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Predicting 02009 in retrospect

Posted on Friday, January 2nd, 02009 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Stewart Brand sent me this excellent piece by past Seminar Speaker, historian and author, Niall Furguson.  It is a retrospective of 02009, bravely published a year in advance.  An excerpt from the intro:

“It was the year when people finally gave up trying to predict the year ahead. It was the year when every forecast had to be revised – usually downwards – at least three times. It was the year when the paradox of globalisation was laid bare for all to see, if their eyes weren’t tightly shut.”

The piece is impressive for a historian, as it puts his written history into the territory of the future.  And aside from letting his McCain adviser status show fairly bluntly, I think it is an unfortunate but likely scenario.  The main take away for me is that it reinforces the idea that the borrow and spend economy cannot sustain, it will always have to brutally correct at some point…

“With total debt above 350 per cent of US gross domestic product, the excesses of the age of leverage proved difficult to purge. Households reined in their consumption. Banks sought to restrict new lending. The recession deepened. Unemployment rose towards 10 per cent, and then higher. The economic downward spiral seemed unstoppable. No matter how hard they saved, Americans simply could not stabilise the ratio of their debts to their disposable incomes. The paradox of thrift meant that rising savings translated into falling consumer demand, which led to rising unemployment, falling incomes and so on, ever downwards.”

Chickens come home to roost in 02008

Posted on Tuesday, December 9th, 02008 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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 The Foreign Policy journal has an excellent top ten list for 02008.  Top ten worst predictions.  This type of accountability is exactly why we started Long Bets. Excerpts below:

“[A]nyone who says we’re in a recession, or heading into one—especially the worst one since the Great Depression—is making up his own private definition of ‘recession.’” —Donald Luskin, The Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2008

“If [Hillary Clinton] gets a race against John Edwards and Barack Obama, she’s going to be the nominee. Gore is the only threat to her, then. … Barack Obama is not going to beat Hillary Clinton in a single Democratic primary. I’ll predict that right now.” —William Kristol, Fox News Sunday, Dec. 17, 2006

“There is a real possibility of creating destructive theoretical anomalies such as miniature black holes, strangelets and deSitter space transitions. These events have the potential to fundamentally alter matter and destroy our planet.” —Walter Wagner, LHCDefense.org  regarding the Large Hadron Collider

Long Bets timeline

Posted on Tuesday, December 2nd, 02008 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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I met Derek Dukes the other night the founder of Dipity, the maker of the coolest web based timeline software I have seen yet.  You can manually generate timelines, or set up a timeline that is auto-generated out of RSS feeds, Twitters, Facebook updates, etc.  He set up a timeline for Long Bets in about 10 seconds based on the Long Bets RSS feed (seen embedded above).  They are still working on some of the longer term timeline issues like the BC problem.

219 Years of bets at Cambridge

Posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 02008 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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The Cambridge Betting Books, From England 08

While visiting the UK last week my wife and I were invited to high table dinner at Cambridge’s Caius College by a friend who is now a fellow there.  Touring the grounds was stunning, that all of those gorgeous buildings and ancient libraries could be there for you as a student is so impressive.  High table is where the fellows (professors) like Stephen Hawking eat at the college — Harry Potter style overseeing the students.  When not in term, as it was for us last week, they eat in a separate set of rooms.  After dinner we retired to the “desert room” which was built around the 1300’s I believe, and was paneled in wood from one of Her Majesty’s famous wooden ships.  After some port and claret was served, we were told about the “betting book”.  Apparently since the late 18th century they have kept a book in this room to record predictions and bets made at the table as people like like Francis Crick got drunk in the wee hours.  In the room they only had the most recent book, which had more recordings of presentations of bottles of wine than bets and predictions.  But the following day I went to the library and saw some of the older texts.  Unfortunately time was limited so I did not get a chance to look through them all (I would love to find a student there to help catalog it!).  But I found a couple good bets while looking through…

A page from the second oldest betting book I came across, From England 08

This bet from March of 01817 reads “W.White bets Mr Standby that if a Person call a woman a Wh—e they may have a Remedy of Common Law.” I am not at all sure, but it seems like the W word is Whore, and they are referring to a way someone might avoid having their mistress receive common law marriage rights to property.

And the below image is of the first entry in the oldest betting book I found. It reads “March 10, 1789, On the memorable day in which the Parliament was opened by commission after the Kings Recovery.

The first entry in the oldest betting book I found, From England 08

HAL, what’s a dubject?

Posted on Sunday, October 5th, 02008 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Next Sunday October 12th, six different programs will attempt to pass the computer intelligence Turing test (according to the guardian.co.uk).  This also marks a serious attempt to decide the $20,000 Long Bet between Ray Kurzweil and Mitch Kapor, as well as win the $100,000 Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence.  In the tests, a human questioner will get to question both a computer and human through a chatroom like text interface.  If the questioner guesses wrong or can’t decide which is human, the program will have passed the test.  Judging from the conversations below however I don’t think the machines have much of a chance this time around… (click though to the article and scroll down to find out which is human and which is machine)

Can you tell human from machine?

One of these conversations is between Professor Kevin Warwick (KW) and a human; the other between Warwick and a computer. Can you tell which is which?

Conversation one:

Subject: Hello. My name is Nick and I am a human.

KW: Are you happy being a human?

Subject: Yes, I am. Are you? Good. Then we are both happy.

KW: Yes, I am. Are you happy with your life at present?

Subject: Parts of it. I hate my job, but most people do, right?

KW: I’m OK with mine. What is your job?

Subject: I work as an ‘online internet advertising monitor’, which is fancy language for electronic filing. What do you do?

KW: I interrogate humans and machines.

Subject: Which ones do you prefer, humans or machines?

KW: Which do you prefer?

Subject: Hmm. Depends on for what purpose you mean.

KW: To go to a restaurant, for example?

Subject: Then I would much prefer going with a human.

Conversation two:

Subject: Hello, my name is Mike and I am a man.

KW: Are you happy being a human?

Subject: Judge, I’m a guy.

KW: Does that worry you?

Subject: Don’t worry, we’ll work everything through.

KW: Do you have worries then?

Subject: Let’s move on from that basis.

KW: Why?

Subject: Why? I like this subject.

KW: What is the subject, do you think?

Subject: What is the subject I wonder if I think? I know that it’s good to thonk about. Think deeplt about mysterious subjects.

KW: What mysterious subjects?

Subject: Think deeply about mysterious dubjects.

KW: What’s a dubject?

I can imagine the next line, “Dubject… Let me tell you about my dubject!” At which point the skin job stands up from the Voight-Kampff test and blows poor KW away…

As SLow aS Possible

Posted on Thursday, October 2nd, 02008 by Stuart Candy
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cage-organ
Photo: John Cage Organ Foundation, Halberstadt, Germany
via ABC News Online

Fair warning for long-term music lovers: the world’s slowest concert, a 639-year organ piece by American avant-garde composer John Cage (01912-01992), will next change notes in just over a month’s time, on 5 November 02008.

St Burchardi church, in the eastern German city of Halberstadt, has played host to the performance since 5 September 02001 (the late composer’s 89th birthday), when it kicked off with 17 months of silence. Cage originally wrote ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) in 01985. Its maiden performance by organist Gerd Zacher lasted 29 minutes, but Cage didn’t specify a maximum, so in accordance with the piece’s title, musical scholars and scholarly musicians since decided to stage a multi-century version, approximating the lifespan of an organ.

According to a New York Times report on the 5 May 02006 note change, the odd duration and location for this ambitious project, called Organ²/ASLSP, are due to Halberstadt’s cathedral claiming the first organ with a modern keyboard arrangement, built in 01361, 639 years before 02000, the intended start date for the performance. The sustained notes of the performance are possible thanks to the organ’s customised bellows, and tiny sandbags on strings, rigged to hold each note as long as necessary.

The upcoming change will be the seventh chord in the piece. The last change, on 5 July 02008, attracted over one thousand slow-music fans.

(Above, a home video of the most recent note change, on 5 July 02008.)

Blind writer Ryan Knighton was among those present for the previous occasion, on 5 May 02006 (note changes are always on the 5th of the month). In a short but beautifully written article, he recounts his pilgrimage to the Halberstadt organ, as one of the long, tranquil stretches between increasingly note changes draws to a close:

After a few moments standing here, I begin to crave the next note — any note, any change whatsoever. The chord fills my ears, and a kind of audio-claustrophobia overwhelms me. No sightseers or tour guides around to offer any reprieve. Nobody except Justus, an eleven-year-old local boy who took my hand and guided me the final hundred yards to hear this particular sound before it changed. Lucky he was there — once the new chord begins tomorrow, it won’t change again for more than two years. Got to get to church on time.

As I move into the monastery and toward the organ, the familiar clicking of my white cane adds texture to the drone. My own noise feels like blasphemy, chatter during a prayer. Granted, this chord has been playing only four months — a frilly little trill in the scheme of things — but that’s no licence for irreverence. I stop again and listen. Perhaps ten minutes have passed, and I’m becoming aware of the chord’s impurities. The faintest blemishes in tone pop and burn away like sparks. The sound heaves and exhales slightly, like the sigh or groan of a weary traveller.

Sighted folks ramble the world to see Grand Canyons and Eiffel Towers, monuments that dazzle the eyes. Because the last bit of my sight could desert me any day now, I asked myself, what would the equivalent pilgrimage be for me? So a white cane tapped its way from Vancouver to Toronto to Berlin and to Halberstadt to hear a single moment out of centuries of sound. One thing giving way to another — the basis of all drama. It seemed monumental to me.

I’m standing in front of the organ now, and what began as noise has become a familiar hum. As I think of the generations who will take care of a song that assumed they would be there to keep it going, I’m reminded of my debt to Justus and everyone else who guided me here. As this song will be, I’ve been passed along from one person to another, slowly, until I made it. Just in time.

~Ryan Knighton, “Monumental Vibrations“, The Walrus, April 02007.

In case you happen to be unavailable for the upcoming November change, you might pencil in a visit to Halbertstadt for February 02009, or July 02010.

Incidentally, Organ²/ASLSP is the subject of Prediction 282, registered with Long Bets in 02007; that the performance will continue uninterrupted to the halfway mark, in the year 02319. Although a clear majority of folks weighing in on the issue have disagreed (18 doubters vs 8 supporters to date), the proposition is yet to find an official Challenger to turn it into a fully-fledged Long Bet.

(Thanks to William Kramer for the lead.)

The Wisdom of Public Prediction Markets

Posted on Thursday, September 4th, 02008 by Kevin Kelly
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Prediction markets continue to proliferate. These communities use money to bet on outcomes in the future. If a prediction comes true, the winners reap the money from the losing betters. The price of a bet, or share, fluctuates over time — and thus can be used as a signal for the community’s opinion. In theory a prediction market taps into the “wisdom of crowds,” but can also be viewed as conventional wisdom. However the results of prediction markets have been proven to be reliable conventional wisdom. (See my previous post on the subject.)
There are two kinds of prediction markets: ones where you bet real money, and ones where you bet funny money. Since betting real money keeps people honest (to reduce their loses), markets with real money are considered a much better indicator of opinion than a mere poll — which has no “penalty” for being less than honest. But real money prediction markets are (stupidly) illegal in the US. So token markets like Long Bets and Bet2Give are devised to innovate around the law.
For instance, Hubdub trades token dollars. You are given $1,000 hubdubs at the start, and $20 each day you log on. You win or loose these token dollars on various predictions. There is a leaderboard which displays the highest ranked traders, showing how much they have gained in the last quarter. One fellow gained $1 million hubdubs, and now has a net worth of $3 million. Hubdub dollars are only good for bragging rights.
One clarification of how the price of a bet works (from Hubdub’s FAQ):

If a prediction has a yes value of 43%, does that mean that 43% of people have voted yes?
No, not really. The forecast is dependent on both the number of people who have selected this outcome and the amount they have risked on it. Very roughly, 43% means that 43% of the money risked by users is riding on that outcome.

I was curious how closely the two formats (real and token money) might match each other so I hunted for a bet that I thought most prediction markets might share: the outcome of the US presidential election. From my brief survey, betting real dollars and token dollars give similar results.  More so, there is a pretty close convergence of price among all the prediction markets:
Roughly, the day after Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin gave her rousing nomination speech, all six different prediction markets price Obama winning at about 60%.

Betfair, based in England, trades real money to make bets. It is the biggest prediction market in the world in terms of numbers of bettors and dollars bet. It’s bread and butter are sports events, including the Olympics, and card games, but it also runs bets on almost anything else including politics.
The day after VP candidate Sarah Palin’s nomination speach, Betfair bookies put the odds for Obama winning at 1.6  and give worse odds for McCain winning at 2.72.
Intrade also bets real money, also mostly on sports, but also on many other wagers. On this same day, Intrade money is on Obama winning at 59%.
409933
On this same day Hubdub market rates on Obama win at 63%.
Chart

On this same day the Iowa Electronic Markets, which I’ve written about previously, and is the only prediction market in the US to legally use real dollars, has Obama winning at 59%.
Pres08 Wta
On this same day, Bet2Give also pegs Obama winning at 63 cents or 63%.
Mlh.16

Bet2Give is run on Newsfuture software and is sort of a non-profit demo for Newsfutures, which sells software for customized enterprise-strength prediction markets. They promise that a company can “harness the wisdom of your crowds.” In Bet2Give you bet with real dollars but your winnings are given to charities, so technically you are not gambling.
Newsfutures itself runs a prediction market using token dollars. On this same day it shows a 60% chance of an Obama win.
Prezadem-3
PPX is another token market. Run by Popular Science magazine, it is their Prediction Exchange. It does not do political predictions, so there’s no chart or price for a new US president. Instead it focuses on tech and commercial predictions. Such as: Will Netflix top 10 million subscribers by end of 2008? (You need to register to see the wagers).
My conclusion is that token money prediction markets carry the same validity as real money prediction markets, and that they are fairly consistent across markets. In that sense they are probably reliable indicators of what people believe at this moment (not be confused with reliable predictions).

The end is nigh

Posted on Thursday, September 4th, 02008 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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On Wednesday morning September 10th, the very excited and optimistic scientists turn on the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva…

We have a Long Bet that states “Large Hadron Collider will destroy Earth.” And you can watch the video above of what that looks like.

The “First Beam” will occur at 9:30am at CERN, which I believe will be about 1:30am here in San Francisco as we clean up after the Anathem Event. We will be sure to open a bottle of champagne and have a toast.  The world has been a lot of fun so far, shame it has to end :)

Wired steps up and admits defeat

Posted on Tuesday, July 1st, 02008 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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In a rare, if not completely unique, look back at a few of it’s own failed predictions, Wired published the five largest predictive blunders of its 15 year history (see A Look Back).  When we started Long Bets in 02002, it was precisely because pundits and press did not take this type of responsibility.  Kudos Wired!  Now on to the embarrassment…

Stuff that Wired predicted would die (but didnt):

  • Commercial Web publishing (April 1996) Online news sites everywhere respectfully disagree.
  • Web browsers (March 1997) Push media was about to supersede browsers. Or not. If we could push this claim from the archives, we would.
  • Online song swapping (December 2002) Kazaa? LimeWire? BitTorrent? D’oh!
  • Futurism (December 2003) Predicting the death of predictions? Niiiice.
  • Brands (november 2004) Would someone please tell the tweens — and Abercrombie & Fitch, purveyors of the finest softcore billboards?

One would hope that they are also bragging about the stuff they got right?  If so please send the pointer.

The Million Dollar Long Bet

Posted on Monday, June 9th, 02008 by Kevin Kelly
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Warren Buffett recently bet an ambitious hedge fund operator $1 million that they won’t beat the returns of S&P 500 after their extremely hefty fees are accounted for. Buffett claims investors will do as well with a no-load index fund over the ten years of the bet. He has long been critical of the performance claims of hedge funds, and his bet is intended to put his money where his mouth is.

Buffett’s million dollar bet was made on Long Bets, the accountability mechanism operated by Long Now Foundation. The intention of Long Bets is to encourage responsibility in prediction-making (by keeping a public roster of predictions), to encourage long-term thinking (by offering a opportunity to shape a long-term bet), and to sharpen the logic of forecasting (by recording the logic of predictions and bets.)

In order to make a Long Bet, bettors need to lay out their reasoning. It’s worth reading the two sides’ very short arguments about investing because the two extremes of investment advice are contrasted in them. Buffett, as usual, is stunningly clear in his argument, which ends:

A number of smart people are involved in running hedge funds. But to a great extent their efforts are self-neutralizing, and their IQ will not overcome the costs they impose on investors. Investors, on average and over time, will do better with a low-cost index fund than with a group of funds of funds.

Buffett’s Big Bet is by far the largest bet on Long Bets. The previous largest Long Bet was one for $20,000 between Mitch Kapor and Ray Kurzweil. The two prominent thinkers were betting whether an AI would pass the Turing Test by 2029. Ray was certain an AI would pass muster by then and Kapor was sure it would not get close. (Incidentally, Kapor told me recently he’s willing to double, triple, or quadruple the bet with Ray, or anyone else betting on an AI by 2029.)

The way Long Bets work is complicated. To avoid laws against wagering, the money goes to charities and not to the bettors. Long Bets takes a portion of the growth in assets being held as its own overhead to adjudicate bets in the future.

In the case of the Buffett Big Bet, the arrangement was an immediate contribution to Long Now from both sides of the bet. The details of what is being wagered and how the results are being decided is complex. They are described in great clarity by Carol Loomis a friend of Buffett and senior editor at Fortune. She debuts the Buffett Long Bet in the June 23, 2008 issue of Fortune. (Even though the bet was made on Long Bets in January 2008, we have not posted it publicly until today, as per the wishes of the bettors, who needed to coordinate the announcement and press attention.)

You don’t need a million dollars to make a Long Bet. The minimum wager is $200, and is open to anyone. No money changes hands until someone takes up your challenge. You can also simply make a public prediction, which does not require anyone to bet against you. Any prediction can become a bet later.

The hope of Long Bets is that these public wagers will prompt people to consider the implications of current developments in the near-distant future — and then to keep their attention on what happens.

Buffett’s bet is an ideal Long Bet. It makes a huge difference to anyone who invests in stocks (as do a large percentage of the US, either directly or indirectly) whether a boring index fund yields as much as fancy private hedge funds. The answer either way would be a huge influential signal. When economist Julian Simon won the famous bet against biologist Paul Ehrlich (Simon betting that the long-term prices of commodity minerals would decrease over ten years; Ehrlich betting they would increase), his win essentially eradicated the argument of resource scarcity from the environmental debate. Environmentalists then shifted their concern to the many other issues needed to foster a healthy environment.

This bet has a similar potential. But as in all great bets, its outcome is uncertain. As Loomis writes:

Buffett himself assesses his chances of winning at only 60%, which he grants is less of an edge than he usually likes to have. Protege figures its own probabilities of winning at a heady 85%. Some people will say, of course, that just by making this bet, Protege has acquired some priceless publicity. But then, Protege clearly wants to win, and it’s up against a man who hasn’t made a lot of losing bets in his life. Seides himself sees one strong ray of light: “Fortunately for us, we’re betting against the S&P’s performance, not Buffett’s.”

Picture 32

The other side of Buffett’s bet is being taken by these guys at Protege.