Archive for the ‘commentary’ Category

A New Projectionist

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

I am in the process of relocating video embedded in entries to this 'blog. (Only a few and rather old entries have such content.)

My experiences with YouTube have been unhappy. It routinely messed-up the synchronization of sound with image for my content. Without a ready appeal process, YouTube disabled videos that made fair use of copyrighted content. Although my content has not been affected by the political bias of Alphabet Inc. (the parent company of YouTube), it was grossly unethical for YouTube to get people to cluster at their site by representing itself as an honest broker, and then to bring a bias to bear. And, when YouTube disabled a video for one reason or for another, the embedding code responded inappropriately.

For now, I am moving most or all of my video content to BitChute; I don't know that my content will remain there. But any host that does not apply an ideologic filter will attract a disproportionate share of content from those penalized by the biases of YouTube; the main-stream of the media (who share the ideologic bias of YouTube) will seize upon this disproportion to claim or to insinuate a claim that the host and those who use it are sympathetic with the more repellant of those filtered-out by YouTube. The sophistry will be evident to all but the rather stupid, but a much larger share of people will rôle-play as if the argument were sound.

Ideas of Choice

Monday, 11 November 2019

I have been more actively working on the decision-theory paper off of which the probability paper was spun. And this effort has me thinking about the meanings of choice.

As I noted in an earlier entry to this 'blog, my paper on indecision used choice to mean no more or less than selection. I defined relations of preference in terms of choice functions, which are functions that select a subset from a set of options. Defining relations of preference in this manner seems to explain preference in terms of something called choice rather than explaining the thing called choice in terms of preference. But something called choice is often said to result from preference. Certainly, we want somehow to explain selection by persons of alternatives (even if that which explains cannot itself be observed directly!), and some notion of preference represents an attempt at explanation.

(However, if preference is the proper explanation, then preference must be very changeable; much of real-world behavior does not conform to a constant set of preferences. And people do such things as regularly selecting {A} from a set {A, B, C} yet consistently selecting {B} from a set {A, B, D}; perhaps in such cases we can still contrive an explanation in terms of preference, but we should be dubious of such explanation. I don't think that we should reject the word choice if the selections that people actually make aren't driven by preference. If preference does not provide a proper explanation, then perhaps some more general concept does. And perhaps by teasing-out what people intend by the word choice when they intend something narrower than selection, we can arrive at that generalization. That's one of the reasons that I sometimes press some people, especially fellow economists, to tell me what they intend by the word choice or by coördinate terms, when they reject its application where it seems to me to fit. I'm not trying to catch them in error or Socratically to teach a lesson to them; I'm trying to engage with them in an important investigation. But, important doubts about the use of preference in descriptive theory not withstanding, preference makes considerable sense in prescriptive use. Indeed, that sense in prescriptive use is one of the reasons that we so easily accept it in descriptive use, and even assures us that it must at least approximate a realistic description fairly well, because unreasonable behavior is costly.)

Identification of a preference is sometimes itself called choice; but sometimes preference is instead expressed in terms of whom or of what one would choose, if given the choice; and, sometimes, after a preference is expressed, the response is something such as You don't get to make that choice! In conscious identification of a preference, one selects an ideation; in reporting such an identification, one selects an utterance; and these ideations or utterances are selected in a different way than are their subjects, except in odd, self-referential cases.

In discussion of decision-making in a world of uncertainty, I've found use for an idea that I call practical choice, by which I mean selection of an option which selection causes that option to be effected with certainty.

In a world without uncertainty, there would be a simple division between what one could attain and what one could not. Preference amongst the unattainable would ex definitione be without practical significance. Discussion of preference amongst the possible would be operationally equivalent to discussion of practical choice, and rational agents would always attain that possible state-of-the-world that they most desired.

When we begin to speak and write of uncertainty, we are actually speaking and writing of cases in which we may make practical choices amongst options that would, in turn, affect the state-of-the-world in imperfectly predictable ways. Hypothetically, I might not care about those effects; I might only care about the options that I can practically choose; but, with those options properly identified, that hypothetical is highly implausible and sterile. And, otherwise, it now becomes quite relevant to consider the difference and relationship between preferences amongst things that are subject to practical choice and preferences amongst things that are not subject to practical choice. Preferences amongst things that an agent cannot practically choose will determine preferences amongst things that she can.

(Our practical choices are more limited than some might at first realize. An agent has practical choice of no more than some mental states; and selecting amongst these mental states delivers no more power over other possibilities than to increase or decrease the probabilities of those possibilities. Given the selection of one mental state, one's arm is more likely to move, but there is at least some terrible possibility that it will not. Indeed, given the selection of one mental state, one is more likely to recall a desired datum, but there is a possibility that one will not. Still, in many cases we might, without doing too much violence to realism, pretend that our practical choices include operations that we think almost surely to follow upon our exercise of actual practical choice. For example, one might calculate as if one had a practical choice of whether to propose marriage, while acknowledging that one did not have a practical choice over whether one would marry the other party.)

The concern of my paper on indecision was in identifying a difference in observable behavior distinguishing indecision from indifference, and I didn't want that distinction to be simply self-reported. When an agent was undecided between X and Y rather than indifferent, I needed a difference in selection from a set in which X and Y options, rather than a difference in selection amongst utterances or somesuch. In hindsight, I wish that, in that paper, I'd discussed conceptions of choice more than I did, and had explicitly written of practical choice. Perhaps accordingly I will someday revise the working version of the paper.

What in the Name of Böhm-Bawerk?!?

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

A recent post to Facebook by Timo Virkkala reminds me of one of my peeves.

Eugen Ritter von Böhm-Bawerk died on 27 August 1914. The Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated in 1918. The Austrian state eliminated titles of nobility as such with a law passed on ‎3 April 1919, which law came into effect on 10 April 1919.

Had von Böhm-Bawerk lived into 10 April 1919, then he would have been given various choices as to what to do with his name. One of his choices would have been to change it to Eugen Böhm von Bawerk, which could alternately be spelled Eugen Boehm von Bawerk.[1][2] But of course he didn't, 'cause he'd been dead for almost five years.

Still, the Austrian central bank, the US Library of Congress, and that wretched mess Wikipedia decided to pretend that he'd done just that. He didn't adopt that name, his acolytes and admirers didn't and don't call him by that name, and he might have done something quite different (such as omitting the [Ritter] von altogether, which would have left his name more like its earlier form) if he'd been compelled to make a choice; but the Austrian state, the LoC, and Wikipedia still insist on sophomorically transforming his name into that form.


[1] The umlaut ( ¨ ) is an extremely stylized superscripted e. An umlaut may be replaced by writing an e after the letter over which the umlaut had been written; simply omitting an umlaut without replacement is illiterate.

Unfortunately, the modern glyph for the umlaut is indistinguishable from that of the diæresis, and the louts in Unicode Consortium decided to pretend that the two were the same character. (Yes, we've hit three of my peeves in this entry.) When not written diacritically, a diæresis should not be replaced by an e. (I've not seen that done, so it doesn't count as a peeve.)

[2] The [Ritter] von Bawerk might still look like a title of nobility, but it would not have counted as such. And somehow such reärrangements were seen as important.

A Suggested Reform of Educational Institutions

Sunday, 17 March 2019

For some decades, one of the clear and worsening problems with American institutions of formal education has been administrative bloat. I suggest a legislative response.

For institutions at each level of education, the mean and standard deviation can be determined for administrative expense per pupil in 1975. That is to say that these figures could be computed for kindergartens, for elementary schools, &c. For each level, these two figures can be summed and then that sum adjusted for price-inflation. In 2020, both the legislatures of the constituent states and the US Congress could pass laws such that, beginning five years after passage of the legislation (which in this case would be in 2025), no educational institution would receive any direct funding from the states (including the federal state) if its administrative expenses per pupil exceeded that computed amount, and no grants or guaranteed loans would be given to students beginning degree programmes at institutions whose administrative expenses exceeded that amount.

On Why Dr Pepper Tastes as if It Contains Prune Juice

Saturday, 16 March 2019

To many people, Dr Pepper tastes as if it contains prune juice.* For years, various sources (including the manufacturers of Dr Pepper) have said that it does not. But that contradiction provokes a question of why to so many people Dr Pepper tastes as if it does. Yet try searching on-line for the answer. Try searching on-line even for the question. One source after another tells us that it doesn't contain prune juice; none seems to explain why (to so many people) it tastes as if it does. None seems even to wonder.

I don't know the answer. But I do know that one of the flavorings in Dr Pepper is … plum. Yeah, that's the fruit that, if dried, becomes a prune. (In fact, some sellers of prunes label them as dried plums, because people have negative associations with prune.) I don't know why the manufacturer doesn't add something such as but does contain plum flavoring to the declarations that Dr Pepper does not contain prune juice. (Side payments from sellers of dried plums seem an unlikely explanation for the silence.)

But the plum may not actually explain the reported flavor like that of prune juice. There are many flavoring agents in Dr Pepper, including apricot and blackberry, and perhaps some of these would in combination still produce the taste of prune juice even were the plum omitted.


*Of course, sensitivity to various chemicals varies across persons, and some individuals might be familiar with tastes for prune juice and for Dr Pepper such that they didn't think that the latter were as if it contained any of the former.

Energy Costs and the Costs of Energy Exchanges

Saturday, 9 March 2019

From technocrats, I often hear or read a claim that it would no longer make sense to extract petroleum when reserves were depleted to the point that extractions took more energy than could be got from the petroleum. What is unstated in the reasoning is that the value of an energy source is solely determined by the quantity of energy that it could yield; but that proposition is mistaken.

When petroleum is extracted, not only is one quantity of energy exchanged for another, but a quality of energy is exchanged for another. Petroleum is extracted by the use of mechanical or hydraulic energy. Those forms of energy might be derived ultimately from the burning of petroleum, but they might come from other sources instead.

When energy is converted from one form to another, as when a motor converts electrical energy into mechanical energy, that conversion too is an exchange, and as a practical matter those exchanges invariably involve a loss in the useable quantity of energy; that consistent loss is a matter of thermodynamics. Yet the change in form is implicitly deemd to be worth the loss in quantity.

A world in which the extraction of petroleum involved a net loss in the quantity of available energy would be very different from the present; if that state were somehow reached to-morrow, it would be catastrophic. Even just a decline in the net gain in the quantity of energy from extraction is note-worthy when it occurs (as is an increase). But, in a more gradually changing world, petroleum could and probably would continue to be produced even under circumstances that required a sacrifice in the net quantity of available energy.

Blinded by the Light

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Sometimes, people who have trouble understanding an expression that is complete, unambiguous, and concise will claim that the expression is unclear. This response is very much like claiming that a day upon which they want sunglasses is foggy.

Submitted Anew

Thursday, 21 February 2019

On 20 February, I submitted my paper on probability to yet another academic journal. To my surprise, the journal in question gave me a choice as to whether my review would be doubly blind — with my identity withheld from the reviewers; I chose that option.

Although in my initial reading of the longer of the two reviews that I most recently received I found no worthwhile criticism, I thought that I should pore over that review carefully, to ensure that I didn't overlook anything in it that would cause me to improve my paper. However, though the review was not written with abusive intent, it is none-the-less abusive, and I was averse to reading it. To impel myself to read it carefully, I decided to write a response to each of the criticisms within it, as I would then have to take care to find and to consider each criticism. I completed a draft of the response without finding any good reason to revise my paper. Having gone that far with the draft, I proofread it on 21 February, and posted a version on-line. It is written more in the manner of a 'blog entry than of something intended to go into a journal or book; and I don't know that any of you would want to bother with reading it in any case. But it's available.

Between the time that I previously submitted the paper and the time that received the most recent decision, I more efficiently organized the citations in one paragraph and I compressed one appendix by removing formula numbers and by suppressing logical quantifiers so that its eleven formulæ could be placed into a one-page grid.

Up-Date (2018:03/02):

In the early morning of 2 March, I received e.mail indicating that my probability paper had been assigned to a handling editor (who was named), and that I would be contacted after a reviewer had returned a report. It seems that the threat of a desk rejection has passed. I made a very cursory check on the handling editor; she seems quite qualified.

Against an Argument for Science as Instrinsically Social

Saturday, 19 January 2019

I have argued that persons outside of any social context can be scientists. Recently, I watched and listened to a recording of an interview of one philosopher by another, in which the two agreed that science is intrinsically social, that persons outside of social contexts cannot be scientists.[1]

Towards explaining what was wrong with their argument, I'll first explain their argument. One of the very most important things that a scientist ought to do is to look for areas of potential vulnerability in theories, and to test those theories against what evidence may practicably be gathered. And any one researcher is imperfect in his or her ability to find such potential vulnerabilites, in knowledge of existing evidence, and in capacity to collect new evidence. It is often particularly difficult for any one researcher to recognize the unconscious presumptions that inform his or her own theories; exposing the work of one researcher to the scrutiny of other researchers may mean that those presumptions are recognized and challenged.

All right; but, just as any one researcher is imperfect, so are jointly any two researchers, or any three researchers, or any n researchers, for all finite values of n. In fact, I am nearly certain that even an infinite number of scientists would be insufficient to overcome weaknesses across the whole body of theories that these scientists could construct; but, in any case, science is not an unattainable limiting case of behavior. One might instead pick a finite n, and insist that one does not have science until one has n participants engaging in behavior of some sort, but the choice of n would seem to be quite arbitrary; and I'd like to know what one should then call the behavior when there are fewer participants.

As a practical matter, it is far from clear that two people each in isolation engaged in that behavior would continue to engage in that behavior when brought together. Social contexts can promote peculiar forms of irrationality. Historically, a great deal of what has been widely taken to be science by participants and by most observers in wider society has often been grossly unscientific behavior resulting exactly from social pressures. A great deal of what passes for science these days is socially required to conform to consensus, which is to say that social mechanisms protect widely shared presumptions from scrutiny.


[1] As it happens both one of those philosophers and I referred to Robinson Crusoe as an individual outside of a social context. It was natural for us each independent of the other to reach for the most famous example within our shared cultural context, but it heightened my sense of annoyance.

l'usage

Thursday, 3 January 2019

In the course of a present investigation of how the main-stream of economics lost sight of the general concept of utility, I looked again at the celebrated article Specimen Theoriæ Novæ de Mensura Sortis by Daniel Bernoulli, in which he proposed to resolve the Saint Petersburg Paradox[1] by revaluing the pay-off in terms of something other than the quantity of money.

The standard translation of his article into English[2] replaces Latin emolument- everywhere with utility, but emolumentum actually meant benefit.[3] Bernoulli's own words in his original paper show no more than that he thought that the actual marginal benefit of money were for some reason diminishing as the quantity of money were increased. However. before Bernoulli arrived at his resolution, Gabriel Cramer arrived at a resolution that had similar characteristics; and, when Bernoulli later learned of this resolution, he quoted Cramer. Cramer declared that money was properly valued à proportion de l' uſage [in proportion to the usage]. The term uſage itself carries exactly the original sense of utility. (Cramer goes on to associate the usefulness of money with plaiſir, but does not make it clear whether he has a purely hedonic notion of usefulness.) Bernoulli did not distinguish his position from that of Cramer on this point, so it is perfectly reasonable to read Bernoulli as having regarded the actual gain from money as measured by its usefulness.

Of course, both Cramer and Bernoulli were presuming that usefulness were a measure, rather than a preördering of some other sort.


[1] The classic version of the Saint Petersburg Paradox imagines a gamble. A coin whose probability of heads is that of tails is to be flipped until it comes-up tails; thus, the chance of the gamble ending on the n-th toss is 1/2n. Initially, the payoff is 2 ducats, but this is doubled after each time that the coin comes-up heads; if the coin first comes up tails on the n-th flip, then the pay-off of the gamble will be 2n ducats. So the expected pay-off of the gamble is ∑[(1/2n)·(2n ducats)] = 1 ducat + 1 ducat + … = ∞ ducats Yet one never sees people buying such contracts for very much; and most people, asked to imagine how much they would pay, say that they wouldn't offer very much.

Cramer's resolution did not account for the preëxisting wealth of an individual offered a gamble, and he suggested that the measure of usefulness of money might be measured as a square root of the quantity of money. Bernoulli's resolution did account for preëxisting wealth, and suggested that the actual benefit of money were measurable as a natural logarithm.

I'm amongst those who note that one cannot buy that which is not sold, and who believe that people asked to imagine what they would pay for such a contract instead imagine what they would pay for what were represented as such a contract, which could not possibly deliver astonishingly large amounts of purchasing power.

[2] Exposition of a New Theory on the Measurement of Risk in Econometrica v22 (1954) #1 (January) pp 22–36.

[3] In a footnote, translator Louise Sommer claims that mean utility is a free translation of emolumentum medium and then that the literal translation would be mean utility; I believe that she had meant to offer something else as the literal translation, but lost her train of thought.