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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.

Russian software industry fails to take global lead – Long Bet 5

Posted on Thursday, February 7th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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This was one of the our first Long Bets, made in 02002. Over ten years ago now, Esther Dyson predicted that,


“By 2012, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times will have referred to Russia as “the world leader in software development” or words to that effect.”

She was challenged by Bill Campbell, who argued,

“As long a there is business opportunity… and I am confident that there will be… the US will provide world leadership in software development.”

He backed up his argument by putting in stakes of $5,000, which Dyson matched.

In reviewing the Bet, we found no such remarks in either publication. American software companies like Google and Facebook remain dominant in the American press. Many countries are contributing more and more to the global IT industry, but none as much as India, according to this graph generated from IMF data.

Winner: Bill Campbell, Challenger

The winnings of this Bet ($10,000 plus half the accrued interest) will go to the Computer History Museum.

Long Data: Predicting Solar Storms

Posted on Friday, February 1st, 02013 by Austin Brown
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As Samuel Arbesman’s recent article on Long Data might suggest, all the data in the world on the Sun’s activities today can’t tell us what it will do tomorrow. But careful observation over the last several centuries has allowed us to develop a predictive understanding of the patterns in solar storm activity.  This collection of long data and the insights it provides won’t guarantee you only see ads that are relevant to you, but it does keep our global electrical and telecommunications infrastructure running.

Long Now intern Sandy Curth writes:

Researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center recently posted their solar cycle predictions for 02013. This coming fall is predicted to be the peak of the twenty-fourth 11- year sunspot cycle on record. Though that might sound scary, this peak is actually anticipated to be the lowest since 01906. While the expected solar activity and its impacts for this year aren’t likely to break many records, the source of these predictions is an exceptional example of long term thinking with data stretching back over 350 years.

Since the start of the 18th century, astronomers have been consistently noting the number of spots on the sun, with records of sunspot observation dating back to 364BCE in the star catalogue of Chinese astronomer Gan De. Belgium’s Solar Influences Data Analysis Center offer sunspot data yearly from 01700, monthly from 01750 and daily beginning in 01874. Modern solar predictions are created by analyzing trends in this data and measuring activity in the Earths magnetic field caused by the sun.

NASA solar physicist Dr. David Hathaway explains the details:

A number of techniques are used to predict the amplitude of a cycle during the time near and before sunspot minimum. Relationships have been found between the size of the next cycle maximum and the length of the previous cycle, the level of activity at sunspot minimum, and the size of the previous cycle.

Among the most reliable techniques are those that use the measurements of changes in the Earth’s magnetic field at, and before, sunspot minimum. These changes in the Earth’s magnetic field are known to be caused by solar storms but the precise connections between them and future solar activity levels is still uncertain.

Another indicator of the level of solar activity is the flux of radio emission from the Sun at a wavelength of 10.7 cm (2.8 GHz frequency). This flux has been measured daily since 1947. It is an important indicator of solar activity because it tends to follow the changes in the solar ultraviolet that influence the Earth’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere. Many models of the upper atmosphere use the 10.7 cm flux (F10.7) as input to determine atmospheric densities and satellite drag.

Predicting the behavior of a sunspot cycle is fairly reliable once the cycle is well underway (about 3 years after the minimum in sunspot number occurs [see Hathaway, Wilson, and Reichmann Solar Physics; 151, 177 (1994)]). Prior to that time the predictions are less reliable but nonetheless equally as important. Planning for satellite orbits and space missions often require knowledge of solar activity levels years in advance.

Even though many of the Sun’s systems are still a mystery, scientists are able to predict its activity well enough to keep our communication satellites on track and give us time to prepare for powerful geomagnetic storms that can black out whole cities.

The first solar storm recorded was in September of 01859 and reportedly caused major failures in the world’s developing telegraph system and auroras as far south as the Caribbean. More recently, a less severe storm in 01989 left six million Canadians without power for nine hours. Predicting the next major solar event is becoming as important to maintaining our infrastructure as predicting the next hurricane.

Taking the past seriously is a clear route to a good prediction, but having the presence of mind to collect seemingly useless data to make predictions easier for future thinkers is worth contemplating. Astronomers centuries ago did not have tangible applications for the data they recorded on the sun. Luckily, though, they took the time to carefully collect and compile what they could see so that today, as scientists realize the potentially devastating impact of a severe solar storm, their data becomes priceless.

How to Win at Forecasting – an Edge conversation with Philip Tetlock

Posted on Monday, December 10th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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Former SALT speaker Philip Tetlock spoke with Edge recently about his research into forecasting. In 02005, he published Expert Political Judgement: How Good is it? How Can We Know?, for which he spent over a decade recording and assessing the predictions made by public policy experts. He found them to be not much better than coin-flipping, but was also able to specify that “Hedgehogs” (those holding a single grand theory and fitting events into its framework) did much worse than “Foxes” (skeptical, flexible thinkers).

In his conversation with Edge, he expands on what makes Foxes better predictors, using Nate Silver as a jumping off point, and offers an update on his work since Expert Political Judgement:

Perhaps the most important consequence of publishing the book is that it encouraged some people within the US intelligence community to start thinking seriously about the challenge of creating accuracy metrics and for monitoring how accurate analysts are–which has led to the major project that we’re involved in now, sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activities (IARPA). It extends from 2011 to 2015, and involves thousands of forecasters making predictions on hundreds of questions over time and tracking in accuracy.

Exercises like this are really important for a democracy. The Nate Silver episode illustrates in a small way what I hope will happen over and over again over the next several decades, which is, there are ways of benchmarking the accuracy of pundits. If pundits feel that their accuracy is benchmarked they will be more careful about what they say, they’ll be more thoughtful about what they say, and it will elevate the quality of public debate.

By the way, the forecasting contest he mentions is accepting submissions.

Long Bets Bet – How Durable Are URLs?

Posted on Friday, March 23rd, 02012 by Austin Brown
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A major concern of the digital dark age is link rot – the eventual failure of URLs to point to the intended files. As website maintenance falters for any number of reasons the pages can cease to be accessible, even though their addresses may be listed on many other sites.

The notion that Long Bets will be around to assess wagers many years (in some cases, over a hundred) into the future struck web developer Jeremy Keith as a bit far-fetched. In the spirit of the site, therefore, he made a Prediction that the URL pointing to the Prediction he was making wouldn’t last 11 years.

He gave a talk at Webstock earlier this year called Of Time and the Network exploring our changing perception of time as a result of our changing level of interconnectedness. At 31:30 he discusses his thoughts on long-term challenges to the accessibility of URLs and dares someone to take him up on the Bet. You can read a transcription of the talk and a blog post he wrote about the Bet itself.

Another presenter at Webstock, Matt Haughey, was game. He gave a talk later in the conference about long-term thinking in the context of the web and, while consistent URLs weren’t the main focus, he touched on the problem and actually officially challenged Keith in his presentation – check it out in the video at 18:50. He was also kind enough to transcribe his talk for those who’d like to read it.

We’re very excited to have this Bet on record and it’s being closely watched by our systems administrator, designer and web developer Benjamin Keating.

Keith and Haughey have each offered stakes of $500, with the winnings going to either the Bletchly Park Trust or the Internet Archive. You can read and comment on their arguments and the detailed terms we’ll use to adjudicate the Bet at Long Bets.

Buffett gains ground in hedge fund bet

Posted on Thursday, March 22nd, 02012 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 fourth year of this Bet, as published by Fortune Magazine:

Four years into a 10-year wager that the S&P 500 index will return more than a selection of hedge funds, Warren Buffett has almost caught up with his competition.
By Carol Loomis, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE — Results are in for 2011, the fourth year of the 10-year wager that is sometimes called, rather loosely, The Million-Dollar Buffett Bet. In this competition about investment performance, Warren Buffett is contending that an S&P 500 index fund will outscore the average return of five hedge funds of funds picked by his betting opponent, New York asset management firm Protégé Partners.

The standings now — which we will reveal in a minute — inevitably bring to mind Buffett’s reaction after the bet’s first year, 2008.

Both sides were clobbered in that market year from hell. But Protégé’s fund-of-funds picks (whose names, by the terms of the bet, have never been publicly disclosed) were down, on the average, by “only” 23.9%. Vanguard’s Admiral shares, which are Buffett’s entry in the bet, lost a dismal 37%.
From this way-behind position, Buffett was quoted in Fortune as saying, “I just hope that Aesop was right when he envisioned the tortoise overtaking the hare.”

And that’s close to what has since happened. Buffett’s index-fund tortoise won the second and third years and — you are reading it here first — also prevailed in the fourth. Not that the 2011 winner was much of a star: Admiral shares were up only 2.08%. But the five funds of funds, on the average, were down 1.86%.

All of which leaves tortoise and hare gasping alongside each other at the end of four years — and having absolutely nothing to cheer about. Protégé is still a bit ahead. But its funds of funds, on the average, are in the minus column for the period by 5.89%. Admiral shares are down 6.27%.

If we really mix metaphors and think about this contest as a baseball game, what we have here is a 0-to-0 tie after four innings, with each side doing nothing but striking out and alienating every fan watching.

The wager, however, has produced one sterling investment over the four years — and that was made, without brilliance aforethought, by Buffett and Protégé themselves. A little background: The idea was to set terms that would deliver $1 million to a charity chosen by the winner. If Buffett triumphs, the money goes to Girls Inc. of Omaha; if it’s Protégé on top, the beneficiary is Absolute Returns for Kids.

To ensure that $1 million would be there at the end of the bet, Buffett and Protégé each put up roughly $320,000 to buy a zero-coupon Treasury security. The total of about $640,000 was used to purchase a bond that will be worth $1 million at the bet’s conclusion. This collateral is being overseen by the Long Now Foundation of San Francisco, which administers “long bets” set up by any competitors wanting to memorialize a gamble.

In a period of declining interest rates, which we certainly have had, what happens to a zero-coupon bond is that its market price races toward the maturity value — $1 million in this case. Recently, the value of the Buffett-Protégé bond was about $930,000, which means that in just over four years it is up 45% from the purchase price. That doesn’t match the payoff from Apple (AAPL), but it’s a heck of a run during a time when the general stock market was a dog.

Both Buffett and Ted Seides, the Protégé partner who engineered the 10-year-bet, are well aware that the returns to be earned by the zero-coupon bond from its price today can be no better than meager for the nearly six years left in the bet. That’s because the ceiling is the bond’s maturity value of $1 million. The view is definitely unappealing, says Seides: “We’re looking at annual returns that won’t be much better than 1%.”

So the two sides began a few weeks ago to talk to the Long Now Foundation about its selling the zero-coupon bond and putting the proceeds into an investment that putatively could deliver the winning charity more than $1 million when the bet winds up. The first plan discussed was for half of the proceeds to be invested in Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA), and the other half to be invested in a fund of funds that Protégé runs (and that has always been assumed to be one of the five funds of funds that Protégé picked for the bet). But that plan died because it would have required Long Now to become a partner in the fund and, for complex reasons arising from the securities laws, it did not meet the definition of a “qualified purchaser.”
So a second plan was devised and is now going forward. It calls for the bond to be sold and the total proceeds to be invested in Berkshire Hathaway stock.

Naturally, some set of dire circumstances could make the roughly $930,000 put into Berkshire worth less than $1 million at the bet’s conclusion on December 31, 2017. So Buffett has guaranteed $1 million by giving Long Now the right at the bet’s conclusion to “put” the stock to him (or his estate) in exchange for that amount. In other words, $1 million becomes the floor for the winning charity, with the Berkshire investment establishing the prospect for more.
Meanwhile, the tortoise and the hare are dealing with the good market of 2012, which so far is suggesting that one or both might show — how radical! — a cumulative profit when the halfway mark in the bet is reached at the end of this year.

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.


The news coverage around the above update of this bet has also revealed how the very fast news cycle can not only make mistakes, but actually report the exact opposite of what has occurred.

Note that the article above clearly explains that for the duration of the Bet, Buffet has been losing. Over the last three years he has been closing the gap created in the first year, but remains behind at present. Compare that fact to the coverage seen online yesterday as the update got picked up by various news outlets. Six of the ten stories listed below incorrectly lead the story by saying that Buffett is winning the bet:

UPDATE 3/26: Felix Salmon at Reuters traced the erroneous headlines back to a Bloomberg reporter who’s take on the story included updated figures based on extrapolated data.

Simon vs. Ehrlich, Round 2

Posted on Thursday, October 13th, 02011 by Alex Mensing
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Roger Pielke Jr. made an observation on his blog recently regarding the past decade’s rapid increase in commodity prices and the classic debate between optimistic Cornucopians and pessimistic Malthusians. In 01990 ecologist Paul Ehrlich – who has spoken at The Long Now Foundation’s SALT series – lost a decade-long bet to economist Julian Simon. In 01980, Simon had predicted that prices (of just about everything) would continue to fall as the human population increased. They tracked the price of five metals over the course of the next ten years, and they all became less expensive.

Since the beginning of the millennium, however, prices have risen fairly steadily. In August of 02011, The Economist noted that current prices of the five metals chosen for the Ehrlich – Simon bet exceeded 01980 prices. Had the bet lasted for three decades, rather than one, Ehrlich would have won.

What Pielke points out, however, is that if we zoom out even further and look at The Economist’s records since 1845, the last decade’s spike in prices could be interpreted as one more blip in a long-term trend of Cornucopian price decreases. Or is the global economy showing the first signs of a long-in-coming collapse, as predicted by Malthusians?

Long-term bets such as the $1,000 wager between Simon and Ehrlich can place people’s predictions about the future out in the open for public scrutiny and comment – encouraging those who would speak to think carefully before they do so. One project of The Long Now Foundation, Long Bets, provides a forum for long-term bets and discussion. On the site, you can view current bets, place your own, or challenge someone else’s prediction.