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June 2016 Issue [Easy Chair]

The Improbability Party


I like to think I’m unique. Don’t you? Complicated. Surprising. Unpredictable. I like to think that people who’ve only just met me or who know only the basic facts about me still have a lot to learn. I also like to think that people who’ve known me for a long time — family members, say — still don’t know the essential, the true me. What I really like to think, however, is that corporate statisticians, who track my consumer choices and feed them into algorithms to forecast my behavior for Google or Amazon, are capable, on occasion, of getting me wrong. No, just because I bought Tender Is the Night doesn’t mean I’ll like A Moveable Feast; the Fitzgerald book is fiction, see, and the Hemingway book that mentions Fitzgerald and happens also to be set in Paris is memoir. And I’m not a fan of memoir.

The slightly demeaning guesses are inescapable. I recently spoke to a young woman who accidentally left a streaming-video service running on her television while she went out. Show after show played with no one in the room. When the woman returned, the service’s suggestion engine had cued up a slate of grim reality programs about unwed teenage mothers. Such shows aren’t to her taste, she told me, and so the recommendations confused her. Then she solved the puzzle. If you averaged the subjects of all the programs she had supposedly watched, the result would be unwed teenage mothers.

This is similar to what Nate Silver does with polls, if I understand the super-pollster’s methods. On his vaunted website, FiveThirtyEight, Silver lumps together lots of polls and takes a weighted average to yield a single result. He then makes subtle adjustments to this result using a proprietary formula that I’ve seen referred to as his “secret sauce.” (Being more a language guy than a numbers guy — on the team that’s rarely favored to win — I can’t let it pass unremarked that “secret sauce” feels like a high-end rebranding of “bullshit.”) The word on the street is that if you bet with Silver, especially if you’re betting on elections, which were once thought to be incredibly complex events but turn out to be more like ball games without the balls, you can’t go wrong.

Except you can! For us insecure humanists, the high point of the presidential campaign thus far has been FiveThirtyEight’s blown prediction of the Michigan Democratic primary. With 99 percent certainty — a degree of confidence unknown even among hallucinating psychics — Silver’s dream team predicted that Bernie Sanders would lose to Hillary Clinton. This forecast depressed me when I read it, chiefly because of poetic considerations to which Silver’s breed seems deaf. To me, Sanders wasn’t merely the underdog in Michigan, he was Charlie Chaplin splashed by mud from the tires of a financier’s big car. (Clinton was the car.) Clinton’s claims of superior electability had a harsh, metallic ring to my ears. Vote probability, I heard her say, and let desirability ride. This allied her, I felt, with the glinting Silver himself.

Sanders’s one-in-one-hundred win in Michigan encouraged me personally, not just politically. It seemed to mean that my daughter, a high-school senior, had a shot at an Ivy League college. It gave me hope that my lastest book, in development as a miniseries, might actually air someday, and even win an Emmy. It allowed me to think that I might live to ninety-nine, still witty and brisk, still full of secret sauce. By flubbing his forecast, Silver had regressed to the mean, finally joining the pack. And I felt I’d sprinted ahead of it somehow.

To be fair to the once-exceptional Silver — or to insult him further — it is a huge pack. For more than a year now, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, lately subdivided by Twitter into a second-by-second news vibrato, has buzzed and hummed with poor predictions. Spectacular errors are the norm on the televised panels that shuffle together, three-card-monte style, top journalists with top campaign consultants — the press and the propagandists. Trump is finished. Trump is back. Trump is unstoppable. Wait, he’s stopping. Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard — a publication that celebrates the market’s punishment of poor performance — has publicly declared the arrival of “Peak Trump” nearly a dozen times in the past year.

Silver and his modeling were supposed to correct this lack of accountability by adding some statistical precision to the mix, but after Michigan he seems to have become just another member of the band. If the expert political observers — and political participants on tactical sabbaticals — had started out as Las Vegas bookies, most would be working as fry cooks in Reno by now. Why aren’t they?

To gain some insight into the question, I decided to talk with the real thing. Jason Simbal works as vice president of race and sports — a job description that looks great on a business card — for a firm called CG Technology. His employer describes itself as an “innovative gaming technology and risk management solutions provider,” which is a long way of saying that they are bookies. (The company was formerly called Cantor Gaming and was funded by Wall Street mainstay Cantor Fitzgerald, a connection that ought to surprise nobody.) Simbal was an accountant in New York before he heard the call of the wild. He understands the science of prediction as well as its cultural and psychological applications, and I trust his opinions because they can be priced. Unlike the hacks and flacks on cable television, whose forecasts are often made to grab attention, manipulate perceptions, manage expectations, and generally keep the news vibrato humming, Simbal is not paid to act certain and look informed. Fairly regularly, he must actually be right.

I met Simbal in March at the Cosmopolitan, a deluxe casino in Las Vegas whose shiny new sportsbook, or betting lounge, his firm operates. With its colossal curving video screens and crackling atmosphere of nonstop drama — just then we were engulfed in a frenzy of golf and tennis involving titanic athletes and cometlike balls — the lounge resembled the futuristic studios where presidential debates are judged and election results dissected.

Simbal explained his trade to me. Odds-making is odds-making, he said. If it were legal to wager on elections, he’d set point spreads for them as he does for NFL games. (Outside the reach of U.S. law, political-prediction markets do a brisk business, and Silver and his sort make frequent reference to them when justifying their own prognostications.) The key to great odds-making is great information; the more games from the past that Simbal can analyze, the better his results. Consistency of method is crucial, too. That’s why bad predictions arrived at through sound reasoning don’t bother Simbal, while a good call based on flawed reasoning would.

That’s the science. Here’s the art: the bookie’s goal is not actually predicting the future; it’s setting a line that will attract equal betting on each side. This drops risk to zero, since wins will cover losses, and it guarantees a nice profit, earned by way of commissions on every bet. In a rational world, the most accurate prediction would actually serve this function. But certain sports or individual athletes are more beloved than others, which tilts the action irrationally. To promote opposing bets — to balance things — Simbal sometimes fiddles with the spread. It does him no good to be smarter than his clients.

This detail interests me. It suggests that predictions have a social dimension. Sometimes the stories they tell about the future are shaped to change people’s behavior in the present. Predictions move energy around. They stir excitement here, they suppress it over there. Trump brought momentum to his long-shot candidacy by promising outlandish payouts to voters willing to help him beat the odds. Take a risk on me, reap a huge reward. Clinton holds out a different proposition: to dampen enthusiasm for Sanders and shift a portion of it to herself, she portrays herself as a high-odds candidate offering sure, if modest, rewards.

Simbal thinks of himself as being in the entertainment business. In the end, he tells me, he sells suspense. Most of his customers don’t bet that much, only enough to make things interesting. People watch games more closely when they have skin in them, and fixating on the play and the outcome lets them shed their worries and cares. This is obvious when I look around the sportsbook; people are rooted in their seats, their eyes on the screens, their hands clutching their drinks. Their bodies are motionless; only their thoughts are racing.

“Our business,” Simbal says as I watch a man who’s watching another man swat a giant tennis ball, “is driven by escapism.” Then he draws an analogy, doing my job for me. “It’s like when people go home and turn on CNN to escape their work, their lives.”

So were gambling parlors the first newsrooms? Yes, I’m guessing. And were bookies, with all their hot info, the first reporters? Yes again. Then why did some oddsmakers turn into journalists, quitting the action in favor of describing it? Probably because they lost their touch.

There is one major difference between the gamblers watching tennis at the Cosmopolitan lounge and the rest of us watching CNN at home. The thing that cable TV is predicting for us is not Federer versus Djokovic or Williams versus Azarenka but our own behavior at the polls. That makes us at once the audience and the spectacle. This may be the real reason why, in this election season, no one can get anything right: millions of Americans won’t let them. The supporters of Trump and Sanders seem at times like two very separate wings of a new party: the Improbability Party. They are hard to predict because unpredictability is almost principle for them. Perhaps they equate it with freedom. In a poll-driven political culture that teams big money with big computing, the masters easily forget that every data point represents an entire consciousness — one that knows when it’s being treated as a data point. Flip people like coins enough times and they might flip back.

Edgar Allan Poe had a name, “the imp of the perverse,” for the “paradoxical something” in the mind that sometimes pushes people to do wrong simply for the sake of confounding expectations, to zig when it would be optimal to zag. In Poe’s day, the experts who thought they had us pegged weren’t pollsters but phrenologists; they believed that the shape and dimensions of the skull, measured using calipers, determined behavior. Poe was to human irrationality what Silver is to stochastic oscillators, and he knew that we are all long shots to ourselves and resist being treated by others as sure bets. Poe’s imp might have a place as honorary chair of the Improbability Party.

Frank Herbert, the genius science-fiction writer, grasped the matter of prediction and its discontents most profoundly, I think. He linked unpredictability to survival. In his Dune novels, the future of the species is threatened by the prospect of omniscient predators able to anticipate people’s actions. Leto II, the god-emperor of Dune, tries to protect humanity by inoculating it with a so-called no-gene. The gene renders people invisible to prescience, sort of like Michigan Democrats were to Silver or Trump supporters to Kristol. This no-gene seems to be spreading in America, and I’m not surprised. It’s helpful to be invisible to prescience when powerful others — in commerce, on Wall Street, in politics — are betting heavily on your next move in order to calculate their own.

We’ve all been warned about living in the past. We know to guard against nostalgia. It’s a seducer. It tells romantic lies. It breeds reactionary sentiments by glorifying and simplifying what was and devaluing what is. Nostalgia is essentially tragic. It tells us a legend of the fall, portraying a paradise we can’t regain. Though some die trying. Like Gatsby, that poor soul.

But nostalgia is not the only type of temporal escapism, nor is it currently the most influential. That would be prostalgia (to coin a term that’s unlikely to last). Prostalgia is the obsession with what’s to come, with polls, predictions, prognostications, the hunches of Bill Kristol, and the mathematical models of Nate Silver. As a fantasy, it’s far purer than nostalgia, because it refers to nothing real. At least the past existed, once. The future doesn’t exist at all. Somewhere, 1776 will always exist, but 2076 may never come. Hell, next November may never come, at least not in any form that we can picture. Did you expect 9/11? Donald Trump? No, or you would have done something about them.

Prostalgia is comi-tragic. It’s all irony. It purports to move us forward, but really it keeps us sitting still, like the rigid gamblers in the sportsbook. It’s the enemy of the future, actually, because it absents us from the only moment that we have the power to shape: this one. The news media adore the future because covering it requires so little reporting — and because it’s a story you can’t get wrong, since no one really expected you to get it right. Like all forms of living in the present, reporting is costly, time-consuming, and occasionally shocking. That’s because real surprises, good and bad, only happen in the present. The future never changes. It forever remains an abstraction, a beckoning void. People obsessed with it don’t change much, either. Trump is finished. Trump is really finished. Trump is really, really, really . . .

And so we beat on, boats skimming before the current, borne ceaselessly forward toward whatever’s next.

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