Hmm? That title is a little bit odd. Sounds like some sort of promotion for Led Zepplin [1] … or perhaps Spinal Tap [2]. Yet instead, it is a promotion of one of the more interesting books I have read in the past and expect to again do so in the future. 

Peter L Bernstein takes what the layman would likely find very dry material and lays in incredibly interesting fashion the history of development; concepts; and characters involved in his book titled: Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk [3].

Right there on the front of the Introduction page (i.e. page one) Bernstein succinctly lays it out:

The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature. Until human being discovered a way across that boundary, the future was a mirror of the past or the murky domain of oracles and soothsayers who held a monopoly over knowledge of anticipated events.

I like that quite a bit, it speaks to me about change, mastery, and of course twice that paragraph indicates the importance of boundaries.

I recommend anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading this book to put it on the top of their intended reading list.

I unfortunately don’t have the book on my desk and as a result don’t recall exactly what Bernstein said about what was the situation like before risk evaluation systems were developed.

Now that said, I got to think about something more last night at my mediation training class. We got onto the notion of that which one focuses upon positive or negative becomes a goal. The first example explained was of a football coach who as was the norm during those days would follow-up game day with a review of the game reel.

Like most coaches he would give a critique of plays which didn’t come off as well in an effort to seek to improve his players. Did his players improve? No.

So, one day he decided to flip his approach and concentrate only on the successful plays during a game. What was the result? Improvement and success.

We then heard the story of how a parent was training his daughter how to ride a bike. The girl was getting it and in a somewhat wobbly form I suspect took off down the road. But, the father saw the danger ahead and shouted:

“Look out for the Rock, Honey” … WATCH OUT FOR THE ROCK …. DON’T HIT THE ROCK!

What happened? Of course, the girl hit the rock! [4]

Now on the complete other hand, I want to relate an story of amazement that I witnessed when I was living in Taiwan in ’95-’96. I haven’t been back, but suspect that they still have a sizable portion of the population moving around on motor scooters which might be best described as Vespas on steroids.

At any rate, the traffic patterns were fairly wild and on one of these scooters sat Dad, with oldest daughter standing in front of him holding on to the mirrors, Mom behind Dad, with middle son sitting between them; and off of Mom’s back was wrapped the youngest child.

Now while that may sound like clowns stuffing them inside of a VW Beetle at the circus, there was one more thing that made this picture unique.

In front of the daughter was placed a plain window pane the width for which went up above her midriff and the length extended likely no less than 2 feet beyond the envelope of the bike. Yikes!

My questions are these:

First, was there a risk there? And when I ask that question I am attempting to tease out whether there is a difference between perception of risk and danger.

Second, if the risk is not contemplated, does it reduce the likelihood of an ‘event’ unfolding? More specifically, considering that any ‘event’ likely occurs as some confluence of forces some beyond control and others within such that the individual finding themselves in a risky/dangerous situation may either recognize and chooses to dismiss (stupidity?); recognizes and chooses to disregard (courage?); or fails to recognize altogether (ignorance? and/or luck?).

Third, where is society allowed to dictate what is “reasonable” and where are we allowed free choice? Here, think about seat belt laws. Think about the anchoring systems which are mandated now for babies. And think about the arbitrary law that we need to wait until kids are 13 before they can sit in the front, passenger seat [at least here in Washington State].

Fourth, how do you think those laws get on the books? I suspect that occurs because someone or more likely a consortioum of someones sees both a problem to fix and an opportunity to make or save money and they work to make a necessary systemic change. 

Returning to the seat-belt idea, remember that it is the insurance companies that are both gathering statistical information and paying out claims. So, insurance companies have an interest in creating systems which best delimits the damage caused by the ‘event’ of crashes.

Finally, I’m curious to return to the girl hitting the rock and the football coach’s success. I’ve recently been reading Napoleon Hill’s original “Think and Grow Rich.” There is a section of the book which speaks to “auto-suggestion.”

Auto-suggestion’s basic idea that you can program yourself with thought to be successful … much like Olympic Athletes program themselves to envision victory before stepping into the arena of competition.

Specifically, do those who thoughtfully disregard risks and will themselves forward have a higher statistical probability of success? If so, perhaps one does have a significant say as to what side of the line the statistics ‘come down on you.’

There are a rare few people in this world who take it on as Robert Duval depicts Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now who are completely indifferent to danger. [5] For these people, how often does God extend or withdraw his hand of risk?  

[1] See the wikipedia entry about the English rock band [HERE] and their official site [HERE].

[2] See the wikipedia entry for 1984 film This is Spinal Tap [HERE] and Roger Ebert’s commentary [HERE].

[3] To purchase Peter L. Bernstein’s book Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk at Amazon click [HERE].

[4] I’ve heard a similar story about First Responders coming to find fields in the ditch … wrapped up around electrical poles. 

[5] See the wikipedia entry about the film Apocolypse Now [HERE] and a partial picture of Kilgore as well as Roger Ebert’s commentary on both the original and Apocolyse Now Redux [HERE].