The world is surprisingly small — or, to put it more precisely, the square root of N phenomenon makes the path between any two people much shorter than one might expect, and correlations among interests make for fascinating non-coincidental coincidences.

What does that mean? Well, a few weeks ago while looking for information on the word "virii" (and whether it might be the proper plural of "virus") I chanced upon the following post to an online users group in January 2000:

Actually, the plural of the *Latin* word virus never occurs. This is partly for the same reason there is no plural of the English word "mud" - it's a collective - and partly because it's just one of those nouns that only occurs in a few forms - called a "defective". So it's a defective collective. The English word, which has a different meaning, might be called an infective defective collective. This letter is intended as an infective defective collective corrective. If you don't like it, send some infective defective collective corrective invective. But not to me, please. — m.

A superb answer — I promise never to write "virii" again. But who is this mystery man "m.", author of the above? Dr. "m." turns out to be Matt Neuburg, who besides being a Latin lover (like me!) writes free software (like me!) and was once a diehard Macintosh HyperCard enthusiast (like me!). Matt is also a fan of a free text information retrieval (like me!) and is a writer of articles about computer technology (like me!). In fact, some of Matt's essays cite my work. And on top of all that, Matt has implemented a computer version of Durak, a Russian card game that my daughter Gray brought home from summer music camp and has taught to the family.

Sounds pretty far-fetched — half a dozen or so 10-3 to 10-6 probabilities that multiply together to make an astronomically improbability. But of course it's not. The right question to ask is: "Of all the people in the world whom I might find via an Internet search for language trivia, how many have several other interests that match up with mine?"

From that perspective this isn't a 10-18 to 10-36 class coincidence at all. There are a large number of people with overlapping avocations (and vocations) in the world. Each person also has many different areas of expertise. So it's actually quite easy to find somebody with multiple factors in common — particularly when those factors aren't specified in advance, but are recognized and highlighted after the fact. (That's the magical principle known as "The Conjuror's Choice".) Besides which, people who like word games often like card games; people who like words and computers often like free-text information retrieval; people who like user-interface toolkits often like free software; and so forth.

No, the real surprise here is that, until now, Matt and I haven't met one another ...

(one more coincidence: in correspondence, when I checked with him concerning the above, Matt told me that he was raised in Montgomery County — where I've been living for the past few decades; see also HumanDiffusion (19 Jan 2000), VoicedPostalveolarFricative (27 Sep 2003), RubensesquePassersBy (24 Jul 2004), ... )

TopicLanguage - TopicPersonalHistory - TopicScience - TopicProgramming - TopicHumor - 2004-08-28

(correlates: TheClassicist, ConfoundedConflation, PartyLines, ...)