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Books

Master the art of predicting by asking the right questions

Meet Nate Silver, author of “The Signal and the Noise” (Penguin Press, 2012). He is only 35 years old, but he has figured out a lot in his young life. (By age 40, he will probably change his name to Nate Gold or Nate Platinum.)

He is a gifted analyst who has figured out how to make accurate predictions 90.5 percent of the time. If you saw the movie “Moneyball,” then you know how he applied his analytical talent to baseball. More recently, he launched a blog, FiveThirtyEight.com, and accurately predicted winners in all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election.

If you were concerned about the “fiscal cliff,” it might be worth your while to follow this young man’s blog and buy his new book. In reading several articles about him online, I learned that he does not relish writing for or working with political organizations (or individuals). He prefers working with small groups of people.

His predictive system may be applied to almost anything. One blogger asked if Silver could predict whether he would “get lucky” tonight. Silver’s reply: “Did you ask the right questions?” I thought that was indeed a brilliant reply. And furthermore, there is a life lesson in there.

Applying the right formula to a problem or question isn’t all that different from figuring out the big questions in life that have nothing to do with actual numbers. In other words, applying the correct information (asking the right questions) to predict a desired outcome isn’t as hard as it sounds.

For instance, instead of juggling numbers to figure out whether we will actually have a big earthquake in California in 2013, the better question might be, “What have I done to prepare for the Big One in case it happens in 2013?” Of course, I would look at it this way because I have suffered from math anxiety since the age of 9, so algorithms are of absolutely no use to me.

I live in awe of the Nate Silvers of the world who are gifted in the witch-art of mathematics. And from him I have learned the extreme importance of applying the right questions to get the most accurate answers.

Having said that, I wonder how I would figure out whether to hang onto last season’s handbag in the event that a peacock-blue purse is still in fashion. Perhaps I should apply the cost of the handbag to the number of days/months/years I might hang onto it until I get down to zero. Or, I could just pick up the spring issue of Vogue. That’s a real “first world” problem, and I should be ashamed of myself for asking, which I am – a little.

I’m just saying … in 2013, I shall apply my utmost efforts to asking better questions. Starting now: What do you think about a bright-blue handbag?

Sharon Lennox-Infante, contributing editor for Book Buzz, is a Los Altos resident.

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