Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Funny Story Ruined by Mathematicians

I use the word funny in the loosest possible sense of the word. It's not really funny at all, but I have spent most of the day thinking about it so it's only fair that you too should share in the wonder. It is not about birds at all, if any of you nerdy types want to quit while you're marginally ahead. This is a good thing of course. I am well aware that for a supposedly birdy blog, I stray very frequently, and very often, but were it to be only about birds, it would be very short, very turgid, and often very blank. I have an extremely active mind, especially now that I am back at work and daydreaming is firmly back on the agenda, and so you should expect more of these tangential musings.

So, this all started yesterday. No, I'm wrong, it was Tuesday, though that makes no difference at all to the story. I was sitting at my desk in Canary Wharf thinking about smartphones. I have been resisting smart phones for an extremely long time. I don't need a smartphone, and am perfectly happy with my normal phone, whose capabilities are far beyond anything I could comprehend. I use it for speaking to people, for sending bird-related text messages to people, and for splurging nonsense on Twitter to 250 poor misguided souls. I have also loaded up the songs and calls of all European species of bird, and those of you that actually know me will know that when it rings it is a Corncrake, which has led, in certain situations, to mild panic from birders that don't know me. Having all these on the phone is extremely useful in the field, for reminding oneself of unfamiliar calls, a la Crossbill over my garden the other day, or for those "ooooh, was that a......?" moments that we all have from time to time, and of course for attempting to persuade recalcitrant birds to reveal themselves from time to time, which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't. I am too primitive to even have voicemail. But I digress. I don't need a smartphone, but the guy who sits opposite me just got himself a shiny new iPhone 4S, the latest model. This got me thinking about smartphones, and before I knew it I was on the line to Vodafone inquiring when my contract was up for renewal.

Three weeks.

Bored yet? I'm not. I decided that were I to get a smartphone in three weeks, then it would be rather useful to have email on it. I seem to have collected quite a few email addresses over the years, one for this, one for that, but apart from the home one, none of them are actually my name though. Though I know nothing about smartphones, I felt that their email functionality might work best with a web-based gmail account. So rather than wansteadbirder, wansteadbirding etc, yesterday I decided that my actual name at was the way to go, so I tried to set it up. I filled in all the boxes, and then it told me that the address I wanted was taken. Eh? I tried it again. No, sorry, taken. Oh. Had I perhaps created it some time ago and then forgotten about it? So I tried to log into it. I tried every password I have ever used, all the silly little variations, and nothing worked. OK, not to worry, this happens very frequently. With every website ever wanting a username and password, there is no possible way for any normal human being to be able to remember them all, so the "forgotten your password?" link that appears on most websites is very often my only recourse. I clicked on it, and it had two secure retrieval options. One was to send the password to an alternative email address, the other was to send it via text message. To help you with that they provided clues, revealing a small portion of the address and number. Hey presto, the last two digits of the phone number were mine! Account retrieval seconds away, I eagerly tapped my number in and hit send. Not recognised. I tried it with +44. I tried it without the zero. I tried it with brackets around the zero. I tried it with more zeros. Then it froze, saying I had tried too many times. Surely this is my email account? I mean, with the last two digits of my phone number, it has to be my account? Am I the victim of identity fraud here? The probability of there being another Jonathan Lethbridge somewhere with a ten digit phone number with the final two digits the same as mine - infinitessimally small.

But remember that post a few days ago where I noted that there were now seven billion people on the planet? I wonder.... I banged off a quick email. It read thus: "Is this my email, or is there another J Lethbridge?" Then I went to bed, which is critical to the story.

In the morning there was a reply. Remember, I was asleep, so it wasn't from me. Like I said, critical. I have to say it is rather strange having an email in my inbox that is from me but isn't from me. Turns out that Jonathan Lethbridge, who has my email address - well, his email address, lives in Montreal in Canada, though was born here in the UK. He pointed me in the direction of some kind of geneaology website, whereby I learned that there are Lethbridges everywhere. This isn't a huge surprise. In fact, when I was on Scilly for some reason or other a couple of weeks ago I noticed that Carreg Dhu Gardens, of tame Song Thrush fame, is maintained by a Mary Lethbridge. This website seemed to indicate that the hub of Lethbridgedom is the south-west, particularly south Devon. I know virtually nothing about my ancestry, but I do know that my Grandfather was from Devon, and drove a train from Exeter to London (regularly, not just once). That's about all I can tell you, though I have been to Devon. Mainly I drive through it to get to Cornwall (and beyond....), but a King Eider at Appledore once provided a spurious reason for a family weekend break, and I did twitch an American Robin at Exminster as recently as last year. Anyway, ancestry is for old people; not surprisingly my Dad told me at Christmas he was thinking of researching the family tree and creating some kind of archive. Good for him - I'll revive it in thirty years time. Er where was I? Oh yes, Canadian Jonathan Lethbridge. By return of email I quizzed him about his phone number. It does indeed end in the same two digits as mine. Sweet Baby Moses, it is just too bizarre to even contemplate.

This, you will be relieved to hear, is where this particular story ends. But there is a postscript. For the purposes of blog accuracy I asked a mathmo geek I know to compute the answer for me. I was expecting it to be about a zillion zillion to one, or something with about forty-five decimal places. This mathmo geek was in the pub with five other mathmo geeks, so I had immense brain power at my disposal for this colossal sum. Their answer? 100/1. No, really. Talk about pissing on a parade. Get this - probablility of there being a person in Canada with my exact name? Very close to one, ie a dead cert. Canada being a developed nation, the probablity of that person owning a mobile phone in the year 2011 AD - again, almost certain. So the probability of that ten digit number having the final two numbers the same as mine? One in a hundred. This proves beyond any doubt that mathematicians only exist in order to suck all joy out of the world. And that's the real point of this story.


  1. Damn that mathmo geek and his mathmo, physicist and compsci friends! They just had to rain on your parade.

  2. Do it! Get one! they're great! never look back!

  3. Can you ask them what the chances are of you being able to receive emails from me if you do get a new email address?

  4. Got bored after the first paragraph

  5. I am still of the opinion that 1/100 is just the [i]wrong[/i] answer. If you did it the other way round - what are the chances of a person having the same last two digits of my phone number, fair enough, 1/100. What are the chances of that person also having my exact name? A dead cert? You see? Nonsense. It's totally amazing. Mathematicians would do well to put numbers aside once in a while and appreciate the real world.

  6. The previous comment above is asking a different question though, so it has a different answer. ie GIVEN a random person in canada, what's the prob that they have your name and last two digits... That is indeed less likely.

    But while that would help you answer how many such unfortunates there statistically ought to be in the country, it doesn't give you the probability of at least one such existing (which is what you asked!)

    A. M. Geek

  7. I had the same thought as you (or is that a different JL? this tale raises all sorts of questions), but then I remembered that probabilities and statistics have always defeated me, so I will accept the answer from the math geeks.

    However, for me the funniness of the story was not ruined, because the best part was when you sent an email quite possibly to yourself but not totally sure of it.

  8. Fantastic post! Relatively on-topic question: where did you come by digital files of every bird call in Europe? I'm currently stuck with the British Library's collection of about 175 birds.

  9. Jean Roche & Hannu Jannes is all you need. On CD.