28 Oct 2009 22:56
Kevin Underhill* emailed me today about the Schwarzenegger veto letter. Specifically, Kevin wondered whether “it might be possible to calculate the odds against this arrangement of letters being entirely random, as the Governor’s office has claimed.”
Kevin wasn’t the only one to wonder about the odds and contact a math professor.
Several hours after Kevin wrote me, SFweekly.com published “Odds Schwarzenegger’s ‘I F–k You’ Message Was Coincidental? About One in Two Billion, Says Math Prof.” SFweekly.com quoted Stephen Devlin, a mathematician at University of San Francisco, and Gregory McColm, a mathematician at the University of South Florida, and printed various tiny chances, including a) 1 in 10 million, b) 1 in 100 million, and c) 1 in 2 billion. These are (using rough estimates of initial-letter frequencies in English words) the chances a) that seven randomly selected lines of English text begin with f, u, c, k, y, o, and u, in that order, b) that eight randomly selected lines of English text begin with i, f, u, c, k, y, o, and u, in that order, and c) that the first letters of eight randomly selected lines of English text and two blank lines separating those lines into three groups appear in the sequence i, blank, f, u, c, k, blank, y, o, u. The chances of c) are 1 in 2.1 billion, by my calculation, but no matter—only the order of magnitude is of interest here.
Whether many visitors to SFweekly.com (well, male ones of any persuasion) read the piece is questionable. It appeared next to two photo links with more click appeal than “Blah Blah F–k Blah Blah Math Prof.”: Exotic Erotic Ball (image of exotically costumed ladies kissing) and San Franciso’s Hottest Chefs (image of boyish chef wearing five o’clock shadow and a uniform, smiling seductively).
Similar calculations appear with less distraction elsewhere.
For the record, even before making any calculations, I was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the governor meant full well to say “fuck you.” In a later blog post, however, I’ll try to explain that the unlikelihood of “fuck you” or “i fuck you” appearing in a letter isn’t in and of itself a smoking gun.
*I’ve e-known Kevin for a couple of months now, ever since I introduced myself with an unceremonious, if politely worded email to the effect of “your arithmetic is wrong.” More details here. It turns out to be a better way to meet people that you might think.
Kevin finds fortune at Shook, Hardy, and Bacon (shb.com, Alexa US traffic rank 292,302, with 132 sites linking in), and he finds fame at Lowering the Bar (www.loweringthebar.net, Alexa US traffic rank 59,588, with 145 sites linking in).