A Trader Learns About the Universe

If a question was posed to me ten years ago, at my professional peak, whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the woods with no one around, I’d pause, wondering whether the questioner had too much spare time on his hands or was just being a dick, then, with a stare and a tone tailored to let him know that he’s an idiot, I’d answer with a smug “Of course it does. Now fuck off” and go back to my Bloomberg.

Back then I practiced what I called a ‘pragmatic practicality’ philosophy. That pragmatic, no-nonsense worldview came in handy for the low-brow (albeit pretend, ironic low-brow), hustling, locker room world of a trading floor, with its references to Goodfellas and Airplane! and Caddyshack. I thought I have found all the answers – and they resided in science and logic, in numbers and common sense. Never a philosopher I worshipped reason; Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were authorities on thought and staples in my modest library – modest, you see, because no time to read – with highlighted passages and main arguments memorized as I prepared myself for a random argument with an imaginary religious person: If your god is omnipotent can he create a stone that he himself can’t lift? If God loves us why does he allow the unimaginable sufferings in this world? The burden of proof is on you to prove His existence, not on me to prove the negative. Check, mate. Pretty solid.

Ironically, it was quantum mechanics – a discipline of physics – that put cracks in my philosophical certainty. The conventional Newtonian physics failed to provide a satisfying answer to a few things, one among them is a problem of conscience. As a busy person with no time to ponder I tucked it into the farthest mental compartment to be dealt with later. That part, which I now know is called ‘the Hard Problem’, deals with an elusive but stubborn problem of consciousness origins. Not the mechanical part, which merely explains how the neurons interact with each other and how information received through eyes and ears is stored in the brain. Hard Problem deals with figuring out how those physical processes produce thought, and more importantly, feelings of awe and other irrational human emotions. How does that neural interaction produce goosebumps when I hear a, say, David Gilmour’s sick guitar riff? Is it similar to a Catholic nun crying rapturously after meeting the Pope? Are these experiences rooted in the same place, even though she’s religious and I’m not? This has put me into intellectual stupor.

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Beauty after the rain on a random drive.

Just as Hitchens and Dawkins like to portray religion as a safety blanket used by those who are afraid to search for answers, my worship of scientific reason was no different: a subconscious search for certainty so that I can get on with my life. Psychologically it was the same security blanket, but only for those who are too smart to believe in the supernatural.

Well, I am too smart to believe in the supernatural, but at some point I also acknowledge that my scientific inflexibility manifested the other side of the same coin – fear of the unknown. I wanted to know, but instead of fairy tales I wanted formulas.

That search led me to quantum physics – a series of books for beginners and YouTube videos, where formulas revealed a world functioning under a totally different set of rules – rules that are incompatible with our standard understanding of the physical world. A world where the presence (or absence) of the observer affects the subsequent events. This is where the ‘tree in the woods’ quiz came up again. This time I wasn’t so sure it made a sound: if there’s no ear or any sort of receiver, the sound wave simply dissipates without being captured. Thus no sound! A devotee of logic I couldn’t argue with that.

Mouth agape I kept reading. Some things were too hard to comprehend, like the entangled particles phenomenon, where two particles no matter how far from each other behave in a simultaneous manner. You observe one particle and its twin, which, no matter the distance between them, act in total unison with each other. There’s not even a fraction of a millisecond between their moves. Einstein called this phenomenon a ‘Spooky action at a distance.’ Or take even the simple concept of space: would we even know what space is if it was empty; if there were no objects in the universe would it be possible for us to know the difference between a centimeter and a million miles? A working person, in a numbing daily grind, doesn’t think about this stuff at all. Well, I have time to think about it now – so I should.

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Atlantic City, inviting to contemplation.

So how do these findings – that the universe is an observer-dependent entity, square off with our philosophical longings?

The philosophical questions arise from our mental facilities. Subatomic particles act out in a manner that suggests a link between our thoughts and their behavior. Our neural circuitry has the power to form reality. Our reality is a collapsed wave function of probabilities. We were given tools, unlike animals, to ponder our existence. The problem is we were given the tools but no instruction manual. If we didn’t have conscience then there would be no such concepts as morality and the good and the bad, just like there’s no morals in the animal kingdom. Lions eating an antelope is neither good nor bad. But we, humans, we were given a hammer; there must be a nail somewhere.

In a nutshell that was the logic behind Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To put Kant in simple terms, he posited that because we possess a faculty of reason we should use it to discern good from bad. (As an aside, this kind of thinking is incompatible with the way Wall Street thinks: everything is looked at through the profit angle. On Wall Street, like in an animal kingdom, there is no right or wrong; whatever makes money is right. Which is, if you think about it further, a sad commentary on a bunch of super smart guys suppressing their ample mental facilities and their sense of wonderment at the altar of profit. But deep down they know they’re too smart for this shit. This dissonance manifests itself in odd ways like ‘radical transparency’ and ‘transcendental meditation’ – pseudo-philosophies whose sole purpose is not enlightenment but profit. A vicious circle.)

But there are things that exist outside our thoughts. While out thoughts change the outcome of a quantum experiment they can not change certain abstract concepts like mathematical formulas. They exist outside of our mental realm.

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Abandoned Railway in Philly

If we accept Kant’s notion that there IS such a thing as ‘the right thing to do’ and it is as certain as a mathematical concept that exists even if we don’t think of it (2+2 = 4 even before we were born and will remain so after we die), then our duty as sentient species is to find out what it is.

But how? How do we get to determine what is good and what is bad. This is where the science fails. How does one proceed further then?

I think it is the confluence of science, philosophy and arts (particularly literature) – the trifecta – that should be employed to help us understand our predicament. The three disciplines should be given equal weight; each alone can never be sufficient enough for our inquiry. Traditional science explains the mechanics of the world; quantum physics elevates the role of the observer; philosophy poses the questions we have to (no, must!) ask ourselves as sentient beings; and literature frames the human existence into a context which in turn helps us to categorize the events and give them moral meaning.

Don’t you already feel like a fugitive from Plato’s cave seeing the light for the first time? After thinking this way there is no going back.

So what does that all mean? Is there good or bad and how does one have to live? Again and again through history, people from different walks of live who ever embarked on contemplating on this question came up with similar answer. An atheist Tolstoy and a religious Dostoyevsky have similar conclusions: the suffering that we see around us is not indicative of a vengeful deity nor of a singular depravity of a human soul. It is but inevitable part of our existence, like a crest of a wave would not be a crest without a trough. Without the bad we would not know what good is. But, still if we MUST know what is good, certain classics might help. Tolstoy found meaning in the irrational; Dostoyevsky found meaning in loving others.

I like this idea. I like the idea of meaning in the irrational – that is things that carry no profit or fame. Can you put a price on a sense of awe?

 

 

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Busy Summer

Wasn’t blogging for a while as I was writing a screenplay and playing poker. Nice way to get my mind off of politics. Cashed in Borgata Poker Open Event 1 the other day.

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Plus my other script – a TV Pilot – made it into Austin Film Festival 2nd round. AFF is considered a writer’s festival, so even though I didn’t advance into semi-finals, I’m pleased with the result. It’s an encouraging indicator of my writing skills.

On top of that I’m in the process of moving to Philly. Yes, leaving NYC, which I thought would never happen. Still shuttle back and forth to the city to square off things, but I’m primarily in Philly.

A long philosophical post is coming later.

A Game Democrats Can’t Play

Democrats are at a disadvantage in a game where the other side casually, nonchalantly breaks the rules and doesn’t get punished. Such selective impunity is emblematic of how lopsided our current political discourse is. A Democrat gets punished for an unfortunate slip of tongue, a minor, inconsequential protocol violation where a Republican, no matter how badly compromised, can always count either on a loud, wide-eyed support or a quiet shrug of the shoulder. Democrats, true to their small-d democratic creed, with their commitment to equal representation, are obliged to feel and display compassion even to those who openly hate them. Hillary was forced to display contrition to those who chanted ‘Lock Her Up’, because she understood democratic norms all too well. Democrats, in their attempts to be and be seen as fair arbiters, are thus forced to be adults in the room. But by being adults they thus close many doors – tactical and strategic – that Republicans punch open with their foot without a second thought. As much as I would like them to, Democrats can’t be like McConnell if they ever find themselves in a position of a vacant SCOTUS seat and a majority. The paths that are open for Republicans are all but closed to the Democrats due to our different temperaments and understanding of the stakes involved. For the GOP that stakes are quick tactical victories; for Democrats the stakes are less tangible but more consequential: the democratic processes, the civic discourse, the health and survival of the Republic.

This is the reason why I don’t want to blame misogyny on Hillary’s loss. Republicans don’t have problems with women in power as long as those women are Republican. Hillary lost because she was a Democrat not because she was a woman. The only way where her being a woman came into play is that she respected the rules of the game. It’s a woman’s trait. Many women have tales where they ostensibly, religiously follow the rules in their own personal and professional lives, only to be outdone on the finish line by a freewheeling, smirking brat. But then the same is true of any democratic politician – the respect for norms, the adherence to the rules, appropriate consequences for transgressions. As a Democrat Hillary played by the established norms, by the old rules while the other side dispensed with civility while demanding civility from her. Hillary had no choice but to oblige. She had to cross the abyss on the thinnest of ropes, while her opponent was drunk driving a Camaro on the empty parking lot.

The first impulse would be to advise Democrats to start breaking the rules and norms the way GOP has been doing for decades. This is not a good idea if only because Democrats can never be as good at this game as the Republicans. We would get disgusted and get the foot off the gas pedal just at the time when the right-wing loud mouths are only getting into the groove. We police ourselves too well, given the swift outrage coming from our own ranks if one of us gets out of line.

I think what Democrats can do for now is to learn to mind the context. Bill Maher slip of tongue happen not because he’s a white supremacist who’s hiding under a civil mask, but because he wanted to make a point, however clumsy, in the service of a progressive cause. We have to learn to forgive our sinners the way Paul Ryan forgives Trump. Bill Maher, or any careless leftie’s words won’t deprive millions of people of their health care. Standing up for our own are just baby steps that must be taken before we can even come close to pulling the McConnellesque legislative coups.

However tempting it is to want to jump into the mud ring, I think we have to slug it out as the adults in the room. If we decide to finally employ to the same dirty tricks as the GOP has, we will end up like the eager party goers who were finally let into the nightclub at 4am only to find all the liquor has been drunk, all the fashionable crowd gone and DJ wrapping up the equipment. We can’t outclown the clowns. And by the time we decide to play dirty that game will become so old and tired that Republicans will decide to put their ‘sober statesman’ suits on and play a different game. We should not let them. We’re the fucking sober statesmen. That’s our turf.

Chris Cornell, RIP

If my wings should fail me, Lord, please meet me with another pair.

As devastating as the news of Chris Cornell’s death today was the fact that in his final performance just yesterday in Detroit he closed the show with the rendition of Led Zeppelin’s ‘In My Time of Dying’.

For years, I can’t get this song out of my head; it has a prominent place in one of my screenplay’s pivotal scene.

This song is so haunting and its lyrics are so visceral that one would be a fool, while entranced by the song and plunged into the depths of contemplation, to rank it on any scale of favorites. Songs of that caliber, that kind of deep reach and hypnotism are in its own class. It would be silly and glib to call this song as a ‘favorite’. Its value can not be measured in aesthetics, in the same way a religious chant can’t be described simply as a recitation of words.

It is harrowing that this song was his last choice on the stage. RIP, Chris.

But enough with the profound.

How about this brutal social commentary. More than 20 years old but still relevant.

In The Vice

‘In the Vice’ is my first film project. It’s a short film that I wrote and produced. My friend Stavroula Toska directed. We wrapped up a one day shoot yesterday in Madison Square Park.

The main character is a female bond trader who comes out of an office tower to do some personal business – an illicit transaction – in the park. During the exchange with the little girl, who is a counterparty of that transaction, the woman, for a very brief moment, begins to doubt her life choices. But that moment of clarity doesn’t last as she soon reverts back to her business mode. Thus, she’s stuck or, in other words, ‘in the vice’, from which she can’t get out.

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I am particularly excited with the depiction of her ‘moment of clarity’. That moment comes in a form of a homeless man. Naturally, as a big Led Zeppelin fan, I had to find a way to use a subtle (or not so subtle) reference to the band and to its mythology. If I can’t use their music, I can use their imagery. An allusion to an old man – an iconic image on the album IV cover – did the trick.

Everyone will interpret this vision of a bum in many ways and this is fine; there’s no wrong way to think about it, even if one doesn’t get the LZ reference. Some may think this is just a juxtaposition of power and money vs poverty. Others may think that she’s afraid to end up like that guy and thus is forced to get back to her racket. My personal interpretation is that the old man represents our internal true self that we work hard to hide from the world, an innocence that we lost when we jumped on the corporate treadmill.

It will take about a month in post-production and editing. Then off to festivals.

Certitude vs Doubt

I find it interesting that many Republican politicians, upon leaving public office, undergo a curious transformation. Their right-wing fervor subsides, they mellow out and turn into normal, reasonable, even compassionate human beings. Look at Bush II and Schwarzenegger. Such post-factum metamorphoses don’t befall Democrats; retired Dems don’t become hardline pro-life, supply-siders and foreign policy hawks after leaving office. Such ideological shift is a purely Republican phenomenon. I won’t be the first to conclude that right-wing politics is a total act, a show. Fox News would be a prime example of such a glittering, buffoonish arcade, selling Tarot reading to the gullible. In fact, this ‘total act’ theory holds up if you look at how any of the GOP and its satellite outfits operate: they put on a show to sell you a product.  And when a right-wing pundit or a politician leaves the racket he doesn’t have to be a salesman anymore. Thus the subsequent mellowing. A John Kasich is more likely to become a hippie upon retirement than a Chuck Schumer to become a hardliner. Democrats believe in their product, thus they have no need for a later change of heart; Republicans merely use their product as a tool, easily discarded when no longer useful for business.

 

Right-wing politics is an act that doesn’t require special training. All it requires is a projection of certitude. Perhaps such certitude is why it is easy, for a liberal, for the sake of argument or for fun, to assume the role of a conservative. We can make ourselves sound like Bill O’Reilly without any effort. Hell, a Fox News personality is an easy game. To take it a few notched up on a difficulty scale, any leftie in my circle can provide a lucid, informed argument, quoting both dead and living conservative intellectuals and sound like William F. Buckley in the process. Normally, they would be talking about personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, etc. They would be quoting Burke, Hayek, Ayn Rand, Grover Norquist, etc. We’d talk about the deterioration of traditional values and sound like Frum and Brooks and Charles Murray. Of course, that doesn’t mean we would agree with the argument we were making; it means that we are informed enough to be able to make it, to assume that kind of mindset, to see where the other side is coming from. An average informed liberal, if asked, can defend conservatism better than an average conservative. We just don’t want to.

 

Conservatives are incapable of a similar role-play. A conservative’s attempt to play a liberal would quickly deteriorate into making an over-the-top caricature: “Let’s put all the disabled Muslim lesbians on welfare; let’s abort all babies; let’s take all the guns away!” Conservatives are incapable of speaking the language of liberalism, even for the sake of gamesmanship, because that language eschews simplicity. Liberalism is an awareness of the essential duality of a human nature. If conservatives made an honest attempt to speak liberal, honest being the key word, it would make them pause and ponder, which would then prevent them from engaging in a half-assed, mocking affectation. (Btw, that also explains why the majority of actors and screenwriters are lefties: they are required, by their trade, to ponder what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes). A conservative worldview, like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, is a rather simplistic, one-dimensional realm where bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. A well-written conservative character, on the other hand, would, through a personal accident or a personal flaw, begin to see others’ humanity, not just his own. A priest who doubts the existence of God; a Wall Street shark who finds Jesus – you get the idea. Real life makes that happen to a conservative, but not before he leaves the circus for good. On twitter I follow several former Bush staffers and GOP operatives who don’t hold any public office anymore, and all of them have undergone a massive turn of heart. Today they sound like bleeding-heart liberals, talking about helping the poor, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

 

A thoughtful argument of a conservative trying to imitate a liberal would go something like this: Personal responsibility is a great idea, but there will always be people among us who will need help. As a society, we can’t leave them on the side of the road. Free markets is also a good idea but they can’t function properly without at least some regulations: the vulnerable must be protected from the unscrupulous and the contracts need to be enforced. These functions need government interference. Abortion is bad, but banning it is antithetical to individual liberty – a revered conservative notion, btw. Religion has a place in society but should be kept private and if you must bring it up in public life, focus on its calls for mercy rather than on a watchful, vengeful Deity.

 

To come up with these arguments a conservative would be forced to think about a particular circumstance, an individual story, a person behind the statistic. But nuance and ambivalence don’t sell. Simplicity and certitude do. Today’s Republicans operate on such a contrived certitude; they claim to know how things should be, and the reason things are not this way is because the pure, unentangled experiment in their minds has not yet been tried. If you point out that it has, like in Kansas, they will counter that we should just give it more time. Paul Ryan knows, just knows, that health care for every American is a certain road to serfdom. Why? He just knows.

 

If Paul Ryan were to write a story, his main character would be devoid of a pensive, wistful state. If that character were to find himself thinking, it would be about how to maximize profits or defeat the baddies. His life story would be a cookie-cutter amalgam of hard work, overcoming adversity, becoming rich and driving into the sunset in a convertible. There would be no underlying theme, no personal struggle, no moral ambivalence.

 

For the foreseeable future Republicans will keep successfully selling their product; they have perfected the trade over the decades and they have a talented salesman. In the meantime, Democrats can ponder about the following narrative: an effete hipster from Brooklyn moves South, buys a gun and becomes a badass.

 

International Women’s Day: what do we celebrate?

I often think about the shortage and/or inadequacy of our modern-day female role models. Most of the celebrated women today are business leaders or performance artists. I find this a grossly unsatisfactory selection. The above occupations carry an implication of self-enrichment and self-promotion, both of which are self-focused. Both types love to talk about how they juggle their jobs and motherhood, as if that juggle would be possible without household help, performed by working-class women, lacking ambition, smarts and/or good looks. Sad!

I’m a collector of alternatives. There must be other ways beside being a ‘Lean In’ type and a half-naked ass-shaking performer.

This morning in my Facebook feed I stumbled upon a collection of suffragists’ photos from the early 20th century. One stood out for me: Charlotte Despard – an Anglo-Irish suffragette and activist.

Just look at the character and the energy coming from that old lady. The only person I can think of who, today, can display such combination of convictions and nonchalance, is Elizabeth Warren. Old, implacable, opinionated hag. Most women are afraid to become one, so they prefer to shield themselves with professional achievement or cool dance moves.

Now, compare this turbo-charged vitality of 80-year old lady to this:

Empty, psychotic eyes on the left; same empty eyes with cleavage on the right.

Both represent achievement as we understand and celebrate it in modern terms.

But there is a third way: it is to refuse to participate in the con. The system won’t improve if more women, like the two above, will succeed in male-dominated fields. It is when we stop focusing on narcissistic self-empowerment and, like that spirited old lady direct our focus outward.