For every coincidence, many near misses?

Posted by Tandarin Nike Sunday, August 15, 2010 1:42 AM
If you are in a group of people, and you ask one of them their birthday, you can be relatively confident that they will not have been born on the same date as you. With 365 days in the year (not counting leap years), even if you were born at a popular time of year, the odds are stacked against you. And regardless of the size of group you are in, if you go up to someone and ask their birthday, it probably won’t be yours.

On the other hand, if you are in an adequately large group, by the time you’ve asked 200 people, chances are that one of them will be the same as you. However, if you have a group of just thirty, the chances are that two of them will share the same birthday.

That’s how statistics work – the more you constrain an event (in this case by insisting that it should be your birthday rather than some third person’s that is repeated), the less likely it becomes.

And just as you can test the birthday hypothesis, you will no doubt be able to identify any number of occurrences in your own life that seem to defy the odds, coincidences that seem just too unlikely to be real.

Weeks back before the holy month here in Bahrain, I walked into a restaurant in Hoora, and saw immediately someone with whom I lived once in Mumbai. Quite a coincidence. As the night went on, the links stacked up – mutual acquaintances crossing paths as if every story wanted to come full circle.

Of course, while it is extremely unlikely that I would have seen him specifically, my chances of sooner or later seeing someone I knew were pretty good. And having seen someone, someone who by definition has some link between their life and mine, it’s not so astonishing that in our reflections on old acquaintances there should be some connections.

Bahrain is a popular city – for the same set of reasons as the reasons that I am here. I go to the same sorts of restaurants as my friends from India – and in Mumbai that’s a small enough collection, so it’s not so surprising that a visitor should stumble into one of my haunts.

And so it goes on, having gotten over astonishment one can rationalize, and find that in general while something may be quite a coincidence, it also feels inevitable that a coincidence of that sort will happen sooner or later.

Of course, alternatively you can put it down to fate, or God, or the Trelfamadorians – as always, the prover has all the options he needs. And as the ‘real’ odds defy analysis, you’ll do well to dissuade someone once convinced.

It is not the coincidence, however, that I find most interesting. Rather, it is the statistical implication that for every chance meeting, there are a hundred near misses – for every time I am in the restaurant at the same time as someone, there should be many more occasions when they are in just before, or just after me, or we do not see each other, or they’re just up the street, or they’re where I would normally be on that night and so on and so forth.

The implication is that life is a constant whirl of barely missed opportunities to strengthen ties, revisit friendships, share old stories. And in some respects this realization inspires a sense of loss, the conviction that I have been so close to so many significant moments.

And it seems that we are on the cusp of what could be a change to all this. As smartphones proliferate, we are more and more equipped with the technology that allows us in principle to be located anywhere in the world: and for this information to be shared with others.

Can you imagine, simply pulling your iPhone out of your pocket and seeing the dots that are every friend, chance acquaintance, drinking buddy and family member who you have (or at least who have bought into Facebook) buzzing around, their lifelines tracking perilously close to yours. And instead of bumping into Venkat by accident, I would have known he was around – could have watched him arrive in Hoora, noticed his new car, and at some point my phone would buzz and say to me,

Venkat is within 200 yards. To go and see Venkat, leave your flat, turn left, walk to the corner, cross the street, enter the mall. Venkat is on the third bar stool to the right. You have found Venkat.

How splendid to never need to have a near miss again. But then, isn’t there something beautiful about the grand coincidence. The anecdote is as lasting as the meeting, the feeling of beating the odds simply to have a drink is invigorating, the prospect that behind any door, around any corner lurks a chance meeting is a wonderful thing.

I’m not sure I want that taken away. How wounding to be chasing somebody’s dot on you screen, only for them to turn off their signal. How wearing to be assailed by the hundreds of people you never knew were near you at every time of day and night.

I’m not sure that the world is ready to have all it’s movements placed online quite yet – but some are, and may it bring them happiness. And may we never reach a time when the only people you can bump into by accident are the people who you are ignoring on Facebook…

2 Response to "For every coincidence, many near misses?"

  1. shivani Says:

    Very well written about something that is quite annoying and disturbing to people like me.i don't know about others but i would hate to be tracked by just anyone.Knowing very well now the distinction between those whom i would would love to meet and those whom i prefer to avoid.Not for any other reason but for my own mental peace.
    The needed space in our lives...why are guys in technology messing up with that?
    There are plenty of other more humanitarian options to choose.
    i can't tell you how uncomfortable i would feel if i know i can be just bumped into by someone when i want to be alone or just with my family.

  2. Tandarin Nike Says:

    Thanks Shivani for your thought provoking comment. I too am adverse at the thought of being tagged or tracked. But the fact of the matter is that we are all tracked in one way or the other. The famous example is that of our mobile phones. At any moment of time, if need be, they can narrow us down to a few square meters matrix within the cell coverage area. Security issues in this big bad world has also being a bane for anything which is considered normal. It is no longer what you think or I say that matters in our very complicated society. Probably it is this very direction in which mankind is moving to, that will be its undoing. Can't imagine in 20 years from now what technology may exist whereby privacy as such may be the thing of the past. Fortunately, today though we can all be tracked, the system is within the confines of the service provider/operator and hence such data is not accessible by all. That's a consolation at least for the moment.

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