Saturday, March 31, 2012

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - A Review (of sorts)

Read it.

Trite, I know. And I'm sure its been done a million times.... so this is not a 'proper' review I'm posting on Amazon. I just want to put down a few of my thoughts around the reading of the book.

I'd heard of it before, but the first time it was suggested to me that I'd like this book was in the early 90s. I was into juggling at the time, and amongst my juggling friends this book was well regarded. It was the Zen thing. There's book called the Zen of Juggling I remember from the time; anything 'Zenny' was big back then. That actually put me off reading ZenMM. Also I hadn't enjoyed what I'd read on Eastern Philosophy - all those 'the sound of one hand clapping' phrases had the flavour of wisdom but no meat.

I think what hooked me back up with ZenMM was noticing the subtitle - 'An Inquiry into Values'. Amazon must have suggested it in one of their many emails based on the keyword 'value', and were pushing the release of the 25th anniversary edition of the book. With my interest in Money, obviously any inquiry into Values was going to float my intellectual boat.

I'm very happy to have had such a delayed appreciation of ZenMM. I really don't think I could have read it at a better time. There was so much in it that related to my understanding of Money... I felt at points I could have swapped for Pirsig's 'Quality' for my 'Money' and it wouldn't change the meaning one bit (Pirsig does the same thing with the ancient Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu texts substituting 'Tao' for 'Quality'). I finished the book at work. I was sitting through the third repetition of a talk on 'Avoiding Dog Bites at work' (I'm a delivery driver), whilst reading the climactic part where Pheadrus takes on the Chairman in an intellectual battle. The line is :

"When a shepherd goes to kill a wolf, and takes his dog to see the sport, he should take care to avoid mistakes. The dog has certain relationships to the wolf the shepherd may have forgotten" (p.175)

Such little sychronicities and coincidences don't seem to bear retelling too well, but I experienced them throughout the reading of the book.

So it left me breathless. Full of ideas. And thinking I must pick up Jung again soon.

I will read Pirsig's other book Lila. But in good time.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Monkey Business

I can feel my frustration rising when I read genetic and evolutionary explanations of economic behaviour. Then when the debate around them quickly descends into a fight between left & right (or more specifically in this case between MMTers & Austrians) I despair. Look here for a recent example.

Here's the story we're told;

Homo Sapiens have been around for 200 000 years. For most of this time we were hunter-gatherers. Then about 10 000 years ago we started farming. Now we have the internet.

The earliest timings have been established by our understandings of DNA and maths. The Homo genus itself separated from Chimps 5 million years ago, Gorillas 10 million years ago, and Orangutans 14 million years ago. All of this happened by a process of random genetic mutations in combination with natural selection. And roughly speaking we share 99% of our genes with Chimps, 98% with Gorillas, and 97% with Orangutans.

Furthermore, about 50 000 years ago Homo Sapiens somehow become super-monkeys. The other types of Homo eventually disappeared and we were set on a course to micro-blogging modernity.

The debate is whether we became super-monkeys as a result of nature or nurture or some happy coincidence between them. So white-coated scientists prod monkeys and professors speculate on the musings of geologists and climatologists as a story is created about this gene predisposing us to that behaviour in a particular environment.

Don't get me wrong, it's much better to create this story than to just say God done it.

But it's still frustrating.

That's because even when a story of human development can be told that is very convincing and widely accepted - and you may well feel that such a story is told today - the explanation will be split asunder the instant it comes into contact with the social sciences. We may desire monism, but we experience dualism.

So back to where I started. Rather than bringing us together, the story of human development creates a chasm and upon each side a tower of knowledge is constructed. Those in the tower on the right believe that the story told confirms the idea that humans are basically self-interested, those in the tower on the left believe it confirms the idea that humans are basically altruistic. Each side has the strength of consistency, but neither can claim truth while the other exists separately from them. So they throw stones.

We like to look for things that make us different to Chimps and other animals. We think this 'difference' is what makes us Human. Perhaps it's this need for difference that underlies the dualism we experience. I think we'd be better to focus on how the things Chimps do - like fighting and fucking - resonate in the things we do.

I also think that which ever side of the theoretical chasm you're on, you should stop throwing stones and wake up to the idea of ambivalence. Wake up to the knowledge you have of yourself - that central to your nature is your Mind's ability to love and hate something at the same time. It might just be that we can be rational & self-interested AND irrational & altruistic. And if you find this level of self-realisation tricky, read Freud* !

I let someone else make the connection to Money.

"Loving and fighting are the oldest, most exciting (and usually separate) of man’s activities, so that it is perfectly natural to find that payments associated with both are among the earliest forms of money. "

Glyn Davies A History of Money (1994 : p25)

*Civilisation & Its Discontents would be a good starting point.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Zen of Poker - Faith and Hope

I wish I could figure out how to win at online poker. There's a pattern that's been repeating itself. I put some money on. Sometimes I lose it quickly. But more often than not I win. Great! I turn $30 into $200 (with a mix of HU, Cash, SNG). Then of course, I lose it all. I console myself by noting that along the way I have a few stabs at winning big in tourneys. Its like a mini trade cycle - boom & bust - all of its own.

I wonder whether the losses are inevitable. It makes sense that for every winning streak there must be a losing streak. This is obvious when you play Heads-Up (against just one opponent). Poker pros like to refer to the role of luck in poker as 'variance'. Just like bankers like to refer to gambling as 'investment'. Dress it up how you like, essentially we're all dealing with the same thing.

When you get a run of bad luck its easy to go on tilt. Then you start to make bad decisions that amplify the bad luck you are experiencing. Two things keep you going; faith and hope. Faith in the karmic nature of the universe, or if you prefer, in randomness; the cards you're dealt, and those that appear on the flop are not influenced by anything - over time luck will balance out. And Hope that next time the universe will align, and your AA will hold against your opponents 83 offsuit (AA lost for me every time, in my latest losing streak, including to 83o).

Or you may see things the other way round. You may have Faith in your abilities as a superior poker player and Hope that over time results will adjust to variance.

Whichever way you experience Faith and Hope you'll have picked up that there is some dissonance between them. Something contradictory. I'd like to know the nature of that contradiction. I think it would help with my poker and with life generally.

This is where my thoughts are.

In the abstract Faith does not require Hope. Although in the real world Faith attracts the faithful through the offer of Hope. Faith can use Hope as a means.

The nature of Hope is amoral. I appreciate that Hope is generally seen as a good thing. But of course people are seduced by Hope into doing very bad things. People sometimes wrongly refer to this as false Hope. There is no such thing. The opposite of Hope is Despair. False Hope is actually real Hope that turns out badly.

Now this wouldn't qualify as a poker post unless I went through at least one hand.

This is how I went out of last night's big $22. There were 6456 entrants. This was hand 178. There were (from memory) about 1200 remaining with the 810 getting paid.

I can remember Short-Stacked Shamus talking about the difference between two types of poker - cash & tournament - over on his blog. He made the point that even the very best tournament poker players lose many many more times than they win. To be successful you have to be able to cope mentally with losing pretty consistently. I expect that Faith and Hope come in handy. Although when those chips flew across the screen to my opponent last night, they were the last things on my mind.

I'm tempted to write more exploring how Faith & Hope are related to Money. Max Weber obviously had a thing or two to say about Faith & Money. And no doubt there'll be some white coated scientist busily searching for an optimism/pessimism gene & correlating its presence with wealth. I think though, that poker (and other games & sports) can give you a insight into these things that maybe scientific research can't. And poker is particularly interesting in this respect because it directly involves pricing (determining the correct level of bet) and and of course it revolves around Money.

But I'll leave that for another time. Meanwhile, this little mantra has popped into my head time and time again since I first read it a few weeks ago. They are very wise words. Words which are sending me back to do some more poker study before I 'invest' any more in the game.

"Never hope harder than you work." Rita Mae Brown

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Let Your Freak Flag Fly - Money and Morals

This morning I've read the Goldman Sachs resignation letter published in the New York Times and an interview on the excellent Banking Blog in the Guardian about right and wrong becoming blurry.

On reflection two things spring to mind.

Firstly Shawcross's biography of Murdoch. I no longer have the book but I remember the opening prologue. Murdoch is waiting to find out if a tiny loan (of $10 million) is going to be rolled over. It was (from memory) the late 80's and his company was potentially in trouble because of his investment in the Sky satellite. Although apparently insignificant, if the loan was not rolled over, a payment could not be made and Murdoch feared a chain reaction that could bring down his company and potentially send the world economy into a nose dive. You may think that this is just Shawcross stroking Murdoch's ego, or Rupert's ego running away with itself. But that's not the point. Situations do occur where tycoons, captains of industry, central bankers believe that the outcome of decisions will huge consequences. What should their moral compass be in such circumstances. Should they be willing to lie? To cheat? To break the law? To be unethical? To go against their conscience?

And secondly a scene from the tv drama 24 series 2. There's a trailer of it here. The relevant bit is near the end. Jack says "If you don't tell me where the bomb is, those men are going to kill your son." And then when the terrorist refuses, "I despise you for making me do this". It very effectively sets up a moral dilemma in a dramatic fashion. Is Jack courageously doing the right thing even though its morally abhorrent? (I won't spoil it for you by revealing what actually happens just in case you've not seen it).

The point I want to make about moral choices and banks is this - Money seems to have the ability to make us postpone and ameliorate moral choices. Everything becomes a compromise, and money provides the excuse and the reason. We can't afford to buy free range eggs, so we buy battery eggs. We have a pension which we know the nasty investment banks using to ruthlessly exploit people & nature in return for profit, so we give £2 a month to save the children. But moral choice cannot be postponed or ameliorated indefinitely. You know how karma works. You know what happens when you repress stuff. Sometime, somewhere those choices, that decision will pop up with bigger and badder consequences. What you hope is that you don't have to make it.

We invented corporations precisely for this reason. They absolve us of individual culpability. We facilitate this by making ourselves morally submissive to the corporate body. The profit motivated corporate body is itself submissive to money. They adopt money's amoral nature. And, in turn, so do we. A banal but vicious circle. Two things to remember. Profit seeking corporations rule the world. And. We created them to take the blame.

Money is mysterious. And so is its relationship to mind. Its amazing how something apparently amoral can pop up along with maybe sex & death as one of those things that can get our brow furrowed in moral confusion.

I've sometimes wondered why as a man in the second half of my forties I still have long hair. People think I'm a biker or musician. And I'm not. It's probably cost me a fortune.

However, I think Dave Crosby might have the answer. It's a moral choice I've made.

I almost cut my hair
'Twas just the other day
It was gettin' kind of long
I could-a said, it was in my way
But I didn't and I wonder why
I want to let me freak flag fly
And I feel like I owe it to someone

Almost Cut My Hair - CSN live version

Monday, March 12, 2012

Underneath Economics - Freud, Keynes, Hayek

I've spent a few hours this morning over at the Social Democracy in the C21st blog mostly reading this post and this post on Praxeology; a system of thought that underlies one particular understanding of economics.

I generally find philosophy texts hard going. Particularly now, as it's a long time since I've studied any philosophy and I have forgotten the language. Although saying that, I am currently reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which is the apparently the most widely read philosophy book. In it Pirsig refers to philosophy as the high ground of knowledge. I did enjoy my time studying the Philosophy of Science - in part that was due to the structure of the course. I was studying Economic History but, because the course was also a requirement for MSc & PHD students, I ended up studying alongside Physicists, Chemists etc from Imperial College instead of just the normal Economics students. It was clear that we all thought very differently about things.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about briefly in this post about Freud. The author of the Social Democracy blog (a very fine blog to which I'm a regular visitor) the mysterious Lord Keynes is dismissive of Freud - in fact Freud is used as a measure of nonsense. Here's what he says:

If Hayek were alive today and gave us an honest answer to this, he would have to class such vulgar Misesian praxeologists as talking nonsense on a par with Marxism and Freudian psychology.

Elsewhere there is also another reference to Hayek who mentions Freud's Life and Death instinct as causing him annoyance when used as an explanation for..... well, everything.

So given that one of my intellectual heroes, Freud, is being attacked I thought I best write a quick post to explain why I think Freud is a good 'un. Before I do I should say that another of my intellectual heroes is Hayek; creating something of an existential crisis for me :)  I'm not going to harp on about Praxeology which will no doubt be a blessed relief to you, dear reader. For what its worth I agree with Lord Keynes that it is flawed. Assuming all human action is purposeful is a silly start for any attempt at understanding. You might as well assume rational self interest ! oh hang on...

You see. You only need to scratch a little beneath the surface of economic thought to realise that you need to have some conception of mind. And that's why I'm standing up for Sigmund. I worry that people have this image of Freud and psychoanalysis as some kind of medico-mystical pseudo-science steeped in C19th prejudices. It's a view of Freud I've some across time and time again. And as far as much of psychoanalysis goes, I'd probably have to agree. But, and here's the thing, the intellectual landscape that Freud eventually arrived at provides (imo) a brilliant, insightful and wonderful conception of mind.

Here's what Freud means to me.

He describes the structure (or architecture) of the mind. [Id, Ego, Superego.]

He describes the nature of relations between Ego and Object as ambivalent. [Co-Existence of Contradiction]

And he describes the fundamental forces of nature which act through the structure and upon the relations. [Life & Death Instinct, Eros & Thanatos. Attraction & Repulsion.]

Yes, he said different things across his lifetime. He also didn't come to his conclusions by mixing chemicals in a jar or measuring correlations between events. But what he suggests about us tallies with my experience of life more than another other attempt to explain our psychology. 

It's this ~base~ Freud that appeals to me. I don't need Neurosis & Psychosis, Repression, or even Concious and Unconscious. 

To bring this back to economics... You'll know that one of the 'real' Keynes' buddies was James Strachey (I say buddy with a knowing wink!). Strachey, a psychoanalyst himself, was most famous for translating Freud's work into English. His and Freud's work sit on my bookshelf today. I've only ever heard Robert Skidelsky refer to Keynes & Freud in the same breath - oh no, wait there is something in John Smithin's 'What is Money' on this too*. But this lack of exploration of the overlap between Keynes & Freud strikes me as odd. I would have thought that if we believed we could understand mind, then we'd understand money**. Or vice versa. It would seem rather strange to imagine some world where we know everything about the human condition and nature and yet still struggled with money. And we are still struggling, aren't we? We haven't reached the 'End of History'.

My own peculiar understanding of Money - and consequentially that subset of Money known as Economics (I'm teasing) - owes much to Freud. Nothing to do with money's anal erotic nature or anything similarly steeped in the more complexity of the application of psychoanalytical thought, it's just because its a simple set of ideas that seem to tally with the way I experience the world. Praxeology - and Homo Economicus more generally - maybe simple ideas but they do not describe our experience of being. That has much more to do with loving & fighting than rational self-interest.

So please, don't think that all that Freud suggested was that you fancied your Mum and wanted to kill your Dad. He went on a weird journey for sure. And he changed his mind about things. But his description of the mind isn't nonsense. Hayek may have thought it was nonsense (although as the faux Lord Keynes hints, he'd have been too polite and respectful to have said so plainly), Keynes (the real one) didn't.

*a brief search has revealed this paper too The End of (Economic) History by Jean-Paul Fitoussi.
** there is of course the very trendy behavioural economics - not my cup of tea, I'm afraid. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Money Wisdom #25

"Logic presumes a separation of subject from object; therefore logic is not final wisdom."

Robert Pirsig Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance  ([1974], 1999) p.133