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New Year's is crystal-ball time

Dec 28, 2012 - By Patrick May, McClatchy Newspapers

Here's a prediction for 2013 you can take to the bank:

This time next year, the world will be awash in predictions for 2014.

It's December and the crystal-ball industry has gone into its seasonal overdrive. Everyone and their mother is taking to YouTube to tell us what we can expect in the new year. Analysts have flooded the blogosphere with coming trends in tech toys, telephony and travel. One baking-industry group said "boozy soda fountain favorites for grown-ups" will be big and that there may be an aquavit-laced smoothie in your future.

Assuming the rumored world-ending "Mayan apocalypse" on Dec. 21 doesn't pan out, we'll soon know whether 2013 actually brings us the foie gras jelly doughnuts, heavier-than-normal rainfall in Florida, and that $1,500 Apple TV the prognosticators have been prognosticating about like there was no tomorrow.

"Why do we find such fascination with predictions?" muses Dan Gardner, the Canadian journalist and author of "Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better."

"There's a fundamental psychological drive going on here, a basic human need for a sense of control and knowing what'll happen next, regardless of whether it actually happens or not."

Which, of course, it often doesn't. Take Gene Munster, an otherwise respected Apple analyst with Piper Jaffray who for several years has been predicting _ erroneously, it turns out _ the arrival of a full-blown TV set from the Cupertino, Calif., tech giant. Here's what he sees next year:

"November 2013: An Apple TV comes out. It should cost $1,500-$2,000 and come in sizes from 42 inches to 55 inches."

For being perhaps a bit premature in his predictions, the poor guy has taken a beating in some quarters, including one by blogger Dan Rayburn, who wrote: "If an Apple TV actually ships in 2013, that will be a full five years since Gene has been telling us all that an Apple TV was on the way."


It was precisely this Wild West nature of the prediction business that prompted California investment manager Sanjay Ayer to create Pundit Tracker, which he calls "a public online score-keeping service that circles back to see if pundits' predictions came true."

Here's the problem: Pundit A goes on CNBC and predicts stocks will fall 20 percent in the next quarter; stocks instead rise 20 percent, yet Pundit A is soon back on CNBC, "and introduced as an expert without any reference to his bad call," said Ayer, whose site gives a letter grade to the prophets based on their track records. "There's no incentive for anyone to go back and see if the guy got it right. And if the media outlet that had the pundit on in the first place then exposes him when he comes back on, that indirectly discredits them, as well."

So we insist on living in denial, while luxuriating in the comfort that a prediction provides, said Andy Wood, a professor of communication studies at San Jose State University.

"The prediction industry," Wood said, "is based on the belief that someone out there knows the truth. We don't really want to check on what they say later on; we just want someone with the confidence to say, 'Here's what coming.' "

Judging by the increasing volume of predictions clogging our inboxes these days, there's a whole lot of stuff coming in 2013. Let's start with baby names. Nameberry.com said the devastating Superstorm Sandy is sure to trigger a tsunami of names about eight months from now with Sandy-like sounds (Cassandra, clean up your room right now!).

FutureTimeline.net said we should expect full-body scanners in every U.S. airport, while restaurant consultant group Baum & Whiteman sees bartenders from San Diego to Boston whipping up "cocktails of pureed and muddled melons, syrups of lemon grass, rosemary, pomegranate, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger."

Some predictions are a bit self-serving. You'll never guess what Performance Insider has identified as the No. 1 trend in 2013 in the performance marketing industry: "More brands will invest in performance marketing."

The bottom line, Wood said, is that we're all out there grasping at straws, which soothsayers are all too ready to hand us. "As we lose confidence in so many institutions collapsing around us," he said, "predictions reconstitute the belief that some person has a clue. It's a useful and therapeutic fiction, but it's also pleasurable, as long as we don't take it all too seriously."

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