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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

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On Saturday, January 8, 2011, a young loner named Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on participants of a United States congresswoman's meeting with constituents held in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson. Twenty people were shot, six of them fatally and U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords is in a critical condition. In a sinister twist, a little girl born on September 11 died in that shooting too.

A cold act like this leaves us gasping for words. Our daily life does not prepare us for such extraordinary lapse of humanity. But as time plods on, we are forced to absorb the reality and adjust. Eventually, words appear and when they do, it is telling what kind of emotions and hidden agendas they reflect. While a number of commentators had risen above the ramparts of their ideological castles and showed proper decorum, others wasted little time and got right back to tilling their stretch of arable bigotry. The ensuing festival of finger pointing produced a tasteless tug-of-war between a right wing nut theory and its left wing counterpart. Previous girlfriends were summoned to testify, past records were scrutinized, some MySpace accounts archived, and Twitter suddenly turned into a reliable source of information. The most disappointing fact though was an assumption - common to both camps - that their form of hatred is somehow nobler than the one they were frothing about.

The trauma of the shock is rarely a good time for analysis. It is more a time to remind ourselves that we live in a complex world in which no single doctrine can claim to hold all the answers. However trite it may sound, each of us owns but a tiny little piece of truth and we would do a great service to our country and to ourselves if we started listening to each other rather than waving our cherished partisan flags and digging for political capital - whether we get our flavor of truth from Keith Olbermann or Glenn Beck. But in the barrage of arguments and counterarguments, attacks and counterattacks, humility was barely heard.

As I watched the Sunday morning shows, I noticed a lot of calls for toning down the divisive rhetoric. While that is certainly a valid concern, it only addresses the symptoms, not the cause of the violence. And as every good doctor knows you can't have a completely recovery without identifying the heart of the problem and treating it. Sure, the media addicted to blatant sensationalism will always be happy to report on a little controversy. That's just media being media. But someone should stand up and ask where is all that vitriol coming from. Why is a significant chunk of the population slipping into radical mindframe and general mistrust?

If you read the comments section in blogs and newspapers, one theme that stands out is the growing perception that there are in fact two Americas. One located roughly in the corridor between New York and Washington DC, and the other spread uniformly over the rest of the country. One enjoys the sunshine pouring down on a privileged class comprised of powerful elites and wealthy moneychangers, and the other, populated by the hoi polloi of Ohio, Michigan or Alabama, is being rained on day in and day out. With this kind of social milieu and a spreading feeling of injustice, it is only a matter of time until some deviant mind in the crowd wakes up from its apathy and takes its frustration to the nearest gun shop.

After our elected representatives return from their respectful hiatus, they should take a deep look inside their collective soul and ask themselves whether they are steering the country in the right direction. Why do so many citizens feel that the laws are written by lobbyists with generous corporations in mind? Why do young people feel disenfranchised from the world where personal connections seem more important than skills or knowledge? With the approval ratings for Congress hovering near historic minimums, such introspection would be a great way of honoring the memory of those that lost their lives in this lunacy.

Going after the causes, rather than symptoms.

Point of view

When I was in college, I used to make my own black and white photographs using an enigmatic process that involved silver, dark room, a bulb of red light, my Dad's arcane German made enlarger, two basins with some chemical solutions and an assortment of plastic pliers. One day I was processing a film with images of my girlfriend and by mistake tossed the photographic paper into the basin upside down. When her facial features started to bloom on the silver emulsion, I noticed that something was amiss. She looked like a distant sister of herself when viewed upside down. Even later, when I repeated the experiment in full daylight, I could barely recognize her. When flipped, the ordinarily familiar face provided no hooks my memory could hitch into. It was like trying to pick up a suitcase with its handle facing inward. That was the day I realized that point of view can turn familiar objects into enigmatic gardens of imagination.

When we process information, we rely heavily on context. When we see a face, we always see the eyes above the nose, the nose above the lips and the lips above the chin. Context is the skeleton which we flesh out with particular details. A template which makes it easier for us to store the image in memory. But that simplicity is offset by the loss of information. We don't need to remember every line, every shape, every texture, every contour - they can be inferred. Consequently, we often don't even perceive them. Only when we lose the crutches of context, the features we haven't spotted before are suddenly revealed to us.

This phenomenon can be illuminating both in sciences and arts. Let me use the science I know reasonably well - mathematics - as an example.

There are two kinds of mathematicians. Manipulators - who discover mathematical truths by skillful prestidigitation of algebraic objects, and seers who get at the crux of the matter by visualizing the geometric model of quantities at hand. Being on the geometry side myself, I often draw schemes and diagrams. Sometimes when I am at the end of my wits and need a little push, I turn my scribbles upside down, and a whole new set of possibilities fills the paper with a seductive dance. All of a sudden, the music of spheres is everywhere. The moral of the story is that we don't need new data to make a breakthrough, we just need a new point of view.

In arts, the point of view has even larger potential. In fact, one could say that the whole history of arts is the trace of a struggle to find a new viewpoint. Or at least rotate the old one. I have a secret wish - an exhibition where some daring soul will hang all the photographs upside down, giving the visitors the rare pleasure of passing through the rabbit hole and exploring a quaint wonderland: a piano hanging from the floor, a diver hurtling upwards from a high board, a sky supporting vast stretches of corn fields.

It will be an exhilarating voyage into a whole new world. Neatly tucked in the one we know, yet tickling us with a feathery mental vertigo.


Energizer Bernie

Trying to tweet on any subject of some depth can be frustrating. The effort makes you feel like a motivational speaker in a sloth pavilion. And rightly so. Twitter is the hip new medium catering to the demographic whose attention span is defined by a passing fly. Its list of trending topics is mostly populated by mindless trivia, such as what kind of lip stick is Britney Spears using on her pet dog, or how to tell if your significant other has been secretly pouring water into your beer. Don't expect much more than that. So when I found Bernie Sanders, a hoary US senator, firmly occupying the top hitting spot for much of this Friday afternoon, I knew something was up.

Early this November, voters sent the White House a little missive: We need an adult in charge of the public purse. Unfortunately, when Obama received the memo, he read it upside down: his dubious deal to extend the Bush's tax cuts was the exact opposite of what the public purse needed - the expenditures will go up, the Treasury revenues down. Is that how they balance budgets in Chicago? While many within his own party grumbled on the side, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders took his argument to the Senate floor and in an unusual 8 hour oratory marathon exposed the deal for what it was - a fiscal time bomb wrapped in a logically bankrupt surrendering of basic accounting principles.

It is one thing to make a tax cut when you have a budget surplus, it is another to make the same when you are running a trillion dollar deficit. Borrowing money from China and forking it over to assorted financial wizards, CEOs who earn their bonuses by shipping our jobs out to cheap Asian markets, local politicians who break public coffers by making unrealistic promises or the darlings of the military industrial complex is not the way to improve economy. Why would your average hedge fund manager even bother creating jobs here when he can get much better return on investment in India or Brazil? Wealthy people do not create jobs. Demand creates jobs. Demand coming from little shmucks like you and me having little extra money to spend on goods and services that other little schmucks make.

And that observation smoothly dovetails into another central theme of Sanders' diatribe: the specter of growing income inequality. Billionaires are more likely to park money in unproductive assets where they clog the flow of capital like muddy dregs at a river's bottom. Concentration of wealth is now reaching levels that are not exactly well correlated with forward growth. The poor won't have any money to spend, and rich are too few and far between to pick up the slack. A nation - much like a private company - is more likely to thrive if it shares its profits with its laborers, who can immediately recycle them in future sales. Henry Ford figured that out 100 years ago. We have to choose whether we want to have a democracy with a vibrant economy, or a banana republic whose moneyed rulers will have to insulate themselves in gated communities.

Standing on the Senate floor for over eight hours and pounding away at President's reckless policy would be a heroic feat for any man. More so for one 69 years old. Just think of the physical effort needed to pull it off. As I watched the twitter feed in mild disbelief, the oratory exercise turned into a drawn out battle somewhat reminiscent of the Old Man and the Sea. Sentence by sentence, slide by slide, one raised finger at a time, Sanders pointed out where the country went astray, never giving fatigue or hunger a fighting chance.

Having grown up in a Soviet bloc, some 300 hundred miles behind the Iron Curtain, I have little sympathy for the failed Marxist tenets. So when I find myself in a violent agreement with a self described socialist senator, I take it as a sign that our world has grown so complex that no single person, no single group and no single ideology can hold all the answers any more. People have to start thinking outside of the box rather than hiding behind their simplistic partisan flags.

The United States has reached the peak of the credit driven expansion in this decade. The return to the old way of living is virtually impossible. We are standing still at a major intersection, in great need of fresh air, wondering which way to go. Kind of like Soviet Union in early 1980s, except in our case the stifling milieu does not come from the dictatorial proclivity of the Politburo in Kremlin, but rather from the overgrown and self serving financial sector on Wall Street.

In it instructive to peek at how the Soviet leaders dealt with the new reality. At first their leaders, Andropov and Chernenko, did not grasp the gravity of the situation and tried to pretend that the existing system can be just mildly tweaked and it will function again. They just reshuffled the empty words in their speeches and continued to kick the national can down the road. It took Gorbachev to realize that the status quo was untenable and a radical change and reevaluation had to take place.

In a normally functioning economy, banking sector creates and maintains the financial blood stream necessary for commercial operations. Unfortunately, our beloved banksters have strayed far from that ideal. The environment festering with greed and fraud, the "moral hazard" implicit in taxpayers' backing , their obscure and poorly understood "innovations" lead to excesses that still haven't been fully addressed and redressed. Channeling Ronald Reagan, Bernie Sanders threw a gauntlet to Barack Obama:

"Tear down that Wall Street, Mister President".

But no matter how much I prick my ears, I don't hear any jackhammers on lower Manhattan. Day by day, bailout by bailout, one compromise at a time, Obama is making it painfully clear that he doesn't have what it takes to change the system. He is our Andropov.

Let's hope that a real Gorbachev will stand up in 2012.

A Case for Hibernation

If early May is the apex of the natural cycle, then early December must be its dreary nadir.

The surreptitiously leaking daylight. The first onslaught of arctic temperatures. The inhospitable bedroom in the morning. The biting wind that has no qualms munching on your cheeks for breakfast. The leafless trees stranded in a frozen ground. The black ravens in a silent vigil. The twilight of late afternoons. The pale facial grass with traces of salt and pepper. The pesky ice on your windshield.

And the worst part is the winter hasn't even started yet. I don't mind dealing with a snowy blitzkrieg in the middle of January. The heat of the battle gives you the strength. Plus, subconsciously you feel that the end is nearer with each swing of your shovel. But this chilly dry nexus between Fall and Winter is a real torture - the seemingly infinite wait for the carnage to begin. And all you can do about it is to sit idly on a cold stone, watch the enemy troops hustle and bustle on the opposite hill and listen anxiously as they bellow their fierce war cries in your general direction.

I am not enjoying this part of the year at all. I seriously wish we could hibernate. I would love to have that option. You know, like when you buy an insurance and the agent presents you with various plans to cover your safety needs. Sometimes you buy an extra protection and pay more, sometimes you just stick with the basic benefits and pay a little bit less.

For the sake of argument, let's assume you have 50 years to live. Imagine you could choose whether you wanted to live them in one lump sum all year long, or whether you wanted to experience them in 100 half yearly installments, say from April 1 to Oct 1. I am sure we would be just as keen and proficient hibernators as bears and badgers.

I think around the age of say 9, each of us should be allowed to have a little talk with God and choose one or the other. If that was even remotely possible, I would most certainly be a proud member of the Hibernation Nation now, snoring soundly in my sleeping bag and dreaming of an August heat wave.


Kwiki Leaks: the Springfield Edition

Being a huge fan of the Simpsons TV show, I naturally wondered what would happen if the Wikileaks exploded in Springfield. I guess it would go something like this:


The whole town of Springfield is afoot after the appearance of several confidential Post-It notes on a community bulletin board titled "Kwiki Leaks", located in a convenience store operated by one Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. The original source appears to be an undisclosed youngster identified only as "Bart S.", who allegedly attempted to use Internet for dissemination of the stolen documents, but after realizing that the scanned files were "too big to mail" decided to use the community bulletin board instead. Mr Nahasapeemapetilon admitted that he had recently been pressured to close the bulletin board and may need to relocate his convenience store to Switzerland.

Some of the most outrageous revelations from the cache of documents - many classified as "sticky secret" - are listed below:


Principal Seymour Skinner offered to suspend his leadership position at the Springfield Elementary and single handedly attack North Korea, armed only with a slide rule and a paring knife from the school's cafeteria. In a followup story, the Crazy Cat Lady vowed to invade South Korea with a fleet of her private catboats. Unlike Mr. Skinner, whose past as a weathered Vietnam vet is well documented, the Crazy Cat Lady has virtually no combat experience, and her only geopolitical credential is a dubious claim that she can see South Korea from her home.

Mr. Burns confirmed that he indeed intended to sell large amount of radiation soaked doughnuts to Iran, in exchange for 15 miles of Persian rugs that were to be used for softening of the road on his way to work.

Jimbo Jones, Kearney and Dolph devised a plan to push a Trojan Horse filled with condoms to Saint Peter's square in Vatican. The plan had been thwarted by Ned Flanders who happened to be diddly squatting behind the fence during the assembly stage and ordered the whole consignment of condoms filled with helium and released into wilderness.

After significant pressure from the US authorities, Patty and Selma Bouvier have agreed to jointly adopt and rehabilitate one Guantanamo Bay inmate, as long as he would dress up as MacGyver and give each of them one foot massage per week. Pajamas not included.

Several documents illuminate Mayor Quimby's misappropriation of public funds and their use for personal gratification in Motel 6. The funds were earmarked for reconstruction of the City Hall, gravely damaged after the last year's Christmas Party, and for retraining of the Springfield's notoriously ineffective police force.

On a related note, Chief Clancy Wiggum pledges to fight the gangs of increasingly bold drug traffickers by carefully monitoring the town's "traffick lights", especially the green ones, which according to the Police Chief were "the ones that the perps were always using".

Ralph Wiggum proposed an unconventional solution to Springfield's looming budget problems. In a class paper titled "Quantitatitative Pleasing", the talented young financier suggested that Springfielders print 5 million of Monopoly Money and use them to buy plastic toys from Shelbyville.

The tax cuts for Mr. Montgomery Burns have been extended indefinitely together with unemployment benefits for Cletus and Brandine Spuckler. Mr. Burns was pleased with the compromise and remarked that he planned to buy a crate of extraordinarily expensive French wines and store them in his upper wine cellar from which - in case of a lucky accident - they might trickle down into his lower wine cellar.

In a series of behind-the-closed-door meetings, Fat Tony managed to secure the license to open a Goldman Sachs branch in Springfield, specializing in trading of exotic derivatives. The branch would be located in an abandoned coal mine just north of the town, easily accessible by an 1800 ft elevator.

Lisa Simpson submitted an application to become the US President in 2037, as soon as she reached 35 years of age, provided that the Congress would come out of its gridlock and pass a constitutional amendment modifying the rules of cartoon character aging. Vice-presidential shortlist: Milhouse Van Heuten, Martin Prince, and in a rare bi-partisan effort, Bobby Hill.

Thanks to a note signed by "concerned citizens Carl and Lenny", it was revealed that the whole text of the Springfield Universal Health Care bill had in fact been written by Dr. Nick Riviera.


Coming back from the restroom in Moe's Tavern, and having just learned from the TV that there won't be any more leaks in the future, one of the bar's regulars, Mr. Homer Simpson, opined eloquently: "Doh!"

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