Friday, November 28, 2014


I have come across a couple of decolonization proposals recently. Some aspects of the thinking around this strike me as teetering on the edge of confusion and therefore worth exploring.

Colonization and decolonization are all about us and them, right down at the foundation of dualism. At a relative conventional level, of course, it is common and even sometimes practical to divide people into groups or categories of one sort or another. Genders, races, nationalities, generations, classes, and professions: these are some of the most basic divisions.

Any sort of category system, any way of labeling phenomena, will have some more or less limited validity. One major challenge is how to deal with borderline cases. When we are attached to our concepts, we tend to deny phenomena that don’t fit them. One sort of denial is just to turn away, not to acknowledge their existence. Another sort of denial is an active intervention, to force phenomena to fit or to eradicate those that refuse.

Gender is of course a prime instance where reality often enough doesn’t fit the simple dominant conceptual framework and where every form of denial gets put into use. To deny the possibility of some way of being is clearly a form of oppression against those who actually embody that way, but it seems like a different pattern of oppression than colonization.

Another form of oppression that doesn’t seem to fit the term colonization is genocide, where the existence of some group of people is acknowledged, but no sort of living relationship is accommodated.

Colonization is the imposition of a particular sort of exploitative relationship, highly inequitable. The existence of the subordinate group is acknowledged to have value but that value is not inherent but merely a use value: its actual or potential use in benefitting the superior group one way or another.

Colonization is a complex process. For example, members of the colonized group often participate in maintaining the colonization in various ways. The colonizers can divide the colonized into classes, the most privileged of which might well then consider their relatively elevated position worth maintaining. But the colonizers can also impose such widespread social restructuring that even the most oppressed of the colonized can start to conceptualize themselves in the terms defined by the colonizers.

A difficult point, though, is that part of the process of colonization is the maintenance of the boundary between the colonizers and the colonized. As with any boundary, reality will always intervene to mix things up one way and another. It requires constant police work to repair the holes in the fence again and again.

What makes this point difficult is that one of the typical oppressive strategies of the colonizers is to deny the legitimacy of the existence of the colonized group. The way of being of the colonizers becomes the norm, while the colonized must make do with being abnormal, despite often being numerically superior. To examine the mere conventionality of the distinction between colonizer and colonized is not so different than denying the legitimacy of the existence of the colonized group. But the difference might be a key that opens a door to let in light and fresh air.

Within the United States we have a complex system of categories by which we group ourselves. The system doesn’t seem to be stable. Certainly the divisions of race and gender seem to remain well entrenched. Maybe the career of Steve Jobs will work to exemplify some of the instability. Jobs was a college drop out. Apple computers were the cool alternative to the corporate squareness of IBM and Microsoft. But of course by now Apple is as corporate as any other corporation. Bill Clinton supported the NAFTA bill. Are trade barriers progressive or regressive? Maybe that touches the nerve. Between the future and the past, which is the colonizer and which the colonized?

For Voltaire, the answer was obvious. The past was in power. The past was crushing the future. Enlightenment was a matter of empowering the future and dissolving the power of the past.

But for us today, progress smells somewhat rancid. The problems surely go back to the beginnings of the industrial revolution, for example the harsh conditions the workers were subjected to. The World Wars brought us the military-industrial complex. Now… just today I was seeing headlines about overly cozy relations between Google and the NSA. Perhaps climate change, though, is the deepest challenge to the direction in which we have been headed, where our towering prosperity appear very likely to topple and crush us.

If the future has come to colonize us, must we then free ourselves by rejecting its conceptual structures, of globalization, quantification, and mobility, and take up instead the alternative structure offered by the past, of localization, nationalism, ethnicity, and tradition?

It might well be worthwhile, though, to examine how the structure of this dichotomy is itself oppressive. It reminds me of high school. I was in the second class to graduate from Homestead Junior Senior High School, outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Our principal had constructed for us some traditions that we were to conform to: Senior Hall was one, if I recall correctly. The future constructs the past as a sort of boogey man with which to frighten us into submission. At the same time, the future is a marketing tactic of the past, enticing us to join forces with program.

The wisdom that frees us from the delusion of dualistic clinging is not nihilistic rejection, but deep insight into the relationships between the poles of the duality, relationships through which the poles create each other. Are the colonizers and the colonized the same or are they different? That question is trapped at the surface. The colonizers and the colonized are always growing out of each other organically. Insight grows out of intimacy: wisdom grows out of meditation. Intimacy requires respect but also close contact.

Humans have always lived locally and globally at the same time. It’s that interplay that creates life and meaning. If we run to the illusory security of the easy answer, the secure conformity to a stable conceptual framework, we will have bought into our own oppression.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


Everyone needs a bit of adventure in life. Some folks surely get handed more adventure than they really need. But many of us manage to live lives of reasonably secure routine. Somehow connecting to the vast world that is beyond one's control, that is a very valuable way to stimulate awareness and curiosity.

Adventure needn't involve travel. One can try cooking new styles of foods, or learning a new craft or a new language, etc. And of course much travel is very routine, lacking in any dimension of adventure. But adventure travel is surely a classic and effective way to shake oneself out of the daily routine.

Adventure travel needn't involve huge distances or great risk. Alastair Humphreys has proposed microadventures as an approach to adventure that can be challenging without being extreme.

Adventure is really about discovery. Discovery always involves some degree of challenge, as it represents a confrontation with the unknown. Probably every adventure involves learning about oneself as well as learning about the world, though the proportion surely varies with the specific type of adventure.

A goal is an important, even essential, aspect of an adventure. It is a goad that drives one out of one's comfort zone. Finding or creating a goal that is effective, stimulating and motivating without being overwhelming and discouraging: that is certainly a central puzzle of adventuring.

Sometimes a goal just falls into your lap. My friend David handed me a map from the Rondout Valley Growers Association. The map identifies some twenty-odd local farmers and other small businesses. Each business has a supply of its own stickers. By visiting the business, one can receive one of their stickers which one can affix at that business's spot on the map. I love exploring the local area on my bicycle. What could be more natural: ride my bike to collect those stickers!

I have been at the project for several months. Sometimes I will figure out a route that lets me collect several stickers. Other times a few weeks will go by when I barely get out on my bike, never mind the stickers. Some businesses can't find their stickers... sometimes the person on duty doesn't even know about the map and sticker program. I have been bringing along a pen: if I make it to the business on my bike and the stickers are not at hand, I just ask the person there to mark my map somehow with the pen. Good enough for me!

Today I collected three stickers, which leaves me with only two more to go. I rode to the Catskill Native Nursery,

to Kelder's Farm,

and to Flying Change Farm.

With fifty miles of riding, those brief visits were only part of the adventure! Lots of beautiful scenery: Lower Sahler Mill Road,

and Airport Road.

Here's today's route:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Engaged Analysis

A thinking person will wonder about the nature of things. Which features of experience are real and which are merely ideas that color our perception? This distinction between a realm of reality and a realm of ideas may not be very useful though, despite its prevalence. Perhaps it is not as prevalent as it seems, but it certainly has become fundamental in the modern world, supported for example in the writings of Descartes. But how else can we think about things?

Let us think of the world as being composed of a network of situations or encounters. Each situation has some kind of polar or vector character. One can separate the two faces of a coin, but the result is simply two thinner coins, each of which again has two faces. A magnet is also like this. One can cut a magnet in two, separating its north pole from its south pole. But the result is simply two smaller magnets, each of which has a north pole and a south pole. With an encounter, the polar structure consists of subject and object, distinguishable but inseparable.

These elementary encounters are inter-related in a variety of ways. The twelve nidanas of Buddhist Abhidharma are one way to map out their flow. Perhaps my own thinking here is just a part of my own struggle to understand this map! Another map which is much more familiar to a modern industrial citizen, like me, comes out of organizational management theory. There is a cycle of activity which involves:

  1. recognizing a problem,
  2. envisioning future situations where that problem has been resolved,
  3. selecting one such future situation as a goal,
  4. considering possible paths to reach that goal,
  5. deciding to commit to a particular path,
  6. acting to move along that path,
  7. assessing the results of that action,
which leads to recognition of a new problem and another iteration of the cycle.

Another way that encounters are related is through composition or hierarchy. For example, assessing the results of an action can itself be a complex project consisting of many more detailed cycles of planning, action, etc. These sub-projects will surely have lateral relationships among each other as well.

The stable objects that we perceive would consist, from this perspective, as repeating patterns of encounters. My sketch of nested projects is surely no more than a tool to help jog one’s perception of the world from static objects to networked flows. The particular connections and flows involved in a particular situation might better be seen through a different lens.

For example, I might say a particular word at a particular point in a conversation. That particular utterance can be seen as a member in a variety of different families.

  • That same word has been used by various people at other times and places.
  • That word is one of the words I uttered during that conversation.
  • Uttering that word was one of my actions taken in pursuit of communicating an idea.
  • The uttering and the communicating were part of my effort to change someone else’s thinking about some topic.
  • This debate was just one of many where people who adhere to one particular school of opinion try to convince those of some other school. Perhaps this was a discussion about the advantages of internally geared bicycle hubs versus derailleur gearing. An outside observer might well note that I was just parroting the views commonly expressed on internet forums dealing with bicycles.
  • These debates might well reflect the tensions and conflicts between competing bicycle parts manufacturers or divisions within large manufacturers, together with their associated retailers, media representatives, etc.
  • At the same time, this word could reflect some habitual psychological drive where, for example, I tend to push terms and concepts to ever more abstract levels, both as a way to assert dominance but also as a way to isolate and insulate myself from the dangers of engaging with the uncompromising details.
  • And still the word could resonate with books I have been reading recently and the current trends in publishing and how editors use vocabulary to position their products within market categories of readers.
Any given encounter will be connected in countless such ways with every aspect or dimension of the world. In examining a particular situation it may be useful to sketch out a first few layers of these relationships, but the prioritization and limits to this elaboration need to be a function of the projects with which the examining person is involved. The question that can be answered is not so much, “What is this thing,” but rather, “How am I involved with this thing?”

Monday, October 13, 2014

Natural versus Artificial

I recently discovered and started to read the book How Mathematicians Think, by William Byers. I am thoroughly enjoying it and am amazed and delighted to see so well expressed and deeply explored a perspective very similar to what I have been cultivating. One core idea from the book is that the great fertile ideas are paradoxical. These paradoxes do get resolved, but never completely. They get resolved again and again, which is the dynamic nature of their fertility.

One of these great paradoxical ideas is the distinction between the natural and the artificial. An instance of this paradox is the puzzle of the role of practice in Buddhism. After all, the essential nature of our mind is already the same as that of the Buddha. If we could just let our natural mind express itself without the interference of artificial concepts, we would be enlightened! On the other hand, all that conceptual confusion is deeply habitual. Letting go of a habit most often takes dedicated persistent effort.

Even in the midst of a session of meditation, one confronts the paradox. The foundation of meditation is shamatha, a calm mind. To some degree shamatha is cultivated by relaxing, by letting go. On the other hand, one needs to maintain awareness, mindfulness, and the diligent persistence to continue to let go, i.e. to catch and correct the habit of grasping. Is meditation natural or artificial? Meditation becomes deeper through the interplay of these paradoxical poles, rather than through the resolution of the paradox with some formulaic answer.

In the arts one confronts this tangle. There is the fresh inspiration of one’s engagement with the world, with one’s muse, with one’s deeper self. But somehow this inspiration needs to be refined through practice, the cultivation of one’s craft.

In economics, the notion of a market is caught up in this paradox. The idea of a free market is an attempt to resolve the paradox through the pole of naturalness. But of course any market is structured by implicit or explicit rules. The rules themselves, in turn, may appear at times natural, at other times artificial. The paradox unfolds at level after level.

Should we be frightened by the Ebola epidemic? On the one hand, our society is naturally structured in a way that should be able to respond effectively to such an epidemic. On the other hand, perhaps an essential component of that natural structure is actually our fear which triggers our determination to pay close attention and take whatever action is necessary to respond effectively.

Should confidence in our ability to respond to a situation conflict with our determination to act in response to that situation? I remember being worried about finding a decent job, back when I was leaving school. Some of my friends told me that I shouldn’t be concerned because my skills and character would be sufficient to connect me with work. Ah, but concern and worry are part of my character! I get things done because I worry about the consequences of not getting them done. Whether I get things done naturally or artificially, I propose that it is a matter of perspective.

Not understanding that the basic nature of things is paradoxical, we can become paralyzed by the puzzle of whether our actions are natural or artificial, or we can become trapped in unreflective patterns. If we can learn to dance with the poles of the paradox, we can deepen the level of our actions to make a profound difference in our own lives and in our communities.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Retrenchment under Limits

The graphs in my previous post looked a bit off: the long-term balance could grow without limit. Once the long-term balance grows large enough that the interest earned at each step exceeds the penalty for transfers to the short-term balance, then collapse becomes impossible.

The long-term balance corresponds roughly to altitude in the flight power curve model, while the short-term balance corresponds roughly to speed. One good flight strategy is to stay at a high enough altitude that recovery is possible from a stall. More altitude makes it possible to recover even from a series of stalls. But ultimately altitude is limited by the reduced air pressure. In a real economic situation there is a similar problem. The more one invests, the more one is pushed out on the risk-return frontier. The easy pickings are exhausted.

To model such limits, I tweaked the structure of my simple model. When the long-term balance is low, it earns a reliable 5 percent. But as the balance grows, there is an increasing probability of a smaller return, to the point where it becomes possible to lose up to 15 percent of the balance in a single step. So the average return gradually declines, as the long-term balance increases, from 5 percent to -5 percent.

Here are four different runs, all with the same threshold. Most likely there are smarter strategies that can outperform this simple threshold strategy. But this new model does seem to be more realistic.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


Jane Austen’s Persuasion begins with retrenchment. Our heroine’s family needs to cut expenses to avoid bankruptcy. But how drastic a cut is really required? How drastic a cut can really be tolerated? Do we need to reduce fossil fuel consumption in order to avoid a climate catastrophe? These are instances of a fascinating class of problems. The power curve in airplane flight is another nice instance. I first learned about this from Ran Prieur’s blog.

I find simple mathematical models helpful in understanding these sorts of puzzles. Here is a first attempt to capture the core structure.

In this retrenchment model, the state of affairs is a pair of numbers that I call a long-term balance and a short-term balance. The long–term balance earns steady interest while the short-term balance earns no interest. Money can be moved back and forth between the accounts. Moving money from the short-term balance to the long-term balance is free, but a penalty is incurred when moving money from the long-term balance to the short-term balance.

The evolution of the system consists of a series of alternating moves. First the world makes a move: interest is earned on the long-term balance, but also a random transfer occurs on the short-term balance. This random transfer might be positive or negative. Then the account holder makes a move: funds can be moved between the balances. After this, both balances must be positive or the sequence ends.

The core problem is to devise a strategy to keep the sequence going. Keeping funds in the long-term balance is good because interest is earned there. But funds must also be kept in the short-term balance in order to cover random negative transfers. The penalty incurred in moving funds from long-term to short-term make it prohibitively expensive to move as frequently as a small short-term balance would require.

The effectiveness of any such strategy depends on the details of the random transfers, for example whether the transfer at one time is correlated with the transfers in the recent past. In a realistic scenario the nature of this random sequence will not be known. The best a strategy can do is to look at the past and infer that the future won’t look too much different.

I coded a simple little simulation. Here the transfers are drawn from a Gaussian distribution and are not correlated across time. The strategy was very simple: when the transfer pulls the short-term balance below zero, move enough funds from the long-term balance to bring the short-term balance up to a fixed threshold. When the short-term balance rises above this threshold, move the excess funds to the long-term balance. As long as the short-term balance is between zero and the threshold, no funds are moved to or from the long-term balance.

Here is one sequence that emerges from this interplay:

Here are two runs where the sequence of transfers is exactly the same, but the threshold differs by less than 1%. The slightly higher threshold maintains a slightly higher short-term balance, thereby incurring fewer penalties for the movement of funds from the long-term balance.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Needs and Wants

We all, humans and other living things, go to considerable effort to acquire food and whatever else we need or want to be able to live and to live well, or at least better. Our complex biological and social structures seem primarily to have taken form, by whatever means, in order to enable us more effectively to fulfill those needs and wants. We have hands in order to grasp.

The natural distinctions seems to be that needs are fundamental requirements and not legitimately subject to question, while wants are optional, negotiable. Perhaps we could extend this ranking by putting luxuries at another step past wants.

This notion, of need and want as differing in degree, misses important logical structure: a want is an end; a need is a means. Curiously, this makes wants more fundamental than needs. A need is a means to fulfill a want. I want to stay alive, therefore I need food. Some wants seem essential; what we need to fulfill those essential wants become the unquestionable needs. Inessential wants then become the conventionally questionable wants or luxuries, and whatever is needed to fulfill those wants, those needs are barely worth discussing.

These core wants and their ancillary nonnegotiable needs, though, are not fixed truths. Indeed, they arise interdependently with the biological and social structures that fulfill them. In a stable world, these structures do seem like fixed truths. But no world is stable across all time and space. The structures that define and fulfill wants and needs vary from place to place and from time to time. Understanding this variation can help one respond to such changes. One can imagine even managing such processes of change, pioneering new social or biological structures to facilitate new patterns of wanting and needing. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha’s creation of the Buddhist monastic order can be understood from this perspective.

For most of us most of the time, though, there is sufficient challenge just in responding effectively to the structural changes that we encounter. A general sort of wisdom involves recognizing that things that appear fixed are instead impermanent, arising and dissolving in dependence on a variety of connected factors. For example, consider how essential it has become to have internet access, when the internet hardly existed thirty years ago. As pay phones have disappeared, cell phones too have become essential.

I am not merely a biological being, I am a social being. I identify with my role in society. The things I need in order to maintain my social role thereby become essential needs. Occasionally one hears in the news about some enormously wealthy person whose needs have somehow become subject to public judgment, usually in some case of family law. It boggles the mind how a court can determine that a person actually needs $10,000 a month or whatever absurd figure. But to understand that a person’s identity is wrapped up in their social role, that understanding starts to make clearer how such needs could be considered legitimate.

Here is definitely a place where each of us has remarkable power to steer change. I can change my social role; I can become a different person. Of course this is never easy. On the other hand, sooner or later each of us will face such a change at the profoundest level as we undergo the process of dying. Given that we can’t hold on forever anyway, maybe a bit of letting go along the way shouldn’t be so unacceptable!

Society provides the stage upon which each of us plays our individual role, but the fabric of society is spun and woven from that very role playing. Of course these structures are all entangled in a boundless web that encompasses the diverse human cultures around the world together with biological, geological, and even astrophysical processes. If we can understand how our most essential wants and needs are in fact evolving parts of this vibrant network, perhaps we will be able to dance more freely with the changes we experience.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Writing on a Turing Tape

In an earlier post here, Computing with Graphs, I proposed a class of graphs and a few simple rewrite rules that could provide a way to store computational data. These graphs could provide a more realistic memory model than either Turing tapes or random access memories. In that post I sketched a proof that the rewrite rules were complete, i.e. they provide a path from any graph in the proposed class to any other graph in the class.

Now I would like to provide the basis for a proof of Turing completeness. If a Turing machine simulator can be built using this class of graphs, then the memory model is at at least minimally adequate as a computational storage medium. I will just outline one way to use the graphs to represent simple Turing tapes.

The tape itself is a sequence of graph nodes connected by directed arrows. The tape is always finite in length but can grow indefinitely in either direction, so it can simulate an infinite tape. Each node connects via an undirected edge to the data for that node. The data contained on a cell of a Turing tape is a symbol drawn from some finite set. Using the graphs, each symbol is represented by a subgraph of some unique shape, restricted only in having a single outgoing undirected edge by which is is connected to the cell's tape node. One special subgraph represents the end of the tape. Whenever the head bumps up against that special marker, the tape can be extended by adding another blank symbol.

So here is a graph representing a Turing tape with three cells. The fourth tape node is the one that contains the tape end marker:

I will show the steps involved in extended the tape with a new blank symbol. First, an expansion rewrite operation is performed on the undirected edge that connects the tape end symbol to its tape node:

I have added some location marks to facilitate the identification of edges. Next, the outgoing edges of the undirected edge A2-B2 are swapped:

Then an undirected edge swap is performed on the directed edge A2-B1:

An outgoing edge swap on undirected edge B1-B2:

An undirected edge swap on directed edge B2-A1:

At this point it seems that a new operation is required, where the incoming directed edges of an undirected edge are swapped. The proof sketch of my earlier post would seem to imply that this operation is unnecessary. In any case it seems very natural and convenient at this point.

So, then, an incoming edge swap on undirected edge A1-B1:

An expansion on undirected edge A2:B2:

An outgoing edge swap on undirected edge A2-B2:

An undirected edge swap on directed edge E2-B2:

An outgoing edge swap on undirected edge A2-E2:

An outgoing edge swap on undirected edge B2-D2:

An undirected edge swap on directed edge A2-B2:

An outgoing edge swap on undirected edge A2-D2:

An undirected edge swap on directed edge D2-B2:

An outgoing edge swap on undirected edge A2-B2:

One approach to a representing a finite set of symbols of arbitrary size is just to create strings of loops of arbitrary height. The steps above first created an extra end-of-tape symbol and then expanded it to a blank symbol. The steps that expanded the end-of-tape to the blank could be repeated on the blank to create the first non-blank symbol, and from there repeated as many times as necessary to create whatever symbol is required out of the finite set of symbols. These operations can be performed in reverse, so the replacement of one symbol by another is straightforward.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Religion of Ignorance

I have never heard Ray Kurzweil speak nor read any of his books, but he is certainly a major figure in the world of technology, the world in which I live and work. So he is a very familiar character. In his brilliant passion he reminds me of Edward Teller, whom I did get to hear talk a couple of times. Do I remember right, that Edward Teller was the model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? Anyway that shoe would have fit well enough.

I have to admit that I find this sort of brilliant passion more on the pathological side of normal than on the wise side. But these crazy visions somehow have become enormously powerful. Who knows, maybe the hydrogen bomb really did make the world more peaceful. Who knows, maybe computers will become more intelligent than we are, maybe computers will become conscious, maybe we will become able to transfer our consciousness into a computer.

What is quite interesting about these speculations is that their terms are quite slippery. Terms, of course, are always slippery: how many whiskers does it take to make a beard, etc. Sometimes the slipperiness doesn’t make a significant difference – but sometimes it does!

What would it mean for a computer to become conscious, to have a mind? What is mind? Need such a question have an answer? How can a meaningful question fail to have an answer? Or, what constitutes an answer, what function does an answer serve?

Alongside the question, what is mind, consider another question, what is the American Dream? An answer to this question is a political platform, a position that claims power. There is a kind of terrifyingly stupid brutality in refusal to grant others the space to hold different dreams. And, whether we call it consciousness or mind or soul, to carve out an answer and enforce adherence to one answer, that idolatry is the totalitarian killing of the soul. Soul is the ever deepening exploration and appreciation of the boundlessness of experience, of life. But, sadly, the totalitarian killing of the soul is what we must confront every day.

Computer technology certainly gets more powerful and more sophisticated at a stunning pace. What are the implications of that progress? To say that technology is one thing and what people do with it is another, that doesn’t quite make sense. Technology is something that people do. In our massively scaled society, the connections between the different facets of a technology become hidden and disguised and so appear separate. Gun manufacturers don’t kill; gun company stockholders don’t kill; gun sales people don’t kill; gun advocates don’t kill: it is gun users who kill.

Limitation of liability is fundamental to the corporate institution, so it’s not quite right to discount conspiracy theory in this pattern. There is certainly value in trying to understand how we got here. But the value is primarily in helping us understand whither we are headed, and more importantly, what opportunities are available for steering toward the happier among whatever paths are open before us.

This notion of transferring our mind into a computer: what does that idea do? Why might that idea be attractive? Of course we are each mortal, and so any sort of survival of mind beyond the body, that is attractive. Clearly we are toying with religion here, with worship of the computer. A computer is a kind of stunning crack in reality, an actual presence of perfection in our otherwise imperfect world. Religion is not altogether a bad thing: the devil is in the details! How might the religion of the computer work out?

Computers are the ultimate in clarity, the opposite of mystery. Computers are mechanical models of dualistic grasping. A final answer is the end of investigation, of looking, of awareness. To worship computers is to worship ignorance. The 1980s brought us the freedom to think that greed is good. The worship of ignorance is not likely to move us in a better direction.

How might this play out in practice? The worship of greed imploded in the marketplace. The worship of ignorance, unawareness, death, this worship seems likely to implode on the battlefield.

Computer technology already plays a huge role on the battlefield. The fighting gets more and more abstract, at least to those who specify the targets. The battlefield itself becomes abstract. The internet becomes a field of potential targets, friends and foes. I saw a video recently… one video gamer called in a SWAT raid on another video gamer. The SWAT team, with all their guns and armor, were the robots in this farce. A name and address popped out of a computer, and they performed their function as they had been trained, in total ignorance of the broader situation.

We already live in a world that is deeply structured by algorithms… for another example, look at the sort of statistical politics practiced by Karl Rove. Our government is run by statistical analysis of polling data! Our legislators have become robots!

The notion that computers might take over the world, that is quite absurd. Each individual sentient being is in inseparable possession of unbounded power. But that power can be buried and denied in countless ways. The worship of ignorance through the glorification of mechanical dualism, that is one way we can hide from our own power. How deeply can we entangle ourselves in this confusion? That is the nature of our unbounded power: it enables unbounded confusion.

Don’t worry about computers! If we can each acknowledge our own power and responsibility, and cultivate the awareness, curiosity, and wisdom, to turn over the rocks of easy answers to discover the vibrant puzzling life hidden beneath… we might even become capable of making good use of that amazing microelectronic technology!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Portfolio Management

All too often life is a struggle just to get through the day, to dodge bullets or find food or gather fuel for the warmth to survive. But then, too, it can happen often that we find some options and opportunities for acting with an eye toward the future. What can we do now to make a brighter future?

For an action in the present to bear fruit in the future requires some sort of persistent change in the situation to carry that connection. The resources that we bring to a situation can be viewed as a portfolio. Our actions add and remove assets and liabilities from our portfolio, changing the position from which we will encounter future situations. How can we improve our future position?

Exchangeable Goods

The marketplace is home to many situations that help to brighten our day, providing food or clothing, etc. A marketplace is a place of exchange. Money provides a common medium for exchange; exchange can take place both to and from money. We might bring in a pile of books which we exchange for money at the book dealer, then take our money to the fruit seller to return home with a bag full of peaches. For happy outcomes in a marketplace situation, we need to bring something with exchange value. So, one core component of a portfolio will be a store of exchangeable goods.

Of course, exchangeable goods come in a very wide variety. Financial institutions continue to extend this variety at a bewildering pace. The exchange value of a good depends on market conditions which are always changing. Many financial instruments generate interest or dividends alongside their resale value.

The great virtue of exchangeable goods is their flexibility. It’s hard to know exactly what I might need in the future, but whatever exchangeable goods I might have, as long as they have sufficient total value, can readily be exchanged in the future for whatever it turns out I come to need. That very flexibility has a disadvantage too, as the exchange value of goods fluctuates unpredictably.

An exchangeable good has substance beyond its mere exchange value. Gold coins leave scarred earth and poisoned water in their wake. A deposit account at a bank is not merely a number in a file: the deposit account enables the bank to lend money, facilitating further economic activity whose ripples will radiate along untraceable paths. Stock purchases support the activity of corporations.

Accounting can be a useful tool but, like any tool, it has real limits. . There is a sense in which each of us must tend our own garden, but ultimately the actual situation we face is not limited by the boundaries of my garden versus your garden. Accounting can help broaden our view of a situation by keeping track of the many details. The challenge is to avoid getting lost in the details and thereby narrowing our view of the situation and becoming blind to crucial elements and connections.

Useful Goods

There are many goods that we can store for the future, not to take to exchange at the marketplace, but instead to use ourselves somehow. We can store food to eat in the future. We can store clothing to wear in the future. We can store fuel to burn in the future to stay warm. We can store tools to use in the future, for chopping wood or sewing clothes or growing food.

Useful goods have a stability of value that exchange value cannot provide. The nutritional content of a can of beans is not subject to monetary inflation. On the other hand, the can might rust and lose its integrity so the beans spoil. That’s a large part of what makes gold so useful as money: it doesn’t corrode.


Skills can be divided into two types: those whose value is principally in exchange, and those that are directly useful. If I know how to grow my own food, that is a skill that I can use directly to create happier experiences in the future. Knowing how to operate some large piece of industrial equipment is a skill that I might be able to use in exchange for money with which I can then buy food etc.

Skills can provide a sort of security that no store of goods can match. A farmer or engineer or artist might become a refugee and forced to leave behind all their gold coins and all their cans of beans. But their skills can be very valuable in their new location and enable them again to survive and thrive. The value of those skills does depend on the situation though. An expert coffee farmer’s knowledge won’t go so far in Canada, for example.


Physical health gives a person the capability of responding to situations effectively. A healthy person can apply the skills they have, can adapt them, and can learn new skills. A healthy person needs fewer resources to engage with situations comfortably and happily. This creates a self-amplifying feedback loop: a healthier person becomes more able to produce a surplus that can be dedicated to further good health; a less healthy person cannot so easily produce a surplus and may even find themselves trapped in a deficit situation when can then have a further negative impact on their health.


Friends and family, people who will help you when you can’t help yourself, are valuable beyond any price. It is our place in our community that gives our lives meaning. Community is the vehicle for giving as much as for receiving. Community is the stage on which our lives unfold. Community is the context in which our identity is situated.

In our modern world there is an institutional dimension to identity and community. For example, our credit record is an aspect of our identity. One can move to a new town on the other side of the country and use bank references etc. as a starting point.

An older sort of community connection is based on religion or ethnicity. A style of dress, knowledge of particular songs or myths, everyday ritual habits such as a prayer before meals, these can provide entry into community.


The world is a notoriously unreliable place. Whatever beautiful castles one manages to construct, at some point they are sure to tumble down. And yet, somehow, underlying the turbulent waves of experience, there is some kind of truth, some essence, something really beyond our capacity to grasp or beyond any possible grasping. If we can let go of the constant chase after the ephemeral and deepen our experience to live in a way more consonant with that underlying ungraspable reality, there can be an unshakable undertone of happiness that can continue despite the inevitable unending stream of alternating successes and failures. This consonance can grow with cultivation and become the most profound wealth.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Better Widget

Suppose we have a widget factory. We want a really good widget factory. We want to make better widgets. How can we make better widgets? What does it even mean for a widget to be a better widget?

One standard answer to this question is that a better widget is a widget that conforms more closely to the specification for widgets. The specification defines an ideal widget. If we can make our actual widget to be a very close reflection of that ideal, then we have a better widget.

The usual first step in this improvement process is to quantify the various facets of widget specification so we can measure how close the actual widget is to the ideal. If we adjust the operation of our widget factory, we can then compare the new widgets with the old widgets. If the new widgets give measurements that show less deviation from the ideal, then we have produced better widgets. And of course there are statistics involved. The actual widgets we produce are not all quite the same: some are very close to ideal, some are further off. The whole process of improvement can get quite complex, but it can be driven by statistical measurement and managed quite effectively.

Another sort of better widget is a redesigned widget. We can change the specification. What does it mean for one specification to be better than another?

One way to think about this is to notice that widgets serve some purpose, have some use. Very commonly, widget A is used in the process of manufacturing widget B. Our process for manufacturing widget B is a better process if the resulting actual widget B conforms more closely to its specification. So a better widget A is one that produces a better widget B.

In judging the specification for widget A, we would like to know how well an perfect widget A would function. Some actual widget A might produce a poor quality widget B, but just because widget A itself is of poor quality, i.e. does not conform well to its own specification. The fault is not in the specification.

So we have two notions of quality or of improvement: design and manufacturing. An improved manufacturing process will produce actual widgets that conform more closely to their specification. An improved design will specify widgets that can improve the manufacturing processes in which they are used.

This framework brings up many further questions. The network of widgets, where widget A is used to make widget B, is quite vast. Are there widgets that are actually useless, whose value cannot be measured by their effectiveness in some application? What happens when there are loops in the network, so that the notions of better and worse become (indirectly) self-referential and therefore potentially unstable, ambiguous, etc.?

Another problem occurs because a widget might have multiple uses. A new specification might be better for one use but worse for some other use. Perhaps we really need two different types of widget… but then we lose the savings from economies of scale.

At the limit, in a custom construction situation, the processes of design and manufacturing processes are not clearly distinguished. Widget B is designed and manufactured for just a single use. We may be able to measure the quality of widget B through its effectiveness in its application. But we cannot clearly distinguish the quality of the specification of widget B from the quality of the manufacturing process that produced widget B. So, for example, if we used widget A to produce widget B, measuring the quality of widget A becomes problematic.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Computing with Graphs

There are a variety of different models of computation. Already in the 1930s there were several models, for example those of Alonzo Church and Alan Turing. The Church-Turing hypothesis proposes that these models don’t differ in the class of computational problem they can solve, at least if the model is rich enough. The set of problems that a Turing machine can solve is the maximal set that any computing device can tackle. The point of alternate models is not to expand that set of computable problems.

It can still be useful to work with other models. A key aspect of any computational model is the way it holds data. A Turing machine uses a tape, a one dimensional array of symbols that can grow in either direction without bound. This ability to store an unbounded amount of data is essential for any computational model to be equivalent to a Turing machine. How to access large amounts of data is a practical challenge for real computers as well as an interesting theoretical issue. A Turing tape gets the job done in very simple way but not in a very practical way. The Random Access Memory that is ubiquitous in modern computers is very practical, but theoretically not very elegant. This inelegance manifests at the practical level in the difficulty of picking the right size for memory address words. Large address words make it easy to access large amounts of data, but are expensive to use. Small address words are efficient but don’t provide the address space needed for complex computations.

My proposal here is to use graphs, of a particular class, to represent the state of a computation. Just like a Turing machine writes new symbols over old symbols on its tape in order to record the result of a computational step, the graph machine will modify a small part of the graph at each computational step.

We have around 70 years of practical experience with computing machines at this point, almost all with Random Access Memory for storing data. How to represent information in a practical way with this graph model, that is a problem that will take years to refine. The starting point is just to explore what works. Bit by bit we can discover the methods that work best.

Could such a radically different computation model ever develop enough through practical experience that it could make any dent in the ubiquity of the Random Access Memory model? My proposal here is for two uses of this graph model. First, it is an interesting model to explore theoretically. The main value I see here is the potential for a more accurate model of memory access times.

Second, it could provide a powerful processor architecture. New compilers for existing high level languages could insulate users from the change in architecture. Processors with this new architecture could certainly be built with existing Random Access Memory components. The greatest impact would be at the level of cache design and virtual memory mapping. This graph architecture is a bit like a hyper-virtual memory. Addresses are never exposed at the processor architecture level! This gives memory mapping huge flexibility. Since the topology of the data is exposed at the architectural level, caching strategies can be vastly more powerful.

This graph architecture is a radical departure from the conventional Random Access Memory, but it could actually be quite practical!

Let us now dive into the details!

The state of computation will be kept as a connected graph, a set of nodes connected by two types of edges: directed and undirected. Each node appears exactly three times in the edges: once as the source of a directed edge, once as the destination of a directed edge, and once at one end of an undirected edge. The entire graph will always be connected, i.e. given any two nodes there will be some way to walk along the edges to get from one node to the other.

Here is an example of a graph that could represent the state of a computation:

This is just like a string of symbols on a Turing tape. To understand what that string of symbols means, or what a graph like this might mean, that requires detailed understanding of the particular computation that is in process. Right now we are just looking at the ways that a computation could read and write snippets of information.

A graph machine would have a set of registers. Probably two registers is the theoretical minimum but a practical number might be the usual 16 or so that are common in today’s processing units. Each register points to some node or other of the graph. Processor instructions would provide operations like:

  • Move register n forward
  • Move register n backward
  • Hop register n across
  • Check whether registers n and m point to the same node
  • Make register n point to whatever node register m is pointing to
By running registers along the edges in various ways and then checking whether they got to the same place, it is easy to determine the shape of any region of the graph.

The general way that computation proceeds is that, depending on whatever aspects of the shape of the graph are important to the computation at hand, one or another graph rewrite operation can be performed.

The first operation is to swap the directed edges between two nodes that are connected by an undirected edge:

This operation can be applied to the example graph above, to yield:

It can then be applied a second time:

The complete graph can be partitioned by the pattern of directed edges. The directed edges will form one or more cycles in the graph. When directed edges are swapped, these cycles can be split or joined. Note that the swap operation can move in either direction along the sequence of graphs in this example.

The second operation is to swap undirected edges between two nodes that are connected by a directed edge:

This can be applied as a next step in our sequence:

And again:

The third and fourth operations expand or contract the graph:

Expansion operations can be applied anywhere on any graph. But contraction operations can only be applied where the proper four node shape exists in a graph, which some graphs may not have at all.

In our example, the contraction operation can be applied:

Now we can alternate, an undirected swap:

a contraction:

an undirected swap:

a contraction:

one more undirected swap:

and one more contraction:

finally arriving at a minimal graph. Note that we could start with this minimal graph and reverse the operations to move in a sequence back to the graph we started with.

We followed a general strategy here to reduce the original graph to the minimal graph.

  1. Swap directed edges to join the directed cycles into one big cycle
  2. Gradually reduce the size of the graph, by repeatedly
    1. Swapping undirected edges to form a contractable four node subgraph
    2. Contracting that subgraph
This strategy thus sketches a proof that these four operations,
  • Swap directed edges
  • Swap undirected edges
  • Contract
  • Expand
provide the capability to move in a sequence from any one graph to any other graph. We can start from any arbitrary graph and reduce it to this minimal shape. We can reverse those operations to construct a sequence from the minimal shape to that arbitrary graph. So a sequence of operations exists to move from any graph to any other graph. Of course in a practical computation one would not commonly move through the minimal graph, which corresponds to a blank Turing tape.

From a theoretical perspective it is useful to explore the power of this pure graphical architecture. From a practical perspective, probably a hybrid architecture will prove more efficient. One could augment the model by adding to each node a word of data, e.g. 64 bits that could be interpreted as a floating point number etc. Floating point numbers could certainly be encoded as shapes of subgraphs, so this augmentation is not theoretically necessary. But this sort of graph-based computation could well prove itself valuable beyond the theoretical context.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Energy Needs

How easy is it to supply our typical energy needs? The electric power utilities do that routinely these days. Should we be surprised by that?

There are two pieces to this puzzle. The first: is our typical energy usage a good approximation to our actual needs? The energy we typically use is just what is needed to support our present lifestyle. Many societies, with lifestyles quite different than ours, have survived over many generations on much smaller rates of energy consumption. Do we need to maintain our present lifestyle?

The second puzzle piece: how much energy do we typically use? In the United States, a typical household consumes about 10 kilowatthours each day. Since there are 3600 seconds in an hour, that is 36,000 kilowattseconds, or 36 million joules. How much is that?

To get a feel for it, suppose we wanted to store that energy in a household pumped hydroelectric facility. Suppose we built a reservoir 10 meters high, on top of the roof of the house. How big would the reservoir need to be?

The energy in the reservoir is mgh, where m is the mass of the water, g is the acceleration of gravity, and h is the height of the reservoir. g is about 10 meter/sec^2 and we have h as 10 meter. So 100m = 36,000,000 or m = 360,000 kg. A liter of water weighs a kilogram, so that would be 360,000 liters of water, or about 90,000 gallons.

A typical backyard swimming pool contains about 15,000 gallons of water. I.e. our household hydroelectric reservoir needs to hold about six swimming pools of water in order to supply a day's worth of electricity.

Maybe better not to put that on top of the roof!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Against Class Warfare

John Oliver’s recent talk on wealth inequality got me thinking a bit more on the topic. What is the relationship between good government and class warfare? Is government properly an instrument of class warfare? Sometimes government gets corrupted that way, but its proper role is quite the opposite.

Some sort of formal government structure becomes necessary for any society larger than perhaps a hundred families. Very small societies can get away with informal structures. Everyone will know the details of every conflict. The character of everyone else is known and one can understand how to navigate the ambiguities of any transaction. But at a larger scale of society, one regularly interacts with people whom one does not know very well if at all. Some basic framework of assumptions is needed so one can negotiate a transaction without a thorough preliminary investigation being required. It is the job of government to regulate the interactions between individuals so the benefits of larger scale society can be enjoyed.

The fabric of society is woven with relationships of trust. With trust, individuals can interact while giving each other the space for individual decisions. Without trust, one is forced to the extremes of isolation or domination. Warfare is the symptom of the breakdown of trust. Warfare is the symptom of ineffective government. Whether or not global government could ever be a real or desirable possibility, it has never been an actuality, and so war between nations has always been with us. Warfare within nations, civil war or class war, is not so constant. Reasonably effective government is not impossible.

When dealing with people whom you don’t know, the difficulty that you have no basis to trust them as individuals can be resolved to the extent that you can trust that the government will work to maintain the interaction within the frameworks it has established. You have effective recourse if the other party fails to live up to their end of the bargain.

Trust in government can falter for many reasons. The government can simply be too weak or remote to be effective. But a government that fails to be impartial is also not trustworthy, at least for those who get the short end of the stick. If individuals in some group within society cannot rely on the government to resolve their disputes with others outside that group, then the conditions are ripe for some kind of civil war.

Is rich versus poor really a class distinction? Certainly we do regularly estimate each other’s wealth status and view them from that perspective. But I suspect that class divisions are not quite the same as wealth divisions, though of course they are highly correlated. The distinction that really matters for class warfare is that of political power. If there are groups that can steer the government so that the frameworks it establishes are biased in their own favor, that bias undermines the trustworthiness of government and creates the conditions for class warfare.

The fundamental problem of politics is that imbalances in power tend to amplify themselves. Good government may be possible, but it is not stable. It requires constant work to identify and correct bias. The best way to correct bias is to remove the mechanisms that create the bias. A much less satisfactory method is to introduce additional mechanisms with the opposite bias, in hopes of producing a total result that is unbiased.

Taxation is a nice example where these questions of bias are at play. To what extent is wealth inequality a result of bias in government? To what extent do the rich create governmental structures that reinforce their own wealth?

In the vision of the proper role of government that I am sketching here, the government’s role is not to create the world we want. It is our responsibility as members of society to create that world. The government’s proper role is indirect. It is to create a framework for the interaction of members of society, to enable them more effectively to create that world together. Of course some people will want one kind of world and others will want a different sort of world. The proper role of government is not to resolve those differences, but simply to create a common framework where issues of diversity and conformity can be negotiated between individuals.

From this perspective, it would be entirely inappropriate to put higher taxes on wealthy individuals for the purpose of reducing wealth inequality. But look at how government functions preferentially to enhance the wealth of the wealthy! For example, a huge fraction of the federal budget is devoted to international relations. These relations are managed to nurture and protect business relationships such as foreign investments, trade, etc. Certainly we all benefit from the trade in coffee, bananas, etc., but such international business benefits the wealthy preferentially to a very great degree. Given that government benefits the wealthy much more than the poor, it makes perfect sense that the wealthy should provide a similarly greater degree of financial support for those government operations. Or, for another example, when foolish bankers and foolish home buyers entered into foolish lending relationships, it does seem quite unfair to bail out the lenders and hand the resulting tax bill to the borrowers.

Perhaps there is some natural logic to the rich getting richer. What is of fundamental importance is that the government not be biased toward enhancing the power of any such powerful group, or even be perceived as having such a bias. Such bias is the fuel that feeds class warfare. We are reaching a point where there are concentrations of wealth and power that can and do dominate the government and steer the development of laws and regulations to amplify their own advantages. To recognize this bias and to work to correct it is not to engage in class warfare, but to fight against it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Banking Reform

Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been getting a lot of attention lately. I can easily to add it to the stack of books that I want to read. Actually reading it: maybe someday! Somehow a serious book like that takes me a month. There are just more books to read than months to read them in!

From the various reviews and discussion I have seen, the basic points of the book seem to be: when the rate of return on investments is larger than the rate of growth of the economy, wealth disparity grows, eventually to problematic levels; an effective method to address this problem is by taxing wealth.

I think the diagnosis is reasonably accurate. While there are also other mechanisms by which wealth and power amplify themselves, this financial one is surely very important. But I am not enthusiastic about his proposed therapy. It treats the symptoms without getting to the cause of the malfunction. On top of that, such tax revenue too easily becomes another concentration of wealth and a target for further corruption.

The cause of the problem is that returns are not tied to growth. This is due to the way financing is structured. The way to fix the problem is then obvious: restructure financing! Of course this is not so easy. First, one needs to design some alternative structure. Then there needs to be some sort of transition to take us from today’s structures to tomorrow's. And finally all this needs to be presented in a way that the various parties involved can agree to enact the plan. These are all daunting challenges. Into the fray!

Don’t start punishing the rich; instead, stop punishing the poor! This is my proposal in a nutshell. Perhaps this medicine will bitter for the wealthy, but not as bitter as the alternatives that might otherwise be forced on them! To some degree the pain can be lessened by a gradual introduction of new structures. New structures can be introduced alongside the existing old structures. Whatever kinks appear can be worked out over time. New financial contracts can start shifting over to the new structure. Most contracts that use the old structures can just expire in their normal time frame. Some long term contracts may need to be translated into new structures, but by then the new structures should be well established and well understood so the cost should not be prohibitive.

The best way to build new structures is to adapt existing structures. We already have many different financial structures: means by which one person can use resources owned by another and share the benefits yielded by that usage. Fred can borrow $100 from Joe, enjoy the use of that money, and then pay Joe back $110 a year later, rewarding Joe with a share of that enjoyment. Alice can grow vegetables in Mary’s plot, and at harvest time share the bounty with Mary. Bill can fund an expansion of Sam’s workshop, taking part ownership in the business, and with that a share in the profits and in the decision-making process.

Two classical financial structures are stocks and bonds. They are both ways that someone with some money to spare can make that money available for someone else to use, in exchange for a share of the benefits gained by that use. The return on a stock investment is often quite uncertain. It can come in the form of dividends or by the capital gains accrued when the stock is later sold at a higher price. Either way, there is quite a bit of administrative overhead involved, in establishing dividends or a market for stock trading. A bond is much simpler. It is basically a loan but without a bank playing an intermediary role. A bond contract generally specifies a definite repayment plan, like a loan. Bonds can be traded too. They differ from stocks in several ways: they have a fixed time span, the dividend rate is fixed, and they don’t include decision-making power.

A typical bank loan is very much like a bond. My proposal is that bank loans should look more like stocks. The dividend rate should not be fixed, but coupled to the actual performance of the borrower. What is needed is some standardized structure in banking laws and regulations to cut the administrative overhead to a bare minimum, so this can be managed effectively in the banker-borrower relationship.

Similarly, the relationship between the bank and the depositor needs some adjustment. The notion of risk-free returns is an illusion that is too expensive to maintain. A bank’s business should look like a collection of mutual bond funds. Depositors become instead purchasers of shares in these funds.

The core principle I am proposing here is that loans be tied to increased income. In other words, loans for consumption would not have a place in the laws and regulations for banking. If you need a car to get to work, then it makes good sense for a bank to lend that money. If you want a bigger car because it is fun to drive, you’ll have to save your money up first!

Loan repayment should be tied to income. Just like corporations with publicly traded stock must publish financial statements, so must bank borrowers. Since most people file income tax returns already, perhaps the easiest way to minimize administrative costs is to integrate income tax accounting with bank loan accounting. These systems are already closely coupled, so it shouldn’t be too impractical.

In general, a person will have several outstanding loans. So the core question is: given a particular level of income, how should dividend payments be computed? The idea is that each loan includes in its terms a formula for computing dividends, taking into account both income and pre-existing loans, taxes, etc. For example, a loan’s payment could be determined by a formula like: given the borrower’s total gross income, subtract all taxes due and payments from all earlier loans; subtract also a standard inflation-corrected minimum cost of living for the borrower and dependents; from what remains, the dividend due is 20%. The terms should also include some time limit.

Of course the dividend rate depends most fundamentally on the amount borrowed, obligations from earlier loans, and expected income. There are lots of tricky corners. A car loan might be negotiated on the basis of an existing house loan. Perhaps the borrower needs to move because of a job relocation. Paying off the existing house loan and negotiating a new house loan could change the order of loans and create havoc in the simple structure I have outlined. Perhaps the existing house loan can simply be shifted to a new house. Tying the surety of repayment to verifiable income, rather than the threat of foreclosure, should clear the way for this process. In any case, it is not fair to lenders if later loans can reduce the return that had been negotiated but also not fair to borrowers if repayment of earlier loans unduly increases dividend payments to later loans. To develop standardized structures that can navigate these passages is not trivial but surely possible, especially with an incremental approach.

Financial regulations are obviously vast and complex. My main point is that it is their structure that decouples returns from growth and that serves to amplify the wealth of the wealthy and the poverty of the poor. Rather than tacking on new structures to counteract this amplifying process, quite practical structures are possible that simply avoid this bias. Rather than stealing from the rich, stop stealing from the poor! The ruin of people’s lives due to snowballing debt is just as destructive to the healthy functioning of society as burdensome taxation that suffocates success. We can build financial structures that tie the success of lenders to the success of borrowers, so that free market capitalism promotes productive investment and discourages exploitation and abuse.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


A fascinating puzzle came up yesterday in James Howard Kunstler’s talk at the Woodstock Writers Festival. Sometimes we can move ourselves from a comfortable situation to an uncomfortable situation but can’t manage to move back to the comfortable situation. Moving from situation A to situation B can be a lot easier than moving from situation B back to situation A. How does this directionality arise?

It ought to be possible to study this from a systems theory perspective, to look at various concrete examples and then abstract the general patterns involved. I propose calling the broad class of patterns traps. A trap is a system of states and actions where moving from happy state A to unhappy state B is much easier than moving from B back to A.

One general feature of traps must be that, to quote Mr. Kunstler, the move from A to B “seemed like a good idea at the time.” This is why a systems-theoretic analysis of traps is important. Falling into a trap is easy. To avoid falling into traps, we need to cultivate an awareness of what traps look like. The best way to escape a trap is not to fall into it in the first place.

The first step of this project is to compile a catalog of realistic traps, from which we might be able to abstract some general patterns.

Time Lock

A simple trap is where external conditions change so that the path you took simply disappears. For example, falling rock could seal off a mine passage.


To cross a desert one must take care to pack enough supplies to make it across. There is a point of no return where you don’t have enough supplies to get back where you started from. If you don’t have the resources to get to a resupply point, you’re stuck.

Slippery Slope

Sometimes moving from point A to point B doesn’t require any effort at all, but moving in the other direction is impossible. By the time you realize you’re moving, it’s too late to do anything about it.

The Ratchet

Many doors have some kind of asymmetrical triangular latch. When the door closes, a gradual ramp on the latch pushes the latch into a free position where the door movement is unimpeded. Then when the door is fully shut, the latch snaps closed. The ramp on the other side of the latch is vertical or perhaps even has a negative slope. Trying to push the door open won’t move that latch. Shutting the door is easy, but opening the door is difficult.

It seems that this pattern is based on inelastic collisions. The smooth ramp allows energy to be put into the latch, moving it to the free state. Then when the latch snaps shut, that energy is dissipated. The sharp reverse side of the ratchet doesn’t provide a way for energy to be put back into the latch.

Burning Bridges

It is possible to move forward in a way that actually destroys the path backwards. For example, one might be driving across a desert. Starvation, the previous pattern, is just running out of gas. But if one is somehow actively destroying the vehicle along the way, that adds an extra feature. Jettisoning supplies or equipment would be an example. Stepping on a mine would be another example. The damage done makes getting back impossible.

Getting Lost

Sometimes the path back to a comfortable state is easy enough but there are very many paths available and most of them don’t lead back. The problem is to figure out which is the right path to take and there just aren’t any clues.

Sunk Costs

An inability to find the path back to a comfortable state can arise because of perceptual distortions that arose as the path out of comfort was traversed. So, for example, each step along a path might strengthen one’s commitment to the correctness of the path. To turn around would be to admit one’s error, which could be too painfully shameful or embarrassing.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rise and Fall

The varying prosperity of a nation or a civilization is a matter of endless speculation. Every culture seems to have myths about origins and surely many provide a picture of their destiny. One particular class of modern prediction came into prominence in the early nineteenth century with the writings of Thomas Malthus, who foresaw that an ever growing population could not be supported with finite resources. Two hundred years later the human population of our planet continues to rise, so one does find some space for questioning the wisdom of Malthus. More recently, books like The Limits to Growth, by Meadows et al., have tried to sketch the most likely trajectories of our present world using more quantitative methods. Certainly they don’t offer much precision with their wide range of scenarios.

Probably the most notably success in forecasting the end of a period of growth was that of M. King Hubbert, who predicted the 1972 peak in U.S. petroleum production some ten years beforehand. Of course petroleum is not the nation and the nation is not the world, but the U.S.A. was the leading petroleum producer in the world for decades and petroleum is a key resource. The present situation with global petroleum production is a bit difficult to read. Part of the problem is the definition of petroleum. For example, the tar sands being mined in Alberta are surely quite a different sort of material than the classic gushers of the early Texas days, but all the same the end product is automotive fuel etc. so it is not so clear that the distinction makes a difference.

This problem with definitions is hardly limited to fossil fuel resources. A similar problem comes up in economics, when trying to establish a consumer price index. It is easy enough to assemble a shopping basket of typical consumer goods and to tally its price. But the typical shopping basket of one decade is not the same as that of the prior decade, and once a hundred years have passed the baskets have drifted into mutual unrecognizability. If passage on a sailing ship from Boston to Philadelphia cost 10 dollars 100 years ago (I am just guessing here) and today airfare from New York to London is $1200, then how can we compare the purchasing power of a dollar 100 years ago to that of today?

It is not utterly unreasonable to invent some scheme for answering such questions, but it will necessarily be an invention rather than a discovery. We might be able to gather enough data to measure with reasonable accuracy the median income of families 100 years ago and families today. Does the median family of today live better than the median family of 100 years ago? No amount of data gathering can answer that question!

The immediate impetus to my thoughts here was an essay by James Howard Kunstler, “Are You Crazy To Continue Believing In Collapse? That it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean you're wrong.” My reaction to that title is perplexity, because, from my perspective, the collapse is well underway. When did it start is hard to pinpoint. World War 1? The peak of per capita petroleum production in the late 1970s? The peak of conventional petroleum production in 2005?

My perspective is hardly unique to me, of course. For example, long ago Sun Ra taught us, “It’s After the End of the World, Don’t You Know That Yet?”

But I don’t claim that my perspective is accurate. I don’t really think any sort of real accuracy is possible. Is the median family prosperity greater today than it was 50 years ago, is it greater today than it will be 50 years in the future? The easy challenge is the quantitative one. But how all the numbers should be interpreted as quality of life or standard of living or prosperity, that is not a question with a meaningful answer. It’s not just that the ways of living 50 years ago are not available to us today, they don’t even make sense. Of course 50 years is not really over the horizon. Extend the range to 200 or 300 years and the impossibility of comparison is plain. Here by comparison I mean e.g. to determine in some absolute objective fashion that one way of living is superior or inferior to the other. Comparison is certainly possible in terms of a thousand details. It’s the summarization of these that necessarily involves value-based judgments that can hardly take any stand outside the situations being judged. Most likely few modern people would choose to live back in the eighteenth century, if they understood what that choice really meant. But likely, too, that few people of the eighteenth century would choose to live in the twenty first.

Even though we are presented with a steady stream of advances in every facet of life, still it can be that in fact we are already well into the process of collapse. To illustrate the real possibility of such a paradoxical combination, I offer this audio analogy.