A Missed Pickup Is a Missed Opportunity! - How probabilities affect everything in our lives! - By Anish Arya (Machine Learning and Reinforcement Learning Consultant)

A bizarre sequence of events took place on the University of California campus at Berkeley on October 20, 2003.

An employee of the university took a package containing 30 applications by graduate students at the university for the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, and dropped them at the Federal Express pickup box on campus. October 20 was the deadline the Department of Education had set for posting by each university of all its applications for awards on behalf of its students. But just that day, something that had never happened before took place. Because of a “computer glitch,” as Federal Express later described it, there was no pickup by the company from its box on Sproul Plaza on the U.C. campus.

When the problem became apparent to the university, an employee sent an e-mail message late that night to the Department of Education in Washington, apologizing for the mishap, which was not the University’s fault, and requesting an extension of time for its students. The Department of Education refused. There ensued a long sequence of telephone calls, and the Chancellor of the University, Robert M. Berdahl, flew to Washington to beg the authorities to allow his students to be considered. The Department of Education refused.

At one point, one of the attorneys for the Department told the University that had the e-mail message not been sent, everything would have been fine since FedEx would have shown the date of posting as October 20. But since the e-mail message had been sent, the fate of the applications was sealed. Usually, 15 out of 30 applications from U.C. Berkeley result in awards. But because of this unfortunate sequence of events, no Berkeley graduate students were to receive a Fulbright Fellowship in 2004.

~Dean E. Murphy, “Missed Pickup Means a Missed Opportunity for 30 Seeking a Fellowship,” The New York Times, February 5, 2004, p. A14.

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This story demonstrates how probabilities affect everything in our lives .

A priori, there was an extremely small chance that a pickup would be missed:

According to FedEx this simply doesn’t happen. The university had relied on the virtually sure probability of a pickup, and thus posted the applications on the last possible day. Moreover, the chance that an employee of the university would find out that the pickup was missed on that same day and e-mail the Department of Education was very small.

Yet the sequence of rare events took place, with disastrous results for the graduate students who had worked hard to apply for these important awards.

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