How Data Can Improve Your Life, or Can It?

Data is how I make my living. But for me, data is more than just a living – it also improves my life. Case in point: My obsession with the election.

I am not a particularly political person, but I do want Obama to win.* And partly because of my interest, and partly as I way to avoid doing other work, I spend a lot of time reading blogs. It’s easy to get emotionally invested in all the ups and downs of the election campaign.

Now some people like being upset (witness die-hard Cubs fans), but I don’t. What helps keep things on an even keel is realizing that most predictions are nonsense. As Nate Silver notes in The Signal and the Noise, most predictions fail. Writers, bloggers and talking heads get paid to write and talk about interesting things, regardless of what the data says. Pundits, not data, produce the bulk of failed predictions.

With data, things change more slowly. Most of the ups and downs are just bumps in the road. So, if you focus on the analysis of data guys, it’s easier to be calmer. You avoid getting excited/depressed/annoyed by every news cycle.

But then I had another “aha” moment. Even as I followed the campaign through more data-focused analysis and my putative knowledge increased, I’m still not motivated to do anything about it. I’m not going to give money to the campaign. I’ll vote, but I’m not going to help get out the vote. I’ve done such things before, and they’re certainly worthwhile. But for a whole set of reasons, I’m not up for it now.

I’m going to develop this idea in future posts. Why do I (and others) feel compelled to know things that don’t prompt me (us) to action? Things that don’t make me a better person? Things that aren’t even entertaining?

How about you? Have you ever been obsessed with something you’ll never do anything about?

*I wrote this post before the election. To my great joy, the data geeks beat out the pundits. Go Geeks!


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