Political middlemen and dart-throwing chimps

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

Predicting the weather was once quite an interesting profession, needing skill in reading the instruments, intuition in deciphering the skies and years of experience in putting it all together. Now it’s the kind of job Nick Cage’s character would be given in a heavy-handed satire of the American dream, possibly also starring Michael Caine. We don’t need these skilled individuals any more – computers do all that. We just need an algorithm and a mouthpiece.

And so to Nate Silver – one of the biggest winners of the US presidential election. As the race neared its end, becoming “too close to call”, with money and opinions frantically changing hands, the New York Times blogger was calmly and correctly predicting voter outcome in every single state. He had what others didn’t – a formula to convert polling information into probabilities – and it turned out to be dead-on. He was not alone in getting it right but he was among the few. Many failed spectacularly.

Here’s Newt Gingrich on Fox News on 25 October: “I believe the minimum result will be 53-47 [per cent] Romney, over 300 electoral votes, and the Republicans will pick up the Senate. I base that . . . on just years and years of experience.” And here’s the GOP strategist Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal on 31 October: “It comes down to numbers. And in the final days of this presidential race, from polling data to early voting, they favour Mitt Romney.”

These were not small errors. These people were standing in pre-hurricane wind and predicting sunshine. Are pundits more often wrong than not, or was it just this particular election that threw them? And how often do the statistics spewed out by experts hit the mark? One study found a statistic for it.

Algorithm blues

In the 1980s, a psychologist called Philip Tetlock took a group of journalists, foreign policy experts and economists – 284 of them – and spent the next two decades bombarding them with questions: would the dotcom bubble burst? Would George Bush be re-elected? How would apartheid end?

After analysing 82,361 predictions, Tetlock found that his experts performed worse than random chance. In short, they could have been beaten by dart-throwing chimps.

The reason was confidence. Tetlock found that the more often pundits appeared on TV, the more likely they were to be wrong. Their strong opinions were causing them to ignore dissenting facts or explain them away, leaving them trapped, he said, in the cage of their preconceptions.

Now, semi-expert middlemen are being squeezed out as the focus shifts to minute data analysis. Silver is one of the winners of this change but on the losing side is a whole industry of political forecasters. And it’s not just true of politics. Finance has been moving that way for a while. In UBS’s recent swath of job cuts, at least one trader, David Gallers, was replaced with an algorithm.

Difficult times for the old school, but what of the new? Silver expressed his concerns to the Wall Street Journal: “You don’t want to influence the system you are trying to forecast.” Only one problem with the new machines, then – accuracy. They’re so good that they might start controlling the weather.

Newt Gingrich opining away on Fox News. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Why I refuse to complain about email spam

The bleaker things get, the easier it is to be annoyed about absolutely everything.

“I need just one night and your cock
I want to give you a [sic] head Nice [sic] ginger hair and big bubbly boobs”

It reads like poetry. Poetry by an early 00s DVD player that has recently mastered the English language and doesn’t know what to do with it. A DVD player that’s lying on a skip and has a discarded Cornetto sitting atop its plastic exoskeleton like a depressing party hat, sluggishly oozing ice cream into all its crevices. Yes. If a broken and abandoned DVD player were to start writing poems, they’d probably look a bit like that stunningly naïve and post-post-modern cock and bubbly boobs mess.

Innermost contemplations of an obsolete piece of technology or not, these lines of poetry recently appeared in my email junk folder. Subject line: “Sex right now.” Sender: “Teresa Hughes”.

The bleaker things get (economically, politically, socially) the easier it is to complain about absolutely everything. Knowing that I’ll probably spend the rest of my life either living with my parents or renting shitholes from miserly Dickensian landlords makes selfie sticks all the more annoying. And slow walkers. And rugby fans. And people who stand on street corners, shouting about Jesus and doom. All of these things, within the context of generalised rubbishness, are worthy of a billion pissed off tweets.

Spam, on the other hand, the bugbear of the privileged but stressed since about 1996, is one of the increasingly few things about which I refuse to complain. Reason being: spam, the porny kind in particular, has always been there for me… in a way.  

I can’t remember my first email address. Knowing prepubescent me, it was probably a) boringly weird and b) just a fucking abomination. Something like What I can remember though is being emailed about blowjobs way before I knew what they were. Which was, in a sense, educational.

Over the past few days, my junk folder has been inundated by requests from robots who want to do stuff to my penis. This is my first incursion of porn spam in a long while; years, possibly. And I’m finding it almost impossible to be annoyed or disgusted by it. Instead, I’ve been getting nostalgic. Nostalgic for a simpler digital time. A time in which connecting to the internet made a sound like an android with norovirus, and people were trusting enough to click on links in emails with subject lines like, “Mega-PU$$Y 4 U!!!!”.

I like to imagine that, over the next century, great leaders will come and go; empires will rise and fall; bootcut jeans will have moments of fashionableness roughly every fifteen years; and, all the while, people like “Teresa Hughes” will email us reminders that they would dearly like to suck us off, in exchange for a hard drive-melting virus.

Plus, I was only being a little bit facetious about that “poem” thing. When I did an art history elective at uni, a lot of it was spent gazing at pictures of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (that urinal that’s art) and wondering what art actually is. Can a urinal be art? Can Danny Dyer be art? And, most pressingly, can spam be art? In one word: sure.

Let’s return our attention to those lines of spam at the beginning of the piece. I shall now attempt to apply GCSE-level analysis to Sex Now by “Teresa Hughes” (the lesser-known offspring of Ted and Sylvia, presumably).

The speaker, a woman, in a grab for immediate attention, addresses the reader directly. The line break after “cock” places emphasis on that word, reassuring the reader just how much she “needs” his/her penis. The unusual phrasing in the next line, “a head”, rather than “head”, for example, is a play on words that neatly juxtaposes [seriously, how much did you use the word “juxtapose” in GCSE English essays?] the primal act of giving head with the intellectual act of having one (and using it).  The alliteration in “big bubbly boobs” highlights the exact largeness and roundness pertaining to the speaker’s breasts. Furthermore, she wants us to know that her horniness transcends grammar.

Even furthermore, spam is literature and the world would be a darker place without it. So don’t be a great honking philistine and complain about it.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.