Tag Archive: Las Vegas

The Man in the Arena

(Submitted by Skepticality listener, Skeptic Society blogger and Junior Skeptic Editor, friend of the blog Daniel Loxton)

I spent much of last summer preparing my speech for The Amazing Meeting 2014, a large skeptics conference in Las Vegas. It was totally nerve-wracking. I’m shy. I get stage fright. I’d never given a solo talk of that length in front of such an enormous crowd—1200 people! Many of my intellectual heroes would be in the audience. And, I was planning a very emotional talk about beauty and joy and meaning.

So I spent five weeks writing and obsessively polishing that talk, titled “A Rare and Beautiful Thing.” Its themes were built on discussion of skeptics of previous generations, including magician Harry Houdini. I said this:

When Rinn’s old friend Houdini finally did get into the fight, he arrived as a mighty champion. He brought skill and knowledge, and wealth and fame. Houdini studied and investigated and wrote books, and gave demonstrations.

He went to Congress to fight for tougher laws against fraudulent fortunetellers, at least in the nation’s capital. He fought with passion, and gravity of purpose.

And he lost.

There is a strange and heartbreaking beauty in that.

As I worked to cram two thousand years of scientific skepticism into half an hour, I was forced to make cuts. One of the last things I cut, very reluctantly, was this abbreviated quote from Theodore Roosevelt, which had accompanied the Houdini passage:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…but who does actually strive to do the deeds…and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

When I delivered the talk, the vast hall was silent. I had no clue whether the crowd was coming along with me. Then, as I finished the speech and stumbled off the stage in relief, I discovered that they had. Dozens of people rushed to talk to me. It was among the most amazing moments of my life.

One of those people was ‎a woman named Anna Maltese, who held a piece of paper in her hand. She wanted me to know that the talk had inspired her to share a favorite passage by her favorite American President. She felt sure I’d like it, so she had written it down for me. I looked at the paper. It said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust…”

I was stunned. It was the final surreal touch to an unforgettable day.

Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 255.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society.

The quote is not obscure, but it is not exactly “Four score and seven years ago,” either. It is seen rarely enough to make this feel like a crazy coincidence. And perhaps it was an unlikely event, but there are a few factors which increase the odds quite a bit.

The first thing that we must always consider is that the commonalities we know about (e.g., the Amazing Meeting) are usually related to things we might not have considered–something called confounding variables. Anna’s attendance at the event was not random. The subject matter that brought speaker and audience member together is somewhat academic in nature and those interested in it tend, on average, to be more educated than average. The odds that someone in the audience would be familiar with such a quote are higher than the odds that any random person would. Even the odds that an audience member would count that quote among their favorites are higher.

But I think that the most credit for this incident must go to the simple fact Daniel’s speech communicated his message so clearly that the quote he wanted to use to illustrate it was brought to the mind of an audience member who was intimately familiar with it. That’s a brilliantly crafted and delivered speech.

(Please click here to watch Daniel Loxton’s address at The Amazing Meeting 2014.)

A Tale of a First TAMmer

(Submitted by reader Jim Preston)

I went to my first ever The Amazing Meeting this year, held at the Southpoint Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It was not only my first TAM, it was my first skeptical meeting of any kind. When I arrived, I went to the front desk to check in. I asked if I could have a particularly quiet room, away from the ice machine and the elevator. That was the only input that I had into which room I would get. When the desk clerk told me my room number I was amazed that the four digits were the year I was born.

So what are the odds that I’d be given a room whose number is the year I was born? According to their website, the Southpoint has 2163 rooms. So the simple odds are one out of 2163. Now, if I was someone who travelled a lot and stayed in hotels with at least 19 floors a lot, I’d say that this was bound to happen sooner or later. But I almost never stay in a large hotel. I’ve probably stayed in a 19+ floor hotel less than a dozen times in my life. So the odds that one of those times I would get my birth year room is more like 12 out of whatever the average number of rooms in those dozen hotels is, probably something in the one to two thousand range. Still rather long odds.

What I find most interesting about this is how much, even though I was a good skeptic and I knew it was just a coincidence, I found myself wanting to believe that there was some kind of significance in getting my birth year as my room number at my first ever skeptical meeting.

But maybe it was just an opportunity to apply my skepticism. But see, I said “opportunity”; I’m still phrasing it in terms of some kind of meaning.

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 212.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own sarcastic and hilarious commentary.

The author of this story did an excellent analysis himself. Even if we only consider the question of the odds of getting a single, specific room number on this specific occasion, at one in 2163, it’s much, much greater than winning the jackpot on any of the slot machines.

But the one thing that is most important to keep in mind is that it’s post-hoc thinking to even consider these odds. What if the room number wasn’t the year of his birth, but the last four digits of his SSN or phone number? Or his street address at home? Our lives are filled with numbers that hold significance for us. The odds of getting a room number that matches some other number of significance are actually quite high–much higher than if we chose one beforehand and tried to predict the incident.


(Submitted by reader Bob LeDrew)

When I was a kid, I was at home one evening and the phone rang. I picked it up and said, “hello?”

“Hi! Is that Bob?”
“Put your mother on the phone.”
“Can I tell her who’s calling?”
“Oh come on, Bob, stop messing around and put Evelyn on the phone.”

My mom’s name IS Evelyn. But I didn’t know the voice, and started to get a little creeped out by the presumption. We went back and forth, each of us getting irritated.

“Are you sure you’ve dialed the right number?”
“Is this 736-xxxx?”
“Then put Evelyn on!”

I was flummoxed. This person wouldn’t say who they were. I didn’t recognize their voice. But they knew my name, my mother’s name, and had the right phone number?!

Somewhere in my brain, something made me ask “What area code did you dial?”


We were in 902, the area code, for Nova Scotia, Canada. 702 is Las Vegas.

I explained this to the person on the other end of the line. She hung up, and I ran to tell my parents that somewhere in Nevada, there was someone with our phone number named Evelyn who had a son named Bob. CRAZY!

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 186. Take a look and leave your comments below.
I love it when I get to add to the craziness. I had this same conversation when I was a teenager, almost verbatim. My parents’ names are Bob and Carol (Yes, like “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice”) and my voice was very similar to my mother’s and people often mistook me for her. The caller asked for “Bob” and when I asked who they were they realized that I was not my mother and asked for “Carol”. I became suspicious and questioned them further; it turned out that they had dialed a wrong number and reached the wrong Bob and Carol. We had a good laugh and ended the call.
A year or two later, the same gentleman called and started with the usual small talk. I answered with the usual small talk answers, all the while trying to place the voice. At some point he realized that I was not Carol and asked my name, so I answered by asking his and we eventually realized what had happened. This kind of thing actually happened to my father a lot more than you might think. I recall a time when my father received some rather distressing phone calls and letters regarding the unpaid taxes of someone with his name who lived in our neighborhood!
So, let’s start with the not-so-unusual: I am not surprised at all that there is a common name in the submitted story and my own, since “Bob” is so common that it is used like “Joe” to imply a typical man. According to babycenter.com, “Robert” was the #1 name for baby boys for decades, was among the top 10 until 1990, and has not left the top 100 in more than a century. But let’s look at the probabilities within the original story itself.
The odds of two households having a mother and son with identical names and phone numbers which differ by a single digit depend on the commonality of the names and available phone numbers. With just a little bit more information, namely the year in which this occurred, and a LOT of research and computation, we could estimate this fairly accurately. Without that information, we can still make a few assumptions and cut a few corners to determine if the odds are indeed as crazy as they seem. Keep in mind that as I write this I do not know the identity of the story’s author and I will limit the source of some estimates to information about the U.S. for practical reasons, even though part of the story involves Canada (which complicates matters, but should not affect the outcome tremendously).
First we’ve established that “Bob” is extremely common, regardless of the ages of the mother and son. “Evelyn” has not been in the top 10 since 1915, but it was in the top 100 until 1953, then dropped in popularity somewhat until 2008, when it returned to the top 100.
If we assume the mother in this story was born when her names were rather popular, but recent enough for this to happen after area codes were in use, I will guess that this occurred in the 1980s. If 3 in 1000 (averaging and rounding) of the women in this age group are named Evelyn and 25 in 1000 boys 8-18 years old were named Robert, then the probability of a mother and son having the names Bob and Evelyn as opposed to any other configuration are approximately 15:100,000 or 3 in 40,000. Not extraordinarily low given that, according to infoplease.com, there were more than 62 million family households in the U.S. in 1985, so more than 4600 of them probably had mother/son combinations who answered to Bob and Evelyn. Less than 10% of households in 1985 did not have phones, so let’s say that there were 4200 Bob/Evelyns who could receive the call.
Where this gets much trickier is in estimating the probabilities related to the phone numbers. There were limits to the possible phone numbers at the time, making a calculation of the probability that two mother/son combinations named “Bob and Evelyn” would have numbers one digit apart a lot more work than I am willing to do for fun. However, we can get close to this by estimating the probability that someone would reach such a couple by dialing a 10-digit number incorrectly. In this case, what is more relevant than those limitations is the number of active phone lines. Tradingeconomics.com estimates the number of fixed and mobile telephone lines in the U.S. in 1985 at over 116 million. With 4200 of those including a Bob/Evelyn, that’s more than 1 in 25,000.
If you only dial one number incorrectly, the number of ways to dial 10 digits incorrectly is 100, but depending on which number you dialed incorrectly, the odds of reaching a person are actually small given that fewer than 1 in 50 of the possible combinations of 10 digits was in use at the time.
So, let’s assume (again, conservatively), that 2 of the numbers you could dial incorrectly would reached an actual phone. The odds, then, of reaching one of the 4200 Bob/Evelyns by dialing a single number incorrectly are about 7 in one million.

A Discovery of Friends

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Derek Colanduno)

So, I used to live in Las Vegas when I was a kid. My best friend Tony’s father was a test pilot for the Air Force out of Nellis Air Force Base.

One day, when I was at his house, some important military people showed up at his door to tell the family that his father had died while testing a new fighter jet. Tony later became the lead pilot for the Thunderbirds air squadron.

Fast forward to my life now; I have been good friends with astronomer Phil Plait since about 2005. Phil was able to get a pilot TV Show run on the Discovery Network for his program, “Bad Universe”. I was watching the second episode and in part of the episode Phil went to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas to be in the passenger seat of a fighter jet to show the effects of G-force on the human body. The video cuts to Phil standing near the fighter jet and I get to see a pilot coming out to greet him on the tarmac.

Across the bottom of the screen, “Tony Mulhare”. So, here is one of my newest good friends getting to meet my oldest friend on national television no less.

And, to make it ‘funny’ it centered around Las Vegas, of all places!

[EDITOR: In case you never saw it, Bad Universe was a killer show with a short run. Think Mythbusters, with an astronomy theme and constant use of the phrase, “Holy Haleakala!”]

Trucks Just Want to Have Fun

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Paula Lauterbach)

I have had my truck for about 4 years.  Sometimes I have needed to add water to the radiator, but the interior temp gauge never rose above the halfway mark.

In mid July 2011, I drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (Remember…JULY) to attend a conference of atheists, skeptics, free thinkers and the like.  I brought water in case something happened because of the heat, but I had no problems.

Then yesterday (July 24), I drove a much shorter distance to Orange County to see a friend speak at a Christian Church and answer questions about what it means to be a non-believer.  Very nice talk.

Within five minutes of leaving the venue, my “check gauges” light buzzed loudly and my temp gauge was all the way over to the red right area.  I pulled over ASAP and used all the water I had for Vegas.  It made it to the restaurant I was going to next (and then a gas station for more).

Now my truck seems ok.  But I thought it was funny it was all fine and dandy traveling to Vegas to be near heathens and then had an issue after visiting a church!

[EDITOR: If this doesn’t sound like perfect confirmation bias to reinforce my preference of Vegas over church, I don’t know what does.]

Chance Meeting in Vegas

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Brian Hart)

How are odds calculated in Vegas?  The only thing I know for sure is that the house will always eventually win.

My wife, Karen, and I stayed in Las Vegas over the Thanksgiving weekend at the Encore Hotel.  As we waited for the elevator in the lobby, which only served half the rooms at the Encore, we ran into 2 friends we know from Los Angeles.  Neither of us had any idea the other was in Las Vegas, let alone which hotel.  Both of us couples were staying at the Encore!  What are the odds of us meeting randomly in this elevator lobby?

Nineteen of the world’s 25 largest hotels by room count are on the Strip, with a total of over 67,000 rooms [source]
Total Number of hotel rooms in Las Vegas: 124,270 [source]
Total number of rooms at the Encore: 2034 [source]

Sounds like The Odds Must Be Crazy…

There is a Theme Here

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Brian Hart)

We were driving home from my wife, Karen winning a best-song contest one evening, and her cell phone rang.  The caller ID said: Gary Stockdale.

I practically slammed the car to a stop.  “Take it!”,  I screamed.  I immediately recognized the name.

Gary Stockdale:  The guy who wrote the themes for Penn & Teller: Bullshit and “The Aristocrats” and DJ Grothe’s Podcast “For Good Reason“.

He got Karen’s name from a friend.  “Can she be in Las Vegas on July 9 to sing backup for one of Gary’s songs? ” Then he says,  “Oh, and by the way, I hope you are a free-thinker, the song is about Atheism”.

Karen was needed to perform for the James Randi Fund Raiser Dinner at TAM8, which we were already attending!

What are the odds?

So here’s the story.  Around the turn of the century, my great grandfather, Oscar Adams homesteaded a ranch in Northern New Mexico, about 24 miles north of Las Vegas, NM. His daughter Nina, and husband, Charlie Middleton ran it as a guest ranch (Evergreen Valley Ranch) for about 50 years, until about 20 years ago, when my great uncle Charlie sold it to a group of families, shortly before he passed away. Even though the ranch is no longer in the family, my mother has kept in close contact with those now in ownership, and we visit regularly.

This August, my mother and I visited the ranch, and while there, met the great granddaughter of the man who homesteaded the ranch next door to Evergreen Valley Ranch – Terrill Ranch; the ranch through whose meadow we have crossed for over 40 years, to go on our favorite hikes in the area. I was amazed to discover that she (Alex) works with me at RAND, in our Santa Monica office. We had never met, but work with some of the same people. More amazing still is the fact that we were both visiting our respective ranches the same week, and had opportunity to meet each other! Her fiance, Michael who also works at RAND was with her, in NM.

Less than a week after this amazingly coincidental meeting, my boyfriend Paul and I were at the Hollywood Bowl to hear Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony; one of two concerts we got tickets for this season.  As we were eating, he looked up, and lo and behold, who was passing in front of us, but Alex & Michael.  Of all the people there and all the timing of looking up, the odds must be crazy that we would run into them there; on a Tuesday night – with Shostakovich!!  The other tidbit, I discovered when I ran into Alex the next day at work (really, how many times have we unknowingly crossed paths??) – that her fiance is a violinist, and Paul is a cellist.  🙂  So there you have it. The Odds Must Be Crazy!