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I'm not a mathematician; I just wandered over here from Writers SE and am hoping you guys can help.

I'm writing a novel in which the theme is characters beating the odds. (It's a future dystopia, the government is super-powerful, etc. - the characters aren't doing any actual math). I'm looking for a term for a character who beats the odds. (I'm looking for gambling terms AND probability terms). So, going in, probability said that x was very likely to happen. But then y happened, instead. Is there a term for y, after the event is over? (look at me trying to be all math-y - hopefully someone can edit this to be more coherent). In gambling terms, I'm looking for a word that would mean the dark horse or underdog AFTER he's won. Maybe math doesn't personalize things so much, and there just isn't a term, but if there is one, I'd love to know about it!


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Black Swan is pretty good, yeah. It's pretty obscure, though - I feel like I'd have to explain it to the readers before they would understand what I meant, which would kind of defeat the purpose of having a special word for it. It was an interesting article to read, though! –  Kate Sherwood Feb 20 '12 at 14:38
You may surprised to hear that you trying to be all math-y are being a lot more coherent than a lot of other questions we get here :-) –  joriki Feb 20 '12 at 14:40
@joriki, hahaha +1 –  Inquest Feb 20 '12 at 14:41
I think the conventional word for a character who beats the odds is "lucky" –  Henry Feb 20 '12 at 14:59
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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

"Outlier" was the one that popped into my head. In statistics an observation (say an individual) is an outlier if whatever model you are using to explain the underlying phenomenon effectively fails to allow for such an extreme observation. That is, outliers are observations that make us doubt the validity of our model. Some might take an outlier to be something a little bit weaker, e.g. just a really unlikely measurement that nevertheless doesn't cause us to reconsider our underlying model.

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This is probably boring, but the term "almost never" is used to describe an event that is, in a technical sense, infinitely unlikely. Such events are also said to have "measure zero", which is considerably sexier, but might require some explanation, which you hoped to avoid. The set itself is sometimes referred to as a "null set", which also would require some amount of explanation.

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Measure Zero is WAY sexier! I want to name a book that, now! But, yeah, it would require explanation. Is there a term that refers to the actual participant in the event, rather than the event itself? Like, if you had 999 white balls in a random ball-shooter (that's what I see mathematicians doing... sitting in a room with a "random ball-shooter") and 1 black ball, and you triggered the shooter and the black ball came out, you'd say, "Hey, look at that little _____". Because mathematicians are folksy, apparently. –  Kate Sherwood Feb 20 '12 at 14:51
Measure zero is fun, but it would really be a metaphor since any particular measure zero event has literally zero chance of happening. Also, the event of a reader not being incredibly confused by an accurate description of a measure zero event is an event of measure zero :) –  guy Feb 20 '12 at 16:59
@guy "Measure zero" and "impossible" are not synonymous (though, I suppose "measure zero" and "zero chance" are). For example, choose a real number at random. The event that your selection is rational has measure zero, but the event is not impossible. –  Austin Mohr Feb 20 '12 at 17:05
@Austin of course :) I regard measure zero events intuitively as impossible though, despite the fact that they happen all the time if you take the mathematical interpretations seriously. –  guy Feb 20 '12 at 17:22
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Black Swan?

"...."black swan theory" refers only to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history. Such events, considered extreme outliers, collectively play vastly larger roles than regular occurrences..."

It is also the name of one of Nassim Taleb's books He defines it as "A black swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences"

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Sorry, I commented above. Would this apply to an actor in the event, or to the event itself? Like, using the 9/11 example from Wikipedia, I could say that 9/11 was a black swan event... could I say that Al Qaeda was a black swan, or Osama bin Laden was a black swan? –  Kate Sherwood Feb 20 '12 at 14:47
Your question is an intersection between Writers, English and Math SE :P But anyways, I am no English expert but I don't think its wrong. The story actually goes like this: If you sat on the edge of a pond with swans in them and you observed the swans for a million years and you saw no black swan (i.e. you saw only white swans), you cannot still say with guarantee that a black swan doesn't exist. In other (poorly framed) words, lack of observation doesn't imply lack of existence. So, if someday in your old age, a black swan did appear, it would be most remarkable and unexpected. –  Inquest Feb 20 '12 at 14:53
"In other (poorly framed) words, lack of observation doesn't imply lack of existence." Some statisticians like to phrase a similar idea as "Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence." –  Dilip Sarwate Feb 20 '12 at 17:05
Oooo. I like this one... –  Inquest Feb 20 '12 at 17:21
"Absence of Evidence is not Proof of Absence" is more apt, but that doesn't have the same nice symmetry. –  Austin Mohr Feb 20 '12 at 18:50
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