Thorns, odds, and the impossible

A few years ago I was walking on a disused path in some woods near where I live, when I noticed a small branch that seemed to have attached itself to my foot. When I looked more closely, I saw about an inch of thorn sticking up through my boot just in front of the ball of my foot.

This was a genuine official hiking boot with about an inch and a half to two inches of combined Vibram outsole and orthotic insole, and a Gore-Tex and nylon upper. Needless to say, I was dumbfounded. How had a thorn managed to penetrate all that? More to the point, how had it penetrated my foot without my feeling it?

I pulled out the thorn; it was easily four or five inches long and almost a quarter of an inch thick at its base. A honey locust, I figured, although I hadn’t seen one with thorns quite that big. As I tossed the branch away from the path, it occurred to me that I’d better get a look at my injury before too long. A little way further up the path I found a convenient log, sat down, and gingerly removed the shoe, fully expecting to see a slowly expanding patch of red where the thorn had come through. When I looked, I realized why I hadn’t felt anything.

The damned thing had passed precisely between my big toe and its neighbor as far back as it could without hitting flesh. When I say precisely, I mean there was no evidence of its passage whatsoever — not blood, not broken skin, not so much as a minor scratch.

What, as they say, were the odds of that happening? Well, I maintain that, since it had actually occurred, the odds must have been 100%.

You could calculate the odds as a hypothetical exercise, taking into account such variables as the average number of dead branches small enough to go unnoticed on a disused path, the percentage of those likely to have huge thorns, the probability of such a thorn lying at the precise angle required to use the force of a footfall to penetrate a sturdy shoe. You’d also have to take into account the width of the path, the length of my stride, the size of the shoe, the total area of the sole, and so on. Then you could come up with some number, which would surely be vanishingly small.

And yet, it happened. You might be familiar with the concept of the black swan, popularized in a book of that title by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m not interested in the failings of statistics which do not take all of the significant variables into account; it may be true that probability calculations can be improved by using the proper data. My point is that even when all knowable variables are taken into account, you can still end up on the wrong side of the conclusion.

Why is that? It’s simple. Statistics are descriptive, not predictive. They describe in detail past events in similar contexts to the one you’re interested in. In the end, any conclusion you draw is based on inductive reasoning, which by its nature is vulnerable to data gaps. When an event actually occurs, such as my adventure with the thorn, it becomes data, and statistical inference is irrelevant to it. The question, “What are the odds of that?” is pointless.

Does that mean that judging risk on the basis of probability is useless? Not at all. But it is why the severity of a negative outcome is so important in the decision process.

If I have a 10% chance of spilling wine on my shirt, that’s not going to stop me from drinking some. But if I have a 10% chance of dying if I get Covid-19, that’s a different story.

The good monsignor

At one level, what follows is an amusing anecdote about childhood. At another, it tells you all you need to know about religion at ground zero, away from the ponderances of theologians.

When I was a child, I went to St. Philip Neri School, the beginning of 12 years of Catholic education. For the most part, it was an excellent education, sometimes in ways no one there could have predicted, or would have acknowledged. I’ve long since stopped being a Catholic, but I miss some of the trappings of the church.

I’m thinking particularly of Confession, the sacrament. Even as early as the first grade, we children were marched to the church next door every Friday morning to confess our sins.  It’s a ritual that, on balance, is a good thing in a general way, a kind of cleansing of the spirit, a renewal and a chance to start over repeated frequently enough to have a continuing effect. That’s the positive side of it. The negative side is that some people used its recurring absolution as a clean slate on which to write more transgressions; think Mafia, for example, or Mussolini or Franco. Of course, you could circumvent the need for regular redemption with good timing. It’s said that Constantine put off baptism and confession until his deathbed, realizing that as emperor of Rome there was no way he could avoid any number of sins per diem.

At the other end of the spectrum were we children. Our problem was that there was nothing to confess half the time. Disobedience, yes, there was always that, but it felt a bit repetitious after the first dozen or so times. There were always “impure thoughts,” but, honestly, at the age of seven or eight, we had no idea what they were, except that they had something to do with girls and boys. I suspect it was the priests who heard our confessions that needed to meditate on that more than we did, at least until the sixth grade or thereabouts.  So, we made up fictitious lists of sins. The priests must have thought we already had one foot in hell to hear all the things we did in a week.

Of course, it was not always so. I remember one Friday morning in the third or fourth grade when, as we marched across the playground to church, my best friend told me he had something terrible to confess, and he hoped he could be forgiven. The day before, he had been accosted on the way home by a public-school boy, a bit older and larger than he was. It happened, in that curious way that beggars belief, that he had a fork with him, who knows why. As the older boy lunged at him, my friend struck out with the fork. It stuck, and drew blood, albeit not much. The older boy’s eyes got huge, and he pulled out the fork, threw it on the ground and ran away, crying. My friend was sure there was major time in purgatory in store for him, if not hell itself.

Well, as it happened, as we lined up in front of the confessional to wait our turn, in came Monsignor Busald. He was the pastor in the parish, which at the time ran to four or five other priests, any of whom could have been hearing confessions that day. But no, it was Busald.

He was ancient, a bit crabby, and no longer given to keeping up appearances. He reserved the daily 5:30 AM masses for himself, and he was the only priest in the parish who would make the altar boy go in the back to get more wine in the middle of mass. He was also hard of hearing, and like many such people, talked more loudly than necessary.

And so, it came about that when my friend entered the confessional, full of trepidation, we heard everything.

“Mumble, mumble, mumble…”

“What? Speak up, boy!”

“Monsignor, I stabbed a boy with a fork!”

Outside the confessional, it was all we could do to stifle our laughter, while the good sister whose name is lost in the mists of time, our teacher, turned crimson with embarrassment.

There was an uncomfortably long span of silence. Then, the monsignor:

“Was he Catholic?”

“No, Monsignor, he was protestant.”

Another awkward silence.

“Well, that’s all right then. Next!”

Disease by the numbers

Credit: tumsasedgars

Every morning I check the Covid-19 stats for the state and county I live in. Every day the numbers get bigger and the picture grimmer, even when things are improving. How can this be?

First of all, let me dispel the notion that I want to downplay the danger. Far from it; I fully support efforts to get people to wear masks in public places, to avoid large groups, and to keep a reasonable distance apart when interacting. I support those measures being made mandatory when necessary. I hear people say that they’ve “done their time” in lockdown, and that it seemed to them that the threat turned out to be much less than the government let on.  Setting aside for the moment the question of what motivation there would be for the government to impose lockdown, except to keep the pandemic under control, these people miss the obvious fact that the measures they complain about are exactly why the direst predictions never materialized.

But those issues have been dissected and debated abundantly; there’s no reason to add my 2 bits beyond what I have already written.  My interest here is in information and the extent to which it is useful.

Keeping a running total of infections doesn’t seem to be very useful. You might find it helpful if your motive is to keep the sense of crisis alive, but even that is questionable. There is no shortage of published articles on crisis fatigue. At a certain point, there’s just an overload, and the human alert system just shuts down. Eat, drink, and be merry, as the saying goes, for tomorrow we die. 

We need a way to assess how many people are actually infectious at any given time. In my county, for example, just over a thousand cases have been reported since the beginning in March. Something over sixty have died.  But I can’t easily find how many of those cases have recovered.

So, out of that thousand, you can subtract the deaths, which are statistically miniscule. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could also subtract the number of recovered, and therefore no longer infectious, cases?  I know those numbers are available, but why can’t we see a number for current cases that are actually a potential threat? Shouldn’t that number be front and center?

So long, moonless night

This is meant as allegory and is therefore open to many interpretations. Feel free to indulge.

You weren’t hungry anymore. You could think about food dispassionately, without a trace of that feeling, like being sucked inside out from the middle, as if your navel were an entrance to a boundless vacuum willing the world to come bounding in, smoothing and soothing, neither cool nor warm, not so much fulfilling as unempty.

Curiously, though, you found yourself obsessed with pictures of food, from crisp steaks to mushy oatmeal, the heat and fragrance leaping from the paper, photographs so detailed it seemed you could taste them.

None of this, of course, had any effect like hunger; you were decidedly not hungry. you preferred pictures.

And so you sat, cataloging slips of illustrated food carefully torn from magazines. It was only a few days — how many? Never mind — since you stopped eating. No one was more surprised than you that all traces of hardship had vanished after the second day, or was it the third? You couldn’t have said exactly when; by the time you noticed it was already a fact.

Which was odd, you thought, because you had been amazed at how clear, how focused you grew with every passing day. It seemed nothing escaped your attention, no detail too small or trivial, especially time, which even slowed down or sped up according to the demands of your interests. You knew precisely when each of the clearly remembered events in your recent past had occurred.

Except what time you had stopped being hungry, even on so gross a scale as what day. Food was brought to you. You made a detailed study of the tray it came on, the bowl, the spoon. By now you could, you were certain, produce a precisely thorough drawing of them, but, curiously, you couldn’t recall the food itself, which you sent back untouched.

All the same, you kept files, lists, really, entirely in your memory, of things that occurred to you in vivid detail, both physical and ephemeral. For example, your meditation on how long a person could last without food, based on things you had read casually years and months before, but which you could recall perfectly, except the actual length of time one could survive.  Never mind, it varied immensely by individual, you recalled.  Surely you had plenty of time left.

More satisfying were the recipes, an obsession to go along with the pictures. Clear, concise formulas for the exact process of transforming raw food into not just edible form — for most of the raw food was already edible, strictly speaking — but into perfect symphonies of texture, flavor, temperature, and even, you thought grudgingly, nutrition.

Really, when you thought about it, there was no reason to consider nutrition. Food, to you, had become a purely esthetic phenomenon.

No, not that either, and not quite an obsession, more satisfying than that, without the corrupting factor of pleasure.

Pure chemical exercise with a delightful utilitarian edge. Two cups of this, a teaspoon of that, add a precise amount of thermal energy…

You turned on your side, closed your eyes, and waited. The moon slid behind a cloud.

From the jottings of John H. Watson, MD

It was October of 1896, a particularly cool autumn, although by no means unpleasant. I had been reading in my chair in our digs in Baker Street, and I confess I was about to doze off, when Holmes burst in in uncommon agitation.
”Come, Watson!” he cried, “The gay Miss Afutte!”
Startled from my slumber, I could make no sense of this outburst.
“Whatever do you mean?” I demanded.
“Miss Olivia Afutte, the most celebrated ingénue of the season, is to be present at a ball given by the honorable Milton Gladbum,” he replied, “and we just have time to get there.”
I was astonished. Holmes had never before expressed the slightest interest in society, indeed he often professed disdain for the triviality of it.
“Aloysius Mentry, the barrister, will always be found where Miss Afutte consents to appear,” he explained, no doubt seeing my confusion. “I need him.”
As no further explanation appeared to be forthcoming, I roused myself and put on a jacket.
“Hand me my lozenges, will you, Watson?” said Holmes
“Lozenges? What lozenges?”
“You know, my menthols, Watson,” said he.
Outside, Holmes hailed a hansom cab, and we were on our way. As it was some distance to the home of Mr. Mentry, I ventured a question.
“Why, exactly,” I asked, “do you need the good barrister?”
“To get access to his daughter.”
“And who is she?”
“Ella Mentry, my dear Watson. Ella Mentry.”