A “friend and ally”


October 18, 2017 by AK

News from the ECHR:

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and his brother Oleg were unfairly convicted of financial crimes at trial in the so-called Yves Rocher case in 2014.

In an October 17 ruling, the ECHR said that Russian courts handed down “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” decisions in the case, which led to the imprisonment of Oleg Navalny and a suspended sentence for his better-known brother Aleksei.

The court found that Articles 6 and 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated: the right to a fair trial and the right not to be found guilty for acts that were not criminal at the time of commission.

In 2016, the ECHR declared void Alexei Navalny’s conviction in another case, known as Kirovles. Russian courts promptly re-convicted Navalny using a somewhat different legal logic but otherwise copying and pasting the voided ruling. This case is almost guaranteed to come before the ECHR again, but it may be too late to make Navalny an eligible candidate for the 2018 presidential election. At least there is some hope his brother will be freed and no longer kept hostage in a prison camp.

In the meantime,

Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Vladimir Putin’s political mentor, has said she will stand in Russia’s presidential election next March, which Putin is expected to win…

Sobchak said she saw Navalny as a “friend and ally” and hoped he would support her.

I should be constantly reminded never to think I’ve seen it all.

“Normative theories tell you the right way to think”


October 17, 2017 by AK

but what is rationality? What is rational behavior? In a word, maximizing: choosing the preferable consumption bundle given the budget constraints and certain other factors.

One word is not enough, it seems. I should link to the principal sources of inspiration and ideas for this post: two papers by Mario Rizzo and Douglas Glen Whitman (1, 2), an article by Nathan Berg and Gerd Gigerenzer, and Kenneth Arrow’s Nobel lecture.

The Wiki entry on rational choice seems a good enough primer on the rational-choice framework. In its neoclassical simplicity, rational choice theory initially imposed strict conditions on the person’s preferences and the environment in which she is making her choices. Some of the assumptions can be modified without destroying the maximizing framework: incomplete information, uncertainty, costs of acquiring and processing information can be incorporated.

However, a person’s preferences can be so different from the starting assumptions of the rational-choice framework that finding the best consumption bundle on behalf of the actor will become a meaningless task. As an extreme example, a person with cyclical preferences is an intractable case. In The Problematic Welfare Standards of Behavioral Paternalism, Rizzo and Whitman quote this admission from a standard graduate textbook in microeconomics (Mas-Colell, Whinston, Green, “MWG”):

…substantial portions of economic theory would not survive if economic agents could not be assumed to have transitive preferences.

Of course personal preferences can be so bizarre as to threaten the survival of the economic agent herself. However, mild cases of non-transitive preferences are not exceedingly rare: “transitivity assumption can be hard to satisfy when
evaluating alternatives far from common experience,” according to MWG. When it comes to incomplete preferences, the textbook goes further, admitting they are far from a freak of nature:

The strength of the completeness assumption should not be underestimated. Introspection quickly reveals how hard it is to evaluate alternatives that are far from the realm of common experience.

In other words, MWG don’t tell the reader that people with inconvenient preferences are “irrational” by themselves; rather, they are a nuisance for modeling purposes and the prudent graduate student should probably assume them away in order to pass his prelims with a minimum of worry about the workings of the real world. Equipped with a reputable PhD, he might later join a research program in behavioral economics.

If he follows in the steps of his illustrious predecessors, such as Richard Thaler, he will likely change his view of the non-neoclassical preferences from “a pain to model” to “undesirable.” Rizzo and Whitman (as well as Berg and Gigerenzer) cite this statement from Thaler’s 1991 book, Quasi Rational Economics:

A demonstration that human choices often violate the axioms of rationality does not necessarily imply any criticism of the axioms of rational choice as a normative idea.

A normative idea! At some point between 1951 and 1991, Kenneth Arrow’s assumptions must have become axioms as fundamental to our view of human nature as Euclid’s five (or at least four) are fundamental to our perception of reality. Moreover, while “normative” usually refers to statements rooted in certain values, views, or policy priorities, Thaler’s recent definition, as recorded in Misbehaving (2015), is rather more ambitious:

Normative theories tell you the right way to think about some problem. By “right” I do not mean right in some moral sense; instead, I mean logically consistent, as prescribed by the optimizing model at the heart of economic reasoning, sometimes called rational choice theory… For instance, the Pythagorean theorem is a normative theory of how to calculate the length of one side of a right triangle if you know the length of the other two sides.

As a mathematical result, Pythagoras’ theorem logically follows from Euclid’s postulates, including (necessarily) the fifth. Stripped of its intuitive basis, mathematics works like this: Here’s your set of objects; here’s the set of axioms governing them; here are the rules of inference; let’s see what you can prove. But it also happens that our everyday reality is a rather good model of Euclidean geometry. If you don’t agree, you’re free to treat the Pythagorean theorem as a positive statement and test it every time you encounter a triangular structure with a right angle.

In other words, as a statement about real-word objects shaped like rectangular triangles, the Pythagorean theorem is positive and testable, yet in Thaler’s idiosyncratic language, it is also normative. By the same logic, Newton’s laws and the energy conservation principle are normative when used to estimate the impact of a wall on a fast-moving car.

As the Russian saying goes, call me a pot if you wish, just don’t put me into the oven. If you wish to call Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry normative because experience has shown their explanatory and predictive robustness, go ahead. If you wish to call the Pythagorean theorem or, for that matter, Arrow’s theorem, normative because they follow from their assumptions, it’s up to you…

…as long as you don’t apply your definitions to welfare economics or the study of human behavior more generally.

Following Thaler, consider this simple question, “How long is the third side of a right triangle with a hypotenuse one mile and one inch long and another side one mile long?” If your informant says, “well I don’t know, a couple of inches I guess,” you should consider the possibility that solving irrelevant problems requiring mental arithmetics gives her severe heartburn, in which case shooting off a random response is perfectly rational. Now if her life depended on measuring that cathetus, provided, of course, that she had no death wish… Otherwise, the right way – for her – to calculate that interval without a calculator at hand is to venture a quick guess.

“Deep concerns that do not arise in traditional welfare economics”


October 11, 2017 by AK

In 2013, “W.W.” wrote in the Democracy in America column in The Economist:

The insidiousness of “libertarian paternalism” is not in the slippery slope from the non-coercive nudge to explicitly coercive limits on individual liberty. Rather, the problem is that, as a piece of language, “libertarian paternalism” renders difficult the ability to conceive of a principled distinction between policy that respects and policy that violates individual autonomy.

According to W.W., this “Orwellian terminology” made its way to a popular audience via Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, the 2008 book by Richard Thaler (Chicago) and Cass Sunstein (Chicago, then Harvard). Predictably, “libertarian paternalism” was promptly picked up by the columnist David Brooks of the New York Times.

In this excellent post on the shortcomings and dangers of Richard Thaler’s brand of behavioral economics, Streetwise Professor (Craig Pirrong) links to Mario Rizzo’s response to Thaler’s Nobel:

Neoclassical man was never intended to be an image of a real person. He was, and is, a puppet – a theoretical construct designed to generate predictions about market or aggregate behavior…

And yet behavioral economics remains wedded to this narrow conception of rationality as a normative and prescriptive standard of evaluation… It is precisely because people are not narrowly rational that their behavior must be fixed.

A more laconic formulation can be found in the abstract of a 2015 paper by Whitman and Rizzo:

Behavioral paternalism raises deep concerns that do not arise in traditional welfare economics. These concerns stem from behavioral paternalism’s acceptance of the defining axioms of neoclassical rationality for normative purposes, despite having rejected them as positive descriptions of reality.

This is probably a little harsh on the neo-paternalists, but can they do without a “normative and prescriptive standard of evaluation?”

And why isn’t the “insidiousness” of this oxymoron in the “slippery slope” – from nudge to kick, from a gentle private elbow to the unapologetic government jackboot? Just because an idea doesn’t make sense doesn’t mean it won’t become a government policy.

La bontà in trionfo


October 6, 2017 by AK

Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction gets reviewed in literary journals, awarded literary prizes and included in Top 100 Best Novels lists. It means that – after Alexievich (documentary non-fiction) and Dylan (song lyrics) – we’re back to the world of novels and short stories, with an occasional drop of poetry.

A more interesting phenomenon than the Nobel committee’s return to business as usual is Haruki Murakami’s persistent candidateship. I read two or three of his numerous novels about fifteen years ago. It’s been a couple of years since I realized I didn’t remember anything from those novels, anything but three disjointed details. The title “Sheep Hunting,” a young lady stuck on an observation wheel on a cold night, and cooking pasta for breakfast to the sounds of Rossini’s prelude to La Cenerentola.

And even this I remembered incorrectly: the famous snare drums came from the overture to La gazza ladra, or La Pie voleuse, or The Thieving Magpie. Or, in Russian, Soroka-vorovka, which also happens to be the title of Alexander Herzen’s 1846 novella, a sad and hopeless story.

Sounds like propaganda, even if true


October 4, 2017 by AK

I was going to show that the official facts of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s biography make it rather unlikely that he was the principal developer of AK-47. I wrote this post to preempt arguments such as “other Soviet gun designers came up with great designs before they turned 30, so why not Kalashnikov?”

Kalashnikov had neither the training, nor the practical experience, nor the education to develop new weapons. Comparing his formative years with those of Makarov, Stechkin and Sudayev leaves little doubt that Kalashnikov lacked the minimum qualifications as a serious designer.

It is possible, however, that he was a natural-born, extraordinarily talented engineer. Perhaps the young man had the gift of easily understanding the workings of relatively complex mechanisms and fixing their shortcomings. If true, he still needed more experienced collaborators to produce a workable design based on his insights. The names of his colleagues who worked on AK-47 and its later modifications are known but their role remains uncredited.

Another question is why the great engineer limited himself to AK-related designs in his mature years. In contrast, Nikolay Makarov developed, together with his team, an aircraft cannon and two anti-tank missile systems. Igor Stechkin co-designed air-to-air and anti-tank missiles in addition to several more pistols, two machine guns, and this Bondian gadget, a cigar box gun.

I realize that there is a gaping omission in this discussion: what does it mean exactly to design an efficient weapon, and what does it take to be a successful weapons designer? One needs at least to think of possible answers to these questions first, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. I’m tempted to end it with this unintentionally amusing quote from Kalashnikov’s Wiki entry:

In the last few months of being in hospital, he overheard some fellow soldiers complaining about the Soviet rifles at the time and this is when he came up with the idea of making a new rifle which later became the AK47.

Seeing the drawbacks of the standard infantry weapons at the time, he decided to construct a new rifle for the Soviet military.

This sounds like a plot of a Soviet propaganda film or, adjusting for a few details, a Hollywood movie with a moral. A cleaning maid at a NASA lab points out a design flaw and suggests a brilliant fix, or something else along these lines.

Leavers: 38% in Catalonia, 37% in UK (and 38% in Scotland)


October 2, 2017 by AK

A little fewer than 38% of the eligible voters answered “yes” in the Catalonian independence referendum yesterday. That is, 42% turned out to vote and 89% of them voted “yes” to independence. Or, to count directly, 2.02 million out of the 5.34 registered voters chose independence.

In last year’s Brexit referendum, over 37% of the UK voters voted “leave.” More than 72% of the eligible voters took to the polls and 52% of them backed Brexit. That’s 17.4 million out of 46.5 million.

I’m probably stating the obvious, but it’s a noteworthy similarity.

Update (reposting my comment at White Sun of the Desert). Of course these numbers have to be weighed against the other side: in 2014, 38% of the Scots voters backed independence but 46% didn’t [and stated their opinion clearly at the booths] . The turnout was a whopping 85%. It looks like Madrid had done everything it could to keep Catalonian unionists at home: it made the referendum less representative but the 89% “yes” vote conveyed the message that most unionists don’t care much for their cause.

The Kalashnikov question: a biographic angle


October 1, 2017 by AK

Mikhail Kalashnikov’s contribution to the development of AK-47, relative to the role of other Soviet Russian designers, will probably remain an open question in the foreseeable future. Likewise, the contribution of the German weapons designers and engineers, including but not limited to Hugo Schmeisser, will continue to be discussed.

I have no comment on the technical side of this, but I’m going to put in my two cents from another angle. Speaking of the prominent Soviet designers of Kalashnikov’s generation and their mentors from Imperial Russia, I think one can safely claim that each of them came up with a successful new design after at least a decade of apprenticeship and practical work or study. Those who rose from the peasantry or the urban working classes typically left school early and entered some kind of work-study program at 14-17. Later on, a technical college and work under the guidance of an experienced designer. By their late 20s, they were competent enough in their trade to start developing their own designs.

Take Nikolay Makarov, the principal designer of the PM pistol. He was born and went to school in the small town of Sasovo, 114 miles southwest of Ryazan. His father was a train driver. In 1929, aged fifteen, Nikolay went to an industrial school (FZU) in Ryazan. At seventeen, he returned to Sasovo to work as a fitter at the locomotive depot. After five years as a locomotive repairman, in 1936, he was accepted to a polytechnic (“mechanical institute”) in Tula, the city famous for its guns, samovars, and gingerbread. The German invasion began just before his scheduled graduation in summer 1941. Makarov was transferred to a weapons factory, where he worked under the supervision of Georgy Shpagin, the designer of the widely used submachine gun, PPSh-41.

Makarov was posted back to Tula in 1943 and graduated in 1944. His graduation project was a submachine gun design, which won him the highest grade but was not accepted for practical use. He went on to work on an improved pistol design and completed in 1949. This time, his proposal was the winner, and the PM handgun became the standard police weapon and peacetime army side pistol in 1951.

Makarov was only 29 or 30 when he submitted his first SMG design, and 35 when his PM proposal was accepted for mass production. However young he seems, his training started at 15, he had lots of hand-on experience and a college-level engineering education. Plus, as he explained later, his team spent more hours at the design office, the workshop and the shooting range than its competitors – twelve hours per day for several years – so there’s nothing miraculous about his success with the PM. (This is not to say that political intrigue and the whims of Stalinist functionaries played no role; but it was not a case of some half-literate autodidact who came out of nowhere with a great design.)

For comparison, consider the life of Alexey Sudayev, who died in 1946 at 34 but left behind the Sudayev submachine gun, PPS-42 and PPS-43. Like Makarov, he was born in a small town, Alatyr’, in what is now the Chuvash Republic. Sudaeyev’s father, a telegraph mechanic, died when the boy was twelve. Alexey finished an industrial school at 17 and started working as a fitter. He went on to a technical college, graduating at 20 and working as a railroad technician in the Urals. At 21, he received his first patent, for a pneumatic platform tipper.

Two years in the army – in the railway forces, mostly as a technician; another patent. After the army, in 1936, at twenty-four, Sudayev entered the Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky) “industrial institute,” more or less a polytechnic; in 1938, he transferred to the artillery academy in Moscow to specialize in weapons design. His graduation design, which also was an automatic pistol, received the highest grade, and Sudayev was posted to a weapons research center to work on an improved SMG. He was 29 when his PPS-42 was adopted by the army. By all signs, Sudayev was a gifted young man who progressed fast through all the required stages. That’s unusual but hardly preternatural.

Igor Stechkin, the developer of the mighty automatic pistol, APS, stood apart from other young designers of his time. Born in Aleksin, near Tula, in 1922, he finished regular school at 18 and, rejected for army service because of poor eyesight, was admitted in 1941 to the same Tula polytechnic where Makarov was scheduled to graduate that year. As in Makarov’s case, the war delayed Stechkin’s graduation. However, his 1948 graduation project (partly under Makarov’s supervision) was out of the ordinary. Stechkin was defending his design for a semi-automatic pistol before a commission of engineering professors. One of them, looking at the technical drawings, skeptically remarked that such a pistol could not, would not fire, ever. The young man, however, already had in his pocket a sample gun made to his design. He drew it and fired three blank shots.

Stechkin went on to work on an automatic pistol; his APS adopted by the army in 1951, ten years after he entered college. This is obviously impressive, but one should probably measure this success against the achievements of other Stechkins. The gun designer was a scion of a family remarkable for creativity and perseverance (in addition to its ancient pedigree). His father Yakov, a doctor, graduated from the Moscow University in 1914 and started working in Tula and then Aleksin in 1919-20, amidst the Civil War, hunger and raging epidemics. Later on, especially during and after WWII, Yakov Stechkin earned a reputation as an outstanding surgeon. (There is perhaps a bitter irony in the fact that the son of a surgeon who spent WWII operating in a military hospital devoted his life to developing new weapons.) Yakov’s brother Boris – Igor’s uncle – was a prominent aircraft engine designer; Boris’ son Sergei was an accomplished mathematician. Nikolay Zhukovsky (the Joukowski transform or mapping was named after him) was also a relative.

Having said all this, I suggest taking another look at Mikhail Kalashnikov’s biography, especially up to around 1950. The post is getting quite long, so part 3 is to follow.

Hungarian affairs


September 27, 2017 by AK

Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center (not to be confused with the reporter of the same name) writes in today’s Vedomosti:

As far as I can recall, in The Conformist, the novel by Alberto Moravia on which Bernardo Bertolucci’s famous film is based, the protagonist’s father, confined in an asylum, imagines himself a minister for Hungarian affairs in Mussolini’s government. A position quite similar to the new appointment of the overly talkative governor.

Well observed. This past Monday, Putin fired Samara governor Nikolai Merkushkin and appointed him special presidential representative for liaison with the World Congress of the Finno-Ugric Peoples, of which Hungary is a promiment member. There are probably as many Hungarian  speakers as the speakers of all other Finno-Ugric languages taken together.

Merkushkin was governor of Mordovia in 1995-2012 and of Samara Oblast in 2012-17. Apart from achievements typical of a post-Soviet governor (charitably put, accusations of corruption and vote rigging), his ultra-loyalist utterances owed something to Saltykov-Schedrin or Vladimir Sorokin. He has claimed that Americans hacked into the email servers of the Samara regional government in 2016, that Alexey Navalny was part of the Dulles plan, and that United Russia’s 90%+ share of the Mordovian vote fended off a Maidan-style revolution in Moscow.

Kolesnikov tweaked Moravia a little bit for greater effect, but he didn’t pick Hungary out of thin air – it’s right there in the novel:

At last, this time, the madman spoke, in a low, stumbling, hurried, hostile voice, just like someone who has been disturbed while doing an important job…

“He thinks he’s a minister,” Marcello’s mother whispered.
“Minister of Foreign Affairs,” confirmed the professor.

“The Hungarian affair,” said the madman suddenly in a swift, low, labored voice, continuing to write, “the Hungarian affair…”

(Translated by Angus Davidson.) If Merkushkin was too chatty, Marcello’s father was fond of writing:

He held one of his papers at eye level, and without further comment, in a strange and breathless haste, began to read it: “Duce, chief of heroes, king of the earth and of the sea and of the sky, prince, pope, emperor, commander, and soldier” – here the madman made a gesture of impatience, tempered however by a certain amount of formality, as if to signify, “etcetera, etcetera”…

I should read the whole of it.

Define “embarrassment” for me


September 25, 2017 by AK

Here’s a good write-up of the monumental gun snafu in Moscow:

It’s a blunder so bad it makes you look twice: On the new sculpture dedicated to Russia’s most famous small arms designer, there is an unintentional homage to a weapon of Russia’s hated adversaries during the Great Patriotic War.

The author, Nathaniel F, seems to like the statue of Mikhail Kalashnikov by Salavat Scherbakov; I don’t, but that’s beside the point. Behind this statue, unveiled with proper pomp last Tuesday in downtown Moscow, there is a panel depicting Kalashnikov’s designs:

While the majority of the panel is filled with models of Kalashnikov’s inventions and derivatives, nestled in the backdrop of the representation of the AKS-74U compact assault rifle is a slab depicting an exploded view of the MKb42(H), a World War II German assault rifle which helped serve as the inspiration for the program Kalashnikov’s rifle was designed to satisfy.

Scherbakov is a repeat offender: in 2014, his team placed a Mauser rifle where a Mosin rifle was supposed to be. The same disregard for historical detail, then as now. The sculptor’s assistants are too lazy to ask the experts and don’t know how to sift through a google search for reliable results. This attitude – “who cares anyway?” – isn’t rare but is still incomprehensible to me.

The error is almost too good to be true, given the abundance of internet conspiracy theories regarding the relationship between the AK-47 and the Sturmgewehr weapon family…

More about this in part 2.

The Shooting Party


September 23, 2017 by AK

Simon Karlinsky wrote in Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (1973):

The other novel of Chekhov’s student years, the somewhat Dostoyevskian murder mystery The Shooting Party (the original Russian title was Drama During a Hunt) of 1884, had an even more distinguished career; its basic narrative structure was borrowed by none other that Agatha Christie for one of her novels and after World War II it was made into a Hollywood movie called Summer Storm.

I’ve read some Agatha Christie but barely remember anything. Apparently, the narrative trick in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the same: towards the end, the reader realizes that, from the beginning, he’s been reading the murderer’s account of the events. According to Philip French (in The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov linked above), the Hollywood movie was a box office success but a critical disaster.

Simon Karlinsky couldn’t have known in 1973 that five years later, the Soviet-Moldovan director Emil Loteanu made another film based on The Shooting Party, called My Sweet and Tender Beast. (Philip French refers to the director as “Emi Lotianou”: a typo and an obsolete transliteration.) Loteanu cast first-rate actors but the result was of questionable quality. Eugen Doga’s waltz became enormously popular in the Soviet and post-Soviet domains, but its catchy kitschiness castt a shadow of suspicious over the whole production. Sasha Cohen skated to this waltz at the 2006 winter Olympics and won silver.

I’m not convinced The Shooting Party qualifies as a “potboiler,” as Karlinsky called it, but it leaves you with the question, “Why did he write this?” Most of the novel is a manuscript by a former investigative magistrate. At the start of his tale, he is woken up by someone crying, “A husband murdered his wife!” It turns out a parrot called Ivan Demyanych, like a man. In Ronald Wilks’ translation:


For no apparent reason, it suddenly struck that lazy servant of mine that my parrot’s beak closely resembled the nose of Ivan Demyanych, our village shopkeeper… Thanks to Polikarp the entire village christened my remarkable bird Ivan Demyanych; thanks to Polikarp the bird became a real person, while the shopkeeper lost his real name: to the end of his days he’ll be spoken of by country bumpkins as the ‘magistrate’s parrot’.

The investigator lives in the same apartment as his predecessor, who died prematurely. The parrot, the furniture and “all the various household effects” passed from the old magistrate to the new one, who bought them from the mother of the deceased. The narrator made no changes to the interior of his room:

To this day my walls are embellished with photographs of his relatives, and a portrait of the former owner still hangs over my bed. The deceased, a lean, wiry man with red moustache and thick underlip, sits goggling at me from his discoloured walnut frame, never taking his eyes off me while I’m lying there in his bed.

This is good and Chekhovian – it even seems to be looking forward to Céline – but this goodness soon gets watered down by pedestrian narrative. The magistrate is only an amateur writer with an unclear purpose, but that’s a poor excuse for making the reader suffer through his padded prose. By the way, Ivan Demyanych – the shopkeeper known as the “magistrate’s parrot” – makes another entrance towards the end, as the foreman of a jury that convicts an innocent man of murder. It’s Chekhov after all.


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