Accounting for a better world

December 30, 2010 economics, generic, systems No comments

In another weak moment I was pondering progress and whether in some sense people have become better, or the world has become better. It’s a huge topic of course, look it up through a Google search, “Is the world improving?” It will show you a lot of pessimism. On the other hand, Noam Chomsky, an unusually harsh critic (which is excellent since he knows and understands so much), said “Slowly, over time, the world is becoming more civilized, in general“.

My immediate prompt was seeing all this technology around me, an “iphone” here, SSD memory there, oodles of websites with free photos, people coming up with new stuff like bitcoin, quora,,, some dubstep music. It adds up, and it made me think how fast everything is nowadays, and whether people were really slower in the past. There is no one around coming up with loads of, for example, impressive symphonies or novels anymore, as far as I know. There’s loads of average products that one hears about, like for example, Windows Vista. I think being prolific doesn’t quite mean the same anymore. So it’s not clear cut to me.

How to measure?

Now my pondering led me to think about how could one measure this, how could one find an objective answer, how to do a better job at resolving the question. A connection with my personal ongoing tasks of filing tax returns led to this: as you’re probably aware, accountants are updated about all kinds of goings-on in a business. Wouldn’t it be nice if one could look up the “books” of fifty years ago, 25 years ago, and find “the data”.

I run a small company, The Buckmaster Institute, Inc, and I can well see how accounting is useful, if only in providing one perspective. Every little piece counts, after all. I can understand the accountant’s approach, I have learned from conversations with some professionals. I know about software and how it is used for accounting. I have recommended against the naive use of spreadsheets (still need to write those stories up). I have personal insights into the amount of effort that goes into accounting.

Resource Allocation

Have you heard about economists talk about “resource allocation”? For example, free markets are declared to be good at “allocating resources efficiently” by to some of those economists. Then this improvement in resource allocation should show up in the “books”, no? In as much as a drop in the efficient allocation of resources would be a sign that the world is getting worse, we might find evidence for the world improving in the financial statements of the businesses of today. Compare the figures to the financial statements from decades ago and we would see whether the world is getting better, maybe only in some small area. But it would be a start.

Doesn’t work

I think you’ll agree it’s not going to work. They very likely didn’t record the right numbers and amounts.

Should we call it -1 points for the accountants? Or would you go so far as assessing a full  -10 points?

Or do you disagree? Please elaborate by posting a comment below; that would be exciting to learn about! If you think a mere comment would not do your insights justice, please contact me (@stephanwehner on twitter, and we’ll take it from there)

Related Questions

Other slightly related questions that I have not been able to resolve are:

  • What are the recent breakthroughs in the accounting world?
  • Who are the heroes of accounting (what Steven Hawking is to black holes)?
  • Who do young accountants look up to and draw their inspiration from?
  • What are the present “open problems” in accounting? Which obstacles are hindering the full bloom of the profession?
  • Whither accounting: Is there a roadmap? Or is it all just  happy-go-lucky?


Any hint or pointer would be greatly appreciated! Don’t think your insight might be insignificant. Please don’t think there is a limit on space or time, and we cannot handle all responses. Please help by leaving a comment now. Thanks so much.

Couple of thoughts about evolution and economics

August 19, 2010 economics, systems No comments

I saw a documentary about Charles Darwin a few months ago. I think it was part  of David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things.

Evolution and natural selection are of course endless topics with many different and interesting aspects. So I’m writing here about a few thoughts that occurred to me while watching the documentary. Please leave corrections or pointers to related articles in the comments, if I got something wrong or missed something!

So, I used to think this was a good way to think of natural selection: Let’s say your eating potato chips, then towards the end, the bag has only small chips − the big ones are more likely to be pulled out. I’m sure this corresponds with your personal experience. Pretty intuitive isn’t it?

Well, watching the documentary, I realized that it’s not that easy. The potato chips example is primitive in the way that the chips don’t change over the time. They don’t interact while you’re eating. This simplicity might make it a good example, but it really doesn’t capture enough of the phenomenon.

The curious thing to me about evolution and economics is that I got the picture that people learned about evolution and what marvelous creatures are produced by simply letting natural selection do its work. Just around that time (late 19th century) it became popular to think: Why not build society on this principle? Let the best survive, why bother with the inferior (apply to employees/products/politicians/strategies)

And in as much as the theories that evolved (it might be fair to say this thinking led to neoclassical  economics) may be behind a lot of amazing features and products of modern society, I think overall there is also a sense of profound failure.

So what I wanted to write about here, is that in fact, these economic theories did not actually copy over the findings of evolutionary studies.

You see, there is  this distinction that biologists make between sexual and asexual reproduction. What biologists are telling us is that sexual reproduction can produce better organisms, better in the sense that they are more likely to survive, or better in the sense that they fill the available “space” more completely, are bigger, stronger, and more complex overall. (In general, what makes natural selection so general is that what “better” means is very open, and cannot be preconceived)

(Usually you think of sexual reproduction as it involving a male and a female producing offspring. A simpler variation of asexual reproduction may be that it simply takes two, instead of just one organism, to reproduce.)

Sexual reproduction can be viewed as unfair on an individual level, but also as a bad idea on a species level. After all, its form is: if a pair of individuals have the same sex, then they cannot mate, they cannot have any offspring; no matter what, and there are no exceptions. Who cares how superior they are, and even if they are the two best individuals of the species: tough luck.

So here’s a question: what would be the analogous set up of sexual reproduction in economics?

Here is one way: you divide the economic population (people + organizations) into red and blue people.  Red people can only work for blue people, and vice versa. Red people can only buy from blue people, and vice versa. What on earth would that look like? I really don’t know. At first glance, you might call this a sophisticated variation of racism—horror. However, biologists are hinting this might be a better system. Overall, the population is going to have a stronger economy; individuals get to follow their rational preferences,  maximize their utilites, while companies maximize profits, and everyone just acts independently on the basis of full and relevant information.

However, since I already mentioned neoclassical economics, I think the form of sexual reproduction, with its strong “You cannot mate” can also be found in the big pain point of the corporate world: regulations. After all regulations put constraints on what corporations can do. You have probably often personally heared about complaints from the business world. (In fact do they complain about anything else, besides taxes?) However, what we see in natural selection is that even the most basic, and brutally unfair, rule such as we find in sexual reproduction can actually work out.

a sign-up-form lesson

September 7, 2009 systems 1 comment

I came across, from a Chinese Internet provider, and thought I’d try out their free email service, and see how that would work out.

The sign up form was full of Chinese characters, naturally, still I could type in my name, fill in the password, date of birth etc. But after about 10 fields or so, I got to this section:

Screenshot from sign up form

Screenshot from the sign up form

Now I was kind of stuck. I went to Google / Translate and and pasted in the label, and clicked the “Translate” button:

Screen shot from Google Translate

Screen shot from Google Translate

Please type in the characters above! — a CAPTCHA field — of course! Now I was definitely stuck, and gave up! (I don’t know Chinese characters, nor do I know how to produce them with my keyboard)

I’ve been putting CAPTCHAs on some websites myself, to keep out spam and abuse; see

My friends tell me often that they don’t like it when they have to tackle those CAPTCHAs (this is why I thought of the CAPTCHA for the stephansmap sign up form: it is supposed to entertain, as far as my entertainment talents go in terms of computer graphics.) But it definitely stops the spammers.

So with I got to see this all from a different perspective.

democratic alternative action now

May 5, 2009 systems No comments

Over here in British Columbia (“B.C.” – also known as “Bring Cash”), it’s election time. (I can’t vote for lack of citizenship, but that is another story.) This time, like last time, there is also a referendum on “Electoral Reform”, to switch to the Single Transferable Vote system (oh boy, they even have a video).

On the weekend I remembered a few ideas I had some years ago about alternatives to the ordinary democratic arrangement. I could recall two but I knew there were three; it took a visit to the Wise Hall to recover the third one: it was a friend’s favourite from when I passed it by her at the time.

None of these are likely to work as such; I think it’s nice to ponder though. Here they are, enjoy:

1. “Copy and Paste”

Instead of maintaining a parliament for your city, province or country, just copy the laws some other parliament comes up with and make them your own. They pass a new law, it becomes yours too. They remove one, its gone for you. Why would you think you can do better than they? Save the time and effort! Usually no one is happy with their parliament anyway.

2. “Everyone is a Minister”

Instead of maintaining a government, divide up all its functions among the constituents. There will be a long list of small areas and responsibilities. Assign each of these areas and responsibilities to one person only: no arguments, they have all the say in their area. If you see something that’s wrong there’s exactly one person to complain to.

Ordinarily, ministers are appointed because of who they know, instead of what they know. After ten years every one of the mini-ministers will be an expert in their field, and do a much better job.

3. “The Less Power, the More Votes”

Usually each person gets one vote. However, some people already have a lot of power over other people’s lives. For example, a store manager has eight hours a day to have things their way. CEO’s of big companies may have thousands of people follow their lead.

At election time, this is reversed. For each person, add up the number of hours times the number of people, for an election period, that they control those other people. If a person controls people that control other people, add the hours from the middle person to the one at the top. The more hours a person is assigned, the less their vote counts.

nice one

April 30, 2009 systems No comments

Listen to how this one flows:

Further, it should be noted that since relativistic quantum theories (such as quantum field theory) can always be expressed in terms of a local Lagrangian density, it follows that probability mass in such theories always flows locally through configuration space, and therefore that a classical configuration of the system’s (field) variables can still be made to evolve locally in a way that simply tracks the flow of the conserved probability current in configuration space.


74 words. I think the climax is at “simply”.

Here’s the vocabulary (48 words), sorted alphabetically, with repetitions:

  • a
  • a
  • a
  • always
  • always
  • and
  • as
  • be
  • be
  • be
  • can
  • can
  • classical
  • configuration
  • configuration
  • configuration
  • conserved
  • current
  • density
  • evolve
  • expressed
  • field
  • field
  • flow
  • flows
  • follows
  • further
  • in
  • in
  • in
  • in
  • it
  • it
  • Lagrangian
  • local
  • locally
  • locally
  • made
  • mass
  • noted
  • of
  • of
  • of
  • probability
  • probability
  • quantum
  • quantum
  • relativistic
  • should
  • simply
  • since
  • space
  • space
  • still
  • such
  • such
  • system’s
  • terms
  • that
  • that
  • that
  • that
  • the
  • the
  • the
  • theories
  • theories
  • theory
  • therefore
  • through
  • to
  • tracks
  • variables
  • way

the “free will theorem”: a gedanken experiment

April 25, 2009 systems No comments

The Free Will Theorem, published in 2006 by John H. Conway and Simon Kochen, says in rough terms, that if we (as humans) have free will then so do elementary particles. As you would ordinarily take it for granted that you have “free will”,  and if you follow their argument, then elementary particles, or, since all of matter is said to be made up of them, matter has free will too. Certainly a spectacular situation, and if you read their writings, I think you will agree that they think it is spectacular too, and they are quite proud of their discovery.

The theorem does not assert that we have free will whatsoever. But if we do then we would not be so free as to withhold the same from those elementary particles; Conway and Kochen’s operative keywords are SPIN, FIN and TWIN. Earlier this year, they announced the Strong Free Will Theorem, which came to my attention and puzzled me quite a lot.

In my experience, it is very hard to cross from science or mathematics to philosophy or metaphysics; in many ways, philosophy and metaphysics are a lot more difficult. In the case of this Free Will Theorem, one might like to perform an experiment to make sure the mathematics corresponds to reality. At the end of section 9, “Historical remarks”, on page 21 of the (earlier) Free Will Theorem article, Conway and Kochen discuss possibilities of such an implementation.

This is because our Free Will assumption requires decisions by a human observer, which current physiology tells us takes a minimum of 1/10 of a second. During such a time interval light will travel almost 20,000 miles, so the experiment cannot be done on Earth.

This is were the following gedanken experiment commences: namely, despite those difficulties, some scientists apply for grants, devise an experiment that can be carried out on Earth, design the equipment, and soon realize that the average person’s free will does not elicit a measurable amount of free will on the part of the elementary particles, at least within their budgetary constraints. They perform some back-of-the-envelope calculations and happily notice a gap: one person in a billion will have sufficient free will.

Jimi Hendrix.

So they call him up and explain the situation, and ask him whether he wants to participate. Jimi reluctantly agrees after some hesitation. They arrange a time, tell him where the lab his, he arrives, and they show him their machine, explain how it works. They tell him that they regret it is loud and noisy, after all it is the first of its kind. When one of its lamps turns from orange to green, he is to push away at the three buttons that they point out, any way he wants to. They will then compare his choices with the elementary particle’s, and graph the results to correlate the free will. He nods, sits down at the chair that is provided, and they start the final preparations. Finally, the lamp turns to green.

Jimi is not pushing any buttons.

They cancel the experiment, and ask him (quite annoyed), why he didn’t follow the instructions. To which he responds, “Well, I wanted to increase volume of your machine, but I couldn’t find the control.”

fun with vista

March 15, 2009 systems No comments

A bit of a funny story about Windows Vista, or Microsoft systems in general. My friend’s laptop would not boot up anymore, so I took it to another friend who knows more about fixing laptops (I don’t use one myself, so I don’t have much experience).

Since there was an indication of hard drive problems when running BIOS system checks, we removed the (SATA) hard drive from the laptop, and connected it to his Vista PC. When it recognized it, it showed up as “F:” under “My Computer.” Right-click → Tools, and we got an option to “check the volume for errors”.

We selected “Automatically fix file system errors” (but not “Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors”). After clicking the “Check Now” button we waited for a while.

Then this message popped up

Some problems were found and fixed.
Any files that were affected by these problems were moved to a folder named “Found”.

We spent quite some time looking for this folder named “Found”. (Since it was his PC I didn’t want to get too involved in the search). We never found it. Was it supposed to be on his PC, or on the laptop’s harddrive? Why wouldn’t the message say explicitly just were that folder is?

(With the harddrive placed back in the laptop, it booted again. So that was good.)