Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > Chance and Hope

Chance and Hope

The title of this post sounds like the names of a two people who might own a ranch in the Old West. But, it’s really a question:

What is the chance of making things change
for the better through hope alone? 

Three years ago, the country voted for Hope and Change, a phrase now never uttered in public.

Why? The reason lies in the answer to my question, above.

In the late ’80’s, an old friend named Chuck conviced me that the chance of making things better through hope alone is never better than one in seven. And the true odds against you are mostly much worse.

Chuck was a tall, bony guy in his early fifties who wore glasses and carried his southern Indiana upbringing in his voice, He had great common sense and down home ways to explain complex things. Chuck ran an engineering firm in the Pacific Northwest, but on the occasion that spawned this post, we were having dinner together in Atlanta. I’d given a paper on the second day of a technical conference there, and he’d come up to introduce himself afterward. He seemed like an interesting guy, so we decided to have dinner together and continue our talk.

During the meal, topics rambled across a lot of technical ground that was interesting to us but would have bored the snot out of most folks. After dessert, we wandered into the hotel bar and found the least noisy part in which to continue. Eventually, we reached the witching hour, when Cosmic Insights make themselves known—that time when you unlock perfect solutions to the major problems of humankind but can’t remember the next morning what those answers were. I’ve since noticed that, though this insightful state is seldom attained by mere mortals, it’s apparently a permanent one among the ‘medical’ marijuana crowd. 

So, true to my mortal form, I recall precisely none of the earth-shattering conclusions that we reached, But, surprisingly, I do remember a simple, profound insight from Chuck: his rule about the odds against us when ‘hope and change’ are in play.

The desire to escape a less than perfect situation is part of human nature. In its positive incarnation, it drives progress. No matter how well off someone is overall, the notion that the grass always seems to be greener next door can seep into their minds.

We have lots of sayings about this aspect of human nature. But, two that relate to Chuck’s Rule are: ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’ and ‘look before you leap’.

Using everyday life, Chuck figured the odds against success in a blind leap. That’s a jump where we are so focused on what is less than ideal now that we have deluded ourselves into believing that anything else just has to be better. Like in 2008. By Chuck’s Rule, the odds are, roughly, 7 to 1 against us.

Chuck’s proof of this was the card on our table that showed enticing photos of drinks with flowers and umbrellas on the front. Chuck said, “Dave, suppose you  picked up this card with your eyes closed and set it down in front of yourself. What’s the chance of having it right-side up and right-way ‘round? Forget for a moment whether it will show you a better choice of drinks than you already have.”

It was late in the evening for heavy math, but I thought to myself, Well, two sides and four edges give me eight possible orientations, only one of which is right. So, I said, “One in eight, or 7:1.”

Chuck smiled and nodded. Then, he said, “OK, so what does that mean? Suppose you don’t like this card for some reason and grab for a different one, hoping that the change will improve things. What are your chances of getting something better?”

I replied with a question, “So, if hope alone is our method, then the absolute best we can hope for is 7:1 against us? Seven chances things will be worse, against one chance it won’t be worse? And a far smaller chance it will be better?”

“Yup,” says Chuck, “and that’s where salesmen make their big bucks. It’s not natural for people to think in terms of numbers, we fixate on what’s wrong now and fool ourselves about what else could go wrong, or get even worse than now. And, of course, people are more foolish in groups than most of us are alone. Look at the French Revolution for example.”

That conversation took place years ago, but I’ve seen Chuck’s Rule come into play almost daily since then. Now, if I have time, I look even more carefully before I leap. And I try not to create more or bigger problems than I think I’m solving. But, as for some others? Not so much.

Just look at today’s headlines. Popular uprisings in the Arab world lead not toward democracy and human freedom, but toward ‘Islamic Republics’, with the god-driven duty to brutally subjugate women and murder infidels. Concerns about national bankruptcy lead to non-negotiable demands for more debt and more borrowing, thus ensuring what the proponents purport to avoid.

It’s even worse when so many folks accept ‘down’ as the definition of ‘up’ and ‘back’ as a synonym for ‘front’. Like the cretins who pretend to be bring us the news, for example.

Beware the cry, “The cup is half empty! Justice demands that it be full. Follow me and we’ll change everything!” You just may end up in a place where everyone but the people you followed is very thirsty.

Kind of like our ongoing national experiment with Hope and Change.

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