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Superforecaster JuliAnn Blam is a former director at Walt Disney Imagineering and a theme park producer with a globe-trotting career. “What I really like about forecasting is the process of diving deep into new subjects, and trying to bring my own way of thinking to draw conclusions about where this might lead,” she says in this interview with Good Judgment Inc. She discusses her first experiences with forecasting, her favourite projects with GJI, and her tips on becoming a “fox.”
GJ: From a director at Walt Disney Imagineering to GJ Superforecaster, with many other interesting turns in your career, how did you become involved with the Good Judgment Project and then Good Judgment Inc?
JB: Living in Los Angeles, working for Disney, I spent a lot of time in traffic commuting to work, the theme parks, the airports, the studio, etc. One morning drive, I caught the feature piece on NPR about Good Judgment. It fascinated me! Fast forward to the early 2010s and I am living in Guangzhou, China, project managing a theme park show installation for Chimelong Theme Parks. In the evenings I had a lot of time on my hands, and I remembered that NPR piece. I hopped over to the Good Judgment website—lo and behold, there was an open challenge. Sign me up!
My first go at forecasting was incredibly fun. We were put into teams, and I found several of my mates great conversationalists. The question subjects were interesting, although most dealt with issues I never really delved into. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of coming up to speed on various matters. The thoughtful back-and-forth amongst the team members was challenging, and led me to look at data in new and different ways.
When I received the invitation to become a Superforecaster, I almost couldn’t believe it! Of course, I accepted, and dove into the active question list.
GJ: You have a background in music, finance, and the theme park industry. You have also been running your show production business since 2007, including in China, Macau, Panama, and elsewhere. How have your experiences informed or influenced your forecasting abilities?
JB: I grew up in very small towns in Oregon, and longed to be anywhere else but there! Pageants were my first ticket out and took me to many places around the USA. I found I loved to travel.
During college, where I majored in music as an undergrad, I was a USO entertainer and traveled the Pacific Theater as part of a summer variety show. It was an eye-opener. Not only with respect to the Far East, but with respect to what we understood at home to be the “truth.” Vietnam was just beginning to wind down, and the US maintained bases in Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, The Philippines, South Korea, and many islands in the Pacific. Some shows were onstage with large audiences; some were at smaller camps and in mess halls. Others were in hospitals. The politics of the war was always on a low simmer just under the surface. It was there that I came to see the broad range of opinions that various levels of military personnel were harboring. I spent a lot of time asking questions, being curious, and trying to understand viewpoints. I’d say it was my first real “fox” experience: approaching a subject matter without an opinion but a desire to look at everything from every vantage point available to me.
Since then, I have lived in New York City, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Orlando, Panama, and various spots in China. Now I am back in the Pacific Northwest in Seattle. Throughout all of this, I have come to see that people of various places, backgrounds, and economic strata see things very differently, and they are influenced by things as diverse as their country, their industry, their religion, their political affiliations, what news they watch, and their family norms. Whenever there is a question regarding China, I draw on my knowledge of the people and how they look at the world.
Recently, all of this came to play on the question of if/when Xi would loosen his grip on the Covid restrictions. To me, the Stringency Index was a tool fashioned to keep people in various stages of lockdown, and the numbers were always suspect. In the beginning, it probably served a useful purpose in the face of an unknown contagion. But as the virus progressed, Xi came to see it not only as a preventative measure, but as a symbol of his power, and it built up his image as the all-knowing ruler going into his third term. After that election announcement was behind him, and people were protesting their very draconian quarantines, he was willing to let go. To me, the answers lay in Xi’s desires and perception of his place in the world, and had very little to do with what the virus was doing in the four regions we examined. The case counts coming out of China were/are inaccurate at best. I don’t think we will ever really know what happened in Wuhan, or the extent of the damage done by Covid-19 in China.
“Just as a fox listens for movement under the snow, keep your senses attuned to all data points, pay attention to those that line up, and those that seem out of whack, because there is meat there.”Superforecaster JuliAnn Blam
GJ: Could you share an example of a time your forecasting expertise helped you in your work or personal decision-making?
JB: I had returned to the USA from a year in Guangzhou in 2017. I had continued to consult one of my clients who was in the design phase of a large project. In the summer of 2019, they offered me a three-year contract to help them build and produce this theme park. I was hammering out the details of the contract, thinking I would be moving over about March of 2020. Over my Christmas holidays, I started asking Chinese friends in Wuhan, Shanghai, and Guangzhou what their plans were for Lunar New Year, and was very surprised to hear that most were not sure they were going anywhere. By mid-January, there was talk of a new “sickness.” I’m sure it was not “official,” but there was an undercurrent of gossip, and talk about Weibo posts.
I didn’t sign that contract as scheduled on January 15. There were just too many signs that something was terribly amiss. Chinese people just don’t stay home on New Year! Data points were just not lining up in China as a whole. I told my client I had to rethink my availability vis-a-vis the move date. On January 20, China declared an emergency.
My husband and I decided to go to Panama on January 17, figuring the rural beach was probably a better place to ride out what was going to happen. We stayed there until July because of Covid. To this day, my Panama friends tell me that they didn’t believe me when I came to town and said there was this new virus that was going to rock the world, and not in a good way, and that it would change their lives over the next 12 months. Now, they pay attention when I prognosticate.
GJ: What GJI questions or projects have you found most interesting to you personally?
JB: Obviously, those that deal with China are interesting to me. I think I have a better than average grasp of the various forces at play, the mentality of the people, the culture, their media, the desires of leadership. I also think I can bring something additional to the analysis, and contribute comments and insights that bring new perspectives to forecasts.
Recently, I participated in a GJ-affiliated project dealing with existential risk. This was an entirely new subject matter for me. It was a tremendous amount of work. I literally had to clear all the decks to do it justice. But I learned an incredible amount. It was a combination of intense research, data mining, and mind expansion.
Currently, I find GJI does a terrific job of putting out a great variety of questions. There is literally something for everyone! I imagine I will continue to forecast on China, the Fed, leaders like Xi and Putin and their use of power, regional and world conflicts. But what I really like about forecasting is the process of diving deep into new subjects, and trying to bring my own way of thinking to draw conclusions about where this might lead. At the beginning, I was kind of afraid to do that, but now I figure I’m a Superforecaster for a reason, and that is what I can best contribute to the wisdom of the crowd. I don’t believe I am a natural “fox,” and I have to push myself to keep digging. This has really expanded my abilities and made me a better person all the way around.
GJ: What is the best thing about being a professional GJI Superforecaster?
JB: Undoubtedly, the people! The caliber of background, thought, research, writing, debate is absolutely inspiring. Certain Supers are obviously experts in a field, or are geographically near the action, have heritage or personal history to bring to the table. It is fascinating, and I truly gain more from these people on a daily basis than I do from reading the New York Times and Wall Street Journal every morning.
GJ: What is the one piece of advice you would give to those looking to improve their forecasting skills?
JB: Immediately dispel your personal opinions and become a “fox.” Go down every rabbit hole you come by and see what’s in there. Just as a fox listens for movement under the snow, keep your senses attuned to all data points, pay attention to those that line up, and those that seem out of whack, because there is meat there. But don’t forget who you are, because it’s your personal journey that makes your perspective valuable. That’s the special thing you bring to the table: YOU!
“I gain more from these people on a daily basis than I do from reading the New York Times and Wall Street Journal every morning.”JuliAnn Blam on fellow Superforecasters
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