them having their birthday on the same day and month date.)

13.  Before leaving New York we had tea and chocolate with Alen and Leslie in Saks 5th Avenue (hard to find a quiet spot in Manhattan), and then admired the holiday decorated windows for on our way out.  At 4:00 am next morning, on the train back to Toledo, we were very surprised to see ourselves in front of those same decorated windows again in the Style and Fashion section of the on-line NY Times.Xmas Windows Saks 5th AveMore photos of the magnificent windows are at:
Saks 5th Avenue Windows

It’s hard to believe that coincidences are caused by some unknown force, but there sure are some funny things happening out there!
Even though ‘true’ coincidences may mean absolutely nothing, I’d love to add to the collection.  Do you have any good ones to share?

Have a great Winter Solstice tonight (Dec 21) and Enjoy the Holidays.


14.  My brother Phillip reminded me of a good one I’d forgotten:  Fifty years ago I was at Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, in a remote part of Ethiopia, which really is in quite a remote corner of Africa.  I begged for a chance to try a reed canoe:

Lake Tana Reed Canoe

I had to carry it on my head, down to the water’s edge.  The paddle was simply a bamboo rod, with no blades.  Though the boat shape was good, it was not watertight and so behaved more like a raft with water seeping up between the reeds, while giving me a very wet seat at the same time.  The locals were delighted

and all happily came to help carry it back to its owner when I was finished.  The relevant coincidence is that I stayed a day or two in a remote little inn there while awaiting a ferry across the lake (it would only depart when full so everybody waited) to travel on down the Nile.  I signed the inn’s guest book, with little thought.  I was aware of Dervla Murphy, a Dublin nurse and traveller who’d ridden a bike to India two years earlier, and published her story “Full Tilt”, before going on to work in Nepal, but I’d never met her.  I did not know she was then just a few days behind me on her latest project: ‘Walking Across Ethiopia With a Mule’.  She stopped in the same very small inn at Lake Tana and was so surprised to see my name and Dublin address in the guest book that she quoted it in full in her next book. Many years later, with the book long out of print, my brother’s tennis partner in England, Gil, happened to read a copy of “Across Ethiopia by Mule” and asked him if he’d ever heard of Chris Barry from Churchtown, Dublin.  Imagine her surprise when he told her it was his brother!

15.  Scott just offered these 2 good ones:
… A guy that I only know as VK, with whom I work at Bosch was on a
plane from Bangalore to Coimbatore and I happened to see him
boarding. He was on a personal trip to visit some relatives in
the Coimbatore area.  Would be hard to be farther from home (Michigan) and
yet I still found an acquaintance on the plane.

16.  Jenni just happened to take a plane flight with Jim Fris. between
Dallas and Detroit, she to visit her relatives and he his. Maybe
an even bigger coincidence for it to be such a good friend!

Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink…

Coleridge’s mariner was damned for needlessly shooting an albatross. Toledo however, is bringing on its own destruction by inaction, despite warnings months ago from the Federal EPA. In the small hours of the night, ten days ago, an automated emergency phone call woke us to tell us not to drink the tap water. The annual algae bloom in Lake Erie this year had become too strong, right at the water intake pipe for Toledo’s (and Perrysburg’s) municipal water systems. This satellite view shows the western end of Lake Erie seriously compromised.  Toledo and the Maumee river are at the bottom left corner:
Lake Erie Blook_2144
For three days we were forbidden to drink the water, wash dishes (unless rinsed in afterwards in ‘clean’ water) or even to spray municipal water on leafy vegetables in the gardens.
The algae is an interesting bright green living slime. Its growth in the lake is accelerated by summer warmth and the excess nutrients (Nitrogen and Phosphorus) from fertilizer runoff from farms and riverside gardens. Heavy rainstorms can also overflow the waste water pipe system, dumping untreated sewage into rivers and lakes which add food to the algae.
The algae produces a harmful non-living, long lasting, stable toxin called microcystin. It cannot be destroyed by boiling and is too small to physically filter out, other than by Carbon filter absorption. It is odorless, colorless and tasteless, but is harmful because it accumulates in one’s liver, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) (it sounds incredible enough to be a story from the famous BBC TV sci-fi Doctor of the same name) in concentrations greater than 1 ppb (part per billion).
Microcystin is incredibly old. It evolved, with cyanobacterial algae blooms about 3 billion years ago, perhaps as a protective agent for the algae, but protecting against what we do not know – back then there were no animals in existence to eat the algae. The toxin might have been protecting it from solar UV according to today’s (2014/8/12) NYT Science section. The blooms themselves were vital to us then as they were the early creators of Earth’s Oxygen.
Our numerically challenged news reporters erroneously had it measured as “1 or 2 ppm” (parts per million) instead of ppb (parts per billion) for a while. But, understandably, it is hard to appreciate that a substance naturally produced in our lovely lake could be seriously harmful in concentrations above one drop per tanker rail-car full (300,000 gallons). But watch out for the numbers: while a limit of 1 (ppb) (parts per billion) could sound reasonable, would you accept the same level as safe if it was just as honestly, but more scarily, called 1000 ppt (parts per trillion)? No matter how you quantify it, it is truly wonderful that we can detect and measure such miniscule amounts. Such skills can save us, if only we can properly interpret the values and apply them appropriately.
Back in Perrysburg we had the interesting situation of water seemingly everywhere, yet unusable:
1. A live river full of slightly muddy water: the Golden Maumee.

River Kayak_3941
2. Clear, tasteless, odorless water in the taps, and a few recent gallons in spare storage in jugs in the basement, but who knew how far back the ban applied?
3. And my three 40 gallon full rain barrels (for plant watering) collected from clear and pure (well perhaps a little acid rain, moss spores, bird bits, etc.?) rain water from the roof.
Rain Barrel_2221
I was unable to interest any of the house residents (other than the quasi-dumb animals) in that toxin-free roof water, even when I offered to boil it.
Sold out signs appeared within hours, for a radius of at least 20 miles, in stores selling any type of bottled water. But friends visiting from out of state all brought gallons in plastic jugs and bottles.

The water is back on for now, and we have a stock of ‘plastic’ water to be drunk within the next 12 months as the bottles have “Use by…” dates of 2015.
Water bottles_2289
What happens, over time, to water in a plastic bottle?  I’m sure I could happily live on honey, beer and coffee made with skim milk, but dry cleaning one’s teeth is difficult.

Nobody said it would be easy but we do need to look after our planet. At least now we can measure the invisible toxins before they do too much harm. But sometimes even the very visible seems to be too hard to fix. For years Toledo and Perrysburg have been trying to prevent sewage overflows in heavy rains. Yet yesterday, 8/11, we had about 3 inches (75 mm) of rain which resulted once again in the following overflow damage to Water Street and hence, the river and the lake:

How I Got Honey and Saved All My Money in Las Vegas

At Vegas in July it is hot. I went out of the casino to look for wild life and found a grove of trees but no way to get in. In front was the purest looking green lawn – supsiciouly verdant at 105 F (40 C) – on close inspection it proved to be plastic Astroturf. 

I went to the thin row of flowers at the edge to photograph the expected empty desert life, and found to my joy, a live honey bee. There is life in Vegas. 

Chris and Chantal E. from South Africa were there in Vegas too and very kindly brought me a precious sample of honey from their semi-wild, and certainly ferocious, African bees.  A few years ago the African variety of bee escaped from an experiment in Brazil and has since been slowly working its way north. They are now in the Southern United States and still advancing. Those bees didn’t need big hives because their winter was mild.  But unlike our European  bees who are only violent when defending their hive with its precious winter long food supply, the African  bees attack on any insult, for some reason I can’t quite fathom.  If attacked by the Africans, the first rule is “Run”. Second rule: don’t dive into water because they’ll simply wait for you to surface and then sting your face!

As they work north they are mating with the natives and so diluting their ferocity, and hopefully imparting some good, tough genes to better resist our nasty collection of Varroa mites, small hive beetles and various viruses.  DNA analysis is extraordinary – it can give the % of African vs European genetics in any bee it measures.

Now I’ve been having taste tests against my very pale Perrysburg, Ohio honey.  Without doubt, the African honey has more bite. 


Back in the casino, which I regard as a monument to how badly mathematics is taught these days, I studied the Roulette wheel: They very nicely post the results of the previous 21 turns on a clearly visible column, so you can wander through the tables and happily look for numerical patterns.  One table I found had black come up 8 times in a row (see the yellow numbers).

There are 18 red slots and 18 black slots for the ball to fall into. The odds of black or red are almost 50/50, except for green zero, and because they are so greedy, there is another slot for the ball: green double zero. If either comes up when you have bet black or red, you lose. That makes the odds for black or red (which pay 50/50) about 18/38 (or 47.4/52.6).  You could think that 2.6% margin is not much, but it is those sort of odds which built this city.

The chances of the 8 blacks in a row is 1 in 395 turns. With about one roll of the wheel per minute that means it could happen three or four times a day. (But if you’d put down $15 on black (that table had a $15 minium) at the right time and left it there for 8 turns, you’d have won $3,840. I stayed and watched: unfortunately for some the 9th turn came up red.

A few hours later that very same table was showing 10 blacks consequetivly. No other table had any such interesting pattern.

Now your $15 bet could have won you $15,360, but you’d have to not have left it there for the 11th turn because it came up red.  By now the croupiers were getting quite upset with my taking supposedly forbidden photos, but I had big Australian Paul C. with me so we could safely escape. (I really feel that cell phone photos don’t count. Right?)

Back home you can easily see the true odds with a simple Excel spread sheet.  Use the Random Number Generator (+Rand()) and add up the results for 10,000 rows of the spread sheet, or 10,000 turns of the game. Pressing F9 key almost instantly re-spins the wheel another 10,000 times, creates another 10,000 random numbers, and so you can discover the veracity of statistics in large numbers.

Starting with $100, and only betting $1 each time, often lets you stay alive for 10,000 turns, IF you have true 50/50 odds. But when I used the Vegas odds of 18/38 because of “0” and “00”, I was usually broke by 5,000 turns. Sometimes you’re broke after just 1,000 turns. In 100 runs of the program, I never survived as much 10,000 turns on 18/38 odds.

The blue line shows that this time I could have played 8,200 times on true 50/50 odds before going home hungry, but with typical casino odds of 18/38 I’m thrown out after just 1,250 turns.

Another run shows: 

Playing my computer game, by hitting F9, 100 times or 1 million rolls of the roulette wheel, the best I could do was:

This says that after 10,000 turns of 50/50 odds I’m up 200% on my starting cash and still alive, but once again, with zero and double zero, I’m out the door after 6,600 turns.

Very interestingly, in Monte Carlo (the Mediterranian country, not the vegas casino of the same name) you leave your bet on the table if you are playing black or red, and green “0” comes up. (the don’t have “00”). So that is one of the very few places in the world where you’ll get true 50/50 odds. Yet you’ll still lose! The reason is because that as your accumulated winnings oscillates around an average of zero.  Sooner or later your total will bump into the house limit (I wonder just how big that is?), or your limit (all the money you can show them). Guess which is closer?

So how did I save my money? Instead of the wheel you can spend $10 on Fydor Dostoyevski’s “The Gambler” – all the thrills of winning big and losing bigger, pawn your winter coat, go hungry, steal from your grandmother, and still lose and lose again; just follow the downward slope of any of the red lines in the graphs above, turn by turn. They only lead in one direction!

Good luck!