Twain on Twains (Well, Really, Twain on the Risk of Train Accidents. Couldn’t Resist.)

Hi Readers — Look at this lovely little snippet of Mark Twain cogitatin’ on risk, and how we tend to blow it up all out of proportion. Apparently we managed to scare ourselves to death back in 1871, too. This excerpt appears on a blog I hear mentioned all the time, Schneier on Security, by Bruce Schneier who is (surprise!) a security expert, and who also writes a column for that great magazine, Wired.

Enjoy a little sanity from the ages. — Lenore

13 Responses

  1. I love it. Mark Twain’s knew what he was talking about.

    On the other hand, drat! I guess we can’t expect a complete turn around to sanity any time soon. People in general have trouble believing statistics.

  2. I love his twist at the end:

    “The danger isn’t in travelling by rail, but in trusting to those deadly beds. I will never sleep in a bed again.”

    There’s a reason he’s still our national humorist after more than a century.

  3. This had me laughing out loud. Great stuff! Thanks again for a dose of sanity.

  4. That’s a fantastic quote. Is there anything Twain can’t do? He’s like donuts.

    Schneier’s take on Security Theater is something that, conceptually, runs very closely parallel to the thoughts and ideas put forth here. The only difference is focus… you’re on about child raising, and he’s on about terrorism.

  5. Actually, the years around 1871 were pretty risky, compared with today.

    The middle class of this country was small, the lower class and burgeoning numbers of immigrants high, and an very, very wealthy elite (hmm, sound familiar?) topped it all off.

    Work was dangerous for the average person–few if any laws or regs existed to protect those in ag, industry, manufacting, and that’s where most worked (not ‘white collar’ or service).

    Labor and labor unions were going nuts; the early l870’s were years filled with bitter and violent labor demonstrations and strikes that often became deadly.

    Huge numbers of immigrants were pouring into the country, desperate for work, and willing to do any work. The early years of the 1870’s were hot and dry in large areas of the country and major cities (Chicago) and other areas (northern Wisconsin and beyond) struggled with devastating fires.

    Most people did not attend school beyond the 8th grade, if that far. And, obvious but hard to believe, in 1871, the Civil War which had plundered almost the entire generation of younger men who fought it (and leveled, literally, a large swath of the South) had ended a mere SIX years earlier. The South was still reeling from the brutal beating it’d taken, its economy was in taters, and its state governments in complete disarray.

    Hmm, what else was going on?

    Oh yes, the railroads were a big, growing, monied, and powerful industry, and yes rail travel could be dangerous. In a few years there would be a growing public push to rebuild the train station in NYC (resulting in the construction of Grand Central as we know it today) because the existing one couldn’t handle the volume of trains going in and out of the city, and too many crashes were taking place.


    A fascinating year to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live then!

  6. To some extent anxiety about the future is an inescapable part of human existence. As far as we know, we are the only creatures who can project ourselves (mentally) into the future and this capacity brings with it uncertainty and even fear about what we might find when get there.

    There are degrees of anxiety, however, and we live in an age when debilitating anxiety is less a mental health problem than a standard human response to everything.

    Pity, really.

  7. I couldn’t let this one go by without commenting. I’ve often thought that railway enthusiasts would line up around the block if someone developed a time machine that would take them back to the days when trains were “king” and trolley cars were the main urban transportation. But I don’t think they’d want to go back to the 19th Century when it was a rare brakeman who had all his fingers, quality control for steel rails wasn’t that great and collisions and derailments were all too frequent. BUT–they didn’t have CNN and Eyewitness News circling the wreck scenes with TV cameras on the ground and in helicopters. I could go back further–to the days of riverboats. The “engineers” on many of the old-time steamboats were farm boys who had a rather rudimentary knowledge of safe boiler operation. The only thing that prevented boiler explosions from becoming a national scandal was that these catastrophic failures usually happened somewhere out in the boonies (which most of the US was in those days), far from even a telegraph station.
    To bring things back to the modern age, there’s a story about an airline pilot who, after the plane had landed, would say to the passengers, “We’d like to thank you for riding XYZ Airlines and remind you that the most hazardous part of your flight is still ahead–the drive home on the streets and highway of (arrival city). Drive carefully and wear your seat belts–we want you to fly with is again!”

  8. LENORE;

    This is totally and completely off-topic for Twain, but I wanted you to see this…

    12-yr-old girl led out of school in tears and HANDCUFFS (!) for doodling “I love my friends” on her desk.

    Link here:

  9. Lenore, that is a fantastic quotation from Twain. In my business (earthquake hazards) it is a great challenge to help the public to understand the nature of catastrophic risk, especially the risk of very rare but very high-impact hazards like earthquakes. With little understanding or experience to serve as guidelines, people tend either to exaggerate the hazard (frightened out of their wits over something for which reasonable actions can keep you safe) or ignore it (not bothering to do even the simplest of things to keep their families safe). Twain hits the nail on the head. I am going to pass the link along to my colleagues. Too bad he’s dead, else he could be a keynote speak at our next natural hazards conference!

    Good points, Bob Davis and Wellcraftedtoo. I have to smirk when people get all romantically piney and drippy about the “good old days” of the 19th century. Sure, there were some wonderful things back in Twain’s day. But there was a lot to worry about too, including a really rudimentary understanding of disease, such that practices such as blood-letting were just then fading out of practice. Here’s a commentary from the British Medical Journal from March of that year:

  10. When you mentioned Mark Twain, I thought at first about the short story “Experience Of The McWilliamses With Membranous Croup”, which I remember as a pefect example of “blowing it all out of proportions”.

    You can read it complete in

  11. Bob Davis — and women wore veils and everyone wore “traveling clothes” because you’d get so filthy and smelly from the travel, from the smoke and ash. It probably didn’t bother them quite as much as it would bother us, as we are not used to putting up with such things for the sake of travel. But still, it was no picnic, literally.

  12. Maybe kids should ride bikes and stay out of cars.

  13. I’ve been a fan of Schneier’s work for a very long time. He wrote a great treatise on cryptology ( that’s actually understandable to laypeople, and I get a kick out of his rants on the “security theatre” apparatus at airports.

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