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25 July 2017 @ 12:58 pm
LJ Idol Season Ten: "Improbable Statistics"  
Improbable Statistics
idol season ten | week 25 |1026 words
The Waffle House Index


It was a weird job, but someone had to do it, and yes—that someone was me. I'm Cal Estingham, one of the foremost experts in the dark art of Predictive Mathematics.

Now, I know what you're probably thinking: So, how can I get rich off of that? The answer is, you can't. You can make a living at it, sure, but that's not the same. And it's not something that can be taught.

Heck, I can barely explain it.

Analysts crunch data. They look at statistical models and trends, and try to guess the projected year-over-year rate of inflation, or whether the yen will rise against U.S. currency—or Alice Cooper will tour again. Sometimes they get creative, like looking at the length of women's skirts to gauge the health of the economy. Though that's more reactive than predictive, but you get the idea.

Compared to my work, it's almost ordinary.

Predictive Mathematics deals in long-term observation and strange side-effects. For instance, you might use the curl of feathers at the base of a mallard's tail to determine the wetness of the coming year. I tracked slang sequences and the average price of beer as an indicator of upcoming cycles in crime. I often consulted the BBI—the Brooks Brothers Index—as a factor in other calculations. The sales' volumes of men's suits frequently reflects the degree of local and national economic stability.

We're not talking about examining sheep's entrails or anything like that, but you know—it wasn't exactly straightforward.

Most people entered this field late, but I began experimenting with it when I was still a child. I studied the habits of caterpillars, the patterns of shadows, the commercials on television, all with the idea of figuring out whether we would have ice cream after dinner, or whether I could stay up late for extra trick-or-treating on Halloween. None of that information was remotely useful for predicting the answers to those questions, but finding out what didn't work was part of the learning process too.

Later, I graduated to better data-groupings. I weighed the mean and median scores on Mrs. Frankel's history tests against her rate of caffeine consumption, to determine my chances of getting an "A" if I brought her Hershey bars across the grading period. I watched the rise and fall of the canned tuna pile in the pantry, using those critical Tuna Casserole Event Indicators to decide when to eat dinner at a friend's house. In college, I always checked the dorm RA's major and monitored the health of the dean's marriage. Combining those with the number of weeks plus or minus midterms gave me a sense of whether a random room inspection would get me and my girlfriend in trouble. Though some of that might have been pure instinct…

Nobody else in my family was especially good at math, let alone the type of calculations I did. My cousin, Billy, used to think he had the gift for it, but he only ever used it to bet on the ponies. Given that he had about the same lack of success as everyone else, it looks like he was wrong.

My own income was spotty. It was all freelance work, though most of my jobs were for the government. I just didn't know whether it would be feast or famine from one month to the next. I tried creating an algorithm to predict that, but it was a nightmare of recursion that was ultimately useless.

I was often hired to do general observation and prediction, with specs on "areas of interest." For instance, I spent hours—weeks—collating data on loan foreclosures, angry letters to the editor, and alcohol sales, and then applied weather forecasts and televised sports schedules as qualifiers. It was all groundwork to predict if or when the Revolution was coming. (Seriously—that job came up at least once a year).

Or maybe I'd watch CCTV footage of main streets in multiple cities, compiling the MTT, Mean Time to Tailfins, as a factor in Medicare budgeting. Sometimes, it was hard to tell whether what I was doing was genius or just nuts, but it was all about the results…

All of this went on for years, with me gathering my weird data and funneling it sideways to come to my uncanny conclusions. I'd spend months inspecting waterfowl or counting the blossom yield on bush beans, and meanwhile other people were getting married and starting families. I didn't mind—my work served the needs of humanity and the appeased the pitiless gods of quantification.

But then one day, I had this sort of epiphany (eh, that's probably too strong a word for it). I pulled my head out of my data and realized, "Jesus, I'm looking at duck butts for a living."

Like I wanted that on my tombstone.

I was fifty years old, and all I had to show for it was money in the bank and a history of successful predictions. And when you really look at it, being right isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"What do you want to do with your life?" my friend Bernard asked.

"Something important. Or no—maybe not important. I don't know. I've built my whole identity around numbers. What else could I do?"

"Well, you've always had an active imagination," Bernard said. He was a newspaper editor with no aptitude for math, and it was an old joke between us. But I began to think about it in a different way.

I write children's books now—bizarre fantasies with dancing squirrels, or aliens from a banana planet trying to find the perfect spaceship. I'm not raking in the big bucks, but I love the work, and the books sell well enough to buy food and pay the rent. I might even meet a nice woman and have a family of my own someday, who knows? But in the meantime, my stories bring happiness to the children who read them.

And if those children should happen to learn something along the way that helps them avoid becoming pills or an unfortunate accident statistic, well…

So much the better.


If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.

bleodsweanbleodswean on July 26th, 2017 02:11 pm (UTC)
This is so darned clever, K! I enjoyed every example you trotted out and especially those that I have never considered! This was lol - I pulled my head out of my data ... . There at the end, the children's author, put me in mind of Edward Gorey and his admonishments to children.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 26th, 2017 08:13 pm (UTC)
So glad you liked it! All of the details were entirely fake, but I wanted them to have that tinge of possibility, as if, "Wait, maybe there IS a correlation between those things?" A mix of maybe-almost and that's-insane. :D

I'm not as familiar with Edward Gorey's books as I should be. I always thought he wrote "Freaky Friday", which I loved (he illustrated it). I must research him! I love his drawings, and he sounds like my type of dry-humored guy. :D
i_17bingoi_17bingo on July 26th, 2017 05:12 pm (UTC)
I can't even conceive of the things you did for him to find patterns in. I'm nowhere near random enough, I guess.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 26th, 2017 08:16 pm (UTC)
It took some real brainstorming to create examples for this! The waterfowl feather curls and the line about looking at "duck butts" came to me right away, but the rest was a challenge. Slightly plausible but also maybe-crazy is a hard line to walk!

All the crack I've written this season has really helped me channel my inner randomness, I think.

Thanks for reading!

Edited at 2017-07-26 08:17 pm (UTC)
marlawentmadmarlawentmad on July 27th, 2017 08:34 pm (UTC)

You did an amazing job of just that! I love the matter-of-factness around the absurdity.

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 28th, 2017 12:42 am (UTC)
Actually, trying to pass off the absurd with a serious tone is one of my favorite effects in writing crack. It just makes it feel all the more "wrong" that way.

So glad you enjoyed this one!
Rebeccabeeker121 on July 26th, 2017 10:58 pm (UTC)
The myriad examples of your narrators work are amazing. And honestly I think televised sports as some part of an equation to determine if the revolution is coming makes perfect sense.

I'm left wanting to read his children's books, I bet they're fascinating.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 27th, 2017 12:10 am (UTC)
Thank you! Boy, those examples took some brainwracking. :D

Those children's books would certainly be entertaining, if not also somewhat bizarre. But I rather like bizarre!
penpusher: Going To Endpenpusher on July 27th, 2017 01:38 am (UTC)
Another wild and quirky entry that absolutely is improbable! The fact is there could be some wild and seemingly unrelated element that can help predict important stuff out there somewhere. There was some magician recently that was doing a mathematical trick stating that "it's not impossible, just highly improbable." And of course, everything worked out.

It's a fascinating thought.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 28th, 2017 12:44 am (UTC)
Things are often more complex than we would like to see, so as non-obvious as some considerations might be, they might produce more telling results than the ones you'd get from just using basic assumptions. Including the assumption that the situation actually IS basic. ;)

Magician math! That intrigues me. :D
cindy: misc fictsuki_no_bara on July 27th, 2017 02:50 am (UTC)
sounds a little bit like chaos theory, just... crackier. i love how random some of cal's objects of research are, but they sound reasonable. i mean, of course there's a correlation between sales of men's suits and the health of the economy! or foreclosures and angry letters to the editor and upcoming revolution! or, uh, duck feathers and weather. :D going from that to children's books actually makes sense.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 28th, 2017 12:54 am (UTC)
i mean, of course there's a correlation between sales of men's suits and the health of the economy!
:D What's more, they're in the range of men's suits that are at least somewhat affordable (not designer stuff), and yet also not the really low end like Sears or Penney's. That's the demographic that can afford suits in good times, but fluxes when layoffs happen.

I couldn't resist mentioning "quantifying" indicators for a burgeoning revolution, since that's on our minds a lot more nowadays. o_O

Glad you enjoyed this! Duck butts, man... there's got to be a better way.

rayasorayaso on July 27th, 2017 02:07 pm (UTC)
This was so dryly hilarious! Predictive Mathematics as a "dark art," indeed! I don't know how you managed to come up with such fun, and almost believable, examples. There is almost a correlation in these things, or I wish there were. I loved the technical terms, like BBI and especially MTTT. I didn't expect Cal to wind up writing children's books, which was a great twist. I suppose mathematics does that to a person, though. Great entry, and so very clever!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 28th, 2017 12:57 am (UTC)
"Dark art" seems like the best description of something that feels like it has almost an element of voodoo to it, and that not many people would be able to do. Especially with so many wing-nutty variables being pulled out of thin air.

I think Mean Time to Tailfins should be a real measurement for predictive calculation. ;) At least until all of those cars die out.

Writing children's books surprised ME as a future career, but is made a certain sense. Also, "banana planet" is just a funny phrase all on its own. I want to write that book. :D
Laura, aka "Ro Arwen": Cpt Jack - Delightful Weirdoroina_arwen on July 28th, 2017 07:23 pm (UTC)
Very cool! Duck butts on your tombstone would be hilarious, though!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 28th, 2017 08:42 pm (UTC)
:D It wouldn't, wouldn't it? I can imagine decades of people coming across that in a cemetery and scratching their heads over it. :)
flipflop_divaflipflop_diva on July 28th, 2017 08:15 pm (UTC)
I love his evolution from trying to figure out if there was ice cream for dinner to upping his chance of getting an A by supplying Hershey bars to getting paid to stare at weird stuff for a living. And then of course the children's book author change of career at the end.

Super creative! I love it!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 28th, 2017 11:05 pm (UTC)
Life is so much simpler when we're children, and our priorities as well. Also frequently more fun. :O

I'm glad you enjoyed this one. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Murielle: Scrunchedmurielle on July 28th, 2017 09:15 pm (UTC)
So clever! But exactly what I have come to expect, delight in, from you. The hem length thing relating to the economy...you peppered this piece with enough of these kind of predictors to keep me guessing, wondering where you were taking me. Ultimately although we veered off to the far and beyond, you still had me because I am all about syllogism. I am! I love it.

This was delightful!

Wait a minute! I think I might be lost. ;-)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 28th, 2017 11:08 pm (UTC)
The hem length was someone's real "truism" that apparently has been recently challenged, but what a great starting point for things that are even more tangential but possibly-- possibly-- meaningful indicators!

Are you lost, or are you still stuck thinking about duck butts and whether that's a real thing? ;)
Murielle: Scrunchedmurielle on July 29th, 2017 12:30 am (UTC)
Well you know...duck butts are just so darn cute. It has to mean something. ;-))
messygorgeous: pic#126845085messygorgeous on July 28th, 2017 10:49 pm (UTC)
I love your crazy indexing, lol! We learned in statistics class about how you can make some seriously wrong correlations, a great example being that when ice cream sales are higher murder rates will go up. It is true, but murder rates have less to do with ice cream than in summer months, when it's hotter, more murders are committed!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 28th, 2017 11:09 pm (UTC)
Hahaha-- that's it, exactly! Some of these things might be more correlation than true indicators for statistical prediction. OR, they're a form of magic. There's a certain voodoo-ness to Cal's methods.

Glad you got a kick out of this, and thanks for reading!
alycewilsonalycewilson on July 29th, 2017 12:27 am (UTC)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 29th, 2017 12:32 am (UTC)
Glad you liked it!

And thanks for taking the time to read and comment. :)