I’m sure I’ve seen this quotation (and most others) attributed to Yogi Berra or Mark Twain, but I just saw it laid at the feet of theoretical physicist Neils Bohr:

“Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”

In the days of oracles, animal sacrifice, and rain dances, dealing with the future was a fairly straightforward though stubbornly frightening project. The emergence from that era is a story well told in a book I’ve often recommended, the late Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods.

His special focus is the measurement of risk – unknown, except intuitively, until the 13th century, as far as European and Western Hemisphere people were concerned. Bernstein shows how humans discovered that although they could not predict what would happen, there was much they could figure out about what is likely – and how likely – or unlikely to occur.

Quantifying risk began shortly after Fibonacci introduced Arabic numbers to replace hard-to-calculate Roman numerals.

Innovations in risk-assessment proceeded through the centuries, mainly through the efforts of a few highly motivated genius gamblers, then to Pascal, Fermat, and on to the computer models of today. Which leads – among other things – to government foreshadowings of events such as unemployment, GDP, and inflation forecasts that have to be revised repeatedly after the fact – sometimes revising their methods of calculation as well.

But at least they have methods to revise, and they strive to pin down elusive facts, as do the Weather Bureau, NIH, CDC, OMB, CBO, and other agencies staffed by professional analysts.

Some new research out of Canada – just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – studies 1500 military intelligence forecasts prepared between 2005 and 2011. They found, as noted by The Economist, that the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron is unfair.

The findings: the intelligence analysts were right three-quarters of the time.

As a class, intelligence analysts are cautious, systematic, largely logical, and held accountable. Though it’s their mistakes we tend to remember, they’re most often on target — consistently outperforming media pundits who play prognosticator and often leave a trail so littered with mistakes that no-one can possibly clean up after them.

If you’ll excuse the self-indulgence, I have a personal theory that reinforces these conclusions.

I don’t know how to make the world’s best predictions, but I do know how to make the worst – start with a rigid ideology, and predict that reality will unfold according to your personal “ism.”

My name for that tendency is ISMISM, and there are a myriad of isms to choose from – Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, Buddhism, Veganism, Catholicism, Islamism, creationism,and hundreds more.

There is no factual basis for an ideological ism. It’s a belief system, pure and simple. If reality clashes with one of the beliefs, then reality must be wrong. Change it. Make up some lies and teach them to your kids.

The rest of us have to be careful – some isms are camouflaged by the lack of “ism” at the ends of their names. Supply-Side Economics, for example (and its fraternal twin, Trickle-Down), is a fact-free, 100% foolish ism, except for the cynical smirk from its perpetrators because the false promise of free money works so well politically.

Think of Dick Cheney or Paul Ryan and their high priestess, Ayn Rand. Or Larry Kudlow, who has been wrong about every major economic turn for 35 years (When Bill Clinton was elected, Kudlow predicted that the 1990s would turn into a calamitous 1930s-style recession), yet he still holds forth as a TV pundit on every subject in which he’s earned an F.

Or think Torquemada.

The Inquisition was an ism within an ism. As in dozens of organized religions, purity of belief – no matter how cockeyed or ignorant – has been deemed worth torturing and killing for. When the doctrines involved are academic rather than theological, then heresy is punishable by denial of publication or tenure or a parking place.

One thing puzzles me. I have a whole shelf of books prognosticating coming events trends, or epochs, all of them authored by admitted “futurists.”

Surely the future itself can’t be an ism. It’s too variable, versatile, and real – unlike, say, Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, pounding away on their one-key pianos. If you so much as say “Happy Holidays” during the Christmas season, you’re on their Enemies List.

A Merry Ismness to all — and to all the most narrow-minded, a Merry Isthmus and good night.

Zombie Alert

Talk about asymmetric warfare! Gordon Lubold of Foreign Policy dug into the Defense Department’s trove of contingency plans and found that the military strategists have counter-measures ready for every conceivable menace — and possibly some inconceivable ones:

Including how to deal with a Zombie Apocalypse.

It’s titled “CONOP 8888, Counter-Zombie Dominance.” Should hordes of slow-walking flesh eaters launch an attack, the Army will be ready — a) Isolate and b) Eradicate the Living Dead.

They’re even ready to protect humankind from the more exotic forms of Zombie “life” – Chicken Zombies, Vegetarian Zombies (threatening our crops) or EMZs – Evil Magic Zombies created by occult practices.

Are they serious? No. And Yes.

In order to draw up a contingency plan, military tacticians with the Strategic Command Center have to name a hypothetical enemy. They’ve often used Tunisia or Nigeria as designated foes, but in this age of leaked documents that could be disastrously misunderstood – e.g., by Tunisia or Nigeria – or by Americans who might think they meant it. As imaginary antagonists, Zombies seemed a safe alternative.

I sympathize. As a lowly first lieutenant in the Army Reserve, for three years I participated in summer combat maneuvers with the 304th Tank Battalion. Our enemies for mock battle were the “Aggressor Forces,” and for some reason I was named commander of the Aggressors every year. Nice fella like me?

Odd thing is, we tended not to be isolated or eradicated. We never lost so much as a skirmish, much less a battle.

I wasn’t watching the mail for a Congressional Medal of Honor, though. The fact was, our opponents – the good guys – were cursed with having to manage all the expensive equipment: M-1 Tanks with 90 mm guns and 50 caliber machine guns plus range-finders and $8,000 two-way radios (twitters, cell phones, and snap-chats awaited invention).

They had a terrible time getting any of this terrifying gadgetry to work properly. So their tanks would approach an objective – say, a hill that we Aggressors were defending – and suddenly turn sideways on some misinterpreted radio cue, completely exposing them to my anti-tank guns.

Even if they happened to get their guns aimed at us, they wouldn’t fire.

That was because blank rounds of 90 mm ammunition were notorious for dirtying the inside of a gun tube. So instead of going out for dinner and drinks after the battle, the tank crew would have to spend the evening swabbing out the barrel so they could turn in the tank.

Better not to fire in anger.

As for my Aggressor anti-tank guns, they were just yellow flags. Red flags represented machine guns. Wave the flag, and you were judged to have fired the gun. I would set up a perimeter defense, and if I needed to move an emplacement or reverse a command, all I had to do was yell at a couple of guys.

We were invincible.

So, as a former Aggressor commander, I can endorse the creation of fictional adversaries – except when Congressmen do it to keep useless military bases in their districts or to waste even more billions on obsolete weapons sold by their most lavish benefactors among the defense contractors.

I mean, waving red and yellow flags – or plotting the defeat of a Zombie uprising – is something taxpayers can cheerfully afford.

Flunking Science

The excerpt below is from this week’s Economist. Their story is about a debate between creationist Ken Ham and Bill Nye (“the science guy”), who worried that allowing creationism a veneer of scientific respectability would harm America by producing scientifically illiterate students:


“Most Americans reject young-earth creationism. But the share of Republicans who believe that humans evolved fell from 54% in 2009 to 43% last year.

“Democrats, do not look so smug: your lot are likelier to believe in UFOs, ghosts, and astrology. Also, that the moon landings were faked, that the CIA introduced crack to inner cities, and that America’s government conspired in the September 11th attacks.

“It’s enough to make an ape weep.”

On the Wings of a Dove

It was a lovely idea, redolent of symbolism.

Last Sunday, as thousands watched from St. Peter’s Square, the Pope appeared at his window with two children who then released two white doves of peace.

A crow attacked one of the doves and a seagull attacked the other. The Pope must have felt like the driver who ran into a deer and then heard his children bawling, “Daddy killed Bambi!”

His Holiness spread his arms, looked skyward, and cried out, “Very funny, big guy!”

Actually that last part is apocryphal, but the Pontiff should have consulted his raven before staging such an event. It’s been an odd season for birds, as endangered Spotted Owls are crowded out of their shrinking habitat by barn owls in the northwest U.S. and Snowy Owls have moved south in great numbers from the Arctic Circle, first to Boston, then the Chesapeake, Washington D.C., Louisiana, Florida, even Bermuda.

As for the dove (usually a domesticated pigeon), it’s a symbol of peace and also of love because that’s what it rhymes with — “On the wings of a snow white dove, He sends his pure, sweet love…”

In the Old Testament, Noah confuses the issue by sending a dove out from the ark to look around for some dry land. The dove returns with a sprig from an olive tree in its beak, which for some reason makes both the dove and the olive branch symbols of peace instead of hope, rescue, flood relief, or olive oil.

The owl, of course, is a symbol of wisdom – spotted, snowy, or barn wisdom –although it’s also a ferocious predator.

It may be this ambivalence that induces the owl suddenly to turn its head 180 degrees.

The Crow (like Poe’s Raven) is a symbol of prophecy, and both it and the gull are symbols of scavenging – of eating damn near anything, including the handkerchiefs women pin to their hair when they’re not wearing a hat but have to cover their heads to go into St. Peter’s Basilica.

There’s a deeper meaning in all of this, and we expect to discover it any minute.

Fantasies in Propagandaland

In case you’re too busy to keep up with Russian and Iranian news agencies, Michael Moynihan provides an update in the Daily Beast. Highlights:

> From Edward Snowden’s stash, the Russian secret service has learned that Washington DC is now controlled by Nazi space aliens.

> North Korea is the only country boasting 100% literacy (though that’s easier to attain when there’s only one book).

> The Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang has facilities that would shame Eton and Harrow.

Fair and balanced, wouldn’t you say? This must be what Fox News sounds like to an Iranian.

The sources Moynihan cites are RT News (Russian), Fars News Agency (Iranian “semi-official”) and PressTV (official Iranian propaganda). You can find them all on YouTube, along with those of some other countries.

You won’t get late breaking antics of the Great Satan on Iran’s official site, though. Most of the “news” I found there is six months to three years old, somewhat redeemed with an up-to-date recipe for cooking abgoosht.

RT reports that the US dollar has lost all value and is about to crash.

A civil war is imminent here, and all the gold has apparently disappeared from Fort Knox (as revealed by a reporter named Rooster Teeth). The Germans had asked to see the bullion and were told No by the Fed.

Fars picked up a spoof from the Onion and ran it as actual news – announcing poll results showing that 70% of Americans would rather have beer with Ahmadinejad than Obama.

Both Fars and RT love stories of UFOs and ETs and carry them as mainstream news.

And conspiracy theories. Fars claims that “the Green Movement” hacked their site and shut it down for hours. I believe that one because the Green Movement hacked my lawn last spring and I had to mow it all summer until a cold snap killed their virus, along with the Stink Bugs, which had been smuggled in from China.

Handy-Talkie Time Traveler

It was an exciting discovery – a time traveler caught on camera.

About a year ago, a black and white film from 1938 surfaced on the internet, showing some cheerful people emerging from a building – possibly part of a factory – and one young brunette in the group is apparently chatting on a cellphone.

The Twittersphere and a flood of YouTube commenters quickly pegged her as someone from the future.

As a time traveler myself, I was riveted. (That’s how we build people in the future. I was also galvanized.) I hadn’t had a date in 32,000 years. I looked for the picture to check out the brunette and to see if Dr. Who’s time-traveling phone booth was somewhere in the background.

Mysteriously, the YouTube video showing all this had vanished.

Writing for Huffington Post, Meredith Bennett-Smith says the incident is far from unique. In 2010, someone came up with unreleased footage from a Charlie Chaplin film in which a woman in the background appears to be talking on her cellphone. (

Another one showed up in a 1973 Mexican film (I looked at it but couldn’t detect the traveler). And there was a photo of a 19th century man who is a dead ringer for Nicolas Cage. A long-dead ringer.

Cage insists he is neither a time traveler nor a vampire.

We live in a narcissistic culture. Uncounted texts, tweets, and Facebook posts chronicle every visit to the post office or the dentist. Not surprisingly, we think we’re so interesting that people from the future would move scientific mountains to visit us. The trouble is that the visitors noted in 1938 and 1929 videos are not from our future. They’re supposed to be people from right now, using our present version of the cellphone; but our present versions of time machines, star gates, or wormhole portals to send them back there don’t seem to be available.

Nor do we know how to send back a network of transmitting towers so that the cellphones would be workable.

During the Korean War, our soldiers were talking to each other over the ANPRC-6 Walkie Talkie. Before that, there was the Handy-Talkie used by soldiers in WWII. And leading up to that – certainly by 1938 – there were various prototypes of these portable two-way radios being developed and tested, for example around factories. They didn’t need WiFi – just radio waves.

True, they were a good deal bulkier than an iPhone, but those were the two-way versions. A portable radiophone designed to receive but not send could have been much smaller, even then — long before transistors and Moore’s Law pointed the way to miniaturization.

A YouTube commenter using the name Planetcheck recently announced that the 1938 time traveler was actually his grandmother. He says grandma was 17 years old and working for DuPont at a factory where they were testing equipment for a proposed in-plant communications system.

That can’t be true. It’s too boring. I think Planetcheck is a time traveler engaged in a massive cover-up.

Monkey Trials & Errors

Australopithecus, pithecanthropus, homo erectus, homo habilis, finally homo sapiens.

It’s evolution. It’s all true. And creationism is a scam used by liars to fleece ignoramuses –- what Oscar Wilde might have described as he described fox hunting — the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable.

But that doesn’t mean there are no more monkeys.

Cars evolve, too, but people still drive Oldsmobiles. Cops still turn on the sirens and flashers of their Ford Crown Victorias to chase bad guys, and good luck to the bank robber trying to get away in a Kia.

Even now, Neanderthals are thriving in state legislatures and in the U.S. House of Representatives. Monkeys are still getting elected as governors of primitive societies such as those of Arkansas, Alaska, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Oklahoma, and of course Tennessee, with its proud tradition of monkey trials.

They’ve even infiltrated the Senate.

True, Rick Santorum, Mark Sanford, Tim Pawlenty, and Jim DeMint have been rounded up and returned to their respective monkey houses; and Sam Brownback was lured into the Kansas governor’s mansion and euphemized. But James Inhofe of Oklahoma is still in the Senate, and now Marco Rubio of Florida, along with several other creationists still in the closet –- nocturnal animals following the furtive spoor of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Rubio was recently asked by a journalist from GQ how old he thought the earth was.

“I’m not a scientist, man,” the senator said (our nomination for understatement of the year) … “That’s a dispute among theologians …

“Whether the earth was created in 7 days or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

Rubio is a member of the Senate’s Science Committee.

When he filled out the papers to file as a candidate for the Senate, he was asked his age and spent 45 minutes studying Genesis. To be on the safe side, he took the given ages of Adam (930 years) and Methuselah (969 years) and split the difference. He’s 949.

Actually, I made up that last episode. Could you tell? But what Rubio actually professes to believe is even sillier.

It’s all reminiscent of when Charlton Heston landed on a planet where apes were the most advanced species and Heston had to make a living as head of the National Rifle Association.

The truth is, the earth was formed 4.54 billion years ago — which somehow or other works out to 6,600 monkey years.

Calling Clarence Darrow

Tennessee is at it again.

Eighty-seven years after the state disgraced itself with the Scopes “Monkey Trial” and 153 years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, a troupe of jabbering baboons in the Tennessee legislature just passed a law encouraging teachers to promote creationism, dispute global warming, and undermine all the other scientific theories that the legislators don’t understand.

They join other crusaders for ignorance from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas in what is, morally if not legally, a clear case of child abuse.

In Tennessee, at least, there is a lively if ineffectual opposition to this atrocity. The governor criticized the law and refused to sign it, though he didn’t bother to veto it because the baboons had voted for it by a three to one margin and would gleefully override.

Scientists, educators, and civil libertarians by the thousands petitioned the governor to veto, all for naught.

Possibly they were too polite. They might have stated in the petition what Clarence Darrow said in the Scopes trial when asked the purpose of his questioning.

“We have the purpose,” said Darrow, “of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States.”

Science and Religion

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

Christopher Hitchens


“People say religion and science have to be compatible because there are scientists who are religious. And lots of religious people accept science.

“If you’re going to believe that, you have to believe that Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible.”

Jerry Coyne*


“The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike.”

Jerry Coyne*

* Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and author of the 2009 book, Why Evolution is True.

11th Commandment Discovered!

Archeologists have unearthed an ancient stone tablet, believed to have been a restaurant menu, containing the only known complete list of the original eleven commandments. Most of the others are well known, though honored mainly in the breach. The eleventh commandment:

Thou Shalt Not Vote Republican

It is the only commandment shown with a little red pepper in the margin, indicating that if you violate this one, hellfire and damnation will commence even before lunch is over.