I’d been walking back from a meeting in town when it suddenly began raining. I’m the type of person who packs an umbrella even at the slightest possibility of rain – in fact, at school my friends found it amusing how I always seemed to have an umbrella even in the middle of summer.
Lately though, I’d begun relying on a new weather app that provided very reliable hour-by-hour rain predictions to figure out what to wear in the morning – a sort of just-in-time clothing process – and today it told me the probability of rain was very low, hence no umbrella. And so here I was, sheltering underneath an awning waiting for the pedestrian lights to turn green, speaking to a guy who’d just been standing there.
I hadn’t noticed him at first; I was listening to a podcast of This American Life, the one about Father’s Day, and it took a while for me to realise he was actually trying to speak to me. The man was smartly dressed, wearing a dark suit jacket over an open-necked white shirt. He didn’t look like a weirdo, but you never know. I took one earbud out and turned towards him.
“You have a lucky face,” he said.
I laughed. “Thanks,” I said, thinking that he was just in a cheerful mood.
“You have a very lucky face,” he continued. “I can tell from your eyes and your mouth.”
“Hmm,” I said.
“But you look worried, you are frowning here,” he said, gesturing above my nose. “You should know that you will have good luck in the next three months, you will work hard but you will get what you are looking for.”
Ah, I thought, a fortune-teller. I glanced up at the lights; they were still red, and the rain was still coming down.
“Do you want to know why I think this? Let me tell you.” He slipped a red wallet made from leather out of his jacket and pulled out a few small bits of paper and a pen. He scribbed a few words on a scrap of paper, then crumpled it up into a little ball and gave it to me. “Don’t open it yet,” he said.
I took the paper and stuck it in my pocket.
“Okay, now pick a number from 1 to 9.”
Before I went to university, I thought I was interested in genetics and molecular biology. After precisely one lecture, I realised exactly how wrong I was and became determined to switch to something more stimulating, and I eventually found myself taking experimental psychology and neuroscience lectures. Many of them were highly reductionist or focusing on development or pathology, but some were at the cognitive level, and from them and from various textbooks I knew all about how humans reason and how poor we are at understanding logic and probability and causation.
They didn’t teach us specifically about magic, but it was clear that our limited capacity for attention and our ease of being misdirected was really the key to successful magicians. I once saw David Blaine perform a bit of magic at a TED conference. I was standing about one metre away from him when he did a fairly standard card trick on a guy he was close enough to touch, and then at the end gave the guy his watch back. We were all duly impressed; we had all been watching his hands intently, wanting to be the one person who was smart enough to see the trick, to figure out the ending. But he was too good.
“3,” I said, shrugging. He noted it down on a new piece of paper.
“Your favourite colour?”
The lights had turned green. This was the perfect opportunity to escape, but I wanted to see where this was going.
“Blue.” Why not?
“How many brothers and sisters?”
“Brother or sister?”
“Brother.” He wrote down ‘B – 1′ at the bottom of his list.
“Okay.” He looked up. “And what do you want most? Good health, good life, good fortune, good love, good family?”
I laughed. What an absurd question. “All of them,” I said.
For the first time, he laughed as well. “You have to pick one.”
“Okay then… good family.” He wrote down ‘G – F’.
He asked me for his bit of paper he’d given me at the start. I pulled it out of my pocket and handed it over, and he waved it in front of his face at precise points, and gave it back to me. “Don’t open it,” he said again. Then he began talking about how the numbers all added up and how if you combined this and that, I would figure out my fortune.
I was starting to finally get worried. I figured that he’d be asking for money shortly, and things had gone on for long enough that it was already going to be embarrassing when I left. With the lights back to green again, I backed away and said that I had to go now.
“No no no no no, we haven’t finished yet!”
“Sorry,” I said lamely.
“But you haven’t opened the paper!” he protested.
“Sorry,” I repeated behind me.
Befitting my status as a former scientist and being an avid reader of all the science blogs and such, I’m intensely suspicious of superstition. I have no problem with black cats. I deliberately walk underneath ladders. I’m sure I’ve broken at least two mirrors. But walking away from this guy, I couldn’t help but think I’d somehow cursed myself by not letting him finish his shtick; it was surely a rude thing to do, no matter how (eventually) annoying he had become.
Of course, I opened the paper. Written on it was:
0 – 28
For about three seconds, I froze.
Firstly, I thought: Wow, could it be true? Did this guy actually figure this out? Have I been completely wrong about all of this my entire life?
Secondly: Obviously not. But what are the chances of him guessing? Still pretty high – certainly not high enough to get a decent hit rate.
Thirdly: Wait a second… he must have done a classic switcheroo while I wasn’t looking! This must be the same bit of paper he’d been writing my answers on, and when he was waving it around, he’d swapped them over.
Aha. I felt proud of myself at this piece of Sherlockian deduction, then slightly sad. It was a tremendously engrossing piece of street magic; certainly not that technically impressive, but no doubt more than good enough to fool the average passerby. I wondered how much money he made by doing this. I wondered what he would have told me next.
And I wondered whether this was his life, giving other people a glimpse ahead into their lives. Giving them a certainty, proven with written evidence and without any caveats or probabilities or qualifications, that things were going to get better. I looked down at the piece of paper again, thought about whether to throw it away or not, and kept on walking.