The Odds Against Tomorrow

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:


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….

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2 Responses to The Odds Against Tomorrow

  1. But, but, but I don’t understand how he came to the equation! How did he make the equation? It sounds pretend. We are very bad at predicting the future because human beings are such chaotic actors. I am willing to believe the odds are against there being a tomorrow but I just want to understand WHY they are.

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