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Zen and the Art of Dirtroad Maintenance

Today when I was driving to work, I saw two men working on our local road. They were my neighbours, removing red plastic poles which stand on both sides of the road, all the way. That is a normal part in the yearly cycle of dirt road maintenance. In the autumn the road is marked with those red poles, and in the winter after each snowfall a local farmer removes the snow with a tractor. After a heavy snowfall it would be bit of guesswork to see where the road exactly is, so that's why the red poles are there. And when the winter is gone the poles are removed and stored to be re-used again. I stopped next to the men, opened the car window and we had a chat about some details of the road maintenance.

The road is about 1.4 kilometres, with seven homes and about ten cottages. Every second year we have a general meeting of all the road users, and in the meeting the decide a plan for the road maintenance, and agree on division of costs. Each road user pays a share of total costs - generally speaking the more you use the road, the bigger share you pay. This also means that if we would need to vote on details of the road maintenance plan, the votes are weighed based on road usage. So, those who pay more also have more to say on road maintenance. Luckily, being such a smallish group of people we pretty much agree on road maintenance and there is no need to vote. It is my resposibility to do the bookkeeping, double-checking every payment and making sure that all the money is used according to the general plan. And one of the neighbours takes care of the practical work and decisions - doing some work together with his brother, and buying extra work from local farmers who have bigger machines.

In the winter, when I was working with the bookkeeping, I thought that our road is like a miniature version of the society. Instead of totally isolated houses we have a road which everyone can use. And we collect money to cover the road maintenance costs. We have a model of how to distribute the total costs for each road user. And we have a decision making process, we make a common plan and appoint a few persons to carry out those plans. There is a state-level legislation which gives a rather rigid framework defining how these processes are. For example, we can't decide that every road user pays an equal amount - as the law says that the costs have to be distributed according to the road usage. But, if we wanted to, we could keep track on all the traffic on our road, and bill everybody who doesn't have a home or a cottage here. (With our current total costs, divided with the average total usage of the road, I can calculate that with an ordinary car a single trip back and forth our road would cost something like 0.20€...)

One of my customers, an elder grandmother, told how their local road was built some year in the 1940's. Before that there wasn't a proper road, but mere footpaths connecting houses. When they decided to build a road, they didn't collect money to pay for the costs - instead everybody just took spades and crowbars and all that kind of tools. With their sweat and collective effort they made the road. I'm not sure but I'd guess that the law would allow us to do this, but in the modern world it seems that no-one has enough time to work with spades - it is easier just to collect money and pay for a farmer to do the work with a big tractor.

Well, but just for the fun of it, let's imagine some possible ways of organizing a dirt road maintenance.

There'd be a road with one or two rich houses, and a lot of poor houses. The rich families would make all the decisions, often hiring some of the poorer people to do practical work. But the aristocrats would also pay all the costs so that the poorer families could use the road for free. And if the aristocrats were noble and wise, they would maintain the road in good enough condition for everybody. So, I'd guess that the poorer people would be mostly happy with the situation - if they anyway are satisfied with the condiion of the road, they wouldn't complain about not having power to decide on road maintenance. So, the functionality of this model would rest on the aristocrats being benevolent and wise.

This is essentially aristocracy gone wrong. We'd still have a lot of poor families, and one or two rich houses. The road is so arranged that the main part takes to the mighty houses, while the poor houses are scattered along smaller branches of the road. The main part would be maintained in good condition, while the side branches are left to deteriorate. And the poor families would have to struggle through the mud to get to the main road, forced to work with spades in slave-like conditions maintaining the good part of the road.

We have gotten rid of the ruling elite - or, so it seems. Everybody has their say when making decision on road maintenance. And everybody pays their share of total costs. To prevent ill behavior, there would be an increasing amount of bureaucracy. For example, if a family knew that they are going to have friends visiting, it will mean extra usage of the road. So they need to apply for a permission of extra usage, filling in three blankets and waiting for the road adminstrative board to process the blankets. After filling one or two more blankets they finally get a properly stamped permission for extra road usage, and they can tell their friends to come for a visit. Now, if we take a detailed look at the bookkeepping, we would see that only 75% of the money goes to the actual road maintenance, and 25% of the money is spent on paying salaries of the bureau workers.

You think Bureacracy is evil? Well, welcome to Cleptocracy! Once again we have a lot of bureau workers and blankets to be filled. It might be that theoretically speaking everybody still has their say when deciding general plans of road maintenance, and everybody pays their fair share of the total costs. But in the practical level, only 40% of the money goes to the actual road maintenance, 25% goes to the salaries of bureau workers, and the rest is just stolen by the top management. If the ordinary road users complain about the poor condition of the road, the obvious solution is to make everybody pay more - which leads to a little more money for road maintenance, and a lot more money into the pockets of top management. Now do I hear some riots coming? Don't worry, the top management is rich enough to pay for an army of guards to suppress rioting.

Hippie vibes
Let's get rid of all the regulation - no rules, no organization, no paper work, no opression! Everybody is free! There is just a magic hat where every road user can donate a coin or two if they happen to have some spare coins. No money is spent on management, all the money goes directly to actual road maintenance. But since there is no organization, it might sometimes happen that in the winter there is not enough money to pay for snow removal, and people just make paths in the snow. Or, sometimes it might happen that two persons call different farmers to remove the snow, and the first farmer comes with his tractor to remove the snow, and soon after that comes the another farmer but there is no more snow to remove - anyhow we need to pay some money for that farmer too, so money is wasted. Of course it doesn't have to be like that. The functionality of this model depends on the persons' ability to self-organize.

But what if we are not paying any farmer to operate big machines? What if the people own all the required machinery? Then there wouldn't be need to collect money for road maintenance. Instead, there would be questions of organizing decision making and how to distribute the workload. In a marxist utopia everybody contributes work and effort according to their capabilities, while everybody is free to use the road according to their needs. This model has been seldom tried in real world.

Ultra Free Market Economy
Well, suppose we have a division of road users and farmers with big machines. The farmers are free to set a price for their services, each farmer competiting against others. And the road users are free to pick any offer they like the best. Now the theory of market economy says that this freedom will automatically lead to the best possible price for everybody. The farmers have to set their prices as low as possible, yet keeping the price high enough to cover their costs and to make some profit. But if the prices are too high, the road users will buy less services, which leads to farmers making less profit, so farmers will lower their prices to get more sales. And everybody is happy, no regulation needed? Okay, but let's see what happens after a generation or two. We see one farmer being very succesfull, accumulating some wealth. And the next generation uses that wealth to buy three tractors, hiring nine workers to drive the tractors in shifts. With workers driving in shifts the company could set prices lower compared to a single farmer working alone with a tractor. Soon the company would make more and more profit, and they would be buying more and more tractors. And the next generation of company owners would be running a country-wide business of road maintenance services, effectively wiping out all the competition. Now, the ownes of the company would be so rich and influential that behind the scenes they could use their power to make it look like lower salaries and higher road usage fees are a necessity with no options. The ordinary road users would become poorer, the roads would start to deteriorate, but the company owners would be getting richer and richer. Now do I hear some riots coming? Don't worry, the top management is rich enough to pay for an army of guards to suppress rioting. - oh, wait; That was a sentence from The Cleptocracy -section! Well, yes, and Ultra Free Market Economy is different from Cleptocracy how?


I think we could invent a lot more different models on organizing a dirt road maintenance. But instead of these simplified caricatures let's take a look at a real life example. This is from my years of living in a collective. We had a group of ten people living in a same place, everybody paying an equal share of house running costs. Also, everybody had an equal voice in decision making process. I lived there for nine years, and we never had to vote on anything, as we always tried to discuss things in depth to reach an agreement. Or, so it was supposed to be. I started to feel that this "discussing in depth" is unbalanced in a way, and it often means that one or two persons just stubbornly defend their views until everybody else just gives up and agrees. So, instead of a common agreement it seemed more like one or two persons forcing their will with means of persuasion. And then there was that pattern of avoiding certain topics. We all learned that there are topics which quickly lead to some people getting mad and walking away from the discussion. We learned that it is not possible to reach any kind of agreement on those topics, so we just avoided talking about them. Which meant that there were things which didn't go through an open discussion, but were just decided by one or two persons alone. (Now, I'm perfectly aware that I'm writing this in The Internet. So, it is possible that one day those people might read this text. So, I want to say that my intention is not to insult anyone, and I'm not blaming anyone. I'm just describing the way I felt. And I also admit that I was one of those people getting mad - there were certain topics which quickly made me frustrated and I started to yell at others. It was not a good way of communicating. And these are the things which lead me to buying a house of my own and moving to live alone.)

But what happens if everybody just quits common decision making? I'd guess the society would collapse. Well, personally I might be able to keep on living without a modern society, working with a spade and an axe. Still, I think that there are big projects which are beneficial, and which need a group of people working together. Things like scientific research, technological innovation and modern factories - which bring us modern medicine, computers and the internet. So, those things anyway need a some model or social organization, and they need to be funded somehow. Honestly, i don't know which would be the best way to organize these things. And, actually, I doubt that there is "the best way" - maybe we need multiple models, parallel ways of doing things. To me it also seems like that "a model" alone is not enough - to have a functional society we need both a functional model and functional persons. And I feel that I still have a lot to learn about self-organizing my own life =)

EDIT: One more aspect to the real-life side of this story. When I moved here, I just wanted to mind my own business and stay away from any collective decision making. I just paid my share of the road maintenance costs and didn't need to think more about it. Then, one year, one of the elder neighbours died. He had been doing the book-keepping. In the general meeting of road users I volunteered as a bookkeepper, as I already knew how to do it. At that time it was so that all the money collected went to the actual road maintenance. Me and the another neighbour were doing voluntary work and paying our share of the maintenance costs. One year people in the genal meeting said that we should get some compensation for the work we do. So, nowadays I get a small sum of money. Like, for me there is only 8 hours of work for the whole year, and for that work I get about the same sum of money I earn doing two hours of my main work. I think it is fair and nice to get some sort of compensation for my work, although I'm not doing this for money. I just feel that since I live here and use that road, I want to take my share of responsibility and to contribute for the common good.

So, our organization has changed a bit during these years, but we are still pretty far from being a cleptocracy =)

a simplified map of our road
a simplified map of our road
434 users have voted.


We have a similar 2 km private road leading to our summer cottage, and every time I've had a change I've volunteered to rake back the gravel pushed from the trails. Nobody seems to understand that I enjoy the hard physical work, being outside in springtime (sunny or cloudy, I don't care) and saving some money because I've calculated my work compensates the need of buying about a ton or two of new gravel. As a fan of large open spaces I especially like the apparent endlessness of a 400 m stretch through a large field, watching the pewits flying around me making their weird robot like noises. The long straight road most would find discouraging makes me forget the time in an enjoyable way.

The main reason I enjoy working in summer cottage is that it gives me an experience of being rooted in a Heideggerian sense. One enjoys working for something that is his "own" or something he considers his "home".

However, regardless of how we wanted to think, nobody can love everybody or everything. Actually you can't love something you don't have. The object of love must exist for the act of love to exist in a meaningful sense. Many people refute this thought because they find it exclusive and somehow unfair.

Without something "own" there is no "me" either. I believe the psychological and philosophical pondering of life's basic meanings stem from this. We ask, what is the use of life. Why should we live? What is the deepest meaning of it all?

If you have built yourself a garden, you don't need to think about its usefulness, you probably have hard time keeping out of it and not tending it all the time.

The question of use or meaning of living rises only when you're either so uprooted you don't consider anything your own and something you work for only for loving it, or because your philosophizing happens in a hypothetical void where persons (or even called as "agents") don't have anything personal they're attached to.

Somewhere in his later books Nietzsche writes that the North European tendency for dark and pompous philosophies is probably caused by the cloudy weather and eating too much potatoes (carbohydrates make you tired and depressed.)

Similarly apparently a deep question of meaning of life might be irrelevant without a lifestyle that alienates people in a very concrete and everyday sense. Lifestyle that is based of people seeing themselves as "human beings" - somehow otherworldly entities whose personal details, histories, and relationships are only something contingent, basically unimportant or even something that prevents us from seeing each other "brothers".

Besides draining all meaning from our thoughts it makes us chronically unhappy because it makes us think we have a choice over things that we don't. I'm bald. If I had a change, I wouldn't be, but I don't. Regardless of the ingenuity of my thinking I'd have zero or negative utility of pondering of my life with head full of hair.

I've always preferred places over people, but I think this has even changed my attitude towards my parents. I don't think it is of any use to think if they've been good or bad because they're the only parents I will ever have. I could never adopt new and better parents anyway. The same goes with all the people I've known. I can't change a history so it is useless to even think of whether they were good or bad. They existed and that's it. Of course I can think of what I should do to people I coexist with now but actually that is pretty easy compared to wallowing in the rights and wrongs of the past.

Lately I've spent more time with people who studied philosophy and I've noticed that I like the analytic tradition a lot less than before because I find most of its ethics abstracting off all the relevant details and then wondering about the depth and hardness of philosophical questions about "human beings" and "the life" stripped of everything accidental.

I don't actually know if I came up with these thoughts while working with shovel and iron rake but I'd like to think so because it makes a better story.

Aah, sure does eating too much potatoes lead to a dark philosophy!

Working in a garden might be beneficial not only for the mental sense of "being rooted". There are scientifical studies suggesting that a common soil bacteria acts as an antidepressant. Or, maybe we'd better say that the philosohpical idea of "being rooted" is partly mediated by a biological bacteria - I mean, there is a meaningful exchange between human body and the surroundings. Just like we need food and water to stay alive, it might be that we need exposure to brute nature to stay healthy.


Very interesting reaction. I didn't expect that.

So now I'm curious to hear that what did you expect then =)

You completely neglected the main message of my comment. I was a bit fascinated by the thought that it was a conscious act of avoidance but now when I think about it my comment probably wasn't actually as brilliant as I first thought.

And yes, it's me.

Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot to start with a sentence "Yup. I generally speaking agree with your main point, and I like your line of thought. Commenting on every detail would make a whole new blog entry, so instead of that I only pick one theme and elaborate that with a link to an article. I hope I can return to these topics in another blog entry, let's see how it goes :)"

Well, of course without that kind of explication it might be easy to interpret my reaction as neglect or disapproval. Then, also, I guess this is a common problem in human commumication. People often find ways of misunderstaning or assume more negative intentions than intended. Oh, let's just take it easy =)

Don't worry. Things are hard to communicate. The main weakness of so called private thinking is clinging to words and metaphors used. Think of Kari Peitsamo's theology of having no head. Or that philosophy student in Tampere who found the answers to all philosophical problems from Leibniz's Monadology.

Something we say or think resonates with our personal memories, tendencies, and lifestyle, and we have problem understanding why the others cannot grasp our great explanation. The reason why academic philosophy feels a bit dull is that it tries to communicate this stuff regardless of how hard and boring doing it and the results obtained are.

On the other hand this is why it is often futile to even try to explain our personal choices to the others. We might understand them ourselves but these thoughts are usually thought and used only once and communicated internally to ourselves, so why explicate it to the others. Especially when this explication almost invariably fails.

I'd guess Leibniz ate too much potatoes =)

Half jokingly, we can say that all discussion can be classified in two categories. The first one happens seldom; it starts with people initially somewhat misunderstanding each other, but as the discussion goes on, people gain better understanding and there is some actual exchange of thoughts, feelings and meanings. But far more often it starts with people somewhat misunderstanding each other, then escalating further, until they seem to be completely in different worlds, just trying to win the argument with means of ad hominem arguments, insulting and humiliating each other. (If I can choose, I try to stay with the first category.)

I prefer the latter.

That's because you've spent too much time with people overeating potatoes!

That hurt!

Sorry I grew up in Eastern Finland (Savo) and got this weird sense of silly humour =)

Okay, time to quit joking: I'm afraid that the coming days I'm somewhat busy with other things, but when I have time to write a next blog entry, I'll make it a comment to your first comment. Let's rock!

Have you seen this:


"This is realism." - Great! Thanks for sharing.

>> We might understand them ourselves...

On a second thought, we might not even understand them ourselves properly! =)

Hello, I want to ask you something.
It's a little awkward but I want to know it. Why(sorry, I don't know the right word)are you so educated? Where did you learn all that stuff? From Books? School? People? I mean: I feel like idiot when I have nothing to say or just respond with short answers. I want to know about everything like you. Have things to say, responses like you etc. How do you do that?

Sorry if it's annoying question but I feel like caveman because this.

Didn't you once say that there is a library next to your home =)

Well, but I guess that there is a short answer to this: curiosity. Curiosity then leads to paying attention to different phenomena in life, asking questions, reading books and thinking. Of course the university did a lot, as there was so much interesting information easily available. And people to talk with. (I'm not entirely sure, but I'd guess that they author of the first comment, Tommi, is a guy I know from the university years. Free discussion was one of the best aspects in the university life.)

The key is to be yourself, draw interests from other people but you must always still be yourself as you cannot be someone else :) everyone is an expert in their own field too, you may feel like you have nothing to contribute to certain subjects yet others you may have a wealth of information to throw into the discussion, patience and diligence with time will bring you knowledge, keep at the things that you wish to learn :D remember you don't have to feel like you need to force yourself to find a reply to every blog entry, no one here will judge you my friend!

That's a good reply, Ben!

Today I was thinking about this, but instead of writing a yet another blog entry, I'll just continue on Ben's wise words. As, I also feel that prior to knowledge there has to be questions. I mean, questions keep one searching, observing, reading, listening, discussing, learning. That's how it goes. Knowledge for the sake of mere knowledge just doesn't work. Or, if one wants to gain knowledge wishing to gain "acceptance", "dignity", or "status", then that will also lead to some ill side effects.

So, as Ben said - if you feel that you don't know as much as you would like to know, then that's great! No need to feel onself "stupid" or "inferior" because of that. As all knowledge begings with not-knowing and admitting one's state of not-knowing. Only then you can go on to the everlasting quest for knowledge, wisdom and understading.

Well, more on these topics later, guys =)


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