Archive for the ‘commentary’ Category

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 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.

On Cruelty and Weakness

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Everyone first becomes aware of suffering in the form of his or her own hurt. Further, each of us discovers that others have a power over us in an ability to injure us. And, from the very early childhoods of most people, pain was often used by those who also routinely exercised various other powers over them. Thus, many people associate infliction of distress not merely with the exercise of power of a particular sort, but with strength more generally.

However, exactly because dispensation of suffering is associated with strength, those who feel vulnerable or ineffectual have an increased propensity to attempt cruelty, as if cruelty would make them less vulnerable and more effectual. Indeed, an active desire to cause distress almost always comes from a felt sense of weakness.

That's not to say that injurious acts are always motivated by a sense of impotence. Hurtful actions — even hurtful actions that are deliberate actions — are not always characterized either by indifference to injury or by drawing satisfaction from that injury. Sometimes the action may be deliberate yet the agent genuinely unaware of the consequent suffering; in other cases, he or she may regard the hurt as a regrettable cost that none-the-less should be paid (as in a case of a painful medical procedure to prevent or to correct a still greater problem). And I don't assert that acts of cruel indifference almost always come from a sense of weakness; indifference does not proceed from felt need. Rather, I refer to acts driven by a desire to inflict suffering as such (including of course cases in which indifference is feigned).

In the sense that one cannot do what one greatly wishes to do, almost everyone will at times feel weak. Many of us will at one interval or another believe ourselves unable to do something that people normally seem able to do. Further, most or all of us will on various occasions regard the contrary choices of some other person or persons as what prevent us from doing what we very much wish. In this last case, that other person or those other people are perceived to be, at the margin, the source of the sense of weakness, and thus an urge to be cruel (and thereby to feel stronger) is likely to be directed at them. But if such people are in some way out of reach, or if the sense of weakness derives from other circumstances, then some other person — a target of opportunity — may be made the contemplated focus of attempted cruelty with some spurious rationalization.

While a desire to be hurtful almost always comes from a sense of weakness, a sense of weakness doesn't always provoke an urge to be hurtful, nor do people who from weakness feel such impulses always choose to act upon those desires. A person may be crushed beyond any action, or may see no opportunity to lash-out. But another person may reject cruelty that he or she could see within reach. It is possible to recognize a sense of weakness behind one's own desire to be cruel. It is possible to realize that cruelty will not make one any stronger; to see that cruelty is a confession of weakness; and to decide that, if a confession should be made, then there would be better ways to make it than through acts of cruelty. It is sometimes possible even to be conscious of a sense of weakness before it produces an urge to be cruel, and to consider what would be a reasonable response to that sense. The more practice that one has in finding rational alternatives to cruelty, the less one feels the impulse to be cruel even at the outset. To some extent, one can grow beyond that urge.

And, when one encounters cruelty from others, one can look for its source in some sense of weakness on their parts. Perhaps their cruelty will be forgiveable; perhaps it will not; but it will almost always be understandable. And any response to cruelty will be more assuredly appropriate if the motivation for the cruelty is understood.

Policy Paralogism

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Confronted with a real or imagined social problem, most people first grab for an ostensible solution that appeals to their prejudices, and then for an argument (in favor of this policy) that seems plausible to them. That approach is not ideal, but might still result in good policy if people would poke at each such argument, to see whether it were actually logical, and move away from proposed solutions in cases in which none of the arguments withstood examination. Unfortunately, people don't generally test their arguments; words strung together in emotionally satisfying ways are embraced as if any reasonable person would accept them.

I came upon an epitomal example of this behavior, in the wake of a recent mass shooting at a school. Someone posted a graphic macro suggesting how guns might be treated analogously to motor vehicles and and declared

Let’s go through this one more time…maybe they will get it. And yes, people will obtain guns illegally. And yes, people kill people. But doing nothing means more die.

(Underscore mine.) Now, there are various problems with the suggestion that guns should be treated analogously to motor vehicles, and perhaps someday I'll labor all that occur to me. But here I want to focus on that assertion doing nothing means more die. To the poster, it apparently seems that any reasonable person would accept that this assertion is an argument for the policy that he favors. Let's poke at this use, to see whether it is actually logical.

It is surely true that if we do nothing different, then people who have not yet died will die, and in this sense more will die. But, as a matter of logic, that doesn't mean that there is something that we can do such that people would not die, or even that fewer would die. If we somehow had an optimal social policy, and found that people died, we could still say that if we did nothing different then people would die. So, one question that we might ask is of whether a change in social policy would cause fewer or more people to die.

And I'm not simply talking about whether a change in social policy would cause fewer or more people to die at the hands of shooters who are not state officials, or even about the more general question of whether a change in policy would cause fewer or more people to to die at the hands of shooters of all sorts, but about the question of whether the change in policy would result in fewer or in more deaths across all causes. For example, a policy change might lead to greater use of IEDs. (The deadliest mass murder at a school in American history was effected by a bomb.) The answer is not known a priori.

There is also the issue of other costs. For example, some jurisdictions have a lower rate per capita of homicide, but a higher rate of rape. One doesn't want to switch from one set of policies to another simply on the basis that if we do nothing then more will be raped, and likewise one doesn't want to switch from one set of policies to another simply on the basis that if we do nothing then more will die. I don't think that any utilitarian calculus is actually reasonable, but one that simply counts lives is plainly inhumane. And it would be childlike to think and childish to insist that, with some set of policies, the global minimum for each costs could be achieved simultaneous to that for every other, let alone that such a fantastic minimum could be found by first finding the local minimum for one cost and then seeking the local minimum for another.

The poster has presented an example from just one class of policies, and declared doing nothing means more die. Plainly, there are other possible policy responses, so that the relevant comparison is not simply between adopting the policy that he favors and maintaining the status quo.

Moreover, if his argument were adapted to the defense of other policies, he and others might be provoked to examine that argument more carefully. His words might be left essentially unchanged, but the macro replaced with one discussing a policy of a different sort. For example, someone might propose that each person above the age of 10 years old be interned in a mental-health camp, until and unless experts appointed by the state certified that he or she was not a danger to society. I'd like to think that, if the original poster had earlier seen the very same words used in defense of an internment policy, then he would have immediately poked at the argument to find the illogic. I'm quite sure that most people who applauded or would have applauded his words in the context in which he did use them would have found their illogic in the context of an argument for rounding-up American youth and throwing them into camps. Well, they should have poked at the argument where they actually found it.