Saturday, September 01, 2018

On Danger

There's a statistical category I find a bit oxymoronic, a bit paradoxical, a bit hard to wrap the head around. The world's most dangerous city. Apparently decided by murder rate, and as of 2017, a list somewhat dominated by cities of the country in which I currently reside.

Here's the thing, to be the world's most dangerous city, you still have to be a functional city. I suspect it might be more dangerous in the long run to live in Chernobyl, where environmental factors make residence hazardous to the health, so hazardous I believe that it is in fact now an uninhabited area. But the fact of the world's most dangerous city is, that most people still live there.

And indeed, the danger is measured in the number of murders per 100,000 for which Los Cabos (not on my travel itinerary edges out Caracas (also not on my itinerary). But the thing is, in such dangerous cities, most residents get up have breakfast and go about their day.

That's the way it has to be. Elsewise what you'd be seeing is that every year the newest city to be crowned the world's most dangerous city would be a soon-to-be ex city, as its residents en masse decide they've had enough of fearing for their lives and it's time to pack up and move to the land of milk and honey. Or something.

And to be sure, a lot of people do leave Mexico, which along with Venezuela and Brazil dominate the top 50. Trump would probably argue that the fact that Detroit, Baltimore, Saint Louis and New Orleans make the list owing to immigration of 'Bad Hombres'. Which is almost certainly not the case.

The point is this, even in the world's most dangerous city, it is evidently possible to live a full mundane existence that doesn't necessarily end in murder.

The difficulty is that safety requires judgement. And judgement requires perception.

Where do you draw the line that is your margin of safety? It is probable that in the world's most dangerous city, only some neighborhoods are dangerous. There may be physical boundaries that one simply does not cross, streets that represent territorial borders, bars one does not enter, train lines or bus routes you probably shouldn't catch.

If you are standing on a packed out train or bus, how many head-tops can I see? Seems like a strange question but it does actually inform how safe I feel. In Los Angeles, I am a male of average if not below average height. In Mexico I am mostly in the top 5% of tall dudes. Taller people are statistical anomalies, more so than Japan. I am not physically intimidated by the general population, and possibly am the physically intimidating one - hard to test, but if true has a huge impact on my relative safety. It may also put my pockets at an awkward height for pick-pocketing etc.

But more on perception, if you lack it, or your perception is skewed then safety becomes the real danger. In high school I had a friend who's great aunt (I think, I'm no longer sure of the actual relation) was a Holocaust survivor, he reported that her life consisted of staying at home and watching then somewhat popular blaze travel show 'Getaway' ostensibly just a crappy commercial disguised as television content.

For her, I can sympathise, the thought of being abducted and shipped off to a death camp, is so horrific that it isn't worth the risk of leaving her home. We had a privileged perspective to know empirically that there were no gestapo waiting for her in 90's regional Victoria, Australia. But she couldn't because it wasn't worth the risk of even testing the theory that Nazi's were waiting everywhere to take everything away from her.

But what is that everything?

While an obtuse example, I find this principle common, while obvious people constantly behave in ways consistent with the shut in Holocaust survivor - which couples therapist Esther Peral sorts into two categories of 'those who survived, and those that did not die.' which I interpret as survivors that adopt a risk profile that limits their ability to live a fulfilling life down to the point where there is very little point to being alive.

In my first week in Mexico, I kept walking past news stands or street vendors reading the newspapers. There seemed to be a reliable way of selling a paper in this country that consists of printing a full size graphic picture of a murdered person left on the streets, and a skimpy soft porn image of a model - perhaps following the British tradition of journalism.

Relative to Australia, a lot of people are getting murdered here, but murder implies motive and beyond kidnapping me and trying to extract max cash out of me through ransoming or getting me to transfer my funds under duress, I as a foreigner am not really part of the intricate organized crime cartels that are I assume producing most of the murders.

I can sense though that I am going to see horrific images that are going to skew my perception of how dangerous this country is. (and also how sexy) because these images are not competing with a life time of experience in my home town. Just as Australia's gangland murder coverage in the early 2000's didn't skew my perception of how dangerous Melbourne or Ballarat is. Despite one of the getaway cars for a gangland murder being torched in my parents street.

The civilians are mostly irrelevant. And thus from the civilian perspective, most of the danger is irrelevant too. There is really only the danger of being unlucky.

It was interesting to observe the spread of perceptions as to the danger presented by the rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon in my home town. While true that a true statistical anomaly would be if the victim had been a man, for a woman to be raped and murdered by a stranger, in a public place rather than home remains a statistical anomaly. Some percieved the danger to be omnipresent and very very real requiring a restructuring of society immediately, others were blaze seeming to see it as mere bad fortune. Here I am talking about the women I spoke to. And at the latter pole there was always a demand to appreciate how unsafe women feel in general, though for me it was better articulated by Dave Chapelle relating the one time he had to carry $10k in cash on the subway in a backpack for some drug dealers. A crucial difference being nobody knows what you have in a backpack when you are feeling vulnerable, but everyone knows a woman has a vagina on their person with a reasonable degree of confidence.

However, I as a man must be aware of perceiving the general and the specefic. Generally the world is a much safer place for myself as a man, I am freer to explore and shit. Specifically though it may prove that I am dead an buried long before most women for whom the world is generally more dangerous will expire.

In which case I will be said to be unlucky.

So what to do with danger? This concept.

Well firstly what's the difference between 'danger' and 'dangerous' I suspect a taxi driver for example might be dangerous, but this clinches on whether he is in possession of the knowledge of anyone being in possession of the knowledge that he is your taxi driver and you are expected to arrive somewhere at some specific time. In which case, possessing this knowledge he becomes perfectly safe. Likewise a snake is perfectly safe if you are in possession of the knowledge of among other things whether it is poisonous or not, how fast it moves, how it moves, where to grip it and how to handle it.

Yes, the world is full of veritable Schrodinger's cats. How to test as to whether the Big Bad is lurking in that dark corner or not though?

Well, here's the deal the first rule of risk taking is: you don't risk something important to gain something unimportant. An anecdote comes to mind - A colleague of my father's often did consulting in India. For some reason she had internalized a basic rule of safety to never travel on Indian roads at night. She and a group of colleagues at a conference got marooned in some city in India and nightfall came before they could depart to make a flight. She resolved to book a hotel suite and spend the night before moving out in the morning. Her colleagues decided to hire a driver to try and make the flight.
Allegedly, the car was run off the road and all passengers died.

Here in this anecdote, that I do not know the truth of, and do not wish to wind up in a heated exchange with India's transport minister, there is much allegorical instruction. The first is an inability by the nightriders to perceive a difference between urgent and important. They perceived the urgency of their flights departure time as taking primacy. What was in fact important was everything they had invested in being alive.

But it's difficult though. Had my dad's friend been able to convince her colleagues of the danger, they would only have felt the missing of the flight, the pain (including financial) of rescheduling and would have had no way of seeing their would-be-driver veer off the road and crash and burn in a fiery end. So how to tell before the fact that my dad's friend was either an anxious Annie or sage safety counselor? How to tell after the fact?

A day is not important in the context of our lives. That's how I would like to imagine I would perceive such a scenario. Warren Buffett has a similar analogy, which is the revolver with one bullet in a thousand, or million chambers. Would he accept a million dollars to take that gun and pull the trigger while pointed to his head? His rule is that he wouldn't. And Buffett keep in mind is one of the richest people alive, which you can take as a million dollars being trivial to him, but also to see his risk aversion in this case as demonstrative of being no obstacle to becoming extremely, if not obscenely rich.

There has to be a flip side though, because you could make a case that Holocaust surviving shut-ins adhere to this rule. Avoiding the horror of Auschwitz takes primacy over taking a stroll.

Here though I'd call on pattern recognition. In playing it safe, what do you have left that is worth keeping? Athletes who have had to recover from significant injuries, also often lose a lot of their performance not to the physical debilitation of the injury, but psychologically from their aversion to risking aggrevating or reinjuring themselves.

Here I guess I would say, risking your life for convenience, impatience is stupid. Risking your life for a chance at quality of life is smart.

The danger of safety is that you become less than a rock. A sedentary object that requires feeding and watering and a place to defecate.

Playing it safe is good in the specific but not in the general. Once safety becomes a routine of existence - avoiding things on the off chance they turn bad, and thus avoiding vast quantities of meaning and goodness then your life has diminished in value, recalibrated to the point where playing it safe is no different from taking the risk. You are losing your life anyway. Worse for there is no potential upside to playing it safe. There's no variation in outcome that is what the absence of risk is. No exposure to positive upside risk.

So in the event of my untimely death, break open this track and try to understand:

Of course most people to some degree, already do. Just in the advent of hindsight we often forget we make decisions without the prescience hindsight may convince us we should have had.

Sorry for that last sentence, I assure you it does make sense.