For one section of The Great Mutual Fund Trap, a co-authored look at Wall Street published in 2002, Gregory Baer tried to calculate the odds of picking a winning stock or mutual fund. That’s when he caught the probability bug.
“I started thinking of life in those terms,” says Baer, a
financial-institutions lawyer who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. “Like, what are the odds of dating a supermodel? Or getting struck by lightning?” He went on to spend the better part of a year researching the likelihood of certain hopes and fears being realized: marrying a millionaire, dying by contact with venomous animals or plants, achieving sainthood, getting hemorrhoids, being cursed with a tiny penis. (“It seemed like an obvious question,” he says of the last.)
Last October, Gotham Books released Life: The Odds (And How to Improve Them), in which Baer uses probability to poke fun at our shallow dreams, elite institutions, and popular culture. As far as the format goes, Baer’s comfortable with the term “bathroom book.” “It’s sort of the ideal place to read,” he says.
To satisfy his various curiosities, Baer found himself talking with unlikely peoplefolks from the American Bowling Congress (about the odds of rolling a perfect game), a British scientist who clones four-leaf clovers (about the probability of plucking one at random), and a woman from Antiques Roadshow (about the odds of striking it rich on the show). He chatted with an astrophysicist and read books on Kenoa game that has terrible odds, he’ll tell you. “Whenever I was on an airplane, I’d try to hide whatever I was reading,” he says. “It was invariably something stupid.”
Baer also developed a good nose for poor methodology, finding the most egregious offenders to be those who conduct studies on penis length. “I never thought about the problems in getting real statistical data on penis size,” says Baer. “The Kinsey Report committed the two greatest mistakes in penis measurement: letting guys measure themselves and relying entirely on volunteers.” (Baer, after consulting several studies, puts the average length at about 5.5 inches.)
Once the book was published, he heard from a close friend. “He said that the chapter on penis size brought him great comfort,” says Baer. Still, because of that one section, which “appropriately embarrassed my wife,” Baer says he’ll wait a few years before letting his three boys, ages 4 to 11, read the book.
In another chapter, which he admits writing partly for himself, Baer examined the odds of an author’s writing a best seller. Unfortunately, he found that nowadays you stand a decent chance only if you’ve already published a best sellera fact he attributes to the way publishers market their books and the way the big chains now place them within their stores. “I hadn’t understood some aspects of the publishing business, even having been published,” he says. “I was struck by how the odds have changed.”
But Baer is still optimistic. He has, after all, defied perhaps the worst odds not covered in his book: Baer is a former assistant secretary of the treasury for financial institutions who managed to get a humor book publishedand “even as a small boy,” he admits, “my goal was to be the world’s funniest banking lawyer.” Dave Jamieson