Be careful what you wish for

Matt at Bright Cold Day posted a couple of weeks ago on A function I wish Microsoft Word had, and set up this impressive mockup
A cool post, but I can just imagine how this would actually turn out. The function would be set on by default. Adjectives would be inserted based on some lookup function derived from a database of purple passages. In the manner of Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, it would turn short, stubby sentences into elegant multi-topic ones. Before long, the world would be overwhelmed in Redmond’s idea of scintillating prose.

Update Kieran Healy tempts fate with an even more ambitious wish. I suspect that anyone granted the wish of a boss mind-reading function would be doomed to endless administrative work.


I prodded Rob Schaap’s guilt buttons on the quiescence of his blog a while back, and he’s responded by adopting a device which I’ve occasionally used – reposting something from the Dark Ages (2002) when much of the current audience hadn’t yet discovered blogs.

Now it’s my turn to feel guilty for having said nothing for ages about the topics Rob covers so well – health and higher education. Stay tuned while I trawl through my archives and consider whether I can somehow distil a bunch of old posts into a sparkling new one, or just repost them and let you do the work.

Rob’s also put up new posts including the observation that “bearded men are rarely found in the usual course of Australian life these days”. I guess this is right, but, rather than going along with modern fashions, I’m sticking with all my hair. Once you start removing it, it seems that there is no agreed stopping point short of Brazilian-style total depilation.


My occasional correspondent, Graeme Bond, is as far as I know, the only other person in Australia to have pointed out in public (and in advance) that the Y2K panic was based on patently spurious arguments.

Not surprisingly, Graeme is also a sceptic about cyberterrorism and sent me this link to a story headed ASIO slams cyberterror ‘hype’. I’ve been a sporadic reader of The Crypt Newsletter, a debunker of computer-related panics, and can particularly recommend this story on how U.S. infowar commandos smuggled a deadly computer virus into Iraq inside a printer. Set to go off on April 1 of course.

UpdateLooking over my files, I realise that I forgot to mention Stewart Fist of The Australian who also debunked Y2K , and whose judgement in matters technological is usually reliable. Feel free to remind me of others I’ve omitted.

Economists v philosophers Round V

Matt Yglesias accepts my invitation to demonstrate the naivety of economic thinking about consequentialism. He proposes the following example

John is at the casino and he puts $100 on the number 12 spot at the roulette table. While the wheel is spinning, John dies suddenly. The body is removed and the casino manager finds John’s wife and sole heir Jane. The manager now needs to give Jane the money she’s inherited from John. Instead of just giving Jane the $100, however, he decides to cover the wheel and offer Jane the following choice. She can either choose to just take John’s $100 or else she can leave the $100 on the table and the manager will uncover the wheel. If it turns out that the ball has landed in the 12 slot Jane will get the $3,200 payoff, if not she will get nothing. Jane chooses to take the $100 so the manager gives it to her, then uncovers the wheel revealing that the ball had, in fact, landed on the 12.

Yglesias agrees that Jane adopted the correct decision procedure (since the odds were unfavorable), but nonetheless goes on to say

The purpose of the procedure, after all, is to get you the most money possible, and given these circumstances, Jane could have made more money by taking the bet. Thus, there is a sense in which Jane did the wrong thing

This example seems to me to suffer from exactly the same problems as the stock market example put up in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which, the post informs me, is by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong .
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Risk and return redux

It seems as if the BlogGeist has suddenly focused on the issues of risk and income distribution – admittedly they’re hard to avoid with news of near-infinite payouts for failed chief executives (including Governors-General) being announced daily. At the same time as Ken Parish and I were discussing risk and income distribution, a very similar debate was taking place in the Antipodes (relative to Oz, of course).
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Word for Wednesday: Consequentialism definition

Consequentialism is the claim that we should judge the rightness of an action by the desirability of its consequences, as opposed, say, to its conformity with some concept of virtue or honour. As I mentioned last week, it is very closely tied to utilitarianism and is most appealing as a criterion for public policy rather than individual ethics or jurisprudence.

The big question in relation to consequentialism is how we assess the consequences of an action. And as usual there seems a huge divide between economists (particularly decision theorists) and philosophers on this point.
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Sharon on the road to Damascus

Like Gary Sauer-Thompson, I’m still trying to interpret Sharon’s apparent conversion to the cause of Palestinian statehood, after months in which he appeared to be doing his best to derail the “roadmap for peace”. Can Bush have really applied the pressure to achieve this? Or is it just another tactical retreat? We’ll have to wait and see, but for once there seems to be some ground for optimism

Fat and Mean

Ken Parish posts on the latest executive pay scandals, with plenty of detail. I have a couple of thoughts arising from this.

The first is that it’s not long since we were all being told about the new lean and mean corporate model, with its slimmed-down management. As recently as 1996, when the late David Gordon wrote Fat and Mean, pointing out that the opposite was true, it was correctly viewed as a contrarian attack on the conventional wisdom.

The second relates to the rhetoric about risk and return that still dominates much public debate. I remember reading some years ago that, contrary to this rhetoric, the income risk faced by senior executives was about the same, in proportional terms, as that faced by ordinary workers. The comparison by now must be massively in favor of the bosses. Once you’ve got a CEO-type position, you effectively have a job for life, with or without duties. Even if you get booted out the next week, you’re still paid for the rest of your life and beyond. The fact that virtually every CEO employment contract contains provisions of this kind speaks volumes about attitudes to risk

Reagan and consequences

In posting on utilitarianism and consequentialism a while back, I meant to get on to some relevant implications, but got sidetracked into some interesting disputes with political and legal philosophers. There’s a lot I need to do to shore up my position on the issues raised, but blogging is nonlinear, so I’m going to jump straight to some conclusions, with the plan of filling in the gaps later.

My first observation is that sensible use of consequentialist reasoning requires that we evaluate decisions in terms of the outcomes that could be seen as possible when the decision was made (preferably with probabilities attached, but that’s not always feasible) rather than on the basis of the outcome that actually took place.

To give an example, let’s suppose, as is commonly claimed, that Reagan’s military buildup was designed to force the Soviet rulers to undertake a matching buildup, wrecking their economy and thereby hastening the downfall of Communism. Such a policy obviously entailed a somewhat higher risk that the arms race would lead to nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. I’ll be conservative and make the increase in risk one percentage point over the decade or so of the buildup. And I’ll suppose that the arms race brought forward the collapse of Communism by a full decade.

Considered in advance, and with these assumptions, Reagan’s policy was clearly a bad one. A nuclear war would have killed hundreds of millions of people and even a one per cent chance of such a disaster was too terrible a price to pay for the near-certain benefit of an early end to Communism.

Note that, if you focus on actual consequences, you’ll almost always support gambles of this kind. On the assumptions above, there’s a 99 per cent chance that the policy will pay off, as it did.