Monday, September 28, 2009

The Right Tail

Born in a motherless home where authoritarian controls over individual actions were exercised hourly, he was limited to his thoughts. Undeterred in his lonely invisible cage, amongst the escapades he imagined, one was to live in a different world. The penitent of  real life released into his fluid and vivid dreams. What the world did not disclose to him under the crossed eyes and stern rejections, he accomplished in his daily escapes into the cloistered world of peace and tranquility where life belonged to him and him alone.

His birth had been traumatic leaving him with a deformity of the spine, kyphosis they called it. He countered this with the flair of certitude in his dealings at school. The in-room quiet nights with the low wattage bulb lamp next to his bed so as not to disturb nor raise the ire of his father was his sanctuary. The pale and pasty complexion gave him the sickly look and made him the butt of his schoolmate jokes. This dual battle of repression strengthened his resolve to commit his life from an imagined into a true reality.

The marathon of constant struggle was the tempest of his vigorous and fertile mind. He devoted his studies to mathematics and from there he undertook physics and biology and then through esoteric subjects he one day descended on software programming. Even though for the next decade the programming was a means to make payments on a modest home and food on the table. His time at home was devoted to the use of the programming skills for purposes entirely his own. Logic.

The numbers of patents he filed always exceeded his age. One day after his thirty-second birthday he decided to write a sentence a day that would describe the day ahead. By his fortieth birthday he had written 8 books on far reaching issues. From as diverse topics as evolutionary biology to the more mathematically inclined probability functions. The diversity of subjects was fodder to his imagination. He opined, the publishers published and experts attacked him for his heretical, iconoclastic condemnation of business as usual. Most of his writings were proven correct and because of the evoked controversy, his works became known worldwide. 

He was well on his way to amassing a fortune that he did not desire, but life had other plans. It was the afternoon of his fortieth birthday when he was taken ill to the hospital. He had fever, a cough and some shortness of breath. After the medical deliberations were over the verdict was not good.

“That was 22 years ago. Really. They had me dead and buried. I still remember the doctor, a serious looking guy with reading glasses would not take his eyes off the chart while he told me I had Mesothelioma.” He put down the glass of water and resumed, “I mean come on man! Talk to me. Tell me my odds. I am no dimwit dummy crawling under the blanket of fear. I can take it. But no, he just dragged out his monotone and after five minutes of monologue he exited the room. What kind of crap is that?” The memories from two decades ago came flooding in with the anger and frustration.
“Maybe he wasn’t comfortable with delivering bad news.”
“Like it was his neck in the gallows.” He said peering over his thick-rimmed blue tinted reading glasses. "He was more interested in how I got it. I told him it was from working in the shipyard as a teenager.  That was it, he was done with the interview."
“Terrible approach.”
“So I decided then and there that I was going to make my own decisions based on the evidence at hand. One of my fields of research as you know is Conditional Probability. So when the initial fog rolled out, I read some articles on Mesothelioma and the overall survival rates.” He pointed to a filing cabinet next to his cherry wood desk, indicating that was where the data was buried.

“And what was your discovery.”
“I am here, aren’t I?”
"I found out it is extremely slow growing. If you smoke with it the chances of having cancer is higher and that treatment is mostly surgical removal of the lining of the lung initially. However given the slowness of the illness one's survival is prolonged."
"As yours turned out to be."
“I do see the problem with the medical people it is not that they are dumb or anything remote to that. They are dedicated and smart otherwise they could not possibly be where they are. But they are illiterate in the field of statistics. The statisticians make up the numbers, coddle the data, invoke some mysterious law and variance test and then deliver percentages to suit what the investigator wants to say. All that is scientifically packaged with graphs and tables and all the hoopla of a true scientific literary presentation. The editors also schooled similarly look to their experts for the mathematical models proposed in the paper and having found no problems publish it. That seals the deal.” He picks up the sheaf of papers sitting on the end side table under a glass half filled with water. “I’ll show you. Now look at this nice Bell shaped curve.” He holds out a Normal Distribution Curve image. "This Bell shaped diagram is based on the Gaussian Function." (Figure to the right).
“Yeah, what about it?”
“What do you see in it?”
“The mean, and a 2 standard deviation from that mean showing a 95 confidence interval stating that majority of the population with this disease will die within 5 months to a 19 month.”
“True. So what would you tell your patients?”
“Just that.”
“Exactly my point. Look at the tails on the right side of this curve. The tail which is mathematically called kurtosis is fairly long isn’t it? The perfect bell curve we all are shown is not the normal as everyone will have us believe. There are always distributions of events on the left and the right side giving out left and right tails or widening and flattening the graphic function based on the events    observed. Not all of life flies on the strict aerodynamic principles of an airplane wing, some fly the circuitous and topsy turvy flight path of a broom handle as in Harry Potter movies."
“Yeah, you're right, I guess.”
“So what about the people in this tail who can live out longer?” (Figure below).
“But only a minority is in that tail.”
“True, but tell that to the individual. If I had resigned myself to the verdict, I got 22 years ago, I could have unwittingly given up all hope, lost interest in life, become unproductive and essentially dug up the ground with my own mental shovel and deposited myself with the worms. You would not be here and we would not be having a conversation today.” He said with a note of exasperation on his brow arching the wrinkle on his forehead into a deeper furrow.” I chose to understand the logic of medicine and defined my own terms. Not that I was the lucky one to be in that right tail of the curve, but lucky enough to understand the meaning of the right tail and take my chances. Whether my mental energies or the immune surveillance or just being to damn dumb about the whole thing made me live this long with that hope, I don’t know. But here I am.” Exhausted with the expressive monologue, he fell quiet.

The choices we make, make us. The linearity of time follows a circuitous path with many forks in the road. Our peregrinations when recorded show us what we have become. All the learning, looking, grasping at ideas, reading the written and understanding that which is not continues to evolve us onto a fate that we choose. This is the finality of purpose of a human life. Life is a spirit striving to understand and then drawing from that understanding devolves itself to live that time with a purpose.

1 comment:

  1. Its amazing to think what a profound impact a slight genetic variation in one can potentially have upon us all...