Remo Williams: What does it mean?
October 31, 2005 8:09 PM   Subscribe

A few years ago I got a yen to rent "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins". It was the middle of the day and the middle of the week, and the Blockbuster was empty. I was at the cash paying for the movie when someone else walked in and asked the cashier: "Do you guys have Remo Williams?" What are the chances of such a coincidence happening?

How many times a week is Remo Williams rented in a week in Quebec (8 million people)? In the Montreal Metropolitan area (2-3 million)? In a predominantly French area (about 28,000 English speaking anywhere near the store in particlular).

Now, take it down to a particular store where two people, within a few minutes of each other, take action to rent a minor cult classic. And this is not a case of someone looking for anything that might catch their fancy. At the exact moment I was renting a movie I specifically wanted to rent, someone else came in and expressly asked for the same movie not a second after I left the store, or before I got to the cash, but within the 2-3 minute window where I would be aware of the question.

What are the chances of this happening?

Or is it more than coincidence?

Is there any meaning (no matter how ridiculous the question might sound) to the event?

Or was it just an event of no meaning but a hugely improbable coincidence?
posted by notcostello to Religion & Philosophy (37 answers total)
 
Coincidences happen all the time. Why not ask the video store staff how many times / how often that particular movie is rented? They (presumably) have a computer database that tracks such things.
posted by banished at 8:16 PM on October 31, 2005


You might use the Poisson distribution to model probabilities for this event, e.g., two people renting the video within one measureable time period.

This situation you describe seems to meet the requirements of independence and so forth required for Poisson modeling, unless French Canadians have a cultural bias towards watching Remo Williams.

For example, you'd find some way to estimate the mean number of Remo Williams rentals per hour in Montreal, QB (perhaps by calling up a representative sample of video rental stores to estimate this mean). This would be your lambda (λ).

You'd use this mean to calculate the probability that two people (x=2) would rent Remo Williams within the same hour, plugging in the corresponding values into the Poisson probability mass function.
posted by Rothko at 8:29 PM on October 31, 2005


I wonder, when I hear stories like this one, if Remo Williams was recently mentioned on a Quebecois television program, or if a similar movie was recently released, or maybe one of the actors had a new movie out, or, y'know, died or something.
posted by box at 8:31 PM on October 31, 2005


It's more likely than you think.

In this scenario, you started with a particular movie and a time frame, by picking it and being there. Now in that time frame, at least one customer was probably going to come in and request a movie. What are the odds that movie was "Remo Williams"? That is the odds of this happening, this particular time.

Plus there's the whole self-selection thing with coincidences.
posted by smackfu at 8:34 PM on October 31, 2005


I dont know what your "yen" was about but factor into this that seemingly independent events are not independent at all, thus increasing the chance of collision. Perhaps you had both seen some tv show where someone was watching Remo williams in the background?

Another example: A friend lends me an obscure book which she urges me to read. I take this book to the beach and discover to my amazement that the person next to me is reading the same book! Conversation ensues. He is reading the book because it was a "blast from the past" pick from a well-known book group. Later, talking to my friend, it turns out she got it from the same place. The coincidence is less mysterious.
posted by vacapinta at 8:38 PM on October 31, 2005


For example, you'd find some way to estimate the mean number of Remo Williams rentals per hour in Montreal, QB (perhaps by calling up a representative sample of video rental stores to estimate this mean)

With (theoretical) unlimited access to Remo Williams rental databases the first thing is to establish the reliability of the distribution. That is, if there is a noticeable "spike" around the time of your rental that might indicate an external factor.

finally, all you will get is the probability that any two people rented Remo Williams at the same time. Not the probability that one of those people was you. The difference is not just semantics but may lead you into more of a Bayesian analysis.
posted by vacapinta at 9:02 PM on October 31, 2005


in a world of 6 billion people, each having a different experience every minute, one hundred crazily (one in a million) improbable events happen every second. you just had your second of improbability.

yes, that's pseudo-scientific bullshit, but it is so for exactly the same reasons that make any more reasonable attempt to assess the "significance" of such things equally worthless. to apply statistics you need to define your terms before the case. after all, what is the probability that someone who can't sleep because they guzzled chocolate just before bedtime is sitting awake in santiago, wearing only a blue checked dressing gown, sitting next to a painting of a red star and answering stupid questions on askmefi? pretty damn small, i would say...
posted by andrew cooke at 9:08 PM on October 31, 2005


It's an illusion. Coincidence seems so improbable, yet it is virtually inevitable. Imagine there are a thousand possibilities for an obvious coincidence happening to you every day--you might meet someone with the same name, or someone you know from another city, or someone wearing exactly the same clothes, and so on. You just don't know which one of the thousand will occur. When it happens, you ignore all the other possibilities, and only ask what the odds are for someone renting the same unlikely video.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:14 PM on October 31, 2005


I think the question should be "what are the odds of two people renting a film of with an equivalent level of popularity?"

Because if the same thing had happened with, say, "The Toxic Avenger" you probably would have been just as surprised (and posted a similar question to Ask MeFi).
posted by justkevin at 9:15 PM on October 31, 2005


Thank you Rothko. I will definitively work on the calculation. I had done a quick Google to see if I could get rental statistics, but found none. I will ask the store.

I had thought about the inspiration & the commonality that it might have engendered in the request. I have pondered this question for years. There was nothing I conciously remember. In fact, I had been thinking of renting it for some time as I remembered it fondly from when I first saw it (I was disappointed). So when I did go to rent it, there was no acute event as a catalyst.

There is a rather large cultural split between Anglophones & Francophones. The guy who asked was English anyways.

It would have struck me as weird even if it had been whatever the top movie of the day was. If it was The Sting, or GWTW or Duck Soup, it still would have been strange.

But Remo Williams? A minor cult classic that is more famous for the bravado of its title than anything else.

I understand all the factors that could have led us both into the store at the same time, like a blurb on the radio about Jennifer Grey that makes you think about Joel Grey that reminds you of that movie you liked where he played that asian guru teaching a cop.

It still remains uncanny to me.
posted by notcostello at 9:22 PM on October 31, 2005


here's another approach. our sense of what is usual and unusual has been tuned through evolution. there must be a balance: get surprised too often and you run away from everything; get surprised by nothing and the tiger that jumped out in front of you has an easy snack.

so it wouldn't be that strange if our level of amazement at random coincidendences was tuned so that once every few years, or maybe a lifetime, something happens that really disturbs us.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:28 PM on October 31, 2005


in a world of 6 billion people, each having a different experience every minute, one hundred crazily (one in a million) improbable events happen every second. you just had your second of improbability.

This is largely true, but I often can't understand why some people seem bent on painting extraordinary events as ordinary. I suspect it's because they really, really don't want to see anybody take anything away from remarkable events like faith in something supernatural, but honestly, even if it doesn't mean that God Wants You To Follow The Way of Remo(TM), it can still be pretty darn cool.

So my take: it means is that extraordinary and extraordinarily improbable events happen, regardless of whether or not you believe it's because of quintigillions of dice throws, or synchronicity, or the will of heaven.

And if it does mean something to you, something that makes any kind of actual sense, by golly, take a good look at it. Whether it's a meaning you constructed from the experience or a revelation from a benevolent mystic entity, meaning's good stuff.

And if nothing else, maybe all of this was meant to lead you to the Poisson distribution. Which is pretty cool. The Laws of Probability want you to believe in them. :)
posted by weston at 9:28 PM on October 31, 2005


Never mind the probability, I always find these kinds of coincidences (and they do seem to happen more often than you think) worth exploring. They're like the world winking at you. They're the kinds of things you notice when you're paying attention--I like to think that they mean you're being mindful and attuned to what's going on around you. They're worth persuing & following up on. Perhaps they're tiny windows of opportunity. Did you talk to the person who was also asking for the movie? That's how you can begin to unwrap the "meaning" of that moment.
posted by muckster at 10:12 PM on October 31, 2005


The "6 billion" statement argues that no matter how improbable coincidental events are, they are never ever more than coincidence, with any Poisson distribution simply being a statistical artifice.

Please beleive that I am an intensely rational person. While a part of me is intrigued with the idea of how quantum mechanics or the 11 dimensions postulated by string theory is related to the interaction of large objects (in whatever simplistic laymen interpretation I have formulated), I would be as interested and intrigued if I could piece together the subliminal & subconcious factors that led to the coincidence.

In terms of meaning, my wife's maiden name is Williams. I have always been attracted to the type of character that Remo was (or will be when the adventure continues). As I think back, I was probably out of work at the time and was probalby increasingly drawn to the story line of the grizzled veteran doing yeomans work forgotten in the trenches yet able to be reborn because of the faith of others and the innate ability of the individual (if you watch, it will happen to you).

There are reasons why I was there, but why at the exact same moment as this other person?

If there is no why in the larger sense, there is a why based on why we got there at the same time, no matter how mundane all the interlocking pieces were.

I could kick myself for not asking the guy for his motivation. But what would it have meant had he echoed my impetus for being there? Does it simply become a textbook definition of coincidence if we were there at exactly the same time for exactly the same reasons?

And if we were both in a rut or low ebb, where do you stop in how far back you go to account for all the flaps of the butterfly's wings to explain the chaos that led to this event. And does being able to explain every flap obviate the larger picture or is it possible that we are focusing on the trees but not the forest?

What would be the verdict if the guy is reading these posts right now and answers back "Hey, that was me"?

Is there never anything more to it when the wheel of two peoples lives interact with each other in such an uncanny manner?

And would anybody not think twice if the same time happened to them? This what not the kind of thing that one does not notice most of the time but does when one is attuned to their surroundings. This event occured in a way so that I had to notice.

I have always been intrigued by this instance, and the legacy for me has been an awawkening to the possibility that there are perhaps things that happen which cannot always be easily or rationaly explained, even if this was not one of them.
posted by notcostello at 11:45 PM on October 31, 2005


I often can't understand why some people seem bent on painting extraordinary events as ordinary

i can't understand why people take an honest attempt at explaining what happened at paint it as a personal crusade with ulterior motives. i suspect it's because they really, really don't want to see that something which makes them feel warm and fuzzy because they are somehow "special" is, in fact, quite ordinary. it's amazing what people will do to stay self-deluded if it helps them feel self-important.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:16 AM on November 1, 2005


you'd find some way to estimate the mean number of Remo Williams rentals per hour in Montreal

0. Which is not meant to be a reflection on a terrific answer. I'm just saying I'd be thrown by that as well. In fact, I might think there were government agents watching my every move.
posted by yerfatma at 4:19 AM on November 1, 2005


Remo Williams? It doesn't mean anything.

If the movie in question happened to be Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension, however, I'd be real worried, and would be contacting my local chapter of the Blue Blaze Irregulars ASAP. Also, I'd go home and make sure I had clean underpants to wear, a properly packed, stored and maintained parachute and a shotgun with an assortment of shells. Including flares and sabots.
posted by loquacious at 5:35 AM on November 1, 2005


0. Which is not meant to be a reflection on a terrific answer. I'm just saying I'd be thrown by that as well. In fact, I might think there were government agents watching my every move.
posted by yerfatma at 4:19 AM PST on November 1 [!]


Well, the mean of Remo Williams rentals per hour in Montreal would probably (hopefully) be very, very low, but still non-zero.

A problem with applying Poisson modeling here is that, if this is a cult film, rentals of said cult film are not purely random events in the way that radioactive decay is a random event.

Actually that raises an interesting point: Within a population, is renting any particular video a purely random decision?

Clearly certain videos get rented more than others, cult films especially. There would probably need to be a way to correct for that bias in the model.
posted by Rothko at 6:33 AM on November 1, 2005


There would probably need to be a way to correct for that bias in the model.

Something based on a population threshold. Figure that "taste" in films can in some way be represented by a bell curve (most everyone likes certain classics, plenty of people like blockbusters, etc.). Cult films would be way out on the edge and would effectively be 0 at any given instant if the population is under x. Unless it's a college town.
posted by yerfatma at 7:29 AM on November 1, 2005


Vacapinta's implied answer (that some event triggered both of you renting that movie) still sounds the most likely to me. You may have been thinking about renting the movie for years, but for some reason you chose to rent it at that time on that particular day -- and so did he.

In any case, consider also that not only do you need to account for the probability that two people wanted to rent the same fairly obscure movie from the same store at the same time, but that one of the people asked the clerk about it (what percentage of people do that?). So, you'll have to multiply by that fraction as well, right?

If you end up calling the store and talking to some one (and that person seems talkative and intelligent) ask him how often this sort of thing happens. He may have some interesting stories to tell.
posted by Hildago at 7:56 AM on November 1, 2005


I think that the problem here is that you're asking the wrong question. A better (if still unanswerable) question would be:

1.What god or gods did I please in order to be blessed with the tremendous fortune to get to the store and get my hands on that copy of Remo Williams (The Adventure Begins) first; and
2. What god or gods did the poor sap who got there too late displease in order to suffer his sad fate?

Oh, and RW(TAB)? Damn, that's a fine film!
posted by sluggo at 8:25 AM on November 1, 2005


Actually, if this was really a cult film, you'd own the director's cut DVD with all the extras. Never mind; Poisson away!
posted by Rothko at 8:55 AM on November 1, 2005


Somewhere Tom Shillue is quietly biding his time waiting to jump in and top this.
posted by tegoo at 9:07 AM on November 1, 2005


Remo Williams' adventure began 20 years ago. I'm about to give up waiting for the adventure to continue.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:17 AM on November 1, 2005


Then you will never learn true patience. We'll miss you at the get-together.
posted by yerfatma at 11:28 AM on November 1, 2005


"They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents 'n things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you're thinking about a plate o' shrimp. Suddenly someone'll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o' shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconciousness."

Miller -- Repo Man

Self-referentially, the diner the Rodrigues Brothers are standing in front of with the "hot" car later in the film has a sign advertising "Plate O' Shrimp".
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:59 AM on November 1, 2005


Mr Shillue is very funny. I think that I have that paper airplane book somewhere and I know that I have made that whirlybird.

An interesting post about Fred Ward that claims he can still do the walk around the poles .

If it is a cult film, then it is a minor one, if the Wikipedia "stub" entry is any indication.

Perhaps Chiun should have the last word:

"The fool chatters but the Wise man listens"

I will listen and wait for further signs.
posted by notcostello at 1:08 PM on November 1, 2005


You move like pregnant yak!
posted by loquacious at 4:07 PM on November 1, 2005


Fear is just a feeling. You feel hot. You feel hungry. You feel angry. You feel afraid. Fear can never kill you.
posted by notcostello at 6:22 PM on November 1, 2005


That is one seriously freaky coincidence. Really. That horrible, horrible movie.

Once, when I was young, I turned to my brother apropos of absolutely nothing, and said "I bet they're playing that one Poison video on MTV right now." The whole family was actually in the middle of painting our house, and all the furniture was covered in the centers of the rooms. But I offered it as kind of a dare, so my brother went to the trouble of finding a TV, plugging it in, and bringing up MTV. I happened to be right, to his utter amazement. Still, they played that video several times a day, so I think the odds were like 1/160, based on a 3 minute video played 3 times in a day with 1440 minutes.

Yours is fucking whacked by comparison. But it doesn't have that make-you-look-cool factor, unfortunately.

Still, I've always wondered if something tipped me off, however subtle. Perhaps the house next door had MTV on and I heard a note or two through the window, at a barely noticeable volume. Perhaps some photo in the newspaper that day reminded you of the Remo Williams movie poster (and someone else, too). It's hard to say, since these subliminal details are entirely beneath our notice. Were you really just sitting in a chair staring at a blank wall when REMO WILLIAMS hit you? Something must have tipped it off.
posted by scarabic at 8:25 PM on November 1, 2005


By comparison, I was once driving down the street with that same brother, and he asked me when I'd gotten that chip in my windshield, pointing to a little chunk of missing glass. I was right in the middle of saying "a couple of weeks ago something hit me" when suddenly a rock hit the windshield and took a chunk out of the windshield a couple of inches away from the first one.

I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. My mouth hung open. But after a minute, he told me that just before he'd asked the question he heard something small hit the windshield, and thought that it might have caused crack #1. Turns out that some truck or other had loosed some pebbles on the road ahead of us. He'd heard a small one hit, asked the question, and just as I was answering it a big one happened to hit.

Quite consistent, but it seemed like magic given what I had noticed and what I had not.
posted by scarabic at 8:33 PM on November 1, 2005


i can't understand why people take an honest attempt at explaining what happened at paint it as a personal crusade with ulterior motives.

It's because something seems off-kilter to me about how this is dealt with. Not about the explanation of the role probability can play in events, but the intimation that there's nothing extraordinary going on. The universe and coincidences like this -- even if entirely ascribable to operation of probability -- both look pretty amazing to me. So I see something of a killjoy attitude in the "It's just coincidence factor," and I wonder why the attitude seems to exist.

i suspect it's because they really, really don't want to see that something which makes them feel warm and fuzzy because they are somehow "special" is, in fact, quite ordinary. it's amazing what people will do to stay self-deluded if it helps them feel self-important.

It's not about whether any individual is any more special than anyone else -- it's whether or not we live in a world where extraordinary and special things happen, and about a capacity to use your own mechanism for making meaning out of those experiences to best advantage, rather than passing over the experiences with a "Meh."

There's something remniscent of "Love is just psych and hormones, you know" in the idea that "Extraordinary events are just coincidence." It's not that those statements aren't scientifically defensable. It's the "just" in the approach that almost seems to amount to a pejorative along the lines of "Nothing to See Here -- Move Along Please."

"I bet they're playing that one Poison video on MTV right now."

Poison? Poisson? Coincidence -- I think not. ;)
posted by weston at 9:23 PM on November 1, 2005


even if entirely ascribable to operation of probability -- both look pretty amazing to me. So I see something of a killjoy attitude in the "It's just coincidence factor," and I wonder why the attitude seems to exist.

Well, people are always only too happy to assert their grip on basic mathematics over your sense of hooha~life is cool! But don't let your joy be killed - most of that is the small penis talking.

I share the view that these things are simply choices of attention. I do not share the scorn, and I DO share your sense of wonderment and appreciation. Whether or not such events are "guided" by outside forces, the fact is that we are able to experience them and they can be seriously weird, and they can ring through the entire narrative sense we use to understand our lives to a great and dramatic effect. Even if the entire universe is deterministic as a swiss watch, the way we perceive it isn't, and we can either profit from that or turn the other cheek. I choose to think: wow!

I don't care whether or not these things "mean" anything. They're still cool, and you can make what you will of them. But at the same time, try to realize that day in and day out, mundane events come and go and carry no significance whatsoever, and yet we don't mark at every turn: "Damn! Life is so random and meaningless!" It's only when an extraordinary coincidence comes up that we even consider getting INTO a conversation about what's going on in the universe. That's not particularly impartial or logical - hence CHOICE of attention. That doesn't mean that choosing to pay attention to something like this is a total waste.

But then, my general spiritual attitude about all things is that I think death is the end, science can explain everything, but it's all still beautiful and indescribably cool and there are useful ways for us as thinking, feeling people to interact with this world that are not described in the scientific method. Your life is in your head in the end, to a great extent, so hold on to the thread that is consciousness wherever you can get a grip.

Who said anything about fish?
posted by scarabic at 9:52 PM on November 1, 2005


I guess another way of saying it, more succinctly, is that it's up to you what the "meaning" of any event in your life is.
posted by scarabic at 10:52 PM on November 1, 2005


The WOW factor is regardless of the larger meaning of the event.

I defy anyone to tell me that if it happened to them, that they would not experience at least the mildest form of the wow factor or ask the question to themselves "what are the chances of that happening"?

I also never once meant to imply that the event offered any sign of my specialness. I am not Neo nor was the other guy Qui-Gon. I am not even Wesley Crusher.

Just a guy that was involved in a highly improbable (or not) coincidence of events.

Still, if you can explain it all away as a mechanistic series of events, is that the same as explaining why they happened.

Say I was watching a rerun of Family Ties, he was reading a magazine article about Alec Baldwin. These led to an association to Fred Ward. Varying degrees of time transpired and we walked in to the Blockbuster at virtually the same time looking for a minor cult classic.

So we can explain the mechanism of how it happened so that I am rationally satisfied that it was the connection of two unrelated events, but somehow the improbability of it causes my spider sense to tingle.

No more, no less. Unless I cross over to the seventh dimension and I find the guy from Blockbuster is from there and he tells me that, hey you know when we met, it was a sign, I will always wonder about the improbability.

Even if he told me there was no meaning, I would still wonder.

Perhaps that is what the coincidence taught me, keep your mind open, and don't just assume that everything is rational or at least not the obvious at first blush.
posted by notcostello at 11:01 PM on November 1, 2005


Also consider that from the point of view of the guy who works at the video store and schlepps videos all day long every day: Remo Williams gets rented X number of times per month. Some non-zero number. But for any of us, renting it is AT MOST a once in a lifetime experience. Again: a matter of perspective.

I am not Neo nor was the other guy Qui-Gon.

heh
posted by scarabic at 12:10 AM on November 2, 2005


The last one.
posted by pompomtom at 12:41 AM on November 2, 2005


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