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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: January 2007

Not Crying over Spilt Milk

Every now and then my guardian angel gets a little bored, so - just for fun - it grabs me by the collar and pulls me through the looking glass to the other side. To the side where you find yourself lost in the middle of a strange town at 4am, standing ankles deep in a puddle of water while being ungraciously rained on. To the side, where you wake up on an Indiana farm with a dog sleeping underneath your blanket. To the side, where roads are flanked with hyperventilating trumpet blowers. You know, just to experience a little lapse of sanity.

Yesterday, when I came back from a grocery store, I parked my car in its usual spot and started unpacking my loot. I took a gallon of milk and set it on the trunk of my car, grossly underestimating the disaster making potential of its gentle slope. Indeed, while I was fishing inside the cabin for the other kitchenables, my milk got all fidgety and decided to go for a short slide. At the edge of the hood of the trunk, however, it must have realized that milk jars are ill-fitted for breaking and its frolicky and innocent slide took a sudden and painfully literal plunge. A second later I heard a dull thumping sound, as its plastic body cracked open and its white contents splashed all over the black asphalt.

When I looked at what happened, I saw an image that was surreal, daring, quaint, beautiful, and apocalyptic. A mangled container lying on the ground, a deep gashing wound tearing across its midriff and a blazing shape of white sea contrasted against the dark surface of the parking lot.

But, not to get too artsy-fartsy, the episode had a practical aspect, too. What do I do with the sprawling lagoon? It was unseasonably warm yesterday, no rain in the forecast, so I was well aware that if I just walked away, the decomposing milk would soon start smelling pretty badly. Being a good citizen, I went home, got a bucket of water, a mop and few paper towels and did whatever I could to minimize damage. I think I managed to soak up at least two thirds of the original spillage, but I have to tell you this: sponging an asphalt patch for milk is one of the most unusual experiences you can have on this planet. I hope someone was watching. Nothing they can ever show on Comedy Central would beat a hapless guy, fussing around the parking lot and mopping up spilt milk.


State of The Springfield Address

Mister Burns, Mayor Quimby, SuperIntendent Chalmers, citizens of Springfield:

We enter the year 2007 with large endeavors underway, and others that are ours to begin. Halibarton crews are preparing to install a new high capacity 40 inch beer pipe to Moe's Tavern, Marge Simpson made an appointment with the TallTuft Parlor to completely restyle her blue hair, Apu's convenience Kwik-E-Mart is to be transformed into a Web_2.0 front end for Kwik-E-Bay and Ned Flanders is going to launch a far-reaching faith-based diddly-doodly spiritual initiative. In all of this, much is asked of us. We must have the will to face difficult challenges but also determined enemies -- most notably the Shelbyville radicals -- who would like to bring an end to our prosperity.

My fellow cartoon characters, our military commanders and I have carefully weighed our options against Shelbyville. We discussed every possible approach - a Dandruff Shampoo embargo, enlisting Kang and Kodos, the Space Mutant Siblings from the Halloween episodes, even disrupting their reception of the Itchy and Scratchy show. In the end, however, I chose invasion by back roads because it provides the best chance for success. Many in this chamber understand that Springfield must not fail in Shelbyville, because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching. I have full confidence that our brave troops under commandership of the weathered Vietnam veteran Seymour Skinner will make us all proud.

For all of us in this room, there is no higher responsibility than to protect the people of this town from danger. We've added many critical protections to guard it from within: Mr Burns' vicious dogs underwent a voluntary teeth abrading and Barney has solemnly vowed to abstain from drinking and publicly regurgitating. But many individuals who terrorize our school children are still at large and on them we declared a war.

Our success in this war is often measured by the things that did not happen. We cannot know the full extent of the attacks that I, Eddie and Lou have prevented, but here is some of what we do know: We found two jars of peanut butter and a toothpaste in Dolph's school bag, we averted Kearney's plans to blow up Groundskeeper Willie's shack, and we have discovered and confiscated a secret stash of disrespectful stickers in Jimbo's locker. Last but not least, we have placed Nelson Muntz in a mandatory speech therapy program that will cure his grating "Ha-Ha" cackle.

Next, there is the matter of earmarks. These special interest items are often slipped into bills at the last hour -- when not even Kent Brockman is watching. Captain McAllister's new and overpriced nuclear steamboat, Disco Stew's SuperSonic Karaoke Machine and Chief Wiggum's extra greasy I Can't Believe It's Not Lard pork chops are not projects prerequisite for this town's well-being. Yet, they're treated as if they have the force of law. The time has come to end this practice. I have personaly appointed Fat Tony to take care of that.

A future of hope and opportunity begins only with a growing economy -- and that is what we have. We're now in the 41st month of uninterrupted job growth, in a recovery that has created 9 new jobs in the greater Springfield area alone. Unemployment is low, inflation is low, and Homer Simpson's self-esteem is low. This economy is on the move, and once we figure out where it is going, we'll send our troops to bring it back.

Spreading opportunity and hope in Springfield also requires public schools that give children the knowledge and character they need in life. Five years ago, we rose above partisan differences to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, preserving local control, raising standards, and holding those schools accountable for results. Today, we admit that Bart Simpson fell through the cracks of this system. But we do not give up on him. His sister Lisa, Mrs. Krabappel and reverend Lovejoy offered an additional tutelage with the hope that by the year 2011, Bart will be able to completely avoid division by zero.

Tonight, I also propose a new initiative to help more Springfieldians afford their own health insurance. It is on them that Dr. Hibbert will perform any and all operations which two dimensional geometry allows. For those few who will not be able to obtain sufficient coverage, alternative care packages through the offices of Dr. Nick Riviera will be made widely available.

It's also in our vital interest to diversify Springfield's energy supply. We must continue changing the way Springfield generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. (Applause from Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers.) We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and restrict the use of old and inefficient internal combustion engine cars. (D'oh! from Homer Simpson.) We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes. (Loud burping from Mr. Barney Gumble).

Tonight, I ask the Town Hall to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we've done and reduce gasoline usage in Springfield by 20 percent in the next 10 years. Professor Frink has proposed a new public transportation system based on a Blubber Train, and starring Otto Man as the Chief Locomotive Engineer. Before the train is assembled and carefully drawn, however, I expect y'all to make full use of the laws of Cartoon Physics. Yes, your car will go if you just hop in. No need to fill up. Mark my words. Say NO to your pet guzzlers. And if you are science impaired, go run through your attic and dust off those bicycles, tricycles, walkers, stilts, go carts, pogo sticks and flying carpets.

Extending hope and opportunity in our town requires an immigration system worthy of Springfield -- with laws that are fair and borders that are secure. I am happy to report that with our new legislature Pedro the BumbleBee Man will no longer be illegally alienated. And with our new defence fence, no ill-meaning Shelbyvillain will be able to sneak into our midst.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are in the 18th season and going strong. This is a decent and honorable TV series -- and resilient, too. We've been through a lot together. We've met challenges and faced dangers, and we know that more lie ahead. Yet we can go forward with confidence -- because the State of our Town is strong, our cause in the TV Broadcasting is right, and tonight that cause goes on.

Journey to the Center of a Mind

Meeting new people, especially those of the opposite sex, often feels like being jettisoned into the middle of a lush rainforest.

At first, your sensory defense lines are overwhelmed with the flood of information. You recognize the basic environment, but you barely have time to register its bibulous vegetation, the valance of palm trees or the rampant foliage incessantly bidding for sunshine. You catch a scintilla of sky bashfully drizzling through the overarching canopy, but you are too busy just trying not to trip up against the serpentine roots.

And then there is the question of safety always simmering on the back burner of your processing noggin. In a jungle, you can never be too careful. Even human minds, however civilized, can host a number of venomous reptiles, predators, parasites, leeches, even piranhas. So you gingerly walk around, subconsciously scanning the shrubs for any slinking shadows, while watching for that tip-off shudder of sprawling ferns.

After a while, as it is becoming clear that nothing nasty is going to bite you, you grow more comfortable with this neck of the woods and start noticing its peculiarities. The trees endemic to the forest. The idiosyncratic traits which make us unique and special. Personal gestures, the tone of laughter, the tilt of the head. And you also realize that the original cacophony of animal sounds was but an intricate mesh of calls and signals and you start distinguishing the individual voices. The instruments in the pastoral symphony of survival.

Swinging on lianas of conversation, dodging prickly thorns of faux pas, you venture deeper and deeper into the forest's understory. Here and there, you may need to climb a tree. Occasionally you sink knee-deep in the mud. You pause to catch a glimpse of a parrot. Smell the fragrance of a blooming Candle Bush. And whether you find a wild orchid at the end or a disgruntled spider is largely of no consequence for the journey itself is well worth a few scratches.

So this is roughly what you are up against as you sip your favorite tea with a long-haired blonde creature, whom you never saw before and who were born in a completely different country. And you look into her sea-colored eyes and all you see is the jungle of neurons firing wildly in their synaptic cacophony.


Pea in an iPod

Well, I did drop a pea into an electronic device. However, not to be harassed by the Association for Factually Accurate Blog Titles, I have to admit up front that it wasn't an iPod but an HP printer. Although it did cross my mind that I could drive to an Apple store, buy an iPod and reenact the whole scene with it.

So if you can stomach a story about a pea in an HP, read on. Otherwise, read off. Oh, and if you are a princess, make sure your chair is amply padded.

Once upon a time, yesterday actually, I was searching the Net, while munching on a bowl of fresh peas. I know that men are not supposed to be doing two things at the same time and I know that the fine print of my fine printer's manual clearly states that "consuming legume in the airspace directly above the printer, up to the altitude of 40,000 feet, is strictly prohibited". But I am a guy, so brazenly disregarding the well-meant admonitions of the Hewlett Packard manual writers, I kept on snacking. My fingers were habitually craning the green cargo into my mouth, until one freedom loving little renegade squirmed itself out of their grip and got away.

I looked down at the floor, but couldn't see it. I searched all the usual hiding places. No show. Hmmmm, I wondered if peas had any natural predators...

In my apartment, I am generally pretty tolerant to disorder, but food items being on the loose - that's where I draw the line. I don't want to become the McDonald's to any kind of microorganisms. Plus it's not healthy for bacteria to eat fast food. Anyway. After few minutes of intense fine-tooth-combing I found the green fugitive holed up in the output slot of my printer.

I assumed the position of a lying marksman and evaluated the situation. The pea was about half way in, crouching in the middle of the ramp leading to the paper tray and looking rather confrontational. It was well aware that my fingers couldn't reach it and it waited for me to make the next move. I don't like to embarrass myself in front of an obviously inferior life-form, so while I was trying to come up with a plan, I wondered how long it would take before it starved itself or died of a kidney failure.

I also considered tilting the printer, but I didn't want to damage its delicate and rather mysterious innards. What if all my documents would then come out with letters upside down? So after a while, I took the stick from an EskymoPie bar and tried to push the pea forward into the tray. Bad move. The stick caught against some internal snag, tightened up considerably and when it was finally released, all its pent-up energy catapulted the pea straight out like a rocket.

Now, I am not making this up. Once out, the little projectile ricocheted off of my glasses and zipped right back where it came from, except this time it ended up all the way in the back, firmly lodged in some guiding groove.

That really did it for me. Without regard for consequences or well being of the printer, I grabbed the whole contraption, turned it upside down and started shaking it and spanking it and vigorously tapping its bottom with my palm. I imagine that this is how shamans in Central Africa deal with a paper jam in their tribal copier. But it worked out surprisingly well and the delinquent pea was soon coughed up onto the carpet.

This little situation made me think about the underlying physics. How did the vertically dropping pea end up in a horizontally oriented aperture? After consulting this matter with experts on kinetics, the verdict is in and it may shock you: the fifth force.

I hereby postulate that besides gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and strong, there is another force in this Universe, which I will tentatively call "the witch force". This force directs the motion of matter into regions of least probability and acts predominantly on small round objects, although I suspect that it can handle unround objects as well (couple of music sheets that have disappeared behind my digital piano recently would certainly know a lot about it). The quantum nature of the "witch force" has not been established yet, but its strength is clearly proportional to the object's value and inversely proportional to the time available for the searching operation.

If you don't believe it, please, conduct the following experiment: take 10 marbles, stand in the kitchen corner opposite to the stove and try to throw the marbles into the narrow gap between the stove and the wall. None of them went in, right? See? An inadvertently dropped blueberry of an average IQ can find that gap in less than 3 seconds



fearless spiders crawling up the hand that holds the steering wheel
sleepy bus of my mind packed with shards of tongueless dreams
encased in the semi-transparent membrane of early morning
angry tongues of shower lash out into my slumber
a key on a single-stranded gossamer filament
breezes alongside the mossy stones
the pavement of the past
another slim chance
for the top


I'd like to buy a vowel

My friend Robert may look like a mathematician, but underneath the academic facade lurks a business acumen of a shrewd entrepreneur.

This Saturday, as we were waiting for his daughter to finish her morning classes at an elementary school in Edison, NJ, he asked me whether it is true that the sentence "put your finger through the throat" has no vowels in Czech. I answered affirmatively, for in Czech the letters "L" and "R" can sometimes moonlight as vowels, generating words that seemingly consist of consonants only. His face lit up instantaneously: "Maybe we could start a business selling the vowel starved Czech people some Es, As, Is and Os".

What an idea! I wonder what the customs officer at the airport would think if he opened my bulging suitcase only to find it stuffed with assorted vowels. Although I suspect Robert was thinking really big and considered building a 70-inch underground vowel pipe from some vowel infested country such as Italy. Or maybe he wanted to build a vowel recycling plant, wherein words like "oaza", "ouha" or "auto" would cede their vowels to their less fortunate brethren. And with some black magic, I am sure we could use the facility to transmogrify selected consonants into vowels as well with no additional costs to the plant's shareholders. I mean you can pull it off even in your own garage. Just unscrew that unsightly appendage from Q, tack it onto F and you have O and E already. The possibilities are endless.

So hey, if you have some extra venture capital lying around underneath your mattress, consider investing in the budding vowel industry. Here are some examples of vowel-deficient, yet grammatically correct and complete sentences for your business proposal. I am sure your local Czech will be happy to pronounce them for you - they will make a cool audio for your presentation:

Strc prst skrz krk.
(Put your finger through the throat)

Pln skvrn, vlk strhl smrk z vrb.
(Full of spots, a wolf pulled a spruce off of willows)

Scvrnkls ctvrthrst chrp?
(Did you flick away a quarter of a handful of cornflowers)

I hope this little sample convinced you that the Czech language can be quite frivolous. As frivolous as any of the silly walks Robert's daughter made me invent on our way to the Chinese Igloo Tea House, and just as chunky as the tapioca pearls that were sneaking up my straw when I fished at the bottom of their Green Apple Bubble Tea.

Music of the Spheres

When I was in college, I noticed that math majors were more prone to play a musical instrument than any other science majors. And I think there is a reason to it. Math is to sciences what music is to arts. A far out cousin from the platonic Universe.

Almost all sciences refer to the material world that surrounds us. They have no problem describing a lake. A physicist will tell you what are its thermodynamic properties, a chemist will point out impurities in the water content, a biologist will draw your attention to the plethora of Latin named microcritters in it. But mathematicians have trouble relating to the lake. Their cohomologies, integrals and Hilbert spaces are ill suited for the splashy medium. Mathematics has no concrete object to describe. Its domain is, almost literally, the pi in the sky.

Similarly most of the arts have no problem dealing with the lake. A writer can conjure up a story of a drowning fish, a painter can revel in the blue palette of its glistening surface, a filmmaker can dreamily pan from one shore to the other. A musician is ill equipped to deal with the lake though. His art speaks to listeners' emotions directly, rather than through references to familiar objects. Just like a mathematician, who appeals directly to readers' abstract reasoning, rather than to specific empirical associations.

As a payment for their high speed connection to the real world, most arts and sciences are bound by numerous external constraints. A writer may need to carefully research the 15th century French haute couture for his latest medieval novel. A physicist may need to introduce an ad hoc friction coefficient or a cosmological constant to make her theory agree with experiments. Musicians and mathematicians, on the other hand, have only rules of inner harmony to answer to. They are the supreme rulers of their Kingdom in the Air.

I think that music and mathematics are the strangest crafts our species has developed so far. But at the same time the most intriguing and very similar in spirit. Watching the action of the modular group on the rotational hyperboloid of one sheet is as intriguing as listening to Canzona da Ringraziamento from Beethoven's 15th String Quartett. In either case, it feels like peeking into God's windows.


Balooney Tunes

At midnight on the New Year's Eve, I gazed at hundreds of colorful balloons snowing down from the ceiling of the Kennedy Center's majestic foyer. It was in perfect sync with the spirit of the evening, for the last concert of the year featured a symphonic version of Britney Spears extravaganza. The conductor obviously didn't want to burden the blurry consciousness of his congregation with any inexplicable harmonies of Rachmaninov, let alone Stravinski. So while we held on to the funny paper hats we found on our seats, easily digestible pieces by Rossini, Suppe and Johann Strauss bounced lightheartedly between the auditorium walls and their carbonated melodies fizzed effortlessly into our minds like garlands of an expensive champagne that were being poured into slim wineglasses just minutes before midnight.

As the motley aerial parade descended upon the buzzing crowd, I saw in each balloon one floating memory of the year that had just passed. Of the year that had suddenly been confiscated by eternity. But I was grateful that we humans can reflect upon our past and see cheerful balloons in the restless wake of our lifeboat. Imagine how dreadful a New Year's Eve must be for computers: at midnight they look eagerly back and all they see in their memory are long sequences of 0s and 1s. Yikes!

Having been pleasantly eased by the champagne, I decided then and there that every year I would choose one among the flitting balloons as my favorite memory, one especially mirthful souvenir of the mind: (drum roll) ...and for this inaugural year 2006, the Balooney Tune Award goes to: The Trip to Sloane's Wedding.

Here it is.

In March I took a flight to San Francisco to attend a wedding of my friend Sloane. The ceremony took place on the Muir Beach, about 90 minutes northwest from the Oakland Airport. I arrived there at 1am (4am of my biological time) and rented a car. I was staying at a small hotel whose office closed at midnight, so Sloane checked me in herself and arranged for the key to be left under a stone in front of the room. As I hit the coastal highway, I encountered some mist, which was soon upgraded to a fog, then to a dense fog and before I knew it, I was plowing through an Extra Thick Double Cheese Hand Skimmed Superfog that must have been imported from a heathery moor around some Scottish castle. Guessing which way the road would turn was lots of fun and I also noticed that the reflective markers in the middle of the road were spaced out so you could just barely see the next one. After about ten minutes of testing the stamina of my car's second gear, I decided to pull over, step outside and enjoy the outlandishness of the moment.

So there I was, a stranger on the West Coast, thrown upon a narrowish road precariously perching over the ever-hungry Pacific Ocean. In the headlights of my car, I could see a moist pavement, occasionally decorated with fallen boulders and hastily mended with splats of asphalt, attempting to patch up the bites inflicted by frequent landslides. The ocean itself was distinctly unpacific and its grumbling stomach was bellowing nutritional innuendos so voraciously that I got an impression that it hadn't had a freshly tumbled compact sized car with some meaty stuffing in it for days, if not weeks. It felt like being on a different planet. There wasn't a living soul for miles around, not a car in sight, not a bird in the air, only the hardworking fog and me, wondering what exactly was I doing there at such wee hour and whether the key to my bed was still lying under the stone.

So that was the most surreal moment of 2006. The balooniest tune of my year. But 2007 is already taking its coat off in the hallway, and I am sure it will have many balooney tunes of its own. Days filled with amazement and adventures. After all, it will be the Year of Bond. James Bond.

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