Monday, October 5, 2009

FlashForward: Was the Blackout Planned?

Let me preface this by saying I agree the blackout was a planned event.  But I've noticed some confusion about an interesting point I thought was made in White to Play.  When the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security debates with the FBI whether the event was planned, an FBI agent argues that it was because the probability of it happening at the top of the hour is 1/3600.  Demetri counters that natural events randomly coincide with the top of the hour all the time.  The Assistant secretary agrees with Demetri, but is eventually swayed by the existence of Suspect Zero.

I thought the message of this exchange was clear: there's no statistical reason to think the blackout was planned.  That's "all supposition," as the Assistant Secretary puts it.  Suspect Zero's behavior -- particularly the cell phone chatter -- is a different story, which is why the Assistant Secretary changes her tune upon learning of him.  Indeed, I remember thinking the agent's statistical argument was flawed and gave the writers credit for addressing what might otherwise have been criticized as a goof.

Many, however, interpret the scene quite differently.  They insist the statistical argument is sound and offer the following rationale.  The top of the hour is a marker of great significance to humans.  The chance of the blackout happening at this moment of significance is 1/3600 (i.e., 60 seconds X 60 minutes) as compared to a much higher 3599/3600 probability of the event transpiring at a moment of insignificance to humanity.  Ergo, the event was most likely planned.  Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that's fallacious reasoning.

The problem is that the chance of the event occurring at any given second during the hour is 1/3600.  There's always a 3599/3600 probability the event will occur at some other second during the hour.  The only reason our minds notice this particular 1/3600 possibility out of the rest is that we attribute social significance to the top of the hour.  It's a mistake people make all the time -- e.g., when numerologists connect important world events with the number 11, or sports fans insist certain players are "clutch" in the postseason.

What do you all everybody think?  Like I said, I'm wide open to being corrected on this one, if I'm wrong.

Update: October 5, 2009

It occurs to me there's a better reason to suspect the blackout was planned. Planned events occur so often at the top of the hour that events of unspecified origin coinciding with that time have a greater chance of being planned than they otherwise would. It's a bit like why you always seem to end up in the longest line at the supermarket or the slowest lane on the highway. The more people who fall into a given category, the more likely you are to be among them yourself.  The argument is a variation of the Copernican principle, which distinguishes it from fallacies like the power of 11 or "clutch" performance.

To summarize, therefore, the blackout may well have been planned, but a natural explanation is still more likely and the 1/3600 vs. 3599/3600 argument is totally bunk.  As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!


synchrobrarian said...

numbers are tricky


"The numerical value of the Hebrew word Kabbalah has the value of 137"

dj said...

I'm not well-versed in statistics or probability or... anything about numbers. But I'm still going to say that it's a decent argument, as opposed to bunk.

So, top of the hour supposedly indicates this way most likely planned, as the chances of something happening at the top of the hour are 1/3600. As you correctly point out, the chances of ANYTHING happening ANYTIME are also 1/3600, by that logic. So it is correct to kind of raise an eyebrow at this point and go, eh, maybe the idea isn't so strong after all.

And you use the fact that top of the hour holds significance to humans due to its social implications. Also very correct, but that's also why the idea isn't bunk. The fact that it does mean something to humans indicates that since humans attribute meaning to that moment in time, if humans did this, the two line up quite nicely. It's as if the perpetrators of the blackout were given blinders by society and went straight in the direction thus imposed (a nice, orderly top of the hour).

So while every other second in an hour also has a 1/3600 probability of being the marker of an event, it is that first one that holds great meaning to humanity.

Greg Tramel said...

wouldn't the odds also be 1/3600 that it would occur at 11:11?

so i agree using strictly numerology & statistics can only take us so far but using a more organic logical approach that planned events typically happen at the top of an hour (and sometimes at the 1/2 hour)works for me that it is most likely a planned event

Greg Tramel said...

dj, but isn't it the top of the hour as a signifier that is significant while the 1/3600 statistic is insignificant

Bigmouth said...

Greg: Exactly -- the odds of it happening at 11:11 are also 1/3600.

Bigmouth said...

SM: Cool stuff! I should clarify that my logical objection to numerological connections only applies to actual events. I don't mean to discourage folks from drawing precisely these sorts of interpretive connections to a fictional work like FlashForward.

DJ: But that's the fallacy. You've heard the "rule" that celebrities die in threes? If three celebrities die tomorrow, is that the rule at work? Or consider three celebrities from different countries who all die at exactly 11am. Is this proof their deaths were planned?

From the perspective of statistics and probability, every second is the same -- except in the sense I suggest in my update. Even there, however, I'm not suggesting that a planned event is more probable than random chance. Just that a planned event is more probable at the top of the hour than other times. Think about the trillions of random events in nature that just happen to coincide with 11am on a given day. For all of the planned events in the world, they're far exceeded by the unplanned.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

SL, the 137 link pretty much applies to the book, but I'm not certain how much of the show adheres to the book. The book has all the visions at 27 years in the future, for one. Guess we will see this Thursday if one aspect of the book shows up.

Big, some of FF's dialogue is very stilted, as if they need to 'explain' the pros and cons to each argument. Just before the scene in question, you've got that woman named Rice yabbering away until she sees the video from the Detroit ballpark. If I were the FBI, I'd have that thing set to go and steer her towards the screen as soon as she walked through the door. So Cho's 'top of the hour' comment is just the writers trying to mystify things. I fully agree with the fact that any government agency will see an event that happens at exactly the top of the hour as man-made is a valid one. At the very least, it would be easier to track the consequences and results, and by that I mean individuals not making an error in note-taking because for some it is harder to recall 11:11 than 11:00. Maybe I'm simplifying this, but I'd think adding 137 to 00:00 across the board would lead to more uniform reports than if it involved 11:00 = 137. Also, if there was a countdown involved, I'd assume the 'timer' wasn't just set by someone pointing their finger at a clock.

The scene would make much more sense if they simply played with it more, instead of Dimitri saying one thing and Rice the other.

Greg Tramel said...

i'm kinda digging this idea but need more info/ideas on how hacking the earth's electromagnetic field caused people's conciseness to spring forward to April 10

"organization found a way to hack nature’s algorithm, and therefore manipulate and control the Earth’s electromagnetic fields"

dj said...

I think we're actually on the same page, though. I think that instead of being at the top of the hour pointing to it being planned, it's the other way around -- it being planned points to it being at the top of the hour (because humans tend to do stuff like that). Once you look at it through that lens, it's a little easier to consider the whole possibility.

In other words... and I guess I need to specify that I absolutely don't think that because humans attach significance to certain things (top of the hour) and that the blackout occurred at such a time, that is somehow PROOF that it was planned and perpetrated by humans.

I would just say, though, that because of what humans are and what we do... because you absolutely can't rule out the psychosocial factor of humans in this... there is a good chance that the timing is significant (not in a statistical sense).

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I agree, dj. I think the dialogue on the show is muddled at times. They spend time with the Rice character talking smack before seeing the Detroit video. I would have gone right with that, ten take the other two minutes or so to better explain the top of the hour thing. They are missing the boat with their use of drama over exposition at times.

Greg Tramel said...

for some reason i'm thinking FlashForward is another parallel/tangent universe story

the visions they saw were glimpses into another universe

why the heck are there all these multiverse stories on TV and in movies?

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Greg, I don't think it's an alternate reality series. It's not like the book already, and I hope they put effort into showing that most everyone in April 2010 knew they blacked out "six months earlier." Most (ok, some) people would try to do something positive that they could then witness in the past, cops, scientists, theorists, to help them understand the blackouts. A cool way of time travel IF they show it this way. Otherwise its free will vs. determinism.

Capcom said...

That would be a neat twist on it Wayne, rather than the usual approach, as you said.

Hahah, it's a multiverse fad Greg! Whoodathunk?! X-D It must mean that TV producers are giving in to the fact that there are actually some intelligent people who watch TV, who would like some programming that exercises their brains for a change. Maybe they are tyring to attract the science cable channel viewer demographic.

I haven't read your link above yet Greg, but I was wondering if it might have something to do with manipulating the supposed upcoming magnetic pole switch. That is, using it, enhancing it, making it happen prematurely...I know, dumb idea. Just a brain burp, not a theory.

Greg Tramel said...

Capcom, no the link does not mention the pole shift BUT i'm there with you since that was the 1st thing i thought about after reading it

i could see a pole shift as a valid theory for the blackout

Bigmouth said...

Wouldn't a pole shift be immediately obvious to anyone with a compass?

Greg Tramel said...

yeah, i suppose chances are there would be somebody using a compass and could discover the anomaly

a pole shift does not necessarily mean North and South switch

What is that pole shift thing?

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Then, again, Big, do you think ayone on this show will be looking at a compass? So far its a cop show, not a show involving scientists. Yes, its only two shows in, but I'd like to see more than Starsky & Hutch. I AM enjoying the show, but if they stick with it simply being the two cops and not giving us a different POV, well. Even tonight's episode about the 137 seconds simply seems to be yet another person coming to see the two cops. And whatever happened to the blonde from the first episode, when everyone was thinking terrorist attack?

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

By the way, Big, have you even checked in on HEROES at all? I tried again, and, well, Claire is in college now, her roommate commits suicide about 20 minutes into ep 1 just so there'd be an excuse for Claire to jump out the window, too, to see if her roommate really did commit suicide or if she simply fell, only to be seen by another girl, who is now her new roommate and someone Claire can confide in to rebel against her dad.

Yep. Did you get all that?

Bigmouth said...

Greg: Wouldn't the catastrophic gravitational effects of the Earth tilting off its axis be even more noticeable? I'm talking massive earthquakes and tidal waves...

I think the show will advance some variation of the branching timeline approach from Deja Vu. Indeed, the very existence of the blackout has already created a new branch because people apparently never blacked out in the iteration of events glimpsed in their visions..

Wayne: I think a magnetic pole shift would be noticed by the helicopter pilots flying them everywhere. Not to mention anyone navigating by GPS. As for Heroes, it's still a train wreck. I'm still watching -- I'm a sucker for just about anything with super powers. But every time I think they've turned the corner, they regress right back to crap. Don't get me started with what they did to poor Robert Knepper with that ridiculous Irish(?) accent...

Bigmouth said...

PS: I just realized, the idea that they never blacked out is a potential loophole. If they never blacked out, why were they investigating the Mosaic case?

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Big, I was kinda kidding about the compass, in that we've basically been watching a cop show for two weeks. I DO NOT WANT TO SEE FBI HQ IN LA A REVOLVING DOOR OF THE WEEK WITH MORE PIECES OF THE PUZZLE. SERIOUSLY. CAN YOU HEAR ME, PRODUCERS AND WRITERS?

In regards to the Mosaic, I'm sticking with everyone knowing in April 2010 that they had a blackout and Fienes, being the smart cop he is, put together his board of clues. Which again makes me shake my fist, in that this must mean that he and Dimitri will be finding most of the clues.

Enjoyable show, not good storytelling (so far). HEROES, there's your freaking Mosaic, who is who now and what can they do (or not). Big, you're right about every so now and then showing insight, and I truly dug when Robert Forster popped up, and all of that potential was wasted in three episodes. I've told people that HEROES is like a decent comic where every six issues there is a new creative team that disregards most of what was done before. Sort of like X-MEN, pick any title.

Next week, lesbian kiss for Claire and her BFF. I want to write an episode where Sylar kisses himself in the mirror for fifteen minutes. I'm curious, Big (and everyone else), what you made of that lame-o suicide thing. Do you think it will pop up later in this season, some sort of explanation?

Greg Tramel said...

totally meaningless tidbit but some us oldies may remember the 1st world wide web browser developed by CERN was called Mosaic