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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: April 2010

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?


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.


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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