All posts by Mahesh Sreekandath

Exploring dissonance and the outdoors.

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. Not to mention, all these political factions tend to have quite a bit 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 living on Reddit. The band simply borrowed all black metal 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.

The Road to Serfdom at 75 Years Young

Peter Boettke writes

“Key to his argument is that in a democratic liberal society, there’s no overarching single scale of values. Society cannot achieve a single hierarchy of ends we all agree on. In fact, the great strength of democratic liberal societies is a multiplicity of values that are respected among diverse and often divergent, even distant, individuals”

I used to have this bumper sticker on my Jeep — ‘If we are on a road to serfdom, hope it’s bumpy and bureaucrats are driving lowriders’




Music and Motorcycling

Years ago an engineering schoolmate brought up the topic of life goals, my terse and quick response was, “owning a wall of music CDs and a high displacement motorcycle”. His reaction was actually terser and quicker – “that’s it?” – And wasn’t exactly devoid of that patronizing tone. But, what can I say, that was indeed my life goal. To cite Chris Nolan’s Joker“You see, I’m a guy of simple taste. I enjoy, uh, dynamite, and gunpowder…and gasoline!” — In my case, it’s heavy metal and motorcycling.

Also, people usually fall into two categories, ones with specific objectives and agendas, and then there are those with more abstract motivations. Specific goals could be anything, but it will be absolute and measurable – like retirement by age of 45, or making 200 Million dollars, or filing 20 patents etc. Abstract goals are not specific and tend to be subjective — like pursuit of an interesting career or pursuit of knowledge etc.

Meticulously working towards some specific objective requires long term planning, it requires making calculated trade-offs. These specific goals are usually irreconcilable with abstract goals, especially in the long run. For instance, you cannot expect to be a millionaire, or retire by 45, if you are only going to do interesting jobs. Actually those driven by abstract pursuits might just find it meaningless to state specific goals.

Whether it’s discovering music or exploring the great outdoors on a motorcycle, both requires some spirited curiosity. Over the years both these pursuits have evolved, they have moved from specific goals to more abstract. Instead of exploring specific sub-genres, now it’s about discovering broad qualities, like rich layering, structural progression and dynamics of influences. Riding has also similarly moved, from destination driven to exploration driven.

These days it’s just about looking at a map to identify winding roads, most likely involving unexpected unpaved miles, or rustic routes cutting through state parks or bordering that coastal stretch. You will inevitably get a bit lost or run into restricted access roads, or get close to running out of fuel. You will also inevitably run into another solo motorcyclist, traversing the same path, but from the opposite direction. In short, it rarely goes according to the plan. But as the cliché goes – journey matters, but the destination, not so much.




The Hayek Auction

You will find them here, for instance Hayek’s copy of Wealth of Nations went for almost 200k, it was estimated in the 4k to 6k range.

“Desktop ephemera and personal effects” were estimated at 200-300 British pounds, went for 87,500 British pounds.  Crazy!  Many of the items went for 10x or 20x their original estimates.

From Marginal Revolution


The original uploader was DickClarkMises at English Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Read, and then Ride

Not the strongest, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change tend to survive. Not just as a species, adaption is our key to even survive at work, home, or for that matter in any environment. Exact coping mechanism depends on the situation. But in general, explanation to a problem always helps; explanations through therapy, through study, or may be just through the bottle! To quote a character from Nolan’s Batman Begins – “you always fear what you don’t understand” – an explanation is simply a good start to figure out how to adapt.

Understanding the cause requires theory, and adequate explanations mandate good theories applied to correct contexts. Without internalizing ideas we can never accurately identify all those correct contexts. Marvin Minsky famously said – “You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way”. Ability to apply the same set of ideas in different contexts, that ‘transfer of learning’ seems like an effective way to reinterpret and internalize ideas in more than one way. In that sense, learning is a process of refining ideas, and accurately identifying all its applications while progressively removing incorrect assumptions. Eventually ideas are a lot like arsenal, they need to be sharpened and our skills determine their best application. This learning is cognitively taxing, and developing those higher levels of cognition sort of takes time.

Reading is definitely a great way to gain exposure to new ideas, but internalizing them requires reflection. We all face slightly different problems and have slightly different assumptions and beliefs about how the world works. So, no matter how good the book, new ideas need to always take root and evolve within our own mental context. Some prefer meditation, but for restless minds it can be some activity — like climbing or hiking — or just plain motorcycling. Someone said — you are never on a motorcycle, you are always a part of it. In that sense, when you are a totally different entity, new ways of interpreting old ideas simply emerge.

Libertarian Transformers

For some reason people gasp when I mention the dominant Libertarian themes in Transformers 4 : Age of Extinction. Buried beneath inane comedy and not so sleek Budweiser advertisements are some stunning Hayekian/Misesian ideas. Contrasting to the first three Transformers movies, Age of Extrinction refuses to glamorize military. Instead of Marines fighting evil aliens in Middle-East, we have CIA black ops oppressing a Texan inventor. From Cade Yeager (played by Mark Wahlberg) emphasizing to the black cloaked agents to get off his property, to ignorant bureaucrat Harold Attinger (played by Kelsey Grammer) destabilizing planet with his foreign policy, Michael Bay’s U-Turn on politics is evident.

Govt propping up bad guys in an alien war, or private firms profiting from war, or having an elected US President become subservient to career bureaucrats – this movie cuts close to reality. How a private weapons manufacturer, Joshua Joyce (played by Stanley Tucci), changes his mind when confronted with reality. But, a bureaucrat constantly refusing to confront his own folly is worth noting. Hollywood illustrating how private sector can get corrupted by govt incentives is not so common. Not to mention, Kelsey Grammer comforting the US President by claiming the all-powerful alien bounty hunter as his “asset”, a genuine black comedy moment!

An individualistic inventor honestly trying to stabilize the world, while govt busy-bodies propping up chaos, sounds like the movie appeals to all our civilized human instincts. Café intellectuals might disagree, but Hollywood is among the best Western institutions, they spread liberal ideas across the globe. Niall Fergurson’s interesting work ‘The West and the Rest’ quite aptly quotes the French philosopher Régis Debray — “more power in blue jeans and rock and roll than the entire Red Army”.


Bjoern Kommerell [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

James Madison Won the Shutdown

To grasp the constitutional importance of the moment, it is necessary to set aside partisan or policy preferences. Every constitutionalist, even those who wished a different outcome, can celebrate the proper functioning, for the first time in nearly a generation




James Sharples [Public domain]