This blog is still alive, just in semi-hibernation.
When I want to write something longer than a tweet about something other than math or sci-fi, here is where I'll write it.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tainted love.


Some of my readers, having read the title of this post, now have a eight-beat synthesizer hook playing on a loop in their brains. It starts with

BOMP BOMP doo doo dee dee dada de

 I apologize for this but it couldn't be helped. I could say instead that I am in a love-hate relationship, but that is exactly the kind of over-used cliche my writing hero George Orwell warns against.

I am in a long-term relationship with seriously unhealthy aspects. I am obsessively fascinated by predictions and on the whole, I do not trust predictions as far as I can throw them.

What relationship doesn't have its ups and downs?


Longtime readers will know I have made predictions of the outcomes of the elections in 2008 and 2012 with some success. The last of my snapshots in 2008 had Obama leading comfortably 353 to 174, with 11 electoral votes in the toss-up category. The final result was Obama 365, McCain 173. The toss-up state was Indiana, which Obama won narrowly 49.9% to 48.8%, about 30,000 votes out of 3,000,000. The one extra I missed was that Omaha went for Obama while the rest of the state went for McCain. Back then, I didn't have access to the data to do the district by district predictions in Nebraska and Maine.


I did well predicting that election at the end and I did well in the general election of 2012. The best known predictor now is Nate Silver. I beat him in both 2008 and 2012. In his book The Signal and the Noise, he believes predictions are getting better and wants to determine why some do well and others don't.

My view right now is that good predictions are not because of particularly clever prognosticators but instead because of not very random data.

Besides the very accurate predictions both Silver and I made in the general election, we also tried to predict the GOP primaries in late 2011 and early 2012. Our records in these contests were much worse, even though one of the central tenets of statistics says the margin of error of a percentage near zero should be much less than the margin of error of a percentage near 50%.

My hypothesis for this less valuable data is that the GOP electorate was in a serious state of flux during the primaries.  A ridiculous number of people were shown to be the front runners according to national polls and results of state primaries and caucuses. When Donald Trump made completely implausible noises about joining the race in the summer of 2011, his name shot to the top of the polls. Other people who topped the polls included Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and finally Mitt Romney. It should also be noted that Michele Bachmann won a straw poll and Ron Paul won caucuses.

Conservative media, most notably Rush Limbaugh, did not love Mitt Romney, and the GOP voters took quite a while to decide he was the one they wanted. Once he was chosen, he never had a lead over Obama. The GOP base hates Obama with a white hot hate, but it did not translate into love for their candidate that build a winning campaign.


Trying to figure out the electorate is just one of the topics on which I have collected massive amounts of data this century. Back when Bush was president, I collected data about casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan and filled spreadsheets with the price fluctuations of silver and gold and crude oil, trying to detect trends and correlations. I didn't make predictions based on these things, but I used them as an antidote to news gathering organizations that said everything was peachy keen because their important contacts in Washington said everything was peachy keen.


A few years back, I decided to start a blog keep track of the headlines of the supermarket checkout magazines. My original idea was to keep track of the things predicted that could be verified or falsified, like predictions of deaths, pregnancies, marriages or divorces. Soon enough, mission creep set in and I was putting up posts about every headline. Soon enough that meant keeping track of every belch from a Kardashian or fart from a Teen Mom. Diminishing returns set in.

I did keep special track of the people they predicted would die. Their track record was awful. They have had some famous successes. The National Enquirer said Michael Jackson had six months to live and within six months he was dead. They had similar good calls with Gary Coleman and Peter Falk. But they also suck a lot. Among the people who should already be dead by now are Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, Loretta Lynn, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Douglas.

I put a picture of Anne Francis here because when I used forty names of people they predicted to die in a deadpool, I only got two hits in 2011, Ms. Francis and Elizabeth Taylor. They were finally right about Miss Taylor, but they had her on death's door off and on since before Butterfield Eight was released.

The latest fancies in my obsession with predictions can be seen in my blog This Day In Science Fiction and my work with climate data on my other new blog Math Year 2013.  I will discuss the few successes and many failures I have found there tomorrow.

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