All posts by Mahesh Sreekandath

Classic Liberalism, Systems Engineering and Heavy metal

Life at the Margins

The early morning buzz of an engine, or that moment when we ride off the garage onto the pavement, or that instant when we tear into a freeway ramp – these are all glimpses of riding at the margins, at the margins of transitions. From stillness to the rumbling promise of 1200cc engine, from being boxed in a garage to bustling downtown alleys, from constrains of 25mph to 70mph open landscapes. All marked transitions. Life actually resides at these margins, because these are the moments when we feel most alive.

Taking a 40 mph curve at 60mph is riding at the margins, but only until we conquer the very same curve at 80mph. If we want that exact same feeling, then we need to simply raise the bar. Doing the exact same thing twice does not help, because we have already moved the boundaries. Margins are now further away. We automatically strive to raise that benchmark because it’s that feeling at the margins which matter, rest is just a means to that end. This is true whether it’s at the margins of riding, or general pleasure seeking, or for that matter any human pursuit! We all seek that feeling — which a first sip of whisky provides at the end of a long day, or that first serving of frozen custard on a summer afternoon, or that satisfaction of solving a new problem at work. Second time around none of these feel the same.

The constant pursuit of being at the margins is visible across all the human spheres. We were probably happy with library until we had ebooks and Wikipedia, now we are only happy with augmented reality! We found happiness with no internet, but now we are unhappy with the internet speeds? We were also contented with Magna Carta or bill of rights, until we had a chance with modern republic with democracy. But, as expected, now we are not merely contented with these unprecedented freedoms. We are not contented with mere liberties which enable us to freely pursue our material goals. But instead we want to be at the margins again, where education, healthcare, transportation etc are universal. Undoubtedly, even if we manage to achieve them, we would simply raise the bar. It’s easy to realize, what makes us tick is this never ending journey to the margins. In short, the next time I clock 120mph, it just might not look as fast.

Hand Waving Rules

Quite like Jeep owners, motorcyclists also wave at each other. It’s one of those unenforced etiquette of the road, creating and maintaining that sense of fellowship among riders. Such rules serve a purpose, so they also tend to have consequences, good and bad. For example, creating that sense of fellowship among motorcyclists leads to a relatively benign culture, consequence is on-road and off-road cooperation. This is quite the opposite of how motorcycle gangs operate. Actually you do not typically wave at these “outlaws”, because they have their own code and different purpose/consequences to them.

Like how merely waving at each other can create/reinforce a cooperative framework among unknown riders, other cultural norms/rules can also have its own consequences. Such norms and rules can also be more abstract and elementary. Sort of like building blocks of a social order. For example, preference for obedience over individual responsibility is such an abstract rule. This rule/norm will determine what is considered as just or acceptable within all formal and informal social spheres. It’s sort of like the underlying ethics of an order. Respect for seniority, class, gender etc over merit is another such rule; we can see that these rules do have consequences – in this case they tend to emphasize the collective over the individual. In short, these are the characteristics of static hierarchies. In that sense, they share traits with feudal or aristocratic organizations. The other end of the spectrum would be individual responsibility over obedience and emphasis of merit over everything else – these are the essential characteristics of dynamic hierarchies. So, seems like hierarchy itself is inevitable, only difference is the underlying rules.

Such norms/rules are also like the genetic code of a civilization, we sort of repeatedly apply them in different political, social and economic contexts to create higher level laws, Legislation, institutions etc. For example, paternalistic institutions will be perceived as just when obedience is considered as a higher virtue than responsibility. Reality is anyway more complex, because there are always conflicting norms and ethics. In short, no society is absolutely static or dynamic, it’s just a matter of degree.

Hume and that cat

Once this motorcyclist asked me – “What do you call her?” – pointing at the motorcycle. I responded — “nothing!”, and casually explained how it’s just a machine. She was shocked, and retorted in a rather jovial way — “You called her a machine, now she will breakdown!” Sort of reminded me of this David Hume quote “There is a very remarkable inclination in human nature, to bestow on external objects the same emotions, which it observes in itself; and to find everywhere those ideas, which are most present to it.” Hume goes on to attribute these inclinations to mostly children, poets and ancient philosophers. May be the lady was a poet? My own instincts tend to go the other way, I rather bestow on humans the characteristics of inanimate objects. We are also machines, just really complex ones. Guess I am no child, a poet or that ancient philosopher.

Hume’s insight is probably more prevalent, and often a cause for serious mischief. Recently I went riding to Orcas islands, but had an overnight stay at Anacortes to catch that early morning Ferry. Overnight motorcycle parking in a motel lot is always risky, so to minimize the attention I draped it with a dull two-wheeler cover. Next morning I noticed this feral cat sitting and staring at the motorcycle. In a parking lot filled with cars, this draped bike might have invoked his curiosity? We can actually never know. If I say the cat was curious, all that means is — if I was a cat, then I’d be curious. For all you know, that cat might have been a fan of Triumph motorcycles, and it was simply gazing in admiration. Or maybe it was just day dreaming. Possibilities are endless. Unless we place sensors in his brain, we can never truly understand that intend behind his action.

Not just in animals, we have this propensity to assume intend based on the actions of our fellow humans too. Sometimes it’s related to the curious actions of our spouse, or parents or maybe relatives. Our subject of scrutiny can also be the distant actions of some movie star or politicians, as seen through YouTube or TV. Lengthy contentious discussion on the behavior of such a celebrity is not that uncommon. But, whenever we assume intend based on actions, it only tells us more about our own mind, our own assumptions, which may or may not be relevant to the actual object, animal or the person being scrutinized. Not surprising that Hayek once said “We are studying mental and not physical events, and much that we believe to know about the external world is, in fact, knowledge about ourselves

Causal Chain

Recently went riding at the margins of Olympic, was actually planning to do a loop through couple of forest roads, but eventually ended up running into a road gated shut. So, had to turn back half way, and ride across the same bridge seen on my way up. And not just the same bridge, I crossed paths with the same hiker who was now walking back from the other end. Clearly, even he was amused at this bizarre coincidence. How often do the path of a motorcyclist, and a hiker in the wilderness converge on a bridge — twice!

In a way, coincidences or accidents are just separate causal chains coinciding at some point. For instance — ferry time, riding pattern, not up-to-date maps on the GPS etc were all immediate preceding links on my causal chain. If we go further back, then there are other causal sequences explaining why ferry times are the way they are, or how I ended up riding in some quirky way etc. But, we can only speculate about the causal events related to the mysterious hiker.

 

In that sense, every moment is the consequence of a set of connected or disconnected and known or unknown preceding causal events. Actually, even in my case, we can only speculate whether it was the incorrect map or did someone just decided to shut that road the previous day? Or maybe my riding pattern was immaterial. That means if all the other factors remained same, all types of riders would have faced the mysterious hiker, twice! If only we could replay life, and control it for various factors.

Some coincidences are rare, but others tend to be recurring and contentious. For instance, rising college tuition, health care costs or govt deficit spending tend to be recurring and divisive. But there are also recurring less contentious coincidences – like plummeting smart phone or fast food prices! Rarely do we see political rallies about unaffordable fries. Recurring events tend to have some dominant agency – it can be some specific group of people, natural forces, or some incentive structure etc. But general discourse is rarely about correcting these complex causal factors, which led to the present contentious pattern. But it’s usually more about introducing new factors into the mix — like price/licensing controls, or a new tax, or may be a new war? So, instead of fixing the root cause we keep introducing workarounds. Sounds like another recurring pattern.

Identity Crisis

So, was on a ferry the other day, and ran into that quintessential Harley Davidson motorcyclist. On a bagger with half helmet, wearing Harley Davidson boots and jacket with that round emblem on the back, most probably wider than Captain America’s shield. Of course, he had ridden cross-country to Sturgis, among the bigger motorcycle gatherings on the planet. Absolutely a cheerful guy to speak with, but also signaling an unmistakable identity, something no one can overlook.

Not just in motorcycling, adopting identities wholesale seems like a human trait. Whether its politics, art, culture, or even technology, we seek to belong. We signal identity not just through clothing, but through gadgets, accessories and through expressed opinions. Especially in politics, we probably state beliefs to just convey who we are, not because we believe they are absolute truths.

We become a liberal, conservative or libertarian not through expansive research, but through instincts. We pick where we want to belong, and then adopt ideas wholesale. In fact, any real research would evolve our own thought, making it difficult for us to fit in. Seems like more than the truth, we seek that identity. Also, Libertarians or Leftists tend to have a lot of infighting, on who is the true torch bearer, probably because we simply cannot allow that group identity to get corrupted.

Not just in politics, identity is an essential driving force in all our pursuits. If we examine with that lens, then all contentious social convulsions are related to identity, even the trivial ones. Recently came across this band Deafheaven, seems like they trigger an identity crisis among black metallers, especially the ones on Reddit. The band simply borrowed all black metal sonic influences, but none of their aesthetics. Sounds like black metal, but does not exactly reflect the artistic inspirations. Essentially corrupting a pristine identity, and wreaking havoc in a true black metaller’s peaceful existence.

Seems like the world is constantly in this disruptive state, plunging from one crisis of identity to another, and each such crisis spawning new identities. Whether it’s ‘true Norwegian Black Metal’, or capital (L)ibertarian v/s small (l)ibertarian, or obscurities like democratic socialist liberal or MAGA conservative? But this identity crisis is also an essential pillar in Federalism, Madison eloquently stated — “the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” In that sense, so glad we don’t simply get along.

Group Code

Spring poses interesting opportunities, especially if you can manage to ride up to the mountains. Not every day you motorcycle through icy roads on a bright day, at near zero temperatures, and with a backdrop of snow covered mountains! Not to mention the occasional water stream, gently crossing the freeway, and a highway shoulder precariously stacked with freshly removed snow – guess this is why they call motorcycling as sensory overload? As usual, the fuel tank was also sort of running low; the two gallon tank has been a bit difficult to handle, especially when you go exploring. But, like every other time, when it was close to being empty, providence manifested in the form of a Shell gas station.

Group riding on this motorcycle is going to be a tad annoying, for others! You definitely don’t want to ride with someone who is constantly on the lookout for a gas station. In that sense, groups do pose different trade-offs. We all prefer different riding patterns, different frequency for stops, speeds, routes etc. But group cohesion mandates uniformity; unless you really enjoy the company this uniformity can be stifling.

Not just in motorcycling, in general we all have different and often contradicting preferences and views. So, unless there is a commonly enforced code, large groups of people will not easily get along. And unless this conformity is overall in sync with our own preferences, we are simply not going to join and remain being part of such a group .

Actually large scale intellectual agreements are also rare. More you think, more your mind diverges from the median. And more the intellectual compromises you need to make to just fit in. If you have strong convictions, such compromises might seem daunting. Hayek famously said “largest group of people whose values are very similar are the people with low standards”. In that sense, joining Hells Angels or some political party is not so different. Both signify low standards, the end of serious thought and reflection, but may be in slightly different ways.

 

“I was alive”

Walter White from Breaking Bad famously said – “I was alive”. What essentially drove him to create that Drug Empire was entrepreneurship, that excitement of feeling alive — not family, social responsibility etc. Being alive seems to be a lot about being in touch with reality, sort of being plugged in. That constant awareness to gauge the situation and to adapt plans accordingly. In a way, being alive is also a lot about being human. What separates us from animals, at least most of us, is that ability to not just instinctively react, but instead use real cognition.

Being alive is also quintessential Americana; no other civilization has encoded this into their Constitution. That framework to avoid being shaped by the collective, but instead through individual volition, essential English liberties upgraded to American Federalism. Being part of a collective feels comforting. Whether its politics, sports or music, we tend to seek out that tribal identity. It’s probably our hunter gatherer instincts, constantly pushing us to belong. In that sense, American institutions are sort of intended to compensate those primitive instincts. I think it’s Hayek who once said — ‘man got civilized in spite of his best efforts’?

Riding is also a lot about being alive, and probably more about staying alive too. For starters you are always in touch with the environment. There are no seat belts or air bags separating rider from reality. You got to be aware, of the guy in his truck and the mom in her van, busy sifting through their critical Facebook posts. You need to simply adapt your path to steer clear of them, or any other potential threats, social media driven or otherwise. But the flip side is, when you are riding, all the other travails melt away. So plugged in to that sublime present, there are no cognitive resources to think about that uncertain future, or that disappointing past. In that sense, you are alive, but probably in a totally different context I guess.