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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: 2008

Welcome 2009

Thanks to my resourceful friend Richard, our high school learning pizza was peppered with all sorts of zany toppings. One month we'd become engrossed in the study of biorhythms, watching anxiously how our dating lives correlated with sinusoidal oscillations, only to ditch them for some other novelty a few weeks later - like the French revolutionary calendar, which we used with the revolutionary zest for a number of months while filling our lexical purse with exotic coins of a new temporal currency. Good bye April, June, August and October - Hello Vendemiaire, Frimaire, Fructose and Messidor. What a welcome relief from the drudgery of our High School curriculum! In those days of unripe raspberries, we had also contrived a cult of the number nine and ascribed to it powers stretching well beyond the usual numerological jurisdiction.

With the advent of college, most of this folly went away, but my affinity to the number nine prevailed. After all it is the highest single digit in the decimal system and our planetary system used to have nine planets, until astronomers started to mess with it. But there is one peculiarity singling the number nine out, which astronomers can do nothing about - and it comes from music.

Let's take a look at the number of symphonies that various famous composers wrote:

1 - Grieg, Wagner
2 - Liszt, Weber
3 - Rimskij-Korsakov, Rachmaninov
4 - Brahms, Berlioz
5 - Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
6 - Tchaikowski
7 - Sibelius, Prokofiev
8 - Schulhoff
9 - Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, Dvorak, Schubert
15 - Shostakovich
41 - Mozart

Even if you have no appreciation for distributions of random variables, you can see that there is something disturbingly non-random going on here. And it is not that I padded the list of "Niners" with some second rate fiddlers. They are all Masters of the Trade, Beethoven and Mahler being arguably sans pareil. The history of music is thus confirming that Nine is indeed the number to be revered.

Now that we are about to enter the Year of Nine, I hope its magic powers will manifest themselves. Welcome!

Financial Quicksands

Quicksand is a region filled with fine granular matter (sand, clay, dirt) whose lower layers are richly saturated with liquid (water, brine). The lubricated particles underneath lose most of their natural friction and become unable to support any significant weight. Since the liquid does not usually reach all the way to the top, the surface of the area looks dry, innocent and safe, wherein lies its danger. While the ground may easily support twigs and minor pebbles, do not dare to step on it. A minor change in the stress on the quicksand will cause a drastic decrease in its viscosity, and before you know it, your body will get a ringside seat (or rather a ringside bed) to a process known as sinking in a non-Newtonian fluid - an experience well worth avoiding.

As we recapitulate our economy in 2008, the words "financial quicksands" come to mind as a suitable epithet. Tons after tons of cheap credit that sloshed into the system over the past decade thanks to tireless efforts of Maestro Greenspan have drastically changed the support characteristics of the once solid economic ground. Liquidity, much like fire, is a good servant, but a bad Master and it looks increasingly inevitable that our hubris is going to get a much needed lesson in elementary physics of colloid hydrogels. On the outside, the venerable financial firms live up to their name and appear firm and solid, but when you step closer - watch out! One by one, like a flock of strayed vacationers, once mighty powerhouses and household names are disappearing underneath the treacherous surface.

The one thing to know about quicksands is that panic will make things worse, usually much worse. The more you flounder in them, the faster you sink. After cruising through much of the credit deterioration in 2007 and 2008 with poker faces on, Team Bernanke&Paulson made a series of panicky moves culminating in their bursting into Congress one Friday night in September and dramatically demanding an outlandish bailout to avert an impending doom, although just a few short weeks before that the same power-duo blithely maintained that our economy is fundamentally solid.

Pumping water into ground does not usually make quicksand safer, and neither does pouring more easy money into bottomless pits of institutions' balance sheets, especially if their overpaid leaders display all the business acumen of a pack of autistic possums licking poisonous mushrooms. Was the slapdash sweep of the struggling companies under the governmental rug supposed to calm anybody? Why don't we just put up a huge sign over the Wall Street: "The firmness of this ground is now guaranteed by the full reputation and integrity of the Bush administration". I am not sure what we are smoking, but do we really realize that the reins of our economy are being turned over to the team who gave us the Katrina Debacle?

Fortunately, the nights of Bush are numbered. So here is hoping that Obama's Team will think hard before dispatching whales of money into voracious financial maelstroms, that they will have the balls to stand up to the credit junkies, who think that borrowing for your happiness is the coolest thing since the Nasdaq bubble. Here is hoping that they will have enough common sense to prune the dead industrial branches, rather than put more gaudy Christmas trinkets on them; that they will steer resources from investment casinos to companies producing useful goods and green energy and in doing so drain some water (and hot air) out of the system. Only then we'll be able to slowly reclaim the firm ground on which to build the next recovery - not only for our economy, but also for our beleaguered currency, so people can earn their living and save it without fear that their nest eggs and rainy day funds will be nuked by the greed of clueless banksters. It will be a bitter medicine, but if we don't swallow it, we will have it shoved down out throats in the financial wastelands.

quicksands

Brotherhoods of the Incompetent

There are no pikes in the Czech political pond. No aquatic predators to thin out the herd. Consequently, the limp parliamentary waters are infested with oily, poorly adapted and anachronistic critters, whose mental fitness would give Darwin second thoughts about his theory.

Through the vagaries of post-communist evolution, the political spectrum in the western half of former Czechoslovakia gradually reduced to two major parties, the Social and the Civic Democrats, not counting a cohort of dwarfish also-rans. In the heady days following the dismantling of communist regime, the nation lifted its eyes to strong leaders with sparkle and erudition, and Vaclav Klaus and Milos Zeman at the helm of the two major parties seemed to fit that bill. Whatever their shortcomings were, they spoke in complete sentences and class and decorum were concepts not entirely alien to them.

But the euphoria of the velvet revolution soon evaporated, high flying ideals gave way to the teats of imported consumerism, and whatever remained of sound arguments on the political scene was quickly replaced with lowbrow bickering. The new leading tandem - Mirek Topolanek (Civic Democrats) and Jiri Paroubek (Social Democrats) - leaves much to be desired in the field of political finesse. The tone of their rhetoric has been relegated several floors down into the musty cubicles of the linguistic basement. Their causes are furthered by ideological peristalsis. And worst of all, they have gotten so enmeshed in their own web of politicking, petty demands, oozing provincialism, power haggling and personal attacks that at the end of one of the critical parliamentary sessions, on December 19, their parties maneuvered themselves into declining support for all foreign missions of the Czech Army, including those supporting NATO activities. Reneging on military obligations because of amateurish political miscalculation is so embarrassing that most major media dubbed their legislative boondoggles the Black Friday of the Czech politics.

It is a fact from elementary psychology that a brotherhood of the incompetent is the most enduring of all human fellowships. Industrious and capable people can make it on their own. It is the lazy and incompetent who have the strongest motive to bond and associate - because for them networking is a survival skill. Prime example was the Communist Party, which existed for long 40 years despite its nearly absolute economic ineptitude. The army of listless apparatchiks may not have been the sharpest collective knife in the drawer, but they stuck together so tenaciously that their massive cartel loomed over my college years with a distinctly perennial aura.

In the outcome befitting the Theater of the Absurd, almost twenty years after the collapse of the original Brotherhood of the Incompetent, the Czech lands are governed (or stifled) by a pair of kindred abominations. By two parties, on the surface entrenched in their respective dogmas, but in reality thoroughly amalgamated and infiltrated by maladroit, short-sighted and politically incestuous hermaphrodites. Their pre-holiday parliamentary disgrace was a sneering mockery of democracy. The land of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk and Vaclav Havel deserves better.

Wirebird

Man is the Master of All Creation, on land, in the sea and in the air. Homo sapiens is supposed to rule over the brutes underendowed with gray matter. But when you look at our physical abilities, we come off as rather unimpressive species and, unless you count spell checking among survival skills, most of us wouldn't stand much chance in the wilderness. Sure, we can get by in the department of running and swimming, but our performance doesn't come even close to the explosive charge of cheetahs or efficient elegance of dolphins. You could argue that, on a good day, Michael Phelps might keep up pace with a school of malaria stricken tuna fish, but the sad truth is that if there ever was an Animal Kingdom Olympics, we'd rank somewhere between San Marino and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Our record deteriorates even further when it comes to flying. Douglas Adams once observed that "The knack [of flying] lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss". Well, after several thousand years of hectic evolution, we have to admit that this "knack" misses us rather completely. We cannot fly, period. The few of us who try quickly realize that they don't have much choice for direction and usually land with an ungraceful plop and a lesson that gravity has a deadly downward bias. Such unbecoming manner of flying may elicit patronizing smiles on the faces of common pigeons but does not really lead to much enjoyment. Let's face it - we are developing a pretty strong case of wing envy.

But hey - what about blimps, hot air balloons, choppers, airplanes, or space rockets? Doesn't all that aerospace junk count as flying? Well, I don't think so. Our body itself doesn't really sail through the high airs. Rather it is some metallic cylinder that does the moving and we are merely packed in it like a bunch of wretched sardines, watching our fellow packees sip orange juice from plastic cups. The human body, relative to the casing is in perfect stillness. Our senses do not get that palpable guttural experience of being integral part of the rapidly changing perspective.

But do not despair. If you do desire to feel the comb of fresh air tousling your hairdo while flying - but are not quite ready to commit your fragile skeleton to the whims of hang gliding - there is hope for you and it comes in the form of ziplines. A series of taut metallic strings zipping inconspicuously through a canopy of a rainforest near you. On the island of Antigua, I succumbed to temptation of stately trees and not having any prior experience decided to wing it. A lovely attendant helped me into a harness, clipped me onto the wire above my helmet and before I knew it, my body was moving through the air in an unusually horizontal way. Experiencing the surrounding vegetation in a fly-thru mode wasn't quite what the birds do for a living, but it was pretty damn close.

The chauffeur who drove our little group from the Cruise Terminal to the adventure site fell into a bit of aviatory delusion himself. In the spirit of free wheeling Caribbean driving, he treated the narrow island roads as if they were La Guardia runways and throughout our trip kept barreling on roughly at the speed of sound, except for the stop signs where he lightly tapped the brake pedal, in apparent deference to the local traffic Gods.

But this bout of non-canonical driving was well worth it. Flying liberates more than you'd expect. Some of the motion challenged folks were visibly overcome with the loss of solid ground and the dizzying zips that their senses were thoroughly unaccustomed to and consequently exhibited surprising proficiency in high pitch wailing and squealing and squawking and howling and whooping and scads of other sounds which English doesn't even have a name for, but which carried for miles around nonetheless. I haven't inspected the vocabulary of Antiguan parrots, but I bet you two sleeping bags of golden coins that the one American phrase they all know by heart is "Oh my God! Oh My God!" rendered in a perfect Southern accent.

wirebird

The ABC of Music

When you say "Beethoven", most people will recall the heroic oeuvres that he wrote mostly in his 30s and early 40s (1800-1812): Appassionata, Fidelio, Eroica, the Fifth Symphony, the Emperor Concerto, the Egmont Overture. This is the Beethoven people know and admire. Beethoven the Rebel. The feisty smith slamming his hammer mercilessly against the red-hot spears and swords of his army. The disheveled genius stubbornly banging his fist on the gates of fate. The unruly God casting globes of fire from the rough-hewn seat of his Olympus.

But hidden from a view of most concert-goers lies another Beethoven. The prophet strapped to the scaffolding of the Sistine Chapel and vigorously arguing with himself. The explorer hashing his way through jungles of counterpoint to the Spring of Humanity. The wizard waving his magic wand with a forgiving smile. The Late Beethoven - devoting the last decade of his life (1818-1827) to towering monuments that Romain Rolland dubbed the Cathedral of Music: the last five Piano Sonatas, Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, and the last five String Quartets.

While Beethoven the Rebel absorbed Mozart and Hayden and paved the way for Schubert and Brahms, Late Beethoven skipped the century and pointed directly to Mahler and Stravinsky. While the Rebel compositions resemble crowd pleasing Blockbuster movies, the works of Late Beethoven shoot for different audiences - they are the artsy movies lining up for Oscar nominations in independent theaters.

Late Beethoven is like Moses of Charlton Heston descending from Mount Sinai completely transformed. Such fundamental sea change of mindset didn't come easy, of course. The two periods are separated by a punishing desert and crossing it entailed more than a fair share of suffering. In 1812-1817, Beethoven's creative stream had nearly dried out. He was plagued by illnesses, fatigue, writer's block, romantic fiascos and to top it off he became involved in a drawn out custody battle for his nephew Carl. But - much like Moses - he did reach the other side of the desert. An oasis with a potent well, where, almost imperceptibly, his Muses came back. Not roaring like hungry lions. Silently, like flowers opening to full bloom on dried out branches. You can hear them in the second movement of Piano Sonata #28, op. 101.

Many of these compositions could be considered pinnacles of the Western art. Supreme achievements of Man. All, except for three pieces that seem so unfathomable and otherworldly that they could easily have been written in heaven and then merely channeled down to us through Beethoven's Genius. When arranged alphabetically, they constitute the ABC of Music, its creme de la creme.

A for Arietta from Piano Sonata #32 in C minor, op. 111
B for Benedictus from Missa Solemnis in D major, op. 123
C for Canzona di Ringraziamento from String Quartett #15 in A minor, op. 132

Ad A: Arietta is the slow movement of his last sonata; a carefully thought out farewell to the musical form that he dearly loved and that he graced with 32 Masterpieces. Beethoven the Rebel would certainly cast his good bye in an ivory shattering grandiose Finale, but Late Beethoven has much more delicate instruments in his toolbox and he is going to use the finest of them to chisel out a timeless reflection of piano's future. Arietta starts with an introduction of a slow and surprisingly dull theme. But if you can stand its presentation, you will be richly rewarded by watching it grow into a resplendent and uniquely shaped orchid. One phrase after another, the musical ugly duckling winds through more and more complex and melodically intricate variations, its rhythm capers into playful syncopation, its harmony takes on daring hues and iridescent colors until it bursts in a scintillating apotheosis of creativity. After such Tour de Force any third movement would be anticlimactic. His 32 pieces long journey through the world of piano sonatas had to end here. Its Swan Song may have had only two movements, but it put forth a powerful message: Artist's ultimate mission is finding beauty where there seems to be none. Taking a chunk of common clay and breathing life into it.

Ad B: If we ever send a space probe into the distant reaches of our Galaxy and include a recordable medium with samples representing the endeavors of the human race, Missa Solemnis should be featured as one of its crowning achievements. The Parthenon of Beethoven's Solemn Mass consists of five monumental pillars, each supporting a Universe of its own. After the warm opening of Kyrie, the cathedral reverberates with the massive sheets of sound arching both over majestic Gloria and monumental Credo, the latter meticulously detailed over the complex story of the New Testament. A man who thought about God long and hard, presents his final testimony. But there is no place for liturgical pomp in it, the musical score says it unambiguously: "It came from the heart, may it return to the heart". With the afterglow of the double fugue of "Et vitam venturi saeculi" still lingering, Beethoven retreats into a private chapel for the communion with his Creator: Sanctus and Benedictus. We descend a spiral staircase into a simple carved wood confessional. You can barely hear the subdued chorus of monks in brown capes, more whispering than singing. With the lights dimmed and volume turned down, he greets the spirit descending from above, like a stray ray of light filtering through a skylight. The opening violin solo glittering against the hushed contours of the choir must be one of the most mystical episodes in the musical literature. Truly religious. Not in the way Megachurches in Ohio are. Much more subtly. Beethoven's Benedictus is appealing to the instinctual belief hard wired into our souls that something out there watches over us; that there is more to this Universe than the Laws of Physics.

Ad C: If Missa Solemnis is an exploration of God, the last five String Quartets are explorations of Man. Long locked in a solitary castle of his deafness, Beethoven embarks on an aesthetic expedition to hidden folds and recesses of human mind. You will find the aging Master roaming seclusively the Gardens of Imagination and climbing the Peaks of Existential Vertigo with the Plains of Futility lying deep below. You get to smell their rarefied air if you ever make it through the unrelenting fortissimo of the first 122 measures of the Great Fugue. Naturally, this perplexing odyssey was long utterly misunderstood and neglected, and it took some 80 years before it was resumed by Gustav Mahler, whose nine symphonies ventured into landscapes so similar that one is tempted to think of them as richly orchestrated sequels to Beethoven's last quartets. The Quartet in A minor is last but one in this series, written shortly after the Great Fugue, whose thin mountain air lingers throughout its five movements. Here, far away from the bustling cities of the secular world, there is little need for posturing. Canzona di Ringraziamento is a slow movement and one can infer from its subtitle that it was written as an expression of gratitude to unspecified deities for surviving a near fatal illness. And it is just that - a thanksgiving. If you listen to it in the depth of night, the long notes of its uninterrupted flow will reveal that there are many layers to a human soul. There is a layer of words, then there is a layer of tones, and beneath it, miles below the surface, there rests a layer where even the tones are too concrete. The layer of sincerity and pure emotion. That is the kind of silk Canzona is sewn of. A little postcard from the postmelodic land.

Captain Barbados

It is a common misconception that snorkeling in the Caribbean is popular for its intrinsic allure. Sure, hovering weightlessly over hulls of shipwrecked vessels bedecked with clinging corals and haunted by schools of brilliantly colored fish can be an exhilarating experience. It's like floating through a giant tropical aquarium with an added bonus of being able to poke the fish in their little rib cages with your pinky toe.

But after I embarked on a snorkeling expedition in Barbados, I came to the conclusion that the main attraction of such enterprises is a racy character of a well weathered captain, whose antics have the same effect on the vacationing passengers that a fresh buffalo carcass dripping with blood would have on a group of undernourished sharks. Being undoubtedly selected for the physical likeness to Kurt Russel, his general recklessness manifested by steering the ship with a foot on the rudder and casual attitude towards rum produces more colorful memories than any tropical fish can ever aspire to.

Our captain introduced himself as a "retired pirate with a valid license to rape and plunder", which immediately engendered quite a few expectant giggles on the part of middle aged ladies in our tour. After pausing for admiring looks to refocus, he vaguely pointed to a chest of life-vests and authoritatively declared: "Those are our emergency suits. If you see me donning one of those and jumping the ship, you know what to do." His navigational prowess was being showcased by spraying each and every passing watercraft with jovial hollering: "Are we in Venezuela yet?" - which we clearly were not, since at all times we were just skirting the island of Barbados at very close distance. And when we finally anchored at an old wreck site, he made sure that we all knew how to swim with a cautionary observation: "There is 26 feet of water down here and I don't see anyone 27 feet tall. So..."

It was fun. But when I crawled back on the catamaran and surveyed the rest of our group still floating around the area, something started to puzzle me. English has a sophisticated system of collective nouns for various groups of animals - a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, a pack of wolves, a litter of puppies, a school of fish. So what do you call a bunch of snorkelers having fun in the turquoise Caribbean waters?

I turned to the Captain with an inquiry and he only bared his teeth in an amused grin and said: "Have some rum and you'll figure it out." Hmmmmm, could it be a school of thought?

barbados

Cruise Control

Cruise ship is a very interesting ecosystem. From a distance, it looks like a huge mixing bowl of raw human dough, where you may find random selections of people at any given place at any given time. But when you look closer, you will realize that different strata of this biosphere have their own groups of endemic species, much like tropical jungles do. If you start frequenting specific places, you will indeed see similar sets of faces every day. Different critters inhabit the ground levels, swarming through an underbrush, different critters swing from a trunk to a trunk on long vines and lianas, and different critters occupy the cruise liner's lofty canopy. Each and every nook and cranny will eventually be found by some life forms and made home to them.

If I was a zoologist, I'd spend hours roaming the decks and recording their curious indigenous fauna. The teenagers gathering around the hot pools, the gym crowd strutting on an oval walking track around the fitness center, the mature ladies tempting their luck in the casino, cigar puffing gentlemen pretending to appreciate the live piano music at the Safari club, the gangs of little kids on a basketball court, the couples and pairs enjoying the daily productions at the theater, the young and restless crowd gathering in the Vortex nightclub, and last but not least, the ubiquitous drunks converging methodically to ship's numerous bars.

Speaking of intemperance: cruise ships can really be thought as large and very realistic simulators of drunkenness sans the annoying hangovers. What with the hull swaying incessantly from one wave to another, anytime you go somewhere - and it is especially true for the long and narrow corridors - you get nearly palpable feeling of being completely drunk, except that you are completely sober, so you can actually enjoy and appreciate this fluid sense of disorientation. At first, it feels rather unusual, but eventually you get used to it and your body develops a completely new framework for walking. A little skill that I like to call the Cruise Control.

The Magic of Moisture

One thing which truly amazes me about our universe is how singularly uneven the distribution of natural beauty is.

Just consider a thought experiment in which you fly in a low orbit over our sister planets - Venus and Mars. Its just bare rocks and dirt, a habitat so boring and inhospitable that even an idealistic scorpion would be hard pressed to call it a real estate. There is nothing you could put on a postcard. Just miles and miles of the same desert like landscape. And then there is Earth, the mystical blue orb with its steaming volcanoes, sprawling prairies, patches of green ferns, ramified linden trees, thundering waterfalls, majestic sequoias, skippy kangaroos, moss covered boulders, sinusoidal sting rays, fragrant orchids, stern tundras, rows of cherry trees, you name it.

Nowhere can you see this baffling display of morphological exuberance better than in a rain forest. I recently visited the island of St Lucia, where we took a relatively short hike winding through its original jungle to a mineral waterfall. We started in a little village, not far from the famous Pitons and ascended along a narrow path through a sugar cane field into the forest. As we were leaving the village, our guide would often reach into a dense foliage and uncover some bizarre looking fruit, the kind you usually see prominently displayed in the produce section of supermarkets. While in the mild climate forest you can count up to 5-6 kinds of trees, in here it seemed that each tree is its own species, emanating intoxicating smells and spreading its convoluted branches thirstily in all directions. Soon we came to a small waterfall, whose sulfuric waters smelled of healing powers. And I bet at least half of the wildly entangled plants surrounding it could cure you of your ailments too.

Being a garden variety Earthling, I simply marveled. But if I was a Martian, I would be infinitely envious.

lucia

Apple Snatcher

We, mathematicians, can be pretty dangerous grocery shoppers.

Every Saturday, I take a trip to a local Giant food store to replenish my stock of consumables. On most days, I just grab a cart and pretty efficiently run through the gamut of aisles, having long memorized all the requisite stops. But this time I wanted to get a Mango Tea, so I parked my cart at the entrance of the tea/coffee section and went on a prowl. I found my tea pretty quickly, tossed it in the cart and rode off into the Sun-Dried Tomatoes Land.

I also wanted something sweet, so for a while I was criss-crossing the store in the hope of finding something outrageously delectable. I passed many shelves filled with food items that I have never seen, some with a lot of nutritional value, some with less so, and some without it altogether. I would classify many of the finds as barely edible. In fact, I'd be better off quenching my hunger by xeroxing pancakes than gorging on some of the articles I saw on display in the canned meat department.

Anyway, at the end of my exploratory voyage I ended up getting some kind of syrupized strawberries that looked both sweet and healthy. I was about to place a jar of them into the cart when I noticed a very strange thing. My cheeses and nuts and yoghurts were all gone and the only object lying at the bottom of my cart was a large sack of apples. I have nothing against apples, but I remember distinctly that this particular weekend I didn't need any. Consequently, I didn't buy any. Apparently, as I was searching for the Mango Tea, I must have abandoned my cart and snatched mistakenly someone else's upon return.

Ridden with guilt, I dashed back through the store into the tea aisle and found that my cart was still there - unattended. There were only two people in the whole aisle: a guy seemingly distraught by the baffling variety of coffee brands and some teenage girl with a hairdo so eccentric that I was tempted to ask whether she made it herself while watching the final stages of the American Idol. Both of them had their own cart, so there was no point trying to apologize to them. I parked the apple sack inconspicuously next to my old cart, placed my hands slowly on its bar and drove it away. Silently. Although I did consider whistling.

The gentleman didn't notice me, but the girl was clearly amused by my swapping maneuver. I am sure by this time she's told all her friends to be careful at Giant Foods. An apple snatcher is on the loose.

Messenger for the Queen

(jabberwocky)

so many fires, so little water

three rolls of an oriental carpet
two red feathers falling off a tree
two flames of a long forgotten pyre
six claws of an ancient dream
one dinosaur bathing in its existence

understanding won't buy you much
wink of insanity may take you further
past the first dance of naked butterflies
casting silky stones of imagination
at the graffiti inside a borrowed freezer

here, an empty bottle for nocturnal stumblers

bottle

Fishy Babel

Not all Machine Translation software is created equal. Today, I fed a few fairly simple common sentences to Google (translate.google.com) and Yahoo! (babelfish.yahoo.com) to see how they'd fare. First, I translated them into a language X and then back into English for comparison. Here are the results.

English originals:

1. Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.
2. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
3. Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.
4. The mouse that has but one hole is quickly taken.
5. Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.

Via Portuguese:

1g. It contains your chickens before they're hatched.
1y. Don't counting of its hens before they shocked reverse speed.

2g. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
2y. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

3g. Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.
3y. To learn is a treasure that follows its proprietor in all part.

4g. The mouse that has a hole, but is quickly taken.
4y. The rat that has but a puncture is taken quickly.

5g. Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.
5y. The concern of frequent to a small thing a great shade.

Via Greek:

1g. Do not count your chickens before they're hatched.
1y. Don't the measure your chickens before that is hatched.

2g. In the land of the blind, one-eyed man is king.
2y. In the ground of blind, the one-eye individual is king.

3g. Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.
3y. The learning is a treasure that will follow the householder everywhere.

4g. The mouse has only one hole obtained quickly.
4y. The mouse that they have but a hole is taken fast.

5g. Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.
5y. The concern gives often in a small thing a big shade.

Yahoo's Babel Fish is obviously still swimming in some pretty murky semantic waters. On the whole, Google produced much cleaner results even for some exotic languages that Yahoo didn't even list. Most of the sentences were translated correctly, with few minor exceptions.

1g. Do not count your chickens before they are shredded. (Catalan)
2g. Impaired vision, one eye is king in the land. (Japanese)
3g. Learning is a tax that follows its own everywhere (Norwegian)
4g. The mouse that has a hole, but it is quickly adopted (Catalan)
5g. Often worried about a little big balloon (Vietnamese)

Obviously, languages from the far away branches of the linguistic evolutionary tree are more difficult to translate, as can be seen in these examples from Hindi.

1g. Before they are born, do not count your chickens.
2g. Blind, the one person in the land of the eye is king.
3g. Learning that will follow its owner is a treasure everywhere.
4g. But is that a hole is quickly taken from the mouse.
5g. One concern often a small thing makes a big shadow.

The Age of Dinosaurs

We live in the age of Dinosaurs.

In a clear sign that many large corporate behemoths have trouble acclimatizing to the tough economic environment created by the impact of the subprime comet, Bloomberg reported today that "General Electric Co., the biggest U.S. issuer of commercial paper, plans to use the Federal Reserve's new short-term funding facility, throwing its weight behind the central bank's efforts to unlock the credit markets."

So the company that Thomas Alva Edison started as a little manufacturing shop for electrical devices more than a century ago is running out of cash now. According to Wikipedia, not only is it involved in operations involving transmission and distribution of electricity, lighting, industrial automation, medical imaging equipment, motors, railway locomotives, aircraft jet engines, and aviation services, but 50% of their current revenues comes from financial services. Interesting.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the world where companies grow to the point where it is beyond the inherent limits of a human mind to fully comprehend the complexity of their operations. Make no mistake, the captains of these giants will assure you that they hold the rudder firmly in their hands and know where they are going, but recent events show that their sense of orientation is hazy at best. Claiming that they can foresee all the trends and undertows that pertain to their many businesses and make informed decisions is like saying that they can predict the weather in New York City on March 17, 2011. Nearly impossible to put it diplomatically. But General Electric is not the only leviathan that finds itself stifled by its size. Microsoft, JPMorgan, AIG and a host of other corporations have become cretaceous reptiles in their own right.

The problem with economic dinosaurs is that their only concern is growth at any cost. And so they grow and grow and grow some more - to the point where the mere logistics of moving their bodies around prevents them from functioning efficiently. Moreover, when they become "too big to fail", they pose significant risks to the very foundation of the capitalist system, the process of pruning the dysfunctional branches of waning industries. Factor in the cancer of greed and corruption which any overgrown and non-transparent system engenders and you have a recipe for a geological scale disaster.

I wish we lived in a world where small companies did business with each other rather than swallowed each other; where firms focused on their core business and didn't poke their entrepreneurial noses into a pyramid scheme du jour. I wished we lived in a world where small banks would make the loans based on the soundness of underlying ideas rather than the fatness of fees they collect for financing them; where the lenders took the risks of their loan portfolios themselves and managed them with common sense, rather than peddling them as esoteric securities to unastute suckers on the other side of the globe, who might have no idea that the commercial space in this neck of the woods had already been overbuilt. I wish we lived in a world where representatives knew their citizens and the citizens knew their representatives; where slim and local governments would administer the resources and needs of their communities, rather then delegating the job to overblown bureaucratic amoebas in far away places that go into seizure mode any time a major hurricane strikes the land.

I wish we lived in the age of mammals.

dino

Darwinian Cookbook

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then taste must be on the tongue of the gourmet.

If you take a close look at the culinary business, you will realize we are all victims of the dogma of totalitarian cuisines. Whether you like French or Thai, there is always someone else at the driving wheel of the synthetic process. But why should we leave it to the chefs to decide what combination of flavors and spices best tickles our taste buds? After all, our appetite sensors are different from theirs.

Our cutting boards need a revolution. Away with the dictatorship of cookbooks! Let's take hints from the evolution. After emerging from the primordial soup, life went through myriad random mutations. Not all of them were equally viable, of course, but those that made sense prevailed. I would like to suggest adopting the same paradigm in the kitchen.

Imagine the thrill of being in the driver's seat of the culinary evolution. Why stumble through the carefully measured spoonfuls and half cups of the gustatory dogma when you can freely experiment and let your own senses decide how to prune the evolutionary tree of your kitchen creations. Not to mention the blast of trailblazing itself, never knowing whether mixing two exotic cheeses would result in an explosion, in a new dairy based life-form or just in a really really bad tasting pizza.

The basic idea of the Darwinian cooking is this: toss a few random ingredients together, taste judiciously and keep only the combos that you like. Pretty simple, isn't it? To give you a feel how Darwinian cooking works in practice, here are three examples. Just remember that I am the anticook, so don't take them too literally. It is the principle that counts.

1. Darwinian Spread. For this one you will need a grater with some serious stamina. The base for the spread are sardines - I usually use Norwegian sardines in olive oil - but in the spirit of free love, feel free to use any oceanic critters. The recipe is trivial. First, empty a couple of cans of sardines into a mixing bowl and mash them into a paste like substance. Then assemble things you would like to eat and grate away. The list of my favorite gratees includes pickles, small cucumbers, carrots, onions and Jarlsberg cheese. The most important ingredient though is a raw potato. You may find it strange - but it gives the spread very unusual filamental texture. You can skip on any of the above ingredients, but not on the potato. Happy spreading!

2. Darwinian Soup. For the base of this soup I use Ramen noodles as they are cheap and come with a variety of attendant spice packets already. The rest is pretty much up for grabs, but the magical ingredient here is leeks. I usually put in some shiitake mushrooms first, and after they start boiling, I add the minced leeks, and at the end the noodles. I usually put them in after I turn the stove off, because then the noodles stay relatively crisp. When the soup cools off, I sprinkle some parsley flakes over it.

3. Darwinian Stir-fry. This is my favorite Darwinian dish - which I also call Refrigerator Medley, although it could be just as easily dubbed Chop'n'Fry. You can literally open the fridge, chop whatever random articles capture your fancy and fry them to perfection. But over the time I learned that the Medley is best rendered in the following progression. First, slice lean beef meat into thin noodles and fry them until you think they will be reasonably safe to eat. Then slice a potato into equally thin noodles, lower the heat a bit and throw them into the mix. The rest is kind of heat optional. It is mostly veggies - and those I like as crunchy as possible, whether it is peppers, water chestnuts, carrots, onions or sweet peas. So kick that refrigerator door open and treat yourself to a chopping spree. Mix well with the hot stuff in the frying pan. You can also spice it up with freshly milled Provence Herbs, especially if you are a francophone.

Finally, I would like to mention that any of the three recipes above can be greatly enhanced by adding a dash of Chiu Chow Chily Oil, which you can get at any Asian Food Market. But that of course is strictly optional - this is Darwinian cooking we are talking about, and if you'd rather smother everything in Kikkoman sauce, be my guest.

Remember that your taste buds are unique; don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

New York Time Exchange

Today I chatted with one of my friends over the Internet and she started the session with a little commiseration plea: "are you also bored?".

That really puzzled me. The last time I was bored was when I was about 11 and had to sit straight through excruciatingly long 90 minutes of my relatives squabbling over the quality of cardigan vests or some such adult matter. Ever since then I managed to avoid the stifling embrace of the shapeless gray jelly monster known to its vassals as boredom.

I am not even sure how you can be technically bored on this amazingly perplexing planet. On Mars or Venus, maybe. If my domicile ended with "Earth Colony, Mars 22102", I would consider succumbing to boredom as a reasonable alternative to hitting red rocks with brown rocks, twiddling the hoses of my spacesuit or to studying the effects of lesser gravity on the bodybuilding regimen. But Earth is the boredom antithesis - just imagine all the books to read, all the beehives to extract honey from, all the exotic flowers to plant, all the wines to sample, all the sports to play, all the puzzles to solve, all the mountain trails to hike, all the languages to learn, all the asses to kick, all the postage stamps to collect...

And yet - many people are genuinely bored. So I have a little business proposition. Why don't the people who are bored sell their extra time to those who would actually have use for it. I wish I could study the history of the Spanish Civil War, build ships in a bottle or learn how to fix cars, but there is just no way to squeeze that into the 24 hour cycle I have been allotted. If I could get a few extra hours here and there that would not count towards my daily quota, I'd be quite willing to pay at least $100 for them, and I am sure many other people would be too.

And if the idea caught on, maybe we could establish a New York Time Exchange where the terminally bored people would sell their extra time to the highest bidder. I am sure they wouldn't mind an extra source of income.

Wouldn't life be so much more efficient if we could just violate the laws of physics a bit?

orloj

Paul and Paulson

The financial debacle that we are currently experiencing puts two men of very similar names but very different attitudes on the opposite sides of the opinion spectrum.

On the one hand we have Hank Paulson - the Treasure Secretary and former CEO of Goldman Sachs. That would be one of the largest investment banks which shamelessly peddled flimsy securities to unsuspecting investors, both home and abroad, while shorting the very same investment vehicles, knowing very well that most of the underlying mortgages were bound to fail as surely as any other pyramid scheme known to man.

On the other side there is Ron Paul - a Republican Congressman and former presidential candidate, who spent the last two years advocating sound money and warning about inherent dangers of easy credit, not the least of which is reckless spending. Endlessly expanding credit does create an illusion of wealth, but it is a fool's gold at best. Thanks to his understanding of monetary policy, Ron Paul was able to recognize the housing market fiasco at times when most market economists (and certainly other fellow presidential candidates) were still locked in the ignorant cheerleading mode. But very few chose to listen to him.

Now who do you think we should commission to lead us out of this mess?

Well, if you lived in a far far away Galaxy on some bizarre planet, where intelligent life forms watch stars rather than NASCAR, where killing your own species in the name of a loving superbeing would be regarded ridiculous and where solid work and skills might be rewarded more generously than accounting sleight of hand, then Ron Paul would probably be a pretty good guess. But here in the Solar System we do things differently. Why risk the expertise of a man who had foresight and commonsense of warning us against living above our means, when we can trust our collective check book with a man who has already pocketed a solid profit from the credit pimping that we are trying to eradicate. Let's give nearly absolute powers to a man whose personal integrity can be divined from the fact that merely weeks before he rushed into Congress begging for taxpayers money to avert the impending economic doom he repeatedly assured us that our financial system is "fundamentally strong".

But such is the nature of human race, I guess. We are like an alcoholic who wants to have that one last drink before quitting. Rather than facing the harsh reality of the credit hangover, we choose to follow the barman who just may pour us a glass of whiskey one more time. The man who gives us that warm cozy feeling that our economy is fundamentally strong. Until it isn't.

Roof Mower Wanted

Some people wear their heart on their sleeve and some houses wear their lawn on their roof. Especially in Norway.

If you think that grass being greener on the other side of the fence is a valid pretext for a healthy bout of the neighborly envy, imagine the peer pressure some Norwegians are subject to. You get up one day - and lo and behold - the Joneses have greener roof than you!

Turf roof (in Norwegian torvtak) is a traditional element of the Scandinavian home building. When you drive through Norway, you'll get to see it a lot, especially in rural areas. Originally, the turf was meant as a weight to hold waterproof birch bark down, but being an excellent thermal insulator, it survived on many buildings to this day even though the birch bark had been replaced by more modern materials.

The only thing that puzzles me about this architectural peculiarity is how do you mow the roof? Do you build a little mowing funicular or do you hone your old scythe and straddle the roof yourself?

torv

California Peach

There was an ominously growing pile of TIME magazines by my bedside, so I decided to take its edge off a little bit and peruse a couple of numbers today. In the issue dated Aug 11 (page 6), I found 10 questions for the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The one which tilted my eyebrows in the weirdest angle was this one.

Q: Why have you taken impeachment off the table as an option for president George Bush?

A: ...You can't talk about impeachment unless you have the facts, and you can't have the facts unless you have cooperation from the Administration.

Wow. That's like the Police Chief Wiggum saying: "Well, you can't put a thief in jail unless you catch him, and you can't really catch him unless he cooperates and stops running away."

You are doing a heckuva job, Nancy!

Piano Concerto in A Minor

I have never been to Norway before.

But when I was sitting on a rocky quay in Utne, waiting for the ferry and trying to optically digest the lavish backdrop of the Hardangerfjord, I had a nagging feeling that I sat there before. And when I hiked along a narrow trail 600 meters over the Lysefjord, and could almost hear the vertigo humming its siren song, I would have sworn that I heard that song before. When I biked down the narrow valley to Flåm alongside a rushing river and my mind was snapping images of the stern beauty of steep mountains and the warm poetry of little farms stealing land from its slopes, I realized that those images were already stored in my memory. And when I walked around the stave church in Borgund, I instantly recognized the smell of its ancient rafters and the simple perspective of the valley in which it stood.

But it was not some strange case of a geographical deja-vu. I knew the spirit of all these places from Edvard Grieg's music, and specifically from his Piano Concerto in A minor.

A minor is a scale that makes use only of white piano keys, and in a few places of Grieg's score you can easily imagine that the ivories have just turned into a flock of sea gulls streaming across the ocean inlet and their flight lets you experience the three-dimensionality of Norwegian fjords on a very personal level.

Czech composer Bedrich Smetana once wrote a series of symphonic poems named "My Country" in which he celebrated the charm of the Bohemian countryside. Although his music was intentionally very descriptive and visual, it still does not compare to Grieg's. No other music that I know of is so deeply rooted in the substance of a country than his Piano Concerto.

You can think of it as a guided audio tour. No expensive air tickets to pay, no exorbitant transfer fees. Just close your eyes and you can almost see a pensive lake and the surrounding mountains smoothly reflecting off a polished soundboard of a Grand Piano. And you'll get to see much more if you turn your mind into a finely crafted Viking ship and let it sail on the crystal clear waters of this instrumental masterpiece.

Grieg wrote it when he was 25.

reflect

Tunnel Vision

Norwegians like to keep their roads low, which obviously poses a bit of a problem because much of their country chose to reside at pretty high elevations. But where there is a will, there is a way. Or - not to exaggerate - at least a one lane road.

Norwegian anthem begins with the verse "Ja, vi elsker dette landet" (Yes, we love this country) and after a week of driving through Norway I have to admit that it is completely true. Norwegians really dig their country. Literally. Never before have I seen so many tunnels as in Norway. And some of them can be quite impressive - on our way from Aurland to Laerdal, we drove through a monster which was 25 km long. That must have really involved some quality jackhammer time.

But it explains why you have to drive with your lights on while in Norway. In tunnels, it is essential that you are seen by the oncoming traffic. The rest a simple statistics really - with all those tunnels and all those cars moving in them, Norway gets more underground movement than Britain during the Beatnik years. If even a small fraction of drivers forgot to put their headlights on, it would be a tunnel clogging disaster. So why take chances and deplete the country's stock of Draino?

Sometimes you go through a tunnel, emerge briefly, cross a fjord or a lake on a bridge and zip into another tunnel. Their sheer total length is mind-boggling. I wouldn't be surprised if Norway possessed more than 20% of the known tunnel reserves of the whole world. If they ever run our of oil, they could export them.

I am not sure whether Norwegians have a national animal - but if they do, I bet you five crates of high grade dynamite that it is a mole. Paws down.

Stumbling Water Galore

Thanks to its unique morphology, Norway is the waterfall capital of the world. Its high mountain plateaus are instrumental to this title in at least two ways. First, they hold the thawing snow long into summer, providing a rich supply of water, and second, they have nearly perpendicular slopes which don't give the water any other chance to get down but fall.

In most languages, the words for common things are short. Why waste the energy of a multisyllabic word on something that gets used day in and day out. It is therefore no surprise that Norwegian has an unusually short word for a waterfall - foss. Compare that to wasserfall (German), cascada (Spanish), vodopad (Czech), vizeses (Hungarian) or cachoeira (Portugese). Even Swedish, which is in the same language group, uses vattenfall. But Norwegians would go crazy if they had to pronounce three syllables any time they see a waterfall. So they just say foss.

A friend of mine is from Trondheim and before we went on our trip, we asked her where we could find waterfalls in Norway. She said everywhere. And that turned out to be a pretty accurate pointer. But there are places where you can increase your chances of seeing falling water considerably. For instance, you can take Flåsbana, a scenic railroad from a bottom of Sognefjord up to Myrdal, which actually makes a stop for one - in Kjosfossen. From Myrdal you can then bike back through a narrow valley that features waterfalls on both sides. Not to mention a wild river running alongside the trail, which could qualify as one long cascading waterfall in its own right.

If you are not a biking Viking, you can take a ferry through Norway's many fjords and watch waterfalls from the comfort of a ferry deck. You can also visit any of Norway's glaciers, whether it is Jostedalsbreen, Folgefonn or one of the minor ones, and then feast on cascading streams that adorn their sides like little ribbons. Or you can just follow rivers and streams to places where they stumble. And in Norway, waterways stumble a lot.

foss

Grieg to the Rescue

Not only is randomness a great source of beauty, but sometimes it can moonlight as a pretty sophisticated GPS, too. If you don't believe it, here is what happened on our trip to Bergen, Norway.

We spent a lot of time driving around that day, so we arrived in Bergen around 11pm. Having nonchalantly forgone making reservations as well as buying a good street map, we headed straight for the airport, where we expected hotels to be easier to find and more amenable to last minute price negotiations. Neither quite worked; our maneuvering through Bergen, including going back and forth on a toll road, resembled a run of a headless chicken, and the anticipated deep discounts at the hotels turned out to be a tad shallower than Paris Hilton's knowledge of Viking history.

After a few haggling fiascos, we resigned our search and started to look for a place to park and sleep in the car. It was midnight, we were somewhere in the greater airport area and soon we happened upon a cozy construction site, where we parked next to a homey looking bulldozer. The deciduous trees surrounding the site were doing a pretty good job shielding us from the prying eyes of police cars, but on a second thought we figured that being woken early in the morning by the din of construction workers wasn't exactly our idea of "car sweet car", so we hit the road again.

Finding a decent place to car camp in a dark and strange city at 1 am is lottery at best. We drove randomly through countless intersections, took side roads at will, we entered some condo complex, strayed in it, found a different way out, pursued well lit streets, pursued ill lit streets, completely lost any sense of where we were, or whether we were still in Bergen at all, and at about 2 am we got so tired that we decided to just crash wherever we were even if it was to be on the front lawn of the Headquarters of the Norwegian Parking Enforcement Agency. But then and there - just as we abandoned all hope - and after an odyssey that would soften the heart of a Correctional Treatment Specialist - the magical GPS of a random drive lead us to a parking lot of what seemed to be a decent looking hotel.

It was Edvard Grieg's Quality Inn, and for a price we were willing to stomach we got our best accommodations in Norway that night. The man whose music prompted this trip took mercy, and offered a hotel bearing his name to two weary travelers.

Fjell, Foss og Fjord

In English, being the F-word carries a definite stigma of a social outcast: you get bleeped out a lot, no loitering around schools and forget ever dining in a nice restaurant. Norwegian, on the other hand, cherishes its short F-words dearly, because they stand for the staples of the country's natural charm - the mountains (fjell), the waterfalls (foss) and the fjords.

Fjords are long and narrow sea inlets, often stretching deep into the interior, like a giant tug-of-war between ocean and land, with glaciers playing the part of a rope. You can feel the tension between the two elements. Here, the ocean and the mountains have a staring contest - two ogres breathing slowly before the final battle. And if you like mountains and waterfalls too, then you can think of Norway as one wall-to-wall Disneyland for all your scenic needs.

But we live in an era of one stop shopping experience, so let me make a recommendation which can save you a lot of driving - the Geirangerfjord. Surrounded by mountains climbing up to 5,000 feet, it offers variety of waterfalls and mountain sides so steep that one farm perching on a rock over the fjord has a ladder as the only access route to it. There is no road alongside the fjord, so you will have to take a ferry from Hellesylt to Geiranger, but it will be worth every penny (or in this case every øre).

In Norway, you cannot say that you have experienced the words which begin with an F until you have taken a boat ride through the fjord which begins with a G.

fjord

Black Star

English folks brought us many cool things that begin with an S: steam engine, sandwich, smallpox vaccine, steel-ribbed umbrellas, submarines, seat belts, but the best of all - although in their own minds it actually begins with an F - is the game of soccer, the sparkling diamond among all sports, and an electrifying amalgamation of power, skill, coordination and strategy.

Every July, the local Czech community organizes a soccer tournament which usually takes places in the fields behind the Cooper Middle School in McLean. And every July it is a great opportunity to partake of the game's myriad of possible plays and lament over your own lost chances, not to mention other perks - the easy camaraderie of a shared cooler, the would be expertly opinions on European Champions League, and, of course, the intense exercise under the hot Washingtonian sun, which you can also think of as playing poker with dehydration.

This year I was playing on a team called Black Stars. One of my teammates was a black guy, who was new to a tournament. He showed up a bit late, and as he approached our tent, he nearly ran into me: "is this Black Stars?" - he blurted out. I put on my most offended expression and retorted - "don't I look like a Black Star"? He scanned my pasty white Slavic body from head to toe and from the way he pursed his lips it was clear that he had serious doubts about my claim.

But still I thought it was a great name for our team of misfits. We didn't do much shining, but we kicked around a lot. Much like our namesakes in the Universe.

Jersey Shore

Last weekend I came to the conclusion that it was much easier to dig a hole on a beach than in someone's backyard. Since the depth of this observation is roughly equivalent to that of the two miniabysses that I dug out in the process of empirically discovering it, I figured I should publish this piece of wisdom somewhere. Maybe in the International Journal of Applied Grave Digging. After all, no one has published it yet and that seems to be the going reason for issuing papers these days, the complete lack of academic merit notwithstanding.

My friend Robert lives in New Jersey and during my last visit one of his pet rabbits passed away of old age. Which, by the way, is just a coincidence - most pets survive my visit just fine. After I had my breakfast Saturday morning, I found Robert in the backyard, digging away at the grave. Robert is an excellent mathematician, but his grave digging skills are slightly sub par. I almost felt he'd be happier if he could jab the hardened soil with his compass and scoop it up with a protractor. I am a mathematician too, but in my army years I dug a Grand Canyon's worth of trenches, so my excavation technique has lots of experience under its belt. And I was not shy to flash it. My civil engineering prowess made such a lasting impression that I was treated to a trip to the Jersey Shore as a reward for my little graveyard shift.

Coming from a landlocked country, I never say no to the ocean.

There is something spiritually invigorating in throwing yourself into a cresting wave and being tossed around by the raw force of the water. Submitting to the raging elements and embracing them is like a shower for your soul. And, on the practical side, it is a pretty good preparation in case you are ever swept by an avalanche or run over by a bus full of screaming kids. Speaking of which: Robert's daughters soon demanded my attention and that is how I made my startling discovery. While I was serving as a cheap shoveling labor for their castle moat restoration project, I did notice that sand presents much less resistance to my digging efforts than rocky soil reinforced with wayward roots.

But poking around in the sand gets old pretty fast and in an effort to satisfy young minds' craving for new thrills, I created a game utilizing the ocean's unlimited supply of waves. Here it is. You wait for a tongue of a wave to splash onto the shore. As it retraces back into the ocean, you follow it on the bared piece of sandy bottom. The purpose of the game is to make it as far into the ocean as possible, without getting your feet wet. Of course, you might be tempted to go as far as possible, but remember the next wave is coming, so you want to give yourself plenty of time to escape. Once the water catches your feet, you are disqualified no matter how deep into ocean's territory you made it. So you have to carefully balance the trade off between going long and leaving yourself enough time to avoid the next wave.

Admittedly, this is not the most exciting thing you can do while babysitting kids at the beach, but it is fun enough and it will tide you over till the parents reclaim their off-springs and shower them with exciting new activities.

shore

Birthday Shower

When it comes to irrigating the parched throats, Washington has more than a fair share of the world's drinkeries. Many of them are located in a little district known as Adams Morgan, which is well stacked with pubs and clubs and is therefore heavily frequented by partiers of all ages. You can choose from a wide assortment of watering holes from elegant venues, such as the Reef, where exotic fish will entertain you in rows of aquariums and turquoise tones fill the place with visual blues, to older and warmer places, like Madam's Organ, just across the street, where you can often hear the acoustic version of blues.

My friend's sister celebrated her 21st birthday today, so we thought that Adams Morgan would be a perfectly appropriate place where to introduce her to pleasures of unrestrained alcohol consumption. We took subway from Falls Church and disembarked duly at the Adams Morgan station, which is just across a bridge from the actual Adams Morgan. (by the way, what a strange word disembark is - embark sort of implies that you are getting onto some kind of a bark and only to be momentarily kicked away by the roguish "dis")

When we got out of subway, it was raining cats and dogs and pet iguanas, and for a while we stood stranded under the station's canopy. But when it became clear that there is no shortage of domesticated animals in the sky, we started to look around and spotted a CVS presumably stacked with a wide assortment of umbrellas. Well, our hopes were sort of satisfied by a kind of black, mildly dysfunctional and overpriced article Made in China, but after merely one exchange we were able to nudge it to reasonable functionality and felt adequately protected to brave the elements.

With renewed confidence in the success of our mission, we strutted onto the bridge. So far so good. Rain was coming down hard, but our umbrellas did a pretty good job at keeping it at bay. In our youthful folly, we assumed that above is the only direction water could get to us from. In good faith, we sauntered on when all of a sudden - whack! Not a droplet, or a spray, but a thick sheet of water slapped our backs. I turned around to see what had just happened and whack! Another wall of water hit my front. By this time I could see two narrow strips, about 5 square inches total, of dry textile on me - and the rest was completely soaked. There was no place to escape on the narrow bridge, and our garments became the mopping rags as puddle after puddle was being emptied into their fabric, courtesy of the aggressive drivers. Water was dripping from all the extremities of our clothes. To say that we were liquidized would constitute a bit of a stretch, but after we took few more hits from the watering a**-holes, we reached the liquidity level that many of the US banks would be quite envious of.

When a person is born in this country, he or she has to spend the next 21 years shielded from alcohol. As we were standing there on the bridge to Adams Morgan, wet to the bone, I though it was a proper celebration of one dry period that was just about to end.

Differentiation of Disintegration

There is disintegration and then there is disintegration. Auntie Nature(*) has myriad ways of breaking things. Today I witnessed two of the more extreme cases from the opposite sides of the spectrum: one spectacularly fast and furious and the other painstakingly slow but persistent.

(*) since a cousin of mine refers to Nature as "Mother", I feel I am legally entitled to use this epithet.

Not far from my grandparents' cottage there is a series of bizarrely sculpted rock formations known as "Adrspach Rock Town". If you are ever in Prague and want to take a breather from the overwhelming architectural drubbing, go visit the Giant Mountains. From the base town of Trutnov, the rocks can be reached via a short train ride that skirts the border with Poland and leads directly into their heart. Eons of subversive gnawing of elements eroded a massive chunk of sandstone into a Gothic labyrinth of tall rocky columns and one of the most spectacular natural landmarks of the Czech Republic.

I haven't been there for at least 20 years, so I persuaded my sis to go there for a little weekend jaunt. We took the road though, and before we got there, we witnessed a much brisker way in which the Nature can induce disintegration. In a shallow valley near our destination, a station wagon carrying assortment of furniture on its roof was approaching us in the opposite direction. One of the bookshelves was apparently tied rather recklessly and as the car swerved through a sharp bend, a hefty bookcase succumbed to the lure of the centripetal force and flew away, exploding into splintered shards not more than 50 yards ahead of us. If we were there a few seconds earlier, that same wooden missile would have taught us why the Czech roads are considered some of the most dangerous in Europe. Fortunately, the same force that launched the renegade piece of furniture from its cradle on the roof also instantaneously swept its carcass away from the road, so after we drove over the spot and I looked back through the rear window, the road was perfectly clear and the shattered wooden planks must have been resting quietly in the tall grass of the ditch.

As we walked among the sandstone spires few hours later and admired their grotesque shapes springing from the white sand, we were gently reminded that it is the slow and patient change that often creates the most marvelous and persistent wonders, in this case literally one grain of sand at a time. On the other hand, the quick and theatrical gestures that may dazzle you with their sleight-of-hand magic at first will frequently end up exactly where they belong. In the ditch. And that is true for the human affairs as well.

rocks

Night Prague Fauna

Shortly after college, me and one of my college buddies landed on the opposite sides of Prague; me in the so called "South Town" and him up there in the northern suburbs. In those years, we started a little tradition that we called the "Night Crossing of Prague".

It was pretty much what the name says. We'd set out around 11pm from one of our places, and then we'd cross the whole city on foot - a solid 10-15 miles hike, depending on our route. It was a unique way to experience the solemn charm of the sleeping capital, its depopulated streets and abandoned factory districts, the moonlit river and the silhouette of the Prague Castle and to quietly observe its nocturnal denizens in their natural habitat.

Another friend of mine has a night job in the Wenceslaus Square area these days, and since I was in Prague overnight and she had a little break from 1am to 2am, I took her for a short inspection tour of the Old Town to see how much has the fauna of the Night Prague changed over the years. We made a little round trip from Mustek to the Astronomical Clock, then to Prasna Brana and back. Just enough to get a good look at all the species that call Night Prague their home, whether indigenous or introduced. And things did change quite a bit from the days when most of the night traffic could have been attributed to a bunch of local drunks returning home from the cheap pubs, maybe few migrant workers mostly from Slovakia and here and there to an underground peddler looking for customers.

Our mini-expedition lasted about 40 minutes, but it featured variety of life that even tropical oceans might be envious of, and we were just skimming the surface. What lay beneath it, I dare not surmise.

In no particular order: we saw a group of jejune German boys who figured that their worldly sophistication is best manifested by pushing each other noisily into a row of low trimmed bushes; we saw a curly haired well tanned gentleman with a tie dangling loosely around his neck, who sat on a curb with a half empty bottle in his hand and appeared to have entered a highly meditative state of sorts, pondering whether the Universe is going to collapse on itself in 2012 or whether the hedgehogs are ticklish or possibly both; we saw a herd of ruminants besieging a fast food kiosk and paying homage to the art of Moravian sausagery by generously greasing their shirts; we saw a Mediterranean looking beau, obviously a proponent of global dilly-dalliance, who was severely under the influence of the belief that the surest way to seduce Czech girls is compulsive elbow pulling reinforced with a tirade rendered in an unknown language by a tongue equivalent of a submachine gun; we saw generic male tourists lying drunk on the cobblestones in front of the Tynsky Cathedral, we saw security gorillas cruising robustly through the crowd like icebreakers keeping the Northern Passage negotiable, we saw a bevy of dressed up Russian ladies who made me think that the fashion sense of a nation changes less rapidly than its political milieu, and finally we saw two Japanese tourists who were doing what Japanese tourists do best - wielding their expensive Nikons unsheathed like some magical Samurai swords and proving for the umpteenth time a corollary to Descarte's famous dictum, whose Japanese mutation reads: "Photo ergo sum" (I take pictures, therefore I am).

Fruits of Serendipity

In the mid 80s, just before our military service, we used to frequent a jazz club Reduta in Prague. Our favorite Chief of Staff there was one Laco Deczi, a trumpetist extra-ordinaire and a tenacious, distinctive man who always held his ground against the stifling regime. And since Deczi was born in Bratislava, with a bit of luck and about one dollar in your pocket, you could get there the complete three course Czechoslovak meal in one sitting: sipping an earthy Moravian wine in the heart of Bohemia while listening to the best jazz Slovakia had to offer.

I can still remember his ferocious playing, his blowing notes from the trumpet as if it were some kind of a brass snowblower and then seeing the notes swirl and whirl through the air like acoustic snowflakes eventually destined to melt on the windowsill of our minds. Deczi wrote most of his music himself and underneath the bluesy harmonies you could often hear a playful wink of the Slovakian folklore. Kind of like that deep and frivolous aroma you find lurking at the bottom of some well aged wines.

Sadly for us, later that decade Deczi emigrated to America and our guided tours through the Land of Sparkling Harmony ground to a complete halt. Over the years, we lost track of his musical endeavors, but when I ended up on the west shore of the Atlantic Puddle, I made several attempts to locate him. In vain. He always seemed to have been in a different corner of this highly multicornered country.

This weekend, there was a theater festival in my hometown, Hradec Kralove, and my niece dragged me out to see some ultra-hyper-modern play in which animals from Noah's times were discussing prospects of the imminent arc travel and few other selected aspects of their animalhood whose pertinence to the story at hand was rather unclear. After the play I felt that my cultural stomach was still a bit on a grumbly side, so I agreed to stay for a free concert that was part of the festival's festivities.

What good could a free concert be - thought I - anticipating a brood of clumsy youngsters whose aspirations would be limited to impressing local impressionable ladies. I was quite amused when one of my niece's friends (whose ilk I was fully expecting to see on stage momentarily) mentioned that it would be Laco Deczi. I thought that I must have inadvertently mentioned Deczi before and now I had become a target of an obvious practical joke. But it was Laco Deczi's concert alright. He was in Czechoslovakia celebrating his 70th birthday.

This goes to show that sometimes you go to the world to look for a rare diamond and after sailing the seven seas and crossing the seven deserts you find the precious stone in your own backyard. A windfall from the tree of serendipity.

Well, not to make this post unnecessarily long: it was a concert well worth skipping the Final of the EURO Soccer Championship for. Deczi's trumpet was as commanding as ever, and as the night descended on a small open courtyard, it seemed that all the people that gathered around the stage, all the leaves on trees, all the cobblestones in the old pavement, and even the wind breathing through the open space between the houses, became part of one giant organism. And the four magicians on an improvised wooden stage became its palpitating heart.

Laco Deczi - trumpet
Eric Meridiano - piano
Noboru Kinukawa - bass
Vaico Deczi - drums

deczi

Tiger's Clause

Out there in the vast reaches of the dating battlefield, there is a legion of self-righteous crusaders who'd make you believe that considering looks is a mortal sin and a symptom of pathological shallowness. But they miss an important point.

Looks do matter. And not only because our faces reflect our souls, so you can catch a glimpse of one's character and personality through their facial expressions. They matter for a more fundamental reason.

However chosen our species is in the greater scheme of things, we are still an integral part of Nature. And in our mates we look for the best possible combination of genes, so that the ever growing tree of evolution remains strong and doesn't self-destruct in a dead branch of poorly adapted affable morons. Do tigers look for a personable mate? Nope. They look for the sharpest colors and the thickest furs because those are indicative of a potential for the fittest offspring.

And tigers most definitely are not shallow.

Wild Flowers

Behind my parents' summer house there is an old abandoned quarry. For a while it was completely barren, its reddish gravel glowing like a scar from a distance, but various weeds started creeping in over the years and these days the place looks like one huge technicolor party of wild flowers. Surviving on a diet of ground stone may go against the Healthy Nutritional Guidelines of most Horticultural Societies, but despite the harsh terrain they managed to eke out a pretty decent living out there.

Now if you are a rose, an orchid or a tulip, don't take this personally, but I think that most cultivated flowers are spoiled posers. They flaunt their carefully manufactured colors the way cocky young men show off their brand new blazers. Their extravagant shapes beg to be admired and their sublime fragrances constantly crave attention. But the true beauty is hardly ever needy.

Wild flowers are much more personable. Their existence is independent of eager adulators and their modest design has been slowly honed by eras of evolutionary trial and error, a suit presided over by an impartial jury of bees and animals. Their coloring and morphology may not be as flamboyant as that of their high end sisters, but they exude familiar warmth and the spirit of home. The girl next door charm.

Sometimes when I idle at a supermarket's exit lane and my vision scans over the faces of numerous super models gracing the magazine covers, I am reminded of all the pampered glass house flora. And I wonder whether dating these over-shampooed camera-ready goddesses doesn't feel a little bit like going out with a sterile holographic image perfected by a concerted effort of an international team of renowned beautologists. And I am also curious whether they are really happy in their high insecurity cosmetic prisons. I suspect that the answer is no, for beyond the Mountains of Perfection lies the Desert of Emptiness.

Wild flowers on the other hand are genuine, simple, and yet not trivial. And those are the attributes I find most appealing in women, too.

kytky

Life Jacket Required

Two posts ago, I made an observation that Czech women are more likely to trust men than the American ones. A friend of mine from NJ took a bit of umbrage at that pronouncement, so in the interest of ensuring the Equal Trusting Opportunity regardless of country, continent or planet of origin, I decided to perform a simple sociological experiment.

I went to one of those free dating sites that abound on the Internet and made a quick search within 5 years of my age and 25 miles of my domicile. No sooner had my game plan started to solidify than I was served a table of about 15 photographs from which I chose the most adventurous looking she-daredevil and initiated the Instant Messenger chat session. After an exchange of about 5 or 6 obligatory pleasantries, I brazenly suggested going on a canoeing trip; not at some unspecified point in a distant future, but tomorrow, as in less than 24 hours. Please note that it is one thing to meet a stranger at a cozy cafe, but it is a completely different ballgame to be with him on a remote stretch of a river, with no cell phone reception and no River Patrol in sight. To my unmitigated surprise, the adventurer named Valerie agreed. It wasn't the most emphatic yes I had ever heard, but it was a yes nonetheless.

We met at 9.30am in the parking lot of the Fair Oaks Marriott hotel. The day was bright and the sunny weather ushered in a fairly relaxed atmosphere to begin with. Additionally, my light clothing betrayed no signs of axes, knives, machetes, guns or bazookas, which must have erased the few lingering doubts Valerie had about her near term life expectancy. Without any problems, we reeled into the parking lot in Bentonville, rented our canoe and by the time we were through the Compton Rapids she was comfortable enough to take a swim in the river and then change into her shorts right there - in the middle of a moving canoe.

Having successfully completed the procedure which looked more like she was morphing from a caterpillar into a butterfly, Valerie took a comfortable repose in the bottom of the canoe. As we scooped some water in the rapids, this had one unintended consequence for her own bottom. The river water started silently seeping into her shorts and after a while they were almost as wet as her swimming suit. The river water is usually full of unseemly microorganisms with fancy Latin names, so staying in the wet shorts would pose an obvious health hazard. To cope with the problem, she made a little nest out of our life vests, and, wearing only my T-shirt, initiated the drying sequence. She slumped in her improvised lair so completely that only her head and her legs propped against the siding were visible from the shore. She then placed the shorts on the canoe's bench for the sun to do its magic and on occasion she picked them up and held them in the oncoming breeze as a flag of defiance. If someone was filming this scene from a chopper above they'd think we were enacting a Monty Python episode, or an emergency trip to a local gynecologist.

The Duchess of York would probably disapprove of such conduct and even think of it as scandalous, but the river has its own moral code. If you are miles away from the nearest changing booth, you have to do with whatever you can find in your boat and hope no one is filming it.

Random Trip to Nowhere

Deciding on a destination for a weekend trip can be trickier than playing badminton in a Boeing wind tunnel. Here is the stereotypical scenario: she wants to go to Richmond for a crafts festival while he would rather drive to Baltimore because the Yankees are in town. With such geopolitical predicament, no matter how much diplomatic lubricant is expended, one side of the negotiation table ends up flexing their brow muscles and - should the choice turn out to be less than spectacularly entertaining - with a pretext for a hearty "I told you so". But there is a perfectly democratic mechanism which makes the outcome fair. A game I call the Random Trip.

Its principle is very simple. Both players simply take turns in deciding where to go. You basically keep going straight until a person whose turn it is decides to go left or right. And it doesn't matter whether that next turn is the immediate left, or a right taken after an endless series of traffic lights. As long as it is your turn, you can wait it out all the way to the nearest T intersection, where the decision is finally forced upon you. Any time a decision to change direction is made, the turn goes to the other person. This way no matter where you end up, it is always a shared responsibility and any desire to play the blame game has to be deferred for later activities, such as cooking dinner, painting the living room walls or assembling an electron microscope.

This Saturday, I took one of my Czech friends for a random trip on I-66. We escaped about 20 miles west of the city, where I chose to take an exit to Rt 17. The ramp quickly ended at a T-intersection where my friend chose to go south. Then it was my turn again and since I liked the road we stayed on it for a while until I took a sharp right onto some pretty local road. My co-navigator didn't like it very much as she instructed me to take a quick compensating left at the first opportunity. Soon we had no more idea about our whereabouts than Homer Simpson in a smoke filled mirror maze.

After about 60 minutes, we arrived at a nice little town named Orlean where my friend demanded an emergency stop at a local antiques store for unspecified reasons. I suspect she was hoping to find slightly misspelled birth certificate of Joan of Arc. Whatever the cause was, just as we were about to leave their parking lot, she further claimed to have spotted a restaurant on the other side of the road and passingly mentioned an incipient sensation of hunger. I expressed serious doubts that an establishment marked simply as Gas/Market/Restaurant would have anything to offer besides cold Hot Dogs, but since improvisation is the middle name of this game, I nodded to a little exploratory mission.

It felt like stepping through a looking glass; and one made in the 50s at that. It was about 5pm and the place styled in unintended retro with an emphasis on formica was virtually empty, save for a lanky guy sitting by the front door and a chatty curly haired girl swaying on one of the barstools and simultaneously maintaining a close relationship with half of the cooking staff. But when the waitress/retired actress brought my Tilapia Fillet, my impression of the place took a sharp U-turn. If this is how they cooked in the 50s, then I better go and place an eBay bid on a used Time Machine. I bet that many a fine connoisseur in DC would melt at the taste of seafood they serve at this gas station, but they'll never get the chance for they choose to operate within the boundaries set by their favorite lifestyle magazine.

That is the beauty of Random Trips. They tend to offer a menu of delightful and unexpected appetizers, and I do not just mean the culinary ones. Keep your sensory inputs open and you'll get to see well manicured farmlands with their lawns sheared not mowed, private horse tracks delimited by white fences, shreds of the after rain fog scattered over the road like pieces of a fairy wardrobe, weathered churches perching on grassy knolls, an old graveyard staging a soporific mutiny against the flow of time, stone benches overlooking a reed infested gully carved out by a meandering creek, dirt roads dotted with wild strawberries...

And if you take sufficiently many wrong turns, you may even happen upon that elusive Holy Grail of all random travelers: the Road to Nowhere.

rd

End of Storm Celebration

There are several difference between the American and Czech women in general. But when it comes to dating, the one which strikes me as the most prominent is the level of trust in the members of the opposite sex. For some reason, the Czech women are more generous when it comes to the benefit of doubt. I am not sure where the mistrust of American ladies comes from - whether the American guys get too many wrong ideas from watching too much football or whether it is simply a curse of a big country where it is all too easy to snatch a book of coupons from an unsuspecting grandma and disappear into the mountains of Montana.

Here is an extreme example. Some time ago, I met an American girl online and after a few weeks of emailing she finally agreed to a meeting. At a public place, of course. "Mission accomplished", I thought, but on the eve of the rendezvous she asked me to fax her a copy of my drivers license. Naturally, that was an instant deal breaker. Not that I do not have a driver's license, but being paranoid is a bit of a turn off for me.

For some reason, the Czech chicks chuck their prudence more readily and are willing to enter into much riskier situations with considerably less background checking. Maybe it is a small town mentality brought about by the physical dimensions of the country. Or perhaps it is the exposure to forty years of communism, which taught people to direct their suspicions at the totalitarian regime rather than at each other. I do not know.

Yesterday, a series of powerful storms galloped through the DC area. As the last one was passing over McLean, I was having the first phone conversation with a female compatriot of mine whom I never met before and with whom I exchanged only two emails up to then. At the end of the short conversation, as the rain intensity slowly abated, I suggested to celebrate the end of the storm at a nearby Starbucks. Without much ado, she agreed. So instead of enjoying the fruits of electricity, which many of my friends were denied that evening, I unexpectedly hit the road.

When I got there, the whole plaza was completely dark, except for a small light at the other end. It emanated from an Asian Grocery Store, which somehow survived the power outage. I called my date and told her to meet me there as it was temporarily the least scary place in that neighborhood.

When she arrived, it was still raining hard and I was waiting for her under the store's canopy. I made an attempt to brave the rain and approached her car, but she beckoned me back and called my cell. Being separated by about 10 feet of torrential rain, we decided to stay the course and make do with whatever the Asian Market had to offer. Rather than seeking higher ground (electrically speaking), we just bought some soft beverages and retired to my Honda to celebrate the end of the storm.

As we sipped Mango Juice, with seats pulled comfortably back and front windows rolled down to let the fresh air in, she was telling me her life story and didn't seem to be too preoccupied with the possibility that I might be a deranged psychopath with a private log cabin in Montana and a fully loaded 9mm Luger stashed away in the glove compartment. That is the kind of stuff Czech women have no problems pulling off. They can enter a perfect stranger's car in a dark parking lot, with the night sky still criss-crossed by the lightnings of the departing storm and they chat as happily as if they were sitting on a padded chair in a well lit Cafe teeming with scores of armed law enforcement officers on a coffee break.

Oily Solution

One of the greatest mysteries of this Universe is how on Earth does the Congress of the United States prioritize its agenda.

Here is an example. Most of the Americans think that the country is heading in the wrong direction: our road to prosperity has been littered with financial IEDs, we have the most severe housing slump since the Great Depression, the credit crisis rocks the banking boat, Nature makes it painfully clear that global warming is more than a figment of Al Gore's imagination and our infrastructure is in need of a major overhaul - at least here in DC, where every little summer storm wreaks unimaginable havoc to our power grid. Yet with all these issues looming over them, our congressfolks think that spending taxpayers' money on probing the world of sports is pretty cool.

Senate wasted endless hours investigating the baseball steroid scandal and grilled Roger Clemens for hours to see what kind of stuff he injected into his body. The House didn't lag behind for too long and launched its own hearings into alleged signal spying of New England Patriots. Sure, it had be lots of fun to talk personally to Bill Belichick about his reconnaissance style, but is this issue really the hottest potato on the constituent's plate?

Last week the price of crude oil reached $135. The election day being less than half a year off, I thought: "Hey, what an opportunity for our elected representatives to stop dilly-dallying and get down to some real business". And there was no dearth of possibilities for a decisive course of action.

They could end subsidizing compulsive speculators on the Wall Street, whose well heeded calls for bail outs are greatly contributing to the sliding dollar. Paying other nations for an increasingly scarce commodity by a currency which is being constantly diluted is just forcing them to ask for more and more of the progressively worthless money. But if the Fed could find the balls to prop up the ailing dollar, the energy gamblers would soon learn that their crude casino is not as generous as they are becoming accustomed to.

They could stop the war in Iraq and significantly reduce our military presence overseas. The day I learned that Abrams Tank slurps about 4 gallons per mile was the day I understood why the US military is the largest oil consumer in the whole world. And then there is the secondary effect of our military maneuvers in the oil rich Middle East. If someone thinks that waging wars among oil derricks is going to bring the price down, they should think again.

They could also support manufacturers willing to produce more energy efficient cars, or even dust off the plans for the electric car, which disappeared under rather unexplained circumstances years ago. They could make a realistic analysis of the world's energy supplies and stop hiding behind ethanol fantasies, whose only real impact so far had been a side bubble in food commodities. They could focus on developing and supporting alternative energy sources and help to alleviate our suicidal dependence on foreign oil. Anything to take some burden off of fossil fuels would help.

Full of hopes I sank my eyes in Yahoo!News to see what line of attack would our legislative quarterbacks choose. And here it is straight from the horse's mouth: "The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation on Tuesday allowing the Justice Department to sue OPEC members for limiting oil supplies and working together to set crude prices, but the White House threatened to veto the measure."

Bravo! Way to go, boys and girls. Let's sue independent countries for not wanting to sell us THEIR oil for the price WE want. Is it no longer the case that every nation can use their finite natural resources as they see fit? And if all the OPEC countries want to extract exactly 1 barrel of oil per day and then sell it on eBay for exactly 1 million bucks, isn't it their right?

On the other hand, I have to commend the Congress for utilizing America's #1 natural resource: the endless legions of legal warriors. You may not find this in the UN Geological Survey Almanac, but the US has the world's largest proven reserves of lawyers. With their ranks fully mobilized, the future undoubtedly will be interesting. And so will the oil futures.

oil

The Unsung Physics of Baseball

One thing that intrigues me about baseball is how the dimensions of its ballparks are optimized for suspense. Not only is the depth of an outfield just enough for a homer to arch over, but the separation of bases has been carefully chosen so as to make the hitter a fair game should the ball be stopped by the first line of defense. And the same goes for stealing. The catcher's ball and the speeding stealer usually arrive at the same time - just as it happened this Friday during the Card's game against the Pirates when the St Louis jack-of-all-trades Rick Ankiel dashed across the empty interbase space like a wild meteor and his looming contour so confused the Pirates' baseman that he didn't quite emotionally connect with the incoming ball and allowed Ankiel to continue to third and gain much more from this adventure than he had originally hoped for. If the Pirates ever move to retail, their enterprise should start off with the slogan: "steal one, get one free".

Almost all the plays in baseball are exercises in kinetics. But the players hardly ever turn to the high school physics. They use their experience instead. In the 7th inning, the 3rd baseman Troy Glaus caught a low-flying line drive and because of a runner already at first, he had to quickly solve the following problem: the hitter H1 moves from the plate to the first with the velocity v1. Simultaneously the previous hitter H2 moves from the first to the second with velocity v2. Do you shoot for the elusive double play or do you go for the bird in hand arriving shortly at the terminal 1? Well, Glaus chose wisely the latter and the Pirates, despite the ruckus in the 9th, went home empty handed.

Watching batters on the field betting on the outcomes of exercises from elementary physics textbooks is what makes baseball so attractive for the science crowd. Now if only we could agree on whether the players are burning calories or kilojoules while at it.

Cunningham Falls

In my little book of great outdoors, a very special place is reserved for waterfalls. But not the kind that stampede off the cliff into hundred meter abysses so that the sheer volume of their acoustic output makes you stand in a respectful distance, far from the several metric tons of mist that they churn into existence every second. Their photo may look great on a travel agent's coffee table, but you probably wouldn't want to take them to your Mom. I like the small community waterfalls that you can find in nearly every location if you just research the creeks of your local hills. The personable waterworks that usually spring from stumbling streams, the kind that you can wade into, jump over or sit right next to.

This Memorial Monday, we took a trip to Cunningham Falls in Catoctin Mountains, just north of Frederick, and about an hour drive from DC. We overpaid for parking near Hunting Creek Lake and took a short trail studded with stones, crooked roots and rookie chipmunks. After about 15 minutes we came to the foot of the waterfall and made it our base camp for the five mile hike to Hog Rock.

Cascading waterfalls are my favorite. Hopping barefoot from one boulder to another is a very invigorating experience and it always makes me feel as if I am being plugged into some secret underground source of life. I could sit for hours by the streaming waters and marvel at the never ending and almost frivolous display of motion. Day and night, rain or shine, it never turns off. Where does this Energizer Bunny hide its recharger?

And as I watched the endless packets of water rush effortlessly by I thought it was pretty silly that so many politicians down in DC still believed that burning some oily gunk that dinosaurs threw up eons ago was the coolest way to make energy.

fallw

Mexican Hat Dance

I haven't been on a dance floor for about 20 years. I think me and a dance have a long standing relationship of mutual mistrust. There is a species of sloth with statistically high incidence of paralysis that dances even worse than I do, but other than that my dancing torpor has no match among contemporary mammals. So I should have foreseen that I am stepping into a hornets nest when a friend of mine told me that a little Cinco de Mayo party we were heading for this Friday took place at a private dance studio. The kind with the floor ominously surrounded by mirrors.

As I half suspected all along, the party turned into one big festive dancing lesson. For a while, I was trying to look inconspicuous and non-committal, but after about 15 minutes I was temporarily abandoned by my friend and thus left exposed to various hopping elements, such as a dancing instructor named Katey, who found me hiding unsuccessfully behind a burrito platter. While she dragged me victoriously onto the parquet, I was informed that we are going to engage in Foxtrot, which immediately prompted a frenzied search in my memory whether Foxtrot is something I should have been inoculated against as a kid. As I was mentally paging through my medical history, Katey ostentatiously repositioned my hand roughly 10 vertebrae higher to the general area of her shoulder blade. I took a deep breath and briefly pondered whether I could act out an Acute Gastric Dilatation And Abdominal Compartment Syndrome and take an honorable exit via Ambulance Van. Realizing that my histrionic skills peaked several decades ago, I quickly rejected this possibility and hurled myself into the speeding vortex of rhythm. The state of my mind morphed seamlessly from a "deer caught in headlights" to a "kamikaze pilot".

After this episode ended, and I was pleasantly surprised that it did, I thought that the worst was over. But I wasn't even close. At the peak of the party, the host turned all the lights on, herded us on the floor and announced that in order to celebrate Cinco de Mayo properly, we will all learn the traditional Mexican Hat Dance.

As it transpired during the introductory lecture, in Mexico, males demonstrate their masculinity by throwing their head cover down into the dust and trampling it to death. The vigorous stomping of the initial phase is accompanied by clapping and by some other hand motions which I didn't quite understand, but I hazily recollect that they involved alternately clutching one's own elbows and bobbing one's head more or less correspondingly. How was that supposed to impress a young Mexican lady was left unexplained. That is until the music started playing and I realized that what seemed like a piece of cake at the leisurely pace of the slow instruction phase was a twisted exercise in hand to hand coordination at twice the speed. As I hit a processing bottleneck in my brain, my motions became increasingly uncoordinated, and I would have become very confused had I not been rescued by a "spin phase" whose true purpose must have been to test the tequila intake. During this segment, you lock your arm with your partner's and start swirling around at an increasingly unreasonable tempo. No wonder when the stomping part returned I took my frustration out on the imaginary Sombrero lying on the ground, which prompted some praising remarks from the Dance Master. At least I think they were praising.

I am not sure through what sort of black magic I survived that evening without any visible harm. I just hope the same can be said about all the big toes of the ladies that I danced with. Or should I say "danced against"?

Torpedo Factory

What kind of person would name an Art Center the Torpedo Factory? Well, my kind of person! To set up a living gallery in an old weapons manufacturing facility is an idea so preposterous that I couldn't help seeing for myself. From the moment I laid my eyes on the two slim metallic cylinders that decorate its interior courtyard, I knew that this place was going to live up to its promise and I started wondering whether you could buy some used torpedoes on eBay. They would look really great in my living room.

Located on the waterfront in downtown Alexandria, the Torpedo Factory is not a gallery in the usual sense. Rather it is a string of studios which you can roam at your leisure and where you can pause and have a chat with the artist to see what kind of mind conjured up the creations that caught your eye. This aspect makes the experience very different from the sterile and passive monitoring of the walls in traditional art museums.

On the second floor, for instance, I ran into the woodcarvings of Rosemary Feit Covey. I am sure Franz Kafka would love to have her images in his books. They delved headlong into the disturbing and visually rich scenery of our Inner Universe, and once there they engaged the Demons of Existence in a feverish dance on a floor covered with razor sharp pieces of a broken mirror. You'd imagine the creator of these stern black and white images to be a daunting individual with scruffy unkempt mane, deeply sunken eyes and unstable psyche. But such portrait couldn't be further from reality. After a brief conversation, the artist turned out to be a very fine lady that could have very well just returned from an afternoon tea with the Duchess of York. Her mild manners and dainty physique betrayed none of the anguished nightmares that ran like pointed nails through her carvings. Such blatant discrepancy between life and art reminded me of one of Gustav Mahler's lesser known maxims: "The Spirit blows wherever it wants". Indeed, it lives in its own Universe.

And speaking of universes - as a mathematician, I greatly appreciated Pat Monk's studio on the first floor. His sculptures and robust three-dimensional collages took a great deal of inspiration from exact sciences, whether it was his tribute to hyperbolic geometry in the form of a skeletal coordinate system or a helical staircase-like structure covered with dripping red paint that screamed its bloody message to all the passing Iraq war hawks. But my favorite exhibit was less concerned with the tomfoolery of this planet. It was a series of metallic cones arranged into a giant sphere and titled the Center of the Known Universe. Nothing gives you better sense of perspective than staring right into the core of your own Cosmic World.

cosmos

The Colors Return

In the middle of April, the public parks feel as if they were dragged through an intense session of Photoshop. The tulips and buttercups, cinquefoil, anemones, bellworts, dandelions, violets and lilies come out in force. After the black and white doldrums of winter, that's tantamount to a Technicolor onslaught on our cone cells. Even trees with their glistening new foliage show us that there are more shades of green that we could ever come up with a name for. They all look like majestic hot air balloons that would float away had they not be moored by their trunks.

It is amazing what difference colors can make. And not only in nature. Sometimes I think our public and private lives would benefit on so many levels if we let colors into them. Often in ways you would not expect.

Consider for instance the thorny subject of race. How much damage has been done by labeling races as black and white? As if this nomenclature was conceived in times when "I Love Lucy" ruled over TV airwaves. But in reality the black people are not really black, at least not in the sense of RGB code "000000". And the white people are not even close to white. That is unless they were recently exposed to a ghost, a dentist or a spider with really poor leg shaving habits.

I think many racial tensions would immediately dissolve if the true colors were revealed and we acknowledged that black people are in fact brown and the white people are - hmmmm, let's see - I would say sort of light orange. Now consider this: what kind of narrow minded, bigoted racist in his right mind would want to join a Light Orange Supremacist Group.

Cherry Pandamonium

There is power in numbers. Seeing a cherry tree bloom is cute, seeing hundreds of them exuberate together can set your wonderment free. That is the kind of sight the Tidal Basin downtown Washington, DC offers its visitors every year at the onset of April. Within days the surrounding groves explode with white blossoms, as scores upon scores of cherry trees put their wedding gowns simultaneously on. From a distance it appears that their boughs are wrapped in cotton candy.

People from far and away flock to Washington for the occasion, so the city's transportation arteries get rather congested, especially over the weekend. The subway cars could use some of those Japanese people pushers, parking anywhere near the National Mall is an exercise in futility and when you watch the entrance to the Smithsonian Station, you get the feeling that you see a geyser of people gushing forth from deep underground. If you think of people as gas molecules, then watching throngs streaming chaotically in both directions around the basin might provide useful pointers for the study of the dynamics of heating.

This year the cherry trees got an extra embellishment. Some girl attached a plush panda to one of the branches. Perching precariously on its bridge, the stuffed beast was benevolently watching the stuffed paths underneath it, and it must have felt pleasingly belonging.

panda

West Pocket Revue

Today I made a startling discovery: my pocket is dreadfully uneventful.

I have a cell phone which occasionally moonlights as a camera and takes photos. Maddeningly, one of the control buttons is on the outside and every now and then it goads the camera into action while it is still lodged deeply in my pocket. It does so especially when I drive and the fabric presses on it from random angles. Upon reviewing about 10 recent photos featuring 10 completely dark rectangles I came to the conclusion that the social and aesthetic milieu in my pocket needs some serious reviving (and much better lighting conditions).

In the run up to the Second World War, there was a small avantgarde group of comedians in Prague called "Liberated Theater" and one of their first productions was a burlesque show titled "West Pocket Revue". So I thought I'd pay homage to their creative endeavors and start carrying strange objects in my pockets, so I could actually capture something meaningful when my cell phone camera goes off.

All I have to do is populate my pocket with a few miniature figurines and start monitoring their social life. So many choices. Should I go for buccaneers or exotic animals? Or maybe I should carry both - in a sort of reenactment of "The Pocket of Dr. Moreau". Or maybe I should focus on a documentary genre instead and do a National Geographic Special. I am going to call it "Little Shiny Objects I Found on a Sidewalk and Their Place in the Ecosystem of My Pocket".

Bet on Tibet

Doctrines that are not afraid to expose themselves to a bit of imperfection always seem more impressive than those that avoid any hints of potential fallibility and cling to whatever petrified dogma they profess. In words of wise and hoary sages: admitting a weakness is a sign of strength.

Today when I was reading TIME's article about Tibet, I came across the following snippet: "Always stressing that the Buddha's own words should be thrown out if they are shown by scientific inquiry to be flawed, the Dalai Lama is the rare religious figure who tells people not to get needlessly confused or distracted by religion".

There! What a refreshing attitude in the world where most ideological leaders still protect their immutable answer to everything, despite the fact that a static view has as much chance of reflecting the ever changing world as a car with a locked steering wheel has of negotiating a winding mountain road. Emboldened by their lack of understanding of physical world, they keep making pompous absolute claims only to be forced into embarrassing backpedaling by their own contradictions. And whether they come from a hard line communist, an Islamic fundamentalists or a senior worshiper in the Sect of Extreme Honey makes very little difference. Dalai Lama, on the other hand, dares to sow rare seeds into his spiritual field. The seeds of doubt.

Doubt is the artery that brings oxygenated blood to our mental tissues. Without it, we become intellectual zombies. Doubt is the backdoor through which emergency escapes can be made. Doubt is the inner skeptic kicking the tires of our principles before we really buy into them. And by that I do not mean the crippling doubt of pathological overanalyzers, but the healthy feedback loop which corrects the action, without stifling it. Sure we could all put on a make up of a happy face and drive off the dealer's lot with whatever car the salesman pushed on us, but it would be to our own detriment.

Sadly, many people choose to do just that anyway. They give up on personal responsibility and stop questioning the consequences of their actions. Replacing their own judgment with a giant reference to some divine abstract entity may be convenient, but the plastic veneer of unapologetic complacence they get in return will never quite substitute for a living conscience.

Another gem of the article came a few paragraphs later, in a passage where Dalai Lama admits directly that "even without a religion we can become a good human being", stressing that our deeds and demeanors themselves should determine our passage through the Pearly Gates. Once again, such tolerance is in sharp contrast to the world's major religions, whose tenets promise you sizzling hell if you even consider going to the church across the street or across the strait or - God forbid! - being spiritual on your own terms. In the jurisdiction of fiercely burning stakes, the individual actions are obviously relegated to playing the second fiddle. Choosing a specific embodiment of the divine authority is seen as key to your salvation and all the spiritual luminaries make sure you get the word - with sword if necessary.

In the past, some especially clever members of the clergy even made a little business of downplaying the virtues of proper behavior and started selling the so called "indulgences" as if to make a point: "you can really be a little bit bad, but hey - as long as you pay us some money your ticket to heaven is guaranteed". I wonder whether their descendants realize that guarding jealously the license to safeguard our moral well being doesn't really behoove an institution concerned with spreading the message of an omnipotent and loving superbeing. To an impartial observer, any such propaganda sounds more like a shtick of a desperate car salesman.

Despite all the fireworks, none of these churches really makes a convincing claim as to why you should choose them and not the one next door. Why are all of them so geographically localized and not universal? Doesn't it stand to reason that the All Powerful [fill in your favorite deity] would make His presence known to all people throughout the world which He himself created? Why should people who weren't exposed to the given religion be damned just because no missionaries visited their neck of the woods yet? I don't see what is on God's mind any more than a fly landing on my sleeve sees what is on mine, but I cannot believe that He would not care about how we manage the world he gave us to live in.

Imagine that you have two gardens and you consign them to two managers. One takes good care of the garden, waters the flower beds, prepares compost and mulch, prunes trees every year - he is so busy that you hardly ever hear from him. The other one barely fulfills his duties, but he keeps constantly pandering to you, calls you often to ask how you are doing, puts your name on a big billboard overlooking the garden and sends you a birthday card every year. Which of the two gardeners would you give better marks to?

I do not think that God is vane and I do not think he is all that hooked up on being worshiped, but I bet that he cares about how we tend to His garden. So my money in this regard rides on the wisdom of the ambassador from Tibet.

buddha

Spring Ahoy

Yesterday gravity borrowed one of my glasses and when I got it back, one and half eye blinks later, it was all shattered to small uneven pieces. With each unwholesome shard I picked up from the floor, it became clearer and clearer that not even a formally binding UN resolution would make these stick together again. When things break, some irreplaceable quality is lost forever.

Unlike ordinary matter, the living tissues have the ability to overcome breaking through the magic of healing. They have a way of turning big wounds into smaller wounds and eventually into tiny little scars, mere lipstick imprints on the skin of our memory.

Every year, when the Rite of Spring drizzles into town, time seems to put a new coat of paint over all old grudges, whether they were caused by unreturned books or unrequited loves. Broken branches of yesteryear sprout new off-springs and stern looking schoolmarms of tree trunks open their pinkish parasols as they attempt to smile. But don't strain your eyes too much. Nature likes to change at night when all you can hear is an occasional cricket and maybe a drawn out yawn of the French horn ushering the Finale of Stravinski's Firebird Suite. Much like the arrival of Spring, healing is an invisible carnival.

Life can be a vast ocean and our wounds are just tiny little footprints in the wet sand of its shoreline. Every Spring a new wave washes ashore and one by one licks them into perfect oblivion.

Tales from the Swamp

Wall Street breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Its arch-nemesis, a man who cast his nets far and wide into the teeming waters of the Financial Empire got ensnared in a little web of his own. In the most overreported story of this year so far, the New York up-and-coming Governor Eliot Spitzer stepped down after showing up on the customer side of a high profile prostitution ring. The backdrop of a thick smoke billowing from the American financial engine against which the bust occurred will surely give conspiracy nuts plenty to mull over in years to come. Only days before he was caught with his pants down, Spitzer penned a Washington Post article titled "Predatory Lenders' Partner in Crime: How the Bush Administration Stopped the States From Stepping In to Help Consumers" in which he implicated the White House in the promptly unraveling housing debacle.

But Spitzer was not the only one who stepped on a shaky moral ground recently. Shortly after the ill-fated governor handed an upscale "escort" $4300 for temporarily "abandoning" her ethical principles and lending her body to his inferior desires, Ben Bernanke and his Federal Reserve Bank extended over $400 billion in easy credit to Wall Street "financiers", who temporarily "abandoned" their time tested lending standards and made their funds available to inferior causes. I am not sure what exactly would constitute "financial prostitution", but pushing teaser-rate zero-money-down mortgages to borrowers with income documented on a beer coaster and then selling the debt as investment grade securities to foreign investors comes pretty close. No wonder that when the winds of fortune reversed and the pyramid scheme ran out of stone cubes, the banksters found their balance sheets rather scantily clad. So scantily in fact that they conceived a brilliant idea: let's turn the Fed into a pimp and the US taxpayers into naive johns.

There is a big difference in this analogy though. And I don't mean just the magnitude of the "payment" involved. While Spitzer took responsibility for his actions, publicly apologized and stepped down, financial maestros keep remarkably silent about their transgressions - that is if you don't count the incessant whining and calling for government intervention. And you certainly won't see the Wall Street Journal pillorying the fat cats for their gambling, after all theirs was a great business model - if it works out, we keep the profits, if it fails, Uncle Sam will bail us out. How convenient. Maybe if they returned some of the billions they collected in bonuses and fat fees for deals they knew were doomed, the liquidity of the whole system would somewhat improve, no? But I am not holding my breath for any apologies here, let alone money.

There is one more aspect in which the two tales differ: Mr. Spitzer's lapse, however much it hurt his family, will affect the wallet of an average Joe Sixpack only marginally if at all. Wall Street's love affair with greed is a different story though. Bear Sterns employees and shareholders already saw their wealth severely decimated when their stock fell from $57 to $4 in just two trading days. In the greater scheme of things, the mortgage debt implosion and subsequent maneuvers attempting to camouflage the solvency crisis of truly biblical proportions are affecting all of us. We the taxpayers will have to shell out the money for the profligacy of Wall Street wizards. It is not that gold, Euro or oil are moving up these days, it is the greenback that is moving down, because there is more and more of it, proportionately to the speed with which chief Bernanke wiggles his credit wand.

Only history will sort out who got screwed up more, whether the wretched call-up girl or the American public. In the meantime - we better step carefully. There are some unseemly critters still lurking in the banking swamp.

croc

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.

jungle

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.

lava

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!"
"Mushrooms!"

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.

The Jaws of Perspective

Perspective is the magic wand that makes some objects small and some large, although in reality they are all the same size. It is a doubly edged sword though and tampering with it can be hazardous to your spiritual well being. Like fire, perspective is a good servant, but a bad master.

On the one hand, it adapts our viewing window so we can feel outright dizzy when the Giants win the Superbowl, although in the greater scheme of things it is as relevant to our lives as fluctuation of Basmati rice price in Eastern India. Yet this lack of gravitas doesn't prevent us from completely immersing ourselves in whatever little spectacle life (or Eli Manning) throws our way. It is perspective that recalibrates the perceived magnitude of events and lets us smell the roses however insignificant they may be.

On the other hand, perspective can play pretty nasty tricks on us when it blows relatively trivial mishaps out of proportion. So much so that it can completely jam our internal hierarchy of priorities. The grip of its jaws is relentless at times and its sharp teeth will crush all that is standing in its path. Perspective can turn a temporary distress into a little dictator methodically removing all other contenders for our attention.

The only antidote against particular aspects usurping the whole playing field of our mind is experiencing life on different scales. Interacting with people from different backgrounds. Only under a constant barrage of their assorted problems can we perceive the true magnitude of ours. Loosing perspective is a little bit like hiking in the mountains. One moment you are on a ridge and see all the surrounding peaks for comforting reference, and the next you disappear into a gorge or a narrow valley and completely lose your orientation. In such situations having a variety of friends is like having a personal GPS. Priceless.

z3

International Day of Jerks and Germs

There is a reason why we exercise: our muscles need to be flexed, otherwise they atrophy. No, that doesn't mean they'll win a shiny cup, "atrophy" is just a scary word for becoming very lazy, dysfunctional and eventually non-existent. Lifting weights hardly ever qualifies as fun, unless you are a Rambo or a Rocky, but our bodies need to break some sweat in order to stay on top of their game. When it comes to muscle tissue, it is use it or lose it quite literally.

I think of germs as exercise machines for our immune systems. We have a sophisticated body police, but without having an opportunity to patrol some really tough neighborhoods where they would have the opportunity to fight shady and unseemly microcharacters, its alertness steadily decreases. Eventually, without sufficient stimuli from the outside, the immune system turns on itself and starts fighting phantom menaces, producing a whole range of pesky allergies. Avoiding germs is like trying to defend your country with an army that spends all its training days in bed. Our defense systems atrophy.

I also think that jerks provide similar service to our emotional responses. They keep us on our toes. They help us flex our social muscles. The vexations they inflict on us are like controlled brush fires, making sure our psyche never becomes a blazing inferno later on. Bottled anger has a way of blowing up or decomposing into stinky puddles of grudge, so jerks should be lauded for providing a safety valve for our internal pressure.

Living in an artificially sweetened world of Disney has its pitfalls. People lose the ability to resolve conflicts. The smallest hint of adversity short circuits their minds into a seizure mode and leaves them searching frantically through their playbooks, which - statistically speaking - have a fairly poor record of foreseeing life's little twists. Sometimes you may be able to put a band-aid of forced smile over a disagreement, but only a jerk can teach you how to handle it with aplomb.

Life is not fair - at least not on this planet. We have to choose whether we want to become finicky orchids growing up in a carefully controlled glass house, or hardy plants that can endure any whim of weather. If your only experience with adversity is sobbing in a movie theater after Johnny Depp gets his pinky toe brutally stepped on, you may be slightly underprepared for inclement weather. Viciously spraying your kitchen counter top with industry strength disinfectants and wiping out anything that has a strand of DNA in it won't help your natural defenses either. To some extent, jerks and germs are essential to our well being. They are our sparring partners in the great fight of life.

To recognize the hard work of these unsung heroes I would like to propose that February 2nd be declared the International Day of Jerks and Germs. On this day we'll seal off the area under the kitchen sink as a "demilitarized zone" and when asked how we are doing we'll retort "None of your bloody business, buddy!". That will be our tribute to the critters that keep our immune and emotional emergency response systems fully operational.

The Age of Mediocracy

Our political system is labeled "Democracy", the rule of the people. But when you look closer underneath the veneer, you realize that apter name for our system of governance would be "Mediocracy", the rule of media. Under normal political circumstances, the news outlets would spend a few weeks evenly reporting on all presidential candidates, people would then mull it over and after some deliberation cast their vote. What the media do instead is choose their darlings - those perceived as most beneficial for the business of their biggest advertisers - and then spend the whole year relentlessly massaging the unsuspecting public. The game plan is very simple: put out a few flattering articles, bump up candidate's poll numbers by creative use of statistics and then exclaim in feigned surprise: "Oh my goodness, this candidate is rising like a meteor - we better cover him some more!" And the gullible electorate will swallow the bait with the hook.

The incessant fawning over the chosen ones knows no limits. At the height of the Iowa campaign, I looked up an article about Mike Huckabee to see what he is all about. The piece must have been written by a recently laid off Britney Spears paparazzi. Instead of dissecting his positions and his past, the article served an account of his chat with a woman whose Mom couldn't keep up with her medical expenses, followed by a thrilling narration in which he personally poured a cup of coffee for a voter. Wow, the guy knew how pour a cup of coffee all by himself! I just wished I could have run to the closest ATM and donated at least one thousand individually framed one dollar bills to his campaign.

Similarly, I would much rather hear what John McCain has to say about our overexposed banking system that watch him hoist a scaredy kid into the high air for the umpteenth time this week. But that, of course, might be much less ingratiating, especially since - according to his own admission - he doesn't really understand economy all that well. These touching vignettes remind me of the communist propaganda machine, which was bent on popularizing the sport of "child lifting", while brushing off the deteriorating realities of the Soviet bloc.

On the other end of the mediocratic machine there is a big silence for those that try to expose the status quo of the booming power-broking business. Which sort of makes sense - I mean the media must preserve their precious cash flows from ads and commercials so at the end it all comes down to: Grease our wheels or else! In the most recent installment of this comedy, the ultra-conservative Fox Network figured that Ron Paul had some nasty things to say about the warfare-welfare state, so without much ado they simply banned him from their TV debate, thereby giving the fair and balanced coverage a thick middle finger.

Media plays their "Ooops - we forgot to mention Ron Paul again" game so skillfully that most of bigheaded burgervores won't ever find out who he is and those who do assume that he has already dropped out. Newsweek recently mentioned that Huckabee raised 8M in the fourth quarter - a "best effort among Republicans" - conveniently glossing over Ron Paul's 19M. Not to be upstaged by a competitor, the TIME Magazine quipped that Republican candidates won't be happy about the NIE report as they were ALL engaged in significant saber-rattling against Iran. Naturally, there was no mention of Ron Paul's opposition to any unprovoked war, Iraq, Iran or otherwise. There used to be time when solid research was a prerequisite for journalism. TIME magazine's journalism is either sloppy or slanted.

The media's resolve not to cover Ron Paul is so consistent that it almost seems orchestrated. And there would have been plenty to report on. Dr. Paul cured tens of thousands from political apathy. Some of the people churning up hundreds of signs in their homes didn't even vote in previous elections. He has nearly 1500 self organized MeetUp groups, he has a Vegas festival - "the Paulapalooza" - dedicated to him, his chocolate bust is being auctioned off on eBay and he has his own Blimp - a promotional stunt conceived and paid for by his grassroots supporters. But you wouldn't know about it from watching the Old Media. They are too busy providing an in-depth analysis of what might Rudy Giuliani have for breakfast tomorrow.

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Edward Hopper's Last Room

Edward Hopper has an interesting style. He never abandoned realism for the trendy abstract tomfoolery, and for the duration of his life stayed faithful to reflecting reality rather then blurring, transforming or fragmenting it. But there is a twist to his reality. There is a certain level of detail, certain section of the palette, that seems to be deliberately omitted from his artwork. It is like listening to a symphony record with a whole frequency band completely eliminated from its spectrum. His paintings seem to be suffused with simplicity which reinforces the ground mood and doesn't distract the viewer with higher frequency non-essentials.

The National Gallery for Arts in Washington put a comprehensive sample of Hopper's oeuvre on display, so after getting a tip from a colleague of mine I set out to see one of the great American icons for myself.

The exhibition started off slowly. Walking through early rooms was like getting lost in a lighthouse district. The guy must have had an obsession with shipping safety. Fortunately, the monotony of the portrayed objects was partially offset by realizing that lots fun can be had by watching people watch paintings - their postures, their comments, and their facial expressions provided an ever changing vistas into a human psychology. But this little game lost its appeal once we entered the last room. Here was the true periscope into the soul itself.

I noticed there is a common theme to his late works. In his subdued studies Hopper captured that nearly imperceptible moment when boredom sinks its little teeth into our lives. The autumn of human existence. The Night Hawks drinking silently at a bar, the Primaballerina just past her prime absorbing the rays of sunrise, an Usherette daydreaming in a shadow of a theatre, a Young Lady waiting listlessly in an automat - those were the people whose dreams were no longer horses to saddle but rather little dogs to promenade.

Nostalgia can be masterful. Great blush of time.

Monopoly on Hope

Here is what the Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano wrote about the movie adaptation of Philip Pullman's novel Golden Compass: "In Pullman's world, hope simply does not exist, because there is no salvation but only personal, individualistic capacity to control the situation and dominate events."

The fact that a barely noticeable movie which basically flopped at the Box Office provoked such strong response was rather remarkable. The tone of the review reminded me of the old Soviet satellites, where anyone that dared question Communists' mandate to rule was summarily branded as western decadent and irrelevant outcast, unable to see the eternal light of socialism. To communist regimes, the independent reasoning was a thorn in the hide too. The baleful Magisterium of the movie is but a highly stylized Central Committee of a Communist Party slyly transferring the power from an individual to an opaque, unaccountable and sinister order.

To claim that Hope does not exist in the movie which is steeped in it is like claiming there are no oceans in "Titanic". The Vatican critics completely missed that the individualistic and personal capacity to think and feel is the only possible foundation for friendship between unique individuals which the movie celebrates and juxtaposes to smarmy and servility-based relationships that were wrought surreptitiously in the dim marble hallways of the Magisterium.

But the movie is not really about religion, it is more about a totalitarian state of mind, about monopolizing the thinking process. Whether the little dictators are represented as shifty-eyed bishops or stubble-chinned Bolsheviks matters very little; any ideology, no matter how sweet and well meaning it is at its inception, can be twisted and corrupted in the hands of fearmongers and we should watch carefully for such abuse. Regimes have a way of giving up on a struggle to tell good from evil and become complacent in merely maintaining the status quo. No group of humans is exempt from this lapse.

In their effort not to offend people who hold genuine beliefs, the authors of the movie tried to suppress any explicit hints of a church and left the Magisterium suspended in a vague haze of abstract greed and scheming. It is sad that Vatican didn't reach out to people whose spirituality happens to wear a differently cut jacket and whose sense of belonging to a community gives them just as strong grounds for morality as loyalty to a divine power. Instead they reacted in an offended and jealous way - "It is Our Hope or No Hope" - which is pretty much what the Magisterium would do.

Hope is a universal concept, independent of any specific religious doctrine and no one should have monopoly over it - not Vatican, not Jerusalem, not Mecca, not Kapilawastu and not anyone else. It is an instinctual mechanism that facilitates our survival, an invisible force that aligns our built in moral compass with a belief in a superior entity. And it should be of absolutely no consequence whether that entity takes the form of a hoary wise guy sitting on a fluffy cloud, a pack of demons gathering every midnight in a dark jungle, a mysterious moral force which rewards good and punishes bad or a collective body of humankind of which each of us is a single cell.

Hope is a belief that despite all the adversities of life, there will always be a transcendental principle woven into the fabric of this Universe, which supports selfless behavior. A primitive man in the Pacific has hope too, although he may have never heard of Papal wisdom. It is Hope what sustains us against all totalitarian doctrines and that is exactly why we need it in its pure form, free of any specific ideology.

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