August 17, 2017

Signals, Noise, and the Amish Buggy

Amish buggy after collision with a truck

The week began with a Black Swan event and I was the Black Swan. His mouth was open, head tilted right and up. The little Amish kid had the most amazing expression of curiosity and bewilderment on his face. He couldn’t take his eyes off me, or close his mouth, or breath in and out. I smiled, amused, and kept walking. The Amish kid kept looking. I turned around and smiled again. “Mama,” he said to his mother, dressed in the black Amish clothing. Mother and son talked quietly. I could tell that she was trying to explain the stranger in his life. She grabbed his hand and led him out of the store. I smiled. She scowled. They left the store and took the buggy home. There are several Amish communities in Michigan. Although the Amish are leaving in some areas of the state, the stronger communities are resilient. Until the modern truck collides with their buggy.

This is the land where Ernest Hemingway formed his famous bullshit detector. If you look and think hard enough, you can discover some extraordinary secrets hidden in the mundane of life here.

There weren’t a lot of political campaign signs in the rural areas like around the cement jungles south of here. The political messages targeted to the cement jungles were about fear and grievances. Nate Silver is the new social media hero of the Big Data era. He learned how to work the numbers first in baseball before crunching the numbers in politics.  He took his Moneyball statistics to the New York Times, replacing Jonah Lehrer in the brainy social media lineup.

There isn’t much noise where the Amish live in Michigan. A vast darkness covers everything at night. Fur with eyeballs darted in front of my car. I drove over it and heard the loud “thump, thump.” It felt big and heavy. I didn’t see anything in the rear view mirror for a hundred yards and finally caught the glimpse of the fur with eyeballs tumbling dead into a ditch. I didn’t stop. The two lane country road was too dark and lonely and way too far from the noise of the city. I turned up the volume on the radio for the football game. The signal wasn’t strong.

Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise is climbing Amazon’s sales ranking fast with his success in predicting the outcome of the election. His father is a political science professor at Michigan State and took him to Tiger games. Fantasy baseball is where he first learned to apply statistical analysis. I used to study the baseball stats religiously for our fantasy league back when Bill James and fantasy baseball were just becoming popular. In those days, we used the stats from the Sunday newspaper and calculated everything with pen and paper. I knew the minor league stats of every ballplayer that I was scouting for my fantasy team. I was in a tough league. My friends were ballplayers and smart. One was drafted and recruited to pitch in the Ivy League. Another bet he could pass the Mensa test. He qualified, although our fantasy league didn’t quite meet the Mensa objective “to identify and to foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity; to encourage research into the nature, characteristics, and uses of intelligence; and to provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members.” I just wanted Ricky Henderson to run like hell.

We read and watched everything. I knew the strength and weakness of the minor leagues, which was a pitching league, and which was a hitters league. The ratio of strikeouts to walks was a biggie to me. It was the mark of promise and peril for the pitching prospect. The stats didn’t tell the whole story. You still had to watch their form and athleticism. A baseball and football star at Michigan was considered the top baseball prospect in the country when he was recruited to play both sports in Ann Arbor. Drew Henson wasn’t the first two sport star to fall short of what the scouts projected. This star, a wide receiver, never took the bat off his shoulder when he played against Michigan State and I instantly knew he wasn’t a pro ball player. Kirk Gibson had destroyed college pitching as a two sport star. So did Bo Jackson.

Intuition isn’t given enough credit. There is science behind the intuitive feel. The science just hasn’t been totally developed yet. Steve Jobs was not a fan of waiting for the numbers to confirm everything. The problem with the Nate Silver type of analysis is that it doesn’t go far enough into the darkness. It cuts and measures what’s seen in the light. Nate Silver dumps a lot of state polls into his brew to make his projections. A poll in Michigan just a couple of days before the election showed Romney trailing by 6-7 points in Michigan. I deduced Romney was trailing by half of that in Ohio. The margin in other states could be also be calculated by that one poll, like Seabiscuit’s trainer able to project the horse’s potential on a single muscle because that one muscle is connected to everything else. More importantly, you have to go into the darkness to understand  why. Voting is about self preservation, not self identity. No one wants to have their buggy run over by the truck.

The Atlantic has a story on Noam Chomsky’s criticism of artificial intelligence- our failure to “decode ourselves.” The reliance on statistical analysis and data creates a shallow interpretation and poor understanding. They’re riding an Amish buggy on a dark road.

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