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Missing the Boat

The Smithsonian magazine has an article about seven famous people who might have sailed on the Titanic but who, for some reason or other, missed the boat. They included Theodore Dreiser, Guglielmo Marconi, Milton Hershey, J. Pierpoint Morgan, Henry Frick, and Alfred Vanderbilt.

Dreiser had shifted to the Kroonland to save money. Hershey, of candy bar fame, had the money and had actually made a deposit on a ticket, but some business matter detained him and he had to cancel. What seemed like bad luck at the time actually turned out to be good fortune. Had things proved otherwise, the Titanic would have proved an even bigger disaster; our grandfathers might have grown up in a world without Hershey's bars.

Lefty Gomez once remarked, "I'd rather be lucky than good." What constituted good or bad might have been obvious on the baseball diamond, but things were less obvious in the more complex arena of everyday life.  The Chinese had a story to describe the ambiguity of fortune.

... there lived an old man on the northern frontier of China. One day, his horse disappeared ... few months later, his horse came back with another horse that was even better. His neighbors came to congratulate him on his gain. But ... the old man ... said this "good luck" might turn out to be misfortune in the end. Strangely, he was right again. A few days later, his son fell from the new horse and broke his leg ... since his son was lame after that accident, he was not chosen to be a soldier to fight in the following war so that he lived with family safely.

Fortune into misfortune. Misfortune into fortune. The loss of the USS Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea was the down payment on the victory at Midway. In exchange for Lexington's loss, the Zuikaku and Shokaku were too mauled to sail with Nagumo on that fatal 4th of June. But you wouldn't know it as the Lady Lex was going down. The role that event played in the greater scheme of things had yet to be revealed.

Of course, if Nimitz had lost at Midway the Lady Lex's loss would have been just a loss.

When Mariano Rajoy followed socialist leader José Luis Zapatero to become Spain's prime minister in 2010, he may have thought he had won the electoral lottery. But what he may actually have done was replace the metaphorical Edward Smith as captain on the Spanish ship of state.

Voters turned to him in hopes of alleviating the pain of Europe’s debt crisis. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Mr. Rajoy’s longtime rival, had stepped down as prime minister as the elections approached in the face of widespread resentment over Spain’s economic woes.

But since then, Mr. Rajoy has seen his own popularity sink steadily, as Spain’s recession has deepened and unemployment has reached 24 percent, the highest in Europe.

What is the future of Mariano Rajoy?

One of the most common reasons why fortune can turn into misfortune is that the long-term consequences of the apparent good luck are very expensive. This idea is embodied in a chess concept of the "poisoned pawn," where you are offered a free pawn in exchange for creating a fatal flaw in your position. It's an experience many American students know about.

If student loans are good debt, how do you account for the reaction of Christina Mills, 30, of Minneapolis, when she found out her payment on college and law school loans would be $1,400 a month? “I just went into the car and started sobbing,” says Mills, who works for a nonprofit. “It was more than my paycheck at the time.” Medical student Thomas Smith, 25, of Hamilton, N.J., is $310,000 in debt and is struggling to make ends meet even before beginning to repay his loans. “I don’t even know what I eat,” he says. “I just go to the supermarket and buy the cheapest thing I can and buy as much of it as I can.” Then there’s Michael DiPietro, 25, of Brooklyn, who accumulated about $100,000 in debt while getting a bachelor’s degree in fashion, sculpture, and performance, and spent the next two years waiting tables. He has since landed a fundraising job in the arts but still has no idea how he will pay back all that money. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an obsolete idea that a college education is like your golden ticket,” DiPietro says. “It’s an idea that an older generation holds on to.”