Coincidences happen more often than you think

Another short post due to lack of time. Today I was reminded of how often coincidences can occur. I’ll write about my coincidence later, but first, here’s some interesting related reading…

  1. Dr Steven Novella on anomaly hunting.
  2. Cherry-picking similarities between the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.

So it seems that a common thread in conspiracy theory culture is to search for anomalies, where anomalies may be things that seem out of place, or coincidences which seem to be too good to be true. As can be seen when you read Dr Novella’s articles (He has written several on that subject – I only linked one), such things happen all the time. If you look at any event or situation too closely, you’ll find those “inexplicable” coincidences. They don’t really mean anything, but they help somebody who already wants to form a narrative in which the event is untrue, to begin to piece together their conspiracy.

Examples of conspiracies are the Sandy Hook school shooting conspiracy and of course the 9/11 conspiracies. For reasons unknown, some people want to believe in conspiracies rather than believe that certain tragic events have really happened. And all they need to do is look at anything they don’t want to believe closely enough, and they will find anomalies… little things that on close inspection seem out of place, which can then be used to question the truth. (But of course they’re always wrong.)

Now onto my own strange coincidence: I went for a smoke break at work today. When I returned, as I got to my computer, the screen went blank. So the time I was away from my desk was exactly enough time for the computer to enter stand-by mode as I returned and looked at the screen again. Furthermore, this has happened often in the last two years. It must have happened about ten times. What are the chances of that? Isn’t it astounding that at that exact moment when I returned, the screen went blank? And this has happened several times. I mean, if I were even one second sooner, the screen would not go blank at all; whereas if I were even one second later, the screen would already be blank and I would not see the transition. For me to arrive at that moment must mean something, right?

To put it into perspective… Going for a smoke break involves the following:

  1. Get up from my chair and walk a few paces out the room. Push button to open the office gate.
  2. Walk out of the office, to the elevators.
  3. Push the down button and wait for an elevator. There are six; often two are faulty, and often the ones that stop are full, so I have to wait for another. Worst of all, sometimes the elevators go right past this floor, even though I pressed the button. It can be highly annoying. So the duration I wait is random.
  4. Swipe my tag, walk out of the offices section and into the shopping mall, then make my way to the closest exit.
  5. Find a place to stand and smoke.
  6. In the time I’ve worked there, I’ve got to know a few other smokers, so I might chat to somebody I know, or I might not. That’s quite random as well. So I don’t always take exactly the same time to smoke.
  7. Walk back inside, make my way to the office block, swipe my tag.
  8. Push the up button and wait for an elevator to go back up. Again, this is random. And it’s even worse than going down. There are eighteen floors, and there may be several other people waiting on the ground floor.
  9. Sometimes I stop off at the toilets, which are situated beside the elevators on each floor; sometimes I don’t.
  10. Walk back to the office. If the lady who works in the front is there, she pushes the button to let me in; otherwise I must get my keys and let myself in. The gate’s lock is faulty… sometimes it unlocks but remains closed – then I have to take the key out and put it back in, wiggle the lock and try again. So this time is also random.
  11. Walk in, and walk to my desk in the next office.

And despite all the random lengths of time, somehow it has worked out many times that my computer enters standby as I look at it. Isn’t that bizarre?

Of course, it isn’t really bizarre at all. It’s rather mundane. The simple truth is, I don’t normally take note of the state of my computer when I return to my desk. I couldn’t tell you if it is normally in stand-by or not. But I do notice when the screen goes blank as I look at it, because the transition itself is something noticeable. Maybe it is normally still on; maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. I have about four smoke breaks every day at work, five days a week, so it isn’t unusual that all those random lengths of time work out to be roughly equal often enough anyway, on those rare occasions that I took exactly long enough to see the moment of the blank screen transition. But the truth is, as amazing as the coincidence might seem to me, the fact that I don’t normally notice the state of the screen when I sit down makes everything in the numbered list above, and most of this paragraph, irrelevant. I included all that as a red herring and because the building of a narrative is the way human memory works. That moment when I sat down and saw the transition, my brain constructed a narrative where the coincidence was given more significance than it warranted. So this was really a meaningless coincidence.

We all have those kinds of coincidences all the time, and if we are so inclined, we might impose meaning on them. What matters here is that the meaning, attached to coincidences that have no meaning at all, is imposed. We put it there because our brains have evolved to find patterns and that has been a survival advantage for millions of years. What that meaning might be varies… You might see a conspiracy of some sort, or it might seem that the stars are aligned just right to indicate that the decision you were unsure of should be made after all, or maybe you believe that you have seen signs from god. So a reborn Christian who says that God speaks to him isn’t necessarily out of his mind. He may be that type of person who finds patterns where none exist, and because of his faith that God will speak to him, when he finds meaning in the meaningless, the little coincidences and “anomalies” in his life amount to messages from god.

So the next time you experience a bizarre and inexplicable coincidence, think a little deeper, approach the issue with some scepticism, and maybe you will realize that it isn’t so bizarre or inexplicable after all.

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About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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8 Responses to Coincidences happen more often than you think

  1. bbnewsab says:

    Vary good advice from you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jerome says:

      Thanks. You might want to say something more specific… At first I thought your comment was spam that got through somehow… Then I saw that your blog is something that I can enjoy reading…

      Like

  2. bbnewsab says:

    Me a spammer? Must be God’s intention to make my comments seem to be spam.

    I’ll try this new comment: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150127-why-we-gamble-like-monkeys .

    I want you to read all that article. Or at least this paragraph, now quoted by me:

    The opposite superstition is to bet that a streak has to end, in the false belief that independent events of chance must somehow even out. This is known as the gambler’s fallacy, and achieved notoriety at the Casino de Monte-Carlo on 18 August 1913. The ball fell on black 26 times in a row, and as the streak lengthened gamblers lost millions betting on red, believing that the chances changed with the length of the run of blacks.

    MY QUESTION TO YOU: Do you know the odds for that to happen? Can it be 50/50? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jerome says:

      I know nothing about odds or gambling…. But I did work as a software dev at an online casino for a while… long enough to have a look at the user database and figure out that nearly all gamblers lose…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. bbnewsab says:

    Your conclusion seems to be a very good one. But I’m not surprised. You ARE a clever man! I like your blog a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jerome says:

      Actually, the reason I say that nearly all gamblers lose is a fun story in itself. It’s a story that’s irrelevant to our discussion, but interesting nonetheless.

      But I’ve never written anything about it, because it might give those who want to believe the mistaken impression that gambling can work. The truth is, not all players of online casinos are gamblers. Everyone who plays legitimately loses, or so close to everyone, you can ignore those rare people who do win.

      But, there are people who have found a way of “cheating” the online casinos legitimately, that is without breaking the rules. They take advantage of casino promotions and something called “free spins”. (My memory of this is hazy. I worked there in 2012, and used a lot of crystal meth at the time. But I remember what they did in principle.)

      Every online casino (that I know of) uses game software by Microgaming, so they are all the same. If you can beat one of them, you can beat all of them. And every casino has promotions to try to get new players. The promotions feature free spins (here is where my memory in unclear). Those promotions allow the players to play a limited number of times without putting any money in, and in those limited free spins, they can still win. There may be rules around them not being able to cash out until they put money in, but that doesn’t matter… win enough off a free spin, put in the minimum money required, and you can still cash out.

      So what they do is hit multiple casinos simultaneously (actually I’m speculating – maybe only one casino) with multiple accounts. (We were able to detect them, sometimes, by looking for similar combinations used when creating those accounts… that is similar names, addresses and so on. So it was probably done programatically.)

      So imagine this: Assuming only one casino because I don’t really know if they hit more than one at a time. Hit a casino at once with 200 accounts, and play only the free spins. If you win big on any one of those 200 accounts, put in the minimum money, and cash out. Otherwise discard the other accounts. Rinse and repeat.

      The tactic works because, contrary to the suspicions of actual gamblers, the games are never rigged. So the probability of winning if you play legitimately is negligible… play long enough and you will lose. But play the way they do, and you will almost certainly win. (Obviously the probability of winning with any one of those accounts is small, but nonzero. And there is no risk. As long as you never continue playing an account that makes zero money via the free spins, you can’t lose. So you continue creating accounts, discarding the ones that lose, until one of the accounts wins, and wins big.)

      I don’t know how they do it, but they do. I figure it is probably automated somehow, and maybe the source is even someone who works for Microgaming itself. We could see the evidence that it was happening, but we were on the wrong side to be able to do much about it. Working for a casino that allowed you to download the Microgaming software and play, our database was mostly user info… to detect that type of player would probably require work done in the casino software itself.

      So anyway, there are people out there who do that for a living. They make loads of money (a symptom of this kind of player is too many wins of a few hundred thousand dollars) by exploiting online casino promotions, and in fact, they make enough money to be able to crush startup casinos completely. I have seen it happen.


      As stated, I don’t know how they do it and I have simplified their strategy. They can’t play simultaneous accounts from a single IP address – I don’t think. So there were either people working together, or maybe they used virtual machines and some clever way of working around the IP address limitations, but they definitely do manage to make plenty money. And of course, these were not gamblers. gambling is by definition taking a risk, playing the odds. These guys take no risks – they exploit online casino systems without putting in any money, unless they have already won, in which case they put in less money (whatever the minimum needed is) to cash out their winnings.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. bbnewsab says:

    Interesting information, indeed! I often get free spins offerings but have never thought about it in the way you do. And yes, I agree, it SHOULD work the way you describe it. But the online casinos must have, I suppose, a method to recognize from where the free spin users log in and so on.

    But still there are ways to get round the casino’s control mechanisms, at least if you cooperate with other users and decide to share with the others in the “team”. what one of the many “teammates” happens to win.

    As I told you the other day, you ARE a clever man! I like your way of thinking. (And at the same time I’m so delighted you’re not a god believer. Then it doesnt matter if you make it all the way to Heaven or not… 😉

    BTW, your idea (described strategy) may, in fact, be in use in the stock market as well. There are always illiquid shares (companies), and then you can rig the share price for a special share by being active both as a seller and buyer. I’ve seen in the news here in Sweden (where I live) that now and then such rigging of the share price is discovered by the supervisors. To succeed you have to do this manipulation on a small scale. Then it’s probably very difficult to disclose. And you can’t repeat the strategy too often. So I doubt if it’s worth the risk. The stake is usually high, mostly a big fine or imprisonment. So I don’t recommend it! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jerome says:

      Yes, as stated, they do log your IP address. Where I worked, I did some work around geolocation, because users in different parts of the world had to be redirected to different versions of the site and get different offers. And the casino software itself also logs your IP.
      So those who exploited the system were either working with others, or were parts of organised syndicates, but they did make a lot of money.

      Interesting that it might work in the stock market as well. High risk though.

      And I don’t really think like that… I can never think of ways of cheating any system, but we all became aware of the users exploiting the casino… It was a mystery at first… suddenly there were an unusual number of wins – wome of them were over 200 000 Euros, in a matter of weeks. Then somebody explained what they knew from another casino.

      Like

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