Saturday, October 31, 2009

NAUGHTY ACROSTIC IN GOVERNOR’S VETO MESSAGE: What are the odds? (A lesson in statistical analysis – I swear)

By Ashley Harrell in San FranciscoWeekly News blog

Wed., Oct. 28 2009 @ 4:59PM



In examining Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's letter to the California State Assembly in which the letters I F-U-C-K Y-O-U appear vertically down the left-hand side, it is hard to imagine that it could have happened randomly.

The letter purportedly explains Schwarzenegger's refusal to sign AB 1176 -- an ordinary piece of legislation regarding the Port of San Francisco's finances -- which happened to be sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who recently told the governator to "kiss my gay ass." Motive? Check.

In all seriousness, we wondered what the chances were that the letters "I FUCK YOU" ended up on the page via sheer coincidence. So we called a few math professors.

Stephen Devlin, the chair of the math department at the University of San Francisco, got excited about the challenge. The first thing he had to do was estimate how frequently the letters in question generally appear at the beginning of words.

"I was very friendly to our governor, here," Devlin said. He assumed that F, U, C, K, Y, O, and U start words about 10 percent of the time, when really some of them probably only appear at the beginning 2 or 3 percent of the time.   

Next, Devlin calculated the chances that each of those letters would appear in order at the beginning of seven lines of the same missive by raising 10 percent to the seventh power. That comes out to one in 10 million. (Devin felt that starting a letter with I was very common, so didn't factor it into his calculations. If he had, the chance of a random I FUCK YOU would have been one in 100 million).

"Not surprisingly, it's virtually impossible for this to happen," Devlin said.

He didn't think it was necessary to consider the well-placed blank lines in-between the I and FUCK and the FUCK and YOU. We, however, thought that called for more calculations.

Gregory McColm, associate professor of mathematics at the University of South Florida, was willing to go there. "Oh good heavens," he said, upon viewing the letter in question. Then he mentioned something about Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold-Bug" and the frequency of letters, and eventually came up with same initial calculations as Devlin.

McColm, however, opted to include the "I" and go with one in 100 million. Then he did some fast figuring using something called "combinatorics" to account for the fact that the blank lines showed up in the right places to space out I FUCK YOU. McColm's ballpark figure of all this randomly occurring came out to one in 2 billion.

So you're saying there's a chance?

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