Of quacking ducks and homeostasis

After reading a very interesting essay (PDF) by biologist J. Scott Turner discussing Intelligent Design (ID) and Evolution which presents an anti-anti-ID case, I was led to read Turner’s recent book, The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. Turner argues that Darwinian Evolution requires, but lacks, a notion of intentionality. Despite the use of an apparently teleological concept, he is no creationist: he argues that both Evolutionary theorists (who refuse to consider any such notions) and Creationists/IDers (who have such a notion, but refuse to examine it scientifically) are missing something important and necessary.

Turner’s key notion is that biological and ecological systems contain entities who create environments and seek to regulate them. Typically, such entities seek to maintain their environment in a particular state, i.e., they aim for environmental homeostasis.  The concept of homeostasis is due to the French pioneer of physiology, Claude Bernard (1813-1878), who observed that the human body and its various organs seek to maintain various homeostatic states internally, for example, the chemical composition of the blood stream. That indefatigable complex systems theorist and statistician Cosma Shalizi has thus proposed calling entities which create and regulate environments, Bernard Machines, and Turner also uses this name. (Turner credits Shalizi for the name but provides no citation to anything written by Shalizi, not even a URL — I think this very unprofessional of Turner.)
For Turner, these entities have some form of intentionality, and thus provide the missing component of Darwinian evolution. For a computer scientist, at least for those who have kept up with research since 1990, a Bernard Machine is just an intelligent agent:  they are reactive (they respond to changes in their environment), they are pro-active (ie, goal-directed), and they are autonomous (in that they may decide within some parameters, how, when, and whether to act). Some Bernard Machines may also have a sense of sociality, i.e., awareness of the existence of other agents in their environment, to complete the superfecta of the now-standard definition of agenthood due to Wooldridge and Jennings (1995).
I understand that the more materialist biologists become agitated at any suggestion of non-human entities possibly having anything like intentionality (a concept with teleological or spiritual connotations, apparently), and thus they question whether goal-directedness can in fact be said to be the same as intentionality. But this argument is exactly like the one we witnessed over the last two decades in computer science over the concept of autonomy of software systems: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, there is nothing to be gained, either in practice or in theory, by insisting that it isn’t really a duck. Indeed, as software agent people know very well (see Wooldridge 2000), one cannot ever finally verify the internal states of agents (or Bernard machines, or indeed ducks, for that matter), since any sufficiently clever software developer can design an agent with any required internal state. Indeed, the cleverest software developers can even design agents themselves sufficiently clever to be able to emulate insincerely, and wittingly insincerely, any required internal states.
POSTSCRIPT: Of course, with man-made systems such as economies and societies, we cannot assume all agents are homeostatic; some may simply seek to disrupt the system. For computational systems, we cannot even assume all agents always act in their own self-interest (however they perceive that), since they may simply have buggy code.
J. Scott Turner [2007]: Signs of design. The Christian Century, June 12, 2007, 124: 18-22. Reprinted in: Jimmy Carter and Philip Zaleski (Editors): Best American Spiritual Writing 2008. Houghton Mifflin.
J. Scott Turner [2007]: The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.
Michael J. Wooldridge [2000]: Semantic issues in the verification of agent communication languages. Journal of Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems, 3 (1): 9-31.
Michael J. Wooldridge and Nicholas R. Jennings [1995]: Intelligent agents: theory and practice. The Knowledge Engineering Review, 10 (2): 115-152.

The Better Angels

[WARNING:  In-jokes for telecoms people!]
Prediction, particularly of the future, is difficult, as we know.  We notice a good example of the difficulties reading Charles McCarry’s riveting political/spy thriller, The Better Angels.  Published in 1979 but set during the final US Presidential election campaign of the 20th Century (2000? 1996?), McCarry gets some of the big predictions spot on: suicide bombers, Islamic terrorism, oil-company malfeasance, an extreme right-wing US President, computer voting machines, a Greek-American in charge of the US foreign intelligence agency, uncollected garbage and wild animals in Manhattan’s streets, and, of course, the manned space mission to Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, for instance.  But he makes a real howler with the telephone system:  a brief mention (p. 154) of “the Bell System” indicates he had no anticipation of the 1982 Modified Final Judgement of Judge Harold H Greene.  How could he have failed to see that coming, when AT&T’s managers were preparing for decades for the competition which would follow, evident in the masterful way these managers and their companies have prospered since?!  A future with a unified Bell system was so weird, I was barely able to concentrate on the other events in the novel after this.
Charles McCarry [1979]: The Better Angels. London, UK:  Arrow Books.

Yes, he is!

US President Barack Obama’s First Inauguration Speech, delivered today:

My fellow citizens:
I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.
So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land – a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control – and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort – even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment – a moment that will define a generation – it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.
For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence – the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Thank you.  God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

Evaluating prophecy

With the mostly-unforeseen global financial crisis uppermost in our minds, I am led to consider a question that I have pondered for some time:   How should we assess forecasts and prophecies?   Within the branch of philosophy known as argumentation, a lot of attention has been paid to the conditions under which a rational decision-maker would accept particular types of argument.

For example, although it is logically invalid to accept an argument only on the grounds that the person making it is an authority on the subject, our legal system does this all the time.  Indeed,  the philosopher Charles Willard has argued that modern society could not function without most of us accepting arguments-from-authority most of the time, and it is usually rational to do so.  Accordingly, philosophers of argumentation have investigated the conditions under which a rational person would accept or reject such arguments.   Douglas Walton (1996, pp. 64-67) presents an argumentation scheme for such acceptance/rejection decisions, the Argument Scheme for Arguments from Expert Opinion, as follows:

  • Assume E is an expert in domain D.
  • E asserts that statement A is known to be true.
  • A is within D.

Therefore, a decision-maker may plausibly take A to be true, unless one or more of the following Critical Questions (CQ) is answered in the negative:

  • CQ1:  Is E a genuine expert in D?
  • CQ2:  Did E really assert A?
  • CQ3:  Is A relevant to domain D?
  • CQ4:  Is A consistent with what other experts in D say?
  • CQ5:  Is A consistent with known evidence in D?

One could add further questions to this list, for example:

  • CQ6:  Is E’s opinion offered without regard to any reward or benefit upon statement A being taken to be true by the decision-maker?

Walton himself presents some further critical questions first proposed by Augustus DeMorgan in 1847 to deal with cases under CQ2 where the expert’s opinion is presented second-hand, or in edited form, or along with the opinions of others.
Clearly, some of these questions are also pertinent to assessing forecasts and prophecies.  But the special nature of forecasts and prophecies may enable us to make some of these questions more precise.  Here is my  Argument Scheme for Arguments from Prophecy:

  • Assume E is a forecaster for domain D.
  • E asserts that statement A will be true of domain D at time T in the future.
  • A is within D.

Therefore, a decision-maker may plausibly take A to be true at time T, unless one or more of the following Critical Questions (CQ) is answered in the negative:

  • CQ1:  Is E a genuine expert in forecasting domain D?
  • CQ2:  Did E really assert that A will be true at T?
  • CQ3:  Is A relevant to, and within the scope of, domain D?
  • CQ4:  Is A consistent with what is said by other forecasters with expertise in D?
  • CQ5:  Is A consistent with known evidence of current conditions and trends in D?
  • CQ6:  Is E’s opinion offered without regard to any reward or benefit upon statement A being adopted by the decision-maker as a forecast?
  • CQ7:  Do the benefits of adopting A being true at time T in D outweigh the costs of doing so, to the decision-maker?

In attempting to answer these questions, we may explore more detailed questions:

  • CQ1-1:  What is E’s experience as forecaster in domain D?
  • CQ1-2: What is E’s track record as a forecaster in domain D?
  • CQ2-1: Did E articulate conditions or assumptions under which A will become true at T, or under which it will not become true?  If so, what are these?
  • CQ2-2:  How sensitive is the forecast of A being true at T to the conditions and assumptions made by E?
  • CQ2-3:  When forecasting that A would become true at T, did E assert a more general statement than A?
  • CQ2-4:  When forecasting that A would become true at T, did E assert a more general time than T?
  • CQ2-5:  Is E able to provide a rational justification (for example, a computer simulation model) for the forecast that A would be true at T?
  • CQ2-6:  Did E present the forecast of A being true at time T qualified by modalities, such as possibly, probably, almost surely, certainly, etc.
  • CQ4-1:  If this forecast is not consistent with those of other forecasters in domain D, to what extent are they inconsistent?   Can these inconsistencies be rationally justified or explained?
  • CQ5-1: What are the implications of A being true at time T in domain D?  Are these plausible?  Do they contradict any known facts or trends?
  • CQ6-1:  Will E benefit if the decision-maker adopts A being true at time T as his/her forecast for domain D?
  • CQ6-2:  Will E benefit if the decision-maker does not adopt A being true at time T as his/her forecast for domain D?
  • CQ6-3:  Will E benefit if many decision-makers adopt A being true at time T as their forecast for domain D?
  • CQ6-4:  Will E benefit if few decision-makers adopt A being true at time T as their forecast for domain D?
  • CQ6-5:  Has E acted in such a way as to indicate that E had adopted A being true at time T as their forecast for domain D (eg, by making an investment betting that A will be true at T)?
  • CQ7-1:  What are the costs and benefits to the decision-maker for adopting statement A being true at time T in domain D as his or her forecast of domain D?
  • CQ7-2:  How might these costs and benefits be compared?  Can a net benefit/cost for the decision-maker be determined?

Automating these questions and the process of answering them is on my list of next steps, because automation is needed to design machines able to reason rationally about the future.   And rational reasoning about the future is needed if  we want machines to make decisions about actions.
Augustus DeMorgan [1847]: Formal Logic.  London, UK:  Taylor and Walton.
Douglas N. Walton [1996]:  Argument Schemes for Presumptive Reasoning. Mahwah, NJ, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Charles A. Willard [1990]: Authority.  Informal Logic, 12: 11-22.

Poem: Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495

Posting of poetry has been infrequent over the holiday season.  Belatedly, here is a poem by Ern Malley (Liverpool, UK 1918/03/14   1943/07/23 Sydney, Australia), a modernist Australian poet, whose poetry is none the worse for the poet never having existed.

Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495
I had often, cowled in the slumberous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters —
Not knowing then that Dürer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
the black swan of trespass on alien waters.


Presidential mash-up

With the Presidential Inauguration in two days time, it is interesting to speculate on what sort of President Barack Obama will be. BHO bears both striking similarities and striking differences with past US Presidents.

Like Lincoln, he is a powerful orator, intent on uniting a divided society. Like TR, he’s a great writer, an environmentalist, and a community organizer. What other single term could better describe TR’s varied occupations before the Presidency than “community organizer”? Like FDR, he’s a pragmatist, even-tempered, and both cunnning and ruthless, politically. Like JFK, he’s an urban sophisticate, smart and very cosmopolitan. Obama’s concern for the poor and the underclass rivals that of the only socialist to become US President, LBJ.

Unlike Coolidge or Eisenhower or Reagan or Bush 43, Obama seems to be a hands-on manager, but let’s hope he’s a better delegator than were micro-managers Carter and Clinton. Like Adams 2, Jefferson, Adams 6, Hoover, Eisenhower, JFK and Bush 41, he’s lived abroad before becoming President. Like Jefferson, TR, JFK, Nixon and Clinton, but most unlike Coolidge, Eisenhower and Bush 43, he’s the brightest kid in the class. Like both TR and JFK, he’s risen through a corrupt local political machine, and like them, apparently without trace. Like both JFK and Reagan, he embodies style and panache, most unlike all the rest. Like Lincoln, Hoover (at least initially), LBJ, Nixon and Clinton, he’s made his own way in the world, without family wealth or patrons to help. Like TR, FDR, JFK and Bush 43, he seems to have confronted and conquered some personal demons along the journey. For some other Presidents – eg, LBJ, Nixon, Clinton – the demons remained unconquered, leading to problems while in office. For yet others – Hoover, Carter – the demons seem to have arisen only afterwards, as they sought to retrospectively justify their time in office.

In office, I believe Obama will govern most like TR:  an urbanite turned environmentalist, reflexive and articulate, able to organize community and society through words alone, and hard-nosed in defense and foreign policy.  And, like TR, he will be very much his own man in party-political terms, making as many enemies with his policy choices in his own party as outside it.

Retroflexive decision-making

How do companies make major decisions?  The gurus of classical Decision Theory – people like economist Jimmie Savage and statistician Dennis Lindley – tell us that there is only one correct way to make decisions:  List all the possible actions, list the potential consequences of each action, assign utilities  and probabilities of occurrence to each consequence, multiply these numbers together for each consequence and then add the resulting products for each action to get an expected utility for each action, and finally choose that action which maximizes expected utility.
There are many, many problems with this model, not least that it is not what companies – or intelligent, purposive individuals for that matter – actually do.  Those who have worked in companies know that nothing so simplistic or static describes intelligent, rational decision making, nor should it.  Moreover, that their model was flawed as a description of reality was known at the time to Savage, Lindley, et al,  because it was pointed out to them six decades ago by people such as George Shackle, an economist who had actually worked in industry and who drew on his experience.  The mute, autistic behemoth that is mathematical economics, however, does not stop or change direction merely because its utter disconnection with empirical reality is noticed by someone, and so – TO THIS VERY DAY – students in business schools still learn the classical theory.  I guess for the students it’s a case of:  Who are we going to believe – our textbooks, or our own eyes?    From my first year as an undergraduate taking Economics 101, I had trouble believing my textbooks.
So what might be a better model of decision-making?  First, we need to recognize that corporate decision-making is almost always something dynamic, not static – it takes place over time, not in a single stage of analysis, and we would do better to describe a process, rather than just giving a formula for calculating an outcome.   Second, precisely because the process is dynamic, many of the inputs assumed by the classical model do not exist, or are not known to the participants, at the start, but emerge in the course of the decision-making process.   Here, I mean things such as:  possible actions, potential consequences, preferences (or utilities), and measures of uncertainty (which may or may not include probabilities).     Third, in large organizations, decision-making is a group activity, with inputs and comments from many people.   If you believe – as Savage and Lindley did – that there is only one correct way to make a decision, then your model would contain no scope for subjective inputs or stakeholder revisions, which is yet another of the many failings of the classical model.    Fourth, in the real world, people need to consider – and do consider – the potential downsides as well as the upsides of an action, and they need to do this – and they do do this – separately, not merged into a summary statistic such as “utility”.   So, if  one possible consequence of an action-option is catastrophic loss, then no amount of maximum-expected-utility quantitative summary gibberish should permit a rational decision-maker to choose that option without great pause (or insurance).   Shackle knew this, so his model considers downsides as well as upsides.   That Savage and his pals ignored this one can only assume is the result of the impossibility of catastrophic loss ever occurring to a tenured academic.
So let us try to articulate a staged process for what companies actually do when they make major decisions, such as major investments or new business planning:

  1. Describe the present situation and the way or ways it may evolve in the future.  We call these different future paths scenarios.   Making assumptions about the present and the future is also called taking a view.
  2. For each scenario, identify a list of possible actions, able to be executed under the scenario.
  3. For each scenario and action, identify the possible upsides and downsides.
  4. Some actions under some scenarios will have attractive upsides.   What can be done to increase the likelihood of these upsides occurring?  What can be done to make them even more attractive?
  5. Some actions under some scenarios will have unattractive downsides.   What can be done to eliminate these downsides altogether or to decrease their likelihood of occurring?   What can be done to ameliorate, to mitigate, to distribute to others, or to postpone the effects of these downsides?
  6. In the light of what was learned in doing steps 1-5, go back to step 1 and repeat it.
  7. In the light of what was learned in doing steps 1-6, go back to step 2 and repeat steps 2-5.  For example, by modifying or combining actions, it may be possible to shift attractive upsides or unattractive downsides from one action to another.
  8. As new information comes to hand, occasionally repeat step 1. Repeat step 7 as often as time permits.

This decision process will be familiar to anyone who has prepared a business plan for a new venture, either for personal investment, or for financial investors and bankers, or for business partners.   Having access to spreadsheet software such as Lotus 1-2-3 or Microsoft EXCEL has certainly made this process easier to undertake.  But, contrary to the beliefs of many, people made major decisions before the invention of spreadsheets, and they did so using processes similar to this, as Shackle’s work evidences.
Because this model involves revision of initial ideas in repeated stages, it bears some resemblance to the retroflexive argumentation theory of philosopher Harald Wohlrapp.  Hence, I call it Retroflexive Decision Theory.  I will explore this model in more detail in future posts.
D. Lindley [1985]:  Making Decisions.  Second Edition. London, UK: John Wiley and Sons.
L. J. Savage [1950]: The Foundations of Statistics.  New York, NY, USA:  Wiley.
G. L. S. Shackle [1961]: Decision, Order and Time in Human Affairs. Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.
H. Wohlrapp [1998]:  A new light on non-deductive argumentation schemes.  Argumentation, 12: 341-350.

Mailer on Obama

Norman Mailer on Barack Obama Robert Kennedy:

He was as attractive as a movie star.   Not attractive as his brother had been, for Jack Kennedy had looked like the sort of vital leading man who would steal the girl from Ronald Reagan every time, no, Bobby Kennedy had looked more like a phenomenon of a movie star — he could have filled some magical empty space between Mickey Rooney and James Dean, they would have cast him sooner or later in some remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, and everyone would have said, “Impossible casting!  He’s too young.”   And he was too young.  Too young for Senator, too young for President, it felt strange in his presence, thinking of him as President, as if the country would be giddy, like the whirl of one’s stomach in the drop of an elevator or the jokes about an adolescent falling in love, it was incredible to think of him as President, and yet marvelous, as if only a marvelous country would finally dare to have him.

Norman Mailer [1968]: Miami and the Siege of Chicago. (New York: Primus),  pp. 201-202.