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Originally published at my blog on business, Not That Kind of Operation.

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I was reading this post by James Howard Kunstler, and was intrigued by what he calls "Jevon's Paradox"

"the more efficient you make a means for using a resource, the more of that resource you will use"

Having been reading The Economist's Pocket World In Figures recently as well, that stuck me as very odd. Because if the premise is true, one would expect the countries most efficient at using energy per unit of GDP to be the same as the countries that consume the most energy per capita.

Here's the efficiency ranking for 2003, efficiency defined as GDP per unit of energy use:

1 - Peru
2 - Hong Kong
3 - Uruguay
4 - Bangladesh
5 - Morocco

Here's the consumption ranking for 2003, defined as Kg of oil equivalent per capita:

1 - United Arab Emirates
2 - Kuwait
3 - Trinidad & Tobago
4 - Canada
5 - United States of America

The obvious thing to notice here: Not only do the rankings not match -- there are no countries that overlap the two lists at all. If one adds in the countries ranked 6-10 for each category, there still aren't any countries that show up on both. That would be 20 countries, or roughly 10% of the world's total, and the relationship between efficiency and consumption is random among them.

That made me curious who Jevon was, and why anyone was taking him seriously.

Turns out it's not Jevon but Jevons -- William Stanley Jevons -- and Kunstler has made the same mistake that people who say "kudo" as a singular for "kudos" do. (The word is "kudos" in all cases.) Leaving illiteracy aside, though, it comes from an observation Jevons made in 1865 (quoting Wikipedia here), "...that England's consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen's earlier design."

I suspect saying the driving force behind the increased coal use was the efficiency of Watt's design, and not the novelty of its usefulness, is not unlike the same error Jakob Nielsen makes regarding web usability and "chunking" web pages. Nielsen writes in his book Designing Web Usability, "In the usability studies I did of early web users in 1994 and 1995, few users ever scrolled. Maybe 10 percent or so of the users would scroll beyond the information that was visible in the window when the page came up. The only exception from this finding was users who had arrived at a destination page with an article that they found interesting or important to their work."

Fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon had a maxim: "90% of everything is crud." Rather than the obvious conclusion one could take from these data -- that 90% of Web writing is neither interesting nor important, and therefore one should recommend to Web writers to make their writing better -- Nielsen decided the culprit is scrolling. Yes, if only Aunt Ethel would "chunk" her 30,000 word treatise on the antics of her cat Fluffy, it would suddenly become useful and important, and users would read more of it.

Jevons is clearly making a similar kind of mistake when it comes to thinking it was the efficiency of Watt's design, and not its usefulness. Now, in a way probably frightening to object-oriented programmers, we see Jevons's bug being replicated among everyone quoting him, a century-and-a-quarter later.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
jackwilliambell
May. 30th, 2009 10:02 pm (UTC)
Nice analysis.

However, I do think the takedown of Nielson is a bit gratuitous; there is way more to his web usability studies than you mention, and some of those other factors also lead to a chunking recommendation.
hal_obrien
May. 30th, 2009 10:15 pm (UTC)
"there is way more to his web usability studies than you mention, and some of those other factors also lead to a chunking recommendation."

Not at the time, and not in the book.

Here's my full review from the time.

It's possible I missed things. If so, show, don't tell. :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )