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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: December 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.


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.


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