Emergency Alert in Hawaii

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Saturday morning at 8:07 a.m. people across the state of Hawaii got the same alert on their cell phones:

BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

My girlfriend and I got dressed in a hurry, started filling the bathtub with clean water, and went to make sure everyone in the house was awake. As a geopolitical forecaster I take the risk of conflict with North Korea seriously enough to have thought about what I would if there were an attack. Most buildings in Hawaii don’t have basements, so we had agreed that the safest place to shelter would be in the sewer that runs behind our yard. But you need a crowbar to open the manhole cover, and we had never gotten around to getting one. So 10 minutes after the alert went out—Hawaii says a North Korean missile could reach the state in just 12 minutes—we were just standing in the middle of our living room.

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Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risk

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Pessimism, Huw Price says, is a necessary antidote to society’s optimism. Price is the Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and one of the founders of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). He was introducing the first ever Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risk. We had come to Cambridge to take the pessimistic view seriously.

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How Bad Was My US Election Forecast?

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Pretty bad. I gave the Democrats a 70% chance of retaining the presidency back in January before we even knew who the nominees would be. I ascribed to a version of the argument that there was an “emerging Democratic majority”. I thought that Republicans—enabled by the Republican Party’s huge structural advantage in congressional elections—had moved too far from the center of the electorate to be very competitive in a national election. The party’s two presidential wins since 1992—in 2000 and 2004—were by thin electoral margins. The Republican Party had a net -17 favorable rating at the beginning of the year.

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NonProphets Podcast

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Three episodes of the new NonProphets Podcast are now available for download on iTunes and on Blubbry. Every week—give or take—Atief Heermance, Scott Eastman, and I talk about forecasting and look at questions from various public forecasting platforms. We’re calling ourselves “NonProphets” because good forecasting isn’t prophecy as much as it is careful, educated guessing. Also, we’re not making any money on this.

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A Superforecaster on Superforecasting

Review of Superforecasting by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

The possibilities of history are far more various than the human intellect is designed to conceive.—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  (1)

If I throw a ball in the air, I can say with rough confidence where it’s likely to land. If I wanted, I could calculate the trajectory of the ball fairly precisely. We know from careful observation that objects under the influence of gravity obey relatively simple, fixed rules.

The course of human history isn’t so easy to work out. Our collective behavior may be as much the product of physical law as any natural phenomenon. But it doesn’t seem to obey any simple, fixed rules. Human society is not a simple mechanical system, but rather a complex network of interacting agents. Groups of people can behave very differently in very similar circumstances. Social behavior is—to use the philosopher Karl Popper’s famous distinction—more like cloud-like than clock-like. (2)

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What We Talk About When We Talk About the Future

Here are two graphs I made with Google’s Ngram Viewer. The graphs show how frequently a number of future-related terms occur in the more than 100 billion words of Google Books’ English-language corpus from 1950-2008. The charts are moderately smoothed to highlight longer-term trends. Although these terms are not all completely comparable with one another, the relative frequency of broad popular phrases like these tells us a lot about what’s on our collective mind.

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    1. Frequency of promising technology terms in the English-language Google Books corpus from 1950-2008.

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What’s at Stake for the World in Ukraine

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The US and Russia keep nearly 2000 strategic nuclear weapons deployed and ready to launch. Modern strategic nuclear weapons generally have much larger yields than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A single nuclear warhead has easily enough explosive power to destroy a city and kill millions. An exchange of 100 of these weapons—which would be devastating in itself—would kick enough soot into the atmosphere to disrupt the global climate and cause a worldwide famine. A more total conflict between the US and Russia could threaten the survival of the human race and of life on Earth more generally.

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Have We Reached the Limits to Growth?

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Dire Warnings

In 1967, William and Paul Paddock’s best-selling book Famine 1975! argued that stagnant agricultural productivity and growing populations would mean abandoning countries like Egypt and Haiti to starvation by the middle of the next decade. (1) In 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb—another bestseller—warned that overpopulation would soon lead to starvation and social upheaval on an enormous scale. (2) In all caps on the cover, just under the title, were the words, “WHILE YOU ARE READING THESE WORDS FOUR PEOPLE WILL HAVE DIED OF STARVATION. MOST OF THEM CHILDREN.”

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The Sentinel Mission

Full moon as seen from STS-103 orbiter Discovery.

There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.—Marshall McLuhan (1965)

Ed Lu wants to save the world. In a talk Thursday at the University of Hawai‘i, the former astronaut recalled looking at the moon while he was aboard the International Space Station. Its craters were dramatic visual evidence of the number and size of the asteroid impacts the moon had sustained. Lu knew that the more massive Earth is hit by asteroids even more often than the moon, although the evidence of those collisions is obscured by water, weather, and vegetation.

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The End of Scarcity

Assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not—if we look into the future—the permanent problem of the human race.—John Maynard Keynes (1)

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote that the solution to “the economic problem” of scarcity was within reach. Keynes pointed out that even as the Great Depression was beginning the US and Europe were far richer than they had been before the Industrial Revolution. If the world economy grew at just 2% a year, we would be nearly 8 times richer by 2030. That would be enough, Keynes thought, to finally free the human race from the “struggle for subsistence.”

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