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!”

Service in hard times

It’s a thing nowadays, thanking veterans for their service. I get it a lot, because I was, as Bill McClellan so eloquently put it, “…patriotic enough to flunk out of college and get drafted…”  I always feel a bit uncomfortable. If only they knew what my service was like.

But now we have lots of people who really do deserve our gratitude for their service: delivery people, grocery store employees, all the people going to work as normal while the rest of us hunker down.

Of all the people who deserve and need our support, however, none are doing so much and taking greater risks than health care workers. They’re on the front line day after day, working long hours with inadequate equipment, literally risking their lives.  They get exposed to the biggest doses of the virus and for longer periods, which seems to induce much more severe illness, at a time when fatigue and stress reduce their ability to resist.  I am certain that when this is all over, we will have many, many cases of PTSD among health care workers.

Let’s thank them now, but above all let’s not forget them when times return to something like normal. We owe them so much.

A cautionary tale

The recent British election, in which Tories, and therefore Boris Johnson and Brexit, won in a landslide, should serve as a warning to the American left in the coming elections next November.

In my particular (left leaning) media bubble everything I read about British politics was against the Tories, and in particular against Brexit. It looked like BJ would get his ass handed to him on a platter, or at best eke out a narrow victory. The extent of his victory, never mind the verdict itself, was a shock to me. Of course, this could say more about me as an individual than about the expectations of the British public, but the point is that I had no reason to doubt my impression of the political zeitgeist there.

Everything I read about American politics would lead me to believe Trump is a dead man walking. Polls notwithstanding, the daily barrage of lamentation and outrage serves only to support the idea that his Waterloo is imminent. His transgressions are increasingly brazen, and even his support in the Senate seem transparently self-serving; a person could be forgiven for thinking that fair-minded peoiple on the right could easily rebel and go against him and his enablers.

I keep reading that Republicans, even in the Senate, despise him in their secret hearts. I hear that the fact that they stand by him publicly only exposes their hypocrisy and self preservation.

But here’s the rub: maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe the very hypocrisy we deplore should tell us something about the electorate, that Republicans don’t dare show their anti-Trump side because they know it would hurt them politically.

Maybe, as in the UK, enough people are more tired of liberal condescension than they are afraid of what Trump is doing to the coutry. Maybe — dare I say it? -– they actually like what he’s doing. Going strictly by the numbers, the economy looks good. True, much of that can be said to be in spite of Trump rather than because of him, but Republicans may well believe their constituency will reward staying the course and punish any criticism of it.

A case in point is the currently favorite liberal whipping boy, Lindsey Graham. He certainly is among the most brazen of the code-switchers, since he has a history of public Trump-bashing. What does he see that makes him so confident in his turn-around?

On one hand, if Trump survives and gets re-elected along with a majority in either house, Graham coasts in on the tide. If on the other hand, Trump loses, what are the prospects?

Surveying the current Democratic contenders, he probably doesn’t see anyone who would survive beyond a single term. Don’t forget, Republican obstructionists were able to limit much of Obama’s agenda, even when he had a Democratic congress.

I’m not saying such an analysis has any merit, but I can see Graham and his cohort believing it. Graham himself has a history of running for president, and certainly has his eyes on 2024.

But why, you may ask, is the Republican electorate so blind to the hipocrisy of so many Republican politicians, who were so dead set against Trump, and now enthusiastically sing in his choir?

I have a better question. Why is the left, in particular the Bernie-crats, so smitten with political consistency, as if no one is allowed to learn anything for the duration of a public career?

One big reason BJ got his victory in the UK was that so many people who might normally have voted left couldn’t stomach Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader. There are very good reasons for this, but the key is that their disdain was never enough to dislodge him from his position as leader.

Take that as you will; I just hope it’s not a lesson too late for the learning.

About those golden years…

Something many people don’t know about me is that, years ago, I was a young person. Back then, I saw the world in terms of unlimited possibility, if only I could overcome the proliferation of totally unfair obstacles it was throwing at me. I was idealistic. If something wasn’t good enough, then, dammit, get rid of it, and if you didn’t agree with me, then it was time to leave you behind to fend for your sorry self.

Now that I’m old, I’m not much different, except that I keep my more misanthropic thoughts to myself. I imagine I’ve gotten smarter about life, but how can you trust someone who has always thought that anyway?

I hear a lot of people my age (old) say they still feel like they’re in their 30s, or 40s if they’re 10 years older than I am, which is not at all what we expected to feel like. When you’re young you imagine old people as a kind of separate species. You imagine them sitting around on benches, either thinking wise and kind thoughts or crabbing about everything, when you’re not seeing them drooling their walkers through the corridors of a nursing home. The wise and kind elderly are usually dead, the better to be idealized; the crabby type lives in your neighborhood to be seen every day. The old fart yelling at kids to get off his lawn has become a trope, but I’d venture to say that sort of behavior is more characteristic of the young and up-and-coming. A bit of projection?

Anyhow, my young friends, I’m here to tell you exactly what being old really feels like.

It feels exactly like being young. And recovering from a car wreck.