Sunday, March 13, 2011

Assessing the risk of rare events

Some time ago I had a discussion with, I think, a probabilist (maybe it was Yuval Peres), who advanced the opinion that humans are really bad at understanding the odds of rare events. Even probabilists don't really understand rare events, he said.

I saw a report of an interview of a Japanese professor saying that Friday's events were "literally" a "once a millenium" event: in 869 there was an earthquake of this scale, with a tsunami that went 3 miles inland. At first, once a millenium sounds pretty low... until you realize that, for a plant with a lifetime of 40 years, it's an unacceptable 1-in-25 odds!


Coincidentally, on Thursday evening I happened to be chatting with a mathematician friend about the Japanese's amazing ability for reconstruction from scratch; the specific topic of our conversation was their rise as international mathematicians in every major area of mathematics since WW2.


At Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, there was a Mass for the people of Japan. Standing room only. Many Japanese, including the ambassador of Japan in France. As it happened, the day's first reading was on Adam and Eve's banishment from Eden, so the archbishop talked about the meaning of death; but I found it academic more than sympathetic. Anecdotically, in the procession at the end, I saw Sarkozy walk right by me, just a couple of yards away!
Here is what some Christians have been using to pray this weekend:
The waves of death rose about me;
the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the snares of the grave surrounded me;
the traps of death confronted me.
The earth reeled and rocked;
The mountains were shaken to their base.
The bed of the ocean was revealed;
The foundations of the world were laid bare.
From on high he reached me and seized me;
He drew me forth from the mighty waters.
From Psalm 18
Psalms are amazing. Thousands of years old, yet there's always one appropriate for every circumstance!


SODA will be in Japan in 2012.


  1. Anyone who claims confident knowledge about what is happening and what will happen is not to be trusted. The wikipedia articles (both in English and in French) are much less sanguine. Personal bias is evident in the "expert" opinions.


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