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Prophecy, Poetry and Prediction

[ by Charles Cameron — personal preference, gangs, Chicago, insurgency, Afghanistan, and admitting the uncomfortable ]

Albrecht Durer, The Blessed Virgin enthroned on the crescent moon


Poetry, on the whole, has a liking for prophets. Thus Sylvia Plath writes:

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

There’s an undeniable affinity there, the sense of giving voice to a lightning strike. Or as Randall Jarrell puts it:

A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.


Okay. I’m a poet, I think, partly because I have such a damnably literal mind that I need to break out in metaphor the way athletes break out in a sweat.

And the trouble with prophecy, from my point of view, is that it’s all too often read in damnably literal-minded ways, as though:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars

wasn’t clearly poetry. Let me clarify: it is.

And it is because prophecy (not “false prophecy”) is all too often read literally that the end of the world is so regularly promised, without once having come to pass thus far.

Even though the scriptures proclaim, But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven


I suppose it goes along with being a poet rather than a statistician that I’m far more interested in qualitative than in quantitative approaches to modeling — or understanding, as we used to call it.

There are times, though, when it’s advisable to acknowledge the approaches most different from one’s own — for they too have their moments.


A Reporter’s Notebook entry yesterday on Fox News titled Chicago gang database intends to predict and prevent further violence tells us “One shooting sets the next shooting in motion.” That’s poignant even if a tad banal. But what comes next is interesting:

In an attempt to predict the next violent act, Chicago police are turning to technology. They have established a database that includes information on more than 100,000 known gang members. Even the lowest members of the gangs are entered as soon as police become aware of them. Their arrest records and affiliations are all entered and cross-referenced and available to the cop on the street. This is the kind of information a good beat cop would keep in his head; now it’s available to every cop on every beat. Sgt. Tom Ryan is in the gang unit on the South Side. “This is just a great way that we can look at all the information gathered because it is hard for the detectives to talk to all the different units. This is a good way of filtering down data through the departments to each other.

Probably of greatest use to the officers, when a guy gets shot, police see who his buddies are. “We can make predictions about where retaliations might be likely to happen,” says Commander Jonathan Lewin.


And I bring this to your attention because today I ran across an article in Wired’s Danger Room with the headline Study: WikiLeaked Data Can Predict Insurgent Attacks which resonated with yesterday’s Chicago gang report:

Insurgencies are amongst the hardest conflicts to predict. Insurgents can be loosely organized, split into factions, and strike from out of nowhere. But now researchers have demonstrated that with enough data, you might actually predict where insurgent violence will strike next. The results, though, don’t look good for the U.S.-led war.

And they’re also laden with irony. The data the researchers used was purloined by WikiLeaks, which the Pentagon has tried to suppress. And the Pentagon has struggled for years to develop its own prediction tools.

That data would be the “Afghan War Diary,” a record of 77,000 military logs dated between 2004 and 2009 that were spilled onto the internet two years ago by WikiLeaks. In a paper published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers used the leaked logs to (mostly) accurately predict violence levels in Afghanistan for the year 2010. (Behind a paywall, alas, but a summary is available for free in .pdf.)


I’m focused on minds and hearts, as the saying goes — but I’ll admit that mines and HK417s are also significant.

If the quant side of the house can reduce casualties, I’m all for that.

3 Responses to “Prophecy, Poetry and Prediction”

  1. Michael G. Moore Says:

    I suspect that intelligent gang/insurgent members will be spoofing the data trail, with ease, in order to wrong foot any attempt at predicting their next move(s). Omitting this “intelligent” dimension in policing them, then, will simply consolidate the “survival of the smartest”. But, then, that’s nothing new…
    Great post though. Many thanks.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Most welcome.

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