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Predicting 2009 with our flat-screen crystal balls

January 5, 2009 |  8:59 am

Osamacapture_2

Bin Ladin capture trading at 4.9% probability (or 49 cents a share).
(intrade.com)

The new year is so shrouded in gloomy uncertainty that it spent its first two days in L.A. literally enveloped in fog. So if you’re harboring anxiety about the next 12 months, you’re not alone. The less sanguine among us might well be envisioning several kinds of terrific calamity, while more buoyant spirits might be repeating mantra-like that “2009 is gonna be fine.”

The problem is there’s just not enough information about 2009 yet. If you Google “2009,” you’re signing up for a moment of irrational frustration — hardly anything comes up. What gives?

There is a skeletal Wikipedia page with a few notable factlets — did you know that the longest eclipse of the 21st century will fall on July 22? But you have to be in India or something to see it. In other news, the United Nations has designated 2009 the “International Year of Natural Fibers.”

For a more exciting picture, you can try one of many psychic prediction websites. These are generally off the Web’s beaten path, however, and perhaps not for those more accustomed to the well-lighted parts of the Internet.

At NewProphecy.net, the site owners have assembled a comprehensive almanac of apocalyptic predictions covering 1999 to 2242. There are three extremely long pages dedicated to 2009 alone, and the news is not good.

In the colorful late-1990s hypertext so often favored by conspiracy theorists and students of the paranormal, we are told that this month will  bring “massive, unprecedented flooding in Northern Europe” ...

...with all of Scandinavia, Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland “completely inundated” for an indefinite period. In the months to come, various kinds of incredibly heinous attacks will befall several nations, a revolution in Germany will be engineered by Russian agents, and Madonna will become a major spiritual leader the site refers to as “the global high priestess.” Needless to say, this was the only one that sounded even vaguely plausible.

A half-step up from the prophecy sites are the online prediction markets, where users bet on real-life events. These are the sites that get a lot of attention during election cycles because they always seem to pick the president ahead of everyone else. But in the gritty political off-season, bettors turn to darker horses. Right now on Intrade.com, for instance, you can get in on the bottom floor of Osama bin Laden being captured by March (50 cents a share), U.S. and/or Israel bombing Iran (90 cents) or the U.S. falling into a depression by the end of the year (slightly more expensive at $2.87).

If a prediction comes true — say Israel attacks Iran — your shares in that event shoot up to Intrade’s maximum value, which is $10 each.

But hopefully you don’t win, right? I don’t begrudge you the few thousand dollars you’d be cashing out, but I’d prefer that it didn’t come at the cost of a 9.0 earthquake destroying some corner of the Earth or China invading Taiwan — both of which were Intrade propositions that just expired worthlessly.

As an aside, Intrade has yet to open the bidding on Russian professor Igor Panarin’s headline-grabbing prediction. Panarin puts the odds at 55% that by the end of the year the U.S. will have ceased to exist, torn by civil war into a group of balkanized semi-states. Sounds like a hot tip.

A more enlightened form of future sweepstakes can be found at LongBets.org, an ingenious site where participants wager considerable sums on the outcome of grand scientific questions that won’t be resolved for years, decades or even centuries.

The project was established in 2003 with the help of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and has attracted both tech luminaries and captains of industry. The prize money goes to charity.

Last year, investor Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, made a $1-million long bet with a Protégé Partners, a New York money management firm. Buffett bet that the hotshot pickers at Protégé couldn’t put together a hedge fund-based portfolio that, over the next decade, could beat the S&P 500. Tune in in 10 years to see who wins.

Microsoft’s chief research officer, Craig Mundie, bet Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt $2,000 that by 2030, airline passengers will “routinely fly in pilotless planes.” Schmidt argues that even though planes can already take off, land and cruise by themselves, the airlines would still need to have a pilot on hand in case of a systems failure or unpredictable event. Which sounds reasonable, but on the other hand, do I really want some human meddling with the controls while the airplane is trying to fly itself?

There are long bets about whether computers will become sentient by 2029, when and where we’ll find extraterrestrial life, whether someone alive today will still be alive in 2150 and about 20 more. The bets all make for good reading, with the more fantastical of them recalling a curio that circulated online a couple of years ago — an article from the Ladies Home Journal in 1900 that made 29 predictions about the world in 2000.

John Elfreth Watkins Jr., the fellow who wrote the article, noted that — despite his having sought counsel from the “wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning” — “these prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible.”

What followed was a potpourri of predictions that ranged from dead on — he predicted devices very close to television and cellphones — to peculiar (he foresaw “peas as large as beets” and the disappearance of the letters C, Q and X from the alphabet) to flat wrong: cities free of cars, the extermination of all mosquitoes, flies and roaches and a world where the only wild animals could be found in zoos.

If that sounds ridiculous, consider that the pace of technological progress has grown immensely since then — no one in their right mind would even try to guess at what the world will be like a century from now. Even trying to describe the world in 2010 is an exercise in creative writing, whether you’re a prophet, a handicapper or one of the world’s leading experts.

— David Sarno

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