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.