02 August 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project


Defying Calculation

Somehow that phrase doesn't have the same panache as "defying death," does it?  It pops up all the time in articles about astonishing coincidences, long odds, and improbable occurrences.  Unsurprisingly, I found one on CNN just

STOP IT!  I'm tired of you ragging on CNN all the time for their errors, real and imagined.

Calm down!  Good grief - I can't even write my own blog around here without interruption...  First, you silly tron, I'm not ragging on CNN, I'm not even ragging on the Associated Press, which reported this story.  If I'm ragging at all, it's on Police Captain Guy Turner of Westlake, Ohio.  At most it's ragging-thrice-removed, and in the end I'm going to let him get away with it.  He means well and he's armed.  OK?

OK, but I think we're all getting tired of you whining about CNN's innumeracy.

They bring it on themselves.  This time they got lucky.  Here's what it's all about. 

The Story

WESTLAKE, Ohio (AP) -- A bar waitress checking to see if a customer was
legally old enough to drink looked down to see a familiar photo.

It was her own.

The 22-year-old waitress, whose name was not released, called police last
week and said she had been handed her own stolen driver's license by a woman
trying to prove she was 21*. 


The waitress said she had lost her wallet July 9 at a bar in Lakewood.

"The odds of this waitress recovering her own license defy calculation,"
police Capt. Guy Turner said Monday.

The Defiance

Capt. Turner is lacking in analytical ability.  Perhaps the citizens of Westlake should be thankful that he is not a detective.  Consider:

The waitress lost her wallet in a bar and it was not turned in although it could hardly not have been found!  Therefore, whoever found it probably intended to steal the money and use whatever could be scavenged.  An ID card, especially one for someone slightly over 21 would be a good catch, since it could be used by someone slightly under 21 for the usual reason. 

The wallet was found in a bar, so it clearly fell into the hands of someone who goes to bars.  The ID card was used in a bar.  Surprise!  Furthermore, people who go to bars have been known to go to more than one bar. 

The person who lost the ID card is one whose job involves checking ID cards, so she looks at many during any work period.  Given the ingenuity of late teens, it would be surprising if a good portion of these aren't either fraudulent or in the wrong hands.

In other words, the only surprising element here is that the waitress happened to notice her own lost card, as opposed to one of the many others with which she is presented during her work.  If she had lost her wallet on vacation in Krasnoyarsk** and it was recovered in Westlake, it would be a big surprise.  Given that Westlake and Lakewood are separated by 8 miles and, one hopes, only a handful of bars, this is not as calculation-defying an event as touted.

To be sure, it is somewhat unlikely that this particular waitress was destined for her moment in the crimestopping spotlight.  However, many people lose wallets and ID cards, and I'm sure there have been many cases where people have fortuitously unmasked their would-be alcoholic avatars.   It probably happens every day.  But this one made the news, and Capt. Turner made the statement.  But he's armed and I'm charitable.  Let us agree, then, that what he meant by "defying calculation" was that it is impossible to calculate the exact conditional probability that this particular set of circumstances would eventuate instead of the colloquial meaning of the phrase.

*  Two sidelights:

  • The waitress claims she lost her wallet, the woman trying to prove she was 21 was arrested for identity theft.  Yes, I see the logic of that, but it does seem ironic.

  • When the woman using false ID to prove she was over 21 was arrested, she was found to be 23! 

** Krasnoyarsk is the site of the Russian anti-ballistic-missile radar system on the Yenisei river in central Asia.  Despite its natural beauty, it is not a big vacation destination.

Richard Factor