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A Few Rules for Predicting the Future (2000) (archive.org)
196 points by DyslexicAtheist 33 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 56 comments

> The kids I was talking to were born around 1980, and one of them spoke up to say that she had never worried about nuclear war.

A related trick for predicting the future; things that everyone is worried about are likely to get solved. It is the stuff that people dismiss as impossible that is scary, because when it happens everyone is caught out in the same way at the same time.

That also leads to a decent heuristic for figuring out if someone is overconfident: listening to see if they can articulate a thoughtful list of things that could go wrong. If they don't have such a list then it is likely they won't have countermeasures in place when something goes wrong and will fail for no good reason. Or worse, they won't pick up on the early signs of failure when there is still time to react and salvage the situation.

Dilbert’s creator Scott Adams has a rule for that: Adams Law of Slow-Moving Disasters.

Scott Adams himself would use this to mock people who are worried about climate change.

The problem with this is that if you don’t worry about it, actually it doesn’t get solved. For example everyone was worried about the Y2K bug and nothing happened because enough people in the right position got worried enough, invested in the fix and nothing happened.

So it’s a paradox. It’s also a common sense: If you prepare for something, you can prevent it, and if it materialises the damage inflicted would be minimised and if you were not worried about it, disaster happens.

Actually, the pandemic is an example of not worrying enough. A lot of people couldn’t got worried until corridors of hospitals become morgues. Months of news and footage were not enough to convince people to worry enough to wear a mask.

The blog post where he talks about slow-moving disasters has this gem:

> When I was a kid, it looked as if the country was heading for an eventual race war. Today that seems impossible unless angry white guys start shooting.

It's funny how things that seem impossible one year can start to seem much more possible a few years later. Problems that you think have gone away sometimes resurface.

Y2K was a good example of something that didn't happen, and probably in large part because everyone was working to stop it from happening. But to claim that it will always work that way is to assume that there is always something significant that can be done by the people who care.

There often is, but there are a lot of forces that work against this too - collective action is always hard, and it gets harder when it has prisoners-dilemma features or wealthy opponents who are better at spreading their viewpoint. Some problems may well have solutions that are too radical or costly to be deployed in the time that we have, and the fact that we haven't seen many catastrophic problems like that so far is a form of the anthropic argument.

The other thing is that the 'problems always go away or get drastically ameliorated if they are predicted by society', is an interesting example of an argument that undercuts itself. If enough people believe it, it'll stop being true.

> Y2K was a good example of something that didn't happen, and probably in large part because everyone was working to stop it from happening. But to claim that it will always work that way is to assume that there is always something significant that can be done by the people who care.

I worked on adjustments in cobol code for the y2k bug in accounting systems. We had to start well before, because contract with payment in the future did not work. Cobol at that time had no date type and stored the data as 3 integers, day, month and year. The job was basically to redo the calculation of terms adding 100 to year when it was greater than 00 and less than 50. (2000 to 2050). Anyway, who had a system susceptible to the bug, had no option but to make adjustments or lose their payment controls.

Edit: ading 100 to year, not 2000

I've led the team that worked for more than two years to prepare our products for the Y2K, in real time finance, and there was not a single but many points of failure, some completely not obvious before they were detected, so most of the time was spent on developing different tests and procedures to actually in advance test, verify and diagnose the big amounts of code where anything could be implicitly based on the assumptions that won't be true at 2000.

When there were (almost) no issues at the begin of 2000, it was because of a lot of concentrated work correctly done before, early enough. The luck was that the problem was in the consciousness of everybody making decisions, and that those making decisions had a good motivation to do the changes (e.g. the company can charge for fixes, or the company will not be able to sell the product if it's not fixed).

The real danger is when those who make decisions (and those who directly influence them) have a good motivation (from their narrow point of view) to continue ignoring the problem.

That's how the environments described by Octavia Butler develop.

I am fan of Dilbert but someone should help Scott Adams understand that y2k bug did not go away spontaneously(So he can stop preaching that we should not worry about climate change and so on because look they said the world would end in 2000 because of the y2k bug but nothing happened).

I like following the creators of the stuff I enjoys but Adams is proving to be a challenge for me. I should have stuck with the "never meet your hero" mantra.

In pre-social media proliferation ideas wouldn't move as fast, so you could have people who are worried and take care of things and a tolerable number of free riders can do their thing, so it wouldn't lead to a disaster. In the occasions where the worries were unsubstantiated the free riders can safely be the mavericks who didn't listen to the conventional wisdom and won.

The problem today is, I believe, ideas can travel faster than they can be challenged so we risk to have a maverick that is terribly wrong, go mainstream without being challenged and make all of us loose it all.

We can no longer have a stable equilibrium of conflicting ideas, everything would spontaneously go to one directions or another all the way, winner takse it all style.

>Today that seems impossible unless angry white guys start shooting.

which basically translates to "that seems impossible unless I just identified big obvious problem that makes it possible"

I wouldn't say that categorically: In california based on china's experience we set up huge triage centers in school gymnasia that never got used.

My car has a seatbelt and an Airbag, It never saved my life.

That said, of course it is possible to misuse the resources but I would't know about the specifics of California.

Seatbelts and airbags are low cost items, many COVID measures aren’t. I think something like only going 30 on a highway would be a more fitting comparison to our empty hospitals.

Airbags are not very low-cost in the context of cars but sure why not? Another low cost item is a mask and social distancing and there is a serious backslash to those too because "It's just a flu, [theGroupYouHate] is fear-mongering". I don't think that the issue is about balancing the costs and benefits here but as I said, it is possible to misuse the resources and have expensive solutions that don't solve anything.

Therefore, worrying is the force making you look for the solution but it's not a solution by itself.

Imagine a coin flip for a disaster to happen. You could spend large amount of resources to prevent 10x the damage if it occurs. Would you not? Now imagine the disaster didn't happen, would you consider these to be a waste of resources?

Now I am not saying that it wasn't waste of resources.

All I am saying is that the argument is flawed that resources are wasted because some disaster did not occur.

You could criticise the process that determined the chances of those gyms being needed faulty. But then bring arguments on how the process to determine the risk was flawed. Was the process of trying to determine risk from.another country's experience (china) flawed? If so, how should they have determined the risk?

I didn't mean to judge I'm just saying that it's not categorically the case that the US was underprepared, which is what parent poster claimed.

If you want an interpretation, it's that politicians like to prematurely take grandiose measures when smaller measures are more important, and for smaller measures like to make edicts when getting buy-in might be a better strategy for obtaining social compliance.

Why was that? It all still baffles

Isn't it the same idea as with WW2 planes.

They looked at damage from planes that came back after an attack and worked on the parts that weren't damaged. The idea being that planes that got shot in these areas couldn't make it back and those were the weak points.

This reminded me of a comment I posted a couple of months ago about my immortal youth. Rather than repeat it, I'll just link it here:


Contrapoint: people in the past worried about things that happened after.

> A related trick for predicting the future; things that everyone is worried about are likely to get solved.

Not really. It's because people get used to the fear. So we need a new fear to keep the population in check. Look at HIV. It scared people for 15 years or so, but people get accustomed to it. So we moved to other viruses. The soviet fear was being eroded so we got "terror". But after a while, even terror isn't as scary so they give us new a fear - china. Once that is done, it'll be on to other fears. Fear is the fundamental way to control a population.

On the HIV front, you might not be aware of how well that was solved, actually: there are drugs available and in regular use that prevent you from catching it (~99% effective), and in the extremely unlikely event that they do not, we have developed medications that allow you to live a normal life if you do.

How many combinations of unintended consequences and human reactions to them does it take to detour us into a future that seems to defy any obvious trend? Not many. That’s why predicting the future accurately is so difficult. Some of the most mistaken predictions I’ve seen are of the straight-line variety–that’s the kind that ignores the inevitability of unintended consequences, ignores our often less-than-logical reactions to them, and says simply, “In the future, we will have more and more of whatever’s holding our attention right now.”

I've been reading Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (1970) for the first time on this its 50th anniversary, and in assessing its predictions and projections, the ones which seem most accurate typically involve side effects, interactions (often negative), an unintended consequences. Those least accurate come from advocates of a specific technology or product.

Butler's advice is excellent.

> The young man was referring to the troubles I’d described in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, novels that take place in a near future of increasing drug addiction and illiteracy, marked by the popularity of prisons and the unpopularity of public schools, the vast and growing gap between the rich and everyone else, and the whole nasty family of problems brought on by global warming.

The first of those books was published in 1993. Most of the shit happening right now was already being talked about as a problem then.

That series literally has a facist president takeover using the slogan "Make America Great Again". Its pretty prescient.

Or a recipe for takeover.

Actually the good part about science fiction is that it can imagine good trajectories too. Elon Musk has mentioned many times that reading science fiction was a formative experience for him.

“Though Trump has trademarked it, the slogan did not originate with him, nor even with Butler’s Jarret character—the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign used it, as Matt Taibbi pointed out Rolling Stone last year (1). (Historians have even shown that another of Trump's slogans, "America First," was used by Charles Lindbergh and "Nazi-friendly Americans in the 1930s."(2)) Again, proto-Trumpism has been in the zeitgeist for a long time. While Butler may have used "Make America Great Again" from her memory of Reagan's first campaign, the way her character employs it speaks to our moment for a number of reasons.”

Read more: http://www.openculture.com/2016/07/octavia-butlers-1998-dyst...


1) Matt Taibbi on the slogan: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/donald-trump-is-am...

“Donald Trump Claims Authorship of Legendary Reagan Slogan; Has Never Heard of Google”

2) https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/06/14/...

“Donald Trump’s new favorite slogan was invented for Nazi sympathizers”

Not so far off, if condensed for our impatient times, from the 1933 entrance of the Nazis into government:

https://www2.landesarchiv-bw.de/ofs21/bild_zoom/bild.php?dre... [1] (note the graphic design!)

> "Der Reichspräsident, Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg, hat uns berufen mit dem Befehl, durch unsere Einmütigkeit der Nation die Möglichkeit des Wiederaufstieges zu bringen. ... Die Regierung der nationalen Erhebung will arbeiten, und sie wird arbeiten. Sie hat nicht 14 Jahre lang die deutsche Nation zugrunde gerichtet, sondern will sie wieder nach oben führen."

President von Hindenburg has tapped us to give the country the possibility, through our unanimity, to become great again. ... The government of national uplift intends to work, and it will work. It hasn't spent 14 years ruining[2] germany, but instead will lead it back to greatness.

(more literally:

Wiederaufsteig: climbing up again, reascent

Erhebung: uplift, which can be literally, as in raising an arm, or the high point of a mountain chain, or symbolically, as in raising to nobility, or prizing above all else.

nach oben: towards the top)

See also https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24409361 (Nota Bene video of the 1933 Sportpalast speech is available at https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn1000331 and so TIL Stern editorialised out the clear anti-marxist slant of the event.)

[1] for those who don't read Fraktur: https://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/pdf/deu/Proclamation_Reich_1933_GER....

[2] Among the apparent sins of the Weimar Republic: women in business and politics, as well as reduced penalties for abortion. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Nazi_Germany#Backgrou...

Edit: Sorry, made footnote 2 more accurate, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_in_Germany#History original text quoted by acqq below.

compare https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24107148

I was misled by Stefan Zweig's accounts of sexual morals in Berlin and among the Wandervögel to believe that, in a pre-pill age, abortion must've been more decriminalised than the actual laws on the books indicate. (then again, maybe they were just more careful, the 1920s US having been an era of petting parties, and I read something more into Zweig's edwardian shock than was occurring?) For the record, while Zweig is mostly nostalgic for the pre-WWI era, he thinks the post-WWI youth are much better off for avoiding the sexual repression of his day. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23791112

> Among the apparent sins of the Weimar Republic: one person one vote, equally counted, for all men and women over 20, as well as legalised abortion.

Back to the U.S. I recommend this 2020 book on that issue:


"The Power Worshippers -- Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism" by Katherine Stewart

"Stewart pulls back the curtain on the inner workings and leading personalities of a movement that has turned religion into a tool for domination. She exposes a dense network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and pastoral organizations embedded in a rapidly expanding community of international alliances and united not by any central command but by a shared, anti-democratic vision and a common will to power."

Also, from 2013, "The Not-So-Lofty Origins of the Evangelical Pro-Life Movement":


"as Randall Balmer has succinctly put it: “the religious right of the late twentieth century organized to perpetuate racial discrimination.”"

And "How Republicans Became Anti-Choice":


"in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Republicans were behind efforts to liberalize and even decriminalize abortion; theirs was the party of reproductive choice, while Democrats, with their large Catholic constituency, were the opposition."

The book I've mentioned first explains why and how the change happened and what is happening now, really fascinating.

The book is set in the 2020s. Prior to the events of the narrative, America has devolved into a third-world country because of a pandemic disease and the effects of climate change.

Butler’s predictive capacity unfortunately seems quite well-developed.

that seems completely off the mark. If anything, a rich country has a lot less to worry about climate change than poorer ones, because they are by definition a lot more resilient to changes.

In the context of the story, American elites still remain incredibly wealthy, but the rest of the country is vastly impoverished. The main character is from a family that are among the last remnants of the “middle class.” She lives in a gated neighborhood, but one that relied on neighborhood-level self-protection and is ever more surrounded by the peril of homelessness and street violence. The wealthy live in full protected cities with private security and corporate sponsors.

Essentially, the masses of poor are left to suffer the effects of the chaos around them, while the wealthy are safe and cloistered. This hardly seems wide of the mark with regard to contemporary America, let alone if things turn for the worse.

By what definition? I think the richest are the most precariously positioned.

The poorest economies are primary production — farming, fishing, mining, not fundamentally dependent on anyone else; then come industrial economies, which take the inputs from the primary sector and add value, but they are dependent on that primary sector to exist; the richest are service sector dominated, but no amount of software developers, patent lawyers, investment portfolio managers, or private tutors can make up for an absence of food (or steel, but that’s not a direct part of this, only a potential indirect if the people with the steel use the steel to get the food and deny it to the rich).

Unfortunately many of the countries which will be hurt the most by climate are in the Global South, which is generally poorer.

Also IIRC the US produces a lot of food so I’m not sure how on-point your breakdown of poor / rich economies is.

Plus let’s recall it’s the rich countries which have been the proximate cause of global warming :).

That said I do agree with you that rich countries are vulnerable as well.

After living in several developed and developing countries, I think both sides will suffer. For first group, any disruption of food supply chain will be disastrous as it depends on extensive logistics and large food manufacturers. It was evident during the recent coronavirus in meat packing factory.

As for second group, it is largely about flood, drought, other natural disasters. Harvest will fail, starvation, etc. It can also be second / third degree of impact, eg riot, hyperinflation, civil war, etc.

A bit paranoid, due to recent geopolitical and coronavirus situation, I have asked my parents to be plant some important crops and vegetables in our suburb land. The probability is very low, however I do not want to die of starvation in that hypothetical situation.

> After living in several developed and developing countries, I think both sides will suffer.

I do agree, and, apologize if I painted with overly broad brushstrokes.

I do think food supply issues will be a bigger issues in poorer countries. To use the coronavirus as an example again, while I haven't read in depth, I've seen various news headlines talking about starvation rising in the world right now because of covid-19; and increased hunger in the U.S. It affects everyone, but the poor the most.

But yeah I feel you; I too take my food security less for granted than I have in the past.

There is no pandemic disease in The Parable of the Sower.

I thought there was reference to it in the description of that chaos that precedes the story, but I may simply be misremembering what constituted the “Pox Years” of the book.

'Because of'? What about the effect of an extreme political polarity that one would have to believe in miracles to imagine could ever be resolved? Meanwhile China is the country with the highest percentage of the population who say they are totally in favour of the goverment. Same prediction, different cause. Anyway, climate change and pandemic are universals.

I have been reading the review of those two books for last 30 min. If I were to read them several years ago, I would think that she's just another sci-fi novel author. The story feels 'normal', another survivor group story. However, this time it feels so surreal, bizzare, a lot of her imaginative plots have actually happened in real life.

Not sure what else to say. Either real life imitates fantasy or she's a prophet.

I'll spend next half an hour to dig out more, before I sleep. Quite an interesting author.

Like I said and she said, none of what today is particularly odd given what we knew in the 90s. There will always be demagogues, there will always be pandemics, global warming was a known issue, people's trust in institutions is cyclical, but more easily lost than gained. &c.

Many authors wrote about many of these issues, so for one to hit a few high-notes isn't that surprising.

On the other-hand, if she is a prophet, then on the grounds of Xenogenisis, let me be the first to say: "I for one welcome our new triple-gendered overlords"

The movie Contagion was surreal for first few months during this pandemic. Whether it is due to survival bias, or any other reasons, the script writer managed to be so accurate.

Hitting several high notes in one stroke is not an easy task. Most of us are lucky if we can even hit even one in real life. Those people in academics are called genius, while in tech world are called 10x programmers.

Thanks for the 'I for one... overlords'. Learn something new today, :-)

> ...she's just another sci-fi novel author

> Not sure what else to say

Survivorship bias. If a medium-sized asteroid hit Earth, I'm sure people would say the same thing about sci-fi authors who wrote on that.

I’ve never read Octavia Butler, but the first paragraph has me convinced. I’ll be ordering a few books tonight.

Parable of the Sower is a nice quick novel, a great place to start, and feels very relevant these days. Lilith's Brood is a lot wilder, a very unique experience.

Her books are well worth reading. Prepare to be delighted, intrigued, and disturbed in equal parts.

That’s the trifecta right there. Even more excited now.

She was recently mentioned briefly but strongly positively in the Santa Fe Institute's "Complexity" podcast. This article greatly increases my own interest.

I recently read Parable of the Sower for the first time (wrote about it here: https://andrewliptak.substack.com/p/three-novels-about-unbal...) and really was blown away by it.

You’re in for a treat. I personally love Dawn more than any other but you can’t go wrong with her other classics.

I miss her voice. She was a singular talent.

Toshi Reagon created a musical version of The Parable of the Sower that moved me to tears - highly recommended if you can find a video of the performance.

Rule number one: Expect people making the same mistakes as they did in any past. Why? Because men are stupid, ignorant, shortsighted, greedy, arrogant, etc.. etc.. In all our vanity we love to think and dream about ourselves of being capable to change our human nature and the course of humanity, but in reality only very few can because it is unimaginable hard. Almost all religions point to this.

Many things were unimaginably hard in the past, until we figured out how to do them. Is it impossible that this may also be the case, to some noteworthy degree, with the human shortcomings you have accurately identified?

Some people think that the abstract idea of the ego (or more generally, the illusory nature of human consciousness) plays a very big role in the pattern of follies that mankind seems to repeat across generations and cultures. Consider an idea: if you are engaged in an undertaking (say, designing a somewhat sophisticated machine) where decisions are based on measurements, and your measurements often happen to be incorrect (sometimes incredibly incorrect, to the point of being the opposite of what is true), should one be surprised when the outcome is often other than predicted? And if for some reason the idea never occurs to you that such a flaw exists in the system, or you realize there is a flaw but incorrectly consider it to be unimportant, should one be surprised that problems persists over time?

It seems that future prediction is a common enough activity that there should be a few rules for predicting the predictions too.

You can think of life itself as future prediction. Living things predict that certain activities (photosynthesis, feeding) will generate energy so we do that. We predict that we better be here or avoid being there so we can keep predicting instead of being damaged and disappear. So we use that energy to move. And so on.

Bill Gates has said that predictions about technology tend to overestimate the near term and underestimate the far term.

Brave New World (circa 1930) is set in the twenty-sixth century, and despite things having moved a great deal in the direction given by the delta (1920s xor 1900s), the people living in it (although no longer viviparous) are still meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly, just as they were in Marcus Aurelius' second century.

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