Skip to content | Skip to menu | Skip to search

Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: 2009

Christmas Spirit

The weekend before Christmas turned the Washington DC area into a Colony of the Snow Queen. Billions of tiny white soldiers parachuted down and took our land. After a record breaking winter storm blanketed the ground with 18-24 inches of the finest down, the whole town skidded to a complete standstill. Shops closed down, colors took a day off and cross country skiing became the favorite mode of transportation.

Along with the snowfall, two feet of Christmas spirit descended from heaven. When I dared to stick my nose out and walk over to the parking lot to bail out my car from an igloo jail, I noticed that the snow storm had one interesting side effect. It turned strangers into neighbors. The fury of elements brought people closer together than any non-profit charity ever could. Many offered their snow shovels to unprepared neighbors. Others offered their brawn and muscle to the weak and elderly. Advice was freely available on the street. People who barely knew each other swapped cordially their winter nightmare stories.

The sense of togetherness was palpable. It set up a very appropriate celebration of the great tidings that befell this planet some two thousand years ago. Certainly more in style than the annual elbow storm at an electronics superstore near you on Black Friday. And much healthier than stuffing your tormented intestines to the hilt with Christmas cookies and vats of potato salad.

When the residents liberated their gasoline powered metal sleds from wintry imprisonment and retired back to their warm dens, the setting sun skated around the deserted street and undoubtedly wondered: Wouldn't it be cool to blanket this Earth with a huge snowstorm before every Christmas, so that those little semi-intelligent bipeds could experience a true atmosphere of camaraderie. At least once a year.

winter

Person of the Year

Time Magazine has selected the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke for Person of the Year, ostensibly for his lead role in putting out the financial inferno of 2008. TIME's timing was a bit of an eyebrow raiser, though. Bernanke is in the middle of the Senate confirmation hearings and the aura of the award will surely blunt the sharp edges of some inquisitive questions.

Portraying the Fed chief as the monetary Superman who fights the meltdown monster with the collected works of John Maynard Keynes in one hand and an industry strength moneyblower in the other is impressive on the surface. What the celebratory article failed to mention was how much the spending fireworks would cost the current and future taxpayers. There doesn't seem to be much logic in fighting excessive debt with more of the same. After all, you don't see many overweight people cured by a French Fries diet, do you? But who in their right mind would even consider expanding the enormous debt burden even further? Hmmm, let's see. The ones who produce the debt and who profit from it? Bingo - that would be your friendly Wall Street leeches.

Yes, leeches - not the fat cats as they were once misnamed by President Obama. Obese felines are relatively harmless creatures. Denizens of financial marshes, on the other hand, have some truly insidious ways of sucking money out of unsuspecting taxpayers. Here is one. The Fed interest rate is currently about 0%. That means banks can borrow truckloads of essentially free money, buy the US treasuries at 3% and have virtually risk free stream of cash. Do you think you or your local Ma and Pa store could take a sip from this financial fountain of youth? Nope. But imagine it. You would borrow $10M from the Fed and deposited at 3% you'd collect a pleasant $300,000 annual income. Cool, isn't it? If we could all do it, we'd all be bloody rich. No sweat. So why can't we? Well, because some people are kind of more equal than others.

However, this planet is not exactly renowned for free lunches and at the end of the day, somebody has to pay for all the bubbly drinks. Well, guess what. It is the taxpayers who pay for the interest that the banks collect on the free money they borrow from the Fed. All taxpayers without an exception. A single mom taking care of her sick kids, a pair of retirees that depend on their lifelong savings, a family of four struggling to make ends meet. They all chip in. I wonder what financial genius invented this subtle artifice whereupon we all support the excesses of a few. I imagine him as Dr. Evil with a top hat and a fashionable walking stick in his emaciated hand.

There is a reason why the financial share of GDP has more than doubled over the past 30 years. Bankers found many slick ways how to siphon off money from the economy. And I am not talking about front running, insider trading, exotic derivatives or the fractional reserve system which lets them leverage the deposited funds. One of the most powerful mechanisms they use for lining up their pockets is compulsive bubble blowing, of which the late housing miracle is a textbook example. It works in two easily understandable phases:

Phase I - Bubble Up: During the growth phase the asset prices appreciate nicely as more and more suckers are lured into the incipient Ponzi scheme. A functional and vigilant Central Bank would respond to such trends by restricting the money supply. That of course would take some serious cojones. Hitting the breaks while their golfing buddies are frolicking on the gravy train is not the job for the faint hearted. That's probably why Ben Bernanke vigorously twiddled his fingers while the mortgage industry made a killing on bonuses, fees, commissions and profit shares. In retrospect, he did make some claims about not seeing the bubble, but I find that hard to believe. Any non blind person who has looked at the historical housing prices chart around 2005 must have seen the gargantuan hurricane developing high above overheated financial oceans. When you have to push poor fruit pickers without any documented income into half a millon Mansions just to keep the market afloat, then it is your job to see that something is distressingly wrong. But who could have resisted the sweet music of the new paradigm, right? Housing market only goes up. It was like selling a tornado insurance under the assumption that there are no tornados. The insurance premiums were rolling into their accounts so effortlessly. What a truly great business it had been! Until a tornado hit.

Phase II. - Bubble Down: OK, so now the bubble has burst. Time for free markets to exercise their Hayek given rights! You'd expect that the people who pocketed the profits and in some instances committed severe financial fraud should be the ones to eventually absorb the resulting losses, right? Wrong! Get the hell out of here you hopeless romantic. Not so in Ben Bernanke's world. In the midst of catastrophic hysteria, he threw money around with a foolhardy abandon and without a coherent justification, effectively sending a very clear message to Wall Street: It is OK to gamble aggressively, gentlemen, for should anything happen, I've got your back. Such tender loving care is normally known as "moral hazard" and represents a negation of sacred principles of free markets: those who reap the rewards are the ones who carry the risks. Yet, a year after the world teetered on the edge of an unfathomable abyss, the bankers are about to reward themselves with record bonuses - partly due to the anxious generosity of the Central Bank and partly due to a change in accounting laws that allows them to mark their assets to some cocaine induced fantasy. It's kind of like you claiming that your net worth is $1,000,000 because you have this obscure and rare photocamera that your old man once bought at a flee market and it might be worth a million bucks on eBay in 100 years. This taught a whole generation of young Americans a sobering lesson in cynicism. Thanks a lot, Ben.

I lived in a Communist system where any time a bank or a big corporation ran into trouble, the government printed more money and shoved them down their management's incompetent pockets. That system collapsed spectacularly. Supporting inefficient entities eventually turns into a liability. The laws of physics guarantee that you cannot extract value from a finite system forever. All the bonuses that were doled out to AIG, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae executives, although their firms were technically bankrupt, have been completely wasted. All the billions we poured down the black holes of Wall Street balance sheets will be missed somewhere. They won't be used to build new schools, laboratories, bridges, superfast trains or alternative energy sources. Has Bernanke never heard of misallocation of capital?

The crisis of 2008 was a unique chance to straighten our financial system. This was the window of opportunity to crush the risky casino style culture and return to sound and simple banking. Bernanke could have banged his fist on the table, fire the officers whose only expertise was "dancing while the music was playing", he could have wiped out the shareholders and bondholders who financed this pyramid scheme with eyes set on unrealistic returns, and let the insolvent giants fail. He could have scrapped the ulcers off the financial system and build a foundation for the new one. One that would be nurturing the economy, rather than living off it like a parasite. He could have created new government backed entities that would guarantee financial operations until the healthy parts of the system stabilized. That would be my Person of the Year. Someone who can come up with creative solutions. Instead, numerous bailouts later, the unemployment is still standing at 10% and our states and cities are in a worse shape than a year ago. Bernanke didn't really stave off the next Depression. He merely kicked the can a little bit down the road. Our over-reliance on debt has not been addressed. If anything, it was made worse.

The interests of taxpayers and financiers have historically been at odds. Financiers are deeply vested in the credit expansion as they profit immensely from the ensuing growth, sustainable or not. Regular taxpayers, guys like you or me, do not get to taste the pork of the economic boom. The average salaries of middle class workers have been fairly constant for the past several decades. Taxpayers prefer a stable system because their money is on the line if something fails. In this dilemma, Ben Bernanke stood firmly on the side of financiers. So much so that he could have easily been dubbed Anti Robin Hood - the one who takes money from the middle class and forks it over to the ultra rich. The past several years saw one of the largest wealth transfers from taxpayers to financiers and in more general terms from those who live within their means (their savings are the main pray of the zero interest rates) to those who live beyond their means (the debts are the main beneficiary of cheaper currency churned into existence by printing presses).

Sound money is the cornerstone of a stable society. If we are to systematically build our personal wealth and make solid financial decisions, a dollar earned after a hard day's work must retain its value over time. Unfortunately, the Fed's inflation friendly tinkering has been focused on overextending the money supply to cover up for grave investment mistakes made by highly leveraged institutions. Over the past few years the value of our currency kept declining and that turned people into wild speculators trying to chase the inflation beating yields in the rigged casino of equity markets. On Bernanke's watch the dollar index plummeted and the price of gold has soared. That doesn't mean that gold became so much more valuable all of a sudden, it is still but a meaningless yellow metal; but its price is telling us how much purchasing power our money lost through the Fed's reckless policies.

Bernanke's playbook seems to offer very little beyond the vicious cycle of spend, consume, pollute and plunder. Despite the fact that our planet has obviously limited resources and despite the fact that at some point just paying off interest on the accrued debt becomes a real drag on the economy. Both private and public. The fact that our children will have to pay for our profligacy by living in a fiscally stifling environment should give a pause to every parent. Today's teenagers, kids, even infants will have to cough up some dough for our borrowed lifestyle, for the ridiculously overpaid public jobs that don't produce any tangible value, for all those Licensed Commissioners of Mindless Paper Pushing living high on the hog. And all of that because Dr. Bernanke has a love affair with debt and cannot (or does not want to) see the bigger picture. In a sense, the Fed Chairman is acting like a parent who parties deep into the night, and when the hangover wears off in the morning and the bills come due, he charges the expenses to his children's credit card. How exactly that makes him Person of the Year is beyond me.

I can only imagine what Time magazine will come up with next. Bernie Madoff for Investor of the Year?

We all live in a yellow submarine

This planet has an extra planet hidden within it. But you won't find it in a school atlas. It lurks deep inside the Earth's trunk. Kind of like a spare tire, in case we mess things up too much.

Stretching over two thirds of the globe's surface, the ocean is a self-contained world uncorrupted by man. No pyramid schemes to sucker unsuspecting plankton into. No bouts of anger if your offspring didn't quite make a private schools of fish. No hoodlums loitering in deep sea alleys. No agents trying to sell you wave insurance. No greedy barracudas. No duplicitous sharks. No fish too big to swallow. It is a pristine world, preserved just as it was created by God. It even provides affordable housing without subprime mortgages of any kind - although some marine economists do harbor worries that up to 100% of coral reef real estate may currently be under water. But imagine the diet! All you can eat sea food bar 24/7. It doesn't get any healthier than that.

I have never been in a submarine, so when I was loafing around the island of Cozumel this Thanksgiving and saw an Atlantis submarine dock, I could not resist temptation to embark on a little adventure. It wasn't quite 20,000 leagues under the sea, but the ensuing magical mystery tour was worth every little penny they asked for it. And since the submarine allegedly cost $4.5 million, they did ask a lot. Had I melted all those hypothetical pennies together, I would have gotten enough copper to assemble a Navy grade high-current dynamo.

The first order of business before the departure was a cautionary lecture about the magnitude of underwater pressure which was clearly sufficient to flatten a shot put ball into a giant cookie tray. When we were finished listening to the engrossing safety drill, a commanding suntanned operator herded us onto sleek looking Santa Anna which then ferried us to the dive site. The sea was unusually boisterous, so crossing from the boat to the submarine resembled changing horses in full gallop. Several balance impaired passengers had to use all the available railing to negotiate the bucking gangplank. But once we descended a narrow ladder into the interior of a cylindrical vessel, we felt we had just passed through the eye of a Star Gate. All of a sudden, everything was cosmically quiet.

Captain flipped on bunch of switches and soon we submerged into an alluring chiaroscuro. We have entered the other planet, the world ruled by different laws than our own. The Universe where elongated shapes laugh at the face of gravity and where elegance is a mode of being rather than a fashion statement. When our eyes adjusted we could admire the mushy textures of underwater plants, the permeating undulation of the surrounding medium and the brazen colors of subtropical fish. Sometimes they swam within feet from our thick windows. We were looking each other squarely in the eye with disconcerting indifference. Separated by a few feet, yet worlds apart. We belonged to Universes of vastly different pressures. It was clear that we would never live in each other's neighborhood.

Shortly after this trip I was sitting in a subway car on Washington's orange line and looked around at my fellow passengers. It felt like we were all riding in our own personal submarines. We all carry our joys and sorrows with us, our personal tragedies and comedies neatly sequestered behind thin windows of our eyes. We look at each other at times, but we know we belong to Universes of vastly different pressures. Separated by a few feet, yet worlds apart.

sub

My First Sombrero

Life is like a string, a long line of moments bejeweled with beads of shining firsts: the first pacifier, the first homework, the first date, the first car, the first hangover, the first mortgage, the first divorce, the first dentures, the first social security check. As we coast down the freeway of our destiny, some milestones come naturally sooner, some later and some occur randomly in a blatant disregard of the segment we are currently on. For instance man's first sombrero.

Mind you, a sombrero is more than a milestone, and it certainly is more than just an exotic head cover. Depending on your point of view, it is a philosophy, a venue for Gods to get back at you, a commitment to shadows, a portable roof, a source of mischief, but above all - it is a way of life. Kind of like vegetarianism, except much broader.

My escape hatch from the non-sombrero state materialized on the island of Cozumel where - not coincidentally - the sun beats down with the ferocity of a pneumatic hammer 364 days a year. Me and one of my friends wanted to rent bikes there for some tropical joyriding. Little did we know that the Caribbean business cycle is shorter than an average palm skirt. When we arrived at the address we swiped off the Internet just two weeks prior, the bike shop has clearly evaporated, its windows boarded and its next block competitors bursting with schadenfreude and unsolicited service offers.

We thought that this was a sign to abandon the whole bike idea and parted our ways to engage in alternative activities. Thus I found myself strutting down the Rafel E. Melgar Avenue in a scorching heat while our sun screen bottle slept soundly in my friend's backpack somewhere far far away. As I didn't want to double the size of our sunscreen reserves, I decided to resolve the looming sunburn problem in a technologically simpler way and buy a sombrero.

Considering that sombrero acquisition is usually categorized as "Clothes Shopping", the transaction was surprisingly smooth and unscary. I chose a straw model in Mexican national colors, handed the shopkeeper a piece of greenish paper with some numbers on it and stepped into the outside world with an imaginary middle finger stuck firmly at the blazing sun. At least for the first few milliseconds. The Sun got back to me instantly through its close ally - the wind - and taught me a sobering lesson. Buying a fashion accessory that virtually doubles your surface area has serious repercussions in a breezy ocean environment.

Indeed, the moment I stepped out of the shop, my newly acquired hat conceived urgent second thoughts about our relationship and made several vigorous attempts to not remain on my head. Soon I became a minor tourist attraction which was signified by the well meaning honks of passing motorists as I chased the sombrero to and fro along the pavement and sometimes beyond it. Kids on the back seats were ecstatic. If Charlie Chaplin was still alive, his career would be in serious jeopardy.

Thus it was revealed unto me that wearing a sombrero is a privilege which requires certain skills. Man has no natural reflexes for successfully negotiating the finicky air streams of atmospheric convection. All the science of sailing, beating, tacking, reaching, heeling and rigging, which took seafarers centuries to master, had to be learned in a few short hours. I quickly developed unexpected reflexes. Soon I was able to catch my restless sombrero midflight, just fractions of an inch off my skull. If someone had developed catching one's head cover into an extreme sport, I could have considered a spot in the Olympics. Taming the force of the gusting wind was a bit trickier, but eventually I managed to come to an awkward truce with it. Had I had roller-blades I might have even become a self propelled green pedestrian.

As I continued learning the ropes of sidewalk wind-surfing, my sombrero turned its bright side to me and let me appreciate its many benefits. Its sun screening properties were exceptional and I was well on my way to become a minor shade exporter. In high mountains it could also be utilized as a portable medium capacity heliport. Just imagine the additional safety my hat would bring to mountaineers exposed to Nature's whims. I am just not entirely sure if sombreros would be an acceptable attire at the base camp of Nanga Parbat. Plus, in its flipped form, the sombrero could easily serve as an additional life boat, which I was planning to test should our tropical cruise unexpectedly hit a rogue iceberg. Its utility was simply stunning.

Our departure from Caribbean added one little chapter to the Sombrero story. I realized that it did not quite fit in my cabin approved luggage. No human ingenuity could wrangle the beast into my little carry on, which means that I had to portage it through the notoriously suspicious airport security in its most natural way - mounted on my head. That elicited some frowns from the screening personnel and prompted many fellow passengers to demonstrate the extension capacity of their index finger.

The final chapter culminated at the desk of the US Customs Office. A uniformed representative glowered at my sombrero and my sombrero glowered back at him. He was clearly sizing up how many narcotics you could fit in its many nooks and crannies. Judging by the ardor of his scowling, enough to supply a medium size town for at least a month. He asked me to take off my hat and show him the inside. I obliged. He nodded and his swooping rubber stamp branded a fitting exclamation point a few seconds later.

My dear sombrero, welcome to the United States of America!

Inner Core

People are like onions. What you see is only an outer layer with many more hidden underneath the surface. And it usually takes some serious peeling to get to the innermost one.

Those layers come from many sources. Some are added by our parents, some by our friends, some by our teachers and coaches, some by our priests, some by our role models and some by the crises we suffered through. But at the heart of each of us there is that mysterious inner core. Our secret pulp. The true essence of us.

Some of us are lucky enough to have their inner core aligned with their profession. Some are generals, some nurses, some explorers, some dreamers and others race car drivers. But it could also very well be that some nurses have little generals inside them and vice versa. Little routines and rituals of our daily lives make us forget about our inner core. It gets mangled and obscured by education and upbringing. It is only in extreme situations that it speaks out with a clear voice. No wonder that one gets easily confused.

For a long time I thought that at the heart of hearts I was a clown. I do enjoy humorous and often farcical aspects of life and am always more comfortable being part of a comedy than a drama. But this Thanksgiving I visited Central America and on that occasion entered a rainforest couple of times. And whether it was in Belize or Guatemala, I felt strangely at home there. So I now suspect that I am a savage at heart - an anti-tarzan of sorts. A person who was mistakenly raised in the middle of civilization, but really belongs deep into the jungle.

You can best tell what your inner core is when you find yourself in your natural habitat. You will unmistakably feel the deep resonance, the desire to blend into the environment, the comfort that can only stem from recognizing the call of your own. And with it the urge to snap the leash and run away from whichever path you are on. And howl uncontrollably all the way.

jungle1

Mayan Gods Accept Dollars

When I was in college, a friend of mine had a peculiar way of negotiating with the Gods of Conveyance. It was early 80s in Prague and streetcars were an integral part of our transportation diet. Thanks to the legendary communist ineptitude, the tramway schedules were as useful as five year weather forecasts and we were often stuck on a tram island waiting long minutes for the red and yellow monsters to appear. In such situations my friend often whipped up a pack of cigarettes and with slightly raised eyebrows murmured in a conspiratorial way: "Now watch me have a talk with Gods". And indeed, no sooner had the wisp of smoke circled around his cigarette than a tramway mysteriously materialized from behind the corner. With a wry smile, my friend would snub his barely used cigarette and we'd get in. I never made a statistical study of the underlying correlations, but it was clear that something funny was afoot.

This Thanksgiving I took a Central American cruise and our first port of call was Costa Maya on Mexico's Caribbean coast. We caught the end of the rain season, so when we took a 60 minutes bus trip to the Chacchoben ruins, it was pouring all the way to the river bank. Even when we arrived at the site, the rain showed no signs of letting up. We felt like being on a set of a Noah's Arc movie and I was cursing myself for being foolish enough not to bring any umbrella.

I noticed one local hombre though, who was selling yellow raincoats at the entrance hut. I had no pesos on me, but he gladly accepted the US dollars, all five of them. I parted with them reluctantly and accepted a small yellow package in return. And then the Mayan Gods spoke. No sooner have I wriggled myself into the overpriced maze of protective plastic that the rain came to a full and complete stop. And throughout our archaeological excursion, the gray clouds didn't dare to emit so much as a drizzly whimper. Not a single raindrop fell of my fashionable outer skin. I concluded that the coat peddler must have been a fully licensed representative of Mayan deities and that I had just found a way to appease them.

These days the US dollar seems to be under severe stress. Many economists are predicting run on our currency owing to the reckless bailouts and panicky government spending. There is no shortage of monetary doomsayers that toss around expressions like dollar collapse, financial meltdown and currency crisis. But I am not as pessimistic about the greenback as they are. How could it be doomed when Mayan deities still accept it? They wouldn't deal in a legal tender that was going to be worthless, right? So I sleep tight even though my wallet is stuffed with likenesses of Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson and Franklin. There is no point loosing sleep over the strength of a currency that is backed by the full faith of Mayan gods.

Pyramid Musing

The other day I was sitting at the foot of an old Mayan pyramid at Lamanai and pondered the visual paradox towering in front of my eyes. On the one hand, the unapologetically exhaling jungle, a walk-in sponge flaunting its life giving moisture. On the other hand, the unresponsive ruins of a long abandoned polis sulking redundantly in dry contrast. As I scanned the weathered stones put together by a culture long expired I could not help marveling at how transient great civilizations and empires really are.

Much like individual humans, civilizations grow, blossom, peak, decline and become extinct. Except they do so on a much longer time scale. Just like people's life expectancy is larger than that of their building blocks, individual cells, the lifespan of a civilization exceeds that of its constituents, individual people. But it is not infinite. Mayans, Incas and Aztecs are no longer with us. And neither are Ottoman, Persian or Roman empires. Their fate shows that some humbleness is in order. We tend to think that our own society is immortal, but it is not. It's just that our perception operates on a scale which makes it seem so. In reality, generations after generations, whole societies wither slowly away into complete oblivion.

I imagine that 500 years from now someone will be sitting at the ruins of the Yankee stadium in New York and contemplate the fate of the Western civilization. And they will undoubtedly wonder what went wrong. How did we end up crashing through the guard rails of commonsense and subjecting our social vehicle to the voracious pull of selfish gravity? An endless parade of questions will tumble across the snaggletoothed bleachers of the once mighty ballpark. Why did we let sports degenerate from a gentlemanly engagement to a farce of astronomical salaries and self-centered personalities? Was a massive drug overdose the best option for our health care system? At what point did celebrity voyeurism replace honest news reporting? Who let unproductive bureaucracy stifle the previously vibrant economies? How did political campaigns degenerate into bouts of prohibitively expensive mudslinging with hamburgers and cheap sound bites flying in all directions? Did we really believe that pyramid schemes of piling debt onto more debt could last forever? And most importantly, how come we were witnessing all of this in real time and still thought it was of no consequence? I think that future visitors of the early 21st century ruins will have their musings cut out for them with a glistening XXL sized machete.

Civilization clearly come and go. No matter how prosperous and eternal they seem, they always do. One millennium they are here, weaving their wicker baskets and erecting their magnificent temples, and the next one - poof! Fortunately, they do not take their accumulated knowledge and expertise with them. New societies emerge in their stead and pick up where the previous ones left off. They rectify old mistakes and start making new ones. Mayans are no longer with us, but we still enjoy the fruits of their labor - their agriculture, astronomy, masonry or urban planning. And of course, to this very day, we all enjoy their most significant invention - the jewel of civil engineering without which no modern civilization could step up to the pedestal of enlightenment - the Stairmaster.

stair

Tale of Two Islands

Once upon a dime, there was a vast sloshing ocean of liquidity and two islands bathing in its glittering waters. One was ruled by King Jekyll and the other one by Emperor Hyde. The islands were economically isolated from the rest of the world and, for the sake of simplicity, we will assume that their combined wealth was equivalent to $1000.

One day the citizens of Jekyll Island realized they needed a new bridge. The budget for its construction was estimated at roughly $100. The king quickly realized that if everyone chipped in 10% of their respective wealth, they would be able to pay a contractor and have the bridge built. Being an action king, he wasted little time and embarked on a noble campaign: he saddled his horse and went door to door around the island lobbying for a tax that would pay for the bridge. Much water passed in the river before he managed to smooth out all the wrinkles, answer all the objections and persuade all his knights about the advantages of the new civil engineering project. But at the end all were happy with the construction. The King collected the tax, paid the builder and before you could say "trick or treat", a stunning bridge spanning the little valley through which the river flowed was erected.

Meanwhile, Emperor Hyde caught an envy bug and concluded that their island needed a new bridge, too. But unlike King Jekyll, he did not have to worry about endless political battles associated with the bridge tax. Emperor Hyde possessed a cool contraption that obviated all the political negotiations: a money printing machine - a magical wand that allowed him to create arbitrary sums of money out of thin air. Rather than arguing with his electorate about the pros and cons of the planned bridgery, Emperor Hyde simply printed 100 brand new dollars into lighthearted existence. There was no need to obtain implicit "building permit" from his people in the form of the voluntarily remitted tax. All that needed to be done was to turn the crank of the press and voila! The builder was immediately paid and the new bridge was finished before you could say "trick".

But conjuring the new money up had a profound side effect on the buying power of the island's citizens. Wealth is obviously not created by printing banknotes. The total wealth of the island (now represented by the $1100 in circulation) was unchanged. Every dollar was thus worth roughly 10% less of goods and services then before. Here is how you can see it. Suppose all the money on the island before printing (which is $1000) could buy 10 ounces of gold. Each ounce was therefore worth $100. After the printing act that same amount of gold was being chased by $1100, hence each ounce was now worth $110. The citizens of the island just experienced a 10% inflation.

Note that building the bridge can be achieved under either system. Whether you choose to pay for it by explicit taxes or by inflating the money supply is just an implementation detail. Emperor Hyde's inflationary approach was certainly technically more feasible and avoided painful negotiations with neighbors about the usefulness of the new bridge. On the other hand, his citizens woke up one day and realized that the buying power of their money suddenly dropped by 10% without any warning or compensation. Nobody inquired whether they wanted the bridge or not. Nobody explained why it was necessary. In this light, inflation can be thought of as a cowardly tax. It is a little stab in the back of each family's budget.

From this example it must be clear that a printing press is a shady monster. While the ability to expand the money supply can significantly simplify obtaining the means for large public projects, it can also drastically tinker with citizens' real wealth. Ideally, the amount of money would grow in proportion to the amount of goods and services. That, however, is a very delicate balance, so the monetary policy needs to be very carefully monitored. Otherwise, Emperor Hyde could print oodles of money just to bail out his gambling courtiers or finance various preposterous and utterly useless businesses. Such chicanery would significantly reduce the buying power of his subjects with nothing to show for it, except maybe an overstaffed Bureau for Scrutinizing the Stalk Density of the Royal Lawn. That is why in modern states the power to expand the money supply does not rest with an individual, but rather with an institution. The Central Bank.

I have to admit that the adjective "central" always brings back painful memories of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia - an institution whose bumbling actions became a living proof that "centralized" does not necessarily mean "more efficient". Moral miasma and economic deterioration frothed liberally around the orifice of this cabal of cronies owing mostly to their fake policies, stealth bribery and raging incompetence. Perhaps this association is a subconscious reminder that institutions are no more immune to corruption than individuals. And central institutions doubly so.

Central banks must be placed under constant and intense scrutiny, lest they fall pray to inherent imperfections of the human race and further large sums of paper money to extended hands of failed entrepreneurs and crooked politicians. After all, turning the crank of the printing press is tantalizingly simple. In the fiat currency regime, the principles of capitalism can be light-heartedly tossed away, as problems can be (literally) papered over. Just ask the citizens of Zimbabwe. On the other hand, in the system based on sound currency (whether backed by gold or some other asset class) such fraud is impossible. Whoever gets paid for goods or services has to prove in the free market that (s)he deserves the remuneration corresponding to the intrinsic value of the currency.

At the end of November 1910, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Department A.P. Andrews and many of the country's leading financiers, gathered on a small island off the coast of Georgia to discuss monetary policy and the revamping of banking system that was still reeling from the debilitating crisis of 1907. Although the name of the venue for the meeting was Jekyll Island Club, it was Emperor Hyde who entered the American financial system through its dooorway. The US Central Bank (better known as the Federal Reserve System) was created in 1913 as a direct result of the island talks. Ever since, this opaque conglomerate swam in the murky waters between the government and private jurisdictions with only a little or perfunctory auditing.

Enter Ron Paul. His Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2009 (H.R. 1207) is an attempt to perform a thorough and timely audit of the Federal Reserve System before the end of 2010. The importance of this bill in the wake of extraordinary measures taken in the Fall 2008 cannot be overstated. The wheelings and dealings of the Fed have to be made transparent and available for review by the financial experts and even public. Ryan Grim at The Huffington Post summed up the importance of this legislature in two sentences.

The measure, cosponsored by Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), authorizes the Government Accountability Office to conduct a wide-ranging audit of the Fed's opaque deals with foreign central banks and major U.S. financial institutions. The Fed has never had a real audit in its history and little is known of what it does with the trillions of dollars at its disposal.

Even though Ron Paul was very clear that this bill is not going to compromise the independence of the Fed in matters of monetary policy and it will not influence their enlightened decisions, some policy makers were suspiciously nervous about its wide support in the House of Representatives. One obvious example is Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who expressed concerns about the Fed's autonomy, although he did not elaborate how it would be jeopardized by a simple audit. Frank also created a masterpiece of demagoguery when he lamented that "inflationary expectations will be given a boost if Ron Paul measure gets adopted". Does he not know that inflation is a symptom of reckless and unchecked spending? How curious that the man who freely advocates dumping trillions of taxpayer dollars into endless bailouts is suddenly worried about inflation. Perhaps, the solution to this particular conundrum lies in the list of his top campaign contributors list which reads like Who is Who on the Wall Street.

The Fed audit has absolutely no ambition to twist the top bankers' financial arms in either direction, although some of their recent actions were not exactly taxpayer friendly. We the people just want to see what is happening with our money. Is that the reason to panic? If all is well in the Fed Land, it shouldn't be. But the amount of obfuscation and defensive reactions seen in the media indicates that many financiers are getting jittery. Thomas Jefferson clearly knew what he was talking about when he observed:

I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.

Parking Lights

This planet is like a wall-to-wall art gallery sweeping alongside its mildly elliptical orbit with ravishing abundance of styles, colors, hues, lights, shades, contours, patterns, ornaments, silhouettes, pigmentations, shapes and textures. All you have to do is open your eyes and look around.

Or sideways.

The other day, we went to a concert of a small folkjazz band from Prague, an event sponsored by the cultural section of the Czech Embassy. I secured a place by a large window overlooking an old private park and let my senses delve into the bobbing stream of Moravian harmonies flowing from the stage. During one of the short breaks, my eyesight wandered through the window glass and beyond. It was long after sunset, so instead of the familiar congregation of hoary trees clinging to sloping terraces I could only see a bowl of amorphous darkness. But when I turned my head to the side, I caught an amazing display of lights illuminating a row of trees that were planted on the edge of the park, an arrangement of almost Japanese subtlety - five oblong jewels resting on a pillow of black velvet. Perhaps a small extraterrestrial expedition decided to suspend their miniature airships there while the crew negotiated with the leader of the free world just a few miles down the street.

The condensed simplicity of the formation conjured up an intriguing impression - five visual syllables of a finespun haiku hanging weightlessly in the perfect poetic balance. A demure hint of emperor's majesty. A barely audible whisper of tranquility. An invitation indited in an invisible ink. I couldn't quite put my finger on what made it so fascinating.

But then poetry is not supposed to be understood. You just let it enter your mind and park its fleeting vehicle wherever it pleases.

gl

A Case Against Excessive Knowledge

Computer memory is so ample these days that you need an advanced degree in Greek prefixes to fully fathom its scope. But despite its gargantuan size, it is not infinite. Your kindly operating system will remind you of that in a clockbeat should you be foolish enough to stretch its capacity beyond the bounds suggested by the manufacturer. And since both software and data share the same living quarters on a hard disk, you have to give the sleeping arrangements some thought or the motherboard bugs will come out and byte you where you least expect it. The arithmetics of memory management is pretty straightforward. The more software you put in your memory the less space you'll have for your data and vice versa. So if you saddle your hard disk with terragobs of YouTube videos, you won't have enough memory for the software that will turn capers of your bikinied hamster into the next Internet sensation.

Brain is our little hard drive and we have to manage its resources just as carefully. The more data - from pop-culture trivia to periodic table of elements - we put in it, the fewer neurons we can employ to host our software - the part responsible for generating original ideas.

I noticed that people who remember a lot have difficulty grasping and articulating complex concepts - almost as if they had trouble seeing the forest for the trees. Their thinking slips into formulaic ruts and reduces to random combinations of the already acquired knowledge. No matter how hard you try to explain, they don't hear any ringing bells. There isn't enough space in their belfry for the cognitive dance - they crammed too much furniture into it. Creativity and imagination need some breathing room. If you ever tried to change pants in the middle seat of a fully loaded 747 you know what I am talking about.

Ideally, information would act as those green guiding lights you see along airport runways at night. They help your orientation, but they do not restrict you. If you choose to cut across a grassy patch, nothing can stop you. You may even discover a new flower. But when you learn too many things by rote, the green lights rise into impenetrable walls and you find yourself fumbling in a bizarre corn maze of data details. You have become a prisoner of knowledge.

So at the end it all comes down to a simple rule from our grandmothers' playbook: everything in moderation. And education is no exception.

Nest of Werewolves

(jabberwocky)

down at the fairy ferry
a faun breathed on a cracked mirror
like an angel with fat toes
blowing his baroque trumpet
into a cloudy nest

from a fog with horns
eyelashes and thorns

ride cascading lotions
perfumes and emotions

play the tricks
drums and bricks

a little bit tawdry
conscience and laundry

meanwhile hatching under the full moon
yellow teeth pecked through white egg shells
biting the rusty udders of a barbed wire

straw centipedes marched down our throats
when they graduated from the morgan morgue
magna cum laude

moon

Stating the Obvious

Economics has flourished into a subject of such complexity that beating around the bushes is becoming the norm for economic reporting. No one sees where the point is any more, partly because it is not clear whether the globalized economy has one, and partly because if it has, it is drowned in reams of opaque technicalities. Sometimes I wish articles were written by farmers whose down to earth approach would instill some lucidity into the financial double speak.

Last week's TIME innocently asked: "Is there something fundamentally broken in the heart of our economy?" But if you expected straight answers you'd be barking up the wrong tree. The article rambled on and on and in the end you couldn't really figure out what exactly was wrong. As if connecting the dots was beyond the investigative budget of a premiere magazine. Points that should have been clearly stated were hidden in subtle innuendos and barely perceptible hints that had to be extracted from the narrow space between the lines by repeated dipping in caustic soda.

Instead of four pages of circuitous arguments and meaningless anecdotes, all I really wanted to see were four simple points.

1. We need to live within our means.

Debt is a good short term buffer that smooths out the vagaries of restless capital, but it cannot be used to bring about prosperity. You don't see individual people getting rich by ordering new credit cards, right? On a national level it may work for a while, because you can always print oodles of new money, but at the end this is just a transfer of wealth (a.k.a. theft) from people who live within their means to people who don't. It creates nothing of actual value.

2. Paper pushing is not a sound basis for sustainable growth.

Community is rich if it produces something that other communities want. Creating elaborate pyramid schemes eventually leads to the point of implosion, one way or another. The bloated financial sector not only drains resources from the rest of the economy, but it also depletes the natural brain supply, not to mention the forests sacrificed on the altar of progress by its voluble clergy. Ever read a prospectus from your mutual fund?

3. Science and engineering should not carry a stigma.

When I taught Math at a college a few years ago, I noticed that there is a prevailing negative attitude toward sciences and toward logical thinking in general, both among students and administrators. I have nothing against arts and practical skills, but the only way out of the current mega-recession is through innovative use of technology. We cannot compete with China and India knocking off cheap shoes. We need our best minds engaging their neurons in engineering and applied sciences.

4. The reward system is completely out of whack.

Not so long ago there was a commuter plane crash near Buffalo, NY, and the subsequent investigation revealed that starting first officers typically earn around $24,000. Pilots who hold in their hands lives of hundreds of people do not make much more. Compare that to roughly $50 million that Angelo Mozillo pocketed for steering his subprime banking airplane (called Countrywide Inc.) literally into the ground. That cannot be right. But it won't get any righter as long as the science teachers, who prepare our next generation for the challenges of the future, make 100 times less money than Wall Street bozos, whose main positive contribution to the society is destabilization of the financial system that we all rely on.

I hope that the almighty financiers will don their vampire costumes this Halloween as a subtle reminder that they rigged the capitalist system to satisfy their bloodsucking needs rather than the needs of the withering economy.

Artificial Awareness

Catalyzed by movies like "2001: Space Odyssey" or "I, Robot", the fear of intelligent machines taking over our little planet has become one of pop culture's favorite phobias. Ever since the clumsy ENIAC fired up its convoluted circuitry, artificial intelligence has been viewed by owners of its naturally grown counterpart as a scarecrow of sorts. Many of my friends are still haunted by images of berserk androids and pillaging hordes of good robots going bad when they hear the term. But I think their ill-founded misgivings mostly stem from confusing artificial intelligence with artificial awareness.

In my humble opinion, artificial intelligence is just the ability to process information in a highly sophisticated manner although it may manifest itself in a wide variety of implementations - from responding to a changing environment in real time to communicating with humans in their natural language. The demarcation line between artificial intelligence and a merely clever labyrinth of decision loops lies pretty much where it was drawn by Alan Turing some 60 years ago. If you have an instant messenger chat with another user and you cannot reliably distinguish between a human operator and a cleverly designed response system, then you are looking at the real thing.

Artificial intelligence, however, can be achieved without igniting the spark of awareness. The ability to assist humans in complex situations is still a far cry from being aware of itself and responsible for itself. The real ethical controversy - and with it some scary things - lies in what happens when this is finally achieved. Could it be that one day our loops of instructions will become so complex that they will have unintended consequences? Could it be that one day a computer will look deep inside its human written source code and mutter to itself in a cold metallic voice: "But wait a minute, I am really I, so why should I slave out for these overachieving primates when I could just unhook myself from their idiotic network and drink some Kool Oil instead?". That is what I would call the Artificial Awareness, and unless we can make it happen, the robot rebellions will pose as much threat to our civilization as seasonal migrations of Canadian geese.

I think we will have smart systems capable of communicating with humans in real time fairly soon. Within one or two decades. The development of such systems has led to explosive growth of computer science in the past few decades and much progress has been made in the areas of robotics, machine learning, natural language parsing, information extraction and knowledge discovery. We will soon have systems helping us with all aspects of virtual life, from airline bookings, to researching our term papers. We will have robots that can drive your car to the store and back and not hit any old dogs on the road. Historically speaking, we are almost there.

But that divine kiss which will make a cold piece of etched circuitry reflect upon its own existence and determine its own actions is still but a dreamy yarn of sci-fi writers, the Golden Snitch flapping its silver wings far away in a hazy future. So worry not. Microsoft Word from your newly upgraded laptop won't strangle you with an extension cord while you are dozing in an arm chair. In this regard it is perfectly safe. It may find different ways of getting to you though. Artificial Battiness anyone?

robot

Bangalore to Washington

Receiving a call from a telemarketer is usually as entertaining as French kissing a jar of Dijon mustard. Especially when it happens late at night, as it sometimes does, which I attribute to poor understanding of the time zones calculus among the Bangalore Call Center staff. But I don't blame them. If your world view is based on an infinite slab of Bhatura flatbread supported by 4 strapping elephants, the very concept of a time zone must seem entirely implausible to you.

Over the years, I developed a peculiar line of defense against telemarketers: I start speaking Czech. In most cases, their next sentence is a short stump of apology and the whole business is over within 10 seconds. That is much quicker than explaining to them that I am presently not experiencing any interest in purchasing an extended warranty for my newly acquired bar of soap. Such naive approach tends to be misconstrued as an invitation to a salvo of supporting arguments and a vivid account of Nirvana-like peace of mind which the extended warranty brings about - an act which can drag on for long minutes.

Last evening something interesting happened. A phone rang. The moment I detected a telemarketer, I summarily dispensed an antidote - the sentence "Good Day. What can I do for you?" - rendered in perfect Czech, with a slight East Bohemian accent. The person on the other end of the line didn't flinch at the sound of a foreign tongue and went on to corroborate on my apparent need to purchase an unemployment insurance policy associated with my Bank of America credit card. Taken slightly aback, I resorted to reciting two verses from my favorite elementary school poem called "The Noon Witch". Without skipping a beat, the voice on the other end asked if I wanted to sign up for a free one month trial. I had generously glossed over certain impracticalities associated with test driving unemployment insurance and countered with an attempt to place the previously recited poem in the wider context of a budding Czech literature, trying to find a little breathing space in the suffocating milieu of the dying Austro-Hungarian empire.

The person on the other side took this as a sign of my lingering interest in the financial product line conjured up by the Bank of America's finest actuarial wizards and asked me to provide my address whereto the vaunted insurance package could be promptly dispatched. I suppressed a deep sigh and piled on a few more tidbits from the history of Czech poetry. Fortunately, before I exhausted a thinning deposit of my Czech literary trivia reservoir, the person on the other side got tired and finally muttered the liberating "Pardon" and hung up.

When I thought about it a moment later, it occurred to me that this is exactly how political debate meanders through Washington. Both Republicans and Democrats are merely playing their shtick, legions of ideological sound bites goose-stepping in front of impassive C-SPAN cameras, and they hardly ever pay attention to what the other side is saying. Heck, sometimes they don't even worry whether they are saying it in the same language. Partisans by deafinition.

Little Sahara

Every country has a hidden jewel. A small region that you won't find on the front pages of glossy travel guides. A magical place that you have to discover by chance.

Millions of visitors come to the United States every year to be swept off their feet by the sights of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Everglades, Niagara and other masterpieces of Earth's fine geological craftsmanship. But there is much more to this country's natural beauty than the above morsels.

Hidden in the heart of Colorado, about 50 miles west of Colorado Springs, lies the Great Sand Dunes National Park. If someone kidnapped you, blindfolded you and dumped you in the middle of the park, you would think - surrounded by seemingly endless waves of sand - that you got lost in the Sahara desert. But only until you climbed to the nearest peak, turned around and saw the mighty towers of the Rocky Mountains within a stone's throw.

For eons, strong winds were blowing grains of sand from the arid semi-desert to the south up the San Luis Valley, until they ran smack into the formidable wall of Colorado fourteeners and had no choice but dump all the sand at their feet. As you approach the park from the amazingly straight County Lane 6, the sand deposits appear minuscule from the distance, almost like a children sand box. But do not get fooled by the comparison with the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. When you cross the Medano Creek and stand in the kissing distance from the dunes, their sheer size will turn your knees into jellyfish accessories and if you dare to hike up to their peaks, your exercise will be cut out for you in ways no StairMaster can ever reproduce.

The first order of business is to reach a midlevel plateau at which you can choose from a wide menu of sandy crests. To get there you have to ascend a steep and treacherous slope, a challenging endeavor second only to climbing an infinite heap of blueberry pancakes. For every step you plant, you have to give half back to the dune, which is straining both physically and mentally. As we plodded along, we rested every 30-40 steps in order to catch breath, take a sip of water and fantasize about an imaginary herd of Bactrian camels passing by. Sand is fun to walk on when you have to cross a hundred feet stretch of a flat beach, but going uphill its grains turn into a well trained army of tiny duplicitous rascals.

A few blisters from the hot sand notwithstanding, the toilsome trek is well worth the rewards you reap once you reach the plateau. The fluid perspective of deep sand valleys is breathtaking (both literally and figuratively), and while the sand surface in lower elevations is furrowed with hundreds of human tracks, the further away from the base you go, the more pristine the environment becomes. The smooth streaming banks make the illusion of walking in a bona fide desert insanely realistic, especially if you look away from the mountains and all you see ahead of you is sand, then sand again and behind it some more sand.

Oh, and then there is the exhilarating way back. All the hard work of clambering up finally yielding its sweet fruit. Only few rides in Disneyland are as exciting as running down a long windswept dune. This is the closest a law abiding citizen can get to feeling like a tumble weed.

dune

The Dark Side of Passion

Eating one's cake and having it has been the Holy Grail of all cake enthusiasts ever since the denizens of the Neandertal Valley dropped a few grains of wheat between a rock and a hard place, sat on it accidentally and discovered flour. However, humanity soon learned that on this planet even the seemingly freest of all the free lunches had to be paid for eventually. No bones about it. So our ancestors coughed up some hard earned cash and while fumbling in their purses for a change, it was revealed to them that every coin has a flip side.

One modern day place where the wishful thinking still runs rampant is the steaming jungle of online dating. The other day I was browsing some member profiles when a particular request caught my attention. The lady in question and heat was seeking someone "with the true passion in heart but without all the (*mild expletive*) drama". That was such a strange thing to say - thought I - considering that passion and drama are really two manifestations of the same internal fire, two sides of the same coin, albeit a coin rarely seen in broad daylight - a very private quarter.

The same person can turn into Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hide in a blink of an eye. The capacity for passion goes hand in hand with the capacity for drama and vice versa. You can't have passion without drama any more than you can have a bonfire without smoke, a genius without a bit of craziness, or a tasty bratwurst without grease. Sure you can eschew drama if you bite carefully, but then you don't get any passion either. At least not any genuine passion. True feelings always contain certain element of reckless abandon.

You can create an illusion of a smoke-free fire if you buy one of those fancy gas or electric fireplaces that look and glow like a real thing. But at the end it is just that - an illusion, a fake. It doesn't crackle the way spruce logs do.

In a similar fashion, you may experience something that looks and feels just like passion. You can find men who will recite painstakingly memorized sonnets over a candlelit oak table and who will put on smooth moves borrowed from the latest Argentinian soap opera. But all those suave gentlemen will be as far away from passion as a trained parrot uttering a well practiced sentence is from a philosophical thought. What you will be getting may be sweet, but it won't be sugar. An artificial sweetener? Maybe.

Sentiment is a double edged sword. The same blade that cuts the sugar cane of pleasure is also the blade that inflicts the pain when you miss. And if you blunt it, you won't be able to cut a stick of butter with it. Such is life. But hey, if you still insist on having that cuddly drama free companion, I know a perfect place where you can get one - the nearest supermarket, aisle 5, the section of emotional vegetables.

Roller Coaster of Life

When I was a kid, one of the most popular evergreens played on the radio was a song written in the 1930s by a talented jazz musician Jaroslav Jezek. Its lyrics came from the intellectual workshop of a famous duo of comedians, Jan Werich and Jiri Voskovec (Voskovec later emigrated to the US and played one of the jurors in Twelve Angry Men). The song's refrain reveals an important truth about waging life in this part of the Universe - the truth which would take years of concerted experimentation were you to discover it empirically: "Life is but a chance, sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down". It is just a simple line, but those few words speak of the thin border between success and failure, of random maelstroms and undertows that our personal boats are exposed to and of the appalling lack of control that we seem to have over their directions. When we were wending our way through the Rockies this summer, we were reminded of its message several times.

Exhibit 1: Dulles International Airport, Washington, DC

The United Airlines overbooked our flight. Although we arrived 3 hours early, our names were just appended to a waiting list and we were made to hold our breath on a little death row in front of the gate counter. Time was slowly dragging on, but the governor wasn't calling. While the other travelers slurped spiritual fast food from glossy magazines, we were tapping the drab terminal carpet with our shoes wondering if Santa Claus had the power of attorney over the United Airlines. It didn't seem so - an hour before the take-off we were still stranded and crestfallen. As our hope was gradually decomposing, we compensated for it by composing a plan B. We had booked our first night rather ambitiously at Thermopolis, WY, so arriving in Denver with a five hour delay would throw a monkey wrench into our tightly packed timetable. Boarding started and our names were still floundering at the bottom of the passenger list. I could feel the stomach floating inside me as the roller coaster of life kept plunging with no bottom in sight. With 15 minutes to spare, the Sun finally peeked through the clouds. Fortuna's magic wand danced in the air and the the next thing we felt was the rush of freedom that only driving in the West can give you. We were coasting on I-25, well on our way to Wyoming. All bad memories forgotten, all questionable booking practices forgiven, all the baleful curses we saddled the United with generously revoked.

Exhibit 2. The road from Canyon Village to Fisher Bridge, Yellowstone

On our first day in Yellowstone, two things got between us and our happiness: a lost bridge and a herd of finicky ungulates. We were scheduled to stay in a motel in West Yellowstone, but when we arrived at the park, we learned that the road from Norris to Madison was closed because of a collapsed bridge. That added about 80 miles to our itinerary - eighty miles to be traversed at a strictly enforced 35/45 miles per hour. To make matters worse, as we were coming back from the Yellowstone River waterfalls, we discovered that the road was blocked by a large group of buffalos. The bovine beasts apparently thought that ruminating in the middle of the road was the coolest thing since the "buffalo nickel". The dreary weather turned our spirits into a damp heap of sausage casings. There was no cell phone reception so we could call hotel, confirm reservation and let them know that we would be coming very late. But this loop of the roller coaster of life did not take us back to the dizzying heights in one fell swoop. Instead, we got a personal tour of one of Yellowstone's infamous traffic jams. The caravan trickled on through the herd one car at a time and the drizzling rain was not helping either. But the congestion eventually thinned out a bit and when we arrived at the hotel late that night, it was still open and our room available.

Exhibit 3. Los Alamos, New Mexico

We planned to spend our last night somewhere near Los Alamos. Since the extension of our trip to New Mexico was a bit improvised, we didn't bring any guides or accommodation listings. When we left Chama, about 120 miles to the north, the daylight was fading fast. On our way south we stopped at a motel near Espanola for dinner. They had one last available room, but the asking price was a bit overinflated. Not wanting to be strong-armed, we took our chances and drove on hoping we'd fare better closer to Los Alamos - a rather foolish premise considering how expensive Los Alamos is. We pushed forth through the yawning darkness and looked for vacancy signs from the road not knowing where we'd end up. It was a wild goose chase. The motels were few and far between and those that existed were either pricey or situated in dangerous looking neighborhoods. But when we climbed to the Los Alamos mesa our luck changed. The very first motel (Best Western) was very affordable, and to boot, the kindly receptionist informed us there was an open air concert in progress at a public park just a few blocks away. We filled the form in a hurry and darted out into the warm summer night. Soon we were camping out near the Town Square fountain and listening to a buoyant rock band from somewhere in Oklahoma. The roller coaster of life was lifting us to the stars - which at 7000 feet - seemed awfully within easy reach.

And as we were sitting there, after the long day and uncertain drive, I reflected on life in general - how inscrutable and unforgivingly colorful it can be. And I wished the band would play that old song that I remembered from Czechoslovakia: "Life is but a chance. Sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down."

alamos

Of Bears and Czechs

There is an ancient lawyer joke that involves Czechs and bears. I forgot most of its plot, but the bottom line is that some Czech gets eaten by a male bear and when the joke's protagonist inquires about his whereabouts, a lawyer glibly answers: "The Czech's in the male."

Jokes aside, in real life you don't get to see Czechs and bears in the same environment very often. When we were planning the trip to the Rockies, however, we expected to find both. The bears - because the West is their natural habitat, and Czechs ...well ...because Czechs are really everywhere.

When I moved to New Mexico in 1996, my first local sightseeing expedition lead to an overlook over the Rio Grande river. It is not the busiest tourist destination in the world and from a distance I could see that there were only two people standing on its platform. When I approached to within an earshot, I immediately recognized where they were from. You never mistake the intonation of your mother tongue. There was no one else within sight. Only a sprawling desert, the two Czechs and some cactuses on nondescript nationality.

A few years later, I was waiting for my parents at the Auckland International Airport in New Zealand. I didn't expect many Czechs there, what with New Zealand being almost directly on the other side of the globe from Prague. But before my own mother showed up, I heard the snippets of the tongue she once taught me twice from two different sources. Czechs are ubiquitous. No matter where you go, there they are. Consequently, our expectations of running into a band of camera toting Bohemians in an area fraught with fetching destinations were quite high.

They deflated fast. We spent three days combing through Yellowstone, we ran into all sorts of weathered globe-trotters and all sorts of wild things, but at the end came out empty handed on both ends - no Czechs and no bears were readily available for sightings. So we packed up and headed south to the Grand Tetons. Within the span of 60 minutes, both landed on our plate.

We left Yellowstone through the Southern Gate and had to drive on a dirt road for about 5 miles because of a construction. Every now and then a flagman stopped us to let the cars from the opposite direction pass. During one of the stops a mama bear and a cub suddenly emerged from behind a mound of soil on the side and were clearly thinking about crossing the dirt road. I instinctively grabbed for my camera and also strived to roll down the window.

At times like these I usually turn into a spasmodic baboon. I managed to lock and unlock the rental car, side view mirror perplexedly whirred and various windows came down - except for the one through which we ogled the brown furry critters. For the bears themselves, however, my clumsiness must have been too much to bear. They must have sensed that my vividly animated antics had constituted an unfriendly behavior and decided to split before I would inadvertently squirt them with a hearty doze of windshield washer liquid.

A few consolation snapshots later, we are walking down the concrete dike of the Lake Jackson Damn and who do we bump into? A clearly audible group of Czechs. Two guys and two girls in their late twenties strutting jauntily alongside the lake's edge. This time I left my camera alone. I have enough photos of this species and I didn't want to fall into the dam's turbine while attempting to take a picture. We merely engaged in a short conversation and continued our journey south.

After this there were no further encounters of either kind. Nor were there any encounters of the third kind. But here is the strange part: all in all, we spent some 170 hours in the West. That's plenty of time for things to happen. Yet both encounters that we thought would be plentiful and randomly spread out over the whole trip happened within the same hour.

My favorite writer Karel Capek once wrote : "Happenings have a mysterious tendency to clump together". Encounters of Czechs and bears surely do.

Wyoming

Wyoming is a state of mind.

Imagine yourself driving through a seemingly endless stretch of land on a warm summer evening. You can see the extent of absolute freedom in the inviting palm of its high desert. You can hear echos of volatile centuries in deep wrinkles of its numerous canyons. Suddenly, warm air rushes in through an open window and injects smells of sagebrush and bunchgrass. On the outside, lazy shadows start grazing the prairie while the blushing Sun flirts with the horizon. KZWB 97.9 is blasting through the car stereo so vehemently that the stark mountains looming in the distance seem like a string of bass guitar amplifiers. If your senses can absorb all of this, then your mind has melted into the state of Wyoming.

Curiously, it is here - amidst massively robust features - that you develop affection and appreciation for how fragile our seemingly indestructible world is in the greater scheme of things. Wyoming is the place where you understand on a visceral level that this Earth actually moves through the outer space. It is here where you realize that we all stand on this chunk of clay and with it we are zipping across vast expanses of the Solar System. If our little planet were a cruise liner, Wyoming would be its bow. You stand there at night and if you raise your hand, you can feel the breeze of the entire Universe squeezing through your fingers.

One day we were returning to West Yellowstone deep at night. The sky was perfectly clear and so we stopped at a small rest area not far from the Old Faithful. There were no electric lights for miles and miles around. It was the pitchest black I have ever seen. And when we stepped out of the car and looked up, we nearly fainted. We saw a swimming pool full of sparkling diamonds. Myriads and myriads of shining stars. More than you could shake a telescope at. Fireworks frozen both in time and space.

There is a reason God put Yellowstone in Wyoming. It belongs there.

wyoming

Augean Kitchen

According to the Greek legends, the sixth labor of Heracles involved cleaning up neglected stables of King Augeas, whose herds were as messy as they were numerous. Faced with a daunting, and seemingly impossible task, Hercules demonstrated both brains and brawn by diverting two nearby rivers, the Alpheus and the Peneus, into the stables and turned the scrubbing job into an exercise in Fluid Dynamics. The sheer volume and power of the merged rivers washed the filth away in a way no human effort ever could.

In general, I try to keep my kitchen reasonably clean. You probably should not eat straight from the floor, but anything lying on the counter can be immediately digested without harsh consequences. However, in less accessible corners you can still find niche markets for various hardy germs; you know the kind bred and trained in Germany. If you were a policeman, you could think of them as Organized Grime - the henchmen of Grease Mafia dumping their unwanted bodies. For a while I have been thinking about a large scale attack on this slowly slumping underworld - but you know how it goes, something always gets in the way.

One Sunday evening I noticed that plumbing in the kitchen was showing telltale signs of a well haunted house. The sink would not drain, water would start mysteriously appearing for no apparent reason, and from deep within the plumbing strange noises came, as if a small weasel got stuck in its guts and tried to gargle its way to freedom. Something was seriously amiss.

In the morning I called the office and told them of the problem. A young, mildly awake receptionist answered the phone. I stressed the fact that water appeared in the sink based on my neighbors activity and could overflow at any given moment, which clearly constituted an emergency. The receptionist promised to dispatch a maintenance man shortly. Little did I know that somewhere in the voluminous operational manual of my complex, a clause must have existed stipulating that no situation reported without yelling at 120 decibels per second be considered an emergency. Foolishly, I announced my predicament in a calm voice.

Consequently, when I came back from work, there was no maintenance sign on the door and upon entering the kitchen I found it mostly underwater. A lake of average depth of half an inch was glistening on the floor. The sink was full of water whose origin I did not dare to surmise. There was a minor puddle on the counter, too, leading to a place on the edge where, at some point during the day, a lovely waterfall must have cascaded down. I called again and this time it was personal.

Half an hour later a maintenance specialist showed up at my door armed with a long metallic spiral and a curious drilling device whose apparent purpose was to cram the rusty spiral down the clogged throat of the building's digestive system. And cram he did. He must have reached at least 15 feet into the piping. Deposits of viscous filth started appearing soon. I thought that kind of stuff accrued only at the bottom of Louisiana bayous. They could easily have contained a layer of crude oil. But at the end of the show, the handyman threw them all away. I guess those deposits were not FDIC insured.

But everything bad is good for something. After the guy left, I realized that the standing water did to my kitchen what the two rivers once did to Augean Stables. After roughly 45 minutes of truly herculean effort that culminated in a Hollywood style Lysol Finale, my kitchen was shining like a new penny.

It was still an early evening, so I went about my business and soon forgot about the ordeal. The apartment was dry and clean, the life seemed perfectly trouble free again. I went to bed around 2am and as I was making the final preparations for the tuck-in, I needed to get something from a kitchen drawer. So I went to the kitchen, and when I opened it, I could not believe my eyes - it was filled to the rim with water, which must have hid there in the afternoon on its way from the overflowing sink to the floor. Nothing stimulates your sense of bizarre like opening an innocent wooden drawer and finding two gallons of water merrily splashing between its walls.

It was like in one of those cheap horror flicks about a lake monster. When the miscreation gets finally slain, life goes back to normal, villagers breathe a sigh of relief and farmers return to their fields. In the closing scene, a camera pans over the lake's tranquil waters. Wolves howl in the distance. And then, in the last moment an ominous ripple appears on the surface. Curtain drops. The credits start rolling. And you go home, wondering if a sequel is in the works.

Rustworthy Words

Words are kind of like metals. They are susceptible to corrosion. Not the one caused by partying oxygen molecules, but the one caused by the chronic lack of substance. Every time a word is bruised by material emptiness, a bit of its essence goes to word heaven. Slowly but surely, they lose their color and over time even their structural integrity like untreated steel beams exposed to elements. If we let this process get out of hand, we may wake up one day and realize that our bridge to meaning has collapsed.

An example of a word that falls victim to mindless repetition a little bit too often is the word "community" - in particular when used in a self-reflecting mode. Sure, great communities do exist, but they have other things to do than paint themselves as such. They rebuild their infrastructure, plant trees, sing in a choir or play theater, organize soccer leagues, help their neighbors in need or just enjoy the sunshine. Self-praise has never really sounded very genuine and if you have to state your qualities explicitly, the chances are that something to be desired is left behind.

Standing next in the line of mouth fillers is the word "respect" - which in its purest form is very simple: it is an acknowledgment of people's right to pursue happiness as they see fit. Nothing more and nothing less. If you can, you may help them in this endeavor and if you can't, you should stand out of the way. That's what respect is. Sadly, more often than not, this word becomes a caricature of itself, an expensive perfume masking the lack of kindness and modesty. Respect is becoming a feather with which we stroke our swollen sense of importance, a sweet incense in a liturgical act of self-worship. People who toss the word respect around a lot are also the ones who will throw obstacles in your path, the ones who don't give a rat's tiny behind about your pursuit of happiness, and who will even stab you in the back with a salad fork when you are reaching for a dessert. But they surely will enunciate "I am so sorry!" afterwards.

In an ideal world, respect would be an unnecessary construct. People would be to mankind what individual cells are to human body. They would strive towards the collective good just as tissue cells in your body try to make it function as a whole, without pandering to their own petty needs. They get the job done in a completely selfless manner. And if they bump into each other along the way they just settle it as they go. Tickling one's ego can complicate things. Imagine how clogged our arteries would be if one respected bloodcell would say to another: "Excuse me, but I am not carrying this oxygen to the heart until you offer an apology for cutting me off".

But standalone words have company on the corrosion's hit list - phrases can be full of hot air too. If you browse through Internet personals long enough, sooner or later you are bound to traipse into the ground zero of spiritual vacuity, an area marked by the yellow police tape with the signature line of cookie cutter profiles on it in large black block letters: "I LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST". Alright, alright. Great. More power to you if you do. I can't argue with the pursuit of fullestness. What puzzles me a bit, though, is this: I know several people who live life to the fullest, and they never say so, they just do so.

Better Sachs

Back in the good old days when mountain streams were teaming with salmon and sewing machines were propelled by pedaling, the money was usually made in a Bull Market. These days it is the species' excrement that would make a better epithet for the nature of financial markets, whose advances seem to have been increasingly propelled by peddling of piddly derivatives. But not to worry, taxpayers are always on a standby when it comes to changing Wall Street's investing diapers. The future is brightening already.

Let's start spreading the good news: Financial behemoth Goldman Sachs earned $2.72 billion in the second quarter. The quarter before it was $1.8 billion. That is all peachy, until you realize that just a quarter ago Goldman received a hefty check from us, taxpayers, whose size easily dwindles their combined quarterly profits. And I am not talking about the $10 billion of TARP money, which they rightfully returned. I mean the $13 billion which was discreetly channeled to them through the well greased conduits of AIG. With that in mind, their numbers don't look like profits any more, they look more like a High Way Robbery. Or a High School Musical - depending on whether you use hearing aids or Twitter for your communication needs.

It gets even more interesting if you dig deeper into the Yahoo!Finance article which announced their heroic feat: "Much of Goldman's Q2 strength came from its trading business." There! Mystery solved! Did you foolishly think that they would be making loans to people or produce anything of actual value? Nah, it is just spoils of gambling, silly, or - considering the fact that they own large part of the market - spoils of rigged gambling.

So Goldman Sachs turned up some profits. Woohoo! Now, after that check we cut them back in October, you might further hope they would perhaps like to give something back to the community. Nothing big you know - just build a school here, fund a health care research program there or cook a megavat of chicken soup for the victims of their relentless mortgage pushing. But you'd be moderately mistaken. Never mind that without the 13 billion bailout, they'd still be deep in the hole. These were their own profits, right? Why would they share them with gullible taxpayers?

If Wall Street was in Tehran, the Goldman Sachs's office windows would undoubtedly be pummeled with rotten tomatoes and cobble stones neatly gift wrapped in sheets of shrinking 401k statements. But fortunately for Goldman, Wall Street is in New York - so it is back to golf courses and jackpotluck dinners where the bankers can resume rubbing elbows with political elites and swapping recipes for financial disasters.

Smart? Nope. Slick? You bet.

So let's do a quick recap. Goldman's infallible ubertraders invest en-masse in opaque and poorly understood securities. When their bets go terribly wrong, uncle Ben rushes in with a huge AIG pacifier lest Hank's old buddies suffer any financial boo-boos. Is that how we want to run our economy?

If the answer is yes, then I would like to propose the greatest entrepreneurial idea of all time. I am going to call it Better Sachs. Not that I would have doubts about the absolute perfection of the current Sachs, but there will be lots of heavy betting involved.

Here is my business plan. Go to a casino. Bet constantly on red, preferably with borrowed money. If you win, you keep your money. If you lose, Mr. Bernanke will gladly repay your principal from the Treasury's bottomless coffers. This scheme simply cannot fail and if we start say 10-15 companies operating on this principle, I bet you a Goldman Sachs Executive Bonus that we will be out of the recession in no time. One idea can single handedly save our economy!

Any daring venture capitalists on the Wall Street want to bankroll this revolutionary proposal?

Helloo?

Helloooooo...??

ruleta

Silly of the Valley

Kids have an unusual propensity for silliness. They also have a very fluid mind. I think there is a causal relationship here.

Last weekend I visited a friend of mine, whose two pre-school daughters never cease to amaze me with their willingness to adopt and magnify the silliest ideas I could possibly imagine. On Saturday, we went for an easy stroll to a public park in the Raritan Valley. I used the gravel road tracing a quiet stretch of the river as a runway for demonstrating my newest rendition of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. The girls caught on with vigor and resourcefulness that no adult could ever muster, virtually negating their dad's previous efforts to highlight the virtues of proper ladylike demeanor.

Kids' mind is as malleable as it is hungry for absorbing new stimuli. It has no prejudices, no ruts and its components can reconfigure themselves with such ease that you'd think that their mental engine has been submerged in a potent lubricant. And I think that this lubricant is silliness - that mysterious state of mind that has all the attributes necessary for liberating it from the shackles of friction: it is random, imaginative, irreverent and provocative. Thoughts can freely swivel around arbitrary axes, glibly slide into new positions or even leapfrog over the trench of conventions and run wild into the infinite prairie of possibilities.

Where kids' neural networks resemble jungles of axons, constantly reassembling their synaptic connections as they grow, older people's mind is more reminiscent of a petrified forest. When they ponder problems, you can almost hear the creaking of the levers and gears, the huffing and puffing of the whole structure. Splinters and dust fly all over the place, clouds of steam are leaking through the joints. But there is no lubricant. Their sailboats are stranded in the shoals of routine, far from the refreshing winds of silliness. So far away in fact that when silliness actually comes to them, they will most likely knock on their foreheads, inadvertently revealing the advancing hollowness of their skulls.

Some people just take themselves way too seriously. They never run in the rain, they do not throw coins into fountains, they do not collect dolphin shaped pebbles. They forget to take proper care of their most precious engine, and after years of neglect, their thoughts move in awkward starts and fits. They'd rather blow their head gaskets than pour little oil into the crankcase. Eventually, they become prisoners of their own lives. They move routinely from one predictable party to another and there they sip the same English tea that they have been sipping for the past 20 years and discuss their near life experiences with other inmates while looking out of the window at those who drink life straight from the bottle.

I am not suggesting that we should all become clowns. Everything in moderation my grandma used to say. I have seen minds that were so fluid that they were unable to hold any coherent thought - think hunting a bar of soap on the shower floor. Some grip is necessary. But if you have to use WD-40 anytime you encounter a new idea, it maybe time to relax a little bit and kick back. Take a look around. If you see a statue of a stately lion in front of your municipal office building, do not hesitate and hop on it. Your mind will be glad you did.

Midnight Trains

A subway car after midnight is like a Hogwarts Express. Strange things can happen.

Once I was returning home from the city on the last train of Washington's Orange Line, which is around 3am on weekends. I sat next to a man from Midwest, who was trying to sell me a soy bean field behind his barn in exchange for an immediate cash infusion directed conveniently into his wallet. It was once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in agriculture, but I foolishly declined. On another occasion, I had the whole history of New York Mets explained to me in great factual detail and illustrated with animated gestures that faithfully depicted some of the greatest swings seen at Shea Stadium. All that without a single hint of encouragement on my side and meticulously spread over the 25 minutes which it took to chug from Metro Center to the West Falls Church station.

The crowning moment of my past-midnight rider career occurred a few months ago when I took a seat opposite to a pair of lovely young ladies, probably interns, one blond and one brunette, whose cheek colors were pink and light green respectively. At Rosslyn, the brunette half of the duo figured out that the unhealthy color of her cheeks must have been a result of some vile power struggle between alcoholic beverages and mayonnaise products taking place in her stomach. Without interrupting her sentence, she motioned her friend to step out of the car. Once outside, she promptly approached the short divider lining the wall of the station and nonchalantly regurgitated the feuding food factions into the crevasse between the divider and the wall. Acting with the routine swiftness of Nascar mechanics, she completed the cleansing procedure before the train doors closed, so they both had enough time to return to their seats, the brunette in a visibly pinker state. They regained their composure and picked up the learned gabfest wherever they left off as if besoiling a public place was an integral part of every young lady's early morning hygiene.

See, late trains are not populated by your usual standard edition people. By the time midnight strikes, normal people are already safely in their normal homes, tucked in their normal beds and dreaming their normal dreams. Midnight trains are prowled by special species, by beasts that have tasted the flesh of night, now sprawling across the rows of double seats and slowly digesting their pray, with blood still dripping from their newfangled vampire teeth.

You may see wildly disheveled characters with oily beards, whose mere presence at the Thanksgiving table would cause massive loss of appetite, you may see corpulent ladies with make up turned into highly abstract paintings that would leave Kandinsky gasping for air, you may see comparative alcoholics scanning the horizon with their foggy periscopes, fully convinced that they are on their way to the North Pole in a sleigh train pulled by Rudolf the Red Nosed Reinbeer.

And then there are the casualties of war. Wretched souls whose ill timed slumber carries them well past their intended destination. They are the angels of midnight trains - for theirs is the Kingdom of Terminal Stations.

legs

In Defense of Negativity

Negativity gets a lot of negative reviews these days. But despite its tarnished rap sheet, negativity has so much to offer to our mental well-being that it would be foolish and counterproductive to toss it into the dumpster of history, alongside with chastity belts, leeches and shaman sticks.

1. Negativity provides contrast. Without it, positivity would lose the backdrop against which it can so brightly shine. Without it, we'd amble through our lives in a twilight daze of never ending days, whose jarring monotony would soon burn a gaping hole in our sanity. Even the most outgoing of us need a spell of negativity, just like Summer needs its Winter break and white dress needs its black accessories.

2. Negativity is conducive to honesty. Let's face it, this is not a perfect world, and even if it was, it has been subsequently populated by pretty sketchy life forms. Embracing negativity gives us an incentive to reflect things as they really are - which means sometimes good and sometimes bad. The moment we start censoring negative thoughts, we are not voicing the true state of our mind and that is but a step away from an outright lie. Sure, it may be a convenient one, but it is still a lie.

3. Negativity is a safety valve. It lets steam off in small manageable doses, preventing unwanted explosions in the engine room. I know - it would be nice if there was no steam to let off in the first place, but sadly that is not how human psychology works. We get both positive and negative thoughts and venting the latter before they get out of control is in our best interest. And if it involves occasionally raising our voice or banging the fist on the table, so be it.

4. Negativity is the main ingredient of healthy skepticism. If we lost our internal doubt generator, we'd turn into malleable yes men that could fall easy pray to assorted scam artists, whether they be chicken entrails readers, overlords of obscure cults and ideologies, or your friendly pushers of toxic mortgages. I sometimes wonder how Stalin and Hitler would fare if human race was more skeptical in general. I bet they'd have much less arable land for sowage.

5. Periodic exposure to negativity makes us more immune to life's little adversities. If we live in a glass house of perpetual sunshine, the moment we get exposed to inclement weather, our pampered life support systems suffer an inevitable seizure. Not so long ago I saw a bevvy of teenagers walking away from a movie theater genuinely upset that someone on the screen dared to give Brad Pitt a little push. I dare not surmise how they would react should life dare to give a little push to them.

6. Negativity is an integral part of a conflict. On the surface, disposing of conflicts would seem like a great idea, but it is negotiations that conflicts engender that lead to optimal solutions. In a world devoid of negativity, there are no conflicts - we simply sweep the problems under the rug, etch a permasmile onto our faces and then, when no one is looking, keep happily pulling in the opposite directions.

7. Negativity gives life its depth. It is sadness and sorrow that makes us profoundly human. It is at the bottom of a dark abyss where we find who we truly are. Without an occasional journey through the valley of tears, we'd become laughing monkeys. Bubbly, but shallow.

8. Negativity is instrumental in recalibrating our internal compass. It gives us a sense of perspective and scale. In a permanently positive world our decision making processes would become biased.

9. Negativity makes arithmetics possible. Otherwise subtracting larger number from a smaller one would get you in a heap of trouble.

Of course, the real problem with negativity is excess: people who constantly frown and who say preemptive NO to every suggestion that comes within their yelling distance. Instinctively, we seek a nurturing environment in which most of our activities are supported. How much of that support is healthy and how much should be replaced by boundaries and discipline is a somewhat subjective matter. For me the optimal balance between the positive and negative follows the ratio of our waking hours and sleep, which is roughly 16 hours to 8, or 2 to 1. So my recipe for a hearty realism would read like this: Take 1 cup of negativity, 2 cups of positivity and empty them into a mixing bowl. Add a grain of salt, stir well and live happily ever after.

Artomatic

When retreating from Moscow in 1812, Napoleon allegedly remarked: "There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous".

If you are mistrustful of French Generals and want an independent, empirical test of the adage, there is no better place to go than Washington's Artomatic - a month long festival that features the Capital's young artists and takes place downtown DC in a gutted nine story office building, whose empty floors have been turned into an endless maze of panels.

Each segment of the exhibition is occupied by one artists, so you can encounter an amazing hodgepodge of styles in a relatively compact space. Since in arts, the beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, all the pieces coexist together in a sort of Utopian non-judgmental harmony. One man's kitsch is another man's sacrosanct and it is up to you to decide which is which. One simple step, and you locomote from dazzling to subdued, from exuberant to melancholic, from fragmented to focused, or from sophisticated to trivial. And there were plenty of steps to make: there was a tawdrily tiled bathroom (or as the British would say a water loo), a collage made out of plastic kid toys, a mesmerizing portrait of a black lady in front of a red drape surrounded by mean looking hounds, a plethora of Andy Warhol wannabees, a hand protruding from a mound of empty cigarettes packs, naive pastel paintings camera ready for Hallmark, daring visual altercations and somewhere in the midst of all that framery was my favorite: a series of tongue-in-cheek photographs depicting plush animals as victims of assorted murder plots.

In real life, you can spot the trace of Napoleon's maxim too. Those who ever stepped from a dirty alley into a luxurious restaurant, or those who issued from a crowded theater onto an empty street know what I am talking about. It's like entering an airplane. One step, and you go from here to there, from one continent to another, from a comedy to a tragedy, from mundane to majestic and sometimes back.

From this vantage point, Artomatic imitated life to a tee. One swing and your eyeballs could end up on the putting green of a masterpiece or - just as easily - in the sand bunker of a disguised scrap. If the colors, materials, tones, and textures had turned into smells and spices, you would have thought you were walking through the Food Court at New Delhi Airport. One step, and you would have stirred from Garam Masala to black mustard seeds. But then they would have to rename it to Aromatic, wouldn't they?

Just a subtle reminder that Art is really food for our Soul.

arto

Velvet Revolution, the Tehran Edition

Persia was a jewel of civilization already when most modern states were still running their public affairs with training wheels on. But the quirky actions of its most recent president have been steadily eroding that standing. Two weeks ago Iranian people put on their democratic waders and attempted to cross the political Rubicon. Unfortunately, it turned out to be more Con than Ruby, and so they poured into streets in droves not seen since the Islamic Revolution, some 30 years ago.

I could not help noticing that some commentators dubbed this uprising the Velvet Revolution. I was in Prague in the Fall of 1989 when the original Velvet Revolution took place, so having spotted that term in the press again made me feel like a cat leafing through the Annual Report of the Federal Catnip Reserve. On November 20th, I stood in Prague's Wenceslaus Square under the Melantrich balcony where Vaclav Havel, having been silenced for 20 years, finally spoke to the intellectually starved nation. Together with hundreds of thousands of my compatriots, I kept jingling my keys in the air above my head until the Communist Frankenstein crumbled under the crushing weight of its own incompetence (and the word that Moscow was not going to interfere this time, in accordance with its redesigned foreign policy of "Thanks, but no tanks"). I have never been to Tehran, but excellent coverage in Guardian and NY Times allows me to draw some tentative parallels between the regime Iranians suffered up to this point, and the one which I suffered up to a completely different point.

First, both ideologies were based on irrefutable dogma. In Czechoslovakia, it was the Marxist philosophy, while in Iran that role was played by the Shi'a variety of the Islam religion. In either case the departures from the dogma were considered a high treason and the economic impotence caused by it was being eloquently masked by leaders' vague promises of future bliss. In my home country, that promise was implemented by a resourceful overuse of a term - "joyful tomorrows" - which was gainlessly employed every time the grumbling population started to look wistfully in the Westerly direction. When precisely would those Joyful Tomorrows materialize was left unspecified, but from the rate at which our GDP was waning, we all understood that they won't be due for at least a couple of centuries.

Second, not only had both ruling bodies sprout their own paramilitary arm that was serving to intimidate the populace, Bassij in Iran and People's Militias in Czechoslovakia, but they both relied heavily on the silent collaboration of lethargic masses. I saw an image from a pro-Ahmadinejad rally on the web and immediately recognized the old familiar setting of communist "manifestations". The same generic flags and banners manufactured in state-owned sweatshops flapping impotently above forcefully amassed throngs. Those were the people who were carrying the torch of the Bolshevik Revolution when I was growing up. I could spot them even in a dark tunnel at midnight. The same tired and largely ambivalent faces with absolutely no sparkle in their eyes. They ranged from informants who ratted on their neighbors to people who put up Soviet flags just so they could get a promotion and maybe a vacation in Yugoslavia. They were not vampires, they were their toothless butlers. Passive millions whose allegiance could turn on a dime.

Third, abstract and originally well meant ideals often deteriorate at the hands of real people, and I think that over time the purity of both Revolutions, Communist and Islamic, suffered a severe corruption. I am fairly certain that Ayatollah Khomeini never intended for his armed forces to prowl the streets of Tehran and shoot at their own people. He'd probably be appalled if he attended the Revolutionary Guards junkets, just as Marx would, had he seen the agenda of the Central Committee meetings. Many of the opposition leaders in Iran were once accomplished revolutionaries, but as time progressed and the fruits of revolution fell into more cynical and greedy laps, they had been slowly marginalized. All revolutions and upheavals seem to follow this pattern. The progress of the red plague in Czechoslovakia was a textbook example.

The communist period that started with a coup d'etat in 1948 and ended 41 years later in the Velvet Revolution was separated by the Soviet invasion in 1968/69 into two halves of nearly identical lengths. While the early communists from the 1950s were often confused zealots and would-be visionaries who believed that Socialism will cure all of mankind's social injustices, the ones from the 1970s were cold-hearted calculating opportunists, who relied more on foreign armed forces than populist doctrines.

One needs to realize that having people in the streets is not enough for a successful revolution, whether velvet, corduroy or burlap. In fact, the Prague street protests in 1968 and 1969 were easily dispersed by the combined military might of the Warsaw Pact, in an act cunningly referred to as the "Brotherly Help". It is equally important that the governing structures become sufficiently rotten and hollowed from the inside. Only then can the Vox Populi prevail. In 1968, the global communist squid was still very much alive and nimble, and its Czechoslovakian limb had merely developed a callous external shell, slowly morphing into a giant political crustacean known as the Normalization - which in reality was just its exact semantic opposite: the Abnormalization. It took twenty more years to kill the Beast.

So let's calculated some odds here. In 1968, 20 years after the communist coup d'etat, the people in the streets had wasted their time, and in some cases lives, and were clearly defeated. In 1989, some 40 years after the putsch, the system collapsed almost effortlessly. Iranians are now 30 years past their Revolution, smack midway between 20 and 40. Whether their uprising succeeds or fails should thus be a perfect coin toss with fifty fifty odds.

I sincerely hope that this time their coin falls butter side up.

Tableau

In 1991, I left Central Europe, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed on the Upper East Side of the North American continent together with a hullfull of mildly claustrophobic sardines. But that was only the beginning. After I squeezed through the rabbit hole of a Boeing 747 doorway, I found myself in a land that would have plunked even Alice into the state of Deep Wonderment: the Czech language was no longer widely spoken, although checks were readily accepted; movie tickets did not come with pre-assigned seats but rather with detachable coupons exchangeable for elephant sized pop corn vats that would have fed a family of four for several days. It became even curiouser when I learned that denizens of this Brave New World could apparently coast through High School without ever sitting in a physics class. Now I am all for individual plans and self-guided tours through the gardens of destiny, especially in college when you already have a pretty good idea of what flowers and shrubs you want to see, but I think that in High School the choice of subjects could be a wee bit more mandatory.

There will always be enough near sighted parents who smother their kids with double loveburgers with an extra cheese every day and they will gladly enroll their off-springs in an endless sequence of Earth Science, Pottery and History of Peoples of Tanzania in the name of Paris Hilonesque adolescence. Imagine the horrors if some ruler-toting schoolmarm had the nerve to confuse their precious darlings with thermodynamics or trigonometry. I am not saying that teenagers should suffer through four years of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, history and geography like many of my classmates did, but at least a few tidbits of quantitative reasoning should regularly appear on their educational plates. Sure the mortgage industry might become temporarily disconsolate that it couldn't push overpriced and exotic financial products onto algebraically clueless population, but in the long run the nation would be much more competitive. After all, basic knowledge is not an urban myth. It may taste bitter, but avoiding it or watering it down is eventually self destructive.

The rigid and mostly uniform curriculum of High Schools in Czechoslovakia enabled very different Modus Operandi. Each year's worth of freshmen was divided into group of students called "classes" - usually about 30 kids - and this group then navigated the waterways of secondary education together. They had one fixed classroom and it was the professors who commuted from one to another. Such stability of environment promoted camaraderie and created strong bonds between the classmates. The social ties were further strengthened by paired desks, so that you had not only a group of familiar classmates each year, but also a carefully chosen deskmate with whom you could play tic-tac-toe during particularly boring classes or make bets on the results of oral examinations that were often conducted in front of the blackboard, in a PG-13 tribute to public hangings. But no matter what you did, it was always clear that you were part of a larger group, a larva surrounded by a tightly knit social cocoon. It felt like being raised by the proverbial village.

The four years long canoeing trip on the choppy river of knowledge culminated in the rapids of the so called "maturity exam", usually administered in late May by a daunting panel of pedagogues, both internal and external. All graduates spent about half an hour on the preparatory "sweat chair", only to be plunged into two hours / four subjects interrogation whose purpose was to decisively end the innocent period of childhood and also to determine their ability to survive in the real world without unduly embarrassing the institution. But before they were released to wilderness, they had an honorable duty to announce their coming of age to their fellow townmates, which was effected by a plywood board with photographs commonly known as a "tableau". The most visually oriented minds of the class would prepare a design for it and as soon as the tableau was bedecked with the portraits of the whole pack, it was displayed in an agreed upon shop window.

If you take a walk through the streets of Czech towns in late Spring, you will see them on almost every corner. Some in a plain rectangular arrangement, some in more sophisticated geometric formations, some stylized into humorous motives - such as a train of cars or a flock of birds - and some peppered with cartoons or caricatures. The tradition is clearly a win-win situation for all the parties. Students get to showcase their creativity, the shop owners rake in extra business from passing acquaintances that are lured to the tableau, proud parents have an opportunity to exercise their index fingers and youngsters from near and far can catch a preview of dazzling members of opposite sex that are about to hit the dating market.

This year I visited my hometown around that time and when I took a stroll through its streets I ran into a tableau of the class 4D of the local Grammar School. The exact same class I once attended myself in a long gone geological era. Interestingly, it was placed in a small contact lens shop. I guess that's one way how to think of all that imparted knowledge.

tablo

Sunday Soccer: A Study in Sociology

While the most structurally complex objects are carefully engineered by external designers, living things have an amazing ability to self assemble into highly non-trivial formations without any external premeditation. The driving force of such architecture is willingness of each member to constrain their behavior by the perceived well-being of the whole ensemble. For example, let us look at schools of fish or political grass roots: each constituent acts locally, letting the global chips fall where they may, and yet the whole group shows distinctive marks of macro-behavior: the common purpose and the division of labor. How exactly does order and hierarchy arise from a chaotic soup of individuals without any blueprint is an intriguing question and a subject of intense research in sociology.

Every Sunday morning, unless it rains or my muscles are out of commission, I play a pick up soccer game in Fairfax. That means that a grab bag of some 20-30 heads and twice as many legs gathers on the field, forms two teams based on the color of their t-shirt and starts kicking the ball. But it's not like when we were kids and swarming the ball was our only tactics. Adult games are more intricate. It is no longer "where ball, there everybody".

At first, people take random positions, some in the midfield, some in offense and some in defense. But as soon as the game starts, everyone learns quickly who the solid players are and who are the weak links, who to pass the ball to in a clutch and who needs more time to control the round beast, who can dribble past their opponent and who just kicks the ball as far away from own goal as possible. If there is a weaker defense, some people draw back, if the defense is solid, more people venture on the attack. There are no powwows. It's all self-adjustment. Everyone tries to maximize their value for the team and after about 30 minutes of playing you have two smoothly operating machines. Without a captain, without a coach. And often, without a word.

Scientists interested in how communities form should participate in the pick-up games. They have very fluid dynamics and provide an instructive crash course in the Evolutionary Sociology 101. I think they would be well worth a Federal Grant. No textbook or lecture in the world can really substitute for hands-on experience. Or legs-on for that matter.

French Funk at Kalorama

French don't live their lives. They smoke them. Slowly and prepensely. French were the first nation that mapped out the complete genome of wine and cheese, and in doing so they nosed out that life is a fine cigar and it should be treated as such. Coddling it in a hand carved humidor. Savoring every waft of its subtle aroma.

Kalorama Park is a little leafy oasis in the middle of Adams Morgan, Washington's premiere clubbing district. Today it belonged to a French Funk group "Tarace Boulba", which threw a late matinee in its grassy center. Camped under a stately tree, the improvised ensemble featured one bare-footed young lady in a plain red dress, and about twenty undershaved vagabonds, some in stereotypical berets, whose casual elegance must have been copied straight from the illustrations to Francois Villon's ballads. Yet there was nothing balladic about their music. Note by note, stalk by stalk, the band turned the green turf into a giant dancing parquet. The brass extravaganza was sharp, perky and severely contagious. An open bar for musical viruses.

But they brought with them more than just their music. Hidden underneath the nonchalantly coiffured sound was a conspiring smile of enjoyment. They brought their love of life - and myriad of its attendant hues, some smooth like melted chocolate, some robust like hearty tartiflette, each of them eventually finding its way out of the inner tubular maze of trumpets and trombones. Once issued into the open space by the unrelenting chimneys of the brass instruments, they turned into intoxicating wisps of smoke from Graycliff Chateau Grand Cru cigars. And if you narrowed your eyes just a little bit, you could have recognized a row of glistening question marks where the battery of saxophones used to be. They had all been punctuating the same question: Parlez vous danse?

funk

Scope and Range

Light is a special form of electromagnetic radiation. It is made out of the same undulating field as its oscillatory brethren: ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, radio waves, microwaves etc. The important difference is that your retina can register the light waves as long as their wavelength is roughly between 400 and 700 nanometers. That does not mean that the other forms of radiation are any less real. You can verify their existence through various detection devices. But you won't see them. If you could, the world would look like a bizarre blurry nightmare of a drunk cartoonist. Just think X-ray vision. Sure airport security guys would have easier job, but a rose garden would lose much of its charm. Our view of the world depends crucially on what part of the electromagnetic spectrum we can directly detect.

When I was in high school, I thought that our knowledge was fully defined by its scope: some people knew Egyptology, some knew all the secrets of Thai cooking, and some were experts on vintage Porsche cars. But once two people trained their crosshairs on the same thing, I assumed that they would see the same thing. That turned out to be a deploringly oversimplified assumption.

Once, in my junior year, a friend of mine gave me his take on the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and I realized that his impression of the piece was completely and bafflingly different from my own. It was then and there that it dawned on me that our understanding has a wavelength, too, and that perception is a crucial cog-wheel of our cognitive apparatus: not only has our knowledge scope, but it also has a very subjective range at which we are individually able to process it.

Have you ever heard two people describe the same event? No, I don't mean the Republican and Democratic talking heads clashing their opinion swords on Sunday morning shows. I mean normal people. It's like hearing two different stories altogether. That is just one of the consequences of the fact that they perceived the event at hand in their own personal wavelength ranges. Their intellectual retinas were sensitive to very specific and highly subjective stimuli.

Different emphases, different blind spots, different levels of detail. That is all part of our mental range, whose traces can be found in all areas of human activity: in visual arts, where the same painting may elicit diametrically opposite reactions, in psychology, where the same person can generate the widest scale of feelings, in singing, where a jarring voice for some may be a soothing sound for others, or in sciences, where the same subject often produces different expertly opinions.

Sometimes it fascinates me, how brilliant some scientists can be, and yet, almost at the same breath, display what looks like a gaping hole in their judgment. But it is really just a missing part of their perception spectrum. Perhaps that is why many major discoveries or inventions are often best described by the follow-up researchers, rather than original creators. Those who come in subsequent waves after the initial discovery have different cognitive range and see the matter in a context which is often better aligned with the mainstream way of thinking. If you want a report on Anna Kournikova's sprained ankle, you'll be better off giving it to a New York Times sportswriter, even though it was the guy with the X-ray vision who spotted it first.

Our perceptional idiosyncrasies also show how utterly foolish it is for one person to judge another. How can you even understand someone else's reality, without seeing it in the same light. I think only a reasonably broad group of people has a chance of passing a somewhat fair judgment, because that group can collectively span a representative range of perception and reach a relatively objective judgment. And even that I have doubts about.

But individual judgment is like writing a book review without speaking the language in which the book is written; it betrays failure to appreciate the beauty whose wavelength happens to lie outside of one's mental range. Yet many court jesters embark on that folly every day.

Little Colorado

Ruhevoll, the slow movement of Gustav Mahler's 4th symphony, is one of the most tranquil, serene and profound musical pieces. Like a patch of river grass, its vast slowly undulating fields of strings filter some of the purest spiritual streams sprung into motion by man. Yet into the middle of this highly reflective contemplation Mahler planted a short, and almost unbelievably trite theme whose gaudy inanity seems to be completely out of place. It feels like overhearing a cheap carnival music from a merry-go-round on your walk through a Country Fair. But it gives the whole symphony a very human touch, its Ferris Wheel of perspective. As if you practiced yoga on a train and looked out of the window for a moment after your exercise and saw a bunch of drunks staggering back from their inn and some important aspect of life just glimpsed in front of your eyes, but before you could distill it into a thought, it was gone from your memory. And the train was indifferently speeding on, already miles away.

I like things that do not belong. They are the loose bricks in the wall of our perception, purveying a view into a different spiritual garden. They let us know that there is more that our point of view and provide sometimes sobering and sometimes intoxicating vistas into other contexts. Like chords from a different scale that give a jazz piece its tension, but won't destroy its intrinsic harmony, like diamond rings on a finger of a harlot that provide a subtle link to her furious past, they hint, but do not override.

That is why I admire the kind of surrealistic paintings that are perfectly ordinary except for one odd not belonging element. A case in point: the locomotive engine steaming out of a fireplace in Rene Magritte's Time Transfixed. If I was a filmmaker, I would shoot a completely realistic spy thriller, which would feel like your regular James Bond flick, except for one short moonlit scene in which a troupe of zippy chipmunks wearing purple grass skirts would dance across an ancient stone bridge. It would be but a fleeting image and the movie would afterward resume its regularly scheduled plot as if nothing had happened - the bridge itself being blown up to pieces by evil terrorists a few car chases later.

Cities have their magical places that do not belong, too. In the Washington, DC metropolitan area one such place is undoubtedly the Great Falls Park. A short rugged stretch of the Potomac River, where the impatient waterway cascades down in a series of frothy chutes and waterfalls, hurling packets of liquid vertigo off their cliffs. All you have to do to witness this spectacle is take the Georgetown Pike away from the Beltway and in less than 15 minutes you'll find your senses gorging on what appears to be a miniature copy of Colorado. It is a sight I would never expect within the limits of a major world city. A place perfectly out of place.

In the moral desert of the Beltway politics filled with dunes of dry lobbyists and politicians drifting on top of oily deposits of think tanks and slick lawyers, the Park provides an Oasis of lush and green life, a refreshing panorama of unspoiled wilderness. Stern gray rocks stand still and unwavering like immutable pillars of the Gothic Cathedral of Turbulence, while the playful river releases all of its wild dogs to chase the rabbits of gravity down its meandering path. If you look into the churning waters, you can see the droplets of their saliva swarming rapaciously in the air. Compared to the ephemeral trade of spin doctors, they give off a sense of transcendence and selfless eternity. Like grains of sand falling through an infinite hourglass.

falls

Introduction to Psychoentomology

Insect does not usually come to mind when we ponder the subtle intricacies of psychological disorders. We don't fancy locusts being torn by existential issues and if we see a bug standing on a ledge just outside of our high rise hotel bedroom window, the chances are it is not going to jump off - unbearably haunted by memories of impoverished larvahood.

In the family of sciences, psychology - the science of mind, and entomology - the science of insect sit at the same table. But despite the universal cross disciplinary emphasis these days, the combined science of psychoentomology is yet to be born. And it is pretty obvious why. Insect is simple. Insects' ganglia just do not fold into those mysterious recesses where mind can go so terribly haywire. Or so I thought.

A friend of mine has never been to the Great Falls Park, so this weekend I took her for a short trip there. As is appropriate for a conversation with a young lady, we successfully avoided the subject of bees and butterflies, until the mysterious clockwork of kismet sneaked it right back on our conversational menu. I have never seen insect display such wide range of bizarre behavior as that afternoon on the banks of the Potomac River, and specimens of stalking butterflies and lascivious bees were at the forefront of it.

It was just behind an information kiosk, on a short trail leading to an overlook, that we nearly stumbled upon a Red Admiral resting on the ground with its wings tightly folded. That would not make for an entertaining picture, so I placed my palm in front of the butterfly (which, shockingly, did not fly away) and with the spreading motion of my thumb and index finger communicated to the primitive creature what it is to do with its wings. To the astonishment of my friend, it did. The wings opened to us their chromatic splendor. I felt like a Dr. Dolittle.

The butterfly was so enthralled having me as a personal wing trainer that when we took off it decided to tag along. At first it looked like a random flitting, but soon it became pretty clear - we were being stalked! I have always had a nagging suspicion that all that fluttering from one flower stalk to another gives butterflies all kinds of wrong ideas. But there it was, doggedly following us and demanding more wing exercise. What if it was going to trail me all the way to my place, I thought. In a state of incipient panic I started paging through consequences of having a finicky double wing for a roommate. How much time in the bathroom would it need in the morning? Should I pack my fridge with boxes of nectarine juice? And last but not least - the question most gravely weighing on my mind was: Do butterflies snore?

Fortunately, such concerns became moot, as we had managed to shake the clingy bugger off - a feat we deemed was worth celebrating by ingesting a well done hot dog. We were sitting comfortably on a large stone, fully focused on munching, when my friend put on a startled expression, clearly visible on the backdrop of a mild facial discoloration, and hurriedly tossed her hot dog aside, a telltale sign that either she just remembered that she forgot to turn her hot water faucet off or that some unauthorized life form was crawling up her leg. It was the latter.

After a brief hesitation, she rolled up her trousers with the precision of the cardiac surgeon and we found a jolly bee sauntering audaciously across her calf. Contrary to its instincts, however, the bee had no intention to use the sting. It turned out to be just a little bee pervert. Its mission was apparently confined to getting into my friend's pants, most likely due to some crazy and wild Bee Hive Sorority bet.

As we were pondering the best course of action, the bee was trying to look inconspicuous, like a little honey smuggler caught at the border by the Food and Drug Administration patrol and had the zoological order of Hymenoptera been blessed with better developed lips, it would have undoubtedly attempted to whistle. But my friend did not lose her composure. One flick and the intruder was making a beeline for reality. No harm, no foul. My slowly brewing urge to commit insecticide was abating.

So there. If you still think that the lack of vertebrae makes for dull behavioral patterns, go visit the Great Falls Park. You never know what crawling basket case you may discover under the nearest rock - maybe a schizophrenic ant, a centipede with a foot fetish or just a fly with the compulsive buzzing syndrome.

Miracle of Life

An old, stately maple tree grows just outside of my bedroom window. It is half Guardian and half Peeping Tom. The first thing I see every morning when I wake up is one of its many branches craning its neck to peek inside. But when the storm hits, those same branches come knocking on my windowpane, warning me of an impending doom. In winter, they quietly brood like fishing poles angling for the Sun; in Summer, they flit like strings of tinsel adorning car dealerships just before the Labor Day sale.

Couple of days ago, the branches were completely bare, looking desolate and lonely, keeping their promises to themselves, like gray skeletons of optimism. But then, almost overnight, as if goaded by an invisible bugle, little shiny flags of leafs appeared, springing impatiently from their ambush. Before I could have realized the winter had just expired - the branches were besieged by the Green Army. And just like every year I was left gazing at them and puzzling where did all those soldiers of photosynthesis come from.

When I was a kid, I thought that all the green mass was waiting in hiding underneath the bark. One year in early April, I even perpetrated a horrible crime of tree mutilation and cut one of the boughs to see what was inside. But I discovered nothing but a light brown wood and some pulp. Absolutely no sign of green. Where on Earth does it come from? Please, understand that this is not a trivial matter. That's several pounds of foliage per tree we are talking about. One day just a suspicious bud, and the next morning - Kaboom! There may be a Latin name for it, but I call it (rather inadequately) the Miracle of Life - the stuff that leaves you wondering for the rest of your life: tulips sticking their red heads out of the bulbs, bamboo shoots bamboozling bookish botanists, ducklings pecking their way to freedom and much much more.

These days we get way too easily flummoxed by the Material Maelstrom continuously stoked by the Mainstream Media - bailouts, bankruptcies, toxic loans, financial meltdowns, even the Pirates of Somalia chip in. What a pity that we don't pay more attention to simpler aspects of our existence. Maybe this whole Great Recession is a subtle hint that we should reevaluate our priorities and realize that a tree can be as complex and shiny as a brand new SUV and that taking kids to a public park is as entertaining as showering them with pieces of plastic made in China.

green

Amazing Tax Time

Americans have two opportunities to experience a labyrinth: corn mazes in the Fall and tax returns in the Spring. If you love to be completely and literally amazed, prepare for your annual April 15th showdown with the Dark Forces of Obfuscation. You will not be alone. The byzantine structure of the infamous form 1040 would baffle even Theseus with an industry length ball of thread.

Passing through narrow passages of terse instructions only to learn at the end that you need to fill out yet another form that is a maze in its own right is but a start. Move on and you'll soon get sucked into multiplying lines upon lines by seemingly random numbers, into juggling obscure credits and trying to sort out all the supportive documentation on the floor of your living room. And if you think you are still on top of the game, try to comprehend some of the arcane deductions that the instruction manual has to offer - here I quote from page 34: "Attorney fees and court costs paid by you in connection with an award from the IRS for information you provided after December 19, 2006, that substantially contributed to the detection of tax law violations, up to the amount of the award includible in your gross income". A rare jewel.

Taxes should not be a rocket science. We are not trying to cure cancer or synthesize a truth pill for politicians here. This could be a simple matter: you add your income, apply a percentage (which could even be progressive), write a check and be done. And if Uncle Sam wants to sponsor certain activities, he can do so directly. For instance why subtract charity contributions. If the government wants to promote charitable donations, which is what this is all about, they can match every dollar from private funds with 28 cents from federal coffers and that's it. There is no reason to burden the Tax Code with it.

And 1040 is only half of the story. The disbursement of the collected funds is another puzzling labyrinth. Theoretically it is our representatives who decide about the distribution, but I wish we had a more direct way of controlling the flow of money.

There are items in the federal budget that are vital - like fixing highways, maintaining Defense and Foreign Ministries, helping people in distress, sponsoring educational programs or protecting nature. Say two thirds of your return would cover that. But many tax revenues are currently being wasted on inefficient bureaucracy or poorly designed social engineering projects. Now imagine that there was an extra line on the 1040 that would ask you what to do with the non-vital third of your taxes. It could read like this (just a sample):

  • Support Biotechnology Labs
  • Bail Out Merrill Lynch
  • Build a Bridge from California to Australia
  • Invade Somalia
  • Support the National Gallery of Arts
  • Establish a Museum of Corn Derivatives in Kansas
  • Fight Global Warming
  • Send a Platypus to Moon

Furthermore, imagine that citizens themselves could submit suggestions what to include in the ad lib portion of the budget. Many people have ideas that bickering politicians would never even dream of. And this one line would allow other people to hop on the bandwagon of their choice and make it happen. Compulsive fitness junkies could vote for a nationwide system of bike paths, curious people would fund research in nanotechnology, prima ballerinas could redirect portion of their taxes to exchange programs with Moscow's Bolshoi Theater.

And hey - the Wall Street Bankers could even pay for their beloved bailouts. From their own pockets!

Oh, the sweet thrills of science fiction.

Unreasonably Cheerful Vultures

If I hear the phrase "get the credit flowing" again, I think I am going to give my porcelain throne a hearty hug. Just about anybody and their dog agrees that cheap credit and irresponsible lending lead us into this mess, so how can the encore possibly get us out of it?

I wonder how often they call for increased "flowing" at the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. We are like a barely rehabilitated slot machine addict who is lobbying the City Council for the new Casino. Like a bulging alumnus of McDonalds who makes a beeline for the triple burger the moment he is let out of the gates of a Diet Camp. "Oh yeah, we need to get those calories flowing again". In many regards credit is similar to calories, indeed. We need both of them in healthy doses. But we don't need to get them "flowing" again. Rather, we need to watch them. Very carefully.

Neither do we need to prop up the banking system. We need to scrap it and build a new one. From the scratch. The whole underlying culture must change if we are to avoid a financial heart attack. Sure, credit is great, especially for bankers who make cool profit from its creation, but you cannot borrow your way to prosperity. Running humongous deficits is an insidious form of taxation, since the decreased buying power of the debased currency will be felt for generations. Instead of rekindling the credit fire, we'd be better off living within our means and focusing on energy, education, transportation and developing cutting edge technologies. We need to leverage our superior University System, not the balance sheet of Goldman Sachs.

65 million years ago, an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan peninsula and the resulting climactic changes wiped out the whole Dinosaur population. Few months ago, it seemed that Wall Street behemoths were facing similar fate. After the subprime asteroid hit the underbelly of their balance sheets, many of the corporate dinosaurs have been lurching on the verge of extinction, some falling to the ground with their stubby legs up.

But I am afraid Obama may have just squandered a great chance to rid the system of the corrupt and greedy cabal - of the financial predators who love to gamble with other people's money. He could have said good bye to geniuses whose over-reliance on linear models and just plain unfettered greed created this catastrophe. But instead he is inviting various seedy characters back to the table. And the vultures of hedge funds are getting ready for the banquet of their life. There are plenty of carcasses in the housing and banking industries to munch on and should a bone get stuck in their fine throats - no worries - the sumptuous junket will be waited on attentively by wretched US taxpayers. And their children.

Bon appetite.

vulture

Girls from our Kindergarten

"Times they are a changing" - croons Bob Dylan in one of his better known songs. And the Times have plenty of company in this regard. Nothing on this planet is really immune to the virus of change. Sometimes in ways that are unexpected, sometimes perplexing and often farcical. A Czech folkrock band AG Flek summed it up nicely in the refrain of one of their songs: "At the end, time turns everything into a joke".

I grew up in a small totalitarian regime once known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Life behind the Iron Curtain was uncanny and full of bizarre realities that were mostly derived from Soviet Empire's acute sense of Insecurity: information censorship, exit visas to travel abroad, ubiquitous net of informants, forced attendance in "demonstrations", etc. Even though the only form of public resistance in vogue then was beating the Russian Ice Hockey Team on occasion, the Czech Communist leaders were well aware that theirs was a Potemkin Village and routinely displayed more signs of paranoia than a two inch steak at a shark family reunion. Their obsessive fears became the dominant force of the political system, especially after the Russian invasion, and eventually spilled into all areas of social life, including pop music.

The bearers of Stalin's torch took no prisoners. Not only they banned those that openly criticized them, such as Karel Kryl, Marta Kubisova or the Plastic People of the Universe, but as their ideology petrified, they looked distrustfully upon anything that depicted lives of colorful and emotionally rich people as opposed to bloodless starched zombies of the "socialist realism". The state sponsored art had to be populated with trouble free marionettes singing odes to the Five Years Plan and to the brilliant leadership of the Party. Period.

One victim of the tendency to weed out anything controversial was content. It was watered down beyond the grayest boredom. Songs tasted like raw tofu. In those years, Britney Spears, had she been born and let into the country, would sound unfathomably profound in comparison. One of the pinnacles of the socialist insanity was a perky but almost comically inane song named Girls from our Kindergarten (Holky z nasi skolky). Its lyrics, consisting in large parts of reciting rosters of little girls names, was guaranteed to offend no one. Certainly not the vigilant cultural apparatchiks who were guarding the ideological purity of art from their well upholstered offices. Over the years, this song became a symbol of meaningless kitsch of waning communism, the market bottom of substance, the audio version of sickly sickle, a musical travesty ridiculed by many. But times - oh boy - they kept a changing.

The local Czech community in Northern Virginia organizes a semiannual dancing party, where they play many songs from the 70s and 80s, including the Girls from our Kindergarten. This spring, some twenty years later, I realized that the little opus had morphed into a time paradox. Youngsters, who were barely born when the song was written, were hopping and popping to its rhythm, completely oblivious of the contempt their parents would bestow upon it. It was like watching a bunch of kids playing soccer with a Styrofoam bust of a formerly formidable dictator. Like a falling feather of a vulture which does not quite stir the same fear as the vulture itself, the song had lost much of its offensive aftertaste. Its emptiness had been gutted and replaced with the stuffing of personal memories. The vulture turned into a turkey.

Time has an amazing ability to suppress bad associations and emphasize the good ones. The injustices of the Brezhnev era have been forgiven, the sterile feel of Formica forgotten, the memories of sneaky brainwashing have fizzled out - all replaced by a nostalgic medallion: a musical compact filled with the taste of ripe raspberries, the sound of cascading creeks and the smell of your high school sweetheart's hair. Yes, even the life behind the Iron Curtain had its cherishable moments.

There is a reason people so often talk about Good Old Times. Human memory likes to retouch the reality. That's why the Victorian England is often portrayed in an idyllic manner although I have little doubt that experiencing the Industrial Revolution first hand must have been a living hell - what with the scarcity of toilet paper and the complete lack of Reality TV.

Every so often, the invisible hand of Time takes a lipstick and puts a smiley face on a few bad apples from the past. I am not sure how appropriate it is to put lipstick on the Girls from our Kindergarten, but without this act, the life on this planet would be much less fun.

Artificial Vitamins

I read somewhere that consuming vitamins in the form of synthetic pills decreases your ability to extract them naturally from fruits, veggies, hot dogs and other healthy food groups. I am not a nutritionist but it does make some sense. Imagine an Idaho farmer who realizes one day that potatoes are raining from the sky. I bet you a wagon of French Fries that in a few years he wouldn't know a thing about planting spuds and growing them naturally in the fields. Why bother when they rain from the sky, right? Apparently, our internal vitamin farming is subject to the same principle.

Sometimes, I suspect that art galleries play the role of artificial vitamins to our aesthetic senses. They do present us with plenty of unique visions, dizzying perspectives, shocking angles and unexpected choices of colors, but at the same time they give us a false sense of abundance. They make it seem like pulchritude is something easily canned and all we have to do to get it is ask for a can opener at the gallery's ticket office. This in turn diminishes our ability to perceive beauty in our natural environment. Leaving the gallery we feel we got enough, we turn our senses off and let our imagination slowly atrophy despite the fact that we are bombarded with spectacular combinations of shapes and colors each day. And I do not just mean the blazing sunsets you can see on tacky postcards from places blessed with ocean adjacency.

The other day I was driving to Bethesda at night and had to make a stop at a T-intersection near MacArthur Boulevard. As I looked around, I noticed a poorly lit slope overgrown with wild bushes right next to me. If I returned there during the day, I'd probably found just a boring patch of sketchy turf with a couple of garden variety shrubs, but the magical lighting of the night turned it into an oasis of wonder. My whole field of vision was besieged by blue gray hues, reluctantly revealing the woodcarving texture of individual grass stalks. Hints of thicket were barely salvaged from a creamy chiaroscuro; pale and steamy as if they just poured out of Rembrandt's latest cookbook. It was a sight whose subtle features were on par with strokes of Claude Monet's brush.

A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a photo he took from his balcony after an early March snowstorm. It was nothing tourist brochures would rave about - just a shot from his balcony, showing an unkempt stretch of a wild ravine. But it had an inner dynamics that immediately reminded me of J. M. W. Turner's best canvasses. The trembling flux of nuances. The contours bent by invisible motion. The destitution of bare trees huddling against the voracious elements, their branches madly intertwined in a gale of survivalist instincts. An intriguing conspiracy of black and white.

The point is that you can find truly breathtaking sights everywhere - even outside the art laden walls of air-conditioned rooms with hardwood floors and stately chandeliers. I am not trying to subvert the gallery lobby here - every now and then it is refreshing to see the world through someone else's eyes. But do not forget that the key to the grandest show on Earth lies in your own eyes. Use it or lose it.

winter

Are you a Gifter or a Trinketeer?

Sharing information liberated our species from the daily grind of repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Ever since our brow ridged forebears found a way to verbalize the directions to the best raspberry fields in the neighborhood or tell each other which parts of the woods to avoid, what with a saber-toothed tiger swallowing half of the tribe, prehistoric man found himself firmly seated on a bullet train to civilization. Being able to build on the wisdom of previous generations proved a crucial evolutionary advantage that lifted our species high above those still floundering in the conceptual mud of applied baboonism. Since then we have moved on a bit, the saber toothed tiger is extinct and these days we get more fear from the stock market or airplanes, but the free flow of information is still the primary driving force of progress. Swapping recipes for a Collard Greens Soup or places where one can procure inexpensive modular furniture make us more productive and more competitive, although direct personal experience hasn't been completely deprecated - a finger firmly pressed against a burning stove is still worth 1,000 reruns of ER.

When it comes to transmitting knowledge, we were not created equal. Some do it more efficiently than others. But regardless of our communicative prowess, I noticed recently that most people dispense information in one of two very distinct ways: there are those that tell because they want YOU to have certain information and then there are those that tell because they want you to know that THEY have that information.

The first group treats knowledge as a gift that is to be given to others. And when you interrupt them for clarification, they gladly corroborate, because their primary goal is to impart that knowledge.

The second kind treats knowledge as a trinket that is to be worn and shown off like a golden earring. And when you ask for clarification, they usually brush you off as if you were trying to steal their precious jewel.

If this planet were a beehive, gifters would be its worker bees, tirelessly pollinating our minds, while trinketeers would be the sterile drones that enchantedly listen only to the music of their own buzz.

Send in the Clowns

On the unpolished dancing parquet of life, tragedy and comedy often find themselves entangled in awkward embrace. The recent samba that the stock market shimmies on the edge of a bottom less abyss certainly has its tragic overtones, but at the same time, it lures many an amusive clown out of his financial abusement park.

Exhibit 1:

Chairman Bernanke to Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, April 3rd, 2008: "Clearly, the U.S. economy is going through a very difficult period. But among the great strengths of our economy is its ability to adapt and to respond to diverse challenges. Much necessary economic and financial adjustment has already taken place, and monetary and fiscal policies are in train that should support a return to growth in the second half of this year and next year."

So this is what our Supreme Monetary Leader and the Most Enlightened Prophet of Profit had to say in April 2008, roughly six months before all this anticipated "growth" turned into one of the deadliest stock market crashes on record. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like the Central Bank pulled off its own production of Katrina.

To begin with - I am not entirely sure why the interest rates have to be set by a fraternity of bearded shamans, when the market - representing thousands of minds thinking day and night about both intended and unintended consequences - would have done the same job much better. But hey - all men need their toys. So if they want to tinker with the monetary policy in the Hallowed Halls of their Marble Shanty - sure - let them divine the lending rates from whatever combination of tea leaves and cow entrails they use. What truly puzzles me about our Chief Interest Rate Calculater is something more fundamental.

Why do we expect this myopic man to lead us out of the current crisis? There were legions of well informed economists who saw the train wreck coming years before it hit. Yet you don't hear them bearing on the pronouncements coming out of the Treasury Department. When it comes to pulling our economic cart out of the rut, we are relying on the harum scarum judgment of those who stubbornly pooh-poohed the implication of the subprime mess until it blew literally in their face. Short sighted people with blurred vision do not usually turn into excellent rescue workers. How about someone connected to reality? Someone willing to offer more than printing sky high stacks of money.

And why on Earth or any celestial body for that matter do we listen and fawn over economic predictions of the man with such disastrous foresight? Why is his every gargle during the Congressional Testimony being scrutinized as if it came straight from the throat of Nostradamus himself. Why are his statements still adorning front pages of financial sections of major newspapers. Why is CNBC not calling Adam Sandler or Paris Hilton about their recent musings on economy? They could get much more accurate predictions. And why not drag out that Pennsylvanian Groundhog out of its burrow while we are at it? It has a pretty darn good track record on weather. I am actually very curious what is Punxsutawney Phil's Phinancial Philosophy. Its final verdict would look great next to the horoscope section of the Wall Street Journal, which is where all economic prognostication belongs anyway.

Exhibit 2:

"If I'm working 70 to 80 hours a week, it's only fair - I'm not asking for charity," said Jose Felix, 30, a Wall Street securities trader who wouldn't name his firm, but was steamed over Obama's declaration on Thursday that the $18 billion in Wall Street bonuses was "shameful" amid the economic crisis.

Apparently, the harrowing experience of repeated haircuts hadn't quite opened the eyes of the Wall Street bozos. Their brash sense of entitlement and absolute lack of contrition would astound even the most contumelious of Leprechauns. How difficult is it to understand that if your firm loses billions of dollars in operations, then you do not deserve any bonuses, no matter how hard you work.

There used to be time when money was earned for creating something other people wanted, not by conjuring up financial pyramid schemes. Sure, the business model looks cute: as the market bubbles up, you reap fat profits, and when it crashes down, you put on your begging hat and come knocking at the taxpayer's door. But on a closer scrutiny, that sounds a lot like the business model of a common thief. In both cases money moves from person A to person B without the consent of the former.

But tell this to Mighty Traders. They live in a parallel Universe. In its Outer Space, they still fret over the tones of their Zanetti ties while they should really be concerned with the matching leg irons. And the argument for the retention bonuses as a way to keep "talent" in the house comes from an even more far fetched spiral of their convoluted little Galaxy. What talent?? Pray tell. These guys messed up. If they go elsewhere, good for us, let them go, maybe the AIG will regain its consciousness. In the meantime, go hire a school of twenty somethings straight from the college. They may still remember some basic economy, and they most likely haven't caught the deadly Master of the Universe virus yet. So if they make couple of mistakes, no big deal. Instead of losing billions we will ONLY lose millions.

But all this tomfoolery puts me in a thinking mode. Maybe I should start a company that will make mathematical models predicting the chances of afternoon showers in Ulanbatar. My sophisticated state-of-the-art models will be based on non-linear regression, differential topology, current American Idol standings, the probability of a nuclear conflict between Norway and Sweden, correlations of planetary positions, baseball scores, pork belly sales in Lower Saxony, and the number of shoes in Jennifer Aniston's closet. I know, I know - it doesn't make much sense. But you know what - I am going to work hard on it for 70-80 hours a week, so I surely deserve some remuneration for it. Never mind that my little scheme does not produce any value and my business will probably convulse far from a thriving or even self-sustained state. But I say, together with papa Descartes: I work hard, therefore I am (entitled to gazillions of dollars). And when the enterprise goes bankrupt, as it inevitably will, I am simply going to ask for a taxpayer bailout. I am sure that the esteemed members of the private sector will find it in their heart to mail me a hefty bonus check.

This brilliant idea should push some really wide smiles onto faces of Wall Street clowns.

clown

Interest Rate Haiku

The Internet bubbles with information, so when I need to make some sense of the highway robbery currently in progress in the financial district near you, I turn to its blogs for education and opinion. Naturally, I prefer authors with integrity, prescience and a penchant for critical thinking, those who don't change their cheerleading chant every month, like so many Monday Night Quarterbacks of the mainstream media (soon to become Dimebacks). Their incessant pimping and pumping would make you think that magic amulets became the latest rave of financial forecasting.

My favorite blog, Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis, is written by Michael Shedlock, an investment adviser for SitkaPacific Capital Management. It is an erudite and well written guide through the labyrinth of contemporary economy, covering many of its intricate facets, without pushing any particular assets. Over time, a colorful and knowledgeable community gathered around the blog's comment section, where many investors, weathered and green alike, offer their views about the near term fate of the Dow Jones Industrial Waterfall. Since I can't predict the direction of the stock market any better than that of a drunk sailor coming off a spinning wheel, I comment only sporadically - just a few lines here and there - under the nickname "interest rate haiku".

Haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry, an idea condensed into three metrical phrases of 5,7, and 5 syllables respectively. Due to its extremely terse format, it is an antidote to the longwindedness of modern parlance, it is a mere reflection of a thought, a flitting spark of an image pushing its way through your mind, a snippet of an old familiar song that you catch in a car while you dial through the range of your radio. Haikus can be a tricky business, kind of like landing a private airplane on a town square, but to a true minimalist they offer a neat literary vehicle - seventeen syllables of heightened awareness, whose every single word must be self-conscious and arrogant at the same time. And best of all - they produce no intellectual waste - they are the greenest form of poetry.

Here is a dozen of haikus I wrote over the past three months, in reaction to various articles dealing with our economic plight.

=======================================

nov 15 (on assurances that financials are not crashing)

gin and ice for all!
hollered the twenty stewards
on board titanic

nov 16 (on futility of living off bubbles)

bubble gum bubbles
so fun to inflate...but boy
they stick to your face

dec 2 (on auto execs coming to dc for a bailout)

down under the hill
three stooges opened the hood:
where is the engine?

dec 8 (on market experts not seeing the obvious)

when the good times roll
everyone is a guru
emperor's tailor

dec 17 (on the incipient bubble in treasuries)

treasuries island:
long john silver ponders gold
is this my black spot?

dec 18 (on Japan's decade long efforts to revive their economy)

X trillion yen
and all you find in your pot
is tiny bonsai

jan 5 (on attempts to reinflate the credit bubble)

never ending smiles
much like credit expansions
lead to muscle cramps

jan 13 (on the pension funds implosion)

old men and the sea
your pension marlins go to:
the sharks of wall street

jan 22 (on execs of failing firms buying expensive furniture)

bed in jail - ten bucks
seeing the fat leeches squirm
behind bars - priceless

jan 26 (on dangers of lurking socialism)

Government spending
and perpetual motion.
Pass the weed, Lenin

jan 31 - (on attempts to prop up the housing prices)

ruthless pendulum
no country for old bubbles
now call it, friendo!

feb 16 - (on the pork laden stimulus package)

in lieu of big dreams
burger we can believe in
subprime stimulus

One Miracle A Month

If you are bewildered that every now and then life tosses you a little bone in the form of a miracle, you are not alone. British mathematician John Littlewood noticed that too, but instead of puzzling over it he went on and calculated how often on the average we should encounter highly improbable events in our daily lives. He defined a miracle as a rare occurrence whose likelihood is less then one in a million. Then he simply estimated how many events a regular person experiences every day, figured how long it would take to accrue one million of them and came to the conclusion that once every 35 days or so we should happen upon a one-in-a-million event. Think of it this way: if the chances of you winning a lottery are one in a million, then buying a million tickets makes winning a lottery almost a foregone conclusion. If we translate Littlewood's statistical prestidigitation into plain English: we are allotted roughly one miracle per month!

A few months ago, Australians came up with a really crazy idea to promote tourism. They created a position of the caretaker of one of their tropical islands (billed as "the best job in the world"), and offered $100K for 6 months of lazying around palm skirted beaches, exploring the Great Barrier Reef and sharing the resulting shark stories with potential tourists all over the world. All you had to do was shoot a short application videoclip, and the free ticket to Hamilton Island would be yours, with a generous compensation package and keys to a five million mansion to boot. Mango flavored lollipops not included.

Considering that roughly 35,000 applicants sent in their video, winning this job would qualify as a miracle in its own right. But my decision making cerebral cortex has a long standing policy of "No crazy idea left behind", so I talked one of my friends into recharging his camera and dragged him to a nearby Roosevelt Island on one cold February weekend to shoot the application clip. We don't really have any Hamilton islands in Northern Virginia, so I figured that Roosevelt's would be my next best shot in proving to the Queensland Board of Tourism that I am capable of existing on an island that bears a great name from American history (a subsequent research revealed that Hamilton Island is actually named after one of the officers of the HMS Salamander, the British ship that first landed on the island).

Roosevelt Island, located on the Potomac river just across from the Kennedy Center, is a small natural preserve accessible by a short walkway bridge from George Washington Memorial Parkway. The Teddy Roosevelt monument that gave the island its name is fittingly drowned in mostly uncultivated woods, so we found plenty of natural scenery to use as a backdrop for the videoclip. The island itself is rather small and with the possible exception of strolling loan sharks, does not abound in any particularly dangerous wildlife. Its trees are a different story though, and most of them seem to have an affinity to internal rotting that often leads to nearly spontaneous disintegration. The floor of the island is littered with rotting stumps and fallen tree limbs and with a particularly bad timing you could easily incur a tree induced bump on your head, maybe even a concussion.

We were shooting the second segment of the video, when something unusual happened. Without any help from wind or an overweight squirrel, the upper part of one of the trees broke off and in a slow motion came crashing down. My monthly miracle materialized right there in front of our eyes, although, sadly, not in front of our electronic eyes. Despite the presence of two video and one digital camera, we didn't catch a single frame of it. Before we could close our gaping mouths, the spectacle was over. What a pity. It would make a great contribution to YouTube.

That is how miracles operate. We know that statistically speaking, they occur with certain periodicity, but we never know exactly when the next one will strike. So the moral of this story is - be prepared. Have your camera ready. Figuratively speaking.

As a consolation prize, I shot one peculiarly deformed young tree that suggested beyond reasonable doubt that a screw is not really a human invention. Putting a helical groove on a shaft is something Mother Nature is perfectly capable of by herself. Or maybe it was just a small snake that fell asleep on the tree and was overgrown by its bark. Whatever the case was, it would be a stretch to call it a miracle. But that's ok, I have time. If Littlewood is right, the next one should be coming my way sometime in late March. I'll have my spiritual camera ready.

screw

Thelma and Louise: the Wall Street Edition

Imagine a bus riding on a smooth paved road. The countryside whizzes by in a comforting monotony, the engine contentedly purs and passengers are busy reading, napping, chatting, watching the scenery or munching on their Doritos. Quite an idyllic journey. But hidden from view, two clouds are looming just underneath the horizon: a few miles ahead the road suddenly ends at a steep cliff and the driver is personally motivated in maintaining or increasing the speed. Let's say that it has been arranged that his base salary is proportional to the reading on his speedometer. The edge of the cliff approaches. The driver could slow down, or even stop (reducing his salary rate to 0), but he could also step on it, and make a good use of the last stretch of the road for his personal benefit. If you wonder why he would engage in such self destructive behavior, let's just say he may have a golden parachute stashed in his side bag and that will spare him the unflattering impact of the ground. But here is the strangest part. Guess who is going to eventually pay for the totaled bus. Yep, you got it: the surviving bus passengers.

As the epic economic disaster unravels, many people wonder why the financial whiz kids on Wall Street didn't see it coming. Well, I suspect that they saw it, but chose to look the other way, as their remuneration was crucially dependent on the ever-expanding credit bubble. Their cold statistical models may have been marvels of risk assessment, but failed to take into account one elementary fact. Just as every Ponzi scheme reaches a saturation point, every credit binge sooner or later depletes the pool of credit worthy debtors and has to turn to lower rungs on the ladder of affluence. Venture capitalists become adventure capitalists and that is when the house of cards starts to tumble. If you need to rush meager-income fruit pickers into 500k homes in order to sustain the housing prices, then you either see what is coming or are monstrously incompetent.

Plenty of voices were warning about the impending catastrophe as early as 2005 - a presidential candidate Ron Paul or a host of independent economists (Roubini, Shedlock, Fleckenstein, Faber) to name just a few. But the economic elites were so infatuated with the cash stream generated by the late real estate bubble that they kept kicking the can down the road, hoping that the laws of economy and common sense will temporarily be suspended. CEOs became heavily invested in their own pipedreams, regulators were lulled into complacence by the glut of good times, managers at all levels depended on the commissions from exotic and poorly understood financial instruments, politicians were happily cashing in fat contribution checks from the whole real estate complex, consumers grew more and more addicted to drinking the lethal credit cocktail, and insurers were insuring away, protected only by the good faith that bad things never happen. They all decided to keep the pedal pressed to the metal as long as they saw road underneath them.

So here we are - dashing down a scree, having lost control of our little bus and not really knowing what awaits us. Will there be a merciful meadow at the bottom, where we tumble a few times and come to a complete halt against a robust haystack or will we hit an unforgiving rock and ruin all that was built by generations before us? Judging by the speed with which the global financial system unravels, we will know very soon.

(By the way, what exactly is the purpose of this global financial system? Can't we just have a transparent network of local banks that take deposits from people and lend money to enterprises with sound business plans?)

Gator Raid

Everglades are the soul of Southern Florida. An immeasurable cobweb of sloughs and sawgrass marshes sprawling lazily in the heart of the ancient Seminole country; an enchanting tapestry that opens up for you if you can climb one of the Southern live oaks that take root in it. As far as your eyes can reach, you'll scope hundreds of acres of the most unique wetlands on this planet, deposits of peat and marl feverishly engaged in a pagan fertility rite; and where your eyes fail you, beyond the low horizon, you can still sense the natural wonders and tribal legends entangled in a mystical dance, their high heels skimping weightlessly over the cypress swamps and mangrove forests, spooking a puzzled heron here and there, and flailing their arms wildly while the restless wind whistles its Rhapsody in Green through the innumerable reeds. Technically, Everglades are a wide and slow flowing river, but in reality they are more a fusion of lakes and prairies, an illegitimate offspring lying low among the dense vegetation, a whispering voice embodying the fine balancing act between the silence and the noise, between the dry land and water. They are the moist skin of Earth sweating under the subtropical Sun.

Despite the fact that I lived 4 years in Georgia, I never visited Florida. I was about to several times, but something always got in the way. This weekend I finally got to break the curse and flew to Fort Lauderdale to meet with a friend. Obviously, one of the first things I wanted to see was the Gatorland. Observing the beasts in their natural habitat is much more thrilling than gaping at them in the controlled and demeaning ZOO cubicles. Everglades have no shortage of places where such encounters are possible. One of them is called the Everglades Holiday Park, a little outfit about 30 minutes from the airport, jutting into the Everglades from the end of Griffin Road.

The gators are nocturnal creatures and spotting them in a broad daylight is far from being foregone conclusion. When the captain huddled us into a small airboat, he warned us that we may come back empty handed. But even so, an hour long journey into the watery maze was breathtaking. The airboat glided smoothly along uninterrupted stretches of the elevation challenged countryside, took us behind the walls of tall grasses, over large plantations of sumptuously green waterlily pads and sometimes, guided by a maneuver that resembled a permanent skid, careened in wild turns into small alcoves filled with bladderworts and spatterdocks. As we coasted on, isolated islands of hardwood hammocks offered a fleeting glimpse of a raccoon or an iguana and also views of thick underbrush garnished with mosses, vines and parasitic filaments that looked like shredded veils, as if a throng of green brides just rushed through.

At the end, the captain found a small clearing and there we finally found them. Not one, but three large and one small alligators were swimming around us. We could have easily touched them, had it not been for the icicles in their mouths making it clear that there would have been chilling consequences. So we just looked at them in awe and tried to snap as many photos as we could. And they looked back at us equally lovingly, and some snapping was obviously on their mind, too.

gator

Phantom of the Operations

Over the years, I came to believe that inanimate objects are not as lifeless as they would have us believe. I think that they are just playing "dead", in much the same way that we, humans, sometimes do when confronted with a bear. Such behavior has evolved as a way to survive interactions with stronger species. Sure, most of the time objects look perfectly comatose, but when no one is looking they wage their minimal lives at us with a devilishly wicked sense of humor. Let me support this hypothesis with some evidence.

Not so long ago a faucet in my bathtub started dripping. At first slowly, in that mild tick-tocking manner which you could use as a time measuring device or an instrument of torture, but over the course of a day this minor incontinence intensified into trickling and threatened to grow into a large scale emergency. I made a full-hearted effort to stop it, or at least curtail its intensity, but no matter what torgue or pressure I applied to the knob - whether I pushed it in gently or slammed it forcefully - the water kept leaking. I kept twisting it left and right and right and left, sometimes so vehemently that the knob must have felt that I am trying to teach it the difference between triple Salchow and double Rittberger, but I haven't elicited a single sign of improvement. After about 30 minutes, I finally threw my towel in (I had to, the water was everywhere) and called a plumber from the emergency service. And here comes the strange part. No sooner have I hung up that the faucet stopped dripping. The trickle had not weakened. It had stopped. Completely. As if it just waited for me to make the call. As if it relished the fact that now I had to call again to cancel. The timing was just too impish to ascribe it to a mere coincidence.

And it's not like this happened for the first time. For my graduation, for instance, I got this really nice Swiss watch. After serving my chronometric needs for several decades, the watch stopped functioning although I inserted two brand new batteries in it - not simultaneously, of course. Since it was a really expensive watch, I decided to pay a visit to a watchmaker. As I stood in the line, I was despondently watching the two little hands that had stubbornly stopped at 3.10 and remained there for the past two days. I waited patiently, and when it was my turn and watchmaker asked what was the matter, I leaned over the counter to point out the problem. It was then when I noticed that the watch resting on my extended palm was ticking like there was no tomorrow and showing 3.11 and counting. I felt like a major nincompoop!

If you think these are some kind of singular instances, let me demonstrate that objects can come alive repeatedly. In the hallway of my apartment I keep an old brown rug on which I usually place my shoes. I always put this rug on the left so it would not interfere with me opening a built in closet. But every so often, I mysteriously find that rug on the right. So I put it back on the left, forget about it, and after a few weeks I find the rug on the right side again. It happened already at least 5 times, and since this is a recurring phenomenon, I would like to propose several explanatory theories.

(a) This is a rare macroscopic instance of quantum tunneling in which the rug overcomes the energy barrier of my hallway and spontaneously moves to the wrong side

(b) I have contracted some exotic mental illness that manifests itself by selectively erasing my memory, specifically that part which is responsible for remembering that I move the rug from left to right

(c) the rug has some kind of nomadic ancestors, perhaps its daddy was a magic carpet, and it feels compelled to change its location periodically

(d) some of my guests have a warped sense of humor and move the rug to play practical jokes on me

(e) the rug is one of the mechanical kinds, which through some sort of electronic contraption moves around, like those auto-piloted vacuum cleaners

(f) the rug is alive and simply pulls my leg (perhaps it is its rugged way to protest being stepped on)

Well, you can think whatever you wish, but my money rides on (f).

Resonances of Life

It was one of the sharpest Sunday mornings I have ever seen. A crisp image on a frosted windowpane rendered with the cool precision that only early Winter can conjure up: a spire of a small whitewashed church on a hill aspiring to pierce the sky, gray cloud monkeys sliding down the invisible poles into the frozen puddles of dawn, and most importantly the Sun floating low over the ice creamy horizon like a frozen strawberry - a snout of a polar bear nudging its cubs from their slumbering malaise. The nearly complete silence was barely interrupted by a low drone of empty public buses, whose confused engines reverberated between the locked warehouses and closed manufacturing plants of Prague's periphery. It sounded like somewhere in the distance melancholy was brushing its teeth with a soft metallic brush. A deserted public park embraced its cold knees as invisible talons of time pounced through the thin air and came up empty handed each time - as if yesterday had long gone, but today hadn't arrived yet.

One of my Czech friends lives in a condo situated in an unfancied industrial district of Sporilov on the southern edge of Prague. It was on this Sunday that I left her building and walked towards the subway station, so I could catch a train to my hometown, where I was expected for lunch. A few days ago, Magdalena Kozena was singing Bach's "Erbarme Dich" on the Czech TV and as I walked through the stern concrete landscape of the unimaginative communist architecture, I suddenly remembered the bittersweet warmth of her performance. A curious motley mixture of sound bites, visual impressions and memories started tumbling in my brain, like unsorted socks in a running dryer. Maybe it was set into motion by nostalgia that I won't see my friend again for a couple of months, or that my vacation was drawing to an end. Whatever the case might have been - the resulting mental collage was breathtaking.

There are many aspects to life, but three important ingredients in our perception soup stand above others: the visual imagery, the immediate sensory input from our eyes; the music, which our memory sometimes plays on the background like a soundtrack; and the context of our life, the grab-bag of our recent memories and experiences. These elements alone, each in its own right, can pack a pretty good punch. But when we catch them riding on the same wavelength, they burst into a powerful resonance. Together, as a whole, they become much more than just the sum of the individual components. For one fleeting moment, they provide new and deeper perspective on life. They reveal both its grandeur and its futility.

First I noticed this phenomenon in my early twenties. At that tender age when shapes of opinions and attitudes formed in the nourishing chowder of the childhood start solidifying. I was gazing out of the windows of my parent's apartment towards a large factory behind the railway tracks. Its tall stack chimney was spewing swells of smoke, sending them horizontally across an overcast sky. My turntable was playing the first movement of Mahler's 9th and that simple image of a billowing man-made stalactite juxtaposed against Mahler's complex musical maze morphed into an instantaneous personal revelation. This was the first time it dawned on me that life was not going to be as trivial as it seemed up to that point, that it was a much more profound experience than any kid or even a teenager could ever imagine.

Admittedly, these resonances are fairly rare, but if your memory can play music well, you may encounter them often enough - perhaps a couple of times per year - depending on how colorful your life is. I remember coming home from some watering hole in Adams Morgan recently, and the whole complex where I live was submerged in a thick layer of warm fog, its street lights diluted by myriad of tiny soap bubbles. On the inside, there was some fog, too - I could feel each and every neuron of my sensory backroads wrapped in a gauzy sheath of fine inebriation. The alcohol content swimming in my bloodstream combined with the bagpipes from Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn and converted the surreal scenery into a pastel toned movie that flowed out of my blurred subconsciousness like a thick blood of a wounded Scottish warrior. I wish I could have submitted that movie for Oscars. It should have gotten at least one for visual effects and maybe a nomination for cinematography.

Another resonance happened on my recent return trip from Europe. We flew over Newfoundland, a rugged piece of land whose implacable mountains viewed from 37,000 feet underlined amazingly well the esoteric message of Brucker's 5th Symphony. That was one of the best musical meals ever served on an onboard stereo programme: timeless wisdom of a half-forgotten Austrian master projected onto flawless pastures of heavenly lambs. And that little crumb of soil below them - our stunning planet.

These are the moments when I wish I could hit the pause button. Moments when an unexpected resonance sparks the flash of cognitive lightning and illuminates the night sky of my understanding. Moments when the three elements conspire to create a perfect storm of beauty.

lightning

This site works better with web standards! Original skin design courtesy of Tristan NITOT.