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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: November 2007

Czech it out (at your own risk)

Yesterday, I was having a dinner at a friend's house and one of the guests there asked me how difficult it would be to learn Czech.

Well, if this question ever makes it to your consideration plate, let me give you a friendly warning. Czech not only conjugates verbs, but it also declines nouns and many other lexical denizens that stumble into its path - adjectives, pronouns and even numerals. For nouns there are seven cases, which are used in different contexts with different verbs. Here is an example of the whole shebang (English version is in parenthesis).

1. Toto jsou DVE MLADE ZENY (These are TWO YOUNG WOMEN)
5. this case is reserved for addressing

You might think: no big deal - I will learn seven endings for singular and seven for plural. But there are in fact several categories of endings. How many exactly? Well, 6 for masculine nouns, 4 for feminine and 4 for neutral. Are you still interested?

Let's move to verbs then. They have their little suffixes too.

2 sg. MLUVIS (You SPEAK)
3 sg. MLUVI (He/She/It SPEAKS)

How many different patterns for conjugation there are? Well, nobody really knows because it is kind of difficult to draw a line between patterns and irregular cases. But count on more than 10 for sure. So, as you see, learning Czech might turn out to be trickier than snacking on a pomegranate.

But if none of this discourages you, go ahead - learn this language. It may be difficult, it may have the largest number of grammatical exceptions per capita, but it is also beautiful, playful and dizzyingly expressive.

Run, Ron, Run

Ron Paul's Veteran's Day rally was set in a beautiful historical district of Philadelphia. Independence Mall, the cradle of the American democracy, was a fitting backdrop for the campaign that pleads the return to its values. And seeing a white van with the Ron Paul Revolution logo on its chassis parked next to the National Constitution Center had a highly symbolic value of its own.

The fact that a crowd of several thousand gathered on a lawn in front of the Liberty Bell Center, in clear defiance of the livid skies on a cold November afternoon speaks volumes about the strength of the message being disseminated. Many times during the main speech did the forest of signs and banners spring up, but the longest ovation followed when Ron Paul suggested that the power and privilege to do good should be transferred from government to people, who can disburse it more effectively.

Example: After the Great Chicago Fire in 1971, much of the restoration effort rested upon the shoulders of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society. It is difficult to argue what would happen if the Federal Government took the charge instead, but the grim lessons of Katrina suggest that perhaps it was better that it didn't.

The point is really simple. You keep more of your money and you control where the money goes. If you want to support Darfur, for instance, you channel your money there through private charities - whether they are operated by Bono or by the Catholic Church. That way you make sure the money gets where you want it, rather than be diverted to other noble purposes, such as sending tons of weapons to Iraq (where they mysteriously disappear), designing new super stealth bombers or building bridges to nowhere in Alaska.

It is a result of human nature that any social structure that attempts to control everything gets eventually bogged down in its own administrative and bureaucratic quagmire. It grows into such complexity that its mere size prevents it from functioning properly. Pouring money into it is like pumping water into a leaky plumbing. Some will get to the final destination, but gallons will get wasted, too.

I once witnessed (and was a victim of) an attempt to control everything - it was called "communism". The party apparatchiks would tell you what to read, where to travel, which regimes to support, what to believe in and even what phrases to use in your writing (for instance the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was always to be referred to as the "brotherly help" and no other wording was permitted). For a while it worked, but at the end the system failed miserably.

Simply put, there are functions for which the government is well suited and some for which it is not. Foreign policy, fiscal and monetary issues, national defense - sure, but the rest should be decided locally - by states, by towns and by individual people.

It is good that at least one presidential candidate is aware of it.


Social Insecurity Number

People (much like crustaceans) leave their shells only when they perceive there is no danger. That is why they may seem shy or even stand-offish at first, but all they really do is reconnoitre the terrain.

Obviously, the speed with which people can convince themselves that they are safe varies. It all depends on how quickly they can establish the sufficient level of comfort. Some people judge character quickly, and they can open up relatively soon - as they get comfortable faster. For some, it takes much longer time to get to know you. They prefer a baby step approach. A sudden gesture - and they run away, sometimes for ever.

It is like when you get stranded on a deserted island. If you have eyes to see, you need just a few days to get familiar with your surroundings. If you are blind though, it may take you a few weeks. Slowly, gesture by gesture, smile by smile, response by response you feel your way around the unknown social territory.

But even people who are socially blind (or gravely short-sighted) will eventually get to know their island. It will just take them a bit longer, for they are using different sets of senses.

Strong Dollar

Sometimes it is illuminating to reread old news.

2003 (December)
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Monday, President George Bush told reporters, "We have a strong dollar policy which is good for the economic vitality of this country."

2004 (December)
(WashingtonNote) "The policy of my government is a strong dollar policy," Bush said. "We believe that the market should make the decisions about the relationship between the dollar and the euro."

2005 (January)
(ExpressIndia) Asked if he was concerned about the fall of the US dollar, Bush told USA Today in an interview: "We have a strong dollar policy in this administration. And I'm confident foreign investors will find America a good place to invest."

2006 (December)
(New York Times) As the dollar fell over the past two weeks, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. played his role, saying that "a strong dollar is clearly in our nation's best interest."

2007 (October)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that he believes in a "strong dollar policy" and that a trade war with China is not in the U.S. interest.

While all this macho talk went on, the dollar weakened, weakened and then weakened some more. When measured by euro, it slid from 1.19 in 2001 to 0.68 in 2007. In about 6 years it lost half of its value - ironically on the watch of a team of the most vocal monetary cheerleaders in this part of the Galaxy.

If a man on the street talked like this in the face of an obviously uncooperative reality, he'd be called a clown. But in the executive branch the same statements earn you an epithet "a person of character". Especially when you shield yourself with frequent references to a divine being.

If a man on the street bought an expensive flat screen TV, even though he was deep in debt, his wife would hit him with an ironing board. If an administration which is in deep debt embarks on an expensive and poorly justified war adventure, it gets re-elected. Go figure.

I read somewhere that no nation achieved greatness by driving its currency into dust. George Bush clearly thinks otherwise. For his own sake, I hope that he will be able to plead insanity when history judges him.


Executioner's Song

One thing puzzles me about the capital punishment. Why is it the governor who has the right to stay the executioner's hand?

He has usually very little technical knowledge of the case and zero emotional involvement. I think it would be fairer if it were the closest relatives who would have the right to grant clemency. After a trial and a sentencing, the next of kin would convene and decide if the sentence can be commuted to a prison term.

Because, frankly, if a mother of a victim, or a brother or a spouse can find it in their heart to forgive, than no government in the world should have the right to execute the perpetrator.

Grim Reaper's business is always very personal. And declaring a war by a parliament should be viewed from the same vantage point. Such an act should always be automatically linked with a draft proposal. Because, frankly, no cause is worthy of a war, if people declaring it are unwilling to send their own sons and daughters to the front lines to defend it.

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