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The canonical list of unorthodox predictors (1/5/05)

I grew up in a contrast of worlds: on the one side was a very traditional and rural world full of amazing tales, legends and even folk medicine, but at the same time it was the 80s and 90s: scientific discoveries were happening faster than anyone could keep track of and I had the internet to educate me. The worlds sound so separate and yet, at the same time, their the same in that both use whatever tools are available to try to explain the world around us. One of the things that always fascinated me was when the two worlds collided in good ways. I called one of these ways "unorthodox predictors" because people were making predictions off of things that the science folks probably wouldn't think of, and yet they worked. A simple example is how coal miners used canaries to tell if there was a poisonous gas nearby. They've got digital machines for this now thankfully, but back then they didn't and so they relied on the little bird's lungs to give out before our much larger lungs did, to tell if there was poison in the area.

Link rot has crept in but I posted a few of these to Metafilter one day and got a few others from other folks, and have collected a few more since then, so I present here the Canonical List of Unorthodox Predictors:

Everything under the sun has been used to tell how the economy is doing, including... Doggie-bag use, traffic patterns, # of Aeron chairs for sale on EBay, discarded cigarette butt lengths, # of infomercials in a given time frame, Maria Bartiromo's hair, and the "Big Mac" index.

We've even got folks analyzing Alan Greenspan's briefcase on the days before Fed meetings to see if the Fed will raise rates. The reasoning there is that he'll need more evidence to back up a rate increase, and so his briefcase will be more stuffed the morning of the next Fed meeting. People actually catch pictures of the guy so they can try to predict what will happen. Must annoy the crap out of him.

The best one, I thought, was that a rise in pizza delivery orders to the Whitehouse indicate impending war, as the staffers will need to be up all night planning the war.

I mentioned the canaries above, but nearby where I went to college the University of Mass. was measuring air quality using... tobacco plants. Its the same idea as the canaries. The plants are so sensitive to certain types of pollution that their health could be evaluated based on the number of brown spots, or whatever, on them and thus tell how air quality is doing.

The other day Asparagirl was looking at how dogs and cats are treated in various countries and guessing what that says about the countries. Indeed, after looking at the pet care economies in several countries there does seem to be a link between pet care practices in a country and the amount of political or economic freedom. Something to consider.

Meanwhile someone who is very close to me, and will no doubt want to remain anonymous, revealed they checked out the "Casual Encounters" section on Craigslist on Mondays, to see how the week was going to be. The reasoning here is that if there are a lot of horny folks out there so early in the week, they must be looking to get rid of the frustration of a bad Monday. It makes sense, actually, and the fact that I think it does can probably be used as an indicator in itself of my liberal leanings.

And while we're getting all Meta, lets talk about the predictors themselves. I've got all the "state of the economy" ones sandwiched up there in one paragraph because there are a ton of them, more than the others combined in fact. So, the predictors themselves become a predictor in that they show what is on folk's minds. If their taking the time to come up with these observations then their thinking about the subject in question, and so we can reasonable say the predictors predict what is troubling people.

I predict people will find more unorthodox predictors in the future. If you hear of one I'm missing, please send it along. Thanks.

Update (11/12/05): Copper, as it turns out, is a really good indicator of how the economy is doing. Because the price is fairly low you'd have to stock an enormous amount just to make any profit off of it so people only stock what they actually need. Since it is used in a bunch of applications that have to do with housing, cars, and such, the amount people are stocking is directly indicative of how much people are spending on such things. Supply and demand take things from there - the price goes up because supply is low and demand is high, meaning the economy is roaring.

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