Username Administration[0]

24 March 2016

Those managing 'blogs are frequently told that the administrative account should not have a username of admin nor of administrator.[1] Indeed, 'bots attacking this 'blog try the username admin multiple times every day. None-the-less, I think that concern about easily guessed usernames is quite misplaced.

Ordinary access to an account requires two pieces of identification, the username and a passcode. We can conceptualize these jointly as a single string, the first part of which is practically fixed, the second part of which is changeable. For example, if one had the username admin and the passcode h3Ll0p0p3y3, the the string would be adminh3Ll0p0p3y3 Some might imagine that two strings represent two hoops and therefore more security; but, actually, each character is a hoop. If usernames and passcodes were equally secure, then the username-passcode pairs kelsey5 dO0DL3bug and kelsey 5dO0DL3bug would be perfectly equivalent as far as security were concerned. So we can imagine the two strings concatenated, so long as we remember that one set of its characters are unchangeable, while the others may be changed. In general, the form of the string can be conceptualized as u1u2ump1p2pn where each ui represents an unchangeable username character and each pj represents a changeable passcode character. Now, if we simply know that the administrative account username is admin adminp1p2pn unauthorized access is a matter of guessing the characters of the passcode, without knowing how many they might be. (How passcodes are stored may limit or effectively limit the length of passcodes, but this will typically not have much effect unless those limits are very tight.) On the other hand, if the administrative username is completely unknown, then the string is the apparently more mysterious u1u2ump1p2pn That might seem significantly more secure. However, the number of characters in the passcode is unknown to the opponent, and u1u2umkp1p2pn+k is more secure for all 0 < km,[2] because usernames are unchangeable. (Were usernames as changeable as are passcode, then the two would be equally secure.) And adminp1p2pn+m is more secure than u1u2ump1p2pn

So real security here is to be found in long and strong passcodes, for which secret usernames are poor substitutes, and one can easily compensate for a readily guessed username by having a stronger passcode.

[0 (2016:03/30, 04/09)] I’ve fleshed-out this entry a bit, in an attempt to make in more easily understood.

[1] See, for example, the entry for 23 March at the Wordfence 'blog.

[2] The case k = m represents a zero-length username, which really is to say no username at all. It would be quite possible to create a system with just passcodes and no distinct usernames — or, equivalently, a system with very changeable usernames and no passcodes — though this would present some practical difficulties.

Might as Well Be Me

17 March 2016

Every day, I encounter one or more academic studies arguing that this or that historical figure were homosexual.

Then it occurred to me that, should I ever become famous, someone will write an article or monograph or book arguing that I were homosexual.

Then it occurred to me that I won’t even have to become famous; there are so many academics who want to argue that someone were homosexual that none of us will be ignored. Sooner or later, in the case of each person for whom there is material to be interpretted, one of those academics will get around to arguing that the person were homosexual.

Then it occurred to me that I might be able to get a publication in a journal of sociology or of gender studies by arguing that I were homosexual. I wonder how that would look on my CV.

My 2½ Votes

27 February 2016

During the 2000 Presidential race, I was told by some Democrats that not voting for Al[bert Arnold] Gore [jr] were the same thing as voting for George W[alker] Bush. And I was told by some Republicans that not voting for Bush were the same thing as voting for Gore. Somehow it seemed that, by not voting for either man, I were casting a vote for each.

On Election Day or on the day after, one of those Republicans who’d claimed that I voted for Gore by not voting for Bush learned that I’d also refused to vote for Harry [Edson] Browne (the Libertarian candidate) and then declared That’s even worse! For it to be worse would mean that I’d effectively done even more voting for Gore, though perhaps not a whole further vote. I didn’t interact on that day with any Democrats, so I don’t know whether they would have creditted me with still further support of Bush in my refusal to vote for Browne. But it seemed as if, by not voting for anyone, I had voted more than twice.

Well, enough of that nonsense. People who make such claims don’t know much about the mathematics of voting, and either just lack mathematical sense in general, or allow their emotions to overwhelm their intellects.

My refusal to vote in Presidential elections, which predated that race and has continued since, doesn’t stem from resignation, from laziness, from apathy, nor from ignorance.

It comes in part from my extreme reluctance to support one evil in an attempt to stop another. I won’t vote for a candidate unless I think him or her truly fit to be President, and I’ve not seen such a candidate in decades. Browne, for example, represented a watering-down of classical liberalism, when a pure expression was needed (as remains the case).

Further, when it comes to the two major parties, I am acutely aware that, in most of these elections, one candidate doesn’t win so much as the other loses; the winners aren’t loved by the typical voter; rather, the principal opponent of each is detested. Yet the victor usually claims a mandate; even when he barely squeaks past the other creep and even when voters give the other party a Congressional majority.

We get these detestable candidates because the institutional structure is corrupt at a deep, infrastructural level. But those who vote, even for the loser, are demonstrating some hope, however faint, in the process, and from that demonstration legitimacy is persuasively claimed for that structure.

It is, of course, difficult to sort-out who fails to register to vote from dissatisfaction and who from lack of concern; likewise for those who register but do not go to the polls. But I am registered, and I do go to the polls. I take and submit a ballot. But I do not vote for a Presidential candidate. I vote on the issues that I feel that I properly understand, and I occasionally vote for a local candidate. It would be absurd to dismiss people like me as uninterested. Our numbers are presently tiny, but our message is far more clear than would be votes for whomever we thought the least objectionable candidate.

In the up-coming Presidential election, the major parties are going to offer the very worst candidates that they have in my lifetime. We didn’t get here by virtue of people who didn’t vote for nominees, but by virtue of those who did.

Dietary Restriction

20 February 2016

People who’ve known me for a while know that I don’t eat mammal tissue. I used to say red meat instead of mammal tissue but I got tired of repeatedly dealing with my mother’s thinking that, because the pork industry was calling pork the other white meat, it somehow was no longer red meat.

In fact, I especially don’t want to eat pork, because my more general rule is Never eat anything that could have loved you. and I’m quite sure that a pig could have loved me. Indeed, I think that various non-mammals, such as crows and parrots, are capable of things such as love.

An Internet friend recently mistook my standard for a reciprocity rule, as if I would reward various creatures on the chance that they might love me. But it’s really a capacity rule; I don’t want to eat an animal who has enough psychological sophistication for love.

I am willing to eat other animals. I’m even willing to eat animals whose ancestors could have loved me, but who, as a result of how they have been bred over many generations, now seem to lack such capacities. (However, I am put uncomfortably in mind of Lovecraft’s story, The Rats in the Walls, in which human beings had been bred by cannibals to a much diminished intellectual state.)

As a result of my desire to avoid consuming creatures that are somewhat conscious, and of my special concern for pigs, I find myself thwarted when it comes to foods that contain gelatin, including marshmallows. It is possible to derive gelatin from fish, or to substitute for gelatin various non-animal products (such as agar-agar) in the making of things such as marshmallows. But, for the most part, gelatin is derived from the skin of pigs and substitutes for gelatin are not used.

Kosher gelatin proves to be a trickier matter than one might imagine. Partly that’s because gelatin can be made from bits of cow (still not on my diet). But, also, there’s a Rabbi Dovid Cohen who argues, perhaps with sincerity, that bones and skin are considered inedible under Judaïc Law, and that therefore a manufacturer has a sort of clean slate when beginning with them. OU kosher certification doesn’t entail a promise that pig tissue did not go into any gelatin that might be present.

Common Sense about Names and about Descriptions

1 February 2016

The entry in Sibley’s Birds for Common Raven begins Uncommon.

This case illustrates the important distinction between names and descriptions. Common raven is a name; it was surely intended to be a name that worked as a description, but it presently fails as the latter while continuing to be the former.

A description can be usefully analyzed. It has components, each of which has independent meaning, and considering those meanings allows one better to understand the thing described.

A name as such is not analyzed; sometimes it might usefully be analyzed; sometimes it cannot be analyzed; sometimes analysis is misleading (as in common raven).

Often, what we call description is no more than naming. For example, if someone points to something and asks What is that?, and I say an urn, then all that I have really done is to provide a name, perhaps trusting the other person to know what urn means. On the other hand, if I say an ancient urn or a ceramic urn or an empty urn, then I have described it (though surely not as thoroughly as it might be described).

Notice that all description is constructed of names. The audience might subsequently ask for descriptions corresponding to names used, but eventually one reaches a point at which the names are of things that cannot be described (though alternative names might be offered).

Occasionally, I read something mocking someone for not understanding a description, such that a more perspicacious observer would recognize that the someone being mocked was treating the description as a name. This error may be no more foolish than wondering whether the common raven is a common bird.

Please Stand By

16 January 2016

The server on which this site is hosted is expected to be down for six hours, begining at 06:00 on 29 January UTC. (In parts of America, that interval begins in the night of 28 January.)

Value Doesn't Work that Way

12 January 2016

Many different conceptions of value are employed in different contexts, and more than one conception is employed in economics. But the notion of value that is most fundamental to economics is that of usefulness.

Usefulness isn’t some attribute independent of context, nor does anything have the same usefulness to one person as it does to another. When context changes, value changes. When a thing that had value is moved, it does not carry its value with it; rather, it takes-on a new value associated with its new context. When a thing that had value moves from being the property of one person to being the property of another, its old value is not delivered to the new person; rather, it takes-on a new value associated with its new ownership.

Prices represent a somewhat different sort of value. Prices are quasi-quantified prioritizations, under which things may be exchanged. But, however prices are formed, they work only to the extent that they promote any exchanges that are useful to those potentially making the exchanges, and discourage any that are not. Ostensible prices that do not do so will be ignored in markets, and bring-about economic failure in other systems of allocation. Market values — prices established by markets — are those that conform to the priorities of the parties who choose to exchange. Market values, though different from usefulness, must be informed by usefulness, and thus must thus reflect the contexts of the things priced.

Prices are first-and-foremost rankings, and treating them as quantifications has limited heuristic value; a thing may be rationally priced at $1000 without its being 1000 times as useful as something rationally priced at $1. And, though the first thing may be rationally priced at $1000 in some context, if the context is changed radically, the thing may cease to have any usefulness, so that its price should be 0.

A great deal of the wealth in to-day’s world is in the form of financial claims that have no meaning what-so-ever outside of the context of a market. If the market is eliminated, then these claims would have no usefulness and hence a rational price of 0. If the markets in which these claims might be used were somehow preserved, but the claims were seized and redistributed, then their new contexts would correspond to greatly diminished usefulness, and their rational prices would then be much smaller.

The great fallacy of popular notions that poor and middle-income people might be significantly enriched by a large-scale seizure and implicit or explicit redistribution of wealth from billionaires or from the 1% or whatever is the notion that the present prices of the seized wealth reflect an intrinsic economic property of the things seized, which property will be delivered with the things as they are transferred. Instead, the old value will evaporate, and the new value will often be 0.

This point is true even in cases in which the assets seized are not financial instruments. Imagine a community given a Lamborghini Diablo. It had more value than a Honda Fit to the millionaire who owned it; but, for the community, the Honda Fit could be more useful than a Lamborghini Diablo. The respective prices prior to redistribution were plainly poor reflections of what would be the values in the new context.

Wealth is destroyed not only when things of value are seized from the very wealthy and given to those less wealthy, but when there is any sort of large-scale redistribution; including that from the lower- and middle-income groups to the very wealthy. But further indiscriminate redistribution, as by income group, will not restore the wealth lost to past redistribution, and even in hypothetical cases in which only actual perpetrators are penalized and actual victims are compensated, there may be further loss of wealth as such.

So, no. There isn’t enough money for the dreams of the Occupation movement nor for the promises made by candidates such as Bernie Sanders, because money doesn’t work that way. And there isn’t enough wealth, because wealth doesn’t work that way. The accountings that claim otherwise are crack-pot.

Theatre of the Absurd

6 January 2016

It is often asserted that the current President runs a continuous campaign; that, even now, when he can no longer be reëlected nor get a Congress more to his liking before his Administration ends, he campaigns.

Well, more generally, his Administration has been theatre. The apparent campaigning is a manifestation of that. And to-day I read that he has produced a trailer for his up-coming State of the Union Address. A trailer. It makes perfect sense, because the Address is theatre. It has long been theatre, but he does theatre as did no President before him.

He’s been concerned to posture and to act in ways that he expects to be made to look good by to-day’s mainstream media and by that bloc of historians who decided, even before he took office, that they would depict his Administration favorably almost without regard to whatever he ended-up doing.

The recent climate accord, for which there was so much build-up and from which nothing came but loose and unenforceable promises, was theatre. The negotiations with Iran, in which many meetings were held to agree that the United States would throw up its hands (something that it could more simply have done unilaterally) were theatre.

Even the Affordable Care Act has become theatre. As costs spiral out of control it approaches its implosion, but it will be portrayed as a Noble Effort, ruined by Republicans and by the inherent wickedness of market forces.

And it was theatre when the man who has killed so many children with his drone strikes wept for the murdered children of Sandy Hook.

Theatre. The cost of the ticket is very high.

Money 101*

5 January 2016

The Nature and Origin of Money

[Read more.]

The Equation of Exchange and the Price Level

[Read more.]

The Inflationary Process

[Read more.]

Commodity-Based Money

[Read more.]

The Nationalization of Money and Fiat Money

[Read more.]

Partial-Reserve Issuance — the Charge of Fraud

[Read more.]

The Effects of Inequality in the Accumulation of Money

[Read more.]

* Years ago, when I had a 'blog at LiveJournal, one of my Friends there had started or was about to start taking an introductory course on macrœconomics. I banged-out an entry from which this one is derived.

Crime and Punishment

31 December 2015

My attention was drawn this morning to What Was Gary Becker's Biggest Mistake? by Alex Tabarrok, an article published at Marginal Revolution back in mid-September.

Anyone who’s read my paper on indecision should understand that I reject the proposition that a quantification may be fit to the structure of preferences. I’m currently doing work that explores the idea (previously investigated by Keynes and by Koopman) of plausibility orderings to which quantifications cannot be fit. I’m not a supporter of the theory that human behavior is well-modelled as subjective expected-utility maximization, which is a guiding theory of mainstream economics. None-the-less, I am appalled by the ham-handed attacks on this theory by people who don’t understand this very simple model. Tabarrok is amongst these attackers.

Let me try to explain the model. Each choice that a person might make is not really of an outcome; it is of an action, with multiple possible outcomes. We want these outcomes understood as states of the world, because the value of things is determined by their contexts. Perhaps more than one action might share possible outcomes, but typically the probability of a given outcome varies based upon which action we choose. So far, this should be quite uncontroversial. (Comment if you want to controvert.) A model of expected-utility maximization assumes that we can quantify the probability, and that there is a utility function u() that takes outcomes as its argument, and returns a quantified valuation (under the preferences of the person modelled) of that outcome. Subjective expected-utility maximization takes the probabilities in question to be judgments by the person modelled, rather than something purely objective. The expected utility of a given action a is the probability-weighted sum of the utility values of its possible outcomes; that is p1(au(o1) + p2(au(o2) + … + pn(au(on) where there are n possible outcomes (across all actions), oi is the i-th possible outcome (from any action) and pi(a) is the probability of that outcome given action a.[1] (When oj is impossible under a, pj(a) = 0. Were there really some action whose outcome was fully determinate, then all of the probabilites for other outcomes would be 0.) For some alternative action b the expected utility would be p1(bu(o1) + p2(bu(o2) + … + pn(bu(on) and so forth. Expected-utility maximization is choosing that action with the highest expected utility.

Becker applied this model to dealing with crime. Becker argued that punishments could be escalated to reduce crime, until potential criminals implicitly regarded the expected utility of criminal action to be inferior to that of non-criminal action. If this is true, then when two otherwise similar crimes have different perceived rates of apprehension and conviction, the commission rate of the crime with the lower rate of apprehension and conviction can be lowered to that of the other crime by making its punishment worse. In other words, graver punishments can be substituted for higher perceived rates of apprehension and conviction, and for things that affect (or effect) the way in which people value successful commission of crime.

The simplest model of a utility function is one in which utility itself increases linearly with a quantitative description of the outcome. So, for example, a person with $2 million dollars might be said to experience twice the utility of a person with $1 million dollars. Possession of such a utility function is known as risk-neutrality. For purposes of exposition, Becker explains his theory with reference to risk-neutral people. That doesn’t mean that he believed that people truly are risk neutral. Tabarrok quotes a passage in which Becker explains himself by explicit reference to risk-neutrality, but Tabarrok misses the significance — because Tabarrok does not really understand the model, and confuses risk-neutrality with rationality — and proceeds as if Becker’s claim hangs on a proposition that people are risk-neutral. It doesn’t.

Becker’s real thought doesn’t even depend upon all those mathematical assumptions that allow the application of arithmetic to the issue. The real thought is simply that, for any contemplated rates of crime, we can escalate punishments to some point at which, even with very low rates of apprehension and conviction, commission will be driven below the contemplated rate. The model of people as maximizers of expected utility is here essentially a heuristic, to help us understand the active absurdity of the once fashionable claim that potential criminals are indifferent to incentives.

However, as a community shifts to relying upon punishment from relying upon other things (better policing, aid to children in developing enlightened self-interest, efforts at rehabilitation of criminals), the punishments must become increasingly … awful. And that is the moral reason that we are damned if we simply proceed as Becker said that we hypothetically could. A society of monsters licenses itself to do horrific things to people by lowering its commitment to other means of reducing crime.

[1] Another way of writing pi(a) would be prob(oi|a). We could write ui for u(oi) to and express the expected utility as p1(au1 + p2(au2 + … + pn(aun but it’s important here to be aware of the utility function as such.