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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: 2010

Point of view

When I was in college, I used to make my own black and white photographs using an enigmatic process that involved silver, dark room, a bulb of red light, my Dad's arcane German made enlarger, two basins with some chemical solutions and an assortment of plastic pliers. One day I was processing a film with images of my girlfriend and by mistake tossed the photographic paper into the basin upside down. When her facial features started to bloom on the silver emulsion, I noticed that something was amiss. She looked like a distant sister of herself when viewed upside down. Even later, when I repeated the experiment in full daylight, I could barely recognize her. When flipped, the ordinarily familiar face provided no hooks my memory could hitch into. It was like trying to pick up a suitcase with its handle facing inward. That was the day I realized that point of view can turn familiar objects into enigmatic gardens of imagination.

When we process information, we rely heavily on context. When we see a face, we always see the eyes above the nose, the nose above the lips and the lips above the chin. Context is the skeleton which we flesh out with particular details. A template which makes it easier for us to store the image in memory. But that simplicity is offset by the loss of information. We don't need to remember every line, every shape, every texture, every contour - they can be inferred. Consequently, we often don't even perceive them. Only when we lose the crutches of context, the features we haven't spotted before are suddenly revealed to us.

This phenomenon can be illuminating both in sciences and arts. Let me use the science I know reasonably well - mathematics - as an example.

There are two kinds of mathematicians. Manipulators - who discover mathematical truths by skillful prestidigitation of algebraic objects, and seers who get at the crux of the matter by visualizing the geometric model of quantities at hand. Being on the geometry side myself, I often draw schemes and diagrams. Sometimes when I am at the end of my wits and need a little push, I turn my scribbles upside down, and a whole new set of possibilities fills the paper with a seductive dance. All of a sudden, the music of spheres is everywhere. The moral of the story is that we don't need new data to make a breakthrough, we just need a new point of view.

In arts, the point of view has even larger potential. In fact, one could say that the whole history of arts is the trace of a struggle to find a new viewpoint. Or at least rotate the old one. I have a secret wish - an exhibition where some daring soul will hang all the photographs upside down, giving the visitors the rare pleasure of passing through the rabbit hole and exploring a quaint wonderland: a piano hanging from the floor, a diver hurtling upwards from a high board, a sky supporting vast stretches of corn fields.

It will be an exhilarating voyage into a whole new world. Neatly tucked in the one we know, yet tickling us with a feathery mental vertigo.

ff

Energizer Bernie

Trying to tweet on any subject of some depth can be frustrating. The effort makes you feel like a motivational speaker in a sloth pavilion. And rightly so. Twitter is the hip new medium catering to the demographic whose attention span is defined by a passing fly. Its list of trending topics is mostly populated by mindless trivia, such as what kind of lip stick is Britney Spears using on her pet dog, or how to tell if your significant other has been secretly pouring water into your beer. Don't expect much more than that. So when I found Bernie Sanders, a hoary US senator, firmly occupying the top hitting spot for much of this Friday afternoon, I knew something was up.

Early this November, voters sent the White House a little missive: We need an adult in charge of the public purse. Unfortunately, when Obama received the memo, he read it upside down: his dubious deal to extend the Bush's tax cuts was the exact opposite of what the public purse needed - the expenditures will go up, the Treasury revenues down. Is that how they balance budgets in Chicago? While many within his own party grumbled on the side, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders took his argument to the Senate floor and in an unusual 8 hour oratory marathon exposed the deal for what it was - a fiscal time bomb wrapped in a logically bankrupt surrendering of basic accounting principles.

It is one thing to make a tax cut when you have a budget surplus, it is another to make the same when you are running a trillion dollar deficit. Borrowing money from China and forking it over to assorted financial wizards, CEOs who earn their bonuses by shipping our jobs out to cheap Asian markets, local politicians who break public coffers by making unrealistic promises or the darlings of the military industrial complex is not the way to improve economy. Why would your average hedge fund manager even bother creating jobs here when he can get much better return on investment in India or Brazil? Wealthy people do not create jobs. Demand creates jobs. Demand coming from little shmucks like you and me having little extra money to spend on goods and services that other little schmucks make.

And that observation smoothly dovetails into another central theme of Sanders' diatribe: the specter of growing income inequality. Billionaires are more likely to park money in unproductive assets where they clog the flow of capital like muddy dregs at a river's bottom. Concentration of wealth is now reaching levels that are not exactly well correlated with forward growth. The poor won't have any money to spend, and rich are too few and far between to pick up the slack. A nation - much like a private company - is more likely to thrive if it shares its profits with its laborers, who can immediately recycle them in future sales. Henry Ford figured that out 100 years ago. We have to choose whether we want to have a democracy with a vibrant economy, or a banana republic whose moneyed rulers will have to insulate themselves in gated communities.

Standing on the Senate floor for over eight hours and pounding away at President's reckless policy would be a heroic feat for any man. More so for one 69 years old. Just think of the physical effort needed to pull it off. As I watched the twitter feed in mild disbelief, the oratory exercise turned into a drawn out battle somewhat reminiscent of the Old Man and the Sea. Sentence by sentence, slide by slide, one raised finger at a time, Sanders pointed out where the country went astray, never giving fatigue or hunger a fighting chance.

Having grown up in a Soviet bloc, some 300 hundred miles behind the Iron Curtain, I have little sympathy for the failed Marxist tenets. So when I find myself in a violent agreement with a self described socialist senator, I take it as a sign that our world has grown so complex that no single person, no single group and no single ideology can hold all the answers any more. People have to start thinking outside of the box rather than hiding behind their simplistic partisan flags.

The United States has reached the peak of the credit driven expansion in this decade. The return to the old way of living is virtually impossible. We are standing still at a major intersection, in great need of fresh air, wondering which way to go. Kind of like Soviet Union in early 1980s, except in our case the stifling milieu does not come from the dictatorial proclivity of the Politburo in Kremlin, but rather from the overgrown and self serving financial sector on Wall Street.

In it instructive to peek at how the Soviet leaders dealt with the new reality. At first their leaders, Andropov and Chernenko, did not grasp the gravity of the situation and tried to pretend that the existing system can be just mildly tweaked and it will function again. They just reshuffled the empty words in their speeches and continued to kick the national can down the road. It took Gorbachev to realize that the status quo was untenable and a radical change and reevaluation had to take place.

In a normally functioning economy, banking sector creates and maintains the financial blood stream necessary for commercial operations. Unfortunately, our beloved banksters have strayed far from that ideal. The environment festering with greed and fraud, the "moral hazard" implicit in taxpayers' backing , their obscure and poorly understood "innovations" lead to excesses that still haven't been fully addressed and redressed. Channeling Ronald Reagan, Bernie Sanders threw a gauntlet to Barack Obama:

"Tear down that Wall Street, Mister President".

But no matter how much I prick my ears, I don't hear any jackhammers on lower Manhattan. Day by day, bailout by bailout, one compromise at a time, Obama is making it painfully clear that he doesn't have what it takes to change the system. He is our Andropov.

Let's hope that a real Gorbachev will stand up in 2012.

A Case for Hibernation

If early May is the apex of the natural cycle, then early December must be its dreary nadir.

The surreptitiously leaking daylight. The first onslaught of arctic temperatures. The inhospitable bedroom in the morning. The biting wind that has no qualms munching on your cheeks for breakfast. The leafless trees stranded in a frozen ground. The black ravens in a silent vigil. The twilight of late afternoons. The pale facial grass with traces of salt and pepper. The pesky ice on your windshield.

And the worst part is the winter hasn't even started yet. I don't mind dealing with a snowy blitzkrieg in the middle of January. The heat of the battle gives you the strength. Plus, subconsciously you feel that the end is nearer with each swing of your shovel. But this chilly dry nexus between Fall and Winter is a real torture - the seemingly infinite wait for the carnage to begin. And all you can do about it is to sit idly on a cold stone, watch the enemy troops hustle and bustle on the opposite hill and listen anxiously as they bellow their fierce war cries in your general direction.

I am not enjoying this part of the year at all. I seriously wish we could hibernate. I would love to have that option. You know, like when you buy an insurance and the agent presents you with various plans to cover your safety needs. Sometimes you buy an extra protection and pay more, sometimes you just stick with the basic benefits and pay a little bit less.

For the sake of argument, let's assume you have 50 years to live. Imagine you could choose whether you wanted to live them in one lump sum all year long, or whether you wanted to experience them in 100 half yearly installments, say from April 1 to Oct 1. I am sure we would be just as keen and proficient hibernators as bears and badgers.

I think around the age of say 9, each of us should be allowed to have a little talk with God and choose one or the other. If that was even remotely possible, I would most certainly be a proud member of the Hibernation Nation now, snoring soundly in my sleeping bag and dreaming of an August heat wave.

rt

Kwiki Leaks: the Springfield Edition

Being a huge fan of the Simpsons TV show, I naturally wondered what would happen if the Wikileaks exploded in Springfield. I guess it would go something like this:

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The whole town of Springfield is afoot after the appearance of several confidential Post-It notes on a community bulletin board titled "Kwiki Leaks", located in a convenience store operated by one Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. The original source appears to be an undisclosed youngster identified only as "Bart S.", who allegedly attempted to use Internet for dissemination of the stolen documents, but after realizing that the scanned files were "too big to mail" decided to use the community bulletin board instead. Mr Nahasapeemapetilon admitted that he had recently been pressured to close the bulletin board and may need to relocate his convenience store to Switzerland.

Some of the most outrageous revelations from the cache of documents - many classified as "sticky secret" - are listed below:

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Principal Seymour Skinner offered to suspend his leadership position at the Springfield Elementary and single handedly attack North Korea, armed only with a slide rule and a paring knife from the school's cafeteria. In a followup story, the Crazy Cat Lady vowed to invade South Korea with a fleet of her private catboats. Unlike Mr. Skinner, whose past as a weathered Vietnam vet is well documented, the Crazy Cat Lady has virtually no combat experience, and her only geopolitical credential is a dubious claim that she can see South Korea from her home.

Mr. Burns confirmed that he indeed intended to sell large amount of radiation soaked doughnuts to Iran, in exchange for 15 miles of Persian rugs that were to be used for softening of the road on his way to work.

Jimbo Jones, Kearney and Dolph devised a plan to push a Trojan Horse filled with condoms to Saint Peter's square in Vatican. The plan had been thwarted by Ned Flanders who happened to be diddly squatting behind the fence during the assembly stage and ordered the whole consignment of condoms filled with helium and released into wilderness.

After significant pressure from the US authorities, Patty and Selma Bouvier have agreed to jointly adopt and rehabilitate one Guantanamo Bay inmate, as long as he would dress up as MacGyver and give each of them one foot massage per week. Pajamas not included.

Several documents illuminate Mayor Quimby's misappropriation of public funds and their use for personal gratification in Motel 6. The funds were earmarked for reconstruction of the City Hall, gravely damaged after the last year's Christmas Party, and for retraining of the Springfield's notoriously ineffective police force.

On a related note, Chief Clancy Wiggum pledges to fight the gangs of increasingly bold drug traffickers by carefully monitoring the town's "traffick lights", especially the green ones, which according to the Police Chief were "the ones that the perps were always using".

Ralph Wiggum proposed an unconventional solution to Springfield's looming budget problems. In a class paper titled "Quantitatitative Pleasing", the talented young financier suggested that Springfielders print 5 million of Monopoly Money and use them to buy plastic toys from Shelbyville.

The tax cuts for Mr. Montgomery Burns have been extended indefinitely together with unemployment benefits for Cletus and Brandine Spuckler. Mr. Burns was pleased with the compromise and remarked that he planned to buy a crate of extraordinarily expensive French wines and store them in his upper wine cellar from which - in case of a lucky accident - they might trickle down into his lower wine cellar.

In a series of behind-the-closed-door meetings, Fat Tony managed to secure the license to open a Goldman Sachs branch in Springfield, specializing in trading of exotic derivatives. The branch would be located in an abandoned coal mine just north of the town, easily accessible by an 1800 ft elevator.

Lisa Simpson submitted an application to become the US President in 2037, as soon as she reached 35 years of age, provided that the Congress would come out of its gridlock and pass a constitutional amendment modifying the rules of cartoon character aging. Vice-presidential shortlist: Milhouse Van Heuten, Martin Prince, and in a rare bi-partisan effort, Bobby Hill.

Thanks to a note signed by "concerned citizens Carl and Lenny", it was revealed that the whole text of the Springfield Universal Health Care bill had in fact been written by Dr. Nick Riviera.

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Coming back from the restroom in Moe's Tavern, and having just learned from the TV that there won't be any more leaks in the future, one of the bar's regulars, Mr. Homer Simpson, opined eloquently: "Doh!"

Leaves Impressions

When the Czech language was resurrected from the deep comma inflicted upon it by the oppressive milieu of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its rescuers decided to increase its allure among populace by making it as colorful as possible. As part of the linguistic face lift they ditched the traditional Latin based month names and created new ones - a set that was more evocative and based on the native roots. For the month of November they aptly chose the moniker leaves-fall. And that indeed is a prevailing natural theme for this time of year.

The visible end of the growing cycle is a reminder that the Earth is entering its winter orbit. The living organisms are readying themselves for a long slumber and as the trees are shedding their foliage, another leaf-based entity reclaims its prominent place in our lives: a book. Sure, there are no laws of physics that would prevent you from reading in Summer as well, but somehow those long cold dark nights make more fitting backdrop for your favorite tome than the star studded skies of August. Nothing is more conducive to eager page turning than a warm blanket and a smell of hot chocolate sprawling in the air.

There is another growth cycle that is coming to a halt these days. It pertains to global economy. Many are realizing that the dynamic expansion that we have come to worship in the past few decades was a false idol. As the leaves of once self evident platitudes are falling down from the tree of economic theory, they lay bare the stark truths behind the myth of perpetual growth. When you look at its most vocal apostles, you find financiers, you find media moguls, you find mighty tycoons and corporate aristocracy, the ones who reap disproportionate benefits from outsourcing the labor overseas, the ones who have vital interest in shaking the dressed up carrots in front of myrmidons of consumerism. But when you turn around and look at your average working family, you find them making the same meager wage as they were thirty years ago despite all this phenomenal success. Competing globally with armies of nameless teenagers slaving away in Asian sweatshops can wreak havoc on the middle classes in developed countries.

Look out of the frosted window - the King and the Queen standing barefoot by the railway tracks, bowing to a passing train.

I saw a documentary about Amazon Indians last week. These folks lived happily in harmony with Nature for eons, their cable subscription rates held steadily at zero, and yet the sincerity of their smiles had not been diminished by the conspicuous absence of status symbols. Many civilizations thrived without a license to exploit our common and very finite resources.

This is not a call to abandon technology and progress. Rather it is a case for reevaluation, recycling and return to simplicity. We don't need to expand our GDP by 20% every five years to be happy. We don't need to plunder the world's environment just to squeeze the last droplets of an increasingly inaccessible oil from the ground. We don't need to stampede electronics stores in a hogging frenzy every Black Friday. We can lead perfectly fulfilling lives just by maintaining our homes, our gardens, our towns and our relationships. Take care of what we have rather than pursuing a different fad every year. Depth rather than breadth should be our goal.

I came across several books recently that look at our present world from a similar perspective. They are not about the risks of unbridled growth per se, but each in its own way illuminates the global craziness our society has succumbed to. If you have some reading time during the coming Holidays, I recommend them to your attention.

Matt Taibbi: Griftopia
Ellen Brown: Web of Debt
Roger Hodge: Mendacity of Hope
Jonathan Chait: The Big Con
Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine

Despite the seemingly dry subject, these books read like a thriller, and present enough food for thought to eclipse even the most opulent Thanksgiving fiesta. You may end up disagreeing with some of their conclusions, sometimes strongly so, but hey - that's what thinking is all about. Reading stuff you agree with is a waste of time.

If you care about the course our society has embarked upon, each of those page turners will leave a lasting impression on your mind. Much like the leaves on the concrete pathway to my apartment, whose dark silhouettes were still there - clearly imprinted - long time after the leaves themselves were blown away.

ww

Bring back the pillory

One day I will open the door to my bathroom and find a pink wolf there, taking a lavender bubble bath in my tub. And I'll be fine. After reading newspapers for the past 3 years, nothing can surprise me any more.

Just last week, Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of the fallen mortgage giant Countrywide, managed to avoid civil fraud and insider trading charges by magnanimously agreeing to a $67M settlement with SEC - of which large chunk will apparently be paid by the Bank of America (which acquired Countrywide in 2008).

So let's see how it works: in his last 5 years, Mozilo made about $450M while engaging in rather dubious if not outright predatory business practices. For comparison - when say Toyota messes up their carburetors, they have to recall all of them, but when Countrywide messes up their mortgages, the CEO gets rewarded and investors (or taxpayers) are the ones who carry the losses from faulty products. During the S&L crisis two decades ago, Bill Black meted out thousands of indictments for white collar crimes and the clanking of handcuffs was heard all over the lower Manhattan. Now we give the perps a slap on the wrist in the form of a laughable fine and that's it. How about clawing back all ill gotten gains and then imposing the fine on top of that? Seriously. How is an ordinary citizen expected to obey the law in the face of such mockery?

It feels pretty sobering, when you run across older newspapers and find articles singing accolades to the bold captains of a new, sizzling hot industry - the subprime mortgage lending. You would think they are up there with Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. And yet - few years down the road - those same idols are suddenly defrocked and unmasked as mere schmucks with expensive bow ties. What kind of message it is sending to our kids is not hard to imagine. Will the future business leaders follow the new entrepreneurial equation?

FF - FF = FF

(financial fraud - funny fee = fat fortune)

I have an idea: why don't we bring back the pillory!

Imagine the jolt we'd give to a tourism industry in New York, if all the upper management of investment banks caught in crooked and shady deals had to serve a couple of days locked up between two wooden logs strategically situated on the Times Square. What innocent bystander would not want to throw a rotten agricultural product their way or at least proffer a heart felt verbal admonition spiked with blinding profanity.

This should be better than reality TV. And on a weekend, we could throw in a stylish tar and feather show, just for a good measure. Poetic justice at its best. Wanted TARP? Sorry buddy, but here is a tarpaulin tuxedo for ya.

Hey - that sounds like an actionable idea.

Paging Eric Holder... Helloooo?

The Audacity of Betrayal

When I saw the six story parking garage at the West Falls Church subway station packed to capacity with a motley crowd of private vehicles on late Saturday morning, I understood that Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity down in DC won't suffer from an audience dearth. And the signs of attendance cornucopia just kept coming. A massive line for train tickets wound its way from the vestibule through the covered highway overpass and out into the parking lot. The outbound platform was more crammed than the groupie section at a U2 concert and people density in subway cars approached values previously detected only at rush hour Tokyo. I was one of the lucky few who managed to get on board. Fortunately, a natural born leader with obvious recent exposure to high energy pancakes emerged in the middle of the crowd. His imperative commands kept our spirits up and united us against the hordes awaiting on subsequent platforms: "More defense to the second door!" - "Hold the line, people!" - "When the door opens everybody look mean!". Starting with East Falls Church station, not a single mouse managed to squeeze into the car.

The rally itself was way overdue. The level of political lunacy in this land reached levels that would have sent Emperor Nero running for cover. Or for binoculars. Either way, the system has become so profoundly unresponsive and mired in money that most reasonable people are turning away in disgust. No real campaign finance reform in the offing, no civil discourse to be heard anywhere inside the beltway, both parties caught in bed with big corporations, and worst of all - in a world where truth is too complex to belong to just one ideology - no willingness to compromise. In an effort to stem the onslaught of extremism and entrenched partisanship, Jon Stewart called upon the shrinking pool of rational citizenry to come together, to show support for moderation and sanity and to vote wisely. But it wasn't enough.

Despite some partial victories, the governing Democratic party took the most severe beating since FDR lost 72 seats in 1938. President Obama even used the word "shellacking" during the press conference the next day. The hope crowd had become restless. The tsunami of change changed its colors. And there was a reason for it.

There was a clearly defined moment last year when Obama had to choose unequivocally between Wall Street and Main Street. He had a rare and unique opportunity to right our economic ship. But at that pivotal moment, he sided with the powerful.

In March 2009, the financial world was teetering on the brim of collapse. Citibank stock traded under a dollar. Receivership was the word of the day. At that moment, Obama could have nationalized the banks - fire their upper (mis)management, restore their balance sheets and return them to business without onerous debt. In one fell swoop, he would have scrapped the greedy and corrupt culture, let the compulsive gamblers pay for their sins, and start anew with a clean slate. But that opportunity had been squandered. Not only have we bailed out the very people who created the mess, we have also relaxed the accounting standards so they could go right back to their risky shell games. No wonder that fat bonuses are flowing again while the little guy is left with spare change he can barely believe in.

Sanity 101: you don't turn your back on people who voted you into office.

On the surface, it might seem that Joe Sixpack does not have to be concerned with the world of high finance. But in reality he does. Money does not grow on trees, and all that hard cash we squandered on our beloved financiers is now missing somewhere else. It cannot be used to create new jobs, to educate population, to support the safety net, to invest in future technologies and to improve our aging infrastructure.

Obama has originally billed himself as a champion for the little guy, but his actions sing a different tune.

1. You have to look no further than his economic team to see where his allegiances are: Tim Geithner, the Wall Street darling and staunch proponent of the "something for nothing" philosophy, and Larry Summers, neo-Keynesian wizzard and the father of derivatives deregulation, were two pillars of Obama's bridge to the better economic future. Both firmly believed that no taxpayers' sacrifice is big enough to save the profligate financial industry. Obama's main sin, however, was reappointment of the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. His inflationary policies have been steadily eroding budgets of lower and middle class families. They are the ones who will be the first victims of the soaring prices of commodities, directly resulting from the central bank's money tampering. Obama had many other options among the Fed officials, but at the end he chose the man who - among other things - relieved banks of toxic assets that they created and foisted them upon taxpayers who became the reluctant bagholders. Finally, Obama did not find courage to throw his support firmly behind Elizabeth Warren - the true champion of the little guy and a thorn in the side of the Wall Street crowd.

2. Financial and Health reforms were caricatures of sprawling corporatism and written mostly by insurance/pharmaceuticals/banking lobbyists. Big banks are still too big. Risky trading is still allowed. Various banking functions have not been effectively separated. The firms that operate the stock market still freely invest in it for their own gains. Can we imagine a Superbowl game where one of the teams delegates the referee? Yes, we can.

3. On Obama's watch, the inequality between rich and poor kept growing wider and wider. This is the most telling sign. Political posing, sermonizing and grandstanding can divert only so much attention. At the end, you learn the truth if you simply follow the money. If he stood for the little guy, the wealth gap would be getting narrower, not wider. And besides the dire consequences for Obama's core constituency, the income inequality is also a drag on the overall economy as rich people usually park their money in non productive assets. Gold bubble anyone?

There is a simple message hidden behind these technical issues. When an enemy stabs you in the back it hurts. When someone who claims to be your friend does the stabbing, it hurts tenfold. But contrary to the conventional political wisdom, people remembered. And they voted accordingly. The sooner Obama understands that he has to rein in the arrogant banksters, the better chances of re-election he will have.

Liberal movement has plenty of smart and vocal spokespeople: Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Matt Taibbi, Michael Moore, Arianna Huffington - to name just a few. Now if only we had a president that would lend them his ear. At 5% interest if need be.

jj

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being

Watching a movie in a completely empty theater is a strange experience vaguely evoking a post-apocalyptic seance. You get all the trappings of a bustling social venue, but none of the people; only a sequence of images on the silver screen and their acoustic spirits. Last week, when I went to see Robert Duvall's last movie Get Low with two of my friends, I finally got to observe it first hand. And maybe it was for the better. The movie was quite personal, in a way reading handwritten letters used to be, so I was glad that I did not have to watch it with a horde of strangers.

On the surface, the plot was a rather plain story from 1930s, revealed with an imaginative camera and impeccable sense for authenticity. But underneath the main narrative lurked something much more precious - Robert Duvall's subtly encoded message for the posterity. In that regard, it reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky's last movie, The Sacrifice, which was also a personal manifesto as much as it was a work of art.

If you like fast paced movies glittered with special effects - this motion picture would not be your cup of tea - but if you are into finespun and deep reaching psychological probes, go for it. At one point during the movie I genuinely wanted to leave the theater and only having two friends with me made me stay. But at the end - equally genuinely - I was strongly tempted to ignore the empty auditorium and start applauding. That's how unusual and contradistinct this flick really was.

Get Low is a movie about conscience and its circuitous odyssey through the labyrinth of human mind. At first, it is barely audible, but as the story progresses you can hear a distant rumble behind the thick walls as it makes its way onto the surface. The missive is crystal clear - the forces of conscience may be weak and slow, but they are patient and persistent. They are like turfs of grass pushing their way through a layer of asphalt on an old road. It may be hard for the conscience to be heard through the insulating crust of human soul, but as the life nears its end and the hour of reckoning approaches, its voice tones up and eventually prevails. Duvall's dubbing of this voice is convincing and devastatingly pure.

Needles to say, it was a timely chosen intimation. The steadily deteriorating social and economic conditions of the past two years have shaken the common man and his belief in humanity and greater good. By illuminating the innermost skirmishes of day to day battles with one's past, Get Low shows how cathartic the eventual victory can be. I hope the Wall Street gazillionaires will get a private screening. They might learn a thing or two.

Sadly, in their brave new world conscience is no longer a predominant force. That distinction would go to its spaced out cousin - "con science".

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

When I was in High School my arts teacher had a mild obsession with pointilism. Georges Pierre Seurat was her idol and on the very first class she made us study, analyze and imitate his famous painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte". For the rest of my life, I have had that image indelibly burnt onto my retina - pretty benign and unremarkable on the surface - just a bunch of easygoing Parisians relaxing among trees on a gently descending grassy slope next to a nondescript body of water.

Seurat, who painted it when he was 25, believed that dabbing the canvass with the brush tip brings colors out better than traditional strokes. Perhaps. But the painting's strength lies really in its underlying mood rather than in its technical innovation. The symbiosis of water, lawn, trees, blue skies and picnic accessories fills the scenery with a glow of unusually self-contained and tranquil disposition.

Every now and then, Sundays are just like that. No pressing issues on the foreground and crystal clear skies in the background.

Bunch of guys I used to play soccer with organized a little picnic at the Fletcher Boat house area in DC this Sunday. It wasn't exactly easy to find - the itinerary involved an unexpected and devilishly sharp turn from the Canal Street that was navigable only for Mini Cooper owners or persons above the laws of physics - but after I ran through a long and narrow tunnel, not unlike a rabbit hole, I discovered a hidden gem. A wooded meadow with plenty of picnic facilities and easy access to the Potomac river. Being separated from the mainland by the Ohio - Chesapeake canal, the area could easily pose as an island.

While the organizers readied spicy sausages for a caloric attack and a volleyball net for the subsequent defense, I took a short walk down to the lazy river. As I wended my way through groups of independent picnickers strewn all over the lawn, I realized that I am in the middle of the Georges Seurat's painting. The happy and carefree mood of the picnickers was the dead giveaway. Colors have instantly awoken from their slumber and in a donnybrook of a carnival dance spilled onto the palette - the green tones of the lawn and the trees joyously intertwined with the blue hues of the water and the sky.

Right then and there, all the worries and concerns of the work week were seized and handcuffed by my senses. Imagination spread its picnic blanket and vision became so viscous I could have poured it into a tea cup like honey. It felt as if my whole life had melted. Time itself had slowed down considerably. Those same wheels of history that I saw spinning wildly just a few hours ago on Meet the Press were now purring quietly like a dozing kitten.

As I watched the shattered image of Sun glittering on Potomac's mercurial surface, I spotted the true message of Georges Seurat amidst its reflections. Every so often, we have to make a Sunday jaunt to the island of La Grand Jatte and unhinge the soul from the body. Let it float.

Just to regain our sense of purpose. To refocus our internal perspective. To rebalance our poise. To restructure the debts accrued in the previous week. And in the process - to peck a few dots of beauty on the canvass of our consciousness.

ss

What is the value of Value?

In the golden days of yore, economy was a much simpler fare than it is today. Shoemaker made a pair of shoes, took them to a local marketplace and obtained five loaves of bread from the baker, according to the agreed upon exchange rate reflecting the amount of effort necessary to produce the respective goods. To protect bakers from a potentially lethal overabundance of shoes, coins were later introduced in lieu of specific goods and the baker would just receive two pieces of silver from the shoemaker which he could exchange (at a later time) for vegetables, clothes, woods or any other non-footwear. Note that there was absolutely no inflation in that system. If the baker decided to use his 2 pieces of silver in 5 years, he'd still get the same amount of goods, as the intrinsic value of silver (or gold) does not decrease significantly over time.

Now imagine that there was a lazy and incompetent baker whose pastry was snubbed even by the toughest and least discerning pigs. His loaves of bread were stale, revolting and unsuitable for consumption. Even the king himself would be loathe to buy his products. Why would anyone in their right mind swap anything of value for something that is essentially worthless? But the crooked baker figured a way to get by. He ingratiated himself with the King's treasurer and asked him to reduce the silver content in his coins and from the spare silver mint a couple of extra coins that he could get for his bread. That was the day inflation - which is what debasing currency really is - was born. Those who cannot produce value have strong incentives to blur it. That's the only way how a wider economy can accommodate poor workmanship.

Needless to say that inflation invites fraud. What intelligent warm blooded mammal can withstand the allure of easy money? Inflation inevitably leads to overconsumption and shortly afterwards to overextension. At first, it feels like having discovered perpetual motion, but in the long term the resulting Ponzi scheme always crashes. It is not a coincidence that Roman Empire started to crumble when its rulers resorted to tinkering with the content of precious metals in their coins. Once the flow of gold (backing the value of their currency) from new provinces ceased and Romans still needed funds to support their enormous military apparatus they had no choice but start inflating. Little did they know that whittling down the silver content in Denarius would go hand in hand with the gradual decline and eventual demise of their whole Empire.

In modern days, we don't have to debase our currency by changing its metal composition. We use paper money that can be easily printed and even more easily electronically generated. Central banks have replaced the King's treasurer, but they still have plenty of unproductive bakers to cater to. Just think of all the gravy sloshing in political campaigns. Where does it come from and what value does it produce or represent? How about legions of redundant bureaucrats, corrupt public officials or failed businesses in permanent need of bailouts. Would James Cayne, Chuck Prince or Dick Fuld walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars for driving their companies into ground? Neither of them would make it in the market where they would have to show that their yearly labor is indeed worth a billion loaves of bread.

Our central bank, The Federal Reserve, would make you believe that it is fighting inflation, while it is in fact creating it. When the Fed officials crow that their target inflation is 2%, they are essentially admitting that we need to print extra 2% every year to support various parasitic industries. It is not a coincidence that since 1913, the year the Fed was created, the dollar has lost 95% of its purchasing power. Over the course of several generations your personal wealth would get wiped out by actions of this unelected cabal of dollar murderists. Of course the central bankers will tell you that you are not supposed to use money as a store of value. You are supposed to hand all your savings over to a casino - uhmm I mean the stock market - that has been rather conveniently operated by the friendly Wall Street shamans.

Yep, the same shamans that developed the little drinking problem that resulted in the credit hangover of the century. And we still need to print dollars with a vehemence of a spastic dog trying to scram from a slippery patch of ice just to stay afloat. Last month, the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke strongly hinted that Quantitative Easing #2 (a fancy name for debasing the currency) is coming to a bank near you and markets reacted accordingly. Dollar tanked, commodities soared.

Ostentatiously, the purpose of this operation is to save the Main Street and stimulate jobs, but closer inspection reveals gaping cracks in this theory. What bank would lend to new businesses when they will be paid by worthless pieces of paper years later? What business would have the courage to hire new employees when the surging commodity prices - reacting to rapidly declining dollar - would eat most of the profits. What entrepreneur would be able to prepare any long term planning when the future currency value is essentially arbitrary? Once the money starts stretching wildly there is no way of telling what raw materials or labor would or should cost. And how about all the capital misallocated and idling in the successfully blown gold bubble? Not to mention that the current artificially low interest rates also hinder the formation of new capital which - in its most organic form - comes from people's savings. No capital, no jobs - it is very simple.

Whether Bernanke cares about this or not, his tormented tango with the US taxpayers is but a colossal wealth transfer from the responsible to the irresponsible. An unexpected pot of gold at the end of livid rainbow. And if you wonder who that pot of gold goes to - all you have to do is look at the size of Wall Street bonuses or at the most recent reading of income inequality stats.

There are two ways in which man can steal from other man. Either he steals the actual physical coins, or he steals their underlying value. Using the so called "elastic currency" (a term invoked quite often in years preceding the creation of the Federal Reserve) is like having a bony hand of the Central Bank planted permanently in your pocket, not knowing when it will pinch. Does the Fed ever think about the retirees who have lived within their means so they could save enough for decent retirement only to see their nest egg scrambled by the bank's panicky machinations. Probably not. Maybe they should put a little warning on the Federal Reserve Note: "second hand inflation can be hazardous to your financial health".

Cheap money is like a drug and our economy got a serious case of alcohol poisoning during the first decade of the new millenium. A life style change and a careful diet would be advisable in that situation. But Dr. Bernanke has no idea what the diet should be so he takes the easy way out: more free drinks on the house - at least for the big banks. He does not seem to understand that this is a structural problem. When a long distance runner breaks his leg, surgery is the proper solution, not pouring power drinks down the runner's throat, let alone with the help of a funnel. I hope when his big QE party is over, he'll look carefully through his mail. Perhaps he'll find in it a little postcard from a long lost friend.

Dear Ben,

I am not sure what was president Obama thinking when he reappointed you as the Fed Chairman despite the fact that you were sleeping at the wheel for most part of the housing and credit bubble. I don't care what voodoo magic you used. But, please, stop using me as a cheap mop for every spill and stinking puddle your banking buddies made on the floor. If they messed up, let them eat some crow. That should teach them what their core business should be. To prudently lend to selected businesses while making sure that they have enough capital reserves to cover the potential losses.

Thank you in advance,

the Increasingly Duller Dollar

Beer World

This planet is like a kaleidoscope. As it tirelessly spins around its axis, it throws its movable parts around in a spirited tumble, both literally and figuratively. Objects that would never have crossed paths embrace themselves fleetingly in a wild melee of the cosmic dryer and yet - in that split second - they manage to be instantaneously projected onto the world screen by their chance eye witnesses. The constant stream of random coincidences that life on this magmatic rock brings about generates wave after wave of potential poetry. Day in and day out. All the Beauty has to do then is surf their crests like a daring queen of a California beach.

This summer, my nephew-in-law invited me to a secluded fish restaurant run by one of his friends in a little village not far from my hometown in the Czech Republic. As we were sitting on a simple wooden bench just outside of the pub, next to a giant inflatable can of Gambrinus, our noses were being lured into dancing with drawn out and enticing aromas emanating from the grill while our eyes kept guard of the scene, lazily monitoring the subliminal proliferation of beer glasses on the oblong table. Suddenly I noticed that rays of the setting sun shone through a thick beer glass onto my camera and I wondered what would happen if I opened the lens and hit the shutter release. The rare alignment of Sun, beer and Japanese optics was bound to deliver something of value. I cupped my hands to see the first snapshot and it did not look bad at all. Intrigued, I rotated the glass slightly so that its relief would meet the sunrays at a different angle and shot again and again. When I inspected the sequence of images on the little screen, I was presented with a unique testimony to how rich in curious charms this little planet was. It was like peeking through a narrow vista into a peculiar and mystifying world, completely unlike our own.

Sometimes when I watch sci-fi movies, I am puzzled by their anthropocentric bias. I don't understand why their creators assume that the rest the Universe looks more or less like our Solar Hood - three dimensional and invariably populated by familiar humanoid critters, perhaps a bit on the gray side, but nevertheless in clear possession of two eyes, two hands, two legs, two kidneys and a couple of scoops of the well protected cerebral pulp for generating mathematical equations and silly political movements. But what if the far out Universe is actually quite different? What if there is a world out there, where there are no solid shapes to begin with, where all objects have liquid, maybe even nebulous, character. No edges, no surfaces, no hard feelings. A Universe where life forms are not based on carbon, but rather on ... say hops and barley. And there it was. Right on my camera screen.

Welcome to the Beer World.

pivko

Me First

Individual pursuit of happiness has been the driving force of progress as well as the unstoppable engine of capitalism for several centuries now. But sometimes our appetite for immediate personal satisfaction has to take a back seat to a wider set of considerations. Sometimes our own narrow set of goals has to be synchronized with the rest of the society.

The USA and most of the developed world have a serious problem.

Imagine five people gathered around a table to divide profits from their business endeavors. Each participant was promised a share of $30 dollars, but somehow due to unforeseen circumstances there are only $100 lying on the table, instead of the anticipated $150. The partners are sitting nervously on their wooden chairs, biting their nails and pondering how to deal with the situation. There are essentially two ways.

First, the most brazen guy can step up to the plate and say something like this: "Well, guys, as we all know I was made an explicit promise for $30 so if you don't mind I am taking my cut off the table - no one has any problems with it right? - and y'all just take care of the rest. I am sure you can split it fairly. Buh-bye!" So that's one way. Another possibility is to calmly assess the situation, try to ascertain every person's fair share and split the pile of money anew according to mutually agreed upon rules.

Now back to reality. Over the past decades many aspects of our national wealth creation mechanism have gotten seriously out of whack. Our debt has risen to unsustainable levels, highly qualified and well paying jobs were outsourced and are no longer available, many pension funds were based on unrealistic assumptions and are significantly undercapitalized, banks have not followed proper rules of accounting, thus greatly inflating their reserve assets, unproductive parts of the economy grew out of proportion, public unions were made exaggerated promises by local politicians, who in turn recycled their votes for easy reelection. As a result we are all collectively expecting a bit more than what we actually have. There are too many competing liens against our pot of gold. How we deal with them will say a lot about us when history comes around for the final judgment.

One would expect that a sincere nationwide discourse about managing our resources would be instigated under such circumstances. Social utility of whole economic sectors may need to be reevaluated, cash flows of the global trade inspected. Fortunately there are visionaries who have their own original ideas how to solve this conundrum. In their view the Wild West approach will do just fine.

Enter Charles Munger, the billionaire vice chairman of the Berkshire Hathaway Inc and Warren Buffet's second in command. During his recent speech at the University of Michigan, he told students that we should "thank God" for all the bailouts of the financial sector, while adding at the same breath that we cannot keep doing this indefinitely and that people in economic distress should just "suck it in and cope."

Lovely, isn't it? Now that all the paunchy captains of the industry have been saved and are comfortably seated on their cushioned benches, no more life boats are to leave the deck of Titanic. Women and children can just suck it in and cope.

Here is how Mr. Munger elaborated on this theme: "if you talk about bailouts for everybody else, there comes a place where if you just start bailing out all the individuals instead of telling them to adapt, the culture dies". Hmmmm. I wonder what culture could Mr. Munger possibly have in mind? Did he mean the "Me First" culture of Wall Street that was practiced by the Too Big To Fail institutions? Yeah, the ones that have only gotten Too Bigger To Fail over the past 18 months. Or did he mean the culture of double speak and circuitous logic, as preached by the choir of Wall Street's overzealous apologists (Christopher Dodd, Tim Geithner, Hank Paulson, Larry Summers etc)? If this is the culture Mr. Munger wants saved for eternity, I'd say let's call the nearest taxidermist and put that culture on his wall.

Don't get me wrong. We need a financial system, so some triage was necessary. But we need a sound one. The system whose purpose is linking free capital with entrepreneurial ideas. Not the one linking preposterous leverage with poorly understood macroeconomic conditions, the one where economy ends up being a hostage to a bunch of berserk gamblers. When their beloved casino burned down, those clever foxes slipped their gambling losses in between the insurance claims and we never even noticed.

Yes, we needed to save our banks, but before that happened, we should have inflicted a royal pain on our financial aristocracy - bondholders, shareholders and all those who profited from the monumental Ponzi scheme. We should have levied criminal charges and clawed back some of the astronomical bonuses doled out to the incompetent (if not outright fraudulent) tycoons. Not only would it teach a valuable lesson on how capitalism works, but it would also ease the subsequent burden on the US taxpayers.

But that is all water under the bridge now. Some milk has been spilled, but much has fortunately remained on the table. We are still standing tall, our economy is largely functional, our research and development best in the world and our labor force well trained, educated and eager to work hard. But several things have to change relatively fast. First, we need clear and frank assessment of our overall fiscal health and admission that the current policies are not viable. A serious discussion should ensue about our priorities and the levels of pain we are all willing to endure in order to set things straight. Housing market, our military adventures, Medicaid and Medicare have to be supported by our export power, not by murky machinations of the Federal Reserve or Fannie and Freddie. All this has to be resolved in a transparent manner so that everyone sees that the burden distribution is not lopsided. It won't be an entirely pleasant discussion, but it will be cathartic at the end.

Otherwise we risk that whatever is left of our common pie will be hijacked by the least scrupulous character at the table: the bankster.

The Source

"Man shall not live by bread alone", quotes Luke 4:4. Similar words have been uttered by other spiritual authorities of considerable reputations and equally considerable beard volumes. Whether we like it or not, religion is bewilderingly universal. Its ubiquity shows that yearning for a realm beyond reality has been encoded directly in the human DNA.

Denizens of this planet have always wondered about the origins of ethical behavior and morality and - in more general terms - about their place in the Universe. Could there exist an external presence whose authority would support the intrinsically fragile concept of moral behavior? By looking for answers and eventually embedding themselves in a more robust framework, they found a way to cope with their own mortality. Whether you look at Australian aborigines, at Mayan, Inca or Aztec civilizations, at the Modern Western cultures or dynasties of the East, the search for divine influence had underwritten the social contract for just about any society.

As none of the major religions can lay a clear claim on owning the truth, they all ended up jealously guarding their particular views. As a consequence, their main branches have petrified into highly dogmatic franchises with formidable power and significant revenue streams. Fortifying their walls against infidels and apostates as well as securing their seeming supremacy became a matter of existential passion. But if you abstract from their protocols and liturgy, if you look beyond Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha or any other central figure, what lies beneath the rigid facade is a bit murky. Where is the original source of our deep and indisputable spirituality? What exactly is God and can we, lesser creatures, ever find out about His true nature?

I grew up in an atheist country, in a system, where mere possession of a bible could be a pretext for serious questioning by the State Police. With that kind of background, I don't really have a bias for one doctrine or another. But over the course of my life I noticed that frequency of unexplained and often strange coincidences beats the values one could infer from probability and statistics. As if the magic of intelligent life wanted to transcend the simplistic soup of scientifically stirred proteins. Slowly, I came to the conclusion that there is more to this world than the laws of physics. But despite my religious objectivity, I don't have a better idea of what God is or isn't than the next guy, although I see at least four scenarios of how our rational world could have been permeated by a supernatural presence.

1. Omnipotent Creator
This is the most obvious one. The image portrayed by most major religions. God is the creator of the World. He is omnipotent, omniscient and aware of itself. In some belief systems, there may be a multitude of such Gods, some with special functions, but the basic tenets are the same.

2. Higher Being
In this scenario, God is but a higher form of life, endowed with dazzling but limited array of powers, most of them inaccessible to humans. He is potent, but not omnipotent. He has just evolved a bit further than we did. In other words, God did not create this Universe, he inhabits it together with many other forms of life. The relationship between man and God is similar to the one between animal and man. We can interact with him, much like a dog can interact with us, but it is not an interaction of equals. We have no more chance of understanding Him than a dog has of understanding our own motivations. This view includes the possibility, popularized in the 1970s by Erich von Daniken, that the Earth was visited by such higher powers in the past and these extraterrestrial visitors/explorers became spiritual gurus (Gods) of young incipient civilizations.

3. Fifth Force
It is possible that what we perceive as divine influence actually comes from a hitherto unknown fifth force - the first four coming from physics: gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and strong. These forces have limited domains of applicability though - for instance the electric force, as we know from school, acts only on charged particles. Thus I would assume that this hypothetical nonphysical force only acts on very select matter - in this case on live and intelligent objects. It influences our lives and provides guarding rails for our sense of morality. We are "coerced" to engage in proper behavior by the field of this force in much the same way that ordinary matter is "coerced" to follow the gradient of the gravitational potential.

4. Collective Mind
Finally, the entity we commonly call God may just be the humanity itself. The divine substance could very well occupy the aggregate soul or the collective consciousness of all human beings, as is suggested by some Eastern philosophies. Think of it this way: what exactly is "you"? Somehow the concept of "you" resides in your brain, in the maze of billions of neurons. None of the individual neurons is YOU though. Your neurons aren't even aware of themselves. But collectively, the actions of all these low level cells give rise to a high level consciousness which you interpret as YOU. None of us humans really understands what "God" is, just like your individual neurons have no idea what "you" is. But together - as a whole - we may be more than just sum of constituent parts. Each of us, perhaps, represents a small part of God.

As we sail through life, we are trying to make sense of the cacophony of hints, cues and signs that are bombarding our path every day. But putting the jigsaw puzzle together is a tall order, given the short time we have been allotted and the number of distraction we have to deal with. Sometimes it seems that a larger picture looms in the distance, but more often than not we are left wondering...

zapad

Tax Cuts and Bruises

When judging presidents and wine, a little perspective can work miracles. With the benefit of hindsight, the variety that aspires to be a "decider" often ends up being merely "de Cider".

We inherited a treasure trove of head-splitting hangovers from the President Dubya. Two wars mired in sand, economy damaged by the wrecking ball of "ownership society", diminished respect and scattered allegiances of the developed world, greatly empowered oil cartels, and above all the controversial tax cuts. A cursory glance at any recent income distribution stats clearly reveals the direction of the prevailing windfall. Most of it landed at the high end of the earning spectrum.

As the midterm pre-election season kicks into high gear, the attempts to derail the gravy train for the affluent campaign donors promises to heat up a simmering hot sauce. While some in Washington are genuinely trying to find that delicate balance between not choking the ailing businesses and not snubbing out the remaining vestiges of fiscal sanity, others are pushing for the wall to wall extension so that recovery can fully recover from its deepening malaise. But are the top earners still the economic engine they once used to be? Do they really allocate capital in the best interest of the whole system?

From what I can see, the well-to-do have already all they need, so whatever extra chips are tossed their way will probably end up in bonds, gold, foreign currencies and whatever risky derivatives they will dare to tinker with. That won't create many jobs except maybe a few in the banking sector. Instead of waiting for that money to slowly trickle down into the real world, why not cut out the middleman and give it directly to the less opulent classes, who will spend the money almost immediately on actual goods and services, providing the necessary jolt to the manufacturing sector that had been balancing on the verge of cardiac arrest for the past two years. After all, a true organic expansion should be driven by an excess demand from below, rather by an excess supply from above. Henry Ford knew that.

And how does this fabled trickle-down mechanism work anyway? Has it been documented that $1,000 in the pocket of a Manhattan landlord produces more employment opportunities than $1,000 in the pocket of a Louisiana fisherman? What makes us believe that a hedge fund manager raking in billions a year will feel an irresistible urge to set up a hairdressing boutique in the basement of his McMansion in order to give work to a few soccer Moms? OK, that was a bit tongue in the cheek, but you get the point. The "trickle down" philosophy sounds noble on the surface, but in practice it is as iffy and untested as fighting the energy crisis with massive deployment of unicorn wagons.

Human folly knows no bounds. Whose idea was it that investment wizards who take insane risks (and get insane returns because should something go wrong, the American taxpayer has their back) need to be further encouraged in reckless behavior? What genius figured out that we can create more jobs by providing financial incentives to top managers who derive their profits primarily from outsourcing once vibrant industries to cheap Asian labor and then selling their products in lucrative western markets?

This whole "trickle down" idea sounds a lot like a schoolyard bully saying "give me your new toys, I'll play with them and only when I am done can you have them back". The bloated disciples of Mammon just want to knead your dough first. How selfless of them! And it gets even more perverse when you realize that our national piggy bank is virtually empty. In case you just came back from Pluto, the Treasury has been running record deficits for the past two years, sending the federal debt into stratosphere. But our plutocracy won't hear any of that. They want us to borrow left and right just so they can put an "I saved the economy" stern sticker on their third jumbo yacht.

There is one more thing which the tricklenomists won't probably tell you. Those who buy a product with their ill-conceived tax returns receive its full value. The goods are theirs, free and clear. On the other hand, the trickle recipients, the ones who make the product, only get to keep the margin - they still have to cover the production and labor costs. At the end, they are left with a meager profit and hard callouses on their hands. In effect, this political charade will result in a tax cut for the well connected elite and a tax bruise for the working Joe. As usual.

Timing is everything

One thing which is both intriguing and scary about this planet is timing. And I am not talking about the stock market.

Imagine a hallway intersection where you run into a fetching girl with whom you strike up a short but not entirely unpleasant conversation. If you were there 60 seconds too early or 60 seconds too late she would never have crossed your path. The slightest delay precipitated by the tritest of causes would irrevocably alter the course of your happiness. Scary, huh?

Thusly we run through the pinball maze of chance encounters, dealing with the hands we were dealt and never knowing the hands we have just missed. But there would be little point waiting for that girl in the dark hallway to begin with. You can't ambush luck. The moving parts of the Universe arrange themselves into magic configurations only at the behest of the Random Queen.

When I was in Yosemite with a couple of friends recently, we decided to navigate a winding mountain road to the overlook called Glacier Point to catch a sunset illuminating the granite rocks across the park's main valley. Although the views were impressive, the weather was far from cooperating. Thick clouds were rolling indifferently by and seemed in no mood to let a single ray through, despite a number of nature enthusiasts who gathered on a rocky plateau in anticipation of a potential spectacle.

But then, as the Sun was just about to slip behind the westerly mountain range and many photographers were already packing their gear or even walking back to the parking lot, there appeared a prosperous break in the clouds and potent beams shone through. The scenery changed dramatically. The opposite ridge caught fire. The celestial cavalcade had arrived in ravishing plumage. Photographers hastily reassembled their tripods and started shooting like there was no tomorrow, knowing they have about a minute to record all the pixels of the unfolding pageant.

You had a choice of pointing the camera westward and catching the somber tones of cold rocks contrasting with the clouds that were bursting ablaze with scales of yellow, orange and crimson. Or you could point your camera eastward, where the cloud colorations were less showy, but as a bonus you'd snap the last rays of the reddish Sun nuzzling against the very top elevations of the opposite mountains.

Courtesy of some finely timed atmospheric engineering.

yose

Ahab rehab

Sometimes I find myself uttering random and totally inconsequential sentences - the kind of stuff you could hear from a character in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland rather than from a supposedly rational mathematician. But I like it that way. Not only is it fun to watch people's reactions to such unsolicited buffoonery, but it is also a way to tease destiny out of its den, have it wave its magic wand and throw our lives off kilter a bit.

Last weekend I visited one of my friends in the Bay Area and when we were pondering what to do with a sunny California Sunday, I went for a volley and blurted out: "let's go whale watching". Not that I meant it, mind you. I could have just as easily suggested Lemur hunting, Formula One racing or synchronized felling of a Douglas fir. I really had no desire to see any marine mammals. It was just a lame joke.

In my world whales live in Alaska and New Zealand, so I was quite shocked when my friend pounced on the idea and suggested that we drive to Monterey and catch a whale watching boat there. Still struggling with the morning stupor, I drowsily agreed and that was what we ended up doing. I will never underestimate the entertainment potential of the Pacific Coast again.

As soon as we found a parking spot in the quaint Marine whose boat density reminded me of a rush hour Washington traffic, we made a beeline for a small pastel colored light house, whose vicinity we tagged as the most likely origin of sea faring adventures. And we were not disappointed. In less than 10 minutes we secured three tickets for a boat named Check Mate. We took that for a good omen, considering that two thirds of our party had Czech roots and the remaining one third was pretty good at chess.

No sooner had we made ourselves comfortable on the boat than the engine sputtered into action and we glibly maneuvered through a wooden maze of landing piers, across the harbor area, past a jetty invaded by seals and otters and off into the open sea - ready to hustle some cetaceans. As we were bouncing forth on sizable waves, I noticed that many of the passengers - whether they were bankers, insurance agents, car salesmen, or computer geeks - started to undergo subtle metamorphosis. Like in those B-rated werewolves movies, outcroppings of animal instincts have suddenly dented their behavior; tempestuous determination fumed from their nostrils and their normally smooth and relaxed demeanor stiffened to the point of predatory intensity.

Slowly but surely, our dickey mob were turning into Moby Dick chasers. That glint in the eye, that vengeful finger twitch, that deeply focused stare were all unmistakable signs that captain Ahab took control at the helm. Armed with digital harpoons of any conceivable make - from Olympus to Nikon or Canon - we were about to give our white whale a good run for the money. And since we live in a politically correct environment, I would like to point out that were prepared to give any whale a good run for the money - regardless of the color of its skin.

Meanwhile our skipper was doing his best at the bridge. With the help of his onboard sonar, he located plenty of humpback and blue whales for us to train our lenses on. As the gentle behemoths floated by and every now and then expelled a stream of water and vapor from their blowholes, as they playfully lifted their tail flukes into the air, we were throwing our optical spears at them, humoring our suppressed whaling fantasies in a flurry of clicking activity whose vehemence would put the Oscar's night to shame.

I guess we all harbor our inner captain Ahab in that thick and barely penetrable underbrush which the human psyche really is, regardless of sex, race, religion, tax bracket or baseball affiliation. Most of the time, he is snoozing there in benign dormancy, tucked in under one of our cerebral lobes, but the moment he catches a whiff of that salty sea air - look out! - Pequod's deck is but a thought away.

That kind of makes me wonder who else resides at the murky bottom of my soul: "Excuse me, Mr. Hamlet, are you down there?"

Mariposa Grove

How do we know that history actually happened?

Well, we don't, of course, but its plausibility is greatly enhanced if we run into contemporaries.

My grandfather lived to be 90 years old, so he told me a fair share of authentic stories going all the way back to 1930s and even earlier. He made history of the twentieth century appear very real and very personal although he did not participate in any major event. But he was flesh and bone proof that the past had indeed happened. The atrocities of the World War II, for instance, would seem like a mere source for Hollywood war scripts without the contemporaries still living among us.

California is known for many things: cool surfers, cantankerous movie stars, cute burger joints, cozy vineyards, crisp coastline - there is something for everyone. My favorite signature item is its Giant Sequoia tree - of which there are numerous groves scattered throughout the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

You can't overlook them. They are titans in every sense of the word. Their boughs and limbs are vaguely reminiscent of Beethoven's hairdo, while their furrowed bark is as rugged and unpolished as some of his harmonies. With diameters of 15-20 meters at the base, they lead you straight into a tree hugger's paradise. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the voluminous Greenpeace handbooks boasted that one fully grown specimen of this extraordinary tree can single-branchedly satisfy all the hugging needs of a busload of single environmental activists.

But Sequoias are also doyens of the arboreal realm. The breathing memory of the Earth's biosphere. Viewed from a distance, their arched tree tops look like woolen parachutes descending on a geological battlefield. With some veterans over 3500 years old, they have been contemporaries of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Genghiz Khan and all the warriors of the modern era.

We are supposed to show respect for our elders. In case of Sequoias, it goes way beyond respect. It is humbling to stand face to bark with a fellow carbon based life-form that grew up during founding years of the Roman empire, saw it reach its apex few centuries later and while still in early stages of its development, witnessed the sprawling Empire fall into inevitable ruins. Somewhere in its tree rings, there may still be traces of the ashes of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii some 2000 years ago. That is something that makes you take your hat down.

And bow your head.

seqq

Miss Management

Judging by the moniker for the physical unit of power, horses must be pretty mighty creatures. Your fancy new sports car would certainly lose much of its luster if the stated output of its engine was denominated in platypuspower, wouldn't it? People have been trying to harness that natural motor ever since they realized they are the Masters of the Universe and as such can relegate much of toil and drudgery to lower creatures. Horses remained a valuable source of cheap and highly portable energy throughout history, even after man figured out how to set fire to liquefied dinosaur droppings in robust metallic cylinders.

The other day I saw a cool contraption. It looked just like your regular treadmill, except it could generate electricity while you exercised. Very cool, and very green. Now imagine some bright bulb would try to use that contraption to extract work from a draft horse. You'd push the unsuspecting farm animal onto the narrow rubber conveyor, tie its reins at the console and stick an extra bale of hay behind the handle bar. But turning the machine on would reveal a fatal flaw in its design. It was not horse friendly. The stumbling beast would undoubtedly display such awkward lack of fine muscular coordination that even the most optimistic entrepreneurs would have to admit that this was not the right way to extract power from a horse.

Every person (or a horse) has a natural modus operandi. Achieving the best outcome is possible only if you can fit that unique mode seamlessly into the overall operation of a larger unit. Some people like their work space messy and chaotic, some like it clean and orderly. Some people like to work in short spates of intense activity punctuated by breaks, some prefer more continuous and concentrated effort. Micromanaging employees and forcing them into unnatural modes of operation can have shockingly devastating effect on the overall productivity.

People sometimes think that managing does not require any special aptitude. Certainly a young lady standing in line behind me at Panera Bread yesterday thought so. Endowed with an advanced sense of humor and a slight trace of slight in her voice, she gigglily opined to her friend that the only subject managers must be good at is "bossing people around all day long". But I think she was sadly mistaken. Good managers are few and far between, because - contrary to popular belief - what they do involves the rare skill of finding the "right" way how to maximize the collective output of their managees.

Managing is kind like playing Tetris. You have to combine individuals possessing different skills and personalities to flawlessly process the impending work flow. You have to fit them together so there are as few "holes" in the production structure as possible. You have to tease the best qualities out of them, you have to make sure they interface smoothly with each other, you have to unleash their hidden potential and you have to regroup when situation warrants it. And all that jazz has to take place in real time.

Sadly, many managers don't get it and saddle their subordinates with seemingly logical but practically dysfunctional procedures, many a time insisting on using high-tech gadgets which not only do not contribute to the success of task at hand, but often stand in the way of optimal performance. Since I started with an animal analogy, let me also finish with one.

Imagine an "overzealous" manager presented with a task of guarding a house. They would probably hire a pesky German shepherd and outfit it with all sorts of modern protective contraptions, high tech weaponry, assorted bells and whistles and autoloading ammunition belts. Sure, their intentions might have been good, but had the thief actually entered, the poor dog would have tripped all over itself and had it been particularly ferocious, it might have even shot itself in the paw with a poorly designed trigger. All that technology - so useful in other cases - would have gone to a complete waste. Once in a blue moon, a good old fashioned "woof-woof" does the job just fine.

A case study in mismanagement.

The Meaning of Trees

My Mom and Dad just had a golden wedding. That meant both good news and bad news for me. On the one hand, the event clearly portended that I would be pushing the big five o in uncomfortably foreseeable future, on the other hand my parents chose to hold the festivities in the house where my Mom grew up, which happens to be located in one of my favorite places on Earth - a little mining village in northeast Bohemia called Radvanice. When we were kids, me and my sister spent every summer holiday there, roaming the deep woods from dawn till dusk, playing soccer on a grassy hill, looking for interesting minerals on a slag heap and naming local creeks after major North American rivers.

So it happened that last week I found myself lying supine on a lawn under a huge maple tree in front of my Grandpa's summer house, not far from a place where my favorite dog Dalan used to have its doghouse. As my eyes were slowly scanning the sinuous boughs of an old tree, I couldn't help recognizing some of their curves. Those were exactly the same branches I stared at when I was pondering the mysteries of the universe with my 8 year old mind. As I kept gazing at the leafy maze, parts of my memory were stimulated the same way a pad lock gets stimulated when a fitting key blade engages the wards in the keyway. Those crooks and forks and gnarls were still stored in my memory like a set of reference points.

Trees provide us with a sense of continuity and coherence in a world driven by hectic and random change. Much like ourselves, trees are living organism, but they function on a very different time scale. From our vantage point, they are like little buoys on the majestic river of time. And make no mistake, time is not a lake, it is indeed a river. Sometimes slower, sometimes faster, but river nonetheless.

Not far from that maple tree there stood a row of birches which we planted with my grandma when I was about ten. They were barely my size then. Now they were large almost adult trees, easily 30 feet high. The sight of those stately trees made me realize my age more acutely than my own birthdays. It was a gentle reminder that time does flow and that we should make the best of it while it does.

javor

World According To Stereo

There is a reason why we have two eyes and two ears. They furnish our perception with an extra dimension. Not only they widen our field of audio-visual ogling, but they also create a stereoscopic illusion by blending two slightly different sets of sensory input together. Thanks to them we can enjoy the world in all its three dimensional splendor and dolby surround sound. Thanks to them we can appreciate perspective and tell which direction a dog is barking from - a bit of information that can be a life saver, particularly if you are a postman or a cat that has already died eight times.

I spend most of my time in the United State, but I pay a biannual visit to the Czech Republic to inspect the cobwebs of my youth. While foreign travel is usually associated with a transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar, arriving in Prague airport always plucks me from one familiar environment and dumps me into another one which is even more familiar. In a sense, it feels like living two lives separately - hanging out with two different sets of friends, dressing thoughts in two familiar languages, wasting money in two familiar currencies, heartily cursing two sets of familiar politicians.

But the best part of this mildly splitting life style is watching the world from two very different vantage points. No matter what the event is, whether the doping scandal at the last Olympics, Paris Hilton's dressing habits, or a war du jour in the Middle East, there are always different lens through which you can view it. Reading New York Times is a very different experience than reading Lidove Noviny. You get almost opposite extremes in your viewing angle. One is that of a major superpower whose shored are washed by two oceans and one comes from a negligible landlocked country somewhere in the middle of Europe. Together they form a nearly perfect holographic image of a lavish planet haphazardly roamed by six billion biological paradoxes.

In the old days of Austro Hungarian empire, back when Albert Einstein was still merely a curious schoolboy, apprentices were often sent "into the world" to interact with different ethnic groups and experience other folklore and mores, to discover for themselves that crucial postulate of the Theory of Cultural Relativity: one nation's glower may be another nation's smile. I think it would be helpful to the well being of our society if all young people had the opportunity (whether as students or apprentices) to live for a year or two in a foreign country. It would give their schooling an extra depth and with it a few ounces of a much needed tolerance for their personalities.

We have just wasted untold billions of dollars bailing out some old filthy rich dudes. Spending a few more on international stipends for our youth would pay for itself sooner than you could say AIG.

Analytic Beer No. 100

At the beginning, you never know how things will turn out. And that is what makes life so enigmatic. Just look at a bunch of kids in a kindergarten. Can you tell who will end up on Wall Street trading junk bonds and who will join a freak show as a part time vinegar addict? Can you tell who will be the next Bill Gates and who will only be his personal chauffeur? Nope, you can't, and neither can anyone else. Future is complex beyond anyone's calculating might. Subject to a maze of myriad influences, it percolates forth in inscrutable ways.

Take the first settlers who escaped from the religious sauna of medieval England. When they arrived in this country, they had no idea they were laying foundations for a future superpower. And had they been foolish enough to make any claims to that effect, the Native Indians would have been rolling on the dirt floor laughing. But at the end - due circumstances not even imaginable at the time - the settlers had the last laugh. They prevailed and their new country eventually celebrated its 100th and then 200th birthday. And if all goes well, we'll be watching the quarter millennium fireworks in a couple of years.

When I studied Math in Prague, I was a member of a small theater group called "Lipany". Even rigorous scientists need entertainment every now and then. In 1986 when we came back from the military service (it was mandatory after college), we decided to have a group reunion in a cramped smoke filled pub in the Prague district of Nusle. Being mathematicians, it didn't take us long to pull out our notebooks and start crunching differential equations, estimating integral inequalities and doing all sorts of nasty things that mathematicians do when they think no one is watching.

We found the event so exhilarating that shortly afterward we sent an invitation to two more "Lipany" members to join us the next time. Since we had to give our tentative gathering some name, we invited them half-jokingly to the second "Analytic Beer seminar" organized by a "Union of Czechoslovak Mathematicians and Alcoholics", which was just a little word play on the name of the official mathematical association at the time. We also added a short advisory note stating that "teetotalers and abstainers are strongly encouraged to have their physical exam performed by a doctor prior to the occasion as they may be exposed to second hand beer vapor; in addition to it, and to be on the safe side, they may need to obtain a one-time drinking license issued by the Society for the Protection of Rare Animals."

The idea of interlacing beer mugs and coasters with sheets of paper scribbled over with chunks of improper integrals, Fourier series and symbols for Lipschitz continuous functions caught on and we had our third Analytic Beer in two weeks and then fourth and fifth and before we knew it, the Analytic Beer seminar had become integral part of our lives. The secret to unlocking the scientific potential of the seminar turned out to be finding that fine limit where we had had enough beer to escape the straitjacket of scientific orthodoxy, but not quite enough to cease recognizing the quickly blurring Greek letters and mathematical symbols.

When we dispersed all over the world, the frequency of our seminars notched down a bit, but we still met whenever we could. We put away our 70th Beer in 1997, 80th in 2001 and 90th in 2005. For the Analytic Beer No. 100, which was approaching fast, we wanted to do something special. This July, when it finally arrived, we rented a picturesque log cabin in Northern Bohemia and spent four days in nearly pristine nature biking, hiking, sampling local brews, dawdling around, calculating infinite sums and watching the World Cup which happened to coincide with our Guzzle & Puzzle Fest. The College of Mathematics and Physics of the Charles University in Prague, our Alma Mater, used to have an owl in its emblem, so it didn't come as a big surprise that our gathering was a resounding hoot - a four day romp in a parallel Universe - although it needs to be admitted that we never quite figured out what was the probability that Spain would hit three goalposts within three seconds in their quarterfinal match against Paraguay. I think we just ballparked it as incontestably astronomical.

Life is the ultimate mathematical riddle. Twenty five years ago, Czechoslovakia was immersed in communism from soup to nuts - people were allergic to TV that was allergic to any manifestation of freedom and everyone's Mom was going bananas from standing in a long line for bananas. Mathematics was one of the few oases which the stinky breath of Kremlin could not quite reach. As we were honing our computing skills in that dingy old pub in the middle of Prague during our first tentative seminar, we had absolutely no idea that one day we'd be celebrating Analytic Beer No. 100, let alone in a country that would be part of the European Union. But that's how life on this planet is - you never know how things will turn out. Especially after you've downed a few.

beer

Vampire State Building

Today's financial news proffered this tooth of wisdom:

Raghuram Rajan, professor of finance at the University of Chicago, and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund was interviewed on Yahoo Tech Ticker peddling a message for Washington: Stop Targeting "Greedy Bankers" and Focus on Growth:

I am sure the IMF has plenty of vested interest in the jugular of perpetual growth, but perhaps it would behoove its brain trust to acknowledge that it is kind of hard to focus on growth while your productive economic body serves a never ending all you can eat buffet to a blood sucking parasite.

Yes, I mean the Wall Street, and by extension the whole financial system.

There used to be times when bankers borrowed money at 3% and then lent it out with some risk at 5% and that was pretty much their standard business model. They rightfully pocketed the spread as a reward for all the troubles associated with the loaning operations: they did the due diligence during the client research phase, they worked out the details of the transactions, they kept up-to-date paperwork and they also carried the risks in case any of the parties defaulted on their promises.

But then one day as they were soaking in their silver bath tubs, they decided that this was not good enough. They wanted golden bath tubs.

And lo and behold, suddenly they figured that money that was no longer backed by gold is a very stretchable and multipliable object. They realized they can conjure it into existence and then lend it to unsuspecting public at high interest. They envisaged complex securities in which they hid the risks of the loans and sold them to gullible investors in a sort of institutionalized shell game. They created financial insemination. They designed derivatives that enabled them to leverage all the dirty tricks known to man. Their accounting prestidigitation never produced anything of value, but it created a mighty swirl of watermarked paper which gave a perfect illusion of wealth. But it was just that - an illusion.

Any high risk industry that operates under the assumption that if any of their vampirous enterprises go wrong taxpayers will pick up the slack satisfies your basic definition of a parasite. And God knows that there was a lot of slack to be picked up in the last few years. The sooner we flush this tapeworm down the toilet, the sooner we can return to an organic growth, free of steroids of deficit spending. It is as simple as that.

Unfortunately, the financial reform concocted by Congress left much to be desired. Sometimes it wasn't even clear whether the lawmakers were still representing the people or were just giving the big bankers a lap dance. Loopholes galore, toothless measures and no effort to break the too big to fail cabal or curtail their risky behavior. Instead of rescuing the economy from the incisors of irresponsible credit peddlers and driving sharp wooden stakes through the heart of the failed institutions, we have been building a state of vampires. That is not a feasible economic strategy.

Here is a snippet from the last year's Atlantic, penned by Simon Johnson, the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Sloan School of Management at MIT.

Simon Johnson: Quiet Coup (The Atlantic magazine, May 2009)
"From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent. In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade, it reached 41 percent..."

So from 16% to 41% in several decades, huh?

How about we return to the banking business as it was originally conceived: providing prudent loans to select applicants and standing by them. We were able to put a man on the Moon back in those days. So it shouldn't be too economically crippling.

Whose Earth Is It Anyway

One would imagine that mineral resources of any given country belong to its citizens. That is what Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd must have been thinking when he'd proposed a supertax on all mining companies doing business down under.

I agreed wholeheartedly. That is how countries should protect their natural wealth. I have no problem with corporations making money off of their own ingenuity, whether it is Intel, Apple, or your favorite teen apparel outfit. But if all they can do is to bulldoze a layer of groovy rocks and haul them away in monster trucks - then extra taxes should be imposed as a way of sharing the profits with the people of the land who the groovy rocks belong to in the first place. To mine what is not theirs without proper compensation is just an act of thievery. Not to mention a breeding ground for rampant corruption. What overworked government official has guts and spine to withstand the appeal of a thickly stuffed envelope exchanged discreetly for the keys to the country's riches.

Ideally, the extra taxes would allow states to build highways, bridges, child care centers, hospitals and other facilities which all people could then use as a payback for having their land mildly exploited. But life is hardly ever ideal. Money talks loud and clear and often with a bullhorn. Political clout of corporations is larger than the Ayers Rock these days. Kevin Rudd was ousted faster than you could say "kangaroo" and Australia dropped the plans for the proposed supertax like a hot potato. The wizards of Oz could go back to business as usual.

The recent Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico highlighted another ugly side of the corporate hegemony over our natural resources. The lack of responsibility. Extraction of any substance from the ground poses ecological hazards and encroaches upon people's right to freely enjoy their land. Accidents do occur, but some safeguards need to be put in place, so that nature as we know it does not get sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed. Increasing the liability limits for oil companies like BP would be a good start. Otherwise it will be too easy for them to weasel out of their obligations, thanks to the well trained army of lawyers, lobbyists, PR specialists and other well oiled mercenaries.

Ever since our elected representatives tasted sweet milk from the big business teats, people have been losing their battle against incorporated leviathans on all fronts. If we don't want to end up merely subsisting on a slice of scorched wasteland in some post-orwellian nightmare, this would be a good time to take a stand and consider the bigger picture. How on Earth are we going to manage the unique environment of this planet? Are we going to plunder it for the lucre of a few hoggish multinationals or are we going to take proper care of it and preserve it for those who will inherit it from us. Wholesale recycling and green energy, however expensive, should get on the political agenda as soon as possible. The controversial supertax could help offset the associated costs.

I am sure our grandchildren will appreciate it if we leave them some fertile soil to plant crops in, reasonably clean rivers and lakes, deep forests and jungles, and maybe even a wild meadow here and there, rather than countless industrial graveyards dotted with depleted oil fields and abandoned strip mines. Even hundred years from now, they will enjoy the view of wild ferns cascading down a mountain slope under the canopy of hoary trees. And if it means slightly higher prices of copper or iron, so be it.

Don't quarry, be happy.

kupr

Jerusalem

When two peoples lay a claim to the same chunk of land, problems often ensue. And I am not just talking about quarreling whether to plant wheat or tobacco in the tillage.

Imagine that Native Indians declared the whole West to be the Sacred Dirt of Quietly Slumbering Chieftains and moved in to take control of all territories that once used to be theirs. Imagine they created large refugee camps on the West Bank of Mississippi and on the Las Vegas Strip and gradually besieged sprawling urban areas with new teepee settlements. That would surely stir up some action among descendants of hunky Anglo-Saxon settlers who moved into that same area several centuries ago.

When Israeli commandos stormed the Turkish-flagged ship Mavi Marmara that was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, the eyes of the whole world turned again to that precious piece of desert surrounding the Dead Sea, that largely inhospitable terrain which both Israelis and Palestinians consider their historical homeland.

Their decades long effort to conjure up a semblance of peaceful coexistence has been repeatedly marred by religious and ethnic hostilities and, over the years, became reduced to diplomatic equivalent of wishful thinking. Smack in the center of their disagreements lies Jerusalem, one of the oldest capitals in the world, a city so ridden and riddled with divine presence that you can't throw a rock there without hitting a notorious shrine. That, of course, makes any negotiations harder, because liturgical and spiritual aspects of our existence have deep roots in our soul.

When I was reading about the circumstances accompanying the creation of the Jewish state, I stumbled upon an interesting document: United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) - Future Government of Palestine from 29 November 1947. In plain terms, the resolution suggested termination of the British mandate over Palestine and recommended that the contentious Jerusalem-Bethlehem area be placed "under special international protection, administered by the United Nations".

Sometimes long forgotten solutions deserve second chances. And this one sounds so tantalizing that I would dare to push it a bit further. Why not make Jerusalem the seat of the United Nations? Can you see the UNESCO buildings next to the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or al-Aqsa Mosque? I can. If there ever was a place on Earth deserving to be the unofficial Capital of the World, it is Jerusalem. What other city lies at the intersection of three major religions and sports a municipal history four millennia deep? In my book, you don't get more natural authority beyond that. And placing the venerable metropolis on the center stage of global politics would have several other advantages.


1. Many new and aspiring powers (EU, China, Russia, India) like to grumble about the americentric bias of the United Nations that has been painfully visualized by placing the organization on the banks of the East River. Such domicile may be convenient, but it gives rise to the perception that UN is but an extended arm of Washington DC. Relocating its headquarters and facilities into a neutral area would create a more realistic illusion of an Arthurian round table, where no single nation is being favored.

2. Many of the tensions in the Middle East stem from hardship and lack of economic opportunities. Building a necessary infrastructure for such grandiose project would bring an economic boom to the region. Thousands of jobs and higher standard of living that would come with it would put a soothing gauze on the festering wound of the Palestinian issue. Economically sated nations have usually less reason to quarrel with their neighbors.

3. Israel's main concern is for the safety of its young state. With Jerusalem becoming a de facto heart of the world, it would be self-defeating and outright suicidal to even ponder terrorism in this area. Any individual of group that would dare to inflict damage anywhere within this fiercely protected district would be faced with swift and severe consequences from the whole international community.

Sooner or later Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu will have to sit down and mull over the possibilities. I hope they will have enough sense to also consult history. Critics might argue that times have changed since 1947, but didn't Ancient Romans used to say: "Historia magistra vitae est"?

Unexpected Body Czech

Sports are like jazz improvisations. The individual plays are specific and unique to each game, and yet they operate within a familiar framework of rules and similarity to previous games. The riffs and solos of a jazz quintet, while firmly grounded in classical tonality and previous listening experiences, also serve melodies and harmonies hitherto unheard and seemingly spewing forth directly from the frothy ocean of the musicians' subconsciousness. It is the uniqueness of perception, the patterns etched onto the surface of a lake with a wooden wand, which creates this magic. Like rare fish they briefly emerge and soon disappear. And the same is true for those magical moments in sports. They will never be seen again.

The improvisational aspect of sports, of course, is brought to you by the forces of randomness. That mystery coin toss lurking behind most of the plays is in fact large part of their allure. In physics, a heavy object always outweighs a lighter one. No exceptions. In sports, anything can happen. And we love it. The unadulterated surprise is the main asset they bring to the ping pong table of human entertainment, for nothing lifts our spirits like a good upset story. Think of the the US Olympic Ice Hockey team in 1980 or the Danish soccer team on EURO 1992.

Today, Czechs consummated their own version of the Miracle on Ice by beating the mighty Russians at the IHF World Ice Hockey Championship. The unfancied Czech side was mostly composed from young players recruited from the local league and featured about as much NHL talent as the Sarasota High School Marching Band. At the start of the tournament, it even seemed that a relegation from the A group might be in the offing. Czechs lost their games to Switzerland and Norway, two teams not exactly known for their ice hockey prowess, and back home many fans braced for an untimely exit. However, improved performance against Canada in the group and then against Finland in the Quarterfinals sent the Czech squad into the semifinal against all odds.

The last two matches featured two power plays that I will never forget. They were sort of mirror images of each other.

In the semifinal, the score was 2:1 for Sweden, and Czechs had just swapped a field player for a goalie. One of the Swedish defenders managed to grab the puck and send it towards the empty Czech goal. That puck slowly coasted forward and passed about 10 inches to the left of the gaping net, like an asteroid on a near collision course with Earth. At that point I realized that Gods have chosen their side. The funny thing about sports is that once the Gods make up their mind, there is no going back. The Swedes were still up by one goal, but 7 seconds before the end, Czechs scored an equalizer and after a victorious shootout advanced to the final.

In the final against their Russian archrivals, Czechs kept tirelessly withdrawing from their luck account, but contrary to all laws of physics the account got never overdrawn. They managed to come to the final third with a small lead so the mighty Russians lead by NHL prodigy Alex Ovechkin had to turn up the heat. And turn up the heat they did. Czechs could barely cope with their offensive. The climax came 90 seconds from time, when two Czechs were sent to the penalty box for fouls and Russians called off their goalie. You don't see a 6-on-3 powerplay in ice-hockey very often. Defending it is like building a circus tent in a category 5 hurricane. Russians soon scored and the lead diminished to 2-1. What ensued were fifty seconds of pure hell. But somehow or other, the score held. Gods never change their mind fifty seconds from the end.

As soon as the final siren blew, the Prague main square turned into a gushing fire-hydrant of cheering and celebrations. The team that was written off well before the tournament started won it all. In sports that happens.

For sports aficionados in my little hometown, this Sunday was doubly sweet. After 7 years spent in the soccer desert, a local team FC Hradec Kralove, advanced into the Czech premier league. The team whose games I used to go to with my grandpa when I was growing up will again bring the big names from Prague to my hometown's soccer pitch. Tak zdar, Votroci!

hockey

Idea is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Omniscient talking heads, especially the ones armed with a glimpse of an open economic textbook caught from a speeding train, trash capitalism a lot these days. But their sense of accomplishment is gravely misplaced. The idea of free markets is as good as it was in times of Henry Ford, it is just our recent malpractice which warped the concept to the point of travesty.

There were many bright ideas in the history of mankind that got off to a promising start only to be hijacked and molded beyond recognition by amateurs, zealots, inveiglers, shysters, con artists, charlatans, dilettantes, racketeers, saboteurs and crooks of any imaginable disposition. Just compare the teachings of Jesus with the burning stakes of the Catholic church, or tenets of Karl Marx with the political prisons of petrified Brezhnev's Empire. Just juxtapose the charter of the UN to its swollen bureaucratic underbelly or writings of the Founding Fathers to the agenda of the Junior Bush administration. There is no idea in this world that cannot be successfully abused.

Making a good judgment has never been humanity's strong point, although judging has been its favorite pastime ever since skills triumphed over instincts some ten thousand years ago. You would think that over all those ages we'd have learned how to protect ideas from their botched practical implementations. But we haven't. Lazy and superficial judgment is still humanity's bane, both on a personal and collective level. From Tea Party to Rachel Maddow, we are being aimlessly dragged through a landscape drenched in a polarizing rain of inane soundbites.

Where analysis is a dying art, only a few have the audacity to look under the hood and tweak things around. It is much easier to shoot ideas down without fully considering their potential. True, many are born imperfect and in need of improvement, some get corrupted during their lifetime and other ones are introduced well ahead of their time and may require some mindset adjustment to bear fruit. But the wisdom, effort and insight invested into separation of merits of an abstract process from its practical realization will pay for themselves many times over.

To toss out a good idea because it was poorly implemented is like throwing away a functional device which was merely fed an inferior input. Think of a brand new and perfectly working meat grinder that is being tested for performance. Now imagine that an incompetent lab technician crams some badly rotting meat into its orifice. Consequently, what comes out of it on the other end is a smelly unappealing mush that would make a pack of hyenas run away in panic. But wait a minute - you might think - that outcome does not necessarily mean that the meat grinder is intrinsically defective. Unfortunately, many geniuses think it does.

I can't believe it's not Gucci

Oops, those trees did it again. Same trick, different year. One night they go to sleep bare, sullen and leafless and the next morning they wake up all covered with a rash of bursting buds and even a few precocious green leaflets slurping up whatever the recuperating Sun has to offer. What an impressive mechanism Nature devised there. Every October and November trees shed their aging, dirty, brittle and yellowish foliage to have it completely replaced by a new, crisp and fresh collection some 6 months later. All perfectly timed and executed with the precision of Madonna's stage manager.

As I was watching this botanical spectacle unfold, it occurred to me that it would be tres cool if we could do the same with our accouterments. At night, before our bedtime we'd shed our old naturally biodegradable clothes and let them turn into mulch under our beds (whereto they'd be discreetly kicked) and in the morning, just before our alarm went off, we'd be sprouting new garments all over the body. Layer after layer, our skin would fabricate new items for our wardrobe, the outer epidermis morphing into shirts and pants, while the inner layers would supply underwear, skivvies, loin clothes, G-strings, H-strings, stockings, corsets, bikinis, long johns and whatever else we choose to fight the elements, predators and boredom with.

Oodles of time - normally wasted on changing clothes, tying laces, or zipping up evening dresses - would suddenly be released and available for spending on noble causes, such as braiding cooked spaghetti or ceremonial hanger hanging. What a wonderful world that would be. No worries about what colors to put on. Ever. And who knows, after a few million years of gradual progress, maybe we'd evolve enough to grow a pair of designer socks every night.

mclean

The Cycle of Youth

The most amazing thing about Spring is that every year it is just as amazing as the year before.

Let's face it, we humans get easily bored. The half-life of our interest could mount successful challenge to Fermium 257. Our mind is on the constant lookout for new thrills, hungrily scanning the never ending parade of shiny iPods, fancy lingerie, favorite TV shows, and last but not least, significant others. They all tickle our expectations, pamper us in their heyday, and then slowly fade into discreet oblivion. Even a movie with the most dazzling special effects imaginable will grow old on us if we watch it one time too many. But Spring somehow avoids this curse and its annual stage entrance never fails to go viral. Every March, it takes our senses hostage as it blooms into town, flooding our ears with chirping and tweeting, bribing our noses with fresh scents and bruising our retina with green lesions.

The reason for this seemingly perpetual motion is very simple: once the Spring is done with its alchemy, it takes a little Spring break and for the remaining 9 months you don't hear much about it. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and as Nature's vivacious mood decelerates into the doldrums of Summer and pastel reflections of Autumn, images of Spring start wistfully peeking into the windows of our soul. But the long Winter burns them all to ashes, completely erasing the whiteboard of our memory. But by doing just that it unwittingly hatches a new Phoenix in its blank embrace. In the very nadir of our spirits, Spring detonates with renewed exuberance and fills us with a sense of wonder which perfectly matches the one we experienced the first time around.

Married people often complain about the boredom that has crept into their love lives. Looking at the divorce rate, a natural question emerges: Can the flame of romance be kept burning indefinitely? It occurred to me the other day that the mystical rite of Spring could be an answer to this question. It could provide everlasting fuel for the notoriously transient human emotions.

Suppose that every time you dated someone, you'd be legally separated and sequestered after 3 months of living together. No exceptions. Now, imagine the sheer joy of reunion after 9 long months. It would be like the first time all over again. Each year, you'd experience one full quarter of romantic fireworks that would make Romeo and Juliet blush with envy.

Lovely idea, isn't it? The catch is - of course - who'd be raising the kids for the remaining 9 months.

Ski is the limit

One of the first things that occurred to me when I stood in the middle of a desert circa 40 miles southeast of Dubai was "this would be a great place for cross country skiing".

Those gently rolling dunes have exactly the right gradients for the ultimate skiing experience. Not too steep and plenty to choose from. If you could get a couple of inches of snow on top of those sandy slopes, Norwegians would be shoving each other at the Gardenmoen Airport to get in on the action.

If you think that the idea of a skiing resort on the Arabian Peninsula is completely peninsulated from common sense, think again. And while at it, take a cab to the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai and order some soda to go with your thinking. As you sit down at the food court to tank up, look through the large glass window on the side - you will see a desert mirage unlike any you've seen before. Hundreds of people wearing thick winter clothes trudging along a snowy hill and then skiing down an artificial slope located smack in the middle of the Mall. You may just think that Fata Morgana went completely bonkers.

The Dubai Ski Park extends on 22,500 square meters and even though it is extremely well insulated, it consumes nearly 3,000 gallons of oil daily to keep its temperature at -1 C during the day and -6 C during the night when they make the snow. So while the Sun is busy turning the outside of the Mall into an unforgiving inferno with temperatures easily exceeding 35 C, you can spend 180 AED (40 USD) and enjoy two hours of unadulterated slalom fun (skis and winter clothing included).

How do you say extravagant in Arabic?

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Americans for a Balanced Budget Amendment

As we are overcharging our national Mastercard with the abandon of a drunken sailor, I noticed that mainstream media are falling head column over heels to pooh-pooh the problem of runaway public spending. From TIME magazine to Huffington Post, debt apologists are out in full force, fanning the flames of fiscal fires and parroting Reagan's old adage about deficits that don't matter.

As I perused some of reader's comments I noticed a very cavalier attitude toward the very concept of money. Most readers were under the impression that our debt problem can easily be solved by the infinite wisdom of the central bankers. The saner ones argued that we can run GDP faster than debt, which -with all available fingers and toes double crossed- will make its size eventually manageable. Never mind that perennial growth approach will sooner or later run against the wall of limited resources. Those who think that Earth can support infinitely many people, please, raise your hand.

Then there are those who believe that all we need to do to solve our debt addiction is to ask the Fed chief Ben Bernanke to sit down at his computer, put on some white gloves and peck a few extra zeros to central bank's mysterious balance sheet. I even suspect that hidden in the vast underbelly of the economic blogosphere there are types who profess that no such complicated action is necessary and all we have to do is give the money tree a firm handshake and our future will be rosy again - as long as we can stay away from the edge of the flat Earth and not fall into the Big Ditch.

But the truth is that debts matter. The goods and services we purchase for the borrowed money have actual value: road construction, new hospitals, stealth bombers, teachers' salaries etc. Whether we like it or not, that value will have to be repaid one day. And there are pretty much only two choices - either our children will pay it back or we'll turn on the printing presses and subtract that value directly from the purchasing power of our own currency in the process known as inflation. There is no other way. The value borrowed has to be returned.

Sure, running astronomical deficits may taste sweetly at first - who doesn't like the intoxicating smell of credit - bankers and their media sidekicks obviously do - but underneath its cloying aroma lurks a sinister aftertaste. While the herd of disoriented scapegoats circles the altar of materialism, the plumbing of debt serviceability slowly congests. Month by month, trillion by trillion, we are turning into a swarm of flies stuck on a raspberry tart. Or baklava. Delicious but deadly.

Those who believe in the monetary free lunch are dangerously deluded. Currency can function only so long as it represents something substantive. You can increase the national wealth by working hard and producing or inventing something that other people would be willing to exchange for something else (money is merely an agent that facilitates this barter). The notion that printing little green pieces of paper with images of dead presidents on them will make us richer is as preposterous as hopes that pouring a gallon of water into a gallon of beer will produce two gallons of beer. No, it won't. It will produce two gallons of a foul tasting liquid.

In the middle of the growing chorus of fiscal insanity that would make old Kremlin's financial cadres blush, I found a rare voice of reason - an organization named "Americans for a Balanced Budget Amendment" which is based on a very simple premise: you should not spend more than what you take in. At this day and age it may sound like a quixotic endeavor, but I give them two thumbs up. And if we managed to return our government to its original scope - which is taking care of foreign affairs, matters of defence and monetary policy, it would even sound realistic.

But I am not holding my breath. We don't live in the age of common sense.

Burj Khalifa

When I was a kid I was fascinated by wheat stalks. I'd be sitting at the edge of an undulating field in summer and marvel at the strength of the slim reedlike plants. I knew little of botany or material engineering at the time, but I was subconsciously admiring the ingenuity of nature's design which could support such long body on a comparatively narrow base. And that was exactly the sentiment I felt when I stood face to face with the world's tallest building - Burj Khalifa in Dubai. That and wondering whether the building owners had purchased enough satellite collision insurance.

Designed by American architect Adrian D. Smith, Burj Khalifa stands 828 meters (2717 feet) tall, which is about one extra Eiffel tower over the previous record holders - Willis Tower in Chicago, Taipei 101 or Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. With elevators zipping up and down at 40 mph, the tower concatenates 160 floors and 24348 windows and holds several odd records, such as the world's highest mosque, outdoor observation deck and swimming pool. It opened earlier this year (on January 4, 2010) with a resplendent ceremony that spared no fireworks, light shows or water effects known to man to underline its unique beauty.

The denizens of Dubai are well aware that any crown jewel looks best when displayed on a velvet pillow. Burj Khalifa is no exception and forms the center piece of a 27 acre park that features ornamented marble pavements, exotic tree formations and the Dubai Fountain - an elaborate network of water jets illuminated by 6,600 lights and 50 colored projectors. We got there this March and many construction projects were still in progress, but it was already clear that the neighborhood will be as impressive as the building itself.

Whether you approach Dubai from the desert, alongside the coast or from the sea, you can't miss the surreal view of a lanky needle-like structure towering high above the neighboring skyscrapers. Its sleek metallic design streaks upward with the effortlessness of a geyser. Or should I say a gushing oil well - considering the fact that its financing was rescued by the petroleum rich Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Despite its impressive dimensions, the tower is not intimidating. There is in fact something feminine about it. Elegance is an epithet that keeps suggesting itself as you roam around it. If I wanted to personify it, I would choose a young duchess carrying a plume of feathers on her hat with a truly aristocratic aplomb. She may not be intimidating, but she is way up there. If you dare and approach her, her majestic grandeur will capture your senses like a voracious vertical vortex and send them on a voyage well into the future.

I imagine that twenty years from now, a group of youngsters will congregate in an open air cafe in the tower's vicinity and order a round of the Cool Potion of the Future (TM) to consummate a fun Saturday spent at a camel race track or an air conditioned soccer stadium. As they roll fizzing liquids on their tongues, they may reflect on their lives and ponder the amazing potential this planet has. And perhaps some of them will lift their eyes to Burj Khalifa gleaming in the setting sun and realize that in this neck of the Universe, sky is the limit.

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Democracy Demo

Exporting political systems is usually a bad idea. They do not fit easily into cargo containers and their user manuals are notoriously hard to translate from one language to another. Soviets once tried that in Czechoslovakia and besides a couple of crates of free uranium and a heartfelt loathing of several generations of the native population they did not really get much in return for their noble efforts.

This Spring I was cruising around the Arabian peninsula and one of our ports of call was a small emirate of Fujairah. The landscape looked pretty rugged from the ship, so I opted for a bus tour winding through the dry black mountains sporadically dotted with modest villages. Our guide was a talkative Emirati who used long stretches of uneventful terrain to educate us about the local form of governance. To a person who spent half of his life in a communist trap and the other half in a democratic jungle, the sheikhdom seemed deceptively simple. It had no need for the usual trappings of high politics - stifling partisan bickering, media battles, massive campaign coffers or armies of bureaucrats rubbing their elbow patches with one another - yet it was functioning with a smoothness of an old farm machinery. The sheikh was portrayed as a benevolent patriarch who took good care of his large family, making sure that citizens had good health care, access to education and affordable housing. Our guide's excitement seemed genuine and I wondered how many people in the West would be equally exuberant about their elected officials. Which in turn made me think about George Bush's favorite export article - democracy. How good is it really?

Political systems are not immutable embalmed relics. They evolve, they adapt, they mature and - sadly - they get corrupted. Democracy today is not what it used to be at times of Jefferson, Lincoln or even Teddy Roosevelt. It is generally viewed as the best that the Western world has to offer, but like any system designed by man it is vulnerable and open to flaws of human nature. People's ability to govern themselves as well as their ability to determine what is beneficial for the whole society is not limitless. One trip to a comments section of your favorite political blog is enough to get a sample of the political acumen of the masses. Not a pretty sight on a good day.

If we are to export democracy, we better kick its tires with some degree of vigor. Why does running for a public office require so much money that dependence on corporate donations becomes a necessity? Why do most people always vote for whomever promises them larger chunk of the common pie even if it drives the whole society economically into ground? Why do we blindly trust the same slick types who couple of months later vote for measures we so clearly detest? Why do we tolerate the loopholes lobbyists manage to weave into the legal fabric? And these were just some of the questions that were tumbling in my head as we coasted through the bleak and stark countryside in the Emirate of Fujairah.

Ironically, on the evening news that very same day I saw a CNN clip with Senators Dodd and Frank pounding their chests on behalf of the incipient financial reform and I thought - is this duo of duplicitous dupers the best spokesteam for the embattled American taxpayer? Chris Dodd is number one recipient of campaign funds from the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and one of the infamous "Friends of Angelo" - a VIP program at the failed bank Countrywide. Barney Frank got his fair share of Wall Street contributions as well and kept a protective hand over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac even as they operated in an eventually disastrous bubble mode. Have we forgotten how these two Kabuki ballerinas and former champions of "affordable housing" and "financial stability" pushed reckless behavior merely three years ago?

As I watched the press conference, I wondered what would happen if this dynamic duo unleashed their political skills in Fujairah. Would housing be still affordable if we distorted the real estate market with ill conceived institutions like Freddie Mac whose "support" only made the houses more expensive and less affordable? Would the oil revenues from the Gulf be enough to fuel endless graft, kickbacks and customized corporate welfare? I am afraid not.

Transplanting political systems is as tricky as transplanting human organs. You always risk that the organism at the receiving end won't accept the new tissue. We can't simply sew the standard Western institutions into a culture which is as close to ours as Al Khanfaroosh is to vanilla pudding. Look at it from the other side: how would we feel, if legions of scimitar wielding bearded troops invaded our continent and tried to convert our little state into the Enlightened Sultanate of Northern Virginia. We wouldn't like it very much, would we?

Postcard from a different planet

Nothing makes you appreciate life as much as a desert.

That ageless mixture of dried melancholy and finely ground patience spreading its standing waves far around in a soundless geological lullaby. That protracted moment when crystallized stars rained down from the sky and Mother Earth decided she needed to pour herself a cup of infinity. All the mighty rocks spent eons and eons getting stoned in its crumbling monotony and if you squint your eyes into narrow slits you may see an endless ocean of silicon droplets heaving under the unrelenting sun and tossing its lifeless crustaceans apathetically from one dune to another.

Every so often you can spot a few limbs of a confused shrub or a patch of hard grass keeping a guard like a lone sentry at a farflung frontier outpost. Eking out a living in this inferno is a job as ungrateful as trying to sell a fur coat to a passing Bedouin. This is the part of the planet where parch is for appetizer and water is for dessert. Can you see your sanity seeping into the sand?

If you can, you are almost getting it. Now put Borodin's "In the steppes of Central Asia" on your iPod, lie down skyward and imagine what kind of body parts would aliens have.

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Two Little Principles

The midterm elections are upon us, so every talking head and their politically savvy dog are busy compiling long laundry lists of things that need to be washed, bleached, mended or fixed. We all agree that something is seriously rotten in the state of Washington, but there is little agreement as to where the stench is actually coming from.

Belligerent polemics prickling with pointy index fingers are being bandied around on both sides of the congressional aisle. Opaque, convoluted and often logic skirting arguments are launched into the journalistic stratosphere from independent launching iPads. Yet, in my view there are 2 really simple principles whose implementation would go a long way toward rectifying the messed up public affairs.

Localization: decisions should be made as close to home as possible.
What matters to the neighborhood, should be decided upon by the neighborhood. What can be settled at the city level should be settled at the city level and never enter the state agenda. And what can be solved on the state level, should never enter the federal debate. Simple isn't it? So why is our Federal government so hopelessly overgrown? Why do the Washington bureaucrats try to dictate to people in Montana, Massachusetts or Missouri how to conduct their daily business? I see two reasons: first, once the easy paper pushing jobs are created, their holders will scream bloody murder if they are taken from them, and second, by centralizing the decisions, their makers are conveniently insulated from angry mobs should mistakes be made. After all, the trip to DC is much more expensive than a bus ride to your state or county offices.

Sound money: whatever money you earn should keep its purchasing value.
A person earning a decent living should not worry that his or her dollar will be worth only 60 cents in the next decade and only 40 cents in the decade after that. Stability of the currency facilitates sound and long term financial planning. Continuous tinkering with the monetary supply (which affects any currency's strength) only entices people to seek poorly understood financial instruments. The argument that without inflation our economy couldn't grow is ridiculous. If we based our currency on something more solid than the Federal Reserve Bank's reputation grew its supply in proportion with the volume of goods and services, inflation would never dare to rear its ugly head. The loss of the purchasing power we have been experiencing simply means that money is being printed faster that the amount of goods it is chasing. And who might be interested in doing just that? Well, the bankers who get the interest, and then the ineffective and unproductive segments of the economy that would never have survived in the value based system.

That's pretty simple, isn't it? But don't expect to see these principles on the banners and flyers this November. Simplicity is not in the vogue this election season.

Beethoven's Ninth

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 differs from its eight sisters in at least two regards. First, it is more a testimony about human strength than a piece of music, and second, it is organically conjoined with another great choir opus - Missa Solemnis. Trying to understand the message of either work without knowing the other is like watching the first and last five episodes of a TV show and skipping the ten episodes in between. You will kind of get the feel for the plot, but it won't make much sense.

Sometime in early 1820s, Beethoven must have realized that the support beams of his last symphony were not strong enough to support the intellectual and spiritual weight that was being bestowed upon them. Higher authority had to be brought in to bear upon matters at hand. Over the course of almost two years he disappeared into the desert to consult with his God. Like Michelangelo, he strapped himself to the ceiling of his Sistine chapel and created one of the most intriguing murals in musical history. Missa solemnis, contrary to its apparent divine bias, is a detailed map of the human soul and only mastering the intricacies of its perplexing labyrinth helped Beethoven to turn his last symphony into a pinnacle of the western culture.

The Ninth and Missa are not only works of the same caliber, but also works of the same spirit. They were mixed in the same crucible and share the blistering heat of the same mental forge. Some parallels are obvious. The central fugues of both pieces ("Seid Umschlungen" and "Et vitam venturi saeculi") come in two parts - one slow and one fast. There is also a spirited march-like instrumental interlude in their last movement (one in Agnus Dei and one in the Ode to Joy following the words "Zum Siegen). But there are also more subtle similarities. For instance in the Ninth, on words "Deine Zauber", the soprano voice tries to escape into dizzying heights only to be overtaken and engulfed by a thundering choir. There is a very similar moment in the fugue at the end of Gloria.

About 20 years ago, I saw a live performance of the Ninth. The conductor in a dark tuxedo came to a podium, bowed to the audience, turned around and extended both of his hands. The silence was so palpable you could hear the pin drop. The conductor then slightly flexed his index finger and the whole symphonic colossus was set into motion by this barely perceptible motion of his hand. As if you removed a wedge from underneath a new ship and watched it majestically descend down the slipway and into water. I always thought that that minuscule gesture was more powerful than any theatrical arm waving other conductors employ. If I ever become an eccentric millionaire, I will buy an evening with the New York Philharmony and I will do just that. Tease that mysterious ship out of its docks with a motion of my index finger.

The opening of the Ninth serves its audiences a dose of a condensed anticipation. The surrounding air trembles with a vision of a great journey ahead. You can sense its depth in the crisp morning air as the ship loosens its moorings and leaves the port. You can hear the massive wooden vessel cautiously inching forward into the open sea, its hull pushing through thick layers of seaweeds while its towering masts disappear in sketchy shreds of fog. The descending fourth evokes the specter of destiny hovering above the waters, much like the descending minor third did in his fifth symphony. It is a harbinger of great battles ahead.

There is a subtle difference in this comparison though. When he was composing the Fifth, he was in his mid thirties and ready to grab the fate by its throat as he liked to say. In the Ninth the tone of the confrontation has changed. There is a passage in the the first movement (about one third into it) where you can still detect the great warrior who tames the hydra of destiny with his bare hands. You can hear his stubborn fists tirelessly banging at the gates. But the winter lion tires out eventually. In its dying moments, long shadows of futility crawl onto the stage and you enter an altered landscape. Desolate plains of destitute roamed by ghosts in frilled veils. A preview of late Gustav Mahler.

One thing to Beethoven's credit is his honesty and authenticity. He could have easily ended the movement on an upbeat note. Couple of fake major chords would do the trick. But they would not reflect the true state of his mind. His soul searching odyssey began in the bleak twilight of the first movement's last measures and it probably took much longer than he anticipated. While he was negotiating the lonesome passageways of his half-finished cathedral, he created next two movements for the symphony in which he attempted to escape from the unsatisfying conclusion of its opening. Scherzo is a briskly paced phantasmagoric vision reminiscent of a rustic folklore dance, an orgiastic swirl of cavorting elfs running tirelessly nowhere and back and performed with the happy abandon of inebriated peasants. The following adagio, in sharp contrast, is a delicate parachute jump of a sweet memory. A pleasingly intoxicating dream floating outside of time's boundaries. But neither the earthly frenzy of the scherzo nor ethereal contemplative calm of the adagio brings any resolution. Fortunately, one is about to emerge from the depths of Agnus Dei, clad in the immortal verses of Friedrich Schiller.

The opening dissonance of the fourth movement is a rude awakening form the lolling tones of adagio, a lightning bolt ripping the previous story to unrecognizable shreds. The pause preceding the Finale is probably the most timing sensitive break in the musical literature. It needs precise execution. The harrowing chord mustn't come immediately after Adagio so the falling feather of its last melody has time to land, but it must be swift in its arrival, otherwise there would be no redolent memory to awaken from. I'd say between one and three seconds. Razor sharp margin. Sadly, I have witnessed performances where the conductor takes an actual break of 10 to 30 seconds in which people can clear their throats and blow their noses. That is a botched butchery. The cleaver of the Finale needs a wallop of meat to sink into.

That chord that drills into your frontal lobes at the onset of Finale is also an attention grab - a judge's gavel in an disarrayed court-room. For the first time in the musical literature, a judgment will be passed on the previous movements. No sooner does the unsettling bugle call die away that a battery of double basses take the floor. Single-handedly. A sign that something extraordinary is going to happen. The curtain is still drawn, the stage is hidden from view. Beethoven must have felt that introducing voice into a symphony was so revolutionary that a listener may need to know how he got there. We are going to witness a remarkable curtain raiser and double basses will be our guide, usher and narrator. This is the part where you don't listen to the music, you listen to the composer himself.

The first order of business is a recap of the previous three movements, which makes it clear that the whole symphony is one organic body, rather than a traditional collage of unrelated pieces. One by one the echos of three movements parade in front of our ears, and one by one they are rejected by the Double Bass Court - although adagio is declined with audible hesitation. You can sense that Beethoven would love to dwell in its soothing embrace one more time. But it is not to be. Greater items are on the agenda.

Beethoven's chronicler and companion Anton Schindler was genuinely puzzled by this theater within a theater and complained that the recitative of contrabasses will not make any sense. Beethoven dismissed his concerns and retorted that if need be, he'll give the double bass players specific words so they could sing along during their soliloquy (Romain Rolland quotes those words in his excellent 5-tome biography). I once saw a performance where the bass players were sitting in a poorly lit orchestra pit and all I could discern in the darkness were their glowing eyes. That created a powerful almost mystical image of tremendous focus and dedication. They seemed feverishly insane and it felt strangely appropriate there. Beethoven himself must have been when he was composing this symbolic prelude - pacing restlessly to and fro in the castle of his deafness.

Few people desired joy, pure joy, as much as he did. And from few it was denied with such cruel vehemence. Among deafness, illnesses, romantic disasters, financial problems and the lost custody battle for his nephew Carl there was very little reason for joy. At the end, Beethoven had no choice but to mold it out from the tissue of his own inner world. What price he had to pay for it and how long he had to wait, we will never know. But when it came, at the long last, its theme had become so special that he was afraid to touch it, to bend it, to develop it, to even breathe in its direction. In this moment of sacred amazement, audience is the last thing on his mind. This moment is his true Benedictus: "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini".

In Missa solemnis, the joy descended from heaven, cascading down from high altitudes at the end of Credo (in the first part of the "Et vitam venturi" fugue). In the Ninth, the joy comes from the deepest layers of his own soul. He lets double basses, his old comrades, present its theme. Any time I hear this passage, I can see Beethoven crouching in a dark recess of a gallery, watching the performance the way an anxious father watches the first steps of his child, standing ready to shred to pieces any instrument that would dare to get in the way. Only when the theme completes its cycle, he lets it percolate through violas, then violins and finally into the open spaces of the whole orchestra. Three times we hear the same theme, strengthening each round, finding more and more solid ground under its feet, until it culminates in a glorious fanfare. Drumroll ensues.

The dissonant chord thunders again to remind us that we are back where we started from. The pantomime is over. The curtain can go up now. The solution has been found and will be presented shortly: "Oh Freunde, nicht diese Tone! Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freudenvollere!".

The Finale that follows is the Universe in its own right. Beyond the realm of any description. Allegedly, words of the ancient Roman poet Horace were scribbled on the manuscript: "Exegi monumentum, aere perennius". And rightly so. I can see the twin galaxies of Beethoven's choral masterpieces recorded on a golden disk one day and sent into the outer space to represent the finest achievement of human thought.

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To tarp or not to tarp

Referendum - what a concept! The ultimate teat of democracy.

Not so long ago, one of the private banks in Iceland fell under the impression that credit geysers were financial equivalents of the fountain of youth. As that didn't quite turn out to be true, the bank went belly up and Dutch and British savers who were lured in by promises of higher interest lost all their money in the process. Their governments stepped in to cover the losses and now they are asking the Iceland taxpayers to pony up about 5 billion dollars since the bank was insured by the Iceland government, i.e. by the taxpayers.

This is a great example of what happens when insurance underwriters operate under the assumption that bad things will never happen. Aren't you supposed to have some sort of collateral or sufficient capital reserves when you take on such monstrous risks? When did people of Iceland express permission to let their financial system degenerate into a perverted farce in which fisherman, horse farmers, hoteliers, artists, and pretty much all able bodied citizens were on the hook for the greed and stupidity of private bankers? At least the Icelandic government has the decency to hold a referendum and ask its electorate how they felt about it. Rather unsurprisingly a resounding majority (93%) of the population rejected such preposterance.

Not so long ago Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke stormed into the US Congress and asked all of us - every man, woman and child, regardless of age - to shell out some $2,000 to save the overleveraged Wall Street casino from the supposedly imminent collapse. That same "collapse" from which Hank Paulson and his merry band of United Bandits of Goldman Sachs have quite handsomely profited.

The sad part is that neither George Bush, nor any representative in the Congress even mentioned the possibility that perhaps the US taxpayers should first be asked about their opinion before being burdened with such outrageous levels of debt. We can only hope that one day we will learn why the Lehman Brothers were allowed to fail while AIG, pregnant with Goldman's rotting derivatives, was generously bailed out in the tense atmosphere of post Lehman hysteria. But I am not holding my breath...

Go Figure Skate

Judging is a preemptive strike of the leveraged insecurity and as such it is a very personal and subjective business. We use bewilderingly incoherent standards when we evaluate peer performance. When we look at our friends' work, virtually anything they knock together will fly, or at least not plummet too precipitously, but our rivals and adversaries could conjure up a NASA worthy space vehicle and we would find the tiniest discoloration on its spare tire. Despite the utter lack of objectivity, or because of it, people have a compulsive fascination with passing public verdict on their fellow earthlings. For proof go no further than figure skating.

How do we rank achievement in a sport that blends athletic and artistic ingredients? Do we carry out rigorous measurements of the height of triple Rittbergers? Do we calculate statistical deviations from constant curvature on all skated arcs? Do we analyze the video records to extract the precise RPM readings of the spun pirouettes? Nah, we have judges who judge away based on the Guidelines of International Skating Union, their gut feelings, some chicken entrails lying around in their minds and, last but not least, on political pressures back home. Pairs of trained eyes monitor skaters' programs and when the music stops, the whole gig enters into a big crunching machine known as human brain which in a matter of mere seconds spits out numerical scores that single-handedly coronate the Kings of the Rinks. You think that could potentially cause some problems? Imagine the track and field competition where a solemn body of international jurors surrounds the long jump sand box and after each leap passes the marks for artistic merit and technical difficulty, the latter not based on measurement but rather on eyeballing the landing skid marks in the sand. That is a breeding ground for grievances right there.

Mens figure skating competition during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver featured a highly charged duel between American Evan Lysacek and Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. Although Plushenko sported a quadruple jump and was generally deemed more technically skilled, at the end of the day the gold went to Lysacek allegedly on higher artistic integrity, setting off a tempest in the glass of frozen water. Celebrities from former champions to Russian Premier Vladimir Putin proffered their viewpoints, hand wringing and eyebrow lifting became the favorite postolympic discipline, and the end of figure skating as we know it temporarily supplanted the financial crisis as the most likely trigger for the pending Armageddon. All the turbocharged hysteria was of course fueled by Plushenko himself. In dealing with his defeat, he displayed truculence of a sixth grader and on his webpage even awarded himself the platinum medal. That is what you get when you mix sports with arts.

But since we are such judgment junkies anyway, I would like to propose another Winter Olympic game that will combine the artistic expression with athletic execution. Its layout should satisfy the arbitration needs of the most ambitious of all the Supreme Court emulators. I'll call it a paintbrush biathlon. You know that sport where cross-country skiers lie down and shoot at the target for extra points? Well, you have the right idea, except this time instead of a loaded rifle they would whip up a paintbrush and a palette and paint an impromptu still life of a snowy scenery. A panel of judges would then award extra credits for artistic merit of the paintings, which together with time would determine the final winner.

Any Cezanne wannabes wanna start cross-country ski practice?

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Good Debt, Bad Debt

Suppose you have a large mortgage, you are paying off your car and you have $30,000 hanging on your credit card. In other words, you are up to your ear tips in debt. Would it be economically prudent to take on some more?

If you are about to jump from your chair and exclaim "Noooo!", hold your horses and give it a little thought. There is actually good debt and bad debt, and the answer really depends on what you are going to do with it. In the first scenario, you borrow money in order to put yourself in a position that will create a positive cash flow in the future. You could use your debt to increase your education level and pay for a tuition at a respectable college, or you could buy an equipment that would help you start a new business. If all went well, you would soon be able to make enough money to pay off all your debts. In the second scenario, you would use the new debt to merely help cover your living expenses, or worse to pay for some luxury items, like a plasma TV or a vacation in Bermuda. This kind of borrowing would clearly exacerbate your financial predicament and send you on the way to a bankruptcy spiral.

National finances, albeit operating on a scale several orders of magnitude larger, have to obey the same laws of economics, much like all material objects, whether the Earth or a snowball, have to obey the laws of physics. Going into debt may not be a bad thing if you know what you are doing. Republicans like to reminisce that Reagan proved that budget deficits don't matter and that a nation's borrowing power is virtually unlimited. But the reality is not that simple. Nations have to heed what the debt is used for as well, they just have much larger leeway in dealing with consequences.

Contrary to what the Greenspan/Bernanke school of thought would make you believe, money does not grow on trees. It is supposed to represent value. Just because Central Bank can create money out of thin air, does not mean that it can solve all our problems by dunking them in a vat of dough. Just ask Rudolf of Havenstein, one of the Weimar Republic's central bankers, who learned the hard way that you cannot have something for nothing. He controlled the German financial system in the early 1920s when runaway hyperinflation basically wiped out their currency. His undoubtedly good intentions eventually paved the political way for one Adolf Hitler. And we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads to.

In the past two years our national debt increased dramatically. That means it is about time for us to start paying very serious attention to how that money is being spent.

We could spend our financial resources on education grants to talented kids from poor neighborhoods, on laboratories developing new generations of materials that the world would love to buy, on upgrading our aging infrastructure (whether introducing fast trains or superconducting grids) to facilitate future economic activity or on reducing our energy needs and steering the whole industry towards alternative and green sources. That would be the good debt. But we could also spend the borrowed funds on supporting overgrown bureaucracies at all levels, on rectifying grave investment mistakes of private banks, on recapitalizing institutions hollowed out by their greedy and incompetent management, or on bankrolling unproductive pork barrel projects, such as building water pipelines to money losing golf courses or funding research of Icelandic Arctic Environment in Viking Era.(*)

(*) Both of these examples came from the recent stimulus bill. I understand that pork barrel projects serve as important bargaining chips in political maneuvering, but I think it would be entertaining to hear the legislators publicly explain how these projects will contribute to the nascent recovery.

At the end of the day, it is our choice how we use the money we borrow and that choice will determine our economic future. We can either educate our population, modernize the production lines and repay our debt with something of value, or we can follow in the footsteps of Rudolf von Havenstein and annihilate our economy by gradually monetizing our obligations (i.e. paying them off by printing more and more of an increasingly worthless currency).

The report card is not very impressive so far. I hope Paul Volcker will take a hard look at it.

The Winter Takes All

This winter just keeps on wintering.

Not so long ago, a rogue December snowstorm dropped 20 inches on DC and we thought we had experienced history in the making. Little did we know what was coming down the atmospheric pike. Nobody saw the frozen tsunami until it hit the celestial ice shredder. Now, 2 blizzards, 30 inches and 4 snow days later, it is clear that this winter will be the snowiest on record. Ever.

Three days ago a friend of mine sent me a short message complaining about the snow's unwillingness to melt speedily and opined that clearing 6 inches of snow four times would be much easier than facing all 24 that were dumped on her (and her driveway) in one lump sum. I told her that my view was exactly the opposite. I would take the full 24 inches over the four easy installments any day.

The thing is that dealing with 2 feet of snow gives you the extra strength that comes from engaging in a fight of cosmic proportions. Think Star Wars on Ice. Even as I had to extricate my car from a deep snow drift twice within one week, I felt that every dig of my shovel made me part of history. A face off with a snowstorm of such epic magnitude arouses deeply embedded survival instincts worthy of Hemingway's pen. It is the classical Man versus Nature thriller. On the other hand, removing six inches of snow four times is but a repeated nuisance, a vexing toil. Nothing to write home about. You can't count that as a heroic endeavor. Being a rowdy bar bouncer four days in a row is not going to make you into a war hero the same way a day spent on a battlefield front line does. So there.

When the first wave of the flurricane passed by, I was thinking about an appropriate way to celebrate this momentous white siege. At first, I placed 3 fresh snowballs in my freezer to be tactically launched from my balcony on a hot July weekend. That didn't seem to be festive enough for the occasion though. So next I sent an email to one of my friends challenging him to a game of tennis at a nearby public court. He thought I was joking. But when I laid out for him the unique photo op of serving over the snowed in net, he agreed.

Who would have thought that walking to a tennis court could be a trekk worthy of Roald Amundsen. On Sunday afternoon, we gathered in a parking lot and set on our way. Snow was thigh deep and pristine, the skies perfectly cloudless, and the familiar public park turned into a laconic verse of Siberian poetry. A scenery Doctor Zhivago might have relished. But the strenuous trip was well worth the effort. The court looked surreal and although we had to stork step our way around it, practicing a diving backhand into the deep drifts was a snow owl hoot and brought about a welcome addition to my hitting repertoire. We both took a couple of serves for the camera, and after our clothes got unseasonably cold and wet, we hurried back home.

So that was the day when I finally figured out why they call tennis a white sport.

snow

Imagine and Tonic

Stretching the rules is the essence of beauty. The trick is not to abandon them completely.

No one understands this better than a patron of a blues alley. Jazz may be anchored in classical tonality, but as it sluices past chromatic horizons, it restlessly forays into different keys and scales. After all, there is only so much beauty that can be evoked within the confines of a single key. A good pianist may take an innocent phrase in say G major and spike it with an E-flat major 7th chord on a whim. Sure, that chord has no business in the G major key, even Johann Sebastian Bach couldn't come up with a solid justification, but if you stick it there anyway, the sky will suddenly swing its color. The notes will tickle your ears and their echos will jive on the trail winding along the crest of the Zingy Mountains, that eternal continental divide between the lively and the boring. Such is the power of a little twist. It is a preview of a different state of mind, sometimes a vista into the harmonic future. Just make sure you won't pack too many zingers into your compositions - since they might tear down your delicately balanced musical structure and deluge its vacated church with an ear-splitting cacophony of lawlessness.

What harmony is to music, grammar is to literature. I think that the best writing thrives in disputed regions where the Great Empire of Propriety gets regularly challenged by invasions of linguistic Vandals and Visigoths. The only difference is that they pelt the ramparts of established structures with gobs of slang instead of diminished chords. But the end result is the same - an army of words rushes through the breach and a free joy ride on a lexical roller coaster ensues. That is why I like novels by Carl Hiaasen or Rolling Stone articles of Matt Taibbi. Their verbal imagination canters effortlessly like a black mustang and if you tag along, sitting comfortably on its bucking back like a curious fly, your mind may discover ravines and promontories you never knew existed - all rendered in vivid colors and served at a breathtaking tempo. If it wasn't for the literary cowboys, we'd all be reading moldy sentences strained together by meticulous monks from the times of Good Ol' King James.

Human behavior has its grammar too. It is called politeness. And I would not recommend completely abandoning it either. Without it, uncontrollable hordes of loutish sociopaths would rule the Earth, littering our concert halls with their loud and off-key burping. But just like any other set of rules, etiquette is amenable to creative bending. An occasional misdemeanor can be quite charming. I love people who can skewer a manzanilla olive with their steak knife in the middle of a formal dinner and transport it non-chalantly into their oral cavity, right in front of the rolling eyes of gasping schoolmarms. They are the 7th chords of the social order, the trailblazers who will hop over the fence without hesitation and cut straight across a meadow if need be. To them we owe our diamonds - for on this planet, the precious stones are rarely found alongside the well marked trade routes. They are usually hidden out there, in the wild land of chance and the rule breakers can lead us to them.

Many, many summers ago, an officer of the British East India Company sat idly in a shaded corner of a local watering hole and pondered the vagaries of the British Empire. A glass of gin in one hand and a glass of tonic in the other, he stared blankly at his choices. And although his Mamma was telling him time and time again that nice boys do not mix their drinks, something inside him snapped. The elbow of Lady Fortuna nudged him gently in the ribs. With a sudden blast of resolution, he emptied the contents of his gin glass into the tonic and kicked the resulting potion down his parched throat. And blimey and crikey - did he like it. And so did generations and generations after him.

So here is to all those who tirelessly stretch the rules we live by and in the process put sparkling bubbles in our daily drinx.

Scarborough Fair

Old things have a very special charm. They bear evidence of having lived. The little scars inflicted on their skin by Mother Nature are receipts that the toll for the passage through life has been paid. Whether it is the dent on your car's bumper, a monogram cut into the bark of a stately maple tree, a flaky wall in an abandoned alley, or a worn out instep of an old shoe - they all share unique fingerprints of passing events. What a treasure trove of clues for Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Part of the appeal of old paraphernalia is our tendency to romanticize the past. That scratch on your motorcycle that made you so mad when it was fresh is now the last surviving memento of the party at which you met your sweetheart. That scar on your arm that hurt like hell for three weeks is now the climax, the punchline and the corroboration of a story to be imparted on your grandchildren. We are conditioned to discount bad memories so that history seems a bit rosier in the rear view mirror than it actually was when seen through the windshield. I have quite a few fond memories from my childhood - and hey - I grew up in a totalitarian regime.

Old things are umbilical cords to our memory. One of the things I brought with me to the USA when I moved here 20 years ago was my dad's old leather briefcase, which he used for carrying blueprints into his office in the 1960s, and which I used for carrying textbooks in college after I inherited it. Or rather after I rescued it from the trash. My Mom was appalled when she found out that I am taking that old piece of junk across the Atlantic. But I could not leave it behind - there were too many memories embedded in it. Every little blemish of its surface, every little laceration had a story to tell. A friend of mine had to sow it together 10 years ago lest it would fall apart, but I still have it. No new bag can emulate the appeal of having lived and the bond of having lived together.

When I am sightseeing I gravitate to old quarters that retain their authenticity (or authentitown as the case might be), which invariably leads away from the beaten path, away from the touristy routes inlaid with gleaming stores and freshly stuccoed palaces. My little expeditions through the looking glass of history often wind up in places where you can brush against a wall and grow curiouser and curiouser - did Franz Kafka once lean against these bricks when stricken with one of his depressive bouts? I hunt for secret nooks and inconspicuous recesses. And after I find them, they tease me to try and decipher their scars - those old fashioned memory cards, faithfully recording life as it bites along.

kafka

We the Corporations

Democracy is a great system but it has one serious flaw. Political issues have become so complex and multifaceted that it is virtually impossible for average voters to make informed decisions on their own - and remember that by definition most voters are average. Who can truly grasp all the ramifications of the Health Care Bill, or what kind of financial reform will be beneficial to our economy 10 years down the road? You'd have better chances understanding Lehman Brother's balance sheets. But even more importantly, who can see through the smokescreen of boilerplate soundbites and tell which candidate masters the issues best? You can't really make much sense out them without some sort of guidance.

That leaves the door to voters' hearts wide open for sly propaganda and interpretation games. The gray border between right and wrong is seemingly teeming with seamy teams. Either side of the aisle has no qualms kicking the opponents under the table, ripping their utterances out of context and framing them in all the putrid mud they can dredge from partisan bayous. In the world of high politics, truth counterfeiters work round the clock. Democracy was an easy trade to ply in times of Socrates or Washington, but in the era of talking heads and YouTube warriors practicing public governance may warrant some pretty steep information tariffs. Say that you want to take a stand against building an extra school in your district because there is no money in the budget. Your followers can paint you as an uncompromising fiscal hawk who will make sure that public funds do not get squandered on unnecessary projects. But that very same act will prompt your opponents to slice you to pieces for not having a clear vision of well educated population. At the end of the day, your political fate will depend on which side can spin your story more effectively, i.e. which side has more dough to do so.

It used to be "One man, one vote". A John Wayne kind of democracy. But running for public office has become so insanely expensive that it sounds more like "One dollar, one vote" these days. The merry-go-round of public opinion massage therapists, 30 second TV torpedoes, in house mendacity menders and assorted PR flacks requires dizzying sums of money. In the meantime, the underlying political competition has tacitly been reduced to one simple skill - reading the teleprompter. It is not clear whether we still have elections or whether the public offices are given away in carefully scripted auctions. I am not sure what Andrew Jackson's running for the office cost, but I am fairly certain he'd be mad as hell about selling democracy to the highest bidder.

The way our elected representatives waltz with waddles of money from Big Pharma, Military Complex and Wall Street makes you wonder what promises were whispered into their ear on the dancing floor. Scanning the long scrolls of campaign contributions stuffed with future pork and saturated lard could single-handedly push your heart into cardiac arrest, although citizen's arrest would be a more apposite course of action. With hordes of lobbyists swarming the corpse of democracy like a pack of hungry hyenas, you might think it is time to consider a serious campaign finance reform and limit the amount of money gushing into politics.

The Supreme Court, specifically its Republican appointees, would strongly disagree. In a close vote held on Wednesday, they rejected limits that up to that point were restricting corporate spending on political campaigns. Rather ironically, they cited free speech violation as the basis for their decision. That means our spendthrift campaigning habits will be exacerbated rather than mitigated. Rather conveniently this shocking charade happened two days after Scott Brown (R) won Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts and dealt the Democratic supermajority in Congress a lethal blow. Any legislative response to this travesty of judgment will now be as hard as finding a character witness for a recalcitrant donkey.

I think that "free speech" should be limited to entities that have mouths, lips, tongues, vocal chords and other accessories necessary for speaking. That would be human beings. Sure, constituents of private companies, from CEOs to janitors, can still say whatever they want. Just not as corporations. Corporatism is one half of fascism (the other half being nationalism) and I don't think we want to flirt with that historical beast.

Corporations are abstract legal entities whose purpose is to conduct business. Influencing electorate should be none of it. If for nothing else then for a simple fairness argument. Who could compete with Intel, Pfizer or Citigroup? Not charities, not civic societies, not local churches and certainly not private citizens. If this free speech is so important to them, then we should start taxing them in the top bracket - just like regular warm blooded Joes.

Corporations do not have the right to vote directly, so they should not have the right to vote indirectly (through the use of their money) either. Whose interest would they represent anyway? Do we want the Sheikh of Dubai or some Russian billionaire on the board of a multinational conglomerate to partake in our public affairs? And even if the foreign entities were surgically removed, many nagging concerns would remain. What if deep pocketed pharmaceuticals supported candidates going easy on their drug testing? What if AIG sponsored pro-bailout candidates? What if Microsoft wanted to strengthen its virtual monopoly through creative use of politics? How could we compete with their televised weapons of mass instruction?

Today, lobbyists have to deal with whomever we vote into the office. In the future, they could actually have a say in choosing the lot. And you can bet your health insurance premiums they wouldn't go for the principled and incorruptible types.

The Constitution of the United States begins with the phrase "We the People". Please, let's keep it that way.

Light Encounters of the Third Kind

Sometimes you get more than you bargain for.

When a friend of mine invited me to Prague to watch the New Year's fireworks I did expect to see some of the magic only light can conjure up. Little did I know that nocturnal Prague offers more than one way to encounter it.

Light Encounters of the First Kind: the Flashes.

As the fireworks took place over the Vltava river, we parked ourselves on the bank directly opposite a long ridge called Letenska Plan. Many photographers sought better vantage point there and positioned themselves alongside its many walking paths. Just before the show started, we could see their flashes go off in a mesmerizing display of ethereal coruscation. In a completely uncoordinated manner, hundreds of cameras strewn all over the slope flicked forth their electric winks and for a few moments the whole ridge resembled a field of polished diamonds glittering mystically against a faint reflected light of the historical Old Town. The Princess of the Night came to watch the fireworks herself and all we could see was the sparkling tiara in her raven dark hair.

Light Encounters of the Second Kind: the Fireworks.

I think the reason fireworks are so popular among virtually all cultures is that they combine two primordial fascinations of the human race - stars and explosions. Located at the opposite extremes of the variational scale, things that go boom are the ultimate agent of instantaneous and irrevocable change, while stars have always been viewed as an embodiment of eternal constancy. Merging the two opposite streams of temporal perception into one blooming garden of cosmic flowers is a spectacle that never disappoints. It is like watching the Big Bang itself, a two second recapitulation of a wildly evolving Universe. All rendered in bright colors and crackling sound effects.

Light Encounters of the Third Kind: the Decorations.

Under most circumstances I consider Christmas lights a bit of a cultural kitsch. Especially when they are overdone. But as we were walking back to the Wenceslaus Square, I noticed that juxtaposed to Prague's quaint and eclectic architecture they lost some of their saccharine aftertaste. The distant and ageless forms of masonry in the background compensated for the instant gratification aspect of the seasonal commerce around us. Together they formed puzzling symbiosis of transient and permanent elements. On the one hand, the decorations bound to disappear in just a few days and on the other, the churches and Baroque houses that will hopefully still stand in their places in one hundred years. It was like meeting of two civilizations - one coming from our world: vibrant, flawed and heartwarming; and another coming from a completely different world: towering, perfect and cool. From a world many light centuries away. Coming back for the smell of overpriced hot chocolate.

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Calling all restaurateurs

One of my favorite Czech novels, Zdenek Jirotka's Saturnin, begins with an observation that all people can be neatly categorized according to how they react to a plate of doughnuts in a quiet cafe.

The first kind, lacking any imagination, simply stares at the doughnuts, not exhibiting any cerebral activity beyond the obvious ingestive ambitions. The second type looks at them as well, but cannot help pondering what it would be like if someone started bombarding the other customers with the displayed pastries. And then there is the rare third group. The people who consider the idea of flying doughnuts so palatable that they actually get up and make it happen.

For a while there used to be a little coffee shop in Prague, not far from the Central bus station, where you could buy "Saturnin's platter" and instantaneously become the third type of a person. The platter description specifically stipulated that its content can be hurled at will, which is why it cost about 10 times the fair market value of the presented doughnuts (1,900 CZK) to allow for damages to patrons' clothing, hairdo and self esteem. Dry cleaning and law suits don't come cheap even in Prague. As far as I remember, the place was called Cafe Imperial and although I never saw any airborne food articles swishing across its parlor, I did see that item on the menu with my own eyes.

I think the idea of a restaurant where any guest could pelt any life form within striking distance with assorted grub and chow could revolutionize the otherwise sedentary business. The stress release potential itself should make this concept worth considering. Imagine how many marital quarrels could be settled right then and there by a tactical low-altitude apricot pudding. Or how about Take-your-boss-to-lunch Thursdays? And then there is the eternal appeal of silent movie climaxes: think Charlie, Buster, Stan or Laurel staggering in a barrage of whipped cream and birthday cakes. Who wouldn't want to be part of that?

As coconuts, watermelons, whole pigs, frozen jumbo steaks and other culinary heavyweights might inflict damage well beyond the scope of civil law, I would suggest either rigorous separation of food into throwables and unthrowables, with bar area sparingly designated as a No Fly Zone, or the mandatory use of hard hats and bullet proof bibs for all diners. Nothing spells out romantic dinner like wearing a motorcycle helmet and protective goggles over a plate of long range Jarret D'Agneau Braise.

On special occasions, the restaurant owners might put together reconstructions of famous battles. For instance, the Battle of Thermopylae would be a memorable thematic extravaganza. Patrons would take tables on either the Greek or Persian side and start ordering their ammunition while a resident historian in a tuxedo and bow tie sketched out the contemporary milieu. Tense expectations would soon be ripped apart by the first salvos of kefalotyri and spanakopita. Impeccable formations of moussaka would violate the Persian airspace, souvlaki and gyros meat wreaking havoc on mideastern attires. Persians would immediately respond by launching their own artillery: catapulted Nan-e khoshke-tanur would be just the warning shot. Before you could say "check please", saffron rice-cakes are splattering on balding skulls, a pommegranate is discharged from a dark corner, rapid fire chelo kababs are blitzing the Greek tables. And should the outcome of the battle fall in doubt, either side could always whip out their ultimate weapon: surface-to-air baklava.

Possibilities to develop the budding industry of cannonical gastronomy are endless. Lobbing lobsters at waiters and waitees alike is guaranteed to satisfy the whims of the most discerning gourmets. The phrase "tossed pizza" would finally get an adequate content. Even Washington's stagnant political scene might benefit from new civic movements. Imagine throngs of working class activists picketing in front of the White House and angrily waving their home made cardboard signs: Immediately ban all Chinese cucumbers. Sign the Blue Cheese Non Proliferation Treaty! No more pancakes of mass destruction. Halt risotto testing now!

And while on the subject of restaurant ideas: the other day I was having lunch with a friend of mine, and we thought it would be cool if you could order your food and drinks at specific temperatures. You know how irritating it is when your coffee is too hot and your soup too cold. So your ordering would go something like this: "I'll have a bowl of minestrone soup at 135F, well-done steak at 150F and 29F strawberry ice-cream. Oh - and some water at 35F, please." I bet many people would appreciate that extra degree of thermal control. You could even entertain your party with the knowledge of the Celsius scale. "Oh waiter, I'll have that stake at 65 degrees centigrade." How delightfully decadent!

So if there are any intrepid restaurant entrepreneurs out there, have a go at either idea. Good luck and bon appetite at 98.6F!

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