Blog Archive for the ‘Long Bets’ Category

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Paul Sabin on the Gamble over Earth’s Future

Posted on Wednesday, October 9th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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In 1980, a bet was made between a Malthusian ecologist and a Cornucopian economist – between optimism and pessimism – about the fate of humanity and planet Earth. The wager concerned fluctuations in the market prices for several crude metals. If prices rose over the next decade, civilization must be facing scarcity and thus inevitable doom; falling prices, on the other hand, would signal abundance, ingenuity, and human prosperity. In 1990, optimism won. (A longer-term bet, however, would have turned out differently.)

Last month, Yale historian Paul Sabin published a book in which he revisits this iconic bet. Delving into the philosophical disagreements between doomsday-saying environmentalists and optimistic believers in the adaptive powers of human innovation, the book ultimately asks: how should we measure global prosperity, and what will spur us to act on a changing environment?

While the (rising) price of essential commodities can be a powerful motivator for action, Sabin writes, some important indices of civilizational well-being may not be reflected in the behavior of the free markets (think, for example, of the impact of carbon dioxide emissions, which currently carry no financial burden). Nevertheless, doomsday-warnings about the impact of environmental destruction do not seem to be much better at prompting productive responses to our evolving world. Advocating a middle ground between these two entrenched perspectives, Sabin ultimately argues that the future of our planet is best served by actions and decisions that are driven by social values – and a long-term perspective:

“I think that environmentalists would find a more solid foundation to advocate action if they made their case based on social values, rather than apocalyptic fear. What kind of world do we want to live in? Humans might survive, and even prosper economically, in a warmer and more populated world. But are the risks associated with climate change worth taking? (The answer, I think, is clearly “no.”) Do we want to live on a more biologically impoverished, albeit economically productive, planet? These are profound social questions that, I might point out (as a historian), cannot be answered by economics or biology alone but rather depend on the humanities and can only be resolved through politics.”

The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future has been published by Yale University Press. You can read more about and by Paul Sabin here.

Long Bets Table at WorldFuture2013

Posted on Friday, August 2nd, 02013 by Andrew Warner
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From July 19th- 21st in Chicago, the World Future Society hosted their annual conference, WorldFuture 2013. The conference had over 60 sessions, workshops, and special events over the course of two and a half days, including a keynote from former SALT speaker Nicholas Negroponte. Topics ranged from Artificial Intelligence and the future of education to gaming and politics.

This year, Long Now hosted a table on Long Bets. For the weekend, we waved the $50 prediction fee and gave conference guests the chance to make predictions for free. The table generated much interest and led to predictions on topics as diverse as urban farming and the future of libraries.

One of the keynote speakers and Long Now member, Ramez Naam, paid the table a visit and made two predictions, both of them concerning our environmental future:

“By 2020, across at least 25% of the continental US, the cost of new solar or wind will be lower than the cost of either new coal or new natural gas”

“The first ice-free Artic day (as defined by NSIDC) will occur by the end of 2020.”

Wendell Wallach, a bioethicist at Yale and presenter at the conference, made a controversial prediction concerning the timeline of fully autonomous cars:

“Neither the Google car nor any other fully autonomous car will be marketed to the general public by 2025”

To see the predictions from the conference and other recent predictions, visit the Long Bets site. If you find yourself in disagreement with any of the predictions, join the conversation by creating an account and challenging the prediction.

The Long Now Foundation on Tumblr

Posted on Friday, July 19th, 02013 by Mikl Em
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Photo closeup of a prototype Geneva wheel by Raphael Varieras
Geneva wheel prototype photo by Raphael Varieras

We recently launched a Long Now Tumblr blog where you will find even more about Long Now and related topics. If you’re unfamiliar with Tumblr, you don’t need to join the service to read the blog, just follow the link. But if you are on Tumblr, please follow and share the posts you enjoy.

Our Tumblr will complement what we publish on this blog. We’ll share a lot of Long Now images, information about our projects, fundamentals of what we do and why, and a look back at some highlights from our past.

Every Friday on Tumblr we will share audio from a past Seminar About Long-term Thinking. Our decade-old speaking series is building a compelling body of ideas about long-term thinking. It is curated and hosted by Stewart Brand, Long Now’s co-founder and Board President.

Philip Tetlock, January 02007
Philip Tetlock (screen shot from high-res Seminar video available to Long Now members)

This week we’ve chosen Philip Tetlock’s January 02007 talk from the archives. The research he shares in Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs explores the confidence of forecasters, and it’s timely to revisit as we approach Daniel Kahneman‘s Seminar, just a few weeks away. We’ll tell you more about the relation between Tetlock and Kahneman’s work in our Seminar primer post next week.

The Tetlock Seminar begins with a mention of Long Bets, Long Now’s forum for competitive and meaningful long-term predictions. A good chance to remind you that Long Now will have a Long Bets table at the WorldFuture 2013 conference this weekend in Chicago. If you are there, look for us. Come by the table and make a Long Bet prediction for free.

Long Bets table at WorldFuture 2013

Posted on Thursday, July 11th, 02013 by Andrew Warner
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From July 19th- 21st in Chicago, the World Future Society will be hosting their annual conference, WorldFuture 2013. The conference has over 60 sessions, workshops, and special events over the course of two and a half days, including a keynote from former SALT speaker Nicholas Negroponte.

Topics range from Artificial Intelligence and the future of education to gaming and politics. The World Future Society was founded in 1966 as an organization dedicated  to thinking about the future, and has been publishing the forecasting magazine The Futurist since 1967.

This year, Long Now will be hosting a Long Bets table at the conference. For this weekend only, we will be waiving the $50 prediction fee and giving conference guests the chance to make predictions for free. We’re hoping that the thought-provoking panels and discussions at the conference will lead to some new exciting predictions and bets.

In the long-term, Long Bets aims to track the specific elements common to predictions that succeed, thus providing a better framework for everyone to think about the future. To attend the conference and visit our table, please visit the WorldFuture 2013 site.

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The Imagined Future of 02013

Posted on Monday, May 6th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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Long Now’s Long Bets project is founded on the premise that we can improve our long-term thinking by holding ourselves accountable for the predictions we make about the future. By revisiting our forecasts as time goes by, we reveal the subtle mechanics of society’s evolution, and teach ourselves something about what kinds of visions might turn into reality.

Jerry Lockenour, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, has turned this premise into a lesson plan. Students in his Technology Development and Applications class are going back to the future: they are studying a 01988 issue of the Los Angeles Times’ Magazine, which offered a vision of the futuristic LA of 02013.

“In class we study emerging science and technology that can change the future,” he said. The magazine helps students see the relevance of the developments they are reading about in textbooks and professional journals, he said.

The 01988 feature offers a detailed description of a day in the life of a fictional family. Written in consultation with more than 30 futurists and experts, the article offers prospects for the technological innovations, environmental challenges, economic issues, and demographic shifts we might expect to deal with in 02013.

The LA Times itself recently interviewed Lockenour’s students to evaluate the quality of its 01988 predictions. “To their surprise, the students – some of whom weren’t even born when [the magazine’s] look into the future was published – found that many predictions have become reality.” Though robots have not quite become a staple in our households, we do indeed drive our cars with the aid of “electronic navigation systems,” schools have embraced the interactive learning potential of computers, and the population has indeed exploded.

To read the complete feature – and compare its vision of the unimaginable future to today’s present moment for yourself – please visit the LA Times’ website here.

Buffett pulls ahead in wager against hedge funds

Posted on Wednesday, February 13th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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In 02008, Warren Buffet placed a Long Bet that will take until 02017 to resolve. He predicted that for those ten years, “the S & P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses.

Below is a summary of how things went in the fifth year of this Bet, as published by Fortune Magazine:

Five years into a ten-year bet that an S&P index fund can beat hedge fund funds-of-funds, Warren Buffett is in the lead for the first time.


By Carol Loomis

FORTUNE — It’s halfway time in the 10-year stock market wager sometimes called The Million-Dollar Bet—that’s Warren Buffett backing the performance of an S&P index fund vs. a New York money manager backing five funds of hedge funds—and there’s double-barreled news.

Item One: For the first time since the bet started five years ago, Buffett has moved ahead—by an okay margin to boot. Item Two: For the first time ever as well, both sides have crawled out of the ditch (though the funds of funds barely made it) and are showing positive results.

About that history of bad results, of course, you need to keep in mind that this bet started in the gut-wrenching year of 2008, which left both contenders deep in the red. Buffett, though, was definitely a deeper shade of red: Vanguard’s Admiral shares—the S&P index fund he’d backed—lost 37% in 2008 vs. a 24% drop, on the average, for Protégé’s five funds of funds.

Reporting on that first year of the bet, Fortune quoted Buffett as just hoping he could be like the fabled tortoise that ultimately passes the hare.

So now the tortoise, after crawling four more years, indeed leads. At the five-year mark, the Vanguard index fund backed by Buffett is up by 8.69%. The five funds of funds picked by Protégé Partners to carry its flag in the race are up, on the average, only—”gulp,” says Protégé partner Ted Seides—0.13%.

By the terms of the bet, the identity of those five funds has never been made public. It has always been assumed, however, that one of them is a fund of funds run by Protégé itself.

The strength of 2012′s stock market is naturally what carried the contestants into the black. The market’s vigor is displayed in the performance of the index fund, which rose by 15.96% last year. In contrast, the five funds of funds managed a 2012 gain, on the average, of only 6.46%.

From his trailing position, and probably having heard enough about the tortoise, Protégé’s Seides imagines an alternative future for the bet by recalling the movie, City Slickers. In it, says Seides, “Billy Crystal’s character asks Jack Palance’s character, Curly, if he has killed anyone today—and Curly answers, ‘Day ain’t over yet.’”

We’ll let that suspense hang and report still one more piece of news about this bet. This bulletin concerns the 10-year zero-coupon bond that the two bettors, Buffett and Protégé, bought with the collateral they put up as the bet began. Each contributed about $320,000, so a total of roughly $640,000 went into the bond. Its value was set to rise gradually to $1 million—thus the nickname for the bet—by its conclusion on December 31, 2017.

But as reported last year (Buffett gains ground in hedge fund bet), the zero-coupon bond proceeded to perform so splendidly in the prevailing environment of falling interest rates that by 2012 it was already worth almost $1 million.

That remarkable result suggested to Buffett and Protégé that they could revise the terms of the bet and quite possibly get more than $1 million to the charity ultimately benefitting from the bet. That will be Girls Inc. of Omaha if Buffett wins and Absolute Returns for Kids if the victor is Protégé.

So the zero-coupon bond was sold for nearly $1 million toward the close of 2012, and by agreement between Buffett and Protégé, the proceeds were put into the B stock of Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA). Berkshire’s shares have risen since, and the current value of the investment is well over $1 million.

And couldn’t the stock fall? It certainly could, but that won’t make a whit of difference to the winning charity—because Buffett has guaranteed that it will get at least $1 million at the end of the bet. On the upside, meanwhile, there’s no ceiling on what the charity can walk away with. That depends simply on what happens to Berkshire’s stock between now and the bet’s conclusion.

Fortune senior editor-at-large Carol Loomis, who wrote this article, is a longtime friend of Warren Buffett’s, a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder, and editor of his annual letter to shareholders.

Long Bets – 02013 Update

Posted on Friday, February 8th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Predicting the future is hard.

Long Bets is a project by The Long Now Foundation that is testing how hard it really is, and maybe making us just a little bit better at it. The site allows users to post Predictions of at least two years’ duration. Should someone disagree with the likelihood of a prediction, they are welcome to Challenge it and produce a Bet. Real money is put on the line and eventually goes to a charity nominated by the winner.

We’ve recently made judgments on several Bets and wanted to review the outcomes:

We’re also starting a Facebook Page for making and discussing predictions about the future.

Long Predictions Facebook Page

Posted on Friday, February 8th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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We’re going to try something new for a little while – we’ve created a Facebook Page called Long Predictions where we’ll post predictions from the Long Bets site, on the web or in the media.

We’re interested in fostering thoughtful, respectful discussion about the future and our culture’s hopes, fears and assumptions about it. We encourage you to share predictions you discover or overhear and to discuss those posted by others. You’re also welcome to venture your own prognostications and to consider taking them over to Long Bets to formally put them on record.

US Presidential election process largely unchanged in 02012 – Long Bet 291

Posted on Thursday, February 7th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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In 02007, political tensions were running high and the US was beginning to contemplate who would replace the second President Bush. Amid this polarized climate, Jason Galbraith predicted that,

Neither major U. S. political party will hold conventions or indeed primaries to select their 2012 Presidential nominees.

Unconvinced by Galbraith’s premonitions of anarchy, coups or shadowy pseudo-democracy, Sam Stigler offered a simple rejoinder:

Galbraith’s argument fails to take into account the incredible resilience of the U.S. institutions of government over the years since its inception.

Stakes were set at $500, half from each participant.

Despite great division in the political sphere and unprecedented international crises abroad, the dramatic upheavals within the US imagined by Galbraith failed to materialize. The customary primaries and conventions were held in 02012 as usual:


Winner: Sam Stigler, Challenger

The winnings of this Bet ($500 plus half the accrued interest) will go to Lewis & Clark College.

First 5-year decline in US vehicle miles traveled since WWII – Long Bet 197

Posted on Thursday, February 7th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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In 02005, Daniel K. Simon, believing the effects of Peak Oil to be close at hand, wrote,

The U.S Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics ( will report a lower number of total highway vehicle miles traveled in 2010 than in 2005.

His Challenger, Glen Raphael, responded,

“Five years is too short to expect much change in this area – we may not even have peaked by then. But once we do peak, it won’t be much of a problem.”

The two agreed to $400 stakes for the wager; each put in $200.


Adjudication of this Bet proved interesting: Vehicle Miles Traveled in the US have followed a surprising regular upward curve, for as long as they’ve been tabulated, with only a few deviations from the trend. One of those deviations began in 02008. Why? While the nature of peak oil is such that it will be hard to identify until afterwards, the timing of the recent dip in VMT seems to implicate the recent economic recession more than anything else. Regardless, the Bet is about the numbers, not causation or correlations.

VMT was 3.005 trillion miles in 02005 and it climbed to 3.049 trillion in 02007. The following year, 02008, was the first since 01980 to be lower than the one before it. The drop that one year was more than the growth of the previous two and 02009 continued the downward trend. 02010 – the decisive year for our purposes – showed signs of recovery and according to preliminary reports looked to have just barely surpassed 02005’s level. Once the final official tally was released though, it came to 2.9851 trillion miles: below 02005’s level. Despite a few dips in the 01970s, 02005-02010 was the first 5 year period with a net decrease in VMT since WWII.

Winner: Daniel K. Simon, Predictor

The winnings of this Bet ($400 plus half the accrued interest) will go to the Post Carbon Institute.