Sunday, November 29, 2009

One Good Thought for Sunday

Once Buddha was walking from house to house begging for alms with his disciples. The disciples were young and inexperienced, but full of enthusiasm and reverence for their teacher. Buddha told them that as monks their duty was to be content with whatever the householders offered them, so they did as he said.

Sometimes they were fed generously, other times they received little, but they were always treated with respect, or at worst indifference. One time, however, the man who opened the door lashed out in insults. He called Buddha a useless leech, a fraud, a cheat, a despicable bastard, a whole host of other terrible things, lambasted the entire monk profession, spat on the ground, and slammed the door. Unfazed, Buddha merely turned around to leave for the next house, and, as always, the disciples followed suit.

But for the rest of the day the disciples could not get that incident out of their mind. Their minds were ablaze with rage. How dare he treat our master with such contempt! What a great insult! What arrogance! On and on and on it went, but they did not say a word to their teacher. In this way the whole day passed.

At nightfall they stopped at a spot to rest. It was a long and tiring day so one of the disciples got some water and started to wash and massage Buddha's feet. The rest sat nearby and ate their food. Buddha looked around and noticed that they were eating their food a little more violently than usual. What's wrong?, he asked.

Then it all came gushing out. That man who insulted you, they said, he is such a scoundrel, such a fiend, such a...

Once they were done, Buddha looked around and smiled. He only said: If someone gives you a cow, and you refuse to take it, to whom does it belong?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ego Slayer

[Here I have, finally, a new poem. Constructive feedback is greatly appreciated, as it is always on this blog.]

Ego Slayer

the grandeur and vanity that
come from small victories
rare though they be
and recognize your best
as merely the not worse of a certain geographical vicinity
a coincidence in spacetime
circumscribed by a certain set of minds that laud
and applaud out of ignorance
no more
of a larger more infinite more grand reality.

Johnny, who made the apple tree,
the apple farmer or the apple seed?
Remember that all the sweat and toil in the world
do no good for barren land.

The Pharisees
delight in knowing that they know
and showing that they know and
cloak the worship of their ego
as the worship of Their God true knowledge
and intellectual progress and truth and whatever
—but of course the false idols of today
will fall in the dustbin with those of yesterday
as all cheap useless rubbish goes.

Watch the Pharisees
as they relegate themselves to the small history
of vain struggles, forgotten strife, and petty men
not knowing—or fathoming—true devotion
the ascetic life of
confronting constant falsification
whittling down the possibilities
and growing confident in one’s ignorance.

Knowledge is an almighty God,
but it requires ego as its constant sacrifice.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Castillos de Arena

[As a stopgap way of breaking the hiatus, here's another one of my old Spanish poems. Please post comments, positive or negative.]

Castillos de arena

Vivimos nosotros a la orilla del mar
cuyo vaivén inexorable va destruyendo
nuestros castillos de arena.

Aunque sea un castillo más grande que el Alcázar,
él también, un día, caerá.

Pero esto no es una lástima;
la única lástima es llorar por castillos de arena.

Sand Castles

We live at the edge of the sea
whose inexorable tide keeps destroying
our sand castles.

Even if it is a castle bigger than the Alcázar
it too, one day, will fall.

But this is not a sad thing;
the only sad thing is to cry over sand castles.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Stag Hunt

Last week I was at the local grocery co-op buying some avocadoes and tomatoes. At the checkout line, the cashier, a Jamaican man with dreads, started making some small talk. What do you major in, he asked. Oh, economics? Hey, what do you think of the Fed?

I don't know much about the Fed, really, so I said I didn't wade much in political debates (which I don't) and that I thought they employed decent enough people. I prefer going through life assuming the best in people, assuming that the world isn't rigged against me, I said. The Jamaican man turned serious: But sometimes things are rigged. Sometimes things are rigged, and you have to fix them.

Hm. In my conversation with the Jamaican man, I got the sense that he believed things (the economy, the state of the world, etc.) were messed up only because someone was there to mess it up; that he felt that if only people were cooperative (i.e. "give peace a chance"), the world would be a great place. And this seems a really natural position to take, since, after all, our problems are human-made. But it turns out that our society doesn't work like that. The startling and fascinating conclusion of game theory is that we can end up in sub-optimal outcomes even if everyone would like to cooperate.

How is this possible?

The story behind the game goes back to Rousseau. Imagine, he said, a group of primitive people who had a choice between hunting stag and hunting hare. Hunting stag would, of course, be the best option because it would yield lots of rich meat, but the problem is that it requires everyone to work together to take the stag down. On the other hand, they could hunt hare individually, but the reward wouldn't be as great. In game form the story looks like this:

The numbers in the boxes represent how the players (in this case, an individual vs. the rest of society) value the outcome. Thus everyone hunting stag is the best outcome (3), both hunting hare is second (2), and getting screwed is the worst (1), because you not only waste your time running after the stag, but you don't even get any food.

In other words, these people are as cooperative as you're going to get: They would like to work together and they don't like to take advantage of each other. And yet it's still possible for these primitive people (and us possibly less primitive people) to get stuck in a Hunt Hare/Hunt Hare equilibrium!

The catch here is that it matters not just what players want to do, but what they think others will do. Everyone would like to hunt stag, but only when everyone else hunts stag. So if people think others are inclined to cooperate, they'll cooperate too; but, on the flipside, if everyone is scared of getting screwed over, then they're likely to not cooperate.

Notice that the basic fact that all these people are cooperative hasn't changed. It's just that they don't know that they're all cooperators. And this uncertainty causes all the problems: cooperation is risky, it leaves you vulnerable, and people aren't willing to gamble too much. [Indeed, this game is also called an Assurance Game, because if players were assured that the other was a cooperator, then they would cooperate too.]

This is my long comment to the Jamaican man's remark. Yes, Jamaican man, sometimes things are rigged. But sometimes we can end up in all sorts of social problems even when no one is at fault.

For more information on the Stag Hunt and cooperation and such, see Brian Skyrms' book: The Stag Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure.