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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

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Numbers Get Number And Number

Billion is a baffling number.

There are 6 billion people scattered all over this world. Imagine they'd all come together for a big family reunion. How much of a crowd would that be?

The standard police estimates postulate that one person needs about 5 sq feet of space, so after punching few unsuspecting keys of your calculator, you realize that all your fellow human beings when summoned to one place would fill out a square of roughly 35 x 35 miles. That's your garden variety major metropolitan area. Quite a crowd, huh?

Now imagine each of these individuals would donate $2 per month to a common cause. That's the kind of money we are burning in the Middle East. According to a new book by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, the US government is spending $12 billion per month on its ill conceived war there. And what have we got to show for it? Hmmmm, let's see: in 2003 a dollar bought 1.1 Euro, now it is worth half of that and dropping every day; crude oil used to be 20 bucks, now it costs 5 times as much; more people hate us now than they did 5 years ago and - in the most important department - we lost more human lives in this war than we did on September 11. That is a pretty poor return on investment.

Twelve billion per month is a pretty numbing sum if you think about it. You could build five medical centers with this kind of budget. Yet, the current administration thought the money was better spent fighting some third world nation which possessed neither WMDs nor links to Al Qaida. That is before we got there. I am sure the future generations who are being saddled with this debt as we speak will appreciate the removal of a toothless Arab dictator and the amount of goodwill that has been squandered in the Iraqi desert.

Now let's look at it from yet another angle - for $200,000 you can get a pretty decent college stipend with all expenses covered. That means every month we could have saved 60,000 minds from being wasted. In a few years we could have educated a whole generation and regain our edge in science and technology. But wait - I see a problem here - with an electorate well versed in critical thinking, this administration or its likes would never make it to the White House in the first place. There - now it all makes sense.

Minijungle of Madagascar

My cactus has developed a drinking problem. Any time I water it, the water starts gathering at the bottom of its draining bowl - often up to half an inch. But when I go away and come back half an hour later, it is gone. Through the physics of capillary action or through some hitherto unknown black magic, the cactus will lap it all up like an obsessive camel. It must be some sort of strategic evolutionary defense mechanism set off by the fact that I water it at intervals whose irregularity would make the random number generator blush with envy.

This is only to illustrate that I am the Inspector Clouseau of gardening. Some time ago I bought three plants. A pot with three bamboo shoots, a pot with some kind of a three-stemmed bush, and a pot with about a million stalks of what I am going to call - for the lack of botanical sophistication - Savanna Grass. At first, I killed two of the three bamboo shoots, which experts tell me shows innate talent for plant mismanagement. As a confirmation act, I managed to reduce the three-stemmed bush to its possibly unknown one-stemmed variety. Sadly, the remaining stem is trying to take revenge on me and tarnish my horticultural reputation by growing up in a crooked and crazy-straw like manner.

The Savanna Grass story is even more self-incriminating (and possibly worth a movie deal). In a few short weeks, the pot vegetation hair likeness index was downgraded from Howard Stern to Homer Simpson. Apparently, the myriad stalks could not handle the systematic drought I subjected them to and all perished except for one lone soldier who stubbornly held its own on an increasingly decimated battle field. For a little while, I truly pampered that surviving stalk - stopping just short of grating pieces of candy onto its soil - but eventually my incompetence pulled the plug on its heroic fight and it retired to a better place as well.

About a year ago, one of my Czech friends visited Madagascar and she brought me back a sealed plastic pouch filled with various local seeds. With my gardening credentials, it is not surprising that the pouch lay dormant in the uncharted corner of my coffee table until a random act of spring cleaning brought it out into the daylight. The brown seeds were huddling there like a swarm of hibernating bugs, just begging me to turn them into promising and exotic looking seedlings.

Immediately, I caught whiff of the sweet smell of redemption and decided to resurrect my reputation and grow a miniature replica of the Madagascar jungle in my living room. I placed about a third of the pouch's content on a wad of cotton wool and set them on the inside window sill. If they successfully germinate, they will inherit the orphaned pot from the Savanna Grass. Till then I am tiptoeing around my window, anxiously awaiting what green monsters will crack through their little protective shells. As of today, there is a tiny offshoot sticking out of one of them. I am keeping my green fingers crossed.


Barack vs Hillary

I think that experience is overrated.

For examples, we need to look no further than in the works of one Ludwig van Beethoven. He composed more than a hundred pieces in his lifetime, but let's take a look at just three pairs. They were not chosen randomly - in all of these the former sports more ardor and the latter more experience.

Leonore 2 vs Leonore 3
Piano Concerto 4 vs Piano Concerto 5
Symphony 3 vs Symphony 5

Nowhere can the maturing process be seen as clearly as in overtures to his only opera Fidelio/Leonore, of which he wrote four. Leonore 3 is really but a polished redaction of Leonore 2 and it shares most of its motifs with it. Its edges had been smoothed out, its orchestration expanded, its thematical texture pruned. That's all dandy, but a discerning ear will notice that the revision lacks some of the previous version's features: the formative heat of the forge, the mad rush of freshly born ideas, and there are fewer enchanted repetitions where the composers gets subconsciously intoxicated with his own creations.

Piano concerto No. 4 is like a white water creek - you can almost spot the rainbow trouts in the flow of its music. Its chords cascade down the keyboard with the playfulness of a mountain stream. Piano concerto No. 5 is much more like a meandering waterway. The ripples on its body are more majestic, but also a bit more premeditated. And there is a notable difference in the clarity of waters. If the Fourth was a river, I'd have no problem drinking from its crystal clear pools. The Fifth, however magnificent it is, doesn't possess that uncorrupted glitter of its younger brother, succumbing to the fate of all rivers: the longer they stay on the surface, the murkier they get.

Beethoven's Third symphony, Eroica, is one of the most revolutionary musical pieces of all times. No wonder the Viennese critics labeled it "the music for horses" after its premiere. I can only imagine how utterly horrified the musical establishment must have been when Beethoven abandoned the well manicured park paths of Mozart and Haydn and marched triumphantly through the gates of his own world. And being the Beethoven he was, he didn't enter it with a polite "excuse me", but rather with a resounding bang of his fists. In less than 50 minutes he charted out the course of musical history for the next one hundred years. He became the rebel.

There is a difference in tone between the Third and the Fifth: Eroica is like a war correspondent's letter from the battle front, while the Fifth is more like a well written memoir of a Vietnam vet. Where the Fifth imagines and reminisces, Eroica rouses and hollers. You can hear the field bugles, the confused and a syncopated racket of soldiers falling head over heels at the sound of alarm, the eagerness radiating from its every measure. And the inclusion of a funeral march (Marcia funebre) in lieu of the slow movement is an apostasy of its own. If you'd expect a muted sobfest, you'd be so wrong - there is no sniffling in Eroica, only clenched fists in the pockets and a promise that there will be consequences. The Fifth symphony was certainly written by a more experienced hand, but it lost the devastating impact of a youthful army embroiled in an unstoppable insurrection.

I noticed over the years that in all of the above pairs the concert goers seem to prefer the latter pieces. I guess they appreciate their well measured technical brilliance. But I miss the authenticity and brutal straightforwardness of their earlier brethren. That is why I would choose Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton any day. New blood over experience. Especially, when "being ready on day one" really means resuming business as usual.

Hot Lava

Too much processing is not good for your food, and it is not good for your music either.

Music is born as a mustang. Snorting wildly and jumping impatiently over the black keys of the piano keyboard. Proclaiming its independence of rhythm and breathing it at the same time. It is only in the pen of a musician's mind that it is tamed into a horse.

Too bad that in a studio project the discipline usually prevails and hot instinct yields to a cool reason. It is almost as if the moment a musical idea makes it to the surface of consciousness and comes into contact with oxygen, it start corroding. Slowly, barely perceptibly, it loses its primordial charm. It isn't a big deal, but you can sense it - it is the difference between trotting on a trodden trail of D major and darting across the wide prairies of harmony.

That is why every now and then it is good to see a live concert, preferably of a band that is not afraid to let loose and step on the unsecured tight rope of improvisation. The atmosphere completely changes. The music acquires the unmistakable smell of hot lava. The smell of Earth's core, the womb of human imagination where most of the art is born.

The flying carpet of fire.


Coat Czech

In many aspects, languages are like clothes. They are the verbal fabric nations put on their cultures. And much like their textile counterparts they accentuate tastes and likings of the people that wear them. They reflect the collective experience of their speakers. Living in a foreign country affords you an outside view of your own mother tongue so you can appreciate its different cuts and folds. In that regard, dabbling in linguistics is like watching the red carpet parade of celebrity attires on Oscars' night. You get to marvel at what is concealed and what is revealed.

When I juxtapose Czech and English, what strikes me first is the presence of "blind spots" - words that exist in one language but don't have a counterpart in the other. One Czech word that I don't find in English is "pohoda" - a completely relaxed state of mind - a mood you'd associate with sipping Chardonnay on a warm summer evening. Although it gets sometimes translated as "coziness", "good times" or "well-being", none of these suitors have the bouquet of the original. On the liability side, Czech doesn't have an equivalent of the phrase "I am uncomfortable", which kind of shows that being squeezed between the Germans and Russians sets your pain threshold much lower than in the rest of the civilized world. We are the folks quite comfortable sharing the backseat of Volkswagen Beetle with 5 other people.

Czechs handle everyday situations with slightly different phrases. When someone knocks at the door, we say "Further!" instead of "Come in", you ask a lady for a dance with "May I beg?" and when you try to squeeze by someone, you should say "with (your) permission" rather than "excuse me". You can bid someone a farewell with "Have yourself" (Mej se), which must have something to do with the fact that we don't say "How are you?" but rather "How are you having yourself?"

In some situations, Czechs use common words in a way which seems rather uncommon. For instance, large quantities are often described as "clouds" (as in "I saw clouds of people there"), while extremely low temperatures are referred to as a "scythe" (as in "Don't go outside, it's a scythe there"). When you are clueless about something, you may say "I've got no steam on that" and when you want to dismiss something or when you want to express disbelief or mild surprise, one of your options is "mushrooms" or "mushrooms with vinegar":

"Our neighbor just won a lottery!"

Czechs are also fond of their orchards as exemplified by expressions: "to catch someone plucking plums" meaning "catch someone red handed" and "did you fall off the pear tree?", which usually implies a severe lack of acumen. The rustic roots of the language can also be detected in the phrase that rebukes someone for going on the first-name basis too soon: "Excuse me, but we haven't tended geese together!". And speaking of animals, some have pretty descriptive names in Czech: "nasalhorn" (rhino), "giant fish" (whale), multitrunk (octopus), lazywalk (sloth) etc. On the flora side my favorite name is "seven-beauties" (daisy).

Sayings are a chapter of its own, and rather quirky one at that. As an example - when someone's elevator doesn't quite reach the top floor, we say that "it's splashing onto his lighthouse". That doesn't make much sense considering that the Czech language evolved in a landlocked region, but then languages are not supposed to be logical theories. Similarly, for the stress of forced cohabitation (whether induced by marriage or army service) we use the expression "submarine illness", despite the fact that the Czech submarine fleet is about as massive as the Banjo Section of the London Symphony Orchestra.

In Czech, people don't "bark up the wrong tree", they "cry on the wrong grave" instead. If you are about to give up - "you throw your rifle into the rye", if you are restless - "all the devils are sewing with you" and when you manage to outsmart someone - "you've burned out their pond". We also don't advertise reluctance with a phrase "when the hell freezes over", but rather "when it rains and dries out" or "when the leaves fall off the oak tree".

When a girl impresses a boy, she "falls into his eye", upon which his "calves catch fire" and he "gets slammed into her". When the girl finally wins his heart, we say that "she has tied him up with a cooked noodle", especially if she's applied than noble means to achieve that goal. On the other hand, if she breaks up with him, she'd boast to her friends that "she gave him the cleats", as if to suggest that he might go and play with his soccer buddies now.

In many aspects, languages are like people. They are similar to each other in basic features, but different in details. Juggling two languages in one mind is like a linguistic X-ray. You get to see what is hidden under the skin.

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