Letter From New York November 11, 2012

Or, as it seems to me…

It’s a Sunday night and I am in Seattle, where I came to attend a surprise birthday party for a friend of mine, Jerry May.  I’ve known Jerry for a long time and we’d actually fallen out of touch but found each other again through the wonders of the LinkedIn.  We caught up when I was in Seattle six months ago. His fiancé then sent me an email that she was throwing a surprise birthday party for him and I came.  He’s a stand up guy.  Stood up for me once.  So I thought I’d show up for him.

Turned out they were punking the guests; it wasn’t a surprise birthday party but a surprise wedding.  Jerry and Gail got married in front of a hundred staggered guests.  They’d been planning this for months.  Standing there, I was really glad I had made the effort to come.

I spent part of today walking around Seattle, a city I have visited frequently in my life, passing places and restaurants that I’ve been before, feeling a sense of history, the history of my own life.

This has been a historical time.  Barack Obama was re-elected, much to my personal relief.  I watched the returns with friends at a restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where there was early tension in the air as the early returns went to Romney.  Then the tide began to turn and tension turned to relief as the electoral tide went to Obama.  When CNN declared him the victor the restaurant erupted in applause.

It was an election held amidst the residue of Hurricane Sandy, an event that might have helped Obama.  Republicans were incensed that Chris Christie, Republican Governor of New Jersey, embraced Obama and was embraced by him.  Christie came across well in all of this – a Governor who put partisan politics away when it came down to what was necessary for his state and has faced criticism for it.

But it is quite probable nothing could change the outcome.  Serious pollsters, math geeks in fact, had been predicting for weeks that Obama would win based on their reading of the runes of the polls.  They crawled over the numbers and came up with one answer:  Obama wins.

The number crunching math nerd Nate Silver, a blogger connected to the New York Times, predicted Obama’s win or loss correctly in 50 of 50 states nearly a week before the election.  He is not the only such math nerd political analyst who has so surprised pundits by their accuracy that some are saying we are moving into a new phase of political prediction.  They poured over poll numbers, ran them through computer simulations and out came a statistical avalanche of information that proved so correct on the Presidential level that it has left some traditional pollsters shell shocked.

Reading and hearing about them caused me to think of Hari Seldon, the great psycho-historian of the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov, one of the great science fiction classics to which I return time and again for the wicked pleasure it gives me in reading them.  Psychohistory, a creation of the mind of Asimov, posits that the behavior of humans could be predicated statistically, with pretty great accuracy.  Hello Nate Silver, perhaps our first real psycho-historian…

Personally, I find it both fascinating and, like some of the traditional pollsters, a little unsettling.  If these guys keep it up for the next few election cycles a lot of the pleasure of the political process will be taken out of elections.  We’ll know the outcome of our behavior before we have committed the action.  Sounds like science fiction, right?  Well, it should because it is.  But it’s the reality in which we’re all living right now. 



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