THE BLOG
11/08/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

My Lunch With Nate Silver

I first met Nate when he was in junior high school. My daughter was running for president of the student council and had promised Nate a date to the Spring Dance and a CD mix of Polish reggae music if he signed on as her pollster. At the beginning of her campaign, she had 30 percent of the white male vote, including the powerful nerd/dweeb bloc, but she was lagging with jocks, mall rats and girls named Chelsea and Megan. There was only one Latina in the school, five Asians (all of whom played the violin) and eight black voters, but they were all leaning toward her opponents.

At this time, Nate's electronic equipment was limited to a small but handy pocket calculator his aunt had bought him for his seventh birthday, but what he lacked in technological tools, he made up for with enthusiasm and a dart board. A week before the election, after scouring all the polls, he told my daughter she had a 36.786 percent chance of winning the election. Mortified, she withdrew from the race.

On the night of the Spring Dance, Nate showed up at my front door wearing an ill-fitting tuxedo, a beret and an RAF scarf. My daughter was still upstairs dressing, so I invited Nate in and sat him down on a living room sofa. Then he took out his calculator and, after about thirty seconds, he looked at me and said there was a 96.7 percent chance I was about to offer him a lemonade. All I had in the fridge was Coke. "Check again," Nate said confidently. "I'm never wrong."

Over the years, I avidly followed Nate's career. One day, when I was in New York for business, I asked him to lunch. He was tentative about it, saying there was a 99.8 percent chance that he could go. The .2 percent, he told me, reflected the small possibility that he would fall down the stairs on his way out of the office.

We met at the Russian Tea Room. Nate showed up with four cell phones, a laptop, an abacus and an iPad. I congratulated him on his success but I don't think he heard me because he was too busy working his keyboards. Then we both studied our menus. He decided to have the chicken; I ordered the filet mignon. Nate smiled, saying he had calculated that I would order the filet. "How did you know?" I asked. Nate shrugged. "Easy," he said. "Considering your background, your age, your political leanings, the current weather in Topeka, the exchange rate for the Euro, the taxi strike in Mexico City and the Syrian yo-yo embargo, it was obvious." I marveled at his process. "So it had nothing to with the fact that the waiter recommended it?" I asked. Nate looked confused. "I didn't hear that," he said.

Frankly, our lunch was fairly boring. Nate just couldn't stop calculating trends within the restaurant and beyond. With a self-satisfied smile, he informed me that the gentleman sitting across from us would pay his bill with an American Express Gold Card, but leave a 12 percent cash tip (87.98 percent chance), that the French-accented maître d' actually lived in Newark and had never been to France (67.09 percent chance), that 65.7 percent of the restaurant's patrons would develop acid reflux before midnight (78.09 percent chance), that the restaurant would run out of pommes frites at 2:09 and send someone out to buy six pounds of French fries from the Burger King across the street (88.987 percent chance) and that that a pockmarked fishmonger in Budapest named Stosh would lose his car keys (76.9 percent chance).

When the check came, Nate and I both insisted on paying it. Finally, I prevailed. Before opening my wallet, I turned to Nate and asked what the chances were that I would end up springing for the meal. Nate didn't even have to consult his laptop for the answer. "One hundred percent," he said.

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