About likelihoods (Om sannolikheter, Tage Danielsson)
In celebration of Midsummer today, I wanted to post the below monologue on likelihoods (of nuclear powerplant catastrophies), which is a translation of a famous Swedish monologue by Tage Danielsson.
When we at MySQL had joined Sun, one task for me and my Sales Engineer collagues was to travel to Sun offices and educated the huge Sun sales force about MySQL, so they could sell it too. (Basically to tell them about open source, scale-out, reference customers, and most importantly: Don't sell Cluster on your own, call me first.) Being a Telecom Sales Engineer, I was sent to tour the Ericsson account team meeting, the Nokia account team meeting, and for logistical reasons even the Siemens account team meeting that was at the same location as the Nokia team.
Each meeting had nicer and nicer dinners, but the Ericsson account team meeting in Stockholm was clearly the winner. The dinner was set in the City Hall restaurant (Stadshuskällaren), which is also were they serve the Nobel gala dinners. Our menu was a copy of the 1981 Nobel menu, served on the authentic Nobel porcelain.
I thought that if I was going to be at a Nobel gala dinner (clone), I wanted to give an "acceptance speech". Since Physics was my university major, I chose the below well known Swedish monologue about nuclear power. My monologue was well received - a related factoid is that the official entertainment for our dinner was embarrasingly un-funny, so at least my monologue saved something of the evening.
The original monologue was performed in 1979 by acclaimed Swedish comedian Tage Danielsson. Sweden had in 1980 a referendum where a majority voted against using nuclear power (to this day Sweden still uses it though). The accident in Harrisburg was the major nuclear disaster of that day, Chernobyl would only happen 6 years later.
The main joke in the Swedish original actual plays on the words "sanning" (truth, fact) and "sannolikhet" (likelihood, probability) where the literal translation of likelihood is "like truth". Unfortunately this is not possible to translate into English, but I tried to make a funny monologue around the original idea.
I've also found an independent translation here http://www.swedishenglishtranslation.com/danielsson.htm, but decided to perform my own translation instead. I concluded the other translation does an even poorer job of translating the un-translatable joke.
This is the youtube video of the original Tage Danielsson performance. Happy Midsummer!
Tage Danielsson, "Under Dubbelgöken", 1979
Translation: Henrik Ingo, 2008
Likelihood. I reckon that is something that is likely to be a fact. I mean, not truly a fact, but like a fact. And it is therefore with regret that I've noticed - likely due to the current downturn in the economy - that it seems we cannot really afford to get true facts anymore, but only likelihoods. This I regret, because the likelihoods are not always as reliable as true facts are. For instance, sometimes the likelihood can be very different before and after.
I mean, for instance, before Harrisburg... I mean before it was highly unlikely that what happened in Harrisburg could ever happen. But then when it had happened... well then the likelihood went straight up to 100 percent, so that it became almost like a fact that it had happened.
But then only almost a fact. This is what puzzles me. Because there are still those that will say (at least quietly to themselves) that what happened in Harrisburg, well it was so highly unlikely, that likely maybe it didn't really happen at all. The whole Socialdemocratic party has in fact been waiting for half a year now to get a report on whether what happened in Harrisburg really happened or not, so that they could then finally decide whether they will think that nuclear power is as dangerous as it would be if what happened in Harrisburg really happened. But now I heard that they finally have made up their mind, and it seems they have decided that what happened in Harrisburg really didn't happen, but that on the other hand we need to have much better security in our nuclear plants so that it doesn't happen here too!
And it is understandable that they are in doubt, because I've read that based on all the likelihood calculations, such an accident is likely to happen only about once in thousands of years! So in that case it is of course quite unlikely that it would already have happened by now, don't you think! No, it is of course much more likely that it would have happened much later. And that of course gives quite a different perspective on things... because, I mean, that is then something we cannot know today... what might be then... or... I don't know.
Then there is this other thing that is important to remember to take into account in those likelihood calculations, which is that IF it after all would turn out to be a fact that what happened in Harrisburg really happened - against all odds - then the likelihood for it to happen again... well that's just so ridiculously small that... you know, in a way you could say that it was really good that what happened in Harrisburg really happened, because now we can be almost certain that it cannot happen again! Or at least not in Harrisburg! And at least not at the same time as the last one happened!
... No ... The likelihood for that is so small that it is negligible. And a negligible likelihood means that it doesn't really exist. Except just a little bit.
All of this is of course a bit complicated for the average person. So to have a referendum on such a complex issue is likely not a very good idea, since most people will just wrongly conclude that what happened in Harrisburg really did happen. They'll just take it as a fact.
They don't understand that something that isn't even likely to be fact, obviously cannot truly be a fact for real. Those people just haven't kept up with the progress lately. I bet they were taught by their parents to always just stick to the facts. "Stick to the facts", their parents would tell them. But this we shouldn't teach our kids anymore. We have to teach our kids to always stick to their likelihoods. This way they'll understand that what happened in Harrisburg cannot possibly happen here, since it really didn't even happen there, which after all would have been much more likely considering that it was there that it happened!!!