Posts tagged with Zen

Several years ago I sat (after yoga class) with some Zaa Zen practitioners. As I understood the practice from doing it once, Zaa Zen basically consists of sitting in good posture, staring at a blank wall, and clearing your mind.

It wasn’t my favourite meditation I’ve ever tried. (So far my favourite was something that into the continuum introduced me to: Vipassana meditation. The way I did it was to sit outdoors in nice weather and listen to the sounds and stop thinking about my own anxiety or problems. Something much like the John Cage lecture that until a single soliton survives posted. Being aware of the world around you and “listening” or “taking in” rather than “forcing” or “pushing out”.)

But I definitely remember the conversation I had with one of the practitioners (Tony) afterwards. Tony was maybe 20 or 30 years older than me but I felt we instantly connected on some mental level. He told me he had been a failure at pretty much everything he had tried in life. How he was a black sheep of his family; how he tried to be a biologist; there were a few other things he tried and he hadn’t been very good at any of them. But in some sense it didn’t matter (remember, this is the wisdom of years talking. According to economic research people tend to mellow, their aspirations and hopes drop to a realistic level, and they become intimately familiar with the passing of time—whatever you optimise, whatever you read, however much you drink, whatever you earn, however you train, however many relationships you destroy—that passing of time always clicks, click, click, tick, steady.)  and he could always come back to his practice. A different meaning of “return to the breath”.

Anyway, we were talking about various I guess spiritual things. More like a mixture of the mental-ethereal and the sense-grounded. He was telling me how Zaa Zen was so great and I would really like it and I should read this book and so on. You know how people always do that—they’ve read a book and then they say you would love it. Well, no, I think just you liked it and I have my own stack of stuff that’s my to-read list already. So normally I would just keep that kind of thought to myself but since Tony and I had an unusual level of honesty and directness for perfect strangers who just met, I brought up what I see as the circular-logic problem of picking up any book.

  • When deciding whether I want to read a book or not, I am acting on incomplete information—and not just random incomplete information, marketing and Ising-spin-ish hubbub. I have a hazy idea of what the book is going to be like.
  • As I read the book it is going to change me.
  • "Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out." —Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (c.1475-1530)
  • I can’t unread the book and I can’t unthink or unknow whatever ideas it gives me.
  • So even before I know what it is I have already consented to be changed.

This is why, I said, I won’t read the book you’re telling me I will like so well. From my outsider’s perspective I don’t trust enough in the Zaa Zen idea. Not to say that it is some hokey New Age crystals or whatever, but I don’t sense—from standing on the threshold—that this is a house I want to get comfortable in.

(This is also why I started reading so much mathematics. From an outsiders’ perspective it seemed like “This is where the truth is. Following Wolsey’s idea, with a hungry reification of Plato’s philosopher-kings, if I put in only veracity and earnest labour, the result should be something good.)

Tony told me this attitude was actually quite Buddhistic or Zen of me. So I felt very proud that in avoiding looking at the Zaa Zen I had apparently picked up something of it—and it’s a nice geometric shape now that I reflect on it.


So it’s a logical circular logic and a higher modal order than the standard model of choice—and it relates to two other themes I want to talk more about later:

  1. So many economic decisions are just like this. Beyond just knowing my edge, I need to decide whether quantitative finance is actually a thing (and not just the subject of a book by Emanuel Derman) before enrolling in an MFE. (There are various signals on the interwebs that suggest MFE’s are not a good idea. I wrote out my reasoning more fully when I was making this decision, google “DIY MFE”.) And say I spend half a decade training to be a lawyer or engineer or doctor. Then what if I don’t like it? Since young people don’t intern or work in hospitals / law firms / alongside engineers before choosing their course of study, their decision is based on folderol, disinformation, heresay, and outer appearances. If I would have loved a career in X I’ll never know it because I couldn’t possibly sample.

    On the hypothesis that most people don’t know what they want most of the time (nor do most corporations know what they’re doing or why it works, except by accident), I’d rather look at economic agents as operating at some higher order level, away from all the information. The most I feel I can do as a rational maximiser is try a lifestyle and sample how it makes me feel (although…again, I am changing both with time and changed by my own choices as I do this). Sampling from my own utility function rather than knowing it beforehand. (Or with a corp sampling from revenue & other responses.)
  2. "Dug like a river" / "Hebbian history". One of the famous models of brain development is “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. Yogis (need a link, sorry) draw the analogy to a river—as water flows from tributaries to deltas, the act of doing so cuts a deeper and deeper channel along the same course.

    These are the same idea and I think juxtaposing habit (in mathematical terms, bien sûr!) alongside personality, mood, preference, desire, intent, pleasure, happiness, goals, rank, and free will is going to lead somewhere interesting. I’ll write more about how I can exercise “second order” free will more easily than first-order.

    For example if I close this laptop and hide it from myself I will waste less time on the internet than if I leave it open and tempt myself. (On the other hand—back when I had much better time discipline from running my business I was quite better at focussing whilst at the computer. But from doing more computer stuff since then the “edges of the water” “eroded” the “sides of the channel”—and now my computer time management is spilled out like a floodplain. So very Hebbian in that story itself.) Some people pay a personal trainer so that they’re committed to work out (but couldn’t they have saved money and just worked out?). And a married man may stay away from strip clubs, red light districts, and too many drinks with attractive coworkers—and would we consider his desire to steer clear of temptation a form of infidelity?

    The jazz educator David Baker described the progression of jazz improvisational creativity this way: first you learn to copy long licks, scales, pre-formed patterns. Second you start playing with these, so that you have a coarse level of control (free will, in my “interpretation”)—splicing together the known parts. As you progress to higher levels of mastery, your control, focus, creativity become ever more atomic. A true improvisational master is present—deciding, thinking—in every millisecond of the notes, rests, articulation, and consciously chooses every aspect of what s/he’s doing and why.

    I’ve found this pattern to hold for me in areas besides jazz improv (and it even holds a lesson for maths explanations—to remember that your audience is probably not at such a fine-grained level) and I want to juxtapose as well whatever this view of personal development is pointing to, against the Lagrangian utility concept.

1,161 Plays

[W]e are getting nowhere. And that is a pleasure. It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.

Mushroom Haiku, excerpt from Silence (1972/69) by John Cage

[also: here] via until a single soliton survives


It’s wrong to say that faith and science are opposites,

  • not only because that’s playing into the presentist viewpoint of American fundamentalists fighting to teach creationism in science class versus /r/atheism, but because
  • scientists don’t choose their research programmes at random. They “have a hunch” — or an aesthetic sense impels them. But staking your career on  the belief that a particular line of investigation will be fruitful, both in a scientific sense and in a value-to-humanity sense, requires stronger language than merely “I think so” or “I have a hunch”. I think it’s fair to say that scientists have faith in their research programmes.

I’ll give an example of a research programme that I have faith in. Mostly unjustified faith, but I believe it nonetheless. (I could be wrong, of course — but still I can’t approach the world with no beliefs whatever — although some views of rationality would suggest that this unlivable mental life would be the most honourable way to live.)

  1. I believe there’s something wrong with economic theory. Call it a dark age on the way to enlightenment, call it an obsession with equilibrium-and-optimisation, call it the undue influence of Milton Friedman essays on the deeper, unspoken beliefs of economists vis-à-vis effect of careful studies or creative mathematics. ∃ many ways to describe the malaise | muddle | distraction | not even really sure what to call it.

    This is not based on "Economists didn’t foresee the financial crisis!" or a critique of the Washington Consensus. It’s not about Objectivists or people who don’t understand what a model is, but rather at real, non-crazy economists. It’s more based on statements like "Economics is in a terrible state"—Ariel Rubinstein. Or questions like: since information and search costs and other such things dominate the f**k out of the normal incentives-based thinking we use to armchair-speculate—then what is even the use of the partial-equilibrium intuitions or DSGE or anything like that?

    I also don’t think this idea would necessarily change the focus to more sociological or historical or cultural issues (like economists ignoring how utility functions come to be, or larger questions about history and culture and family norms … I actually think a lot of economists are already prepared to focus on those issues, they just need to make them mathematically tractable). Rather my gut instinct tells me that this research programme is “far upstream”—redirecting the river by diverting the water long before it becomes a rushing channel (sometimes called the MSNBC channel) that’s too powerful to redirect.
    nerve of cover
  2. I don’t know enough about sheaf theory or cohomology to say for certain whether they can be used for this or that. It’s just my spider sense tingling when I look at the ideas there. Most of the applications I’ve read about are to either physics problems or logic, or to higher mathematics itself (algebraic topology, algebraic geometry, topological analysis, … stuff that’s named as (adjective = way of thinking + noun = subject matter)).
    presheaf axioms
    That said I think there’s something to be found here in terms of new viewpoints on economic questions.
  3. Consider the Leontief input-output matrix (Cosma Shalizi recently wrote a lot about it in his book review of Red Plenty on Crooked Timber blog).
    hypothetical transactions from a leontief input/output matrix
    Mathematically savvy people know that every graph can be encoded as a matrix, and furthermore with the right base corpus and some knowledge of “characters” we can do one-directional graphs.
    social graph
  4. What’s the [putative] application to economics? Well instead of thinking about all this stuff we can’t observe or interpret yet—utility curves, willingness-to-pay outside the lab, valuations, etc.
    indifference curves
    (we don’t even know experimentally if there is such a thing as a valuation—and it’s kind of dubious—yet we go on as if these things exist because they’re axiomatic keystones of the only tractable theory around). Instead of continuing to rely on the theoretical stuff handed down from Bentham, let’s think about all the things we can measure—like transactions—and ask how we can use mathematics to make theories about those things and possibly infer back to the stuff we really want to know, like is capitalism making the world a better place.
  5. Transactions are one place to start. Prices (like the billion price project) are another. And the web now generates huge amounts of text—maybe we can do something with that. But let’s start by going back to the Leontief matrix.
    input output matrix
  6. In the formulation I learned in school, there’s a fixed time unit—like a year—and each dimension corresponds to an exactly comparable item class—so like a three button shirt and a four button shirt would be separate dimensions, but once we finally get down to a dimension, everything along that dimension is equivalence-classed.
  7. I can see three things missing from that picture.

    First of all, I want to be able to “zoom in” to different timescales and have my matrix change in the sensible way. In other words I want a mathematical object that operates on multiple timescales at once, with a coherent, consistent translation between the Leontief matrix of October 17th between 19:29 and 21:13 GMT, and the Leontief matrix of 1877 A.D. I believe things floating around sheaf theory are the place to look for that.
  8. Second of all, I want neighbourhood relationships (and even distances) between the items—so that a three-button blue blouse is “closer to” a four-button blue blouse than it is to a ferret named Bosco the Great sold at the Petco in Moravia, Illinois. So something from algebraic topology is necessary here.
    algebraic topology
    Maybe a tie-in to “lumpy human capital”—the most important kind of good because it’s what humans use to sustain themselves and help others. It’s acknowledge to be “lumpy” in that ten years of studying economic theory doesn’t prepare you to be a laundress or even necessarily to trade OTC derivatives. But we also know that in terms of neighbourhood relationships, economic theory studying is “closer to” finance than to farming. (Although most economists are not as close to finance as seems to be generally thought.)
  9. Both of those two points are more just æsthetic problems or issues with foundations. Like philosophical gripes could be solved, in the same way that a transition from cardinal utility to ordinal utility, even though I don’t think the outcomes of the ordinal utility theory were very different.
  10. Third, I want my matrix to be time-varying or dynamical. New trade partners come into existence, some businesses shutter their doors and file their dissolution papers, others are broken up and sold in parts, and even with an existing vendor I am not going to do the same business each year. Some of these numbers are available in XBRL format because public companies sometimes do business with each other.
  11. Fourth, and here is where I think it would be possible to get new ideas of things to measure. If I have some kind of dynamical, multi-level, “coloured” graph of all the trades in all the currencies and all the goods types in the world over the right number corpus, then I have a different mathematical conception of the world economy.
    a drawing of some foreign exchange flows I did whilst reading about cohomology ... this is the beginning of some ideas which are both graphical and hard to draw (because they're so convoluted).).
    I can draw boundaries like you would see in a cell complex and denote “a community” or “a municipality” or “a neighbourhood” or “a province” and when I perturb those boundaries some rationality conditions need to hold.
    cells with directed boundary
    Taking this viewpoint and applying only the maths that’s already been invented, people have already found a lot of invariants on graphs—cohomology invariants, generalisations of Gauss’ divergence theorem, different calcula on the interesting objects (like fox calculus)—and applying those theories to the conception of the super-duper Leontief matrix, we might find new things to measure, or new ways to make different sense of some measurements we already have.
    fox calculus
    If you remember this Perelman quote about calculating how fast Christ would have to run on the water to not sink in, or various nifty cancellations in the vacuum states of a gnarly physics theory — that is the kind of thing I’m thinking could be useful in theorising new invariants to measure from an überdy-googly Leontief trade matrix.
    string diagrams for the Frobenius algebra axioms

    Or from we learn "The Euler characteristic χ of any compact triangulable space is independent of the particular [finite] simplicial structure imposed, as well as independent of the topological type.”
    ok, not a triangulated space. but this gives you the idea.
    Yum. Tell me more.
    another drawing from the first time I was reading about cohomology and thinking about its possible applications to a dynamical graph of actual transactions. Looking back on it this isn't super clear either. Maybe you get what I was "suggesting" though.
    For example we know some Gaussian-divergence ∑ relations that happen within the grey box of a firm—all the internal transactions have to add up to what’s written on the accounting statements. But what about applying this logic to a group of three firms that circularly trade with each other and also each has a composite edge (with different weights) adding up all of their trades to “outside the cycle”?

    Seems like some funky abstract nonsense could simplify problems like that and, crucially, tell us invariants that give us new ideas of what to measure.
  12. Fifth, this is not really related. I think the concept of symplecticity from physics nicely captures the essence of what tradeoffs are about.
    a symplectic manifold. drawn by r ghrist in the /preprints/ATSN.pdf
    But I’m still looking into this—I won’t definitely say that, it just seems like another fruit-lined avenue. 
  13. There are tie-ins to categories, causal diagrams, and other stuff wherein I may be just lumping together a lot of seemingly-related ideas.
    A causal diagram. (not to be confused with an acausal diagram!)
    So I’m not sure if looking at a super-duper Leontief matrix like described above would have nice tie-ins to causal graphs / structural equations à la Judea Pearl, but hey it might. At least one tie-in I can already think of is that all the goods actually transacted doesn’t tell you enough because there are threats and possible counterfactuals and CV’s that are sent in but get ignored or rejected, or smiles and pats on the back which are a kind of transaction that influences the economic outcomes without being tied directly to money or a goods transaction.
  14. Why go for even more abstraction, even “more” maths, when so many of the critiques of economics say it’s become too mathematical? Simple answer. More abstract mathematics requires fewer assumptions. So conclusions drawn using those tools are more likely to actually hold true in the real world. For example, is it more plausible that someone’s utility increases linearly, or monotonically with good X? Monotonically of course is much more realistic, although we could infer much more if linear were the case. But what’s the point of making easier inferences if they’re wrong because the assumptions don’t hold? Hence the interest in more general, more abstract mathematics.

Now, realistically? The scale of investigating this “hunch” in terms of concrete steps that lead A → B → C → D are way beyond what I will probably accomplish. Even if I dropped all side interests and all work, it would take at least a couple years to get publishable material out of these hunches.

But that’s exactly my point about science. I was told by a Zaazen practitioner that this is kind of a Zen-like paradox.a reflexive node (CYCLIC graph, not a dag) In order to investigate the premise that there are useful applications of sheaves & cohomology to economic theory, I first have to accept the premise that there are probably useful applications of sheaves & cohomology to economic theory.

cylical graph / circular logic

Glancing at the text above you can probably tell that my thoughts on this issue are formless, probably mischaracterising the mathematics I’ve only heard about but don’t yet understand. My mental conception of these things, if it could be understood via a perfect future theory of mental representation and fMRI snapshots of my mind thinking about this stuff, would be some mixture of formless and inaccurate.

So the important decisions (decisions of major direction, not adjustments or effort) are made amongst the formless, but can only be harvested as a form. Like the beginner’s mind, with its vagueness and formlessness, giving way to the expert’s mind, its definition, choateness, and exactitude. (Form and formlessness being complementary in the QM | vNA sense.) I think that’s Zen as well.

Think about this: those Eastern philosophies that are so helpful to modern Americans, ideas we use to disconnect us from our Blackberries, were developed by people with no electronic technology.

What does that mean? My picture of medieval anywhere (Asia, Europe, Africa) is peasants busting their backs in muck all day. At night a fiddler plays The Devil Went Down to Georgia and they all get down, hard. Probably not accurate. But they must have felt sexual desire, felt depression, felt elation, and … I guess, felt bathos? felt boredom? felt self-pity? felt disconnected from the world?

It doesn’t seem like peasants who farm the muck would feel disconnected from the Earth, would seek to be mindful. I could imagine that “there was nothing to do” and therefore focusing on the breath would be entertaining by comparison. But that fledgling thought must be wrong. There’s always sex, there’s always gossip, there’s always riches and power and glory to pursue.

Then again … as a generous intellectual (intellectual by ancient standards, not modern) my prejudices about un-learnèd people must be wrong.