Unlikely things happen all the time
Yesterday I received an unexpected media query from Jen Doll, a journalist at New York Magazine, reporting on the story where Frank Bruni found Courtney Love’s iPhone in a taxi. She was musing about the statistical likelihood of an event like that, and somehow found this twitter thread where I had calculated the probability of getting the same cab driver twice. She wanted to know how I arrived at my figures and whether I had any additional insight on the question.
So of course I wrote her back a whole essay, and today there’s this article. Her editors had cut it way down, because journalism. But I had put all this work into it, so I thought I’d post it here.
The text of my reply is below.
According to Wikipedia, there are 13,237 taxi medallions in the city. I also found estimates for the number of drivers at 40,000 or so. I think that only includes yellow cab drivers. So the answer changes depending on whether you want to know the probability of getting in the same taxi or getting the same driver.
The algorithm I used is analogous to the Birthday problem. The question there is, given 365 days in a year, and there are 23 people in a room, each of which has one birthday, what is the probability that 2 of them have the same birthday? The analogous question with taxis is, given 40,000 drivers (or 13,237 taxis), and 250 rides, each of which is with one driver (or taxi), what is the probability that 2 rides are with the same driver (or taxi).
In general, if you have buckets and things, and each thing is equally likely to go into any bucket, the probability that some bucket has at more than one thing in it is
You can apply this to taxi rides assuming that you’re equally likely to encounter any given driver or taxi, which is probably not true in reality. Some drivers probably have “beats” that they usually drive around, some drivers work more hours than others, some cars break down and are not in circulation all the time, etc. All of these exceptions serve to increase the probability of getting the same driver or taxi twice, so the formula gives a lower bound on the true probability.
Here are some specific values for the formula, relevant to the question:
So if you’ve taken 246 taxi rides, it’s more than 90% likely that you’ve been in the same taxi twice.
As far as the probability of getting in a cab that Courtney Love just got out of, you’d have to know how often Courtney Love rides taxis. Guessing that it’s maybe something like 2 rides per day, and that there are about 456,000 taxi rides per day in the city, the probability that your ride (or Frank Bruni’s ride) is the one right after hers on a given day is 2 in 456,000, or 0.00044%.
But don’t let that obscure the fact that unlikely things happen every day! There are so many unlikely things that could happen, and so many days that they could happen on, that some of them are bound to happen eventually. Looking at it another way, the probability that you were dealt a particular hand of 5 cards is 1 in 2,598,960. But that doesn’t make the fact that you were dealt that hand impossible or surprising in some way. After all, you have to be dealt some hand of 5 cards, and someone has to get into the cab after Courtney Love.
It would be equally surprising if Kim Kardashian got into a cab and found Jimmy Fallon’s FitBit, or any other combination of celebrities you could imagine finding each other’s lost items in taxis, or bumping into each other in odd ways.
This is the heart of the Birthday paradox: it seems surprising that if you have 23 people in a room, the probability that 2 of them share a birthday is 50%. But there are so many ways that 2 of 23 people can share a birthday — any of the 253 pairs of people can share any of 365 birthdays — and that counterbalances the low probability of 2 particular people sharing a particular birthday.
Having said that, there are two people who work with me at Foursquare who share the unlikely birthday of Feb. 29th. I don’t know how to explain that!
Here’s the Scala one-liner I used to do the calculation:
The one thing I was trying to get across (and probably failed at) is that there’s a difference between
“What is the probability of something like this happening?”
“What is the probability of this particular thing happening?”
It’s natural to ask the second question, because that’s what’s visible — we can ask about the things that did happen, but don’t think to ask about the myriad things that didn’t. You could ask what the probability that Frank Bruni gets into the cab after Courtney Love, but we’d be having the same conversation if it were any other pair of celebrities.
Anyway, there’s not much more to it, just thought I’d share!
One question though: what’s the probability of being quoted in the same article as Courtney Love?
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