A novel method of making predictions

Robert Klein is a comedian. He is older than many comedians popular today, but in my opinion he is still among the funniest. One of his characteristics is that his routines always have some poignancy and depth.

Today I want to talk about using a novel approach to make predictions.

I was recently asked to help make predictions by a science writer. For example: is it likely that P=NP will be solved next year? That type of prediction. Whenever one thinks about predictions two quotes come to mind:

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future—Niels Bohr.

Economists give their predictions to a digit after the decimal point to show that they have a sense of humor—Anonymous.

There are many models that attempt to make predictions based on scientific methods. I do not have any great insight into how well they have done, nor how well they will do in the future. I do have idea for a new type of prediction technology based on jokes.

The approach I suggest is based on “jokes.” That’s right, jokes. I have collected a few examples to make my point. Each will have the joke, and then decades later the demonstration that the joke became reality. I wonder if others have noticed this same principle: if it’s absurd and funny, then there is inherently a prediction hidden in the joke. In any event I hope you enjoy this discussion. It is not meant to be taken too seriously—perhaps it is itself a joke.

Klein’s Prediction

One of Klein’s funniest “bits” is about buying all the records every recorded. The bit is on one of his albums and is called reasonably, Every Record Ever Recorded.

The bit starts:

Now you can buy ${\dots}$ every record ever recorded! Ever record that was ever made!! Records beginning with the letter “C”; records by women; records by every artist you ever knew, alive or dead! We drive a truck to your house—and deliver EVERY RECORD EVER RECORDED ${\dots}$ Lithuanian language records ${\dots}$ every record ever recorded!. Act now ${\dots}$ and get a free ice crusher!!

The joke is that it is ridiculous to imagine getting all the records that have very been recorded. But is it really a joke anymore?

There is iTunes to start with—that allows us to get all songs. Well just about. Notice that Klein talks about records, not about songs or tracks. Records were those large round things made of black plastic—perhaps some of you have seen them.

A visit to Gracenote’s media database shows 97 million songs in the database. This yields, at reasonable recording rates, that all those songs amount to about 3,000 trillion bytes. That is still a lot of memory. Of course you can hold in your hand a small device today that stores a trillion bytes. In the near future we probably could get all the records ever recorded, but Klein is wrong about needing a truck. We will just be able to hand you a tiny device.

Another

Another Klein routine, from the early 1970’s, was what your car would say to you if it could talk.

On a very cold winter morning, it might say in a poem of cold and twisted metal: `Pleeee-ase don’tryt’startme. Pleeee-ase don’tryt’startme. Leave me a-lohOHohOHohOHnnne${\dots}$!

Forty years later many of our cars talk us through directions, GPS location, traffic advisories, and system status.

Bride of Frankenstein

“The Bride of Frankenstein” is one of the best Frankenstein sequels. It starred Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, and Colin Clive. It was made in 1935.

In this version Dr. Henry Frankenstein is reluctant to help the evil Dr. Pretorius. But he is forced to do so when his wife is taken hostage. At one point Henry worries if his wife is okay. To prove that she is okay, Dr. Pretorius takes out a small box. It allows him to wireless-ly connect Henry and his wife. Even better, he can see her—it’s a video phone. Pretorius promises: “That is all now. As soon as our work is completed, she will be returned to you.”

Okay let’s add it up. That’s the wireless video phone in 1935. Pretty neat “prediction.” I still like to watch these old movies, and whenever I see this scene, I always think of an alternative ending. In it Henry says to Dr. Pretorius:

Doctor, you want fame and fortune, but there is no market for making monsters out of parts of the dead. Trust me. None. Let’s get some proper funding and start a company to sell your special box. I think we could make millions with it.

It is a happy ending with the two doctors becoming accidental millionaires.

The mobile phone, though not with video, dates from around 1983.

The Fly

This is the original and best movie version of “The Fly,” which starred Vincent Price and Betty Gerson. It was released in 1958.

Vincent Price arrives and is told by the scientist’s wife that they are having a fancy meal together. Here are their exact words, with my boldface added:

– And we’re finishing with crêpes suzette.

– What’s all the celebration about?

– André wants to show you something.

– In the lab?

– Well, what is it? Flat screen?

– It’s better. No more questions. Come on.

Price goes on:

-I’ve only been into the laboratory three times. Each time I came out with a potential fortune.

The first ever flat panel television was introduced in 1998 by Philips. The movie beat them by about three decades—could this have messed up any patents?

Burns and Allen

George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen, had a wonderful TV show in the 1950’s. It was one of the first shows within a show. That is, their show was about their show—recursion cool. At the end of the show they both would come out and do a short comedy bit. Many were about Gracie’s strange family: she had an uncle who did this and an aunt who did that. George would be the straight man and ask the obvious questions, and Gracie got all the laughs.

I still recall one time Gracie was talking about a relative that started a new business, but it did not do well. George asked what was the business. She answered that he started to sell frozen yogurt. This got a huge laugh, what a crazy idea. George mugged for the camera, and gave a look like: no wonder it failed.

About twenty years later H. P. Hood, a company founded in 1846 by Harvey Hood, introduced in New England a soft dessert that was frozen yogurt.

Open Problems

Do you have any additional examples of such predictions? Is this a practicable method?

December 10, 2010 11:28 pm

Heh, good quote on economists and prediction. I heard the following one a few weeks ago and thought it was pretty hilarious, and fits in with yours.

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”
– John Kenneth Galbraith (Canadian-American Economist)

December 10, 2010 11:41 pm

I remember a cartoon in a MAD magazine from about 1970 saying if you think the earth is polluted now just wait until the Chinese turn capitalist and discard their bicycles.It showed a giant line of Chinese people in a traffic jam with their cars all belching smoke.Those were in the days of Mao and the cultural revolution and I remember thinking naw that could never happen.

3. December 11, 2010 3:13 am

Erch Kastner wrote in the early 20th century wonderful books for children. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_K%C3%A4stner .In 1932 he wrote Der 35. Mai (The 35th of May), set in a fantasy land reached via a wardrobe. In this book people are walking in the streets and pulling telephones from their pockets and talk to each others.

4. December 11, 2010 5:37 am

Henny Youngman predicts universal health care:
“A doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so he gave him another six months.”

And the problems with unemployment insurance:
A bum asked me, “Give me \$10 till payday.” I asked, “When’s payday?” He said, “I don’t know, you’re the one who is working!”

And recycling:
I know a man who doesn’t pay to have his trash taken out. How does he get rid of his trash? He gift wraps it, and puts in into an unlocked car.

Also interactive customized movies (still a few years away perhaps but close):
Hollywood called me, asking me, “How much to do a movie with Farrah Fawcett?” “\$50,000” They called back, “How about \$20,000?” I said, “I’ll pay it!”

5. December 11, 2010 5:37 am

Gil is right … by 1948, everyone knew that cell phones were coming … Mark Twain’s short story From Twain London Times of 1904 (which Twain wrote in 1877) has details of the coming “telectroscope” technology.

December 11, 2010 11:46 am

John,

There is also the cartoon Dick Tracy with wrist watch phone…from 1930.

6. December 12, 2010 4:46 am

There will be no more revolutions and no needs for Noah’s ships because we now have meteorologists and their predictions of the weather! No more revolutions because supposedly Imam Khomeini banned meteorology because it is against God’s will and now meteorology has proven to be useful after all. Of course, that is only another joke and that’s why I am still willing to study the old testament if I can get away from the web.

December 12, 2010 7:16 pm

I am a little confused about what’s so outlandish about “frozen yogurt”. I feel like it would’ve sounded like something worth giving a try even in the 50s.

8. December 12, 2010 11:31 pm

I think there is a lot here that is kind of being missed in the analysis. I.e. how many jokes make predictions that don’t land? How long does a joke predicion get to come true? Aren’t jokes mostly based on popular culture/experiences, (something we can all relate to), hence if it’s funny it’s more relatable, and therefore more “likely” to come true, as it hints at something we are all interested in? Or, does the prediction just become self-fulfilling because it’s been told to a large audience who don’t feel antagonised by it’s presentation?

I’d say all those reasons contribute far more to the perceived success of this style of prediction. I’d also ponder the purpose of striving for a system that only has *actual* outcomes. I think it’s okay to make bad predictions, as long as not too much work is put into them before it’s clear they won’t work out. Have to learn somehow. Mistakes breed ideas, and innovation. So I think it’s not so bad.

• December 13, 2010 2:45 am

Another alternate explanation, could the popularity of a predictive joke arise from a “wisdom of crowd” effect?

9. December 13, 2010 11:28 am

Interesting quotes on economists and prediction in the article and comments. Like to add three of my favourite quote about forecast.

“If you have to forecast, forecast often.”
– Edgar R. Fiedler in “Across the Board: The Three Rs of Economic Forecasting — Irrational, Irrelevant and Irreverent”

“The herd instinct among forecasters makes sheep look like independent thinkers.”
– Edgar R. Fiedler in “Across the Board: The Three Rs of Economic Forecasting — Irrational, Irrelevant and Irreverent”

“Explicit forecasts are better than implicit forecasts.”
– Edgar R. Fiedler in The Future Lies Ahead

December 20, 2010 2:37 pm

In the Oct 1, 1955 episode of the HONEYMOONERS Alice wanted to buy a TV and
her husband Ralph said

“I’m waiting for 3D TV”

Truly a visionary!

GASARCH