Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Need for Growth

I've heard many times people say that our economic system requires growth in order to function. Usually people explain this by saying that the only way that interest can be paid on debt is if the money supply increases. This is not true, though. In a debt-based money system, the sum of money accounts is always zero. People who owe money need to be able to provide goods and services that people who have lent the money will purchase, but as long as that is true, there is exactly enough money floating around to pay any debts that are floating around. Understanding this, we can see that paying interest doesn't require a growing economy. So, is a growing economy actually required at all?

Here's a different notion of how our economic system requires growth to function. Our system requires inflation to encourage people to spend and invest. In a deflationary environment, it's better just to hold onto money - in which case, the economy freezes up completely. Inflation has two different meanings that are of course related. One meaning is an overall increasing level of prices. Another meaning is an increasing money supply. If the supply of dollars goes up, then the value of each dollar goes down, which means prices go up.

Our economic system needs prices to go steadily up in order to encourage people to spend and invest, which is what keeps the economy functioning. Prices will go up as the money supply goes up. The money supply goes up as debt goes up. This is what a growing economy is. I.e., our economy indeed requires growth in order to function.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Digging Down to the Foundations

Lately I'm reading Michael Millerman's book Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political. Dugin is the target of the book, and the main reason I'm reading it. I'm in the middle of the Rorty chapter at the moment. The overall notion seems to be that Dugin is the one who has picked up Heidegger's ball and is running with it. Strauss and Rorty have either misread Heidegger or anyway have refused to pick up his ball, for opposite reasons. Strauss is more fundamentalist than Heidegger, and Rorty is more historicist.

In a curious coincidence, my wife has been reading The Great Bliss Queen by Anne Klein. She tells me that Klein is discussing a debate within feminism between essentialists and constructivists. It sounds pretty much the same as the debate between Strauss and Rorty - or their followers, anyway. These debates are a bit like the conundrum, "Why not tolerate intolerance?" It's like a dog chasing its own tail.

This brings to mind a simple analogy that I use to illustrate the potential for Buddhist thinking to provide a way to escape the deadend represented by these debates. We're trying to investigate the true reality underlying the diverse appearances that we experience in the world. We start digging down through the shifting sands of the surface, looking for the solid bedrock that holds everything up.

The fundamentalist essentialist vision is that indeed, we can cut through the fog and confusion, and whether we land on the Bible or the U. S. Constitution or Feynman's Lectures on Physics, we will find solid ground. The constructivist historicist vision is that we can dig our way straight through to empty space on the other side. The web of appearances is free floating. It might be a fair amount of work to move the whole mess, but it is quite possible, and perhaps a worthy project. We have that freedom.

The middle way of Buddhism, or of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism at least, is a third alternative. It's not that we find some third sort of thing once we have dug through appearances. The vision is that we can dig and we can keep digging and actually we can just keep on digging endlessly. The investigation of appearances never reaches any kind of point where further investigation isn't possible. Of course we might run out of the resources needed to keep investigating. But we can also relax our desperate search for foundations once we realize that every layer of appearance is supported by yet another layer of appearance. There is no bottom. It's not that the bottom is hollow - that's the constructivist historicist vision. There is no bottom.

What are the practical consequences of this vision, that's hard to say. Mostly it's a matter of avoiding futile and destructive projects. The MAGA crew seems to want to scrape away the shifting sands to return society to whatever solid ground they put their faith in; once they've killed off all the liberals they can start killing each other over transubstantiation versus consubstantiation etc. The progressive crew seem to want to pick up the whole mess and move it to a less strife-filled place; maybe an annual cycle of presentations from the Human Relations department will do a lot, but the inertia of the entire system will assert itself long before we start knocking up against the constancy of the speed of light and the limits it imposes on interstellar colonization.

Buddhist practise seems to be mostly a matter of letting go of grasping. The subtle details come from a deepening perception of how we are grasping. The extremes of eternalism and nihilism are classical mirages at which we grasp. Fundamentalism and constructivism are modern manifestations of these philosophical extremes.

I've become interested in Dugin because he seems to be a major philosophical inspiration behind the right wing movement. Recently I read an observation, that the right wing extreme in the USA is not really philosophically grounded. It's basically a gang of street thugs. There's this character in the movie A Fish Named Wanda, this thug who lies around reading Nietzsche and shooting his pistol. Perhaps this is a good model for someone like Steve Bannon.

Thursday, January 14, 2021


I'm no lawyer, but what we saw happening at the U. S. Capitol building on the 6th sure looked like criminal activity. What should we do about that?

Generally speaking, the justice system is our collective means to respond to crime. We bring criminals to justice. But there are voices, mostly friendly to the criminals, warning us that justice will further division at a time when we especially need unity. Justice, division, unity: these are complicated ideas with many possible meanings.

What is the proper function of justice? Revenge? Punishment? Compensation? A crime has been committed: what should we do about it?

A crime is a breaking of social bonds. The proper function of justice is to heal those bonds. Justice should be social therapy.

Punishment and compensation can work as components of a therapeutic program. No matter what, a path must be provided by which criminals can be reintegrated into society. Justice must exercise discrimination but never promote division. The wisdom of Solomon is indeed required to judge what form justice should best take in any given situation. We mortals are stuck bumbling along the best we can. But if we at least understand what we're trying to accomplish, that ought to improve results.

Unity: to the extent that it opposes diversity, it is a flawed goal. One image of unity is a watertight boundary surrounding perfect uniformity within. This is a kind of death. A vital society is a cohesive society. Cohesion means rich relationships among diverse components. Diversity without cohesion is merely plural unity, just as dead as singular unity. Society is a fabric, a network.

The core work of justice is in repairing and strengthening social relationships.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Diaschismic Tuning

I continue my wandering in the vast world of musical tuning...

One of the first tuning calculations I performed was in 1976. I wrote a simple formula to give scores for possible tunings, to look for good ones. My idea was that a simple calculus-based optimization would yield an excellent result. I soon learned that this formula was not a matter of simple calculus. Now I have returned to evaluating tunings, with a simpler scoring forumula and simpler tunings. Still, a simple calculus optimization is not going to work with a graph like:

But here I am just looking at dividing octaves into some whole number of equal parts, so I can just sort the possibilities to see which are the best:

Here the number of steps in an octave is the column on the left, and the score is on the right. The score is based on how well the tuning approximates the exact harmonics 3 and 5.

The tunings 118edo, 87edo, and 53edo are ones I had worked with already. I had never given thought to 34edo, but there it is on the table! So I thought I should give it a try!

Another key feature of tunings like these is the commas that they temper. A Tonnetz diagram should help:

Each square represents a pitch class, e.g. the pitch C in conventional tuning. C can exist in any octave, but if we just ignore the octave, it's plain old C. There are 12 such pitch classes in conventional tuning. Here there are 34, and instead of using letters I use numbers. Since we're ignoring octaves, one microstep up from pitch class 33 is 0.

A key feature of these tunings is that they only have a finite number of pitch classes. Musically one can move up and down by various intervals, such as octave, perfect fifths, major thirds, etc. in an infinite variety. But there are only a finite number of places to land on. So, for any pitch class, there are an infinite number of ways to get there!

The Tonnetz diagram helps show how this works. Moving from any square to the square above it, that is moving by a major third (plus any number of octaves). In 34edo, a major third is 11 microsteps. Similarly, moving to the right one square is moving a perfect fifth, which is 20 steps. The part of the diagram I show isn't enough to see directly that e.g. by continuing to move by perfect fifths one will eventually circle back to the original pitch class. 20 and 34 have a common divisor 2, so 34 has two seperate circles of fifths, each 17 steps long: one circle for the even-numbered pitch classes, and one circle for the odd-numbered pitch classes.

But the Tonnetz diagram makes it clear that that are many other ways to move in harmonic space and end up back where you started. Intervals in 34edo are near approximations to just-tuned intervals: that's what my scoring formula was measuring. If one were to wander in some direction in just-tuned space, one would never return to the same pitch class except by undoing all the steps one had taken, though perhaps in a different order. Just-tuning requires, or provides, an infinite number of pitch classes. But if the 34edo intervals are close to the just-tuned ones, when 34edo reaches the same 34edo pitch class, the matching just-tuned movement must have reached some just-tuned pitch class quite close to 1:1. Such a just-tuned pitch class is known as a comma. A tempered tuning like 34edo is said to temper a comma when the harmonic movement that would result in that comma in just tuning instead, in the tempered tuning, returns to the same pitch class. In the Tonnetz diagram I have given the common names for the main commas tempered by 34edo.

I use algorithmic composition to explore alternate tunings. I can coax the algorithm in various ways to loop through, or pump, one or more commas tempered by a tuning. Here's a diaschisma pump in 34edo.

Studying the diaschisma a bit more, I realized that a nice 12 pitch class subset can be used to tune a conventional piano:

These pitches can be assigned to piano keys:

The main advantage of such a tuning is that some intervals are closer to their precise just tuning values than e.g. conventional 12edo. From the tuning goodness score table at the top of this post, one can see that 34edo has much better major thirds than does 12edo, while the perfect fifths are significantly worse. In that way, 34edo is similar to a meantone tuning like 31edo, also in the table. But then again, tempered commas are actually a compositional resource. Each tuning creates its own opportunities for making music.

That said, it's interesting to hear what a conventional composition sounds like in an unconventional tuning. This is a minuet by Telemann that I had put into software some years back, so it was easy to convert the tuning. I should note: conventional 12edo was not conventional in Telemann's time. I have no idea what he would have used: in those days, folks were quite creative in finding fresh ways to manage the compromises involved in tuning. I'd like to think that Telemann wouldn't object: Telemann minuet in 34edo diaschismic tuning.

Many high-end digital keyboards allow individual control of the tuning of each pitch class. Here is a tuning table for anyone who'd like to try this:

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Conduct of Emptiness

Buddhism and science share the view that much suffering is due to mistaken ideas about the way the world works, and that much suffering can be avoided by replacing those mistaken ideas with ones that better fit the world. The biggest difference between Buddhism and science is their general strategies for avoiding suffering. Shantideva’s analogy captures the difference. Walking barefoot over rocky terrain is painful. The scientific solution, or at least the technological solution, is to pave a smooth road. The Buddhist solution is to wear shoes. The focus of science is outward; the focus of Buddhism is inward. The more accurate understanding of the world provided by science allows engineers to change the world into a less painful configuration. The understanding of mind taught by the Buddha enables Buddhists to train their minds to respond to the world in less painful ways.

The Buddhist view of the nature of reality is not monolithic. In general, the idea is that the coarse objects of our everyday perception and interpretation, the individual persons and things of our everyday world, do not exist in the cleanly defined discrete way that they appear to. For example, careful examination of a cart reveals that it is just an arrangement of parts such as wheels, an axle, etc. As such analysis is pursued ever deeper, is there some natural stopping point, where analysis reveals some elementary discrete objects that cannot be analyzed any further? Over the millennia of the development of Buddhism, a variety of doctrines have emerged. The Madhyamika school, pioneered by Nagarjuna but also followed by Shantideva, holds that no such elementary objects can exist. Whatever object appears in our investigations of the world, that object can be further analyzed to understand how it arises from the interplay of other objects. Emptiness is a term used to refer to the way objects are never discrete, elementary, and unanalyzable. Interdependent origination is a term used to refer to the way objects arise from the interplay of other objects.

The distinction between the two ways to reduce suffering, changing the world versus changing the mind: this distinction is not so clear and discrete either. Effective engineering requires an understanding of the human mind. For example, designing safe and efficient roadways requires an understanding of how the human perceptual and interpretive systems will parse the various road markings. Mind and world are intimately coupled; indeed, each gives rise to the other: they co-emerge. The Buddhist path of mental transformation is not separate from actions in the world. Ethical and compassionate conduct is one of the cornerstones of the path, along with view and meditation. Cultivating the view of emptiness and interdependent origination is a classic meditation exercise. The view comes alive as it is reflected in one’s conduct.

This perspective flows into conduct mainly through the channels of alertness, curiosity, and sensitivity. Our actions arise out of our perceptions and interpretations of a situation. When we know that further analysis would surely alter those perceptions and interpretations, we don’t commit 100% to the interpretation of the moment. We remain open and curious. The new experiences that unfold as we act can inform us and give us fresh understandings so we can adapt and improvise.

There are classical teaching stories that illustrate the need for keeping our interpretations tentative. One story is about a farmer who finds a beautiful horse and the events that ensue. What first seems like good fortune then turns out to be misfortune; what first seems like misfortune turns out to be good fortune. Things are never quite what they seem.

A further channel for living the view of emptiness and interdependent origination is through community, through collective exploration. So much of our common conversation revolves around who is right and who is wrong. More productive discussion can happen when we understand that no one is altogether right and no one is altogether wrong. Each interpretation of a situation provides another perspective. We may need to take action, and so need to resolve a coherent interpretation on which to base that action. But we can work to act in a way that keeps open opportunities to learn more, for our interpretation to evolve, rather than closing down our perceptions in order to stabilize our interpretation, our actions reinforcing our justifications.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Character of Character

It’s a simple easy idea that there are good people and bad people. Bad people should be locked up. Bad people should not be allowed on the police force. Police should get tough on bad people. Good people should be trusted. Good people should have opportunities to improve their circumstances.

Perhaps it is the core idea of Buddhism that this notion of good people and bad people is dangerously simplistic. Certainly there is some validity to it. But the more one looks closely, the reality is not so simple. Buddhism is known as The Middle Way for a variety of reasons, but one reason is that it can encompass a simple idea along with an understanding of the limits of that idea, ways that an idea can blind us to important details. How can we be blinded by the idea that some people are good and other people are bad?

How somebody behaves is highly situational. A person whose children are starving and whose efforts to feed them by legitimate means have been constantly frustrated, such a person might be reduced to stealing to save the lives of their children. Another person might have a very active physiology and have a hard time sitting quietly for a long time. Put in a situation where they need to sit quietly, they may not be good at following the rules. In a different situation where constant movement is required, their behavior may well be very good.

Whether a particular behavior is good or bad can be strongly dependent on the perspective of the observer. Someone strongly defending one side of a divisive issue can appear good or bad depending on which side of the issue the observer leans toward.

The behavior of a person is generally very complex. In a day or a month or a year, even in an hour, a person can perform many actions, some of which may be very good and others not so good at all. A person experiences many different situations and also what’s going through their head is always shifting. One situation could make a person angry and they carry that anger into the next situation which can open the door to rather bad behavior. A person could be a hard worker on the factory floor but then go home and abuse their family, taking out their workplace resentments and frustrations.

People do change over time. Some of that is just from getting older and slowing down. Age can bring experience and understanding. But age can also bring bitterness and frustration. There is a feedback loop where a person’s behavior leads them into situations which can then steer their behavior. For example, prisons have a reputation for converting petty criminals into hardened criminals. The possibility for such a feedback loop to lead in a positive direction is equally present.

The most potent driver of change is a conscious intention. Parents, teachers, ministers, supervisors, therapists: each of these can work to guide a person to evolve in a more positive direction. It can certainly happen too that one person works to steer another person into some negative behavior pattern, to exploit that person one way or another. To help another person improve is one of the best behaviors possible; to lead another person astray is one of the worst.

To realize that one’s own pattern of response and behavior is malleable and within one’s own power to shape, this is the essence of the Buddhist path. None of us are fixed quantities. We are each a process of constant becoming. To cherish our own positive potential, and that of everyone we meet, is the seed that yields the fruit that nourishes most deeply.

The dangerously simplistic notion of good people and bad people, that seems to be at the foundation of much of our current political strife. Can we reform society effectively by putting all the bad people in prison? Can we reform the police effectively by firing all the bad police? Certainly we need to find ways to suppress bad behavior of all sorts. A good starting point would be to work to understand what sorts of situations promote bad behavior and to keep people out of those situations. Putting violent criminals in prison and firing abusive police officers, these are reasonable and necessary actions. But those are only superficial remedies.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What is Essential

Saving lives or saving the economy? That is a truly bizarre dichotomy! More lives could be lost from the collapse of the economy than from the pandemic: that is a perspective that at least focuses on what matters. Merely staying alive, that is a very low bar indeed, but it is certainly a good place to start.

The natural instinct in a crisis like this is to work to reestablish the routine by which we had been living adequately enough. Of course, to ignore a pandemic is not going to make it go away. Wishing doesn't make it so. There is no way to escape this unscarred, but facing the situation and realistically engaging with it, that is the approach that will minimize the damage. We do have to balance lives lost due to supply chain disruptions etc. against lives lost directly from the pandemic. People need food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. There is enough to go around. A modicum of ingenuity can keep people supplied.

The shock of this pandemic reveals in a variety of ways that our routines have not served our needs so very adequately. This virus is the kind of thing that comes around every decade or so. A healthy economy, a healthy society, is one that can handle such challenges effectively and efficiently. So far, the United States appears to be stumbling.

In the short run, we need extraordinary measures to make sure that people are fed and housed. Insuring adequate medical care seems, sadly, out of reach in this crisis. In the longer run, we need to restructure our routines so that the next pandemic doesn't knock us off our feet. Our way of life has been driving us against many ecological limits. Plague, drought, flood, famine: we can expect ever more frequent crises as long as we mistake recovering our routines as essential.