Are you a worrier? Have plans for flood/earthquake/zombie apocalypse? I’m not at all so inclined because I’m too busy worrying that I might forget my keys. My disaster plans are mostly along the lines of “have some liquor in the house.” There was a blackout a couple of years ago and I was only able to light a candle because I happened to have a book of matches from a bar. So Mitchell Zukor the protagonist of Nathaniel Rich’s The Odds Against Tomorrow, a New York financial consultant who obsesses about worst case scenarios professionally is totally alien to me.
Being a math nerd, Mitchell is all about the equations and maybe this is where I get off this train because this tends to be the kind of math I find not all that convincing – you add up some probabilities but I’m never sure you’re starting off with the right probabilities. Like, an example in the book to predict the chances of a nuclear war in the next year:
λCMTC = λIEP1P2P3
Where λIE is the probability of an event occurring that could kick things off, P1 is the probability such an event actually causes a nuclear showdown, P2 is the probability that the crisis leads to the launch of a nuclear weapon and P3 is the probability that the initial bomb leads to a global nuclear war. Now Mitchell thinks this tells you that every year there’s a 10% chance of nuclear annihilation. Me, I think all the variables could be pretty much whatever you want, a la Drake equation. Sure, it’s a way to think about “well, if X then maybe Y…” But it doesn’t give you An Answer. You will note that 10% aside, many years have passed and nuclear armageddon has not yet occurred. I might almost begin to suspect it’s not that likely. Whereas I have actually forgotten my keys more than once.
Going back to the book, a non-nuclear disaster does indeed happen. There’s destruction and canoeing through the streets of New York. I learned to paddle a canoe at summer camp years ago and I don’t know how I expected my life to go but I thought that would be a useful skill that would serve me well. I can’t say that it has so far, but I wonder what the odds are like for that one. Because you just never know….