All posts by Mahesh Sreekandath

Exploring dissonance and the outdoors.

Ghost Rider

“Parking my motorcycle in front of a motel at the end of a long day on the road could certainly be sweet, like finally exhaling after holding my breath all day, but best of all was setting out in the morning. Whatever torments the night had brought; whatever weather the new day threw at me, when I loaded up the bike and swung my leg over the saddle, my whole perspective changed. Focus tightened into the mechanics and mentality of operating the machine, and awareness contracted to that demanding paradigm. As I let in the clutch and turned the throttle, my world-view expanded as i moved into a  whole new paradigm of landscapes, highways and wildlife. Infinite possibilities” p42, Ghost Rider

Not just the perspective, Neil Peart manages to express the very exact thoughts, emotions and even words any long distance motorcyclist would have endured. Brought back very distinct memories, even though my own experiences are from a totally different part of the globe.

Album from the archives — circa 2008-2010.

IMG_20201126_180808_481

Harmony in Discord

“Rising from the concrete to the abstract, Greek geometry disengaged the intelligible essence from the particular observable details, or accidents, as such particulars were later to be called. In this it exercised the proper function of intelligence: the faculty of abstracting, of grasping the unity of a concept in a number of particular cases, the constancy of relationships and permanence of structures amid the diversity of sensible patterns; in a word, finding unity in multiplicity and harmony in discord. With the Greek language was born the language of abstraction.”

p6, The Genius of the West

What makes us all civilized is that ability to move from specifics to the abstract, in all spheres.

Why Are We Still in Afghanistan? – Reason.com

Cultural interventionism v/s Guns

“There is ‘more power in blue jeans and rock and roll than the entire Red Army’ said French philosopher Régis Debray”

Soviet Denim Smuggling – The History of Jeans Behind the Iron Curtain https://www.heddels.com/2014/09/soviet-denim-smuggling-history-jeans-behind-iron-curtain/

Spirit of Cecilia

Our options have fallen into two categories: bad and worse.
— Read on reason.com/archives/2018/11/29/why-are-we-still-in-afghanistan

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History and Turning Points

“The history of mankind is the history of ideas. For it is ideas, theories and doctrines that guide human action, determine the ultimate ends men aim at, and the choice of the means employed for the attainment of these ends. The sensational events which stir the emotions and catch the interest of superficial observers are merely the consummation of ideological changes. There are no such things as abrupt sweeping transformations of human affairs. What is called, in rather misleading terms, a “turning point in history” is the coming on the scene of forces which were already for a long time at work behind the scene. New ideologies, which had already long since superseded the old ones, throw off their last veil and even the dullest people become aware of the changes which they did not notice before.” – Ludwig von Mises

https://mises.org/library/planned-chaos-0

Learned Ignoramus

It’s normal for political debates to quickly take an *interdisciplinary* turn; topics spanning from climate science, net-neutrality to macro-economics will be seamlessly engaged. And it’s also normal to express very specific and forceful policy positions on all these massive problems. We conveniently forget these are actual areas of specialization. Just imagine a set of cafe intellectuals expressing specific solutions to problems in microbiology, nanotechnology etc! But, when it comes to public policy, any such diffidence is rare, instead curiously strong opinions on complex topics is the norm.

Political opinions are also a lot about voicing our ideology. We enthusiastically state our position to signal who we are, not to debate or reconcile. In that sense, opinions are like badges. Quite like how a savage might use face paint to signal his tribe, we use policy prescriptions to signal our political leanings. Actually, many pick their tribe, and then adopt all the interdisciplinary policy positions wholesale. The surprising aspect is, college educated individuals are equally, or sometimes relatively more tribal in their opinions.

José Ortega y Gasset thought this was a relatively novel phenomenon, and closely related to the age of specialization.

“For, previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his speciality; but neither is he ignorant, because he is “a scientist,” and “knows” very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.

And such in fact is the behavior of the specialist. In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of — this is the paradox — specialists in those matters. By specializing him, civilization has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations; but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his speciality.” — José Ortega y Gasset

Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses (excerpt)

Sort of ironic that civilization might have made us more tribal, at least in certain ways.

Law and Purpose

Effort required to *enforce* a law is a reasonable indicator of its validity. If we need to go out of the way to enforce something, then it might just not be compatible with English conception of law.  Hayek says, law simply helps us coexist. Its function is not to achieve specific goals set by some authority.

“In the usual sense of purpose, namely the anticipation of a particular, foreseeable event, the law indeed does not serve any purpose but countless different purposes of different individuals. It provides only the means for a large number of different purposes that as a whole are not known to anybody. In the ordinary sense of purpose law is therefore not a means to any purpose, but merely a condition for successful pursuit of most purposes. Of all multi-purpose instruments it is probably the one after language which assists the greatest variety of human purposes. It certainly has not been made for any one known purpose but rather has developed because it made people who operated under it more effective in the pursuit of their purposes”
— Friedrich Hayek

Law is indeed a lot like language, its function is to help us transact. And when it’s not structured to help us achieve our goals optimally, then alternatives tends to emerge. Black market norms are a good example. In that sense, one of the differences between a failed and a stable nation is also the nature of laws. More the law deviates from individual needs, more the corruption, disorder etc. In other words, lawlessness might indicate a problem with the law, not the law breakers.

Culture, High and Low

Spirit of Cecilia twitter account says — “We love culture, high and low” — that does sort of mirror my interests. Reading and writing about classic Liberals, British and American — reading and writing about extreme metal, Scandinavian and American, tend to be my hobbies. Sort of occupying the two margins of culture — ancient and high, and then what some would term as low and loud I guess.

Thanks to Prof. Birzer for inviting me, and providing another platform to convey ideas.

Signals and Systems

Classification

Markets are not exactly planned but they do exhibit certain designed arrangement like qualities. Adam Smith most famously termed the mechanism as the ‘invisible hand’. Interestingly we do inhabit an environment with numerous transient variables like changing individual preferences, resource constraints, technological breakthroughs, material and human capital turnover etc. All these changing equations and yet no noticeable dramatic disruptions. Seems like the most critical aspect of market system is its adaptability, an ability to restructure according to changing circumstances. Almost like a dexterous off-road machine with interlocked moving parts, constantly traversing unknown terrains.

A system theoretic view is useful because it compels us to investigate these abstract market structures and its synchronization tools. Hayek emphasized that prices can act as a signaling mechanism. By monitoring prices we can constantly restructure our own private plans, and hence adapt to constantly changing external circumstances. Quite like how an engineered machine part might interact with input patterns without actually comprehending what might have caused those signals. Without prices we will end up probing all the transient environmental variables which might impact our plans, inefficient if not impossible. Indeed these price signals are impersonal mechanisms conditioned by the very known and unknown economic factors relevant to our individual plans. Whether it’s engineered or emergent, adaptive systems can be driven only via such impersonal communication channels.

Structure

Markets do have architecture, it’s an arrangement of material and human capital catering to a set of utilities. In fact it can be perceived as an immensely complex machine with sub-systems and numerous causal connections. We are indeed aware of the objectives of an engineered system, commonly termed as use cases, and also how these use cases translate to specific schematic structures. But market structures and its overall objectives are always evolving. Here the capital structures of production are constantly being shaped by price signals determined by numerous individual actions. How markets prioritize various services and goods will eventually depend on a set of price relations reflecting the aggregate societal preferences. Almost like a real-time democracy.

Discovery Process

Unfortunately, with some rhetoric it’s possible to convince someone, that with some additional central planning we can transform markets for the better. Engineering process itself can explain why central planning is unrealistic. If we go beyond simple structures, there are numerous divergent ways for designing systems. Even a relatively simple circuit can be crafted by organizing the same set of logic gates in several different ways.

Engineering is the process of applying a set of scientific principles to solve a particular problem. So even here the challenge is the discovery of that theoretical set relevant to devising the most optimal solution. In other words, applied science itself is a discovery process, not an algorithmic execution of givens.

Similarly, for the same set of economic objectives, several structural combinations of human and material capital are possible. Without competitive discovery process there is no scientific basis for claiming superiority of planned systems. Even here, only with market prices can we can compare the relative efficiency of various structural arrangements. Essentially the famous calculation problem elaborated by Ludwig von Mises.

P = NP Hard ?

Merely to emphasize the organizational complexity of our system let’s assume that we have a comprehensive knowledge of all the economic components, their relative values and their properties. Even then, designing the most optimal structural organization is at least an NP-hard class problem. For the very same set of system objectives we can have an exhaustive number of structural organizations. In other words, the process of figuring out the most productive arrangement within polynomial time frame mandates infinite computing power.

Indeed Hayek was absolutely correct to state that any form of Socialist central planning will only confine us to a primordial state. Only relatively simple arrangements can be planned.

 

To propose any rational economic organization it’s critical to understand the relevant properties of both human and material capital, essentially the components. So any superior structural order would also reflect a deeper understanding of these individual components, simply because this comprehension is invaluable for crafting a better design. In that sense, we can imagine the sheer mindlessness of soviet style planning. It organized individuals without any detailed theory of mind regarding human incentives within that totalitarian context, hence the absolute disaster. Here is another illustrative analogy — try to imagine the consequence of interfacing complex circuits without comprehending of how they respond to certain external signals.

In general, larger the scale of planning more severe this epistemological, computational and competitive discovery process related hurdles. Everything alludes to the fact that complex systems can emerge only with distributed computation on actually dispersed resources. Private property based market orders are simply more adaptive because of this very scalable structural arrangement.

Use of Computation in Society

Market structures emerge from complementary transactions, by its very nature they are positive-sum exchanges. The private decision-making autonomy allows numerous such transactions, and from that certain self-organizing structures emerge. Unlike centralized planning these market orders account for contextual information and individual requirements.

This knowledge of the local context may not be always utilized in the best manner possible. But in pure scientific terms, at least the local premise was recognized before the application of some theory, however imperfect that theory may be. Definitely this is an improvement over enforcing arbitrary plans with incomplete or no understanding of local circumstances.

Market selection process can lead to the emergence of best practices and better organizational arrangements because it enables the incentive structure to cooperate, making us better off than we otherwise would be. And at the same time concedes ample space to compete. Competition is indeed the most effective mechanism to challenge the existing methods and to expand our body of knowledge. The personal sphere of influence defined by private property rights enable individuals to experiment, learn and adapt their methods. Eventually with our individual efforts being directed by price signals there is an effective systemic mechanism to add value to even unknown individuals.

Hayek quite succinctly stated —

“function of prices is to tell people what they ought to do in the future.”
Emergence

Based on the patterns generated by market transactions we can identify numerous self-organized groups. For example, at work we are part of a relatively determinate known group but a visit to the grocery store places us into a mostly unknown group of other individuals who frequents the same store. Within a large economy there are numerous such complementary wholes of transacting individuals, productively functioning by cooperating with many other similar self-organized sub-systems.

The ability of individuals to respect market rules of private property while pursuing divergent avenues enable formation and also a contingent structural adaptation. Causing other connected entities and sub-systems to adapt in different manners. Even without any central direction this spawns an organized structural order with abstract layers and causal feedback loops. Here individual actions always conform to known just rules of conduct. Essentially driving this emergent order and also what Hayek described as the ‘n-dimensional’ surface.

Content from the archives, posted elsewhere circa 2015.

Christoffer A Rasmussen (Rasmussen29892 at da.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Relativity

Theory

Theory of special relativity explains how relative positions of observers can often lead to contradicting perceptions. For example, two actors who are in different inertial frames can both claim to be in a state of rest, or they both can observe that the clock possessed by the other one is running slower, or dispute the length of the stick they are carrying. The vantage point matters, but thankfully with physics we have an explanatory scheme, once we prove the consequences of space and time in special relativity we can appease both the actors.

Depending on the mental state of an observer his perspective about a drunk destitute can vary from absolute empathy to an outright contempt, to a certain degree even this perception is transient. Our emotions are also relative to some reference point, try describing happiness in absolute sense, actually a sub-saharan African nomad might just be more contented than a wall-street banker. Recently I watched a documentary which claimed the slum dwellers of Kolkata are on an average happier than the residents of the United States. Ignorance can be bliss, but it’s irrelevant because no matter how attractive this happiness may sound not many Americans will trade their suburbs for an Indian slum residence. Similarly, ranking emotive responses of various individuals after disregarding their relative mental benchmark is quite meaningless.

“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” – F.A.Hayek

In “Human Action” Ludwig von Mises elaborates on the epistemological problems of historical interpretations, and rightly so, because no matter how unbiased a writer might be his narrative has to be from a vantage point determined by the particular facts he had prioritized and picked for analysis. We can logically classify information as relevant only based on our relative experience and exposure to various coherent abstract patterns. For example, a person unaware of a right-angled triangle can never classify the structure nor derive its Pythagorean properties, for him it might be just another triangle. Our comprehension is indeed relative to the recognizable abstract structures developed in our mind, rest becomes incomprehensible jitters. Why do you think every time you reread a book or go back and listen to your favorite song you discover something novel?

Continue reading Relativity