The subway stop at the work-end of my commute has five turnstiles, and when I arrived there this afternoon all five of them were blocked by people locked in the Fruitless Loop, which goes something like this:
- Swipe MetroCard inadequately through the little electronic valley.
- Bring card to face and examine intently, as a gorilla might a calculator.
- Flip over card, repeat Step 2.
- Furrow brow. Shrug. Roll eyes. Exhale animatedly.
- Go to Step 1.
While I paced behind this Phalanx of Futility, a train had time to enter the station, exchange passengers, and take off half-full down the line after shutting its doors in my face. And I waited for 15 sultry minutes as rush-hour-propelled humanoids began to clog the platform. The next train finally arrived predictably crammed to capacity, and the car I managed to shove my way into had no air conditioning. So I stood and sweated for two stops, until someone's grumpy bowels let loose a force that would have cleared the room--if the room weren't a sealed metal tube 30 feet underground.
I spent the rest of the trip playing out the numbers in my head. The subway's swipe-card system, which is breathtakingly inconvenient, conservatively delays about 1 in 10 riders every day. That means the odds that all five turnstiles would be clogged simultaneously is 1 in 105, or 100,000. I'm at that station for one 5-minute stretch per day (5 out of 1,440), five days a week (5/7). There were 15 cars in the train, so if we make the bold assumption that mine was the only car with no AC, I had a 1/15 chance of landing in it.
That puts the composite probability of this rank-n-dank chain of events at 1 in 60,480,00o, or about one-fourth the chance of winning the lottery. And all I won was the opportunity to breathe through my mouth and sweat like a monkey on a spit for half an hour.
That's the mercurial thing about numbers. They can help unlock the secrets of the universe, but they can also gang up and fart in your face.