Wollensky, October 2009 edition

Consumers' new exposure to profit motive

1 October 2009

"It can be viewed now as one of the aristocrats among commodities"

There are thinkers who deny that electricity is a commodity. Lacking intellectual refinement myself I have to admit that, for me, the stuff does seem to bear at least a passing resemblance to other commercial entities classed as commodities. It is, for instance, useful: it can be bought, sold and stolen; and it gives rise to data that are collected and analysed (with the help of computers) by traders and others as if it were a commodity.*

I suggest that it can be viewed now as one of the aristocrats of commodities because it is going increasingly to enjoy sophisticated treatment by smart meters and smart grids. And, in my simple-minded way, I am relishing a particular prospect of its further commercial development. Foreseen is a growing number of electric motorists who study their smart meters in order to charge their batteries when electricity is cheap (eg at night) so that they can profitably sell it back to their supplier when it is dear (eg by day).

Commodity trading, I’d call it.

Composure matters in scientific and industrial English composition

Even-handed objectivity is supposed to distinguish academics. So is the use of clear language. So are senses of proportion and perspective in a calm, measured approach to problems, even pressing ones, rather than in impulsiveness and surrender to sentiment.

A recent series of lectures at the University of Aberdeen, UK, was designed to bring together 'leading international industry and academic experts to discuss the current challenges and debates facing the energy sector'. The programme promised an opening address on a Thursday evening by the university's professor of soils and global change. His subject was to be global warming, as viewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Alas for academic sang-froid. According to intentions billed by the learned institution's organisers the opening speaker would 'outline action which must be taken by government to combat climate change this evening', but their hopes were dashed. They had to call off the lecture 'due to weather conditions'. Government's chance of successful combat that Thursday was wiped out and the event had to be 'rescheduled'.

I wonder whether a more punctual encounter might have been possible if the climatologists' cousins-by-profession, the meteorologists, could have provided better warnings. Certainly the visiting academic experts’ experience in Aberdeen must have been salutary. Maybe the industrial experts' was too. But could any observer, expert or otherwise, not have savoured the ironies of the situation?


* Lexicographers also find this word rather indigestible. One respectable, and generally helpful, writer on good English usage sums ‘a commodity’ up as ‘anything tangible that may be bought or sold’, but I think that that fails if taken literally because it does not cover such examples as industrial gases and recorded music, the touchability of whose cylinders and discs does not count.

Some textbook writers have tried to pin the ‘commodity’ concept down for the benefit of economics students. I gather that the academics have not been altogether successful. One attempt at definition that I have been shown nestles in a mid-twentieth century work described in its preface as ‘a fairly complete introduction to the science of economics’. In the book’s early pages it is stated that two units ‘do not belong to the same commodity’ unless they can be perfectly substituted for each other. In other words every potential purchaser must be happy to accept either for his money. However, the author rather mysteriously grants that, ‘in ordinary speech’, a commodity so-called is often a whole class of commodities.

I am reminded of a much-quoted template for this kind of definition. It appeared in 1871 in Through the Looking-glass, a story by Lewis Carroll, who has (and remains) famous under that alias for his fanciful prose and poetry. His real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and he lectured on mathematics at Oxford University, UK. In the course of the story the heroine, Alice, speaks to Humpty Dumpty, the hero of an English nursery rhyme. She objects that one of his words does not have the meaning he implies, but he is scornful. ‘When I use a word’, he retorts, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, - neither more nor less.’

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