Lash of Fortune


  • Life is unfair.  The universe is remorselessly cold.  An end of all is in sight.  In cosmic terms, nothing we do matters.
  • Maturity is to a large extent learning to deal with those facts.   Overcoming adversity, moving on from disappointment, treasuring this moment and not worrying too much about hours to come.  I’m not sure we can ever program machines to be so illogical,  but our own biological nature provides surprising happiness and delight except under the most extreme conditions.
  • On the other hand, we are needlessly cruel if we leverage the misfortune of others.  Charity exists partially because we ourselves might need it some day,  but mostly to thumb our nose at harsh reality itself.  Anybody can hope for a better moment if we merely help them.   Compassion will not necessarily create a better tomorrow, but it can expand our special bubble of meaning beyond a fragile need for self-preservation.
  • Cassandras cry that civilization falls, and wealthy Cassandras blame those not so well-off as they are.  They screech at individuals for not trying hard enough, for making the wrong choices, for giving up too easily, even for accepting moments of joy on a hard and nasty road.  They intone that only the hopeless joy of their grim prophets should be accepted as real, and those grim prophets themselves claim all is lost without constant vigilance.
  • A strange philosophy for an Earth potentially overflowing with abundance.  But our masters have come to wield the lash of fortune, and to inflict wounds on the afflicted, and to proclaim doom for all that is not savagely ripped from the web of existence and hung on the wall as a trophy.  


  • Lloyd Neck is a small peninsula into Long Island Sound.  It is covered with what, for this area, is old forest, none of it original growth.  On the property of Caumsett State Park sits the 1711 cabin of the original Mr. Lloyd, who with the help of his slaves cleared all the magnificent logs and sold them along the East Coast and into Europe.  Many trees have grown large and wonderful in their own right since then, of course, but lots of those were toppled in the catastrophe of superstorm Sandy.  With the lash of fortune driving such unpredictable events, what is meant by “survival of the fittest”?
  • Our biology textbooks and popularizations give an impression of nature having a workout and getting in shape for some grim game.  The former idea that evolution was aiming for intelligence _ particularly us _ has fortunately been shelved.  But we are still somewhat stuck, I think, in seeing life as some kind of race where the early bird gets the worm, and the strongest live until another day.  What Darwin actually noted was that evolution involves immense overbreeding by the luckiest.  Sometimes a slight advantage can give better odds, but _ for example _ the luck of many species of trees has nothing at all to do with competition in the environment, but the merely fortuitous chance that they are of some use or pleasure to people.


  • Infused with the spirit of his age, Alexander Pope rhymed “whatever is, is right.”
  • Alexander Pope is full of shit. 


  • If people cloned or bred true, if life passed with invariant rules, comprehensive insurance would make sense.  However, the real world dictates that people are different, situations are different, risks are different.  Insurance assumes that a pool of folks are very much alike, but some will be unlucky.  Within a self-selecting pool, this can be true enough to be very useful.  The standard example is a group of homeowners in a small town self-insuring against fire damage, or a church congregation supporting its own long-term members.  Insurance allows us to handle the fog of future visions in a rational way, based on simple probability computations.
  • Comprehensive insurance, on the other hand, admits everyone whether in a similar pool or not.  And then everything goes badly wrong.  Some homeowners are far riskier than others.  Some homes are not well kept, some people smoke in bed or play with matches, and some areas are prone to forest fires.  Suddenly, the pool of prudent policy holders feel they are carrying a bunch of lazy idiots on their backs.
  • Technology  exacerbates the problem, for two reasons.  On the one hand, it allows more and more risky situations to exist _ people kept alive beyond normal lifespans, houses built beyond common sense.  On the other, it also permits a far more detailed projection of the risk level of any given individual based on past behaviors, genetic patterns, and data analysis.  Some people are, for one reason or another, just really bad risks for car insurance.  Rational economic response is to put such people into isolated pools, and charge rates accordingly.  But with technology, even isolated pools are rapidly reduced to consisting of just one person, and probability of risk becomes useless against true fortune.
  • It may be that insurance as an economically viable way of handling risk is about to become obsolete.  Such paradigm shifts do happen.  There was no insurance as such in the middle ages in Europe, nor anywhere else for most of history.  In the meantime I can only chuckle as definitions clash with definitions and goals clash with goals as politicians try to stuff a very square huge peg through a very tiny round hole.


  • No birds at the feeder in the back yard this morning.  Not many for some time.  A hawk or an owl or both have discovered that birds gathered at a convenient feeding spot are also easy prey.  In spite of these swooping raptors crashing into our windows once in a while, they have managed to succeed enough to chase all the feathered guests away.  That makes for a less lively view from the window, although it has also cut down considerably on the cost of feed.
  • Unintended consequences are the backstroke of the lash of fortune.  I thought I was doing something fine _ fattening little songbirds, cardinals, jays, even doves against the coming chills.  But I was merely setting them up for carnage.  That so neatly illustrates much of the best laid plans of our lives that it is almost a parable.  I know what I think I am doing when I do it, but I am always wrong about the exact outcome as the future extends.  I wish our society would contemplate its own hubris, as we hurtle on with innovation and construction everywhere.


Hundreds of birds jostle for position where sweet water trickles in rivulets into the salty marsh.  Pecking order must be set between the flocks, within the flocks, one on one.  Following furious screeching, honking, mock attacks, ruffled feathers, things finally settle down and the serious business of gossip can begin.
“Did you hear about poor Holly?”
“Holly?  No, what happened …”
“Smashed on that weird endless strip of rock up there last night.  Another monster slashing by.”
“I always hear them.”
“Apparently you couldn’t hear this one.  Some of those monsters have gotten really quiet.”
“Jeez, now you’ve got me scared.  What are those things, anyway?  They don’t even stop to feed after the kill.”
“I know.  Poor Holly, such a dear.  So young.”
“Any kids?”
“Nope.  Engaged though.”
“Well, I for one plan never to alight on anything but sand ever again.”

“Fine, but I hear some of the monsters have even adapted to cruising the beach ….”


Ode On Solitude by Alexander Pope
“Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.”
How boring such a life t’would be
Full harsh unending miserie
None to know nor aught to care
Of sadness, joy, achievement, dare
I’ve oft such weary dust bestrode
Grim or cheerfilled empty road
Sought loud companions, boisterous rude

And only sometimes solitude.