From the Frying Pan into the Future

A month or so ago I received a jury duty summons in the mail. Only once before had I been called — it was while we were living in Boulder — but one of the attorneys eliminated me during voir dire. A lot of people try to avoid jury duty, but I’d been looking forward to it. A couple of years earlier my wife Anne had been seated on a jury for a horrific alleged crime, and while finding it stressful to sit through the testimony and presentation of evidence Anne had been fascinated by the trial proceedings and the jury deliberation. When it was over she felt that she had contributed something to the greater civic good, and had received something meaningful in return. I’d wanted in, and was disappointed when they gave me the boot.

The summons, issued by the Office of the Sheriff, instructed me to report for duty in the Jury Assembly Room at the Durham County Courthouse at 8:30 this morning. However, the letter further informed me that “sometimes jurors may no longer be needed by the date for which you are summoned.” I was told to call a number after 5:30 on the evening before my service date to see if they still wanted me to come in. I called, and they didn’t. “You don’t need to report for jury service,” the recorded woman’s voice informed me. “The court’s juror requirements have been met. By being available you have fulfilled your service. Thank you.” Well, a little bit of a letdown. Maybe I’m not the only one who’s felt disappointed. I’d been available for future service, which would have become present service today. But the recorded message informed me that I had already fulfilled my service in the past merely by being available. Now I suppose I can hold my head high: I fulfilled my civic duty, received my honorable discharge, no need to thank me for my service, I count it a privilege. I wonder if the Courthouse sells “I Served” t-shirts. My Badge Number and Juror Number are printed in the upper-left heading of my summons– the t-shirt could leave blank lines where the purchaser can write in his own numbers.

With time on my hands and blueberries and buttermilk in the fridge I decided to make pancakes for breakfast. I cracked the egg and slid it into the bowl — two yolks! According to the Egg Industry this is a one-in-a-thousand occurrence. The dual-yolk eggs used to be pulled from the production lines during candling because they tended to freak out the cooks, presaging either good luck or pregnancy or twins or death. I guess when you’re making pancakes you don’t want to look much further ahead than breakfast. Nowadays though the double-yolk eggs just pass on through — it’s probably just a cost-effectiveness thing, though superstition seems to have lost potency to shape destinies over recent decades. In any event, the pancakes turned out nicely — I’d like to thank that hen for her service. Now we’ll see what the rest of the day holds in store.

Writing this stuff down it starts feeling like the beginning of a novel…

“You have fulfilled your service.”

John hung up the phone. He’d already mapped out the route and planned what to bring along to keep himself occupied while waiting to be called. Though he’d never entertained any inclination to study the law, though he had found himself gravely disappointed in his only brush with the system, small claims court having meted out its lazy injustice on what he deemed arbitrary and capricious grounds, not to mention the outright lying of his duplicitous adversary, John had long been intrigued by the legal process, by the all-rises and the swearing-ins, by the evidence bags and the depositions, by crime scene photos and forensic expert testimony, by the contrasting narratives spun by prosecution and defense, stories that to the jury would sound clear and convincing beyond a shadow of a doubt…



Here’s a summary of a couple of recent experiments demonstrating deep placebo/nocebo effect. It’s not too surprising that, when told that their DNA test results reveal a particular genetic predisposition, study participants demonstrated attitudes, feelings, and behaviors consistent with that genetic marker, even when the DNA results are fake news. But the participants also underwent physiological changes consistent with the fake genetic news.

This work comes out of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, which “focuses on how subjective mindsets (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, and expectations) can alter objective reality through behavioral, psychological, and physiological mechanisms.” They’re tracing a causal cascade that runs opposite from but complementary to that of contemporary neuroscience, which explores how brain physiology shapes subjective mindsets. Then there’s this earlier study from Harvard demonstrating that placebo responsiveness might itself be genetic.

These sorts of findings tend to stimulate extravagant inferences.

MSU by 4

Las Vegas oddsmakers have made Michigan State a 2½-point favorite over Purdue in this afternoon’s basketball game. How did they come up with that spread? Mostly it’s an algorithmic simulation, a multivariate statistical equation built up from analyzing massive amounts of data collected about all the teams’ past performances in all of their games. But the bookmakers make their money not by betting on the games but by collecting the vig — the house’s cut on each bet placed, typically 10% of the amount bet.

Suppose Purdue, in a mild upset, wins the game. Vegas will pay off on bets that went under the predicted 2½-point MSU margin of victory. But they’ll also collect from bets that went over the spread. As long as the total amount of money bet on the “under” doesn’t greatly exceed the “over,” Vegas breaks even on the betting money while still making a 10 percent profit on the vig.

The point-spread algorithm isn’t deterministic, cranking out a single prediction of which team will win and by how much. It’s probabilistic, generating a Bell curve’s worth of possible outcomes of varying degrees of likelihood. Each of the factors going into the oddsmaking algorithm has a plus-or-minus confidence interval associated with it.

E.g., in the 18 games it’s played so far this year MSU has scored an average of 83.8 points, while Purdue has yielded to its opponents an average of 68.2 points. So you’re first best guess might be that MSU will score halfway between its average score and Purdue’s average points allowed: (83.8 + 68.2)/2 = 76 points. But there’s also the variability to take into consideration: MSU has scored between 106 and 63 points, while Purdue has allowed between 89 and 46 points.

The same idea holds for pace of play, rebounding margin, shooting percentage, and all of the other relevant variables: an average score is surrounded by a plus-or-minus halo of variation. These probabilistic variables are combined and differentially weighted in an equation that, like its components, generates a probabilistic average and a range of variation.

Only one actual game between MSU and Purdue will be played this afternoon; when the buzzer sounds only one actual final score will be posted on the scoreboard; some betters will have won while others have lost. But from the algorithm’s standpoint the game that’s played this afternoon is only one of an infinite number of MSU-Purdue games that could be played — a practical application of multiverse theory. The algorithm runs a series of simulations on maybe a thousand hypothetical games, systematically tweaking the plus-or-minus variabilities in the model to generate what-if scenarios, then cranking out a final score for each simulated game. In some simulations MSU wins by a dozen; in others MSU loses by a dozen. What Vegas wants to know is the midpoint, where half of the simulated game results fall on left tail of the distribution, the other half on the right tail. That’s where Vegas wants to set the point spread.

But not so fast. Just because the algo cranked out the average point spread for its simulated games, that doesn’t mean that the betters are going to fall 50-50 on either side of that spread. People who bet on games might have a system and do analyses; they might even have an algorithm of their own that they’ve built or a service they’ve bought into to help them beat Vegas at its own game. But betters also play hunches, follow instincts, play favorites.

MSU has won 21 straight Big Ten games: aren’t they about due for a loss? And MSU has beat the Vegas point spread in 8 straight times: surely things are due to even out. That sort of thinking is called the gambler’s fallacy — that the longer somebody has been on a lucky streak, the greater the likelihood that the streak will come to an end. Still, just because it’s a fallacy from an empirical standpoint doesn’t mean that bettors stop believing it.

So there’s still a seat in the back room for the guy with the green eyeshade smoking a cigarette. Let’s say that the algo runs a thousand simulations of the game and the average prediction is MSU by 5 points. The savvy bookmaker might have reason to expect that gambler’s fallacy will play a role in the betting and consequently nudge the spread down a little bit. But the bookmaker needn’t rely solely on intuition and experience. There’s plenty of historic betting data to be mined; simulated bets can be placed online or in focus groups days before the actual odds are to be posted. Almost surely Vegas relies now on a self-learning AI to predict human betting patterns for each game, using its findings in tandem with those of the point-spread prediction algorithm.

The open-access college basketball algorithm website I pay attention to is Kenpom. According to that algo, MSU is about 9 points better than Purdue. However, the game is being played on Purdue’s home court, and according to Kenpom’s analysis the home court advantage is worth on average about 3½ points. So MSU should be expected to win by 9 – 3½ = 5½, covering the Las Vegas spread of 2½.

I have rooting interests in MSU, having graduated from there. On the other hand, I do tend to think that MSU has been playing over their heads lately and are due for a bit of a comeuppance. However, I acknowledge that there’s a certain amount of gambler’s fallacy bias creeping in there. So I’ll split the difference between Las Vegas and Kenpom.

My prediction: Michigan State by 4 — I’m taking the over.


UPDATE… Final score: Purdue 73, Michigan State 63. One of those wrong futures showed up in the present. Good thing I didn’t put my money where my mouth was.


Knowledge-Resistant Strains of Belief

According to recent research findings, people who are strongly opposed to genetically modified organisms tend to know the least about food science, but believe that they know the most about it. And their negative opinions about GMO safety aren’t influenced by exposure to relevant research findings. One of the principle investigators in the study hypothesized that “people might feel extremely about genetically modified food because it’s very unnatural in a way they find almost morally upsetting.” The article cites a 2001 psych research study that concludes:

Beliefs tend to persevere even after evidence for their initial formulation has been invalidated by new evidence… People spontaneously generate explanations for events as a way of understanding events, including their own beliefs. If an explanation is generated, this explanation becomes a reason for holding an explained belief, even if the belief is eventually undercut by new evidence.

I find these sorts of findings disturbing. It’s not that I know a lot about GMO safety, because I don’t (and I admit it). I’m disturbed by the resistance of belief to knowledge. What I believe about some aspect of the world is never the same as the world itself, any more than your belief about what I’m presently drinking is the same as the drink itself. But if you believe that I’m drinking a gin and tonic, I’d expect you to hold that belief loosely in your hand, ready to set it down and to pick up another depending on what I tell you I’m drinking, what you see in my glass, what it tastes like when you take a sip.

For what it’s worth, I’m less concerned about GMO safety than about corporate monopolistic control over food production by patenting their engineered organisms. But Big Ag has for a long time been patenting hybrid organisms developed the old-fashioned way, through systematic cross-pollination rather than genetic engineering.

Time for a refill.

The Democratic Party’s Incredible Concern for the Future

If you’re like me, you’re incredibly concerned for the future of our nation.

That’s how Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez begins his personalized “Dear John” letter introducing the Official 2019 Democratic Party Survey. I’m not a card-carrying party member but my father John Sr. was — the Survey form even includes his DNC membership number in the upper left corner — and I still get mail meant for him even though he passed away nearly five years ago.

If you’re like me — pulling the empathy string; incredibly concerned — heightening the affect; our nation — invoking tribal identification and ownership. The future — not the present, which is already a source of concern; not the past, as in “make America great again.” The future is, presumably, a code word for progressive.

I’m not accustomed to posting on political topics here on Ficticities. But the future is fictional, a temporal vector that exists only in the imagination. Not just thinking about, worrying about, and predicting the future but actively attempting to shape an alternative future according to policy specifications — that’s a kind of Ficticity, the attempt to craft a future ecosystem whose reality depends not solely on material conditions and forces but also on collective imagining. So I’m curious about the contours of this ficticitous future that’s purportedly being shaped by DNC operatives and Party members.

The Survey consists of ten structured questionnaire items, followed by a short free-form space in which you, the respondent, are invited to share your ideas on how the DNC and Democratic candidates can win in future elections. The survey wraps up with an appeal for financial contribution — A gift of $25 would be a tremendous help!.

But back to the top. What sorts of future-oriented question are posed in this survey? Most interestingly to me, do the questions reflect the futuristic concerns and plans animating the progressive wing of the Party? I used to write questionnaires for a living so I know that, by posing questions about certain topics while simply ignoring other topics, a survey can bias the results even without cheating on data collection and analysis. Each question in the Party Survey follows a similar format: Which of the following items is most important to you, do you find most troubling, etc.? Respondents have about 10 options for each question to choose from, with the opportunity to check up to 3 or 4 options for each question. So the general impression is that it’s a fairly comprehensive and open-ended instrument for polling the Party membership. But I’m particularly interested in options that aren’t included in the checklists  — options that are either ignored or suppressed in an attempt to mold the Party platform.

First question: Which domestic issues are most important to you? Okay, without looking at the options, what are the domestic issues of particular importance to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party? Here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. Achieve universal healthcare via Medicare for all or some other single-payer system.
  2. Reduce climate change via rapid transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
  3. Reduce economic stratification and increase equality by raising taxes on the ultra-high income brackets and/or on the ultra-wealthy.
  4. Reduce discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.
  5. Open borders for immigrants.
  6. Make college education free.
  7. Establish guaranteed universal income.

No doubt there are more progressive planks, but that ought to do for present purposes. Also, these seven issues are merely progressive, modifying the status quo incrementally. They’re not radical agenda items in the sense of overhauling the political or economic system, not full-on socialistic or communistic or direct-democracy anarchistic.

Now let’s look at the actual response options listed in that first survey question about domestic issues. How well do the options address my sample menu of seven left-wing concerns?

Universal healthcare and single-payer. There are two relevant Survey response options. The first, Securing universal health care and reducing prescription drug costs, goes partway, but it stops short of the single-payer idea. Universal healthcare could be achieved via patchwork changes in the status quo combination of private sector employer-financed insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and out-of-pocket. It could be argued that universal health care is a concern whereas single-payer is a specific policy intervention for addressing that concern. Maybe so, but reducing prescription drug costs is a specific intervention, and it’s bundled into the Survey response. The second Survey response relevant to universal healthcare, Protecting Medicare from privatization, again reinforces the status quo rather than calling for systemic redesign.

Climate change. Relevant Survey response option: Combating climate change, building a clean energy economy, and securing environmental justice. Okay, that’s pretty good, though something like “averting imminent climate change disaster” might be more reflective of being incredibly concerned for the future. What about building a clean energy economy: does that mean creating government jobs in wind and solar, or extending subsidies and low-cost government loans to for-profit energy companies? Probably the latter. And what is environmental justice?

Redistribute wealth. The Survey item says Raising wages and restoring economic opportunity for the middle class. That’s not a progressive position.

Equal opportunity. Guaranteeing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights is okay. No mention is made of women or race.

Open borders. The offered response — Fixing our broken immigration system and ensuring families aren’t separated at the border — is decidedly middle-of-the-road.

Free college education. Relevant Survey item: making debt-free college a reality. It’s gesturing in the right direction, though debt-free isn’t the same thing as free-free

Guaranteed universal income. This is an issue that’s not addressed in the Survey responses.

What other issues are addressed in the Survey response options? Voting rights, gun laws, reproductive rights, Social Security, public schools, criminal justice and incarceration — mostly these are calls for securing prior gains while extending them incrementally. To be fair, there is room at the bottom called Other, which is fill-in-the-blank rather than checkbox. But the blank space is big enough to write in maybe half a dozen words.

I’ll not continue with the rest of the Survey questions and response items. The general tenor is clear: the Democratic Party road to the future will be built largely from middle-of-the-road planks, with limited gestures directed toward the left wing. I wish I’d kept last year’s Survey so I could compare response options to see if there’s been any discernible leftward tilt. My recollection though is that the 2018 Survey was pretty similar to the 2019 edition.

Clearly the DMC’s main agenda is getting Democratic candidates elected. The 2018 elections saw a swing to a Democratic majority in the House. While some progressives won, they did so in districts that were already strongly progressive; for the most part the shift in balance of power was achieved through nominating and electing moderates. Trump’s popularity remains strong among his core constituents, but it has declined across the board since he took office. For the most part Trump won by taking states that nearly always vote Republican in presidential elections, while taking enough swing states — WI, MI, PA — to achieve Electoral College majority. Given Trump’s declining popularity, the DNC probably figures that it can recapture those key swing states, plus a few more, merely by riding along with popular disenchantment with Trump and his cronies. There’s no need to champion a radically more progressive agenda when the moderate platform is likely to turn the trick. Trot out a few media-savvy and attractive progressives who can placate the left wing of the Party, keeping them from splintering off into third-party territory. Find at least one presidential candidate who conveys a modicum of charismatic appeal. But the Party’s tacit expectation is that the future is going to look a lot like the present and the past. Based on recent trends it’ll likely be the Dems’ turn next time around. Play it safe, hit the swing states with moderation, and start planning the inaugural gala.

Lucid Daydreaming

Dreaming is a kind of consciousness. While dreaming you’re engaged in situations and events, you see and hear and feel things going on around you, you converse with other people, attempt to make sense of what’s going on, take actions and react to others’ actions. Dream consciousness is a lot like waking consciousness, except it takes place in an alternate reality shaped inside your imagination rather than in the materially actual here-and-now reality. Dreaming is an altered state of consciousness while occupying an altered state of reality.

While you’re dreaming you typically don’t realize that you’re asleep. In lucid dreaming you do. When you’re having a lucid dream you might even be able to control the dreamworld to some extent, instead of just going along for the ride and trying to cope as best you can.

While awake you’re often trying to get something done, concentrating your attention on a limited set of stimuli, events, options, and actions. When you’re off duty your brain tends to shift into its “default mode network.” You might be remembering the past or imagining the future, self-reflecting or thinking about other people, evaluating right and wrong, exploring meaning and purpose. The things that come to mind in the default mode network might be related to the actually existing world you live in, but they aren’t actual in and of themselves. They’re speculations and imaginings and inferences about the actual world, not direct experiences of that world. But the default mode network doesn’t limit itself to thinking about the actual world; it can veer off into alternative worlds: possible, plausible, improbable, impossible. Under default mode you can drift into altered realities and altered states of consciousness that overlap with dreamstates and dreamworlds — it’s called daydreaming. You can drift along with whatever happens to come into your diffuse awareness — it’s called mind-wandering — or you might be able to channel your daydreaming into an extended exploration of some imagined realm, be it past or future, possible or impossible.

Lately I’ve been thinking that writing fiction is a form of extended lucid daydreaming. The fiction takes shape in a world populated by characters and other sorts of objects, animated by forces and agendas, linked together in meanings and purposes. I’m immersed imaginatively in that fictional world even while at the same time being physically immersed in the actual world. Fictional worlds bear some relation to the actually existing world, but they can veer off either slightly or radically into alternate realms — a lot like sleeping dreams. At times the fictional world I’m chronicling seems to be unfolding of its own accord, without any attempt on my part to steer or shape it. But I can also actively intervene, asserting at least a measure of control over its unfolding. It’s like a waking dream, a lucid daydream.

Writing fiction is a matter of chronicling what’s happening around me as I’m immersed inside an extended daydream. It’s like keeping a ship’s log of an imaginary voyage.



The Silence Where I Am

Obsolete data storage technology delayed the transmission, but on 6 January Jim emailed me a readable copy of Scott’s novel. I’d expected to receive a screenplay, but evidently Scott later rewrote and expanded it into the manuscript that Jim sent me.

On 11 January I emailed back to Jim some observations about the first half of the novel. In that communiqué I acknowledged mixed feelings about reading with a critical eye a text written by an old friend whose life trajectory paralleled my own, in midlife peeling off from the corporate career path in order to write fictions, though I didn’t know it at the time. Did I regard Scott as forerunner, as colleague, as competitor? Scott had experienced some success as a writer, winning a fellowship and a screenwriting award. In 1997 his prizewinning screenplay was optioned by DreamWorks, though it was never made into a film. The novel Jim sent me is copyrighted 2006 — 9 years after the screenplay, a year before Scott killed himself. I anticipated excellence, the work of a tragic undiscovered genius, a solid track record embellished by romanticized caricature. I also knew that the story was largely autobiographical, about a kid who grew up in the same town, and on the same street, as I did, so I anticipated finding the book personally captivating.

Am I disappointed or pleased to find my expectations unmet in the first half of the manuscript? I don’t think it’s just a matter of personal taste; in my email to Jim I elaborated on a number of aspects in the text that in my view don’t pass muster. Writing style, character development, plot, narrative voice — all come under critique. To be sure there are aspects of the novel that I like, that I deem very good. Also, as the text moves across its midpoint I detect marked improvements — my sense is that the text has reached a turning point, segueing into the part of the story that had already been carefully honed in its prior life as a screenplay. So my expectations are on the upswing again.

Is the novel unredeemable? Not at all. A lot of things need work, but they could be fixed or chopped. In my email to Jim evaluating the first half of the novel I offered a caveat, or perhaps a wish unfulfilled:

As I write these remarks I picture myself telling them to Scott, constructive criticism and all that, mostly because my sense is that I’d rather hear something negative than to hear nothing at all, to know that the critic actually read what I’d written, taken it seriously, engaged me in dialogue about it.

Jim, a history professor at a large university in the Northeast, replied in part:

You are a well practiced and insightful reviewer, the art of the reader/reviewer rather than the writer… I much enjoyed your read of the mss. Scott would have loved your insights.

To which I responded, also in part:

One of the things I like about academic texts is that by and large the writers and the readers are the same people, part of the same intellectual ecosystem. Clearly peer review isn’t foolproof, but there’s a shared commitment to excellence, to advancing the field. Higher education builds on a foundation of reading and critiquing others’ work, so one’s set of review skills gets honed in conjunction with learning to do one’s own creative work. And no doubt it helps one’s own writing of academic texts to have read others closely and with a critical eye. It seems harder to pull that off in fiction, music, painting, etc. where there’s such a sharp structural divide between “artist” and audience, performer and reviewer, producer and consumer…

Yeah I’d have enjoyed talking with Scott about this book, though with some trepidation. it’s hard to gauge how he’d have responded, given how personal the story was to him and his building frustration. To quote the last line of Beckett’s novel The Unnameable:
“…it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”